Tucson's newest 'genius' doesn't stop to smell the roses, but he'll pause for stars

2012-10-02T14:44:00Z 2012-10-02T15:03:28Z Tucson's newest 'genius' doesn't stop to smell the roses, but he'll pause for starsBy Tom Beal, ARIZONA DAILY STAR Arizona Daily Star
October 02, 2012 2:44 pm  • 

Tucson’s newest “genius” — University of Arizona astronomer and optical scientist Olivier Guyon — won’t be using his MacArthur Foundation grant of $100,000 a year for five years to buy himself time to think big thoughts.

“I wish I could, but it’s very unlikely,” said Guyon in a telephone interview from Hawaii, where he works half the year. “This is what happens when you are excited about a whole lot of different things,” he said.

“Energetic” is the most consistent adjective his colleagues used to describe the 36-year-old Guyon after hearing Tuesday that he had been selected as one of 22 MacArthur Foundation fellows this year — an honor commonly referred to as a “genius award.”

“He is certainly a genius,” said optical scientist Jim Burge. “He comes up with new ideas and he understands complex things. He has a passion for what he does and one of those things is astronomy where he is pushing the edge of the science.”

Guyon is an assistant professor of both astronomy and optical sciences at the UA, in addition to being a project scientist at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

At UA’s Steward Observatory, Guyon is the instrument scientist on a proposed NASA mission to launch a space telescope capable of imaging circumstellar dust and exoplanets usually hidden from view in the halo of their stars.

At Subaru, Guyon is working to bring similar technology to a ground-based telescope.

Guyon’s concept is “a breakthrough technology and architecture for telescopes,” said Glenn Schneider, a Steward astronomer who is principal investigator on the NASA proposal known as EXCEDE — Exoplanetary, Circumstellar Environments and Disc Explorer.

It would employ a new form of coronagraph that would allow all the light from a star, including the glow of the halo surrounding it, to be “pushed back into the center,” said Schneider.

Then, when that light is masked, objects very close to the star are revealed.

“We’re trying to get very close so we can get into the habitable zones,” said Schneider.

To do that, to find an Earth-like planet, requires imaging something that is a billion to 10 billion times fainter than its parent star.

“Olivier is key to developing that. He is the prime mover,” said Schneider.

“The guy is full of ideas. He’s just a dynamo. He’s fantastic,” said Jim Wyant, former dean of the College of Optical Sciences.

Wyant said he agreed to fund half of Guyon’s UA salary when former Steward Observatory Director Peter Strittmatter proposed it. “Peter said he didn’t have enough money to hire this guy, but this guy was going to be the next Roger Angel.”

Angel, founder and director of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, won a MacArthur award himself in 1996. He didn’t take any time off, either. “I think it’s probably true that you don’t get it unless you’re really intensely involved in what you’re doing,” Angel said.

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From the cosmos to the invisible world of nanotechnology, this is the place for anyone with a "scientific bent" in Southern Arizona.

Senior reporter Tom Beal provides color commentary from the science beat and assistant business editor Dave Wichner contributes an inside look at the business aspects of technology.

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