Telescope named for former Rice Provost William Gordon celebrates 50 years of discovery
Rice University was well represented at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico last month when the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) honored the observatory’s “father” and former Rice provost, the late William Gordon. The observatory is part of the NAIC.
Rice Space Institute Director David Alexander and administrator Umbe Cantu made the trip for several days of celebration and a symposium that began Oct. 28 with a keynote speech by Richard Behnke ’66, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a doctorate in space physics and astronomy from Rice.
Behnke, now head of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, noted his friend and mentor Gordon “conceived of the possibility, sold the idea to DARPA, found the appropriate place and supervised the construction of the observatory.”
Officially known as the William E. Gordon Telescope, the radio telescope is built into the landscape; at 1,000 feet wide, the telescope is the largest curved focusing antenna on the planet. Its original task was to measure electron density and temperature in the high ionosphere, but it has also proven its worth in radio astronomy. Among its many discoveries, the Gordon Telescope found the first pulsar in a binary star system, which led to an important confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and saw the first signs of planets outside the solar system.
Gordon directed operations at Arecibo for two years after its completion and before joining Rice, but continued his association with the telescope after moving to Houston.
Behnke talked about spending summers working under Gordon’s direction at Arecibo while he studied at Rice. He recalled the day in 1979 the telescope picked up a large disturbance in the upper atmosphere; data gathered at Arecibo helped define the probable cause as an air nuclear blast over the Indian Ocean. Behnke discussed the finding on Walter Cronkite’s last two CBS News broadcasts.
After five years in Puerto Rico supervising the construction of the observatory, Gordon joined Rice in 1966 as a professor of space science and electrical engineering as well as dean of both natural sciences and engineering. He later served as provost and vice president before retiring in 1986. He also served for a short time as interim president of Rice while the university sought a replacement for Kenneth Pitzer. Gordon died in 2010.
“I got to walk up the gantry and around the instrumentation part, the focal point, 500 feet above the dish,” said Alexander, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice who specializes in solar research. “The telescope has a strong association with Rice through Gordon, so it was a thrill to visit and learn about the research that goes on there. I only regret they wouldn’t let me slide down the dish like James Bond in ‘GoldenEye.’”