Honoring an Explorer: Astronomy Professor Elected to National Academy of Sciences

In this artist's composite, Rieke is pictured with Cigar Galaxy, M82, a source of the high-energy gamma radiation that was a focus of Rieke's explorations. (M82 photo courtesy of NASA, European Space Agency and Hubble Heritage Team).
May 05, 2011

George Rieke, a Regents' Professor of Astronomy and deputy director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, has been elected a member to the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS.

Only the most outstanding scientists are considered for election into the National Academies, which comprise the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

Collectively, these organizations produce groundbreaking reports that have helped shape policies, inform public opinion and advance the pursuit of science, engineering and medicine, according to the National Academies website.

Rieke said he learned about his nomination through a voice mail message left by another UA faculty member and NAS member.

"The same time I learned that I had been elected to the NAS, I also found out that one of my previous Ph.D. students had just gotten married, and I was so happy for her that it took a while for the NAS election to make much impact."

He added: "I am a little surprised myself, but my reactions do emphasize how personal and interactive science should be."

Rieke is one of two U.S. astronomers among 72 new members and 18 foreign associates from 15 countries elected to the NAS in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

Those elected today bring the total number of active members to 2,113 and the total number of foreign associates to 418. Foreign associates are nonvoting members of the Academy, with citizenship outside the U.S.

Rieke said he felt he was fated to become an astrophysicist.

"My father was a physicist and my mother was one of the very first women to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy."

Rieke has been instrumental in the Spitzer Telescope, which  dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe and its origin, and in the James Webb space telescope project. He was the principal investigator of the Multiband Imaging Photometer for the Spitzer Space Telescope and is the science team leader for the Mid-Infrared Instrument of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2017 or 2018.

Rieke, who holds a doctorate in physics from Harvard University, has authored or co-authored about 440 peer-reviewed articles and is working on his third book, and he pursues diverse scientific interests.

"Because I have no license in astronomy, only physics, my interests tend to wander," he said. "Right now they are focused on planetary debris disks (the dust created when small planets around other stars collide with each other), the interaction of supernova blast waves with the surrounding gas and dust, and star formation in galaxies relatively early in the life of the universe."

When he first came to Arizona, Rieke helped build the Cherenkov light facility on Mount Hopkins, an instrument featuring a 10-meter optical reflector.

"It was Wild West science," he said. "We were fighting scorpions and cactus thorns to get things going but my colleague and boss, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory scientist Trevor Weekes, set a tone of enthusiasm to overcome all obstacles."

"We set out to find very energetic gamma rays," he added. "We hoped to uncover the sources of cosmic rays – the super-energetic particles that zip through space all around us – by tracing the origins of the gamma rays. Although we never detected any, Harvard let me have a Ph.D."

Later Rieke worked as a postdoc for Frank Low, who was a research professor at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the time, in infrared astronomy (with photons, or light particles, 100 trillion times lower in energy than gamma rays).

"Things took off – there were infrared sources to discover all over the sky," he said, "such as new-born stars, dying stars blowing off dust, galaxies with runaway star formation and quasars."

"Again, we were on a scientific frontier and discoveries came fast and easy. Frank very generously handed the entire ground-based program over to me after a few years, which gave me a big boost in my career."

About working in space exploration at the UA, Rieke said: "We have a great research environment in astronomy and planetary sciences, and to me as a member of both departments, this environment has provided the tools I needed and the colleagues with whom to develop ideas to use them."

"Even more importantly, it has attracted talented graduate students, 22 of whom have earned their Ph.D.'s with me, and five more are about to, and postdocs; they are the ones who really did the work that justified my nomination."

Story courtesy of UA Communications.