Oral History Transcript — Dr. E. R. Mustel
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Interview with Dr. E. R. Mustel
E. R. Mustel; August 21, 1979
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.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Weart:Today, in our second session with Dr. Mustel, weíre going to talk about things we didn't have time to talk about in Grenoble last time. The first thing I'm interested in is in questions of how scientific life is carried on in the Soviet Union, and particularly any changes from when you first went to Moscow University, till now — for example, seminars, the ways people got together to talk about scientific ideas. I wonder if you could tell me how that was when you first went to Moscow University, and how that has changed.
Mustel:What particular questions?
Weart:Ok. Let me ask then, at Moscow University, were there seminars where the astronomers would get together like every week or every month?
Mustel:I don't know exactly what is going on in Moscow University because I am not in Moscow University, but —
Weart:— no, I was wondering, when you first went there.
Mustel:Yes. I know that there are seminars, several seminars on different topics. I know that Shklovskii has some seminars. And I think that scientific problems are discussed in — I don't know exactly. They have some [???] of a section on — I don't know the translation into English.
Mustel:For example, [???] of celestial mechanics, action, is the chairman of this, he is also director, and these problems are discussed, the meetings of this. But we have in every institution our own meetings. For example, in Astronomical Council we have different meetings, for example meetings for astrophysics, for photo light [???]ing and —
Weart:These would be meetings for people from the whole Soviet Union to come to.
Mustel:Yes, no, no, not necessarily; regional, regional, yes. But we have — so that each organization, astronomical organization, has its seminars, of different types.
Weart:I see; each section of the Astronomical Council.
Mustel:Yes, each section, and the same as the Astronomical Council — at Sternberg has an institute at the various institutes, with different names. We call our sections, sectors, scientific sectors, at the different institutes, and some problems are discussed in the Scientific Council, of the institutes.
Weart:People discuss mainly such as problems — (funding???)
Mustel:— problems of organization, and sometimes scientific problems, very often, and in addition, we have different meetings of general type, so that, Astronomical Council preparing each year, before, in advance, the names of those union meetings. Each will be, in the next year. For example, on the problems of astrometry, in some town, in the observatory, and on different problems, on galactic studies, for example very often problems of galactic research are discussed in Byurakan Observatory, in (Zenichuv???) Observatory and so on. So that the meeting take place in different cities, and there are a number of attendant people, sometimes 200 and so on, sometimes.
Weart:I see, and these meetings are funded by [???]?
Mustel:Funded by, not all the observatories themselves. They pay the —
Weart:— the travel and so on.
Mustel:Yes, the travel and so on.
Weart:I see. Now, how has this changed over time? This must be quite different from the way it was in the 1950ís for example; I would imagine there are many more meetings now.
Mustel:Yes. Yes, the number of astronomers is much more now. But now, Some —
Mustel:Well, yes. Yes, because all observatories are already do not grow, but there are changes in the generations.
Weart:By the way, this is one thing, just reminds me, that astonishes me always — that at the same time that things are starting to level off in the United States, they also begin to level off in Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Why do you suppose it happened in all countries more or less at the same time; this leveling off?
Weart:Yes, you know, this —
Mustel:— ah yes —
Weart:— it no longer grows exponentially?
Weart:In 1960 the number of astronomers was growing exponentially. Now, that's no longer true.
Mustel:I think I may explain that at least the number of observatories increased strongly in our country after the war. There was Burakan, new observatory, and I think that several that they didn't have before. Crimean Observatory I know was earlier, very small observatory, a few astronomers observed, but a number of observatories and then, as far as the observatories received more instruments. Therefore it was necessary to secure thisÖ to secure these instruments by scientists and so on.
Weart:Yes, understand. Your English is fine, I understand. Then this reached, then you had enough you mean? You reached a point where it was no longer increasing at the same rate?
Mustel:Yes. Of course the number of astronomers, we include now the astronomers who are working on space problems (programs???). They work simultaneously on usual ground based astronomy, optical astronomy, and space problems and so on. There is no division between space science astronomers and —
Weart:— right, itís become more merged together.
Mustel:Yes, yes, because simply the extension of the range, of wave length.
Mustel:They have different methods, but they are all astronomers.
