Oral History Transcript — Dr. John O'Keefe
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John O'Keefe; February 2, 1993
ABSTRACT: In this interview, John A. O'Keefe discusses his life and career. Topics discussed include: his family; Arthur Schlesinger; mathematics; cosmology; determinism; Catholicism; continental drift; Harvard University; Bart Bok; T. E. Sterne; astronomy; Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin; Henry Norris Russell; composition of stars; Gerard Kuiper; Harlow Shapley; Grote Reber; radio astronomy; Yerkes Observatory; Fred Whipple; R Coronae Borealis variable stars; dark nebulae; Stan Ulam; John Oxley; University of Chicago; Otto Struve; McDonald Observatory; Ralph Williamson; S. Chandrasekhar; Henry Gordon Gale; Martha O'Keefe; Steward Observatory; World War II and the United States Army Map Service; Frank Kameny; geodesy; Weikko Aleksanteri Heiskanen; Floyd Hough; occultation and eclipse research.
This is an oral history interview we are doing with Dr. John O'Keefe at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. With me today, doing this interview, is Dr. Joseph Tatarewicz. Dr. O'Keefe we have at the AIP a copy of the extended curriculum vitae and survey form that you sent, so we do know some biographical information about you. For the record I would like to state that we know you were born in Lind, Massachusetts in 1916. Your father was a physician and your mother worked on the board of parole and as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about your parents and your recollections of them? We want to make sure we have their names.
O'Keefe:Full name was Edward Scott O'Keefe and he was the son of John A. O'Keefe I who had graduated from Harvard and was salutatorian at that commencement in 1880. My grandfather was a very devoted Catholic.
Doel:I am listening. I just want to make sure you are hearing.
Tatarewicz:I think we are getting reasonably good volume. I would like to move this microphone a bit closer to Dr. O'Keefe. I think we are doing very well now. Sorry.
O'Keefe:My father was a practicing physician in Lind. He had one or two research papers on pediatric allergy in children and one paper on diarrhea in infants.
Doel:How old were you when he was writing those papers?
O'Keefe:About 1930 — I was probably about fourteen or fifteen.
Doel:So you knew he was writing these papers at the time?
O'Keefe:Yes, definitely. He went to meetings and we'd get accounts from him afterwards. My mother said when he was speaking she would stand outside the hall and he'd start in and there'd be a little titter and then laughter louder and louder. She could always tell when he was talking.
People were laughing happily. Anyway, my mother was the sister of Griffith Conrad Evans, president of the American Mathematical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. My mother was interested — as a young woman in 1910 or 1912 — she was a friend of
Rose Kennedy. She was interested in the condition of women in the boot and shoe industry in
Massachusetts; the "hot-house" people and that kind of thing. She married my father and went from Boston, where she was in the middle of a lot of society, to Lind which is backwater. She brought up four children; one of them just died-my sister Francis-who married the vice president of CBS. My sister, Mary, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for a long time. My brother, Edward Scott, got a Ph.D. in mathematics and went into plumbing! In Lind we were a "bourgeois" family living in a comfortable part of Lind. My father was working very hard and not always very enthusiastic about medicine. My mother was working for Al Smith in the election of 1928 and then got involved with some of the people in that crowd.
Doel:So she stayed socially active during the time that she was in Lind.
O'Keefe:Yes — less when the four of us were young.
Doel:When your father went to meetings and either gave papers or was writing articles did you go with him?
O'Keefe:No. I was by that time in graduate school.
Tatarewicz:It sounds like there was a lot of intellectual activity in the family. You talked about several different kinds of sciences. Was that talked about at home very much?
You're right about that — that's correct. My grandfather was a mathematician and classicist. He was very much intellectual. I was put with him when he was sixty. His wife had just died and I was supposed to be his companion and I was. He was a great mathematician.
Doel:This is George Evans?
O'Keefe:George W. Evans. He was a very strong influence on me.
What kind of man was your grandfather — George Evans? What do you recall of him just thinking back just thinking back to him now? It does sound like he was quite a strong influence?
O'Keefe:Yes, he was. He was a truthful man, above all. He wouldn't have deviated from the truth for anybody. He had begun as a young — well, he belonged to an Irish ascendancy family. They were Protestants in Ireland. My grandfather is a graduate of Harvard class of 1883. He was a man who was interested in the classics and a very gentle, kind man; stem if you'd done something wrong. You asked me what he was like. I am not quite sure in what sense you mean that. He was a teacher and he delighted to tell you things and talk about things. I knew him when he was retired. I am not quite sure what you want to know.
Doel:This is exactly the sort of thing I was interested in. As you say, you stayed with him when you were rather young.
O'Keefe:Yes, six to twelve or something like that. He taught me solid geometry and we worked on it together. He'd give me the theorems and I'd learn how to prove them. At the time I didn't really feel it was teaching, but it stuck with me.
Doel:I can imagine. Did you talk to him about other fields as well as mathematics?
About religion, of course. He became a Catholic and was interested in the questions of texts to the Bible — the Greek text and the Latin Vulgate text at that time. Both were canonical and they didn't agree. He was an enthusiast about things. When the atomic energy thing came out he thought that was the pathway. He was very anxious, as we came along, that we should recognize that every number that you actually use has an error in it and if you forget the error associated with the physical number then you have lost a lot of sense of it. He was very fond of me.
Tatarewicz:You mentioned in your autobiographical sketch that he was interested in astronomy, as well. It would have been usual for someone who was a mathematician to also teach astronomy or at least mathematical astronomy.
O'Keefe:He didn't teach it. He did know a great deal about it. He would take me out and show me the constellations. Of course solid geometry is the geometry that we use in studying position of the planets and that sort of thing. He did think about navigation, but I don't remember if he ever taught me anything about it. His father-in-law had been a sea captain and my grandfather taught me a little bit about navigation.
Tatarewicz:What about other parts of astronomy? I realize that you were very young at this time and this would have been in the twenties, but there was a great deal of astronomy going on in the twenties with regard to cosmology and the age of the universe. Did any of that ever enter into your world?
Yes, it did. Above all what happened-I became a Catholic. When I went to Exeter they put me in the same room with Arthur Schlesinger. He was my roommate and he is not a devout anything. We fought about God. It turned out, I found, that the only thing that really counts in an argument like that is what is known about cosmology. I had a strong interest in cosmology and they gave me some books. Sir Jeans' University Around Us and I read those in 1929 or thereabouts; ... to deal with [???] — the constellations.
Doel:So you were reading on cosmology well before you went to Exeter?
O'Keefe:Yes. Above all, we know that the first and second level [???], taken together, imply a beginning for the universe. This is a point developed by Jeans. I was interested in that.
Doel:You also mentioned that your brother Edward Scott had gotten a Ph.D. in science. Was this an interest as you were growing up and discussing things with your grandfather, George Evans, something that was shared broadly within the family?
O'Keefe:He was too young and he was a rebel. He took one of those intelligence quizzes and they said nobody who is stupid could really have gotten everything wrong!
Doel:That's a good point.
He was a rebel. He went into the army and didn't like it — during the war he was drafted. Then he went to California and got a Ph.D. under my uncle. He taught at the University of Washington for some time. But discussion between me and Ed — no. We were too far apart.
Doel:Were there others-when you think back to those early days — that also had shared your interest in science? Were there close friends or others that you would also talk about science with?
O'Keefe:Not to any extent. Herbert Schon, at Lind High School — I talked something about it with him. In my class with people my own age I didn't that I can remember.
Tatarewicz:Did any of your studies in high school stick with you as particularly important or enjoyable?
O'Keefe:Competing with Marcia [???], in Latin, was fun. She was very bright. The mathematics that I got in high school was something my grandfather mostly told me not the way to do it. Mathematics is a bag of tricks. He thought that was wrong and that mathematics was a philosophical thing. He left out the broader aspects of it. He was discussing with me the question of what is the basis for the power of postulate. He pointed out to me that you can't derive from the other one; it really does not imply. Since you can't prove it you can't be sure that geometry is really what you're creating, in those days; all those laws about relativity and all that.
Tatarewicz:None of that had made its way into the high school curriculum?
O'Keefe:I don't remember that it did.
Tatarewicz:What about science in high school — chemistry or geology?
O'Keefe:I had a book, Creative Chemistry by Scholosen[?] which I adored.
Doel:That was a very big textbook in the 1920s.
O'Keefe:Was it! A lot of things they said were fascinating. Study nature-yes! I love nature and there's nothing like it. She is our implacable enemy. He was a wise-guy, but a lot of it stuck.
Doel:It sounds like from what you were saying that you and your grandfather were in some sense talking about philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of science?
O'Keefe:Yes, he gave me Klein-elementary math from an advanced standpoint. He talked about Cantor sometimes.
Doel:Do you happen to remember any of those discussions in particular? Do any of them stand out or is it more recalling that you had those types of talks?
O'Keefe:One thing that stood out in my memory — the question of determinism. Obviously if physical law completely determined it then we don't have free will. If we don't have free will then what sense does all religion make. This is a difficult point for all Catholics at that time. Duhem was bothered by this. He pointed out to me some things that they call chaos now. That is, if you trace the comets forward in time no matter how careful you make the measurements now there would come a time when you had no idea where the comet was. The closest approach to Jupiter, for example. The circumstances beyond that were greatly affected by exactly how close you came to Jupiter. This repeated itself and pretty soon lost complete idea where anything was. This is a point, but if the theory had been completely valid it still would have been traceable. He talked some about that. When indeterminacy came out in the 1920s that relieved everybody's mind of it.
