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

University of Iowa News Release

Dec. 12, 2005

UI's Gurnett Awarded European Geosciences Union Alfvén Medal

Donald A. Gurnett, James A. Van Allen-Roy J. Carver Professor of Physics in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been awarded the Hannes Alfvén Medal by the European Geosciences Union (EGU) for his contributions to solar-terrestrial and planetary solar system sciences.

Gurnett will deliver a lecture and receive the medal and a certificate during the EGU General Assembly meeting April 2-7, 2006 in Vienna, Austria. The prize is named for Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995) of Sweden, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970. He is widely regarded as one of the founders of the field of plasma physics, which is the study of ionized gases.

A world leader in the field of space plasma physics, Gurnett was elected to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1998. In 2004, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) for bringing science into the public and private sectors. His collection of more than 40 years of space sounds served as the inspiration for "Sun Rings," a multi-media piece composed by Terry Riley and performed by the Kronos Quartet to international acclaim.

A UI faculty member since 1965, Gurnett's early discoveries and investigations included observations 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 currently has instruments aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, which will search for underground water at Mars, and NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which began a four-year exploration of Saturn and its moons in July 2004.

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 -- between 116 and 177 astronomical units -- was made using plasma wave instruments aboard Voyager 1, the most distant manmade object at more than 90 AU from the sun. (One astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 93 million miles.)

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 and Sciences 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 30 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, 65, and a native of Fairfax, Iowa 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). 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 for work on plasma waves and radio emission from the outer planets (1990); and Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (1994).

Gurnett also teaches a variety of courses, participates in graduate student advising and guidance and has been the advisor for some two dozen master's theses and more than two dozen doctoral theses.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,