Mustel:Of course. For example Friedman in the United States, heís astronomer, we can say that.
Weart:Right, now accepted as one. At one time he might not have been. At one time, at least in the United States, there was some disagreement among astronomers — especially with radio astronomy, they didnít necessarily recognize that.
Mustel:Yes, radio astronomy of course gave the great increase of astronomers, because the radio astronomers are also astronomers.
Weart:Tell me, in the United States, the launching of Sputnik made a great difference. It almost made dis-continuity in the organization of astronomy and the funding for astronomy. Was there any similar very rapid change in the Soviet Union around that time?
Mustel:You speak about space?
Weart:Yes, particularly around 1957.
Mustel:Yea. Yes. Certainly the number of people who began to study the skies by means of space probes rapidly increased.
Weart:Was there a sudden change in popular interest in astronomy?
Mustel:Oh yes. Yes. Yes. At the time — giving several years, after this then interest dropped a little, because at first, the launching of the first Sputnik arose a general interest and so on. But now, people are more interested in the results, not in the launching, but in the results, the scientific results, of space.
Weart:Thatís right; itís no longer so exciting. For one thing one no longer worries so much that itís no longer such an anxious thing to see whether the thing will work or not. We used to be very fearful that the thing would not work at all. Now I think people are more confident about that. Now, this was about the same time that you joined the Astronomical Council, and Iím interested, as you say, youíre no longer at Moscow University, youíre on the Astronomical Council, and I wonder what sort of change this involves. Iím not quite familiar with what one's work is, on the Council.
Mustel:So, I may describe the main purposes of the Astronomical Council. We are an organization which is responsible for the coordination of all scientific work of astronomy, optical astronomy at first, so that we have seven sections, on different topics — celestial mechanics, then planetary systems, galaxies, our galaxy, then instrumental; section, solar activity section, and —
Weart:I understand. It's the classical astronomy.
Mustel:Yes. So there are several sections. We each are responsible for coordination of this work. They have their own meetings.
Mustel:Yes, yes. At each they discuss the results of the previous work, and they discuss the most effective ways how to work further. In addition, we have every year one [???] of the Astronomical Council, where each section tells about the results. We discuss, criticize and so on. And that is working well.
Weart:I see. And these also take care of the funding of the observatories?
Mustel:Yes, again, yes.
Weart:Does a particular observatory come within one section, or?
Mustel:No. No. When we have limited section, therefore, only one man comes, observatory representative, to the chairman of the section, so that it's more or less wide discussion of the development and further studies in the reported field. All fields are discussed.
Weart:Has this been the same since you joined? Have more sections been added? Have the responsibilities changed since the 1950ís?
Mustel:No. We changed two times the system, and now we came to final system, so that we have sections and different branches — different branches, say, for galaxies, but inside of this section, there are problem groups, more narrow, each responsible for a different problem. One, say for a photographic problem of oh yes, I mentioned that we have also a section on instrumental problems.
Weart:So a problem group may report to two sections. It may report to the instrumental section as well as to the galaxy section.
Weart:How was it when you first joined in 1957? How was it organized then? How was it organized when you first joined in 1957? It was different then?
Mustel:Approximately the same. Approximately the same. Meeting, discussing.
Weart:To take an example, I know in the United States, if I were a young astronomer at some observatory and I have a particular piece of work I decided is a good idea, I want to build an instrument — I make an application to National Science Foundation.
Mustel:Itís the same. At these meetings we are discussing, for example, you know that we have, every five years, a plan.
Weart:A five year plan, yes.
Mustel:Five year plans. And we prepare for each period, sometimes for even longer periods, for ten years, the principal projects for the next period.
Weart:Such as major observatories and so forth.
Mustel:Yes, yes. We think now mostly not about the new observatories, but now to improve instrumentation, to have more telescopes of different types and so on, and we are planning also a 25 meter telescope, composed of different mirrorsÖ
Weart:I see; a multi-mirror.
