Oral History Transcript — Dr. John P. Huchra
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Interview with Dr. John P. Huchra
Dr. John P. Huchra; June 25, 2002
ABSTRACT: This is the third session of an interview with Huchra. The first part focuses on JH's tenure as associate director at Cambridge Center for Astrophysics. Comments on structure and organization of CfA and its strengths and weaknesses. Also discusses the relations between CfA and Harvard and the class structure at Harvard among the different scientists. Some time devoted to talking about the challenges facing AURA, based on JH's current position as chair of the AURA Board. Challenges facing the US National Observatory and AURA. Interview concludes with JH's thoughts on research on dark energy, dark matter, and cosmology. Relation and cosmology as well as Huchra's preference for a particular cosmological model. Also discussion about religion, time, and cosmology.
McCray:I want to talk maybe a bit about your time as the Associate Director here. And you were doing thatÖ?
Huchra:From early 1989 through early 1998. In fact it was nine years to a day.
McCray:And which division was it?
Huchra:The Optical and Infrared Division
McCray:How many people were in the division?
Huchra:As a function of time, and by the end of that nine year period we had about 140, give or take a little change.
McCray:How does that fit in comparison to the other divisions that are here?
Huchra:Itís OIR. When I was the AD, OIR was the second largest division. Now itís the third largest division because the radio astronomy division due to the construction of the sub-millimeter array has gotten much bigger. High energy was and always was the biggest division, at least for the last 20 years or so.
McCray:Is that by design or by chance?
Huchra:It was to some extent by function. It wasnít always the biggest division. If you go back to the middle of the 1970s at that point in time there was a really large program that was still being operated by SAO; that was a function of Fred Ripple. In fact, Fred Rippleís coming here. He started up something in the late 1950s called Satellite Tracking Program to do a variety of things including Satellite Geodesy -- mapping the Earthís gravitational field by looking at the motions of satellites [inaudible].
McCray:This is Project Moon Watch on the amateur side of things, I guess?
Huchra:Not quite. The basic idea of Satellite Geodesy is that you bounce a laser off a satellite, do extremely accurate timing and measurements of its distance and where it is in its orbit. So distance and speed and all those other kinds of things. And unless youíve studied this you might not know it, but the Earth is actually quite messy in terms ofÖ
Huchra:Itís not only pear shaped, but there are mass concentrations in various places. So for example if you follow the track of a satellite as it passes over the Himalayas it speeds up. Why does it speed up? Because thereís a lot of extra mass right there. Then when it gets over something thatís a little bit less massive or weighs a little bit less, then you donít have that much and it doesnít speed up and it slows down a bit or whatever. So if it goes over the Himalayas and then over the Indian Ocean it will speed up and then slow down as the amount of mass thatís directly underneath it changes. So you get nice circular orbits for satellites, assuming that the Earth is a uniform sphere, but it isnít.
McCray:I guess this probably also has some military implications where if you want to launch missile from point A to point B, you need to know the shape of the Earth.
Huchra:Thatís right. In fact although this was primarily funded by NASA, there was a huge military interest. Because if you really want to get down to the targeting capability of a few meters, which is what you need to take out a hardened silo, you need to be able to know exactly what the distortions in the flight paths of the missiles are going to be at exactly this kind of level. So thereís this thing thatís actually published called the Smithsonian Standard Earth, several editions. The last one I looked at was back from the 1960s. The Satellite Tracking Program was still going on through about the middle of the 1980s. It had been taken over by NASA and a contractor called Bendix Aerospace. You might have heard of it. But until about 1980 or 1981 it was actually done by the Smithsonian Institution, and the way it worked is that there were tracking satellite tracking stations scattered all over the globe. Iran, Chile, Peru, Australia, Hawaii, the islands, Mount Hopkins, Satellite Baker-None [?].
McCray:These were the Baker-None network. I didnít realize that Mt Hopkins had one. What did they ever do with it is it still there?
Huchra:It got put into storage. The building is now I think empty. For a while it was being used by a whole set of robotic telescopes. That was one of the programs that was there. But we became too expensive then and they moved out to a separate site.
McCray:When you were the Associate Director -- one of the things that historians will be interested in are the relations between SAO and Harvard, and what was your sense of how that all went?
Huchra:A couple things. First of all, I should probably describe the job of Associate Director. CFA -- actually I should describe CFA. CFA and Tres Partes de Weisa Est [?]. CFA is split into many pieces, but the two fundamental entities which actually are separate in all their financial dealings are the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College observatory. There is also the Harvard Department of Astronomy, which is not the same as Harvard College Observatory. The Harvard Department of Astronomy is run by the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who is the Department Chair. The Department Chair is first among equals, but by definition rotates every three years or five years or six years, depending on what the person wants to do in terms of term. And they have no financial -- they have no power. Thereís no money associated with it -- honor, but no money. The power resides in the Director of the Harvard College Observatory and the Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Back in 1973 Harvard and the Smithsonian on the advice of the then visiting committee and Board of Overseerers or whatever, decided to form this entity thatís called the Center for Astrophysics. However, HCO and SAO are still financially separate. Thou shall not mix Harvard and government money is essentially what it comes down to. When CFA was formed, George Field became the first Director, and it was in part his idea and in part a variety of other people -- I donít know the details of the history because I wasnít here then, but a variety of people were involved in making the organization a joint organization of Harvard and the Smithsonian. And when George came in, he decided that the place was just basically administratively too big to run as a Director and a whole bunch of minions or a Director an even an administrative organization. So what George did was split it up into, in those days, eight divisions. The Satellite Tracking Division. There was a geo astronomy division separate from the radio astronomy and now its radio-geo, although now its abbreviated to pretty much just radio, although thereís still some geo astronomy done here. So there were eight divisions, and in order to run the eight divisions he essentially set up Associate Directors for each of those divisions, although a few of the divisions only had acting Associate Directors for the first three or four years until everything settled down. 1972 was also about the same time that this building was being built.
McCray:This was from the Perkin Fund?
Huchra:The money that came into building the building involved a variety of different organizations: Harvard put up some, the Smithsonian put up some (in fact, one of the reasons that the Smithsonian gets a break on the rent on the place is that they actually provided some of the capital for the construction), the Perkin Fund put up some, and so on and so forth. I guess they finished around 1972 or 73, just about the same time. So if you go down and look at the plaque at the front of the building you can actually get the dates, but it would have been early 1970s. Anyway, the divisions were created, and the idea was to split up the place into something that was manageable in terms of subunits, basically. Even in those days we were of the order of 800 people here. Or, sorry, 800 people working for CFA, and again, even in those day, there were fairly large numbers of those folks working in the satellite tracking program. The balance between Harvard and the Smithsonian has changed as a function of time. At one point in time, for example, when I came here in 1976, there was an extremely big Harvard project called the Solar Satellite Project, and in fact it employed a fairly large number of people, and all of that money and all of that effort was being done on the Harvard side. That was actually a legacy of Leo Goldberg when he was the Director. That project went away circa 1980; the satellite tracking system went away circa 1980, so there were decreases on both sides. But the high energy division, with the development of the Einstein Satellite, EOB [?], and then with the development of the Losack [?] data center here, and Chandra [?], which was Acksaff [?] and now is Chandra, has become the biggest division. It was headed toward being the biggest division in 1980, and when the satellite tracking system went away it became the biggest division. Right now there are about 1,000 people here.
McCray:That probably makes it the largest astronomy institution in the world, does it?
Huchra:Well, close. There are others that are just as big, or about the same size. It also depends on how you count people. If you go, for example, to Goddard Space Flight Center, there are about 10,000 people. But theyíre doing lots and lots of different things, and not all of them work for Goddard; many of them are subcontractors, work for TRW and Sugar [?] Sciences. In the Jet Propulsion Lab, they have about 5000 people, I donít know the exact census, but N-thousand people where N is an integer and itís not small, at JPL. If you talk about strictly astronomy, there are two or three other places that are about the same size as this. An example of one is Mudon [?] in France, which also has on order 1,000 people doing various different things. And if you allow organizations to be merged together in the sense of the way that SAO and HCO are merged, there are a few other places that approach us in size. For example, the National Observatories in Tucson plus the University of Arizona establishment, which mostly work as enemies but sometimes work as friends, that is an establishment which also is about the same size as this place. Sixty percent of the CFA.
McCray:When you were Associate Director, what kind of parody in relations existed between the research scientists here and the Harvard faculty?
