Oral History Transcript — Dr. Fletcher Watson
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Interview with Dr. Fletcher Watson
Fletcher Watson; November 20, 1990
ABSTRACT: In this interview, Watson begins with a discussion of his early education and his introduction to science and astronomy, then continues to discuss: his undergraduate experiences at Pomona College, and his move to graduate school at Harvard University; his professional and social relationship with Harlow Shapley; his recollections of other physicists and scholars at Harvard including Bark Bok, Donald Menzel, Cecelia Payne Gaposchkin, Annie Jump Cannon, Dorrit Hoffleit; his move into the field of astronomy education; his work at Harvard College Observatory; and a broad comparison between a career as a scholar and a career as an educator. Other affiliations and topics discussed include: Walter Whitney, meteor observation and meteorite craters.
Doel:I know that you were born in California — or that may not be true —
Watson:I was born in Baltimore because my parents were from the south and we lived in Baltimore until I was three and then my family moved to California in 1915.
Doel:Right. You were born on April 27, 1912.
Watson:Yes. I was the fourth child in the family; one through five. The first child, my older brother (my only brother) Donald, was nine years older than I was because the two in between had died. That was probably the status of affairs at that time. The folks were sort of happy to move to California— with the spindly little creature they had—and look after me. I think that influenced my mother to be willing to move away from her family who were all around Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. She had been born in XXX, Maryland, just down the Potomac from Baltimore. So she moved to California; a long, long way in 1915. She was very isolated but they figured the chance of me surviving were better in California. I never got any information from my parents as to why they chose to move. I don't know.
Doel:What did your father do?
Watson:He was a Methodist minister. He was in the Baltimore conference and he had churches around in that area. My brother was born in Minden. I was born in Arlington, which is a part of Baltimore. It was right across the street from the racetrack where they had the —
Doel:Don't worry about it. We can always put it on the transcripts later on. What kind of early schooling did you have?
Watson:We went to public school. My mother thought she had such a brilliant child, by definition. She taught me to read and I have the book over there she taught me to read out of. She entered me in the second grade to start with. My brother skipped third grade. Along the line we were precocious children, by definition. They were admiring parents.
Doel:You were reading already then, of course?
Watson:Well, she squeezed me in some how. I don't have memory of the details about it but I started school in Englewood in the second grade.
Doel:Do you remember reading much science when you were younger? Were you interested in science?
Somewhere along the line after we moved from — you should know Methodist ministers are moved every two to three years, which makes it very difficult on the family to have any continuity. So, we were first in Santa Anna in 1915 for one or maybe two years, then we were moved to Englewood where I started school, then we were moved up in the valley to Visalia, and then Waukeen Valley. We were there during World War II. I remember the Armistice Day and the bells ringing and such, in 1918. Then my brother was going to college. They were sending him to USC, which had been a Methodist school. My father was very sympathetic to church hierarchy and so they moved us south to Los Angeles, a little church in the western part of Los Angeles — Peacle Heights. He [brother] could then attend USC and live at home, with a minimal expense. We were there for probably three years, or maybe four. I remember when President Harding died, there was an eclipse that went over Catalina Island somewhere along the line and it was right under Mt. Wilson. Somehow in a moment of enthusiasm I had decided that I wanted to be an astronomer. [It] was fourth or fifth grade; a ten year old kid. I didn't know what it was about. It was a glamorous thing. My music teacher—I was taking piano lessons—and the other people around were — they gasped and applauded, and sent me stuff to read, so I started reading about astronomy in a very remote, distant, summarized fashion. In those years when I was in the fifth and sixth grade, I remember that I gave some kind of talk to the sixth grade teacher on the planets or something. It was no big deal. I had a copy of the stars. It had just come out about that time. I have it around here somewhere. I don't know what was the date of the first publication.
I believe I had stars XXX so I was wise because I had read a little book! I had sort of trapped myself and every time anybody began to suggest some other kind of career line my mother would answer that one of her sons was going to be a doctor! and it was a good thing! My brother ended up as a physics teacher in high school and a college professor at San Diego, and then assistant to the President and Senior Dean at San Diego State College. Everything changed enormously for him during his lifetime. The other child [me] ended up going into astronomy and ended up in something along way from medicine and my poor mother was a bit frustrated but didn't do anything to try to talk me out of it. Of course the family didn't know anything about any of these jobs. There was no such thing as guidance. You just grew up, if you were lucky and didn't die or get killed, and you got a job. I don't recall having any questions about what astronomers do or who pays them. I knew they were paid by somebody — either the observatory or a physical entity. Even through college when I was more involved with the activities, I still probably had enough sense to ask the practical questions. That is how I guess I drifted into it — I fell into it or something or other. Harvard was so kind as to offer me a scholarship as a graduate student, and nobody else did. That was in 1932 or 1933.
Doel:Before we get to the Harvard period, I would like to ask you a few more things about the work you had done at — when you were in high school did you have much experience in mathematics and astronomy?
Watson:I took all the science courses and the math courses; trigonometry, that was the top of the line. I had such background as was available in science and mathematics. In college I had a major in astronomy and sort of a joint minor in mathematics and physics.
Doel:Pomona College. You got your AB in 1933. Did you enter that in 1929?
Watson:We were living at that time in Monrovia, the TB town. It was the town of TB hospitals because it was a dry area and very warm. It was very pleasant but it was only six miles from Pasadena. I had whooping cough and I literally graduated from high school coughing on the platform! My mother decided that I was too young and a little weak and since I had no commitment to "a" college, as such. My sister-in-law had gone to Pomona and the family were sympathetic to a place in the astronomy department. So I went to Pasadena Junior College for a year. I was there when two things happened: the crash of 1929 and Pluto was discovered. That was a big year. I also took chemistry and I wore a leather jacket and spilled enough acids on the coat so that the sleeve was all eaten up with acid and so on. That was a big year! It was overwhelming to think that I lived through all that. I must have done some other things. We had dancing classes too. I didn't dance. [My parents] didn't disapprove but then nothing was done to support it. Some of us got together and started a little activity.
Watson:Yes, small things. I had a little car and went back and forth to PJC (Pasadena Junior College). It was one of the first junior colleges in the country at that time; apparently it's a very large institution now.
