University of Michigan
Candidate for Member-at-Large
Carl Akerlof obtained a BA in physics at Yale University and a PhD in elementary particle physics from Cornell University in 1967 shortly after taking a post-doc position at the University of Michigan. In 1969, he became a member of the Michigan faculty where he has remained to date. For a number of years his research in elementary particle physics focused on experiments at Argonne, Fermilab and SLAC that explored strong interactions with both fixed targets and colliding beams. In 1986, his research interests moved to high energy astrophysics, specifically the detection of TeV gamma-rays traced by Čerenkov radiation from atmospheric air showers. As a member of the Whipple Collaboration, this led to the discovery in 1992 of TeV radiation from the first of a number of AGNs. After spending a sabbatical leave at Berkeley working on the MACHO gravitational microlensing experiment, his research turned to optical observations of astrophysical transients such as gamma-ray bursts. This led to the creation of the ROTSE project (Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment) which designed and installed 4 small robotic telescopes in Australia, Texas, Namibia and Turkey. These instruments have been operating for about 8 years providing unique observations of gamma-ray bursts and supernovae. The most spectacular result was the discovery of prompt optical radiation from GRB990123 listed by NASA as one of the 10 most important discoveries in space science that year. In addition to the earlier work at DoE HEP facilities, Akerlof has found support for his astrophysics research at Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Labs and the Los Alamos National Lab. His current collaborators include faculty at the University of Texas, University of New South Wales, Sabanci University, Middle East Technical University and the Max Planck Institut für Kernphysik. Akerlof is a Fellow of the APS and is currently a member of the Committee for International Scientific Affairs (CISA).
As a child whose father and uncle both worked on the Manhattan Project, I have always been aware of the frightening power that physics can channel for destructive purposes. Conversely, I have also been impressed by the efforts of people like Hans Bethe, Freeman Dyson, Sid Drell and Frank von Hippel to lessen these dangers. Our escape from the nuclear perils of the latter half of the 20th century owes a lot to the existence of similar folks in the USSR such as Andrej Sacharov. Thus, throughout my career I have tried to encourage exchanges with scientists from other countries. In 1974, I spent a sabbatical leave in the USSR to work on their 70 GeV accelerator with the mistaken hope of stimulating more fruitful collaborations. My major opportunity to develop a global project occurred in 2000 with our ROTSE program. With colleagues from several nations, we designed and installed 4 small robotic telescopes in Australia, Texas, Namibia and Turkey. As an enticement, the host institutions may use 30% of the telescope time for their own purposes. This was especially attractive for our Turkish colleagues who lacked such facilities. Realizing that the study of optical transients offered a low-cost entry point to astrophysical research, I established contact with astronomers in Iran and visited there twice until ordered by our government to avoid all further exchanges. On a happier note, through the participation of a young Thai student, we concluded an agreement with the Thailand Research Fund in 2006 to provide sky images to middle and high school students for a nation-wide astronomy outreach program. For the future, I would like to pursue paths that will improve the teaching and application of physics in Africa. As one step towards this goal, I will present an invited talk at the ETOP 2011 meeting in Tunisia that will show some inexpensive ways of demonstrating optical science to a broad audience. These kinds of projects are what I hope to encourage as a member of FIP.