Huchra:Thatís a tough question, because itís not a question of when I was the Associate Director, and it also is something which has evolved as a function of time. Sometimes in positive directions, sometimes in negative directions. The old saw applies: two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward three steps back, end up in the same place. CFA, as a whole, has many different classes of citizens. For better or worse, there are times when there is class warfare and there are times when there is not. A lot of that depends on how (and this is deep and dark, so weíll say it that way). A lot of it depends on how things are going and how people rub their noses -- you know, person X rubs noses of person Y and the situation. When left alone, I think people end up being moderately happy being what they are, but when somebody makes a big noise about it, then there is difficulty. And in fact in the last couple of years, weíve had a major difficulty here about exactly that: the class warfare. The way it was in the 1980s was that you essentially were looking at (and Iím shooting from the hip, so weíll do the best we can here), youíre essentially looking at four or five different classes of people, amongst the scientific staff, and we wonít even talk about the administrative staff -- starring those in and weíd have to add a few more. At the high end of the class structure were the Harvard professor/theorists because in fact in the astronomical profession, in fact in most of the physical sciences, there is this tendency for there to be a hierarchy even in the class so that the theorists tend to sit at the top and look down upon the observers who look down upon the instrument builders, and so on and so forth. Modulo [?] that. At the top of the stack there were the pure Harvard faculty. Then there was a set of people who had joint appointments. Iím actually one of those, at the moment, who have both a Harvard appointment and a Smithsonian appointment. Generally those people got their Smithsonian appointments first; itís rare that one goes in the other direction from the faculty side. So there are these Smithsonian professors -- and even in the Smithsonian professors, there were two classes. There were those that had been essentially given positions by the university through the regular process of examining an applicant (Harvard doesnít have applicants), but examining a person and deciding whether or not they should be appropriately blessed [Note on the tape: Iím making the sign of the cross here, not to ward off vampires but to indicate how Harvard blesses people. A good Episcopalian university. Well maybe it was Presbyterian, I donít remember]. And then there were what were called professors of the practice of astronomy, who were given professorships way back when under George Field, as a class that was essentially vested, or grandfathered is a better word, and doesnít exist anymore but we still have in the departments someone who is a Professor of the Practice of Astronomy, or Professor of the Practice of Geology.
McCray:Is it actually called that, Professor of the Practice of Astronomy?
Huchra:Thatís correct. So they were Smithsonian paid people who had these Professors of the Practice appointments on the Harvard side, who had not gone through the normal Harvard ad hoc process which was a complicated beast. And then there were Smithsonian professors who had been ad hoc and therefore had been in some ways blessed higher up with the university. So those were the top three castes, one, two, three: pure Harvard professors, a Smithsonian professor who had been blessed, and Smithsonian Professors of the Practice. Then there were the senior Smithsonian staff, who were civil servants, generally speaking, so the federal Smithsonian staff, by definition, the senior trust fund staff, who were people who were soft money on contracts and grants but who had been here a long period of time, and generally who were the PIs of their own grants. One of the things that happens on the Smithsonian side, which cannot happen by the rules of the university on the Harvard side is that on the Smithsonian side anyone is allowed to be a principle investigator. This is very important -- it means that there is a fair amount of freedom, so that somebody can come in, start out as a post-doc, do whatever: work for Joe, work for Sam, work for Sally, or Mary, and eventually build up their own research program, apply for funds, pay their own salary, and become free in the sense of being able to work on what it is they want to work on and what theyíve got resources to apply for. So in fact there are a fair number of senior Smithsonian what are called trust fund scientists who are not tenured and donít have career positions in the Civil Service or anything at all like that, who work for the Smithsonian but who are not federal employees that have their own research programs. The difficulty comes in terms of this caste system, because frankly some of the senior Smithsonian people, including the senior Smithsonian trust fund people, the soft money people, are better scientists than some of the senior faculty who have in many cases gone to sleep. Weíre in a better situation now than we were a decade ago because many of the really old timers have managed to retire.
McCray:Is this because the people who are on soft money have to have that shark mentality of having to keep moving and getting money in order to pay for their position?
Huchra:Some of it is that. There are a couple of things, and I canít tell you the absolute truth because I donít know if anybody has ever done a study of this, but I can give you my impression. My impression is that the people who are on soft money paying their own way, first of all get to work on what they want to work on all the time. And what people sometimes forget, especially in this class warfare situation which exists from time to time, is that if you are on the faculty you have a lot of duties. Or if you are a senior something, and you end up with any kind of administrative tasks, those can in fact consume a pretty large fraction of your time. Teaching, for example, any undergraduate course, first time you do it is 80 hours a week, no questions asked. So you donít have time to do research, you donít have time to write papers, or you donít have time to do that other kind of stuff. And generally in the external community, how good a teacher you are doesnít count worth beans. Whereas if you have a [???] of bringing in your own money, especially if you can bring in enough money to hire a post-doc or do whatever, youíre free to do your research and pump out papers. Thereís that, thereís the fact that you do have to have the killer instinct to even get the grant in the first place. All those things go along with it. So it works in lots of different ways.
McCray:When you were the Associate Director, was there a particular management style, for lack of a better word, that you used?
Huchra:Well, different people work in different ways. One thing that I would say is that when I became Associate Director, one of the first things I did was to try to learn something about management. I had some advantages -- I was putting a girlfriend through business school at the time, so weíd sit down and do her homework together, to learn a little bit about things like that. I also took the time to try to read some management books. And one of the things the federal government does is that they will actually send you to things like personnel courses and things like one-day seminars or two-day seminars on this, that, or the other thing if you want to do that. They have things for equal opportunity; they have things for how to supervise employees, and all this other kind of very useful stuff. So I tried to do that to figure out what was going on and learn a little about whatever was happening. There are two that happen when youíre a manager at that kind of level. Are you ready for the short course on management here? This could take an hour, I don't know. One of the things is you always have to think about managing upwards, in other words making sure that you are ready and able to get resources, or to take resources if theyíre made available -- a little bit of both. So you always have to be pushing to try to get the things that you need to get to get the job done. One of the things that you need to do is define what the job is. That of course is always tricky. If youíre really low down in the structure, somebody else does it for you. If youíre the Director or the Associate Director, theoretically part of your job is to set directions for the organization as a whole, or for your division. Being the Associate Director of OIR meant that I was also running the observatory out in Arizona Mount Hopkins and had a heavy involvement in the operation of the MMT and a variety of things like that.
McCray:By that point they had decided to swap the mirrors?
Huchra:To do the conversion, thatís right, and all of those things, things like that. And frankly the person who had been in the job before me didnít have much of an eye for figures, and hadnít gotten all the resources that were necessary to really do things. So one of my jobs was in fact to go down and track down money -- managing upward. So one of the things that I regard as one of my successes was the ability to get the MMT instrumentation program going. To side track a little bit from the general discussion, thereís been a seat-change in the way astronomy is being done, and itís coming slowly. Itís not the tidal wave washing across the New York skyline, but not that slowly. The seat-change is basically that if you go back 20 or 30 years, it was ďif you build a telescope they will come,Ē Field of Dreams. Nowadays it doesnít work that way. If you build a telescope, you need to plan for what the instruments are that are going to be on the telescope, because itís all one instrument -- itís the telescope plus the stuff that goes on the back end or front end.
McCray:The telescope is the integrated whole as opposed to the telescope plus instruments.
Huchra:Right, instruments that come along or whatever. You want to make sure that you build the right things, both for the back end and for the telescope. You donít want to design your telescope until you know what kind of instruments you want to put on it. Whatís the real task? Because there are tremendous gains to be had by specialization. And in fact there are tremendous gains to be had because the instruments are damned expensive, and the telescopes are damned expensive. Weíre no longer putting the 30-inch in the backyard, where you can grind the mirror by hand in the lab downstairs. It doesnít work that way. Youíre going to spend six, eight, ten million dollars to buy an eight meter class mirror, and maybe more if you want to figure it to work at the shortest possible wavelengths. Itís big business here. The other thing thatís important is that people have begun to realize -- it was always in the back of the minds of the planners but nobody ever did it this way -- people have begun to realize that you have to plan for the resources to do the science. So when you think of a project like a telescope, or like the Hubble Space Telescope, which is the classic example, because HST is probably the best example of how to do things right in this regard that we have at the moment. Not that there wonít be better ones in the future, but they more or less got it right. Hubble was the first mission that NASA planned where they built the telescope and planned to operate it for at least ten years, and to have operations include new instruments going on the telescope and also include funding the scientists that will actually do the work. One of the reasons (no one will ever tell you this because nobody thinks this way except a few professional scientific managers), one of the reasons that Hubble has been a great success, as great a success as itís been, is that itís not just spewing forth data. NASA also gives you money to analyze the data, to hire post-docs and students, and pay your summer salary if you need to take the time off or a term off if you want to do that, but itís hard to find enough money for a senior person to do that, you can certainly hire other people to do that. So there are all sorts of things that are going on in a broader context that didnít use to. In 1980, NASA launched a mission. If you were lucky youíd get the telescope time and you might get $1,000 to go down to the data center and look at the tape. Nowadays, if you get involved in a major mission you actually can get sufficient resources that you can get the work done in a timely manner. Very important. So one of the things that I came in as Associate Director trying to do was to essentially set that up for OIR and for as much of CFA as I could possibly manage to do. So we would make sure we had the resources to pay for new computers for people. ďA chicken in every pot, and a workstation on every deskĒ was one of the things I wanted to do. Including the students so they could get the stuff done. I wanted to make sure there was sufficient travel money around to get people to the telescopes. I wanted to make sure there was money for the instrumentation. We went out and raised, not including myself but me sort of leading a group of people trying to make it happen, we raised about $25 million for instruments.