Doel:That was something that you heard about fairly quickly?
O'Keefe:Yes. We subscribed to a science newsletter and we heard of what was going on. My grandfather also went to some high level mathematics meeting because of my uncle. Does that answer the question?
Doel:So you were hearing a lot about it from those kinds of —
O'Keefe:Yes, but it didn't make much of an impression on me or as much of an impression as it should have.
Doel:You were fairly young back then and it was a big topic. Maybe Catholics of America found it more difficult because of the positions of the Catholic Church on certain parts of science to engage in science as a career. Was that something, given your family's unusual background and activity in science, which still came up?
What my mother said about that — and she was very much convicted — the Catholic Church was the truth and science is the truth. They can misunderstand, but there can't be real conflict and be confident that any discrepancies that turned up would be resolved. Am I making it clear enough?
Tatarewicz:Yes indeed. I was wondering if you minded if I closed the door.
No. It's good of you to take all this interest. The conflicts — or apparent conflicts — are of interest. Where things are in two different directions, a thoughtful person is working at that to find some way around it.
Doel:Do you remember any sharp discussions about that when you were growing up, with others who didn't have that conviction? Or is that something that you don't recall?
O'Keefe:With my contemporaries I wouldn't have discussed those. I don't remember being worried about those things. I remember thinking about them.
Tatarewicz:Were any of your high school teachers able to discuss things on this level or was this beyond them?
O'Keefe:When the three o'clock bell struck I went home. I went to Exeter the last two years of high school, but I don't remember discussing any philosophical question there either.
Tatarewicz:This kind of cutting edge information usually takes a few years to make it into the high schools at all.
O'Keefe:That's right, but also the fact that in those days Catholics were in sort of a ghetto. We didn't talk much to people on the outside and we didn't expect to agree with them when we did.
There wasn't any resentment. The Irish, of course, are always...; talking about the rain, but that was not the way to go-be courteous and friendly. You'd expect people to converse, but with most people it was a difficult thing to ask. I haven't thought about these questions.
Doel:When you think back now about being at Exeter, how did the science that you were taught there seem to you? Do you recall feeling that what you were hearing was not necessarily up to date or how was science taught at Exeter?
O'Keefe:Simon [???] taught physics at Exeter. He was a dry, meticulous guy. Actually he had a tremendous reputation on the College Board. They were out to teach people so that they would know what to do on the college boards. I got a straight hundred when I took the College Board exam because he taught thoroughly exactly what they were going to want. They had offered a prize and they'd take you to dinner at the Parker House in Boston if you got a hundred. I got a hundred and went to the Parker House. The only thing I remember doing is entertaining an Iowa project. He said white light contains all colors. I said there are three sense organs and it must be possible to get color look like white without involving all the colors in between. So he got prisms and stuff and succeeded fairly well in showing that you could get white out of the proper combination in the rainbow colors without having all the [???] present.
Doel:So you did have at least some hands-on experience in science?
O'Keefe:The other thing we did was with Hogg. He wasn't a regular teacher, but he taught geology. He was very enthusiastic about geology and about continental drift.
Doel:Is that right.
O'Keefe:Back in the 1930s.
Doel:What do you recall hearing about the discussion of drift? Was it specifically a discussion of Baconer's ideas or others after his initial theory?
O'Keefe:A high school teacher talking to a boy — very general. It was not highly academic, but it left a mark on me. I love geology and he taught it very well.
Doel:Did you have any field geology at Exeter?
O'Keefe:A little. Exeter sits on a little [???] formation and a fossil to date the [???] formation.
We went down there one time and looked at it; just one small patch of glacial [???]. That's the only field work I can remember. My grandfather was teaching me to look at the rocks in
Peterborough, New Hampshire. We had a farm there where my father's father came from. We'd go there in the summer time and there was a lot of geology all around it. There are Drummonds and glacial scratches on the rocks; lots of granite and ice and perforated rock. My grandfather pointed these things out to me the best he could. He bought me a field book of rocks and minerals.
Doel:Were there teachers in any other sciences that made an impression on you at Exeter?
Saunstar[?] teaching history — late Roman empire guy-and I was impressed by the correlation of vice with decay and the whole Roman empire. He was very interested in that and he had some books about the latter part of the Roman Empire. I never took any chemistry there.
Mathematics-that guy was very dry and very insistent on repetition and training and taking the exams. He was sweet, but I don't think I got any philosophical ideas about science there. My grandfather said it was a mistake to send me to Exeter. He thought I should have gone to English
High School where there would be Jews, Armenians, and Greeks to give me some real competition. I went to Exeter and only met other WASPs-Anglos. They wouldn't give me the kind of conversation that the Jews would. What I mean by Jews is I don't mean Jews in particular, but people who were going to have to make a living on what they learned.
Doel:Do you remember it being a real choice for you?
O'Keefe:My father sent me.
Doel:I don't want to go forward if you have any other questions on the Exeter period.
Tatarewicz:One final question on the Exeter period. Was there any discussion on the age of the Earth that you can recall?
O'Keefe:I knew that Jeans had discussed that question, but I don't remember. I don't think there was any discussion. When I went to Harvard they were just beginning to talk about the age of the universe. Shapley was talking about it without the date of creation and then the conflict between rock dates and the expansion of the universe.
Tatarewicz:So that you first heard about at Harvard?
O'Keefe:I read something about it in Jeans, but Jeans as you know was very out of date by 1930.
He wanted to have the universe in the twelfth period instead of the ninth and some other things that were quite wrong.
Was Harvard always the choice — the school you thought you'd be going to?
O'Keefe:Yes. My father and my grandfather both went there from both sides. My mother's two brothers and my father's two brothers all went to Harvard.
Doel:Did you have a feeling of what department — did you know before you entered Harvard that it would be astronomy that you would tum to?
O'Keefe:No, I thought maybe mathematics. I was put with [???] during the first year, but I did very poorly in mathematics A; partly because I was wrestling in the meantime. I was weighing in at one hundred twenty-six pounds, which is a little light for me so I had to stop. That was disturbing. My sophomore year came and I had to pick where I wanted to go. I decided not to do mathematics. A very persuasive fellow — Bart S. Bok at Harvard — wanted me to go into astronomy and he was very influential, and I did.
Doel:How did you first come in contact with Bok?
O'Keefe:I think I indicated an interest in majoring in astronomy.
Doel:So it was after that you first met him?
I am not sure. I took an elementary course in astronomy. Bok was quite an [???]. He had no interests in anything but astronomy. Then they sent me to Sterne —To E. Sterne. He was a real influence.
Doel:What do you recall about your interactions with Sterne back then?
I was crazy about him. I thought he was wonderful. I remember he was very good in probability in a simple way. Sterne and I set to work and this whole question on the age of the universe came up then. Of course I was interested and Sterne was interested also. He was confronted with the fact that if the universe had had a beginning, then at the Big Bang there would have been a certain sequence of elements produced. In fact the actual sequence of elements is not the one that you would expect from the Big Bang. That was known in those days even, by the very good people — of which Sterne was one. Sterne thought that perhaps there was a failure in the theories of the internal constitution.
It's all very interesting.
O'Keefe:And if there was, then the distribution of mass inside a star would be different. The only way to get at the distribution of mass inside the star is by studying eclipsing binaries. He had me studying eclipsing binaries, looking for the rotation of the line of rhapsody — that was [???] majora. I spent my afternoons through sophomore, junior and senior year at the observatory looking at plates for [???] majora. In the end, I have already mentioned, the photographic stuff turned out to be no good. The photographic phase is not intrinsically good enough to do that.
Doel:Resolution just wasn't there.
O'Keefe:Yes, that's right. I learned something from that. We finally got a visual photometer which had been lying around for forty years — did it visually. Sterne helped me the last few observations.
Doel:Was Sterne also a good observationalist?
No. He never tried to do it. He was good, but he never tried to do it. He had a lot of common sense. I don't remember his being very much an observationalist. Cecelia was a great observer — Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin.
Doel:I was just wondering how you picked up the techniques of doing observations using visual photometer?
O'Keefe:There was a whole cult of that. There was a plate collection and there were women there working on it.
Doel:Shapley's harem, as it was called.
O'Keefe:That's right. Anyone would be glad to tell me how to do anything and did; Henrietta
Doel:When you mention atomic abundances, of course Henry Norris Russell was concerned with the issue of atomic abundances. Do you recall discussions that took place between him and Sterne or him, Shapley and Sterne over that issue or others?
O'Keefe:I did not get into that. It was a very important time because Cecelia was trying to establish the fact that it was nearly all hydrogen and Russell didn't believe that. I was not in on that discussion. I wasn't aware of it. I learned a lot from Kuiper when I went to Yerkes. I was fascinated by [???] and majora. I was fascinated by the problem, a way to solve it and how you went about it and all that kind of stuff.
Doel:Didn't Kuiper overlap with you at Harvard for a while?
O'Keefe:He did, but I didn't know it at that time. I don't think I did. I think I knew him best when I went to Yerkes.
Doel:That's very interesting what you were saying about getting into the research programs. I was curious-were there others that you also became close with intellectually at Harvard? How close did you become, for example, to Shapley or to Bok?
O'Keefe:Shapley didn't like me and teased me. Bok I knew quite well and all his thoughts and worries about galactic structure and all that. I resented Bok somewhat because — well, briefly
Bok's slogan was "count a billion stars and get a Ph.D." — he was trying to subvert the graduate students and make them do star count. I thought that was a hard way to spend your time.