Doel:Did you attend there for two years?
Watson:One. Just the first year. Then they decided I should go to college. They chose, and I guess I acquiesced, on Pomona. There were relatives nearby.
Doel:Were there any choices in mind that you would have preferred to go to?
Watson:Well, as a possibility—not a choice—Cal-Tech, which was in Pasadena, too. Some of the kids I knew in high school—one or two—went to Cal-Tech. But I lost a year of contact with them and the family pretty much had settled on Pomona and I went along with it. I don't have any real recollection of any discussion. We might have talked about it but there was no alternates dangled out; no choice. It was obvious.
Doel:Who is on the astronomy faculty at Pomona?
Watson:At that time a gentleman named Walter Whitney and I have a booklet about the college, and the names of all the students and professors and things in it, including Walter Whitney. He had come from the University of Chicago in physics and he was an amiable. His wife apparently had some money — she wore three diamond rings at a time and they drove a cadillac. She was a little overwhelming and was not very much interested in the college but it was a job of a sort. I don't think Walter Whitney needed the money but it was something to do so he was an instructor. I was just about his only significant student in his general class and there were just one or two people taking any advanced courses.
Doel:So he was the one faculty member you really had the most contact with?
Watson:The physics gentleman was Ronald Tilston and he was very pleasant and supportive. I don't remember much about him. I don't think he had any peculiar mannerisms of speech. I had three years with him. He was a nice guy. I must have known a lot of nice guys along the way but I remember him.
Doel:Did Whitney talk to you much about Harvard and other possibilities? I am wondering how that decision to apply to Harvard came about?
Watson:There were probably things going on behind the scenes that I didn't know about but during the senior year I was borrowing my girlfriends Ford Runabout, which I see on the ads now in 1934 with the jumpseat. I was going every week to Pasadena—it is about 20 miles across there—to attend the what they called the . . . somebody on the staff made a presentation for a paper session. There was some name for it, that reviewed some of their own work or someone else's work in the meeting on Wednesday morning at 10:00 or 11:00. Seth Nicholson who was on the staff at Mt. Wilson. He was a very nice guy, very kind to me and had two kids of his own. I think his daughter went into science somewhere along the line. Anyway, they arranged giving me permission to attend this session. They were all big-shots. I could sit in the corner and listen. I missed the day that Einstein was there — I must have been sick or something.
Watson:He was director. He seemed to me a dower, doer kind of a guy; quiet and maybe scotch. He was very calm through it all and remote. They had permitted me to come and watch what was going on. I began to do a little reading in the library. I was doing an honors thesis in college and I needed to get some more things. Pomona is a library you did not have — I don't know, I wrote to a variety of colleges to inquire about scholarships. They included Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, and there may have been one or two others. They all wrote back with nice letters saying, like at Chicago, 'we would be happy for me to come and if all goes well in the second year we may be able to give you some kind of a stipend.' Since I had no money I couldn't come the first year to get to the second year! I was very excited when I got a telegram from Harvard. They offered me a scholarship — $750 for the year. I would be a part-time teaching assistant. I would go and do the dirty work with Bart Bok. That was the only offer I had. I explored a number—four or five—of places. I may have tried Princeton as well but I don't remember now. That was a good long time ago. But I was very excited and I sent a telegram back because I got a letter from Shapley . . . and sent a telegram saying I accept the acceptance as my Christmas present (1932). I didn't know what I was getting in for. I knew Harvard was a long way from XXX — clear across the river sticks; the Colorado River would XXX the sticks. The border became life in California and the rest of the world.
Doel:You had to really travel — well, had you (besides when you were born of course?
Watson:No, my mother and brother and I went east one summer. I was probably nine or ten. He wasn't in college yet I don't think. With my mother's family we were out in Washington D.C. and in Baltimore. We went east and visited my grandmother — she was still alive and then she came to visit with us in California for a couple of weeks. It took a long time on a slow train and such. She had probably expected to see wild indians and such but we showed her around. I remember her being there but not very much about it. Of course she was my grandmother and you respected grandmothers and stayed out of their way.
Doel:What kind of impressions did you have of Harvard and the department once you were there?
Watson:Well, I came east with two friends. One had been summa and one was a magna on graduation, XXX and Bob Brown who had been admitted to the law school. So I came east by ship through the canal, the grace line was running; two or three weeks through the canal and I arrived in New York. I met Luther Lee in New York. He had driven east; he had a little car — a little Ford. We stayed in New York a couple of days and then drove up to Boston and stayed at the XXX Hotel in Boston. They were passing out slips . . . it could be $1.00 a night or something — we were right in the middle of the Depression. We didn't have any money and they didn't have any money but they wanted to do that. We started there and then we had to look around for some place to stay at Harvard. We ended up in a rooming house quite close to the law school on Melon Street. You don't know the Cambridge Dean, anyway three blocks from the law school and about a quarter to half a mile from the observatory. It was convenient. We divided up the rent and we lived there that first year. The second year — I got married in December of 1935. That was my third year. We had had two years — the reason that I am thinking about it is apparently without telling us Luther had failed a course in the law school the first year so that when exams came the second year he had to take an extra exam and make it up. He couldn't do it. He left abruptly. When Bob and I got up one morning the bed was empty and a note saying he was off to see XXX or something . . . He just didn't want us to worry about him and he quit there; then he had a rough time getting his folks to agree. He wanted to go into political science instead of law. His father worked with Southern California Edison and so Luther ended up going to University of California-Berkeley in political science and ultimately was a professor at Pomona.
Doel:Complete the circle of sorts.
Watson:Bob Brown, we just talked to the other day, has been with XXX, Brown and Fish here in Boston — a big law firm. He became a partner. He is a very tall and imposing man. They lived out in Wellesley. Now he is retired and gone off to a retirement center. We saw his picture in the newspaper and so I called him the other day. They were just fine. An important thing probably is that the first winter I was here I had, as you know in California there is a quite different climate. So a day like this would have been quite a shock.
Doel:Right. High temperatures in the upper 40s.
