Astronomer Jerry Nelson wins prestigious Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will share the $1 million Kavli Prize in Astrophysics with two other researchers for their innovations in the field of telescope design.

The achievements of Nelson and his co-recipients--Roger Angel of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Ray Wilson, formerly of Imperial College London and the European Southern Observatory--have made possible the building of telescopes that can see deeper into space and further back in time.

"This is a most well-deserved award. Jerry Nelson first revolutionized astronomy when he invented the segmented mirror design for the Keck Telescopes; he continued with his outstanding work on adaptive optics, and he is about to transform astronomy again through his leading role in the Thirty-Meter Telescope project," said UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal. "His work has made possible an era of incredible discoveries in astronomy."

Nelson, Angel, and Wilson are among eight scientists whose discoveries in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience have been recognized with the award of the 2010 Kavli Prizes, announced today by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The laureates will each receive a scroll, a gold medal, and a share of the $1 million prize for each of the three fields.

Nelson is internationally renowned as a developer of innovative designs for advanced telescopes. He played a central role in the design of the twin Keck Telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, conceiving the revolutionary segmented design of the Kecks' 10-meter primary mirrors. As founding director of the Center for Adaptive Optics, a National Science Foundation science and technology center headquartered at UCSC, Nelson helped pioneer the use of adaptive optics for astronomy, enabling scientists to get sharp images from ground-based telescopes. Adaptive optics corrects the blurring of telescope images caused by turbulence in the atmosphere.

Nelson is project scientist for the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), which is currently in the design phase. The TMT will be far more powerful than any existing telescope, its 30-meter primary mirror providing ten times the light-gathering capacity of each of the Kecks. It will push the frontiers of telescope technology, integrating the latest innovations in precision control, segmented mirror design, and adaptive optics.

Nelson earned a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous awards and honors for his work, including the André Lallemand Prize of the French Academy of Sciences and the American Astronomical Society's Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics.

Angel and Wilson are also pioneers in telescope design. Angel created mirrors made of cheap glass and molded them to incorporate a honeycomb pattern of holes to reduce their weight and increase their rigidity, allowing the building of larger telescopes. Wilson developed the concept of active control of optics, particularly for large monolithic mirrors; using computer-controlled actuators to make small, constant changes to telescope mirror shapes during use corrects for distortions caused by gravity, wind, and temperature.

The biennial Kavli Prizes were first awarded in 2008. They were set up to recognize outstanding scientific research, honor highly creative scientists, promote public understanding of scientists and their work, and encourage international scientific cooperation. The prizes are a partnership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. More information is available online at