Assistant Professor Olivier Guyon Wins MacArthur Foundation Fellowship

Assistant professor of astronomy and of optical sciences Olivier Guyon is officially a genius — at least according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards $500,000 fellowships to an elite group of around 25 U.S. citizens or residents each year. These fellowships, commonly called "genius grants," are unusual in that they are not a reward for work done, "but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight and potential," according to the MacArthur Foundation website. The award “is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations.”

James C. Wyant, former dean of the college, agrees that Guyon has something special. He first met with the astronomer-slash-optical-scientist a few years ago, when Peter Strittmatter of the Department of Astronomy and the Steward Observatory, claiming he’d found the next Roger Angel, pulled him into hiring negotiations. A joint appointment with the world-renowned College of Optical Sciences was one of Guyon’s requirements for joining the UA faculty. Wyant was glad to oblige. “He’s so full of clever ideas.”

And many of those ideas involve the skies. Olivier Guyon — who calls the University of Arizona “the ideal environment to work in optics and astronomy,” as “both departments are full of exciting, innovative projects and people” — has research interests in the realms of astronomy and adaptive optics. He develops new theories and technologies to aid in the quest for extrasolar Earth-like planets. Like many other astronomers, he seeks exoplanets “in the hope of finding life outside of our solar system.” As he noted in the video linked below, “Every star you see is another sun.”

One of the biggest challenges of looking into the sun is its formidable glare. In order to fight the glare around these faraway stars, Guyon invented Phase-Induced Amplitude Apodization coronagraphy. PIAA “pushes” the star’s light back into its bright center, allowing its billions-times-fainter satellites and circumstellar dust to remain visible. The technique allows for smaller and more efficient instrument mirrors.

* * *

As is traditional for the award, Guyon had no idea he had been nominated for a MacArthur fellowship until he received a telephone call from the foundation. “Are you alone? Are you sitting down?” asked the voice on the other end.

“Just after the call,” Guyon says, “I was thrilled and honored, but part of me was also wondering if this was really true — maybe an elaborate joke?” Within days, however, an official letter arrived at his Hawaii office, alongside the Foundation’s film crew.

He hopes to use at least a portion of the funding to take the search for exoplanets into the public’s backyard with affordable and easy equipment.

“One of the most efficient ways to identify exoplanets is to wait for them to pass in front of their star — this is called an exoplanet transit, and it appears as a periodic dimming of the star.” These transits, though easy to detect, can be difficult to catch in the act, requiring “a bit of luck,” as Guyon says. “The key to discovering planets with this technique is to monitor a large number of stars for a long time” — which is precisely what an his proposed army of amateur exoplanet hunters would be able to achieve. “We have already built a small prototype system that has been running almost continuously for two years ... it uses relatively inexpensive commercial hardware and can be easily duplicated.”

At the College of Optical Sciences, Guyon co-teaches OPTI 416/516: Modern Astronomical Optics with professor of optical sciences and astronomy Jim H. Burge and Philip Hinz, an associate professor from the Department of Astronomy. According to Guyon, the course was “created to increase the link between optics and astronomy and to train astronomy and optics students to work together.”

“Observation of exoplanets is a significant part of the course, as fun and often unusual optical systems are the key to overcoming the detection challenges.” Students work in teams on three projects — photometry, astronomy/interferometry nulling and direct imaging/wavefront control — wherein they design a full optical system, including instrument, to seek out new worlds.

Guyon calls the University of Arizona “the ideal place” for the course with its excellent graduate programs in astronomy and optical sciences and “a rich history of productive collaborative work.”

Former student Blake Coughenour finds Guyon's teaching style one of a kind. "The first thing to understand about Olivier is that he is often on a plane six days a week and yet he still shows up to class more electrified than any professor I've ever had." In OPTI 416/516, "he can talk with seemingly endless stamina about any optical concept and its unique uses in astronomy." In the collaborative project-based course, Coughenour learned that "a team composed of astronomers and optical scientists is probably the most fun you can ever have designing real systems for real science."

When he heard that Guyon had won the MacArthur award, he was "not surprised in the slightest." As Coughenour states, "he is a remarkable researcher who is not only pushes the cutting-edge of optical astronomy professionally, but also lets his passion for the subject make him a dynamic educator to students and the public alike."

Dean Thomas L. Koch, says of Olivier Guyon’s award, “I’m thrilled to see the promise of our outstanding young faculty recognized in such a prominent way! At the College of Optical Sciences we’re constantly seeking the best, and we know that the future will continue to reward us with spectacular innovation and impact.”

Guyon came to the University of Arizona as a University associate in 2006. He received his appointment with the College of Optical Sciences and the Department of Astronomy and the Steward Observatory in 2008. He has been on the staff of the University of Hawaii research corporation’s Subaru Telescope since 2002, where he serves as an adaptive optics scientist. He also holds an associate membership with the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of Victoria (Canada).

Guyon graduated from Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University (France) in 2002. In 2003, he received the Daniel Gunier Award from the French Society of Physics, and in 2006 he was granted a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the U.S. government — its highest award for promising young researchers.

For more information, please see the biography and video prepared by the MacArthur Foundation, the UANews write-up of Guyon's award or the Arizona Daily Star coverage of his fellowship.


Top three photos courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation; bottom photo courtesy of Olivier Guyon, enthusiastic astrophotographer