Oral History Transcript — Dr. Sidney Wolff
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Interview with Dr. Sidney Wolff
Sidney Wolff; October 29, 1999
ABSTRACT: This is an interview conducted with Dr. Sidney Wolff. The interview was done a few weeks before Dr. Wolff stepped down as Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), a position she held since 1987. The interview was done at her office in Tucson, Arizona. The interview begins with Wolff's childhood, high school education, and undergraduate education. From there, the interview goes on to cover the following topics: her graduate training at Berkeley; research life there as a graduate student; training with George Preston; research on A-peculiar stars; use of research facilities; research with George Wallerstein; marriage to physicist Richard Wolff. Hired at University of Hawaii: new astronomy program at Hawaii; use of the 88-inch telescope there; role of John Jeffries in her career; continuation of research on A-type stars; work and initial conditions at the Institute of Astronomy in Hawaii; first telescopes erected on Mauna Kea; building of the Canadian-France-Hawaiian telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope; service on the 1980 decadal survey in astronomy (the Field committee); debate over telescope construction in the astronomy community; role of the national observatory; changes in astronomy publishing trends; trends in telescope design. Dr. Wolff relocated to Tucson in 1984 to become director of Kitt Peak; was appointed director of NOAO in 1987: Decision to leave Hawaii for Arizona; comparison between Hawaii and national observatory; comments on previous directors of Kitt Peak and NOAO (Leo Goldberg, Geoff Burbidge, John Jeffries); plans for building a new, big national telescope; the National New Technology Telescope project and its discontinuation in 1987; founding of the NOAO 8-meter telescope project which eventually became the Gemini 8-Meter Telescopes finished in 1999 as international effort with telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. Gemini Project: international focus initiated by NSF Director Erich Bloch; other plans to build large telescopes worldwide; allocation of time for NOAO facilities. Funding for astronomy. Role of AURA in Gemini project. Dr. Wolff's role in 1990 decadal survey for astronomy (Bahcall committee); recommendation for Gemini as Ir-optimized telescope. Funding and role for Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave observatory (LIGO). Funding for Gemini; design changes; instruments for Gemini; NOAO's future plans for new large telescopes. Wolff's role in writing astronomy textbooks; ideal astronomy course. Popular perception of astronomy. Role of women in astronomy and changes in their status.
Session I | Session II
McCray:Still in Hawaii, but you were getting ready to move to Tucson, so I figured that would be a good place to pick it up. Before we move with you to Tucson, are there any other things in Hawaii that you would like to talk about before we move on?
Wolff:No. Maybe theyíll come up as we keep proceeding.
McCray:Okay. Well, why did you leave Hawaii? How did you end up here?
Well, John Jefferies had left and come here to be the first director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, so before that there had been separate observatories: the National Solar Observatory, Cerro Tololo, and Kitt Peak were all separate. He was the first director of the combined observatories. Hawaii had selected a new director, Don Hall, but he was not coming for a year and so I was acting director for a year. The salaries in Hawaii at the time were simply not competitive. Hawaii is a high cost of living place, and the salaries were lower than the mainlandís, so you were paying a big penalty. It was hurting us in our ability to recruit. The university had made some commitments about raising salaries, but we got half way through the year and nothing had happened. This is not untypical. Don Hall was saying, ďIf you donít do something about this, I wonít come.Ē
About that time I got an invitation to apply for the Kitt Peak position from the search committee. I said to the university, ďWell if you donít do something about it Iím going to leave.Ē They had already adjusted my salary, but it was important to the future of the organization that other salaries be increased.
I actually came and interviewed for the position. Well, once you do that, even if you think youíre playing a game, things sometimes come out differently from the way you had expected. I came and interviewed for the position and was offered it. The more I thought about it and about the relative opportunities in the two places, I decided I would rather come here. I did not start with that intention. I, frankly, expected to spend the rest of my life in Hawaii. If you stop and think about it, when I came here I was 42. We had done all of Hawaii from scratch, which is a tremendously exciting thing, but then you have to ask. ďWhat is the next act?Ē What do you do next? I decided the national observatories were the only place that offered the potential for doing something of comparable magnitude and that was the attraction to me.
McCray:Going from Hawaii to the national setting must have been a big change in terms of just the way an organization is run. What were some of the changes that you noticed first?
In Hawaii, because it was a university and it was, in some sense, local or, I canít say ďprivate,Ē but there were not national committees looking at what we were doing. You had enormous freedom in the science that you chose to do or emphasize or in the instruments that you elected to build or whatever. Hawaii as a state puts a lot of bureaucratic inhibitions into actually getting anything done. They have certain purchasing limits like for anything over $8000 you have to go out and get bids and bonds and all of that. They really made it hard to function. The bureaucratic rules were so difficult to overcome that it was very slow getting anything done. I came here and I remember the head of the engineering group said to me, ďSidney, be careful when you say Ďyesí because weíll go do it this afternoon.Ē That was very refreshing to me. The bureaucracy here works for me and as long as weíre complying with federal regulations, which are basically pretty sensible, you can just get things done.
The first thing I decided I needed here was a tape drive for a computer. Two weeks later we had it. In Hawaii it took us nine months to get it. The freedom to just go do things administratively and the fact that the system is streamlined and very efficient was good. However here you are working in a national setting and so everybody is watching what you do. There are endless numbers of oversight committees. And I think one of the challenges in running a national observatory, and one that I did not resolve, is that there is no clear sense of what our mission is. People have very different views about what we should be doing. Historically, the national observatories were created to provide observing facilities for those people who didnít have them. When Kitt Peak was founded in 1958, the two large observatories in this country were Palomar and there was Mount Wilson, but they were sort of linked, and Lick Observatory, and there really was not much else.
The National Observatory was created to provide observing facilities for the vast majority of astronomers who had no access to large telescopes. On the other hand, you could say that you think that what the national observatory ought to be doing is building large, unique, expensive facilities that are beyond the capability of individual institutions, rather than simply providing the same facilities that universities provide but to all of those people who are not affiliated with the universities that have them. I think there are still people in the community that would put the emphasis on one mission (providing access) or the other (the leadership mission). Weíre talking now about 30 or 50-meter telescopes. Weíre talking about all-sky surveys that would scan the whole sky every four to ten nights. Weíre really talking about ambitious projects that do transcend the ability of a single institution. Some people would say that we should put all of our emphasis there. Forget Kitt Peak, forget even the four-meter telescopes. Put all our emphasis on one or two really major facilities.
Then there are all the others who say, ďBut half the astronomers in this country (and that is still true ) do not have access to telescopes by virtue of their affiliation with a university that owns one.Ē It is important for the field, for education across this country to have widely distributed excellence in astronomy, and therefore you must provide facilities to those people. I always say that anytime youíre selling something in a compound sentence youíre in big trouble. To say we have two missions is almost too much. Then on top of that, we run a national solar observatory. So there is yet a third mission which is quite distinct from the other two. I think people tend to look at this place, and look at our budget, which is currently $29 million a year, and say, ďWhy arenít they doing more in the area I care about with that $29 million a year?Ē Not being that aware of whatís going on in all of the other areas that they donít care about.
McCray:Of the NSF budget for astronomy, roughly what portion goes to National Optical Astronomy Observatories?
Wolff:About a quarter.
McCray:About a quarter, okay. You mentioned that the mission of the place has changed over time. Does it tend to change with the director? Does the director have the ability to shift the focus andÖ?
They actually have quite a lot of ability. While there is all this external oversight, since they donít agree about what we ought to be doing, you donít get very strong guidance in some sense. The guidance is all over the lot. When John Jefferies was director and I was only running Kitt Peak, I used to go to the board meetings so I could be more of an observer, perhaps, than I am now. I used to think that the direction you got from the board depended on who showed up at the meetings. There was such a disparate set of viewpoints about what we ought to be doing. Part of it goes back (we talked about it yesterday). Do you build a lot of four-meter telescopes or do you build a 16-meter telescope? Itís a lot of that same kind of balance between big, expensive, unique, and serving large numbers of users.
