Claire Max stands
next to the Shane Telescope at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton.
In the background, the bright straight line at the top of
the photo is the laser beam from the laser guide star system
Max designed as part of the telescope's adaptive optics
system, which corrects for the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Photo
by Laurie Hatch, Lick Observatory
September 27, 2004
UCSC astronomer Claire Max receives 2004 E. O. Lawrence Award in Physics
By Tim Stephens
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 UCSC. 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.
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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). Information about
all of the 2004 winners is available at the Department of Energy
web site at http://www.energy.gov.
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