James Edward Gunn

James Edward Gunn


Date of Birth
October 21, 1938

“Jim” Gunn was born in Texas and earned his B.S. in mathematics and physics at Rice University. He received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1965 with a thesis on cosmology and the distribution of galaxies. While graduate students, he and Bruce Peterson predicted the Gunn-Peterson trough in the spectra of distant quasars. He has continued to work in several fields of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology and has contributed to the understanding of quasars, pulsars, cosmic rays, gravitational optics in cosmology, the dynamics of globular clusters, and the formation and evolution of galaxies. Working at Princeton University (1968-70 and since 1980) and Caltech (1970-80) he has also participated in many observations. He is primarily known as a designer and builder of instruments and as the leader of an enterprise which has had an enormous impact on the way that observational astronomy is done. Once quoted as saying, “You want an instrument so badly that finally you have to go and build it yourself,” he has made a career of doing just that. A gadgeteer and telescope builder since childhood, he built a photoelectric spectrum scanner called PFUEI (Prime Focus Universal Extragalactic Instrument) and then the “4-shooter,” camera, both for the Hale 5-m telescope. One of the first astronomical cameras to use CCDs and to do drift scanning, it led to the discovery of quasars at record redshifts. He was the deputy principal investigator of the team that designed the original Wide Field/Planetary Camera for the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1987 Gunn proposed putting an array of CCDs on a 2.5m-telescope and using it for both images and spectra, scanning the entire visible sky in about five years and building an enormous data archive which could be used for far more than his main interest, determining the three-dimensional structure of the universe of galaxies. This ultimately became the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and Gunn devoted a large portion of his career to building it and making it work. The product of collaborations of unprecedented size in ground-based astronomy, the SDSS has been a great success. The first two surveys, made from 2000 to 2008, led to three-dimensional maps of the Universe containing more than 930,000 galaxies and 120,000 quasars. Four additional surveys are currently underway, and the number of redshifts obtained now exceeds two million. Today astronomers—and anyone else—can perform a great deal of research without a telescope by mining the online data from SDSS. Gunn retired as Higgins Professor of Astronomy in 2011 but is currently working on the SuMIRe/PFS, a 2400-fiber faint-object spectrograph for the prime focus of the Subaru telescope. The goal of this instrument and the Hyper Suprime-Cam, the camera that will work with it, is to obtain an SDSS-like survey in redshift slices from about 0.5 to 2.0.

Personal web page

At Princeton University.

Other awards

American Astronomical Society, Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, 1988; Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation, 2002; Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 2005.
Canadian Astronomical Society, R.M. Petrie Prize Lecture, 2001.
Inamori Foundation, Kyoto Prize, 2019.
Gruber Foundation, Cosmology Prize, 2005.
MacArthur Foundation, MacArthur Fellowship, 1983.
National Science Foundation, National Medal of Science, 2008.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold Medal, 1994.
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize, 2005.

Biographical materials

Finkbeiner, Ann, A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery (Free Press, NY, 2010).
Finkbeiner, Ann, Quanta Magazine, The Astronomer Who’d Rather Build Space Cameras, 18 April 2019
Gunn, James E., “Jack of All,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 58, 1-25 (2020)
Preston, Richard, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe (Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1996).
Princeton University, Emeritii Booklet

Academic genealogy



AIP Center for History of Physics
Princeton University: Gunnfest, 1999

Named after him

Minor Planet #18243 Gunn
Comet 65P/Gunn
Gunn-Peterson Trough (or Effect, with Bruce Peterson)


Papers, etc.

There are 1975 and 1988 oral history interviews at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Other References: Historical

Peterson, Jim, A Brief History of the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) and the Apache Point Observatory (APO)

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Other References: Scientific

Gunn, James E. & Robert P. Kraft, “An Analysis Abundance of Two F-Type Stars in the Galactic Cluster NGC 752,” Ap.J. 137, 301-15 (1963).

Gunn, James E. & Bruce A. Peterson, “On the Density of Neutral Hydrogen in Intergalactic Space,” Ap.J. 142, 1633-41 (1965).

Ostriker, J.P. & J.E. Gunn, “On the Nature of Pulsars. I. Theory,” Ap.J. 157, 1395-1417 (1969).

Gunn, J.E. & J.P. Ostriker, “Acceleration of High-Energy Cosmic Rays by Pulsars,” Phys. Rev. Letters 22, 728-31 (1969).