The board has always had the full range of opinions and if the small telescope guys show up at a meeting, that tends to be the predominant point of view at that meeting. Thereís no stability, and in some sense that gives the director a lot of freedom to make choices. Now, Iím the first director of this place thatís lasted more than about six years if you look at the Kitt Peak directors. I think that the problems that they have had is that they would tend to emphasize one or the other of these missions and that the portion of the community that was disenfranchised would catch up with them and then there would be a change. The history that I know, but only from a distance is that Leo Goldberg was the director here for about five years. He built a wonderful staff. It was probably one of the best staffs in the country. He really emphasized the research institute aspects of this place and a strong internal staff. An astronomer said to me that when he came to the observatory in the days of Leo Goldberg he felt like he was trespassing in somebodyís private club. Well, you canít run a national observatory that way. I think that that was probably the best staff the observatory has ever had and the most exciting set of visions for it.
McCray:In terms of staff scientists.
Wolff:But the telescopes actually didnít run that well for the community, and the community was not welcomed and didnít get the kind of support that they were seeking. So the next director, Geoff Burbidge, I think, was hired in large part to correct that. I think that Geoff did an excellent job of hiring first rate managers who made the operation of the mountain very reliable. I mean weíre still coasting in some sense on the people that he selected to provide first rate user services. So he corrected that. When I came here I didnít find a strong long-term vision. I donít think that there was a very clear picture of what instruments people were going to building in one year, let alone what telescopes you ought to be building over the next five to ten years. I think there was too much of a near term focus with Geoff. People would have many other things to say about Geoff, but I think in terms of the nature of the programs here that he focused on current services to too high a degree. Iíve tried to get a better balance, which I think I have. That means nobody is truly happy because neither one of these missions is being pursued to the extreme.
McCray:When you arrived what were some of the major programs that were ongoing at Kitt Peak?
Wolff:Well, they had begun the development and deployment of CCDs. This observatory has always been one of the leaders in detectors, so we have had, on average, the best suite of both optical and infrared detectors of any observatory in the world all through this period. The deployment of CCDs, I think, was the big step. There was a lot of, I think, uncertainty at the time about what the next big telescope project should be. There was a lot of talk about the NNTT, the National New Technology Telescope, which was recommended by the decade survey, which was the 16-meter telescope. The configuration that people were exploring in those days was four eight-meter mirrors on a single mount.
McCray:Sort of like a giant multiple mirror telescope.
Wolff:They were laid out in a square, so two and two. The primary advantage of such a device, other than the collecting area, is that it could be used as an interferometer with a baseline of, I donít know, 20 meters or whatever it would be by the time that you allowed for the spacing of the mirrors. There was an effort to sell that program to the community, but that effort was largely unsuccessful. The community never got excited about that project. I think part of it was that as a single expensive telescope, and I suppose the cost wouldíve been between $150 and $200 million, it could not serve very many users. All big telescopes serve 100 programs a year. If you say it takes three nights for a program, you can work it out; youíre not going to support more than 100 programs a year. I think most people in the community felt that they would not have a chance to use it. The other thing is that the baseline of the NNTT is not that interesting for the programs that have become central to astrophysics. It would be very good for resolving structures on the surfaces of nearby giant stars for example. Youíre not going to spend $200 million on stellar astronomy, thatís not what interests people. The baseline was not interesting for studying black holes at the centers of galaxies and some of the things that people are more excited about scientifically.
McCray:What type of baseline would you need to do something like that?
Wolff:It would have to have a kilometer so it was well beyond any technology we had in those days for optical astronomy. It never sold. John Jefferies spent the first three years that he was here trying to get the 16-meter project off the ground. Jacques Beckers was here who is a superb instrumentalist. It never galvanized the community. John resigned after about three years and I was acting director for about six months, and applied for the permanent position and was finally given it in August of 1987. Iíd been acting director since March or April or something, I donít remember.
McCray:Was there a single key reason other than just the layout of mirrors, a larger community or financial reason for why there wasnít the excitement for that this was a time when Keck was already funded by Ď84. The Europeans mustíve been building or making plans to build the VLT [Very Large Telescope].
Wolff:They got going in the mid Ď80s, so I donít remember how the timing fits. I think this place started talking about it first and they had a group that was developing the technologies to do that, and, of course, the mirror lab was being funded across the street for large light weight mirrors for a reasonable cost. The work got started here, and, in fact, there was a program to develop mirror technology that was run by National Optical Astronomy Observatories before I got here. They got money from the National Science Foundation and they gave some to Jerry Nelson to develop the segmented mirror technology. They gave some to Arizona to develop borosilicate mirrors. We were the funnel for technology development money. But the NSF did not fund the telescope. I think it was partly because they were doing the VLBA and they tend to do things serially.
McCray:The VLBA was a major recommendation of the 80 decadal survey.
Um hmm [yes]. Then I think the other thing was that the community just was not enthusiastic and I trace it to these two things: a single telescope wouldnít make that much difference to most people because they would never use it, and it wasnít well designed to work on cosmological problems, which was the primary interest in those days. Now, when I became director in Ď87, one of the things I felt that we had to do was to get rid of the NNTT as part of our game plan. That was just keeping us mired down and going no where. There was a future directions committee that was chaired by Steve Strom before I became director, and they recommended the construction of two eight-meter telescopes, one north and one south, at least one of which was infrared optimized.
That, of course, became the Gemini program. I think I told you in the other interviews how we got started, that when I became director I had a meeting with Erich Bloch who was the head of the National Science Foundation and explained about this telescope project. I also explained that the U.K. and Canada were interested in building large telescopes. Their planned telescopes had roughly the same characteristics and scientific capabilities, so the possibility existed for doing an international project. Erich had this idea that astronomers or scientists in general are so greedy that the U.S. couldnít afford to keep them happy and that we would have to do large projects in an international way, and that astronomy was a good place to start because generally we pick our sites not because theyíre in a particular country, but because theyíre the best sights for observing and nothing we do is classified.
It was a good field in which to try to establish the precedent of international cooperation, which the NSF had not done very much of before I showed up with a good project, a reasonable price tag, and two potentially interested partners. Eric then became very interested in the project. I think he was not interested in it for the astronomy, but for these other geopolitical reasons. About six weeks after we met with him he established an international working group on astronomy that consisted of the G7 nations, but I really think it was an effort to get the UK, Canada, and the U.S. together on a large telescope.
McCray:This wouldíve been around 1988, 1989.
Wolff:Itís about Ď88. I think we sent the proposal in Ď89. I think it took about two years to get it written.
McCray:This was the four volume National Optical Astronomy Observatories eight-meter proposal.
McCray:Iíve seen that at the library.
Wolff:Erich actually requested the money from Congress for the project before the proposal was reviewed and thatís because he had all these other reasons for doing it. We had the initial funding before the Bahcall Survey Committee ever got going, and Erich told them not to worry about the eight-meter telescopes because they were already funded. Bahcall felt that it was important to endorse them because in some earlier decade surveys projects that were thought to be going had not received an endorsement and then had fallen by the way side. There was a 25-meter, millimeter telescope for radio astronomy where that happened. The other thing that the decade survey did was really underscore the importance of infrared optimization. The telescopes are far better infrared optimized than if the decade survey had taken Erichís advice and just not paid any attention to the Gemini project.
McCray:The U.K. and Canada had a series of technical reports that they were putting together for a 8-meter telescope project. Iíve seen the Canadian proposal for the international collaboration. How much of their plans for what they envisioned an eight-meter telescope to be ended up diffusing into the National Optical Astronomy Observatories proposal?