Mustel:This telescope of course will cost much money. But nevertheless, we are trying. We present our request to the — at first, to the, our section of physics and general astronomy of our Academy, and they take up the cause, they discuss, and of course, they have limitation in the money, they have to choose, and to reject some, some suggestions. And the high ministry, it is the Ministry of Higher Education, has its own funds. Therefore — but we discuss the problems in general for all astronomy. But as to the funds, they are distributed, they are different, the same as in the general assembly, because the Ministry of Higher Education has its own funds. Generally in our country, most astronomy is concentrated in Academy of Science, and in the academies of the national republics. Very important, because, for example, [???] belongs to the Armenian Academy, Azerbaijan [???] Observatory, to Azerbaijan Academy, Estonia, Tart ova to Estonian, Latvian, Tajik Republic, Ukrainian of course, Yatzkiv(?) Physical Observatory of Ukraine, and director for this observatory, so that —
Weart:I'm interested, you know, there have been a lot of observatories, Alma Ata, Abastumani, —
Mustel:Yes, Abastumani, yes, Abastumani, Alma Ata, Kazakh, is director of Kazakh Observatory. They are planning to have now 2.6 meter, and go on, (1.5?) 5-meter telescope, so that —
Weart:I wonder, has this changed the relative strength of theoretical and observational astronomy in the Soviet Union, to have so many more instruments?
Mustel:No. Each observatory has some people who are interested not only in the observations but also in theory. There are theoreticians in each. Some people work only on the theoretical problems.
Mustel:We didnít divide a strong line between these. It seems to me that the general trend of modem astronomy, so that astronomers observe, and try to discuss theoretically their own results.
Weart:So you think things are going more toward a combination.
Mustel:Yes, continuation, yes. It is more interesting if you observe, and take away also these theoretical problems.
Weart:Thatís right. At one point, many people were very strictly observation oriented. They would count stars, measure positions, and so forth.
Mustel:We also have measuring of the stars. Mostly Pulkova Observatory is responsible.
Weart:Still does that, yes.
Mustel:Yes. It is our principal observatory. We recently discussed this problem and decided that Pulkova Observatory must be mostly an astrometrical observatory. And it includes also the solar service.
Weart:The time service?
Mustel:No, the solar service — the solar service. ([???] words I can't catch.)
Weart:I see. This is a decision the astronomical Council will make?
Mustel:I don't know exactly. Novikova is astronomer of Pulkova and he organized at first [???] but after, the station expanded, and now he is responsible for the solar service, solar activity and so on. It is a center for solar studies and so on.
Weart:Now, Iím curious. Take a major instrument, one of the big telescopes. How is the time on the telescope shared out among various people? How is it decided, who will have so many nights?
Mustel:For example, see, the 6 meter telescope is a special telescope, became from the very beginning, it was decided that approximately two thirds of the time will be given to astronomers of different observatories.
Weart:I see, so itís a national —
Mustel:National, yes. Therefore, there is special committee on the distribution of the time. Therefore all observatories or persons who wish to observe with the 6 meter telescope write to — I am a member also of this committee — write the requests, about the time, about the problem, about the problem which might be discussed, and so on. And therefore this committee has it meetings, twice a year, and it discusses which time may be allocated for different observatories and persons, having in mind the significance of the request, and so on, so only quite qualified astronomers of different working on different problems — compose this committee, and they consider. But, in other observatories, I think essentially the Council considers, and the director considers —
Weart:— each observatory has its own scientific council?
Weart:And the director of course.
Weart:I see. Tell me, I'm interested in this committee Ė- Iíve asked people from other countries the same sort of question, Iím interested in the answers — first, do most of the requests for the 6 meter, do they mostly come from directors of observatories, from observatories, or do they mostly come from individual people?
Mustel:No, mostly from the observatories. Mostly from observatories.
Weart:Then the observatory will give the time to its members.
Weart:I see. So a given observatory may concentrate on a particular problem.
Mustel:Yes. For each time, it is indicated, what scientist will go, and so on.
Weart:I see. So that's explained in the proposal.
Weart:So, another question is, are there any fields that are particularly favored? I'm particularly interested in the history of cosmology. Does the Council have a particular interest in cosmology? I ask this question because I'm particularly interested in the history of cosmology.
Mustel:I recommend to you to speak with Novikov.
Weart:Ah. Is he here?
Mustel:He is here, yes.
Weart:Oh, thatís right. I will speak with him.
Mustel:Heís working with cosmology, and he is very able scientist.