Watson:When Christmas came I was to go to Washington on the train and back to see the family down there. Some day in there around Christmas—before Christmas perhaps—the temperature in Cambridge was -18 degrees! Alice had some kind of dentist appointment or a music lesson or something . . . and something was wrong and the thermometer stuck. It was -18 degrees and it was stuck! So she went out and did whatever she had to do and I managed to get the ends of my fingers, my nose and my ears nipped. I had a polo coat which I thought was a warm winter coat but it was quite a winter. It was very, very cold. We sat over the radiator with forced hot air in this house.
Watson:I have never been so cold. There was an astronomical meeting over that Christmas period; half the people came to it from around here should have known better and they got frosted ears and noses. It was very, very cold and has never been so cold again. That was my first winter and I thought it was always that way.
Doel:That would make a strong impression!
Watson:Yes, having had an interest in meteors which had been reported in the XXX by Whitney, we did a project . . . well, Leon went back to 1932 or 1933 —
Watson:And we ran some cameras and tried to do some stuff, and I got some photographs. I did my honors paper on one of them so that when I came here I was attached—sort of—under the wing of Fisher. He was a nice gentleman with a long mustache and very quiet; a modest man and the heir apparent to whatever Peter Millman had done. He had just finished up his thesis on spectra meteors and gone off to Canada. So I was allowed to fit in some how. A fair amount of observing which was naked eye observing or running cameras in the middle of the night, usually when it got cold. And, it got colder and colder and colder. So I had an introduction to meteor observing — naked eye observing. No one had any machinery other than cameras to do anything and I wanted some other kinds of information. I gradually got —
Doel:This is the couple that —
Watson:Robert Brown and his wife. My best man in our wedding!
Doel:That's good to know. To see him in the newspaper is a little different — that's wonderful!
Watson:He was very successful and very happy. He was very embarrassed about this. It was supposed to be a local picture and I didn't expect anything and suddenly here it is in the newspaper. I was out doing observations in the cold —
Doel:This is already the first year that you were out?
Watson:Yes. Part of the aviance was that you did things if you were at the observatory. You joined the staff — you were low level, of course but you did like the staff members. So we were all active with one thing or another. Graduate students could likewise learn —
Doel:Were you particularly interested in studying meteors when you came to Harvard?
Watson:That is the only thing I knew anything about. I didn't know much but I had a general knowledge. There was a target that was exciting and Harvard had had a meteor project under Opik. Do you know him?
Watson:They had had a meteor project in Arizona but I didn't know about it until I got here. There had been an interest in this line of activities.
Doel:Opik had left already to go back to Estonia at the time.
Watson:Yes. He came back once and I think he was here in a summer for a few weeks. Ultimately it was anticipated that I would have a third year of my studies—or it was suggested—on a traveling scholarship and go to Estonia and work with him [Opik] but I decided to stay here and get married. So I never did the traveling. My German was not very good and I didn't know what else languages they used in Estonia — maybe some Russian. I was happy to stay here.
Doel:How did you meet Alice?
Watson:When I was at the observatory she worked as an au pair girl for the Shapley's when she went to Radcliffe; graduating in 1932, she lived up at a place that helped look after children up on XXX Street, which she did not like very much. She was looking around for some place better than that and Mrs. Shapley needed somebody to help with her five children. She wanted somebody who spoke German, which Alice did not speak. Anyway, she got interviewed and got chosen. She lived there for three years with the family, where she had the benefit of contact with adults. After she had graduated she had the privilege of staying over any time she was in town. Often when they had a party she would be sure to invite Alice. When I was around I met her through that at the observatory. I remember one night we had been somewhere—to a play or something—and we got back to the house and I think XXX was there playing the violin. It was very nice. Shapley's were very kind to us. They had a daughter and four sons. Their daughter was in music and such; and the boys were nice boys as well. I think they are still alive; most of them very important at the Smithsonian or something of that sort and with the bureau of the budget, that kind of thing with four boys — they were smart. They were very kind to Alice and they gave us XXX on our wedding, and other things of that sort. I was so far from my family. I was quite happy having someone acting as local parents. Alice's mother had died and her father was not well. They had been rather modest. He was a house painter and carver — did tricky things on doors and stuff; something a good painter could do. They were modest people. So, she had an inclusion into contacts that otherwise she wouldn't have had.
Doel:What impressions did you have of Shapley? What much chance did you have to talk to him?
Watson:Ultimately I was — executive secretary —
Doel:Right. You became that right after you got your Ph.D. in 1938, didn't you?
Watson:It started before then. Shapley had a way of maneuvering and such, and somebody else . . .how do you support students by keeping money in the family so I ended up teaching navigation of which I knew relatively nothing. We are talking to the guy now teaching navigation and he called up and said 'my god, I didn't realize you taught navigation' and I said 'oh yeah, clear back in 1939.' I was teaching an astronomy class at Radcliffe; all to bring in a little money, to keep it in the family. Shapley didn't—we were busy, of course—want to be concerned with the details of the budget and one thing or another so he needed somebody to take over that where he was making the decisions and somebody else could do the watch-dogging. So I was executive secretary — sort of a "go for", doing all the things that needed to be done. The guy who had this job—Rohring Andrews, who was a very handsome gentleman—decided to leave the observatory after he had gotten his degree in 1928 or 1929. He moved to somewhere in Arizona. He died a couple of years ago. The job was less XXX and occupied . . .
Doel:Did you welcome that at the time?
Watson:Oh yes, sure. I kept the numbers up on the various accounts and I'd go to the boss and say we're getting pretty close to not having any money and it was about the first of April or something, and then [Shapley] would say 'oh yeah, ok' and then he would send some letters to the visiting committee members, his friends, and others and then checks would begin to come in just before your bill closed. It was very nicely arranged.
Doel:He was regarded as one of the best money-raisers in astronomy.
Watson:Probably he was. I wouldn't know. I was too busy collecting the money that I didn't really see on the outside. I really wasn't aware of what he was doing internationally when he was helping to rescue various people in Germany and in Italy, and such. There were a lot of people who began to flow through the observatory but the staff XXX got jobs elsewhere but I didn't know how it happened — it just did. Shapley was very much involved in international affairs and as you know he got blasted by the McCarthy committee. I have a copy of that — the issue of Life magazine had a picture of McCarthy in it and I was reminded of that very unhappy time.
