Oral History Transcript — Dr. Wallace Sargent[an error occurred while processing this directive]
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Interview with Dr. Wallace Sargent
Wallace Sargent; February 12, 2003
ABSTRACT: Biographical interview with Wal Sargent. Effort made to not focus on topics covered in other interviews (ex: Alan Lightman; interview with Sargent in CHP collection re: Keck Telescope). Focuses on childhood and schooling and various professorial appointments as well as discussion of atmosphere and research at Caltech. Interest in elemental abundances and B2FH paper. Personal research at Caltech including work on QSO and research with Peter Young. Extensive discussion on the use of telescopes including learning to observe and use of Image Photon Counting System in the 1970s and 1980s. Role of serendipity in science and WS's interest in astronomical peculiarities. Also includes discussion of Sargent's personal interests including music and sports (esp. sumo wrestling).
TranscriptSession I | Session II
McCray:These tend to follow a biographical format. Not to sound like a bad therapist, but let's talk about your childhood. Where were you born?
Sargent:I was born in Lincolnshire, England.
McCray:Okay. Did you have siblings?
Sargent:One brother who now lives in Ohio. He's a professor of metallurgy at the University of Dayton, and he's three years younger than me. We were the first people in our family to go to high school, and I was the first person in my high school to go to a university.
McCray:Okay. Would you say something about your parents' backgrounds?
Sargent:My father, when I was born, was a gardener in a large house in the village where we grew up, and then later he became a gardener in a bigger village where we moved when I was three years old. Then he went into the Royal Air Force during the war and was a gunner on an airfield outside London, and then, being elderly, for the rest of the war he trained dogs to attack German spies, had they shown up. After the war he worked on a steelworks in a big town near the village where we lived until he retired in the ‘60s, I guess it was.
McCray:And your mother's background?
Sargent:She was born in the village close to my father's village and was a domestic servant. She left school at 13 or 14 (he left school at 14), and she was a domestic servant until she married, and then was a housewife, although she did work during the time that my father was away in the air force. She worked as a cleaner in somebody else's house. This had some benefits for us as kids because the people whom she worked for were better off than we were and they actually had books in the house which, until recently, I thought they'd given to us. There was a thing called the Children's Encyclopedia, for example, which is a well-known British publication. My brother thinks that she actually used some of the money she earned doing cleaning to buy things from them, because she was very keen on our education, even though she was completely uneducated herself. She was one of these people who see what other people are doing and wants to do it herself. When she was a domestic servant, her employers, who ran a shop and were somewhat more prosperous than us, had a son who went to Oxford, and so my mother's ambition was that her sons would go to Oxford, despite the fact that, as I say, nobody in the family at that point had gone even to high school. We didn't make it to Oxford, but at least we got a university education.
McCray:Your father worked in a steelworks and your brother became a metallurgical engineer. Was there a connection there, do you think?
Sargent:Probably. We both went to the same high school, which was designed to produce people who could work on the steelworks. It was called a technical high school, and we learned technical things like metalwork, woodwork, and technical drawing, as well as academic things. I turned out to be hopeless at all of the practical things, which was the reason that I'd gone to the school in the first place, but I was very good at the academic things. I was the best pupil, in a class of around 35 people, in every subject.
McCray:But not a tinkerer type?
Sargent:No. I did tinker with radios when I was a kid, though.
McCray:Okay. Did you build your own sets?
Sargent:Yes, I built radios starting when I was about 12. One of the things that that led me into that was baseball. When I was 14 or so, I heard a commentary on a baseball game from the United States, and I wanted to find out how the game was played and what was involved. So for some years I tried to figure it out by just listening, and then I found in the town library there was a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica that had a picture of a baseball field, which helped a lot. I'd already figured out things like there had to be foul lines, but I wasn't sure that the foul lines were perpendicular to one another, since the thing is called a diamond. I'd figured out that it was rhombus like. Anyway, I've always been interested in sports, although I'm terrible at playing games. Baseball was an intellectual challenge, so in the early 1950s, I knew the names of all the great baseball players.
McCray:That was a golden time for baseball, too.
Sargent:It sure was. I was listening when Bobby Thompson hit the homerun for the Giants against the then-Brooklyn Dodgers.
McCray:Which Brooklyn has never gotten over, I don't think.
Sargent:Yes, and of course I knew about the Yankees. They had a great team in those days.
McCray:They certainly did.
Sargent:My favorites then were the Giants for some reason. I switched to the Dodgers when I came to Los Angeles. I actually didn't see a game until I was 25 years old, although my interest had started when I was 14.
McCray:Were you a cricket fan at all?
Sargent:Yes, absolutely. I was actually quite good at playing cricket, although my eye problem was a hindrance. And I played soccer, but not well. I'm a fanatical Manchester United supporter.
McCray:I noticed from your web page.
Sargent:Yes, so I have this interest in most sports, I would say, which I can now follow on the web quite well, including Sumo wrestling.
McCray:I noticed that as well. I'll have a couple of questions later on about that. What did you like to read growing up?
Sargent:I read comics, which were in those days actually quite good. There were picture comics, as we called them, and then reading comics, which came out once a week and had stories in them. Occasionally I would get a hold of literature. My parents had Sunday school prizes from the Victorian Era, the ancestors. When you went to Sunday school you were tested on your knowledge of biblical matters and then if you did well you were given then the book, and so there was a collection of these in the family. They were mostly sad stories about children dying, which was a Victorian obsession because, of course, children often died young. So there were pictures of Heaven and what it would be like when you got there and all this kind of thing. The first serious book that I read, apart from Eric, or Little by Little, which is one of the most famous of these Victorian stories, was A Tale of Two Cities, which I started to read when I was 9 years old; I found a copy somewhere. I struggled with the first chapters and then gave up, and then six months later I tried it again and I read it completely through. I read other Dickens' works, of course, but A Tale of Two Cities is particularly impressive. Nowadays I cannot stand to read Dickens because of the grotesqueness of the characters.
McCray:What do you mean?
Sargent:Well all of the characters are overdrawn, and by and large they are evil. There are a few counter examples, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, of course, but the background characters are often really evil people.
Sargent:Very menacing, particularly for children. There was a famous Victorian illustrator who illustrated Dickens' novels who had particularly grotesque images of the characters. As I say, I can't read the stuff now, although I do regard some of Dickens' novels as being the greatest English literature. It's a pity I can't read the damn things now.
McCray:Did you read any science fiction growing up?
Sargent:Practically none. I read War of the Worlds, which I thought was very good. I knew about Orson Wells' radio broadcast; I'd read about that somewhere. I liked H. G. Wells as a writer, although I have reservations about him now, but when I was a teenager I read what I was interested in. I was more interested in reading H. G. Wells than I was in his science fiction, but I did read The Island of Dr. Moreau. There was another one called The Sleeper Awakes, which is a story you may know about a man who goes to sleep for a thousand years or whatever and wakes up to find that he owns the whole world, etc. The War in the Air, which was a graphic account of aerial warfare, was written before the First World War.
McCray:That's right. I'd forgotten about that one.
Sargent:Yes. I can't remember others, but I did read all of Wells' work, basically. I became more interested in his social commentaries. He wrote “The Shape of Things to Come,” which was a sort of science fiction account of what the world would be like in the future, and it was made into a movie. Did you ever read that? “The Shape of Things to Come?”
McCray:It's back there somewhere, yes.
Sargent:It ends with a perfect young man and a perfect young woman, physically and mentally perfect, being put on a rocket to go out into the stars to spread the human race to other planets. Then I read, as I said, the more social commentaries; The History of Mr. Polly Kipps, and there was one about a patent medicine, but I can't remember the title of it. Basically I read all of Wells' stuff, and as a result I became, as I still am, a socialist in political preference.
McCray:Was that your family's politics as well, do you think?
Sargent:My father was a labor supporter, but my mother supported the conservative party. There was a tendency in rural Britain for the more striving people to be conservative. My grandfather on my father's side had been active in forming the first trade unions for agricultural workers in North Lincolnshire, and so there was a socialist side on my father's side, but it was conservative on the other side. In fact, I voted twice before I came to America, both times for Mr. Wilson in the labor party, and I remember in 1959 we walked to the polling station in our village and my father and my brother and I walked on one side of the street and my mother on the other, because she was a Tory and we're sure as hell not mixing with Tories.
McCray:Was your family religious?
Sargent:I think in a non-observant way, yes. We were sent to Sunday school, and the primary school that I went to was the Church of England Primary School in the village and had some connection with the church across the street. But it was a state school, and as you are aware England has state religion and it's compulsory to have religious services in schools, although I gather it's now no longer observed in many schools. But we went to Sunday school and also in the school there was religious instruction as well, so from the age of five till eleven I probably spent an hour or two a day, or at least one hour, on biblical studies.
McCray:That's not an inconsiderable amount.
Sargent:No, it's not. I actually renounced religion when I was 14 years old, and I refused to go anymore to Sunday school and I refused to attend the service in the high school itself. I still like reading the Bible, and I actually have a more extensive knowledge of biblical quotations than most people, I would say. And I sing hymns when I'm walking up and down the corridor. But this is more out of an aesthetic appreciation of the language than out of any belief in what it said.
McCray:Okay. So you decided to go to the University of Manchester, or were there other choices available to you?
Sargent:Well, as I said, the school that I went to, the Counsel of Technical High School was at that time only set up to take pupils up to the age of 16, but you went to university when you were 18, and so a problem arose. I could have moved to another school. There was another school in town that prepared people for university, but for some reason they decided that I would stay on and I would be the only pupil for the 17 and 18. So I received instruction one-on-one from teachers. It wasn't as complicated as it might sound to an American because the tradition then in England, and probably still now, was that after 16, and in some cases after 15, you start to specialize in what you're going to study in university.
McCray:And you had already sort of been orienting yourself towards —
Sargent:No, my teachers wanted me to go on in English Literature, but I wanted to go on in physics or mathematics or something like that, because I'd already heard Fred Hoyle on the radio in 1950 when I was 15, and that turned me on to astronomy and to science in general. So for the last two years I was at school I studied only physics, mathematics, and chemistry, but I insisted on studying French and English as well, not knowing that the high fliers who were going on to university from other schools would have not done that, because they would have been concentrating only on science. But I never regret actually having spent seven years studying French and English, because I have actually quite broad intellectual interests and spend far too much more time on things completely outside of astronomy; like music, for example. Before the last two years, we had a very broad education from 11 until 16. There's still an examination when you're 16 which decides whether you're fit to go on for the last two years and then go on to a university, and on that I did very well. I passed in nine subjects with good grades; a very broad spectrum of courses.
McCray:Did you have a sense at that age, say 16 or 17 years old, of what you wanted your career to be?