Weart:I will speak with him.
Mustel:He may explain you. He's a very good cosmologist.
Weart:Iím wondering, particularly in giving telescope time, does cosmology have any special place, or is it regarded as another problem, equivalent to spectroscopy or?
Mustel:No, I think that cosmology is mostly theoretical; theoretical science. But of course, cosmologists take part in the meetings, and they are asked to do something on particular problems and so on. But many observers also are interested in cosmological problems, and they discuss these problems with theoreticians, again, many so that there is a special seminar, in the Astronomical Council, which is directed by Zeldovitch.
Weart:Oh, that must be very interesting.
Mustel:Yes, [???] Zeldovitch, and there too — I don't know exactlyÖ they discuss cosmological problems and problems related to high energy problems, high energy astrophysics.
Weart:But in terms of telescope time on the 6 meter or whatever, it doesnít take up a major part of the telescope time?
Weart:For example, the 200 inch in the United States was built mainly for cosmological work.
Mustel:No, no, we donít have such an instrument. Because the 6 meter is designed for different, for all types of —
Mustel:Of course, it was agreed from the very beginning that the 6 meter telescope is designed only for research observations, which cannot be carried out on smaller telescopes.
Mustel:We distribute time also for our average telescopes — average telescopes like the 2 meter, 2-1/2 meter, for instance, or 1.
Weart:I understand. There are a lot of telescopes. A lot of money has been spent on astronomy. A lot of effort has gone into it. And I wonder how is it decided to spend so much on astronomy? Of course, the astronomers will always have programs and plans. But why is it that astronomy has received so much support, do you think? Why has astronomy received so much support, to be able to build all these instruments?
Mustel:We know that astronomy is a very important science for the understanding of what happens in the world.
Weart:Even though it has no practical value?
Mustel:Why it has many practical implications. An astronomer, for example, the solar service is important for the ionospheric and radio propagation people, and for forecasting of different chromospheric flares, when the cosmonauts are out in space, and so on. In addition, many other things.
Weart:But this doesn't necessarily get support for a 6 meter telescope, or for the 600 meter radio telescope. This is something else.
Mustel:Yes. I know. The studies, the observations with the 6 meter telescope, and with Raton, are for the large science.
Weart:Let me put it this way. You are in the Astronomical Council, and you have to go and tell people, ďHere is a new instrumentĒ like the 25 meter multi-mirror and so forth, and you have to tell people why they should give so much money for something like this. What do you tell them? What can you say?
Mustel:Well, you say — our principal source of funds is the Academy. Therefore, we discuss at first, in the Astronomical Council, and we have some commission headed there by Ambartsumian-first commission on which it's complicated. We have three types of observations: radio astronomy, optical astronomy, and space astronomy. See, there is a special commission on space programs, headed by Severny, and Katiinikov, president of our Academy, is the head of the radio astronomers.
Weart:I see, so that your council is more or less equivalent to these, on this same level?
Mustel:I cannot say, because we have more or less larger organization which includes the national committee, and we are responsible for all international work.
Mustel:We organize trips to different meetings and so on. We indirectly — the IAU — so you see, it's more work in the — in addition, we have our own scientific work but this too, other councils, on radio astronomy and space astronomy. So that Katiinikov is director of radio physics institute, so that — but there is no vivid connection between the institutes. Simply there are a few people, directorsÖ
Weart:I see. So the request goes to this group that Ambartsumian chairs, and then —
Mustel:— weíd discuss the problem of large telescope in the Astronomical Council, in the plenary sessions, and so on. Then we discuss this problem inside this complex council. And then we present our results of our discussion to the Bureau of General Physics and Astronomy, of our Academy.
Weart:I see. So you are talking to scientists really.
Mustel:Yes, to scientists, yes. We discuss with the Bureau. The head of the Bureau is the so-called Academy Secretariat.
Weart:I see; the secretariat of the Academy.
Mustel:I am assistant secretary in Astronomy, on theÖ
Weart:I see. Do you also get involved — I know, in the United States, when one wants to build a major instrument, one doesn't deal only with, for example, National Science Foundation. One also deals with the Bureau of the Budget. In the Soviet Union, I think the equivalent would be the Five Year Plan agency. Do you have to deal directly with them, or does that all go through the Academy?