Doel:Of course that affected a number of people at the observatory. At times they also had to go to the XXX committee.
Watson:I didn't realize that. I didn't remember. I was so far down in the structure that I didn't discuss politics. It was a business. We talked astronomy, not politics. I could talk politics at somebody's tea, about McCarthy or something, but not at the Observatory. Also I was—and probably still am—naive about what was going on. There is probably a lot that was happening and I could have known about it but I didn't ever pick it out. I was a XXX boy and I remember one day I was supposed to go down and meet the ship from England and welcome Luigi Jacchia and his mother. I went down and helped them get through Customs. I picked them up and drove them to the observatory. A German fellow on variable stars —
Watson:I remember XXX — he's Chec. He was a smart guy and had a pretty wife. They used to do interesting things at the parties. He was a big heavy guy — I should know his name.
Doel:We can put that in the record later.
Watson:Yes, on variable stars and Shapley rescued him out of Germany. He was Jewish and he [Shapley] got him out before he got picked up. I was around all those things but really was not aware of them as real things happen.
Doel:You could see the effects of people coming in?
Watson:Yes, but it wasn't getting to my brain unfortunately.
Doel:One of the things I guess I want to talk to you about is who you regarded as your mentor during the first year?
Watson:Bart Bok. I was his teaching assistant for three years. I was his lab assistant. He was Dutch, of course, and he had a very interesting phraseology. When he felt unsure of something he always "isn't" it. He was know as "isn't" Bok. He died about a year ago out in Arizona. I should have written when he was around, after he came back from Australia but I didn't. He was kindly—sometimes he would pat you on the back (high on the back) and sometimes low on the back. He was a sympathetic person. I remember when his daughter was born he was around the office, sweating out the day while his wife was in the hospital and Joyce was born. They lived for awhile somewhere down on the edge of Belmont. Of course being Dutch they had tulips. The story was that one day he and his wife had been out somewhere to XXX somewhere. They came in and lo and behold! there were tulips which had just come out and they were so proud of them, and down! all cut off! Joyce was home and they said 'what happened here Joyce, do you know anything about it?' And she said 'well maybe a dog did it.' Ha! Joyce had gone out and cut them all off. Some of things became sort of part of a gesture, you know, to throw away — 'maybe a dog did it.' That was part of our family repertoire. Bart wanted to be—I think, we never discussed it—director of the observatory after Shapley retired, which was along somewhere in the mid-1960s —
Doel:1950s was when —
Watson:Bart did not get the nod so he realized that he was out of the contention. There was a certain amount of tension between he and Menzel. Menzel became the director ultimately with the support probably of XXX, Cecelia Gaposchkin. Those were the primary staff members that I remember. He did all the spectra work there, XXX Cannon. I knew her casually. She was around; she was a great figure. I have a picture of her somewhere going from the observatory—she lived on XXX Street—at lunch and I had my camera so I took a picture of her. I didn't know her and she was not involved in the running of the observatory in any way. She was a free soul; very quiet and very steadfast. Cecelia was the only woman who intruded into the power structure. She was a strong, aggressive lady. When she married Gaposchkin everybody was surprised. Alice's brother—younger brother, she had three—was working at the observatory part-time. He was a Harvard student. One day he was called into the director's office and said well 'Edward here is some money and you are to go down to such and such a ship and get a bunch of roses and wait there at the entrance of the ship—the gangway—until somebody comes along you recognize and present the roses for us.' So he went off and no one knew about it. Finally, to his surprise, he saw Cecelia and Sergei coming aboard because Shapley knew they had been married and were taking a boat to New York. So he made a presentation on the dock.
Doel:That is interesting.
Watson:Yes, these may be of some amusement in your history because it's not just all names and dates, they are things that happened; some of which you remember and some of which you don't remember.
Doel:I was curious when you mentioned Bart playing the mentor. Of course his main work had not been meteors but did you talk with him? Was he interested in the project—the meteor project—as it was developing?
Watson:Not really. I was just a graduate student and he was kindly toward me and all of that but I don't know that there was a meteor project as such. Shapley sort of allowed me to do things. There wasn't anybody else at that time doing much. There was one undergraduate at that time named Edward Cook. He and I published a paper. I wrote it and he put his name on it, trying to do things but there was no organized effort just whatever happened that interested me and seemed appropriate to do.
Doel:Willard Fisher was there and he had some interest of the developing of meteorite craters and Whipple had, of course, gotten somewhat interested in meteors by the middle 1930s; and Dorrit Hoffleit was also interested. Millman, you said, had already graduated and got his degree and left. Did you have the sense of the questions that were coming out of the reduction in the observations from the Harvard-Cornell expedition? Was that something that you recall hearing discussions about? The Arizona expedition. Boothroyd was —
Watson:Now I remember. Boothroyd had some involvement but reductions were done, I believe, in Estonia and published by XXX. At one time I wanted to believe them and then I oscillated between accepting them and not accepting them; you ended up with a lot of hyperbolic meteors. I was probably torn. Now I don't believe they are hyperbolic meteors. There may be a very few but the evidence seems . . . at the time.
Doel:Do you remember discussions about his results?
Watson:No. We were all XXX separate; each one was playing his own little game. Dorrit eventually became a graduate student and such. She was sort of like me — a hanger-on, doing jobs with variable stars and things to earn enough money. I know that she did eventually did get a degree and became a professor somewhere but I have lost track of all that. There was no general discussion. Fred Whipple, down the road here, would tell you that he had his own suspicions about acceptance of what they reported but that was his —
Doel:That is interesting to get that sense of how things were. I think it was C. C. Wylie out in Iowa who in the 1930s had been doing experiments on visual observations. His feeling was that people had begun exaggerating the pathways and therefore one had higher velocities.