Gunn, J.E. & J.P. Ostriker, “On the Nature of Pulsars. III. Analysis of Observations,” Ap.J. 160, 979-1002 (1970).

Ostriker, Jeremiah P. & James E. Gunn, “Do Pulsars Make Supernovae?,” Ap.J. 164, L95-L104 (1971).

Gunn, James E. & J. Richard Gott, III, “On The Infall of Matter into Clusters of Galaxies and Some Effects on Their Evolution,” Ap.J. 176, 1-19 (1972).

Press, William H. & James E. Gunn, “Method For Detecting A Cosmological Density Of Condensed Objects,” Ap.J. 185, 397-412 (1973).

Rees, M.J. & J.E. Gunn, “The Origin Of The Magnetic Field And Relativistic Particles In The Crab Nebula,” MNRAS 167, 1-12 (1974).

Gott, J. Richard, III, James E. Gunn, David N. Schramm, & Beatrice M. Tinsley, “An Unbound Universe,” Ap.J. 194, 543-53 (1974).

Gunn, James E. & J.B. Oke, “Spectrophotometry of Faint Cluster Galaxies and the Hubble Diagram: An Approach To Cosmology,” Ap.J. 195, 255-68 (1975).

Thuan, Trinh X. & J.E. Gunn, “A New Four-Color Intermediate-Band Photometric System,” PASP 88, 543-47 (1976).

Tinsley, Beatrice M. & James E. Gunn, “Evolutionary Synthesis of the Stellar Population in Elliptical Galaxies. I. Ingredients, Broad-band Colors, and Infrared Features,” Ap.J. 203, 52-62 (1976).

Steigman, Gary, David N. Schramm, & James E. Gunn, “Cosmological Limits to the Number of Massive Leptons,” Physics Letters B 66, 202-04 (1977).

Gunn, James E., “Massive Galactic Halos. I. Formation and Evolution,” Ap.J. 218, 592-98 (1977).

Schechter, Paul L. & James E. Gunn, “Observations of the Internal Dynamics of 12 Elliptical Galaxies,” Ap.J. 229, 472-84 (1979).

Tremaine, Scott & James E. Gunn, “Dynamical Role of Light Neutral Leptons in Cosmology,” Phys. Rev. Letters 42, 407-10 (1979).

Gunn, James E. & R.F. Griffin, “Dynamical Studies of Globular Clusters Based on Photoelectric Radial Velocities of Individual Stars. I. M3,” Astronomical Journal 84, 752-73 (1979).

Young, Peter, James E. Gunn, Jerome Kristian, J.B. Oke, & James A. Westphal, “The Double Quasar Q0957 + 561 A, B: A Gravitational Lens Image Formed by a Galaxy at z = 0.39,” Ap.J. 241, 507-20 (1980).

Hoessel, J.G., J.E. Gunn, & T.X. Thuan, “The Photometric Properties of Brightest Cluster Galaxies. I. Absolute Magnitudes in 116 Nearby Abell Clusters,” Ap.J. 241, 486-92 (1980).

Kent, S.M. & J.E. Gunn, “The Dynamics of Rich Clusters of Galaxies. I. The Coma Cluster,” Astronomical Journal 87, 945-71 (1982).

Oke, J.B. & J.E. Gunn, “An Efficient Low Resolution and Moderate Resolution Spectrograph for the Hale Telescope,” PASP 94, 586-94 (1982).

Oke, J.B. & J.E. Gunn, “Secondary Standard Stars for Absolute Spectrophotometry,” Ap.J. 266, 713-17 (1983).

Dressler, Alan & James E. Gunn, “Spectroscopy of Galaxies in Distant Clusters. II. The Population of the 3C 295 Cluster,” Ap.J. 270 7-19 (1983).

Gunn, James E. & L.L. Stryker, “Stellar Spectrophotometric Atlas, Wavelengths, 3130 < λ < 10800 å,” Ap.J. Supp. 52, 121-53 (1983).

Gunn, J.E., J.G. Hoessel & J.B. Oke, “A Systematic Survey for Distant Galaxy Clusters,” Ap.J. 306, 30-37 (1986).

Ryden, Barbara S. & James E. Gunn, “Galaxy Formation by Gravitational Collapse,” Ap.J. 318, 15-31 (1987).

Katz, Neal & James E. Gunn, “Dissipational Galaxy Formation. I. Effects of Gasdynamics,” Ap.J. 377, 365-81 (1991).

