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Physicist Francis E. Low, former MIT provost, dies at 85

Francis E. Low
Francis E. Low

Francis E. Low, a retired MIT physicist and provost who worked on the Manhattan Project, died of heart failure on Feb. 16 at a retirement home in Haverford, Pa. He was 85.

"Francis was a hero of the physics department," said current department head Marc Kastner. "His theoretical ideas shaped much of modern particle physics as well as condensed matter physics, and he was a wise, generous colleague who helped many of us when we were starting our careers at MIT."

Low described his teaching and interactions with students as highlights in his long career. His former students include Alan Guth (PhD 1972), the Victor F. Weisskopf professor of physics at MIT; Mitchell Feigenbaum (PhD 1970), Toyota professor of mathematical physics, The Rockefeller University; and Susan Coppersmith (SB 1978), professor of physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Low joined MIT's physics department in 1957 and served as provost from 1980 to 1985. During that time, he encouraged a prominent role for the humanities in MIT's curriculum. He was also proud that MIT became affiliated with the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research during his tenure as provost, according to his daughter, Margaret Low Smith.

Before becoming provost, he directed MIT's Center for Theoretical Physics and the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. An Institute Professor, he retired from MIT in 1991 but continued to teach physics for a few more years.

In 1969, he became a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He served a chair for a short period but stepped down over a disagreement with members who refused to study whether nuclear reactors could be made safe and reliable.

During World War II, Low worked on the mathematics of uranium enrichment processes for the Manhattan Project at the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee. He left the project to join the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Europe. He served as a mule driver and later as an artillery surveyor.

After the war, Low went to Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1950, followed by postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He spent a few years teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana before arriving at MIT.

Low, who grew up in Manhattan, married his wife, Natalie Sadigur Low, in 1948. After she died in 2004, he moved from Belmont, Mass., to Haverford.

He had a pilot's license, enjoyed tennis and was a gifted piano player, known among friends for his ability to sing and play tunes by Cole Porter.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Julie; a son, Peter; and six grandsons.

A memorial service at MIT will be scheduled at a later date.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2007 (download PDF).

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