Watson:When we went to California in XXX was born—our oldest son—in 1939, August. The next summer must have been 1940. We stopped off in Iowa City to see Wylie and gave a class or a seminar or something. My wife was running around the town—there was a tornado or something—and all the billboards were blowing down. We were wondering what was happening and people said there was a tornado! I had correspondence with a lot of these people but I don't have any image of Wylie as a person. I don't remember — I met a number of time H. H. Nininger, a farmer from the midwest. He had begun collecting, of all crazy things, meteorites. Nininger was beginning to be interested in collecting meteorites. He'd come through a few times because I was interested in things like that and I had written to him a bit. I don't think I ever visited his home; I may have but I don't believe I did. I was going to California occasionally, over the weekend. When my parents were alive, we went out in 1940; both parents were alive. No, no. We were married in 1935 and went out to California in 1936. My father was still alive; he died before I finished my thesis in 1938. After that when we went out the next time it was just to see my mother and then she got ill and went into a retirement home in Claremont. I went out to see her a number of times. I don't know if I remember seeing Nininger's place. He came to talk to me and we had XXX or something at the Harvard faculty XXX. After the war they had brought it in. I know my mother came east one summer and I took her to lunch there and she . . . with the race horses and she was aghast! that Harvard had horse races . . . too many public places. We were at a little church on XXX Road. I think it is just across the street from XXX. I have been there once, in the 1950s or 1960s. They drove me past the place . . .
Doel:How did you come to your dissertation topic?
Watson:I had a long — I don't think anybody suggested it. I think it sort of just evolved. It had a rather fancy title. There are copies laying around here; small bodies in the origin of the solar system. It glamorized that I had been interested in meteorites and making some activity on asteroids as such, and I wrote a paper all about XXX; the physical nature of XXX.
Doel:That was when you had analyzed the light curve and had determined the likelihood of it being an elliptical or rectangular body.
Watson:Like a brick — a physical object XXX and a XXX looking at XXX rotating in what directions you see it so that you got the maximum change in light and some of the work of 1941 had a maximum period where some place you could look in the sky and it would not show any variation . . . At least that was the impression I had. So, I kept trying to bring all these variety of things in so many years as such . . . as with the Giocobinid, then you began to think about that they came from comets and then what was a comet . . . years later. You had a variety of kinds of objects out there in between the planets. I like to think that I was one of the first to begin to look at the vastness of the space between the planets and the variety of small objects of which we had only occasional contact, that were out there somewhere flying around in the night and something of that sort. We were trying to pull these things together . . . for the dissertation and ultimately for the offer to write the Harvard series of those books. He contracted those books before he found work. It sounds like a lot of work but it is a very small book. We were not supposed to exceed that. It was supposed to be 40,000, not 40,001 but eventually Harvard Press took it over from Blakiston and some other revisions that came out like Shapley and Menzel . . . quite bigger than 40,000.
Doel:But yours had been one of the first ones to come out in the series.
Watson:That was part of the series, yes.
Doel:It was published in 1941. [pause, talking about feeding the Cardinals in his [Watson] bird feeders]
Watson:I don't know how it evolved — [enter Alice Watson]
Doel:We are in, as you put it, Career 1!
Watson:Maybe it was dumb, gutsy — just trying a whole bunch of things together but the effort to look at "them" as becoming "it" or "all of it" the parts of "it", whereas most of what I had seen others doing had been to discuss this one or that one but not —
Doel:But not as attempting to integrate the process.
Watson:I was attempting and in retrospect it was crazy, horrendous —
Doel:There was very little data that people had to deal with —
Watson:Oh, there was a fair amount of data . . . There was a lot of data that needed to be looked at as an appendage as to what becomes of it, how it all comes together — like many people are doing now. But, there hadn't been much up to that point. There had been a book on meteors by Olivier. That was sort of the "bible" and there hadn't been much other in English. There was a lot of stuff from Germany from Hoffmeister. I did a paper or two about some of his hyperbolic meteors . . . whose orbits radiant point were remarkably close to ecliptic. It turned out that many of it came out of the Arizona expedition and were also very much but when it led to believe that they were probably all part and parcel of the solar system, infiltrating from outside.
Doel:This is the Von Niessl-Hoffmeister catalog?
Watson:Yes, then Hoffmeister himself wrote a number of papers . . .
Doel:Was there any one person who had a particular influence on your thesis or was that something more or less you did on your own?
Watson:I may have talked somewhat to Fred Whipple about the comets that he and Cunningham were working on. They were doing orbits. In retrospect I feel it was probably pretty much on my own; probably kooky but independent and Fred didn't want to contribute very much. He was a nice enough guy but he had his thing he wanted to do and there wasn't anybody else he was much interested in — like the dust on the furniture — left-over! That's when all his guys were creating all the mechanics that of spectron, absorption, emission, probabilities and all that. Gaposchkin, of course, was pretty much tied up with variable stars. Shapley was very much concerned with his galaxies and so, you were on your own.
Doel:Out of curiosity, did you have any contact during those years with Bill Bobrovnikoff? He was also working in comets.
Watson:Comets at the XXX. I have some and I have some papers from him but not any really significant. He was trying to work out the absolute magnitudes of comets or something like that and I had his papers and such but I don't remember if I ever met him — I may have once. Just before I was married—maybe it was after—I went out to somewhere in Ohio to a meeting (an Astronomical Society Meeting) around Christmas time, on the train, and he wrote a paper about a sample of meteorites, cooked it and the temperature up until it turned black. He was talking about that. I don't think it was any XXX — what the hell is going on there, so I may have met Bobrovnikoff at that time but I have no recollection of it.
Doel:You did mention a little bit of the blackening between the planets. One of the things I am curious about—you mentioned it off tape when we first talked—did Jacchia ever talk to you about his larger plans to work in areas of geophysics? . . . interest in meteorites among some of the staff?
Watson:He may have. He was an intelligent, aggressive guy but he didn't talk to me about it. He was watching, perhaps, what was going on and he might have had a different vocabulary for it. I was not part of that to discuss with him so I can't tell you about an institute or something that may have been generating. Then the war came and a lot of people got pushed around. I left in 1942 to go to MIT.
Doel:I wanted to state earlier and ask you a little bit about — you wrote one paper, of course, on meteorite craters around the time when people including Fisher had been interested. How did that come about?
Watson:You mean Popular Astronomy?
