Alcorn, George Edward

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George Edward Alcorn



The question of whether or not life exists on other planets has intrigued people for centuries. Physicist George Edward Alcorn Jr. figured out how to find out. In 1984 Alcorn and his colleagues patented a device to detect extraterrestrial life: the imaging X-ray spectrometer. This device is one of dozens that Alcorn has invented over the years, and the one with the most popular appeal. That's not to say Alcorn's other work isn't interesting. It is. But George Edward Alcorn is an atomic and molecular physicist, and his work is very complex. In addition to Alcorn's work detecting planetary life, he has also studied missile trajectory and orbits, invented components for semiconductors, designed instruments used in space, and created devices to detect atmospheric contaminants, among other things. For his work Alcorn has won the esteem of his colleagues and his industry's top awards, including NASA's Inventor of the Year Award in 1984.

Few people have the training needed to understand the implications of Alcorn's work. Fewer still could comprehend the details of the eight patents he holds. Moreover, much of Alcorn's work is not even available, as it is classified as top secret by the U.S. government. Alcorn, however, has never shut himself off from those who don't possess his specialized knowledge. Instead, Alcorn has openly encouraged others, especially minorities, to follow in his footsteps. Through his work as a university professor, and later as a tutor in his free time, Alcorn has mentored countless aspiring scientists.

George Edward Alcorn Jr. was born on March 22, 1940. His working-class parents, George and Arletta Dixon Alcorn, encouraged him and his younger brother, Charles, to take their studies seriously. Alcorn excelled in school, winning a four-year scholarship to Occidental College in Pasadena, California. He was also a gifted athlete. When Alcorn graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1962, he took with him eight letters in basketball and football as well. Sports were relegated to fun recreation when Alcorn went on to complete his graduate studies, however. Nine months after enrolling in Howard University in 1963, Alcorn had completed a master's degree in nuclear physics. Alcorn continued his studies at Howard and earned a doctorate in atomic and molecular physics in 1967. (Brother Charles eventually became a research physicist at IBM.)

While completing his graduate work, Alcorn worked summers at the Space Division of North American Rockwell. He collaborated on the computer analysis of launch trajectories and orbital mechanics for such Rockwell missiles as the Titan I and II, Saturn IV, and the Nova. During the summer before earning his doctorate, he also worked on a NASA grant researching negative ion formation. Alcorn's intelligence and work ethic stood him in good stead in the job market.

After graduating with his Ph.D., Alcorn began more than a decade-long career as an industry scientist. He worked as a senior scientist at Philco-Ford, a senior physicist at Perkin-Elmer, and as an advisory engineer at IBM Corporation. Much of Alcorn's work concentrated on the semiconductor and aerospace industries. In 1978, Alcorn moved into government service, tak-ing a job at NASA. He has since worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. As a deputy project manager, Alcorn helped develop technologies used for the Freedom space station and the continued development of other space stations. In 1992 he was promoted to Chief of the Office of Commercial Programs at the Center. His work there focused on not only developing new technologies, but also identifying how to promote the use of NASA-developed technologies throughout government agencies, private industries, and universities. Alcorn remained at that post more than a decade later. There he has worked on such technologies as a software program that enables products to be created more efficiently and a topographical mapping program that can produce accurate, 3-D maps from airplane-mounted lasers. For his part in developing the topographical mapping system, Alcorn shared with his colleagues the Government Executive magazine's Government Technology Leadership Award in 1999.

In addition to his work in industry and government, Alcorn offered his expertise to academia. In 1973 Alcorn began serving as visiting professor in electrical engineering. He went on to teach for more than 25 years, earning full professor status at both Howard University and University of the District of Columbia. In 1989 he became one of the original mentors at the University of Maryland at Baltimore Meyerhoff Program, which provides support to minority students hoping to develop careers in math or science. In addition, Alcorn began a Saturday Academy through which he tutored inner-city middle-school children in mathematics and science on weekends. His generous efforts were appreciated by students and recognized by his peers. He has received numerous awards for his encouragement of students, including Howard University's Heritage of Greatness Award as black achiever in science and technology in 1994.

At a Glance …

Born on March 22, 1940; married Marie DaVillier, 1969; children: one son. Education: Occidental College, Pasadena, CA, BS, physics, 1962; Howard University, MS, nuclear physics, 1963; Howard University, PhD, atomic and molecular physics, 1967.

Career: Philco-Ford, senior scientist, Perkin-Elmer, senior physicist, and IBM Corporation, advisory engineer, 1960s–1970s; NASA, project manager, 1978–1992; NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Office of Commercial Programs, chief, 1992–.

Selected memberships: Electrochemical Society; Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers; Sigma Pi Sigma; Sigma Xi.

Selected awards: NASA, Inventor of the Year, 1984; Howard University, Heritage of Greatness Award, 1994, as black achiever in science and technology; Government Executive, Government Technology Leadership Award, 1999.

Addresses: Office—Office of Commercial Programs, Goddard Space Flight Center, Building 11, Room C1, Mail Stop 702, Greenbelt, MD 20771.



Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.


"Dr. George Alcorn," NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, (September 18, 2006).

"Physicists of the African Diaspora: George Edward Alcorn," Dr. Scott Williams, Professor of Mathematics, State University of New York at Buffalo, (September 18, 2006).

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