UCSC astronomer Claire Max receives 2004 E. O. Lawrence Award in Physics

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the 2004 E. O. Lawrence Award in Physics to Claire Max, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Max, who is deputy director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at UCSC and holds a joint appointment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, received the award for her contributions to the theory of laser guide star adaptive optics and its application in ground-based astronomy. Adaptive optics sharpens the vision of telescopes by correcting for the blurring effects of the atmosphere.

The E. O. Lawrence Award is given in seven categories to honor scientists and engineers for exceptional contributions in the field of atomic energy, broadly defined. The awards were established in 1959 in memory of the pioneering physicist Ernest Orlando Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron. Three of the seven winners this year are UC faculty and five are affiliated with the national laboratories managed by UC.

The awards will be presented in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on November 8. Each recipient receives a gold medal, a citation, and $50,000.

"We are all enriched by the contributions these researchers have made, ranging from engines with no moving parts to better ways to see the stars," said Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.

Max has made important contributions to the separate fields of plasma physics and astrophysics, and she is a central figure in the field of adaptive optics for ground-based telescopes. Her work on laser guide stars for adaptive optics has led to an ongoing revolution in ground-based astronomy.

Adaptive optics (AO) enables astronomers to counteract the blurring effects of turbulence in Earth's atmosphere, which seriously degrades images seen by ground-based telescopes. An AO system precisely measures the blurring of a telescope's image caused by the atmosphere, then corrects the image using a special deformable mirror. These measurements and corrections are made hundreds of times per second.

The instantaneous measurement of atmospheric blurring along the line of sight of the telescope requires a bright point-source of light in the field of view. The first AO systems relied on bright stars, but this limited the use of AO to areas of the sky where there are natural guide stars. Max is one of the inventors of the sodium laser guide star as a source of the bright reference light, and she is a leader in implementing these new artificial guide stars at astronomical observatories. Today, ground-based telescopes using AO systems with laser guide stars are delivering high-resolution infrared images that rival, or in some cases even exceed, the sharpness of the infrared cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Max joined the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in 1974 as part of a new group formed to understand the plasma physics aspects of laser fusion. She made important contributions to laser-plasma interactions and to the understanding of astrophysical plasmas. In 1984, she became the founding director of the Livermore branch of UC's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, and in this role she helped guide much of Livermore's astrophysical and geophysical research.

Also in the early 1980s, Max became the first female member of the elite JASON group of scientific advisers to the Department of Defense. In 1983, she carried out some of the first detailed theoretical work on adaptive optics for its possible application to strategic defense when she and three fellow JASONs conceived the idea of the sodium laser guide star for ground-based telescopes.

The laser creates an artificial "star" by exciting sodium atoms in a tenuous layer in the upper atmosphere at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (60 miles). Since the high-altitude sodium layer covers the whole sky, a laser guide star is created wherever the laser beam intercepts the sodium layer. Aiming the laser to follow the telescope ensures that a guide star is always close to the astronomical object of interest.

Max and her team of LLNL scientists demonstrated the concept by making a star high in the sky above the Livermore site. Work on this topic had been highly classified until the early 1990s, but was declassified in time for the LLNL laser experiment. Max then led a group that built the AO system and sodium laser guide star for UC's Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. This laser guide star AO system was the first to be installed at an astronomical observatory and is currently the only one in the world used by astronomers on a regular basis.

Max's group also designed the laser beacon and AO system for the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii in collaboration with Keck Observatory staff. The AO systems at Keck's two 10-meter telescopes (the largest in the world) produce infrared images that rival or exceed those of the Hubble Space telescope at the same wavelengths. They have already borne important fruit, including infrared images and spectra of storms on Neptune, hydrocarbon oceans and ice continents on Saturn's moon Titan, and black holes in the core of our own Milky Way galaxy and in the centers of other galaxies nearby. The newly operational laser beacon at the Keck II Telescope is producing spectacular results.

Although laser guide star adaptive optics on ground-based telescopes is still in its infancy, the expanded science that can be done with such modified telescopes is extraordinary. Adaptive optics enhances the clarity of ground-based observations by a factor of 50 or more so that it becomes comparable with that of space telescopes. The larger ground-based telescopes already have the advantage of greater light-gathering capacity than space telescopes.

Perhaps one of the most important future uses of adaptive optics will be the direct detection of extrasolar planets (planets outside our solar system). Much of the basis for using AO to search for extrasolar planets has been developed by scientists in Max's team.

Max earned her A.B. degree in astronomy from Harvard University (Radcliffe College) in 1968 and her Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences and plasma physics from Princeton University in 1972. Her many honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Max joined the Center for Adaptive Optics as an associate director when it was established by the National Science Foundation in 1999, and she has been a member of the UCSC faculty since 2001.

The other recipients of this year's E. O. Lawrence awards are Nathaniel Fisch of Princeton University (nuclear technology); Bette Korber (life sciences), Fred Mortensen (national security), and Gregory Swift (environmental science and technology) of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Richard Saykally of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (chemistry); and Ivan Schuller of UC San Diego (materials research).


Note to reporters: You may contact Max at (831) 459-2049 or max@ucolick.org.

Information about all of the 2004 winners is available at the Department of Energy web site at www.energy.gov.