Doel:Of course there were other astronomers who criticized that as a methodology, as well.
O'Keefe:Yes. I was very happy when Grote Reber showed up with radio astronomy because in radio astronomy you could see that the center of the galaxy was a huge thing, and we were in a backwater. Some people guessed that. Shapley thought the galaxy was a collection of star clouds without any central organization. The star counts did not tell him clearly that that was not so. The minute you looked at Reber's plots you knew what the score was. There were these enormous things.
Tatarewicz:Was that obvious to everybody? Were Reber's plots accepted?
No. Reber came to Yerkes. We had talked about his plots and Kuiper was there.
Kuiper spoke for a bunch of them and he said to Reber, 'did you take all your data without selection?' and Reber said 'well, I had an earphone and if I heard a car starting up or someone using an electric razor I cut that point out.' The selection was no good, so it wasn't worth it. So we went back to Wheaton, Illinois and did the whole thing over with a fresh recording and everything, and the [???] was still there. My wife and I got very, very indignant that a really great man — very bright — they didn't believe it. You can't imagine. There was nobody. The kindest remark that was made by professional staff at Yerkes —maybe I told you this already — after the second presentation or the first one. The first one. "I don't think that man is completely cranky."
Tatarewicz:And that was the best!
That was the best. Struger [?] I think had something actually more than that. Struger was very quiet and these were all brilliant people and he felt stupid then. He didn't say these things. What did the other graduate students think? Well, they were instinctively on
Reber's side but I don't know whether they were able to express it or not.
Doel:Do you recall discussions with any of them in particular?
Doel:But the attitude, you are saying, of many of the astronomers there was suspicion of the technique of the data itself and the —
O'Keefe:Yes. It's a fact that every time you get a new field and look at the universe it looks completely different from the way it did before. As soon as they went into astrophysics — everything. In radio astronomy you couldn't find the sun. For years they couldn't find it. You can imagine the galactic center or the andromeda nebula. I am not sure of that — being brighter than the sun, which most astronomers just couldn't believe.
I want to get back to some of the things at Yerkes and perhaps even back directly to
Reber's work a little bit later. I was curious — to return to Harvard — did you have much contact with Whipple and the meteor programs?
I took a course from him and heard him give colloquia, especially that first one when he walked in with five photographic [???] — not one of which was hyperbolic. You remember Opic thought they were all hyperbolic.
Doel:Opic wasn't there at the time — he had already left.
O'Keefe:I just missed him.
Doel:What kind of reaction was there to that announcement when you had the data showing that the velocities were not hyperbolic?
Everybody was astounded. I am projecting back-I am not sure — but I would have thought now was that if you have five things like that, that all go the wrong way, then the theory is probably wrong. Whether I really thought that at the time — well, I hadn't been close to Opic in the first place. It did look to me as though the thing — well, I certainly felt Whipple was right. I took a course from him.
Doel:What was the course about? Was it in celestial mechanics or in optics?
O'Keefe:Celestial mechanics I took from Bok. Funny thing. I took a course from Bok on celestial mechanics and all that-I never got the point about those equations in Lagrangian form. I didn't get the point about that until I had to do it myself when we finally got the xxx data from the satellite. Then I saw — the revelation came. This is why I we saved a hell of a lot of trouble. I tried to do it by calculating the positions X, Y and Z. It wasn't the right thing to do at all. Yes,
Whipple and Cecelia took a kindly view on my stuff on R Coronae Borealis work.
Doel:If I could hold off on the R Coronae Borealis-it's a very important part of your story — but just on the meteor story for the moment. Do you recall whether the concern with Whipple's hyperbolic velocities was more the cosmological implications because then obviously then one didn't have a sample coming from deep space.
O'Keefe:That was the reason why people were concerned about it. People said we have a sample, but not just solar system-beyond.
Doel:This had been Shapley's interest for some time?
I don't know about that. He certainly liked [???] — rocking mirror experiments went bad.
Doel:That was the other part of the question I was asking. Obviously Whipple's results contradicted the rocking mirror results.
O'Keefe:Nobody knew what the trouble was. It's a tragedy because he was a very bright man-open and generous and everything else he did was right. He had some psychological trait that made that.
A few others who were involved in the meteor project at the time — Fischer was up at
O'Keefe:I knew about Fischer afterwards-many, many years after when I started investigating a fine meteor shower in Canada. I ran across Fischer there and that's the only thing I know about him.
Doel:Were there others who seemed to be part of Whipple's meteor group that when you looked at it in the 1930s, when you were there?
I couldn't answer that. I was not at the level where I would have known the answer to that. I don't remember anybody else. He must have had some people. Oh!
Cunningham — Leland Cunningham was in and out of the observatory. I don't know whether he was in the meteor project or not.
Doel:One person who was interested in meteors was Watson.
O'Keefe:Yes. Fletcher Watson.
Doel:Did you have much contact with him?
O'Keefe:No, he was my instructor in Astronomy 1. I don't remember talking about anything —
I kept you for a while from talking about R Coronae Borealis. How did you contact with
Cecelia Payne and I gather you were also in touch and working with Sergei Gaposch?
No. Stem had taken off and talked to Sergei. He thought Sergei was sure of things that he couldn't be sure of. His orbits were too small. No, not Sergei but Cecelia had a little contact. Really the way it began was I went to a colloquium on R Coronae. F. D. Atkinson was over here and he thought that in the R Coronae Borealis stuff it's not contracted to it-and then came back again. I had enough of a feel for physics to have a feeling that would never happen.
If a star collapsed, it wouldn't spring back. You'd lose all the energy because the lot would come flooding out. I looked for a simple explanation and Cecelia — at this same meeting that Atkinson had put his stuff forward-pointed out six really R Coronae Borealis. Every one of them was a
Carbon Star; she thought there was some association there. She and Whipple had been thinking about this for some time. I told her that I suggested it might be condensation — being at that time a nineteen or twenty year old undergraduate. She said 'well, it's not enough to say things like that; you have to do some calculations.' So then my first year in graduate school I was in Adams House. I talked with Crawford, a chemist. He is now Dean at Minnesota — or recently Dean. He is an old man now.
Doel:We are resuming here after a brief pause. You had begun to discuss your interactions with
Cecelia Payne on the R Coronae Borealis stars. I wanted to make sure you had a chance to finish that story.
Cecelia said the R Coronae stars were all Carbon Stars and that raised the obvious — at least to me — possibility that what we were looking at was condensation. What happened was
Cecelia said this and something had to be done. I fortunately was in a Harvard house. There they mixed up the faculty and students, so usually the house was full.
Doel:Was this how you came in contact with Crawford?
O'Keefe:That's right. He was in the house. He helped me write the paper on R Coronae.
Everything came out as it was supposed to and got published in Sky and Telescope or something equivalent to that. Then it finally got into the Astrophysical Journal.
Doel:What reaction did you get from that article from other astronomers?
Wurm said that if that were true there would have to be molecules in space and since there weren't any at that time therefore the idea was wrong. [???] showed me a chart — a photograph — showing the circular ring nebulae. The huge ring.
Doel:Oh, the arch portion that's there.
O'Keefe:Anyway they asked me what I thought and I said it looked like there was an ultimate explosion and he said that proves it-that I had eruption and stars on my brain.
Doel:The nebulae became a kind of [???] contest.
O'Keefe:I guess so. Anyway, I didn't get much enthusiasm from the idea. It led me to thinking that perhaps the dark nebulae in the galaxy were also products of stellar explosions instead of being primeval. All that was sterile.
Doel:Was there much interest in dark matter-to use an anachronistic term-for molecules in space —
Doel:— among any of the Harvard astronomers, when you think back on the 1930s?
O'Keefe:Bok, of course, was crazy about dark nebulae.
Doel:Right. His work had already begun in that.
Yes. No, I don't think there was anybody-that wasn't under Bok's spell-interested. Struve — almost positive that the dark nebulae [???] pay for the board fence. Sparks calculated
[???] showed maximum of two or three magnitudes. Struve was sure that was wrong, but that's beside the point.
Doel:I was also curious about how much contact did you have with the summer programs that
Shapley helped to put on.
Doel:Did you take part in them or were you usually at Harvard during the summer?
O'Keefe:I washed dishes in the summer time at Martha's Vineyard in [???]. They had a beautiful girl there, but she didn't pay any attention to me. I spent my time there when I should have been at Cambridge. The meeting of the IAD there. LeMaitre was there and Eddington, and all kinds of other guys that I knew I would not have a chance to see again. But I was not there.
Doel:I am still thinking about Shapley's interest in broad geochemical/geophysical problems at the time. He had, in some ways, a network of contacts among people in the greater Boston area at MIT. Did you have any sense of his interest in things like the age of the Earth?
O'Keefe:I did have an idea about that because it was related to the cosmological problems. He talked about hollow squares. I remember that he was interested in the problem, but I only remember the cosmological side and I don't remember the geochemical side.
Doel:Do you have much contact with people who came in that way, for example, with Harlan Stetson?
O'Keefe:I didn't know Stetson at all. I knew he existed. Kuiper, of course at Harvard and later on at Yerkes. I was interested in R Coronae Borealis and that was a chemical problem, but I didn't see anything wider than that.
Doel:Were there any other recollections or otherwise from the Harvard period that come to mind in talking about this that we haven't covered?
O'Keefe:I told you about Shapley and all that business. I met D. Hofflett and talked to her, but that was peripheral.
Doel:You say you had met D. Hofflett.
O'Keefe:I just knew that she was there; friendly, kind, and helpful.
