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William E. Gordon, 92; father of Arecibo radio telescope

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; C06

William E. Gordon, 92, the engineer and scientist who designed and built the spectacular Arecibo radio telescope, one of the largest and most productive instruments for probing the secrets of the heavens, died Feb. 16 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He had recently undergone hip surgery.

Located in the foothills of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, the radio telescope uses radio waves to observe the cosmos, just as optical telescopes use visible light. Sometimes the telescope observes waves radiated by heavenly bodies; sometimes it observes waves reflected from them.

About three football fields across, the Arecibo Observatory's bowl-shaped antenna and the fittings that loom hundreds of feet above it present an arresting sight. Filmgoers saw it in "Contact" (1997) and the 1995 James Bond adventure movie "GoldenEye."

Since beginning operation under Dr. Gordon in 1963, the telescope has mapped the surface of Venus, discovered the first planets outside the solar system, and kept tabs on the motion of asteroids. It was used for a study that led to a Nobel prize, and it has been involved in the search for life beyond the Earth.

The telescope can beam millions of watts of electromagnetic energy into space, and it can gather and focus echoes as faint as a millionth part of a single watt.

As recounted by National Science Foundation official Richard A. Behnke, the telescope sprang from an effort to understand more about the ionosphere, a layer of the upper atmosphere that reflects radio waves. Studying an equation that describes how that reflection occurs, Dr. Gordon envisioned a means of unlocking the secrets of the ionosphere and obtaining information vital to radio transmission.

Dr. Gordon's thinking, Behnke said, was along the lines of: "Wow, if we could build a super powerful transmitter with an antenna that was huge, we could actually measure things in the ionosphere that nobody else could even come close to."

According to Behnke, Dr. Gordon did it, taking on all required roles, from conception to completion, raising the cash, scouting the site, and supervising construction. "And the thing worked," Behnke said. "Better than anybody ever expected it to. It was incredibly successful."

And the uses of the telescope expanded far beyond what was originally contemplated, reaching out of the atmosphere and into distant corners of the cosmos.

William Edwin Gordon was born in Paterson, N.J., on Jan. 8, 1918. He graduated from Montclair State University in New Jersey and had a doctorate in electrical engineering from Cornell University. In the Army during World War II, he studied how atmospheric conditions affect radar waves.

After 13 years as a professor at Cornell, which operates Arecibo, Dr. Gordon went to Rice University in Houston, where his posts included dean of natural sciences, vice president and provost.

His first wife, Elva Freile Gordon, died in 2001.

Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth Bolgiano Gordon; two children from his first marriage; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 2003, on the telescope's 40th anniversary, Dr. Gordon recalled being told that "it couldn't be done."

"We were in the position of trying to do something that was impossible, and it took a lot of guts," he said of his telescope team. "We were young enough that we didn't know we couldn't do it."

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