McCray:What funding sources were you going for?
Huchra:Mostly the Smithsonian, some private.
McCray:Was it difficult to convince the Smithsonian to put eggs in the astronomy basket?
Huchra:In those days, not that hard. It took some effort, and it took making sure that you could present a reasonably integrated plan. And it also took getting the people here to really back it, so that we could speak as an organization with one voice. It took convincing my boss, who was Erwin Shapiro, that we needed to do this, but it happened. And in fact the people in Washington were an easier sell than the administrative people here.
McCray:Why is that?
Huchra:Competition. Everybody here wants their own thing. Erwinís big thing is radio astronomy and therefore interferometry and has always been. Those are the projects that he personally has pushed the hardest.
McCray:When you were Associate Director were there particular areas of research that you wanted to see a focus put on?
Huchra:Thatís a tougher question because I have to think back. By definition there were things that we had been successful at, and it didnít seem to me crazy to actually keep doing some of those things provided we could keep an edge. The other area that I thought was extremely important was large scale structure and cosmology. And to some extent this institution has built its name on things like the CFA [???]. Itís not the only thing that weíve done, but as an example of a scientific program done from the inside it has been one of the biggest successes. So I personally wanted to keep doing more of that. The other thing that I thought was very important was that we were beginning to see major advances being made in things like star and planet formation. Thereís now in fact a big group here spread across many, many, many divisions. I wanted to see that stuff get supported.
McCray:How did you encourage that? Whatís the strategy to do that?
Huchra:There were two things. One is in the kinds of instruments that we built, because that kind of area is one where one wants to work primarily in the infrared. Optical is somewhat less interesting because star forming regions tend to be very dusty and you need to be able to see through the dust. So that was part of the game. The other thing was to try to bring people on board, although the hiring situation here has been pretty grim from the get go.
Huchra:Money, no jobs, no lines of hire. The faculty hires are pretty limited, and again thereís a tendency to go for balance there, especially if you try to hire theorists because weíve had a hard time. Oft times in the case of the faculty on the university side people go for targets of opportunity, so you donít get to say ďI want one of those -- give me one from column A.Ē It doesnít happen. In the case of the Smithsonian, there were big expansions that were coming along in the radio division the sub-millimeter array, and we did hire a fair number of people working on star formation in that division. But in OIR, basically the number of federal hires that we had that werenít already plugged into some function is pretty small. The trust fund people would encourage people to work in that area, saying ďHey, hereís an opportunity, go apply for a contract or a grant.Ē
McCray:Do lines of hire appear in specific divisions or do they appear at a higher level and then do different divisions have to compete to get those?
Huchra:You ask a hard question there. The answer to your question is no, or yes, depending on how you want to ask it. Hires appear at random times in random ways. Iíll give you an example of that. There is a chance that the site Director for an observatory out in Arizona will retire, go away, do something like that. That will open up a line of hire, but it wonít open up a free line of hire in the sense of one that you can fill with somebody doing anything.
McCray:A theorist, you couldnítÖ?
Huchra:You couldnít hire a theorist. Well, you could if he or she was a good administrator and could run an observatory. Theorists have been known to run observatories before, but itís rare. You would want to try to hire somebody who has the skill to run the observatory, and in fact, youíd have to hire somebody who has that skill.
McCray:So if an apple retires, you have to replace it with another apple.
Huchra:There are some free and easy positions. For example, Iím now in a free and easy position because Iím not in any administrative position at the observatory. If I were to retire now, they could replace me with anything, assuming the position wasnít taken back by Washington due to budget cuts. In fact, if they were smart they could replace me with two anythings that are really young as opposed to one anything that is a geezer. Classic problem. Another piece of the issue is that, which is basically, many, many people espouse the view that the way to make the institution great is by hiring senior who-haws. I happen to be of the opinion that the best way to make the institution great is by hiring good young people and letting them blossom. But in this organizationÖ
McCray:Öhired while you were Associate Director, I guess itís a two-pronged question, that you were particularly pleased with or displeased with?
Huchra:I wonít answer the second part. In terms of people that I hired to do things at the observatory, in the sense of real hires as opposed to hiring my own post-docs and stuff like that, the most important hire I made was a fellow by the name of Dan Fabricant [?], who is the senior instrument builder weíve got in the division. I think heís done a very good job. Heís spectacular in terms of getting things ready for the MMT and all of that.
McCray:[portion of transcript restricted]
Huchra:Thatís just a tiny piece of it. Before we go there, I did want to say that the other piece of managing is managing down. You have to manage up in order to try to get the resources. But you have to manage down, especially in a scientific organization; you really need to be aware of what the staff is doing. My wife is the Senior Professor of Strategic Management at MIT, so weíre going to hit business speak here. You can consider the assets of an organization. In the case of General Motors for example, a reasonable fraction of its assets consists of the plants in which things are made, and in fact some of its work force is highly trained -- thatís an asset. Some of its work force is people that you can bring in on a relatively short time scale. Airport screeners are not an asset, especially if youíve traveled lately. Bad idea, right? Because you can hire new ones instantaneously, so itís not something thatís desperate. The airport screening X-ray machine, those cost a million bucks apiece, the good ones, you have to be careful with those. Those are assets. In the case of an organization like this, a scientific organization, a research organization, the most important asset is the scientific staff. Not the telescopes, not the buildings, or anything at all like that. Itís the staff that makes the organization. So part of the job of being upper level management is being aware of what the scientific staff is doing and what the scientific staff wants to do. If you can see that people are not headed in the right direction, you try to help them. If you can see that somebody is really good but doesnít have the resources they need to get the work done that they want to do and that you think they should be doing, you have to help them get the resources. All of those kinds of things fold in together. You asked me what my management style was for the internal side of things. I was a manager by meandering. I would essentially talk to everybody I could in the division every day. I spent a week a month in Tucson at the observatory there, sometimes doing my own work, but oft times spending my days in meetings with the staff and just wandering around and seeing what the projects were that people were working on and working on project of my own. Do the double barrel kind of thing. So my tendency was to try and be very interactive. My other tendency was to try to be very interactive outside the division, to foster bonds with scientific groups and scientists outside of OIR. Thatís not something which is always true. There are some divisions here which are very insular.
McCray:That was a question I was thinking of, in terms of how the OIR divisions interact and fit together with the others.
Huchra:Well, in some cases they are very close collaborations. For example, Iíve written a lot of papers with folks in [???]. The reason is that they want optical data for the X-ray sources that theyíre interested in looking at, and vice versa. Sometimes we want X-ray data for the optical sources that weíre interested in looking at. So itís worth working together.
McCray:Who doesnít it fit well with?
Huchra:It doesnít fit well with the atomic and molecular physics division. Although thatís not always true. There are some people -- By virtue of history, divisions arenít as clean as you think they are. For example, in the OIR division we have someone doing TEV observations, terra electron volt observations of gamma rays. Thatís because that person would not work for the previous but three or four Associate Directors in the high energy division, so he found a home in the optical and infrared division because his facility happens to be located at Mount Hopkins.
McCray:This is someone who was using the gamma ray collector?
Huchra:Right, Trevor Weeks. And itís ancient history.
McCray:I always wondered why he was in this division.
Huchra:The reason for this division is Mount Hopkins; the reason for not high energy is Ricardo Giaconi. Or something like that. We have people in this division doing pulsar timing measurements, we have people in this division doing interferometry of stellar sources, which might well be in the solar and stellar physics division but which isnít, by virtue of history. We have a satellite infrared group in this division, a big certiv [?] component, Geovoni Fazzio and his group. And thatís in the OIR division, thatís part of the IR. At one point in time, the IR part of OIR was much bigger than the O part. Now thereís parity. O and IR are probably about the same in terms of the total amount of activity in the division. So there are lots of curious things like that. We have somebody in the division who is doing sub-millimeter wave astronomy from a satellite, Gary Lomack on the Swath satellite. Whereas you might have expected sub-millimeter wave astronomy using heterodyne techniques would have been done in the radio division, but itís not, and so why no? So there is some synergy with radio, especially at the IR end, since theyíre looking at the same objects. We have some synergy -- Basically I do a lot of work with people in the theory division now because we collect observations and we need theorists to analyze them. [portion of transcript restricted]
McCray:One personal question related to that which is, you travel a lot, I know just from the times I write you to set up interviews, I usually get the auto-reply that, ďIím off doing something.Ē How do you balance that? Iím assuming that Rebecca and Harry donít go with you on all of the trips?