Were there any other people outside the astronomy faculty — people like Crawford — that you came to work with on the R Coronae Borealis problem who had an impression on you, in your scientific outlook that you had discussions with?
O'Keefe:To a very small extent with the great logician — who was that? He was in Adam's House. He talked to me about [???] logics and things like that. I don't recall his name.
Doel:We can always put that on the record later.
O'Keefe:I talked to him some. Oh, yes! Stan Vlam and John Oxley.
Doel:What kind of interaction did you have with them?
We met every morning at breakfast and they talked a lot about what they were doing; about natural transitivity and about fundamental problems of probability — [???] theorem and all that. John Oxley was passionately interested in that sort of thing and he'd sit there and stir his coffee. There was some cream in it and you'd see the cream get mixed with the coffee — 'why, how do you know that's going to happen?' You see it, but prove mathematically that if you have a distribution space-tend to smooth out — and they're working on the proof of that. They taught me a lot of real variable mathematics. They were very pleasant men.
Doel:How did you interact with them? What kind of setting was it?
The breakfast table or lunch or dinner; just sitting around talking and hearing what they had to say. They'd describe to me the problem and what they had done with it and how difficult it had been. I was interested because if the R Coronae Borealis was general-if in general the dark nebulae came out of stars — then you would think that after a certain length of time, like the cream in the coffee, it would have been evenly distributed through the galaxy. That's certainly not true. From that the conclusion was that the dark matter was temporary; recently formed. I tried to write some papers on that thing, but failed.
Doel:Were these published papers?
O'Keefe:No, they wouldn't have been published by any good-I had my notes and thought about them; my thinking.
Doel:Was this something that you talked about with others in the department?
Doel:Yes, the question of the dark matter and its temporality.
O'Keefe:I really didn't get involved in that until I went to Yerkes. At Yerkes there was very little discussion of anything.
Doel:That's the sort of thing we wanted to ask you about when we get there.
Tatarewicz:It sounds as though mathematics continued to be an interest at Harvard.
Tatarewicz:As you came to the decision point of what to do after undergraduate school, was mathematics still very much a contender?
O'Keefe:By that time I was an astronomer.
Tatarewicz:Astronomy was going to be the field?
O'Keefe:That's right. I went straight on into graduate school.
Doel:What choices did you see for graduate study at the time? How early and how did you come to decide to go to Chicago?
O'Keefe:Bok told me if you're going into Astronomy there are two things you can do. One is to
[???] and drop out. The other is to go for a Ph.D. all the way. He was very serious about that so
I accepted his word. That's what you did — you went and got a Ph.D. — and I was surprised. I didn't know that, but he told me so I went and did it.
Doel:Did he talk to you about which schools he thought would be appropriate for the Ph.D. program?
O'Keefe:Yes, he did. There was also talk by Shapley, if I think about it. The places where they thought I could have gone were Harvard, Chicago with Schuler and Princeton with Henry
[???] Russell [?]. I don't think they mentioned California.
Doel:I was going to ask about that. That didn't come up?
O'Keefe:I don't think it did. I got the impression that if I went to Cal-Tech I would have had a hell of a job getting on at [???].
Doel:They didn't mention Berkeley either?
O'Keefe:No, I don't think so.
Doel:How did you feel about the possibility of staying on at Harvard? Were you inclined to go to another school?
O'Keefe:No, I wanted to stay on at Harvard. I just saw the road a little bit ahead of myself. I didn't really look down to see where I was going. The next step would have been to get a Ph.D. and get it at Harvard. My parents said, "They canceled your fellowship and we'll put you through." I thought that over and they said "No, you're not exactly living under a cloud," they said ... I kept going. Shapley wanted me out.
Doel:It was in some ways Shapley's influence then that —
O'Keefe:Made me go to Chicago. Very definitely. They told me in the spring of my first year,
"You're not going to come back here next year. You're leaving." Sterne and Bok talked about possible places to go.
Doel:Did Shapley have that kind of personal relation with other potential graduate students; those who were undergraduates in astronomy?
I don't know. I didn't talk very much about those things with him, that I can remember.
Leo Goldberg was there and I think Menzel predicted him. I was not conscious of other graduate students as such. James G. Baker — he and I were about the same level and all that. We talked only about [???], which was an option at that time; a variable. We worked together on some polarimetry, but nothing serious.
Doel:What decided you then on Chicago versus Princeton, for example?
O'Keefe:Shapley said, "If you go to Princeton, you will be pushed into the background and you won't be able to see much of us unless you push very hard." He didn't think I would do very well.
He suggested that Chicago was the best place to go so I went there. Who was I to tell Shapley?
Tatarewicz:Would this be something that Shapley might arrange through his contacts?
O'Keefe:Shapley sent a letter that I was coming. He also sent a letter after I got there and told
Struve he'd got stung.
Doel:He told Struve that Struve had got stung?
Yes, by accepting me — so Struve told me. I don't know if it's true or not. I think it was. He was mad about his kid getting a "C" in the course. You look puzzled?
Yes, I am. I am not puzzled that Shapley could be nasty when he wanted to be.
We've certainly heard enough about that in other interviews with other people and Shapely's reputation is well known. But could you just explain the business about the "C."
O'Keefe:His kid was in Astronomy I and I was the section chief. Bok was the lecturer and assigned everybody a job of writing a certain book, "Bell the Telescope." Everybody else wrote on "Bell the Telescope" but the Shapley boy turned in a paper on the telescopes of my father's group or something like that and I gave him an "E" because I was concerned that no director's son was going to get away with anything in any course that I was in. Bok was frantic. He said, "Are you trying to make me lose my job?" I said, "No, you can give him any kind of grade you want." He wanted me to give him a passing grade and I wouldn't. I think from then on I was a marked man. It's very good that I should have some of my innocence knocked off and good to change. They said if you stay too long in the same place you get typed. That was true, too. So it was a good thing.
Tatarewicz:Out of my own curiosity, which Shapley was this that you gave the "E" to?
O'Keefe:Allan, I think. I am not sure. There was Allan, Willis and a girl — who were the others?
Tatarewicz:Allan and Willis are the only ones that I —
O'Keefe:I am pretty sure it was Allan. I was pretty disappointed. Do you want to ask any more about that?
Tatarewicz:No, unless there is anything else you care to elaborate on.
O'Keefe:I think that's about it.
Doel:When the application went out to Yerkes and to Chicago, who did you know was there?
Did you have personal contacts with any other astronomers at all?
No. I knew that's true; it existed there. I had met with Kuiper. My sister and I drove across the country in 1937. We stopped at Yerkes and were very kindly treated by Kuiper and his wife. It was a beautiful place — just wonderful. Except for that, did I know anybody else at Chicago?
Doel:I mean also by reputation. Did you know the work of what people were doing?
O'Keefe:Stromgren and Kuiper. I shouldn't claim that I knew them. I was an ignorant boy there and really didn't know the ropes about any learned profession, let alone that it's important to know who the important people are in astronomy.
Doel:This is something that one normally learns in graduate school, not on the undergraduate level.
O'Keefe:That's right. So I was one year graduate level at Harvard and then three years at Yerkes. The three years at Yerkes I took very good care to do exactly what they told me. I didn't want to get a reputation of being a disagreeable character.
Doel:How did you support yourself at Yerkes?
O'Keefe:My great aunt died and left one thousand dollars. I put that out at interest and by the time I got there it was fifteen hundred dollars. I lived off that plus some scholarships and fellowships at about eight hundred dollars a year or something like that.
Doel:Did you spend most of your time at Yerkes or did you also spend time at —
O'Keefe:All at Yerkes. When I went to Chicago to get my degree I walked across that sacred seal you must never, never step on. Every undergraduate learns that the freshman year. I was a fourth year in graduate school and didn't know it. That's how much contact I had.
Doel:That's quite telling.
O'Keefe:I went down to Chicago just once, I think. They assigned me to Chandrasekhar work and I went to Yerkes. I said I didn't want that. I went to see Gale in Chicago and told him that I didn't want to do it. Gale went back and told Struve that I didn't do it. I said I came to a place with a great telescope and I wanted to use it. Struve, I think, forgave me.
Doel:How much time did you spend at McDonald?
O'Keefe:I think I had a couple of weeks. It was very fruitful. The sky at McDonald is clear and fairly far south, so close to the [???]. Just wonderful!
Doel:When you say two weeks, how much actual telescope time did you have during those two weeks?
O'Keefe:Quite a lot. I couldn't be quantitative about it, but I did have a very fair share of the observing time. Have you heard this tale? I went to see the trustees of the telescope and he said he wanted to have it insured. I said to him, "Oh yes, you're afraid an airplane will run into it."
Struve said, "No, I'm afraid of graduate students." I got out of that with everything untouched.
As a matter of fact an airplane did run in-not to Yerkes — to [???], you know. I laughed like hell.
Doel:How many other graduate students had opportunities like that for telescope time? Was it exceptional or was it more routine?
I think time at Yerkes was easy to get. Time at McDonald was quite hard. I saw Dan Pauper(?) down there when I was there. I guess maybe other people got small times like that.
Doel:What was it like, say, for the first few years that you were in residence at Yerkes? Was there much after-hours socializing with the faculty with the other astronomers there? How did you come to interact with them?
O'Keefe:All the graduate students lived at the top of the observatory, in the back of those round windows. We, of course, knew each other very well. Interaction with the faculty was minimal.
Greenstein was nice to us; Kuiper practically never had us in his house. Morgan had games once a month or something like that, but serious conversations about astronomy with the faculty was just about not there.
