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Oral History Transcript — Dr. E. R. Mustel

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Interview with Dr. E. R. Mustel
By Spencer Weart
In Grenoble
August 30, 1976

open tab View abstract

E. R. Mustel; August 30, 1976

ABSTRACT: Deals mainly with the organization and responsibilities of the Astronomical Council; funding of major projects and large instruments, allocation of telescope time; theory vs. observation; the postwar increase in number of astronomies, Sputnik and popular interest. Comments on Mustel's teaching and travels to observatories; Fesenkov and his co-organization work.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Weart:

This is an interview with Professor E. R. Mustel on August the 30th, 1976, at Grenoble. Let me ask you, how did you first become interested in astronomy?

Mustel:

It was in 1927, so that next year it will be 50 years; a long time.

Weart:

Let's see, when were you born?

Mustel:

I was born in 1911.

Weart:

Ah, so you were still quite young in 1927.

Mustel:

Oh yes, yes. I was 16 at the time, I lived in the countryside, and I was a radio amateur.

Weart:

Ah, a ham, as they call it.

Mustel:

Yes. But not with the battery, I used a —

Weart:

— a crystal set?

Mustel:

A crystal set. Yes. It was the day of a partial solar eclipse, 29th of June, and I listened to a lecture given by Professor Mikhaylov, Director of the Pulkova Observatory[1] (but earlier he lived in Moscow) about this solar eclipse. He told that there is a society of amateurs of astronomy in Moscow, and whoever wishes to work in this society, please —

Weart:

— may join?

Mustel:

— enter the society. And I did this. I was very happy in this society. It was a very interesting society.

Weart:

There was a little publication that they sent around?

Mustel:

Yes, some publications. I published some publications. I carried out many observations of variable stars.

Weart:

Was it primarily an association of variable star observers?

Mustel:

There was a small section of observers of variable stars within the society. And I observed shooting stars and so on, several. In 1931 I entered Moscow University, and finished it in 1935.

Weart:

When you entered, did you already think that you might become an astronomer?

Mustel:

Yes, yes, yes. In fact, I may tell you a very interesting thing, till 1935 — Professor Severny, director then of the [Crimean] Observatory and I were very good friends — there was no astrophysical specialty in Moscow University, only the general astronomy. And we urgently asked to organize a group on astrophysics. It was the first time for us and for everyone else three people — we first listened to a lecture on theoretical physics and astrophysics and so on; so that we were the first astrophysicists in Moscow University.

Weart:

I see. So Severny was a classmate of yours then? He was in the same class at the university?

Mustel:

Yes, the same. We entered Moscow University simultaneously. And we were interested in astrophysics also simultaneously. And after this, we had our doctorate simultaneously, together.

Weart:

Together. I see. Who gave these lectures that you listened to?

Mustel:

Who gave lessons? Theoretical physics, oh, in physics, itís from Moscow University, now he's on the physical faculty of Moscow.

Weart:

No one made a great impression on you? Iím curious because you know; often people will enter a particular field because of one professor who makes an impression on them. But this does not seem to be the case, in your case?

Mustel:

No, no, because our principal teacher was an Academician, Fesenkov. He died a few years ago. He was a specialist on zodiacal light some planets, and in particular he organized the observatory in Kazakhstan, in Alman, Alta. He was the founder of the Physical institute there.

Weart:

I see. Now, how did you know that such a thing as astrophysics — you were taking a straight astronomical course without much physics?

Mustel:

No, at first we heard general subjects, mathematics, general physics, mechanics, astrometry, celestial mechanics, and so on. But beginning from the third course, we asked to —

Weart:

How did you know that such a thing as astrophysics existed?

Mustel:

You know that there was some self-education, and the theoretical astrophysics existed in Leningrad. Professor Ambartsumian and so on, were working there, and they constituted a very strong group of astrophysicists.

Weart:

I see.

Mustel:

In particular, they were our opponents during our dissertations.

Weart:

— I see, so you knew of their work.

Mustel:

But I can only say about Moscow.