Sargent:Yes, I started out wanting to be a draftsman on the steelworks, because that was way above what my father had done. I can't remember what the hell he did; he was a fitter's mate or something like that. He held the screwdriver for the guy who actually was going to use it and that kind of thing. So I thought being a draftsman — that was considered in our village to be a quite posh occupation because you were in an office; you could actually wear a tie. But then as the time went on I became more ambitious to be a scientist, and my vision of being a scientist was to be the ascetic person living out in a remote station thinking about the world.
McCray:Almost a monastic existence.
Sargent:Yes, a monastic existence. The height of my ambition before I went to university was to be a technician at Harwell, which was a nuclear research laboratory in Britain where other great things were being done. Nobody knew quite what they were, and I thought, “This is the thing for me.” I've always had a desire to get away from the world, and I've not been terribly successful, but it's one of the nice things about astronomy.
McCray:Well, being an observational astronomer, you at least get some evenings to yourself, don't you?
Sargent:Yes, you do. That's what I like. Anyway, as I say, up until the time I went to university I was a technician at a really first-class research organization.
McCray:Did world events, either in terms of the Second World War or the advent of the atomic age or the Cold War, affect you at all?
Sargent:I suppose in the sense that one got to know about science from the newspapers in an era when it was hard for working-class people to get to know about science, yes, I guess there was an effect. I formed in the early 1950s, when I was still in high school and fascinated by baseball, a very unfavorable impression of the United States because of McCarthyism. That sort of world event sort of shook me more because it was an attack on intellectual freedom, basically, which wasn't seen during the war in Nazi Germany and in Russia. Even when I was in my teens I regarded this as a terrible thing. As far as the Second World War goes, I think it had a very big impact, because my father was away for five years. He would occasionally come home every few months. He was stationed in Scotland most of the time, which was a long way from where we lived. We lived near air force bases that would be setting out in the evening to go and bomb Germany, and in the middle of the night you would get wakened up by the bombers returning. Usually there were fewer than had set off in the evening, so one was very aware of the war. I remember we used to visit my grandmother who lived a few miles away. We went on a train, and the platform would be stacked with coffins with Union Jacks on them, because of the airmen who'd died. Even though they got back home, they still were dead, and of course there were many more dead who didn't get back. This had a big effect.
McCray:So you started at Manchester shortly after the war ended.
Sargent:In 1953, I think. It was quite a long time after the war ended, but the impact of the war was still there because we still had rationing until about that time.
McCray:Right. Did you focus at Manchester specifically on physics, or astronomy and physics, or physics and math? How did you do your coursework?
Sargent:Well, the coursework was very rigid and if you were going to do physics, which is what I wanted to do. I should apply to Sheffield University, which was the nearest one to my hometown. Manchester University into University College London, and I certainly got into University College London, but after I got accepted to go to Manchester. So I chose Manchester, largely because of the reputation in physics, which it had then. Blackett was the professor. He got a Nobel Prize. Lawrence Bragg had been the previous professor, and Rutherford the one before that, so there'd been three consecutive professors of physics at Manchester with Nobel Prizes, so I knew that it must be a pretty good place. And then there was the Jodrell Bank place, which was very much publicized in those days.
McCray:Did you ever go tour it as a teenager?
Sargent:No, it was too far away, but after I became a student I went there. Anyway, as I was saying, the coursework was very rigid. It was pretty well prescribed what you did for the first two years, and then the third year you could specialize in either theory or experimental physics. It was possible to take one course in astrophysics, which I took, but I specialized in practical stuff because I had a low opinion of my theoretical abilities.
McCray:Why is that?
Sargent:I don't know. Because I had very poor mathematics teaching in school. When I started to compare myself with the other students at Manchester, I realized I was among the best of the students, but I'd not been trained to pass exams. The ones who'd gone to the really posh schools, like Manchester Graduate School, for example, were not trained to be physicists or mathematicians; they were trained to pass examinations in physics, which is a big difference. I followed my own interests, along with one or two of my contemporaries in the physics at Manchester. I would read things that had nothing to do with the coursework, go and study in the library, and discuss things with a few of the other people. So the upshot was that I did well on exams, but I wasn't one of the top students because I just hadn't prepared myself for that, but I had prepared myself to be a research scientist.
McCray:Okay, at what point did you begin to believe that you would not become a draftsman at a steelwork, but go on to some type of career in science? And what was your parents' reaction to this?
Sargent:It was in my late high school, when I was 17 or 18, when I realized I wanted to go to university. While my mother was pleased, my father wasn't. At the time, we were extremely poor because my father suffered from ill health for most of his life and he would often be off work. We would get paid some sort of compensation during the times he was at home, but I remember in my last two years in high school, when I was going beyond what the school was prepared for, there was a lot of pressure to go out and earn a living. We lived on potatoes and things like that, which we grew on a small plot, but I was by then determined to go to university and do something that I was interested in. At the time I felt very bad because it was clearly difficult, particularly for my mother, but she was torn because, as I told you earlier, she wanted her kids to have a very good education. She wanted them to go to university, even though she didn't know what a university was. But at the same time, we needed to have bread on the table, and so there was a tension there which took many years to get over. I felt guilty about my parents for many, many years.
McCray:Did they visit you at school?
Sargent:The only time they came to Manchester was to see me get my degree. It was 75 miles away and would require, for them, a lengthy train journey, etc. So they never saw Manchester until I graduated, and then I stayed on for another three years to do the Ph.D.
McCray:You graduated with the equivalent of a Bachelor's Degree in 1956 and then, as you said, stayed on. What led you to take a detour into astronomy and astrophysics?
Sargent:Probably for the first few years I'd had that in mind, but I did well enough on the final exams to be one of the 11 out of 75 students in the class to be offered the equivalent of an NSF fellowship, a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research it was called then. It's now called PPARC. That enabled the people who got it to do research in anything in physics that they wanted to. You weren't limited to working in a particular area. If you got that money, you could then choose what to do if you'd already decided you were staying on at Manchester or moving somewhere else. I briefly contemplated moving to Cambridge but it didn't work out, and I'm glad I didn't move, actually. In the summer of 1956 I had to decide what I was going to do when I went back there to do my Ph.D., and I couldn't decide among theoretical astrophysics and theoretical nuclear physics, radio astronomy, or practical astrophysics.
McCray:Nuclear physics and radio astronomy were both pretty new and pretty hot fields, at that time.
Sargent:Yes, and I already had some idea at that point that what I wanted to do was to combine nuclear physics with astrophysics and study how the elements came about.
McCray:Excuse me I'm going to flip this tape over. You were speaking about this interest in understanding how the elements were formed?
Sargent:I think it was Fred Hoyle's lectures and books that I read. He wrote the book called The Nature of the Universe, which was based on his radio lectures of 1950, and then he wrote a later book whose title I can't remember. But he was working then here at Caltech, actually, with Willy Fowler and others…
McCray:Yes, and the Burbidges.
Sargent:And the Burbidges. I knew about this and I thought this was a really interesting area, because when I heard Fred's lectures I was really astonished that you could determine the temperature in the middle of the sun and things like that; things that would appear to be beyond our knowledge. Here people were actually finding things out that seemed impossible. So I knew about nuclear astrophysics. Anyway, what I did was put the four choices into a hat and drew out. The first one that came out was radio astronomy, and I felt disappointed. This is literally true. I recommend it to students who can't make up their minds.
McCray:Yes, if you pull it out and you're disappointed, that tells you something.
Sargent:Yes, it does. And so the second choice was theoretical astrophysics. Now, as I told you, I'd not gone through the theoretical course in the last year, so it was a fairly loony choice, in retrospect. But actually I turned out to be quite good at not so much the abstract theory but in identifying problems that could be attacked theoretically and then doing some sort of crude physicist way of doing things.
McCray:How do you think you developed this ability to identify problems? That's a very important skill for a scientist to have.
Sargent:I don't know. I'm told that I'm unusual in that respect. My students and other people said that. I don't know. One of my former Ph.D. students, John Kormendy, who is now a professor at the University of Texas, was sufficiently impressed with my ability to identify problems that could be done and which were significant, that he gave a course on this while he was at the University of Hawaii. It was called “Judgment in Science,” but he failed to identify the characteristics which you have to have in order to understand problems. What he did in this course was identify the characteristics that will bring you to people's attention, but not how to do it. The world is a very complicated place and you've got to isolate particular things in it, which apparently to some people is quite difficult. I don't find it difficult at all, and I don't know why. I think it was partly due to the lack of formal education that I had, and the necessity to follow my own interests and not be pushed into a mold. As I say, I wasn't trained to do exams and all of that and all that kind of thing. So when I look at the world now I don't look at it from the point of view of, “This is a test,” which I kind of have to — I just look at what's interesting.
McCray:As you pulled these choices out of a hat and pulled, I guess, the second one out that was theoretical astrophysics and felt better about that choice. Did you embark on a program of teaching yourself as much theoretical astrophysics as you could? And if you did, how did you go about doing it?
Sargent:The answer to the question is “no.” I don't work that way. I learn on the job. I do something and figure out what is needed to do that thing, rather than set out to understand things and then use the knowledge. I acquire the knowledge as I go along. I'm not very good at formal stuff. Unless I feel scared shitless that I have to understand this tomorrow, I'm not terribly good.
McCray:In Tucson yesterday I was interviewing Al Cameron, and he described a process very different from yours, which is to sort of isolate himself and absorb all the knowledge about a particular subject and then to go from there.
Sargent:No, I'm very different, but I do actually acquire a lot of knowledge in the end, because when I'm done or as I go along I learn things that are not directly to do with what I'm trying to do. But I'm inspired by what I — And so the great thing in Manchester at the time was theoretical fluid mechanics. There was a mathematics professor called Lighthill, who was a very famous applied mathematician who ran the applied mathematics at Manchester. I went to one of two lecture courses on fluid mechanics, which were not tied directly to astrophysics. Then during that time, during the first year, the professor of astronomy suggested that one of the other students and I do a problem in special relativity, basically, which I knew a little bit about. It was calculating a quantity called radiative viscosity, matter which has radiation in it and has viscosity by virtual effect that the photons can move from one stream to another and carry the momentum from one stream to another. There was a question in the early 1950s, or indeed until we did the problem, about what the coefficient of viscosity was under these circumstances. It had to do with a coefficient at the front of the expression you could get through dimensional analysis. The coefficient turns out to be 415, so you couldn't. Now, in order to do that work I had to teach myself tensor analysis, which I'd not done. But after a couple of weeks I could handle tensors. That's an example of picking something up.
McCray:Had you hooked up with your advisor by this point?
Sargent:No. The first year, the other guy and I did this fairly formal problem. Then the second year I then was going to work with Franz Khan, who was my advisor. He was a very good astrophysicist, doing things which had to do with fluid mechanics, however. So here I am at the beginning of year two. Franz is my advisor and he went off to Princeton for the year and also came to Caltech, so we corresponded by mail. Initially I tried to do some problem having to do with atmospheres of novae, which didn't work out, actually. It was to do with whether you would need to put in relativity corrections to various things in the flows and whatnot. But I then decided to try and work on the effect of supernova explosions on their surrounding interstellar gas, something that hadn't been done with that particular application. So I told Franz, but I did the work. I thought of the problem and did the work and I was well on the way when he came back from Princeton. He helped me with one of two things, but I basically did the whole thing myself.
