Oral History Transcript — Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge
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Interview with Dr. Geoffrey Burbridge
Burbidge:[?] I told you this morning, I’ve got one secretary and she’s kind of , she’ll take manuscripts[?] being drawn in all directions by all the fellows, and so I’ve got a temporary girl in there.
Weart:[?]Or is this the usual state of affairs?
Burbidge:Well, it’s [?] It’s partly because I’m president of the Astronomical Society. I’m doing work for the organization of this Oil Conference in Venice. I’m chairman of the committee that is responsible for scheduling part of the [?] antennas for KPL. I’m on the board of AUI, which is [?] Brookhaven and RAS. And somehow, all these things, they all come when I’m really crazy with the Astronomical Society, meetings, as president. I have had to go over all this material for Italy. [?]Trieste, because Trieste is, there’s trouble because the [?] of Trieste is ordered by USCO, the [?] are protesting about UNESCO, [?] I’m going to get up in Venice and make a speech against [?] But, everything kind of descends on you, plus the students and all the things that I neglect around here.
Weart:Not to mention research.
Burbidge:Not to mention research. My wife is, she’s on the Aura [?] Board. She represents the university on the board [?] observing [?] comes back [?] all Thursday, up at Lick. And by then, our daughter goes to Berkeley, and the following week, I leave for Europe. Then I go to Brookhaven. After Europe.
Weart:You must do a tremendous amount of traveling.
Burbidge:[?] three summer schools and institutes, [?] with the European [?] and then the one in Venice, that I’m running, [?] and then [?] Anyway, and then I’m coming back to the AAS (?) Meeting at the end of August, because I’m president-elect of the American Astronomical Society, so I can’t stay in Europe. [?] So that’s supposed to be progress. Well, it’s exciting, I must admit.
Weart:I know much more about the history than I do about what’s going on now. I don’t know that much about the history either, but I don’t think that people in the old days had that many obligations.
Burbidge:Well, the main thing of course that has changed everybody’s life in modern science is the airplane. [?] the airplanes [?] It used to be done in a different way. Certainly the organizations [?] were not served by these boards and committees, in the way one — I know, if we used to get to Europe [?] I think that — I really think that if the airplane went out, if something happened to airplanes, they suddenly became [?] weren’t available [?] in the Southwest, you could go on doing telescope astronomy, [?] but you couldn’t, you couldn’t function...
Weart:Would there be much less telescope astronomy then?
Burbidge:Well, not these things that go on. The problem now, you see, is that we all, all the senior people now, [?] have — a little group, I guess, the people, a segment, a minority of the people, in this generation, [?] do things, though, because... So one has a certain responsibility. The people that do that nowadays, [?] keeping the system going until the money ... these are very bad economic years, so, one of the major functions now is to keep it going. I mean, in astronomy, it’s to keep the thing going, which means not only the telescopes, the libraries and the telescopes, but to get money to run the thing, to even develop new things, and that means money, hoping for money — the old places, federal money, state money and federal — Even on national levels, you have committees and boards in Washington and all the rest. In the old days, I mean, Hale, when he wanted to get money for Mount Wilson, Hale went and told Andrew Carnegie he needed money. It was Andrew Carnegie he went to. Nowadays, if we wanted to get something, say, we wanted to move the Lick Observatory... or get some new money for an optical astronomy at University of California, or get enough money to support the Hale Observatory, which is in a terrible financial state — you’ve got to write a proposal. It’s got to be backed by dozens of people. If it’s the university, you’ve got to get it into the hands of various federal agencies, and then to dozens of people, and it goes on for years and politics enter into it. Different groups enter into it. Practically everybody with some voice or some say gets into the act. And then you don’t get it. You fight like the devil. I mean, ever since we came into the university in 1962, within my knowledge, these things — the astronomers at this university have been trying to get some new major facilities. Lick Observatory, which serves the whole University of California astronomy —and therefore has the largest use of telescopic aid optical astronomy I guess in the world — and you have four campuses, involved: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Berkeley — We have sore demands on the Lick telescope, and it’s sitting above San Jose, and the lights are ruining the sky. So as a matter of fact, for years, we’ve been trying to get a proposal starting out when we were first around this [?] in jointly with Australians in Australia, [?] the telescope. And this went a very long way. The Australians wanted a partner in the United States. And the University of California was one very good alternative. Back in 1963, ‘64, I remember spending a tremendous amount of time writing a proposal … [?] and in the end, it was turned down at the highest levels of NASA. … They turned it down. Then, the last [?] we had this proposal jointly with the University of Wisconsin, to get some support for building a telescope on a new site that we have , up at St. Mary, … the Bay Area. And all kinds of donations [?] coming, [?] just to get the site developed; — first of all, we haven’t managed to get any money. Secondly, the Stern Club is on our backs. All these things enter in. Just doing what — you know, I’m sure the people 60, 70 years ago felt depression. They probably felt as harassed, as I feel harassed, but for different reasons. I don’t know what their reasons are. But you’re in the middle of this morass, and you’re trying to do science and you’re trying to do all these other things as well. Now, I don’t think that everybody does. It so happens that some of us do. I suppose, among the people that you [?] you’ll find them particularly hard pressed, because they’re close to this, and therefore it becomes — there’s no way out [?] out of it, Just let it rest.
