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Alumni Profile

Flashlights for the universe

gerald fishman

Gerald Fishman, BS ’65, a NASA researcher, received the 2011 Shaw Prize in astronomy for his leadership in investigating gamma ray bursts. Photo courtesy of NASA. Photo courtesy of NASA

When Gerald Fishman began his astronomy career in 1974, little was known about gamma-ray bursts. Now a leading expert in gamma-ray astronomy, Fishman won the 2011 Shaw Prize in Astronomy for his decades of research on the topic. The $1 million prize will be shared equally with Italian astronomer Enrico Costa.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest, most explosive events in the known universe. They illuminate the furthest corners of space, and about 300 appear randomly in the sky each year.

“I liked the idea of delving into a new branch of astronomy,” says Fishman, BS ’65. “There was an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

During his now 37-year tenure at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (the largest NASA facility) in Huntsville, Ala., Fishman was the principal investigator for a gamma-ray burst experiment that flew aboard the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which was launched by space shuttle Atlantis in 1991. He is currently a co-investigator of a monitor that flies aboard the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008.

Astronomers have never observed a gamma-ray burst in the Milky Way galaxy, though Fishman says it’s only a matter of time before one occurs in our galactic backyard. The bursts that astronomers have seen come from millions of light years away.

“In a way, that means these bursts are a look back in time — into the history of the universe,” Fishman says.

Most astrophysicists believe that gamma-ray bursts signal the death of massive stars and mark the birth of black holes.

Fishman’s new prize is considered by many to be the “Nobel of the East.” Unlike Nobel awards, the Shaw Prize contains an award category specifically for astronomy. — David Earl