Huchra:We have come to a better way of balancing things. For example, Rebecca and Harry did go to Aspen with me. Not for the whole time, but certainly for the last week, 8 or 9 days. Itís a complicated question and a complicated answer. Rebecca travels a lot too, in not quite the same way. I tend to go to an observatory for ten days, and that puts you out of circulation. Our arrangement is this: when Rebecca goes on a business trip thatís long enough that she needs some assistance, I will go and baby-sit while sheís on a business trip. That is changing as a function of time. As Harry gets older, it gets less and less necessary.
McCray:Harry is five now?
Huchra:Harry is six and a half now. So in fact weíre now at the stage that if Rebecca goes on a business trip, I stay home with Harry. If I go on a business trip, she stays home with Harry. We have a full-time nanny. That helps a lot. We work real hard on our schedules, so that the scheduling of the three adults in the household is more or less matched so thereís always somebody there. Usually one of the primary parents. So itís a scheduling problem more than anything else. Back two or three years, when Harry was three, it was much harder to go away. It really was the case that I would do my trips and Rebecca and Harry and I would all go together when she did her trips. So my price for taking observing trips was to be the nanny when she did a business trip.
McCray:Iím assuming, which maybe isnít correct, that her trips arenít taking her to Chile or faraway places like that?
Huchra:No, but for example, she did a gig with Motorola for a long stretch of time both in Florida and in Texas, so I spent a lot of time in and around the airports in West Palm Beach and Dallas.
Huchra:Lucky me, right. West Palm Beach isnít so bad. Dallas is nothing to recommend. Cincinnati, and all sorts of other places. Also she did this year and a half long stint working for the Justice Department. My wife was the chief economic witness for the Justice Department in the anti-trust suit against Microsoft. So sheís now famous in her own right.
McCray:So she was also going to D.C. a lot?
Huchra:So she was going to D.C. a whole hell of a lot, and in fact there are some classic stories I can tell you about handing off a three-year-old or a four-year-old in Ronald Reagan National Airport, or in the U.S. air terminal shuttle over here while I was coming back from Washington and she was going down to Washington. We didnít want to hand off in the Washington Hilton, but it was amazing. I was coming back from a meeting and she was going down to a meeting. In fact the press release for the initial findings. It was a hoot.
McCray:I wanted to talk a bit about your time on the AURA Board of Directors. Youíre the Chair.
Huchra:Iíve been the Chair for ten months.
McCray:I didnít have a lot of questions about this.
Huchra:Iíve been the Chair for 11 and a half months, since July first.
McCray:I just wanted to get some sense of what the major concerns and issues facing that organization are.
Huchra:Iím not sure I can tell you all of them because a fair amount of stuff is under the table.
McCray:We can seal that part if you want also.
Huchra:You also have to promise not to write about it.
Huchra:At least until it becomes public. The basic issue for AURA. Some history. Iíve been Harvard Member Rep to AURA, a complicated organization. The way it works at the moment is that there are Member Reps from the member universities and organizations, and they elect the board of directors from the councils. I became the Harvard Member Rep to the AURA Member Representative Organization back in 1995, when Bob Kurshner had to step down because he became a member of the Gemini Board. The National Science Foundation, in its infinite stupidity, has managed to set up this rather Byzantine structure of anti-conflict of interest in such a way that it becomes almost impossible to get enough good people to go around to do all the jobs.
McCray:This is the policy where if you are on the AURA board or an AURA employee, you are not allowed to serve on the Gemini Board.
Huchra:Thatís correct. If youíre an AURA Member Rep, youíre not allowed to serve on the Gemini Board. Even more complicated. I believe that policy may be going away maybe, but Iím not sure. It is a pain in the tootsies. Bottom line is that Bob had asked to be on the Gemini Board and had to get off being a Harvard Member Rep, and I was the next logical choice. I had already spent nine years working for AURA on the Space Telescope Institute Council, and I became a member of that back in 1986 or 1987, so I had a reasonable experience as to what was happening. And I had been the Chair of the Gemini Director Search Committee, and a variety of other things like that, such as Future Directions Committee with Steve Strom back in the mid-80s. So I was not an unreasonable choice. Issues that we face today are a little bit different than the ones we faced when I first went on the board. One of the big issues then was the National Observatories, and that hasnít changed. The big problems are trying to somehow manage to get the community behind all of the activities that are going on and to develop a strategic plan for astronomy that allows the field to move forward. Thatís not just an AURA issue, thatís an issue that is tied to the AAS, itís tied to the National Research Council and the Decable [?] survey process and all of that, so there were many bits and pieces. One of my advantages in the game is that Iíve had roles in all of these different places at different times, and sometimes can actually bring things together, which helps. The biggest problem facing AURA right now is essentially the reorganization of the National Optical Observatories, and the National Solar Observatories, to be in a position to do the things that are in the current Decable survey, and to move forward.
McCray:So this would be the large synoptic survey telescope?
Huchra:It could be all sorts of things. It doesnít have to be anything in particular, but it has to be something other than just what it is. To state it really bluntly, if you think about what has happened to the National Observatories, at this point in time without any new projects coming on board, or go back two years because then itís clear because there werenít opportunities for new projects, you had a situation where the U.S. National Observatories had two four-meter telescopes, pieces of one other four-meter telescope, and pieces yet to be determined of another four-meter telescope, and a whole bunch of little telescopes. The rest of the U.S. astronomical establishment had three ten-meter telescopes, a whole bunch of eight-meter and six-and-a-half-meter telescopes under construction; there was the Gemini Observatory, which is not in the U.S. National Observatories. It is also run by AURA, but they are separate. They got separated by the National Science Foundation back in 1995 in an incredible act of lack of foresight -- another one of those. They really did something really silly without thinking enough about the future. So if you look at them, at NOIO [?] -- Oh, and the National Solar Observatory which is a piece of NOIO, which had almost become an appendix hanging off of never-never land, because there wasnít really much contact between the two. So if you looked at NOIO a couple of years ago, it was in pretty dire straights. It had a constituency, and I once upon a time tried to sit down and write down what the constituencies for NOIO were, and there were seven or eight different constituencies for NOIO, each of which wanted something different. There were a whole bunch of small telescope users who were saying, ďGod damn-it, shut down them God-damned four-meters. I want my 16 inch and I want it now!Ē And then there were a whole bunch of people saying, ďClose Kitt Peak, we really need to move to the future and build telescopes in forefront sites.Ē And then there were a whole bunch of people saying, ďBut we need all those telescopes for education.Ē Then there were a whole bunch of people saying, ďBut competition, merit-based research is the best way to get the science done.Ē And then there were those people saying, ďGod damn-it, shut the whole thing down.Ē
McCray:Plus the staff itself I would imagine has their own views?
Huchra:The staff had their own views, the staff wanted -- If you think about it, you can sit down and write the constituencies. I wonít go through the exercise again. But the staff is one of... Bottom line was, because nobody was getting what they wanted, because the organization wasnít moving forward, in any way shape or form, it was in really bad shape. The cry amongst the senior cognoscenti who arenít necessarily of good heart, but sometimes are of good mind, was that perhaps the best thing to do was to hit the restart button. Shut the whole thing down, fire everybody, start over again, do something different.
McCray:Who was saying that?
Huchra:Andy Favor is a good example. Mark Davis. Me. Tony Tyson. I wasnít too proud to say that perhaps we have a problem here and should try to do something completely different. In fact one of the ways I got myself into a bit of trouble inside the AURA organization was by writing down a plan for what I thought the observatory ought to look like ten years in the future, and it didnít include a lot of things that the people on the inside wanted.
McCray:This was the discussion that led to the 1995 report that Dick McCray put together?
Huchra:No, this is in the last couple years. This is even more recent. The 1995 report that McCray put together was prompted in part by Favor and company, and a variety of people criticizing things. It sort of led to a direction, but didnít finalize a whole bunch of things, and besides which the whole Gemini situation hadnít settled at that time. I was one of the people who wrote that report, so I can tell you lots of pieces of what went into it. Iím talking in the last couple of years, and in fact leading up to the re-competition for the management [inaudible]. I still think that itís extremely important that we find ways of getting Gemini and NOIO back together in some reasonable way so they can work together as opposed to sometimes working across purposes. I still think itís extremely important to look to the future, and to be willing to give up some of the things to get to the future. Itís a slightly different issue. Examples being that it will be the case that there will be a time when we give up the Kitt Peak site. Itís not a great astronomical site. The seeing is O.K., weather is lousy in the summer, and thereís a lot of light pollution from Tucson, which is going to get worse not better. Whereas Monakaya [?] in the North is a pretty good site. Hell, Mochran [?] might even been a good site, if I could deal with squirrels. Itís natives on Monakaya and squirrels on Mochran. Chile, we have essentially an open skies agreement, to borrow a phrase from the airline industry. The weather in Chile is extremely good in terms of photometricity, i.e., the number of nights where itís absolutely clear is 60% better at Sarataloma [?] than it is in Tucson. We have the statistics on the two-match survey, so we know extremely well how good things are. So one of the things that I wrote is that in ten years, perhaps we shouldnít be operating Kitt Peak. That doesnít mean that Kitt Peak shouldnít be operated; it just means that it shouldnít be operated by the National Observatories and paid for by National Science Foundation. Those telescopes are still useful, but they can be run by somebody else.
