AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 2, Fall 2003


Oral History Interviews Advance Understanding of the History of Recent Astronomy
by W. Patrick McCray, Associate Historian, Center for History of Physics

Historians have a number of resources available to them to help reconstruct past events — correspondence, annual reports, and meeting minutes all make up part of the historical record. Often missing from these records, however, is information about scientists' personal experiences and recollections. For this reason, oral history interviews can offer a unique insight (and one that is often missing in the modern historical record, dominated increasingly by evanescent electronic communications) into someone's life. To help better understand the changes that the astronomical community has experienced in the past quarter-century, I have been conducting a series of lengthy biographical interviews for the AIP Center for History of Physics with a diverse array of prominent scientists. Christopher Smeenk, now assistant professor at UCLA, cooperated in the effort by interviewing several scientists active in cosmology, a scientific specialty that he was particularly interested in.

The inspiration for this series of interviews was the Sources for History of Modern Astrophysics project (SHMA) conducted by the History Center in the 1970s. Led by David DeVorkin (now a historian at the National Air and Space Museum) and Spencer Weart, the Center's Director, the SHMA project resulted in over 400 hours of interviews with over 100 astronomers. DeVorkin and Weart interviewed such prominent scientists as Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Martin Schwarzschild, and Allan Sandage. But since the SHMA project ended, an entirely new generation of astronomers and astrophysicists has matured and come to the fore. Compelling "new" research topics such as dark matter, gravitational waves and lenses, black holes, and the large-scale structure of the universe have become increasingly evident. Meanwhile, astronomical research practice itself has changed in profound ways. Team-based research and large-scale collaborations among observers and theorists are more common. Numerous recent interviewees described the emergence of multi-wavelength astronomy, in which researchers combine data collected from several different telescopes observing the same objects at diverse parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Finally, astrophysicists and high-energy physicists have collaborated more frequently as research on the "very large" and the "very small" has coalesced in several fruitful ways.

After consulting with other scientists as well as science journalists and historians, we created a list of potential interviewees.

One goal I had was to capture a broad section of the astronomical community, so we endeavored to be as inclusive as possible instrument makers, theoretical cosmologists, observational astronomers, and even a few science managers were interviewed. Because the demographics of the astronomy community have changed considerably since SHMA was done, I also interviewed several women scientists. A typical interview was about four to five hours in length and covered diverse aspects of the person's life, from their education and training to issues of how they organized and carried out their research activities, along with their participation in important scientific collaborations or committee work.

To date, we have done over thirty interviews. Most of these are still in the process of being checked for accuracy and edited doing oral history is both time-consuming and costly but several have already been added to the archival collections of the Neils Bohr Library. Examples include: Sidney Wolfe (the first woman director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory), Helmut Abt (editor of The Astrophysical Journal for over two decades), Christopher McKee (researcher on interstellar matter and a co-chair of the most recent NAS decadal survey for astronomy), and Robert Fugate (a leading developer of adaptive optics technologies).

Personally speaking, the interviews we conducted were quite helpful in helping me write my forthcoming book on the recent history of telescopes (Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology; Harvard University Press, 2004). Of particular interest to me were interviews with experienced observational astronomers such as John Huchra and Wal Sargent about how they learned their craft and how the nature of being an "observer of the cosmos" had changed during their careers. I hope that these and the other interviews will become a valuable resource for future historians of science who are interested in the lives and research of astronomers in the last few decades of the 20th century.

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