Weart:

I see. Let me backtrack one minute, to pick up something that I forgot to ask. You say you were living in the country and you were sort of a radio amateur and so forth. What were your family circumstances? What did your family do, your father, your mother?

Mustel:

My father was born in Sebastopol. My father was Estonian. He came to Russia, and he married, and I was born in Sebastopol. But when I was two years old I came to Moscow, and lived there practically all my life, except for some period when I was working simultaneously in the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory for ten years or so.

Weart:

I see. And what did he do? What was your father's profession?

Mustel:

Profession? Both my parents were telegraphists.

Weart:

I see, telegraph operators. Now, to return, you got your doctorate, and you said earlier that about that time, you went into solar physics?

Mustel:

No, no, it was much more complex. When I finished Moscow University I was interested in stellar atmospheres, and I published an article about the radiative equilibrium of stellar atmospheres from the absorption co-efficiency dependence on the frequency. It was my dissertation. When I finished this candidate dissertation with Severny, I became docturanturo. Now this possibility is not used, but earlier we had it, docturanturate it was called.

Weart:

Docturantor, like the Germans.

Mustel:

Like the Germans, yes.

Weart:

I see, and you had a stipend from the university was it; or from the Academy or from where?

Mustel:

The Academy. Oh yes, it was the Academy.

Weart:

I see. How does it happen that you got picked for this? Was it your professor who picked you for this or — you sent in an application form? Does the professor recommend you for it? Or how do you get it?

Mustel:

No, at the time there were so few astronomers that it was very easy. Yes, there were two or three vacancies and we made application, there was some examination, and so on.

Weart:

I see. Tell me, at that time, what did you imagine an astronomer to be? Did you have an accurate picture, do you think, did you have some picture of what an astronomer would do? If you can go back to around the time of your doctorate, how did you picture an astronomer? Is he someone who sits behind a telescope? Is he someone who writes papers? What was your picture of the life of an astronomer?

Mustel:

Same as now.

Weart:

Ah, so it was not a romantic view, it was fairly realistic.

Mustel:

Yes, because in particular I went to Simeis Observatory and I studied some spectrographs of one novae.

Weart:

Already.

Mustel:

Yes, because the Simeis Observatory had a very good telescope.

Weart:

Where is that?

Mustel:

Oh, it's in the Crimea. It was broken by German troops.

Weart:

I see, right.

Mustel:

Almost completely. And just after the candidate dissertation I decided to work on novae. As I told you, I studied the spectroscopic materials which were published; especially very important results were published by McCoughlin in the United States. He made many generalizations of spectra, and I used these too, and had correspondence with him. I met him in Berkeley.

Weart:

You have still some of that correspondence? Do you save these old letters?

Mustel:

No.

Weart:

I see. That's the sort of thing that would be interesting.

Mustel:

No. We had some correspondence, and I sent him my articles, and he sent me his articles.

Weart:

There were no difficulties at that time in correspondence?

Mustel:

No, not correspondence, no — correspondence we received practically all the time. No interruptions. Not a bit. We received articles, if the address was correct.

Weart:

So you were completely in touch with what was happening everywhere?

Mustel:

Yes. But when I was in the process of preparation of my dissertation, the Second War began.

Weart:

Just as you were preparing your dissertation, which was to be on the novae?

Mustel:

The novae, and working on some problems of predicting ionospheric and magnetic disturbances. Simultaneously I was working on novae at the time. And when the war was finished, Professor Severny and I, we were working at the time in Moscow University. We were working simultaneously in the group of the Academy on the problem, where we must build new big observatories. In this connection, in '44, already we have chosen the place, more or less in general the place: Crimea. Because Simeis is the place of the old observatory, was good enough, because near this place there are many resorts, and it is not possible.

Weart:

Because of the light?

Mustel:

Right. And generally, it was a beach here, and here mountains with sometimes very strong wind.

Weart:

Right, it disturbs the seeing. What were you doing after the war disrupted your doctoral research; what did you do between then and '44?

