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Hilo Astronomer Recipient of MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

Posted October 2, 2012, 04:00 PM HST Updated October 2, 2012, 05:15 PM HST
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Astronomer and 2012 MacArthur Fellow Olivier Guyon works on a home-made telescope in his garage in Hilo. Photo by Marco Garcia/Getty Images for Home Front Communications.

Olivier Guyon has come a long way from a 10-year-old peering into the night sky with binoculars.

The French-born physicist today was named the recipient of a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Guyon, who has been an astronomer at the Subaru Telescope since 2002, was one of 23 MacArthur Fellows named today.

Along with the honor the 36-year-old Hilo resident receives a $500,000 grant to be paid over a five-year period.

Guyon splits his time between Subaru and the University of Arizona, where he does research for NASA.

An expert in optics, Guyon’s specialty is searching for Earth-like planets.

Astronomers have previously identified such exoplanets by studying the wobble caused by their gravity on their sun.

But those techniques don’t tell scientists much about the planet, so he is working on an instrument that will allow astronomers to not only spot planets around distant suns, but to be able to obtain information about their color spectrum.

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To do that the instrument will have to block out the star’s light.

“Our next step is to identify planets like the Earth, and to do that we need to identify the colors from the planet,” he told Big Island Now.  Those colors will allow astronomers to determine whether the planet has clouds, oceans or even vegetation, he said.

“It’s very hard to do because the planet is so faint and the star is so bright,” Guyon said.

The MacArthur fellowship awards are very secretive, and Guyon did not know he was even in contention.

“This came out of the blue,” he said. “I was very surprised, as this is a sign of a lot of trust from the rest of the scientific community.”

 

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