Wolff:I actually think it was more the reverse. I think because a lot of work had been done on the NNTT through the Ď80s, what we did was take that and apply it to a single eight-meter. So a lot of work on the mirror, the mirror control system and so forth was directly applicable; we could carry over that to the eight-meter planning. The U.K. had a relatively strong independent effort, but we wrote our proposals, as I recall, by and large earlier than theirs and I donít believe we derived very much benefit from theirs. How much they derived from ours, I donít know. Canada relied very heavily on the work we had done because Canada hadnít built a large telescope on their own for a long time and they really didnít have the engineering group that could put together a strong construction proposal. They could certainly put together a strong science case.
McCray:Did the Canadians come up with the Gemini name? Was that theirs?
Wolff:Yes. As I recall it was, his name will come to me, GordonÖ
Wolff:ÖWalker. As I recall heís the one that did and the logo.
McCray:Iíd like to jump back into time. What was running Kitt Peak like? Can you give a sense of research that was being done there or scientific programs or how time was allocated? Issues like that.
Wolff:Well, we can talk about the time allocation. People wrote proposals, we solicited proposals every six months. We get and have gotten ever since I got here about 250 proposals every semester. Depending on the telescope theyíre asking for, and whether itís dark time or bright time, we fund between a third and a half, or we support, we give observing time to a third to a half of the proposals. There is a committee of roughly half a dozen people. CTIO (Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory) has a few more that meet to discuss the proposals. Right now, five out of six of those people come from outside National Optical Astronomy Observatories. I think we get high marks for running an unbiased but efficient time allocation process.
McCray:How are the people in the time allocation committee selected?
Wolff:We choose them. I think because we donít hand out money with the observing time we have a lot more freedom than the NASA system where they spend a lot more money on the review process, they have many more people involved, and itís much more formal with many more layers of approval. We basically just do it. The committee is appointed by us, but we generally solicit input from the current people on the TAC. We very often put relatively young people on it because theyíre sometimes the most current in the field. While we donít have the kinds of checks and balances and oversight of the process that, say STScI [note: Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD] does for assigned Hubble time, I think we get at least as high marks for doing a job with integrity and honesty.
McCray:You mentioned a request for time that exceeded available time by a factor of two or three. Has that changed significantly since you arrived here or has it been consistently that way?
I think as we have gone through the decade, the demand for the smaller telescopes has dropped, and that is partly because many new observing opportunities have become available, particularly from NASA, which accompanies grants of observing time with grants of money, so thereís big incentive there. Also, we have not had enough money to keep state of the art instrumentation on the smaller telescopes, by and large. Right now we have a mosaic imager that goes on the 36-inch. Itís an 8K by 8K Imager. Itís one of the few mosaics with science grade arrays anywhere in the world and it covers a very large area of the sky. You get almost a degree with that thing. I have a picture of the moon over there I could show you all on this one detector. That is in demand. Thatís over subscribed by five to one.
If you build a special instrument for a smaller telescope that offers a really unique capability, youíll get high demand. Our budgets have been cut by about 40 percent in purchasing power since I came here, so there has been a steady decline in budget over the last 15 years in terms of purchasing power, at the same time that detectors and instruments are getting more expensive. Right now we can afford to instrument only the four-meter telescopes. The reason we have a mosaic for the 36-inch, it goes on the four meter too, and we built it for that. When weíre doing other things with the four-meter, we put it on the 36-inch. Those telescopes would be extremely valuable if equipped with the instrumentation, but we canít afford it anymore. I think itís the greater observing opportunities with NASA and the fact that the instrumentation has not kept pace thatís driven down the demand for the small telescopes. So we have been phasing those out. The demand on the four-meter telescopes has held pretty steady through that period.
McCray:About two or three to one?
Wolff:Yeah. It was maybe four to one when I first came here for prime dark time when the galaxies are up and thatís more like three to one now, so itís down a little bit but not a lot. There has been a lot of telescope building over the last decade in reaction to the fact that you canít get observing time here. Your odds are less than 50/50 for most of it and maybe only one in three for some of it. People have built their own telescopes, but when I came here, according to statistics from the National Academy of Science, about 60 percent of the people were not at a university that owned a share in a two-meter or larger telescope. Now the number is down to 50 percent. So even with all of that telescope building, it really has not changed that much, so thereís still half the community that does not have access to largish telescopes, two meters and up except through the national observatories.
McCray:You mentioned that the budget has dropped since youíve arrived here. Can you say something in terms of how funding for astronomy has changed since you took your position here at the national center? I mean I know NASA and NSF are the big funders.
There has been a huge growth at NASA for optical and infrared astronomy, which is really what weíre talking about primarily because of the advent of Hubble and the grants program that goes with that. The grants program at Hubble Space Telescope is comparable almost to the grants program at NSF for astronomy. Now, on the astronomy side of the house, I think itís fair to say that math and physical sciences have not been very much of a priority for the NSF over the last 15 years. At first Erich Bloch, who was an engineer from IBM, tried to emphasize more applied research and engineering programs at the foundation rather than basic research. Then while the democrats were in charge of Congress, Barbara Mikulski from Maryland was in charge of the oversight committee for NSF, and she felt very strongly that there was a compact between scientists and society after the second world war, Vannevar Bush and all that. Give us money for science and society will be better as a whole. She really questioned that. She comes from a blue-collar background.
Sheís very concerned about jobs for ordinary people, etc. She really tried to push the NSF in directions of more applied research, more education, more things that had a direct benefit to society and more immediate payoff than the kind of basic research thatís emphasized by astronomy and physics. Right now the emphasis at the foundation is on educating a competitive workforce for the future, on bio-diversity, and information technologies. Again, most of which donít have that much application to astronomy and physics. We have not been a priority and the funding for physics has declined almost by as much as the funding for astronomy as measured in terms of purchasing power. That is corrected for inflation over this period of time. I donít think itís anything particularly targeted at National Optical Astronomy Observatories, I just think that astronomy simply wasnít a priority for the foundation, and I think it still isnít a priority for the foundation.
McCray:NASA and NSFóhow do they differ in terms of their approach to funding astronomy?
Wolff:NASA is very mission-oriented and they define goals. They define long range programs like this Origins program and they develop the necessary technologies. Because they have this mission orientation, they will make long term investments that may not pay off for several years. NSF tends to be more reactive. They receive proposals and they fund the best ones, so they tend not to have long term strategic plans or they donít direct the research. They tend to react, so they do try to support things like the decade survey but they would never do that kind of planning on their own. NASA, on the other hand, always has a strategic plan. The decade surveys probably at least as much reflect NASAís strategic plan as shape NASAís strategic plan. The NSF kind of sits back and waits to see what comes out of the decade survey and then they make an attempt to implement it. Itís an agency thatís more reactive. Also it is an agency that is well equipped to support small individual grants. Itís probably less well equipped to support organizations like ours, which are doing large-scale science over the long periods of time.
McCray:So was the Gemini program a unique program for NSF to get involved in terms of having to take a more active role in it?
Wolff:In that sense it was. They have built a major astronomy facility almost every decade since they were founded. They developed Kitt Peak, they developed NRAO [note: National Radio Astronomy Observatories], they build four-meter telescopes for us. They did the VLBA and the VLA. They have done a major facility every decade, but this one was the first of those that was international from the beginning, and itís the first one where the NSF has served, at least in astronomy, as the executive agency. What that means is that all of the partners pay their money to the NSF, which in turn gives it to AURA [note: Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc.] to run the project. So the project is actually run by the same outfit that runs us. The NSF itself canít directly run a project, but in the case of Gemini they do have a seat on the board and they do participate very directly in the managing of it. Much more so than any other astronomy project they have ever built.
McCray:When I first began to work on this project I had a difficult time understanding the relationship between NSF, AURA, and National Optical Astronomy Observatories. I just couldnít quite figure out who was leading who. Can you help clarify that?