McCray:So these could be bought out by universities who donít have their own telescopes?
Huchra:By universities who donít have their own telescopes, continuing on the vein that weíve actually been going on. A lot of places would love to be able to operate a four-meter, and as long as they donít have to do anything really fancy to it, they could do it relatively cheaply. Thatís the game. Whereas at the same time, you take the resources that youíve got and you concentrate them on things like the big survey telescope, like the 30-meter, or whatever that project ends up being. There are now versions that people are talking about anywhere between 15 meters and 100 meters, for the next generation of really big telescopes. Iím interested to see how thatís going to play out.
McCray:Whatís your sense of what youíre seeing -- I mean, Caltech, from what Iím seeing and hearing, seems to be going ahead the great guns toward building the 30-meter telescope.
Huchra:Caltech in California? The brainpower in the new C-system [?] for the telescope construction.
McCray:So what is your sense of what will happen? Because you have, it seems like weíve returned to the situation in the 1980s where the private observatory system is moving ahead to build the next generation and the national system is trying to figure out what to do and how to do it?
Huchra:Well, a couple things. One is that the situation is not as clear as one might think, looking at it from the outside. Arguments for building a 30-meter are nice, but not perfect. In particular, the only reason one would want to go ahead and build a 30-meter telescope or larger, 25-meter -- the exact number is fuzzy -- is if you can actually make that telescope work in the diffraction limit. So long wavelength infrared you know you can do it, because itís not a big problem, but at shorter wavelengths, even a micron length or two microns, it is yet an unsolved problem which involves being able to do this thing which is called MCAO -- multi-conjugate adaptive optics. If we donít find a way of doing multi-conjugate adaptive optics over the next ten years, then I personally would say that itís not worth building a 30-meter telescope. The reason being that if you end up with natural seeing on a 30-meter telescope, youíre better off building a whole bunch of 10-meters and using those as opposed to trying to build a 30-meter. Instruments for a 30-meter are going to cost as much as a 10-meter telescope. You can spend $50 to $100 million to build an instrument for a 30-meter, unless you build something really rinky-dink and small -- you can always do that. You can put your postage stamp at the back end -- you can take your Nikon and stick it at the back end of the Gemini telescope, but that would be a mistake.
McCray:Thatís a shocking amount of money.
Huchra:And thatís the story. Itís not a cheap thing. A 30-meter with MCAO, and a reasonable initial instrument complement, Iím guessing is a billion dollars. I probably wouldnít even start trying to do the project unless I could raise close to a billion dollars to do it.
McCray:Plus about ten percent per year to operate it?
Huchra:Maybe. In fact one has to probably find a way to make the operating costs -- ten percent a year including the instruments. If it were just to operate it, you might be able to do it for half that. $40 or $50 million a year. Itís not a cheap thing. The entire budget of the existing national observatories. In fact more than that. The current NOIO budget is about $23 million a year, once you take out the solar part and Richardís salary. So, as I said, the future is not absolutely clear. The MCAO problem has to be solved. You can build smaller telescopes, you can build your 30-meter and optimize it for longer wavelengths. There are an awful lot of niches. Those niches are not as compelling as a 30-meter with MCAO that can really produce the diffraction limit at a micron. That has to be solved. In fact, whatís happening in the Kell collaboration right now, if I understand the inner workings (and this is a bit of a guess but itís a pretty educated guess) is that they have the initial development money to work on plans and to work on the MCAO at the level of $60 or $70 million, some from Caltech and Gordon Moore, some from the University of California, and I have no idea where theyíre getting their money. And if at the end of two or three years they can show that the MCAO system will work and the rest of the telescope design is reasonable, then Moor will let them use the rest of the money on the Caltech side, another $300 million, give or take change. If they canít, he wonít. Thatís my understanding, and thatís what I would do if I was Gordon Moore. And heís no dummy.
McCray:I imagine it will be called the Moore telescope?
Huchra:Maybe. In the case of NOIO, there are a bunch of things that are going forward. One is this issue of the OSST. I donít know exactly what will happen. There is a workshop being put together now to talk about the science from it. In fact I have to buy an airplane ticket to fly to Washington on Friday to go to an NSF meeting on the OSST. There are some people who think that one can do it with a farm of smaller telescopes. In fact, thatís already being funded by the Air Force, out in Hawaii, a project that was last year called POI and currently is called Pan Stars. A few years ago it was called WFRI [?] -- donít ask. Iím not sure I can reproduce the acronyms for you. POI was the Panoramic Optical Imager (that one I can reproduce). And then thereís the OSST project itself, and there are lots of bits and pieces tied to that. It might get funded in part if not in whole by the military and by NASA because of the need to find rocks in space. People have begun to realize that rocks in space are real.
McCray:Especially after last week.
Huchra:Yes. And it would be useful to perhaps keep an eye on these things and perhaps even find them early as opposed to late.
McCray:So it wouldnít just be a dark matter telescope, it would be --
Huchra:Thatís right; it would be a real astronomical telescope. I actually think that personal view, weak lensing may be a bit oversold at the moment. It isnít the answer to everything. Part of the problem is the projection effect which is that you donít have information as to where things are -- you have some, but itís incomplete. There are photometric regers [?] so you have some idea of where things are along the line of sight, but only some, and that may not be sufficient to align you do precision cosmology. Weíll see. In many of these cases, you never know what the systematic effects are until you actually do the experiment, and sometimes you get nailed by them and sometimes you get lucky.
McCray:At this point weíve been talking about things in the future. In the past couple years there has been talk about getting the different observatories in the U.S. to act more as a unified system. Has there been any progress toward that?
Huchra:A little, but not much. The bottom line is that it may well be in everybodyís interest for people to work more together, but itís in nobodyís interest for people to work more together. Itís a tragedy of the commons, if youíve ever read Garret Hardenís [?] book. And the NSF being the NSF is not willing to actually -- It can hand out carrots from time to time, but there are no sticks, and the carrots arenít big enough carrots. There will be some synergy that comes out of, for example, the instrumentation program. There will be some attempt made not to build 16 of everything for all 16 big telescopes, but it will only be some. If anybody really wants a something, theyíre going to build it anyway, even though the whole enterprise might be better off if a different instrument got built with those resources.
McCray:What about interaction between space and ground base, with the decadal [?] survey, the number one recommendation being the next generation of space telescope? At what point does it become more feasible to put telescopes in space?
Huchra:Thatís an interesting question, and I donít know the answer absolutely. I would say that NGST / GSMT are a good example of the tradeoffs. This is a technical answer to your question: there are certain types of science that are better done by having a really big telescope on the ground. There are certain types of science that are better done by having an intermediate sized telescope in space. For example, generally speaking, imaging on large scales in wide fields: once you get past the optical regime, is better done in space. Thatís because the background is high on the ground. Weíre not talking light pollution, weíre talking about the thermal background from the heat of the atmosphere at thermal wavelengths; weíre talking about the emission lines that come from the aurora. Thereís aurora overhead everywhere; just at the poles, you can see it. But at the equator you can see it with a telescope, and thatís a big problem. Issues that have to do with atmospheric transparency: by the time you start getting to a micron the atmosphere is much less transparent because of water vapor and all these other kinds of things. If you need to do extremely high spectral resolution spectroscopy, you need the biggest telescope that you can possibly get, and you donít particularly worry about the background noise because youíre limited by the detector noise and the detector quantum efficiency. Generally speaking, at least for the moment, the biggest possible telescopes get built on the ground. Fifty years from now I hope that wonít be the case; I hope theyíll get built on the moon. Maybe 20 years from now if weíre lucky theyíll get built on the moon if some of these lunar initiatives come to pass. Because you can imagine the old Asimov thousand-meter on the moon -- if that in fact were to ever come to pass; if we actually did have scientific bases on the moon, we wouldnít have to worry too much about building large ground-based telescopes, except as historical tools or teaching tools. We might do it just for fun. Again, for certain kinds of imaging, if you want to do diffraction limited imaging over extremely small fields of view, itís still the case that youíre better off building a big telescope on the ground or even building and interferometer to do the extremely high spatial resolution stuff. So there are these tradeoffs. You need to beat the background, if youíre trying to observe the faintest possible object in the universe, you really need to beat the sky, then youíve got to get to space. Itís just so much easier to do it in space than from the ground. One of the things Iíve learned in my career is that there is no substitute for good data. Or as my father used to say, ďYou canít make silk purse out of a sowís ear.Ē If you have the data even from the worldís biggest telescope on the ground, thereís a hell of a lot of light pollution and background, itís trying to make a silk purse out of a sowís ear. It just doesnít work. So thereís a place for both. Will it ever be the case that there are only space-based telescopes? Maybe. But I still think thereís a place for teaching telescopes, if only to try out the instruments and the people. To say it in a slightly different way, it is almost always the case that the answer to that question depends on what it is you want to do. When the general question is complicated, then the answer is yes, you want telescopes all over the place. The specific question may well yield a solution that is optimized by having a telescope in space, or it may well yield a solution which is a whole bunch of little telescopes on the ground, or it may well yield a solution which is a 100-meter on the ground, or in space.
