Weird Science

Keep Your Eye On Physicist Peter Franken--Who Knows What He'll Do Next?

By Mari Wadsworth

PETER FRANKEN MADE a name for himself in the world of physics by studying light. As one student said, a PhD candidate who traveled all the way from Moscow to complete his studies at the UA largely due to Franken's presence there, "His name has been written in the history books. It can never be erased." While Franken's observations on light may have begun the scientific explanation for his distinguished career, the 68-year-old, Columbia-educated professor could equally be cited for his study of lightness, as in levity. This is not your typical applied scientist. His interests of recent years include oil spill damage limitation, burn therapy, locust interdiction, waste disposal, counting meteorites on the dark side of the moon, nuclear hazards, and the possibility of starting a brothel he calls the Tucson branch of the famed Nevada Chicken Ranch.

"I think I could be a compassionate madam sort of person," he says evenly, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "I would probably think of that as physics, in a complex way. Probably I won't get around to doing it...the licensing is such a pain in the neck..."

"Anyway," he continues, "some of the stuff I do still falls within the realm of pure physics, but only because I like it."

Feature Throughout his teaching career, which took him from the University of Michigan to Stanford, Oxford and Yale, from the mid to late '60s as deputy director of Advanced Research Projects for the U.S. Department of Defense (a heady decade for atomic physicists), on to become the director of the UA's world-renown Optical Sciences Center, Franken is no slouch when it comes to innovative, pioneering projects. The short form of his résumé lists some 45 published papers, not to mention half a dozen fellowships, prizes and honors, and the usual half-page of professional society affiliations and appointments to national committees on everything from quantum electronics to particle-beam technology. Somewhere, deep inside, there's a serious scientist at work. But his emphasis is on having fun.

In his crowded corner office of the Meinel Building, there across the mall from the Flandrau Science Center, he's wearing a telephone headset like an air-traffic controller, scheduling appointments and hovering over stacks and stacks of books with studied efficiency; he waves a greeting. Taped to the wall outside his door, a colleague has posted a computer-printed sign, "The Peter A. Franken Gallery of Broken Art," in reference to a hallway decorated with mixed-media assemblages, mostly of stained glass, dissecting the universe across a broad spectrum of color and form. One piece, a combination glass and photo collage, is simply titled, "Chernobyl."

As a reporter sets up a tape recorder on his desk, he watches with an air of seriousness. "I've been losing my voice over the last 10 years," he apologizes, moving the tape recorder closer. "I've been looked at and punched and prodded, and the diagnosis is one I don't like..." Assessing his interviewer's discomfort perfectly, he waits half a second before admitting, "My vocal chords are getting old, and there's nothing much I can do about it." He bursts out laughing, "If that's the worst thing that happens to me, I figure I'm in pretty good shape," he says, clapping his hands together.

His soft voice may be a blessing in disguise for the old professor, whose delightful sense of humor, marked by a penchant for cursing and off-color jokes, might get him into a lot more trouble if people could be certain of what they heard. As it stands one is not often certain, allowing the jaunty scientist, briefcase in hand, to navigate his way through a sea of secretaries, administrators, dog groomers and journalists, leaving behind the trailing sounds of his laughter and a wake of puzzled looks.

Here on the fifth floor, settled in for the interview, he waxes on excitedly about a soon-to-be published project he says could "revolutionize some aspects of the planetary sciences." In between a discussion of meteorites that starts with the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago and ends somewhere around the Apollo mission (we won't bore you with the details, which were all background, anyway, for a current project we can't discuss because it hasn't yet been published scientifically) we glance around the office and focus on a huge, photographic portrait of Franken and his wife. She's smiling serenely into the camera, pretending to remain unaware he's sneaked up behind her, grimacing horror-movie style. It's framed in one of his stained-glass constructions, with licks of red glass resembling flames. It seems an apt metaphor for his style of inquiry.

He's still talking about meteorites striking the dark side of the moon. Using a borrowed, amateur telescope in the U.S. and the observations of a collaborative group of scientists in Russia, he and his colleagues hope to detect objects down to one-tenth of an ounce. The million-dollar question is why.

Because anything less than a few tons burns up upon entering our atmosphere, we have no information on the smaller meteorites, which carry most of the matter in the universe. "Earth is made up of asteroidal junk," he reminds us. "All the heavy materials came from junk spinning somewhere around in the solar system. So learning more about the meteor impact-allotment, especially on a small scale...has just got to be interesting!" He laughs. "There's no theory awaiting confirmation or contradiction; it just boggles your mind, doesn't it?"

It also opens the door to a better understanding of planetary genesis itself.

"If we get excitement about that, we'll go on to look for a few hundred million dollars to do a satellite experiment around the moon, and really get sensitive. We'll convert the moon into a hypersonic laboratory!"

"I have a number of bizarre projects that could make a helluva splash when they come out," he continues. "I have several things in the pan that are running into unbelievably vitriolic reactions." Lest the reader misconstrue these mysterious allusions as the ranting of a bitter, veteran academic, nothing could be further from the truth. Franken delights in the mists of intrigue. He's proud of the trouble he stirs up. He's having the time of his life.