Wolff:As I understand it, the charter in the NSF forbids it to run an organization directly. So the NSF canít have, say a Goddard Space Flight Center, which NASA runs. In the case of Goddard, there is no intermediary. In order to run an organization like ours, the NSF has to find somebody else to do it. They give the money to some other organization which is then responsible for running the facility. AURA was established initially as a nonprofit corporation. AURA then writes a proposal to the NSF for the money to run the national observatories. This actually is a big advantage because weíre not a government agency. We donít have Civil Service employees. We can run much more like a business, free of a lot of the overhead that goes with many governmental organizations. AURA then has a board of directors and a president and they are responsible for managing the funds that the NSF gives them. They then provide the oversight of this organization. Many of the things that we do require their approval, our annual program plan for spending money each year, the long-range plan for what we would like to do in the future, anything I spend as a single unit over $500,000. So there are a lot of approvals that I need official from AURA originÖ
McCray:AURA now has 22 23 members, some international members.
Wolff:I think they may be up 27. Theyíve been adding. Anyway, itís a large number.
McCray:Has its growth been steady over the years or has it increased rapidly in the last decade or so?
Wolff:I think itís been fairly steady. In my tenure, I think that there was a period of time where it didnít grow because as I recall one of the criteria for membership for any new university was that it bring some skill or capability that the existing members didnít. I think it was a little bit elitist for a period of time. By about the time I got here there was a feeling that AURA should somehow incorporate most of the key players in the astronomy community, that it could become our effective spokesperson, or spokes-organization for the community. It had also taken on the operation of the Hubble space telescope through the Space Telescope Science Institute. It had a foot in the space astronomy camp, too. That happened in the early Ď80s. At that point they began adding universities. Now the criteria for membership relate to how large the astronomy program is and how many Ph.D.s it produces, and so forth. They dropped having to bring AURA a new capability. Most of the organizations with significant astronomy departments in the U.S. are members. They have also added some foreign affiliates. Because weíre operating in foreign countries and we have foreign partners in a variety of our projects now.
McCray:Okay. So Australiaís one.
Wolff:I think thatís right.
McCray:I think itís the most recent.
Wolff:It tends to be universities in those countries, not the countries per se. I think itís the Australian National University probably. There are a couple of universities in Chile that are members. There are one or two from Canada.
McCray:You were on the executive committee for the 1990 Decadal Survey. I personally find these decadal surveys really interesting. Itís the idea of putting people together in a room over a period of months and having them sort of hammer out whatís going to happen the next decade. I think that is pretty fascinating. Can you tell me about that? About your time on that committee?
Wolff:It was an interesting experience. John Bahcall was the chair of the committee and he chose the members. I think he felt that there was a strong need to sort out what the national observatories ought to be doing about a large telescope even though by that time Gemini was pretty far along. Weíve always been so controversial in the community partly because of our dual mission and lack of agreement about what we ought to be doing. I think he felt that it was important to address a lot of issues relating to the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and he wanted the National Optical Astronomy Observatories director as part of the committee. The NSF actively opposed that. I think there was concern from a lot of people that I had a conflict of interest. We do spend a quarter of the NSF budget every year. But John made a point that when we were on the committee, we were no longer representing our institutions, but we had to be statesmen and really try to do the best for the field. I think people honestly did. They took that very seriously. I really donít know what to say about it. It was a relatively fast process because John is very goal directed. They are doing the current one as fast or faster than John did that one. That set a precedent for getting done in an efficient manner.
McCray:The previous ones tended to be dragged out, it seemed, like over two or three years.
Wolff:John just got the job done. I think thereís a lot to be said for that. I think people got a good fair hearing and I think we came out with a good set of recommendations, most of which have actually been realized.
McCray:What were some of the main points of view that were being expressed by different people?
Wolff:With respect specifically to Gemini, there was first of all the issue of what its capabilities would be that would make it somehow different from Keck and the LBT [note: Large Binocular Telescope being built by the University of Arizona, et al.] and the Magellan, because there were a lot of private projects that were well along. There was a question about whether you even needed a national telescope and, if so, why. That was one of the reasons for the emphasis on the infrared optimization that did set Gemini apart from the others and it added a capability that the U.S. really could not have had to the same degree without it. We now know a decade later that Gemini actually got finished faster than most of those other telescopes. LBT will come on line afterwards. Magellan is just getting there. We did very well. We started after most of those projects and got done sooner. One of the issues was, ďWhy a national telescope and what makes it unique?Ē Another major controversy about Gemini was the international nature of it. John and several people on the committee were opposed to making it an international project. And they would strongly object.
McCray:On what basis?
Wolff:They felt that the U.S. would lose control in some sense and they strongly preferred having a single U.S. telescope on Mauna Kea. I think that they also felt that we could not achieve infrared optimization in an international context, that once you have a telescope that has to serve a broad community, it tends to turn into a Christmas tree. It tries to do too many things and it doesnít do any one of them well. We did manage to achieve the infrared optimization in that international context. I thought that was part of the bargain, in effect, that they endorsed this as the highest ground base project, but as an infrared optimized telescope. I felt in working with the Gemini partners that I really had an obligation to make sure that it was optimized. I worked very closely with Frank Lowe about what infrared optimization meant. Fred Gillette, here on our staff at the time, also was very good at working out what it meant and what the impact was on the telescope design and they were satisfied that we really did bring it off, that we didnít compromise that.
McCray:Did you see the decadal committeeís priorities change over a time from whenever the process began to when the final report came out? Were there any major sea changes?
Wolff:I think when we started we had no idea what the priorities would be, especially in ground based astronomy. The contenders were Gemini, which we ultimately split into Gemini North and South, so we got different rankings. And the MMA [note: millimeter array]. We certainly didnít know when we started how those would come out. I think we simply worked through it, got the input from our committees, and I donít think we took too many positions in advance. SIRTF [note: Space Infrared Telescope Facility] was an obvious thing for the space program because weíd been trying to get that one going for so long. I donít know if that showed up in three-decade surveys or not but it seemed likeÖ
McCray:Pretty close to it.
Wolff:I think we all knew going into it that that was quite likely to be on top of the large list. I think that the medium and small lists, those were really open. One of the things this does, the decade survey process, is it forces communities to come together and think about what they want to do. Itís very easy to come in every morning and just to react to whatís in your ďinĒ basket and not stop and do any kind of strategic planning, so I think this does force communities to come together and say what are the big scientific problems and what are the tools we need to solve them.
McCray:Are similar surveys done for other sciences or is astronomy unique?
Wolff:There have been surveys in physics and maybe in some of the other fields. The Academy puts out position papers identifying scientific opportunities in other fields. I think astronomy is probably unique because so much of what we do is centered around major physical facilities, and we really do prioritize those in a way that other communities seem not to. Congress tends to pay attention to the reports from the astronomers because we really do hash things out and come out with a finite list of things. In physics it may be harder because apart from accelerators, itís many, many programs in all kinds of different places through the universities and it may become harder to prioritize facilities in the same way that astronomers do.
McCray:Looking at some of the House hearing reports from this time, the other facility besides Gemini that gets talked about a lot in relation to the math and physical sciences is the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).
Wolff:LIGO, yes. I was reviewing it at the beginning of the week.
McCray:It seems that there was some idea that it should be part of the astronomy decadal survey and other people seem to feel that itís physics that should not have been part of it.
The physicists asked us to look at LIGO and rank it. The problem with LIGO from an astronomical point of view at the time (this was 10 years ago) was that the first incarnation of LIGO had almost zero probability of detecting any astronomical source. It simply doesnít have the sensitivity to reach it. We felt it was a physics experiment, was a demonstration of technology. At least for the first 10 or 15 years of this activity, it had no relevance to astronomy because it was not going to detect anything. I think thatís still the case. Now, what we were reviewing at the beginning of this week was a proposal that will be developed for a detector for a second generation LIGO, which might become operational by 2006 or 2007. It actually has a chance of detecting something. Just to make a brief excursion, one of the problems is detecting gravitational waves. There are two classes of potential sources for gravitational waves.
