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Frank J. Low (1933–2009)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Frank J. Low (1933–2009)

John Irwin Slide Collection
AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Frank James Low was born on November 23, 1933, in Mobile, Alabama. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Yale University in 1955, and his Ph.D. in physics from Rice University in 1959. He worked at Texas Instruments, NRAO, Rice University, and spent most of his career at The University of Arizona with Steward Observatory and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

To honor his fundamental insight and innovations that revolutionized the fields of infrared and airborne astronomy, Frank received the Helen B. Warner Prize (1968), the Joseph Weber Award (2003), shared the Rumford Prize in physics (1986), the Karl Jansky Lectureship (2006), and the Bruce Medal (2006) for lifetime contributions in astronomy.

This year the world celebrates the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the accomplishments of Galileo. There are great parallels between Frank and Galileo. After developing a revolutionary low-temperature detector, Frank re-engineered and optimized telescopes for infrared performance. He not only oriented them to the heavens but also placed them there throughout Earth’s atmosphere and to the Moon. He made fantastic new discoveries from the Sun throughout the Universe. He radically changed the way the entire world looks at the Universe and impacted generations of new scientists as well as the general public.

Frank’s level of innovation is stunning and diverse. Chopping and undersized secondary mirrors, cold baffling, cryogenic designs, “Low Dewars,” Helium-3 systems, JFET amplifiers for the IRAS satellite, airborne astronomy, the silver-coated 28-inch survey telescope, the MMT, the 36-foot radio dish, Apollo 17 radiometer, television detector systems, infrared microscopes, and on and on. His insights enabled the IRAS and Spitzer missions and contributed to Spacelab2, KAO, SOFIA, NICMOS/HST, JWST, etc. He also established a small business (Infrared Laboratories Inc.) that for more than 40 years has supplied instrumentation to astronomers and semi-conductor industries around the world, in some cases literally giving it away.

Frank applied his new tools to a wide variety of scientific fields. He measured the Sun’s brightness at millimeter wavelengths, discovered the internal energy sources in Jupiter and Saturn, mapped the Milky Way in the far-infrared, discovered the Kleinmann-Low nebula of star formation in Orion, and investigated the infrared emission from active galaxies. He was especially excited about dust disks around stars such as HD 98800 and helped make the fist direct spatial measurements of circumstellar dust emission in Betelgeuse and non-spherical dusk structures around IRC +10216, VY CMa, etc. He helped initiate the first direct detection of low mass stellar companions to nearby stars.

I first noticed Frank while in David Wilkinson’s office at Princeton. Frank was pictured on the cover of an aviation magazine near the NASA Learjet and 12-inch telescope. That image of a new frontier attracted me to Arizona. As a graduate student, I wanted to be challenged by a great person. The pioneering nature of infrared astronomy caught my interest as did Frank’s mapping-radiometer on Apollo 17, and then the opportunity to pioneer interferometry. For some reason, Frank took me on even though I was not the most talented student. Working with him was pure exploration and pioneering, always involving hands-on construction and observing. I was invigorated by his constant creativity and innovation as well as by his depth of insight not only in technical matters but also in how people think and behave. He continually provided new opportunities to learn and improve. His cutting insights and constant drive for optimization changed the way I think and how I approach life in general.

Frank was a compassionate teacher and coach. He would console after defeat while urging on to the next level. He patiently taught me how to write meaningfully and concisely. He challenged me to write my first NSF proposals and scientific papers and guided me through the process. Like a good coach, Frank had a knack for finding flaws or weak points in my performance so, even when we disagreed, he was motivating me to improve my thinking and arguments for another round of discussion. He provided first-author opportunities when many professors might not. We swam and hiked together, mixed concrete and laid bricks, cut cardboard baffles for the 61-inch telescope, appeared live from the KPNO 4-meter telescope on “Good Morning America” after VB-8b, ate lunches at Eric's, and so on.

I am honored to have worked with Frank, who in my mind has the stature of Galileo. The level of his accomplishments, combined with his deep enjoyment of life with a wonderful family, are amazing to me. I am happy to have opportunities to share his pioneering and insightful approach to life with new generations of students who need this perspective badly. I am proud to have been one of his students.

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