The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0024

Release: Immediate

UI's Donald Gurnett elected to National Academy of Sciences

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Donald A. Gurnett, Carver/James A. Van Allen Professor of Physics at the University of Iowa and world leader in the field of space plasma physics, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Gurnett joins James A. Van Allen, UI emeritus professor of physics, as one of two UI members in the nation's most distinguished scientific organization. The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, to advise the government on science and technology. The NAS, which confers membership on the basis of distinguished and continuing original research, announced a total of 60 new members and 15 foreign associates to bring the total number of current active members to 1,798.

A UI faculty member since 1965, Gurnett's early discoveries and investigations included the discovery of intense radio emissions from the Earth's aurora. He used data from UI-built Voyager instruments to make the first observations of plasma waves and low-frequency radio emissions in the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and discovered lightning in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Neptune. He recently used his instruments aboard the Cassini spacecraft, scheduled to arrive at Saturn in 2004, to examine the atmosphere of Venus for signs of lightning during an April fly-by of that planet.

In 1993 Gurnett and his colleagues reported the first direct evidence of the distance to the heliopause, the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. His current estimate of the radius of the heliopause -- about 135 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 93 million miles) -- is widely accepted as the most credible. In February Voyager 1, carrying Gurnett's scientific instruments, became the most distant manmade object at about 6.5 billion miles from the sun. He estimates Voyager 1 will reach the heliopause in 10 to 20 years.

Gurnett began his science and engineering career by working on spacecraft electronics design as a student employee in the UI physics department in 1958, shortly after the launch of the first spacecraft, Explorer 1. After serving as project engineer for two UI spacecraft projects in the early 1960s and receiving his bachelor of science degree from the UI College of Engineering in 1962, he switched to the College of Liberal Arts where he received his master's degree in 1963 and his doctorate, under the direction of Van Allen, in 1965.

He has participated as a principal investigator or co-investigator on more than 20 major spacecraft projects, including the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flights to the outer planets, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Cassini mission to Saturn. The author or co-author of more than 320 scientific publications, he spent one year on leave as an Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany and one year on leave as a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Gurnett, 58, and a native of Fairfax, is a member of the International Scientific Radio Union (URSI), a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the Iowa Academy of Science (IAS). He has served as a member of the NAS Committee on Space Physics and Solar Terrestrial Research and the NAS Committee for Planetary and Lunar Exploration.

His other honors include: URSI John Howard Dellinger Gold Medal, for distinguished research in radio physics (1978); NASA Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award, for contribution to the Voyager plasma wave investigation (1980); NASA Space Act Award, for work on spacecraft instrument development (1986); Iowa Governor's Science Achievement Award (1987); John Adam Fleming Medal from the American Geophysical Union ((1989); Distinguished Iowa Scientist Award (1989); UI M.L.Huitt Faculty Award, for outstanding service and dedication to students (1990); NASA Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award or work on plasma waves and radio emission from the outer planets (1990); and Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (1994).

Gurnett also teaches a wide variety of courses, participates in graduate student advising and guidance and has been the advisor for 23 master's theses and 23 doctoral theses.

In addition to Gurnett and Van Allen, William O. Aydelotte, UI professor of history who died in 1996, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Also, Hunter Rouse, UI professor of engineering who died in 1996, was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, which operates under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences.