Oral History Transcript — Dr. Walter Roberts
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Walter Roberts; July 28, 1983
ABSTRACT: This interview reviews in detail Roberts' childhood experiences before addressing his work on the solar corona; solar spicules and prominences; the orgins of geomagnetic disturbances; and the influence of variable solar activity on the earth's ionosphere and weather. Roberts also discusses his graduate education under Donald Menzel at Harvard, his varied career as a researcher and administrator, and his participation in the establishment of the Climax, Colorado solar coronagraph station of Harvard College. Other topics and affliliations discussed include: his work as Director of the High Altitude Observatory (1946-1961); his tenure as Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (1960-1968); communist investigations among scientists; the observatory at Sacramento Peak; rocketry research; and his relationship with Harlow Shapley.
DeVorkin:This third session I think should be devoted to some of the specifics that we discussed we should be talking about last time. I'd like to take you back though a little bit, and ask you about some of the other ongoing solar physics and solar astronomy research groups that were in existence as the High Altitude Observatory was established. You indicated a number of times that you had good contacts with the McMath-Hulbert people, and I'd be interested to know when these contacts began, if they were made mainly through your Harvard associations. Especially I'd like to know your contacts with Goldberg and Aller.
Roberts:When I first came to Harvard, Goldberg and Aller were either pre-doctoral or immediate post-doctoral. I think they were pre-doctoral. The record will show what year their doctorates were, but I knew them as a beginning graduate student who got help and friendship and advice from them. I knew Goldberg as a substitute teacher for Menzel in that first course that I took, and I found him so inspirational. In fact, the teaching at Harvard, with the exception of Menzel, who was rather poor, was inspirational. Bart Bok was the finest teacher I ever had. Leo Goldberg was one of the best I ever had. Fred Whipple was good. Gaposchkin was eccentric but fascinating and always rewarding.
DeVorkin:Eccentric in what way? That's interesting.
Roberts:Well, she had very strong likes and dislikes. She expressed them, and she was full of sarcastic and pungent remarks about other astronomers. All sorts of things like that, so it was kind ot like going to a circus to go to her class. I only took one class with her. It was on variable stars or something. I don't even remember the subject.
DeVorkin:The recollections of others whom I've talked to about the different teaching styles all indicated that Mrs. (Cecilia Payne-) Gaposchkin was eccentric in many ways, but the one that concerned, let's say, students trained in physics most commonly was that she was so involved with nomenclature, she had an extraordinary memory for specifics. Would you support that?
Roberts:Yes, but she was one of the true masters of the English language. I never knew anybody who was so articulate, with the correct and detailed use of words, and her books, if you read them even today, you see what absolutely magnificent prose they are. She was a master of expression, but Cecilia I had only in one course, but I observed her, you know, in Hollow Squares and things like that. Another great teacher, of course, was Ted Sterne.
DeVorkin:So that was your first contact with Goldberg and Aller.
Roberts:And Baker also at the same time, and they really all became lifelong friends.
DeVorkin:Okay. I'm trying to identify networks in solar physics, family trees, so to speak. Now, there was already an established solar station at McMath-Hulbert.
Roberts:Yes, that was established by Robert McMath more or less as an amateur. I think he and Hulbert had made money in the steel business or something, and he set it up as more or less an amateur observatory. If my memory's correct it was not connected with the university at that time, but was an independent, privately operated observatory. I think just about '40, when I went out there, may be when it had its first ties, but already Orren Mohler was working there. I don't know where he got his astronomical training, but he also became a lifelong friend of mine, he and his wife. There was a fair bit of tension between Menzel and McMath.
McMath, I think, regarded Menzel as a bit of an upstart in the field, and thought that the coronagraph could never equal the spectroheliograph, as a means of observing prominences. He kind of took me aside and gave me a talking-to that first summer when I was driving out to Colorado with the coronagraph in the car, about how I should concentrate on the corona and not try to take pretty pictures of the prominences.
But I have to admit that he was always generous to me in help. There was never a time when I asked him for anything that he didn't come forth with it. But he was a bit of a tyrant, in running the observatory in the way he wanted it run. He had a marvelous woman there, Helen Dodson — later Helen Dodson Prince, Helen Dodson in those days — and she had a younger associate, Ruth Hedeman, who came along a few years later. I don't think she was there when I first visited in '40, but I did meet Dodson and Mohler. They were the two scientific people of McMath's group. Then there was a brilliant mechanic and engineer whose name I forget. That was just about the whole staff. McMath had a very beautiful personal home at the observatory, where I stayed that first time, my wife and I, as house guests. But as for networks, there were very very few who entered the field besides those that came out of Harvard one way or another. My memory is, and it would have to be checked, but Schwarzschild, Lyman Spitzer, Goldberg, Aller, I mentioned, and then the whole next genera¬tion that came along after Jack and me — see, there was a gap during the war — came out of Harvard. I was just about the last of the people who got a degree before the war. As I told you, I didn't even get mine till in the war. But there was quite a hiatus there for a few years, and then a whole new generation came along, and that also sprang out of Harvard to a very considerable extent, although the Princeton Observatory was then operating with Schwarzschild and some solar people.
DeVorkin:Michigan must have been involved by '47, '48?
Roberts:Yes, after the war Leo was chairman, and the McMath-Hulbert Observatory was affilitated with Michigan, but it still was run rather unilaterally by McMath. Goldberg really didn't run the place, until McMath's death. Of course McMath got excited and interested in the big solar tower at Kitt Peak. All of the expansion of solar physics came really right after the war. But I don't think, from the standpoint of observational solar astronomy, with the exception of Charles Greeley Abbot, at Smithsonian, who worked mainly on the solar constant — There was one other important group, George Ellery Hale. That was the other network. Seth Nicholson and all of those people, and I became very close to them also.
DeVorkin:After the war or before the war?
Roberts:After the war. After the war, when I was running the HAO in the early days. Edison Petit was also a person who helped me a great deal, and I went out to Mt. Wilson and spent a couple of weeks, in the early days after the war.
DeVorkin:After the war. You had no contact during the war.
Roberts:Only correspondence. I had a fair amount of correspondence with Babcock, Sr., and I never met George Ellery Hale. I don't know when he died.
Roberts:'38, so I wouldn't have met him. But I did meet Petit and Nicholson and both Babcocks.
Roberts:Richardson, yes, worked with Richardson.
DeVorkin:How would you compare the different solar groups?
Roberts:They had the Solar Tower already, didn't they? They had it way back.
DeVorkin:Oh yes, the 150 and the 100 foot or 60 foot, something like that. But how would you contrast the different solar groups in the immediate postwar era—Harvard, Michigan, yourself, and Mt. Wilson?
Roberts:Mine, of course, was part of Harvard. Harvard had the group under Menzel, which I would say was largely theoretically oriented, although Baker and Evans and I were all more or less observationally or experimentally oriented, instrumentally oriented. Mt. Wilson, we kind of regarded them as old guard and conservative, in astronomy not in politics, and their techniques were very large spectrographs and things of that sort. The coronagraph was regarded as a kind of "far-out" instrument in those days. Oh, yes, there was S. A. Mitchell also, of the Leander McCormick group. That was a very small group, mostly Mitchell.
DeVorkin:He used primarily the 26-inch telescope, the refractor.
Roberts:Right, and he also used a specially built spectrograph for eclipse stuff. Spectrograph and heliostat. Theirs was very excellent but rather limited work. It was Mitchell, if my memory's right, who didn't even believe that the coronagraph worked. He didn't believe we were seeing the corona.
Roberts:Yes. He made some caustic comment in a paper, either in the very late thirties or earliest forties, that it would be surprising if this instrument of Lyot worked. There was a very fascinating paper by Kienle and Siedentopf, in maybe '39, or something like that, which gave a history of all of the efforts to build a coronagraph, and it pointed out how six or seven different groups — Huggins and others — had thought to have succeeded at building coronagraphs, only to have it demonstrated that they were observing instrumental or atmospheric scatter, rather than the corona. Huggins took a telescope to Mt. Etna, and thought he had coronal images.
DeVorkin:I didn't know that.
Roberts:Yes, and he was challenged to take a photograph with the same instrument during totality, when the atmospheric scatter would be gone, and it didn't show a darned thing. Then they found, when they rotated the telescope, that the corona rotated! I think there's a history of that in my thesis.
DeVorkin:In your thesis?
Roberts:Yes, I think so. I reviewed the historical work leading up to the coronagraph.
DeVorkin:Where would your thesis be available?
Roberts:It's in those papers at the library. Possibly there's a duplicate copy here.
DeVorkin:There should be one at Harvard.
Roberts:Yes, there should be, but you never know.
DeVorkin:I'd be surprised if it wasn't. Anyway, what about the nonastronomical interests in solar physics, in studying, monitoring the sun? AFCRL was interested, and you were working with them in the development of Sac Peak. Were there any other military or govern¬mental or commercial developments?
