Oral History Transcript — Dr. George Preston
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Interview with Dr. George Preston
George Preston; February 13 and 14, 2003
ABSTRACT: Topics discussed include: his family and early childhood, education at Yale and Berkeley, Army and geodetic research, Otto Struve, George Herbig, Lick Observatory, Palomar Observatory, Carnegie Observatories, Mt. Wilson Observatory and stellar topics.
McCray:You were born in Los Angeles in 1930?
Preston:That’s correct. This is “This is Your Life” [laughs].
McCray:Right. Tell me about your parents.
Preston:Okay. Well, I grew up in a slightly stormy household. My father was an alcoholic, a practicing alcoholic most of his life, though he was not abusive. He managed to give it up after I went away to college in the 1950s and then he was fine thereafter. But I grew up in a household with an alcoholic and probably what I would call an overprotective mother.
McCray:Did you have siblings?
Preston:I had no brothers or sisters. I was an only child. But it was by and large a pleasant household; that is to say, I don’t have memories of great distress associated with it, but I do remember fighting and I remember unhappiness associated with simply his behavior and then her reaction to it. So that’s it in a nutshell.
My mother and father both worked most of the time I was growing up. I grew up in the Depression, as the birth date indicates. My mother was a comptometer operator. A comptometer was an old gadget, a precursor of computers, where you pushed a bunch of keys down and could multiply by ticks. Anyway, my father in those early years began working for the gas company reading meters and ended up working for the California Bank in the clearinghouse.
My mother was interested in music because her grandparents, or her parents, were interested in music and she finally ended up teaching piano as a sideline.
McCray:Did you ever play?
Preston:Oh, I studied the piano with her for a while and went on to get a teacher of my own by the time I got into high school. I had a grandfather who was interested in the violin, and he pushed the violin on me, so I also studied the violin. By the time I got to high school, the school, just after World War II, had acquired a Hammond electronic organ, so that enabled me to take organ lessons. And I exercised my prowess with the violin in the school orchestra. So I had a strong association with music, in all my early years.
I grew up essentially in my mother’s family. That is to say, she immigrated to California from Milwaukee with her parents in the 1920s. My grandfather was an immigrant from Poland; he came from Poland at the age of 11 alone on a steamship. He was met in New York City by an uncle who had immigrated previously and taken to Milwaukee, and then he married my grandmother, who was also a Polish immigrant. I grew up in a Polish family of working people, and I was in fact the first person in that family to ever go to college, so I was pretty much on my own when it came to intellectual activities by the time I was in high school.
McCray:Were you encouraged toward a career in science?
Preston:No, I was not encouraged toward a career in science. My parents pretty much had a hands-off attitude that I should do whatever I liked. I thought their guidance was very good in this respect. My first association with astronomy came from a book I found at the Glendale Public Library. We moved to Glendale when I was a child. I remember the Long Beach earthquake, being rushed out of the house when I was two years old by my mother, and we lived in Glendale at that time already. And by age five or six I was visiting the local public library and I brought home a book called Stars for Sam, and I always enjoyed that book and I brought it home several times to peruse because there were pictures of Jupiter and cartoon-like pictures of planets and so forth. That was my first introduction, and then my parents bought me a child encyclopedia called The Wonder World. It was 10 or 11 volumes, and it had volumes on literature and history and whatnot, a couple on science, and then one on astronomy, which I enjoyed looking at. But that was the extent of it.
McCray:Okay, so no building crystal radio sets?
Preston:I built a crystal radio set. I had a crystal radio, but not as a scientist; as a person who just wanted to see how the damn thing would work. It was just curiosity. I got old Popular Mechanics magazines from a neighbor. We couldn’t afford them, but he subscribed. But in one of those there was a description of how to make a crystal radio, and I managed to scrounge up earphones and a crystal and a whisker.
McCray:Were you good with your hands?
Preston:Not particularly. I was not mechanically inclined. I didn’t make things. I never made a telescope, I didn’t get into astronomy that way at all. In fact, I got into astronomy through a back door, which I think we’ll get to when I get older.
Actually, when I was in high school, I became very enamored of journalism. I was a reporter for the school newspaper, and I also had developed early on a kind of a social conscience. I read the books of George Seldese and Freedom of the press and learned about all the evils of bankers and whatnot of the time. Also, in the pre World War II era, there was a lot of politicking going on with either defense of or attacking Hitler’s activities in Europe, and there were the Silver Shirts and the Sons of Italy and the America Firsters and all these. By reading George Seldese a lot, I came to regard these people as nefarious and decided that the world needed to be defended against them. So I was going to be a journalist, and actually in my senior year of high school I applied for entrance to UCLA to study journalism and to a Northwestern School of Journalism which was well known at that time. But instead I ended up getting a scholarship to Yale.
McCray:That’s far away.
Preston:Far away. And I got that before UCLA or Northwestern even replied to my application, so I accepted it. Then people told me that if you went to Yale you had to be a lawyer, so I decided I’d be a lawyer. I didn’t know, and I was getting no guidance on this at home. So I went to Yale, and of course I promptly learned that you couldn’t study law as a freshman.
McCray:Yes, they discourage that.
Preston:So I had a roommate who was held out to become a physical anthropologist. Quite an interesting guy. I said “Okay, maybe I’ll be an anthropologist,” working up the line of anthropology. I was enjoying it, but I had to work for my room and board as scholarship students at Yale had to do so many hours of work a week, and you had a certain freedom of choice in where you worked, and just because it seemed like it might be interesting, I picked the Yale University Observatory. And I started working there. In the freshman year you started out working 20 hours a week and you worked down. Toward your senior year, you only had to work 12 or 14, as you became more elderly and…
McCray:This is on top of a full course load?
Preston:On top of a full course load, but you were given a lot of freedom in when you did the work and so forth. The university was essentially subsidizing the work, putting undergraduates to work in departments.
Anyhow, at the end of my sophomore year I concluded that I was learning more by working at the observatory than I was learning in my courses. I was starting to hear the anthropologists repeating themselves sort of, and there was something always new. So with the encouragement of Rupert Wildt, who was a senior astronomer at Yale at that time, he encouraged me to change my major. So at the end of my sophomore year, I declared that I wished to become a physics major. You had to declare at Yale at that time—in the 1950s you had to say what are you going to do and pick a major. I picked physics, much to the, I don’t know if distress is the right word, irritation or just solemn warning, of a counselor who didn’t think that was possible.
McCray:What did your parents think about that career change?
Preston:They had no opinion at all. My uncles thought I should be a sheet metal worker like they were. They all worked in the sheet metal business and they operated a family metal business. That’s what they thought I should be doing, learning how to do layout work and build chicken feeders.
McCray:Filling in something, you mentioned the books that you were reading and the social conscience that you were developing. What would the family politics have been like?
Preston:It was curious. The Polish family, they were a bunch of Roman Catholics and almost all of them were Democrats. My father was a staunch Republican and he was an atheist, and he wasn’t an atheist in the usual intellectual tradition. He grew up in a farm town in southwestern Iowa, in Audubon, Iowa, but he was interested in reading philosophy and he early exposed me to the writings of Santayana and Kant. Immanuel Kant he was very fond of, and particularly when he was a little inebriated, would start quoting Kant. So I grew up in a very strange atmosphere, and it was a strange Catholic Church and Catholic family.
McCray:Was it religious, your family?
Preston:Well, that was it. My grandmother had a brother who was a priest, and she played the organ in his church, but while she was playing the organ in his church she acquired an interesting Christian Science. She didn’t dare tell anyone, so she continued to play the organ in her brother’s Catholic parish while she secretly read the books of Mary Baker Eddy. She dragged about half of the family with her into Christian Science, and so that it became a divided family in which approximately half of them were Christian Scientists and half of them were Roman Catholics. And we got along quite well together. But they were all Democrats except my father, who was a rock-rib Republican and an arch conservative, but an honest one.
McCray:So not a big fan of Roosevelt?
Preston:No, no, not a great fan of Roosevelt, not at all. Though I was, because I was mostly impressed by the arguments of the Democrats. I don’t know how we got on that topic.
McCray:World War II, did it affect your life in any sort of profound way, or is it more a backdrop to what was happening around you?
Preston:I was too young; it was a backdrop. Actually, I was much enamored of airplanes also, aircraft, and southern California was a great place to be interested in aircraft because Lockheed was right near by and Douglas was nearby and you could get lots of pictures of airplanes. So I was at the Glendale Airport. Glendale at that time had a municipal airport, but it already had a squadron of Army fighter planes located on the grounds of the airport. I think this was in anticipation of the war. On a Sunday morning I was at the airport hoping to see some big airplane take off or land—that was my big thrill, just sat at this chain link fence and watch things happening. A Jeep came by with two soldiers in it and with a machine gun, because I remembered that, and ordered me and everyone else in the visiting area of the airport to leave the airport immediately. And I went home not knowing why, and got home and my parents were listening to the radio.
But then, I took a very great interest in the war. It began when I was 10 years old when Poland was invaded and Pearl Harbor when I was 11. So I took a great interest in the war, but I was not adversely affected in the sense that I had no immediate relatives who died in it. There were people on the block who lost sons that I remembered, and that saddened me. But it didn’t come close enough to home so that I could say I was emotionally affected by it. I read it with interest and I was an observer of the scene as a 12 and 13 and 14 year old, but that’s all.
McCray:The transition from southern California to Yale, that’s two different worlds.
Preston:That was an enormous thing for me and it was an incredible eye-opener. Yale just overwhelmed me, the richness of the intellectual opportunities there, the lecture series, the Silliman lectures, the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming with Serge Koussevitsky to perform in Woolsey Hall. The fellows in the colleges—I was a resident of Saybrook College, that’s where I met Rupert Wildt, and Rupert Wildt was a fellow of that college. He would invite me up to his quarters and we would just talk about his youth. I learned what it was like to be a German intellectual in pre-war Germany. Wildt was an amazing, interesting man for me. He lost his position in University of Berlin; he was fired because he refused to pledge allegiance to the Fuhrer. This was in 1935 or ’36, so then he was fired, and then he was brought to the United States through the efforts of two astronomers at Princeton University, and then he continued to Princeton and finally ended up at Yale.
McCray:At Princeton, I guess Russell and--
Preston:Yes, it was Russell. Actually, the guy that was instrumental in bringing him at that time was Lyman Spitzer, Lyman Spitzer and Martin Schwarzschild actually.
McCray:Okay. Yeah, Schwarzschild I guess was a refugee also.
Preston:He was also a refugee. There were many refugees from Nazi Germany, of course. So Wildt, I learned of the sadness in his life associated with having to leave his native land. He was a German and he was proud to be a German, but he couldn’t stand the Fuhrer. So I learned that there were people like that immigrating from Germany.
McCray:Tell me about physics at Yale. How was it taught?
Preston:Ah, now that was fun. Well, first of all, I came home, came back to Glendale in the summer of 1950, and knowing that I was going to be a physics major but I had not yet studied any physics at all. The first thing that I figured I had to do was get the fundamentals of mathematics behind me that I was missing, so I went to LA City College, enrolled in an analytic geometry course that was taught during a summer school. It was an excellent course and I learned a lot, and then at the end of it there was kind of a brief introduction calculus, but just sort of a sniff.
I came back to Yale in my junior year and I started taking four upper division physics courses, plus the sophomore physics course, which was the precursor of the upper division courses, and then I took second year calculus, but I never took first year calculus. I remember my first day that I spent in the calculus course, I walked in and they were going to begin the proof of the Taylor Extended Mean Value Theorem. And the professor began, “You remember at the end of last year, we proved Rolle’s Theorem.” Well, I’d never heard of Rolle's Theorem, and then he proceeded to use Rolle's Theorem as a beginning for the discussion of the Taylor Extended Mean Value Theorem. Actually, I was just crestfallen. I came back, I was shaking when I got back to my room because I thought, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” It was just overwhelming.
It was the same in physics. The physicists were very good, they were very nice. Among the most interesting of them was Henry Morganau, who reveled in insulting a student who he thought gave short shrift to whatever the assignment was. And what was his name, the fellow that taught the physics lab? I know I could remember it when…
McCray:That’s all right. We’ll fill in the details.
Preston:And I studied electricity under Adams, of the famous Adams Book on Electricity and Magnetism that was at Yale and ended up studying theoretical physics from the Page [?].
McCray:I see it up there, yeah, Introduction to Theoretical Physics.
Preston:Yes, and a lot of his physics at the time I was studying it was going over my head and my grades plummeted, and then I was finally threatened by the Dean. You had to remain on something called the Dean’s List, which meant that you had to have a straight minimum B average in order to retain your scholarship. I started to fall below that because I was having trouble with some of these courses, and in fact in the senior year my grade average fell below a B average, and as a result of that, the university reduced my scholarship, cut it in half, but generously offered to lend me the remainder. So I took out a loan from the university for half of the scholarship with a promise to pay it back after I graduated. It was an interest-free loan and actually it was fine with me. I was grateful just to be able to continue.
But because I became a physics major, because of my interest in astronomy, the astronomy department actually cobbled together a couple of undergraduate courses in astronomy, which they normally didn’t teach, because there was no undergraduate astronomy major at Yale. In fact, the whole Yale effort was really at the graduate level, with only a couple of graduate students, and it was not one of your standard teaching undergraduate departments. But for me and a couple of other people they managed to interest, Dirk Brouwer taught a course in celestial mechanics for my benefit; Wildt taught a course on the structure of planets, because he was a guru [?] and he constructed one of the first successful models of Jupiter, a major planet that had to account for its density by being a pure hydrogen. Of course, in astrophysics, so-called.
McCray:Did you like these courses?
Preston:Oh yes, I loved them.
McCray:What did you like about them?
Preston:Oh, I had no idea what you could do with starlight, the notion that you could determine the dimensions of stars and you could determine the masses of stars and you could determine what stars were made out of. I was impressed, though I usually went over my head, Brouwer’s theory of the moon accounting for the small departures from uniform motion in the two body problem, with the perturbations of Jupiter, and the notion that Jupiter could cause our moon to have detectable perturbations of its motion were fascinating to me. He would drag out all these analytical methods, you know, theory of the moon by Ernest Brown that he used as a starting point for his own work.
McCray:So at this point, what were you thinking you would like to do as a career?
Preston:It was ill-formed in my head, but it became formed. It became formed at the end of my junior year, because at the end of that year, Wildt thought that it would be a good idea for me to get some practical experience, and they didn’t have much of practical experience in astrophysics at Yale, so he arranged for me to come to Pasadena and work at this observatory as an unpaid undergraduate research assistant to Martin Schwarzschild. And he got me this job through the effort-- Just a second here [papers shuffling]. Oh, I had a letter-- [tape cuts out] --at a symposium, I’m giving the introductory talk.
McCray:This was on Monday?
Preston:Yeah, on Monday, and I’m giving the introductory talk.
McCray:Let me pause this for a second. [Tape paused] So you ended up here in 1951?
Preston:I arrived here through the administrations of Rupert Wildt, and Martin Schwarzschild put me to work, and he put me to work as doing everything. That’s when I made up my mind, I’m going to be an astronomer. He had just acquired an inkling from the literature and from discussions that were taking place that there was a thing called chemical evolution, that maybe the earliest stars had less metal in them than the ones that we see on-hand today, and that there was a connection between the metalicities and the motions, which had to do with a dynamical history of the galaxy. So he had selected a group of what we call high velocity stars. They were stars that weren’t rotating with the rest of the stars and appeared to observers in the rotating frame as stars with large relative motions. He picked a bunch of these giants out and was obtaining spectra of them with the Coudé spectrograph on Mount Wilson. He sent me to work identifying spectral lines in the microphotometer tracings of these spectra that we were obtaining at Mount Wilson, or I went with him to the mountain and he and his wife, Barbara Schwarzschild, and I worked in the telescope dome at night, and I got to see the telescopes working. Then I saw the primary research materials, these fantastic photographic spectra, and we came down and we learned how to make microphotometer tracings, and then I set to work identifying the lines.
I’ll never forget Martin Schwarzschild. He was so funny. He would roll tracings and there would be a roll of stuff that came out of a brown recorder, then he’d unroll it and he’d start folding, fold the paper this way, and then crease it, and then fold it this way. And he says, “George,” he says, “There are two types of spectroscopists: there are folders and there are rollers.” The ones that roll them all up and the ones that fold them up. He said, “We are folders.” [Laughs] And I became a folder for the rest of my life, and so long as we did spectroscopy that way I was a folder. There were rollers, and we learned that.
But he put me to work making a Botlinger diagram. It’s a diagram where you locate stars in a velocity space, and according to the two components of their motion in the plane of the galaxy, their U and V components, and by this you can decide from these two space components whether the star is a high-velocity star or not. So he had me make such a diagram. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did the calculations and used his equations and punched out these ellipses and hyperboles and lines of constant eccentricity and epigalacticum, or whatever it was. Altogether it was thrilling. It was just thrilling to work with him because he was first so kindly and so knowledgeable and so enthusiastic, and I thought, “My God, if I could do what he does for a living, I would really have fun.”
So that filled me with resolve. When I graduated from college, I decided, “Well, I want to try. I don’t know if I can make it or not, but I’d like to try.” Dirk Brouwer took me aside when I was graduating from college, and he said he respected my effort and my willingness to work with astronomy, but he thought maybe I had started too late and thought perhaps I should just give it up and do something else.
Preston:He didn’t suggest, but he was saying-- I didn’t do very well in the celestial mechanics course and he was gently telling me that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be at least his kind of astronomer. But I decided, “Well, I’m going to try anyway.” So I applied to the Yale Graduate School and was admitted, but at the same time that I received notice that I was admitted, I received notice from my draft board that I had lost my deferment (because they had deferred me), but we were now in the midst of the Korean War. So my local draft board said, “Well, if you want to go to graduate school, go ahead, but you’re now 1A.” That’s whatever their classification is for students to that time, but in 1952 I became 1A and so I returned. I got married three days before I graduated. I married a girl from Stratford, Connecticut, and she was working in one of the biology labs at Yale University, and I met her.
McCray:What was her name?
Preston:Her name was Janet. She was a Janet Hodgson at that time and she became Janet Preston. And we honeymooned in California, and she came and met my parents, and we spent the summer in southern California and then returned to New Haven to begin graduate school. But in October or early November I got an order to report for a physical examination, and on December 2nd I was inducted into the Army. So when I learned that I was going to go into the Army, I quit school. There was no point in continuing. I got a job working for the Blakesley Construction Company in downtown New Haven, repairing busted sidewalks. I thought, well, I’d get myself in physical shape for basic training anyway. So on December 2nd, I left New Haven and was inducted into the United States Army.
McCray:Where were you shipped to, or sent to?
Preston:Fort Bevin in Massachusetts is where I was sent upon induction, where I swore my oath of allegiance. Then I did my basic training at Fort Dex, New Jersey, and then because they gave some kind of an aptitude test, the Army conducted a test and they learned that I had been a physics major and was interested in astronomy and whatnot, so they decided that I should go to a-- I went through an infantry basic training, but at the end of it they sent me to Fort Monmouth, which was the head of the signal corps at that time. I was put to work as an assistant to some crazy guy who was working on some strange theory of radio communication. Then after a month or so I was transferred from Fort Monmouth to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which was the headquarters of the United States Corps of Engineers, where I worked for a guy named Haas who was developing infrared-sensitive lenses for sniper scopes. He was working already on developing, he was using a thing called a Golay cell, which was a membrane which was deformed if infrared light fell on it, and the deformation would then form images. And it was a primitive kind of infrared-sensitive imaging device.
McCray:How large was it?