Mustel:

No, I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, and simultaneously we spent some time to find the best place in Crimea for the astrophysical observatory. And beginning from '47, we became also on the staff of the Crimea Astrophysical Observatory.

Weart:

I see.

Mustel:

Because we found the place, not far from Sevastopol — 30 kilometers from there and now there is an observatory that we, the first people who initiated this problem, put there Professor Ambartsumian who was the Chairman of the so-called Astrophysical Committee.

Weart:

I see. How did you get chosen to be a member of that? How does it happen that you were a member of that? You were a young doctoral student. Why were you chosen to be a member of this committee to find the site?

Mustel:

Oh, because I'd finished my doctorate. I was a doctorate and working in the Academy of Sciences, and we felt the necessity to have observatory, because astronomers needed to observe and so on.

Weart:

Right and you knew that after the war, there would be funds available.

Mustel:

Yes.

Weart:

Had there been a great deal of destruction of observatories during the war?

Mustel:

The Simeis Observatory was completely destroyed, yes. The telescope was brought to Germany, and it was found as ruins of metal. The glass mirror was spoiled by a bullet. It was necessary to build a new telescope. Therefore our industry did this, and in — I don't remember exactly now, 1955, 1958, this observatory begins.

Weart:

We can find the date from one of these brochures, Iím sure.

Mustel:

— you know the date, because so many years already I was working simultaneously in Moscow University; I was professor at Moscow University. I was working there in the winter period of time and in the summer I was working in the Crimean Observatory. I became a solar physicist twenty years ago.

Weart:

During the 1950ís.

Mustel:

Yes, the 1950ís.

Weart:

What attracted you to solar physics? The Crimea is well known of course — is it because the circumstances were favorable there for observation?

Mustel:

No. Simply when the war was finished it was quite evident that we must have some new big observatories, therefore this observatory must have stellar and solar equipment. It was decided that Severny would be responsible for solar research. I was interested in stellar work, but nevertheless, during the war, I predicted the conditions of radio propagation, the geomagnetic conditions and so on, so that I became already a solar astronomer, on very primitive equipment.

Weart:

I see, through ionosphere observations, that sort of thing?

Mustel:

No, simply, we were observing solar disc, and we note the passage of active regions.

Weart:

In order to predict when there would be radio disturbances.

Mustel:

Radio disturbances, yes. Not radio astronomy; I have never been a radio astronomer.

Weart:

No, I said radio disturbances.

Mustel:

Radio disturbances and ionospheric and geomagnetic disturbances too and so on.

Weart:

And of course, once you started watching the sun, it becomes quite fascinating.

Mustel:

Yes.

Weart:

There is something about it.

Mustel:

Yes. I was continuing with the Crimean Observatory for several years.

Weart:

So you switched with Severny? You said originally Severny was to have been the solar man?

Mustel:

Still now he is solar. He is interested in stellar astronomy, but mostly he is solar.

Weart:

I see, so you joined.

Mustel:

Joined. But in — already 20 years Ė- Ď57, I left the Crimea Observatory because it was difficult for my wife. She has not a good heart.

Weart:

You mean, because of the altitude?

Mustel:

Because of the altitude, yes, and so on. We moved to Moscow, and now I am the Chairman of the Astronomical Council. It's more or less big, 160 persons, and the Astronomical Council is responsible for coordination of all astronomical studies and we organize different meetings. We have several commissions on different problems. We help the observatory by ordering the photographic plates, and photo-electric equipment, photo electronic and so — And simultaneously the work is done on satellite tracking for purposes of cosmic geodesy. We have many observatories distributed over the world, in Africa, in Asia and some other places. We have two observatories 70 kilometers from Moscow, not very big observatories, with satellite tracking. And in Simeis at this old place —

Weart:

— on the site —

Mustel:

We are using modern equipment there for satellite tracking, laser equipment and so forth.

Weart:

You started to tell me earlier why you decided to leave solar physics. You were mentioning how it seems to be a tremendous amount — which I agree — of description and not much theory so far, not much explanation. Is this the reason you left solar physics, the main reason?

