The Bruce Medalists
||Photo 2009 by Brian Wilson, courtesy Princeton University
|James Edward Gunn
|21 October 1938
||2013 Bruce Medalist
“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.
Presentation of Bruce medal
See the ASP website.
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.
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 (SDSS press release).
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).
Gunn, James E., interview with Alan Lightman, in Lightman, Alan & Roberta Brawer, Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990), pp. 250-65.
Preston, Richard, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe (Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1996).
AIP Center for History of Physics
Princeton University: Gunnfest, 1999
Named after him
Minor Planet #18243 Gunn
Gunn-Peterson Trough (or Effect, with Bruce Peterson)
The Bruce Medalists