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May 15, 2006

CfAO director Claire Max to receive Chabot Science Award

By Judyth Collin, Chabot Space & Science Center

The Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland will award the 2006 Chabot Science Award to Claire Max, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at UCSC. The award will be presented at the Chabot Space & Science Center's Gala on Saturday, May 20.

Photo of Claire Max

Claire Max and other CfAO scientists designed and built an adaptive optics system for the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The $5,000 award honors excellence in the field of scientific and technological discovery and is in recognition of Max's work in adaptive optics, a technology that can remove the blurring effects of turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere, allowing telescopes on the ground to see as clearly as if they were in space. Max has been active in the development of advanced adaptive optics systems for current and future large ground-based telescopes and has observed nearby active galactic nuclei (galaxies with black holes in their cores), the planet Neptune, and Saturn's moon, Titan.

"We are extremely proud to have this opportunity to honor Dr. Max for her outstanding contribution to science," said Edward Penhoet, chair of the selection committee and a member of Chabot's Board of Directors. "Not only is the use of adaptive optics useful in learning about space objects and understanding the universe, her research also promises to provide new tools for the diagnosis of eye disease, and for improving the correction of vision via laser surgery and contact lenses."

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society, Max received the E. O. Lawrence Award in Physics in 2004. She earned her A.B. degree in astronomy from Harvard University (Radcliffe College) and her Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences and plasma physics from Princeton University.

The Center for Adaptive Optics, headquartered at UCSC, is one of a number of Science and Technology Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. The center is involved in the design of a ground-based 30-meter telescope to be equipped with adaptive optics. Once completed, the telescope will be able to make distant-galaxy images that are more than ten times sharper than those of the Hubble Space telescope, detect planets around young stars in the closest "stellar nurseries," and see more clearly what is happening close to the million-solar-mass black hole in the core of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Stars twinkle at night because their light is distorted by air currents in the atmosphere. Unless a telescope has an adaptive optics system, the images received will be blurred and fuzzy. This same blurring can occur in the living retina. The use of adaptive optics technology can compensate for these aberrations, enabling a new era in astronomy and human eye research and vision correction.

Max and other CfAO scientists designed and built an adaptive optics system for the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The cost was about 20 times less than the cost of building the Hubble Telescope, yet Keck has a larger light-gathering area and better resolution. Adaptive optics uses a high-speed computer to actively compensate for the changing distortions that cause blurring of images. The system also requires precision optics, special sensors, and deformable mirrors.

Chabot's Gala is a fundraiser to support the center's public and schools educational programs, as well as its teacher-training programs. Through the generosity of an anonymous donor, a special fund has been established to benefit the next two recipients of the Chabot Science Award. The Gala will also include presentation of the Accenture Teacher of the Year Award.

Chabot Space and Science Center, a Smithsonian affiliate, is a nonprofit teaching and learning center focusing on astronomy and the interrelationships of all the sciences. Its observatory, planetarium, exhibits, and natural-park setting are a place where a diverse population of students, teachers, and the public can imagine, understand, and learn to shape their future through science.

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