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Francis  Perey's Online Memorial Photo

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Memorial Biography

Francis George Jacques Perey, nuclear physicist, passed away on October 1, 2017, at his home on the edge of the Tennessee River in Louisville, TN. He was 84.

Born in Paris on October 7, 1932, the son of a Citroen engineer and a fine artist, he and his five siblings spent the years of World War II on a farm in the countryside of Normandy. He remembered the arrival of the American troops as the moment when he first tried chewing gum—although, new to the concept, he swallowed it almost immediately. After the war, when his mother was running a bookstore in the Latin Quarter of Paris, she made contact with an immigration agent, who convinced her to move to Montreal with the family. Francis, having finished his secondary school when the clan arrived in Montreal, soon began his university studies in engineering at McGill University. He grew to know Claire Picker, another recent immigrant from Paris who was to become his wife in 1958, when he tutored her brother (and later her) in math. After the two had completed their graduate studies, and after the birth of their first child, he accepted a position at the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee.

In his early career, he focused on a growing desire in the scientific community to understand what happens when a neutron collides with a nucleus. He performed measurements of such collisions and calculations to predict the effects, and Claire, at home with their daughter, worked on these calculations as well, eventually becoming a consultant to the lab in her own right. They worked together for many years, coauthoring papers on numerous subjects in nuclear physics.

As the years passed, he grew more and more preoccupied with questions of uncertainty. How much was it possible to know, and how could you tell exactly what you did know? He and a collaborator developed an idea dubbed the Perey-Buck effect, which allowed researchers to reduce uncertainty of the wave function of a scattered neutron. He argued for the inclusion of measurement uncertainty in the tables of nuclear data that the national lab maintained. And he was inspired by the mathematician Evariste Galois, who, the night before he died in a duel, wrote several cryptic lines concerning what he called a theory of ambiguity.

It was after Galois that he named the sailboat he built in his yard in Louisville. Onboard the E. Galois, after their retirement, he and Claire spent seven years exploring, crossing the Atlantic, plotting their trajectories in the small teak-lined cabin and alighting in Turkey, Greece, France, and many other places. At the same time he devised a way to replace certain kinds of probability in physics with group theory, still unpublished. He cared for Claire tenderly as her health declined until her death from Alzheimer's in 2011. He learned her recipes, one by one, as she forgot them.

It seemed that for him the world was a place where coincidences and wild improbabilities were only momentarily surprising. Once they became fact, they receded into the background. Even the news of the imminence of his own death soon lost its novelty, and he contentedly watched the August 2017 eclipse with family and friends before his final, brief illness.

He could explain physics to anyone, or tell stories of distant ports, or recount the lives of early settlers in the Smokies. But he often seemed happiest with the internet open before him, all the world's knowledge reflected in his glasses.

He is survived by his brother Bernard, his daughter, Christine Perey and her husband Gregory Greenwood, his son Daniel Perey and his wife Lilisa (Lisa) Perey, granddaughters Veronique, Vivianne, and Brigitte, and great-grandchildren Valerie and Liam. He was a long-time member of the Concord Yacht Club, a corporate fellow of the Oak Ridge National Lab, a member of the Alliance Francaise of Knoxville, and a volunteer at the Cades Cove Preservation Association.

Francis will be cremated and there will be a small private memorial service at a later date. Please share your memories of him here!

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