McCray:Is there one choice that it is important for AURA to pursue for its own institutional well-being?
Huchra:Yes. It must lead. It cannot follow, and following is a guaranteed way to get into trouble. And in fact I think thatís one of the biggest difficulties that weíve faced with NOIO. Itís been hard to get the staff and the administration to really lead, itís been an uphill effort to get them to be willing to put aside some of their own ideas about things. An example, a lot of people there went to Kitt Peak. [Knock on door; interruption. Tape cut.]
McCray:The final set of questions deal with the current state of astronomy, and I guess the way to ask would be to start with the idea that physics and astronomy historically developed as autonomous fields, but the sense one has is that physics and astronomy are merging, and I wanted to get some comment in terms of how distinct physics is today from astronomy.
Huchra:Interesting question. I donít particularly consider myself distinct. There is a part of me that is a physicist and a part of me that is an astronomer. I have a background in physics and a background in astronomy and in many ways there is a synergy between the fields that almost makes them the same. There but for fortune it would be one word, and the fortune just has to do with, as you say, the distinct development of the fields. Nowadays I think people who are doing research in physics and astronomy and who are doing research in astronomy and astrophysics, generally come in with incredibly strong physics backgrounds, and use tools from physics and use ideas from physics, and follow whatís happening in physics. Some of it goes back to the fact that, for example, in the case of developing new instruments and new techniques and telescopes, a tremendous amount of stuff is coming in from solid-state physics, in one form or another. So if youíre a detector specialist in astronomy and astrophysics, generally speaking youíve probably had some training in solid-state physics, and how one makes doped [?] silicon work to detect photons or radiation or whatever. Definitely true in the radio field, since the get-go. In fact if you trace all the major detector development work that has come into astronomy, it is almost always the case of being brought in from the physics side of things. There is a standing joke, in fact, that the way a new field of astronomy progresses is that the first thing that happens is a bunch of physicists develop something that will detect radiation but they donít know what to do with it. So then they have to learn the astronomy that might be useful, and come in and start trying to do astronomy. Then after a while their students become astronomers as opposed to physicists, and we see growth in the field that way.
McCray:Will that continue to happen given that all the wavelength regimes are pretty well explored?
Huchra:Probably. There are some limits. I always joke about the fact that in the optical, weíve gotten to the point where we have very close to perfect detectors, and in fact the way in which advances are being made are not by making better detectors but by making bigger detectors so we can more completely pave the focal plane with bits and pieces. Typical CCD these days and optical infrared CCD, will work between 3,000 angstroms and 1.2 microns; the band gap cutoff for silicon, with the quantum efficiency thatís near unity and a noise which is near zero. Thatís essentially a perfect quantum detector. You canít do better than that. Zero noise would be better and 100% would be better, but 85 and 1 and is not bad. Other wavelength regimes are not anywhere near that yet. Theyíre getting better. Now X-ray detectors are getting to be pretty good. Theyíre also approaching the quantum limit. Ditto in the near-infrared; the far-infrared is not. Theyíre still quite a ways from having noiseless detectors in particular. So there are necessary advances there. People are also talking about ways of making different kinds of detectors in optical. For example, the latest game is to see whether or not you can make one of these things that is called a scanning tunneling junction work to actually provide energy resolution. So what we do now, if you want to take a color picture in astronomy, you have to sit there and take an exposure through a blue filter and a visible filter and a red filter and an infrared filter. With an STJ, youíll be able to tell the energy of each incoming photon, and say, ďAh! Thatís a blue one.Ē It doesnít have really high energy resolution, so you canít say itís 5,200.697 angstroms versus 5300 angstroms, but you can say blue versus visible versus red versus infrared, right now.
McCray:Where are these being developed?
Huchra:The STJs? There is some work being done primarily in the Netherlands, in Norsvik [?], Estec. And thereís also some work thatís been done, probably black work, thatís been done by Hughes, but the primary stuff Iíve seen is from ISO, an ISO funded organization thatís called Estec.
McCray:What does it stand for?
Huchra:I donít know. In the sense of theory, cosmology in particular, the two fields are coming back together again as well. For example, much of what motivates whatís happening in modern observational cosmology is the theory which is being driven by the physics. And vice-versa. Much of whatís happening in physics, especially particle physics, theoretical, is actually being driven by astrophysical results. Dark energy would be a classic example. Itís now the hot watchword in the theoretical physics community because the existence of dark energy is probably telling us something extremely fundamental about the very basic nature of matter in space and time.
McCray:What is your reaction to the fields of dark energy and maybe dark matter, to a lesser degree, becoming serious fields of research?
Huchra:Dark matter always has been. Itís been around for a long time. What I havenít seen is that in the last 20 years I havenít seen any real advances in our understanding of what it is. To put it more bluntly, from the point of view of physics, looking at the dark matter problem, there has been very little progress. A particle has not been identified, is another way of saying that, despite many searches. There has been some progress. For example, I think from the astronomical point of view, we now know a lot more about how dark matter is distributed. We have a better understanding of how much there is in the universe, and for better or worse -- I donít know if itís right -- but for better or worse thereís been a convergence of views on how much dark matter there is relative to ordinary matter. So we now think that thereís somewhere between six and ten-to-one, cold dark matter or something like it compared to baryons in the universe. Thatís a number which ten years ago would have been hotly debated with many people saying 100-to-one.
McCray:What has brought about this convergence?
Huchra:To some extent, dark energy. The theorists have lost. And they have won -- theyíve gotten their cake and theyíve gotten to eat it too. Or the observers are right and the theorists are right. So the observers were always saying, ďThereís only .3 omega of gravitating matterĒ, and the theorists were always saying, ďWell, but omega has got to be oneĒ and the answer at the moment seems to be that yes, omega total is one, and omega of matter is .3, and theyíre both right. So everybodyís happy, or wrong, as the case may be. That can also happen. The thing that made that possible was dark energy. The other thing is that the observations got so good that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the theorists, both particle and astrophysical theorists, to successfully argue that omega matter had to be one. So for better or worse thatís managed to go away.
McCray:This interaction between theory and observation -- historically, at different times, these have been very distinct undertakings. How has this changed in terms of the theory community and the observing community?
Huchra:Nowadays, science is not being done by individuals that much anymore. It can still be done the old way, but generally speaking there are groups of people. The major problems are big enough that itís extremely difficult to find any single individual that has the expertise to deal with all the levels of complexity that are tied to the problem. So the classic issue is that on big projects (I wouldnít say itís a problem, but itís whatís happening), you will often find that there are teams of experimentalists, teams of instrument builders, and teams of theorists working together. Itís very often the case. For example, in what I do, my real forte is collecting data, and then verifying it to make sure it makes some sense and itís the right kind of stuff. For really heavy duty theoretical interpretations, Iíll go find a friend. [portion of transcript restricted]
McCray:When did you begin to sense that dark energy was becoming an accepted part of scientistsí thinking about the universe?
Huchra:Ha! I havenít. Iím still a cynic. Which is to say, if you look at the data which exists on the dark energy question, there are really two pieces at the moment. One is this indication from the microwave background fluctuations that omega total, whatever it is (ten years ago theorists would have said omega total must be omega matter), omega total must be very near one. Thatís probably the strongest piece of evidence that dark energy or something like it exists. Dark energy may be a misnomer. In other words, thatís a term thatís being used, but the term may be leading us down the garden path, so I donít know if thatís entirely right, but weíll use dark energy as a surrogate for whatever out there is missing. The other piece of evidence is the evidence from the supernova about accelerations. That stuff is really risky.
Huchra:Take a look at the data.
McCray:Can you elaborate on that since I canít take a look at the data?
Huchra:Itís a few sigma results. I will say something nasty which I may regret later, but at this point in time, one of the things that people should realize at least about that line of effort is that the papers that describe it, each had one or two supernova at high enough red shift to actually see something beyond systematic effects. And were published three or four years ago. 1998, early 1999, and neither group has published anything since.
