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Astronomical Society of the Pacific Honors Dr. James E. Gunn with Prestigious Bruce Gold Medal Award

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), one of the most respected astronomy and astronomy education organizations in the U.S., has announced that Dr. James E. Gunn is the 2013 recipient of its prestigious Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal. Dr. Gunn, of Princeton University, is recognized for his lifetime achievements in astronomical theory, observation and instrumentation.

Dr. James E. Gunn

Gunn’s early theoretical work helped establish the current understanding of how galaxies form, as well as the properties of intergalactic space. He also suggested important observational tests to confirm the presence of dark matter in galaxies and developed plans for one of the first uses of digital camera technology for space observation.

His digital camera engineering skills were crucial both for the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project he originated that has produced the deepest, most comprehensive map of the heavens ever made. Astronomers also know him as a master gadgeteer. In “First Light,” Richard Preston’s 1987 book about a group of astronomers working at Palomar Observatory in California, Gunn is depicted as a scientist who can move seamlessly from deep discussions about theoretical physics to expeditious repairs of a misbehaving telescope.

He is regarded as one of the world’s premier designers of detection instruments. One noted Gunn creation is the 700-pound camera for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that he built in the basement of the University’s Peyton Hall over six years. The camera, one of the most complex imaging instruments ever developed for astronomy, currently is connected to the telescope at Apache Point, perched atop the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico.

The Gunn-designed camera has helped scientists using the Sloan telescope to confirm the existence of dark energy, the mysterious force believed to be causing the universe’s expansion. Scientists working on the project have made many discoveries, including detecting the most distant quasar ever, and finding the most massive structure in the universe, a huge collection of galaxies called the “Great Wall.”

In 1968, Gunn joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of astrophysics, and worked on pulsars with Jeremiah Ostriker, a Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences who also would go on to win a National Medal of Science (2000). Pulsars, neutron stars that emit systematic beams of radiation, had only recently been discovered.

Gunn accepted an appointment at Caltech in 1970, studying the association of quasars – mysterious, highly luminous objects – with clusters of galaxies and proving how distant they were. At that time, he became deputy principal investigator on the Wide-Field Planetary Camera for the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, he built several instruments for the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory. He returned to Princeton in 1979 and has continued to follow his interests in developing better tools to help scientists understand galaxy formation and celestial structure.

“Dr. Gunn’s versatility in making exceptional contributions to astronomical theory, observation, and instrumentation truly makes him a worthy recipient of Catherine Wolfe Bruce’s medal, which celebrates distinguished services to astronomy,” said James Manning, ASP executive director.

Gunn was also a 2009 recipient of the National Medal of Science. He will be honored as the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medalist the ASP’s 125th Annual Meeting, taking place July 20-24 in San Jose, CA.

Established by Catherine Wolfe Bruce and first awarded in 1898, the Bruce Medal has recognized many of the most accomplished and influential astronomers of the past century, a period of extraordinary change in human understanding of the universe.

About the ASP

Founded in 1889 in San Francisco, the ASP fosters science literacy through astronomy by serving professionals, educators and amateurs around the world, and engaging and inspiring current and future generations. The ASP publishes both scholarly and educational materials, conducts professional development programs for formal and informal educators, and holds conferences, symposia and workshops for astronomers and educators specializing in education and public outreach. The ASP’s programs are funded by corporations, private foundations, the National Science Foundation, NASA, private donors, and its own members.