"For the last 20 years I've been doing crap like this because I love it! We physicists think of astronomy as a small branch of physics intensively pursued," he whispers. Asked what the astronomers think, he laughs, "Oh, something akin to the opposite of that.

"Here's the skinny on me: The first part of my life, I was a very active, and I think successful, researcher in physics; got to be a full professor at age 32, and all that stuff. I was trained in the East Coast tradition: orthodox, adventuresome, atomic physics--lasers, things like that." He says the prevailing attitude toward applied physics--to let the engineers worry about that, and let pure physicists do research--had "really contaminated me."

"(By 1968) I was bored with me. I began to discover, 'Hey, I'm a big boy. I can do any fucking thing I want.' ("You might want to modulate the language of that somewhat," he adds.) That's been the motive in my life since the early '70s. I've started companies, and I came out here in 1973 to be director of the Optical Sciences Center, because I'd never done that before."

After 10 years he resigned, "promoted" himself back to professor, and for the last 10 or 15 years has been doing--aside from the teaching, which he loves--"research projects that might've embarrassed me as a youngster."

But clearly, the seriousness with which he doesn't take himself too seriously began much earlier. When asked for some scientific literature, something to pore over to give an idea of how to encapsulate his work as a physicist, he only appears obliging. He rifles through a filing cabinet overflowing with information to ferret out a particular article, published in International Science and Technology back in 1963, when he was a visiting professor at Yale. "This is probably the most widely read article I've ever written," he says with a grin.

It's called "Research Inhibitions," a four-page study that begins with the sentence, "Doing research is always difficult, and some of the most well-thought-of practices, like neatness, organization and handsome equipment, can often be ways to avoid really doing it." It's the kind of writing that would've made James Thurber proud: A caption on one illustration reads, "He comes in every day, spends hours over catalogs, and orders things to be delivered in six or eight weeks"; another, "They had 10 rooms full of beautiful equipment...It was full-time work for 10 PhD's just to optimize this equipment." And so it goes.

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN a hobbyist," he says, getting off the subject of science altogether. "As one of my first occupations, I actually taught art at Stanford. I was torn between being an artist and being a physicist. Fortunately, I went into physics.

"I would have been an interesting artist," he adds carefully, "not an outstanding one. I've gone through all the arts and crafts: painting, sculpture, stained glass, pottery, jewelry. I never got any good at pottery. It's okay. I don't have to do everything."

He motions to a painting on the wall in his office: "That's a painting I did at Stanford in 1952. It was meant to be a joke, but nobody laughed. So I framed it." He points out the painting has all of the pretentious symbolism of the '50s: a snake, the alcohol, the crutches, the labial construction of the table leg among them. "That paper is Japanese gift wrap from downtown San Francisco. The frame took me 100 hours...That's another story."

He's looking around the office when suddenly he notices something. "I should explain...have your eyes lit upon that breast yet?" he asks, pointing to a plaster mound hitherto unseen.

"You thought only God could make a breast, but I made this one," he says proudly. We're off the subject of art, now, veering back to science.

"I thought of this 15 years ago, but we didn't have the computer technology powerful enough to execute it, and now we do. We have devices in optics called profilometers. If you have an object here and you scan down, I could get a profile map like a hiker's map, of all the points of constant altitude. In other words, I can precisely measure this surface by looking down at it using laser scanners and such. Here's my thought: In moderately well-established cases of breast cancer, there's a dimpling, or mounding, of the breast locally, presumably due to a change in tissue structure. Now, in order for that to be detected in a routine exam, the mounding would have to be a couple of millimeters, maybe, because the healthcare person is just looking. Our technique would be sensitive to altitude changes of 1/1,000 of an inch, compared to, say 1/10 of an inch."

The idea is to store the images from one exam to the next, and then compare (subtract) them, and only keep track of the differences. "This is a humongous computation that was not possible; with computers, it becomes more feasible. My guess is this: Heaven forbid that you have a cancer right now. If there was a mounding that the doc could see today, then some time ago it must have been so subtle that he wouldn't have seen it. The two things we bring are a capacity for sensitivity and memory which the doc simply doesn't have. I'm excited about this. I've been pursuing funding, but I haven't gotten it."

Unlike current mammography X-rays, which are virtually useless on most women under the age of 40, Franken's experiment, if successful, would seem to provide a preventative diagnostic for younger women which simply doesn't exist using the current available technology.

WHAT ELSE DOES he do to occupy his time, when he isn't shuffling between the lecture hall, the basement lab and his lived-in office? You should see his midtown home, which he and his second wife, Peg (married 14 years), have completely transformed. After all the kids were gone, they decided to leave their Sam Hughes home for a smaller, historic ranch house in a less posh neighborhood. From a ramshackle old house on a flat, dirt lot, they've created a modern, territorial-style home set like an architectural gem in an oasis of running water and lush vegetation. Franken calls it "a stretch of Pima Canyon in my own front yard." A shallow, manmade waterfall empties into a meandering stream that encircles the house, burbling over rock and between desert flowers, shady mesquite, reeds and shrubs. The whole is surrounded by a stuccoed-over block wall punctuated by inlays of Franken's stained-glass windows. Glass-art constructions hang around the patio; and inside the sliding glass doors, his true masterpiece--an enormous oak table inlaid with layers of floating glass--highlights the dining room. "I'm up to my ass in Franken-stein glass," he mutters irreverently as we push past large, friendly dogs on our way inside.