Weart:This raises one of the questions that I wanted to ask you. Let‘s restrict this to the period of your career, since you got started as an astrophysicist. I don’t know exactly when that was.
Weart:Around 1950. Over that period, what do you think have been the main changes in the way astrophysicists work?
Burbidge:Well, I mean I was trained as a Physicist. [?] astrophysicists. But I’ve talked with astronomers out of the [?] (It sounds vaguely like: “I married an astronomer” or “why marry an Astronomer) And so I don’t have any typical background or education in this country, as a matter of fact. I couldn’t speak to that. Probably that’s been... But I suppose that the main thing that has come over astrophysics — well, on the scientific level — has been the explosive growth of information that stems largely from opening up the electromagnetic spectrum, wider and wider. As far as observation is concerned, this is not a field; modern astrophysics is not a field where there had been a great interplay between theory and observation. And the major discoveries which have led so many people to be intrigued by astrophysics have put it in the forefront of the physical sciences. And it has been used as the explanation for the first sign of the influence of the – First of all, radio spectrum. And radio astronomy, which I’ve been very much involved with, which started out after the war, as you expressed, by meetings, and really has come a tremulous way. And then more recently, infra-red astronomy and X-ray astronomy. And even more recently, gamma ray astronomy. Now, this has only come because a — well, it’s come because-radio astronomy came, following the war, because that’s obviously where the talent came from. If there had not been a war, it’s not clear how people would have started to explore in this area, but, talking about the earlier …It was a — a group of people was generated who had the urge to do things, and the ability to do things, and in fact, after the war, then there was some possibility of getting the necessary funds, which were small then. So in the early fifties, things were beginning to grow, particularly in Australia, where there was a major development. Then, in the ether areas, chiefly X-ray astronomy, only ultimately got involved because, well, I guess, ultimately you trace it all to Sputnik, and space, ant the political pressures, between the United States and the Soviet Union, which led to this tendency to develop technology. We were all— not all of us, very many of the astronomers, who were trying to do astronomy in those early days, were very much opposed to NASA and [?]
Weart:Could you name me the names of some of the people that you think were involved in these developments toward radio and space?
Burbidge:Well, the radio — the basic pioneers in radio astronomy were of course, in England, Ryle and Lovell, supported by Radcliffe, whom I respect, since then [?], the famous physicist, you’re undoubtedly familiar — the vacuum tube — conic ray physicist, a man out of Rutherford, [?] the Cavendish,... chiefly Eminent during the war, in operations and research. (Or: Chief of [?] during the war for Operations and Research) But, I mean, the other radio astronomers, the people who actually did the work, made the developments, besides Rile and Lovell in England were Henry Brown, who is—we’re talking now about people in the middle fifties — who are now —
Weart:In the 1950’s?
Burbidge:Yes. These are people who (inaudible) Henry Brown and Graham Smith ... (inaudible)... These are the leading English people and Hughish [?] who is somewhat younger. These were the leading British radio astronomers. Then there was this group who were in Australia — Mills, Bernie Mills, who is among the group in Sidney. John Bolton, who was an English man, a Yorkshire man went there after the war. And …in Australia... Johns, who was one of the great pioneers, along with Arnold. Joe Causi, who was Australian. He is one of the few of that generation who is dead. He died tragically a few years ago of cancer, at a fairly early age. These were all physicists or [?] Now, there was Hay, J.S. (?) Hay, who’s written historically about the developments, was in the radar establishment in [?] England, which was very much – fascinating work done during the war. It was the [?] in the world. Then, the astronomers didn’t really enter into this picture seriously at all, people whose background was in astronomy, until considerably later. People like Bach, who was at Harvard at the time, who really came to radio astronomy in this country, on the astronomical side. Usually, [?] Mayer and Ben Haddock, and you also would attempt to involve them in the middle fifties or the late fifties – The Naval Research Lab made studies. But not – in the United States, they were very backward in this field until, really until the late fifties and the creation of the National Radio Astronomical Observatory.
Weart:Who were the most important people? What about [?] say?
Burbidge:Well, the United States has now bred a new generation of radio astronomers. They’re somewhat younger. A lot of them — Heeschen, who is director of NRAO, and Roberts, who’s in NRAO, Ken Kellermann, younger, who is a Cal Tech graduate. There’s also at NRAO, Lilley, who’s at Harvard. See, Bolton came to the United States and was in the United States for about ten years. He came and started the Cal Tech Radio Astronomy Project. And Trangalo, he worked on the Radio Astronomy Project. Stanley, who’s another Australian gentleman, who was [?] recently, who incidentally was very much the [?] was [?] Bolton [?] Cal Tech [?] evaluated … [?] that’s Bolton, though. Then, there’s a group out of Cornell, who were responsible for developing this very large — this [?] group Arisaba? That really came out of radar. [?] familiar with that. Radar studies in the United States. It was a military project, built by the Department of Defense. Originally their aim was to build a very sensitive antenna, which would detect the Russians — lighting their cigarettes on the moon. The Navy lost interest in that. They had better techniques. And so it never got funded. But Tommy Gold was one of the key people there. Gold was English. He’s English, was English, but he came to the United States in the early [?] Frank Gray, who was the first American (inaudible again...) And there were many many others.