Mustel:

No. Simply because I predicted atmospheric and geomagnetic disturbances, I received the spectrohelioscope, and decided with Professor Severny to study chromospheric flares and so on. Simply, I was interested simultaneously in solar physics and in stellar physics.

Weart:

I see. Did you continue to do work in stellar physics during those years?

Mustel:

Yes, yes Ė- Iím always doing something on stars, on different stars.

Weart:

So you maintained the two interests simultaneously.

Mustel:

Simultaneously.

Weart:

I see.

Mustel:

I explained to you, that one of my principal results on novae was that I came to the conclusion that they were strong magnetic fields, and this was confirmed recently. It was a principal result. But — excuse me?

Weart:

— you were mentioning that you went to one of these conferences with Alfven in —

Mustel:

1956, yes. I presented the results to [???] which compelled me to believe that there are some forces which are diverted towards the center of the star. This idea is confirmed from two points of view, quite recently. American Astronomers found that relatively many white dwarfs possess relatively strong magnetic fields.

Weart:

Very high magnetic fields.

Mustel:

Very high, yes. On the other hand Kraft came to the following model of a nova: that a nova is a very close binary. One component of this binary is a white dwarf, and another a red dwarf. Maybe normal but I think a red dwarf. And the white dwarf doesn't have hydrogen, but due to interaction, the accretion begins from —

Weart:

The white dwarf begins to accrete hydrogen.

Mustel:

Hydrogen, yes. And in some time, the white dwarf is covered by a thick shell enriched in hydrogen. And when the mass becomes sufficiently large, at the bottom of this hydrogen-rich layer, on the boundary of the white dwarf, thermonuclear reaction, runaway, begins. And the result —

Weart:

— the outer shell of it blows up.

Mustel:

Yes, yes. And due to this, I realize that itís already confirmation, since many white dwarfs possess strong magnetic fields, therefore, already this fact justified my results.

Weart:

I see.

Mustel:

But I just presented my results, not about magnetic fields, but about these ideas —

Weart:

— About the idea that there must be a strong force to keep it in.

Mustel:

Yes, and I presented this result two years ago in Moscow in the Third International Symposium on Non-Stationary Stars. And in two months, I read in Astronomical Journal the results of [???] in which he found very strong confirmation, for one more. You know, it's very interesting, (Walker?), an American astronomer, found very rapid oscillation of the brightness, of [???] Hercules, after it burst.

Weart:

After the nova, it oscillated.

Mustel:

Yes, yes, oscillation. And also, this is the type of pulsation that somebody, I don't know who, suggested it may be similar to a neutron star, which rotates. We observed bundles of, bundles of synchrotron radiation. Kemp studied these by means of circular and linear polarization and confirmed completely these ideas —

Weart:

— 20 years after you first proposed it.

Mustel:

Yes, yes, yes.

Weart:

And for 20 years no one particularly believed it?

Mustel:

No.

Weart:

Or they perhaps simply didnít pay attention to it?

Mustel:

Yes, yes, nobody paid attention, yes. And another of my interests because itís also very interesting; I am interested in supernovae now. Novae, not because I have no time, I have some administrative roles and so on. Only now, in connection with novae, I begin to work on novae too. But another quite different thing is a very controversial problem, but now many, many meteorologists came to believe the influence of solar activity upon the —

Weart:

— upon the lower atmosphere.

Mustel:

Upon the lower atmosphere, yes. We published. I didnít believe in this for many, many years.

Weart:

This was around, when? Not long after the war?

Mustel:

No, no, I began to study this ten year ago, because the chief of the Haas Meteorological Service, Academia Fedorov, suggested to me to organize in the hydro-meteorological center in Moscow a special group on solar conditions. I was head of this group. We began to study this problem, and to produce many convincing results. Quite recently, an American scientist, John Wilcox, my very good friend from Stanford University became interested in this problem, in connection with the magnetic superstructure of the sun. Yes. And now, we have in a special committee on solar physics. It is similar to IAU and so on. I was just in the United States where I spent three weeks this June, and we had a symposium, on this special committee dedicated to the problems of solar-terrestrial 1 physics. So many people became convinced in the reality of this that a special planning group was created; this special committee and which is called the Planning Group on Solar Terrestrial physics and Meteorology. I am the chairman of this group, and John Wilcox is my assistant at the moment.

