Gerald Joseph Wasserburg

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Gerald Joseph Wasserburg (born March 25, 1927 in New Brunswick , † June 13, 2016 in Florence ) was an American geologist , geophysicist and geochemist.


Wasserburg studied after serving in the US Army from 1943 to 1946, with a GI Bill at the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in 1951, a master's degree in 1952 and a doctorate in geology in 1954. In 1955 he became an assistant professor and an associate in 1959 Professor and 1963 Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In 1982 he became MacArthur Professor there and from 1987 to 1989 he was head of the Faculty of Geology and Planetary Sciences at Caltech. In 2001 he retired.

He was married to Naomi Wasserburg for 60 years and had two sons.


He dealt with geochemical and isotope methods for age determination and research into the geological development of the earth and the solar system (age determination of meteorites). He also studied time scales for the transport of isotopes in groundwater and investigated the isotope content of the lunar rocks of the Apollo missions. For this he constructed a mass spectrometer (Lunatic I). The device was an order of magnitude (factor 30) more precise than previously available devices and revolutionized the field. It was the first such instrument to be completely digital. His doctoral student (PhD 1970) Dimitri Papanastassiou supported him in the development.

He was one of NASA's Four Horsemen who carried out the first investigations on the lunar rocks. The others were Bob Walker (Washington University), Jim Arnold (University of California at San Diego), and Paul Gast (Columbia University). The results of the first analysis of the samples from Apollo 11 were presented at the first Lunar Science Conference in Houston in 1970. They dated the moon rocks to 3.5 to 3.7 billion years. Later they found in the isotope analysis evidence of the late heavy bombardment epoch of increased impacts on the moon 4 billion years ago.

The ironic letter of apology from the Apollo 13 astronauts for not being able to bring back lunar material due to the explosion on board hung on the wall in his office for years. When Richard Nixon wanted to stop the last Apollo missions, the Four Horsemen successfully organized a protest.

From the oldest samples of rocks in the solar system, he and colleagues found evidence (decay products of the short-lived isotope aluminum 26) of a supernova explosion near the early solar system shortly before the planets formed.

He always went to work enthusiastically, according to the memories of colleagues, and was known for his high standards and accuracy.

Honors and memberships

He received honorary doctorates from the University of Brussels, the University of Paris, the Arizona State University, the University of Chicago, the University of Turin and the University of Rennes I. He was an honorary member of the Geological Society of London (1996).

In 1978 he received the VM Goldschmidt Award of the Geochemical Society, in 1970 the Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, in 1981 the Arthur L. Day Prize of the National Academy of Science, in 1985 the J. Lawrence Smith Medal and the Harry H. Hess American Geophysical Union Medal and 2008 William Bowie Medal . Together with Claude Allègre , he was awarded the Crafoord Prize for Geosciences in 1986 . In 1985 he received the Wollaston Medal and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1991 and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1972 and 1978. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences , the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1967), the American Philosophical Society (1982) and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Literature .


  • Isotopic adventure-geological, planetological and cosmic, Annual Review Earth Planetary Science, Volume 31, 2003, pp. 1-74

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Life data according to American Men and Women of Science , Thomson Gale 2004
  2. ^ Robert Perkins: Remembering Gerald Wasserburg, 1927-2016 , Caltech.
  3. So the geochemist Donald Burnett in the obituary at Caltech
  4. Member History: Gerald J. Wasserburg. American Philosophical Society, accessed November 15, 2018 (with extensive biographical notes).