There are things like coalescing neutron stars or coalescing black holes. Trouble is, we donít know how many of those there are so we canít know how many times a year you might get a signal. The other class of sources, like supernova, you know how many there are but you donít know whether theyíre asymmetric. If they collapse absolutely symmetrically they donít generate a signal. Since you canít quantify how asymmetric they are, your theory isnít good enough. You canít tell the size of the signal. So there are two sources. One where you donít know how big the signal is going to be, but you know how many there are. The other one is, you know how big the signal is going to be, but you donít know how many there are. Itís very hard to predict what LIGO is going to do. The people early this week were expressing some frustration about the fact that there arenít more astrophysicists interested in LIGO, but there are many problems in astronomy. Theyíre so much easier. They give you instant gratification that I can believe that once they finally detect something, then everybody will show up and say, ďGive me a share.Ē
McCray:Itís interesting to compare LIGO and Gemini because Gemini was given a budget and really stuck to it, and from what I can tell LIGO was given a budget and didnít stick to it. It grew from an initial request of $192 million to something well over $300 million by the time it was completed.
Wolff:I think thatís right. Once they got the budget, which was— Geminiís budget was legislated by Congress for complicated reasons before we ever designed the telescope. So we designed to cost. LIGO didnít do that and so their budget grew out as they went through the pre-construction and R and D phases. However, once they got the budget set at $300 million, I have to say theyíve done a pretty good job of sticking to it and to the schedule.
McCray:What were the complicated reasons for why the Gemini budget was what it was?
Iím not even sure. Youíd have to go ask Dick Malow [note: former staffer on House VA/HUD/IND agencies Appropriations Committee] who did it. He now works for AURA. I think there was a lot of controversy swirling around the project for two reasons. One, John Bahcall was very opposed to the internationalization of the project and so he campaigned against that. Then, of course, part way through the project we picked the ďwrongĒ mirror. I think that combination of a lot of questions and controversy made this a more political project than something thatís costing the U.S. $100 million ought to be. Congress should not have enough time to worry about a project where youíre spending $12 million a year, but they did. I think just because of all of that community controversy they put a ceiling on it.
The other thing that happened that was good is the Green Bank telescope fell down and Senator Byrd put $75 million into replacing it. The money was all up front, and once you have the money up front then you can really require people to build to cost. They use that as a precedent for now this MRE account at the NSF, the Major Research Equipment account. Gemini got all of its money in the first two years even though it was an eight-year project. That meant it almost makes sense to legislate a cap because then people— The VLBA cost a lot more than it should because the money didnít come in in a timely way, so the project took several years longer than it should have just because it wasnít funded efficiently and that drives up the cost. I think probably the change in the pattern of funding of capital projects, where you do get the money in a way that doesnít constrain the project, also is forcing these caps on things.
McCray:Versus funding it in little dribbles at a time where that adds up to quite a significant amount.
Wolff:Well, for the VLBA it was whatever they got annually. If they ran across a Congressman who didnít like the project or the budget was a little short that year, then they could not get the money that they needed to make the optimum progress. We didnít have that problem with Gemini. We had all the money in the first two years.
McCray:You were director of Gemini from Ď92 to Ď94.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes].
McCray:Were there any major design decisions or design changes made in that period of time? I mean other than the primary mirror, which we talked about.
Wolff:We designed the whole thing in that period of time. The telescope that weíre building bears almost no resemblance to the telescope in the proposal. It primarily had to do with the infrared optimization. When you start thinking about what it takes to do that, one of the things you have to do is lower the mass of the telescope, because you have a whole lot of steel thatís the wrong temperature itís going to ruin the image quality. For infrared optimization image quality is crucial. We changed the design so that it was much more lightweight. Itís a telescope where the mirror is almost flush with the supporting system. The four-meter telescopes, the mirror is buried by about three meters. Itís buried deep in a well and so you donít get a nice airflow across it. So again you can build up air of the wrong temperature above the mirror and ruin the image quality. We eliminated the Nasmyth platformsÖ
Wolff:It was partly financial, but also because itís a big thermal mass that can affect the image quality.
McCray:In the original National Optical Astronomy Observatories proposal, not to get you too off track, but there was the Nasmyth focus, there was to be an infrared secondary and a wide field secondary.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes].
McCray:So the Nasmyth was the first to go.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes]. The wide field also went because, again, when we had this legislated ceiling, we didnít have enough money to put the wide field in, so that was one of the things that we sacrificed. The telescope is built in such a way that you could still add another secondary and itís part of Geminiís strategic plan to add that sometime later in this coming decade.
McCray:Do you recall roughly when the Nasmyth was taken off and then why you feel itís put on the back burner? Was this during that period where youÖ?
It was probably Ď91 or Ď92. It was early in the design. It was working with Frank Low. A lot of those changes had to do with his— When we submitted the proposal for the Gemini telescopes, we specified a quarter are second image quality. We had a big debate about whether it was really worth the money to try to get such good image quality. Well, we pressed even harder. It now produces 0.1 second images, so Frank I think pushed us harder to focus on image quality and all of the things that contribute to it. I think partly what makes the Gemini telescope special, relative to the others, is that by the time we designed it, and we designed after Keck and after the VLT, that the ability to develop engineering models and predict performance had advanced a lot, even in the short five years between when those other telescopes were designed and when we did ours.
I think Gemini did the best systems analysis of what it takes to produce image quality considering not only the optics and active control of the optics, but the thermal environment, the airflow through the enclosure, how high above the ground you have to be. We looked at everything that might affect image quality. I think itís the systems analysis thatís the strength of Gemini, not that the technology that went in it piece by piece was particularly innovative, but that all of those technologies were put together in a way that there was optimum image quality. We also did things to reduce the infrared and emissivity. And so the veins that support the secondary are 10 millimeters across, theyíre very thin. We can put a coating on the mirror other than aluminum that follows the emissivity.
Wolff:You can clean the mirror once a month to keep the dust off of it. We did an awful lot of things to keep the emissivity down.
McCray:Were there particular science programs that had to be pushed to the side once you got rid of the Nasmyth platforms and the wide field secondary?
Wolff:We donít think so. The crucial issue was high-resolution optical spectroscopy, which takes quite a large spectrograph. We did at least some strawman designs that are done in the U.K. to try to establish that you could produce a spectrograph with low enough flexure that you could achieve high resolution. A high-resolution spectrograph will be built for Gemini. I think theyíre just starting it now.
McCray:Whoís building that?
Wolff:I think itís being done primarily in the UK. We looked at the science to see what we were giving up. It is harder to build instruments not on an Nasmyth platform and maybe people will decide someday that we made a mistake, but on the other hand I donít believe we wouldíve had the image quality that weíre getting if weíd done it.
McCray:Were there any groups of scientists that screamed and stamped their feet once those things went away?
Wolff:Not very much. I think they miss the wide field almost more than the Nasmyth platforms, but that may still be restored. Some of the staff here has been working on the scientific case for doing spectroscopy of hundreds to thousands of objects at a time over a wide field of view. I think thatís had some influence on Geminiís strategic thinking. Also, if the NGST [note: Next Generation pace Telescope] happens, NASAís eight-meter in space, then it could be that AO [note: adaptive optics] corrected eight meters on the ground and are not that interesting any more. Gemini can do adaptive optics, high-resolution work now while thereís no NGST. Once that flies, switching Gemini over to a wide field telescope, which NGST will not be, and doing spectroscopy on extremely faint objects, getting the large sample sizes you need to study the evolution of galaxies, for example, I think will be an important future use of the Gemini telescopes.
