Claire Max

Claire Max

To enter the world of Claire Max is to encounter some of the most exotic mysteries in the universe: what happens when black holes collide? What do gravitational waves reveal about violent events billions of light years from Earth? What is happening to our Milky Way galaxy as it gobbles up smaller galaxies?

Other puzzles may seem closer to home and less exotic, but still challenge astronomers: why do planets form? At a time when more and more planets are discovered orbiting distant stars, is our solar system typical or does it seem to be one-of-a-kind?

Max, a physicist and astronomer who worked for 30 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is today Director of University of California Observatories, headquartered at UC-Santa Cruz.

That means she is in charge of what UC calls a multi-campus research unit, an MRU. It includes the 132-year-old Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton east of San Jose and the state-of-the-art W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The MRU involves technical laboratories as well. Perhaps most exciting, it is part of an international partnership that is designing and building the next generation Thirty Meter Telescope, also on Mauna Kea.

Starting at LLNL in 1974 as a “very junior physicist,” as she put it, Max engaged in a range of basic and applied research, including classified efforts at LLNL and in Washington.

She became a member of the famous JASON group, which consults with the Defense Department, the intelligence community and various government agencies on both classified and unclassified projects.

One project -- classified at the time – had to with how to clarify blurry images seen at a distance through the turbulent atmosphere, twinkling stars being an everyday example.

Max co-authored a seminal paper on the topic, including a chapter on how astronomers might approach the problem by artificially creating a small, bright, movable spot of light some 60 miles above Earth’s surface.

Guide Star

The technology for accomplishing this goal is called “guide star.” Max did much more than write about it. In the years that followed, she played a major role to have the technology declassified and made available to help improve ground-based observing.

She designed a system to be used on the future 10-meter Keck telescope, and, with laser engineer Herb Friedman, led the effort at LLNL to prove the concept feasible.

As a result, she is famous in astronomy circles for her years of continuing efforts to improve ground-based observing.

Long-time Livermore residents may remember nights in the early 1990s when an extraordinarily intense, three-foot-wide beam of light shot up into the sky from LLNL. This was an early test of guide star technology.

Scientists used a laser built for a different purpose -- uranium enrichment research -- but showed that it was possible to make a thin layer of sodium atoms glow like a tiny yellow star in the thin upper reaches of the atmosphere, some 60 miles above Earth’s surface.

In the future, Max and others believed that astronomers would be able to use lasers in actual observatories to sharpen images of stars and galaxies that appear as fuzzy blobs on the surface of the earth.

Knowing what these bright spots should look like, high-speed computers would allow them to manipulate flexible mirrors to cancel out most atmospheric distortion and allow viewing nearly as clear as that from space.

The project had its funny moments, for instance, when a worried I-580 passerby phoned LLNL security to warn that the Laboratory was being attacked from outer space.

More to the scientific point, the research did what it was designed to do, and led to installation and use of a guide star laser on the Shane telescope at Lick Observatory.

Black Hole

Max also helped plan and lead the use of guide star technology on the Keck. It allowed UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez to prove the existence of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and describe it in detail.

Max has also advocated development of compact, powerful lasers that would be easier to handle and more efficient in guide star astronomy than the dye lasers now in use.

Just last year, LLNL delivered a fiber laser to UC-Santa Cruz that appears likely to meet the requirements. The laboratory developed it in part with support from the Center for Adaptive Optics, a research partnership based in Santa Cruz that Max co-founded back in 1999 when she was still working at LLNL.

In 2004, as she was moving from Livermore to Santa Cruz, the U.S. Department of Energy recognized the quality and importance of her guide star work by awarding her the prestigious E.O. Lawrence Award.

At the time, she was director of LLNL’s Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics, another UC multi-campus research unit.

Looking back, Max feels, “Livermore was the only place you could have done this (created guide star technology.) People were open to new ideas; we had the laser expertise, very, very solid engineering, really good optics people, and…(a program offering) internal research funds that were available for good ideas.”

Mountains on the Moon

Max grew up in New York City and developed an intense interest in astronomy about age 8 when a summer camp counselor pointed out mountains on the moon using a small telescope.

Fascinated by the realization that lunar mountains must be basically like those on Earth, Earth’s, she began reading, learning the names of stars and constellations, and going to Hayden Planetarium for classes, only 10 minutes away by bus.

When it came time to enter college, in 1964, she enrolled in the astronomy department at Harvard, certain of her interest, but not sure that astronomy could be a career.

She earned a PhD in astrophysics at Princeton, and performed her postdoctoral work at Berkeley.

Unlike some young female scientists of the time, she did not feel held back by gender discrimination. At the same time, after she joined LLNL in 1974, she had the sense that the Laboratory was more receptive to women scientists than was academia, where there were few faculty members in the physical sciences.

At Santa Cruz, Max has enjoyed teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as advising graduate students. She isn’t taking on either right now, in part because of the burden of UC Observatories managerial duties.

As director of a multi-campus research unit, she receives funding from the University that might enable her to support future students, so long as she feels she has time to do their programs justice.

A Fine Career

Max thinks that astronomy or astrophysics would be a fine career for a scientifically oriented young person today, male or female, but thinks that it needs to be clear that there aren’t many astronomy professorships in academia. Available jobs might well be limited to staff positions with NASA or at an observatory.

More and more Santa Cruz students are leaving academia, she said, sometimes before graduating, to work “over the hill” in Silicon Valley, where computer and data skills are in demand and can draw high salaries.

Asked what areas of astronomy she thinks are most interesting today, she names several, generating a sense of awe at the sheer magnitude of the puzzles and the impression that the list of them might well be endless.

-How are the properties of a galaxy affected by a giant black hole at its center, and why? Galaxies have discs and bulges, and the greater the black hole mass the bigger the bulge. “But the black hole isn’t what made the bulge big. It can’t be: it has such a limited gravitational sphere of influence, it can’t affect things on a galaxy scale. So how does that correlation happen?”

-Multi-messenger astrophysics is “a great big deal” in which an event is first observed with one kind of signal, like gravitational waves, and then studied using signals like x-rays or neutrinos that are generated by different physical processes.

-How are planetary systems like our solar system created? The prevailing view when Max was in graduate school -- that ours is “the only solar system” -- now “looks totally irrelevant.” Our solar system seems to be the outlier rather than the rule. Other planetary systems have planets much closer to their stars than Mercury is to our sun, and there is evidence that planets have been thrown out or captured gravitationally. Could something like that have happened to us?

-In a field called galactic archaeology, astrophysicists study the distribution and motions of old stars -- some of them “very close to the age of the universe” -- to understand the history of our Milky Way galaxy. “You get to see that (our galaxy) has been gobbling up other small galaxies for a long, long, long time.” It’s a “whole new area, very exciting,” that opens windows on billions of years of galactic mergers and dynamics.