McCray:Did he bring back any stories or suggestions based on the people that he had encountered in the States?
Sargent:About this particular problem? No. The thing I tried to understand was that it was said in the literature that the Cygnus Loop — There's a picture of the Cygnus Loop on the stairwell here. It's a filamentary nebula, which is quite big. There was a suggestion by a Russian astronomer that it was shockwaves in the interstellar gas, so I decided to try and figure that out; to figure out how thick the loops would be. So I worked it all out. I used the primitive computers that were available then to do a numerical simulation of the thing. Since then, I never touch computers except using programs written by other people, curiously. I was very lucky because Manchester was one of the world centers for computing at that time. Turing was there. I never met him. He committed suicide when I was in my second year as an undergraduate, but there were legends about Turing.
McCray:Yes, that's right. I'd forgotten that he was at Manchester.
Sargent:Yes, and he produced a primitive language like Fortran and it was called AUTOCODE. The students who'd gone before me in theory at Manchester had spent the first couple years or so learning how to program in machine language, and then AUTOCODE came along just at the beginning of my second year. Within a week I could program as well as they could because of the simplicity. You could concentrate all of your attention on the physics and not have to worry about the actual coding, which was fairly simple.
McCray:Did you get on well with your advisor?
Sargent:Yes, very well. I got on very badly with the professor of the department, Professor Kopau. He was a real shit, actually.
Sargent:He was a dishonest man. I had a succession of bad relations with my bosses, and this was one of the first. I expect too much of them. Kopau was one of these people who could do infinitely complicated calculations about what's up in the sky but have no clue about the physics. He would include factors which were totally unimportant. We even linked immense complexities in mathematics, but it was totally useless, actually. But the other guy, Khan, although he'd been trained as a mathematician at Oxford, saw the physics very, very clearly. He concentrated on that.
McCray:And he didn't clutter it up with math.
Sargent:He didn't clutter it up with extraneous details. The way we were taught at Manchester was very, very practical. The idea was that if you were going to do a problem and you thought about the essential factors in the problem, and then you tried to compose a simple theoretical structure to include those factors, you did start by writing down equations and then gradually crossing off the terms that are not important, which is the other way to proceed; the safe way to proceed. But it was not the way I was trained. So anyway, Khan came back from Princeton. He learned to drive a car at Princeton and then he drove across the United States to Caltech, stayed here for three months and then went back to Princeton and then Manchester. There he met Greenstein, who was head of the department here and the other famous astronomers. Then towards the end of finishing my Ph.D. it came time to look for a job. The head of the department in those days tried to find jobs for the graduating Ph.Ds. He wrote to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, I remember, and the reply was, “We only take people from Oxford and Cambridge.” In the meantime, Franz Khan had said, “Well, you might as well go to Caltech,” because Greenstein was running at that time a large project called “The Abundance Project,” which was to determine the abundances of the elements and stars. It involved collaborations with Fowler over in nuclear physics. Al Cameron came here.
McCray:That's right, he was here in 1959-1960; I guess the same as you.
Sargent:Yes, that's when I came. So the upshot was that, although I had fears about political freedom in the United States, I did like baseball and I thought I would like the countryside — the mountains and all that kind of thing — so I was quite happy to come. But it was very curious. Here I was being turned down by my own country, and here I was accidentally coming to the best place in the world for doing astrophysics.
McCray:I have several questions about Caltech, but I wanted to ask you something about a few years before that. In 1957, the B2FH paper came out and Sputnik was launched. Did either of these have an impact upon you?
Sargent:The B2FH paper I did read while I was a student since I was still toying with the idea to do nuclear physics and astrophysics. I should go back a bit and say that when I was a graduate student I took courses, even though these were not required. To get a Ph.D. in Britain then, and maybe even now, you didn't have to take graduate courses. They existed if you wanted, so I took a course in nuclear physics. There was a very strong nuclear physics department at Manchester at the time. As I say, I took a course in fluid mechanics and I took a course in quantum electrodynamics from a person who did not really understand the subject. I did all this theoretical stuff and I realized that nuclear physics was not for me. Nuclei are too complicated, basically. I thought to make an impact in that subject you would need to understand levels of detail that were beyond me.
McCray:Too complicated in terms of all the different particles and sub-particles and all of that?
Sargent:No, because atomic physics is okay because you've got a nucleus, so its properties you don't worry about at all except the charge and the mass and then these electrons going around. Well, it can get complicated, but to my way of thinking it is not. But then, nuclei are a many-bodied problem, which is almost like solid-state physics, and then I couldn't see how the hell you would deal with 92 neutrons and protons.
McCray:Okay. Did you ever think about going into high-energy physics and getting involved with some of the accelerator projects and things like that?
Sargent:No. I did think about cosmic rays, because Manchester was very strong in cosmic ray research since Blackett had been there. I actually had to build a cloud chamber when I was a physics undergraduate. They made us do really practical charts. And then I decided that was not for me either.
McCray:Just the hands-on building?
Sargent:Well the fact that if you farted it would operate differently. I'm told that biology is like that. It's very difficult to reproduce experiments in biology, and I shy away from complications. So I did read B2FH. I knew about B2FH. I also read Zwicky's book, Morphological Astronomy, when it came out, which had a great influence. Morphological Astronomy describes a method of procedure which I've never understood but which I'm sure I follow. For one thing, it strongly recommends thinking of things in a very broad context and always trying to widen the context of your thoughts, but instead of starting out with a broad perspective, it's quite okay to start on some narrow question and then broaden it, which is my preferred method of procedure. And then there were practical examples of Zwicky's procedures involving work on making counts of clusters of galaxies, counting them on the sky and all that kind of thing. So Zwicky influenced me in the direction of aiming for grand questions, but not too grand at the beginning.
McCray:More of an inductive approach, I guess.
Sargent:Yes. There are lots of things in Zwicky's books that are very hard to understand and indeed are sometimes downright ridiculous, but I really admire Zwicky as a person who could apply physics to very unusual areas. His work on the missing mass in clusters, which he did in 1933, for example, I would rate as one of the great contributions to astrophysics.
McCray:And I think only recently being appreciated.
Sargent:Yes, but I appreciated it long before other people, because I knew Fritz and I learned to strip off the nonsense and bravado which he often exhibited.
McCray:Yes, I find that when people talk about him there is usually a swarm of anecdotes that surrounds him, and I guess I've always wondered if you took away all the stories that you read about the popular histories of astronomy, then what was the person like?
Sargent:Well, he was a man with very unusual abilities. He was capable of extreme speculation; not so much theoretical, but conceptual speculation. But at the same time, he would come in here every day and he would work for several hours counting galaxies on pictures or measuring pictures. The combination of hard work and boring work and extreme speculation was very unusual. I don't have either in the extreme that Zwicky had. I'm not terribly hard working and I'm less speculative, I would say.
Sargent:Sputnik had not much effect. The main interest in Manchester was that Jodrell Bank detected Sputnik, and before it had been detected by any means. The Russians announced that they'd put this thing up and then there was some doubt in the Western world that they'd actually done it. I think Jodrell detected the thing going over. There was a certain amount of pleasure. The thing I remember most is that there was a vicarious — no, malicious — pleasure in the Russian success and the American failure. If you look back at the time you'll find that what I say is true. The United States was very much disliked for reasons which are quite similar to present day. When the first American attempt to launch a satellite failed, there was universal delight outside the United States.
McCray:Failure in a very spectacular fashion on live TV.
Sargent:Right. But the British intellectuals, particularly scientists, were very pro-Russian and very anti-American at that time, I would say, although when they had dealings with individual American colleagues it was fine.
McCray:Yes, I think that's a very common viewpoint; liking Americans but disliking America. Tell me about coming to Caltech. I have some sense of how it was arranged, but what was your reaction to being at Manchester and then being transferred to normally sunny Pasadena?
Sargent:Well in those days Manchester was dark and gloomy, and there was a lot of pollution. It was a miserable place.
McCray:A very industrial place.
Sargent:A very industrial place, yes. In fact, there are hills around Manchester which you can now see every day because the pollution has been reduced a lot. I was back there at an IEU meeting in 2000. But in those days, I think I only saw the hills around Manchester once, and that was in the summer of 1959, when I was writing my thesis. There was a six-week period of glorious sunshine, and people didn't bum coal anymore because they didn't need to keep warm all the time. So the factories went on holiday during this time, as they did every year. The upshot was that for the first time I could see the hills, which I used to go hiking on, but I'd never seen them from the city. Here I was stuck writing this damn thesis and I allowed myself one hour a day outside. The grant that I had came to an end on a particular day at the end of the summer — it was 1959 — and there was no prospect of getting any more money. In any case, I was going to come to Caltech. So I wrote my thesis in six weeks.
McCray:Was writing easy or difficult for you?
Sargent:It was easy in those days. Now I go through — Well, when I write, it's easy, but most of the time I can't write.
Sargent:I don't know. I've spent months doing nothing, I would say. I've done that throughout my career, and played with things, and listened to BBC and stuff. Then one day I can write things — a paper — without any changes being necessary.
McCray:So it's a much more discontinuous process as opposed to just steadily chipping away at it?
Sargent:Right. I think I'm given to depression, although not terribly serious. During these periods when I can't do anything, it's all germinating, and then when I'm let loose I just write the bloody thing down and forget about it. It's not a very nice way to proceed, actually. Anyway, from gloomy Manchester — Manchester had the Halle Orchestra, which was then one of the great symphony orchestras in the world. John Barbarelli, who was one of the great conductors, was the conductor. I went to almost every concert they played during the time I was there. They had the Manchester Guardian, which was one of the great liberal newspapers of the world, and then they had Manchester United and Manchester City playing football. I hardly missed a home game of either during the time I was there. And I had lots of friends there, so I really liked it. Then I came here and, well, it was very different, of course. I remember arriving at San Francisco Airport. I flew during the first few months that there were jet flights on a 707, from London to the West Coast, over the pole, as they then called it; it went over Greenland. I'd never been in an airplane before…
McCray:That was your first time?
Sargent:Yes. And of course, it was all amazing; the speed of the thing. I met Americans on the flight, but when we got to San Francisco, of course, I'd by this time read about California and when I knew that I was going to come to California, I read guide books to Los Angeles and to California, the best of which had been written during the Depression when the government employed writers to write such things.
McCray:Right, saying what a great place this is.
Sargent:Yes, and it kept people employed. So I had some fair idea. I found out a few weeks before I set off that the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles and the Giants had moved to San Francisco. But then I remember getting off the plane at San Francisco and seeing the orderliness of the airport and the sunshine, which San Francisco is actually not famous for, and the easy way in which people communicated with one another in California as compared with England. The lack of class tension struck me immediately. There would be guys doing fairly lowly tasks like cleaning the airport or whatever, and their relation with other people seemed far easier than it had been in Britain. That was my first impression. I'd read the Steinbeck novel, of course, as part of the preparation.