Yes, RCA. RCA had a solar group under a man named Nelson. They had a telescope down on Broad Street, maybe just off of Wall Street, where he took sunspot observations daily from the roof of the RCA building. He tried to forecast the radio fade-outs that were plaguing them in their communications nets. He's also believed to have discovered a major planetary effect, that Jupiter and Venus, when they lined up, were influencing the formation of sunspots and through that, the effect on radio propagation.
Nelson was an untrained person, and was viewed with great skepticism by the professionals in the field, but he was supported by a very wonderful man who was a famous radio pioneer at RCA, Harold Beverage. I went and visited Beverage in the early days trying to get RCA to help with the funding of the observatory, and developed a great friendship with him, although we never got any money. But they had this direct interest, and then Bill Baker of Bell Labs was another who had interest, but they didn't have any activities in the solar field. Were there other observatories? There was of course the Smithsonian Observatories. But they were almost all solar constant stations — Montezuma Mount, and the one on the Sinai Peninsula, Mount St. Catherine, that operated for a short while, and there's a third one, and then they had a station in Chile at Antafogasta, I think. Were there any others? Not that I can think of.
DeVorkin:National Bureau of Standards?
Roberts:Of course there were lots of them in Europe.
DeVorkin:We can't get into that. There were quite a few.
Roberts:Yes, the outstanding one being the group that eventually went to Pic du Midi. That's where Lyot worked.
DeVorkin:I'd like to move back also and talk more about the types of research that led you to eventually change into atmospheric physics work in '54. Would it be right to say that starting in the forties, that your interest in the relation of the corona and prominence activity eventually got you interested in solar-terrestrial relationships?
Roberts:No, I think the principal thing was C.B. Abbot and his idea about the recurring droughts. I'd grown up on a farm and I'd seen drought. When we drove out to the West, we drove through the Dust Bowl area, and I was very sensitive, as the son of a farmer, to the tremendous damage that you could still see in 1940 as you drove through Nebraska — the dead trees, the abandoned farm houses. I've always had a very strong orientation towards the practical uses of science, and so I sort of concluded that maybe the most important thing that could come out of solar physics research would be to understand and maybe predict the effects of solar activity on the weather.
Roberts:'45 or '48, right after the war. I developed the notion that if the drought cycle was a 22 year drought cycle, I wasn't going to live through very many of them, to establish it statistically, and that there must be a short term effect. In other words, if there's a sunspot and solar activity effect that took place over a 22 year period, there must be one that took place over a day or a week or a month period, and that the best way to understand the long term effect would be to understand the short term effect, on which you would be able to amass thousands of case studies, case histories. So I started concentrating on the effort to find something that would change the circulation towards the kind of pattern that would characterize a drought, some form of solar activity.
DeVorkin:When did you start that?
Well, I started that as early probably as '48, or even '47, and I was also mindful of the fact that we had a certain obligation because we'd been started by a grant from the Department of Agriculture under Henry Wallace. So I decided to really learn something about meteorology in the year that I was back East, '47-'48, and I became a friend, close friend of Dick Craig, who was at AFCRL with Bob White and Ralph Shapiro.
It turned out that Craig and I had grown up just a few miles apart, down south of Boston. As I commuted from my father's farm to Harvard every day, I found that Dick was commuting too, so we started riding together to Boston on the train in '47 and '48. Then we started having regular luncheons once a week, to talk over science. Also Armin Deutsch joined that group of astronomers. He didn't have anything to do with sunspots and weather, but we talked about broader things. He was interested in sunspots and weather even though he'd never worked in it. I got some money a year later, and Craig went to work, through Menzel, with money from my project, on sun and weather, and we published a few papers, and he did a huge study using the leftover punch cards from the Air Force that had been used to improve weather pre¬diction during World War II.
They were global, punched up, uniform. There had been a paper published by Duell and Duell, a man and wife team. They had suggested that geomagnetic activity and barometric pressure patterns were related on a three, four or five day pattern, so that if you had a big geomagnetic disturbance, the barometric pressure patterns would trend in one direction or the other; that is, if you had a big geomagnetic storm, yes, the barometric pressure patterns would go up or down, compared to the mean for that station, larger than could be explained by chance. So Craig decided he had a far better body of data, and an independent body of data from the Duells, from which to test that hypothesis. So that became our big project, and the thing that turned out was interesting.
DeVorkin:Was this all funded by AFCPT.?
Roberts:I can't remember, but I got a grant in HAO to do the work, and I think it may have been from ONR. But I don't remember for sure. Might have been AFCRL but no, I don't think so. Anyway, we did that study, and the statistical side of it was evaluated by Dave Hawkins, who was the historian of Los Alamos, who lived here in Boulder. So Craig and Hawkins and I worked on this for probably two years, I've forgotten now.
DeVorkin:You said historian in Los Alamos?
He was the historian of Los Alamos. He lives here in Boulder. I'd forgotten, you might be interested in him. He's a mathematician and philosopher and a very brilliant guy, extremely good in statistics, so all of our statistical studies were the result of his expertise. The results were very complex but indicative that there was indeed an effect of geomagnetism on barometric pressure patterns, with a three to five day lag time, and it reinforced my notion that if there was a 22 year cycle, it was probably the compounding of short term effects like that.
So then by '52 or thereabouts, when we had that International Geophysical Month or Week, which started as a week and ended as a month, it was also suggestive of a geomagnetic effect. Interestingly enough, the year 1952 was characterized by a series of very, very strong geomagnetic disturbances, every 27 days as the sun rotated — they were the most marked feature of geomagnetism. That was just a chance thing. But there was also a sequence of barometric pressure patterns that showed a 27 day recurrence. Now, this got me very excited, and the month of August of '52, which was the geophysical month that we studied in ‘53, or '54, when we held the conference, showed this in a very striking fashion. Jerry Namias did a paper on the apparent connection of geomagnetism and the circulation, mainly just analyzing the circulation, showing what was important.
DeVorkin:Was he working with you?
No. He was working totally independently with the Weather Bureau, but he joined in that Geophysical Month. He agreed to study that month and tell us everything that an expert circulation person could tell you about that month. The most striking thing about that month was, it changed at just about the time that we expected it to from the geomagnetic disturbance — it could have been chance. Well, anyway, Shapiro then decided to go back into records of geomagnetic disturbances that started in 1880 and went to 1940.
He published a very important paper, at least important in my thinking, that showed that there was almost certainly a change in the persistence of meteorological patterns, a persistence change following major geomagnetic disturbances. The persistence first increased, then over a 14 day period the persistence decreased. It was apparently statistically significant. No matter how you tested it, first half, second half, odd years, even years, the effect showed up. So I became thoroughly convinced that there was something to it, and that geomagnetism was involved, and that made me happy because if geomagnetism was involved, it would be more likely that it would have a 22 year effect, because of the reversal.
We didn't yet know of the reversal of the polarity of the poloidal field of the sun. But we did know that sunspot fields reversed, from one cycle to the next. So I got together a group here in about 155, with a fellow named Woodbridge and a guy named Norman McDonald. Woodbridge was a physi¬cist at the School of Mines. McDonald worked for Irving Krick, the forecaster in Denver, and Krick fired him one day. McDonald was accustomed to making imitations of people, and I was told that, and Krick caught him in an imitation of Krick! Everybody laughing hilariously at Krick. The next day he was locked out. He may have done some other things, too, I wouldn't doubt. Anyway, I hired him. He was innovative, hard working, and full of creative ideas.
DeVorkin:Let me ask you about this particular time. Did your conscious feeling of moving into meteorological research, atmospheric physics, and your actually doing so, have anything to do with Harvard removing itself in '53, '54?
Roberts:No. There was never any conflict over that with Harvard. Menzel was interested, and if you look in that book of Shapley's that I found in the library, there is a chapter in that, which is a paper by Barbara Bell, who worked for Donald. It was very much on the line of my own thinking.
DeVorkin:Do you know how that conference took place?
Roberts:No, I don't know how that took place. I didn't participate in it, and I don't really know, but I do know that I did talk a lot with Barbara Bell about the subject of her paper in that conference.
DeVorkin:I see. It looked like a complete Shapley operation. Was it, as far as you could tell?
Roberts:As far as I could tell. Well, I think Menzel had a paper in it too. But I know Barbara Bell did. I think Barbara Bell was supported by AFCRL on that research, as part of the pre-Sac Peak stuff. Anyway, I then went to work with this group, and we discovered — I guess that's the right word — a short term relationship that was most prominent in the Gulf of Alaska, between the changes of barometric pressure in the Gulf of Alaska and geomagnetic storms. That has been verified at various levels of verification, some pretty marginal but some fairly strong, in all subsequent studies. In other words, nothing has ever shown up to disprove it. It's still unex¬plained. It's a small effect, but it appears to be real. I felt very sure, in the late fifties, that we would be able to understand it and explain it, and last August we held a major symposium — now hundreds of people in the field instead of two or three or four — and it is still as baffling as ever. I'm almost discouraged about it at the moment.
