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Frank Culver Jones (1932–2007)

Published onDec 01, 2007
Frank Culver Jones (1932–2007)

Frank C. Jones, an emeritus theoretical physicist at NASA, died May 2, 2007 at age 74 after a struggle with a rare form of cancer. He died at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, surrounded by his family.

Frank was born July 30, 1932 in Fort Worth, Texas, the oldest of three boys. His parents were Kenneth Hugh and Nancy Culver Jones. Frank's father was a lawyer, and his grandfather was a Methodist minister. Frank graduated from Rice University in 1954 and earned a master's degree in 1955 and a doctorate in 1961, both in physics, from the University of Chicago. He did his graduate work with Prof. John Simpson.

Dr. Jones began his professional career as an instructor in physics at Princeton University before joining NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in 1963 as a National Research Council associate. He subsequently became a member of the Theory Division and the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics. His area of expertise was the origin, transport, and electromagnetic interactions of cosmic rays. His particular focus was the stochastic physics related to the diffusion of particles in random fields, plasma turbulence, and the shock acceleration of charged particles in collisionless plasmas.

From 1993 to 1995, Frank was head of Goddard's Theoretical High Energy Astrophysics Office and continued to serve as Head of the Theory group. In 2003 he served as Acting Chief of the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics. He retired in 2005 and continued his affiliation with NASA as an emeritus scientist at Goddard until his death.

As a youngster, Frank showed the signs of curiosity and initiative that indicated he might become an experimentalist. At the memorial service for Frank, his brother related the stories of how Frank had rigged a hidden microphone to play through the family television as his brother courted a young woman on the front porch swing, and how one of Frank's early chemistry experiments caused all the family silverware to turn black. Although Frank started his professional career as an experimentalist, his wife Ardythe says he didn't become really happy until he turned to theoretical work after his postdoctoral appointment at Princeton. Frank, with characteristic good humor, was not averse to telling his experimentalist friends that, after attempting balloon-borne experiments, he decided he was better suited to theoretical work.

In more than four decades of research at NASA, Dr. Jones made a number of pioneering contributions to his area of expertise, regularly attending and presenting his work at the biannual International Cosmic Ray Conferences sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). He was known among his colleagues for his low-key presentations that demonstrated his deep understanding of the fundamentals of broad areas of physics far removed from cosmic radiation. This knowledge, combined with his friendly, generous, and open personality, meant that he was much sought after for his insight, advice, and wisdom on physics generally. He authored a paper on Compton scattering--the decrease in energy of a high energy photon when it interacts with matter--that is still widely used (Jones, F. C. Physics Review. 167, p. 1159, 1968). His works on acceleration of particles at oblique shocks with M. Baring and D. Ellison (Advances in Space Research, 15, #8/9, p. 397, 1995 & Astrophysical Journal Supplement, 90, p. 547, 1994.) are essential references in the field. Frank's review paper with D. Ellison in Space Science Reviews is considered one of the classics in the field of particle acceleration (Space Science Reviews, 58, p. 259, 1992).

Frank was never afraid to look at an unconventional idea. When scientists were searching for evidence of tachyons, Frank looked into the kind of Cherenkov radiation they might produce (Jones, F. C. Physics Review D, 6, p. 2727, 1972).

Don Ellison, Professor at North Carolina State University and one of Frank's most productive graduate students, told us that Frank had an astonishing memory. Don said he used to visit with Frank after lunch to discuss progress on his dissertation and get advice. He would think that Frank was dozing off and not listening to his report. However, he would find that many weeks or even months later Frank would remember the conversation and quote it back to him long after he had forgotten the encounter. Frank's colleagues were also the beneficiaries of this recall ability in informal settings. An avid fan of vintage movies, Frank could recall a scene from movies released long ago to draw an analogy or encapsulate a pertinent idea for any point of discussion that happened to be on the table.

Frank was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1974 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996, being cited for "theoretical investigations of propagation and acceleration of cosmic rays in the interstellar medium."

Frank took his turn at public service duties. He was elected by his peers to a three-year term on the Executive Committee of the Cosmic Physics Division (now the Astrophysics Division) of the American Physical Society (APS) in 1980. He served the APS as Council Member from 1994 until 1997, as a member and chair of the Committee on Constitution and Bylaws 1996-1998, and as its Chair in 1997. Frank chaired the Publications Committee responsible for the volumes of the 19th International Cosmic Ray Conference in La Jolla, California, in 1985, as well as serving on the conference steering committee. In 1987, when COSNEWS, the Newsletter of the Cosmic Ray Commission of the IUPAP, needed a new Editor and Publisher, Frank volunteered and served until 2002.

Frank loved computer technology and was highly regarded in the laboratory as a helpful expert on this new technology as it grew and personal computers came to be found in every office. These sometimes incomprehensible new devices were well understood by Frank. He was always providing helpful advice to everyone from technicians to scientists and managers. This generosity resulted in his becoming the first senior research scientist to be honored with the Laboratory's Peer Award.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Ardythe Grube Jones of Silver Spring, Maryland, two children, Cheryl Mattis of Columbia and Timothy Jones of Silver Spring, two brothers, and four grandchildren.

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