McCray:Which gives you a different perspective?
Sargent:It gives a very different perspective. So I knew about the struggles in the agricultural work, which of course had some resonance with my ancestors' experiences in Britain. So I believed everything I read about The Grapes of Wrath and all that kind of thing. But again, I admired the energy of Steinbeck. There's a slight amount of sentimentality in Steinbeck's writing, but a lot of it has the attitude, “Well, if we go out and we try, we can make things better.” But that attitude is not very apparent in The Grapes of Wrath. I really enjoyed the Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and then The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the stories about Doc Rickets.
McCray:I'd forgotten about that one.
Sargent:So anyway, the Steinbeck stories gave me a picture of California. There we were getting off at San Francisco Airport and everybody rushed off to eat a hamburger, which was sort of a caricature of American life from the first day.
McCray:How did you get from San Francisco, then, down —
Sargent:Well then the plane continued on to LA. LA Airport was then very small. It was the place where Federal Express now operates. It was the building which was used as Casablanca in the movie of Casablanca. I don't know whether you were ever aware of that.
McCray:I knew that was filmed on a set, but I didn't realize that was where the set was.
Sargent:It wasn't a set, it was the actual Los Angeles Airport.
McCray:Right. Yes, I knew it wasn't filmed in Casablanca, though. That’s interesting.
Sargent:Yes, it was tiny.
McCray:When you came to Caltech, did you already know you'd be working with the abundance project?
Sargent:Yes, I was hired to work on the abundance project.
McCray:Who else was working on it at the time?
Sargent:Al Cameron, of course, and then Roger Jusa Cayrel from France, and Jun Jugaku from Tokyo, who I met yesterday.
McCray:That's right, you had the memorial for Jesse Greenstein.
Sargent:Yes, and next week there's a conference at Carnegie Institution about the abundances of the elements, curiously enough. It's a one-week conference.
McCray:Did you get along well with Greenstein? What was he like to work for?
Sargent:He was fine. He was a very mercurial person. His mood would switch on a fairly small time scale between being petty and being grand. But if you averaged over a few days it was fine. His immediate reaction to something might be pretty flipped out, but, yes, he was fine. We had some disputes about priorities and whether his name should go on papers and things like that. Jugaku and I did some work on helium 3 in a star, the discovery of helium 3, for the first time in objects outside of the Earth. Greenstein asked us what we were doing and we said we were looking for helium 3 and he said, “You're wasting your time.” So when we found it and wrote a paper, he wanted his name to be on it, and we said, “Piss off,” which was a little brash for a post-doc that was being employed by the great man, but he took it okay.
McCray:I'll have some other questions about him later, but I wanted to get some sense of when you arrived here you hadn't done any observing, had you?
McCray:Was this something that you developed an interest in right away?
Sargent:Yes. Within the first few weeks, some of the others on the abundance project already knew how to observe, and I went with, I think, Roger and Jusa Cayrel, who were from Paris and who were observing up at the 100-inch. So I went up just to see what it was like, and I was immediately captivated.
McCray:What did you like about it?
Sargent:That it was peaceful. Returning to H.G. Wells, in the beginning of War of the Worlds, there's an account of two astronomers whose names were Caruthers and somebody, and they're looking at Mars through a telescope when they see flashes. “My God, Caruthers, I've just seen flashes of Mars,” etc. But the description of the observatory I found really nice; the loneliness, the fact that here you were out on the edge on civilization looking out at another civilization. That kind of thing appealed to me very much.
McCray:Okay, so the romance.
Sargent:Yes, the romantic side. What you did when you were observing at the Coudé spectrograph was guide the star to make sure that it went down the slit of the spectrograph, and you made the spectrum wider by having the star trail along the slit until it got to the end and then bring it back and trail it. This was done by having the telescope move either slightly too quickly or slightly too slowly in right ascension, so that it doesn't quite keep up. Well, you can do it in either way. So you sit there and you look at the image of the star for hours, and every so often you press the button to bring the star back to where it started and then trails along again. I really liked that, and I still do, actually. When Keck was first used, the high-resolution spectrograph it of course had an automatic guider. I wasn't very happy with its performance. It later turned out that I was correct, but I said, “I could do better with a hand paddle.” You know the old kind? So they gave me a hand paddle, but it wasn't actually connected to the telescope. But it kept me happy. It may seem ludicrous, but sitting there with nobody else but maybe the night assistant off in some other part of the dome listening to music, it was perfect.
McCray:It's a very romantic image. I have a series of questions about how that has changed, but I can imagine, at that point in time, the attraction for certain types of people. How did you learn to use the telescope?
Sargent:Just by copying other people.
McCray:It wasn't difficult to do?
Sargent:It was difficult to do well. You had to learn how to develop photographic plates, which I'd done vaguely as an undergraduate, and you had to learn how to stay awake. Throughout my career as a student, I never stayed up late.
McCray:So you weren't a “pulling all-nighters” sort of person?
Sargent:No, I would go to bed at 11:00 or before that every night and then get up and start again the next day, so it was difficult to stay awake all night. But there was a good classical music station in Los Angeles at the time, KFAC. KUSC from the University of Southern California didn't then exist. The rule was that the guy who was guiding, and this was true for several years at both Mt. Wilson and Palomar, could choose the music. So if you were there with somebody else and he was developing the plates, if you were guiding you would get to choose the music. Things like Wagner, which I particularly like, and the end of Mahler's Second Symphony or the end of Sibelius' Second Symphony, heard in the dome were fantastic.
Sargent:Yes. Well, actually, Mahler is particularly good because the acoustics are actually quite poor, and you hear the same thing several times as it goes around the dome, but in the case of Bruckner, in particular, that doesn't matter at all. It just makes it better.
McCray:Were there particular people that you would go to the telescope with who served as mentors for you?
Sargent:Yes. Jugaku had had some experience at the University of Michigan, where he got his Ph.D., I think. And then I shared an office across the hall with Ray Weymann, who became a prominent astronomer over at Santa Barbara Street, George Wallerstein, who is at the University of Washington and was this year's Russell lecturer…
McCray:That's right, yes.
Sargent:…and Jugaku, who was a prominent Japanese astronomer. So the four of us shared an office as post-docs. We talked together a lot and taught one another things. Ray had done a bit of observing, but he'd gone to Princeton for his Ph.D., so he'd not done very much. And then I worked a lot with Leonard Searle after the first year. He came in 1960.
McCray:Were you using the Coudé spectrograph exclusively?
Sargent:Almost exclusively. But in the last few months, I got interested in Seyfert galaxies, which were then a very obscure topic. They're well known now. I decided, just before quasars were identified as such, that Seyfert galaxies must be some really interesting phenomenon in this Nucleic Galaxy, because I'd gotten spectra, nebula spectrograph, with the 100-inch. I think I may have even gotten spectra with the Coudé, because the brightest two Seyfert galaxies, NGC1068 and NGC1041, were quite bright. But I set out with the idea of, “What the hell are these things?” from a physicist's point of view. This was in 1962. And in 1968, when I was back at Caltech, I got more data with Bev Oke, who was on the faculty here. We wrote what I think is a classic paper on the Seyfert galaxy, NGC4151, but I'd already gotten onto this several years before. I have a habit of getting interested in something and then failing to figure anything out because I don't think it's interesting, and then years later coming back to the topic with better data or something like that. So that was typical. So, yes, I got into these other topics. I took naturally to spectroscopy. Greenstein was a very good spectroscopist.
McCray:Did he ever tutor you?
Sargent:In the following sense. After I'd been here for a few weeks, and I'd been up to Mt. Wilson and seen observing, I'd think that, “Well I'd better do this.” So I went along to Greenstein and asked him for something to do. He had one of these small plates and he was looking through an eyepiece. He had a very good memory. I also have a very good memory. He said, “This is now a slight caricature.” He was looking at the plate and he was smoking a cigar — this was mentioned in yesterday's talks — and he said, “I see lines of titanium, two, and can this be scandium 3?” No, it's not scandium 3; what it was was a fleck of a cigar ash. But the fact that you could make interpretations just by looking at the data was very attractive. So I got that from Greenstein, without any question. Some people have to measure things to know, “Here is europium 2,” or, “Here's iron 1,” that sort of thing. Like Greenstein, I could very quickly do this kind of thing without making any measurements at all, just by the iron comparison spectrum, which is next to the spectrum of the star. That saves you a hell of a lot of work; if you can see something peculiar or interesting and then measure what it is later. It’s part of my idleness and it is also because I've got a good memory. I never learned about the technical details of the spectroscopy except when I had to.
McCray:In terms of the actual instrument?
Sargent:No, I learned about the instrument. In terms of the energy levels involved. I would remember that the strongest line of calcium 1 is at 4227, but I wouldn't know what transition it was of calcium. I would know it was the strongest, and I would know the best lines to look for the R-process was europium — europium 2 is 4129 and 4205 — and I would know where these lines were, but I still couldn't tell you whether it's 2p to 3s or whatever the hell it was.
McCray:Okay, did you interact at all, when you were here from 1959 to 1962, with Fowler and the people at the Kellogg Laboratory were doing?
McCray:How was that? Or what was it?
Sargent:Well, there were seminars at which people came from both parties. Fowler would come to the astronomy seminar. There was a Friday luncheon those days in which the great astronomers of Pasadena, and those who were interested in astronomy, would come along together with their disciples who would sit and listen.
McCray:Was it really that priestly, or are you exaggerating some?
Sargent:It wasn't designed to be priestly; it was just the way it was seen by people like me. Here were the gods, damn-it, and you were sitting at the same table. And then, when we got results having to do with element abundances, we would go over to Fowler and discuss them.
McCray:What was that experience like?
Sargent:Fine. Willy knew practically nothing about astronomy. He would often say, “Gee, you guys tell me, what is a red giant?” You know, that kind of thing, literally. Since the different people had very different areas of expertise, there was no great discord. Each party was learning from the other, as I remember it.
McCray:Okay, would he come to these Friday luncheons also?
McCray:Were these here in the department or over at the Athenaeum?
Sargent:They were over at the Athenaeum, and sometimes Feynman would come. Very rarely you would get him there, but the physicists who pretended to have broad interests would come.
McCray:You say “pretended.” Did they not actually have broad interests?
Sargent:Well, it was a way of showing you had a broad interest without actually having to do anything. But Feynman had a genuine broad interest, of course. I wondered about Murray Gell-Mann at times.
McCray:What are your impressions of Caltech as an institution at that time?
Sargent:What were my impressions? I was very impressed with the fact that it was designed to help people to do science, and that the whole ethos was to do good research and the rest of it was flubber. There was no pissing around on these committees or dressing up in gowns or any of this kind of shit. Excuse me. And if you did discover something…
McCray:Your ceiling is leaking.
