Frank Low Wins Bruce Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Astronomy

Lori Stiles
May 22, 2006

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) has given its most prestigious award, the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in astronomy, to Frank J. Low, Regents Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona.

The society announced the 2006 Bruce Medal and six other awards it bestows for excellence in astronomy research and education today.

Low is cited as one of the pioneers of modern infrared astronomy. He invented the gallium-doped germanium bolometer, the first really sensitive infrared detector for the thermal infrared, in 1961. That sparked his career that revolutionized astronomy done at infrared (heat) wavelengths.

"I am more than surprised and honored to receive this prestigious award," Low said. "The whole field of infrared astronomy has earned this special recognition."

Born in 1933 in Mobile, Ala., Low earned his bachelor's degree in physics at Yale University and his doctorate in physics at Rice University (1959). He was employed by Texas Instruments, Inc., when he invented the gallium-doped germanium bolometer that initiated the era of infrared astronomy. He left Texas instruments and joined the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to further develop the bolometer and related instruments.

Low joined the Rice University faculty and, in 1965, The University of Arizona. He founded Infrared Laboratories, Inc., a Tucson-based firm that makes infrared detectors and cryostats for observatories and infrared microscopes, in 1967.

In the 1970s, Low became the first astronomer to use aircraft carrying a closed-port telescope. After initial experiments that involved mounting a small telescope on a U.S. Navy bomber, Low mounted a 12-inch telescope on a Learjet. Because it flew above most of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, even this small telescope made significant far-infrared observations of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus as well as star-forming regions and galaxies.

Low was among those who next pioneered the much larger flying observatory, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). The KAO carried a 35-inch telescope to altitudes higher than 8 miles during astronomical flights from 1974 to 1995.

Low proposed and collaborated with American, British and Dutch astronomers to design and build the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), a landmark telescope that made the first survey of the infrared sky from space in 1983.

He also developed instrumentation for the Spitzer Space Telescope, which included his prize-winning work in shrinking the cooling system for the detectors.

Low made many pioneering observations of the planets and galactic sources, showing that molecular clouds were very luminous infrared sources and that galactic nuclei could emit enormous amounts of infrared radiation.

Low's previous honors include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Rumford Prize (1986) as well as the American Astronomical Society's Helen Warner Prize (1968) and Joseph Webber Award (2003).

Awarded in most years since 1898, the Bruce Gold Medal is widely recognized as one of astronomy's most prestigious awards. Previous winners include such influential astronomers as Walter Baade, Edwin Hubble, George Ellery Hale, and Fred Hoyle.

Low will receive the Bruce Medal at the ASP's 2006 annual meeting and conference in Baltimore, Md., on September 17.

Founded in 1889 in San Francisco, the ASP is one of the nation's leading organizations devoted to improving people's understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of astronomy and space. Serving research astronomers, educators of all descriptions, and amateur astronomers, the ASP publishes both scholarly and educational materials, conducts professional development programs for formal and informal educators, and holds conferences, symposia, and workshops for astronomers and educators who specialize in astronomy education and outreach. The ASP's education programs are funded by its own members, corporations, private foundations, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.


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Frank J. Low