Doel:So you tended to learn more from each other than you did —
O'Keefe:More from each other than from books, courses and things like that.
Tatarewicz:So you were sort of cut off from visitors at Chicago and seminars and the type of life that you'd gotten used to at Harvard in some ways.
O'Keefe:That's right. That is absolutely correct.
Tatarewicz:Only when they came to observe at Yerkes would you —
O'Keefe:That's the only time they were there and I was there, but those times I didn't meet them.
Stromgren I don't think I ever sat down to table with.
Doel:There were regular colloquia series that took place at Yerkes weren't there?
O'Keefe:There were fairly frequent colloquia.
Doel:Could graduate students raise questions and talk at those?
O'Keefe:Yes. They didn't but you could.
Doel:Do you recall any colloquia in particular that have stayed on your mind, which seemed particularly memorable?
O'Keefe:At Harvard, yes. At Yerkes, I don't remember except Reber.
Tatarewicz:Who were you closest to among the graduate students at Yerkes?
O'Keefe:Ralph Williamson. He and I were assigned to fix a spectrograph — a great big prism spectrograph that didn't work. They did what they always did in those places. The foreigners were fine, but if you wanted to get something fixed they would get an American. They gave us this and said, "What's wrong — why can't we focus the damn thing?" You don't care.
Doel:I'd like to hear it.
We found out that the spectrograph optics had a stigmatism, so the image would be projected as a streak. They had things so arranged that the streaks were like that — separate streaks — so they'd kind of come with the total picture with a special arm like this. They said to tum things a little bit and rotate things so the stigmatism is vertical, and of course they all lined up and they got much better definition. With the other problem they gave us, "Why don't we get a good focus with this damn thing?" — we could not figure out what the trouble was. Finally they decided to use glass plates because they decided the trouble was humidity, but that wasn't what we did. Williamson and I wrote this auto [???] spectrograph-same lenses going in and out. They centered the thing half way between the slit and the plate. They should have centered on the plate. If you did that the thing would line up. There was a little note from Williamson and I about that. We did talk something with Williamson because he was working with Kuiper and... I told you the story about how they were working on something and Williamson insisted there were three dimensions you have to take into account; [???] said there were only two you needed to think about. The paper came from Russia saying three and all of a sudden [???] took Williamson's work and tried everything and took out three, back to back with the Russian paper.
Doel:Very interesting. Did you hear much discussion about articles that would or wouldn't get into the astrophysical journal?
O'Keefe:No. You mean after rejecting our —
O'Keefe:No. That wasn't a problem then as it is now. At least I didn't hear about it. If you did a workman like the [???] paper, you were pretty sure.
Doel:As you became acquainted with what research the faculty at Chicago — I mean by that
Yerkes McDonald were doing — whose work seemed more impressive to you or whose work did you want to get to know more? Was there any that seemed to you particularly interesting?
O'Keefe:Struve. I didn't know him very well; he was hard to get to know. We went one time to Texas — got in the car and drove across the fields. In those days you could drive right across anybody's property-just close the gates behind you. We talked a lot about things. Struve talked to me more than he did to most people, but we never really got close.
Doel:When you say you talked with him what were you talking about? Was it mostly current interests in astronomical —
O'Keefe:I don't know. Of course I was interested in his book. He offered a few philosophical remarks. The important people are not pure theorists and not the pure observers, but the people who can combine them. He had a lot of interesting things to say which he did not say to me. The idea that certain types of virus evolved in the solar system; interesting idea but he didn't talk to me about it.
Do you recall discussions about stellar evolution? Of course, Kuiper was interested at the time in dwarfs and —
O'Keefe:He was also interested in the hydrogen business. He had that right side up. He saw that the average molecular weight of the interior of a star was near one-half and not near two. H & R said two. That brought the center temperature down from forty million to ten million-evolution of the stars, formation of the stars from nebulae and so on. I don't think I analyzed that.
How was your graduate career managed at Yerkes? That is, you come in as a new face in the place — did they immediately hook you up with a particular advisor?
No. The first year you were just taking courses. I think it was the second year they were going to hitch me up with Chandrasekhar and I thought that he had a bunch of mathematical slaves. He was a great man, but he was not giving in very much. They didn't tum out very well — most of them, I don't think (Henreich). Anyway, they let you go to courses and didn't do very much worrying about you. [???] was there. We did talk at Tulane, at the boarding house. We'd sit around the table there and there would be some conversation — [???] and Charles Hetzler and one or two of the graduate students. When they did actually was I came there and at the end of my first year there all the graduate students except me had been thrown out. They came back and got their degrees later on, but they all had been thrown out. It was very terrifying.
Doel:Why were they thrown out?
O'Keefe:Struve didn't think they were good enough. [???] whereas MacArthur and he wanted to start a new generation with me. I told you about those, didn't I?
Doel:I don't think so.
O'Keefe:They had us living up there in the observatory and it was cold. The quarters were messy. Hessler[??] was there and was kind of a bear. We got bedbugs in there and we spent a lot of time trying to kill those bedbugs. They were very obstinate creatures. What finally did them in we got rid of all the graduate students and got in a completely new batch. When the new ones came in I told them it was a battleship. Every Monday morning we sweep this place and scrub the floors. It's a social [???] time, they said; [???] as in last week. I made them do it. One of the important things I did was line them up on the front steps of the observatory every morning and march them down to Tulane; otherwise they'd miss their breakfast. If you miss your breakfast you get demoralized. I thought they were much better off.
Doel:So being a graduate student at Yerkes involved taking on some social responsibilities.
O'Keefe:Yes, it did. It was cold. We had those five dollar Sears Roebuck jackets with the fleece on the inside. They are five hundred dollars now, but they were very cheap.
Tatarewicz:Was this something that Struve did with each class of graduate students after a year-review them and decide who would stay and who would go or was this just a particularly bad class?
O'Keefe:I think it was a bad class. Mostly the [???] after that. When he came, Frost had had the observatory for a long time. He had been blind. I think it had gone downhill very badly. When Struve became director, the first thing he did was fire Franklin Roach and Elvey. They were out. He was going to take the whole place out. He brought in a lot of foreigners who were quite competent people.
Doel:Elvey was also working somewhat in the field of geophysics.
O'Keefe:Yes, he was.
Doel:Was that a consideration, do you feel, in Struve's decision? Was it in part professional as well as what he wanted the observatory to do?
O'Keefe:I don't know. I think he felt they were incompetent. They were working on nebulae and they had this nebulae spectrograph. That brought them Aurora and all that. Roach had learned a lot of things that he needed afterwards.
O'Keefe:You are addressing questions to "that boy" who didn't really know what the score was!
Tatarewicz:Did Struve say anything to you after you were the only one left out of the class?
O'Keefe:After I went to see Gale and Gale said something to him-I don't remember what it was — and Struve said, "What do you want to do?" or something like that. I said I want to work on the big telescope. He assigned me to it. There wasn't very much discussion about it. He knew I'd been to see Gale, I think.
Tatarewicz:I was just wondering if he had any remarks about the fact that you were the one remainder out of the class of graduate students — did you feel that he appreciated you after that?
O'Keefe:I didn't know what he felt. He must have because he gave me a copy of a book on [???], written by one of his ancestors and signed by Eberhard. I gave it to Floyd [???] here. It was at Christmas time. It was obviously a mark of distinction. Tall man who would look down and say, "How are you getting along."
Doel:He was quite an imposing figure.
O'Keefe:He was an imposing figure. He was solid; he was real.
Doel:In 1939 you had a publication in APJ on the photographs of diffused nebulae in Orion.
How did that work?
O'Keefe:Yes. They were using nebulae spectrograph and wanted to see if there was anything really there. They had a technique of taking a picture and raising the contrast by the positive, back and forth. They had me make those pictures but Henry didn't believe a damn word of it. He gave me a blank spot in the sky and I did the same thing and finally brought up some irrelevant detail and he said that proves that it's all nonsense. The things I got were real enough.
Doel:How did you respond to him when he said that?
O'Keefe:I got back in the comer and did my work.
Doel:After you had the conversation with Gale and Struve and indicated that you wanted to use the telescope and then got telescope time, how did you gain the tacit knowledge in using the telescope and using instruments. You mentioned already at Harvard that you had the help of the staff. How did you and your other graduate students gain that knowledge of telescope use?
O'Keefe:I know in my case it was an intricate piece of apparatus. They had a spectrograph with a very short photo lens. So short, in fact, that you had to poke the tiny bit of film into the [???] right after the secondary. I practiced at night with my fingers poking at the right distance. As for the others there were seven red things on it — everything stopped. They were terrified-Struve in particular-they'd run the thing into the wall. The dome was not quite big enough. When you put something into prime focus, which they hadn't planned for because the telescope was too long, you had to drop it in between the two and not hit them-which I never did. Apart from that I don't remember how you learned. I remember that particular thing and practicing endlessly before I got onto a telescope.
Tatarewicz:What was the staff at McDonald like — the technical staff at the observatory?
O'Keefe:I don't know. I don't remember having a technical staff.
Tatarewicz:Weren't there any assistants or even a maintenance person or someone in residence?
O'Keefe:There was maintenance. Osh Gamer was a sort of engineer in charge. Then there was a Mexican cleaner-upper. I went to Mass on Sunday with that Mexican. He said, "Why do you come to Mass with them — all those girls have Clap." I was rather shocked. I learned as much Spanish as I could from him. He was very kind to me and took me to Mass every Sunday.