Weart:What about X-ray?
Burbidge:Well, X-ray astronomy grew up in a different way. X- ray astronomy grew up since the middle sixties, pretty much. And it grew up around another small group of people, cosmic ray physicists, whose techniques are similar, where you detect charged particles, or hard [?] They were doing many of the same kinds of things. I mean, they were more on [?] One of the great pioneers was Bruno Rossi, who’s now retired, at MIT. (Inaudible...) Rossi and Friedman, at the Naval Research Lab is one of the other key people, and these are — Rossi must be in his seventies, Herb Friedman must be in his sixties, and they are two of the great pioneers. Now, I was at — what he did at MIT was very interesting. What he did was actually— at MIT, they all enjoy private enterprise, running their own companies on the side — and Rossi was, I believe, originally involved with the foundation of this company which was called American Science and Engineering, which makes all the — which got very heavily into X-ray astronomy. And he also, in order to — it makes all the detection devices for most of the airports. But American Science and Engineering, Bruno got a collection of people there, maybe mostly all Italian background — in fact, I always thought he was Italian. ... [?] of which the key figure was Ricardo Jacoby. Recently, the large group doing X-ray astronomy has moved from American Science and Engineering, to the Harvard School of [?] astronomy. .. (Inaudible...) [?] school which was the [?] I guess, since he has memories of the previous science school, he might have been…Anyway, the whole group under Jacoby and Gerski (?) … they all moved to Harvard. Now the Harvard group is in the ascension in this field. Then Friedman, at the Naval Research Lab, has also moved with Foyer, who‘s a man at Berkeley. We have a group here — in fact, Larry Peterson (?) who’s got the whole floor above us, and Peterson was part of a group I guess at Minnesota, and Van Noyes, that group of experimental physicists, cosmic ray physicists, influenced by and actually trained in.... Peterson. The group at Cal Tech. John [?] came from at MIT. There are still a lot of people at MIT involved in this . . . . In this area... [?] I mentioned..., let’s see... I mentioned at MIT, I mentioned Norell (?) — there’s a department at Chicago — ... (inaudible...) There may be half a dozen very good groups in X-ray astronomy. It‘s a comparatively small fie1d. It depends almost totally, first of all, on balloons and on rockets, which very long [?] And of course, ultimately on satellites. They have at least managed to get the last satellite, for use [?] all [?] Mentioned one of the branches of astronomy that does depend on space — [?] depending on NASA’s Apollo. There now are some quite good groups in England. There’s a group in London under Boyie. There’s a group in Leicester under Pound. And there’s a group — there are some groups in Italy. Under Ochiolini in Milano. Let’s see... It’s a comparatively restricted field, in the sense that you don‘t have a lot of people... George Clark? Schlock, is, one of the most recent satellites that was launched — the satellite that was launched at let‘s see — the Italian group, launching a satellite with MIT equipment — and strangely enough, George Clark? Schlock, who was at Princeton, testing equipment — I met George. Anyway, these things have been creations also, in a comparatively small way it’s not a huge [?] one that easily grows, became basically, the problems, funding — the problem is finding the money. X-ray astronomy is one branch of astronomy that could be wiped out tomorrow, if politics lead NASA to do something quite different from what they’re interested in doing now. I mean, they’re a big government agency. They’re going to stay in business, no matter how they stay in business. They make a great noise about science, and they obviously [?] but when the chips are down, they’d stay on as an agency even if they had to work with the airplane [?] (Inaudible...)
Weart:We’ve talked exceedingly briefly about radio [?]. What about [?]
Burbidge:Well, optical astronomy is developing too, obviously... In the American scene, it’s dominated, optical astronomy. Well, I think modern optical astronomy — by that I mean, since the 17th (?) century - -what really happened was that most of the major discoveries, all the major discoveries in astronomy, were made with what we now believe was comparatively modest equipment, in the last centuries, since the 17th century? Even photographic techniques are largely ... [?] its visual technique. But they were all made around telescopes, near the centers of intellectual activity, and by in large, are in Northern latitudes where the climate was lousy. And this persisted, since the 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th century. The major institutes were at Potsdam and Greenwich, [?] and so on. And then, it was in the early years of the century when Americans began to move out into — of course it was Hale, the great pioneer. The real overturn in modern astronomy is due essentially to very few people. The group around the Lick Observatory, in the l880s, the [?] — supported by James Lick, who was one of the San Francisco Industrialists. And George Ellery Hale, who started off in Chicago, and came to [?]and then came out to California and came to Mount Wilson Observatory, and then actually founded Palomar. And then, I think the other major figure probably, though he was much later, was Arthur Struble, who created the [?] And it was moving, putting big reflectors, building big reflectors, and putting them into deployment that really transformed astronomy. So, it was 50 years before the Europeans came anywhere near accepting that this is what you have to do. And now we have (inaudible) physicists are fairly successful at, namely, trying to [?] moon [?] from space again, illustrating with the telescope from European (?) Observatory, which [?] And the Germans, who were in the South of Spain, with the [?] telescope. This is actually what happened. (inaudible) But I think the consummation has come this way, and for a very long time, it was California. Mount Wilson and to a lesser extent Lick, because we’ve had instruments which dominated — dominated optical astronomy. And they became conservative in their way. Everybody followed Hale’s rules, because he set them up. (inaudible) It took this university 40 years to get the astronomers off on Hamilton down on the campus. A terrible [?] But enough in astronomy. I mean, I believe that the major change in astronomy has come in many ways. The advisory committee (inaudible)
Weart:And that’s continued. You say that the California —
Burbidge:Yes, but California — the problems of the California observatories is that they have now, for some years, they've had heavy competition from the National Observatory, which was set up originally for the have-nots, because of the traffic — these have and you haven’t. But we still have a situation where a very small number of astronomers — I mean, if you have a good idea, and you want to try and do something, you’ve got a really clever idea about the observing process, if you are not one of fifteen or twenty astronomers, you probably can’t do it. That’s what it comes down to.
