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  • Optical Physicist Wins ‘Genius Grant’

Photonics.com
Oct 2012
TUCSON, Ariz., Oct. 2, 2012 — A physicist who developed a breakthrough imaging technique for finding Earth-like planets outside our solar system is among 23 new MacArthur Fellows for 2012.

As with all the other winners, University of Arizona astronomer and optical physicist Olivier Guyon learned of his fellowship, nicknamed "Genius Grant," with a surprise phone call from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The fellows each receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years, which the foundation said offers them "unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore."

Guyon found himself drawn to the exploration of worlds beyond Earth at an early age.

"When I was 10 years old, someone in my family bought me an astronomy book," he said in a video on the MacArthur Foundation website. "So I started looking at the sky, and reading about it. Then I got a bigger telescope, and it never stopped."

Olivier Guyon identified the theoretical limit on the performance of planet-hunting telescopes.
Olivier Guyon identified the theoretical limit on the performance of planet-hunting telescopes. Based on this analysis and computational models, he compared the expected performance of several methods to identify their relative strengths and shortcomings. He is among 23 fellows for 2012 to each receive a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Guyon designs telescopes and other instruments to help find extrasolar planets (exoplanets) that, like Earth, orbit a home star. Because such planets appear to orbit extremely close to their stars, but are much less bright, they require the use of coronagraphs (which block light coming directly from a star) that equal a telescope's mirror diameter times four.

To overcome this, Guyon invented an alternative coronagraphy method, phase-induced amplitude apodization (PIAA).

"PIAA allows us to use a telescope smaller than we thought we needed to take images of planets around other stars," Guyon said. "This technique is really a breakthrough."

His design significantly reduces the engineering and cost obstacles to deploying a planet-locating telescope in low-Earth orbit, the foundation said in announcing his fellowship. Guyon is currently working to optimize the performance of ground-based PIAA instruments and their variants.

Because candidates for the MacArthur Fellowships are nominated anonymously, grantees are often stunned by the news.

"When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I had a mix of excitement, and I was also not quite sure if this was true," Guyon said.

Artist's impression of an exoplanet far away from our solar system, bathed in the light of its parent star and circled by a young moon.
Artist's impression of an exoplanet far away from our solar system, bathed in the light of its parent star and circled by a young moon. Courtesy of NASA.

"One particular direction that I think the fellowship is going to help me push is involving the public and amateur astronomers in the search and discovery of exoplanets," Guyon said. "In the last two years, I've been working on how to make this technique affordable, easy for amateur astronomers, schools and the general public to implement in their backyard. So I'm really hoping that in the next few years I can help others to actually use this technique to discover planets, and hopefully to engage the public and amateur astronomers into actual scientific research."

Guyon has also made important contributions to other aspects of instrumentation, such as adaptive optics and low-cost, lightweight telescopes for amateurs, the foundation said. He is developing a diffraction-based technique for measuring tiny shifts in the position of stars against the stellar background due to the gravitational influence of orbiting planets, which could provide a powerful complement to existing exoplanet detection methods.

"In all aspects of his work, from theoretical calculations to laboratory fabrication, Guyon relentlessly tests and pushes boundaries to construct instruments that are key to one of the great scientific adventures of our time — searching the galaxy for other planets like our own," the foundation said.

Guyon received a Licence from École Normale Supérieure and a PhD from Université Pierre et Marie Curie. In addition to serving as an assistant professor in the astronomy department and the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona since 2008, he is an associate member of the graduate studies faculty at the University of Victoria in British Columbia; he is also a project scientist at the Subaru Telescope, National Observatory of Japan, in Hawaii.

Other fellows for 2012 include a pediatric neurosurgeon, a marine ecologist, a journalist, a photographer, a stringed-instrument bow maker, a geochemist, a fiction writer and an arts entrepreneur. The number of fellows selected each year is not fixed; typically, it varies between 20 and 25. Including this year’s group, 873 people, ranging in age from 18 to 82 at the time of their selection, have been named MacArthur Fellows since the inaugural class in 1981.

For more information, visit: www.macfound.org


GLOSSARY
adaptive optics
Optical components or assemblies whose performance is monitored and controlled so as to compensate for aberrations, static or dynamic perturbations such as thermal, mechanical and acoustical disturbances, or to adapt to changing conditions, needs or missions. The most familiar example is the "rubber mirror,'' whose surface shape, and thus reflective qualities, can be controlled by electromechanical means. See also active optics; phase conjugation.
astronomy
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
telescope
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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