Watson:The XXX down in Florida, I think they were — elliptical . . . Carolina XXX was one of them and attracted my attention. I don't know what had gone on before them. I talked among other people including a gentleman who had been a geology professor at Tufts — A. C. Lane. He walked everywhere! He was a nice old guy. I must have talked to him about Carolina XXX and it seemed to me that they couldn't be meteorite craters because all that I knew about craters was that they were essentially round and then the question was 'how in the hell, why aren't they round?" His were straight down and XXX an angle and how could they be round? That argument was essentially that they would have to be wave actions. That helped. I am not sure that I convinced anybody but the Carolina XXX dropped out of the meteorite discussion. I don't recall seeing anything for many years after that. Not that I killed them, it was just that people gave up a useless argument. We went to the Arizona craters a couple of times. We went to one in western Texas — the Odessa, and got some pictures. The crater was about 3' — not much but we went there to see it and take some photographs, which I never used. Then they began to find, as you probably know, a revised edition to Harvard in paperback. There was another found up in Canada that was fairly large and I didn't go on to think about larger ones but there probably are now. A lot of the discussion now about both the Moon and maybe Venus, maybe Mars, that I hadn't been imaginative enough to have foreseen the possibility of . . . at the fringe. One may have thought, though, that pretty much the meteor base . . . much of the stuff on the Moon, though I hadn't transferred it to any other planet. I wasn't smart enough.
Doel:Were many people talking about this? Was cratering new or the volcanic vs. lunar question for the Moon discussed much at Harvard? Did anyone take a strong position?
Watson:I think they were quite casual about it. Somebody had started a project that Dorrit Hoffleit was involved in. She was a sweet lady, really quiet. She was using these 15", looking at the dark side of the Moon for flashes and meteorites. I don't know if she ever saw anything or how many nights she spent but I knew she was trying to do it. Having been an observer with a comet seeker at Harvard . . . a fairly large area, I looked for telescopic meteors and that was my telescope; photo . . . photograph . . . After awhile you aren't sure quite what you've seen — either your eye is blinking or such . . .
Doel:That was one of the questions, wasn't it? The rate of increase in the number of meteors as one might see in a magnitude?
Watson:That is right. The particle sizes — I have something —
Doel:How involved was Daly in all of that — the geologist at Harvard?
Watson:I talked to him. He was sympathetic, curious — but he wasn't what I would say "involved". I don't know what papers are in the University files. I sent some down from here to the Pusey Library and then there is probably some at the observatory. Under Shapley, a long time ago, the observatory had what they called XXX files; all the recent ones filed under author. If you wanted to look up somebody's papers you would find them scattered in all the journals. A very useful thing — whether that has been maintained I don't know but I would doubt it. Just between us, I have the feeling that after Shapley had retired there was a while when they didn't have any director at the observatory. They offered it to Stromner two or three times and he turned them down and maybe other people did, too. Finally they settled with Menzel for awhile. There may have been a certain amount of Shapely busting. Alice had lived in the house and I had been to the parties at the house. We were away at XXX in Washington with the Navy and all these things happened — ultimately the whole house disappeared; all the furniture disappeared, things that might have been interesting — we might have been able to buy them. They disappeared and we didn't even know about it. We felt we were among the Shapley's friends so we were out of the communication system, and it was all rather unhappy. I don't know whether you have seen this paper or not.
Doel:I don't know.
Watson:You are welcome to it. It was one of the efforts of one of my nights in the California mountains to try to see what the hell was going on and write about it and . . . Shapley got it; . . . There are a pair of articles in there.
Doel:Where was it in California?
Watson:My sister-in-laws family had a place up above Pomona. They had a house in the mountains there. We went there for a couple of weeks and they let us take over. I set up telescoping and observed some during the daytime. My brother came about and he went to the top of the mountain — Mt. Baldi. [interaction with Alice Watson about a summer camp in California where she met a girl from Russia] She decided to fix me but good. I had taken two weeks of Russian so she sent me a letter in Russian! A lot of people had been doing this but I was curious about could we detect objects out there and about the asteroids which may well be light meteorites, and maybe they would have some kind of color and such. There was a fellow at MIT who had a color measuring device that was automatic. He and I got together and I didn't have to pay him anything. So we ran some samples through that I was able to get from the Harvard Museum. They were very kind to me. There were a lot of people—not Daly because he was very high but the lower guys over in mineralogy; one got killed in the war in a plane crash. I can't think of his name but he was kind and gave me samples and I ran them through. Nothing came of it except an effort was done and it turns out that just about the time we were doing it in 1941—maybe earlier than that—a guy named XXX in Russia was doing pretty much the same thing. I had a happy feeling that two great minds were working on the same thing. I can't take it too seriously now but it was very important when we were doing it. There were a variety of things, that stuff was out there, could you contact any of it. And many of the following discussed much more recently and much elaborately . . . trying to pick up these objects . . . because of the different composition, we couldn't have any apparatus' at that time so in a way it was an OK idea but now I have better instrumentation.
Doel:Of course, that's been 40 years since. You mentioned in one of your papers Hirayama's work on the celestial mechanic study of the asteroid orbits and the possibility of a common origin for the asteroid families. How much did you know of his work besides the publications?
Watson:The only thing I knew of publications was he was in Japan and I didn't have any reason to contact him but I could read what he was doing on asteroid families but I sort of accepted as alleged families —
Doel:That is how you put it, in fact.
Watson:Oh, I did! How consistent. If there is any physical commonality, nobody knows. It was a collection of things that looked like they might have been associated at one time, but I didn't have any direct contact at all.
Doel:I want to get back to the cratering for just one moment. Boon and Albritton had also been active and interested at the time. Did you have any contact with them?
Watson:I don't think so. I don't have any recollection. I recognize their names. They had something to do with the Arizona days but I didn't have any direct contact with them.
Doel:You were talking a moment ago about some of the work you were doing on the meteorites directly. You have one article on the 139 that went directly to the Journal of Geology. I was wondering how it came about that you aimed that towards the geology journal.
Watson:It may have been because that was the composition of the earth or something. It may have been due to my discussions with Daly but then I can't recall any detail in that.
Doel:At the time there weren't many astronomers publishing in the Journal of Geology.
Watson:At that time there wasn't much interest in, maybe of course much has been done in the interval. All we did was stimulate other people . . . it can't be as bad as that!