Sargent:Yes, it's a flat roof up there. Anyway, if you did something that was good, it was recognized, and that I found very liberating, actually, because you didn't have to go and trumpet from the housetops that you'd done something. If you found something interesting or unexpected, there would be people around who would understand that that was important, and they would encourage you and tell you about some literature on the subject that you didn't know about; that kind of thing.
McCray:Was Hoyle spending any time here?
Sargent:A lot, yes.
McCray:Did you get to talk to him at all? I mean, you had listened to his lectures and read his books.
Sargent:Yes. I'm pretty sure it was in 1960, ten years after I'd heard him on the radio. He showed up one day at one of these Friday lunches with the Burbidges as well, so B2FH were there. And, of course, by that time their paper was a bible that we looked at almost every day. Of course, when you get to know very eminent people, you find they have flaws.
Sargent:Well, I find flaws in everybody, actually, including myself. Well, they're not the perfect angels that you would think. They don't know everything. The way you read papers, you think, “Well, these people must know everything. They must be really brilliant.” Then you discover that they're pretty clever, but there are some things that they can do better than others, and they're lucky to have found out what those were. They're often quite hopeless at other things.
McCray:Right. One of the things that struck me when I was talking to Al Cameron the other day, he was thinking in a very theoretical approach to the nuclear synthesis problem, and the people at Caltech were taking a much more experimental approach. That difference is interesting to me. I was wondering what your thoughts were on observing that and thinking about it.
Sargent:Well I think it was the marriage of all of the approaches which really was successful; the fact that we had people playing around with Van de Graf generators and determining natural energy levels. And then people like Al theorizing; Greenstein did a bit of theorizing, himself. He proposed a neutron source in 1953 or thereabout. I mean, the C-13 alpha-N reaction, which is the way you get neutrons to build up the heavier elements from the iron peak, I think was proposed both by Greenstein and by Cameron. Then you had the observers, and of course they would all influence one another. So rather than having an observing that was purely “go out and see what's there,” which is a very good thing to do when a subject is in an early stage, at least there was some feedback of experiment and theory during this time, and that was helpful.
McCray:At the time that you were here, the National Observatory System was invented, I guess, or created. I was wondering if you had any thoughts at the time of being here at this private, fairly elite institution at the same time that this national system was being created.
Sargent:I didn't have anything to do with the creation. I think I went to Kitt Peak during the time I was a post-doc, just on tours of Western United States, which I went on quite a bit, hiking and all that kind of thing, dropping in at the odd Observatory. I was very much taken by the elitism of Caltech and with Santa Barbara Street, actually. It's really rather hard to describe what my position is. I'm a sort of elitist socialist. In fact, Searle and I started a political party which was called the Elitist Socialist Party, as I remember; it may have had a slightly different name. But we were taken by our belief that, in order to do very good science, it really helps to mix with very good people. Large organizations, which are very bureaucratic, are not very good for the progress of science, unless you're trying to do a very particular thing which requires a huge amount of organization. At the same time, you want to make this an elite organization open to anybody with talent, which is where Britain failed in those days and I think still continues to fail. So Caltech came pretty close to realizing the ideal, from that perspective; that it would take in anybody if he were competent, and it was pretty good at shutting out people that were not. I never felt under pressure, nevertheless, while I was here as a post-doc. I never expected to be hired by Caltech, because in astronomy at that time Greenstein had had, at any time, ten post-docs, roughly speaking, all of them drawn from across the world and from around the United States. I had no reason to believe that I would be the one who was brought back, and it came as a hell of a surprise, actually. But in any case, the atmosphere of not having to worry about anything, and not being pressured to produce results every day but to be encouraged to try and do important things, was very good, I thought at the time. Even though Jesse had this money to do abundances, he wasn't very rigid in applying where that money went, and if one of us wanted to play with something else, it was okay.
McCray:That project was funded by the air force. Did you ever wonder why the air force was funding this abundance project?
Sargent:Yes, and I think they were the best masters that we ever had.
Sargent:Yes, because there was no political or other pressure to do things that were useful to the military. I think that it's very hard to predict what path to take in science, and therefore the more funding sources you have, the better. The less centralized the decision making process is, I think, the better for science generally.
McCray:So a pluralists approach?
Sargent:Absolutely. In those days the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, the National Science Foundation, then when it was created NASA all were sources of money, as well as private organizations. And I think that science really flourished under that particular system, and reducing everything to the National Science Foundation, I think, has not been a good thing because committees never make sensible decisions. They always tend to be cautious.
McCray:Yes, there's a certain conservatism, I think, that comes into play. So you went back to England to RGO in 1962. How and why did you end up back there?
Sargent:I had to leave the United States because my visa ran out. In those days, you had to be out of the country for two years before you could come back in with a green card. In any case, I wanted to go back to Britain, or at least to go somewhere else. A prime consideration was the lack of women at Caltech, which I was not used to.
McCray:Yes, it wasn't coed at that point, was it?
Sargent:I'd been to coed schools at Manchester University when it was coed, so I was used to being surrounded by women, and then here I found it was much more monastic, which was okay for science but not good for other things. So I did some research in observatory publications on the number of women assistants in different observatories around the world. This is hard to believe, but it was a practical application of the morphological method. I saw that the Royal Greenwich Observatory looked pretty good, as did the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.
McCray:Up in Victoria.
McCray:You were married in 1964, so your research must have paid off.
Sargent:Yes, it did. I was, as Jane Austin said, in search of a wife. That's Pride and Prejudice.
McCray:How did you and Anneila meet?
Sargent:Her name's pronounced a-ne'-la because the “i” comes before the “l”.
McCray:Okay, fair enough.
Sargent:After I'd been at the RGO for a year, which incidentally I didn't like (I'll tell you more about that), she showed up having just graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in physics. She showed up to be a sort of high-level assistant of the RGO. She was not intending at that time to pursue a career very seriously in science. We met, and after I'd seen her once, after she came for an interview, I decided she was the one for me. No elaborate calculations there. So we got married a year after we met and came back to the states in 1964, where she became a graduate student at UC San Diego. The Royal Greenwich Observatory was, as you know, a very old established thing. It had been started in 1685 by Flamsteed, and there'd been a series of Astronomers Royal. It was initially devoted to making precise measurements of the position of the stars and the moon for navigational purposes, and the science was secondary, but it gradually evolved. For example, Airy's measurements of aberrations through a water-filled telescope, which were an important consideration when relativity was invented, or discovered, were done at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. But by and large, it was not an astrophysics place, and I knew nothing about fundamental astronomy since I'd never taken a course, really, in astronomy. I didn't know what S magnitude scale was, despite the fact that I'd looked up catalogs with magnitudes. I didn't know, when you make procession corrections, what it is that's processing. I found that out about 25 years later. So I didn't know anything about the things that the Royal Greenwich Observatory did. They were also the official timekeepers for Britain. And they were trying to do astrophysics, and so I was hired on what they called a senior research fellowship, where I was paid a quite decent salary but not expected to do any routine work. I could do my astrophysics. The agreement, which I made with the then — Astronomers Royal, Sir Richard Wooley, when he was out here observing in 1962, was that I would spend one year at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, one year observing at the Radcliffe Observatory in South Africa, and then a year back in the RGO to interpret the results. He reneged on the year in South Africa, which was actually fortunate, because it was then that Anneila showed up. So I decided, after I'd been there about a year that I needed to get out because it just wasn't stimulating, at least in astronomy. On other fronts it was really quite stimulating indeed. I think the observatory was then in a castle in Sussex.
Sargent:Yes, Herstmonceux Castle. There were lots of young woman assistants and there were lots of rhododendron bushes to get up to hanky panky in, etcetera, so it was really very nice. But it was scientifically not at all stimulating. When I was at Caltech, if I did anything, then there would be somebody around who would understand it and would say, “Well, splendid, then go and do some more,” but at the RGO it was just dead. There was no stimulus at all.
McCray:It occurs to me that there was sort of a (maybe generation isn't the right word but it's what comes to mind) a generation of British astronomers who left the UK in the 1960s and came to the States. Is that an accurate picture?
Sargent:Yes, if you wanted to be an observer, the thing to do was to come to America. I think Tom Kinman, now at Kitt Peak, is one of them. Margaret Burbidge was a very early example. The other thing to do was to go and work in South Africa or Australia, but you pretty well had to leave if you wanted to be an optical astronomer.
McCray:What was the funding like for science at that point?
Sargent:Oh, it's hard to remember. It was not much. The radio astronomers seemed to get most of the money. Lovell and Ryle were nationally known figures, and the leading optical astronomers were a much more reclusive lot, I would say. The Astronomer Royal, Sir Richard Woolley, is most famous for his remark that, “space travel is bunk,” on the day that Sputnik was launched. He then retracted it, but it wasn't a very insightful or tactful remark anyway. I think the Royal Greenwich Observatory was quite well supported to do what it did, but apart from that it was not much. The university observatories were in pretty bad shape. And theory was king in Britain. It was either radio astronomy or theory, and Britain had been for a long time very strong in theoretical astrophysics; Eddington, for example, and McCrae and Milne and all sorts of people.
McCray:Did you ever find yourself drawn toward either of those, radio or theory, while you were back in England?
Sargent:No. By that time I'd realized what I was good at. I later did radio astronomy here. I did quite a bit, but on problems that were suggested to me by my work in optical astronomy, by and large. By that time in Britain I hadn't done very much that could possibly have a radio astronomical connection.
McCray:Quasars were discovered while you were over there; the big announcement, Schmidt and Greenstein. That obviously had a big impact on your career, but do you recall what your recollections were when you first heard about this?
Sargent:Well, to go back, the objects that we now call quasars were discovered while I was here, but the redshift was not measured until the spring of 1963, by which time I'd gone back. But I knew there were objects with peculiar spectra. In fact, Maarten Schmidt, who was a great friend of mine and has been since we both came here at the same time, asked me some questions about spectroscopy in connection with 3C273 while I was still here, but he never showed me the spectrum. Had he done so, I'm pretty sure I could have identified it, because as soon as the announcement was made about the redshift and all of this and the spectrum was actually shown, I immediately said, “Well, these things are big Seyfert galaxies.” That was obvious if you'd worked on Seyfert galaxies which turn out, of course, to be true. Had Maarten and I discussed the spectra of Seyfert galaxies before I left, I think that he would have been much quicker to make the identification.
McCray:How was the news received where you were in England?
Sargent:Well, it didn't cause much of a stir at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, I can tell you that, because they were not interested in Maarten's stuff. I think it was the radio astronomers in Britain who were much more interested, and I wasn't in touch with them.
McCray:Around this time, I can't recall the exact year, you wrote an article for Annual Reviews on peculiar A stars. Were you doing a lot of research in that area?