Mustel:Yes, through the Academy, yes. Through the Academy who may decide. And the Minister of Higher Education has his own funds and of course we, the general recommendation gives the Astronomical Council, but these recommendations are used by the university people, are used to ask for money.
Mustel:Their own —
Weart:— itís the people at the universities or at the observatories who have made the actual plans, drawn up the actual plans?
Mustel:Yes, yes. Yes. Of course, it's not all obligatory, but nevertheless it helps. If disapproved by Astronomical Council and the Soviet of Ambartsumian, this is some strength, and —
Weart:— I see, gives him some support.
Mustel:Some support, yes, Of course, itís very difficult because we used to have 25, 50 —
Weart:— oh, thereís no limit, I know.
Mustel:The universe is infinite.
Weart:The universe is infinite and it takes a very large instrument to see all of it, I know.
Weart:Tell me, when the Space Council and the Radio Council were set up, how is it that they were set up separate, rather than as part of the Astronomical Council?
Mustel:Well, they work in the same way, so that they have meetings and they again ask for funds, in sciences and so on, so it's the same.
Weart:Ok. I want to switch now to different questions about teaching. Do you still teach?
Mustel:Not now. I don't like it.
Weart:I see, so you're —
Mustel:— I was professor of Moscow University for many years. But I lost interest. I published a book on theoretical [???] at Moscow, but —
Weart:Oh, I see, that was a textbook.
Mustel:Textbook, yes for students. It was used for many years but now of course things change.
Weart:Science changes so fast.
Weart:If you can think back to the years when you were teaching, can you tell me what you think it was that attracted the students into astronomy? I'm interested, why a student would pick astronomy rather than some other field? Do you have any feeling on that?
Mustel:It's very difficult.
Weart:Hard to say.
Mustel:You have the same problem, why some young people go to biology, geology. They are interested.
Weart:It's a difficult question.
Mustel:A difficult question, yes.
Weart:Now, I have a couple of other questions, again going back in time. I wonder — some of the important astronomers of the older generation — for example I know you worked closely with Fesenkov and some others.
Mustel:Fesenkov — I may mention Bridikin, and Kokometz; Bridikin, then Belapuiski; a very distinguished astronomer. The first great [???] of our country published book on this.
Weart:Tell me something about these people. You know, there's not very much written about those people, how they were as teachers, how they were as people. I'd be interested if you could tell me just a little about what they were like.
Mustel:I have maybe seen Belopuiski. I have seen Bridikin. They are —
Weart:Tell me a little about Fesenkov. What kind of person was he?
Mustel:Fesenkov was interested mostly in the problems of the origin of the earth, and the problems of the physics of the upper layers of the earth's atmosphere, and very interested in interplanetary plasma, He preferred to work with small instruments, photometric studies of the luminescence of the sky, and so on. But he contributed much to astronomy. He organized the Astronomical Council.
Weart:Oh, is that so?
Weart:Thatís very interesting. Do you know about that? Do you know about how he did that?
Mustel:40 years ago, he organized the Kazakhstan in Alma Ata. It was the beginning of the war, and many astronomers went to observe the solar eclipse, 21st of September. A group of astronomers went to Alma Ata, and didn't come back till the — until the end of the war, Yes, and the Kazakhstan [???] was organized there.
Mustel:Yes. After his work in Alma Ata, he returned to Moscow, and he became the chairman of the committee on meteorites. Yes, and we have a collection of meteorites, that he made.
Weart:Do you know how or why, especially why he organized the astronomical Council?
Mustel:No. At first it was a very small group, two or three people, yes.
Weart:Two or three people within the Academy? These were all Academicians?
Mustel:In the Academy. An! Mikhaiiov, [???] and Mikhaiiov headed this group. He was for a long period of time the chairman.
Weart:How large was it when you entered it, when you first became a member of the Council? How large was it then?
Mustel:Oh, already I think 20.
Weart:I see. So it didn't have sections yet.
Mustel:But now the Astronomical Council is a simultaneously institute because we study central (essential?) problems. Now it is 200.
Weart:I see — 200 people — do they all work full time for it?