DeVorkin:To go back to these formative years in the mid-to-late fifties—and of course the IGY occurred — you were chairman of the Solar Technical Panel of the United States National Committee of the IGY.
DeVorkin:I was wondering if this was involved with your combined interests now? Would you classify yourself now as both an atmospherics physics person and a solar physics person?
Roberts:Well, yes. I was still very much interested in solar physics, and of course I had a fair reputation in the field.
DeVorkin:So this was not a migration from one field to the other.
DeVorkin:It was more of an accretion.
Roberts:Right. But I thought maybe flares were involved in some weather connection, too. I also was a very close friend of Roger Revelle's, and Jim van Allen and so on, and I was party to all the discussions that led to the idea of the IGY, and I had been host to a meeting of URSI, Union of Radio Sciences, and had gotten to know Sir Edward Appleton and all of those people. We were having some hard times financially then. We were down one time to where we didn't have enough money to pay the staff, and they all worked for a month free.
DeVorkin:That's what I've read here and there. How big was the staff then?
Roberts:Oh, about 20. Bob Lee — I guess I didn't introduce you to him, but we saw him in the cafeteria yesterday — was one of those Roberts115 who worked free. Anyway, we got bailed out by AFCRL, who gave us a contract to write a book about solar activity, but we never finished the book. But that was what allowed us to keep going. The whole staff went to work on the book, which never got published.
Roberts:Oh, it just turned out to be much too big an enterprise for the contract money, but it kept us together. The thing that really saved us was Sputnik I.
DeVorkin:Even at the IGY you were having funding problems?
DeVorkin:But Sputnik saved you. Could you describe that, how that helped?
Roberts:Well, first of all, meteorology had been cut way back by the Air Force, I think it was, that had sponsored most meteorological research.
Roberts:I don't know exactly why, except that it was a budget cutting period for meteorology, for everything. When Sputnik I went up in '57, October, all of a sudden, our contract that we had not been able to negotiate got negotiated, and from then on, we've never had any financial problems. We've just been able to get all the support we needed when we needed it, and we expanded our staff, and our work improved in quality in everything.
DeVorkin:This is AFCRL funding. This is prior to NASA or anything like that.
Roberts:Yes. The military was sponsoring, I would suppose, 90% of all meteorological research.
DeVorkin:Sure, but even they were slacking off.
Roberts:They had refused to sign the contract. There was an order that went out from President Eisenhower to cut back on research. The newspapers had the stories of the cutbacks, and of course we knew it directly from the contracting officers, and people were trying to help at GRD. Shapiro was very concerned, and stood by us — took some money out of his own budget to keep us going for a while.
DeVorkin:How about Colorado University?
Roberts:Well, the university continued to give us the basic support that we'd always had, but they couldn't give us any more. We got free rent, free vehicles, services, maintenance, all of that. All we could ask for.
DeVorkin:Were you teaching at all?
DeVorkin:Was there the possibility that you and other of the senior scientists could obtain faculty appointments?
Roberts:Well, I had a faculty appointment but I wasn't teaching, but I did take on a lectureship, Sigma Xi, and I would travel for a week or two, then come home for a week or two, then travel, and that paid my salary. I didn't collect any salary that year.
DeVorkin:That's amazing. But Sputnik saved you, as far as military funding was concerned—that started coming in again. What about support for solar physics? Was there an increase of support there too?
I think so. During that time, I had also gotten money from industry. I had three segments of industry, the air industry, the oil industry, and a private donor, Laurance Rockefeller, three match¬ing grants. I created what I called the Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Relations, within the High Altitude Observatory — just a name for that private fund. And with that, I brought Bernard Haurwitz, the meteorologist, Julius London, meteorologist, and Paul Julian, meteorologist, to the High Altitude Observatory staff. I held a series of seminars that brought Ed Lorenz of MIT, Hurd Willett of MIT, and Herbert Riehl of Chicago. I brought one of the Mt. Wilson people, too. Was it Seth Nicholson? Anyway I brought quite a group of people here for six week seminars on meteorology and the sun's possible effects on weather.
That was really the beginning of major meteorological research here. Oh yes, McDonald and Woodbridge had left by that time. McDonald became a meteorologist for television, for WBZ in Boston or something like that because there was more money in it. He decided to go to MIT in his spare time and get a degree. He didn't have an advanced degree. He became a very famous Boston meteorologist, TV meteorologist, weatherman. Because of his imitations of people and his fantastic sense of humor — every time we had a High Altitude Observatory party, Norm would imitate somebody on the staff or in the university, and create these hilarious skits. I remember, the president of the university was Quigg Newton, and he made an imitation playing both parts of me and President Newton, and I was Bre'er Rabbits, and he was Fig Newton. Fig Newton and Bre'er Rabbits had a conversation, and I kept saying, "Brother Newton, I don't want your leventyleven million dollars I just want freedom!"
DeVorkin:Fascinating. Your philosophy is well known.
Roberts:Yes. We were poor, poor, poor. That's about the time we couldn't pay the salaries, and I was turning down the leventyleven million dollars.
DeVorkin:Just prior to Sputnik.
Roberts:Yes, just prior to Sputnik.
DeVorkin:You were able to establish a full scale research station here in atmospheric physics.
DeVorkin:What activities were you able to include?
Roberts:Oh yes, I forgot to say that a large part of our support came from the Bureau of Standards, for geomagnetic storm forecasting, and we used to have a weekly meeting to issue the weekly forecast from the Bureau, between the High Altitude Observatory and the Bureau staff. That Bureau staff included Marion Wood, Virginia Lincoln and Alvin McNish, although he wasn't usually here. He was usually in Washington. I think Alan Shapley, and two or three others, and then Sydney Chapman always attended those, and I, and a woman named Dorothy Trotter, who was really a right hand person to me in keeping track of solar activity. We used to make maps of the sun's corona and prominences and the McMath plague regions which we got by telephone from Helen Dodson at McMath. We made a summary map that was the basis for the forecasting at the Bureau, and that gave us the contract that provided a fair part of our total operating budget. I think Alan Shapley was the contract monitor for that.
DeVorkin:Was this prior to Sputnik or after Sputnik?
Roberts:I think it was prior to Sputnik.
DeVorkin:Okay. It was a substantial but not fully comfortable operation.
Roberts:Yes. It wasn't enough to keep us all alive and happy, but it was a substantial part of our activity.
Roberts:You mean at NCAR or at Colorado?
DeVorkin:Did ballooning begin here before NCAR was established or after NCAR?
Roberts:There was a balloon research group at the University of Denver, under a man named David Murcray.
DeVorkin:Could you describe that just a bit for me?
Roberts:I don't remember so much about it. They were at Denver and they were interested in measurement of the solar constant, I think, and the solar ultraviolet spectrum from the highest obtainable balloon altitudes. They made a number of balloon flights, I think, prior to the establishment of NCAR.
DeVorkin:Was it after Sputnik, between Sputnik and NCAR?
Let me think. I'd raised the money to build the Sommers-Bausch Observatory on the campus, and also had raised the money for the High Altitude Observatory building on the campus. They were just adjacent. We had a conference about ballooning in that building. So it must have been about '58. Prior to NCAR. Oh yes, and then of course, by that time, the John von Neuman committee had been formed and von Neuman had died and Lloyd Berkner became chairman of the committee, and the report that came out was called the Berkner report, that recommended the creation of NCAR.
I had served on some of those committees; there were 13 committees as I remember, in separate fields of meteorological or related atmospheric science, one of which had to do with the solar influence on the terrestrial system. There had been a bit of work by a guy in the Weather Bureau named Robert Simpson on if you could change the solar constant, how large an effect it would have on weather. Then there had been some work done other places, published by Smithsonian, by a man named Arctowski. My memory is he was from Chile, but he was published by the Smithsonian, and published with C.G. Abbot, and he also had called attention to the importance of the variable brightness of the sun, the varying of the solar constant. Abbot believed the solar constant varied.
Arctowski had done supporting work and come to a different explanation from Abbot's, almost contrary. Robert Simpson did what today still stands as a really magnificent piece of work, showing that if you could change it by half a percent in brightness, which would be about the limit you could measure, you could produce a significant circulation change, and he pointed out the time constants of it and so on. Well, anyway, all that was fermenting in '58. At the same time, the George Committee Report had been put out a couple of years before and was highly critical of the Weather Bureau. I had served on some of those committees, and then the firm recommendation to create an NCAR came out — by Berkner, by the National Academy of Sciences.
DeVorkin:That was '59?