Preston:Oh, I don’t know. I was set to work in a laboratory just trying to make aluminum oxide films, where we would take sheet aluminum, place it in, what was it? I think it was probably a hydroxide, and we oxidized it. Then it was put on a frame, stretched on a frame, and then we put it very carefully into an acid bath, and the acid bath converted all the aluminum into an aluminum salt, and it went into solution, and what was left behind was the aluminum oxide film which had been deposited, created, on the surface of the aluminum. If you did this very carefully and could lift it out carefully, you would end up with just the film, almost monomolecular in thickness, that had been deposited on the aluminum. This is what he wanted, because then he would use these in his experiment to do this deformation process by shining infrared images on it.
McCray:So this was sort of a pure aluminum oxide membrane?
Preston:Yeah. It was of course transparent, and in fact, if you mistreated it, if you [blows] like that, it’s gone. You had to treat it with kid gloves. One time one of them became detached, and it went floating in the room, and you couldn’t see it most of the time, but you sort of would see like Newton’s rings, it would just curl, and you could see it floating around in the room, and it was not as dense as air, and it never came out.
Anyway, I did this for a while until I was finally then ordered to report to Silver Springs, Maryland, the headquarters of the United States Army Map Service. There I met John O’Keefe, and he informed me that he would keep me there and I was going to work for him on the Occultation Project. That was a project to learn to develop a technique for measuring the distances between non-intervisible points.
You see, this was 1953; this was pre-Sputnik. And the largest distance that you could survey, get the distance to by triangulation methods on the surface of the Earth was the largest distance at which three positions on a surface could see a single illuminated source, and the method that was used in those days was called “flare triangulation.” An airplane would fly up to 50, 60,000 feet, drop a flare, cameras at three locations would photograph the flare, and then from the knowledge of the plane’s position and the angles that they would all measure relative to their local coordinates, they could determine the distances between them. It was a survey method.
Preston:Yeah, it was geodesy. Exactly. The Army Map Service had two functions: one function was to provide maps for troops in combat areas. They didn’t keep maps of everything, but if troops were suddenly going to go fight in New Guinea, then you needed maps of New Guinea suddenly, and they would make contour and 3-D maps…
Preston:Oh, yes, well. So the occultation method held great promise because, as they used to say, you couldn’t get within a mile, you can get within 50 feet, because the speed of the moon was very well known because this Mr. Brouwer had developed a theory of the moon which predicted its motion very accurately.
McCray:This is the one who said that you shouldn’t become an astronomer?
Preston:That’s right. And here I ended up being stuck with this guy’s work anyway. The moon’s shadow on the surface of the Earth moves at the same speed as the moon. Well, the sun casts shadows, but so do all the stars. Every star in the sky casts a shadow on the Earth when the moon goes in front of it. You can’t see them because they’re very faint, but the covering up of a star is just like the covering up of the sun when the moon covers it up, and the shadow path causes an eclipse. Well, stars get eclipsed but they’re called occultations because the star completely disappears; it’s tiny. So, you know the speed of the moon if you note the time at which the moon cuts a star off over here, later it cuts a star off over here. Velocity times time is distance, so if you have the two times, you know the speed of the moon, you can calculate how far it is from here. It’s a little complicated because the Earth is three-dimensional, the moon is moving in elliptic motion, and you have to use the same part of the moon for the eclipse, both places, because you can’t have an eclipse partly on this place, on one plane and then over here.
So, you had to have all pretty good coordinates to begin with. But if you were within a mile, and if you used a place on the moon for the occultation where there weren’t mountain ranges, used mahray [?] and you could do this. The people in our map service knew where the mountains on the moon were, and they would cleverly pick places where a star would be occulted on the edge of the moon where there was a sea and not a mountain range. Well, then you could get within 50 feet. You could survey to that accuracy. So we were to develop this method, and we did it by setting teams, and I had the westernmost team, in the western United States, and there was a team usually in Texas, and then another one that moved around in Arizona and New Mexico. We first developed the telescopes to make these measurements and the electronics that we gathered up our stuff when we went out in the field.
McCray:Were the telescopes designed specially…?
Preston:They were designed and built especially with Springfield mountings and they were made in the shop at Army Map Service, and we sort of helped the machinist test them out and got them to work properly.
McCray:What was special about their design to do this work?
Preston:Well, the Springfield mounting was one that was sort of like a Coudé mounting. You had a stationary photoelectric cell on the polar axel and the telescope itself is like an English mounting, and there was a third mirror inside the telescope tube that directed the light to a fixed mirror and then up into a stationary photocell. So when we went in the field, we had a wooden form that we filled with concrete, a little form, we’d bolt it together, it was sort of like a four-sided prism, and with a plate. Then you’d stick two bolts in it when the concrete was wet. Then when it was dry you’d take the form away and now these two bolts, which were placed through a hole of the spaciter [?]. You’d put a plate on that and then you attached the telescope to it, and then put the photocell on that. Then we had a strip chart recorder, it was a dual channel strip chart recorder, and one of the pens received an output from the photocell, which would measure the starlight and the time the starlight disappeared, and the other one picked up a radio signal from WWV in Beallsville, Maryland, which kept time and sent out these blips. So the one pen was doing this, recording time, and the other one was measuring the light which then went down. And you’d go and operate at slow speed until the refraction was within five or ten seconds of the occultation, then you’d hit the button and the tape would go into high speed and it was coming out at like 20 feet per second, because they wanted to measure this time very accurately. Then whoosh, out would come this paper, and we’d guide the telescope and we could see the stars disappear. We did that, and it was fun.
McCray:All the strip chart output, did you fold it or roll it?
Preston:[Laughs] No, we rolled that, but that was the Army Map Service’s call. We thought, we were told that we were doing this to improve the locations of LORAN (Long Range Navigation) stations in the Pacific Ocean. One island had a transmitter on it and another island had a slave station that would receive a signal and then retransmit it. So this one station kept sending out signals, and the distances of the two islands were supposedly known, and there was a time delay because it took the light some time to get from the radio signal, to get from the transmitter to the slave, which retransmitted it. Depending on where you were, you could get both of the signals at the same time, if you were equidistant from the two, or if you were over here one would come later and one would come earlier, and so you can understand that by a simple method of trigonometry, if you timed when you got the signal from the master and when you got it from the slave, you could figure out where in the ocean you were, and so ships could use this to navigate.
But that wasn’t the purpose of it at all. I learned years later from O’Keefe that the reason this method was developed was to find out how far it was from North America to Eurasia, because there was a battle going on in the Pentagon on how big a bomb did you need to take out downtown Moscow. If you didn’t know where Moscow was to within a mile, you needed a big bomb. If you knew where it was within a hundred feet where the Kremlin was, then you could use a small bomb. So we were unwitting participants in this global strategy to develop antiballistic missiles, deterrents, or whatever you want to call it. Anyway, that’s the end of that thing.
While I was in that Army and all that time I was staying at Fort Meyer, it’s a fort right across from Arlington Cemetery and right next to the Pentagon, and I would draw a car from the motor pool at Fort Meyer and I’d drive out to the Army Map Service and then drive back, and I had a fantastic experience in that regard.
McCray:Did you visit the Naval observatory at all?
Preston:I did. I visited it once just to see the telescopes, yes. My wife visited me (this didn’t have to be in this history, it’s got nothing to do with science). But she had a friend whose parents would let us use their house for a weekend in some suburb of Washington. So we had this arrangement whereby we could use their house when they were gone for a weekend, and she came down from Connecticut. She was living with her parents in Stratford while I was in the Army. She came down by train to Union Station in downtown Washington, and I decided I would pick her up after work. So when I left Army Map Service I drove to Union Station. I knew when the train was going to arrive and I parked on a side street right near the station and went into the station. The train was an hour or so late. She got off, went to the car, and when we got there the MPs are crawling all over this thing. It was a military vehicle, it was an olive drab thing from Fort Meyer. We come up and they’re looking in the windows and writing down the license plate and humming and hawing, and I come up and the guy says, “Is this your car?” And I said, “Yeah,” I says, jeez, you know. I told him I’d stopped, and “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says, “If I had known that—you should have come a few minutes before, but I started making this report out and they’re tape recording it at headquarters. I’ve got to finish the report.” Oh, jeez. So it ruined my weekend. I figured, oh, I’m going to be court marshaled. I didn’t know what terrible thing is going to happen to me. So the weekend was a bust.
Next Monday morning I said, “Well, I’ve got to come clean on this.” I went to my commanding officer. I had a commanding officer at Army Map Service. My scientific director was John O’Keefe, who was an astronomer in the geodet division. But nevertheless, I was a soldier and my boss really was a Major Mazatas who handled all the service and Army personnel that worked in the Army Map Service building. It was a civilian agency, but it was soldiers working there. So I thought, well I’d better tell him before the military police tell him, so I went in and I stood in front of his desk, and I said, “Major Mazatas, I have something I want to tell you.” He said, “Yes.” And I told him what happened, and he listened to me. Then I finished and he leaned back like this, and I’m standing at attention. He doesn’t put me at ease; I’m still standing. “Corporal Preston,” (I was a corporal by then) “next time you take a car out of the motor pool on Army business and you use it for your personal purposes, next time you do that and you get caught, you just tell them you’re authorized.” [Laughs] I almost fell down.
McCray:Did he put you at ease at that point then?
McCray:That was very nice of him.
Preston:He was a good guy.
McCray:What was O’Keefe like?
Preston:Oh, a wonderful man, wonderful man. His first love was tektites. He was one of the early people to believe that tektites came from the moon. He did a thesis on the cause of the light variations of R Coronae Borealis stars; these are stars that remain at constant brightness for years and then suddenly plummet in brightness, and then in a jiggy-jaggy way recover on a time scale of, oh, months or years. They were carbon stars, and he believed that this was caused by clouds of soot being blown out of the star, clouds of carbon, which condensed and formed soot, which became opaque and then created a kind of a blanket around the star which caused the light to go down. But then sooner or later the starlight heated the soot up, evaporated it, and then the star could shine again. It turned out this was correct. Essentially it’s been an accepted explanation. Well, he did that research I believe at Yerkes Observatory in the late 1930s. I believe that was; you could look it up.
So anyway, he ended up having a job at the Army Map Service doing this geodesy, and he managed the thing. He had a couple of women, a Pamela and Soren Hendrickson did all the computation. Soren worked out with the machine shop, and Pamela, his wife, did the calculations of the lines of position of the occultations on the Earth’s surface that we had to go find by surveying.
McCray:Were you traveling a lot for this work because of…?
Preston:We could do one occultation a month, so every month they would find a line on the surface of the Earth along which an occultation would occur at several points. Then they would send each of these three parties to survey in and locate themselves somewhere along that line, sort of pretending that place was an island. Then we would go drive there with our truck full of junk and survey for several days to locate, starting with benchmarks, USGS benchmarks, and survey in to a place, then set down the pier, pour the concrete, when it cured, put up the telescope, erect a tent around it. We had a tent, an octagonal thing with aluminum poles and canvas and zippers and whatnot. Then we would stay there and practice. What we did was practice occultations. They weren’t occultations that were seen by the other two parties, but they were occultations of the moon and we could practice running the equipment and guiding the telescope and fiddling around.
McCray:So it was a big camping trip in some ways.
Preston:Big camping trip, big camping trip. Lots of fun, all kinds of funny antics and crazy things that happened along the way.
McCray:How many people would go on them?
Preston:Three people on each party. The astronomer was called Chief of Party, and we had a surveyor and then a radio man, who also drove a truck.
McCray:You were the astronomer?
Preston:I was the astronomer and I had two guys, one of them was very dumb and one of them was very smart. The surveyor was a hillbilly from West Virginia and he was so smart, he just was smart as a whip. He picked up everything. He could have been an astronomer too. Anyway, it was three of us in each party. But that’s that, and that was an interesting episode in my life.
McCray:You discharged out in ’54?
Preston:Discharged, that’s right. My life changed because I was in the Army, but while I was stationed in Washington, I found in a bookstore in downtown Washington a book by J. Allen Hynek called Astrophysics. I’d never seen a book on astrophysics. I still have it.
McCray:What was the title? Astrophysics: A Topical Symposium. Okay.
Preston:I bought it in Washington and I put my name in it later. It was one of the first books that had chapters on astrophysics written in English. Up to that time, the only way you could learn about stellar atmosphere was to read about it in the Handbuch der Physik, which was a German thing. But Lawrence Aller had this article and Otto Struve had this article on peculiar spectra, W.W. Morgan and Paul Swings and Bengt Strömgren and Edison Pettit and Kuiper and Chandrasekhar and Jesse Greenstein. And it had a little bit of everything in it, and I was enchanted. And I decided I’m not going back to Yale because Yale had no astrophysics to speak of. Wildt was kind of on the outside and Brouwer was in charge, and he had already gotten in bed with IBM with that Watson Computing Center, and they had grandiose plans to calculate-- They were trying to run the orbits of asteroids back and see if all the asteroids came from a giant planetary explosion. That was all the vogue in the 1950s. So if you went to Yale, you’d end up in celestial mechanics, and Brouwer already didn’t think much of me, and I didn’t think that much of celestial mechanics, and I said, “This is what I want to do.” I read the article by Struve and that was particularly enchanting, so I said, “I’m going to go to Berkeley.” So I did. I applied to Berkeley and they let me in.
McCray:What was your impression of Struve when you met him?
Preston:[Laughs] Yes, he was an extraordinary man, an extraordinary man. Oh, I could tell you-- Every year, he would take all the graduate students, invite them to dinner at the faculty club (this was Berkeley) and he’d feed them and afterwards, he would then tell them what he thought of them. He would sit back and he would start to smoke. He was walleyed, he had two eyes like this, and you never knew who he was looking at. He’d puff on cigarettes incessantly, and he had this clipped Russian accent. “The trouble with today’s students, they don’t do research and they don’t read the literature.” He says, “I provide you with a library, I go in, I can see the Astrophysical Journal, all the books are on the shelf. Students aren’t reading the books.” [Inhales as if smoking a cigarette] Then he’d say, “Mr. Kraft, Bob Kraft.” You worked with him?
McCray:That’s right, Bob Kraft was there at this time, yeah.
Preston:“Mr. Kraft, would you please stand up, tell this group what, of anything, of use you are doing with yourself?” [Laughs] He would around and he would skewer everybody.
McCray:What did he say to you?
Preston:Well, I’ll tell you what he said to me. So at the end of your first year of graduate work, it was a tradition in Berkeley that the student spend a summer at the Lick Observatory. I did the dutiful thing, and I ended up working with Stan Vasilevskis on a proper motion project, and with Billy Bidelman on a stellar spectroscopic project. And in the course of that, working with Bidelman, I obtained a spectrum of a star called Upsilon Sagittarii. Upsilon Sagittarii is a metal-poor super giant, and its evolutionary state wasn’t known then. I’m not sure it’s known now. But it was a super giant and it was metal-poor, and Adams and Greenstein here in Pasadena had obtained high-resolution spectra of it and found all kinds of weird things and was filled with chlorine lines and argon lines and abnormal composition and abundances were all screwed up. And I found a P Cygni structure at H Alpha in this thing, and that piqued my interest, and I thought, “God, Struve said you should do research. I’m going to study this thing.”
So I dragged all of the existing plate material out of the Lick Observatory archives and I brought it back to Berkeley at the end of the summer. I came into Struve’s office and I said, “Dr. Struve, I’d like to undertake a course of directed research with you being my advisor. I want to study Upsilon Sagitarii.” And he’s sitting at his desk as usual and I’m standing at attention, just like Major Mazatas. He never invited his students, and never invited me to sit down, so I stood there in front. So I started to tell him what I was going to do, and I was going to do this and I was going to do that with these spectra, and he let me go on for about two minutes and then he just cut me off. He said, “Mr. Preston, that star has defeated better men than you. I think you should give it up.” [Laughs] So that ended my attempt at doing directed research with Struve. Later he was very kind to me. He encouraged me to undertake the thesis that I did undertake.
McCray:Was he your advisor?
Preston:No he wasn’t. George Herbig was my thesis advisor, but I got into the subject of RR Lyrae stars, which was the subject of my thesis, because of Struve. He pointed me toward a strange paper that had appeared in the Russian Astronomical Journal. Sergei Gaposchkin, a maverick astronomer departed, husband of the great Cecilia Pena Gaposchkin. Struve always said, “The trouble with Sergei is, he forgot his Russian and he never learned English.” [Laughs] He published a paper based on photographs that Baade had taken here, with a 200-inch telescope, of the galactic center, the so-called Baade’s window, which is a couple of degrees away from the galactic center. He had discovered a large number of short period variables, RR Lyrae stars, in that field. And this was at a time when nobody knew what the stellar content of the galactic bulge really was, and the fact that he found so many short period variables suggested that there probably was an old, old population in the center, and maybe the bulge was filled with old stars. Maybe that was the place where the stars were first formed. All kinds of interesting ideas came from this. Well, Gaposchkin begged the plates off of him and he did the photometry and he measured all the brightnesses of the RR Lyrae stars and short period variables and derived periods for them. And the periods were all much shorter than the ones RR Lyrae stars in the solar neighborhood. They were much shorter.
So Struve thought this was something strange, if this was so, but there had been a disturbing paper by a woman named Pavloskaya, a Russian, who challenged Gaposchkin’s periods, and she said that there was probably an alias problem. When you could only observe a star which has a period near a half a day, and you could only observe it once a night, because Sagittarius is low in the southern sky and you can’t observe it all night long, you can get spurious periods. You can’t derive the short period unambiguously; there’d be more than one way to fit the data together. So there was this suspicion. So he said, “There’s something funny going on with RR Lyrae stars. Maybe you should study them.” So that got me started. I went to the Lick Observatory, I got a little free time on the Crossley reflector using a nebular spectrograph that had been built by Nick Mayall. Herbig gave me a couple of nights of his time, and I did it. He said, “Well, just take some spectra of the RR Lyrae stars and see if there’s anything there,” because there was a known fact that Guido Munch had published a paper in which he noted that there was one RR Lyrae star that seemed to have normal chemical composition. While all the other known RR Lyrae stars seemed to have weak metal lines, this one star seemed not to, and had a shorter period than the rest. So Struve’s idea was maybe the stars at the galactic center were all like this SW Andromedae star that Munch had observed. It turned out not to be so. None of it turned out to be so, and that’s so frequently the case in science: you start doing something for the wrong reason and end up on an interesting trip anyway. They did a survey of RR Lyrae stars in the solar neighborhood and learned some regularities about their abundances and the connection between their compositions and their motions and whatnot, and that was my thesis. Struve put me onto it, though Herbig was my thesis supervisor.
McCray:I met Herbig once a couple years ago. He seemed like a very nice man. What was he like as an advisor when you had him?
Preston:He was very good as an advisor. He was tough on himself and he was tough on those around him. He was kindly to me, but he took likes and dislikes to people, and if he didn’t like them, he didn’t like them at all, and he could be very difficult with some people, though he wasn’t so with me. He looked out for my interests.
At the time I was doing my thesis, the 120-inch reflector at Lick had not yet gone into operation. The 36-inch refractor was kind of, really obsolete. The only useful modern instrumentation that was available to a graduate student in the late 1950s was on the Crossley reflector, and then the slitless spectrograph that Herbig had built, the nebular spectrograph that Mayall had built, and there was a ferroelectic photometer that was sort of operated by Gerry Kron and Merle Walker. I wanted to use the nebular spectrograph and Herbig went to bat for me, seeing that I got enough time, because it was the principle research instrument for the whole factory. Kron, Walker, Herbig, Mayall, and I can’t remember who else, all really wanted big chunks of it. It was a 36-inch telescope and it had to serve four or five or six staff members, and a graduate student comes in and he says [unintelligible]. But Herbig saw to it that I had enough time to do my thesis, and he was very good to me. I’m very grateful to him.