Weart:You mean this is different?
Burbidge:Oh, it’s very different. Very different. And you’re privileged, if you’re — if you’re at University of California or at Cal Tech. In the sense that you can to great telescopes in some way, and you can be sure to get to them if you’re a senior staff member. So, my wife and I and [?] Schmidt and so on still very much are in a strong position, vis-a-vis an awful lot of — Now, at Kitt Peak, we have, the facilities are there now. In fact, I’ve gone over the schedule, because — in fact, those are the proposals for the last six months. [?] service went beck about three to one. You can get time on them, but the competition is very severe. But the major problem that we in California have now, at Cal Tech, and at the University of California, is that deteriorating — by that I mean, deteriorating pollution, smog and so on, ...(inaudible ) But mostly, in many ways that are just falling down. Mount Wilson too. Cal Tech is trying to run Mount Wilson, Palomar and build themselves and operating place in Chile, and they just don’t have enough money for the two, let alone Chile. They’re in the process of seeking grants. And as I say, we’ve been trying to get some way of moving away from Lick, which is terribly [?] They’re doing something with new [?] which is [?]
Weart:We’ve been talking about the scientific side, but who would you think are the most important people on the fund-raising side?
Burbidge:Well, as I said, they have since — since 1957, I think — well, I mean, I think that there were a number of — I’m not terribly well informed about the ear1y days. I never really got — we’ve always been concerned about it, … but people like Greenstein and Bach and Shapley , I suppose, and Spencer, who was very much involved in NASA, and Schwarzschild. Those men, all those were devoted — well by now, Shapley is dead, but all the others Strube is also dead, and would have been in his seventies now, but all these other people are now in their sixties, they were the people who for instance helped create the National Science Foundation, and [?] institutions, people like that. Lipford, who was one of the...
Weart:Who was on the committee? (Or perhaps: Who else do you think of?).
Burbidge:Well, you can simply — it’s hard to say — you can look at the — well, Greenstein ... Goldgreen was very much involved — but if you look for younger people, then have to look say at the Greenstein Committee. And there are names could be mentioned there, but I’ve been terribly uninvolved in that. Jesse was the chairman. Merck at MIT, who was a radio astronomer, Dave Heeschen [?] who was director of NRAO ... [?] Marvin Schwarzschild, Abe Lily, (inaudible)If you looked at them before, you’ll see a long roster. Al Cameron. There’s a kind of a — there’s a kind of an establishment now.
Weart:Do you think these have been very important in professional societies, journals and so forth? Or are there others?
Burbidge:There are others. For example, Chandrasakhar, who Is always kept out of the national political scene, but he’s an eminent scientist …Chandra was a man who, following Strusa, served the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL as …did very well… the journal was tremendously successful. I mean, I have great admiration for him. So I’m prejudiced. (Inaudible...) national societies, and how they’ve been run, and who have been the presidents of the national societies. Well, the current’ president of the Astronomical Society is Bob Kroft. (Inaudible) The president before Bob Kroft was Bob Bach, and the president before Bach was Nolan ... Martin Schwarzschild , ... (inaudible )... accidents? Those are, some. There have been a lot of [?] the names they know most, they think they know.... [?] People they’ve heard about, that they know about. Well, there were a lot of people who were exceedingly concerned with their’ own affairs to the exclusion of anything else. Now, you know, for example, [?] was a case in point. I mean, if I were that way, I obviously wouldn’t be involved in this. Alan Bandage was that way. Alan …There was a period when Alan was very prominent and was being put on everything. Then Alan was very bad. He wasn’t turning up. Then Alan just — I mean, I’m not throwing bricks at Alan. He knows this. And Martin Schmidt also ... Martin’s very much involved in his own projects.
Weart:How about teachers? Do you know anybody who’s formed a school, so to speak, of his students?