Roberts:That was '58 or '59, and they had created a university committee for atmospheric research, with 14 sponsoring universities. In March of '59, I think, that incorporated. Then in the fall of '59, they tried to get money from the NSF and the NSF said, no, you've got to first get a director for the institute. We're not going to give you money to create an institute until you've got a director, and we're not going to create an institute until the director tells us what his plans are, and he can base it on all 13 committees and your long reports, and a great big fat book which was known ultimately as the Bible or the Bluebook, which was how to create NCAR. It was very different from the way NCAR materialized. That Bluebook was published, but the National Science Board said no. So they started a search for a director. As I say, I wasn't the first choice. They tried to get Jim van Allen and they tried to get Herb Friedman. Then they offered the post to me and I rejected it.
Roberts:Well, I was very happy with the HAO. Things were going great. I believed that no organization bigger than 45 people was viable, and I had about 40. I wanted it to be a small friendly family. Besides which, I wasn't sure I wanted to put all my eggs in the meteorology basket. I was interested in meteorology, but I was still interested in the long range sunspot and weather stuff. Most people regarded that as witchcraft. It was not a respectable field of meteorological research, and Abbot's work was not respected, and indeed some of it was questionable.
DeVorkin:Who were some of the biggest critics, outspoken critics?
Roberts:The most outspoken critic of all was Jule Charney of MIT. He's regarded as nearly the demigod of meteorology. But most of the experts were skeptics. Among the few who were friendly were Ed Lorenz, who also had great prestige, and of course Hurd Willett at MIT was an enthusiast, but he was not highly regarded either. He was regarded as a teacher, but he was regarded as a little bit of a nut about sun and weather.
DeVorkin:What about your solar physics friends? What did they think about it?
Roberts:They didn't think much of it either. They thought that it was an unimportant part of solar physics.
DeVorkin:Was this because of the way Abbot did his work for so many years?
Roberts:No. It's because there was so doggoned much trash in the literature. All kinds of alleged correlations between sunspots and weather — Harlan True Stetson and the rabbits and the lemmings and the vintage of wines and all of that.
DeVorkin:Did you ever meet him?
Roberts:Yes, I did. He was a friend of Menzel's. But all that stuff — and there were some Frenchmen who were really crazy — gave the field a terribly bad name, and respectable work was difficult. It was difficult to get anybody to say that work was respectable because it was in a field that was generally discredited.
DeVorkin:Stetson was certainly sincere, wasn't he?
Roberts:Oh yes. They were almost all sincere. They just were terrible statisticians, and gullible about it, and I was one of the strongest critics of the work that had been done, and tried scrupulously to maintain objective statistical tests and so on.
DeVorkin:Where did Abbot stand in all of this? He was chastised too.
Roberts:Yes. He was regarded, I would say, as being an absolutely brilliant observationalist, and being totally naive in theory. His maps of the change of temperature in St. Louis following the changes in the observed solar constant and so on, I don't think anybody believed. I became a good friend of Abbot in his later years — in fact, when he died, he gave me all his charts and papers and everything, bushels of them.
DeVorkin:Where are they now?
Roberts:I don't know.
DeVorkin:We do have a good chunk of them.
Roberts:I gave them back to Smithsonian.
DeVorkin:You have correspondence with Abbot?
Roberts:Oh yes, lots of it, including a lot of bitter letters about Menzel and his non-acceptance of Abbot's work. I don't know if that's in the files.
DeVorkin:You mean, Abbot writing about Menzel or you writing about Menzel?
Roberts:Abbot writing about Menzel.
DeVorkin:I see. They didn't get along?
Roberts:I don't really remember that for sure.
DeVorkin:It might be a good time to skip to your interest in bringing the Astrophysical Observatory here.
DeVorkin:Was this something you talked to Abbot about?
Roberts:No, I never talked to Abbot about it. I talked to Leonard Carmichael.
DeVorkin:Right, but Abbot was still around.
Roberts:Yes. He was retired and he had that room upstairs in the tower. But no, I didn't talk to him. I decided to talk very, very privately to Carmichael, because I didn't want to make a big pitch for it, and then lose. So I went to him with the suggestion that, because of the work that we were doing, because of the attachments with London and Haurwitz, who were highly respected meteorologists, and with Lorenz who was a highly respected meteorologist, and with our very, very strong group in solar physics, that we were in the tradition of Charles Greeley Abbot and could carry on in a modern way the sun and weather research. That was my pitch.
DeVorkin:Was there a general perception that the SAO was going to have to move?
Roberts:Oh yes, that had been determined.
DeVorkin:I see. Were you involved in that?
Roberts:No, but I knew it, and I'd talked privately to Carmichael, who talked rather freely about the fact that it didn't seem that it could be reconstituted in any modern way in Washington.
DeVorkin:Who would I talk to?
DeVorkin:Whipple would be the best to talk to? He was involved in that decision?
Roberts:Yes. Well, no, he was the one who got it.
DeVorkin:Yes, true. But was Carmichael sympathetic to you?
Roberts:I don't think we were ever seriously considered. I don't think we were a real contender. There was the great prestige of Harvard, and what Harvard was able to offer compared to what I was able to offer in the way of material things, the place.
DeVorkin:But not a good observing site.
Roberts:No, they didn't intend it to be an observing site. They intended to go into space. I intended to stay mostly on the ground.
DeVorkin:That's very interesting because that was before Sputnik. That was as the IGY was beginning.
Roberts:Fred Whipple, you remember, was very visionary about space. There was just the prestige of Harvard, compared to a relatively small unknown institution in the University of Colorado which didn't have a very good reputation in those days for science — and so we were out of our class, so to speak, as a competitor. That's the way I looked upon it. Anyway we didn't make it.
DeVorkin:Did Carmichael tell you that that was Whipple's intention, or was it also Carmichael's intention? To go into space, to get involved in space?
I don't think it was Carmichael's. I don't remember this very clearly, but the way I remember it is that Carmichael had an administrative problem on his hands that he needed to solve, and I think there was some conflict with Abbot over it. I'm not sure. But Abbot was certainly in his hair, and wanting to do various things that he didn't want to do, and he wanted to have some strong scientific director that would give a new life to the Smithsonian. That's the way I remember it. I felt that I could do that, and it was clear to me that Whipple could do it. I never talked much with Whipple about it. Whipple used to be on my advisory board here, and after the Harvard separation, we remained rather independent.
We didn't talk much. I remained friendly with Menzel, after all the security stuff was over, and in his later years we became very friendly again, but I never had close scientific ties with Harvard again, except with individuals who had come from Harvard through some place else. Of course, we took an awful lot of the Harvard people here. We took large numbers of their solar staff and solar trained people, post-docs and so on.
DeVorkin:So with Whipple you didn't have the closest of relations.
Roberts:No, we always remained close friends, but we didn't consult scientifically, and I had nothing to do with the plans for the Smithsonian Astrophysical at Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Okay, but you knew that he had these ideas about space.
Roberts:Yes, I have a clear memory, but can't give any details about why I have it, but I have a clear memory that space was his ambition from the beginning. He too was one of the founders of the International Academy of Astronautics. Freddie, I think, was one of the founders, as I was.
DeVorkin:I don't know too much about it.
Roberts:Well, it was presided over by Stark Draper, and it has always had very strong Soviet involvement. All the leading Soviet and Eastern European as well as Western European leaders in space physics are in the Academy. It's a relatively small Academy.
DeVorkin:By election only?
Roberts:By election only. Then there is the much larger group of corresponding members. Mueller is the president of it now.
DeVorkin:Okay. I think we've covered the Smithsonian business. Let's go back to the ballooning, and I guess ballooning didn't start until NCAR was established, as far as you're concerned?
Roberts:That's right. We started the ballooning here. Now, there was some stuff at Holloman with balloons, high altitude balloons. They were almost all military flights, and I think the AFCRL was sponsoring a lot of those flights.
DeVorkin:Right. It was Malcolm Ross.
Roberts:That's right. Ross was a close friend of mine also.
DeVorkin:Really? How did you meet him?
Roberts:Well, how did I meet him? I don't remember, but I know that we were very close friends, but I can't remember how we met. Was he a pilot?
DeVorkin:He was a Navy balloonist.
Roberts:Was he an airplane pilot also?
DeVorkin:I don't know.
Roberts:I've always been in aviation. I've worked forever on air traffic control and things like that. I still have the Advisory Committee of Mitre on Air Traffic Control, which is the principal contractor to the FAA. I soloed in 1935. I've flown my whole life.
DeVorkin:What did you fly?
Roberts:For a long period of time I didn't fly, because I couldn't afford it. In the most recent period I flew a Beech Baron. I've flown to northern Alaska five times.
DeVorkin:You have a pilot's license now, I take it.
Roberts:I never got a full ticket because I don't have a medical certificate. I have had high blood pressure for years but I have nearly 2,500 hours at the controls of a plane.