After I left I sent him a dictionary — an English-Spanish dictionary. He took me around to see the priest. There was an old Dutch priest who was crazy-an old man. [says something in Dutch]
Do you follow that? "You're crazy, my boy. You belong in Berlin with all the other crazy people."
Doel:What were relations like between all of you at Yerkes and those in the town either Williams Bay or —
O'Keefe:Well, Morgan was an official of the town. In general we had little to do but get a haircut and go to the post office. Otherwise you didn't see people downtown. On Sunday, though, the postmaster drove me to church when I was at Yerkes. I knew him and his darling wife pretty well. She died of cancer of the lung. She smoked a lot. He was very kind and good to me. It's a town of five hundred people. I married Martha Tulane and when I did I got meals downtown and things like that. People would come up to me and say, "You picked the right one."
Doel:I was going to ask how you met. You married in 1941, right?
O'Keefe:Married in 1941. Martha was in and out of the house. As I told you, we ate at Tulane's and Martha was the daughter of the house. At that time she had a job in Chicago and also a job in Madison, studying English literature. She had just finished getting a paper ready for me. That was a hell of an advantage!
Doel:As you say, your paper entitled the "Origin of [???]," dated in fact today — February 2.
It was a lot more work. Anyway, Martha worked with a professor at Wisconsin. Let's see — who else did I interact with? I don't think so. There was a man named [???] who was a
[???] at the observatory and Radell(?) the machinist. If I talked to Radell(?) of the developments he didn't like that because he had his time fully taken up with other people's work.
Doel:What were you thinking about for dissertation topic? What possibilities had come to mind?
O'Keefe:Morgan said, "You will write your dissertation on the causes of reddened B-star" so I did.
Doel:In looking through your CV that seems to be one of the few papers you published on reddened B-stars.
O'Keefe:The only paper I ever published. Nobody ever sighted it and I didn't like it. I thought it was a slave job. I didn't go any further with it partly because when I wrote my thesis they gave me a certain small spectrograph camera-a Moffitt camera-and the images it gave were dreadful. They looked like sausages and I complained that there was something wrong. I even got a pen-light and looking down I could see one of the mirrors was cockeyed. They wouldn't fix it. I went ahead and did the job with them crooked. I didn't like it.
Doel:How did it come about that you came to work under Morgan for the dissertation?
O'Keefe:They wanted to do an observation on astronomy and he was the astronomer. I don't know. Who else would they give me?
Doel:What was it like working with Morgan? You mentioned a few things about your perceptions.
O'Keefe:He was very oblique. You didn't know what he was thinking. He didn't say things straightforward and you weren't sure whether he was being sarcastic. He had this technique of studying [???] photographs and he taught me how that was done, but he didn't venture any philosophical considerations. I had been thinking about the general problem with spectra classification and thinking the equivalent of spectra class is really, in some cases at least, [???] is involved. It's more like the [???] free energy of electron gas than it is like a real temperature. I talked to Morgan about that some, but I never wrote it down. He didn't encourage me to. He wanted a lot of spectra and classified according to his scheme, and he got them. I got my degree.
Doel:Was this a practice that other graduate students experienced too? Did others work for him in a similar manner?
Most of the other graduate students worked for Kuiper or [???]. The reason I worked for Morgan is this. There was a woman there — Francis Sherman. She said, "Go work for
Morgan because if you look back on who has their degrees, only Morgan's people. People who work with Kuiper or [???] get thrown out before they get their degree. If you work with Morgan you will get your degree."
Doel:Part of the legacy of seeing what had happened to other graduate students.
O'Keefe:That's right, yes. What was Morgan like? Oblique. You didn't know what he was really thinking. He did a couple of things that I didn't like. When I classified the star I classified some F stars. They were supposed to be B and they would have been red for a B-star. I thought they were F. Morgan said, "If you think they're F strike them out. You may be wrong and if you are it will damage your reputation." So he cut them and I didn't like that. I thought you should publish what you've got.
Doel:Just use the full data set?
O'Keefe:Yes. The other thing was that he was very qualitative rather than quantitative, but I got my degree. When I got my degree Struve came up to me and said, "Here are some lovely spectrum — how would you like to work on those?"
Doel:This was in 1941 after your Ph.D.?
O'Keefe:Yes. I said I didn't because I had seen the [???] majora spectra and line for line they were the same as alpha [???] which had been published. I didn't want to write a long paper on infinitesimal differences. The [???] were different, but the spectra were the same. It was an astounding thing. You lose spectrum that long — lines just like hair. This thing is full of data and then you start pinning it down and it turns out that every single one of those lines had been done by another person. Stellar spectra looks like it contains an enormous amount of information, but in fact it contains very little.
Doel:It sounds like that was quite a lesson in some ways about working in stellar spectroscopy.
O'Keefe:And I decided not to do it. I went to Bernal.
Doel:This is for the year of teaching?
O'Keefe:For a year of teaching, yes.
Doel:You mentioned in the autobiographical materials that are at the AlP that it was difficult to compete for jobs, given the high influx at the point of the European influx.
O'Keefe:The good jobs went to — Martin [???] ... contact... with competition. He came into it with a European reputation: I don't know anybody else offhand. Kuiper and [???] and a lot of other people — Bok.
Doel:Was there anyone at Yerkes who was attempting to place you to find a position for you?
O'Keefe:I finally was offered a job at Arizona.
Doel:At the Steward observatory.
O'Keefe:Yes. I don't know if it was called the Steward observatory at that time. Anyway, I was offered a job at Arizona and I had already committed myself to Bernal so I went there.
Doel:Did that offer come from Carpenter?
O'Keefe:I don't remember. The Cornell position became vacant at that time and I thought about trying to get in there. I went up and talked to people, but didn't get the job.
Doel:You were finishing the Ph.D. What research program did you want to try to continue with?
Doel:That was already the one that you wanted to do.
Yes. I don't know why it didn't work out. I think that I hesitated to have been the academic. We were working for Collins Radio. Perhaps if I had said to Mike get me a job there and I'll work alongside you it might have been a good thing to do for both of us. He was a very good observer and unique. I wasn't too bad a theoretician. We would have made an interesting team, but it didn't work out. I went to Bernal and went down to see a local radio engineer-radio repairman — to get some old scraps and put them together and build a radio set [???]. That was as far as I got. Bernal was not a very good place to do anything.
Doel:Was it in part because of not having enough time to do research?
O'Keefe:That's right. I was doing courses then; two courses in advanced physics and astronomy since I hadn't done any of that before. Also the laboratory was in chaos and I spent a lot of time trying to straighten it out.
Doel:You mentioned about thinking about the possibility of working with Reber. Had you talked directly with him about that?
O'Keefe:Oh yes. I talked about that when he came here to give a second lecture and I rode with him in his truck down to Chicago. I went and bought an engagement ring.
Doel:This is right around 1941?
Doel:We are generally aware that he was trying to work out some kind of agreement to continue work in radio astronomy. Did he talk to you about any of the options that he thought might become available for doing radio astronomy?
O'Keefe:No, he didn't. We were stonewalling on the fact that his work was real. It would have been a good thing to do.
Doel:As you say, though, to pursue it seemed as if you'd be walking out on your career.
O'Keefe:There was another thing. Morgan had made some arrangements for now and Yerkes had sent Gordon Wares down. Wares left after one year. There was a vacancy down there and the Yerkes people thought it was a good place to send their graduate students. It wasn't.
Doel:You knew this was going to be a one-year position?
I didn't know. I suppose what I really thought would happen would be I would get some development in the observatory down there. After all, Caulder(?) had gone to Agnes Scott, which is in some ways a rival to Bernal, and managed to do some work in photometry.
Tatarewicz:Was there much discussion about the war at this point?
O'Keefe:Struve talked about it. All our enemies are together now, he said. He hated the communists and he hated the Germans both. When they were on opposite sides he was sort of tom.
Tatarewicz:Was it something that you and the other graduate students talked about?
We listened, but didn't talk about it. Rander's(?) was there and I remember him saying, "I would like to see somebody stop that man — Heil Hitler — for just one day." We didn't think about it very much.
Tatarewicz:Did it add to any uncertainty about your future and career?
O'Keefe:[???] was drafted. They called him 1-A and he went off. I wanted to be drafted, but I have missing teeth and they wouldn't take me. We were uncertain what was going to happen. I think Struve thought I would do well if I got in the army. He said, "Cut this short now and let's get on with it."
Doel:Did he talk at all, that you were aware of, on his own experiences in the White Army?
Oh yes. You've heard that tale, haven't you — how he fled to Constantinople.
Doel:This was something he freely talked about. Were politics discussed much among the faculty? Did you get a sense of where people stood on social issues?
O'Keefe:No. I don't know anything about that. Struve, of course, was a conservative. Other people — I don't know.
Doel:You have an impression of Struve that he was conservative.
O'Keefe:Yes and anti-communist. You know about the little note that he — the magazine
Science carried a paper by a man at "The Observer" discussing a decision of the communist academy that the universe was infinite and eternal and as the only possible position for communists. This had been translated and published by a man who called up "The Observer." I got that volume out of the library and I could see Struve's iron fist on one side ... translation on here. I was sure Struve was the man who [???] "The Observer" and I was positive he hated the communists.
