Designing the Keck Telescopes
Profile of Dr. Jerry Nelson
“As long as I can recall I have loved looking at the heavens and pondering the enormity of the universe.” - Jerry Nelson, principal designer of the Keck Telescopes and professor of astronomy at the University of California (UC) at Santa Cruz
As a young man, Jerry Nelson had an affinity for math and science. Nelson studied physics as an undergraduate at Caltech, where he dabbled in astronomy. Richard Feynman taught the freshman and sophomore physics class at Caltech during Nelson’s undergraduate career. “Feynman’s dynamic style and approach to physics excited me,” says Nelson. “As a result of his class, I realized that I could understand physics at a very tangible physical level, not just in terms of mathematics.” Nelson also worked with Gerry Neugebauer and Bob Leighton as an undergraduate and was deeply impressed by the cleverness these mentors employed in designing and building apparatus, and also by their critical attention to details. He went on to graduate school in Physics at UC Berkeley.
After graduating, Nelson worked in astrophysics as a research fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). His work was heavily oriented towards unusual instrumentation and electronics. In early 1977 a group of UC astronomers formed a committee to explore the possibilities for future telescopes for UC. Because of his instrumentation experience Nelson was asked to join this group. “This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, I said yes,” he recalls. The group considered various possibilities, ranging from a new 3-meter telescope at a darker site (UC had a 3-meter telescope on Mount Hamilton above San Jose, but it was suffering from increasing light pollution), to a larger telescope like others that had recently been built.
After some discussion, Nelson committed to think about the possibilities of building a larger telescope. Some months later he suggested that a 10-meter telescope was possible and that it should be a segmented mirror telescope in order to make it technically practical. This was the beginning of the story of the Keck Telescopes. Nelson shares his thoughts on the challenges of designing the Keck Telescopes in this short video clip (requires Flash player).
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