Alumnus William E. Gordon '39, designer of famous Arecibo telescope, dies at 92

William E. Gordon ’39, designer of the Arecibo telescope, passed away Feb. 16 at his home in Ithaca, N. Y. at the age of 92. An engineer and scientist, Gordon was responsible for the design and construction of the radio telescope, one of the largest ever used to scan the solar system.

Gordon created the 1,000 foot-wide telescope, located in the foothills of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in the 1950s. It uses radio waves to observe heavenly bodies and has played a significant role in major scientific discoveries. Since it began operating in 1963 under Gordon’s direction, the telescope has mapped the surface of Venus, was the first to detect ice on Mercury’s surface and determined the planet’s period of rotation, discovered the first planets outside the solar system, and monitored the motions of asteroids.

In 1974, astronomers Joseph H. Taylor and Russell A. Hulse used the telescope to discover the first binary pulsar, a feat that led to a new understanding of gravitation and won them the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics.

"When we were talking about building [the telescope] back in the late '50s, we were told by eminent authorities it couldn't be done,” Gordon said at the telescope's 40th anniversary celebration. “We were in the position of trying to do something that was impossible, and it took a lot of guts. We were young enough that we didn't know we couldn't do it. It took five years from idea to dedication, and that is short. But we were in the right place at the right time and had the right idea and the right preparation. We had no rules or precedents."

The Arecibo, now owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by Cornell University, also was featured in two major motion pictures: the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye,” in the fight scene and 1997’s “Contact” with Jodi Foster, based on the Carl Sagan book about the search for extraterrestrial life.

Montclair State’s Dr. Mary Lou West, professor of mathematical sciences and astronomy buff who hosts Public Telescope Nights on campus, said “The Arecibo radio telescope is still the largest single dish in the world and has provided measurements for many important scientific discoveries.” In 2003, Montclair State approved an astronomy concentration within the physics major. “William Gordon’s interest is still active at MSU,” added West. “For several years, we have been using our own two-radio antennas on top of Science Hall to study the response of the ionosphere to outbursts of the sun.”

William Edwin Gordon was born Jan. 8, 1918, in Paterson, N.J. He earned a bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Montclair State (Teacher's College) in 1939. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a meteorologist, but his attention was redirected to studying the effects of weather on the new technology of radar. Gordon earned a doctorate from Cornell where he was a member of the engineering faculty from 1953 to 1966 before serving as dean, provost and vice president at Rice University, retiring in 1985.