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Gerry Neugebauer (1932–2014)

Published onDec 01, 2018
Gerry Neugebauer (1932–2014)

Gerry Neugebauer (his first name pronounced Gary) was one of the pioneers of twentieth-century infrared astronomy. He died on 26 September 2014 at an assisted living facility near Tucson, Arizona, at age 82. Gerry was born on 3 September 1932 in Göttingen, Germany, to Grete Bruck and Otto Neugebauer, a noted historian of mathematical astronomy. Around 1934 the family moved to Copenhagen and in 1939 to Providence, Rhode Island, where Otto taught at Brown University for many years. Gerry (as he insisted on being called by all) received his AB in physics from Cornell University in 1954 and Ph.D. from Caltech in 1960. He subsequently served in the US Army for two years. He was stationed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on the infrared detector on the Mariner 2 space probe, which, upon its arrival at Venus in 1962, became the first successful NASA mission to another planet.

Although his doctoral dissertation had involved the laboratory study of pions, Gerry’s Mariner 2 experience led to his recruitment, in 1962, by Caltech’s Robert Leighton to head the Two-Micron Survey, the first large-scale infrared sky survey. As assistant professor of physics, Gerry was in charge of developing detector and readout systems for the survey, which revealed numerous classes of dust-enshrouded stars and showed that cosmic dust was far more important than astronomers had recognized. He went on to establish and direct a large laboratory that built numerous infrared instruments.

Gerry was promoted to full professor of physics at Caltech in 1970, named Howard Hughes Professor in 1985 and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor in 1996, before becoming emeritus in 1998. He served as the director of the Palomar Observatory from 1980 to 1984 and Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy from 1988 to 1993. (This position would be known as "Dean" at most schools).

Gerry and his students and postdocs used their instruments on the entire suite of telescopes, ranging from 0.6 to 5 m in diameter, at what was then Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories. Gerry's group studied infrared radiation from all types of celestial objects and in the process discovered the first protostar and the infrared radiation of sources near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Gerry's advocacy for infrared surveys carried over to his selection as U.S. Co-Chair of the Joint Science Working Group for the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which in 1983 became the first infrared survey to cover (nearly) the whole sky.

As leader of the infrared group at Caltech – and called by some "The Chief" – Gerry allowed students and postdocs wide independence in topics to study. He didn't always know what was happening in the lab from day to day, but he was deeply concerned that observations were made and calibrated correctly. He was often at the telescope himself, and if not, he would usually call the observatory to make sure things were going well. Gerry also insisted that published results be written in clear and concise language with all relevant information included, and he spent many hours going over the tiniest manuscript details with the other authors. This was, for him, a common activity during cloudy nights at the telescope. Gerry was proud that his manuscripts were usually accepted for publication as submitted, with no changes required. Gerry had few rigid rules for students, but one of them was that all his graduate students were required to learn how to use machine tools such as drill presses, lathes, and milling machines. Gerry was known as a hard worker, usually in the office on Saturdays, and it was common for him to receive phone calls from colleagues who expected him to be in the office that day.

But Gerry was not only about work. He also led an active social life for the infrared group and Caltech friends, many of whom were in the astronomy department. Gerry and his wife Marcia hosted many parties at his house (which had a pool), and it was customary for his PhD students, on finishing their degrees, to host a party at his house. All the parties included a wide range of ages, from children (Marcia and Gerry's plus many others) to emeritus faculty. Both food and drinks were in ample supply, and Gerry was not shy about partaking.

Gerry received numerous awards, including the Space Science Award (1985) of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Rumford Prize (1986) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship (1996) of the American Astronomical Society, the Herschel Medal (1998) of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Catherine Wolf Bruce Gold Medal (2010) of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Gerry is survived by his wife, the former Marcia MacDonald, two daughters, Carol Kaplan and Lee Neugebauer, and two granddaughters.

Photo: Caltech Archives

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