Jerry Earl Nelson was born 15 January 1944 in Los Angeles County, California, USA. He graduated from Caltech in 1965. He pursued graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving his PhD in 1972. He stayed on as a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Nelson was the principal designer and project scientist for the Keck Telescope and its twin, Keck II. The largest optical telescope in the world, Keck has profoundly influenced ground-based astronomy since it began taking scientific data in 1993. It features a mirror 33 feet wide, a girth made possible by Nelson's innovative concept: a honeycombed array of 36 hexagonal mirror segments aligned precisely by computers to act as a single reflective surface.
He was founding director for the Center for Adaptive Optics at Santa Cruz. His continuing influence can be seen in the segmented-mirror design of ongoing telescope megaprojects, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope, and the TMT.
Nelson was a Senior Member and recipient of the 1996 Joseph Fraunhofer Award/Robert M. Burley Prize.
Nelson passed away in June 2017.