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Franklin Evans Roach (1905–1993)

Published onSep 01, 1994
Franklin Evans Roach (1905–1993)

John Irwin Slide Collection
AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Franklin E. Roach was born in Jamestown, Michigan, some fifteen miles southwest of Grand Rapids, on September 23, 1905. His father, Richard F. Roach, born on a farm near Grand Rapids, was an optometrist; his mother, Ingeborg "Belle" Torgersen Roach, was a housewife. She had come to America at the age of three, the youngest child in a large immigrant family from Larvik, Norway. In time Franklin had two younger brothers and a younger sister. When he was about five the family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, just west of Chicago and within easy commuting distance of it. There Franklin attended elementary school and the first two years of high school. Edwin Hubble had been a student in the same Wheaton High School a decade and a half before him, as Grote Reber was to be half a decade later. In 1921 the family moved to Highland Park, California, a suburb of Los Angeles near Pasadena. Franklin finished high school there, but the rigidly protective California professional licensing laws made it impossible for his father to find work as an optometrist. They retreated to Wheaton, where Franklin entered Wheaton College in 1923.

Roach wished to become a physician, and was a premedical student at Wheaton. His family was poor, and he had to earn every cent of his tuition and living expenses himself. After three years he won a scholarship which would have enabled him to enter the University of Michigan medical school in 1926. However, he recognized that it would require his full time, and that his family could not support him. Hence he decided to use the scholarship instead to finish his bachelor's degree at Michigan, which he could do in one year. At Wheaton and Michigan he took mathematics courses through calculus, introductory chemistry and physics, but no astronomy.

Upon graduation in 1927, Roach could not find a job that matched his education. For a year he worked, first as an unsuccessful door-to-door salesman, then as a milkman. In the fall of 1928 he managed to get into a cooperative program in which he served as a teaching assistant at Wheaton, and was allowed to take beginning graduate physics courses at the University of Chicago. The following summer he was able to attend the University of Michigan summer lectures in physics. These courses and lectures greatly stimulated Roach's interest in quantum mechanics, then a very new, rapidly developing subject.

At the end of the summer of 1929, as an unpaid assistant to the Wheaton football coach, he went with the team to their pre-season practice at Conference Point Camp on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. On a bluff above the lake shore he saw the dome of Yerkes Observatory and went to its Saturday afternoon open house. Noticing the well-stocked observatory library, he asked if he might come back during the week and study there. This brought Roach to the attention of Edwin B. Frost, the long-time director of Yerkes, who was desperate for a graduate-student assistant to help with the regular observing programs. Roach was clearly interested and available. After checking that he was a graduate student at Chicago, Frost offered Roach an assistantship. He accepted and began his career as an astronomer in the fall of 1929.

In his first year at Yerkes, Roach took graduate courses (all essentially reading and research courses), and worked at his assistantship. He did a master's thesis, supervised by the rising young spectroscopist Otto Struve, on the absorption lines of ionized sulfur (S II and S III) in stellar spectra. Roach passed his oral examination in August 1930 and received his M. S. degree. In that same first year he met, fell in love with, wooed, and married Eloise Blakslee, daughter of the Yerkes Observatory photographer, photographic technician, and popular lecturer. A graduate-student assistantship did not pay enough to support a wife and family, and Roach had to leave school and find a job in the Great Depression. He was fortunate to be hired by the A. O. Smith Company, a large machine-tool maker in Milwaukee, in its metallurgical laboratory. On a shoestring budget, he built up its quantitative spectroscopic capability. Roach wished to return to Yerkes for his Ph. D. and hoped for a better-paid assistantship, but there were none. In the depth of the Depression, in the summer of 1932, A. O. Smith closed its laboratory in an economy move, and Roach had no choice but to go back to Williams Bay. By now the Roaches had theIr first child. Franklin's salary decreased from $200 a month at A. O. Smith to $62.50 as a Yerkes assistant. They camped out in a tent that first summer in Williams Bay, to save money.

Roach had just returned when Frost retired on June 30, 1932. Struve, who succeeded him as director, was a much more dynamic leader than Frost. Struve had just brought about an agreement under which the University of Chicago would get the large reflecting telescope at a good, clear, dark sky site which he knew it needed. It would operate the McDonald Observatory, to be built in West Texas by the University of Texas, which had received a large bequest for this purpose but had no astronomers on its faculty. It would take years to complete the telescope; for the interim Struve brought about another agreement under which Chicago would provide a spectrograph and an observer to use the 69-inch reflector of Perkins Observatory, near Delaware, Ohio. It was part of Ohio Wesleyan University, which was near bankruptcy, had no research funds, and only two or three astronomers, who were full-time teachers. Struve picked Roach, whom he described as "one of the best students we ever had at the Yerkes Observatory," as the assistant whom he would send to Delaware.