Burbidge:Well, it isn’t only students, when you have schools forming. (Inaudible...) Chandrasakhar of course has had many students … The Princeton group, — …Again, there’s a kind of a — of course, young people, particularly around Slater, …If you look at the major institutions, the major teaching institutions, I guess what they say, simply in their own terms, would be that there are four institutions: Cal Tech, Berkeley, (?) and Princeton, and people around research — faculty members inaudible...
Weart:That brings up another subject I wanted to ask you about.
Burbidge:I’m not a part of that system, and I’m not— I’m long past the point where I feel that I — I’m perfectly content to be one of the [?] But I see the young men. They were getting very [?] the other night, among the research fellows and the ... (inaudible...)
Weart:That brings up another question— about the main institutions that are doing research, whether they’ve gone up or declined?
Burbidge:Well, Harvard’s always been on the decline, ever since the forties. No, but you see, I think that Harvard — in my own view, my own personal view, and it really isn’t fair because … which was, it has a tremendous tradition, very much in the British tradition. I think that if Shapley …He came from ... and he tried to get teaching ... (inaudible..,) … educated at Princeton...was offered a job at Cal Tech, refused to remember the [?] Nothing but the Harvard system. And [?] brought him, as American and a group of …I mean, Harvard has, among the professional research people, had a [?] reputation. …Always has had a very large staff, a large budget, a very good [?] secretaries and secretaries and so forth. Princeton was always trying to keep itself small and very selective, and they’re very pleased with themselves about this, and [?] drew people and... My own criterion, for somebody who’s really good, is somebody who’s creative. Creative people. ... (Inaudible) I don’t [?] far enough. I’m not in the know. I don’t pay that much attention. I’m a little like a radical. ... (inaudible) (something about Willie Fowler)
Weart:We haven’t really talked about —
Burbidge:... a lot of people. ... my associates... But you see, in this country, I believe that the strength of optical astronomy — the strength of astronomy in this country has come from the observatories. There’s still great strength in theory in Europe. Despite the fact that I have a student who ... There’s no question that the English theoretical school has been very powerful and very productive and still is. But there are some very good theoreticians in this country... But there was a time, Brod (?) used to tell these marvelous stories about this. The fact (he said) that there’s only one theoretician in the country anybody paid any attention to, and that was Henry Norris Russell. And there were some very good — Russell used to come out every summer and teach, teach the Mount Wilson astronomers some physics, in a very elementary way. About 1916. Russell was a towering figure. But they were so heavily oriented towards observational astronomy that I know for a fact, Chandra showed me material as editor of the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNALS Paul Merrill, who is a very eminent astronomer at Mount Wilson, very empirical observer (as they all were ) — Mount Wilson refused to appoint theoreticians — In fact, Cal tech isn’t strong in [?] at all. They have some good people, very good people. Professor [?] Anyway, Merrill made a big fuss at onetime, when Chandra himself was going through the United States, from — England — Chicago — from England to [?] Merrill didn’t want his papers published in the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL. Merrill said that it was the journal of the nation relation it was not [?]. And the only exception, as far as I can tell, that they seriously made was the establishment of was Henry Morris Russell. Russell really was a towering figure at Princeton. And he was there at Princeton for a very long time. He was succeeded ultimately — well, the position was offered to Chandrasakhar. There’s an interesting story attached to that. But Chandra refused it. And after that [?] came. But the story is an amusing one — namely, that Chandra was, of course had been in Chicago for 40 years, but he was at Chicago at the time and Robert Hutchins was president of the university. And Chandra had gotten this offer from Princeton, to succeed Henry Morris Russell. He thought it was a great offer, and he went to discuss it with Robert Hutchins. And Hutchins said, “Well, Chandra, you know, we really don t want you to go. We hate to lose you from our establishment. But I understand that this is a very important thing, and I suppose there’s little we can do. We’d do what we could but actually there’s little we could do.” He said, “But I would just like to — there is a problem in succeeding a great man. “ Chandra said, “Yes.” He said, “For example take Lord Kelvin of whom I’m a great admirer, Chandra was a great admirer of 19th century physicists and Kelvin. “Take Lord Kelvin.” Kelvin was a [?] Chandra said, “Yes. “ He said, “Chandra, Kelvin was there for a very long time, too, wasn’t he? “Yes, he was.” “Who succeeded him, Chandra? “ Then he sand — “Yes, that’s just the problem, “ And Chandra told me this story, and then he said, he wouldn’t go to Princeton at all. Anyway, there have been some very drastic changes. You see, suddenly the membership in the societies has grown, and the people — see, among people of our own generation, and people a little younger, I think astronomers still know most of the prominent people in the world, and get to know them, have got to known them virtually as students … So you can’t talk to somebody 20 years younger and get the response you would get with older people.
Weart:I’m sure this is one of the great big changes.
Burbidge:Well, it is a change.
Weart:Has it had a big effect on the way astronomy is done?
