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Q & A with a "genius"

A chat with JPL astronomer and MacArthur grant recipient Olivier Guyon

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JPL Astronomer Olivier Guyon hopes that the technology he's working on today could help take pictures of faraway, Earth-size planets in the future.

October 26, 2012

PQ: How did you find out that you’d been named a MacArthur Fellow?

Olivier Guyon: I got a call on September 13th telling me that I was one of the people who had been awarded. It was a huge surprise. The nomination process is completely secret, so I was totally in the dark about having been nominated until I got the phone call. Then I had to keep it secret from everyone else until the official announcement.

PQ: What kinds of feelings did you experience after you found out?
OG: I was thrilled and surprised. At first, I was in disbelief, but that didn’t last long.

I felt very grateful that people trust in my work enough to have nominated me for this grant. It was also a great validation of the work I have done so far. It’s also a huge encouragement to do more significant work in the future. It’s also a pretty major financial prize, so it comes with a bit of responsibility as well.

It all boils down to genuine curiosity, looking for answers, and pushing limits. In order to do something new, you have to question where those limits come from.

PQ: What kinds of things have you thought about doing with the fellowship money?
OG: Well, all my plans are just preliminary at the moment, but I really want to engage the public more with exoplanets. I’m interested in helping amateur astronomers look for planets and make their own discoveries.

One of my ideas is to build a remote telescope station that can look for exoplanet transits. Amateur astronomers could get time with the telescope and control it from afar to discover new planets.

PQ: Why is reaching out to the public such a priority for you?
OG: I think it’s a main thing for me because it’s how I got into the field. When I was ten years old I read a book on astronomy, and from then on I was very interested in looking at the sky…I started with binoculars, then eventually got a small telescope, and the rest is history. I’ve always had a lot of fun with astronomy, from the time I was young.

I think a big thing was that I found that book at an age when I was curious. I think it’s important that young people are exposed to science at that age, when they are still curious about the world. I want to look for ways to do more reaching out to people in that age group.

PQ: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do for NASA?
OG: I work for the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program’s tech lab, developing new technology that could be used in future space-based exoplanet-finding missions.

In particular, I work on a project called the PIAA (Phase-induced amplitude apodization) coronagraph. A coronagraph is a device that blocks out the light of a star so that astronomers can capture light from orbiting exoplanets, which are millions of times fainter.

The advantages of the PIAA coronagraph are that it can make more efficient use of a telescope. Thus we can use a smaller, less expensive telescope to get images of exoplanets that are close to their stars. This coronagraph could potentially be used to directly image Earth-like exoplanets orbiting other stars. I work on this technology at testbeds at JPL, Ames Research Center, and the Subaru Telescope.

PQ: What motivates you to come to work each day?
OG: Looking back, the path I have followed is motivated by curiosity. That has made it a lot of fun.

It all boils down to genuine curiosity, looking for answers, and pushing limits. In order to do something new, you have to question where those limits come from.

What’s helped me a lot is that I never accept limits to what can be done, or assume that they are true, without understanding them myself. Finding a workaround can be a challenge, and the details can add up to something very complicated, and it’s hard work, but the result is extremely satisfying.