McCray:When you were at Berkeley, actually, a series of questions about that. What impressions did you get about Struve, in terms of him being, he was an important leader at that time in the American astronomy community. Did you get any sense of…?
Preston:Oh yes. I’ve made funny remarks about his saying that students should be engaged in research, but he really believed it, and he pointed people in directions that he thought were important. He frequently gave colloquia or led seminars in which he pointed out recent developments that he thought were important. He would preface the introductions to invited speakers with sort of short summaries indicating why this particular person’s work you should pay particular attention to, why it was liable to become important. In that era, he was writing practically every month. He wrote an article for Sky and Telescope magazine, and those articles usually were on something you didn’t know anything about. It was a tour de force, he proved that he could master any topic at all.
McCray:Those are great articles just to go back and read.
Preston:Oh yes. You’re a historian, but you obviously know a lot of astronomy. The fact that you’re familiar with that kind of detail.
McCray:I’m picking it up as you go. It’s fun to go back and read those old issues and look at the advertisements.
Preston:It certainly is. I won a prize for him.
McCray:What was that?
Preston:This is how he worked with the students. This was probably in my second year. He was to write an article on globular clusters, and he did write the article on globular clusters. And one of the questions he asked himself was why is the globular cluster concentrated the way it is? All the stars are in the center and then they fan out. How did a globular cluster come about? So he wanted to consider the possibility that a bunch of stars located on a sphere-- He posed this as a problem because he wanted to see what the outcome was. His problem was that you put a bunch of stars on a sphere of some large dimension, and you let them fall free of the sphere at random times, just pick them at random, and there’s a limitless number, a million of them, and you let them go at random, random places, you turn them loose. Now, Newton had proved a theorem that if matter is located on a sphere it acts as if all of it was located at the center of that sphere. So each of these individual stars feels the gravity of the whole collection of stars, but it sticks at that center of gravity as at the center of the sphere, so they all start falling toward the center. This one starts falling, well as they fall they go faster and faster, and when they get to the center then they zip through, then they slow down, then they start oscillating. Well, they all were doing this and they do it at random and then you wanted to know, well, after you’ve let them all go and they’re all orbiting like that, what is the density distribution? Are they all in the middle of the sphere or are they all at the edge, or is there a concentration at the center? What is the density distribution that results…
McCray:As a function of distance out from the center?
Preston:From the center. If you let them go from a sphere at random times. It was a problem. So he offered a prize to anybody who solved it, and I solved it. I did it by some numerical integration technique, and another guy, Bruce Stevenson, who later ended up at Case Western, he also solved it, and he gave us both a prize. So we came in and he called-- He would do this thing. If he wanted to talk to you, you would come to your desk. We all had desks in Leuschner Observatory in an old beaten up building, and you’d come to your desk and you’d find a piece of paper on the desktop in front of your chair, and it would say, “Please see me. O.S.” And you never knew what this meant, whether you were going to get whipped or praised or given a dressing down. People were afraid of him. So I came one day and here was this sign, “Please see me. O.S.” So I went in and he said, “Well,” he says, “you won a prize.” He says, “Your choice: it’s any book on the third shelf.”
Preston:Of his bookcase. They’re all in Russian. [Laughs] So I don’t know what book it was. It was a book by Miceanature [?]. I don’t know who it was, anyway, some book. And I said, “Well, I’ll take that one.” I wasn’t sure I could read the title. And he got ready to pull it off and he looked down and he autographed it before he gave it to me. It was encouraging.
As a consequence of that, I said, “Well, at least I have to find out what this book is about a little bit,” so I started studying Russian, and I got to the point where I could read it a little bit, and I decided that I would take my language exam in Russian. In Berkeley at that time, you had to pass a language exam, just one foreign language. You had to develop reading proficiency in one foreign language. So I decided that I would take the exam in Russian, and Struve administered the examinations. When I got ready to do that, I summoned up my best effort and I made up a sentence so I could say to him, “I’m ready to take my Russian exam.” And I went in and I said that to him in Russian, he looked up at me and he says, “[Speaks in Russian].” He said, “Lousy pronunciation.” Then he pulled another book off his shelf and gave it to me and said, “Read such-and-such an article,” and I read an article about comets. I didn’t know what the hell it was, and I passed it.
McCray:Did you like Berkeley as an institution?
Preston:I sure did. It was a marvelous place to go to school. The faculty—I liked the entire faculty. It was easy to dislike Harold Weaver because you were supposed to dislike Harold Weaver. He gave this terrible course in statistical astronomy, and it was rumored that he got as far as he got because he was this brother of the son-in-law of Robert Trumpler, and that wasn’t true. He was a very smart man. Louis Henyey was an inspiration. Louis Henyey was an extraordinary astrophysicist, and it was inspiring to just sit and listen to him talk. And John Philips, who was a kindly guy, Struve provided the oversight. I liked Berkeley, is the answer to that.
McCray:What sense did you get of the competition between East Coast institutions, having come from Yale after your detour to the Army, and the West Coast institutions like Lick and Mount Wilson?
McCray:East Coast to West Coast, I mean, because you know, there was Shapley on the East Coast and Struve on the West Coast, and I gather that relations weren’t always…
Preston:I think that that largely never filtered down through the student level. I became aware of such things later in my life, and I’ll be able to say some things when we get to another part in my life, but as a graduate student there was none of that. I mean, we learned as a part of our graduate education that there were monumental contributions of people who were working everywhere. I already had a profound respect for Mr. Schwarzschild as I told you, and Mr. Wildt, and I knew about East Coast astronomy. No, I didn’t sense any of that discord. There were issues between the East and West that did develop later on, some of them involving this place, but I didn’t notice any of that when I was a student.
McCray:Okay. How about between Lick and Mount Wilson, for example? How were relations there?
Preston:Relations between Lick and Mount Wilson were extremely good. I can give you one example of that right now. Probably it was 1958 and I was finishing up my thesis. Olin Wilson, of this place, appeared at the Lick Observatory one day carrying two of Horace Babcock (he was a graduate around the grating lab here), carrying two of his gratings, bringing them to the Lick Observatory to install in the 120-inch Coudé spectrograph. They were gifts. They’re difficult to make; gratings are not a non-trivial activity. There’s a grating lab downstairs that I can show you if you want to see it. It’s an enormous effort to make a diffraction grating, a successful one, and he made two excellent ones which he just gave to the Lick Observatory, and were the dispersive elements for the Coudé spectrograph and the 120-inch telescope for 20 years.
Then of course, there was a famous collaboration between Nick Mayall, who was a staff member at Lick Observatory, and Humason and Sandage at this place, who jointly compiled a catalog of radial velocities of all the nearby galaxies, and it became HMS: Humason, Mayall, and Sandage. It was a standard catalog of galaxy radial velocities used to study the peculiar motions of galaxies of the local group and make first efforts to derive the Hubbell constant and so on and so forth. That was a cooperative arrangement where the smaller scale of the Crossley could be used to work on galaxies of high surface brightness, and the fainter ones were done with the 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes. So it was a nice division of labor between the two places.
McCray:You followed the path more of observational astronomy.
Preston:Yes. I’m not a theorist.
McCray:Why not theory? I mean, you found this book in Washington, D.C., and it’s just as possible that you could have picked it up and gravitated and become a theorist.
Preston:Well, you could make different explanations, but I just really think that I did not have a flair for theoretical physics. My facility in mathematics was not the greatest. I could use mathematics that was invented by others, I could with some effort understand mathematical developments that were made by others, but I never really developed, from my own point of view, any facility in what we call analysis; that is, the use of mathematics to solve unsolved problems. What intrigued me about astronomy was actually the mystery of the sky. That was what was fun for me.
McCray:Did you like observing?
Preston:Oh, I love observing.
McCray:What do you like about it?
Preston:Well, it has changed with the passage of time, so what I like about it has changed as time goes by. But when I first went there, just to be in charge of a giant telescope that you pushed around from place to place, and then pointed it at something that you wanted to observe, and learn something about that distant point of light with this instrument that you have control of, and you keep the records, and you make the observation, and you get the result, and you get to study, that was a thrilling thing to do. When it was cold in the winter, you didn’t give a damn. There was a matter of sort of pride that you could work all night in the freezing weather and sit up on platforms with the wind blowing on you. That proved you were tough. It was just a thrill to do it.
McCray:It’s funny, what you just said. When I talked to George Herbig, he said something very similar, that it was “wooden ships and iron men,” was his characterization of it. It’s interesting. Your metaphor is very close to that.
Preston:Yes. Well, I think there was an element of that. Now that’s long since gone. Nobody sits out in the cold and fiddles with a telescope anymore. But that mystery of what you’re going to find when you do the observing is still there, and there’s different kinds of observing where the mysteries are different. Some of the mysteries you discover right at the telescope fifteen minutes later when you see you’ve made some early reduction of the data. Other times you don’t learn the result; that takes weeks or months to analyze, but you know it’s sitting there and you’re getting closer and closer, and the moment comes when you’re going to get the result, and the anticipation is there.
But for me, it’s having a plan, having an idea, that maybe some little corner of the universe is arranged thusly so, and there’s a test you can make to see if it is so. Or, there’s a hint that something is wrong with previous ideas, and by making certain observations, maybe you could discover what the truth is. Then you organize a plan. How would I go about finding this out? What would I do? And you organize an attack on the sky and you go to the telescope and execute it. There is just, there is preparation, there is execution, there’s anticipation of what you found, there’s the excitement whether it is the moment of truth arrives, and then if you’ve got anything, if anything useful comes of it, you get to tell people about it. And that’s fun, because it’s fun to talk. It’s just fun to brag, and you have bragging rights. I used to have a roommate across the hall here, Armand Deutsch, a wonderful man. He called it, when we would both talk, we’d drag out spectra that were each one more extraordinary than the next, and he would say, “Oh,” he says, “That’s what you wanted. You want to play ‘Can you top this?’” And that’s what he regarded, you know, “I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours.” It’s fun. I am one of the firm believers that science is not conducted for high moral purpose. Science is conducted because it’s fun, and the best science is done by the people who enjoy it the most, I think, and it’s not necessarily a labor executed for mankind. That’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. Like Wendy Freedman, our new director said, one time I went to dinner with her, it’s been about two years. She said, “I love it here so,” she says, “I’d work here for nothing.”
McCray:That is not something that you frequently hear from people.
Preston:Well, I think you get a sense of that in astronomy more than you might think. I mean, I’ve always, I know lots of people that just think it is thrilling.
McCray:And you won’t hear that sentiment at Enron, for example.
Preston:[Laughs] No, that’s a little different.
McCray:That’s a different world.
Preston:That’s a different world, that’s a different world. But you know, I don’t think that really whatever they did at Enron while they were arranging their offshore accounts and screwing around to make a pot of money, doing it wasn’t that much fun. I don’t think there’s an excitement associated, unless it’s trying to stay out of jail, but I mean, I don’t think [laughs].
McCray:That’s a different sort of thing. How did you learn to use a big telescope? Tell me about, did someone teach you, or did you go out and they just said, “You push this and do that.” How did it work?
Preston:Well, I learned how to use telescopes at the Lick Observatory, because that’s where I did my graduate work, and the first telescopes I used were telescopes that you pushed around. They weren’t motor operated, they were physically pushed around. The 36-inch telescope was 50 feet long. It’s huge.
McCray:Okay. I’ve seen the picture.
Preston:Big, long, skinny refractor, and there was a ring at this end, a ring bolted to the back end of the telescope. You grabbed a hold of this ring. There were two big clamping wheels: one you clamped at met [?], ascension, the other clamp you unclamped at right ascension, you’d come clamp it in declination, these big rods going up to the clamps at the bearings. Now it’s free. It’s balanced, but it’s free. So now you start to push, and it’s like pushing a railroad car. It starts moving very slowly. You keep pushing, it moves faster and faster. Now you want to stop. You can’t just stop, you’ve got a hold of it and you can swing on it.
In fact, Pat Roemer [her formal name is Elizabeth, but friends call her Pat], a graduate gal who studied Polaris, it’s a Cepheid variable star right nearly at the north celestial pole. It’s the pole star. She wanted to study the radial velocity curve of that star, and you had to point the telescope right at the North Pole, and there you get no leverage on the telescope tube at all. And she would run and she would grab a hold of the tube and swing it, and then she’d hang, and she’d swing through the air, and it would come down and then she’d [grunts] to keep it from crashing into the floor. You know, it was a little bit reckless. She never crashed it; nobody ever crashed it.
McCray:Did anyone ever find themselves higher above the floor than they had intended to be?
Preston:One person at the Lick Observatory, that was an unfortunate thing, that was an accident, but that was not due to bravery. That was due to just an accident. That’s another matter. But no. You learned, you started out as an apprentice and somebody who had already done it before showed you how: how you point, how you set the telescope, how you find an object, how you need to find your scopes, how you adjust the drive speed, and how you do this, and how you do that. You learn it all just by watching somebody else and somebody else watching you, and then finally you’re trusted to be left alone with it. Just like that.
McCray:Who took you up and was your mentor?
Preston:Billy Bidelman taught me how to use the 36-inch refractor. William P. Bidelman. He’s still alive. He’s an astronomer at Case. He’s retired. He’s ten years older than I am and he’s still in reasonable health. I learned to use the Crossley from George Herbig. I did a little observing with the 20-inch astrograph at Lick, and I learned that from Stan Vasilevskis. He’s one of these people, had a slightly different style on the telescopes that they learned about were slightly different telescopes in each case. Then when I came down here as a Carnegie fellow, I had access and used the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes on Mount Wilson. Now, you don’t push those around, they were too big, and they were motor driven and slewed, and a night assistant hired by the observatory ran the telescope, and you told him where you wanted to point the telescope and he would-- You were in charge of the equipment, the instrument, and you got up on platforms to work with your equipment, and you had to be shown how to do that too.
A lot of this is shown by word of mouth. The observatories I worked at were not ever-- I never worked at a national center in my life. In the places I worked, there never were these fancy manuals, how to do this and how to do that. The places I worked, this place and Lick, were sort of too poor for that and you learned by word of mouth, and somebody showed you, and then you were expected to follow sensible courses of action in your use. This place was the same. You had to learn to use the equipment, but you didn’t move the telescopes. They were operated for you by night assistants. And that was true at Palomar as well, except for the very small telescopes at Palomar, the 18-inch and the 24-inch. There, you operated your own.
McCray:Did that take a while to get used to, you know, having somebody be able to use a motor to drive it, or is it all sort of basically the same thing?
Preston:No. Having somebody else at the telescope for you was just a giant convenience, because you quickly learned that you can still enjoy observing without pushing the telescope, because there’s other things to enjoy about it. No, the night assistant was a great help, and as soon as I got here, I quickly learned to appreciate night assistants, and in no time at all I couldn’t do without them.
McCray:Okay. You first came here and you were a Carnegie fellow in ’59-’60. What was that period of time like here?
Preston:Well, for me it was glorious, because for the first time in my life, I was free to do what I wanted. Now, I’d pursued a thesis at the Lick Observatory, of my own choice, but with the permission of the faculty. I was granted permission to pursue a thesis on the investigation of RR Lyrae stars, and I did that. But when I came here, they just said, you know, “What do you want to do?” I applied for telescope time and could do whatever I pleased, and I just started doing all kinds of things.
McCray:But spectroscopy, primarily?
Preston:It was primarily spectroscopy and some photometry. I wanted to verify some results that I had sort of predicted would be the case from my thesis and to extend the work of my thesis. So what I did here initially was sort of predictable. It was following up consequences of my thesis work, and I think many postdoctoral fellows do this. The thesis gives them ideas about what they should do next, and they do that. I also, at the time I got a job here, I didn’t know what my next job was going to be, so I engaged in projects of collecting material that I could take with me to the next place, and so I would have sort of a storehouse of something to do. It turned out I didn’t need that because I got a job to go right back to Lick Observatory, but I didn’t know that when I came here.
I was in a peculiar situation. As I told you, I got married three days before I graduated from college, and then by the time I started graduate school, a year after I entered graduate school, my first daughter was born. Then we had another boy, and then when I came down here as a post-doc, a third child was born. But when I left Lick I already had two children and a wife who, we’d been married since 1952, and we still didn’t have a pot to piss in. So then when I was getting my degree, the question was, what am I going to do? I got a job offer from University of Indiana.
McCray:Frank Edmondson was…
Preston:Yes, Frank Edmondson was the chairman of the department. Here’s the sequence of events. I applied for a job at the University of Indiana and I applied for a Carnegie fellowship. I don’t know if I applied for anything else. There weren’t that many things to apply for in those days. There weren’t lots of job offers. Sort of like Aller’s time, when Aller said that when he was getting his degree, he said all the students he knew read the obituaries from all the major cities, waiting for an astronomer to die. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad in my case.
But anyway, I had one job that I can remember; it was Indiana, and then an application for a Carnegie fellowship. The job offer from Indiana came first, and it was an offer for I think a $6,000 or $7,000 a year, assistant professor, tenure-track job in Bloomington. And boy, that was the first paycheck I could see for a long time, because I had a Lick Observatory fellowship that was $2000 a year, and I had a G.I. Bill that put me through the first three years or four years. Anyway, it ran out before the end. But it was $135 a month.
McCray:Yeah, it’s not much.
Preston:It’s not much, even in 1950 it wasn’t very much. It got to the point where I couldn’t afford to live at Berkeley anymore, and the Lick Observatory let me come with my wife and children and live in a little one-room place under the diner on Mount Hamilton. I was the first graduate student to live with a family in residence on the Mount. Up to that time it had been unheard of. Married students came in vogue after World War II, sort of. Before that, it was expected that graduate students couldn’t be married and they weren’t supposed to be married, and there was no provision for them at all. But then things started to change. But up to that time, no student had ever been in residence on the mountain. They would commute from Berkeley. But I couldn’t afford to commute anymore. I couldn’t replace the tires on my car, and I didn’t have any money.
And I remember C.D. Shane, the director of the observatory, when he learned that I was having trouble. Because I told Herbig I didn’t know what I was going to do, and Herbig obviously went to Shane, and Shane called me into his office on the mountain and said, I remember the words, he had this kindly smile on his face. He said, “I didn’t know you were sailing so close to the wind.” So then we talked about it a little bit, and after a while he said, “I can’t offer you much,” he said, “but there’s this little apartment underneath the diner, if you’d be willing.” And he said, “It’s sort of a reconditioned coal [?],” but he made it sound like it was going to be just awful. And I said, “Well, I would be happy for anything.” And it actually was a perfectly clean place. It was small, but it had a kitchen and a bedroom and a place for the two kids. Boy, we were happy as clams.
So now I got this job offer from Indiana, and boy that looked pretty good to me. So I went in to talk to Herbig about it, and I said, “Well, jeez, there’s this job offer, take it.” I was afraid it would evaporate, and I hadn’t heard from Carnegie. Herbig’s comment was, “Well, if you want to go off to Bloomington and spend the rest of your life in a (and here’s something you should seal up) in a second-rate astronomy department, when you have a chance to go to the greatest observatory in the world, go ahead. Go ahead and do it.” He was sort of like Darren [?]. He was going to find out what am I made of, what’s important to me? Well, I could tell what he was thinking. He was saying I should turn down Indiana and wait and see if I got a fellowship from Carnegie, which I did, and I got it.
McCray:That must have been hard to do.
Preston:Oh, it was, you know. It was really a tough thing, because Indiana wanted to know. They hadn’t sent to other people then. First of all, it answers one of your previous questions, what were the relationships between the two places? Here was one of the best astronomers of the Lick Observatory telling me I ought to come here and advising me to wait. I did, and I came here, and I’m glad I did.