Doel:Do you recall when you were working on cosmogony and comet origins, Opik had developed an idea of some kind of comet cloud—out beyond—was that something that was discussed? You made reference to it in one of the papers you published as a possible comet origins. I am wondering how you became familiar with it?
Watson:That is a publication — I get furious when I hear people say they publish things and it's an XXX cloud, XXX had it ten years before XXX ever thought of it. There were two or three other things that came out of XXX that were stolen from people, including me. I am not very sympathetic.
Doel:What else did you feel —
Watson:There was a paper in 1939 that came out of Holland. At the observatory, all of the papers that came in went across the director's desk before anybody saw them. That was part of Shapley's doing. There would be then a flood of little yellow slips that come off of the secretary — FGW, you want to see so and so, such and such . . . little slips that would go out like this — the beautiful thing was it was stimulating to have a look at it. Some you could understand; some you couldn't understand, but anyway, he was thinking of you — of the students and staff and others. Something he said I should look up was read those papers and I went to the library and about three paragraphs of it were XXX — things I had already published and Shapley was interested and said you better see this, it is good stuff. I said, hell it is good stuff, I wrote it myself! But I never did anything more about it.
Doel:Which was this — your meteor studies, the density studies? Because one of the papers you had was the meteor mass interstellar studies.
Watson:I don't remember except I remember the anger at being copied without any credit but I don't remember — I am afraid the emotion got over the sensibility. You were interested in what?
Doel:We were talking about Opik but also Lyttleton had been a student of Russel's around that time, attempting to develop Russel's three-star model of the origin of the solar system, or the two-star model?
Watson:Now that you remind me I was aware of those publications. I had read them. I was informed but I didn't believe them. I suppose I didn't want to believe them. I knew they had published something.
Doel:Again this was something that more or less just a few people at Harvard who were interested in those things would know about. It wasn't generally discussed, or that you recall.
Watson:No reason to discuss. The interest at the observatory, which was a fairly small group of people, was so diverse that it would be very hard to get a group of people who had a common interest in a particular. They ranged all the way from the wave mechanics in the models and the magneto hydro dynamics of Menzel and his group, over to plotting the orbit of the comet with Cunningham at that time. Cunningham had been around; he was quite a nice guy too. He was very heady. He worked all day — he had some kind of routine job, to earn enough money so he could come to the observatory at night—when he was off—to be at a computer on his own, for the fun of it.
Doel:Is that right!
Watson:Then he would map out these orbits on an old XXX machine — clunk, clunk, clunk! I used those through World War II.
Doel:Another question I wanted to ask — in between the planets—in 1941—you had mentioned favorably Bernard Lyot's work on polarization and talking about the polarized light from the moment of XXX. You hadn't met Lyot at that point?
Doel:Right. Did you have any contact with him at all? I am wondering how, in what way, you had come to know people XXX the results?
Watson:There was a fellow in western Texas who worked on the XXX—I made reference to him somewhere—and we went to see him on one of our trips, and stopped in for a day or two; we were exploring the possibility of a job when I left Harvard. It was 18 miles to the nearest store to buy a loaf of bread. We ran over three rattlesnakes in the process and such and we decided we prefer not to be at the XXX observatory. A man like Early—that's not right but —
Doel:McElvy was there for a time but I don't think he —
Watson:He was a very nice guy. I had a picture in there somewhere —
Doel:That's quite a beautiful photograph.
Watson:I am trying to summary a lot of things. I should know that guys name.
Doel:We can put it on later.
Watson:He was using the best equipment which was not very good but it was 1941 —
Doel:You mentioned, I do want to talk today with you about your second and third careers — when you were . . . in education, but I am curious. How was it that you came to be here in the Department of Education here at Harvard in 1946?
Watson:It is clearly straightforward. The war was over and I was out of the service in the spring of 1946; out of the Navy. Actually here are some of the documents. I went to the Maritime Academy; I was a Lt. Commander in the Maritime services also. I guess the Navy let me out and I was searching around for a job. I finally wrote to Shapley and Bok, and said 'heh guys, I'll be out on my ear here pretty soon, what's doing?' Harvard had the belief that they owed you for at least a half-year of employment when you went away for the military so you had a place to come back to. But that was only a temporary bouncing board and the question was where do you bounce to. So, I had been curious about these other places. I got a note back from somebody—probably from Shapley—saying they were setting up a new position in the School of Education on the teaching of science and they had put my name in to be considered if I was interested. I didn't know anything about education but decided it was worth looking into so I made a trip to Canada to talk to the Navy people up there — probably Montreal or Toronto, somewhere. I came back to Cambridge and appeared at the Dean's office in my new uniform. They knew I had published a book and such. They wanted somebody who had a background of doing some science; if you didn't know anything about education you could learn that. Probably they were fed up with what they had seen in the big institution in the upper end of New York — they had people who knew a lot about education but didn't know very much about what they were talking about. There was probably misunderstanding both ways. So ultimately they ended up looking at me and I looked at them and we decided we liked Cambridge very well.
Alice Watson:I'll tell you why he did it and that's because he likes people better than he does mountain-top strange astronomers.
Doel:We were just hearing about the rattle snakes —
Alice Watson:You should have seen the wives!
Doel:Is that right?
Alice Watson:God forbid! The point was that he's good with people; not everybody is good with people and he is. That was the real turning point. They wanted you in Michigan.
Watson:After I had taken the Harvard job, then there was an offer from the observatory at Michigan. Leo Goldberg became the director there finally and our friend —
Alice Watson:I was having my third child at that time and was in the hospital. He [Fletcher] said 'look, Leo wants me to come to Michigan.' I said 'yeah, but we just got settled — do you really want to?' It was right at that point that everything started criss-crossing. This was his second or third life?
Doel:Third. He considers LORAN to be the second, during the war.
Alice Watson:This came in at a very interesting time in our lives. I better shut up. But he is good with people; always has been. The other student at the XXX school, other people think that. He was nice. They recommended it.
Doel:That's so important.
Alice Watson:It is. It's the essence of the man. This was a decision . . . to try to find out why a scientist is a scientist. There are points in your life that come along where you have to make a real cut — and I think it was that night in the hospital! Were you going to go to Michigan or do your thing that you were pretty good at! We didn't know yet, but we thought you were good at it.