Schneider, Donald P., Maarten Schmidt, & James E. Gunn, “Moderate Resolution Spectrophotometry of High Redshift Quasars,” Astronomical Journal 101, 2004-16 (1991).

Dressler, Alan; Augustus Oemler, Jr., Harvey R. Butcher, & James E. Gunn, “The Morphology of Distant Cluster Galaxies. 1: HST Observations of CL 0939+4713,” Ap.J. 430, 107-20 (1994).

Schmidt, Maarten, Donald P. Schneider, & James E. Gunn, “Spectrscopic CCD Surveys for Quasars at Large Redshift. IV. Evolution of the Luminosity Function from Quasars Detected by Their Lyman-Alpha Emission,” Astronomical Journal 110, 68-77 (1995).

Postman, Marc, et al., “The Palomar Distant Clusters Survey. I. The Cluster Catalog” Astronomical Journal 111, 615-41 (1996).

Fukugita, M., T. Ichikawa, J.E Gunn, M. Doi, K. Shimasaku, & D.P. Schneider, “The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Photometric System,” Astronomical Journal 111, 1748-56 (1996).

Gunn, J.E., et al., “The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Photometric Camera,” Astronomical Journal 116, 3040-81 (1998).

Lupton, Robert H., James E. Gunn, & Alexander S. Szalay, “A Modified Magnitude System that Produces Well-Behaved Magnitudes, Colors, and Errors Even for Low Signal-to-Noise Ratio Measurements,” Astronomical Journal 118, 1406-10 (1999).

York, Donald G., et al., “The Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Technical Summary,” Astronomical Journal 120, 1579-87 (2000).

Blanton, Michael R., et al., “The Luminosity Function of Galaxies in SDSS Commissioning Data,” Astronomical Journal 121, 2358-80 (2001).

Vanden Berk, Daniel E., et al., “Composite Quasar Spectra from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Astronomical Journal 122, 549-64 (2001).

Strateva, Iskra, et al., “Color Separation of Galaxy Types in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Imaging Data,” Astronomical Journal 122, 1861-74 (2001).

Hogg, David W., Douglas P. Finkbeiner, David J. Schlegel & James E. Gunn, “A Photometricity and Extinction Monitor at the Apache Point Observatory,” Astronomical Journal 122, 2129-38 (2001).

Eisenstein, Daniel J., et al., “Spectroscopic Target Selection for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: The Luminous Red Galaxy Sample,” Astronomical Journal 122, 2267-80 (2001).

Fan, Xiaohui, et al., “A Survey of z > 5.8 Quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. I. Discovery of Three New Quasars and the Spatial Density of Luminous Quasars at z ~ 6,” Astronomical Journal 122, 2833-49 (2001).

Becker, Robert H., et al., “Evidence for Reionization at z ~ 6: Detection of a Gunn-Peterson Trough in a z = 6.28 Quasar,” Astronomical Journal 122, 2850-57 (2001).

Lupton, Robert, James E. Gunn, Željko Ivezić, Gillian R. Knapp, & Stephen Kent, “The SDSS Imaging Pipelines,” in F.R. Harden, Jr., F.A. Primini, & H.E. Payne, eds., Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems X, ASP Conference Proceedings vol. 238 (Astronomical Society of the Pacific, San Francisco, 2001), pp. 269-78.

Stoughton, Chris, et al., “Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Early Data Release,” Astronomical Journal 123, 485-548 (2002).

Smith, J. Allyn, et al., “The u'g'r'i'z' Standard-Star System,” Astronomical Journal 123, 2121-44 (2002).

Richards, Gordon T., et al., “Spectroscopic Target Selection in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: The Quasar Sample,” Astronomical Journal 123, 2945-75 (2002).

Strauss, Michael A., et al., “Spectroscopic Target Selection in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: The Main Galaxy Sample,” Astronomical Journal 124, 1810-24 (2002).

Fan, Xiaohui, et al., “A Survey of z > 5.7 Quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. II. . Discovery of Three Additional Quasars at z > 6,” Astronomical Journal 125, 1649-59 (2003).

Zehavi, Idit, et al., “Galaxy Clustering in Early Sloan Digital Sky Survey Redshift Data,” Ap.J. 571, 172-90 (2002).

Abazajian, Kevork, et al., “The First Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Astronomical Journal 126, 2081-86 (2003).

Tegmark, Max, et al., “Cosmological Parameters from SDSS and WMAP,” Phys. Rev. D 69, 103501 (2004) [26 pages].

