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May 13, 2002

Two UCSC astronomers elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

By Linley Erin Hall

Two professors of astronomy and astrophysics--Douglas Lin and Claire Max--have been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The academy honors the nation's most distinguished artists, scientists, and business and political leaders. The selection of Lin and Max brings the number of academy fellows in UCSC's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics to eight and the total at UCSC to 17.

Douglas Lin, above, is director of the California Space Institute's Center for Origins Studies. Claire Max is an associate director of the Center for Adaptive Optics. Photos: Astronomy and Astrophysics Department
Lin, an expert on the formation of planets and solar systems, is director of the California Space Institute's Center for Origins Studies. Max, who joined the UCSC faculty in 2001, is an associate director of the Center for Adaptive Optics, a Science and Technology Center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF director Rita Colwell, who will speak at the dedication of the Center for Adaptive Optics in June, was also elected to the academy this year. Other 2002 inductees include actress Anjelica Huston, Senator Edward Kennedy, and businessman Leonard Lauder.

As a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and now at UCSC, Max has been instrumental in developing adaptive optics systems for the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Adaptive optics is a method to actively compensate for changing distortions that cause blurring of images. In astronomy, adaptive optics is used to correct for the blurring effect of turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere. As a result, researchers can obtain images of celestial objects from ground-based telescopes that are as clear as those from space telescopes.

"Adaptive optics is important because it allows us to use the huge investment in ground-based telescopes we've made, and it makes those telescopes capable of seeing much more clearly," Max said.

Max also studies black holes, extremely dense objects found in almost all galaxy centers. Most of these black holes are dark and quiet, but a few shine brightly and emit jets of extremely fast-moving particles. Max uses telescopes with adaptive optics to study these "cosmic fireworks."

One of the most exciting applications of adaptive optics is its potential to enable large ground-based telescopes to take images of planets around nearby stars. In the past few years there has been an explosion of discoveries of planets outside the solar system. Lin, the academy's other UCSC inductee, has been busy fitting these new observations into theories of planet formation. Lin's basic interest in astrophysics is to understand the formation and evolution of stars, stellar clusters, planets, and planetary systems.

"I've always wanted to learn where we come from, how the Earth formed, why stars shine. My childhood fascination really keeps me going," Lin said.

Stars form when cooling gas clouds condense. These clouds usually spin, and over time they whirl faster and faster so that they spin off a protostellar disk. Astronomers believe that planets form in this disk when some of the gas condenses into solids and the solids grow by colliding and sticking to one another. Lin looks at how the protostellar disk interacts with the growing planet and can cause it to move toward or away from the star.

Lin also examines what happens when planets interact with each other and their parent star after the protostellar disk dissipates. Right now the planets in the solar system are in stable orbits, but eventually that may change.

"Astronomers think that most planetary systems have a tendency to evolve into chaotic systems," Lin said. "If this takes a long time, then the environments that lead to life are preserved. If it happens quickly, then more planetary systems will have different properties, which is more interesting to astronomers."

Lin, Max, and the other new members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences will be formally inducted at the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded by John Adams during the American Revolution, seeks "to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity and happiness of a free, independent and virtuous people." The academy has about 4,000 members and inducts approximately 200 new ones each year.



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