DeVorkin:That's pretty good. Really good. There were a number of early balloon groups, the Minneapolis group —
Roberts:Ross and then Otto Winsten and all of those people, and the group at General Mills. Earl Bollay and Gene Bollay were also interested in ballooning. Who was the other one that was involved with us?
DeVorkin:This is after NCAR?
Roberts:No, this is before NCAR, I think.
DeVorkin:John Strong, by any chance?
Roberts:Yes, John Strong. Strong and I were extremely close, and we talked together all the time.
DeVorkin:What I'm interested in about John Strong is that you say there was a question of unmanned balloons versus manned balloons. In some cases, through Malcolm Ross and others, it became evident that if you didn't go manned, you wouldn't get funded.
Roberts:Yes. I remember that vaguely.
DeVorkin:Did Strong ever talk to you about it?
Roberts:Yes, I'm sure we talked about it. I know that I was on the unmanned side of the argument, as I was with spacecraft also. I'll bet you the reason for my interest in the ballooning, but I can't say it for sure, was simply the desire to get a coronagraph up as high as possible, because that goes way back to the late forties and early fifties.
DeVorkin:Right. Did you ever try to do that before NCAR was established?
Roberts:When did we fly that thing downstairs?
DeVorkin:Well, that was after Schwarzschild gave the gondola to you.
Roberts:Was that after NCAR?
DeVorkin:So it was just at the time that NCAR was forming, '59, '60. You had quite a few flights. Evolutionary flights.
Roberts:Right. Well, then I think we must have conceived of that and thought about it and worked on it pre-Sputnik, because that instrument was evolved long before we got the Schwarzschild frame. We were going to build our own frame. I'll bet, although I can't remember for sure, that we even talked about pointing controls and stuff with the Colorado group. Matter of fact, now that I think of it, I think we used one of their pointers on the balloon.
DeVorkin:Yes, I'm sure you did, on the Schwarzschild frame, you would have.
Roberts:I think we made a prototype earlier, which we never flew, before we knew we could get Schwarzschild's.
DeVorkin:Was ballooning considered to be a large activity here?
No. When we started ballooning at NCAR, it was totally different. It was to meet a perceived national need for lots and lots of flights for cosmic ray research and things of that sort. But there was the fear that balloons would interfere with aircraft, and there'd be a two ton load crash into a commercial airliner and then it would be all over for ballooning. So we entered into that very deliberately subsequently, with the support and to a certain extent the pressure of a group of people who wanted to fly flights, who were finding it too hard to get flights except on a kind of a helter-skelter basis from the Air Force. So we wanted to establish a place where air traffic would defer to balloons, rather than balloons deferring to the air traffic. We also wanted a place where the weather was optimally suited for ballooning.
We tested two sites. One was Page, Arizona, near the big dam and Lake Powell. In fact, we even thought of using the dam as a shelter for the launch. We studied and flew a lot of flights from Page. Then meteorological studies showed us that Palestine was better. We picked both Page and Palestine, for the reasons that they were out of the air lanes, and you could get restricted zone so that balloons had priority over aircraft. Aircraft could fly through only by air traffic control second priority. Page was better winter and Palestine was better year round.
DeVorkin:Did you ever fly out of Fort Churchill?
Roberts:Yes,I think we had one or two flights, but we never flew many.
DeVorkin:Okay. With all this increased capacity, with NCAR being a major NSF national laboratory, I wanted to ask you very briefly, was this the first time you were funded directly by NSF?
Roberts:You mean, is that the first time HAO had an NSF contract?
Roberts:No. I think we had small NSF contracts right along.
DeVorkin:But not any facilities for NSF.
DeVorkin:Back to talking about NCAR in general, you eventually obtained NASA support also.
Roberts:Well, that was a sticky item. The original concept was that NSF would be the sole sponsor of NCAR that we couldn't take funds from anybody else. It was clear in the legislation that if it was going to be space, it had to be NASA. NSF couldn't engage in funding space programs. Yet it was clear to me that HAO's life depended on getting into space. We had to use spacecraft for the coronagraphs. No point to developing those super-coronagraphs if you can't get them up there. So I worked very long and hard on getting an agreement by means of which NASA could transfer some money to NSF and then NSF would give it to us, so that it appeared in the records that we were sole source funded by the NSF, but NASA money flowed to NSF. That operated that way for a few years.
DeVorkin:That's a good trick.
Roberts:Well, it isn't a good trick.
DeVorkin:Why isn't it a good trick?
Roberts:It's not a good trick because you've got two shut-off points instead of one.
DeVorkin:That's right. Let's say this is 1960, '61 or so, and I know in planetary astronomy at this time astronomers were asking NASA for ground-based facilities, and NASA was saying, that's an NSF responsibility but we understand that in order to support planetary space work, you've got to do a lot of ground work and you need these facilities. They had some sort of an arrangement whereas NSF was involved. Were you involved in those kinds of negotiations in increasing support for ground-based work?
Roberts:No, not much. I was aware of it all, and my friend Nick Mayall was involved in it, but no, I was never involved in that particular side of the issue.
DeVorkin:What was your general feeling about those people who were and how they were going about gaining support?
Roberts:Well, I don't really remember very much. I know that I was always a very strong advocate of maintaining the ground facilities, as a supplement and as an essential part of the space activity. I argued very strongly for the solar tower at Sac Peak on that basis.
DeVorkin:The Vacuum Solar Tower.
Roberts:Yes, the vacuum spectrograph and so on.
DeVorkin:Was that NASA money or Air Force?
Roberts:No, that was Air Force money but the same arguments applied. Why do you need a ground telescope of that cost if you can go into space and get perfect seeing? Also, I argued very strongly for the establishment of our K-coronameter at Hawaii, even though many people said, "Gosh, you know, you've got a Skylab, you can do it so much better."
DeVorkin:What was your argument against that?
Roberts:Well, there are certain things that are easier to do on the ground and cost a fraction and work perfectly, and the ground coronagraph at Sac Peak was one of them. For one thing, it has to have a physical, mechanical stability, that's almost impossible to do in a manned spacecraft. When we modified the coronagraph that went in Skylab from a — see, our first contract was for an unmanned spacecraft to fly that instrument.
DeVorkin:That was on AOSO?
Roberts:Yes, I think so. We then modified it, and it cost I think eight times as much, as it would have cost.
Roberts:Well, something like that.
DeVorkin:That leads me into the next question, the involvement of HAO and NCAR in space, in the OSO series, the AOSO, and in the OGO series. Were you involved in those?
Roberts:Yes, but by that time my responsibilities had become such that all that was delegated from me to other people on the staff, so I didn't have much direct responsibility. John Firor was the person who had the responsibility.
DeVorkin:For all satellite work?
Roberts:Well, I was by that time spending almost all of my time as president of the corporation, and in that capacity, I was Mr. Outside and he was Mr. Inside. I had brought him here from Carnegie Institution in Washington. He worked for Merle Tuve. And he ran NCAR. He first ran HAO and then he ran NCAR. I was then deeply involved in World Meteorological Organization and the international activities. I actually wrote the first draft of the joint ICSU WMO charter, to establish the GARP, Global Atmospheric Research Program, and I chaired the committee that chose the godawful name.
DeVorkin:It has nothing to do with "The World According to Garp?"
Roberts:No, it doesn't. I served for five years and was elected chairman in the sixth year of the advisory committee of the WMO, but didn't serve in that capacity because the committee was dissolved, so that took a tremendous amount of my time. We were implementing Kennedy's directive that was written by Harlan Cleveland, when he was Under Secretary of State, for the World Weather Watch, and we were implementing the Wexler-Bugaev agreement. I worked a long time with Bugaev, the Russian counterpart of Harry Wexler. Wexler was leaving to come here the day he died, to talk to me about these things. He drowned at Woods Hole, had a heart attack while swimming. He was due to go on a plane later that afternoon and come out here. So I took a large responsibility for representing the United States in these developments for the World Weather Watch. I was appointed by Bob White, who was then head of NOAA, if I remember correctly, and so I wasn't involved in this OSO, OGO and all of that directly, except that I had to keep a little bit informed about it.
DeVorkin:By John Firor and then people like Gordon Newkirk —
Roberts:Yes, Gordon Newkirk was involved and later McQueen.
Roberts:Yes, Jack. Jack was a young protoge of mine. I recruited Jack into solar physics and also Newkirk. Not Firor. In fact, that picture there says, "To Walt regards from HAO experi¬ment group, Bob McQueen," and it's a HAO coronagraph image from Skylab.
DeVorkin:We have a transparency of that in our gallery.
Roberts:I also have some similar things from a lot of the astronauts, people like Rusty Schweickart and so on. DeVorkin On the highest level, what do you think the true value, true efficacy of Skylab was? I know you were on the unmanned side, as you mentioned.