Huchra:Good question. It could be because theyíre afraid that the other group will jump on them, or it could be that they donít have much better data. Itís a big enough problem that one wants to try to follow it up as best one can, and I havenít seen anything new so I donít know. It could be that itís right, and it could be that the microwave background stuff plus the matter plus the omega M determinations are sufficient to say yeah, itís there. It could be that the supernova stuff is right. An example I use when talking about this in public is Iíve had the pleasure of serving on both a criminal jury and on a civil jury. On a civil jury, the winning side has to be 51% right. In a criminal case it has to be beyond the shadow of a doubt. Letís put it this way. Dark energy might win in a civil court, but it wouldnít win in a criminal court. A good way of thinking about it.
McCray:What do you think some of the most important research projects that have recently ended or are ongoing now, what do you see where the main work is being done and who are the main players?
Huchra:Tough question. I just came from a workshop in Aspen where I spent three weeks with a lot of the main players at least in the observational cosmology game. And I donít want to speak to all of astronomy. But in cosmology, Iíd say that the big interesting things, and there are a lot of them, but the big interesting things that are having impact or will have impact are MAP with a satellite.
McCray:MAP being microwave anisoprity probe?
Huchra:Thatís right. Theyíre very close to having it in orbit for a year or thereabouts. Theyíre very close to having the first data released from that, the first result released from that. MAP is primarily a PITTS: instrument so basically speaking itís not something you apply for time on. When they release the survey youíll have a chance to analyze it. And I expect itís going to tell us a whole lot about whatís happening at the microwave background fluctuations. If they got it right. Thereís a chance itís not. Thereís always a chance the instrument didnít work right. But assuming that everything worked well, and assuming that what weíve heard so far is true, I think itís going to have some spectacular results in microwave background fluctuations on small scales. I think weíre seeing results coming out now from two of the big red shift surveys: Sloan, and 2DF, or two-degree field survey. The Australian survey and the one being done in New Mexico, the SDSS, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Consortium. I happen to think that Sloanís greatest legacy is going to be the imaging as opposed to the spectroscopy, but both are going to be useful. Weíre now at the stage of talking about red shift surveys with a couple hundred thousand galaxies in it as opposed to CFA one at 2,400, CFA two at 18,000. Weíre now talking a couple hundred thousand, and Sloan is actually going to try to get something close to a million. Thatís going to nail the problem, nail it sufficiently that people wonít be interested in it anymore.
McCray:What are the effects of having so much data to work with? You just mentioned a case where you had a couple thousand data points, up to 20,000 data points, and now itís an order of magnitude or more beyond that. Whatís the effect of having all that?
Huchra:A couple of things. The first issue is that your errors in determining things are no longer dominated by the small size of the sample; theyíre dominated by systematic effects. So if something like 2DF or Sloan get it wrong, it will not be because they donít have enough data; it will be because they didnít do something right in the way they took the data in the first place. Thereís something wrong with the photometry or there are scale errors or whatever. So the new kinds of surveys require greater effort to actually check.
McCray:Is it harder to spot systematic errors?
Huchra:It is harder and itís easier. Itís easier because you have more data, and itís harder because they may be more subtle. Itís a combination of the two, and you never know what will come and get you. You have to work on it. No matter how big the surveys get, there will always be a need to check and make sure that things are done right. Cross-compare with other things that will allow some kind of comparison. So we do that. The other thing that happens is that I used to know every galaxy I looked at by heart. It was a standing joke that somebody could show me a picture of a galaxy in the CFA one survey and I could tell them what it was and what itís red shift was. I did it once or twice as a method of proof, and it was quite a hoot. Funny story. Once upon a time when Mark Davis was leaving here to go to Berkeley back in 1981. Four of us were having lunch at the faculty club at MIT. It was Simon White, Scott Trumaine [?], Scott being a professor there at the time, me, and Mark. As we were walking out of the faculty club, Simon asked Mark what his phone number was going to be. And it turns out that the prefix for the phone numbers in the Berkeley astronomy department, and the university in general, are NGC. So if you look at the numbers for the first letters it would be NGC on the standard phone keypad. So Simon said it will be NGC what? And Mark rattled off the last four digits of his phone number, and Simon and Scott turned to me and said, ďJohn! Bet you donít know where that galaxy is!Ē And I proceeded to rattle off its position in the sky, its radio velocity, its morphological type, and a rough description. And they thought I was fooling. Then we got back here and looked it up, and I wasnít fooling. It was that kind of thing. It doesnít happen anymore. When you have a quarter million objects in your survey, the probably that anybody has looked up that in any individual spectrum is pretty small, so itís a different kind of thing now. Thatís both good and bad.
Huchra:Itís sad. Iím a dinosaur. When dinosaurs ruled the Earth. I feel like an aged Tyrannosaurus rex or a brontosaurus going the way of all flesh when the big meteorite hits.
McCray:That leads very well actually to the last part of the questions, which is a two part question. This one is speculative. These changes in becoming a dinosaur as you phrase it: a generation of people who brought about these changes -- youíre part of that generation. So how could the field have developed differently where you all wouldnít be feeling like dinosaurs?
Huchra:I was joking when I said that. I wouldnít say that we all feel like dinosaurs. It is interesting to see a field evolve. I never thought I would. Thatís one thing, because when you start out, among other things youíre never sure youíre going to stay in it. But you never expect to see things change, and itís interesting to see it happen. Iíve now been doing astronomy -- I guess the first time I started playing with anything that was vaguely related to astronomy in an academic sense was in college, probably back in 1968. So weíre pushing 35 years in the general scheme of things. Sounding rockets in Ď61. And just watching how people do things and how people work, how the science is getting done, you can see the differences that take place. Generally those things are just what happens. A classic example. Back in the Ď60s and Ď70s when you wanted to do a heavy duty calculation, you would often use the mainframe; you carried a box of cards. Even when I was in graduate school it was still boxes of cards and youíd have to run your giant computer programs through. In fact I just sent a cabinet with old computer cards off to storage. I thought Iíd stash one in storage because in 50 years it might pay for my grandsonís tuition, just as a historical item. No, I thought Iíd do it just for the hell of it because it doesnít cost that much to store it. But things have changed so much in that since computers. I now have as much computing power, on my desk, as I used to have on the first mainframe I ever used. That mainframe filled up this room plus the three next to it in bits and pieces. I learned to program on an IBM 1620 that had 20K of memory. That was it. Now weíre talking 8 gigabytes of disk space -- it had 20K of disk space. Your programs had to be incredibly efficient. There was a huge premium placed on making your programs and data storage incredibly efficient. Nowadays you donít worry about it. Is it good or is it bad? Itís just different. No one has to write or know a good program; you just have to write a program that gets the job done. One of the changes I lament is that nowadays people, including me -- Iíve gotten lazy like everybody else, people tend to use things as black boxes, and not worry about whatís in them.
McCray:Instruments themselves, or the algorithms they use as part of their research?
Huchra:Yes, both. For an experimentalist instruments in particular. In fact thereís a cult of not-knowing -- trying hard not to know whatís inside. I wonít say it quite that way, but for example if you go to National Observatories, youíll want to look inside the spectrograph youíre going to be using, you will not be allowed to. Not even the National Observatories. If you go Keck and you want to look inside the spectrograph you generally wonít be allowed to.
McCray:You canít open it up and tweak it?
Huchra:Yes. They donít want you to, because you might break it. Because youíre not an expert. And that sometimes means that people donít know exactly whatís going into their data. People have gotten to the point of reducing most of their data using IRAF or IDL or Solar Apes [?] if youíre a radio astronomer. The routines for handling the data have gotten so complex that an individual generally wonít do it themselves. So you end up using these black boxes. Now, it would be less bad if there was developed along with that an ethic of testing the black boxes from time to time. So if there was an organization of students who were taught to, before they use one of these algorithms or one of these canned software packages, to do some tests where the results are known, that have been produced by some other routines that you have also tested in the lab. That might be a bit better. Generally people donít even do that. So you saw me this morning, for example. Somebody coming in and talking about doing flat fields, and one of the things that you want to do is after youíve processed this by something, micrograph or whatever, you want to go back and really look at the data. Nobody has time to anymore.
Huchra:Thereís so much.
McCray:So much data?
Huchra:So much data, so little time. Nobody has the interest, except a few really anal people. And not even me, and I used to be one of the most anal ones that you ever knew.
McCray:Öresults that have been thrown out, when somebody went back and checked this?
