Mar. 1, 1955 - Oct. 19, 2013
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GRANGER - Dr. Sun Hong Rhie, a former research professor of physics at Notre Dame, died at home on October 19, 2013. She was 58 years old. Sun was born to Lee Sin Woo and Kim Soon Im on March 1, 1955, near Chiri Mountain in Gurae, South Korea. The family later moved to the city of Gwangju, due to her father's profession as a school principal. Sun enjoyed going to school from a young age; at 5, she was deemed an honors student based on her school entrance exam. Prior to enrolling in middle school, she received the second highest entrance exam score at a top school amongst 360 students. Because she always had a cheerful disposition and looked after others, everyone admired her. On her college pre-entrance exam, Sun received the highest score among women in all of South Korea. She went on to attend the prestigious Seoul National University, where she majored in physics and received her bachelor's degree in 1978. Recognized as one of the brightest in South Korea, she was well on her way to becoming a successful scholar. Sun immigrated to the United States in 1980 and began her graduate work in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1982, she transferred to Stanford University, where she met her husband, David Bennett, who was pursuing graduate studies in the same department. They married in 1985. Sun received her PhD in physics from Stanford in 1988, and their daughter Clara was born later the same year. Sun was a gifted mathematical physicist and a pioneer in the field of gravitational lensing, which concerns the deflection of light by the gravitational fields of stars and other massive objects in space. She was the lead author of a paper that presented observations of the first well-sampled high-magnification microlensing event. In collaboration with David, she was the first to show theoretically that such events could be used to discover Earth-mass planets orbiting other stars. Sun's work helped to grow the field of gravitational lensing and influenced many others to pursue it as an area of research. In 2002, Sun and David proposed that a new space telescope be built to discover Earth-mass planets orbiting stars toward the center of our galaxy. In 2010, this proposed Microlensing Planet Finder was combined with two other projects to form the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission. WFIRST was selected by the National Academy of Sciences as the top priority large space mission for the current decade and is expected to launch in 2022. This endeavor and its potential to discover new worlds is due in no small part to Sun's contributions. Sun also made unexpected contributions to mathematics through her work on gravitational lensing theory. In 2001, she published a partial solution to a long-standing problem in the field, calculating the minimum number of images that could be produced by a lens system with a specified number of objects. She also predicted the full solution to the problem, but was unable to prove it. In 2006, mathematicians Dmitry Khavinson and Genevra Neumann were working on what they believed to be a completely different problem: an extension of the fundamental theorem of algebra. After releasing a partial solution to a preprint archive, a colleague directed them to Sun's work. They discovered that her partial solution, in combination with their own, provided the full solution to both their mathematical conjecture and Sun's gravitational lensing problem. This remarkable result was the subject of a American Mathematical Society press release in 2008, and Sun's work helped to advance the solution of a number of related problems in mathematics, as well. In her later years, Sun was afflicted with schizophrenia, which limited her ability to continue the work that she loved. Treatments for schizophrenia had side effects that interfered with intellectual work, and she expressed much frustration with the lack of medical and scientific understanding of this devastating disease. Sun is survived by her husband, David Bennett; their daughter, Clara Bennett; her mother, Kim Soon Im; her sister, Lee In Sook; and her brothers, Lee Sang Hwa, Lee Sang Young and Lee Sang Deuk. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 26th, at Welsheimer Family Funeral Home North, 17033 Cleveland Road, South Bend. Friends will be received beginning at 1:30 pm, and the service will begin at 3:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, those wishing to make a memorial donation may do so in support of schizophrenia research to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation at www.bbrfoundation.org. Family and friends may leave e-mail condolences at www.welsheimer.com.
Published in South Bend Tribune from Oct. 24 to Oct. 25, 2013