McCray:How long was the wait, do you recall?
Preston:Oh, it was, you know, a relatively short time, weeks. I can’t remember any clearer than that at this point.
McCray:Yeah, it’s still probably very stressful.
Preston:Yes, it was a stressful time, but, you know, I just decided the hell with it. It was tantalizing, the notion of coming here. So, I did, and I got the job, I got the fellowship.
McCray:I’d like to pause for a minute. [Tape paused]
Preston:It was a nice thing, and it’s, I think, worth it for future generations to know that sometimes people do nice things. You know, I had a postdoctoral fellowship here. I took it, as I think I told you yesterday, instead of going to a professorship at Indiana University, and I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, and I had three kids by the time I was a post-doctorate. So when Whitford paid a visit to me here in Santa Barbara Street and offered me a job at the Lick Observatory, I just thought I had the world with a fence around it. God Almighty, I didn’t really think it was going to happen.
McCray:Did you know Whitford well?
Preston:No, I didn’t know him well. I knew him as a graduate student at the Lick Observatory. He had come to the Lick Observatory during my tenure as a graduate student. That may be a thing to interject here sort of in advance of the Lick Observatory years.
The previous director, C.D. Shane, had gone and made an impassioned plea to the California state legislature for money to build a telescope for the Lick Observatory so that it could compete with the rest of the world. They hadn’t built a telescope at Lick for the best part of a half-century. And he got the money, and he started the project, and it was under construction, and in fact it’d been built and you could go into the dome and look at it, and it looked like a telescope but didn’t work. And people had concluded that it would never work.
Preston:Well, just, the engineers had encountered problems they couldn’t solve. One of them, it was a springy mount, and it bounced around, and it didn’t point well. It was a bunch of stuff. It turned out to be small stuff, but there were engineering problems. And Shane retired and was replaced by Albert Whitford, who came because he had instrumental prowess. He was good at lots of things. So, I was there when he came, but he was preoccupied with the completion of the 120-inch telescope and he didn’t have much time for me. It wasn’t that he ignored me; he just was occupied with other things. So I didn't know him well. I knew who he was and he knew who I was, but that was it sort of.
But some decision was made at Lick to offer me a job, and he came down to do it in person, and that was the first nice thing. That a guy, a preeminent astronomer, and here I was, this lowly Carnegie fellow, and he comes into my office and sits down and tells me that they’d like me to come to Lick Observatory as an assistant astronomer, which was the observatory equivalent of assistant professor. The academic ranks at the Lick Observatory were not called professorships because we didn’t teach. We were called astronomers, and there was an assistant, associate, and full astronomer, just like there, same thing. Anyway, he invited me to do this, and you know, I think it took me about 12 seconds to accept. And I’m not sure I told him that I’d talk it over with my wife. I think I just said, “I accept.” Then, he said, “Now I think before you come, it would be a good idea for you to go to a NATO summer school that was being held in the Netherlands in the months of July and August.” It was called MUFFIC. It was sponsored by the NATO organization to promote collegiality among the scientists of the NATO nations, and they regularly held summer schools for recent post-docs and Ph.D.s and whatnot, and they were in different places at different times. This particular one was in a town called Breucklyn.
McCray:How many people were there? Not the town, the summer school.
Preston:There was, oh, a couple hundred. It was a big thing. It was held in a castle. It was a state-owned, a Netherlands state-owned, castle, and it was in the town of Breucklyn, which was a suburb of Amsterdam. And now you begin to see the connection: Breucklyn, New Amsterdam, Harlem, New York. And an adjacent suburb was a hamlet near Amsterdam, it was called Haarlm. So I learned a bit of history. Anyway, he said, “I’d like you to go to that. It would be good experience for you.”
McCray:What was the topic?
Preston:The topic was galactic structure, which was just my alley. So I said of course, and so he paid my way. So what happened was, that I resigned my fellowship here. I think I had another year to go, or I could have gone another year here. I came in 1959 and this was in the spring of 1960 he suggested that in that summer I go to the Netherlands. So I made an arrangement to do this, and I went to the Netherlands.
I spent six glorious weeks there, learned a lot, met a bunch of people, saw famous people I had never seen before; listened to Jan Oort lecture, Adrian Blauw with his expanding oval [?] associations. And Oort, he was the world’s worst lecturer. He’d stand reading his lectures. He didn’t need to read it, he had written all this stuff down in his head, but he’d go like this, [mumbles in low monotone] “So we see as we examine the nature of the solar system, the [unintelligible] rotation consists of the following parts.” [Laughs] And he would crack us up. But oh, it was great to see. I met Gustav Tammannn on the Zuider Zee. We were going to Dwindeloo, which was the national Dutch radio observatory of that time, and we had to cross the Zuider Zee on little boats, this whole group. We had a day off from the summer session, from the summer school, and took this excursion to see the radio observatory. And on that trip across the Zuider Zee, I got into a bridge game with Gustav Tammann, and that’s where I met Tammann, a Swiss astronomer.
McCray:Did you play bridge before?
Preston:Oh, yeah, yeah. Bridge, it was a popular game in the ‘50s for people to be playing. So anyhow, I did that, came back, we packed up the belongings and went to Lick. So now, we’re back where you wanted to start.
McCray:How long did the summer school last?
Preston:I don’t know. It was like four, six weeks or something. It was a long, it was a big school.
McCray:Did it have a big impact on your research once you came back?
Preston:No, I can’t say that it had a big impact on my research. It was one of these enriching experiences. I got a perspective, I learned what other important people, and young people, in the field, my own contemporaries, really thought was important. It sort of put my own work, which, my thesis work, had a galactic structure context. I mean, I studied these RR Lyrae stars which were representatives of a population, one of Baade’s populations, in our own galaxy, and I discovered that there was a transition, that they bridged the gap between Baade’s populations one and populations two. Nobody had known that before, and that was one of the principle contributions of my thesis, so I acquired further incentive to work in various aspects of that subject.
Now where are we? What are we talking about?
McCray:You’re back at Lick then, starting your new position.
Preston:Yes, back at Lick.
McCray:What was it like, I mean, as an institution? How did it compare with Mount Wilson, which is where you’d been before?
Preston:It was very different. First of all, everybody lived on the mountain. It was not a, unlike Mount Wilson, which is a research facility that you go to to observe, and there’s eating and living quarters there, but when you’re done you come home. There, everybody lived on the mountain, and the population, as the director used to say, if you counted women, children, and dogs, the total population was about 100. The city of San Jose operated a one-room school on top of the mountain, with a school teacher, and the children on the mountain went to that school. This was just elementary school, till sixth grade, and then they had to be bussed or driven down to San Jose.
But so everybody knew everybody else, and it was like one of those Main Streets that Claire Lewis or Upton write about, everybody knew what everybody else was fighting about and what they ate for dinner and if their dog had bitten one of the other kids. But on the other hand, it created a very close-knit family of people, and there was a kind of dedication associated with the pursuit of astronomy. Everybody in the families and in the business offices and in the machine shops, they all had a sense of purpose because they could see the consequences of their work right before them; the purchasing agent saw when something arrived was it needed to be taken to a telescope. It was a very nice environment. It was interesting.
Our first house was a house just adjacent to the telescope where I did my thesis work, out on a promontory that was named after the great astronomer for whom it was built, Robert Trumpler. It was a large house because he had many children. They built him a big house so he would be happy to live there. We acquired this house. Trumpler was long gone. It was out on a ridge, at the end of a ridge, far from most of the other people, so at our first opportunity we moved to another one sort of downtown, on top of the mountain. And I had an office sandwiched between George Herbig on the one side and Nick Mayall on the other. It was an office above the library, which was an add-on to the main building that had been constructed there are the end of the nineteenth century.
Well, I set out to do a couple of things. One was to expand the survey I had done on RR Lyrae stars to include another class of variable stars, which also seemed to cross population boundaries, so-called RV Tauri stars. We now know them to be AGB stars: stars which are spending their final lives as luminous, helium shell-burning stars, and about to become extinct, and also showing the population range and population characteristics that have found to be the case for the RR Lyrae stars. So I wanted to do that, and there is a little tale.
In that effort, began in association with a group of Polish astronomers that continues for me to this day. Shane had initiated, and Whitford continued, the practice of offering research assistantships to young Polish astronomers to come to the United States and work at the Lick Observatory. Now, the Lick Observatory didn’t have the financial resources to offer them what you’d call postdoctoral fellowships, but they had money to hire people to help astronomers in their work, observers at telescope, people who sat and laboriously with slide rules and whatever it was that was the stuff of the day, to reduce observations.
Preston:He didn’t know him, but he depended on-- I think he offered to the Warsaw University Observatory, the opportunity to apply for a research assistantship, and somebody would apply, and Voytek [?] was the guy that came. He was not the first. He was the second, I believe. The first guy was a guy named Serkovski, ended up at the University of Arizona.
Anyway, Voytek came, and he was offered to me as a person to help me in my research, and I promptly put him to work doing photometry of RV Tauri stars. And after a couple of years, he went home. His research assistantship came to an end, but an assistantship was offered to the next guy, which was a guy named Jozef Smak. It’s Polish for “sweet” actually, like Peter Sweet in England, but this was Jozef Smak. And he was replaced by a guy named Bohdan Paczynski, who is now a Rumford Metal winner and the star, shining light of the Princeton University Observatory. We all became fast friends, and we worked together, and each of these Poles would indoctrinate the next one in the practices, saying, “You have to do very good work so that we get invited again.” They regarded it as an enormous opportunity because they had a chance to pursue their own research, sort of on a half-time basis. They provided service for the observatory. In return, they had access to telescopes that they didn’t have in Poland.
Preston:I don’t know. That’s hard to understand. The first one came and was a success, and that suggested why, you know, more is better. So if one is good, let’s try it again. And every one of them was good. As a consequence of this association…
I’ll skip ahead. Might as well get it in now. After I became director here, many years later, we had a scandal, which I’ll tell you about later on, in which I had to fire a manager of the observatory in Chile, the local manager. I didn’t know who to trust because I was new to the game at that time. I was new to this place and Las Campanas, so who did I hire? I hired Bohdan Paczynski, the first Polish research assistant that I worked with years ago. He wanted to leave Poland. Poland was in dire economic straits; it was sort of the end of the Cold War, and he was happy to get out and come down there, and I trusted him because I knew he was an honest guy and I could trust him. So he’s the guy I brought.
Years later, after that, Bohdan Paczynski looking for a place to study microlensing, and he wanted to put a telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory, and he and I wrote a joint proposal to fund the gravitational lensing experiment at the 40-inch telescope at Las Campanas. Again, he felt free to approach me, and I was, at that time, I was no longer director here. But he said, “George, how would I go about maybe getting access to telescopes,” but it was because of this friendship that began at the Lick Observatory in the 1960s. Well, so then I worked together with these guys on astrophysical problems concerned with RR Lyrae stars, with this survey of RV Tauri stars, and in that period, I began to pursue a topic that I had not felt free to pursue here. Then I have to go back a little bit.
While I was still a graduate student, I became interested in a particular phenomenon associated with the pulsation of RR Lyrae itself. RR Lyrae is considered the prototype because it’s the brightest star of its class in the sky. But it is atypical in that, in addition to its pulsation period, the fundamental period of oscillation of this star, it exhibits a long, 41-day variation in the amplitude of that pulsation, that you can see in the light curve and in the radial velocity curve and in properties of the shock waves that are emitted during the rising light periods of its fundamental oscillation. It happened that Horace Babcock, then the director of this place, had reported the existence of a magnetic field in spectra of RR Lyrae that he had taken. He had developed a means whereby you could measure stellar magnetic fields. His father had assisted in studying the magnetic fields of the sun, and he had participated in magnetograph, a gizmo that mapped the magnetic fields of the sun. But then he extended this work to stars, and he observed RR Lyrae, gave the results to his research assistant here, who measured the plates and found magnetic fields. I thought that I had found that the field measurements that he had made were periodic in this 41-day secondary period of RR Lyrae. That is to say, I though there’d been a 41-day cycle. I saw some evidence that the magnetic fields that he had measured, and published tables of, were periodic.
I wrote a little letter to the Astrophysical Journal, and that letter was sent by Chandrasekhar, to Horace to referee. Horace wrote back a referee’s report. It was one of these nice things, in which he said essentially “Well, Preston can publish this if he wants, but I don’t believe it.” Then he wrote me, I think he wrote me a letter, saying, “I’ve refereed your paper and I’ve told Chandra what I thought. I have other unpublished data which doesn’t seem to support your result, and I’ll send that to you and you can look at it and see what you think.” He sent the data, and it didn’t quite fit.
So now I thought, well, cripes. I’m not going to publish a paper when the guy who did the primary observations doesn’t believe the results, you know. I thought, I’m not going to fight this. So I put it aside, and I said, “When I get to Lick Observatory, I’m going to redo this problem and I’ll find out for myself.” So, when I got back to the Lick Observatory, the first thing I did was copy, essentially, Horace’s instrument that he used to make the measurements at Palomar Observatory, actually.
McCray:Did you build it yourself?
Preston:No, I didn’t build it. I designed it and set out the specs, and then I sent it to Lambrecht Optical Works in Chicago, and they made both components; there was a babonasolate [?] compensator and then there were the calcite analyzing prisms. Anyway, I ordered this stuff, and then I had to do some calibrating of the telescope and fiddling around, and then I embarked on the measurements. And the upshot is that I couldn’t find any magnetic fields at all. And I reported this in my Warner Prize lecture in 1965 or thereabouts, or ‘4 or ‘3, or whatever year it was, saying that, “Well, it was an interesting idea.” It was like Mark Twain’s dictum, you know, interesting if true, if not true, interesting anyway. And I put it aside.
In fact, that notion has been resurrected principally by Balazs and Detre at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary, and they have pursued this ever since, arguing the case without presenting any new data. And to this day, I think there’s a small group of astronomers who believe that the 41-day period of RR Lyrae is its rotation period; that there is an embedded magnetic field with an axis inclined to the rotation axis, and as the star slowly rotates, you see varying aspects of the magnetic surface, and that causes the magnetic field to appear to go up and down. Because the magnetic field constrains the plasma and the surface layers of the star, it affects the light and radial, and motions, and whatnot, and you see all these effects. But nobody’s ever proved it, and I couldn’t, and one of the troubles was that RR Lyrae, the spectrum of the star changes as it grows hotter and cooler, and it was sufficiently faint that I couldn’t obtain observations of high signal to noise in the time available during its light cycle. I didn’t have a big enough telescope. 120-inch wasn’t big enough. So I regarded the data that I had collected as essentially inferior data, and I didn’t see a way to improve it, and it gave a null result, and so I followed the dictum of the sign on the visitor’s guide employee at the Lick Observatory. The sign on his desk which had said, “If at first you don’t succeed, to hell with it.” [Laughs] I said, “Look,” I said, “There’s other fish to fry. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life on this particular one” because the data was suspect.
But now I had the Zeeman analyzer. I spent a lot of time obtaining it, designing it, calibrating it. It was sitting there, so I said, well, there’s another problem around, and it had to do with Babcock’s survey of magnetic AP stars, peculiar A-type stars, just the one class of stars where there’s indubitable evidence of magnetic fields. And he had made a survey, published an extensive catalog of the data in an Astrophysical Journal supplement, and made an analysis of the data that he had collected. And at that point in his life, he concluded that he had brought that subject to an end or had carried it as far as he wanted to carry it, because he had now become interested in site testing to build the Las Campanas Observatory. So it was like Newton going to the mint. Horace had done this magnificent piece of work on the magnetic fields of A-type stars, and then he said, “No more. I’ve put that aside. I am moving on to something else.”
So, there it sat, this data, but it was in an unsatisfactory state, because he had classified all of his magnetic AP stars into three classes, cleverly calling them Alpha, Beta, and Gamma, after the Bayer designations, or whatever they’re called, Alpha Orionis, Beta Orionis, and so forth. The three stars in his catalog with names like that: Alpha, the variable stood for Alpha 2 Canum Venaticorum; it’s a second magnitude A star in the constellation Canis Venatici. And it had a periodic magnetic field, and this was indubitable, and the polarity reversed. So that was that category. All the rest of the variables were irregular variables. He had not found periods of any kind, magnetic periods, for them. They seemed to be random magnetic fields.
McCray:They changed, but it wasn’t…
Preston:Change, but no periodicities. And there were two kinds of them. One of them was the Beta variables. The archetype was Beta Corona Borealis, and it was a star within a regular field that changed polarity. Then there was a Gamma class. Gammae Oculae was the archetype, and it had an irregular field that never changed polarity. It was just at the same polarity every time you went and observed it; it was always positive. So you had these three classes, and there was cockamamie theories of irregular magnetic variables, but none of them rang true, and the best theorists didn’t really like them. Schwarzschild in particular, my hero, was able to make magnetic oscillators, stars which inherently had magnetic oscillations, but they were periodic oscillations.
McCray:Not irregular ones?
Preston:Irregular-- People were postulating that there were bubbles of magnetic material that were buoyant because the magnetic field provided part of the pressure, and so the gas pressure inside was low. Then these bubbles rose to the surface of the star and exploded and you got a burst of magnetism, and blah, blah, blah. I thought this doesn’t sound good to me, so I’m going to undertake a survey and look at all of his stars over again and see if I can find periods for them. So I set forth, this is a project that I undertook beginning in the early 1960s, shortly after I got to the Lick Observatory and got this gadget, and did it for a number of years, employing the services finally of another one of those Polish guys, Kaximierz Stepien, who came and helped me with that. And what I discovered, the upshot, to make a long story short, was that I found that all of these stars were in fact periodic variables.
McCray:What had they been missing?
Preston:Oh, insufficient data, in many cases not observed for a long enough interval of time to detect the variables. They saw fluctuation-- They interpreted as random activity the noise in their data, which was changing slowly, and they hadn’t observed it enough to see that there was a tree in the forest. They just didn’t. This happens frequently, that there are insufficient data to reach a conclusion in some subjects and you have to pursue it more.
McCray:How many months or years did you have to…?
Preston:Several years. Five or six years. What I was able to conclude, finally, was that they’re all periodic. And in fact, it was only after I came down here that then I found the most astounding thing. And this can all be blamed on rotation. The same model that was proposed for RR Lyrae.
McCray:Which had the 41-day period?
Preston:The 41-day period. This was a model proposed, first of all, by an astronomer named Stibbs in England. Shortly after Babcock discovered the periodic variables, a guy named D.W.M. Stibbs wrote a paper in which he said, “I think it’s because they’re inclined magnetic fields,” inclined to the axis of rotation, and you see the varying aspects of the magnetic field, and this causes the periodicity. But, I found that the inclination was left as a free parameter, and what I found was that there was an overwhelming evidence that the magnetic axes, dipole axes, were almost always orthogonal to the rotation axes, and that when they didn’t reverse polarity, it was because you saw them at such a small inclination that you never saw the hemisphere which had the opposite polarity. You can see it as two things that you have available, two variables that are available to you in the analysis. One is the property inherent in the star, which is the angle between the rotation, the momentum axis of the star, and its magnetic axis, supposing it’s…
McCray:Which is at a right angle?
Preston:At some large angle. But then, this whole system, you could view equatorially, so it’s going around like this, or you could do it like this, and then it goes like this. In that case, you only see one polarity all the time. I found you could explain all of them by just assuming that there was a distribution of angles of observational angles, the angle that the rotation axis made with the line of sight, so that sometimes you saw this, and sometimes you saw this, and everything in between. So I did that, and that work was coming to an end about the time that the turmoil began at the Lick Observatory, the tumultuous events. Did anyone talk about that?