Weart:

So there is almost a continuity between what you were doing in '44. And —

Mustel:

Yes, yes, and I think next year in Seattle, we shall have a very big conference on this subject.

Weart:

Ok, let me turn this now because I see the tape is almost at an endÖ What I wanted to ask you this time, Dr. Mustel, was general questions about the development of astronomy in the Soviet Union, and maybe we might talk about the history of the journals. I think you must know about that. You were mentioning earlier about how most of the observational results of course are published in the journals of the observatories.

Mustel:

Yes.

Weart:

Whereas the theoretical results are being published now by the Astronomical Journal.[2] Was this the case already during your student days?

Mustel:

When I was a student, already this magazine was published. Academician Fesenkov was the first editor, and he organized it. He did very much for astronomy. He was founder of the Astrophysical Institute of Kazakhstan.

Weart:

Do you know the background of the foundation of the Astronomical Journal?

Mustel:

No.

Weart:

It was before your time.

Mustel:

Yes. You know that when this magazine — 50 years it was, two years ago — so that I think there was an article, special article dedicated to the history of this magazine, yes. It's the oldest astronomical magazine, not committed to any observatory.

Weart:

This is the one of which you are an editor now.

Mustel:

Now, yes.

Weart:

When did you become editor?

Mustel:

That was 20 years ago, maybe.

Weart:

Do you think the characters of the journal, or maybe I should say, of the papers published in it has changed much over the past twenty years?

Mustel:

Oh, we have referees. We send our articles to referees. A certain percentage of articles are sent back, if they are not correct, and so on. We have every two months a general meeting of the editorial board to discuss papers, because our secretary should refer preliminary opinion after looking through the results of the referees' works. Thereís been a very good secretary during the last many years, was Professor (Bigel?). He died. We have a new secretary.

Weart:

What about the character of the papers themselves? For example, there's much more theory, as you mentioned, in astronomy these days, and some people feel that thereís much more physics in astronomy than there used to be. Do you have any feeling about that?

Mustel:

Yes. We are trying to publish more papers with observations, but because directors sometimes prefer to publish these studies in their own publications. But nevertheless, we are trying, every time.

Weart:

— you try to encourage people to —

Mustel:

— yes, encourage people to send us observational papers and so on. Now, I think that because the number of telescopes is increased — the six meter telescope begins to work, preliminary, of course, but I think maybe in January it will begin already, more or less officially —

Weart:

On a regular basis?

Mustel:

On a regular basis, yes. Now, we shall have the dedication of the second 2.6 meter telescope in [???] Observatory. We shall have a scientific meeting and I shall go there at the beginning of this October.

Weart:

And is each of these to have its own publication?

Mustel:

Yes, each observatory has its own publication. And in addition they have the Astrofisika.

Weart:

How did that come about, that this separate Astrophysica was stated?

Mustel:

I think that, since the time of publication in our Astronomicheskil Zhudnal was too long, people felt that some new magazine is needed, and therefore we felt — now Ambartsumian decided to organize its own, not its own, but simply, more or less parallel magazine. It was a very good idea. And we have not officially but more or less, we formed a rule that galaxies and stars and so on — all those things are published in Astrofisika and in Astronomicheskil Zhudnal. We publish celestial mechanics and astrometry. Of course, stellar work and the galaxies are not forbidden, but nevertheless celestial mechanics and astrometry is not published in Astrofisika. And in addition, we have one more addition and that is the letters to Astronomicheskil Zhudnal — "Astronomical Letters" —

Weart:

— which is quite new.

Mustel:

This is quite new, yes. And in addition, there's some small magazine, in which we try to publish — The Bulletin —

Weart:

The Bulletin.[3]

Mustel:

Yes, The Bulletin, in which we are trying to publish all studies on planets, and this Bulletin In, is also translated.

