February 21, 2010

Prof. Gordon, Designer and Director of Arecibo Telescope, Dies at 92

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Former Cornell professor William E. Gordon, engineering, the designer, construction manager and first director of Cornell’s massive radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, died on February 16 in Ithaca. Gordon, who died of natural causes, was 92 years old.

Gordon is best remembered for his work on the Arecibo telescope, which features an enormous 1,000-foot fixed spherical reflector with a movable, suspended focusing system. According to the Los Angeles Times website, Gordon first conceived the project in 1958. The same year, he identified the future site of the observatory and telescope, which was a tobacco farm and large limestone pit outside Arecibo. Shortly after the Department of Defense invested $10 million into Gordon’s project, site construction began in 1960 and was completed by 1963.

In 1974, astrophysicists Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr. used Gordon’s telescope to discover the first binary pulsar, an accomplishment which later earned the pair the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics. In 1990, the Arecibo telescope was used in the first discovery of planets outside our solar system.

Gordon served as the observatory’s director from 1960 to 1965. Cornell now operates the observatory through the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center for the National Science Foundation. The observatory, which Gordon had only designed to last for ten years, has undergone two significant upgrades since 1963 and, as a result, has maintained its status as an important scientific tool.

The observatory has also held prominent roles in such major motion pictures as Contact in 1997 and GoldenEye, a 1995 James Bond film.

Born in Paterson, N.J., in 1918, Gordon embarked on his academic career when he earned his B.A. from Montclair State Teacher’s College in 1939. After the outbreak of World War II, he served as a captain in the Air Force and later worked in meteorology for the National Defense Research Committee, where he studied the effects of weather conditions on radar. After the war, Gordon returned to the States to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering at Cornell. After completing his doctorate work, Gordon joined the University’s faculty, eventually leaving Ithaca in 1966 to take a position at Rice University. There, after becoming a professor, he worked his way through the administrative ranks. He took a position as dean, then provost and finally the vice president of the university. He is one of just two Rice faculty to be awarded the title of Distinguished Emeritus Professor.

Gordon is survived by his second wife, Mary Elizabeth, and by his two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Original Author: Keri Blakinger