by John N. Howard
As I sat down to breakfast one morning in 1980, I opened the Boston Globe and was astonished to see an entry in the obituaries stating that the optical scientist Peter Franken had died in Bedford, Mass., the day before. The article gave a detailed history of Franken: his study at Columbia University under Polykarp Kusch; his nearly 20 years of teaching at the University of Michigan; his stint in the Defense Department working in laser optics at ARPA (The Advance Research Projects Agency); and then his later work at the University of Arizona. Based on these details, I concluded that this must certainly be OSA’s own Peter Franken—but why was his demise listed as having taken place in Bedford, where I have lived and worked since the mid-1950s, when Franken had been based in Tucson?
I telephoned the OSA office in Washington, and the staff there were similarly astonished. Someone there called the Optical Sciences Center in Tucson. Much to our relief, we found out that Peter Franken had not died after all; he was still very much alive and well, and not at all eager to attend a funeral, especially his own.
It seems that the OSA Peter Franken, of Tucson, had a cousin of about the same age, also named Peter Franken, who worked in optics for a defense contractor in Bedford, and that cousin had indeed died. The Boston Globe, like its sister paper The New York Times, maintains biographical files on many well-known people, including some optical researchers. When they received the news that a Peter Franken had died, someone in their death notices department added the Tucson Franken’s biographical information on file to the obituary of the unfortunate Bedford scientist. The Tucson Franken was very sorry to hear of the departure of his cousin, but he was also pleased to report to his friends and associates that the reports of his death had been very much exaggerated!
The real Peter Franken (of Tucson), who was President of OSA in 1977, and later Director of the Optical Sciences Center, 1973-83, did indeed die several years later, at the age of 70, in Tucson on 11 Mar 1999. In the memorial notices that were then published, chiefly at the Universities of Michigan and Arizona, his substantial contributions to laser optics were cited. Also remarked upon were examples of his outrageous humor and carefully prepared pranks.
John N. Howard (email@example.com) is the founding editor of Applied Optics and retired chief scientist of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory.
Optics History, OSA History, Physics History