Doel:Had you known Leo Goldberg pretty well?
Alice Watson:Sure. He was a good friend.
Watson:You know the little guy I'm talking about. He was a little short guy at the observatory that go out before I did and went to Michigan. His name starts with "M".
Alice Watson:That doesn't help. I can see him but can't remember his name.
Doel:We can add that later.
Alice Watson:Are you on the fourth life now?
Doel:I am just curious about how the decision came about to put out the paperback edition of Between the Planets in 1956?
Watson:I don't know quite what happened but the University Press bought it from Blakiston — the whole series. I was asked as one of the authors to revise and update the edition. I spent some time looking at very good editors. You probably know, if you had the first edition, that there are a number of errors — grammatical and spelling errors and a few other points. There were some grammatical, I would say unfortunate arrangements. They seemed to me alright but they were unacceptable. Anyway it got edited and revised with considerable effort. The last time I had been out since 1941—I left the observatory in January of 1942—and had been out of astronomy for 15 years or so and a heck of a lot of things had happened. There was a new way of looking at things and a lot of literature to be gone through. I was trying to do it but I could only do so much. I did what was asked of me. You might be interested to know there is a Spanish edition from Argentina and a Russian edition, which is done of course without any payment. I got $500 for the Spanish edition. Nothing came from the Russian edition except that they had a book and maybe it did some good over there.
Doel:Had you ever heard from any of the scientists who had read it over there?
Watson:No. I had been in communication with Krynov before that and I was interested in the stuff in the XXX craters but that had been before the war and after 1938 they were sort of busy surviving. I was not in a position to contact them. I heard nothing after the war. I don't whom of them survived. It was a pretty bad time for many people. Before the war while Stalin was doing things, a fair number of Russians had made some contact here. A fellow named XXX from the Leningrad observatory had been over here. He went back home and I understand he was liquidated. There is a guy named XXX who is a "big-shot" in the Russian hierarchy at the present time who may be related or it may be a very common name. I have no idea of knowing. There was no contact after the war. I was out of the business; not taking any initiative. There was nothing more coming from me and they may have figured that I disappeared and maybe died in the Pacific. There was a fellow named Anderson in astronomy who was in the Navy and he was being transported across the Pacific — XXX or somewhere out there. The plane was taking off in the middle of the night and the ship, the moor had strung on the anchor and the mast was not expected to be XXX up on the wings of the airplane and that was the end of that. It can happen. I didn't know the fellow. I knew the name only — I think it was Anderson.
Doel:I just have one last question. Do you have any strong convictions? Or anything else that you might have wanted to say in the interview.
Watson:You were asking about how I happened to get involved with education. Alice explained it pretty much. It was a matter of convenience; it was a job and an environment that we really liked and such. It was rather exciting because certainly to us it was novel. I was learning "on the job" about many things. I was isolated and had nobody else to talk to. There was a professor in mathematics named Beagly who was a very nice man but his interests were entirely different than mine. . . . His life was disintegrating and that made it very hard. She was going into Alzheimers disease or something. He had a rather restricted view of mathematics and the training on mathematics teachers. He tried to teach mathematics ala XXX or something and that was a given. We had offices next to each other and I saw him most every day, and I don't remember really any discussion about the teaching of mathematics. He didn't seem to have—he may have had—any questions about what are we doing. I was full of questions and ambiguities and insecurity, and didn't have somebody that I could talk with about what the hell was going on. There were teachers in the school that I could have gone to who would have been very useful and I didn't. Maybe I was supposed to be the Herr Doctor Professor with labels on it and all of that but I should have had better sense — ignorance and pride and a lot of other things — I didn't do that. In many ways they surprise you somewhat now looking back on about 30 years in education. I feel very much like things went wrong. I was no XXX. I had XXX and responsibilities and students and all of this but I wasn't creating something; continually creating. There was no center; there were individual activities here and there and everywhere like fireworks going on.
Doel:You didn't feel connected to a community in perhaps the same way—
Watson:I was isolated; I was the only one. Most of them were interested in the administration or psychology or something or other. I was separated from them; they weren't interested in me and I was not much interested in what they were up to. They were operators and I never did find an intellectual center for what I was trying to do. That is an awful thing to have to be saying after all this time mucking around at it but I was always doing things but they never piled up.
Doel:What would you have wanted differently?
Watson:I don't know — a contrast between two kinds of subjects. In astronomy you had a feeling of reality and continuity. You did something and you did; you published a paper and people criticized and reacted to them, or they didn't — but you were doing something that was adding up. You were going to get somewhere. In education I haven't felt that. I am sorry but when you get all through what you have, in a way what Alice said we are in a "fourth life". Again, it is different because you I am not involved with the observatory. I could have been but I chose not to go to meetings; there are very few that I would know and I would have felt like I was really an outsider — not an old timer but an outsider. That was just me. As far as the Education School — it doesn't exist! I don't exist, I never existed. I get nothing from them. I take stuff to the library and give it to them. Somebody called the other day about a meeting — an EEC meeting or something — it was as though I'd never been — an EEC meeting where I was XXX inevitably. It was a student at Harvard and he was in science education working with somebody. He didn't seem to know that I had ever been there. The name didn't mean anything to him when I made reference — he just shook his head; it didn't register. It's like you put your finger in a glass of water and you take it out and you didn't make a dent in the water, all you did was get a wet finger. That is not a very happy thing to be saying about a lot of years.
Doel:Did the satisfaction then come principally from the students that you had?
Watson:Yes, and I got lots of awards—which was very kind—from other people —all those things all behind you. I guess I am basically a nice guy, at least they thought so. I don't feel—to me—an accomplishment about the — I have a long biography of papers in education but they are argumentative mostly, suggestive commentaries but they don't add up to anything.
Doel:It's not an engaging necessarily directly with other's works. This is all an interesting topic and I hope we get a chance at some point to continue on it, given the importance of science education but I think we should at least end the formal part of this right now. I should just say that—in addition to thanking you very much for the session that we have had today—we will, and this will get on the tape, not make the tape available to anyone or its transcripts without your express knowledge and approval as designed in the permission form that you will be receiving from us.
May we have a copy.