Burbidge:I don’t know what effect it’s going to have. It’s hard — I mean, I think it makes it more impersonal judging scientifically [?] and that one of the problems is that — one of the problems “has been, in astronomy, that you don’t make a judgment about somebody because you don’t — I mean, I’ve heard, you may laugh, but I quite well known astronomers now who turned thumbs down on somebody for a job or a committee, or somebody being [?], because they know that he doesn’t — that he goes backpacking, and he doesn’t bathe very often, and things like that. And — or they know that he goes to the darkroom and makes a horrible mess in the darkroom, or somebody tells them. Now, I don’t care about that aspect of it. But obviously, as a practical matter, it will have some effect. I mean, there’s much more competition now to do minor things. And a lot of it— I mean for somebody of my generation, I suppose ... (taped voice goes off ...)
Weart:One of the things I want to do, over the next couple of years is to interview some people. We’re doing ‘an awful lot of interviewing now, generally to get their life histories, what we call an Oral History interview and one cannot do this for very many people, because it involves a tremendous amount of work, on the part of both parties. And I wondered who might be the best people to interview?
Burbidge:Well, I don’t know. Many people are colorful. Many people have lots to tell you. It’s very hard to say offhand. I mean, I think, obviously, some of the older people who have a lot to say about it are very interested in their period, their history of astronomy, and some of them might be interested in talking with you. Fowler?
Weart:Fowler has been interviewed, in physics. Really this is the first time we got into astronomy.
Burbidge:I should certainly say, you should interview and, you could talk to some of the pioneers in radio astronomy John Bolton. [?] I doubt if — or if Martin talked to you, I suspect that he would give you a sense, a view of ... I don’t know. Harry Lovell might talk to you about history of … in the late fifties or sixties... In certain areas, there are people like Herb Friedman, and certainly I would say Rossi, about the beginnings of … which of course is really the modern history of the physicist. Albert Whitford, who, [?] who is not very well talked about, might very well talk about the old days. The old days. He went to our meetings, got all the gossip.... There are some of the old Mount Wilson types who would be —Wilson is a very nice guy, who recently retired. He’s In his sixties. Maybe you should try to talk to him. Horace Babcock.... (Inaudible) Let’s see again, I’m talking about West Coast people now. [?] The astronomy there. Bach... Chandrasakhar you should certainly talk to Chandra. Morgan, he’s a prominent astronomer at Berkeley for many years, and is a former colleague of [?] Leo Goldberg, who is director of Kitt Peak and who is still a few years from retirement, obviously. He was a success at Michigan, Harvard and now Kitt Peak. He’s been very prominent. He’s now the president of the Astronomical Union. He’d be very responsive. [?]
Weart:Off the record, perhaps.
Burbidge:But these are all real (inaudible)
Burbidge:I don’t know. I mean, it’s very hard for me to say, because — Bernard Berg, at MIT, for example. It’s hard for me to say, because I don’t know how my friends, for that matter, would, whether they’d want to talk about it, about science. I know Chandra likes to talk about it, about what’s happened and the way things are done, and why things are done. He and I used to spend hours. He was always telling me stories about the old days in Cambridge. It was fascinating … the way they (he?) discovered.., and so on. Of course, mostly it’s plain mathematics. He’s not — doesn’t have background in optical astronomy. Nearly all the old timers, from the Mount Wilson days, are dead. It’s too bad we weren’t... Mrs. Hubble is still alive. She [?] in Pasadena. Hubble of course was a very — he was very much mixed up with the Hollywood set, you know.
Weart:No, I didn’t know.
Burbidge:Have you read this biography of Aldous Huxley? You’11 find him mentioned in that. And Grace, Grace Hubble proofed some of his books. We met Aldous Huxley at the Hubbles once. See, we never knew Edwin Hubble. He died in ‘53, and we came over, we first came to Cal Tech in ‘55. And we were introduced to Grace Hubble by Alan Sandage, and we got to know her very well. She’s really delightful. ... (Inaudible...) That was her … You know, this whole — you’ve heard of Anita Loos? GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS? Well, she’s an old [?] member, too. One of the [?] of the thirties. Hubble was mixed up with that whole lot. Ronald Coleman. They knew all these people very well, Clark Gable.
Weart:Were any of the other California astronomers involved in that? They‘re all there in Pasadena.
Burbidge:You know, the common view is that Hubble was a snob, and all the rest of it. He was probably just a [?] Very English in his outlook, in the sense that he‘d rather talk to the Rhodes Scholar usually than the lawyer. [?] was a Rhodes Scholar. He’d always affect these British mannerisms, walking stick, canes, spats, gloves. And all the rest.
Weart:With some of these people, especially the ones who are retired and have some time, the — one thing that one can do is ask them for a manuscript autobiography. That’s something that we did about ten years ago, with a lot of the older physicists. Many of them were very happy to get out a record. You know, it’s funny; they were just waiting for somebody to ask them. And they’d get out their files, get out the stories —
Burbidge:In the Royal Society, when you’re elected, the first thing they ask you for is a —
Weart:That’s right. But often people only give them a few pages, you know.
Burbidge:I don’t think — they often... They’ve? I’ve got [?] memoirs up here —
Weart:Oh yes. And I think it would be a very good thing if we could ask some of these older astronomers.
Burbidge:Yes, well, you write, you might get some response. Some of them would say they didn’t want to. …
Weart:With physicists, we got about a 80 percent response.