Sargent:During the abundance project we studied the abundances of the elements anywhere and everywhere, and it was very unclear what was important and what wasn't. The peculiar A stars exhibit very strange surface abundances, which could have been due to nuclear reactions. They're now thought to be the result of selective diffusion in the atmosphere. That is, some elements sink by gravity and others are pushed up by radiation pressure. But at that time it wasn't clear. It could have been that they had an important effect on nucleosynthesis theory. And indeed, around 1965, Fred Hoyle, Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Willy Fowler wrote an article interpreting the abundances and peculiar A stars as being of nucleosynthesis origin. I spent several weeks with them, probably here, talking to them about the details of the abundance measurements, and being astonished by their willingness to believe almost anything. I wouldn't put my name on that paper that came out. I didn't think it was right. I thought it was pure fantasy, but it's in the literature.
McCray:What do you mean by their willingness to believe almost anything?
Sargent:Well, to make very contrived situations, or scenarios which could have gone wrong in any one of a million ways. So I think following their success with B2FH, when they tried to extend this to other slightly different situations, they were not so successful.
McCray:Okay. In working with them here in California, did you notice anything interesting or peculiar about how they functioned as a unit, with the different personalities? Because you clearly had some strong personalities involved there.
Sargent:Yes. Geoff organized the group and made sure that they got their tea on time and this kind of thing, and they went out to the pub for lunch as they were working in England, and Margaret did the hack work of calculating actual numbers and things, Willy brought in the nuclear physics and speculated about the nuclear physics, and Fred was the sort of synthesizer. Geoff, in my opinion, had the least prominent role in the whole business. I suspect that was true in B2FH too.
McCray:Okay, so he was more of a catalyst for starting it?
Sargent:Yes, and then he would interfere all the time.
Sargent:Yes, he would. He would jolly them along and say, “Now look, Willy, you should talk to Fred about this,” or vice versa, and, “This doesn't fit.” So I think probably Geoff’s influence was necessary, but it wasn't a highly intellectual contribution, I would say. That's just my opinion.
McCray:Okay. At the time you were doing research on peculiar A stars, who were the other people working on that topic?
Sargent:Leonard Searle and I worked together, and there were people in Victoria, British Columbia. There were people across at Santa Barbara Street, Armand Deutsch and one or two others. There were a few people worldwide; some people in France, some people in Italy. There was a conference in 1965 or 1966 where, for once, I read at the conference proceeding. That was because they weren't very common in those days. The contribution that Searle and I made to that subject was to understand that there were connections between the actual abundances and the temperatures and surface gravities of the stars. That is, there were systematic trends which indicated that it was the actual atmosphere of the star that was producing the results rather than sophisticated nuclear physic underneath the surface of the stars.
McCray:I guess there were probably competing, or conflicting, viewpoints as well.
Sargent:Yes, there were conflicting viewpoints, but we established these correlations. We also found after I came back to the states, actually, that there are old stars in globular clusters called horizontal branch stars, which have similar properties to the peculiar A stars that are around us, in temperature surface gravity, and we found, although it was a very difficult measurement, that at the same temperature of surface gravity, the two kinds of stars have anomalies with each other in their compositions. So it's pretty clear that stars which have gone through completely different histories in their evolution were manifesting similar anomalies. The one that was particularly interesting was an excess of the elements phosphorus and gallium in the atmosphere. So what we did was, as I said, find the correlations and then prove to our satisfaction that the abundance anomalies that were observed were real; they were not due to some strange kind of radiative transfer in the atmosphere itself, a strange kind of atomic physics. A star which has strong lines of europium really was rich in europium in its surface layers. There has been some controversy about that.
McCray:Then it wasn't generally an artifact of some other process?
Sargent:No. So that kind of work was good practice for more serious astrophysical work because it made me familiar with the spectra of various obscure elements which would not normally come up; holmium, for example, which is an element that most people haven't even heard of.
McCray:No, I'm not even sure how to spell it right now.
Sargent:H-O-L-M-I-U-M and then dysprosium, which I wouldn't advise you on how to spell.
McCray:No, we'll have a fun time with that one.
Sargent:The rare earth elements. So what we did was successful, although it was a side issue in science, but it was very good preparation for other kinds of work in spectroscopy.
McCray:Okay. How did you then end up back here at UCSD, back in San Diego? Excuse me; I need to pause this for a second.
Sargent:Having met Anneila, in 1963 there was a conference on abundances, or the properties of A type star, which was held in — Oh, no, the conference was on magnetic fields and stars, I remember, and the sun. It was held in Tegernsee, in Bavaria. Well I went to that and met people that had been at Caltech on the Caltech faculty. I met Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge and they said, “We've got to rescue Wal from the RGO.” So they offered me a job as an assistant professor of physics at UCSD. So I went there in 1964, as soon as the two years were up and I'd gotten a visa for Anneila and for me. This wasn't really a dislike of England, it was the lack of opportunity. I was still probably banned from Cambridge, although I did go there and give some lectures and get to know some of the young theoretical astrophysicists there while I was doing them.
McCray:Why were you banned, again?
Sargent:Because I'd gone to Manchester, and my theoretical credentials were not up to it and my observational credentials didn't count for anything. So back to UCSD.
McCray:Right, how did you like it there?
Sargent:For the first year I liked it, but we didn't like La Jolla. Have you ever been to La Jolla?
McCray:Yes, I have.
Sargent:Well it looks like a perfect place, but in those days it was full of retired admirals and was very right wing. We had only been married for a few months, and there were inevitable tensions of trying to decide what our relative roles were, that kind of thing. Then the Burbidges were far too intrusive. They wanted to be friendly, but it was overpowering, actually. I had to teach physics, which I didn't like.
McCray:Was this an introductory physics class?
Sargent:I taught graduate quantum mechanics. I was sufficiently intelligent that I could do it, but it wasn't one of my most shining performances, I can tell you, and I taught classical mechanics. Since I've been so badly educated, whenever I've taught anything it's the blind leading the blind. I've taught almost all the astronomy classes here now. That's where I've learned formal astronomy.
Sargent:By teaching, yes, because I never did it. And by researching in different areas and by teaching, I actually have quite a broad knowledge now, but it sure as hell wasn't true then.
McCray:When you were at UCSD were you able to take advantage of observing facilities?
Sargent:Yes, Lick Observatory. I observed there for two years.
McCray:I'm trying to think when the 120-inch telescope came online.
Sargent:It was around 1959 or so. It was working, but it was not a great telescope. In fact, mechanically it's a pile of shit, actually.
McCray:Because of the long…
Sargent:Yes, if you're sitting in the front focus cage, it flexes.
McCray:Okay, can you actually feel that when you're in it at all?
Sargent:You sure can. If you try to guide on a star and you see the thing perfectly still and then you scratch your nose, you see the bloody image move because your center of gravity has changed.
McCray:Okay, I see.
Sargent:It's that bad, but you learn how to scratch your nose without changing the position of your center of gravity.
McCray:So that makes observing even more challenging, I'll bet.
Sargent:Yes. So I actually started some quite important work at Lick on the horizontal branch stars, which I mentioned earlier, on their properties and the systematization of their spectra, which Greenstein had worked on but not very effectively. What else did I do? I finished some work — I'd already worked on stars which were ejecting mass, which I forgot about, where I could use my knowledge of fluid mechanics. I'd done that when I was a post-doc here, and I did some more of it when I was at UCSD. But then, as I said, I'd observed Seyfert galaxies towards the end of my stay at Caltech and so I then continued some of that, and I was gradually moving to the farther reaches of the universe, but in a very gradual way. Anyway, I only stayed at UCSD for about 18 months, and part of that time we spent in Australia, where I went to work with Searle, who by then had been hired by Mt. Stromlo, at the Australian National University.
McCray:The late great Mt. Stromlo.
Sargent:Yes, it was really sad. Anneila and I only spent a total of six months there, but 35 years ago, and it was really sad to see those pictures, actually.
McCray:Yes, the fire was really surprising.
Sargent:Anyway, the relationship with the Burbidges wasn't going very well and the atmosphere in the physics department was not good for young people because the first year I was there they didn't have any undergraduates at UCSD. They started with the intention of having a sort of institute for advanced study built around Scripps, and so they hired very eminent scientists who were from colder climates, principally from the University of Chicago, to go there and start this new place. And then the second year I was there they had undergraduates, and then the campus started to grow, and it's now very, very big. I don't like it when I go there, actually.
McCray:It is a big campus.
Sargent:I had an office in the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics, which is down overlooking the beach, so from that point of view it was very nice, but there was a big gulf between the great men. Harold Urey, for example, was there, and several physicists. There was a big gap between them and the young people who were there that they were trying to hire, and I never felt comfortable there. In fact, during the Keck period we sometimes had meetings down at UCSD, and I could hardly bear to go to the bloody campus. I'd been so miserable there, actually, even though at the time it wasn't quite so clear, but I didn't like it.
McCray:Well how did you end up, then, back at Caltech as a professor?
Sargent:One day in February, 1964, I received a telephone call from Oke, who was one of the professors here. “Wal, would you like to come back to Caltech on the faculty?” completely out of the blue. I had no suspicion. I'd had some contact with the people during the two years I was at San Diego, the odd conference. Sometimes I'd come up and see Bev or one of the others, but I had no intimation that there was either a job available or that I would be a good candidate for it, and I still don't know why or how they chose me, to be quite honest.
McCray:Do you have any sense of who the other candidates were?
Sargent:No, absolutely not. I was never told, even if there were any. I have no idea. They didn't advertise the job. They didn't have applications as far as I know. That was the way things were done around here in those days. So with great relief I said good-bye to San Diego in 1966.
McCray:Where was your wife in terms of her work? How did that affect you?
Sargent:Well she'd been a graduate student in physics at San Diego and was doing okay. She had to take courses, it being America. So then as part of the deal to come here she was admitted as a graduate student here, in astronomy. And after a year she decided it was too much for her, and I think in 1967 she became Jesse Greenstein's assistant. She got a master’s degree and became Greenstein's assistant, and then in 1973 she came back to graduate school and has since rocketed, actually. But there was a period when she was more interested in having children and that sort of thing.
McCray:When was your first child born?
Sargent:In 1970, and the second in 1972. So there was a six-year period when she was more of an assistant, although she did have her name on papers during that time.
McCray:Well obviously, being a faculty member gives you a different perspective on a place than being a post-doc, so I was wondering, what were your thoughts and recollections about coming back here six or seven years after you had been here and being a professor? How did the place seem then?
Sargent:Well it still seemed pretty idyllic. How shall I put it? I wasn't very keen to teach since I didn't know anything; I didn't have any formal knowledge, but apart from that it was fine. The other faculty members were very generous and all of that. An amazing thing was that I was here for two or three years before I knew there was such a thing as tenure, because I'd been brought up in Britain. When I was a post-doc here, tenure was never discussed, and then I suddenly discovered that I was going to be judged. I'd had some thought that the job wasn't forever, but I didn't really realize that I could be given a permanent job after a certain amount of time.
McCray:Did this discovery induce any panic or concern?