McCray:Yes, but just in a second. A couple questions about your research and then other astronomical events that were going on. You were interested in stellar abundances to some degree. Did you have any reaction to the work that was being done, I guess, at Kellogg and the B2FH work? Did it have any impact?
Preston:Sure. Yes. I had reactions to it. I’d have to back up a little bit to do that, and then-- Chronology doesn’t exactly always work.
To get back to that, we’d have to go back to my thesis itself. Now I’m no longer a staff member at the Lick Observatory, but I’m back in the previous era at around 1958, and I’m writing my thesis. What I had done was, at the suggestion of Struve, which I had taken up, I did a survey of the RR Lyrae stars, the solar neighborhood, and confirmed what Guido Munch and his coworker, Terrazzas [?] had found in Mexico the year before. That was, not only was this one star that they found that had apparently high abundances of the elements, even though it was a so-called halo population 2 star that was supposed to be metal-poor, but I found that, oh, I don’t know, 25-30% of the RR Lyrae stars had this property, and in fact that the abundances of the elements inferred from the strength of the resonance line of calcium that I was using as an abundance indicator, this line took on all values from very metal-poor to essentially normal solarite [?], and then the kinematic [?] properties were correlated with the abundance. So I had started to contrive a model of the galaxy and a description of the population of RR Lyrae stars based on these results that I was getting from these low resolution spectra that I was obtaining with the Crossley spectrograph, with that other spectrograph of Mayall.
I was writing this up and I was using as a model, not so much the work of B2FH, but the same work that they used. Namely, there was an important paper by Chamberlain and Aller demonstrating that sub-dwarfs, with spectra very similar to RR Lyrae stars, were in fact metal-poor and not sub-dwarfs at all. I’m talking about part of my lecture, and there is Mr. Aller himself, and he is the fifth person in the sextet that I’m going to speak about. And he had the balls to come out and say something that nobody else dared say, which was, “I don’t think these are A stars at all. I think they’re F or G stars. They’re much cooler. And the weakness of the calcium line is not a measure of the temperatures of the stars, it’s an indicator of the low abundance.” And I believed the guy, and also another fellow, a graduate student of Malcom Savedoff.
Malcom Savedoff was an astronomer who really was a very good astronomer who never made it into the big time. He worked at the University of Rochester. He came to this observatory as a guest investigator and took some spectra of RR Lyrae, which he took back to Rochester and gave to a student of his named Santirocco. And S, we never heard from him again. I don’t know what happened to him, but he didn’t continue on to have a lengthy career in astronomy, but he wrote a thesis in which, following the general methods of Chamberlain and Aller, came to the conclusion that RR Lyrae was metal-poor, just as Chamberlain and Aller’s subdwarfs were metal-poor, and that the range in abundances from the halo to the disc of our galaxy was large. It wasn’t a small effect, it was an order of magnitude effect, and it required, really, that there be some chemical evolutionary process at work in the galaxy that caused old stars to have no metal and young stars to have more metal. Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle took this up and amplified on it, accepted it, and worked up one of the first rudimentary models of chemical evolution.
So in answer to your question, I accepted, along with Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle, these fundamental investigations by principally Chamberlain and Aller and Santirocco, that this was true. I was building it into my thesis, and there arrived on the mountain, because he was a visiting professor in Berkeley, the great Albrecht Unsold. I don’t know if you ever heard of Albrecht Unsold, but he wrote a book, this thing.
McCray:This is, oh, I can’t pronounce it. It’s in German.
Preston:It’s Physik der Sternatmosfer [?].
McCray:The Physics of Stellar Atmosphere?
Preston:That’s right, and if you opened it up you’ll see that it’s the bible of astrophysics, and it was gone with equations and diagrams and calculations, and it is a tome, and it is 1000 pages long. And it was the bible of all of Europe. He came to the Lick Observatory, sort of on tour during his stay in Berkeley, and he went around and graciously had audiences with all the people on the mountain, and he came in due course to me. Somebody told him, “George Preston is this graduate student over there in that office. Maybe you’d like to say hello to him.” So he came in, “What are you doing?” So I told him what my results were. Well, just as he had not believed Chamberlain and Aller in 1951, which I didn’t know, he didn't believe me. He just dismissed my results, the results of my thesis.
Preston:Politely. Gently. Explaining to me that people had tried to make this explanation for metallic line stars, which also have weak K lines, but it had nothing to do with abundances. There was only one cosmic set of abundances of the elements. They were formed that way in the beginning, and when you find stars that have apparent deviations from that, it is because of some peculiarity in the structure of their atmospheres, a shallow temperature gradient, an unknown source of opacity, or some other thing.
McCray:So a pretty homogenous view of the universe?
Preston:He had a homogenous view, and he believed, without offering proof, that all the elements were formed in the beginning, in spite of the fact that Gamow [?] had failed to do this, was unable to do it. But anyway, Unsold just rejected it. It didn’t discourage me in the slightest because I already believed the other guys. I was a graduate student and he was the great Herr Professor with his book and he was feeling sorry for me and I was feeling sorry for him! So from my point of view it was a standoff. I think he felt that he had set me straight and he went off and left me behind, but it didn’t deter me in the slightest. But it did kindle my interest in the realization that in fact these abundance results had not been accepted, and perhaps it would be necessary to push the matter before the public, because I didn’t know what fraction of the astronomical public perhaps did have these reservations. And I learned later, in 1962, my mentor, the great Otto Struve at Berkeley, wrote a book with Velta Zebergs called Astronomy of the Twentieth Century.
McCray:Yes, I have that.
Preston:Well, in that book you will find that in the chapter on abundances of the elements, whatever chapter it is that has to do with that subject, he expresses great reservations about the reality of the results of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle, and he found it difficult to accept and thought that it still required confirmation. He didn’t reject them; he expressed doubt. But now, this is, I mean, the fundamental work by this gentleman had been done in 1951. In 1957, B2FH came out with their elaborations on it and offering up supernovae as the source of the element production and the successive blah, blah, blah. Now, as late as 1962 or ‘3, whenever that book came out, Struve still hadn’t accepted it. That tells you something about the effect of geographical separation. Struve living in Berkeley, surrounded by people doing their thing, as opposed to people living in Pasadena and doing their thing, and there was Jesse Greenstein and Willy Fowler and this bunch down here actively pursuing the study of the abundances of the elements, and Struve sat in isolation. He was interested in peculiar stars, he was interested in beta canis majorus [?] stars, abnormal pulsations, in turbulence in star atmospheres, physics of stellar atmospheres. So he just read about this other stuff, and because he wasn’t deeply involved he somehow was unimpressed.
McCray:So it wasn’t a split between physicists and astronomers?
Preston:No, no it had nothing to do with that, in my view. No, I think it was-- I have found this over and over again in the course of time, that people who are not close to a subject are much more willing to be evenhanded in assessing the relative validity of two opposing arguments. There’s a field over there and there’s a violent argument going on. People say it’s this and people say it’s that. And people over here who are not in that field, but doing something entirely different, look over and see this fight and say, “Well, I think what we should do is take an average. Probably the truth lies halfway in between those two groups.” They don’t bother to familiarize themselves enough to form an opinion. They just reconcile the differences in their own head with some simple explanation, or say, “I think we should wait and see how it turns out.” It’s like, was O.J. Simpson guilty or innocent, and you don’t know from a distance, so you say, “I don’t know.” And this happens frequently, very frequently in science.
So anyway, I don’t know where I was now.
McCray:We were talking about the nuclear synthesis work. This is sort of a big question, but a lot of your work at this time is very stellar oriented. Quasars are discovering, all sorts of weird things like that. Did you ever have any temptation to move into galaxies and this?
Preston:No, I didn’t. I was totally immersed in what I was doing and thought that that was extraordinarily interesting and important, and I wasn’t tempted to move out into the extragalactic field. In fact, what has happened as a consequence was that the stellar astronomy was left behind because people like me did such a good job that most of the problems were solved, and the subject has moved on, so that today, the frontiers are largely in extragalactic physics. What I’m doing for a living is still very interesting stuff, in my opinion, but it’s, in some sense at this age in my life, is sort of cleaning up around the edges. That is to say, many of the issues of chemical evolution that I am pursuing now are of interest in the context of the early formation of elements in the cosmos. It is still interesting in that context. So what I’m doing today is still of considerable interest. But the stellar astronomy that I did from 1965 until I re-entered the field in the late 1970s in the search for metal-poor stars, that stuff in between has sort of, it’s solved stuff and people have moved on. I think what I’m doing now is at the forefront again, but it’s stellar astronomy with an application to extragalactic astronomy. It’s not extragalactic astronomy, that is, I have never become involved with the galaxies themselves.
McCray:Okay, as you step back and look at the overall landscape of the research that you’ve done, do you see common themes running through it that you can identify?
Preston:Well, there is one. I began in my youth, studying the effects of chemical evolution on the stellar content of the Milky Way galaxy. Then I went off and I did other things for 15, 20 years. Now in my old age, I’ve returned to the themes of my youth, and I’m again doing it with other people here. So this is a theme in which I came into astronomy and in which I’ll probably go out, and in between there was something else. But there’s no unifying thread that connects the years, because in between I did stuff that was completely different, and I enjoyed that because it was kind of fun to do things that were completely different.
McCray:For some researchers it seems, and this is a gross simplification, but some of them are more interested in the trees and some of them are more interested in the forest. Where would you put yourself in that spectrum? Not to be a bad pun.
Preston:I think I walk both sides of that street. I became extraordinarily interested in the properties of individual stars, and if you look at my bibliography you’d see that I wrote lots of papers on individual objects in which I found a very extraordinary thing: the Null Line in Beta Coronae Borealis and the expanding shells around U Monocerotis, and this and that and the other thing, and the evidence for a quadratic Zeeman effect in a certain white dwarf, and such stuff.
But then, the whole business of surveying classes of stars and trying to place them in the context of galactic evolution, that is more of the looking back, looking at the forest, and not paying attention to individual objects. So I think I just sort of went where it was fun. Sometimes it was fun looking at an individual star because explaining it was a subject of itself, and it was interesting for its own sake. And other times, individual stars are representatives of a class of objects, and it’s the class that’s interesting, and putting the class in the context of a bigger picture. So I did both things. I don’t think I can categorize that way.
McCray:As you were doing your research, did you develop new ways of looking at stars in a metaphorical sense? I don’t mean in terms of instruments, but did you…
McCray:People who do work on, say, galaxies and extragalactic objects, I think arrived at a certain picture of the universe, and I was wondering if your research on stellar topics gave you your own view of how the universe was put together and worked, that differed from how somebody who studied large-scale structure of the universe might have come to.
Preston:Well, I have come to have views about—these are just views. It’s like storytelling, it’s like what the Rangers do at Sequoia National Park when they try to tell you how the redwood forest came into existence. You tell a story. I have come to have a view of the way in which enrichment of the intergalactic, interstellar medium occurred in the earliest days of our galaxy, and by inference, all galaxies. And it has been colored by the results of my research into the abundance distributions of old stars, and so it starts out, in particular, you pick fields of view, you look for metal-poor stars, you find the relative numbers of them in various abundance groups, you follow them up individually, and then when you try to explain it you are obliged to make a picture for yourself. It at least helps to make a picture, a model, a visualization, just as a starting point for thought of how they could come to have the properties they had. That did lead to views that I could come to when I get to that place. I’m not anywhere near that; I’m still at the Lick Observatory, so that will be something that happens later. But I do have such views.
McCray:Okay. Tell me about tumultuous times at Lick while you were there.
Preston:All right. Well, they were tumultuous for all of us, the younger of us in particular. There were two events that occurred, sort of at the beginning of my tenure as a staff member of the Lick Observatory, which ultimately transformed the place. One was the completion of a 120-inch telescope. So long as the Lick Observatory had as its principal research instruments the 36-inch refractor and the Crossley reflector, the campus astronomers didn’t much give a damn about the place. It was a place to ship off the graduate students, like I was shipped off in the end of my first year, to get some observing experience. But when they really wanted to do observing, they asked for guest investigator privileges at Mount Wilson, Palomar Observatories or they went to the national centers to do their astronomy, but Lick Observatory didn’t much matter.
With the completion of the 120-inch, the Lick Observatory became a prize, and access to the 120-inch telescope became a matter of enormous interest to the principle research groups on the campuses of the University of California, which were Berkeley, UCLA, and San Diego. San Diego to a lesser extent, but still at La Jolla, an astronomy group had developed and the Burbidges were there. Okay. So these campuses started saying, essentially, “Well, they got money to build a big telescope in the name of the University of California, and it’s been built now, and we’re part of the University of California, and we want a piece of the cake.” And the Lick Observatory dragged its feet on. They said, “Well, look, you didn’t take any initiative, you didn’t give a damn about the place. We went and begged for the money. We built the telescope on a shoestring. We poured years and years of our effort into it, and it’s ours.” So there was a standoff. And you can look in hindsight and say that people could have behaved differently, but they didn’t behave differently.
But simultaneous with that, there appeared in an office in Sacramento Governor Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Reagan thought that government is the problem and smaller governments are better, and it’s possible to cut the fat out of almost any program, and the University of California is no exception, so he was looking for cost-cutting measures. His advisors, whoever they were, were quick to point out that as a research station, the University of California were on a mountain top outside of San Jose. They don’t teach anybody; they just have salaries. They sit around and they do just research, and they don’t contribute to the university in any way at all. Reagan said, “My goodness. It’s an interesting development. We’ve got to put a stop to that.”
So a squeeze was put on Clark Kerr, the president of the university, to do something about this. You know, it was one of these usual things: we’re going to cut your budget, you tell us which activities you’re going to curtail. Then Kerr started asking questions about, well, could you guys really want to participate in university activities. Could you start having some teaching function, come to the campuses? The campus-based astronomers immediately latched onto this. “Well, why don’t we just move them all off, and why don’t they come and become part of our department? We’ll rent them a warehouse in Berkeley some place and you can come and teach.” And we were going to lose our identity. We would be absorbed into one of the campus departments. The telescopes we had regarded as ours—respectively, but nevertheless—for years, and the grand tradition of the observatory would come to an end, blah, blah, blah (I like to do that, blah, blah, blah, blah. That means all the things that I can’t think of clearly to enunciate).
So, worry started to ensue, and the president of the university formed a committee chaired by a Roger Revelle, who was a chancellor of some campus.
McCray:It was Scripps, wasn’t it, before?
Preston:Scripps, you’ve got it. Jesus you know a lot. That’s right, it’s Scripps. It was a blue ribbon panel. It had Emilio Segrè on it, it had Harold Urey on it, it had this Aldrich guy that became the chancellor of Irvine on it. It was big-time, and it was supposed to study the Lick Observatory and make recommendations about its disposition. And they came to the mountain, stayed overnight, met, and interviewed the astronomers, pontificated, went away, and then I learned after the fact that actually they had recommendations about abolishing my position and doing away with it, killing the place off by attrition, giving no more people tenure, letting the old people retire, and let it come to an end that way. That was one of their suggestions. There were a bunch of suggestions coming up.
Meanwhile, the university campus departments were making suggestions that we move in with them. That was another solution: don’t kill off by attrition, just move the department en masse to Berkeley or Los Angeles or something. So the Lick Observatory staff was really scared, and we started looking around, what could we do? And there came Santa Cruz, a fledgling campus, not yet really in operation. But there was a famous picture of McHenry sitting on his campus, and it was a glen in the middle of a redwood forest, and he had put a desk out in the middle of this meadow surrounded by redwood trees and grass, and he’s sitting while talking on the telephone at his desk. Just a desk: that was the Santa Cruz campus; this was the picture that he presented, but “Guess what’s going to come? We’re going to have a campus.” So some of us began urging Whitford to start talking with McHenry, because we didn’t want to go to Berkeley and we didn’t want to go to UCLA because they were already too big and established, and we figured if they, with their savvy campus politics, would sort of take us over, we would be absorbed.
McCray:Right. I mean, you’ve got, what is that, the Lawrence laboratory and places like that; you’re going to be one among many.
Preston:Yeah, so we decided we’d be better to be a big fish in a little pond rather than a little fish in a big pond, and so Whitford started talking to Dean McHenry. The staff was not uniform about this. There was no sentiment to move to Berkeley, but a considerable fraction of the staff at the Lick Observatory thought we should just drag our feet long term, and just be adamant, stick it out, and that we could somehow win a battle and retain our…
McCray:And stay up on Mount Hamilton.
Preston:Stay on Mount Hamilton. But George Herbig and I in particular thought this wasn’t going to work, and also Stan Vasilevskis. The three of us ones that said, “Look, our position is untenable. If we try to hold out we will be perceived as sticks in the mud and unwilling to accept change, and we will be ignored and then something will happen to us that we won’t like, so we should take the matter into our own hands and do something.” So we were of the school that urged Whitford to talk to McHenry, and he did, and maybe he would have without our protestations. I’m not claiming credit for this. But the staff was divided. Some of the older ones had never taught a course in their lives and were terrified at the prospect of having to deal with students. I had been going to Berkeley—I went to Berkeley and taught a course in spectroscopy to the students because I wanted graduate students to come up and work with me. So I had done that, and Herbig had done this and Bidelman had done this, but some of them had never done it and were terrified at the prospect.
Well, so Whitford went and talked and McHenry was very receptive. Here he was going to get a whole, complete department for nothing, wouldn’t come out of his budget because the budget, the Lick Observatory budget, would be transferred to the Santa Cruz campus. As another thing for you to know, and you probably learned this if you talked to anybody at the Lick Observatory, was that the Lick Observatory had its own budget, and its reporting line was direct to the President, just like the chancellors of the campuses. We didn’t report through any other campus. So the director of the Lick Observatory had essentially the status of a chancellor in the U.C. system, in that he submitted his budgets to the, what do you call, the President’s office, and got back and negotiated and all that.
Well, so one of the things you had to give up was, when we went to Santa Cruz, Whitford could no longer communicate with the President, but he had to communicate with his own local chancellor, and there was a degree of degradation of the position in that respect. But we got our own building. We had a huge fight with the librarian over keeping the Lick Observatory library, which was a wonderful library, and the librarian at Santa Cruz wanted to have all the Lick books in his library, and we said, “No, we want to have our own library.” And that chief librarian, whose name I now forget, was-- There are two classes of librarians: there are university librarians who believe in departmental libraries, and there are those who don’t. And there are some people that are not satisfied unless all the books are in the library and he has the only key and the key is locked. So a compromise was adopted in that there was an annex built onto the Santa Cruz library, and the entire Lick collection was kept in that annex. There was a locked door between them. There was also a door from the outside, and when the library was closed, Lick people could come in through their own door with their own key and go into their own library. Some funny compromises.
So it was worked out and it was finally agreed that we would move the Lick Observatory to Santa Cruz. But that was going to take a couple of years while the buildings got built. In the interim, three of us, Tom Kinman and Stan Vasilevskis and I, began to teach at Santa Cruz. They had, I don’t know, it was called Natural Science, I don’t know, Science Reports. And what they could do was, they could teach a physics section and a biology section and an astronomy section, because they had one physicist, one or two biologists, and then there was a whole observatory. So when instruction began on the campus, we handled the astronomy portion of an undergraduate, you know, these survey courses, and there were two of them: one for science majors and one for poets. And I began to teach and commute from Mount Hamilton to Santa Cruz, which is quite a lengthy trip, and doing that two or three times a week. The three of us did this for a couple of years while the arrangements for the transfer took place. Whitford, not knowing what else to do, needed somebody to create a curriculum because we were going to become a teaching department, and he asked me to be the first chairman of the Board of Studies. And I, not able to say anything else, said yes. So I became the guy, the Lick Observatory person, who was in charge of devising a curriculum and, you know, courses that you put in the catalog, and assigning the duties to teach this, that, and the other thing.
