Peter Franken (1928-1999)

Peter Franken, a member of the Michigan Physics Department from 1956 until 1973, died on March 11, 1999 in Tucson, Arizona. Born in 1928, he finished his Columbia in 1952, spent two years at Stanford and then came to Michigan where he stayed until accepting the Directorship of the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona in 1973. We remember him with fond respect for the many contributions that he made to our University during his 17 years in Ann Arbor.

In the mid-1950’s, Michigan’s strong reputation for atomic and molecular physics was already of long standing, having been established by Randall, Uhlenbeck, Goudsmit, Dennison, Crane, Laporte, and Sawyer. The hiring of Peter Franken and Dick Sands in 1956 was a move to a younger generation of experimentalists who brought new methods, including microwave spectroscopy and optical pumping, to the study of atoms and molecules that positioned Michigan well for creative research with the lasers in the years following 1960. During his years at Michigan, Peter with his students and his gifted collaborators Dick Sands, Robert Lewis, Wilbur Peters, John Ward, and Gabriel Weinreich produced research at a remarkable pace; their results included the discovery of level-crossing spectroscopy and the discovery and exploitation of optical harmonics— results that are internationally recognized landmarks in 20th century atomic and optical physics.

Even while attracting an enthusiastic graduate student cadre for his own projects, Peter, together with Dick Sands set a tone for the department’s entire research effort in atomic, molecular and condensed matter physics that grew to include professors Sanders, Williams, Zorn, Robiscoe, Springett, and Fontana in addition to Ward and Weinreich. This collective, known as the “Resonance Group” was loosely bound by physical proximity and joint funding; at its peak it included as many as 40 graduate students at one time. With his quick mind, deep insight, and verbal agility, Peter provided stimulation and guidance to this entire range of research. With his generous spirit and good humor, he brought forth an operational and intellectual camaraderie that encouraged the sharing of both equipment and ideas.

Peter brought an irreverent exuberance — an infectious joie de physique– to the department. His conversations were famous for their scientific challenges punctuated by betting a nickel on the outcome. His seminars and colloquia, always heavily attended, were renowned for their blend of scientific content, outrageous humor, and carefully-prepared prank demonstrations.

In 1970, Peter took a leave from Michigan in order to direct the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in Washington, DC. He did return to Ann Arbor for a short time thereafter, but in 1973 he found new challenges at the University of Arizona where he pursued research over a wide range of applied physics and engineering until the time of his death. Peter remains in the memories of his numerous students, colleagues and friends as an icon of Michigan Physics.

Level Crossing Spectroscopists:  Bob Lewis, Peter Franken Wilhelm Hanle and Dick Sands


Peter Franken in 1991

Other history pages involving Peter Franken:

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1 Comment

  1. Stephen F. Jacobs

     /  September 28, 2016

    Franken succeeded Meinel as Director of Optical Science Center at University of Arizona.


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