Eye in the sky: Jack Tueller '71

by Tom Nugent

Ask veteran NASA astrophysicist Jack Tueller ’71 to describe his unusual job, and the award-winning scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C., talks happily about his decade-long quest to “measure positron annihilation radiation at the center of our galaxy.”

Ask him to translate that into human talk and he sends up a boom of delighted laugher. “Okay, let’s put it this way. What we’re really doing [at his high-energy astrophysics laboratory in Maryland] is trying to look at the sky in new ways, in order to see what other astronomers might have missed.”

Now 58, Jack Tueller (pronounced TOOL-er) has spent the past 29 years studying various forms of cosmic radiation—everything from exotic gamma rays, caused by the positron annihilation radiation described above, to high-energy X-rays from black holes—in an effort to better understand such mysterious phenomena as quasars, supernovas, and the “Big Bang” explosion that supposedly led to the creation of our universe.

In recent years Jack and his colleagues at NASA have made major headlines in the world of physics with a series of discoveries that shed new light on how black holes devour cosmic neighbors, and also on the explosive dynamics that fuel the birth of supernovas.

Only last summer Jack and his Goddard crew of stargazers succeeded in pinpointing a new kind of “invisible” black hole that emits little radiation in most ranges of the light spectrum. For that project Jack relied on data supplied by both NASA’s Swift Space Observatory and Japan’s X-ray-hunting Suzaku satellite.

“One of the most fascinating things about our work right now is that it’s allowing us to begin putting together what may someday be the first complete survey of all the black holes in the universe,” he says. “That’s important because black holes can tell us a lot about the formation of the cosmos, and also about the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy.”

The son of a UPS campus maintenance man, Jack was a UPS math and physics major. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics at Washington University in St. Louis. He says his passion for astrophysics took off at Puget Sound after he had “the good fortune” to sign up for a course in theoretical physics with the legendary emeritus professor Zdenko F. Danes.

“Professor Danes was a terrific teacher,” recalls Tueller, “but he was also a terrifying presence. He kept a big roulette wheel on his desk. He’d spin it at the start of class, and the wheel would decide which student would have to give a lecture that day. There were only six students, which meant you’d be tapped to lecture at least once a week. It was totally terrifying, but the material we covered really stuck!”

A recent winner of Goddard’s John C. Lindsay Memorial Award for Science for his contributions to balloon-borne astronomy, Jack says, “This is a wonderfully exciting time to be doing research on black holes and high-energy radiation. Thanks to improving technology, we’ve been able to make enormous strides in our understanding of the universe just during my lifetime. But it’s also clear that we’ve got a long way to go before we can hope to fully understand this amazing cosmos of ours.”