Neil Gehrels (1952-2017)

College Park Professor of Astronomy passed away, just days after learning he would receive this year’s prestigious Dan David Prize

Neil Gehrels, a College Park Professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, passed away of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64 on February 6, 2017.

In addition, Gehrels served as chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and was a founding member of the Joint Space-Science Institute, a collaboration between UMD’s Departments of Astronomy and Physics and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Neil Gehrels at a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum event in Washington, 2015. Credit: NASA Goddard/Judith Clark“Dr. Gehrels led space telescope missions that have revolutionized our understanding of many of the most energetic phenomena in the universe,” said Stuart Vogel, chair of the Department of Astronomy at UMD. “He was also a great supporter of the University of Maryland and a wonderful mentor to many of our students.”

A pioneer in the study of gamma-ray bursts—high-energy radiation blasts that come from deep space—Gehrels worked as a project scientist and investigator on several notable missions, including the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Mission. Under Gehrel’s leadership, the Swift team—which set out to determine the origin of these powerful explosions in the universe—detected 1,000 such observations between 2004 and 2015. He also served as a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration that announced the detection of gravitational waves in February 2016.

“Our center has lost a dear friend and astronomy pioneer, and his spirit will always live on in our work. Those of us who were fortunate to work with Neil know of his unwavering enthusiasm for science and unselfish generosity in mentoring others,” Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese said in a statement. 

Gehrels received many awards for his leadership and research accomplishments. A few days before his death, Gehrels was named a 2017 Dan David Prize laureate for the Future Time Dimension in the field of astronomy, along with Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech and Andrzej Udalski of Warsaw University. Each year, three Dan David prizes (for Past, Present and Future Time Dimensions) worth $1 million each are awarded “for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world.” Honoring the request of his family, the Dan David Foundation will donate Gehrels' share of the prize to UMD for the Neil Gehrels Prize Scholarship Fund, which will support students and postdocs engaged in research with UMD and NASA Goddard astrophysicists.

In addition to the Dan David Prize, Gehrels received numerous other prizes, including the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and NASA Goddard's John C. Lindsay Memorial Award. He and the Swift team received the 2007 Rossi Prize from the American Astronomical Society and the 2009 Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, named fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, and elected honorary fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Born on October 3, 1952 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gehrels received bachelor’s degrees in physics and music from the University of Arizona in 1976 and his Ph.D. in physics from Caltech in 1982. Gehrels worked at Goddard from 1982 until his death. 

Gehrels is survived by his children Thomas and Emily, and his wife Ellen Williams. Williams is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at UMD. She returned to the faculty this month after spending two years as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

A memorial service honoring Neil Gehrels’ life will be held on March 10, 2017 at the University of Maryland. For more information, please visit http://go.umd.edu/gehrels.


University of Maryland
College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
2300 Symons Hall
College Park, MD 20742
www.cmns.umd.edu
@UMDscience

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college’s 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.