Roberts:Yes. Well, I think it was a tremendous success, from our standpoint. We surmounted the difficulties of doing it in a manned spacecraft, and in addition the man helped. It just was very, very much more costly of time and money. Whether it would have succeeded the other way, I don't know. But we got 22,000 photographs of the corona. We discovered some 80 of those coronal transients which had never been seen before. It just gave us a whole new appreciation of the complexity and phenomenon of the solar wind. It's just hard to over-estimate the value of the Skylab mission, and when you had marvelous guys there like Owen Garriott — well, they were all good, but Garriott was especially good — who really became involved in the science as well as just pushing the Roberts with buttons. Those guys really studied the physics of it, in order to know what they were looking for.
DeVorkin:At your level, then, you were not directly involved in the procurement process, the proposal stage for flying the coronagraph?
Roberts:No, nor in the detailed scientific experiment design.
DeVorkin:Okay. Were you involved at all in any kinds of problems with the cancelling of the early ASO in '65? I know that somewhere I read that a hundred solar physicists wrote a petition to NASA, to Webb, objecting to it and arguing for more support for solar physics.
Roberts:Was I one of them?
DeVorkin:I don't know. That's what I wanted to ask you.
Roberts:I don't remember.
DeVorkin:You don't remember, so it wasn't a big issue in terms of your major responsibilities.
Roberts:No. it wasn't. There was one episode that I remember, where I was vcry ruch in Zhe minority, and that was right in the early days of NCAR. We had a meeting of our board of trustees over in the High Altitude Observatory building on the campus, and we got the announcement of the Wexler-Bugaev agreement and the establishment of the World Weather Watch, and almost to a man the university scientists were opposed to it.
Roberts:Said that the Weather Bureau was going to take over the science of meteorology. There was a lot of tension between the Weather Bureau and the academic scientific community, and they wrote a special petition telegram about three pages long to the President, objecting to participating in the World Weather Watch.
DeVorkin:But you were for it?
Roberts:I was strongly for it.
DeVorkin:What kinds of discussions did you have with your friends?
Roberts:Well, remember, I was the brand new elected president of UCAR, and director of NCAR, and these were my bosses, all of them! So I kept relatively quiet, since I don't remember a single voice agreeing with me.
DeVorkin:These were the 14 member societies of UCAR who were objecting.
Roberts:Yes. I don't remember whether they objected to a man, but it was the predominant view.
DeVorkin:I know that the Berkner Committee established UCAR and just took as members all the established atmospheric physics departments.
Roberts:Yes, the ones that offered a doctorate in atmospheric physics.
DeVorkin:So that was the criterion.
DeVorkin:Now, were these universities expected to pitch in with funding at all?
DeVorkin:Would you compare it to AURA as far as the membership was concerned?
Roberts:It's similar in many. many regards. I don't know too much about the details of AURA, but I know that in general outline they're almost identical, corporation-wise and everything else, except that the establishment of UCAR involved much more committee work and so on. As I say, there were 13 or more committees and there was a huge report, and Tom Malone chaired it, and it had hearings in the Congress, and the head scientist of the Air Force testified.
DeVorkin:Now, in the case of Kitt Peak —
Roberts:Was ours before Kitt Peak?
DeVorkin:No, it came after, about a year or two later.
Roberts:Ours was a year or two later. They were, what, '58?
Roberts:First of all, you have to remember the meteorological community has always been a contentious community, compared to the astronomical community. There have been great conflicts in astronomy, but I regarded astronomy as a friendly society compared to meteor¬ology.
DeVorkin:That's something I'm not aware of at all but it sounds interesting.
Roberts:See, there are the schisms between the government service and the private forecasters and the academicians.
DeVorkin:These don't exist in astronomy?
Roberts:These don't exist in astronomy.
DeVorkin:AURA set up Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo as major facilities for national use. Now, NCAR, is it a similar facility in that philosophy?
Roberts:No. The concept of NCAR was that NCAR — I can almost say the words that I used to use — NCAR is first and foremost an intellectual center. It is a basic research center, where fundamental work is carried out, both by the resident staff and by cooperation with other scientists from U.S. and abroad. It is secondly a planning center, where scientists looking for new developments in the. atmospheric sciences can meet and do the planning and the criticism. Thirdly, it's a facility to support the work of the scientific group of NCAR and the total community, with special emphasis on the academic community. That was the way NCAR was conceived.
DeVorkin:Now, that is sort of a reverse of the priorities for AURA.
Yes. It was definitely not first and foremost a facility. The reason was very strongly emphasized in the Berkner Report, which said that the fundamental difficulty with atmospheric sciences or meteorology is that it is not first class science. The fundamental difficulty is that people who can't hack it in mathematics or physics go into meteorology, and meteorology is identified more or less with weather forecasting by intuition and rules of observation and not by theory. Jule Charney was the prime representation, you might say, of good theoretical physics applied to meteorology. There was a great emphasis on fluid dynamics, on the development of dynamical models, following the concepts of L.F. Richardson in the twenties and von Neuman in the forties. There was very, very strong emphasis on the physics of raindrop formation and electricity in the atmosphere, and the role of gases in the radiative balance and budget, and all of those things that were by and large not very much represented.
You remember that in the United States the good scientific work had been mostly frontal analysis that was developed by Rossby and the Scandinavian school, and even that was based to a very substantial extent on observation of fronts and persistence of motion and inertia and all of that, rather than on fundamental fluid dynamics, although Rossby was a solid scientist. This had also been the sharp criticism of the Joe George Committee which preceded the Berkner Committee — that it's an empirical science, and not a very good one. So NCAR was to be a thing that would excite the very best students in college with mathematical and physical skills to look upon atmospheric sciences. That's why we didn't use the word meteorology. To look upon atmospheric sciences as one of the most challenging things they could do with their great physical science skills and chemical science skills. That's the way it's come about, I think.
DeVorkin:Has it come about, to your expectations and hopes?
Roberts:Yes, I think so. Perhaps even more than I dared to hope. I think the atmospheric sciences now are challenging to the very best students, and we get some of the very best into the field. You look around and see sortie of the brilliant young people, like that fellow Steve Schneider who was here when you came in — these are the very best mathematical physicists you can find, and they're applying themselves to these fields and these problems. As von Neuman said, problems of meteorology are perhaps the most challenging physical science problems there are.
DeVorkin:I didn't realize that he was involved that much.
Roberts:Oh my yes. He even wrote an article in FORTUNE, saying that the highest challenge for the application of the digital computer is in meteorology, the most difficult and challenging problem of all.
DeVorkin:Now, that's fascinating. That is really marvelous. Do you know how far back that interest went with von Neuman?
Roberts:Oh yes. You can see von Neuman in 1940 with Harry Wexler and Philip Thompson—oh, I should have pointed out that Charney, Thompson and Phillips were the students of von Neuman and the representatives of von Neuman's view of the importance of mathematical physics to meteorology. Thompson came here as my first associate director. Phillips and Charney both played important roles. Charney was on the board of trustees from the beginning and Phillips has always been very close to us.
DeVorkin:What tradition do people like Greenwood and Turekian come from? There's another fellow who does atmospheric circulation, convective theory? These people, based between Britain and Yale mainly, centered at Yale in the geophysics and geology department.
Roberts:No, I don't know them. I'm sure our people know them but I don't know them.
DeVorkin:Turekian does oceans as well as atmosphere.
Roberts:Karl Turekian, yes. Now, what was the question?
DeVorkin:Well, there are many different styles and types of physicists who attack convective theory, Taylor column theory and things like that, and there are different philosophies of how one goes about these things. I was wondering if they were all represented here at NCAR.
Roberts:Yes, they are indeed, and Owen Phillips from Johns Hopkins, is another of that sort of school of thought. Still another who is out of that school is the guy who succeeded me as president, Francis Bretherton. He considers himself as much oceanographer as he does meteorologist, and he's a brilliant scientist. That's very strongly represented here, yes. Then there's a third school of thought that's the super-sophisticated statisticians like the guy at Princeton, John Tukey, and Jerzy Neyman.
DeVorkin:I was going to ask if Neyman was ever involved.
DeVorkin:Who works with him? Scott?
Roberts:Scott, yes. They've all been involved here. Neyman's a bull in a china shop. Very interesting man.
DeVorkin:Yes. This is moving into one other question, talking about these people with different philosophies. In 1959 you were a member of a planning committee on planetary sciences, set up by Berkner, the AGU president, to organize sessions on space science and to look into the study of the planets from space. Did you ever take an active part in planning long range studies of planetary probes, what eventually was Voyager, then Viking, later Voyager and Pioneer?
Roberts:No. Let me think. You're asking, was I involved in planning any of those missions? I don't have any clear memory of that. I served on so darned many committees. But I did have a great interest in the circulation of Jupiter. Ralph Shapiro had done some work on the changing of the albedo of Jupiter with solar activity, and I felt that if there was a Jupiter circulation change, it might give us some clues to the terrestrial circulation change, and so I was very interested in getting close-ups of Jupiter's "weather". I had less optimism about finding any effect in Mars because of the extremely arid and different environment.
