Autobiography of Gerald J Fishman
I was born in 1943 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. As a child I had a great interest in scientific and technical toys, hobbies, and subjects in school. I attended schools in the St. Louis area through high school, from which I graduated in 1961. I enrolled at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, Missouri. There I received a scholarship in the physics department and also worked as a student assistant in astronomy, where I operated a telescope for student and public demonstrations. I graduated from the University of Missouri in 1965, obtaining a B.S. degree with Honors in Physics.
Following my undergraduate work, I enrolled in graduate school as a research assistant in the Department of Space Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. This was a new department, one of several in the U.S. that was sponsored by NASA during the Apollo era in the late 1960’s. There I was fortunate to participate in some pioneering balloon-borne observations in gamma-ray astronomy under Prof. R. C. Haymes. We performed some of the first observations of gamma-ray emitting objects such as neutron stars, black holes, active galaxies, supernova remnants and the Galactic Center. As a graduate student, Iled the research group that discovered pulsed high-energy x-rays and gamma rays from the pulsar in the Crab Nebula. I received the Ph.D. degree in Space Science from Rice University in 1970 with a thesis on observations of x-ray emission from nearby active galaxies.
Following graduate school, I moved to Huntsville, Alabama, working as a research scientist at the NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center. My initial work there was as a scientific consultant for a new series of NASA spacecraft, the High Energy Astronomy Observatories. I also led a number of small observational programs in gamma-ray astronomy and background radiation measurements in space. For a year, I served as a staff scientist at the NASA Headquarters office of space science in Washington, DC, where I helped administer and manage research projects in high-energy astrophysics projects sponsored by NASA.
Soon after the mysterious gamma-ray bursts were discovered in the early 1970’s I became intrigued by these enigmatic objects and wanted to study them. This was difficult because these bursts occurred randomly in the sky for only a brief period, from a fraction of a second to several minutes. Their distance was unknown, although most astrophysicists speculated at that time that they originated from high-energy objects within our galaxy. I started an observational research program for these bursts using instrumentation carried by high-altitude balloons, using detectors of a size that were larger than those used previously by other researchers. The experience with this instrumentation led to a proposal submitted to NASA to perform similar observations with a satellite-borne experiment that could observe many of these gamma-ray bursts over the entire sky over a period of several years.
In 1978, I was selected to be the Principal Investigator of the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE), one of the experiments to be placed on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. At the time, this observatory was the largest scientific spacecraft ever developed by NASA. It was launched and placed into orbit by the Space Shuttle Atlantis in April 1991and operated until May 2000. The design, development, testing and operation of the BATSE experiment was the result of the work of many scientists, engineers and technicians in a time span of over twenty years.
From the observations of the BATSE and the Italian BeppoSAX spacecraft, it was finally determined in the late 1990’s that gamma-ray bursts came from objects near the edge of the observable Universe and they represent the largest explosions in the Universe. As such, they are providing new observational data on the conditions in these distant regions and at the earliest periods in the history of the Universe.
Currently, I am continuing my research in gamma-ray astronomy as well as geophysics as a co-investigator on the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor experiment on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope Observatory. As with BATSE, this experiment was also designed primarily for the observation of gamma-ray bursts, which has constituted the major activity of my research career. Another of my current scientific interests is the study of the high-energy gamma rays that are associated with thunderstorms.
For my research on gamma-ray bursts with the BATSE experiment, I was awarded the Bruno Rossi Prize of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society in 1994, that Division’s highest prize. I was also elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society for this research.
My wife Nancy and I have been married since 1967. We have two daughters and three granddaughters, all of whom also live in Alabama. For enjoyment and exercise I enjoy hiking in the woods and working on our nearby ranch.
28 September 2011, Hong Kong