Tegmark, Max, et al., “The Three-Dimensional Power Spectrum of Galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Ap.J. 606, 702-40 (2004).

Abazajian, Kevork, et al., “The Second Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey” Astronomical Journal 128, 502-12 (2004).

Zehavi, Idit, et al., “The Luminosity and Color Dependence of the Galaxy Correlation Function,” Ap.J. 630, 1-27 (2005).

Eisenstein, Daniel J., et al., “Detection of the Baryon Acoustic Peak in the Large-Scale Correlation Function of SDSS Luminous Red Galaxies,” Ap.J. 633, 560-74 (2005).

Abazajian, Kevork, et al., “The Third Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Astronomical Journal 129, 1755-59 (2005).

Seljak, Uroš, et al., “Cosmological Parameter Analysis including SDSS Lyα Forest and Galaxy Bias: Constraints on the Primordial Spectrum of Fluctuations, Neutrino Mass, and Dark Energy,” Phys. Rev. D 71, 103515 [20 pages].

Tegmark, Max, et al., “Cosmological Constraints from the SDSS Luminous Red Galaxies,” Phys. Rev. D 74, 123507 (2006) [34 pages].

Blanton, Michael R., et al., “New York University Value-Added Galaxy Catalog: A Galaxy Catalog Based on New Public Surveys,” Astronomical Journal 129, 2562-78 (2005).

Adelman-McCarthy, Jennifer K., et al., “The Fourth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Ap.J. Supp. 162 38-48 (2006).

Gunn, James E., et al., “The 2.5 m Telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Astronomical Journal 131 2332-59 (2006).

Fan, Xiaohui, et al., “Constraining the Evolution of the Ionizing Background and the Epoch of Reionization with z ~ 6 Quasars. II. A Sample of 19 Quasars,” Astronomical Journal 132, 117-36 (2006).

Dressler, Alan & James E. Gunn, “Spectroscopy of Galaxies in Distant Clusters. IV. A Catalog of Photometry and Spectroscopy For galaxies in Seven Clusters with z in the Range of 0.35 to 0.55,” Ap.J. Supp. 78 1-60 (2007).

Adelman-McCarthy, Jennifer K., et al., “The Fifth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Ap.J. Supp. 172 634-44 (2007).

Adelman-McCarthy, Jennifer K., et al., “The Sixth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Ap.J. Supp. 175 297-313 (2008).

Jurić, Mario, et al., “The Milky Way Tomography with SDSS. I. Stellar Number Density Distribution,” Ap.J. 673 864-914 (2008).

Conroy, Charlie, James E. Gunn, & Martin White, “The Propagation of Uncertainties in Stellar Population Synthesis Modeling. I. The Relevance of Uncertain Aspects of Stellar Evolution and the Initial Mass Function to the Derived Physical Properties of Galaxies,” Ap.J. 699 486-506 (2009).

Abazajian, Kevork N., et al., “The Seventh Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” Ap.J. Supp. 182, 543-58 (2009).

Percival, Will J., et al., “Baryon Acoustic Oscillations in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Data Release 7 Galaxy Sample,” MNRAS 401, 2148-68 (2010).

Aihara, Hiroaki, et al., “The Eighth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: First Data from SDSS-III,” Ap.J. Supp. 193, id 29, 1-17 (2011) [erratum].

Lackner, C.N. & J.E. Gunn, “Astrophysically Motivated Bulge-Disc Decompositions of Sloan Digital Sky Survey Galaxies,” MNRAS 421, 2277-2302 (2012).

Lackner, C.N. & J.E. Gunn, “The Effect of Environment on Discs and Bulges,” MNRAS 428, 2141-62 (2013).

Ahn, Christopher P., et al., “The Tenth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: First Spectroscopic Data from the SDSS-III Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment,” Ap.J. Supp. 211, id 17, 1-16 (2014).

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Other Works: Popularizations, History, etc.

Gunn, James E., “An 8-inch Reflector with a Transistor-Controlled Drive,” Sky & Telescope 21 (6), 358 (June 1961).

Gunn, James E., “Celestial Photography with an 8-inch Reflector” Sky & Telescope 22 (3) 149 (September 1961).

Gott, J. Richard, James E. Gunn, David N. Schramm, & Beatrice M. Tinsley, “Will the Universe Expand Forever?,” Scientific American 234 (3), 62-79 (1976).