Doel:That's a very graphic example of seeing that. One other question-and I believe all of this happened after you had already left for your teaching position-given your subsequent interests in the moon and cratering, Ralph Baldwin had given an colloquium but I think it was in 1942 after you had already left. Do you remember any discussions among any of the faculty at Yerkes on solar system problems at that time? Kuiper becomes deeply involved in that later, but during the time you were there? Did Von Beesbrook, for example, talk about —
O'Keefe:He turned to the moon. Von Beesbrook talked about orbits and comets and things like that. He talked about [???] systems, which was very valuable later on in life. But solar system, well Kuiper did a little of it.
Doel:He certainly had, before coming to Yerkes, but then not anything until after 1944.
Tatarewicz:So it was OK for Von Beesbrook to do celestial mechanics and cometary orbit, but telescopic observations of planetary bodies to do what sometimes is called planetary astrophysics, that was just not —
O'Keefe:Not done. The spectrum of a planet is very tame because of star spectrum and we didn't have the infrared, which is where things really happen in planets. There was no sense of infrared.
Tatarewicz:Kuiper said later that his studies of double stars were really with an aim toward understanding planetary evolution — understanding the evolution of the planets-in a certain sense a failed example of a double star system. Was there any evidence in this in what he was doing at the time that you could see?
O'Keefe:No. I remember his talking about celestial mechanics and figures of rotating body.
That obviously has some evolutionary implications, but I don't remember.
Tatarewicz:But for all anyone could have told, Kuiper's work on double stars was just work on double stars.
O'Keefe:Correct. Very observational.
Doel:We are resuming after a brief lunch break. Around the time that we went for lunch we had come to the point of transition from the time that you were teaching to the time that you put in for a civil service appointment at the Naval Observatory. I am wondering how you came to think about going to the Naval Observatory in the first place.
O'Keefe:They advertised that they were looking for an astronomer.
Doel:Did you know any of the people at the Naval Observatory?
O'Keefe:I don't think I knew anybody. Markowitz I should have known. He had been at
Yerkes, but I don't believe I knew him.
Doel:But it was motivated by seeing the advertisement.
O'Keefe:I knew there would be a job there. It was also, of course, clearly important to do something of importance to national defense.
Doel:Were there other options that you were thinking about or did that seem to be one of the —
O'Keefe:As I mentioned, I tried to get into Cornell.
Doel:That was a regular staff opening in astronomy?
Was that Boothwort(?) — was he still there at the time?
I think Boothwort(?) was quitting and there was a new man. Who followed Boothwort(?) ?
Doel:I don't know.
O'Keefe:Somebody else came in there before Gold came and was the astronomer there.
Tatarewicz:Was there a formal application process?
O'Keefe:Yes, they post vacancies in civil service. They just put it up on the bulletin board.
Tatarewicz:But for Cornell?
O'Keefe:No, not for Cornell. That was by word of mouth or something. Maybe somebody wrote to Struve, but I don't know.
Tatarewicz:Did you send a letter of application or did you do this verbally?
O'Keefe:I think I just went up there for an interview. I don't remember long term.
Tatarewicz:In the civil service there is always the formal paperwork.
O'Keefe:That's right. I did all that and sent it in. I guess maybe I told you before — one hundred for a mathematician and eighty four for an astronomer.
Doel:You noted that in your autobiography you feel it was an inversion of the scores.
O'Keefe:Anyway, so I went to work for the army as an engineer. They have an elaborate game in the army involving coordinate systems. When the army wants to indicate a place located by [???] written right on the map.
Doel:We are looking on a map on Dr. O'Keefe's wall.
Tatarewicz:It looks like a seven and one-half minute quadrangle.
O'Keefe:The sheet itself is two fifty.
Tatarewicz:Right. Seven and a half minutes would be much larger.
O'Keefe:You give your coordinates this way. Those things exist, of course, on the map. They also exist in digital form on furnished lists of points of known coordinates to the artillery. I had to coordinate over a corps front and it all comes to bear on the same [???] at the same time. The business of transforming coordinates is much more difficult than dealing with maps. With a map you are limited by the paper strips to an [???] to one point in one thousand. These digital things are much higher especially if you try to coordinate things because, for example, you don't know the exact digital of the equator. You have to treat numbers which are given as if they were; that they can handle together. The result is that you have five or six or even ten figures that have to be done to that level in order to assure the parts fit together properly. It's a real mathematical problem with real applications.
Tatarewicz:How are you trained in the army way of mapping? That is, you got into the army and where did you go then?
O'Keefe:Civilian employee at the army. My boss gave me a problem and said he wanted [???] for these points which were the X-Y coordinate. I worked that out and learned a good deal from being military [???]. The first name is Guggenheim who had a lot of these same problems.
Above all I read Jordan [???].
Doel:You've written about the tasks that you faced and developing common ground for the different coordinate systems after the Second World War. What was it you spent most of your time doing during the war itself? What research problems were you principally involved in?
O'Keefe:During the war I was involved with coordinate problems. No, that's not quite true.
They gave me a set often little problems that were very easy. Then they brought in the Chinese maps; one to fifty thousand scale. They were precious beyond belief because they were top secret and the British weren't supposed to know they existed. They did, of course; they knew all about them.
Doel:How were the maps done? Who had done them?
O'Keefe:They were done by the Chinese. They were real surveys so you could compare ... one to one hundred thousand. These were complete dream stuff. Sometimes our contour would spiral and then had fifty thousand. Fifty thousand-a real survey-were quite accurate on the ground if I was to coordinate them. They brought in those sheets and stacked them like this and O'Keefe, said, "Tell us where the latitude and longitude go on these sheets." There were enough points here and there that you could make a pretty good guess at it.
Tatarewicz:So you would pick known points to try to tie the system of the Chinese maps to some system that you already had.
Yes. There were some points where latitude and longitude had been established by the central land survey-the Chinese Central Land Survey. There were other points that had been established by radio longitude by the geological survey and then there were points established by various European explorers and by the [???], which cut latitude. What you did was you assumed, that for a given province, the latitudes and longitudes were on some orderly approximately correct — the differences between the coordinates that you got for that way and the given coordinates and then you decide what to do. For example, for the [???] they assumed there were thirteen half degrees by one way and thirteen and a half minutes. Those is not true, but close enough approximation so by taking the differences between the map position-one scaled the map on this assumption. The given coordinates you could deduce how you would convert to real coordinates. I am afraid this is not very clear.
Tatarewicz:No, that's fine. Where were you doing this work?
O'Keefe:I began in the Corp of Engineers in Washington, but it involved a lot of calculation.
The noise of the computers drove the officers crazy, so we went out to New York — the U. S. Lake Survey in New York.
Tatarewicz:How many computers did you have?
O'Keefe:About forty. I don't remember. In [???] Hall there were forty. I had personally five....
What kind of machines were the computers using? Were these Fredens(?)?
Tatarewicz:I can understand how they would make a lot of noise when you had forty of those clacking away all at once. Had you had any experience before with a large group of computers in astronomy?
No. None. They dumped me in there, but they had Jewish housewives. The Jewish housewife is like nothing you have ever seen before. I've said about the war, they hated it. Some of them had husbands and sweethearts overseas. They would work until they dropped. They were very smart. I have a Christmas card from a woman who [signed] "fondly yours" and this was fifty years ago. They worked hard and they were very bright. We'd hold to a more or less a uniform system of handling — [???] and transformation. I wrote up afterwards, trying to describe things like suppose you had a set of latitudes and longitudes. You want to convert them to longitudes and latitudes on a different sphere; there was an assumption about the size and the shape of the earth. The best thing to do is to convert the first set-the X and Y coordinates and back the X and Y coordinates out into the second set. The X and Y coordinates are pretty nearly the same, regardless of the assumptions you make. This can be written down in a nice way. That is what it amounted to. I am afraid I can't describe the whole thing.
Tatarewicz:But you had never been formally trained in surveying or in map making or anything like that?
Tatarewicz:But your spherical trigonometry and solid geometry and mathematics —
O'Keefe:And these using [???] coordinates ....
O'Keefe:That's right. I also learned — I had one session with a fellow at the geological survey who knew something about it. Mostly I was on my own.
Tatarewicz:Your colleagues in this work-people who were doing the same thing you were doing — did you know them very well or get to know them very well?
O'Keefe:Not until the end of the war. [???] in England was very much the same kind of thing.
In America there was nobody doing things like what I was doing.
Tatarewicz:What about the other people? If you could just of describe the group that you were in or was it just you?
O'Keefe:No. When I was working at [???] toward the end I had about sixty people. They included the range of blacks, whites, deaf and dumb, sane and insane, and all different kinds of religions. The best of them was Irene Fisher. She had been a student —
Doel:Irene K. Fisher?
O'Keefe:I don't remember the K. Anyway she had been a student of Goethe in Vienna down at
[???]. She worked for me for quite a long time. I had a note from her. After I left she came to head up that group and then was elected to the National Academy of Engineering — the first woman in the national academy. She was first-rate. Then I had Bill Kaula, who afterward became a professor at UCLA.
Doel:He is the person who took the work you had pioneered and stayed with it.
Doel:It just crossed my mind when you were talking about the diversity of the group that in essence you had your English high school experience, quite a few years later but you did have it.
By god, I told them very plainly when they came into look for a job. I gave them a quiz; if they passed that quiz they were in, if they didn't pass they were out. We threw out people just because they couldn't cut the mustard. They all knew that they got in because they could do the stuff and not because of anybody liking anybody. They were a very, very good bunch of people... geological survey and Kaula went back to the treasury. Walker became leader of a fraction of the group later on. It's a very good way to do things. So and so could furnish you a list and a lot of the supervisors the trick was to get the guy you wanted off the list. I took the guy at the top of the list. It's a very good thing to do. I adored them.