McCray:Given the two parallel development streams with ground based and space based telescopes, what future is there for ground based telescopes if an eight-meter space telescope and similar things can be launched?
Wolff:Weíre currently looking at the feasibility of building a 30 to a 50-meter telescope.
McCray:This is the Maximum Aperture Telescope or MAXAT.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes]. I can image that a telescope like that would be built on the ground. What I donít know is whether that is the end of large facilities on the ground. I think we could figure out how to build one of those in the next 10 or 15 years, and I donít think youíre going to see that aperture in space on that time scale. And there are some clear advantages with particular problems, including studying the assemblage of galaxies. We now think that galaxies form out of smaller units, say globular sized pieces that merge. You probably can study the assemblage of galaxies, but itís going to take good spatial resolution and very large aperture to have enough sensitivity to do the spectroscopy and get the dynamics. That I think you can do with a 30 to a 50-meter telescope, but at some point I do wonder if space isnít going to take over.
McCray:Iím talking to people and looking at this. One of the bigger questions Iím interested in is what does it mean to be an astronomer at the end of the 20th century and how is that changing? What do you think of that?
Wolff:I think weíre in a true golden age of astronomy and I continue to be surprised when I pick up the newspaper and see what people are finding that we hadnít expected. I write this textbook and we do a new edition every two years, and Iím amazed at whatís changed. When we started writing it ten years ago we had a couple of pages in there about the challenges of discovering planets around other stars and why it wasnít going to happen anytime soon. Now we know more planets around other stars than in our own solar system. There have been remarkable changes and a remarkable pace of discovery. I donít see any reason that that isnít going to continue for another 10 to 20 years, and who can see beyond that? I think that there are two areas. I may have said this yesterday or on some other interview, but I think there are two key areas. One is this whole question of cosmology. Whatís the fundamental nature of the universe and how much matter is there. Is there a cosmological constant, and how do galaxies— how are they assembled? How do they evolve and what influences that? I think weíll get observational answers for those questions in the next 20 years. I think the other area has to do with the whole formation of solar systems? Weíre getting at the basic physics of star formation. We know that virtually every young star when it forms has a disc around it. Now weíre going to begin to answer how frequently planets form in those discs and whether those planets bear any resemblance to our own solar system. Everything weíve found so far is bizarrely different from our own solar system. So is our own solar system common or special or unique? I think we will get at that in the next 20 years.
McCray:Tell me about the text book writing.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes].
McCray:You first began that in 1987 and that has come out in several subsequent volumes. How did you first get involved with this?
Wolff:David Morrison, who was a planetary astronomer was at the University of Hawaii when I was there, and when George Abell died, David decided that he wanted to see if he couldnít talk the publisher into letting him do the future revisions of Abellís text. What he wanted to do was revise one called Realm of the Universe, which is a one semester text at a somewhat simpler level than the Exploration of the Universe text. The publisher said, ďFine, weíll let you do it, but youíve got to start with Exploration.Ē That is the two-semester version that really set the standard for introductory astrophysics texts. Dave felt that he could not do that by himself and so he asked me to partner with him. The arrangement we had was that he did the first half on the solar system and I did the second half on stars and galaxies. We would exchange chapters and read them and so on, but we pretty much wrote the two parts separately. We did that through several editions. Dave and I donít actually teach. I taught a couple of times at the University of Hawaii, but neither one of us actually teaches students. We thought we would be better off if we had someone who knew something about modern students and what appealed to them, so we added Andy Fraknoi to the team.
McCray:How do you spell his last name?
F-R-A-K-N-O-I. Andrew is his first name. He was the Executive Officer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Heís also a very good populizer and has an interesting sense of humor. Now heís teaching at Foothills Community College, so he does see students up close and personal. We added him and he has brought a new writing style to the book. There is humor in it. Itís more student friendly and weíve gotten very good feedback from students on this. Weíre told that this book is less likely to be sold back to the publisher or to the used book guys than most astronomy texts. The students seem to enjoy it. Iím told that the first edition that we did together was the best selling text book in astronomy for that year and one of the top ten sellers all together for Harcourt Brace.
We did very well with the first edition and now weíre on the second edition. Thereís one thick one thatís two semesters, then we have a one-semester solar system version and a one-semester stars and galaxies version. I enjoy writing it. I like writing and so I just enjoy that. I think it helps in my job to have knowledge thatís kind of an inch deep and a mile wide. It gives me an excuse when I listen to colleagues to try to sort out and say, well, he said this, but last week we heard this and how does it fit together. Thereís real judgment involved in putting together an elementary textbook because they are absolutely up to date. Youíll find a whole discussion in ours that just came out about supernovae and cosmological constants and all that stuff. Theyíre absolutely up to date, but you have to exercise some taste and judgment, because if youíre writing about the latest results, are they going to hold up for even the two year life cycle of a text book? I think it has helped me to have a reason to pay closer attention to research and it benefits my work at the observatory. I do enjoy writing it.
McCray:So what does an ideal astronomy course cover and does this reflect your own experiences as a student?
My guess is that the way the students learn has changed a lot. One of the most interesting days Iíve spent since I came to Tucson was a day in a middle school here in town. It was probably more than ten years ago now. It was an engineering magnet school and it was down in the barrio of Tucson. Seeing how the kids learned was an eye opener to me, because they donít sit in rows and read books anymore, which is what we did. Iím not sure the teachers would put it this way, but itís kind of whole body learning. Youíre trying to get students engaged in a lot of ways. They work with things and they try experiments and they use computers and they have discussions in class. The whole style now is discovery-based learning. I think students, because of television and all the entertainment, first of all they expect to be entertained more, but second, television can make you very passive.
I think if you want them to learn something and to come to grips with it critically, you have to engage them. I think thereís a lot more emphasis on doing things, on observing things, going out at night and seeing whatís going on. In the new textbook we have ideas for class discussions. Itís becoming a fashion now where you will, even in your large class, group the students in groups of three or four and ask a question. Have them discuss what the answer is and then report. You can get students more willing to engage in discussion if theyíre reporting the collective views of three or four than if they have to raise their hand and may be right or wrong. I think you have to work harder at engaging students in a lot of different ways if theyíre going to learn any material. Astronomy books are great; theyíre just gorgeous to look at. The colored pictures are wonderful.
McCray:I have a copy of your textbook on my shelf and I use it quite often. Actually, I used it for preparing for this interview. Just the popular perception of astronomy, you mentioned that the third author of the text book is a populizer, and when I go to a general bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble, there are a lot of astronomy books out there. A lot of them are written by astronomers, which is both good and bad, depending upon oneís perspective. Iím asking this in relation to the fact that youíre on this committee now for the new decadal survey about benefits to the nation of astronomy.
Wolff:Right, I wrote the education section.
McCray:Right. Iím sort of curious how this linked together, just the popular perception andÖ
I think the kinds of questions that we ask in astronomy are interesting to most people. Theyíre almost quasi religious in nature. What happened in the beginning? Whatís the ultimate fate of the universe? Are we alone in the universe? People are just generally interested. When I take airplane trips, lots of times I donít read astronomy because, if I do, the person next to me will start asking me questions. If I get out a physics paper, theyíre not going to bother me at all. People are just generally interested. I was in Minnesota last week and I was taking a cab ride from the Twin Cities down to Carleton and I had an Iranian cab driver. I told him I was an astronomer; it came up in the conversation.