Burbidge:That’s very good. I think astronomers will be much more withdrawn. There were only — of course — we got a great, we became very good friends with Hummerson? Fundeson and Walter [?] It’s funny, because Hummerson was a very — Hummerson was a marvelous person, and he — but he was a very, he was a real old conservative. You see, I mean, the politics of that lot was really something out of this world. I can see them now, sitting every lunch, 20 years ago, up there — Paul Merrill and Hummerson and so on, all in favor of (Joseph ) McCarthy, you know, right down the line. But Milton was a very conservative man, and we of course met him when we first came to Mount Wilson. And then we actually got across him, when Alan Sandage and I had to fight the battle over Margaret and Women’s Lib. You know, we had a very fierce encounter with our friend Lee DuBridge, who was president of Cal Tech …in his capacity as — But anyway, the point is that Milton was the secretary of the observatory at that time, and he was the man who was originally, who originally made these rulings. But later on we got to know Milton. He became a good friend of ours. He was an old conservative. He really was a mule skinner in his day, and all the rest, you know — He was the only man I’ve ever really met who was always chewing tobacco. He suggested, after I got to know him, he suggested possibly (inaudible ) He used to take out on Sundays — take Margaret and me out to lunch once a week. And I never — Milton used to go, and he was really grumpy and he gradually got more and more mellow, and we used to talk for hours. And I often wondered. Then I found out that actually, what was happening was that Milton would drink coffee all through the lunch. And he had this arrangement with this restaurant, this waiter, and they say, he spiked every cup of coffee he had, and kept bringing fresh cups of coffee, and all the time, he really had — he really was a heavy drinker. I remember Baade [?] used to love talking to young people. Talking about science and scientists... (Inaudible) He used to love to tell these stories about the old astronomers, the old… shocking behavior of [?] couples and all the rest of it, oh, a tremendous line... But all those people are gone now.
Weart:So have the rivalries and pressures gotten less too?
Burbidge:Oh, I [?] in Chisago, where we were, Yerkes was… see, Arthur Strube was a great man, and he brought together a group in the middle thirties, Morgan and Chandrasekhar and [?] and Coker, [?] and some others. And they were very dissimilar people. And he was a very strong man, and he— as far as I know— I knew him, we knew him — he was the man of course who persuaded us to come here to the States, persuaded Margaret and me to come. He brought all these people together. But when he went, they all came apart, and they were all at each other’s throats, and they were all very different kinds of people, and there were a group of younger people who came to Chicago, at the time, Bob Kroft [?] who’s now at Lick, who is presently the president of AAS, and us, and Jim Chamberlain, who is now at Rice, and Helmut Abst, who is now at Kitts Peak, editor of on the ASTRONOMAL JOURNAL; Kevin Prendergast, who’s professor at Columbia . All of us were young assistant professors at that time. And we found, to our horror, when we got involved in faculty meetings and so on that all kinds of fights went on, but the fights were never going on about the issue that was rated. They were always really fights which had something to do with something that happened ten years ago. Chandra would say something, and he would be really getting to Morgan — not because Morgan was opposed to this particular issue, though it seemed that on the surface, but because of something that happened long before we all appeared. There were some terrible ruckuses. And of course, finally the whole thing broke up. ... (inaudible...) Chicago had — the great institutions had an era. And then they decay. That’s just what happens. Now, outwardly, they may not. I mean, Yerkes really has decayed. (inaudible... ) Outwardly and inwardly…But — the Cavendish is one of the great institutions that went over the hill long ago.
Weart:What about institutions that have come up very rapidly? Of course, there are some new observatories.
Burbidge:Well, there’s the National Center. Well, it’s hard to tell, really, when something comes up. You know there are some very good groups floating around. But it takes them a long time to get assimilated into the system, to the point at which their graduates and their people really begin to take charge. I would say that the National Center serves to come extent. But they don’t — the National Centers have not, have deliberately not, in the first instance anyway, deliberately did not get the best research scientists, because they felt they had to get people who were interested in serving the community. So you won’t find the National Centers full of stars. And in fact, I think the age of the star has gone by, because now — I wrote a little piece for Wheaton? last year, on how you use large telescopes in [?] observatory — and because of the politics of it, because of the fund-raising and all the rest, because you’ve got to get money, unless it’s on a national basis, really, because — and you can’t get large chunks for individuals, in the way that you could in the old days — when they have a very small number of people — it’s team research. There are the people who are going to turn out to be good leaders of team research. Still, among my generation and older, there’s a whole lot of people who really hate this idea, and want the individuals left alone, as Alan — we always kid Alan Sandage about communing with God in the private (?) part of his Cage (?) There was a marvelous crack made. But we always kid Alan, because he’s very serious about astronomy, all this nonsense about communing with God in the privacy of his cage at Palomar. And Helmut Abt, one day, who doesn’t have a great sense of humor, really, but he made a marvelous crack, when we were making jokes about this — this attitude of Alan’s. I don’t think it’s ever been stated, but it does sound like somebody pronouncing, the communing with God in the privacy of his cage, and Helmut said, “Well, by golly, the problem is, “he said, that you can never bite into the [?].” But you see no one — there’s no practical way in which you can get a major piece of equipment and essentially give it to a small number of people. This isn’t done any more.
