When he was 10 years old and living in his native France, Olivier Guyon liked to look at the stars through a pair of binoculars. Today he helps design telescopes to enable the search for far-away alien worlds.

 

The 36-year-old astronomer and optical physicist was recognized this week one of the latest 23 recipients of MacArthur Fellowships, given out each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Each fellow will receive $50,000 over the next five years that they can spend in any way they desire to "pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations," according to the foundation's website. Guyon has not yet announced how he will spend his fellowship grant.

 

Commonly known as the "MacArthur Genius" awards, the fellowships honor the "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." Fellows must show exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances that would benefit from the fellowship.

 

Guyon's work these days revolves around technology to identify exoplanets, which are planets like our own but circling other stars. His goal is to find life outside of our solar system on planets that are similar to Earth. An assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, where his research helps support NASA, he splits his time between Arizona and the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

 

As Guyon puts it, most telescopes are not up to the task of seeing exoplanets, since the stars they circle are so bright they obscure the bodies that orbit around them. He has developed new lenses and other optical techniques, including one called phase-induced amplitude apodization, to remove glare and digitize the images to reveal the planets that would not otherwise be visible. The technique is good enough to not only identify the planetary bodies but also to note the presence of atmospheres and oceans. The work doesn't need to be done at large scientific telescopes: he is working to enable anyone to use these techniques to find exoplanets. "In the last two years, I have been working on how to make this technique affordable and easy to use for amateur astronomers, schools and the general public to actually implement in their backyard," he told Arizona's ExplorerNews.

 

MacArthur Fellows are not aware they have been nominated until they receive a call letting them know that they have won. "This came out of the blue," he told Hawaii's Big Island Now. "I was very surprised, as this is a sign of a lot of trust from the rest of the scientific community."

 

Guyon discusses his work in this MacArthur-produced video:

 

 

Related MacArthur grant story on MNN: Marine ecologist receives MacArthur 'genius' prize