Frank Low, pioneer of IR astronomy, 1933 – 2009

By Phil Plait | June 21, 2009 8:49 am

I just heard that Frank Low, one of the inventors of infrared astronomy, has passed away at the age of 75.

I didn’t know Dr. Low, but his bio is a what’s what of early space-based IR astronomy. In the 1960s he helped invent astronomical IR detectors, testing them on radio telescopes and then on board aircraft. He was the first to discover that Jupiter and Saturn emit more energy than they receive from the Sun (we now understand that to be largely due to trapped heat from their formation). He was also a motivating force behind the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS, which blew open the doors on space-based IR science, and paved the way for later telescopes like Spitzer and the newly launched Herschel.

Low died just weeks after Herschel launched, in fact. I hope he was able to see that. Herschel promises to revolutionize far-infrared astronomy in the same way Spitzer has for near-IR, and in a few years the James Webb Space Telescope will do for IR what Hubble did for optical astronomy.

Not too many people get to be remembered for all time as a pioneer in a new field of science. For that, we should all thank him.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy

Comments (25)

  1. Grizzly

    Question from a kid:

    “What direction is the solar system heading?”
    “When in the year is that direction overhead at midnight?”

    Sound of me scurrying away mumbling something under my breath about it being Father’s Day and not letting my brain work too hard…

  2. Tom.M

    An unsung hero RIP, Frank Low

  3. TS

    I’m surprised that IVAN3MAN haven’t commented yet :-) well, here goes:

    (we know understand that…

    should be:

    (we now understand that…

  4. Grizzly

    Sorry about that, I clicked the wrong message to reply to.

  5. SLC

    A question. Is the late Dr. Low any relation to the MIT physicist Francis Low?

  6. IVAN3MAN

    I’m sorry to hear the bad news about Dr. Frank James Low. :-(

    @ TS,

    I found myself distracted while ‘debating’ with some nutter called “Neil” on the “Shuttle delayed until July, LRO goes up Thursday” thread last night and early this morning, so I eventually dozed off.

    And yes, I noticed that error too, but you beat me to it! :-)

  7. StevoR

    My condolences to Dr Low’s family and friends.Sad news to lose a pioneer of the “invisible wavelengths” just as Herschel launches – but at least he got to live through the transformation of thefield he helped create; from Janksy’s (spelling?) earliest arrays with their clunky poor-resolution primitive technology through to the days of IRAS and Spitzer with their amazing discoveries and higher, finer resolution images. Living to 75 isn’t a bad innings either.

    We do indeed owe Dr Frank James Low -and the other trailblazers of infra-red and other non-visual light astronomy a huge thankyou.

    PS. Exoplanet lovers may also appreciate the fact that IRAS which Dr Low worked on – the Infra Red Astronomical Satellite gave us our first clues of exoplanets for Vega, Fomalhaut and Beta Pictoris. I’m glad Dr Low lived to see Fomalhauts planet imaged!

  8. StevoR-Correcting

    Ran out of editing time again.

    thefield = the field

    Space intended between “friends.” & “Sad”

    Janksy = Jansky (still uncertain spelling-wise?)

    I love that we can edit these comments now but ‘Discover’ folks do you think we could have a little more time to do so .. Say half an hour or even an hour instead of just fifteen minutes, please?

    Remember that some of us make more mistakes / typos /take longer to spot & fix, etc .. than others. :-(

  9. Jim

    Frank Low was indeed a pioneer in IR Astronomy. He also pioneered ground based IR Astronomy and used telescopes on Mt. Lemmon as well early in his career. He saw (or perhaps caused is the better word) the field advance from primitive single pixel IR detectors to the large arrays we have today. I was lucky enough to work on a talk for the “Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids” conference in 1994 with him very briefly to estimate the capability of the Spitzer observatory (SIRTF as it was still known back then) as a dedicated Near Earth Asteroid survey facility if it were to be applied as such. As all greats in a field, he left a large group of workers in the field of IR Astronomy behind to continue to advance the field.

  10. StevoR-Correcting

    D’oh!

    The person I was thinking of was :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Guthe_Jansky

    Who was a pioneer of RADIO rather than Infra-Red astronomy.

    Ooops. (Blushes) :-0

    I’ll see myself out now .. :-(

  11. csrster

    I had my first real kiss under comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock. Good comet. (Great kiss.)

  12. Then Again

    @ 6. IVAN3MAN: I found myself distracted while ‘debating’ with some nutter called “Neil” on the “Shuttle delayed until July, LRO goes up Thursday” thread

    So let me guess – someone or rather anyone who disagrees with you is to automatically be labelled a “nutter” and thereby utterly dismissed rather than referred to as a reasonable human being worthy of respect who just happens to hold views you – & / or the ideological cult of anti-God Scientism – disagree with?

