A Peter Franken Memoir
1928 - 1999

Peter Franken, a member of the Michigan Physics Department from 1956 until 1973, died on March 11, 1999 in Tucson, Arizona. Born 1928, his mother was Rose Franken, the noted author of the Claudia novels. Pete finished his Ph.D. in experimental atomic physics at Columbia University in 1952 under the direction of the Nobel Prize winner Polykarp Kusch. Franken then spent several years in a junior faculty position at Stanford before coming to Michigan in 1956 where he stayed until accepting the Directorship of the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona in 1973. We remember him with a fond respect for the many contributions that he made to our Department and 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. The expertise gained from their work positioned Michigan well for creative research with the lasers that became available 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. The resonance group's research spanned a wide range, including precision measurements of atomic structure, studies of non-linear optics, experiments on vortices and rotations in liquid helium, NMR explorations of biologically-important molecules, and RF, microwave, and infrared spectroscopy on simple molecules. 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.

     Beyond work within the physics department, Peter was active in University affairs and in commercial enterprise. He helped a number of local high-tech companies get off the ground, including one devoted to film-based X-ray tomography in collaboration with Professor of Dentistry Al Richards, Gary Cochran and David Crosby, all graduates of our department. Not all of Peter's energies were devoted to physics. For example, he was active in the effort to sustain a faculty club in the Michigan Union, and, in the mid-1960's when the Ann Arbor cuisine still seemed monochromatically mid-western, he and several others worked to start a French restaurant on Main Street.

     In 1970, Peter took a leave of absence from Michigan in order to direct the Advanced Products Research Agency (ARPA) in Washington, DC. He did return to Ann Arbor for a short time thereafter, but in 1973 he again found the challenges and opportunities of research administration compelling enough to accept the directorship of the Optical Sciences Institute at the University of Arizona. He guided the growth of the Institute for more than a decade before moving from the directorship to a professorial position within the Institute to pursue research over a wide range of applied physics and engineering until the time of his death.
Peter's talent and accomplishment were widely recognized: Among his many leadership positions we mention his chairmanship of the Joint Council on Quantum Electronics from 1969 to 1972, his chairmanship of the National Academy's Advisory Committee on Atomic Physics from 1963 to 1965, and his presidency of the Optical Society of America in 1977. He was an elected fellow of many societies including the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. He was a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences. He won the American Physical Society Prize in 1967 and the R. W. Wood Prize from the Optical Society of America in 1979.. He gave the 1987 Richtmeyer Lecture to the American Physical Society in1987 and 1995 Klopsteg Memorial Lecture to the American Association of Physics Teachers.

In the memories of his numerous
students, colleagues and friends
Peter remains as an icon of
Michigan Physics