Weart:

Yes. Of course, I suppose part of the problem simply came from the increase in the number of papers to be published?

Mustel:

Yes, yes because the number of telescopes is increasing —

Weart:

— and astronomers.

Mustel:

And astronomers. But the number of astronomers is not increasing now, more or less. But the efficiency of the astronomers was increased, because we have more modem equipment, more telescopes. Of course, for example, radio astronomy increased, because we have the 86-meter telescope, a very big radio telescope; so that the number of articles increased, and in fact the quality too.

Weart:

You think that the quality has been increasing? You know, in the United States, there have been complaints that the younger astronomers have been under great pressure to publish frequently and rapidly and so forth, and some people feel that the quality in some cases has decreased. Have you had any experience like that?

Mustel:

Until now we are trying. In many cases, in Astrophysical Letters — in the Letters to the Astronomicheskil Zhudnal — we accept all papers which are approved by referees. And it takes five months, approximately, or it depends on the speed with which the referees give back their opinion.

Weart:

Do you think that there is more competition now among younger astronomers? For example, when you were a student there was apparently no competition because the field was so small. Do you feel that now there has been a change in the characteristics of the younger astronomers that they're different from the time when you went to school?

Mustel:

Oh, of course. Now scientists are more qualified because now there are many books on astrophysics and astronomy, and the professors are more qualified.

Weart:

Much easier to study.

Mustel:

Easier to study. Then, what is very important, that they have access to the big telescopes during their training as students and postgraduate students and so on and so forth. The situation is improved during the recent times because earlier, they had no telescopes, after the war.

Weart:

Thatís right.

Mustel:

Or only very small ones.

Weart:

That was one of the questions I was going to ask you, about changes in the conditions of education. Of course, now they're graduating quite large classes and so forth. The numbers of astronomers coming out each year is so much greater than when you were a student. Another thing that some people have told me is that they feel that the astronomy community has grown so large that now it is organized on a different basis. It is less a matter of personal contact, than it was at one time. Have you noticed anything like that?

Mustel:

No, our Astronomical Council tries to organize different meetings for academicians and so on every year, in different cities and towns, and we are trying to organize discussions on many topics and so on. We have several international symposia. For example, in April we had in Crimea a symposium, organized by the Astronomical division of the European Physical Society and our Astronomical Council on cosmic magnetic fields; very interesting. Many many people from the Soviet Union came and so on.

Weart:

One more thing and that is the question, what shall we now do with this interview? Our usual procedure is to transcribe it, to type it out so it's on paper, and then we would normally send a copy to you so that you can make corrections and changes. Then we would bring it back, and we would leave it on deposit, so that future scholars may see it — subject to any conditions or restrictions that you might want to put on it. Is this acceptable to you? Would you rather that I handled it in some different way?

Mustel:

I don't understand. What do you wish to do with this tape?

Weart:

Eventually I would like to have it available for anyone who might be interested in the history of astronomy.

Mustel:

Yes, yes, so then you will keep this in your file.

Weart:

In our files.

Mustel:

Yes, yes. So then there would be no publication?

Weart:

No, it would not be published.

Mustel:

Not published, yes.

Weart:

If you would give permission, we would publish the information that was available.

Mustel:

Yes, yes, yes. There is no secret in my information.

Weart:

Another thing I would like to do is to send you the text, so that you may make corrections. You know, sometimes when it gets typed out, we may have the wrong name, you know, or —

Mustel:

Oh yes. Please. Please.

Weart:

We can do that? All right, fine. And then, do you have any restrictions on who may see it?

Mustel:

What kind of restriction?

Weart:

Well, normally we make them available to all scholars. Some people want us to write for permission before we show them to any scholar. Do you care for that or shall we just show it to any scholar who wishes to see it?

Mustel:

I think that everything is known.

Weart:

Ok, fine.

[1] From 1947 to 1964

[2] Astronomicheskii Zhurnal

[3] Akademiya Nauk SSSR, Institut Theoreticheskoi Astronomii Bulletin

Session I | Session II