Roach had unusual self-reliance and instrumental ingenuity. By October the spectrograph was ready and he was testing and using it. It was a grating instrument, which Roach used to obtain spectrograms of B and A stars in the red region for Struve's research, and of stars of all types in the deep red and near infrared for his own thesis. Struve had arranged that Roach might also take graduate physics courses at nearby Ohio State University, without having to pay tuition. He took full advantage of this, in addition to carrying out a heavy observing schedule, and received his Ph. D. from Chicago in June 1934.

Struve then sent Roach to McDonald Observatory as the first astronomer stationed there, while the 82-inch reflector was under construction. Roach worked with Struve and Christian T. Elvey, using a small Schmidt camera for photographic photometry and polarimetry of reflection nebulae. This innovative program was Roach's start in quantitative photometric measurements of large, low surface-brightness areas, which he was to perfect in his later research on the night-sky light.

After two years at McDonald Observatory, Roach left in 1936 to become an associate professor at the University of Arizona. Edwin F. Carpenter was director of its Steward Observatory, equipped with a 36-inch reflector on the campus in Tucson. Roach taught full time in astronomy (including "engineering astronomy") and physics. However, he managed to find some time for research, and published his first paper on the light of the night sky with Elvey in 1937, based on photoelectric measurements which they had obtained at McDonald Observatory starting in 1934. Roach also designed a photoelectric photometer for the 36-inch telescope, supervised its construction, and used it for several small research projects. In the summers he frequently took his family, now grown to include three children, back to Williams Bay, where he worked on stellar atmospheres, analyzing McDonald spectrograms provided by Struve. Roach thus made himself an expert in atomic physics, later so useful to him in his upper-atmosphere research.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Roach, like many other American scientists, joined a wartime technical development project. Initially he was a member of the Caltech rocket program, working mostly in the field, first at Eaton Canyon, near Pasadena, then later at the desert test range north of Inyokern. (This facility became the basis of the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, after the war.) In the middle of the rocket program, Roach was reassigned to work on high-explosives research connected with the Manhattan Project. During this wartime period in Pasadena the Roaches had their fourth child.

When the war ended, Roach organized a new Physics Division in Pasadena as a branch of the recently formed NOTS. He later worked with Elvey at NOTS in organizing a pioneering night-sky research group. With greatly improved support over prewar university days, Roach was able to build and use even better night-sky photometers. With these instruments, he and his team measured diurnal variations of individual emission lines of the night airglow at Cactus Peak (dubbed "Roach's Roost" by the irreverent).

In 1951-2, Roach spent a year in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship, collaborating in night-sky research with Daniel Barbier, a European pioneer in the field. Roach presented an important invited review on this photoelectric work at the International Geophysical Union meeting in Paris in 1954.

That same year he transferred to the new laboratories of the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado. Here he continued to improve his photometers and to refine his methods of analysis for splitting up the measured radiation into the components due to the night airglow, auroras, integrated starlight, zodiacal light. and other smaller contributors. Roach and his collaborators carried out these measurements at the Fritz Peak Night Sky observatory which he built on a mountain outside Boulder.

Roach circled the globe in 1958 during the IGY, carrying the standard photometer from which all the other participating countries calibrated their own instruments.

In 1961, to measure low-latitude airglow and auroras, he established another observatory, at Haleakala, on the island of Maui, in Hawaii. Walter R. Steiger, of the University of Hawaii Department of Physics, worked with Roach to get this observatory into operation. Roach and his wife liked Hawaii, and after he retired from the Bureau of Standards in 1966 they moved to Honolulu. He continued active research for several years in retirement, as a consultant. One of his frequent and most-enjoyed assignments was briefing astronauts before their flights on night-sky observations they could make from space, and then debriefing them when they returned to Earth.

In 1973 Roach published a book, The Light of the Night Sky (coauthored with Janet L. Gordon), summarizing his and earlier work in this field. He was a pioneer, a "father of upper-atmosphere research," who made many important contributions to the field. Roach published more than one hundred papers, and he was awarded the Department of Commerce Gold Medal in recognition of his outstanding work on upper-atmosphere physics.

In 1976 Eloise Roach died, and a year later Franklin married his coauthor, Janet Gordon. She had been a student at the University of Arizona, and a part-time secretary in the Department of Astronomy when the Roaches were in Tucson. She became a technical editor and worked for several large laboratories on the West Coast and for Stanford University Press. Janet moved to Honolulu in 1966, where she worked at the Bishop Museum. She researched and wrote the historical sections of The Light of the Night Sky, and edited it.

Roach's avocation throughout his life was singing. He had an expressive baritone voice. He and Eloise were members of many choral groups, and after retirement Roach sang in the chorus of the Hawaii Open Theatre in more than thirty productions.

In 1988 Franklin and Janet moved back to the mainland, to Cottonwood, Arizona. In 1991, as his health began to fail, they moved to Tucson. He died there on September 21,1993.

Franklin Roach was an outstanding scientist who pioneered in quantitative physical studies of the nature of the night airglow. He was also a warm, outgoing human being, liked by all who knew him.

His family has donated Roach's scientific papers and correspondence to the Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, Alaska and Polar Regions Department, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where they will become the Franklin E. Roach Collection.

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