Mustel:Yes, because you see, we have especially a section on photoelectric, [???] kilometers from Moscow, and we have the computers, the large computer. People from Moscow go there, especially when we have a group on the evolution of stars, and they need the computer much to understand how the star's evolve, and so on.
Weart:Now, just to switch — I have a couple of other questions — we're almost done — back again let's say in the 1950's when you were a professor at Moscow, I'm interested, what journals did people regularly read? How did people usually learn about new developments?
Weart:Well, Iíd actually be interested in how it changed. Iím asking especially about the 1950ís but Iíd also be interested in how it has changed, how people learn about what's the newest thing.
Mustel:What is the problem?
Weart:Ok, itís a question of scientific communication.
Weart:And the question is, ďWhat journals do people usually read?Ē I know they read the Astronomical Zhurnal but what other journals do people usually read?
Mustel:At first we have our own journals, Astronomical Zhurnal and the editor is [???] — Then the Letters of Theo Astronomical Zhurnal and then, Astrophysics edited by [???] — It is also, this, translated by Americans.
Weart:Right, the American Institute of Physics, in fact.
Mustel:Astrophysics too, and many observatories, have their own bulletins, published, one or two times every year, with scientific results. Usually Puikova has this, Crimean Observatory, Sternberg has one, many, many, I don't know exactly how many, but many.
Weart:What foreign journals would be the ones people would read the most?
Mustel:Oh, usually Astrophysical Journal, subscribe on Astrophysical Journal, then, Monthly Notices, in English, Astronomy and AstrophysicsÖ
Weart:Thatís a newer one.
Mustel:Solar Physics — Publications of Astronomical Society of the Pacific. I don't know what else; some from Australia. But of course, we have our limitations, because all these journals — the cost of the journals —
Weart:Oh, the cost rises very rapidly, yes.
Weart:And the bulk of the journals —
Mustel:— the thickness of each issue increases. Yes. Of course, not all observatories may have all these things; only biggest observatories. Earlier, we had a system of duplicating, yes, but now, when we have general agreement about this —
Mustel:Yes. Right; some small [???] separate articles and so on.
Weart:In general, how does one learn — for example, when you are working on novae or whatever, how do you learn about new developments abroad? You usually learn about it through the journals, or do you learn about it first about people visiting, talking with people?
Mustel:Oh, from journals; mostly from journals. We read it every week, I read books, journals, yes, and I read the most important magazines, and of course my friends, my colleagues will tell me about that.
Weart:This has not changed much then over the last 30 years or whatever?
Mustel:Yes. Yes — Pretty much the same. The same exchange of information.
Weart:Yes. Well, I promised not to keep you too long. Are there other things you think we ought to talk about? We've only talked about a few things. I wonder if there anything that you think I especially missed, in asking about astronomical life in the Soviet Union?
Mustel:About which you asked?
Weart:I don't know. I just wonder. We have talked about various parts of astronomical life in the Soviet Union. Before we stop, do you think of something that we perhaps should talk about, that I forgot to ask you? Is there anything else that you think we should talk about?
Mustel:No, I donít know anything in particular. I think science is going the same as in the physical institutes and in the biological institutes. Of course, astronomers go much more often, I think, that other specialists, because they go to observatories to observe, because most of our observatories are placed in [???] parts that donít have access to clear sky and Southern latitudes. Yes, thatís very important. So, we don't build big telescopes in Northern latitudes. We try to arrange them —
Weart:— in the South.
Mustel:In the South, yes. So, for many astronomers from the Northern parts, to go, to observe, to these observatories, and this increases, as the —
Mustel:— communications, yes, communications.
Weart:I see, so — [???] between —
Mustel:— mutual communications.
Weart:So itís easier for astronomers, for example, than for physicists to talk with one another.
Mustel:I don't know, because physicists are concentrated mostly in Moscow and Leningrad.
Weart:So they have their chances anyway.
Weart:Or they have to go to accelerators or something. Does an astronomer very often go to take a job at a different observatory, or does he usually stay at his same observatory most of his career?
Mustel:No, they go sometimes to other observatories, and they spend (2 months?) (6 months?), they work together with two or three people during that.
Weart:Ok. Well, you've given me a lot of time. I appreciate it.
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