The expanded kitchen seems to occupy a good third of the living space, but Franken laments it could be larger. He's a bit of a gourmet cook as well, and likes to have room to move around. "There are two things my wife can always count on: jewelry and dinner. If she wants something for the one or the other, I'll always make it for her."

We keep waiting for the secret--the six extra hours in a day he seems to have on the rest of us--but he's not giving anything away. In fact, he offers only one piece of advice, repeated in conversation and in the lecture hall, where he proudly ended the semester with a lecture he called "bullshit physics": He showed a two-minute video of an experiment on high-temperature incineration, an idea he had after the Exxon-Valdez fiasco. Long story short, after months of unauthorized testing on a UA agriculture site out on Roger Road, a confident Franken invited a number of colleagues to witness this novel, virtually smokeless alternative to free-burning, currently the oil spill industry standard. This is the largest-scale burning they've tried yet. Sure enough, the ensuing blast is impressive, a blast that overwhelms the equipment and sends clouds of black smoke billowing out into the air...and fire trucks from Oracle screaming toward Tucson. Franken's voiceover offers wry commentary: "The experiment was a bit over exuberant..."

To the class, he says, "Go out there and fail. That's the only way you'll get the big successes. If you aren't failing, you aren't pushing yourself. Speaking of failure, you have an exam coming up..." The class howls appreciatively.

DR. FRANKEN IS leaving this week for Russia. It's a trip he makes three or four times a year, to administer a federally funded program he initiated both to save some half-dozen of that country's basic research institutions, which were failing after the Cold War due to the dire straits of the Russian economy, and to purchase top-quality R&D for peanuts. Everybody wins.

"It has been such a rewarding program. Each year they publish 60 papers, which amount to about $10,000 a paper. You can't get that from the University of Arizona, or the University of Illinois. So it's been very rich, out of which several personal collaborations have developed for me," he beams.

The program is actually a contract between the Department of Defense and the UA, with Franken named the "principal investigator," who's opted to conduct his research "off-campus."

"This thing began six years ago, during the Gorbachev era. I did a lot of work for the Defense Department. This was actually the Strategic Defense Initiative Office--the infamous 'Star Wars.' I was talking to the Director of Innovative Science and Technology, and I said, 'You know, why don't we fund some of these first-rate Russian institutes?' I'd been there many times already. The rationale was that the DOD buys research and development, big time; and they are enjoined to buy it cheap. At that time, a Russian scientist, full salary, earned around $150 a month. That's sad, but that's the way it was and still is. The country doesn't need scientists, not as many as they have, so many of the institutes were shutting down. We ended up with a $700,000 program, for which I was only supposed to be a consultant. But we discovered there was no way that the DOD could contract with a Russian institute directly without losing 90 cents on the dollar. The money had to change too many hands."

So Franken hit on the idea of channeling the money through an Army Research Office contract with the UA, a bureaucratic tourniquet that carries a low overhead, and gives the UA administrative muscle to facilitate the program, to provide academic and financial support. "This is a standard research contract," Franken maintains. "The U.S. government has $500 million worth of research contracts. This is just another one."

"...Of course, I've had to invent novel methods of getting the money over there," he says, letting the phrase hang in the air. "I can only tell you I think I've scared some people in this university shitless. But it doesn't bother me." One wonders, in fact, if that isn't part of his inspiration.

Without much prodding, he divulges one particular scheme involving a guy in Denver, whose brother in Moscow had sold the family apartment building for $23,000, cash. At that time (just a few years ago), there was no way to transfer that amount of cash out of the country. God only knows how Franken hooked up with this fellow, but they struck a deal in which Franken traveled to Moscow, got the $23,000 from the one brother and used it for that month's salaries and operating expenses, and then signaled his secretary to wire the money (which had been placed, no doubt at the University's displeasure, in his personal account) to the other brother in Denver. "It's perfectly legal!" Franken expounds gleefully. "If it's illegal at all, it's illegal by Russian standards, and they don't effectively have any laws (for such things)."

Franken's is one of those extraordinary minds that almost involuntarily applies itself to problem-solving. Any problem that crosses his path, be it stellar phenomena, breast cancer research, wire transfers or even the social life of a certain reporter, runs either the risk or extraordinary good fortune of becoming his next project. He's a self-monitoring experiment in physics, an inexplicable mass of energy.

He's full of quips and ideas, but for all those he doles out with the style of a true performer, the one that best captures his spirit is the one that just seemed to slip out when discussing how to be a non-conformist in a society programmed to distrust the unconventional: "It's easier, my dear," he says with a twinkle in his eye, "to be forgiven than to get permission." TW

Photos by Dominic Oldershaw

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