Memories of Neil Gehrels




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I was sitting in one of my first Gamma-Ray Burst conferences when the chair announced the next speaker: he called “Mr. GRB”. Neil entered the room. I knew Neil was the PI of a very successful mission (Swift), and he was a big name in the GRB community, but what I didn’t know was that he was very friendly and nice with everybody. I immediately saw his warm and joyful attitude, especially with the younger scientists. In the following years, I started to know Neil better. I had the fortune to work with him, and I realize how incredible he was, being able to manage an enormous amount of e-mails, and being able to reply to every single of them, in a matter of a few hours (if not instantly). I also had the opportunity to spend time with him outdoors and I became aware of his passion for rock climbing.
As a climber myself, I was inspired by his rock climbing adventures, some of which truly amazing.
The Nose is one of the most famous climbs in the world. It follows the massive prow of "El Captain", in Yosemite National Park, towering nearly 3000’. This route offers 31 pitches of superb climbing, right in the middle of one of the most iconic rock formations. The climb is hard, long, and takes several days of vertical life to summit. Neil climbed this route several times, optimizing the way to efficiently progress to a point that he could climb the route alone, without a partner.
I guess that was just an example of how tough he was, and I bet he did it all with a big smile in his face.
Once he told me that he rappelled the entire route with his daughter; from the top, all the way to the bottom. This was an adventure that not only was terrifying and hard, but he did it with his daughter, blessing her with once in a lifetime experiences.
I saw him, not only as the scientist I always wanted to be, but also the climber and the person I want to become.
It is unbelievable to think that Neil is no longer with us. He is the only person, ever, that made me want to become like him. I will always remember him.


Added: February 12, 2017
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Message:
Neil was the Tall Center Pole holding up the Big Tent.

Neil and I started off in the low-energy cosmic ray group at U Az, overlapping in the early 70s. He was still considering his possible music career while jumping into physics.

Back then neither of us could have imagined that we would wind up at Goddard for all the big adventures in gamma-ray astrophysics. That was the best part of my life, working with Neil.


Added: February 12, 2017
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Message:
Deep respect and sympathies for Neil Gehrels, his wife, and science family. Neil was one of the forces behind the RATIR instrument and an inspiration for much of the research I'm doing today. But above all, he was a great person that had a genuine interest in each person he met with beyond the science.

Added: February 12, 2017
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What a shock to lose your good sense, calm persistence, and deep administrative acumen. The SSAC meetings will not be the same without you. To me you were the bedrock of those meetings. I could always depend on Neil to get a sensible answer to hard questions that I would ask, and follow through on serious issues. We will miss you in many ways. My sincere condolences to your family.
Elliott


Added: February 11, 2017
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Far too soon. You leave a gaping hole that will never be filled. RIP

Added: February 11, 2017
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I entered the field of high-energy astrophysics some 20 years ago, from a completely different sector, and you were one of the first colleagues I met. You were always gentle, and tolerant to my naivety; always generous with your explanations. A kind, nice and bright person. Many of us had the chance to learn a lot from you, and this survives.

Added: February 11, 2017
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I have known Neil since I arrived at Goddard as an NRC Fellow in 1997. Neil was not only a phenomenal scientist and PI but also one of the kindest, humblest, and most generous people I have had the honor to meet. He helped me personally on many occasions as he has done for many other young scientists. I am glad that he was able to come to South Africa for the HEASA 2016 meeting; I had no idea at the time that that would be the last time I would see him. I am greatly saddened by his loss.

Added: February 11, 2017
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It was impossible not to admire Neil. He was a brilliant scientist, one the top leaders in the field. But first and foremost, he was a wonderful person, always friendly and positive. I met him on many occasions, at LAT collaboration meetings, conferences, summer schools. We chatted over a broad range of topics, from science to politics and outdoor activities. I enjoyed these moments very much. I was amazed by how much Neil enjoyed life and had a large range of interests beyond science. As an anecdote, during a diner in Montpellier, he told us that the day before he went dancing tango at one of the local dancing schools. Like many of us in the LAT collaboration, I considered him as a friend. I will deeply miss Neil.

Added: February 11, 2017
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I interviewed Neil on many occasions as a journalist, especially for stories in Science magazine on Swift, GRBs, and basically anything super-explosive in the cosmos. He was wonderful to interview: always responsive, gracious with his time, and crystal-clear with his explanations. Neil always recognized the value of doing these conversations, and I greatly appreciated his generosity and easy-going nature over the years.

Added: February 11, 2017
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Twenty some years ago I was at a conference on the island of Capri with Neil. Several of us decided to rent a boat to explore the grottos around the island. We were deciding when we should go, and someone mentioned that the weather was going to be bad for some of the days. Neil said something like "never change your plans because of the weather.” At first I was taken aback by this reckless attitude, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked this philosophy. Weather predictions are frequently wrong, and if it rains, you can always put on your raincoat. Plus you might get to see a rainbow. I’ve since decided to expand “weather” to include a variety of external factors outside my control, as I think Neil did too. Neil was always so positive and never deterred by "bad weather". I will miss Neil, but I know his inspiration and influence live on.

Added: February 10, 2017
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