The Bruce Medalists


  Photo courtesy Edith Low
Frank James Low
23 November 1933 2006 Bruce Medalist 11 June 2009

Frank Low was born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Houston, Texas. He earned his B.S. at Yale University and his Ph.D. in 1959 at Rice University, both in physics. He was a solid state physicist who became a leader in the new field of infrared astronomy after inventing the gallium-doped germanium bolometer in 1961. This new detector allowed the extension of observations to much longer wavelengths than previously possible. Shortly afterward he left Texas Instruments, Inc., where he had made his breakthrough, to further develop the bolometer and associated instrumentation at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. After that he worked at Rice University and, from 1965, at the University of Arizona, holding dual appointments at the two universities for a number of years. He was also president of Infrared Laboratories, Inc., which he founded in 1967 to make infrared detectors and cryostats for observatories, and which now makes infrared microscopes as well.

He and colleagues used his new bolometer in the 1960s to make photometric measurements of the Moon, planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and a quasar in the few wavelength ranges, e.g., 2.2 and 8.5-14 micrometers, where the atmosphere is partially transparent. They showed that Jupiter and Saturn emit more energy than they receive from the Sun and that some galaxies are powerful sources of infrared radiation, accounting for much of the far infrared background. Next Low and Carl Gillespie tried extending observations into the far infrared, using a helium-cooled germanium bolometer with a small telescope on a U.S. Navy bomber. When that proved successful, Low pioneered open-port airborne astronomy, mounting a 12-inch telescope on a Learjet. Flying above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, this little telescope was used to make far-infrared observations of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, and of nebulae, including star-forming regions, as well as galaxies.

Low was one of the leaders in building a much larger flying observatory, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which carried a 0.9-m telescope to an altitude of up to 14 km from 1974 to 1995. He proposed and then joined with other American, British, and Dutch astronomers to design and build the Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS), which made the first survey of the infrared sky from space in 1983. He also developed instrumentation for the Spitzer Space Telescope, and received an award for his breakthrough in shrinking the cooling system for the detectors. Years after his formal retirement in 1996, he continued to work with other astronomers on observations of everything from protoplanetary systems to active galactic nuclei, using Spitzer.

Other awards
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Rumford Prize, 1986
American Astronomical Society, Helen Warner Prize, 1968; Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation, 2003.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Jansky Lectureship, 2006.

Biographical materials
Rieke, George, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014.
Tucker, Wallace & Karen Tucker, The Cosmic Inquirers: Modern Telescopes and Their Makers (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986), Chapter 4.
University of Arizona press release on award of Bruce medal, 22 May 2006.
Poss, Richard, University of Arizona press release on two major awards, Summer 2006.

Arizona Daily Star/Tucson Citizen, 17 June 2009
Harrison, Jeff, University of Arizona News, 22 June 2009.
Maugh, Thomas H., II, Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2009.
McCarthy, Don, Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 43, 017 (2011).
Overbye, Dennis, New York Times, 20 June 2009.
Rieke, George, Physics Today 63, 3, 65-66 (March 2010).
Rosen, Raphael, Spitzer Space Telescope website.
University of Arizona, 14 June 2009 (pdf).

Named after him
Minor Planet #12142 Franklow
The Kleinmann-Low Nebula (with Douglas E. Kleinmann)

More references

The Bruce Medalists

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