He first of all asked me a lot of questions about astronomy and black holes and all this kind of stuff. Then he got into the question about the interface between religion and astronomy and how he thought that, in particular, the Muslim religion had inhibited the development of Muslim countries because it didnít encourage people to think and study and do science and so forth. Heís an ordinary cab driver. Itís not an unusual experience; many people are interested in the subject because of the kinds of profound or interesting questions that we ask and answer, then relate it to other things. I think as astronomers we have done a good job of making modern results accessible to people. I think we do better than most of the sciences. You really do find the most modern stuff in those introductory textbooks with no mathematics. You find it in the newspapers with varying degrees of quality. Physics textbooks may have changed since I took physics, but it used to be you had to do a six or eight-year apprenticeship before you got into any of the modern work. I think we have a wonderful subject work with. The visuals are great, but the kinds of things weíre studying people are genuinely interested in.
McCray:I know you and I have talked about this before, but does this tie in at all for the need of astronomers to make their work visible in order to get the funding and support for their work? Is this a visibility issue?
Wolff:Oh, sure, and they figure that it will prop up funding and so there is that hope. I think we have an obligation too. After all, the tax payer is paying us to pursue things that are of interest to us, whose immediate benefit to the nation is not that great. I meanÖbut I also think we have an obligation to do something thatís good for the community. I think education is way that we can do it because everybodyís interested in astronomy, including school kids. We have a program here, several programs with the local schools, and one of them is something called Moon Journals. They work with the kids and get them to observe the moon, but then record that in a journal and develop art work. Kind of a broad-based education centered around some real scientific observations. You could work at any level with people with astronomy. If you go around and talk to people who have become scientists, an awful lot of them were first interested in astronomy and then moved on to other fields. I think we can do a good job of raising scientific literacy in this country by using astronomy as a vehicle and I think we should. Itís a lot easier than starting with physics.
McCray:Iíve often thought it was a shame that physics starts with Newtonsí Laws and goes from there. It would be much better to just start with a bicycle wheel or something and sort of go from there.
Wolff:My husband tried teaching physics for poets in Hawaii and he found that it was really hard because the kids had never looked at what happens. You would talk about what happens if you drop something, if youíre in a moving automobile or whatever, and it never occurred to them to think about it. They had no physical intuition at all. It was just really hard to make a connection.
McCray:In June, I went to the AAS meeting in Chicago. Some of the sessions that I enjoyed sitting in on were, my favorite AAS meeting they had people who get up and talk about their favorite. Margaret Burbidge talked about Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin, and Iím not sure if it was actually at her talk or later on, but she was talking about how she was awarded the Cannon prize and rejected it. I was thinking about that and about the role of women in astronomy and I was wondering, I mean, youíve obviously been very successful. Can you say something about the changing position or role of women in astronomy from the 1960s where women werenít allowed to be at some of the major telescopes?
Wolff:They werenít allowed to observe, right. I remember that.
McCray:I remember a story about Geoffrey Burbidge applying for the time and getting it and sitting and reading a magazine while Margaret actually did the observing. I think thatís just both amusing, at the same time itís kind of sad.
I donít feel that I have personally ever had a problem, but who knows. I consciously, when I was picking a graduate school, did not pick Princeton or Caltech, which had only recently admitted women. I went to Berkeley where they had had women before, there were women while I was there. Not very many, two or three others, but some was better than none. At least they had a habit. I remember being very worried when I went there that I had gotten married. I didnít tell them that I was going to do that ahead of time because I figured that would not be too popular a decision to have made. There have been some key men who were very helpful. George Preston, I worked with him one summer at Lick and I guess he must have liked what he saw because he called me up and said, ďI have potential thesis topic, are you interested?Ē I was very comfortable working with him. John Jefferies seemed to me never to have any trouble working with women and he certainly gave me enormous opportunities.
He put me in charge of the 88-inch when I had no experience. He made me the acting director while he went on sabbatical for the second time. He went on sabbatical twice while I was there and I learned an enormous amount watching him run an organization and what worked and what didnít work. I have always felt that people were supportive and helpful. I think that another factor that helped me personally was that through the Ď70s, people started to become guilty about the way they treated women and so everybody wanted a token woman on a committee. Once they found that they had somebody who was sensible and had useful things to say, and didnít cause a lot of trouble, they tended to keep appointing her to more committees. Thereís no doubt that the fact that I was appointed first to some committee by, I think it was Steve Strom, whom I knew pretty well at the time, parlayed into more involvement on a national level which made me a credible candidate for this job. I think the fact that there was an effort to involve women on key advisory committees and other things clearly helped me. I think being at Hawaii helped.
There were not that many people in Hawaii so you kind of stood out for that reason. I think astronomy is a small field and so we tend to know people as individuals and maybe make fewer judgments about women wanting to do this. So people do get to know you as an individual and probably think of you that way. I do think, if you want to get into the women issue at all, that there is a narrower range of behavior thatís tolerated from women than men. Men can lose their temper or they can be grouchy or whatever and get away with it. A wide range is acceptable. If a women gets mad and loses her temper and yells at somebody, sheís a bitch.
McCray:Yeah. No, I think youíre right.
Wolff:So I think you do have a narrower range of behavior.
McCray:My wife was a lawyer and one of the reasons why she left was, she just felt there was an incredible double standard for what she could do in order to express herself versus what her male colleagues could do.
Wolff:I think thatís true. I donít personally find that particularly constraining, but I tried to— There was a meeting on women in astronomy in Baltimore in the early part of this decade and the women there were much more militant and much more concerned about their role than we were 30 years ago. I tried to understand what the difference was because objectively the conditions are much better now. I decided that 30 years ago we were happy just to be let into the game and we were willing to play by the existing rules. We just wanted to be allowed to use the telescopes and if we had to go sleep in some separate cottage where we built our fire in our own wood burning stove, well, so be it. I think women now want to change the rules a little bit so that itís more compatible with their style. I was very struck by Debra Tannerís book about ďyou just donít understandĒ about how men and women use language. I donít know if youíve looked at that.
Wolff:I see a lot of those characteristics in the astronomers that I know, and even given what Iíve done, Iím far closer to the feminine description in there than I wouldíve expected. There are men I know that are all the way at the other pole. I think we do have some difficulty communicating. I thought what was going on in Baltimore with the younger women was that they were saying, ďWe want to play the game in a different way, we want to have conversations in a different way, we donít necessarily want this hand to hand combat as the way to try to figure out what the right answer is, but we want a more supportive conversation where we puzzle out the answer together.Ē We maybe want to have time to have kids or whatever it is, but they wanted to change the rules so that it was a more humane approach in some sense.
McCray:You mentioned yesterday that you donít have children.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes].
McCray:I was just curious, is that a decision that many women astronomers are forced to make or is it one that they— I mean what do you see?
Wolff:I donít think that they have to make to make it anymore. Iím not going to comment about my personal situation. In general, I think there probably was a bias against it when I was doing it, but I think itís now much more accepted. There are more women in the field. Probably 25 or 30 percent of the people in graduate school now are women. Weíre getting over to some critical mass where we can get the rules changed a little bit. Most women now are having children. Before I got into the field, most women astronomers didnít get married. So weíve come some distance.
McCray:How about mentors? It seems that most of the people youíve mentioned that have had an important influence have been men. Were there women that, when you were starting out in the Ď60s and Ď70s who could have served as mentors?
Wolff:I donít think so. I think they just werenít there.
McCray:How about now? Thatís certainly has changed. Think of yourself and Sandy Faber and Wendy Freedman and people across the street at Steward Observatory. Are women who are starting out in astronomy looking to other women as mentors or isnít there a mentor-practitioner system in place that way?
Wolff:Youíd have to ask somebody whoís younger than I am what they really think about that, because I can see it going two ways. Certainly people have come to me and said that they admire what Iíve done. They were really pleased when I became the director because now there was one thing where women didnít have to do it for the first time anymore. I know that people do appreciate that, but I also canít tell whether there is still a bias in the sense that maybe men are more powerful or maybe youíre better off with having a male mentor, or if the subject becomes too feminine it loses some credibility, so youíd have to ask somebody younger than I am. If I look at, say Sandyís students, Iím not sure sheís ever had a woman student. Sheís had many men students.
