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Guyon the genius

JPL scientist named a MacArthur Fellow

Olivier Guyon, an astronomer at JPL, has been named one of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows, a prestigious award popularly known as the "genius grant." Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

October 11, 2012

Physicist…coronagraphy expert…planet hunter. Now JPL astronomer Olivier Guyon can add a new title to his list: genius.

Guyon has been named one of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows, a prestigious award popularly known as the “genius grant.” The $500,000 award is given annually to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Among the 22 other fellows chosen this year are an instrument maker, a photographer, a geochemist and a fiction writer.

MacArthur Fellows are nominated in secret, so Guyon says he was “completely in the dark” when he received a phone call in September informing him that he’d been awarded the grant. “I was thrilled and very surprised -- at first I was in disbelief. I’m very grateful that people believe and trust in the work I’m doing.”

Guyon is considered one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of coronagraphy, an optical technique that could help the next generation of exoplanet space missions image Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. In addition to his role developing technology for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, Guyon is a Principal Investigator in NASA's Astronomy and Physics Research and Analysis program; an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson; and leads a coronagraphy project at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. In 2007, Guyon was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Coronography works by blocking out the light of distant stars, which are millions of times brighter than the planets that orbit them. With the starlight removed from an image, astronomers can get a better look at these exoplanets that would otherwise be lost in the glare -- even worlds as small as our own. Guyon’s coronagraph technology could help astronomers take the first picture of an Earth-like planet beyond our solar system.

“The award is a validation of my work so far and an encouragement to do even more significant work. With the money comes a bit of responsibility,” Guyon said. “I want to work on ways to engage the public more with exoplanets and help amateur astronomers make discoveries for themselves, like a remotely controlled telescope array that amateurs can use to look for new exoplanets.”

Guyon’s plans for the future are in part inspired by his past. “When I was 10 years old, I read a book about astronomy and have wanted to be an astronomer ever since,” he said. “It happened to me at an age when I was curious. I want to look for ways to do more reaching out and getting young people interested in the universe.”

The curiosity he fostered as a 10-year-old continues to motivate his work. “Looking back, the path I have followed has been motivated by curiosity, which has made it a lot of fun. Sometimes it’s hard work, but it’s extremely satisfying.”

“Before you accept limits, question where they came from -- never assume that you can’t work around a limitation unless you understand it yourself,” Guyon advises.


Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Written by Joshua Rodriguez