Dr. Gerald "Jerry" Fishman shares the 2011 Shaw Prize with Italian astronomer Enrico Costa for their discoveries about gamma ray bursts. The three annual Shaw prizes are named for Hong Kong media mogul Sir Run Run Shaw. They have been given since 2004 to living scientists for accomplishments in astronomy, life sciences and medicine.
"I was completely shocked," Fishman said Wednesday. "I didn't know I was nominated."
Gamma ray bursts were unknown until the 1960s, when they were first detected by satellites launched to search for evidence of nuclear test ban violations. Gamma rays are one signature product of a nuclear blast.
It was "a complete mystery" where they came from, Fishman said, and it was "their unknown nature" that interested him. Fishman's high-altitude balloon experiments in the early 1970s at Teledyne Brown Engineering and Marshall Space Flight Center led to a gamma ray monitor developed at Marshall and launched from the space shuttle Atlantis in 1991. The monitor launched by the shuttle was part of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, one of NASA's four "Great Observatories."
"(We) helped to show that gamma ray bursts are coming from the edges of the observable universe and are the brightest explosions in the sky," Fishman said of the work he and Costa did that led to the prize. "Because they're the brightest explosions in the sky, it means that we can study them from farther away than we can study anything else," Fishman said. "We can study some basic properties of our universe like the form, the shape, the age and the evolution as well or better (than) we can by any other means."
Astronomers call the science of studying the big questions about the universe "cosmology," and the Shaw Prize judges said Fishman and Costa demonstrated that gamma ray bursts do originate at the very edge of the measurable universe. Fishman, a NASA astrophysicist since 1974, is currently a co-investigator on the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor, a key instrument aboard the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
"I am thrilled at the news of Dr. Fishman's award," said Dr. James Spann, manager of the Marshall Center's Science & Exploration Research Office. "The science we do at Marshall has a huge impact on our understanding of the universe in which we live, and Jerry Fishman is a crucial part of that success."
Fishman and his wife, Nancy, live in Hampton Cove. They will travel to Hong Kong in September for the award presentation. He would not comment on what he might do with his half of the $1 million prize money.