McCray:Did you like doing this?
Preston:Not really. But I was the one who said we should go there, so I couldn’t very well say, “Well, I’m not going to participate.” I had no experience at this kind of thing, but I thought, okay. It was not easy, because many of the staff didn’t want to teach, and you’d come in and say, “Well, what would you like to teach?” Well, nothing. [Laughs] Or they would suggest some absurd topic that I would’ve been ashamed to put in the catalog. I mean, you can’t teach Catalog Preparation or How to Clean a Photocell.
So it was kind of a thing like this, but we did it, and we invented a curriculum, and then finally there was a fateful day when we moved off the mountain, and it was horrific. People were crying. It was a winter day. It was dark, foggy, a huge caravan of huge trucks had come to the mountain, and office furniture was being put into it, and peoples’ household goods were being packed and taken, and we all had had a period of, I don’t know, six months or so to find housing that we were going to move into. We all lived in university housing for 7, 8, 10, some people for 20 years. I lived there for 7 years. And we were suddenly now having to acquire a house of our own and set up housekeeping of our own. And then the trauma of the move, and saying goodbye to the one-room schoolhouse. The little kids were moving away, and people who had lived as neighbors for years were being scattered all over the Santa Cruz mountains. There was a great wailing and a sense of profound sadness that enveloped the whole place, and there was this awful period of headlights and fog and trucks going back and forth. To this day I have a bad feeling about that moment, because I saw just the destruction of the Lick Observatory. We were all going away and abandoning it. How was it going to work in the future? Our house would sit empty, the house where we had enjoyed so many interesting things, where one of our children was born, was going to be abandoned? It was a bad scene.
But we got over it. We got to Santa Cruz and we quickly found that there was a new way of life.
McCray:Did you like Santa Cruz?
Preston:Yeah. The campus was beautiful. Our living quarters, our working quarters, I mean, on the campus, were interesting, different. Having the students around was a new experience. I had all kinds of fun things happen to me. Because there were so few faculty in these early days. Everybody had to sit on committees, the usual thing, universities are full of committees. And I was on a budge committee, the thing that recommends promotions for people. I also sat on the Committee on Committees. You know what a Committee on Committees is?
McCray:No, but it sounds terrifying.
Preston:It’s terrifying. Every University of California campus, every academic senate, has a bunch of committees that decide issues of curriculum and technical support and advancement and promotions—ugh. And every one of those committees has to be filled with people who sit on them. So, who sits on the committees? Well, there’s a committee that picks the members to sit on the other committees. Their job is to say, “Okay, we had a budget committee for two years and so-and-so’s been on it for three years and he needs to be replaced, and who should we replace him with?” So the Committee on Committees sits and meets and recommends the replacements for all the other committees.
Well, because the Lick Observatory had this senior position on the campus, I was named chairman of the Committee on Committees. That’s okay. Now I discovered, to my horror, and ultimately, amusement, that every year, the University of California has an all-university meeting on one of its campuses, and it sends representatives from all the campuses to meet and discuss university-wide policy; those issues where all the campuses of the university should have a say in what happens and in which there should be some uniformity, admissions for example, and such issues.
Well, one of the activities was a committee that met at the all university meeting, and it was called, believe it or not, the Committee on Committees on Committees. It was the committee that consisted of the chairs of all the Committee on Committees members from all the campuses, and I was sent to that, and I sat on it. I sat on this committee, and it was having a meeting during the middle of a violent protest on the UCLA campus about the Vietnamese War. And outside students were carrying placards and yelling and the police were there, and in the middle of it all, we were talking about the retirement program for the elderly astronomers of the university.
McCray:So a fairly significant disjunction of…
Preston:Oh, it was a disjunction. I sat there and I couldn’t believe it. Here the world was coming apart outside. The students are in violent protest, and we’re talking about our retirement benefits, and it was a disconnect. And I thought, “Jesus, this is unreal.” So that was one thing. Then I ran afoul of the Santa Cruz campus, because I could not abide the behavior of the vice chancellor of the Santa Cruz campus to whom the observatory had to report.
McCray:Who was this?
Preston:It was a guy-- Now, here’s a case where, I actually liked the guy as a person, but what he did was abysmal. His name was Francis Klauser. He was an aeronautical engineer. He had done his training at Caltech. He went to work for Douglas. He was one of the people, he told me, that flew the first Douglas DC-3, sat and looked out the window at the ribbons they had tied to the wings and discovered where the airflows were incorrect and went and modified the airplane. He was a distinguished aeronautical engineer, and he was hired as the Vice Chancellor for Science and Engineering by Dean McHenry, and he came to the campus in the full expectation that he would get an engineering school. But, you know, there was a sequence of events; first things first, one of those things. So there was no engineering school, so the only thing that Frances Klauser had to manage was the Lick Observatory. It was a full-fledged astronomy department. They had one physicist whose name I forget now, one chemist, and a great big huge Lick Observatory and this whole mountain top full of telescopes. So he started to micromanage us. “Why don’t we put some kind of an instrument in space?” He says. “I have friends at Lockheed. We could put the 120-inch telescope in orbit if we wanted to. Why aren’t you flying cosmic ray balloons? There’s no radio astronomy program on this campus! Why aren’t you guys doing radio astronomy?”
McCray:So he had no idea.
Preston:Well, he just was interfering. He was trying, I think, to make us enlarge our outlook and embrace new ideas, but what he was essentially, the message he was sending us is that what we did was of no value at all. He kept pressuring and forcing it. I went and sat with the president of Lockheed in Sunnyvale and had lunch and listened to these people come in and make presentations about what they could launch in orbit if we would undertake some 20 or 100 million dollar design of some gadget. And we could have employed all the astronomers of the Lick Observatory designing stuff for Lockheed to launch. Of course, Lockheed wanted it because it was big bucks from the federal government to get a project to launch rockets, and they could make money. And Klauser was either in bed with them or he thought that it was an opportunity for us.
I don’t know what he thought. All I know is, he was driving me crazy, and it got worse and worse and worse. And finally, I just had a snoot full.
I had gotten a job offer from Horace Babcock, the director of this place, a couple of years before. He had seen my work on magnetic stars that I had been doing up at Lick, sort of following up his pioneering work. I guess he thought that was pretty good and they needed a spectroscopist down here, I guess. Anyway, he had asked me if I wanted a job and at that time I said no. But then after two or three years at Santa Cruz, and principally because of this attitude of Klauser-- And there was no talking to McHenry to get him out of it. That is to say, McHenry didn’t want me to come and talk to him. It was two of us talking. First it was Whitford, who retained the directorship of the Lick Observatory. It was still an entity in itself, but now there was a second entity, the Board of Studies in Astronomy. Klauser didn’t get along with Whitford at all, and so then he turned to me, and I was the young junior guy that could be manipulated, he thought. So he started twisting me to do these things, and I perceived that. I saw what was going on, and I didn’t like it. And Whitford and I talked about it, and he also couldn’t get McHenry to get Klauser off our backs. So finally, I just wrote Horace a letter. I thought about it for a long time, and agonized, and finally I just wrote him a one-sentence letter. I said, “Dear Horace, if you would make me an offer, I will give you a prompt reply,” and put it in the mail. And in no time at all, an offer came. So I accepted it.
McCray:Were other people considering the same thing? At Lick, I mean, to go elsewhere.
Preston:Tom Kinman was. He was similarly distressed, and he had come to the observatory at the same time I did. He was a Radcliffe Traveling Fellow. He got his Ph.D. in Oxford, he went to South Africa, and he had done very interesting work in subjects sort of closely related to what I was doing. He and I were both working on related stuff. And he and I arrived in the same fall to work at the Lick Observatory. We had parallel paths. In fact, I became the manager of the 120-inch Coudé spectrograph and he became the manager of the 120-inch prime focus cage; that was where the direct photography and the extragalactic work went. He was the one, he dubbed us, he was Janitor O and I was Janitor Bah [laughs]. And he felt that he had been lured to the Lick Observatory under essentially false premises, because he thought he had left South African where he had an observing job at the Cape Observatory with Thackeray, he left it to come to Lick, and now he was being dragged off of the mountain and away from his observatory which he loved, and being forced to go to Santa Cruz when he didn’t want to go, and teach there. He was disgruntled, and he ultimately left, and he went to Kitt Peak and he spent the rest of his career at the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
McCray:Don Osterbruck’s [?] book on the history of Lick, the last chapter covers…
McCray:But it treats it pretty-- Do you think it treats it accurately?
Preston:Well, I never read it that carefully. I looked through it and I smiled at some of the stuff. He wasn’t there at the time, so he put it together from conversations he had with people, and he never talked to me. See, he left Wisconsin and came directly to Lick after I left.
McCray:Right, he came like in ’70 or around then.
Preston:Yes. So then he had lots of people there to talk to about it, and I think he felt he had all the information he needed. It’s a credible story. It sort of tells it. You know, it’s like witnesses in a trial: all the people see the same thing, but when they’re testifying they testify a little bit differently, and that’s why you have trials with witnesses, because perspectives vary from person to person. I’m giving you my personal perspective.
Anyway, I didn't have anything against Frances Klauser. In fact, I told him why I was leaving. We took a walk through the campus after I informed-- I went in and told McHenry why I was leaving, and I told him I was leaving because his vice chancellor had harassed me to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I went and told Klauser that I told McHenry. We went for a walk. We ended up friends. This is what is astonishing: from my perspective, he drove me out of the place. I came down here, and two years later, Klauser appears as a professor at Caltech. McHenry had decided not to have an engineering school at Santa Cruz. Klauser’s future there was destroyed by the decision of the university system. You know, they finally had to decide. There wasn’t enough money to do everything on every campus, so every campus wouldn’t have a medical school, every campus wouldn’t have a law school. Some U.C. campuses would emphasize this, others would emphasize that, they would have areas of expertise.
Well, the decision was made: no engineering school at Santa Cruz. Suddenly, Klauser was out of a job. So he came back to his old original school, came back to Caltech, and I saw him. There was an open house at the 200-inch telescope. It was actually to raise money to lobby against high-pressure sodium lamps in San Diego which were ruining the seeing and ruining the sky brightness at Palomar. So there was a big dinner in the 200-inch dome under the telescope, and then they were going to have an open house and show visitors Jupiter or something. And who do I run across, is Klauser, and he greeted me like an old friend. And I was participating-- At that time Caltech and Carnegie were still having joint operations. This was 1970. And he greeted me like a long-lost friend, like, you know, it seemed to have gone completely over his head that I was down here because of him. Then it was ironic that he left for sort of the same reason I did, that things had not worked out at Santa Cruz. He was the cause of my disgruntlement, McHenry was the cause of his disgruntlement, we both left, and then we end up in the same city! Jesus, and I thought, I couldn’t get over that. But anyway, that’s how that happened.
So anyway, in 1968, I packed up my tent and my kids and my wife, and we left Santa Cruz and came to Pasadena, and so now that’s where we are, we’re at that stage.
McCray:Do you want to take a break for a minute?
McCray:You arrived here at Carnegie Observatories in ’68. What major differences, I guess, did you see in terms of how this place was run versus Lick?
Preston:Well, of course, there was the old Lick and the new Lick. This place was very different from the new Lick, not so different from the old Lick. No teaching responsibilities here. This place was endowed to encourage the pursuit of individual private research, which was essentially the spirit of the Lick Observatory. You know, this place sort of emulated-- Did you know that George ??? Hale visited the Lick Observatory during his honeymoon?
McCray:I’ve read that somewhere, yeah.
Preston:Yeah, well he did, and he fell in love with that place, and he said, “I’ve got to have a mountain like this myself.” So then he built Mount Wilson, except that people didn’t live all over it.
McCray:Yeah. I always felt sorry for Mrs. Hale.
Preston:Yeah, so did I. Hale was something else.
McCray:So be it.
Preston:So be it. Anyway, this place was and is run very much like the old Lick Observatory in that it’s supported by private philanthropy and now a substantial, though not dominating, portion of grants from funding agencies, and the people on the staff are encouraged to pursue their own research, wherever it may take them. They can enter into collaborations with people outside of the walls of the place or in groups within the walls. So, that climate is very similar.
McCray:When you arrived here, they weren’t taking any federal money at that point, were they?
Preston:Oh yeah, they were taking some, but we had a president at that time. When I first came here, it was a guy named Caryl Haskins. He was an entomologist. He was interested in ants and his claim to fame was that he had studied the ant colonies and social structures of the ant colonies all over western Australia. He was a wonderful man, but all he cared about was ants. He’d come out and visit us and the staff would gather around him some place, at a restaurant or whatever, and he would ask us what were the pressing needs of the observatory and how could he help and blah, blah, blah. And we would start to tell him, and somehow, inevitably, the discussion would always end up on ants. [Laughs] And we would talk about them because that’s what he really cared about.
Then, he was succeeded by Phil Abelson, who was a different kettle of fish altogether. Hard bitten. He was the editor of Science magazine and he was the former director of the geophysical laboratory, and a big mucky-muck in the World War II efforts in creating hydrogen diffusion plants, and hard nosed, and a firm opponent of federal support for science.
McCray:Were those beliefs translated to the staff?
Preston:It certainly was. We were discouraged, in his time-- He didn’t want the Carnegie Institution, during his watch, to come dependent on federal money for its operation because he thought the institution would lose its independence, which is of course true. But the consequence is, he was not able to raise to the necessary money to bring us into competition with other places that were accepting federal money, so that what was happening was that our resources were steadily dwindling, because the Carnegie endowment was not keeping up and we weren’t augmenting it with any outside money. So we were just slowly starving to death in his administration because he wouldn’t even allow us to ask for salary money. We could ask for money for equipment, but not for salary. And it became known that Carnegie didn’t need salary money, and you’d write NSF proposals and they would say, “Well, we understand that Carnegie doesn’t need any money. What are they applying for money to the NSF for?” The review panels would give us bad marks because it became known that-- So.
McCray:Just roughly, what was Abelson’s tenure?
Preston:Abelson’s tenure must have begun in the early 1970s, ’71, ’72, like that, and it ran until 1976 or ’7. No, no, later than that, because Abelson was president when Horace retired. He must have left around 1979. That’s when he left, because Ebert became president in 1980.
McCray:Okay. When you arrived here, or after you came here and got set up to take in the lay of the land, what did you observe as far as the relations between Carnegie and Caltech at that point?
Preston:Well, what I observed was that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Whereas, I had been involved in, as I have described, a kind of a warfare between Lick Observatory and the campus departments of the university. When I got here I discovered that I was in the midst of a full-fledged war between Carnegie and Caltech. There was more than one reason, but my perception is that the Caltech astronomers felt that Horace’s efforts to develop the Las Campanas Observatory were a gigantic mistake. Jesse Greenstein was the leader of the group, and his view, I think, persuaded others at Caltech to a similar view, and that was that the national centers and the source of wealth had shifted to the federal government. Private funding had gone on decline. The important thing was to keep the 200-inch telescope in Palomar Observatory on top, and it required money and funds to do that, and Carnegie should be assisting Caltech in the development of the resources for the 200-inch telescope.
McCray:And instruments and things like that?
Preston:Yeah. Instead, Horace went off site testing and was looking for a place to put up another Carnegie telescope somewhere else. And Greenstein rather eloquently put it, he said, “Well, what’s going to happen is, you will succeed in building that observatory and you will destroy us, because now instead of us all pooling our resources and going to the NSF for funds to develop Palomar, you will be asking for your money for Las Campanas and we’ll be fighting you to get money for Palomar, and we’ll defeat each other. Neither one of us will be adequately funded, and the place will go into decline.” So the Caltech attitude was actually hostile and irritated by Horace’s effort to build a new observatory.
Horace felt that our contribution to the Hale Observatories had become useless because Los Angeles had ruined Mount Wilson; the telescopes were aged, antediluvian pieces of junk, some people called them, me in particular. Furthermore, they overlooked a basin with 10 million people in it and the lights were overwhelming and you couldn’t see faint galaxies from Mount Wilson, and so nobody wanted to use it. So Horace thought, we’ve got to do something about that. So he set forth looking for a place to put in another observatory, and he found one, and he started developing Las Campanas.
That engendered yet another kind of difficulty, in that when Caltech was hostile to Las Campanas, half of our staff joined them because they saw this dispute as a source of discord that would ultimately split us.
McCray:Caltech and Carnegie, or Carnegie and Caltech?
Preston:Carnegie and Caltech. Then the people in this building would lose access to Palomar, which it ultimately did. So they felt they were threatened, Horace’s own staff, at least half of them, felt threatened by Horace’s activity to develop a new observatory for them. So there was not only a split between Carnegie and Caltech, there was a rift in the Carnegie staff itself.
McCray:I realize that some of this is sensitive, you know, because we’re getting closer to the present. So, some of the questions, if you don’t mind answering it, we can seal them until later. But can you give me some sense of who the people were within Carnegie who were working…
Preston:Yes, and I don’t think-- It’s so much a matter of public record that there’s no need to be secretive about it. The principle opponent of the-- Well, now wait a minute. We have to be careful here what we’re talking about. We haven’t gotten to the point that I was thinking we were at, which-- This is a long business.
I think I’ll make a general statement. All the younger people, the younger people felt threatened by the rift, because they were still building careers and all of them were heavily engaged in programs that used the 200-inch telescope, and the notion that we could be cut off from that terrified them. So as a group, I think the younger astronomers were fearful. The older astronomers, who were more well established, could adopt a more cavalier go-to-hell attitude, and they included Sandage and me; Olin Wilson, who was emeritus, was still a very active astronomer; Horace of course, who wanted to build Las Campanas; Bob Howard, who was a solar astronomer, uses solar powers exclusively here, didn’t care about Palomar one way or another; and Arthur Vaughn, whose future was really tied up with the Mount Wilson telescopes. Those people that I just mentioned were not fearful of a rift with Palomar. They were indifferent, had varying degrees of reaction to it. I don’t think, they weren’t monolithic, you know, no two people are alike. But that would be the general sense of the rift. It was young people who wanted the continued access to Palomar, it was very important to them, and a number of the older people who either had careers already built, who had already had rifts with the Caltech faculty, or whose interests lay primarily at Mount Wilson, didn’t care. So it was sort of like that.
Well, I found myself embroiled in this whether I liked it or not, and I didn’t really like it, and I was content to work at Mount Wilson and Palomar and I didn’t really care myself whether Horace built an observatory in Chile or not. And in fact, I didn’t go there. I came to this place in 1968 and I never visited Las Campanas until 1978, 10 years later. So I continued to do my research in Pasadena, and Horace would report to us what his progress was made and site testing, and then the building of the telescopes, and they all would hear these reports, and I would listen to them, and ho hum, and it didn’t make any difference one way or the other. However, the relations between Carnegie and Caltech steadily worsened, and I served a fair fraction of those ten years on an entity called the Observatory Committee, which was composed of half Carnegie staff members and half Caltech staff members, and presided over by the director of the observatory, who was Horace, who was perceived as a Carnegie man. He came up through the ranks at Carnegie. He had been appointed director of the joint operation, and Jesse Greenstein in particular just couldn’t stand this.
McCray:As opposed to Ike Bowen, who was more of a Caltech.
Preston:Ike Bowen, he again became a director of this place, but he came from Caltech and he put the 200-inch into operation, and they could abide him. But Horace was a more difficult person, and Horace had a strange personality that invited…
McCray:What do you mean?