Sargent:No, not much, because I knew what I wanted to do and it was best done here, but I could have gone to other places. When I was at San Diego, after I'd been offered the job at Caltech, I was offered other jobs for more money at other places, which commonly happened those days, and so I formed the dictum that if you're wondering which job to go to, take the one that offers the lowest salary because that's the best job. I tell that to my students and they sometimes don't believe me, but it used to be true, obviously.
McCray:Has experience borne this out for your students, do you think?
Sargent:For some of them, yes.
McCray:Thinking, just because there was the memorial service for Greenstein yesterday, I'm curious if you have any recollections, being a young professor here, about Greenstein or Bob Bacher? Or Lee DuBridge, I guess, was wrapping up his tenure here. Do you have any thoughts about those three men?
Sargent:Yes. To start with, the great thing about Caltech was that you didn't have to bother with running the place. That was done for you by Greenstein within this building. Carl Anderson was then the Division chairman, and Bob Bacher was the provost. I think that was a new job. And Lee DuBridge was the president. Basically you didn't have to have anything to do with these higher people and one imagined the gods were looking after Caltech. I was never on committees. I didn't go on a Caltech-wide committee for the first 25 years I was here, and then when I did go on one, something called the faculty board to which you had to be elected, I was on the committee for three years and I never said anything. So that's my committee experience at Caltech, so it was fine. Jesse was more like a father than a boss. He perceived his job to make things run well for the other people. He would ask our opinions about things, but there were never any formal department meetings or anything like that. I regard that as an ideal situation. The benign dictatorship is how academic affairs should be run, in my opinion. If the dictator buggers up then he should be fired and get somebody else. Now, as to personalities, Greenstein was a somewhat different person than me. He's very driven, and he liked to show off. He was capable of errors by the grave thought of making hypotheses about things while he was doing the measurements, which I never do, partly because I'm not as imaginative as Greenstein. But also I think I was brought up in a physics education, where you try and be as impersonal as possible, and as objective as possible. You shouldn't speculate about whether this thing should go up or go down until you've made the measurement. After you're finished, okay, then you start. But Jesse would always be making a measurement and forming a hypothesis, and then seeing the measurement wasn't consistent with it and then going to see if the measurement was right, which I found objectionable as a scientific procedure. We had some run-ins about that sort of thing, because when I first came, the subject of quasar absorption lines came up, which is probably the thing that I'm best known for doing. A somewhat uneasy collaboration was formed among John Bahcall, who was an assistant professor of physics here working primarily on nuclear astrophysics at that time, and Jesse Greenstein, and me. We observed a particular quasar, which had velocity absorption lines in its spectrum. Jesse and I both obtained spectra, one of the Coudé focus of the 200-inch and the prime focus of the 200-inch-different resolutions and all of that. But we combined the data and then we each measured the data. Jesse measured about literally 50 times as many lines as I measured because he was measuring what I thought were noise. Well, we set about trying to interpret the measurements, and it was a hell of a lot easier to interpret what I'd measured than it was what Jesse had measured. Then we had to tell Professor Greenstein, “Well, Jesse, we found the following things, the first example of multiple absorption ratios in the same object, which indicated different clouds along the line of site. But in the paper we're going to leave out your measurements.” And Jesse was not terribly happy about that.
McCray:How did he express his displeasure?
Sargent:By sulking, which is something I came to know with Jesse over a period. When he was grumpy he would have an initial violent, verbal reaction and then sulk. The sulks were pretty damned obvious, particularly if you were an assistant professor. But anyway, when all is said and done, I have a great admiration for Greenstein, because he really was very farsighted on a very broad view of astronomy. He was very important in the national community, in the Greenstein Report in 1970. He gave advice to the National Research Council in other areas and he did important war work on the optical instruments for airplanes. He started radio astronomy at Caltech in the mid-1950s. In every respect he was farsighted. My only quarrels with Jesse were his judgments about data and his tendency, as I say, to go off on speculations, which were always being modified
McCray:Based on additional data coming in?
Sargent:Based on a reconsideration of the same data, which I always regarded as very dangerous. The ability to modify hypotheses quickly is a very good scientific ability, but you've got to use it cautiously. Now, you find that when you're working on something, you make a hypothesis and then it doesn't work so you change it. Some scientists are very rigid about sticking to their first hypothesis and others can very fluidly adapt.
McCray:Okay, you were talking about dealing with the data.
Sargent:Yes and modifying hypotheses quickly is something that Greenstein was very good at, I would say.
McCray:You mentioned about this being an uneasy partnership among you, Bahcall, and Greenstein. How was Bahcall to work with?
Sargent:Very difficult because he was very rigid about procedures.
McCray:What do you mean?
Sargent:Oh, dear. I'll withdraw that. He wanted to have a sharp division between theory and observation and not allow the observers to take part in the highbrow activity of interpreting the data. At that time I was probably as good a physicist as John, actually. When we'd have contests of solving physics problems for undergraduates, I was just as good as he was, but he didn't want to recognize that.
McCray:So he had more of the stereotypical, hierarchical view of the theorists and then the experimentalists?
Sargent:Yes, and also John is incapable of understanding other people. He's only capable of understanding things that he works out for first principals himself. He doesn't have a sort of intuitive mindset at all, I would say. I think if you would talk to him, and maybe you have.
McCray:I interviewed him once. It was a difficult interview.
Sargent:Yes, he doesn't trust other people's intuition. I don't know whether he trusts his own. I suspect not. He has to work out everything exactly, starting at the beginning, where as other people can make a guess, start halfway through and then go back and correct it if it's wrong. He doesn't appreciate that kind of activity or ability.
McCray:That's a very different way of thinking about things.
Sargent:So I would often guess at what an answer was and then try and reconstruct an argument that would lead to that, which is my normal way of proceeding, and it wouldn't go down at all well with John. I'm more respectful of people who can think, actually.
McCray:So a more flexible view?
McCray:Okay. Were you getting a lot of observing time?
Sargent:Yes. Once you were on the faculty here, you were at the same time made a staff member of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, which combined the staff of the county institution and the optical astronomers of Caltech.
McCray:Babcock was the…
Sargent:Was the Director of the whole thing, yes. Well, actually that's not quite true. Ira S. Bowen, whose name is on the chair that I homed and was the first director of Mt. Wilson and Palomar starting in 1947 or whenever the two institutions got together, and then Greenstein was hired, and Babcock became the director in 1964. I had a very high opinion of Bowen, although I never dared talk to him.
Sargent:Because he was a man of very few words, and you got the impression that he wanted to hear a very succinct account of whatever it is. I could never think up a question or a remark that I thought would pass the test, so I never talked to him.
McCray:How did Babcock compare in relation?
Sargent:Babcock was extremely shy and extremely bad-tempered when he was bad tempered. But he was generally a fair sort of man, as was Bowen. I didn't have close relations with either of them, but I did with many of the astronomers across there. In those days there were maybe 15 staff members, and the time on the 200-inch was divided up among the staff members by a committee, and the time on the 100-inch was divided up by the same committee, but post-docs and students could use the 100-inch. So I had used the 100-inch when I was here as a post-doc where I learned to observe. So there were 360 nights in a year and 15 people, a couple of whom were solar astronomers, so you could recon about 30 nights a year on the 200-inch telescope if you were on the staff.
McCray:So a pretty considerable resource?
Sargent:Yes, and the attitude was, although it was never stated, that each staff member should be a world expert on a particular important branch of astronomy, and that they should not overlap too much. Around here now we're having discussions about more collaboration among the faculty, and I'm dead against it, because I think we should broaden our activities, not make them narrower.
McCray:If I understand what you're saying correctly, there were unwritten social conventions about not poaching on somebody else's territory.
Sargent:Yes, but people would talk to one another and sometimes they collaborated to do something.
McCray:Were there people that you had especially close collaborations with? You mentioned Bahcall, but can you think of other people?
Sargent:No, not on the staff, as I remember. Jesus, I can't remember all the staff. I continued to collaborate with Searle, who was in Australia, and that's been my pattern, to have collaborations with friends, and when they go away we continue to collaborate; or students, for example. Alex Filippenko, who was my student who is now at Berkeley, and I continued to collaborate. Well, maybe even now, 20 years after he graduated. But I've not had so much collaboration with people in the department. For example, I've only written one paper with Maarten Schmidt, even though we've discussed astronomy almost every day for 40 years, but that was my choice. And as to territorial rights, there was a problem because the staff was divided up formally over at Santa Barbara Street into the nebular department and the stellar department. So half the astronomers studied stars and the other half studied the rest of the universe, and that meant that the stars people observed in the bright part of the month and the nebular people observed in the dark part of the month. Here at Caltech there was less of a formal division, but it required a fair amount of diplomacy, or aggression, to go from observing stars to observing galaxies, or quasars or whatever. As an extreme example, when radio sources were discovered and it was realized that they were identified with galaxies and extragalactic objects, Minkowski, over at Santa Barbara Street, had everything beyond the Virgo cluster, and Greenstein, who had been a stellar astronomer, had everything closer than the Virgo cluster. Of course, it turned out that practically nothing was closer than the Virgo cluster. So I found that my possible areas of interest were covered by Sandage, Arp, Minkowski, who was still around, Schmidt, and Oke. So I solved the problem by working on objects discovered by Zwicky, which the others didn't think either existed or, if they existed, were important. Zwicky, in the early 1960s, published some papers on things he called compact galaxies, some of which turned out actually to be Seyfert galaxies. This is a hodgepodge. It was published by Fritz Zwicky himself.
McCray:Oh, that's the infamous Red Book, with the —
Sargent:It's what we call The Big Red Book, as opposed to Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.
McCray:Right, that's the one that has the diatribe at the beginning.
Sargent:Yes, that's it. Well anyway, I thought since I knew Zwicky quite well that there must be something in these compact galaxies. So I set up a spectroscopic program to observe them, just with the intention of finding out what they were, because this was not Zwicky's thing, actually. Detailed spectroscopy of an object was not what he was good at. Some of them turned out to be Seyfert galaxies, but much more distant than the ones that had been recognized around here. I mean around our galaxy. I don't mean around Pasadena. Others turned out to be what Searle and I found to be possible examples of young galaxies close by. That is, galaxies undergoing their first burst of star formation, but has been sitting as clouds of gas since the Big Bang. So I was allowed to do this because it didn't conflict with anybody since nobody wanted to work on anything to do with Zwicky.
McCray:How would you determine this? Would you sit down over a few drinks and say, “I want to work on this particular area,” or would you work on it and hope nobody noticed and said anything?
Sargent:Well you had to apply for telescope time with an instrument suitable, so I put in a proposal, “I want to work on Zwicky's compact galaxies.” Fortunately in those days, they didn't ask why. Nowadays you have to pretty well know the answer to the question before you're allowed to get any telescope time, which is totally ridiculous. But then they would think, “The guy is young so we'll allow him to make some mistakes and give him some telescope time. If it doesn't work out, too bad —.” So that's how I got into extragalactic astronomy.