DeVorkin:Do you remember the approximate year for this? Was this early?
Roberts:Yes, Ralph did a very exciting piece of work in about '55 on this. Yes, I must have been involved in some of that, urging that we get accurate photometric data, accurately calibrated absolute photometric data, so we could compare periods of time that were rather far separated, but I don't remember any real details.
DeVorkin:We've already talked about your long interest in some earth effects, weather effects, geomagnetism and weather, and I'm still a bit unclear about your role as opposed to Murray Mitchell's role, in some of your papers; the correlation between sunspot numbers and the High Plains droughts — was he the one who first showed that correlation or was it you?
Roberts:No, I wasn't the first to show it, but it wasn't Murray either. That was shown first by Abbot, and he predicted the drought of the fifties, and I jumped onto his bandwagon. Then, Louis Thompson at Missouri published a paper which I quoted heavily, and a lot of times apparently was credited with doing the work that Louis Thompson did.
DeVorkin:Oh, I see, there was a confusion.
Roberts:Yes, because I popularized his work extensively, and then people didn't note that it said "from Louis Thompson." But then I helped Louis to supervise a thesis, a Ph.D. thesis by a student of his, on that subject, with independent data, and that also showed this recurrence. Then I held two or three conferences out here at HAO, to which I invited Murray, and that's where Murray's real interest in looking at it seriously came from. Then Murray realized that, working with Stockton, he could get a much longer time series of surrogate drought data.
DeVorkin:Yes, because Stockton was doing tree ring stuff. You never knew A.E. Douglas, did you?
Roberts:Oh, sure. I used to go down and see Douglas, and we tried to figure out a way to make an analogue computer that would search for periodicities in his tree ring data. I spent many hours with him at his lab.
DeVorkin:You certainly respected the work that he did, then.
Roberts:Oh yes. I didn't think he'd proven the 11 year cycle, and he thought he did; I didn't think his statistics were adequate to show that. I knew his student, Hal Fritts, very well, and worked a great deal with him, planned several joint efforts. Then some kind of a schism between Fritts and Stockton developed. Fritts got kind of shunted to the side and they worked more or less independently, in the same laboratory, and the really good work got done by Stockton.
DeVorkin:And he was the one you teamed up with.
Roberts:I teamed up with them both. In fact, I teamed up with all three, with Douglas first, then with Fritts, then later with Stockton. But mainly with Murray. Murray chose Stockton as collaborator, and I didn't have so much to do with Stockton, but I did serve as an advisor and critic. Murray would always bring me the results of his findings in advance and ask for criticism and so on.
DeVorkin:I'm curious to ask this question as an aside, about Douglas. There was a short history article written on A.E. Douglas that appeared in ASTRONOMY QUARTERLY a number of years ago. I'm just wondering if you read it.
Roberts:I don't remember it.
DeVorkin:Okay, if you had, I'd ask you if you had any recollections of it. How accurate you thought it was, what kind of personality Douglas was. It concentrated on his problems with Lowell.
Roberts:Well, Douglas was a very blunt character. I liked him and got along with him, but I got along with everybody. I got along with McMath! By the way, I had a very, very close relationship with Allan Waterman, in the earliest years of the Foundation, and with a fellow named Randle Robertson who was Allan's deputy. Randy and Allan were really dedicated to the concept of NCAR. Without their absolutely wholehearted commitment, it never would have happened, because the National Science Board was very skeptical of this mammoth set of committees and so on.
DeVorkin:You mean the National Academy of Science's National Science Board?
DeVorkin:Why so? They have so many committees themselves.
Roberts:Well, you must remember that at the same time, there was movement in oceanography to build an NCAR of oceanography.
Roberts:No. It would have been a private corporation just like our NCAR. There was an idea to combine Woods Hole and Scripps and Miami and three or four centers into a single national laboratory, just like NCAR, with these as their operating facilities — including Alaska, there's an oceanography program up there. They came to the opposite conclusions of the committees of the NCAR.
DeVorkin:Well, opposite to Berkner.
Roberts:Opposite of Berkner, yes. There was a critical meeting of the National Science Board, I guess it was in the fall of '59. I was chairman of a committee of the NSF, to evaluate the idea to create an NCAR, because I had absolutely no intention of being director of NCAR. I had to resign from that because of conflict of interest when I finally accepted the job. But they were to try to present the case in the most objective way to the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation. And so I became very familiar with the politics of all that was going on. There were a couple of members of the National Science Board, and one of them was an oceanographer who was very thoroughly steeped with the view that the oceanographic institutions should remain separate and competitive, rather than all under one super-institution.
DeVorkin:Which is what NCAR would represent for atmosphere.
Roberts:Yes, what NCAR would represent for the MITs and Chicagos and Californias. I suspect there's no way ever to know this — that the decision, the vote that was taken not to give any money to UCAR until they'd named a director and the director had proposed the program, was a delaying move, rather than expectation that that would happen.
DeVorkin:They thought it would create enough confusion.
Roberts:Yes, and delay, so that maybe the whole thing would die. Now, there were some very, very strong supporters of the UCAR concept also on the National Science Board. One of them was Jay Stratton, and I had had talks with Jay, who was a close friend of mine and was then president of MIT, about the idea of creating an NCAR. I was all in favor of creating an NCAR. I just didn't expect to have anything to do with it. He then went to the Ford Foundation, I believe, and we were hoping to get a chunk of money from the Ford Foundation.
Roberts:No, no – for NCAR. We also set up a huge industry meeting in New York, chaired by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., and a couple of others, and the Board of Trade threw a big party at the Waldorf Astoria to announce the creation of a national laboratory program and a new program in meteorology that would include the two other objectives of the Berkner Report. I attended because of my interest in the subject. I sat in the upper balconies listening to all the praise and plaudits and so on, and of course I had already known Tom Watson extremely well, and I talked to Tom about the importance of doing this.
DeVorkin:These were all stages toward gaining acceptance.
Roberts:Yes, public acceptance of the idea of a new program in atmospheric science, including an NCAR. It was this disagreement on the board that led to the very strong role given to the director, and put the primary drive of the UCAR board then towards choosing a director. They thought that if Jim Van Allen would take it, because of his great prestige and also he's a very solid guy — but Jim was dedicated mainly to space, and he was going great guns with the discovery of the Van Allen Belts and all that, and he just couldn't be attracted away. He had much the same view as I did about preferring a small group. As I say, Herb Friedman was not well enough to do it. Whether he would have or not, I don't know.
DeVorkin:But he was also dedicated to space.
Roberts:Yes, he was. But he was also dedicated to astronomy in general. In all the testimony before Congress and so on, the inclusion of the sun had been a fundamental idea of the atmospheric scientists. It was not just the atmosphere of the earth, it was the atmosphere of the sun and planets. Pat McTaggart Cowan of Canada who was probably the best known forecaster in World War II, among all the Allies — it's rumored that no general would fly across the Atlantic unless Pat made the forecast!
DeVorkin:What was his role in all of this?
Roberts:He was head of the Canadian Met Service, I believe, and a brilliant, brilliant man, very close friend of mine. Anyway, Pat made the comment in testimony, spontaneously in response to a question from some Senator, "The atmosphere of earth begins in the surface of the sun, extends to the bottoms of the oceans, and to the farthest reaches of the planets."
DeVorkin:Fascinating. Good quote. Very nice quote.
Roberts:Yes. Anyway, it was because of that emphasis on the director that, when I had refused to take the position, which I think was in November, Dick Kassander of the University of Arizona got to working behind the scenes. He was on the UCAR board and head of the Atmospheric Sciences Laboratory at the University of Arizona, which was one of the good ones. But he was a friend of mine from college days, and so he was chosen by the board to try to talk me into it. Instead of going directly, he talked to Waterman, and he talked to the president of the University of Colorado, who was my close friend and strong supporter here.
DeVorkin:So he was lining up allies.
Roberts:He was lining up allies to talk me into taking the job. I think it was November, December of '59, when I declined, and then in '60, March or thereabouts, they came back to me. The president of Colorado and Dick Kassander and I met in the president's residence in front of a roaring fire, on a cold cold night, and talked until about 3:00 A.M., and the president said he thought that as a member of the faculty of the University of Colorado and all that sort of stuff, it was in the interests of the university if the High Altitude Observatory would leave the university and go to NCAR.
Roberts:I had said to Dick Kassander that I didn't believe in laying any conditions down for acceptance, but that I had no intention of leaving the High Altitude Observatory, and secondly, I had no intention of leaving Boulder, and thirdly, I had no intention of going the rest of my life without graduate students around. At that time the location of NCAR was open. It could be anywhere in the country, and nobody had any thought of incorporating the High Altitude Observatory into NCAR.
DeVorkin:I didn't know that. So it wasn't predetermined that it would be here.