    The sarcasm-quotation marks around ‘debating’ are appropriate though – what IVAN3MAN and his ideological fanatical comrades do is anything but rational, fair-minded debate more a pack verbal attack on those who dare hold opposing views to their own.

    What is it with IVAN3MAN and other Dawkins cult atheist extremists here and their apparent addiction to unnecessary, dismissive, abusive name-calling?

    Will they ever find themselves capable of confessing that their opponents may not be straw men caricature “nutters” or “Creationist trolls” (the term of abuse de jour that I usually get) and simply decent good people who may have some real and valid points to make instead?

  13. Stone Age Scientist

    Thank you, Mr. Frank Low.

    (My condolences to his family.)

  14. MadScientist

    We spectroscopists envy Frank Low’s achievements; there are literally only a handful of people who were comparable – he was one of the very rare people who understood enough to work with instruments at any level from the basic design through the operation and interpretation of results. There’s someone who deserves to have one of the great submillimeter radio telescopes or infrared telescopes named after him.

  15. Nigel Depledge

    Then Again (12) said:

    So … [OT ramble deleted] … instead?

    And this has what to do with IR astronomy, exactly?

  16. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    we [now] understand that to be largely due to trapped heat from their formation

    Hey, I thought it was the Kelvin-Heimholtz mechanism that led to the unexpectedly high temps in Jupiter and Saturn. Is it, or not really?

  17. IVAN3MAN

    @ Then Again:

    So let me guess – someone or rather anyone who disagrees with you is to automatically be labelled a “nutter” and thereby utterly dismissed rather than referred to as a reasonable human being worthy of respect who just happens to hold views you – & / or the ideological cult of anti-God Scientism – disagree with?

    Not at all. In fact, I welcome a proper debate or argument which, according to Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch, “is a connective series of statements to establish a proposition”; however, when someone obstinately adheres to a belief, despite overwhelming evidence against it, and just contradicts everything one says, without any evidence whatsoever to support their assertion, then that individual is obviously suffering from a mental delusion and therefore a “nutter” — I prefer to call a spade a bloody shovel!

    The sarcasm-quotation marks around ‘debating’ are appropriate though – what IVAN3MAN and his ideological fanatical comrades do is anything but rational, fair-minded debate more a pack verbal attack on those who dare hold opposing views to their own.

    What is it with IVAN3MAN and other Dawkins cult atheist extremists here and their apparent addiction to unnecessary, dismissive, abusive name-calling?

    “What is it with [creationists] and [‘Intelligent Design’] cult [fundamentalists who come] here and their apparent addiction to unnecessary, dismissive, abusive name-calling” with accusations such as “ideological cult of anti-God Scientism”?

    Will they ever find themselves capable of confessing that their opponents may not be straw men caricature “nutters” or “Creationist trolls” (the term of abuse de jour that I usually get) and simply decent good people who may have some real and valid points to make instead?

    When thou hast brought forth thy evidence to supporteth thou assertions, then we shall listen.

    :cool:

  18. IVAN3MAN

    @ StevoR-Correcting:

    I love that we can edit these comments now but ‘Discover’ folks do you think we could have a little more time to do so .. Say half an hour or even an hour instead of just fifteen minutes, please?

    Remember that some of us make more mistakes / typos /take longer to spot & fix, etc .. than others.

    Dude, write out your comments on Microsoft Works or OpenOffice first, which will automatically check for spelling/spacing errors, then copy & paste it into the comment box and submit it — that way, you’ll only need to make minor corrections afterwards.
    :cool:

  19. Nigel Depledge

    @Ivan3man –

    You call a spade a shovel?

    Surely you mean earth-inverting horticultural implement? ;-)

  20. Nigel Depledge

    @ Ivan3man –

    Sorry, I seem to be in quibble mode today…

    Ivan3man said:

    Microsoft Works

    No, it mostly doesn’t.

    :-)

  21. IVAN3MAN

    Hmm… before some pedant mentions it, at my post above at #17, I should have stated in the last line: “… thy assertions…”, not “thou”.

    I need to brush up on my Shakespeare. :|

  22. Nigel Depledge

    Then Again said:

    What is it with IVAN3MAN and other Dawkins cult atheist extremists here and their apparent addiction to unnecessary, dismissive, abusive name-calling?

    Actually, go to that thread and read some of Neil’s comments. He really is a nutter.

    Of course, maybe you are a sock puppet of the same person simply having a whine because we won’t accept your delusions as reality?

  23. Nigel Depledge

    Ivan3man said:

    I need to brush up on my Shakespeare

    I’m not sure he would have used the word “assertions” though… So, just brush up on your Elizabethan English generally, OK?

  24. USS Kevin

    Hey, thanks for ruining the Frank Low thread, guys.

    Take it somewhere else. Anywhere else.

  25. Ivan Smith

    Yeah, fair go fellas. I would also like to see what others have to say about Dr Frank Low. It appears he has been a great Quiet Achiever. My condolences to his family.

    Ivan.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »