Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Once again, the week before the Nobel Prizes come out, the MacArthur Foundation has announced the winners of its “genius grants.” (Technically, these people are known as MacArthur Fellows.) And once again, the foundation has implicitly recognized the importance of optics in our society by choosing at least one Fellow from the realm of the optical sciences.

This year, the “genius” scientist from optics is Olivier Guyon of the University of Arizona, an institution well known for both astronomy and optics — and, indeed, Guyon holds a joint appointment in those two fields. He’s keenly interested in the search for planets outside our solar system. To that end, he has been the lead developer of a new coronagraphic technique called “phase-induced aperture apodization,” which blocks the light from the central star of a potential  exoplanet system more efficiently than other systems. What’s even more exciting is that he wants to lower the cost of this technique (which involves some highly aspheric lenses) so that schoolchildren and amateur astronomers can join the hunt for other worlds. Very exciting stuff!

Other recent MacArthur Fellows whose research is related to optics and photonics:

  • Markus Greiner (2011), who created a “quantum gas microscope” to study 2D optical lattices.
  • Michal Lipson (2010), who studies silicon optoelectronics.
  • Nergis Mavalvala (2010), a quantum astrophysicist (yes, there is such a thing).
  • Richard Prum (2009), who applies optical physics to his ornithological studies.
  • Andrea Ghez (2008), who developed speckle imaging and has improved adaptive optics for ground-based telescopes.
  • Marin Soljačić (2008), who studies the fundamental principles behind electromagnetic waves (such as light).
  • Saul Griffith (2007), who invented a simple lens-making technique that could bring corrective lenses to the developing world.
  • Matias Zaldarriaga (2006), whose insights into the pitfalls of interpreting data have gone into the design of new telescopes.

I wrote about Mavalvala in this OPN blog post from 2011 and about Lipson in this post. (Oh, yes, don’t forget my contribution to the OPN “Bright Futures” blog: “For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius.”)

So, the next time somebody tries to tell you that optics is “old hat” or “just eyeglasses” … you know what to say!

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