You are here

"The perfect example of American academic entrepreneurship"

Matt Polk saw Hopkins' CLASS Telescope firsthand — and he wants to tell you all about it
Posted November 14, 2016
  • (l-r) Amy Gould, Matt Polk, and Associate Professor Tobias Marriage near the CLASS Telescope high site in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2015.

  • With Polk's support, (l-r) Aamir Ali, Thomas Essinger-Hileman, and Marriage are developing novel applications of a unique aluminum-silicon alloy for the CLASS Telescope. (photo courtesy Department of Physics and Astronomy)

  • One of the feedhorn prototypes for the CLASS Telescope developed at Hopkins.

  • IMAGE: Courtesy of Matthew Petroff of the CLASS team

When asked to recall the moment he first saw the CLASS Telescope site high in Chile's Atacama Desert, Matt Polk, A&S '71, pauses, then chuckles.

"It's a bit like being drunk — but not as fun," he says, referencing the oxygen-deprivation level at the site's 17,000-foot summit. "It's not an easy place to work."

Yet that's the place Hopkins scientists behind the Cosmology Large-Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS) Telescope are plying their trade. Polk, co-founder of Polk Audio, Inc. and a member of the advisory council for the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy, was one of the first donors to CLASS. The initiative seeks to pinpoint how the universe started and, in the process, uncover a link between the seemingly incompatible theories of quantum mechanics and relativity — a nexus considered the holy grail of cosmology.

Polk and his wife, Amy, visited CLASS' home base in November 2015 to see the impact of their generosity. At first, they stood awed at the view — a rocky, desolate moonscape that felt frigid even at the start of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. But more arresting was the sight of Hopkins faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows building the telescope with their own hands.

"You usually picture top scientists sitting in labs or standing in front of chalkboards, not out in the trenches pulling electrical wire through conduits and twisting wrenches, especially in these harsh conditions," Polk says.

The Polks also were able to see the breakthrough their gift made possible. Assistant Professor Tobias Marriage, a co-principal investigator on the project, and Associate Research Scientist Thomas Essinger-Hileman led a team that developed a novel aluminum-silicon alloy for the telescope's feed horns — the devices that direct light to the telescope's detectors. The silicon material previously used for this purpose is well matched to the detector's material properties, but it's fragile. The new alloy also matches well with the detector, but is more durable.

"The alternative way to make these detectors — precise cuts into individual layers of silicon — is expensive and time-consuming," Marriage explains. "With our new material, we can drill funnels straight through and attach the material firmly to the detectors, saving time and money."

"This was a perfect example of American academic entrepreneurship," Polk says. "Toby's team saw an obstacle and came up with a solution that combines good physics and good engineering."

Polk and several other donors — including university trustee Heather Murren, A&S '88, Parent '17 and '20, and her husband, Jim, and alumnus and three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — played important roles in bringing CLASS this far. Additional gifts are needed to complete the four-telescope array's construction and its survey of the sky, and "extract the full science to answer these big-picture questions about our universe," Marriage says.

After standing on a Chilean mountaintop and seeing the potential of the CLASS Telescope in person, Polk offers his full endorsement.

"The CLASS Telescope presents a unique opportunity to make a major, major impact on some of the fundamental questions of our time, at an institution with precisely the capabilities to find the answers," Polk says. "This project might be the best application of venture capital I can think of."

To learn about how you can make a gift to support the CLASS Telescope project, please contact Debra Lannon, associate dean of external affairs, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.