Preston:Well, he was incredibly stubborn, he was obtuse, he had no social graces. He bore no one malice, but he was like the ambling bear, that he did what he wanted to do and it didn’t make any difference what anybody said to him. He just sort of proceeded. So he didn’t take advice, he didn’t listen to the entreaties of the Caltech people. He lost interest in Palomar. He didn’t take part in fundraising activities for their telescopes; he was totally immersed in Las Campanas, and they resented it. So the Observatory Committee meetings became increasingly contentious, and accusations flowing about who was taking responsibility for what, and what Horace’s activities were doing to the association between the two observatories, and then there were all kinds of other just-- But I think that was the nettling, the constant irritation that wouldn’t go away, was the disparate directions in which Carnegie was being taken by Horace, away from the joint operation.
So in 1975, one of the palliatives was that Caltech said, “Well, you guys don’t do anything about Mount Wilson. There’s some things that could be done well there, but the equipment is in such lousy condition that we can’t do anything with it.” And Horace had lost interest in that place, so they recommended that there be an assistant director for Mount Wilson, and at the same time, an assistant director for Palomar. J.B. Oke was nominated as the associate director, as it was called.
Preston:For Palomar, and they asked me to serve for Mount Wilson, because at least I observed there and I was not a controversial person that people hated a lot at this place at that time, and I accepted it. It turned out to be ineffective because, although I was named director of it, there was no money. My resources didn’t increase as a consequence, and I could do some minor stuff. But anyway, it was hopeless because it wasn’t much of an observatory for-- It was not a modern observatory. It could not be made modern.
Then, in 1978, Horace retired and was replaced by Maarten Schmidt, and that was supposed to be the palliative, because he now, for the first time in a long time, was a Caltech professor, and he was the director of the observatories.
McCray:How were the people selected? Because you know, you have Bowen and then Babcock and then Schmidt where it sort of bounced back and forth.
Preston:There is no way to know that. That was a negotiation that took place between the presidents of the institutions, and I don’t know, maybe we were asked our input, but there was no primary input from the staff.
McCray:You all didn't vote on it?
McCray:Okay, I see. Okay. Thank you.
Preston:Anyway, he took the job, and within two years, he handed in his resignation. He had been called a Carnegie man by his own Caltech faculty. He came up and had an office, in fact it was this office right here. That other half over there was, this was all one room. And he was accused by his fellow Caltech faculty of becoming a Carnegie man because he defended whatever he did. So he was appointed in 1978, and in November of 1979, after just barely a year, he wrote a letter of resignation and gave it to President Ebert at a time when Ebert and his executive board of trustees were meeting here in the library downstairs. And they came. They had already rented helicopters to helicopter the trustees to Palomar to see their observatory.
McCray:These are the trustees of Carnegie?
Preston:Carnegie trustees. They received this letter suggesting not only had Maarten Schmidt resigned, but announced that he was recommending that the association of the two institutions be dissolved. This devastated the trustees. I remember, I went with them to Palomar. The trip went anyway, but then they suddenly realized, they had never really thought about it, but that telescope wasn’t theirs. Hale had gotten money from the Rockefeller Foundation that was given to Caltech to build the telescope. Carnegie astronomers designed it and built it.
McCray:But they had no legal claim over it?
Preston:They had no legal claim to it, and the trustees are businessmen who serve on this board once a year. They suddenly realized that they were visiting a place that wasn’t even theirs, and that now was being recommended it no longer be a part of the Carnegie activity at all. So the morale of this place just went like this.
McCray:What was your reaction to it?
Preston:I took a deep breath and said, “I can live with this.” But other people in the building were devastated, really devastated, and there was long faces, and Ebert had to decide what to do on the spot. And before he left Pasadena, I guess he consulted with people in the building, and asked me if I would be an acting director until they could find another one, because suddenly Carnegie had to have a director of its own. Schmidt was walking out. He had been the director of the whole thing, now he was leaving, so what are you going to do? So I, you know, not really knowing what I was getting into, said okay, and that was sort of a choice-- I had not made any large enemies and I was already the assistant director for Mount Wilson, or whatever I was called, and so it seemed like a natural thing and I took it over. Then the dark days followed.
McCray:Did you have a strategy or thoughts on how to deal with this? I mean, you’re inheriting the ship’s captain position at a not particularly good time, just before it is about to hit the iceberg.
Preston:When I took the thing, I had no policy, no program planned at all. The first effort was to restore morale, and I tried to give speeches saying I was proud to be a Carnegie staff member and I thought they should be proud too, and we should make our way, we have an observatory of our own in Chile and it’s time now to reassess, blah, blah, blah.
McCray:I think, just, for people who are listening to this later on, by this time, the 100-inch Dupont telescope had been commissioned, right?
Preston:Yes. It was an operating telescope. We had a telescope there. It was not well instrumented, but we had the telescope and our old staff had never really transferred allegiances to that place, because they continued to be comfortable using the 200-inch. It was close, nearby, it was bigger, and they had grown accustomed to doing their research there. In fact, the Dupont telescope was being underutilized. But it soon became evident that we’d better utilize it, and I formed a kind of an alliance with Steven Schectman of this department, the guy who is currently project scientist for our Magellan telescopes, and we decided that we would set about to create some new instrumentation for the Dupont telescope and we would make it attractive and we would sell that observatory to the rest of the staff. And it was helped immeasurably by Bill Hewlett, who was then Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie. He had made a one million dollar anonymous grant to the observatory for instrumentation, and we used that money very carefully, and spread it out over the entire tenure, in fact, of my directorship. Schectman was the genius who used it well and built cheap, good equipment for that telescope. We had a terrible computer in this building, for general use, a stand alone system, and Schectman replaced it with a modern computer, at least of that era. We gradually began to climb out of the hole we were in, and one of the ways to climb out of the hole was to make the plan to build a new telescope. But I digress, I get ahead of myself.
I took over the directorship on July 1st of 1980, and I went down with Schmidt in the spring of that time, while he was still director. His resignation was effective July 1st. We went down in May or June, whenever, and he introduced me to the staff there as the new director. But I had never observed there. I had started on a research project that I will tell you about as time permits, at Tololo, but I had not yet observed at Las Campanas. So in October 1980, I came to Las Campanas to observe for the first time, and I brought along an observing program that was a follow-up of the thing that Shectman and I had begun at Cerro Tololo. And I no more had got in the 40-inch dome and the assistant superintendent came into the little office where I was preparing my night’s work, and said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” And I said, “Yes,” so he ran and got a chair and sat down next to me, and then provided me with a list of items that had been embezzled from the observatory by our manager that Horace had relied on for years.
McCray:Who was this?
Preston:His name was Manfred Wagner. He was a Chilean. He was of German origin, but he carried two passports: one for Germany and one for Chile. He had assumed the role of manager of our financial and personnel and equipment and everything else operations in Chile. He was not an astronomer, he was a businessman. But he found vendors to buy stuff from. He saw to the duty-free import of stuff, because we had the status of an international organization and he had to import stuff through channels, and dealings with the Foreign Ministry, personnel matters, hiring and firing of people, all that stuff was in his hands. He was embezzling money from the institution. He had a gambling problem and he was furring away his personal fortune at the casino, and when he ran out of that he started selling observatory vehicles illegally, hiding the sales. He would sell them to people in the city of La Serena but not reregister them, so they continued to be operated in the name of the Carnegie Institution, so there was no paper trail to their sale, but these people were driving these vehicles around, and he was even insuring the vehicles. It was not like one or two, but it was like a half a dozen. And he sold our rock crusher, and he was stealing money from petty cash, and in total it came to a couple of hundred thousand dollars that he had embezzled, finally.
I learned of this and immediately had an investigation with my own business manager here in Pasadena, and in November of that year, and a month after I learned this, I fired him. But now I had nobody to run the place, and I didn’t speak Spanish. I’d only been to Chile twice in my life: once to do this thing at Tololo and then the previous trip. Then what the hell was I going to do? So I started living down there. There was a gal, Patricia Realas, she still works for us, and she was a secretary to Wagner and she could speak English, and I started sort of managing the affairs, paying bills and trying to do something and living down there, and completely stuck, because he was the whole management, that Horace had arranged it. He would do all the managing of the observatory through this one guy, and this guy had to flee the city of La Serena.
McCray:Did he serve any jail time?
Preston:No. It’s a curious thing. He went to the south of Chile, and Chile is divided into 12 regions, like our states, and there’s no extradition between them, so you can escape one region by going to another. Anyway, it was in this period that I thought, I’ve got to do something here, and that’s when I hired Voitek Chamiski, the fellow I told you about earlier. I contacted him in Poland, asked him if he wanted a job. Yes, but he would have to arrange to get a visa and to get a passport. The Polish government at that time didn’t like to see its astronomers—brain drain type thing, and so it was complicated. But he finally came, and then finally I had a manager that I could trust. And at least that part of the thing was taken care of.
Then, that was the beginning of a new chain of events, because then I resolved that never again would we have a businessman run the observatory in Chile, and so we started to have a local scientific staff. I finally hired another guy, a Bill Kunkel [?], a guy who had been a staff member at Tololo, had gone to Spain and run the German observatory in Spain. He came back and became the second scientific manager of the affair, and Chamiski stayed on, and suddenly we had a resident scientific staff in Chile, for the first time, and that’s persisted to this day.
So then that got better. But then the next big development was a decision to go for a big telescope in Chile. Schectman wanted to build a telescope ever since he came here, and I encouraged him, and finally we had a plan to build one and I took it up with Ebert, who was the president of the institution at that time, James Ebert. We were sitting right in this room. I remember the conversation very well, and he said to me, he said, “Well, this observatory can’t go on building things. You have four telescopes on Mount Wilson, and you built a piece Palomar 60-inch telescope, and now we built two telescopes at Las Campanas, and now you want to build a big one. We can’t go on building things. If you want to start a new one you have to close something.” Then he said, “And furthermore, if you want to build a telescope as big as you describe, you need partners. That’s too big for Carnegie to do alone.”
So now we were confronted with two new issues: what do we close and who do we seek for partners if we want to go any further. And I remember, he was very plain with me. He said, “I don’t want to set your scientific priorities. That’s for you guys to do. I’m a biologist. But I just tell you that if you want to start some new venture, you have to close something, and it’s up to you to tell me what you want to do. I’ll help you as I can, but those are the ground rules.” So at that point I decided to close Mount Wilson. Not close it; withdraw support and look for somebody else to operate it.
That’s when the storm began here, because the principal opponent of that-- Well, there were opponents. Olin Wilson was an opponent. He was a distinguished person, a member of the National Academy, a beloved person in this building, and my personal friend, and he was heartbroken by my activity. He came in and pleaded with me not to, accompanied by Allan Sandage, who also had an emotional tie to that place. He had worked there and did his thesis on that mountain and was engaged in research on it. He sort of observed there just to prove you could observe there, and he was adamantly opposed. And instead of being heartbroken, he was angry, and it created a dissention between us that never really completely went away, though today we can, 20 years after the fact, we can be a little more even-tempered about it. But he actively opposed it and did everything he could to undermine my efforts to achieve this. I created a committee, a national committee headed by Grant Athay of JILA to look for a new operator, and they looked in vain. And there was Arthur Vaughn of our staff, who created, with the help of local astronomy enthusiasts in southern California, they created a non-profit corporation, the Mount Wilson Institute. That incorporation allowed them to receive funds and disperse philanthropy, you know, operate, and that institute took over the operation of Mount Wilson.
McCray:People such as Sandage and Wilson didn’t recognize the fact that it wasn’t as scientifically productive?
Preston:Yes. Well, they did and they didn’t. They didn’t want to accept the fact that it was a decrepit place, and Sandage really just didn’t give a damn. He wanted me to keep it open, and he wanted people like Schectman to keep equipment operating up there, and we had our hands full. We were only 12 people and we’re trying to operate a place in Chile and keep up-- We were still using Palomar. Then to keep equipment going for him on this mountain, we didn’t have enough of us to do this. It’s just, 12 people couldn’t do that. But he didn’t give a damn.
McCray:How did this period affect the research that was being done here? I mean, did the productivity just…
Preston:I don’t think so. It’s amazing, but I don’t think it went down. Mine went down. Mine went down, but no, I don’t think so. I think people continued to do excellent research, but there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and ill will in the building, and groups of people that didn’t talk to each other, and there was a lot of door slamming, and it was a very unpleasant time.
But anyway, we took the steps. I withdrew the support from Mount Wilson. Ebert kept his word and provided me with the savings, $250,000 a year that I could direct toward preparations for a new telescope, so we could undertake design studies and started a seeing program on the mountain to find where would be the best place to put the telescope. We started designing a new telescope, and I had the authority to look for a new project manager for that project. And that’s what we did with that money.
At some point along the way, and in fact it was in probably 1985, Ebert, who came out here periodically, he visited all the departments, and on that trip I was taking him back to his hotel in downtown Los Angeles. He had promised to support this and take it up with the trustees, approval of this motion, which he did. In fact, at the annual meeting in 1985, he announced at that meeting that the trustees had approved to set aside ten million dollars for the construction of a large new telescope, contingent on us obtaining partners. And he invited me to give the current evening lecture, which I gave on the subject of a new telescope for Las Campanas, and I presented these things that the telescope would be as big as the auditorium in which the lecture was given, it was the auditorium at Peace Street [?] and White [?].
On the way back to the hotel on this one occasion, after all these agreements had been made, I sensed that there was some reluctance on the part of the trustees, perhaps a reluctance to have me continue as director. I had no experience building a big telescope at all, and perhaps it would assist if I stepped aside, so I told Ebert, I said, “Look, I don’t feel I have to continue being director of this place. I never wanted to be director, and if it would help you with the trustees, why don’t I resign.” I think he was taken aback by that remark because he didn’t expect that from me, and he was silent for 30 seconds in the car as we were driving along, and he said, “That’s an interesting idea. Let me think about it.” And within a month, he said, “I think that your idea is an excellent one.” So we arranged that I would resign effective July 1st 1986, and we could begin a search in 1985 for a new director, which we then proceeded to do. We had Ray Weymann from the University of Arizona.
McCray:Was Arizona already a partner in the project by this point?
Preston:No, that was a slowly evolving thing, and the first partner we acquired-- Well, first of all, we decided the telescope that we were going to build would be built around a monolithic mirror supplied by Roger Angel at the University of Arizona. We weren’t going to go the Jerry Nelson way of the segmented mirror like at Tech. We felt it was going to be too expensive to try to maintain such a complicated thing and we wanted something cheap. Angel said he could build one with a very fast focal ratio, steep so that the focal length would be short, and it could be put in a small dome, and that greatly reduces the cost. So we went that route, and so Arizona was a partner willy-nilly.
Then we started looking for other partners and the first one that came to pass was Johns Hopkins, and they started out very enthusiastic and it remained an enthusiastic association until it came time, finally, in the plans for the telescope to buy the glass to create the first mirror for Angel, and it was a million dollars. Up to that point, we had been able to spend the Mount Wilson annual contribution for site testing and this and that and little design studies with an engineer, and that worked, but now we needed all at once an infusion of cash, a million bucks. Arizona was contributing the expertise to make the mirror, and so it was up to Carnegie and Johns Hopkins to come up with the cash, and the first time we asked for cash, they couldn’t do it. In fact what happened, there was a president of Johns Hopkins at the time, the guy that took on more than he could chew and sort of embezzled money from the medical school to pay for the College of Fine Arts. What the hell was that guy’s name? It was a president at Johns Hopkins that got himself in enormous trouble, and when confronted with the need for the money, he called up Maxine Singer and wanted a list of the people on her list of philanthropists that he could approach to get money for Johns Hopkins to build a telescope for Carnegie, and she sort of gave him half a peace symbol, and that was the end of the association of Johns Hopkins.
McCray:[Laughs] Half a peace symbol, that’s good.
Preston:That’s a Johnny Carson one-liner from the ‘70s.
McCray:Right, that’s a very unorthodox approach to fundraising.
Preston:It sure was, so we lost them. But immediately other people started surfacing. As soon as it was recognized that Carnegie was going to put up cash, that Angel-- And Maxine said, “Okay, we’ll buy the glass ourselves and if we find a partner they can buy in later.” So now, that was the turning point, because now the telescope became a real thing. We were pouring the mirror.
McCray:Okay. So I mean, once you bought the glass…
Preston:Now we had suitors. University of Michigan, which became one; Michigan State, which wanted to become one; Ohio State, which wanted to become one, ultimately ended up with Arizona and their binocular telescope; MIT; Harvard. They started lining up. And it’s amazing, from my perspective, what it took was Carnegie putting up hard cash and actually pouring the mirror, because that made it real. Until that time it was pie in the sky. People were always, astronomers are dreaming about building big telescopes but they don’t come to anything, so nobody took it seriously. But when that happened, they took it seriously.
McCray:How did the name Magellan come about?
Preston:Now, now, it’s an interesting story. I’ll back-track a little bit more. First of all, we had to get a project manager, and Shectman was a genius when it came to designing and having ideas, but he wasn’t a practical person, couldn’t make timeline diagrams and figure out schedules for completion of things and sign contracts with corporations that were going to build parts and all that. We needed somebody that had that skill, and there was a guy, an astronomer actually, Al Hiltner of the University of Michigan, who had actually built a 2.5-meter telescope, put it on Kip Peak, had just finished it a few years before. It was a cheap telescope, and he was recognized as a person who was not spendthrift and knew how to manage money and get things done. And I served on a committee of John Jefferies’, who was then the director of NOAO. We were both on a committee that advised Jefferies in matters pertaining to that place, and we met at the Paradise Inn, which is on Mount, that volcano in Washington, Mount Rainier. It was a wonderful lodge.
McCray:That’s a very nice place. I’ve been there before.
Preston:All right! Okay. Well, we met there. It was like a retreat, and we spent two or three days discussing all the issues at NOAO. Hiltner was on this committee and I was on this committee and we had a lot of time together, so I approached him there and said, “Al, would you like to be project manager of a plan to build a big telescope in Chile?” We talked about what I had in mind, and he listened to this, and in fact he knew of the project. He was already retired. He said, “Well, let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.” And he thought about it and then finally he said, we talked again, and “Well, yeah, I’d like to talk some more.” So I invited him to Pasadena, and he came out here, again sitting in this room, which was a bigger room, but we talked about what he would do and how he would proceed and everything else. He said, “I like it. It sounded good to me.”
This was all before I resigned. There was a transition period and we had already approached Ray Weymann to come, but things had to continue going event though Ray wasn’t still here. So I had consulted with Ray Weymann. Ray Weymann was amenable to Hiltner being the project manager, and so we talked and Hiltner sounded like he was going to take the job, and finally I asked him, I said, “Well, that’s all I have. Do you have anything else, any requirement for the job?” And he said a thing I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. The only thing that I require is that the job be fun. As long as it’s fun, I’ll do it. But it’s up to you to make it fun,” meaning the director’s office, whether I was or whoever was the-- He didn’t want to have to fight with people over petty matters. He wanted to build a telescope, and he said, “If it turns out that I have been having difficulties getting on with the job, I’m out of here.” You have to be fun. He was too old to screw around in big arguments with people and fighting. So I said, “I’ll do my best,” and he accepted the job with Ray Weymann’s blessing, and then Ray Weymann came on and Ray Weymann gave the telescope its name.
It developed, then, when Johns Hopkins quit and the other people came on, finally we had too many partners for one telescope, and so by spending a little more money we could build two telescopes, and two you can buy for one and a half the price of one. You know, the economies of engineering.
