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2006 ASP Annual Award Recipients

Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal
Frank J. Low
University of Arizona, USA

In 1961, Frank Low invented the gallium-doped germanium bolometer, the first detector of thermal infrared radiation with enough sensitivity to be useful for astronomy. Although Frank worked in industry, he was the first to apply it to observations of the universe and in so doing founded an entire field of observational astronomy—for a similar achievement in x-ray astronomy, Riccardo Giaconni was awarded the Nobel-prize in physics a few years ago. Low's invention was so successful that it continues to be used today for thermal infrared observations, albeit with vastly greater sensitivity and multiplex power than was possible in 1961.

Low founded a small company to produce cryostats with bolometers allowing others the chance to use his invention for exploration of the sky. The prevalence of the "Low dewar" in almost all astronomical laboratories from the mid-60's through today attests to the remarkable influence of this effort. Many groups around the world were able to enter this new field of observation because of the availability of Low dewars and the infrared detectors he sold.

Simultaneously with this invention, Low created a small group to carry out novel investigations in the thermal infrared. In 1967, he led a team to use a Lear jet for making high-altitude observations at wavelengths longer than 20µm that are inaccessible from the ground, opening up an entirely new window on the universe. He pioneered the use of an open-port telescope for making observations without a window that would block the long-wavelength radiation. This success led to the development of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and ushered in two decades of discovery at far-infrared wavelengths. Low was also a leading figure in the InfraRed Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) providing the first all-sky census of mid- and far-infrared sources in 1982 and led to the discovery of debris disks around normal stars, highly obscured starburst galaxies, Galactic cirrus emission, and new components of the zodiacal dust cloud, among other achievements.

Low's early observations of star formation regions led to the discovery of the Kleinmann-Low nebula in Orion, still the most important—and well observed—region of star formation in the Galaxy nearly four decades after its discovery. His group later discovered that galactic nuclei could emit enormous amounts of infrared radiation—more than 10x the bolometric luminosity of a large spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.

Infrared astronomy is today one of the richest of all fields. The 1990 Decadel Survey led by John Bahcall referred to that era as the decade of the infrared. The 2000 Decadel Survey led by Chris McKee and Joe Taylor named as its top priority for a large mission the James Webb Space Telescope, a Hubble successor operating entirely at infrared wavelengths. This remarkable evolution of our observational emphasis owes much to the contributions of Frank Low, and it is most appropriate to honor his achievements with the 2006 Bruce Medal for lifetime achievement.