McCray:Yes, she has.
Wolff:So I donít know the answer to that. I really donít.
McCray:Iím meeting with Allen Dressler in about 10 days or so, so Iím reading his Great Attractor book. It just struck me as interesting that Sandy was his advisor and that all of her students were men. That was interesting.
Wolff:She has a very strong character and so youíre going to have to be a very strong character to survive her. I donít know what the dynamics are for younger women. I did have a woman thesis student. I had only one thesis student. Itís Nancy Morrison, whoís now at the University of Toledo and thatís because Iíve done very little teaching. I was at a research institute in Hawaii. I was focused on running observatories and, of course, we donít have students here. I donít have that much experience with younger women and how they make their choices.
McCray:I guess the final wrap up question, in your time here, as youíve said, youíve been director I think longer than anyone has.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes]. Well, by almost a factor of three.
McCray:When I look at the wall of people out there, for you what has been the best part? Or the most frustrating part? I have to ask both the good and the bad.
Wolff:I think the best part is that weíve accomplished a tremendous amount. I can go look and see those Gemini telescopes in that mountain and I had probably more to do with that than any other single individual. I think we are about to redefine the role of the national observatories. I think youíre going to see that when the decade survey recommendations come out. People understand that the field is evolving, that the U.S. is going to be competitive with Europe only if we get some degree of coordination in U.S. activities. Yet, weíre never going to have a single dominant observatory like ESO [note: European Southern Observatory]. Weíre not even going to have a dominant observatory like NRO and the radio community. Finding new ways of getting all of the observatories, independent and national, to work together in partnership is something I think we must do. I think people are starting to recognize that we have to do that. I think we could change the way we all interact and work together. Weíve done some smaller projects like WIYN and SOAR in partnership with the universities. Thatís a precedent. Weíre talking now with Steward Observatory about actually building the U.S. all-sky survey telescope, if we could figure out who would pay for it.
McCray:This is a 6 Ĺ-meter wide field telescope?
Wolff:Yes. So I think weíre forming new partnerships and new alliances and finding new ways to work together. So I think weíre going to redefine the role of the national observatories soon so that it has a clear place in U.S. astronomy which has been questioned for 40 years. If we could ever get around the bend on what weíre really good for, that would be tremendous progress. I think the frustration is that we didnít get there yet, that thereís still not a clear sense of mission. I donít think we have the strong support of the community and I find that disappointing. There are all of the users of the smaller telescopes who feel disenfranchised because Iím busy shutting them down in order to make room for some of these newer initiatives that I think will have more scientific impact. Theyíre unhappy. The people at the independents would rather have the money because they donít use facilities. Unless we redefine our relationship to the independents and actually do something that benefits them, theyíre going to be continually after the money. I think that all of those divisions within the community weaken the fabric of U.S. optical and infrared astronomy. This observatory always feels a little bit beleaguered because everybody always wants something from us that we canít give them, so I think thatís the down side.
McCray:Why is optical infrared different from radio? It seems that they both have national centers but theyíve gone in such different directions.
I think they are two reasons. One is that, for whatever reason, radio astronomy got stamped out in the universities early on, so nearly all of the facilities are in the context of the national observatory. It may also have to do with the inherent nature of the way you deal with the two wavelength regimes. Optical astronomy, up until now, thereís been never any particular reason to put more than one telescope on a site because you were using them as individual telescopes. A whole lot of places, including universities, could afford to build the largest thing that was possible at any given time. Weíve never had more money than the richest universities.
The National Science Foundation spent half on Gemini of what Caltech spent on Keck. Weíve never had the money to compete by building something that was more expensive than universities could do. If you look at radio astronomy, all their facilities have been interferometers for the last several go-arounds. Itís the VLA and itís the VLBA and itís the millimeter array. Youíre much better off taking your 15 or 25 or 40 telescopes and putting them together in a single facility because you get a power out of that that you donít get by combining optical and infrared telescopes, because right now weíre not building interferometers, at least not of large aperture. I think that probably that is one of the big reasons that concentrating facilities just didnít have the scientific payoff in optical/infrared astronomy. There are all these private donors that have kept the universities fully competitive.
McCray:Somebody hinted that there might be a private donor for building a very large ground based telescope, something of 30- to 50-meter. I wasnít sure if that was just a speculation.
Wolff:There are widespread rumors in the community that Caltech has the potential of raising the money for such a telescope from someone, and I probably shouldnít say who because that really is getting rumors, but it is alleged to be Silicon Valley money. Most foundations donít have enough money to fund a telescope in that aperture, but there are many individuals that have come out of Silicon Valley that could, as an individual, fund such a facility. Caltech, for a fact, has a million dollars for this coming year to spend on beginning development of new technology for such a telescope. The goal, roughly, is over the next 18 to 24 months to decide what they would like to build, and on a time scale of about four years have a solid plan for doing that. There is a reasonable chance that if they manage to accomplish that that there is a donor. I donít think itís guaranteed, but I think the potential is high enough to be worth spending the money up front.
McCray:So it actually is a rumor with some substance to it. I wasnít sure.
Wolff:Um hmm [yes].
McCray:Who are the people at Caltech who are taking the lead in that? Itíd be interesting to follow.
Wolff:Well, Richard Ellis from the U.K. has just joined Caltech and I understand that he is in charge of the project. Wal Sergeant runs the department there. Jerry Nelson, who, of course, helped build Keck in partnership with Caltech, is also involved and heís doing some of the planning for how they would spend their up front money on R and D.
McCray:So presumably this giant telescope would have to have a segmented mirror. You just couldnít build a monolithic single piece of glass.
Wolff:Oh, yeah. About the largest mirror you can move around the countryside is about 8-meters because then you start running into problems with sizes of highways and ships and so on. Another reason, though for going to smaller segments, is that the mirror will certainly be cheaper. The larger the monolithic piece, the thicker the mirror has to be in order to provide some semblance of support, so if you go to one to two-meter segments, then you simply need a lot less glass. It complicates your control system, but it simplifies a lot of other things. We had a meeting about a month ago on building large telescopes and what the issues were. The glass people told us that the cost of the glass (forget figuring it and the risks of handling large pieces), would be higher the larger the individual pieces. It looked to me like the optimum was somewhere between one and two meters. If itís too small, it gets too hard to control.
McCray:So in a sense building a giant Keck type telescope.
Wolff:Yeah, I think thatís what ought to be done.
McCray:Thatíll be interesting to follow that for the next couple of years to see how it turns out.
Wolff:Well, weíll see if the decade survey will recommend it.
McCray:Yeah, Iím really looking forward to it.
Wolff:Weíre all cooking up a way to get it built. We are actually working right now on how to write a proposal that would identify the necessary R and D studies that would allow us to build such a telescope. If youíre trying to do 30 meters with one to two-meter segments, youíre talking about 1,000 individual segments. Youíve got to polish those efficiently. Maybe you donít test every single one in detail the way we have in the past. Maybe you need a process for polishing the mirror that is sufficiently controlled that you can sample one in ten and make sure that youíve got the process right. Youíre going to have to do a lot of things really differently if youíre going to do this. Youíre going to have to break the cost curve by a factor of ten or more in order to make it affordable.
McCray:Just for looking at something in the 30 to 50-meter range, just ball park figure, what are costs are people talking about?
Wolff:There is a certain amount of wishful thinking that you could build a 30-meter telescope for $300 to $400 million. In order to do that, depending on what you think scaling-wise, you have to break the current cost curve by factors of three to ten. I have not seen yet the brilliant ideas that would allow you to do that. So thatís what weíre working on.
McCray:Iíve pretty much done the questions I had in mind. Are there any other topics that are justÖ?
No. This is good.
Session I | Session II