McCray:You have a reputation for being a good hands-on observer, and I'm curious how you developed these skills. Maybe the answer is obvious, but I want to know what your thoughts are on that.
Sargent:Well I was taught experimental physics at Manchester, and I was taught to be disciplined and to figure out what you were doing before you started, and to follow procedures and all this kind of thing, so I was always very well prepared when I went to the telescope. I would lay out what I was going to do throughout the night, and with allowance for things that might go wrong, like clouds and all of that. The thing you do in this particular subject, if you're well trained, is you've decided, for example, that at midnight, come hell or high water, if the conditions are good you're going to observe object X, which will then have risen, and before that, you'll observe object Y, but if it's cloudy in that part of the sky, another object would do. But whatever happens you're going to start as soon as this other thing comes up, and then that's the prime thing you're going to do. Then if that doesn't work out, if the seeing conditions are not very good, you have another reserve object to do that can be done in less demanding conditions. So a good observer appears to be going smoothly throughout the night, doing one thing and then another and another, without any pause. But in fact, if it's cloudy or a night with winds or something, changes are being made in the program the whole time.
McCray:Did you try to impart these skills to your students as well, or did you let them learn and develop their own?
Sargent:No, I tried to impart the skills. I think my students by and large are very good observers.
McCray:I'm thinking of — When did John Huchra come here? That was the late 1960s?
Sargent:Yes, he came in 1970 and finished in 1976, as I recall. John was naturally good at this kind of thing, but I think he learned something from me.
McCray:Yes, I've interviewed him as well, so we're not interviewing just older people. But he described a process very similar to yours. That's what got me thinking about that, of having plan for the night.
Sargent:But it mustn't be too rigid. The despised of John Bahcall, for a while, was getting pictures on the 48-inch telescope for his wife, Neta, who was then a student, and he would lay out what he was going to do throughout the night minute by minute. “This minute I will put the plate in the developer and this minute I will take it out.” He would lay out this whole thing, and those of us who were more experienced would know this was a pile of shit, because the first thing that happens is the dome won't open, and then when it does you can't point in this direction because there are clouds there; you can only point in this direction, etc. So you really had to have a very flexible plan, and John was just not good at that.
McCray:Okay, so you have to be able to think on your feet?
McCray:When you think about the people who in your opinion are particularly skilled observational astronomers, do you see any common personality traits among them?
Sargent:Well let me list who I think the observers are that I think are really good. The best one I ever met, the one who really had the right stuff, is Roger Lynds, who is on the Kitt Peak staff.
McCray:I didn't realize he was one of your students.
Sargent:No, no, Roger was older than I am.
McCray:That's what I thought.
Sargent:I collaborated some with Roger and so I got to know him quite well. We were observing at Kitt Peak and they had an instrument that was much better suited to what I wanted to do than Palomar did, which was true throughout most of my career at Palomar, actually. So I arranged to use this particular instrument at Kitt Peak and it actually belonged to Roger; it was his private property, even though the National Science Foundation paid for it.
McCray:What was the instrument?
Sargent:It was called the Gold Spectrograph. There was another identical instrument called the White Spectrograph, which the holy poly could use, but only Roger and his friends could use the Gold Spectrograph.
McCray:Okay, was it actually gold colored?
Sargent:Yes, it was painted a gold color. And it probably had superior optics and all of that. Anyway, I went up there to see Roger — I didn't know him all that well — and he drove around the mountain on a dark night in a Porsche without the lights on, and I was terrified. It turned out his eyesight is exceptionally good. He asked me how many stars I could see in the bowl of the Big Dipper. That is, you don't count the four stars that outline the Big Dipper, which I could see. “How many stars can you see?” I said, “I can't see any of them.” “I can see 15,” he said. And I checked on the star map. He's got really exceptional eyesight. And then he's very dexterous in guiding the telescope. He plans very well. He's very good at quickly measuring the positions of objects on a plate and then transforming that into coordinates which you can use, actually, on the sky. All of those skills he's got. I wouldn't say he was a great interpreter. In fact, I think he's bloody useless at it, but when it comes to actually getting data, I would say Roger is the best. In a somewhat different area, Eric Becklin, who's over at UCLA, a distinguished infrared astronomer, a graduate student here, is really good with the equipment and with the observing as well. I've never actually worked with him, but I've seen him in action. Infrared instrumentation, particularly the kind that Gerry Neugebauer made here, was very unforgiving. It wasn't designed to be used, and it would almost purr like a cat when Eric got close to it. Everybody agrees with this. Now, going on from that I would say that probably being less good at interpreting data goes with extreme skill as an observer. So I wouldn't give myself an A+ for observing, only an A. Even now it's important, incidentally. Whatever people say when we're sitting in the remote observing room at Keck, I notice the difference between good observers and bad, even though you're in a brightly lit room and you're playing with the equipment over a computer.
McCray:What's the difference?
Sargent:Oh, the smoothness of the operation can be very different from one person to another.
McCray:Even when it's just punching commands into a keyboard?
Sargent:Yes — someone who can't decide what to do or having made up his mind before he got there; wasting time. Okay, so your next question? We dealt with the sociology of getting into different subjects.
McCray:Right. Well tell me about the work that you were doing with quasar absorption lines, since that's obviously very important to your work. Some of the questions that I have you have answered along the way, such as making the shift from stellar to extragalactic work. I was curious if you encountered any resistance from people who had sort of staked out quasars, and we talked about that a little bit.
Sargent:Well they hadn't staked out absorption lines. That was the important thing; that the interest among the people working on quasars, like Schmidt and Sandage, was in using them for cosmological purposes, whereas I never had any interest in that at all, really.
McCray:The cosmology game?
Sargent:Yes. I don't like areas of science where you know what it is that you're trying to find out when you start. So I would never work on the Hubble Constant because you know the Hubble Constant is a defined quantity, and you're judged according to the accuracy with which you determine the value.
McCray:Did you have a particular preference in, let's say, 1970, for one cosmological model versus another, or was it just not something you really cared about at all?
Sargent:Earlier than that I was strongly in favor of Big Bang cosmology because of my admiration for Hoyle. I got out of that around 1960 in the early years.
McCray:Big Bang or steady state?
Sargent:Sorry, excuse me, steady state. Of course, I was always into Big Bang. But as to whether que-naught was zero or one or somewhere in between, que-naught at zero or half or somewhere in between, I never bothered very much. I didn't have any philosophical attachment to any particular value. I don't think it's proper in science to do that sort of thing.
McCray:Okay, I have some follow-up questions on that for tomorrow, but we can get to that.
Sargent:The absorption lines were an ideal field for a person like me because it was not known what was producing them at the time. It was thought that it might be intervening galaxies or intervening intergalactic clouds but there was no clear picture. A lot of people thought it was material that had ejected from the quasar itself, some of which it is, but I don't pay much attention to objects where that's true. So it was an exploratory field in which knowledge of physics was very good, but you weren't trying to determine any particular quantity. You were trying to find out what the objects were; what produced the lights. That's fun; I like that. So I started out joining with Bahcall and with Greenstein and then Bahcall left to go to the Institute for Advanced Study. It was already clear that we had somewhat different views on how to do things. So I struggled to make observations with the slowly improving equipment here. And, as I said, I think throughout my career Palomar had the worst instrumentation of any large observatory.
McCray:That's surprising to me, because I guess to me I think of it as a private, elite institution with the biggest telescope, therefore it must have had the best instruments.
Sargent:No. The nebular spectrograph, the first instrument that Bowen designed, was ahead of its time, but after that, as soon as the era of photographic plates stopped, Caltech didn't do very well.
McCray:You were saying about the instrumentation?
Sargent:Okay, the instrumentation at Caltech was very poor, particularly when we went off photographic plates and into — The first innovation was to use image intensifiers, which were very poor, but they, as the name implies, intensify the image and then use the photographic plate at the back of that. I pretty well gave up on absorption lines in the 1970s because of the inadequacy of the equipment, but then in 1973 I met Alec Boksenberg, who was then at the University College London, and he built a detector of advanced design but he didn't have a telescope. We met on this floor, because he came to visit one of the professors about some instrumental matter. He bumped into me and said, “My name's Boksenberg. I've made a detector and it will be very good for faint objects. Would you like to use it?” That was basically the conversation. I said, “Sure, come back.” That was in May of 1973, and then in October he came out and we put it on the 200-inch at the Coudé focus.
McCray:This is the image photon counting system?
Sargent:Yes, IPCS, image photon counting system. At that time he'd made the detector and then he'd worked for 75 months at the Royal Observatory up at a castle in Sussex. It had not been any useful at that time because of the weather, and as soon as we put it on Palomar it gave superb results. So we collaborated using the IPCS from 1973 to 1988, at which time it was superseded by CCDs. And even then, for certain kinds of work it was better, actually; the IPCS was better.
McCray:What was so good about it?
Sargent:Well, first of all it was far more sensitive than photographic plates by about a factor of 50 or so. Photographic plates on a good day will give you the equivalent of one percent quantum efficiency; on a good day. And then you've got to mess around with the plates to do that. Then of course the output of photographic plates is an image, which isn't linear in anything. There's a lot of messing around to go from blackening on the plate to intensity of the radiation. The IPCS was linear; it was photon-counting, so you knew exactly what the quality of the data was. You could do very accurate sky subtraction. And the sort of thing that limits you in working on faint objects through big telescopes is not the number of photons from the object; it's the fact that the difference between the number of photons from the object and the number of the photons from the sky can be quite small. It can be one percent.
McCray:So you have to subtract that background from what you're looking at.
Sargent:Yes, and the IPCS, being a linear device and its characteristics were well understood, you could do that very well. So we put it on the Coudé focus, which is intended for fairly high resolution spectra of bright stars, but we observed quasars with it; 16, 17, 18 quasars. It was technically very difficult because it's pretty damned hard to see a 17th magnitude object and guide on it through a device which was intended to look at 6th magnitude stars. So during all the time we worked, Alec never saw with his eye the objects we were working on. I could see them, but because I had years of practice, but he hadn't developed a technique.
McCray:His background was physics originally, wasn't it?
Sargent:Yes, and then he went into space physics and detector development, so we were the ideal team. We each had skills that no one could approach.
McCray:Okay, and personality wise?
Sargent:We got on fine.
McCray:Any inklings of why that was? Common backgrounds, uncommon backgrounds?
Sargent:Well, his background is middle-class London. He went to a private school in London and was well educated. He's not interested in sport at all. Let's see, he's not interested in music or literature. In fact, we're complete opposites, but when it comes to astronomy we get on fine. For example, I could always choose the music since he didn't know about music.
McCray:There you go. Was it always classical music that you chose?
Sargent:Yes, pretty well.
I have a series of questions, but I'd like to sort of save them for tomorrow because we're getting close to where we want to wrap up, and I don't want to open up a box and not be able to finish it. So why don't we wrap up for today. I'll just pause for now.
It had been destroyed recently when interview was conducted.