Huchra:There are classics. Iíll tell you the classics which you might already know. One of the classics occurred about a decade ago. Thatís before the COBY [?] results were in. COBY had been launched, but hadnít produced any results. There were a couple of competing groups in Berkeley and Nagoya [?], Japan. Thatís to say that the Berkeley/Nagoya experiment where they were trying hard to compete with COBY. So Berkeley and Nagoya had this set of joint rocket flights where they were trying to get up there and do cosmic microwave background observations from rocket flights. The first thing they went after was the temperature, the curve, the black body curve. And when they analyzed their data, they found an excess at short wavelengths in the microwave background data compared to a simple black body spectrum. And they analyzed it and analyzed it and kept coming up with the same results. And they published it, that there was an excess of over the microwave background black body a certain whatever. And there must have been 150 papers written by theorists and other people trying to explain this stuff. And eventually, when COBY came out, they didnít see it. And the Berkeley and Nagoya guys went back and some other people went back and tried to analyze that data, and what they realized was that this was the sound of rocket flight. They were up there, able to collect minutes worth of data, and they never got a clean spectrum. There was still some outgasing from the rocket. You shoot a rocket up; stuff goes with it -- propellant, leftover fuel, and whatever. You really have to get way far away from that stuff before you can take measurements. So what they were seeing was an excess which was attributed to excess radiation at certain wavelengths from microphone background whatever, really was contaminants still sitting around the rocket, and around the detector of the telescope. It went away. But for a year you can go back to 1990 before the COBY data came out, and you can see that there are 100 papers trying to explain that microwave background excess temperature as dusty galaxies, quasars, this that and the other thing; all sorts of explanations.
McCray:Does that make the theorists look goofy?
Huchra:Sometimes. Sometimes it makes them look like theyíre running in a pack after the latest whatever. But itís OK, because sometimes they should be. Theorists are measured by different standards.
McCray:Do you know any particular view of the universe from a cosmological point of view, just for philosophical questioning? Open-Close, Big Bang, Steady State, any particular thing that meshes with you personally or with your religious beliefs, if you have any?
Huchra:Honest answer, no. The universe is what it is. I have some ideas about what it is. I could be wrong. There are facts and observations that are reasonably well established if not very well established. There are very few observations or facts that pass the criminal courtroom test beyond the shadow of a doubt. There are a few, for example: we know the universe is locally expanding. That is happening, today, now, you look out and galaxies generally, aside from gravity, are moving away from each other. Well established fact. Weíre here; baryons exist. There is some matter. The universe is not empty. Thatís a well established fact. There is background radiation. Thatís a well established fact. What is the nature of the background radiation? Less well established. What is the amplitude of the tenth peak in the fluctuation spectrum of the microwave background? Thatís not established at all. What does it mean? Thatís not established at all. So there are limits to what we know now and places where we do have to learn things. The explanations that exist -- you wanted philosophy and youíre getting it -- the explanations that exist for many of these things are now coming together in a way that perhaps they didnít 10 or 20 years ago. So I would say that at least the overall framework of something like the Hot Big Bang is pretty well established. I think I used this phrase in the last interview, to borrow something from a friend of mine: you have four different levels of certainty, with a little refinement compared to our last discussion. You bet a dime. You bet your dog. A dime is 10 cents, the dog is about $100. You bet your house. Thatís about $100,000. You bet your first born, and in my case thatís $100 million easy. So thereís about a factor of 1,000 between each of those bets. I would definitely bet a nickel, or a dime. I would definitely bet the dog on the Hot Big Bang. I might bet the house on the Hot Big Bang. I wouldnít bet my first born on the Hot Big Bang.
McCray:Does that make you an exception in the community?
Huchra:No, because there are not that many willing to say that. Alright, or say it that way. There are different ways of saying it.
McCray:Betting your first born on the Hot Big Bang is a pretty big bet.
McCray:People like Jeff Burbidge [?] and Chip Arp [?]
Huchra:I bet Burbidge wouldnít bet his first born on the quasi-steady state cosmology, to invert the question vertically. I bet he wouldnít even bet his house. But he might bet his dog. I donít know if Jeff has one. But itís that kind of level of things.
McCray:This is a related question. If itís a personal one you can just say it none of our business. But you have a young son. What will you say to him when he asks you questions about God and the universe?
Huchra:The truth, as I know it, as best I know it.
Huchra:A long, long time ago, I had the opportunity of sitting down for three days with a bunch of Jewish theologians. This is something organized by temple University. The fact that they were Jewish is not relevant. They happened to be, and thatís the story. The person who organized it was Jim Peebles [?] and his neighbor who happened to be a professor of theology at Temple University. The idea behind this was to get a bunch of cosmologist types with a bunch of theological types that sit down and talk together at the boundaries. The theological types that werenít so far beyond the bet that they couldnít talk about it and the cosmological types, the astronomer and physicist types that also werenít so far beyond them that they couldnít talk about it. Because you can in fact find people on both sides of the fence that treat what they do as dogma, and thatís very bad. We had a lot of fun. We actually didnít spend as much time talking to each other, to members of the opposite group as one might have expected, but we spent enough to get to the limits. The bottom line is that at least at the moment, and who knows if this will ever change, or if it can ever change, at least at the moment if you take a look at physical law, and our understanding of things, there are just limits to what we know. In some cases people believe there are limits to what we can know. I saw Copenhagen a couple weeks ago, as an example of above, a well defined physical limit of what it is that you cannot and can know. You cannot know the position and momentum of an object at the same time. There are limits to what we know about the laws of physics and ranges of it which weíve been able to test in this study though. The total range is infinite. Infinityís a wonderful word. It allows you to cover a lot of sins, or to recover from a lot of sins. And there are different ways of thinking about things. If you think about time for example as logarithmic, which in fact may be a better way to think about time, or to put in another way, one of the things I always tell people in life, never mind science, is that your perception of time changes as you get old. A year to me is less than one-fiftieth of my life. [snapped fingers] It goes by like that. A year to my six year old is 16 percent of his life. And when he was a year old, a year was his life, his whole life. He was only a year old. So in some ways, you can even see this if you think about it. In some ways time does seem to go faster as you get old. And it is in part because every minute is a much smaller fraction of your life now than it was many years ago when you were young or small or whatever. In physics time is a little bit like that too. If you think about time linearly, you get one set of answers and you can see things in specific ways. But if you think about time logarithmically, many, many, many orders of magnitude over which we have no idea of what has happened or what is going to happen. To put it another way, you can look at Stephen Hawkingís book, The First Three Minutes, and it was by reading things like that that I began to have a better understanding of the limits and the bits and pieces that go with them. He talks about the plank time, 10 to the minus 42 of a second. And he talks about the age of the universe which is 10 to the 10 seconds, give or take a few years. Did I get that right? Ten to the 17 equalsÖBut anyway, what happens between 10 to the 17 and 10 to the 117, what happens before ten to the minus 42, what happens between 10 to the minus 169 and 10 to the minus 42? Logarithmic time intervals, and there a huge amount of stuff out there, some that we donít know because it is in the future, and some that we donít know because it is in the past, beyond which we can explore the physical laws as we can extrapolate them. No physicist worth their salt is going to tell you what the universe was doing in the first 10 to the minus 100th of a second. We just donít know. The Jewish theologians were quite happy. They said, ďOh, yes, okay, thereís still room for God.Ē
McCray:How did you feel about that?
Huchra:How did I feel about that? Fine by me. Iím an experimentalist. Iím not wed to extrapolating things to infinity. I want data. And to get back to the other issue, what is God? I donít know if I told you this, but once upon a time I had thought about being a priest.
McCray:You hadnít mentioned that. How old were you?
Huchra:Fifteen. There was a priest in the parish, a wonderful man who would sit and talk theology on Monday afternoons because that was when religion classes were. I didnít go to the religious school. My Uncle was a Jesuit priest, a chemist from Wyoming University. All that kind of stuff seemed relatively -- The most learned man in my family at that time, the most learned person in my family at that time, and basically I thought it was an interesting and valuable profession. I spent a long time thinking about theology and what it all meant. Where it was connected. I was interested in science at the time too, so I wasnít separating those two in my thoughts. As I said, my Uncle the priest was a chemist. Not that he practiced being a chemist, but he got a degree in chemistry and that kind of stuff. So what can I say? I ended up not doing it mostly having to do withÖ But my friend the priest got called away to Honduras to be a missionary. Thatís sort of one of the things that happened and he met a woman there, fell in love, got married and was excommunicated. His replacement was decidedly not interested in talking about theology and extremely not interested in having anybody possibly question anything. That was a real bad idea. So when I started discussing with this guy the brief translation of the bible, he said, ďShut up kid. Donít bother me anymore. Youíre not supposed to read that kind of stuff.Ē And I lost my interest in being a priest.
McCray:Do you think you would have if that hadnít happened?
Huchra:No, but it would have been interesting.
McCray:Okay. I donít have any other questions. Is there anything that we havenít covered? It doesnít necessarily have to be today, but that you feel is worthÖ
Well, why donít you get this stuff written up and weíll try to take a crack at editing the first version.Session I | Session II | Session III