Weart:It used to be, but it’s not now.
Burbidge:Yes. I mean, even if you wanted to. I don’t happen to think it’s the best way to do research. I think many of the problems of astronomy have been caused by this star system. But that’s another question. People argue with me about that. But I think the practicalities of it — it can’t happen now. You’ve got to look at this thing seriously. You need different kinds of people, which you’re used to in physics, and which many astronomers are just horrified at you. In their view, they’ll end up with a paper, with 50 names on the paper, which horrifies them. There are some people still in astronomy, prominent people, who don’t like to put other people’s names on their papers, even though those people have helped them. Now, my wife has moved from one scheme to the other. She’s quite happy now, with her group at Lick. Usually it’s … (inaudible...) [?] shepherded it through the press office, — the press office is boring — anyway, she’s moved through, working very much as an individual to this present situation. She doesn’t — I think if you feel reasonably secure in your reputation, you don’t worry about that. But there at many people who don’t like that. You know, you may even come —
Weart:— it’s a process that —
Burbidge:You’re kicking the wind. You cannot do anything about it. It’s going that way. Nobody is going to give — this is one of the problems with Pasadena. They want running costs from the federal government, but they don‘t want to give up any control. There’s no way. It’s gradually being forced on them, see, but they — that in order to get anything — maybe they won’t get it — they will have to give up some control. But they want control. So, I mean, the attitude is: “you give us so much money, and we will, our brilliant astronomers will find out things about the universe”. And everybody who reviews the proposal says, “To hell with you…” And we’ve got the same problem at the University of California. I mean, there’s an awful lot of bitterness and jealousy directed towards the people — towards the haves, from the have-nots. Really, it’s the old story. That’s the way a lot of people see us all in the Southwest, in general. I’ve learned this the hard way. It comes out very loud and clear ... [?] from the other astronomers involved... I remember, discussions when people would flatly come out ant lay it in. And I — there were others, Chandra and Alan Sandage and I were talking about it last week in Chicago — when big splashes were made about something of Alan’s. I mean, Chandra had seen some of the bitter letters he would get from people saying, “I don’t know why you make so much fuss about this, our man is just as good, he’s having trouble with his papers –“ And Chandra said, “Indeed, that may be true. “ In the old days, you see, nobody cared a damn for anybody else at all, at one time. They had their support from their local millionaire, and that was all right. Nowadays, they have to go — everybody and his brother referees everything; everybody has his say.
You say you call yourself a radical.
Yes — all [?] No, it’s just that — well, we’ve been talking about the policies in science and the policies of people. What I meant by that was that there’s a whole range of astrophysical problems, I guess, major astrophysical problems.... where there has developed, I think, among a very large fraction of the observers, and many of the theoreticians, a cut and dried attitude about the universe. — The attitude that Fred and I take, if I can express it in a general way —
Well, there are two approaches you can take to these major areas. One is that we do basically understand the rules by which the universe functions, operates. There’s a large amount of information that we’re lacking, but we understand the basic rules, and we know what the skeleton looks like, and we‘re clothing the skeleton. And that’s the way, I think, people would say they understand cosmology and the Big Bang and all the rest of it, and many other propositions. But there is a minority view of, which I think Fred and I are a couple of the most prominent exponents, — we essentially believe (now I’m speaking for myself, not for Fred ) — (but I mean, he does really share this attitude, in what he does and says ) — that we’re so — we’ve observed so little, we know so little about the universe, that we may not have the skeleton right at all. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that I think modern astrophysics is to be compared to 19th century physics, where you have lots and lots of observations, but you’re still talking about the ether... and things of that kind. And therefore, we don’t even know what shape the skeleton is. We don’t know whether it’s a horse or an elephant or a camel, or whether it walks on six legs, or 55 legs.
And in that sense, we’re prepared to take observations and talk about schemes which are not the scheme that everybody’s already swallowed. And in that sense, Fred and I find us in a minority on a large number of problems. And there’s a feeling somehow that you’ve got to believe, in order to do things. Well, I don’t agree with that, but I can see that — the relevance of it. Alan [?] if you don’t believe in looking — if you couldn’t go beyond [?] how can you possibly struggle onto [?] It’s so hard to do it.
Well, you know, “We’ve worked so hard and fought so long, we must be right, we can’t be wrong. “ That’s the attitude. But anyway — you know, there are arguments over the red shifts of the quasi-stallers, whether or not there was a Big Bang, over the origin of cosmic rays — a variety of things, where Fred and I get ourselves into this box, that we think up new possibilities, and people get exasperated like hell with us because they don’t believe in them, but they can’t rule them out. And there’s a big controversy developed, in a nice way, and then people like to — then, the way the reporter goes at it is to go and ask ten eminent astronomers, and nine say it’s one way, so they say, “By a ratio of 9 to 1,” you know — But you don’t do science that way, as we all ultimately know. It’s partly because astronomy is such a difficult subject, and such a frustrating subject, because it’s an observational science. As I was arguing with [?] You can’t pin things down so well. And people get exasperated as hell.