Gamma Ray Burst Pioneer Dies

After a long battle with cancer, Jan van Paradijs, an astrophysicist with joint appointments at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, died yesterday morning at the age of 53. "Jan was one of the most knowledgeable, productive, and wide-ranging workers in our field," says Jerry Fishman of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "He was a master of both observational and theoretical high-energy astrophysics."

In February 1997, Van Paradijs led the Dutch team that found the first optical afterglow of a gamma ray burst, proving that these mysterious and super-energetic explosions occur at extremely large distances from Earth. The discovery earned him a share of the 1998 Bruno Rossi Prize of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), as well as the 1999 Physica Prize of the Dutch Physical Society.

Van Paradijs had worked as a research scientist in Amsterdam since 1970 and became a professor of astronomy in 1988. Five years later, he became the Pei-Ling Chan eminent scholar in astrophysics at the University of Alabama. He married gamma ray burst researcher Chryssa Kouveliotou of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center and divided his time between Amsterdam and Huntsville.

During his entire career, Van Paradijs studied high-energy radiation and compact objects like neutron stars and black holes. In 1978, he showed that the mysterious bursts of x-rays from globular clusters are caused by explosions on the surfaces of neutron stars in tight binary systems. "Jan was one of the first truly 'multiwavelength' astronomers," says AAS deputy press officer Lynn Cominsky of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. "He was able to synthesize optical and x-ray data to see the entire compact binary picture--and it led him to important physical insights."

Van Paradijs had been active in the emerging field of gamma ray bursts until his untimely death. Only 2 weeks ago, he published a Perspective in Science about the possible link between some gamma ray bursts and supernovae (Science, 22 October 1999, p. 693).

Posted in Space, Scientific Community