Roberts:No. It was agreed that it would not affiliate with any other institution, and it was agreed that it would not have graduate students. So I wasn't making any conditions. I said, if I were to become president, then I would immediately start working as hard as I could to achieve these three objectives, Boulder and so on. I remember, the board asked me in – I guess you wouldn't call it a hearing — but it was an interview I had with the whole board at which they asked what I'd do if that didn't happen. I said, "You could find yourself another director." But I didn't want to make it a condition of acceptance because I didn't believe in that. So finally I took it without any agreement on those points. I said I didn't want an agreement on those points, but I let them know that if it happened I would immediately go to work. Then I went to work with Allan Waterman, convincing them that that was the wish of the newly chosen director and president, and since the National Science Board wanted the president's view, I wrote the plan of what I conceived, and it was quite different from the "Bible".
DeVorkin:You had the support of the president of the University of Colorado.
DeVorkin:He wanted HAO to be asociated with NCAR.
DeVorkin:But he already knew that that's what you wanted.
Roberts:Oh yes, I'd talked to him about that. I'd told him I wasn't going to leave HAO. No matter what. That was the rest of my life.
DeVorkin:That's quite interesting. So all of this came about as you wanted it.
Roberts:Yes. If HAO hadn't merged in, I would have left UCAR in a year or two. I had agreed to stay long enough to get it going.
DeVorkin:Understood. How about the site here on Table Mesa?
Roberts:I chose this also, because I'd had my eye on this site for a long time and wanted to build an institute of technology here. I wanted an institute of technology to rival Cal Tech, here in Colorado. I wanted to build it up here, and I'd talked to the Ford Foundation, asking for a four million dollar grant to build an institute of technology if I could get a similar pledge from the state. Actually Carl Bergmann at the Ford Foundation then, had originally planted the seed of the idea.
DeVorkin:When was that?
Roberts:'55 or so, I guess.
DeVorkin:That's quite an interesting thing. Whatever happened to that?
Roberts:It died, or perhaps was never born.
DeVorkin:But it leads me into something very important, which is one of my last questions. With your obvious interest in supporting technology and applied basic research, solving problems, major problems, you've written many times on this issue, science and society, especially in the late sixties. I'd like to have your feelings about the distinction between science and technology, because as I read some of your articles, you were talking about the good and bad in science, how science can lead us to a better world but it also creates bigger problems, that sort of thing. You looked to "bringing the whole globe under continuous weather observation by the mid-1970s." You see this as a scientific achievement. I'd like to have your views on what is science and what is technology.
I wrote a paper on that once. I gave it up at Aspen. I feel, unlike many of my colleagues, that I don't really see such a strong distinction between science and technology. I wish I could remember the words I used in this, but I copied them from Harvey Brooks, and in my view, technology is a part of science, of knowledge. Quoting Harvey: "Technology is essentially a specifiable and reproducible way of doing things." For me, the key element of technology is to be able to say precisely how to do something, or precisely how to make something in a reproducible way, so every qualified person can do it or make it. Technology is not hardware, it is knowledge.
For me, science is also knowledge. It is knowledge of the way things seem to work; it's ultimate justification is not "truth" but usefulness. If it works, if it enables reproducible ways to making things that work, then it is good science. Thus, for me at least, science and technology are not so markedly different. With the science and technology we have, there is a great prospect that we can feed and clothe and educate and culturally enrich all of the billions that now people our planet, and all the added billions that will join spaceship earth in the next 50 years or so. The shortfall, if we are to fall short, will be in human will, human morality, and not in knowledge.
And that is the source both of my optimism and of my pessimism. I consider building a very sophisticated instrument like that one downstairs part of science, because you have to understand its function, and you have to make it function according to a theory, and discover why it doesn't function right, if it doesn't. It's just as much knowledge-based or knowledge-oriented as pure theory. So, for my own part, I really don't make a distinction, unless it's a rather superficial one, namely, that this machine is technology, and the philosophy of writing what it does is knowledge.
But I consider engineers to be scientists, and scientists to be engineers. It isn't, to me, any good to develop theory in the abstract unless you can conceive of a way—this probably comes out of Bridgeman's philosophy of operationalism, that you don't understand something until you can devise a way of measuring it. Yes, and you can't devise a way of measuring it until you've described the operation by which you make the ruler that you lay down, and the way you tell the end of the ruler and all that. That, you would normally call engineering or technology, but to me, it's part of science. It's part of understanding what you're doing. I'm a little tired now, so I can't reconstruct all of that clearly, but I do have a paper that I wrote on that subject. But my view is very similar to that of Harvey Brooks, from whose writ¬ings I learned a lot of it.
DeVorkin:Okay. Do you have a full vita, that I could obtain a copy of, so we could have it for our records?
Roberts:You mean the list of publications or a vita?
Roberts:I've got both.
DeVorkin:Those would be very helpful to us in your file, because we've referred to a lot of things you've written and it will help me locate them eventually. We've had a very long interview and I know you're quite tired.
Roberts:Well, I am a little tired.
DeVorkin:Thank you very much for it. Oh gosh, We didn't talk about the Federation of American Scientists or the Joint Commission on High Altitude Research. Is there anything you feel important to discuss there?
Roberts:Well, I've always been extremely active in the move to control atomic energy in the forties and fifties, and I still am active. I'm still on the advisory board of the Federation. I've been a reader of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from the first day of its publication, and the people involved are mostly good friends of mine. I've had some disagreements with Federation positions from time to time, but shucks, you have that with everybody. I'm more of a compromiser than most people. Did you read the biography of me by Bill Golden?
Roberts:Because he expressed the way I feel about myself better than anybody else has.
DeVorkin:Oh good, that's good to know.
Roberts:I will almost always avoid a confrontation, try to win my objective by convincing somebody it was their idea, or at least that it's a good idea from their standpoint.
DeVorkin:That's good technique.
Roberts:I don't really think I have any enemies in the world.
DeVorkin:Okay, and finally, the Joint Commission on High Altitude Research, what was that?
Roberts:I don't remember what that is; I would have to check the files.
DeVorkin:Okay, it wasn't major in your work.
Roberts:The major things that I've been connected with are: IFIAS, the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, which was formed by Arne Tesilius, and I was a founding trustee; Mitre Corporation, which I've been in nearly since its founding; the World Meteorological Organization, through the advisory committee; and ICSU, International Council of Scientific Unions, through various committees and so on that I've served on. It was in that capacity that I did all my IGY work. The United World Federalists, which I was involved in in early years but of course it's not an active movement any more.
DeVorkin:What phase of your life do you look at — and this I promise will be my last question — what phase of your life, international organizations, world peace, weather solar physics, do you see as the most satisfying in your life? You've had so many different facets to your life.
Roberts:Gosh! I feel they were all satisfying. I'm deeply involved of course now in world food problems and agriculture, world agriculture, desertification controls. That's what I spend most of my time on now, but I've found every phase of it rewarding. I must say that I find it rewarding nowadays to be free of the administrative responsibilities. I never objected to having to raise money, but I found it very hard work. I didn't have a reluctance to go and ask anybody for money — in terms of contracts or just grants, I've always enjoyed that — but it's very demanding work and requires a lot of travel. One of the things that I enjoy now is not traveling as much as I used to. But I can't say that any one phase was more rewarding than any other. I have less worries now. I used to be anxious, in the early days. I thought my staff might go hungry if we didn't rustle up enough financial support.
DeVorkin:Do you see anything as your major success?
Roberts:I didn't mention this, but I had the advantage in a way of either being or feeling totally financially independent. I inherited a substantial amount of money, or rather, I would have inherited a substantial amount of money except that I told my uncle I didn't want it, shortly before his death.
DeVorkin:Is this the same uncle you talked about?
Roberts:Yes, Walter Orr, and he ended up being very wealthy, and he's the one who sent me through college. We became very, very close in the years I was pounding the pavements in New York. I stayed at his apartment. He was a very distinguished New York lawyer. He created the Sloan Foundation; he was Alfred Sloan's personal tax lawyer. He represented J.P. Morgan in the famous "midget" trial, and he also was Allan Kirby's lawyer -for awhile in the Pennsylvania Railroad deal. I told him that I really wanted to live on my own income, I didn't want to live on his inheritance. So he gave his money away to charity anonymously. My sister and I agreed, neither of us took a penny. Well, I shouldn't say we didn't take a penny, we took very modest sums.
DeVorkin:But you had that sense of independence.
Roberts:Well, I've always saved money. We've always lived modestly. I've always put money away every month, and I feel rich. So I've never worried about money personally, but I always worried about my staff, until recently.
DeVorkin:So now it's a relief.
Roberts:Yes, now it's a relief to be free of any administrative responsibility.
DeVorkin:Remarkable. So now you're worrying about the world's health.
DeVorkin:Well, thank you so much.
Roberts:Thanks. It's been a pleasant interview.