McCray:The original plan was a single 8-meter telescope, you recall, and then that was changed to two six and a half meter…
Preston:When Johns Hopkins fell out, then we had no partner except Arizona, who wasn’t going to put up any cash. So Leonard Searle, who was then the director, decided, well, he negotiated with Maxine and she said, “Well, then we’ll build a 6.5-meter telescope and we’ll build it first and sell off part of it later when we find a partner.” She was willing to take that risk, so it was downgraded to a 6.5-meter telescope, and that’s when the partners started wanting to come, and then there were so many partners that we could build two of them. And Ray had given the name Magellan and it worked out very well because then we had two Magellan telescopes and there are two Magellan clouds, and so it worked out all right. But Ray Weymann gave the-- Ray Weymann didn’t continue as director for his own personal reasons. He was not well and he had-- I don’t want to talk about it. But he remains an honored and welcome member of our community and we love him, but that part didn’t work out and Leonard Searle took over as the director and saw that telescope through to completion.
McCray:When did Searle…
Preston:Well, let’s see, how did that work? Weymann came in ’86 and I think Searle took over in ’88. It’s in the Carnegie yearbooks, but about that. Ray was the director for about two years, two or three.
McCray:Okay. I’m trying to think now, one of the telescopes is named after Walter Baade and the other name is after…
Preston:A donor, a Harvard wealthy person who is not an astronomer. It’s a money…
McCray:Okay, because I mean, obviously I recognized Baade’s name but when I saw on the web page the Clay telescope…
Preston:I don’t know who Clay is. He’s some moneybags from Harvard.
We’ve got to go back to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz had residential colleges just like eastern Ivy League schools or Oxford and Cambridge. They fancied them, and students lived in them and there were fellows and some faculty lived in them and other faculties were just members by association. They were built around disciplines, so there was a social science one and a literature one and a this one and a that one, and there was a science one. And I was invited, this was when I’m still with Santa Cruz, to be a fellow of that college, and the headmaster or whatever you call the chief honcho was a guy named Kenneth Thimann. He was a famous biologist, probably a Nobel Laureate, even. I don’t know. He was an excellent piano player, and whether you liked it or not he would play Beethoven piano sonatas for you when you came to his place.
So it came time that the college was being built. In fact, it was essentially completed except for ornamental things, and students were moving in, and he had a first meeting of faculty and students, fellows and students, to name the place, and so he created a committee. It was half faculty and half students, and we had a first meeting, and he said, “Well, our job is to give this place its name. Now, what I would like to do is draw on a name from the great figures of science, and we should think about it. Then there’s a matter of how we actually make the choice, and I think it’s a reasonable way to proceed.” He was a very elegant old guy, gray-haired, flowing, handsome, played the piano, and the students were kind of in awe of him. And he said, “Well, I think a good way to proceed would be as follows. The students should go away. They should read books and talk among themselves and think hard and come up with a short list of names that would be appropriate to name this place. Then you will present that list, the students to the faculty members of the committee, and the faculty gets to choose from among the list. So you get to pick the list, we get to choose from among them. So you should pick a list so that you’d be happy with any of them.”
Well, the students thought that was excellent. They didn’t really insist that they pick the guy, but they enjoyed having the right to make the short list. So they all went away and in due course they announced they had a list. So Thimann called another meeting of this committee and we all met and ate cookies and drank tea and listened to him play a couple of Beethoven piano sonatas, and now the great moment came. It was like the Academy Awards, you know, “What was your first recommendation?” And the students said, “We think we should call this place Gauss Haus. Carl Fredrich Gauss.”
Preston:Gauss Haus. Thimann’s mouth fell, the corners of his mouth drooped, I mean, this wasn’t going well! And he had his mouth open for a moment, “No, no. Do you have another suggestion?” And they said, “Oh yes, we have a second suggestion.” He said, “What’s that?” They said, “Maxwell House.” [Laughs] Thimann at this point says, “Well, I thank you very much for your recommendations, but I think that we’ll proceed in a different manner.” And it became called Crown College. That became the name of it, and that’s the name that’s Crown Zellerbach Corporation. They gave money to build the place, so this paper company, Crown Zellerbach, gave the money and it became the name of the college, just like the Clay telescope, not because it had a scientific significance, but because there was money.
McCray:I like Gauss Haus myself.
Preston:I thought Gauss Haus, or Maxwell, either one of them, I thought they would have been great, but not Thimann. He was just too old. It was like our own director, who in the middle of one of those contentious Observatory Committee meetings between Carnegie and Caltech. Bob Howard, who was our solar observatory and went on to become director of the national solar observatory when he left us, but trying to lighten up the proceedings, in the midst of one of the meetings, he said, “Horace, I’d like to make a proposal. We have a long name just like California Institute of Technology, and we have Carnegie Institution of Washington, the big mouthfuls. They’ve solved that problem so they can talk about themselves, and they call themselves Caltech. I suggest that we call ourselves Car Wash.” I told you that Horace had no particular sense of humor and no social graces, and he didn’t think well on his feet and everything. He thought about this and a scowl came over his face, and he ruminated for a couple of minutes. [Grunts, clears throat] “No, Bob, I don’t think that would be appropriate.” [Laughs] You know, you should seize these moments, the Gauss Haus and Maxwell and Car Wash. These are grand moments to humanize the scientific enterprise and the educational enterprise, and they should…
McCray:Some people, I guess, just lack that skill.
Preston:Yes, yes they do indeed.
McCray:Have you ever used Magellan much?
Preston:I used it for the first time last month.
McCray:Tell me about it.
Preston:Oh, it was glorious. It was glorious. It points and it tracks and it has this self-correcting primary mirror that adjusts its shape no matter where it’s pointed and when the wind is blowing and what the gravity loading of it is, and it pushes and pulls by a testing procedure and gets into the right shape and makes tiny images.
McCray:Were you nervous about using it for…
Preston:No, I was very excited, but not nervous. And I came back with a drawer full, a tape full of fantastic data, which I can’t reduce yet because there’s some software that hasn’t been completed that’s peculiar to that spectrograph that I used. In due course I’ll get a chance. But the experience was absolutely glorious. I had resolved I would never use it.
Preston:I thought I was too old. I’m going on 73 and the telescope was built-- I had something to do with the creating of it at the margin, and I thought it was for the young people, and at my age to start a research program with a brand new telescope was a bit much. And I’m already retired and I’m on sufferance here, and so I had resolved I would never use it. People encouraged me to use it, but I just said I wouldn’t. But Schectman trapped me. It was on an engineering run in January. This telescope’s still undergoing engineering tests, but sometimes the tests go well and there’s free time left over during the time set aside for engineering. Schectman was assigned that time in case there was free time, and it was decided there would be five free nights. And Schectman said, “I have too many other commitments. I have to go to Hawaii for such and such, a meeting of the Gemini, no, the 20-meter telescope project, and then I have a meeting with this and that. I can’t go. Would you go in my stead?” And I said yeah, so that’s how I went. Now I think I’ll go again. I’m hooked. It’s like one session with crack cocaine and you’re doomed.
McCray:Tell me what the experience was like using a telescope in the early 21st century versus the beginning, when you were using the 36-inch telescope at Lick. You’ve spanned a considerable period of time. How does it compare?
Preston:There is no comparison. I would’ve not believed that the observing experience could have transformed itself so completely in my lifetime. It’s like the difference between Pony Express and jet aircraft. When I began observing with a Crossley 36-inch telescope, just to set it in context, I, with the nebular spectrograph, which was reputed to be one of the best spectrographs of its kind in the world at that time, using photographic plates, prisms for dispersal, lens optics placed at the prime focus of the 36-inch Crossley reflector, so there was only one mirror surface between you and the sky, I could record the low resolution spectrum of a 13th magnitude star with a low signal to noise in one hour, and the spectrum was about that long. All the light was dispersed into a string that long, all the information, so not very much information per angstrom. With the Magellan telescope today, I can observe a spectrum which, on this scale, is literally 80 times that. The light is dispersed over that much physical area on a detector.
McCray:You’re holding your arms wide open.
Preston:Six, eight feet long. So a thousand, instead of a resolution of-- I’ll give it to you another way. Instead of the resolving power of being, as it was with the Crossley, eight angstroms, it is now less than a tenth of an angstrom, so it’s a hundred times. I can do this, I can obtain a spectrum of the same signal to noise with the Baade telescope, the same signal to noise, that is the same noisiness of the information with a hundred times the resolving power at the same brightness level in ten minutes. So the ten minutes to an hour is a factor of six and the ratio of the resolving power is as a hundred, so it’s six hundred-fold. In other words, every 600 minutes you spent at the Crossley, 10 hours worth, you can do in a minute now, and instead of sitting out in the cold, you’re in a control room and you’re doing it all by pushing some buttons. So it’s just a different world, and it’s such a transformation, it opens your vistas to contemplate projects that were just impossible to contemplate in 1960. The world has changed in a really fundamental--
Then the recording medium, the way you record the data, is amenable to analytical treatment that was difficult or impossible in 1960. So there’s an elegance of the results and a speed of the acquisition of data and an enlargement of your vistas, your ambition, because you’re encouraged now to do more difficult things, things you couldn’t contemplate in the past. It’s a huge transformation, and you know how you can sit around and you can joke with the new post-docs that come and say, “Ah, you don’t know what it was like in the old days.” And they don’t, but it’s good they don’t. They don’t need to know about that. Their world is a different world that they’re entering, and it’s a wonderful world.
McCray:I read articles in Popular Science magazines about how push button astronomy and virtual observing and there’s always somebody quoted in there as saying how it’s going to ruin astronomy, about how it’s not really astronomy to just bring up a database and sift through it for information. I’m curious what your thoughts are about that.
Preston:Well, when people take these positions, they are always adopting a point of view and they are making personal judgments about the trade-offs. There are trade-offs, but it’s always a question of weighing relative benefits, and there are advantages to doing astronomy both ways. For many people, many people conduct research in the present era where they don’t need to go to the telescope, they need to just access the data that comes out. And because they are doing what is simply routine stuff and the observations that are being made are being made by competent people who can be trusted to deliver the data that person is receiving; that is to say, you’re not getting it under false pretences, it doesn’t have defects that you don’t know about. So it doesn’t matter whether you observe this data yourself or somebody else takes it for you. In fact, maybe other people can do it better than you can do it. They’re professionals, they know how the equipment works better than you. So for them it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to use large databases collected by others or to make requests for telescope time when the observations are made by professionals at a site remote from you. Maybe you are watching a monitor while it’s taking place, maybe you aren’t. Maybe you just get a tape later on.
Other people are experimentalists who actually want to manipulate the observing conditions and the properties of the instrument that’s doing the work while it’s happening and improve it. Innovators. For those people, who want to take advantage of special observing conditions or special properties of the instrument that even the professional users, the telescope operators, don’t know about, they after all are not astronomers and they’re not physicists, they’re usually just competent technicians. But those people need to have the personal contact with the equipment, go to the site, be there, fiddle with it, adjust it for their own purposes, wait till just the right observing conditions arise and then use it for a special purpose. Those people need that personal contact and access to the telescope, and for them observing is a very personal experience. They are like laboratory physicists who are creating their own experiment, conducting it and deriving a particular conclusion. It’s not a routine collecting of data by equipment that has already been provided and doesn’t need to be massaged. It’s a different--
Now a lot of astronomy can be done with equipment that’s set up and adjusted in a routine way and then just makes one kind of observation over and over again until the data is collected. Some people can get along and do that perfectly well. Other people need the personal contact with the equipment because they’re going to change it in a fundamental way for everybody else so other people can make new kinds of observations. You see this innovation in this observing business. All observing is not just routine. The routines are created by people who innovated in the first place and made a routine for the next guy, because you have to have some of the time set aside for the innovator.
McCray:In your view, who is or was a particularly top-notch observer?
Preston:There’s lots of good observers. You mean, from this staff, or across the whole board?
McCray:Just in general. I’m thinking of somebody who…
Preston:George Herbig was an extraordinarily astute, clever, skilled observer who made the most of whatever equipment he got a hold of. In fact, he designed and made a lot of the equipment particularly for his own purposes. So Herbig was an example. Steven Schectman of our own observatory is another example.
McCray:Okay. Do you see any common personality traits, when you think of the people who are great observers, do they have any?
Preston:It happens that both of the people that I just mentioned do not suffer fools gladly. They tend to be hard on themselves and then correspondingly hard-- They demand a lot of themselves and they expect a lot of others and their attitude toward incompetence is one of scorn. It’s a tendency. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but Schectman is a very kindly guy, a very helpful guy. If he thinks you’re mistreating equipment or misusing it or not getting the most out of it, he can be very tough on you. And Herbig was the same way. Jim Gunn of Princeton University is another one. He developed elegant electronic stuff for detection of spectra, and he is the one of course responsible for the Sloan Digital Survey, and he was another superb instrumentalist who, in my view, did great work. He is not intolerant of others, though, so that breaks the rule. He accepts people for what they are and he sort of patches up their mistakes and happily sort of changes the equipment so that less competent people can use it anyway. I don’t think there’s a pattern, in my opinion. I’ve seen both kinds. But there are individuals who stand out way above all the rest in their degree of competence as observers.
Then there’s another class of people who are not necessarily good observers but have incredible ability to create instruments for other people to work with, just invent things. Horace Babcock was such a person. He invented an exposure meter and a template thing for measuring magnetic fields, and the magnetograph he invented. Then he invented this site testing monitor, a gadget that could measure seeing. You carry a portable around the world and find out-- But he invented stuff, and that was another kind of competence. So there are many ways in which people contribute to the science.
I haven’t told you one thing which ought to go into this record so it’ll be complete. I told you in the first session that my father was an alcoholic. I had a bout with alcoholism, and I think that, to the extent that this is used as a way of judging the careers of other people and what kind of people they were, for the record I’ll tell you that-- I wouldn’t have believed it could have happened to me because my experience with alcoholism in my family was so unpleasant that I thought I would never do that. But I slipped into it myself.
Preston:It probably started around the late ‘60s, about the time I left Lick Observatory for Santa Cruz and came here, and I finally came to the horrible realization, while I was director in 1984, that I was an alcoholic, and I incarcerated myself. I joined a rehabilitation clinic in a local hospital and absented myself for three weeks in the midst of closing Mount Wilson, when there was gnashing of teeth around here and people yelling, and I was communicating from-- It was a place where you had to go in and it was total immersion. You went in and couldn’t come out for three weeks. I was talking to people here on the telephone and people were whispering, “Preston’s an alcoholic.”
McCray:People knew why you…
Preston:Yes, I didn’t make any secret of it. Some people have, and one reason to get this in the record, some people have thought that it was the pressures of the directorship that caused me to take up alcohol in an unmanageable way, and it’s absolutely not true, and that would be a good thing to put on the tape. I was a practicing alcoholic the day I accepted the directorship. I did my drinking, it was solitary drinking, I did it at home at night. People here didn’t know. Toward the end, people started to know.
Preston:They could smell it on my breath, because it was a progressive thing and toward the end it was bad. I was to the point where I couldn’t sign a checkbook because my hand was like this. It was a severe case. But the directorship had nothing to do with it, and alcoholism never does. People under stress don’t drink because they’re under stress. The stress brings out personality traits in them that they already had. There’s a famous writer on the subject, a guy who was a director of a clinic in Minneapolis, Hazeltine Center, a guy named Henry Crew [?] has written about this extensively.
McCray:Well, this guy, Henry Crew, wrote extensively about it, and one of the definitions of alcoholism is that the use of alcohol is an inappropriate solution to life’s problems that, once learned, is very difficult to unlearn. So if you don’t know how to handle anger well, you don’t handle anger well-- There are different ways you can deal with that, and one of the ways is to learn to deal with your own anger, recognize it for what it is, and change your behavior so that anger isn’t so upsetting. But if you learned it by drinking, you can take the edge off of your anger, and that works, then you’re inclined to keep using it. And there are all kinds of such character difficulties, some of which are easy to describe and some of which are more difficult to describe, and which are solved by different people in different ways. Some people become workaholics, some people become hermits and recluses, withdraw from society because they can’t deal with it, some people overeat, some people consume alcohol.
I think it’s probably a genetic component to it, because when I got to learning a little more about it, I learned that two of my father’s sisters and one of his uncles died of cirrhosis of the liver. I’d never known my father’s family. They all lived in Iowa and he migrated out here. So there was an alcoholic strain in the family which was probably too much to attribute to chance. So many of them, half of eight siblings in his family were alcoholics. That’s a little high. Then me. But I did manage it. Alcoholics are never supposed to say, “I’ll never drink again,” because you just live one day at a time, and that’s the cradle. And I accept that. I don’t need to have it proven to me. There’s enough prove around that alcoholics can’t drink anymore.
McCray:How has it been for you since the mid-1980s?
Preston:Oh, my life is wonderful. I think I climbed that hill, and I can talk about it and I’m not afraid to talk about it. In fact, I want people to know that it’s possible to live through a thing like that and come out okay. So I’d like that to be in the record. My scientific productivity plummeted in that time, and it was a kind of a 10-year hiatus. If you look in my bibliography and you’ll find that there’s a period in the early seventies where my production…
McCray:I noticed because you can do the, what is it, the search on that astrophysics database, and I saw a drop-off in publications, and my assumption was it was from administrative duties, because that’s often how it happens.
Preston:No. It was alcohol. And it’s picked up now. My production rate of science is better and more of it now than it was in the seventies, and I’m an old man and sort of running out of gas. But no, anyway, that’s enough of that, but I wanted to get that in the record.
McCray:Fair enough. I have one last question. Since you got into the business of astronomy, in your view, what’s the biggest or most important change to have taken place?
Preston:Change in astronomy?
McCray:Either in terms of doing it, scientific results, it’s however you wish to answer the question I guess.
Preston:Well, there’s more than one answer to that. At the technical level, the computer revolutionized astronomy. It revolutionized the way telescopes work, it revolutionized the way you approach utilizing data that you collect from the point of view of just putting it into a usable form and then using it to model. Numerical simulation has transformed the world. The speed with which you can process data has allowed you to become more ambitious. It has driven real analysis out of the world of physics and astronomy. Mathematical physicists used to be people who were adept at using Henkel functions and nonconvergent series to solve differential equations and so on and so forth, and now everything that you can do with analysis, real analysis, to solve differential equations you can do with a computer far better. And you can solve broader classes of problems with a computer. You can contemplate issues that you couldn’t address with real analysis, chaos. So the computer has completely changed the way astronomers work, and you just see it by walking down these buildings. You find that you go up and down the halls and look in the window, and everybody is sitting like a robot, staring at computer screens.
McCray:Does that disturb you at all?
Preston:No. That’s just the way the world has gone and the computer’s done it for us. It’s transformed our lives and it’s become not only an operating tool, but the tool without which you can do nothing. And nobody does anything without it anymore. So that’s one huge change. There’s another big change, I think. First of all, any living science undergoes changes from generation to generation, from time to time, just due to the evolution of the problems. You want to know the biggest one. I know, there is a biggest one. In a way that’s a bad question. It’s okay. You’re just trying to get me to talk. But when I got interested in astronomy, astrometry was sort of going out of vogue. Measuring positions of things was old hat because it smelled of trying to determine procession constants and galactic rotation constants and stuff that occupied 19th century and 18th century astronomers. And astrophysics was it. Then there were these problems having to do with stellar evolution and structure of stars and chemical evolution. That was all the rage. And cosmology was a very interesting science, but it was intractable. There was no progress being made and people just fought over the value of H-nought, and what else was there new?
Well, in my lifetime, the stellar astronomers were eminently successful and they essentially solved all the problems correctly. We understand stars. The very birth of them is still not very well known, but once they’re born until they die, we understand it. So the stellar astronomers sort of did themselves out of a life work, because they did it too well. They’re cleaning up around the edges now, whereas cosmology, which had been an intractable thing, and the tools to deal with it weren’t very good, has now blossomed, and it’s the multi-wavelength approach, I mean, the ability to use radio and infrared and do these fantastic mappings of temperature fluctuations in the universe.