Jerry Nelson, an astronomer who designed advanced telescopes that help scientists glimpse distant reaches of the universe, died June 10 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 73.
His death was announced by the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Dr. Nelson was a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics. No cause was given.
Dr. Nelson’s revolutionary telescope design began taking shape in 1977 and centered on a simple idea: using dozens of segmented mirrors rather than a single large one. His innovation was the basis for the W.M. Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter telescopes on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii. Those telescopes, among the largest in use, have allowed scientists to measure the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and to spot planetary bodies outside our solar system.
Dr. Nelson’s concept has since been used for other large ground-based telescopes around the world. The space-based James Webb telescope, which is under construction, also has a segmented primary mirror design.
Dr. Nelson also played an important role in the development of adaptive optics technology, which sharpens the images from ground-based telescopes by correcting for the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere.
Even after a stroke in 2011 that left him partly disabled, Dr. Nelson continued work for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a project to build the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere.
“His endless curiosity always pushed the scientists around him to think more deeply, and his persistence and continued excellence after his stroke were inspirational to everyone,” said Michael Bolte, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Santa Cruz.
Jerry Earl Nelson was born in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 15, 1944. His father was a machinist for Lockheed, and his mother managed a children’s center at a local park.
Dr. Nelson received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1965 and a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972. Dr. Nelson worked for more than a decade at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and taught at the Berkeley campus before moving to Santa Cruz in 1994.
His first wife, Victoria Wearne, died in 1992. Survivors include his wife, Jocelyn Nelson; two children from his first marriage, Leif and Alexandra; a sister; and three grandchildren.
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