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2016/06/24

In Memoriam

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Gerald J. Wasserburg, 1927-2016

     Gerald J. Wasserburg (aka Jerry) passed away on June 13, at the age of 89. Jerry Wasserburg was an icon (better: a giant) in the meteoritics and planetary science community, a relentless figure in the Apollo Program and influential in the field of isotope geochemistry. He served as President of The Society (1987-1988) and was awarded the Society’s Leonard Medal in 1975. At the time of his death, he was the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology.

     Jerry Wasserburg was born in New Brunswick, NJ, in 1927. He served in the army during World War II by lying about his age. After his service in the military, he earned his high school degree, and enrolled in college at Rutgers University. With Henri Bader as his advisor and mentor at Rutgers, he transferred to University of Chicago, where he earned a B.Sc. degree in Physics in 1951 and an M.Sc. in Geology, in 1952.  He got a job running a mass spectrometer in Harold Urey's lab and in 1954 earned a Ph.D. with a thesis on a new technique of potassium-argon dating under the guidance of Harold Urey and Mark Inghram, at the University of Chicago. After a year as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago, he joined the faculty at the California Institute of Technology, as an Assistant Professor in Geology and Geophysics, promoted to full Professor in 1962, and appointed the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geology and Geophysics in 1982. He retired in 2001, but remained active, incisive, and in the forefront, until the very end, with a paper in press, at the time of his death.

     Jerry Wasserburg's research spans a wide range of topics including Earth's interior, dating Apollo lunar samples, dating the early Solar System, isotopic studies of pre-solar grains and making major contributions to developing the 40K-40Ar, U-Pb, 87Rb-87Sr, 234U-230Th, 40K-39Ar, 187Re-187Os and 147Sm-143Nd systems. He pioneered the precise isotopic measurements of ultra-small samples under strict clean room conditions with minimal contamination. He developed the first fully digital mass spectrometer with computer controlled magnetic field scanning and rapid switching, which was absolutely necessary for the work on the returned Apollo samples, both for dating and for the pioneering work on Gd, for addressing secondary neutron capture in lunar samples and the stratigraphy of the upper meters of the lunar regolith and rocks.  His work with Typhoon Lee and Dimitri Papanastassiou led to the discovery of the presence of short-lived radionuclide 26Al in the early solar system and the discovery of short-lived 107Pd with William R. Kelly. Wasserburg made major contributions to the study of refractory inclusions in the Allende CV chondrite. He actually collected some samples himself from the Allende strewn field (1969) and received some Allende stones from Al Burlingame (UCSF).  Some of his work led to discovery of refractory inclusions in Allende with unusual, correlated isotopic properties in magnesium and oxygen and in a slew of other elements (Ca, Ti, Cr, Fe, Sr, Ba, Nd, Sm) indicating a combination of isotope fractionation and unknown nuclear effects, dubbed as FUN inclusions.

     Jerry Wasserburg received numerous Awards and honors during his career. He was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1972), the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He received the Arthur L. Day Medal in 1970, the Wollaston Medal in 1985, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1991 and the Bowie Medal in 2008. The work on Sr-Nd isotope correlations on terrestrial basalts culminated in the award of the Crafoord Prize in Geosciences, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1986 (co-recipient with C. J. Allègre). He was the recipient of several honorary degrees. He received the J. F. Kemp Medal with Paul Gast in 1973, the Harry H. Hess Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1985,the J. Lawrence Smith Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1985, the Arthur L. Day Prize & Lectureship of the National Academy of Science 1981, the Holmes Medal of the European Union of Geosciences in 1986 and the V. M. Goldschmidt Medal of the Geochemical Society in 1978.

     He was particularly appreciative of the awards to him of NASA Distinguished Public Service Medals in 1972 and in 1978 (with cluster), to reflect his many years of trying to introduce science (and science funding) into the Apollo Program. Along with Jim Arnold, Bob Walker and Paul Gast (The Four Horsemen) his efforts were instrumental in President Nixon reinstating two (Apollo 16 and Apollo 17) of the four Apollo J missions, which Nixon had originally canceled. Jerry was also instrumental in convincing NASA of the need to build a safer and cleaner Lunar Curatorial Facility, at JSC, to replace the LRL (the original Lunar Receiving Laboratory) and a Remote Lunar Facility (originally in San Antonio, at the Brooks Air Force Base). He was successful, despite Sen. Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award to NASA for these efforts. Jerry was also instrumental in seeking continued funding of the work on lunar samples, well past the last Apollo mission.

     He will be remembered as a key and critical contributor at the LSC and then LPSC meetings, in Houston and for pursuing science with impeccable taste and innovation. He will also be remembered as a relentless competitor in science and also as an educator and mentor of generations of scientists in geochemistry, cosmochemistry and nuclear astrophysics. 
13:56 | Obituary