Peter's Principle

The World Lost More Than An Exceptional Scientist Last Week; It Lost Peter Franken.

By Mari Wadsworth

A READER MIGHT wonder what more could possibly be added to the daily paper's thorough summation of UA physicist and professor Peter Franken, who died a week ago Thursday after a three-month battle with Hepatitis A. The family suspects that eating ceviche in Mexico was the source of the infection.

Currents For those who never had the chance to be introduced, the article offers a snapshot of a remarkable man, a man anyone would admire for his list of achievements: three degrees from Columbia University, a host of awards and commendations in the elite field of optics, a 10-year stint as director of the UA's world-class Optical Sciences Center, world traveler, professor of physics, and a father, chef and artist in three distinct media who still found time to play racquetball. With an utterly straight face, this man once "confided" to a somewhat naive interviewer that he suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; a claim which prompted the surprised reporter to blurt out, "When?!"

If he was chronically fatigued, it was because he was chronically engaged in life; chronically interested in people; chronically interested in improving himself, and one supposes by extension if not design, the world. He may have been fatigued, but he remained tireless in his pursuit of new projects, none the least of which were his human projects.

And that's where the reports, however respectful or reverential, fall short. Because the essence of Peter Franken was not his intellectual prowess, it was his abiding interest in people. I think he took for granted that he was a good physicist, because doing so allowed him to focus on his real life's work: meddling.

That's right. Peter loved nothing better than to ask questions--and make observations--which few people would (in the convoluted way "normal" society communicates) take the time to ask. When people say he was witty, they're likely referring to some such interaction. He was clever, irreverent and perpetually smirky. You could always count on him, and anyone who knew him, for a colorful anecdote. A staid and stuffy intellectual he was not.

But if humor was one of his trademarks, his signature--the thing by which anyone who knew him, even briefly, would immediately recognize him--was sincerity. And even more than that, by his profound sense of compassion.

He never failed to ask how you were doing, and if a friend answered in a perfunctory manner, he would likely listen intently and then ask, "Yes, but how are you doing?" One long-time colleague recalls running into Peter after several years, and his not only wanting to know where his old friend was working, but who he was working for, and what kind of person this new boss was.

Which isn't to diminish Peter's role as a scientist and educator. He loved physics, and the department of which he was a part; but science was his means for reaching people, not the end. He approached science as a serious work with which he had great fun. "Go out there and fail," he charged his students. "That's where the great discoveries are!" I know, and his students know, that he wasn't just talking about the use of liquid oxygen for the combustive control of catastrophic oil spills like that of the Exxon-Valdez.

In that sense, people were his vocation, and science his avocation. Ask any of the University managers who received his unusual proposals: Once, he floated the idea of carrying a large sum of money, literally in a suitcase, to Russia ("because that's just what you had to do," he recalled, if he was going to keep impoverished Russian scientists from losing their jobs after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he was determined to do...and in fact did, using Department of Defense money, no less). Then there was the time he asked the University to underwrite the transfer of a million-dollar telescope mirror a backyard astronomer in California had volunteered for one of Franken's experiments on asteroid flashes on the moon. The catch was that Franken and his benefactor saw no problem in schlepping the precious cargo back and forth across state lines in the bed of a pickup truck. He was himself an uncommonly generous being; and more often than not, in dealing with everyone from politicians and bureaucrats to his adopted greyhound, he inspired that generosity in others.

So what I'd like to add to the eulogies of Peter Franken is what a shining example of humanity he was. How much he loved his wife, Peg. How glad he was that he and his daughters emerged victorious from his years as a single parent. That he spoiled his dogs, literally crossed oceans for his graduate students, and continued to learn from his freshman physics students. He believed he had the best job, with the best people, in the world. I know these things because he volunteered the information in spades, in our first meeting. He wasn't one to hold back much by the way of detail, or opinion.

Frankly, I find it hard to believe he's gone from us. To lose such a mind coupled with such a heart--it seems impossible. And in a sense, I suppose it is. He touched too many people to die. That's what I want to emphasize about Peter.

He was a smart man, and so you knew he wasn't fooling when he told you (and everyone else), in ways outspoken and subtle, that he'd never met anybody quite like you. You were different. You had something to say, and he wanted you to say it. He was unwavering on this point. "Remember," he'd say with a grin, index finger raised for emphasis, "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

It may never be published in any journal, but I believe it's the person he was--continually informed and inspired by what he discovered in the people around him, and vice versa--that is his true legacy...and the one for which he would most like to be remembered.

A memorial service will gather at 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 24, at the UA Optical Sciences Center, located on the UA mall east of Cherry Avenue. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Greyhound Adoption League, 4310 S. Calico Lane, Tucson, AZ 85735. TW

For another glimpse at the remarkable life of Peter Franken, see "Weird Science" (Tucson Weekly, June 20, 1997), available online at

More information about Peter Franken can be found at More on optics at the University of Arizona can be found at

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