Tatarewicz:Were there any other astronomers?
O'Keefe:Yes. Frank Kameny was there. He's that homosexual advocate — noisy. I don't know
if you want to mention him or not. ...
Tatarewicz:He was also in the army map service?
O'Keefe:Civilian employee of the map service.
Tatarewicz:Was he doing similar kinds of —
O'Keefe:He was working for me.
Tatarewicz:What was his background? Where had he done —
O'Keefe:At Harvard. I don't know ifhe got his Ph.D. there or not. Anyway, as time went on this work with the map coordinates got more and more-well, first of all I should say I devised the coordinates on that map. That coordinate system is mine; the technical side of it. We replaced an older coordinate system. This system was adopted by NATO and is now practically world-wide. This was about 1949.
Doel:Your continuing work had been in the [???] and [???] engineering.
O'Keefe:I was involved with the velocity of light.
Doel:Just before we get to the post-war period I am curious what discussions you may recall during the war time as to the uses for which these data and calculations would be put. I am just wondering what sense all of you had of the ways in which this kind of coordinate system could be used. Are there some that come quickly to mind?
O'Keefe:The way in which this coordinate system can be used is first of all if you are going to coordinate them, for an army, you specify in terms of these coordinates where people go. One of the uses of them is simply to designate points, but that isn't mathematically. Mathematically is by the artillery in the coordinates of your gun, your target and you can hit it provided — and this is most technical — you want to know which way is north where you are; ... lets you know which way is north where you are. The surveys will tell you that.
Doel:I should have asked a bit more specifically-was anyone, even by the end of the war, thinking in terms of future ballistic missile concerns?
Doel:And this was discussed?
O'Keefe:Not discussed openly.
Doel:But you were aware of it though?
O'Keefe:Aware of it. By 1945 my boss would whisper 'guided missiles.'
Doel:Interesting. Were you aware, for example, of developments at Peenemunde in Germany?
Yes. At the end of the war I got a hold of the secret records of Peenemunde. I ordered the set and examined it and sent it back. The guided missiles people were starting to build up then. They wanted me to tell them how accurately we knew where various points were in Russia. It always turned out that within the European continent or within the American continent [???] positions were well established. Between American and Europe intercontinental connections were very, very uncertain. We'd already started to worry about that by 1947; we started to worry about [???]. I think we heard about the missiles before then.
Doel:1947 was just about the time that relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were falling off.
Yes. That wasn't so much — well, I don't know about politics. At the end of the war what happened was my boss went over to Europe and he went to all the map depots that had been established by the German army and collected everything that they had collected. Do you know about that?
You mentioned this in your autobiographical statement. This was [???].
O'Keefe:[???] — wonderful man. We ended up with this tremendous amount of geodetic data and we gave it to the Europeans that had to make a unified translation, and they did. It was all converted — this UTM thing.
Doel:How classified were these data?
O'Keefe:When the Europeans gave us something we classified it, otherwise we didn't. If you give a soldier a map and he was in a battle you can count on some of them being captured.
Anything that goes to the front lines is counted as lost if it is disclosed. We never liked to have that stuff classified because it was useless to the army if it was classified. The Air Force always wanted to have it classified.
Doel:Because of the ballistic missile implications.
O'Keefe:I don't know why they did it. Bruce Murray — ask him. He was the man who was always going to get it classified. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force. You know the guy I mean.
Doel:At that time the future director of JPL.
Tatarewicz:He was at Air Force Cambridge, I believe, at that time. How much contact did you have with your counterparts who worked for the Air Force? The Air Force was not going to rely on the army for geodetic information.
O'Keefe:Yes, they did too. They relied on us implicitly. I said if the Air Force can understand it, to it — we want out. We learned if it was dumb enough — if we had routinized things sufficiently then the Air Force could do it. We wanted to do something else. I'm sorry!
O'Keefe:We had some contact with them.
Tatarewicz:Any contact with, say, Merton Davies at Rand?
O'Keefe:A little. There was an Air Force engineer captain who really brought the army engineers into the whole thing. He said very straightforwardly 'we don't know where these targets are, but we must find out if we're going to use them.' The army is the place where they know about those things so he got in and got us involved. He was the one who brought us in.
Tatarewicz:And who was this?
O'Keefe:I don't remember. The Air Force looked after us just about how we look at the JVR general staff in England. They felt that they knew everything.
Tatarewicz:When would this have been that the Air Force and Army began to talk more closely?
O'Keefe:After about 1947-1948. What happened was Heiskanen came back to visit us from
Finland and told us that the Germans had planned to cooperate with the Americans on intercontinental distance measurements and then forty-five eclipse and taught us roughly what the scheme was. He taught us rough scheme and we could figure out the rest. I progressively moved out from the strict mapping.
Doel:Do you have any contact with Heiskanen before the end of the war?
Doel:He had remained in Scandinavia during the war time.
O'Keefe:That's right, in Finland. I think I knew what his name was. He wasn't entirely unfamiliar when he came and told us this story. I don't remember more than that. The velocity of light was probably this scheme.
Doel:This was the …
Doel:As you mentioned in your biographical statement, the importance of the speed of light measurement was for the fundamental basis of the geode measurement.
O'Keefe:Yes. Nobody wants a second rate value. The immediate thing it called for was a survey of the Caribbean in the West Indies for a missile range. They wanted to fire missiles downrange and they wanted to know where the places were, obviously. They measured them by radar, but as long as they were using a wrong value of the velocity of light it was not very consistent.
Doel:This is what triggered the interest in the question.
O'Keefe:At the same time Huff insisted on using radar to fill the gaps in triangulation. He was able to put together a change of triangulations from the Cape of Good Hope of Egypt, but across the Aegean Sea he had to have radar. There was a link around through Palestine, but he didn't trust it.
Tatarewicz:And of course in the Caribbean you are hopping from island to island so radar is the only option that you have concerning the distances.
O'Keefe:That's right. That got me involved with the people at Redstone Arsenal because they were firing stuff downrange and they wanted a quarter system.
Doel:You mentioned also in your autobiography relating to the speed of light that in the end you decided not to publish a joint paper with him.
I decided to take my name off the paper. That was the cowardly thing to do. In the end it was a glorious thing — just glorious! He was so close it was a shame. If you get the kilometers right it was real legitimate, but to get down to one-tenth of a kilometer percent-when everything else was going by sixteen — it was a wonderful achievement.
Doel:What was it that made you concerned about the value as you had helped determine?
O'Keefe:Why did I not trust that?
O'Keefe:KICSS at the bureau of standards brought me a list often consecutive measurements and the value of the velocity of light, all of which were in the [???] pocket of 29774 — the old guy. There was nothing to support the new value except the old measurement between two [???] in California; Mt. [???] in San Antonio — that gave approximately the right answer. Everything else was way down there and the [???] of all the [???] besides me; a lot of people got wrong answers. If you didn't do a lousy job you couldn't get answers they felt were the right one. If you did a good, careful job they didn't publish it.
Doel:So it wasn't so much systematic error as simply sloppy methods that had allowed that earlier value to continue.
Sloppy methods and an over-degree of reverence for the past. If [???] had said something — you know, Nobel Prize — then there was the link of relativity. I couldn't believe — there it was in front of me — that Einstein and all these other physicists that had been screwing around had the completely wrong about the velocity of light. I couldn't believe they had been so careless and an engineer running a routine thing would discover that it was wrong. I couldn't believe it.
Tatarewicz:What were the discussions with your collaborator like as he tried to decide whether to publish it and whose name would go on the paper?
O'Keefe:It has to be on the paper anyway because he was the one who did all the experimental work. He was the one who developed survey tools and developed the idea of using planes to fly up and down along the lines to get the actual value of the fraction. He had done all of that kind of thing. I had done some theoretical work, calculating what the value was but would be if [???].
We did it first of all by direct comparison with the lines in Florida. We took all the lines that went out to the Caribbean and figured out what value of velocity you needed to tie these two together. It was the same value: Asakon. Asakon was wearing a uniform, but he was really a geodetic surveyor and a civil servant. They were commissioned servicemen. He was a brilliant man anyway and an enthusiast. He was a great driving force. We tried to solve this problem of intercontinental distances. We tried to solve it by this coast geodetic survey and make gravity [???] all around the point, calculate what [???] the vertical will be and then you will know the absolute reference point. They did that.
Tatarewicz:You were saying it didn't come out very well.
Yes. I don't know what the trouble was, but we weren't enthusiastic about it. I think the real trouble was that it turned out that the effect of remote zones was greater than they thought it would be. Then we tried by occultations — first we tried eclipses and then we tried by occultations.
By the early 1950s, as you broadened the scope of your work, you made a number of references to Harold Jeffreys and the work that was being done in geodetics at Cambridge — did you have much direct contact with the people there? With Jeffreys?
O'Keefe:I met him. He came and visited us once, but mostly it was by letter and by reading his book very carefully.
Doel:Was it more a pedagogical example and also means of understanding his techniques or did other kinds of influences come by being in touch with him? I am simply curious of what ways, in his letters for example, he influenced your thinking?
O'Keefe:What I learned from his was that you shouldn't believe Heiskanen; that there were extensive areas consisting of positive gravity [???], for example. It's so big there must be some mechanical strength in the earth's interior somewhere. It didn't smooth out. That's a point that
Jeffreys insisted on throughout his book of the earth. Also he insisted on doing things by spherical harmonics. Everybody else was doing it in a different way, but he wanted to do celestial mechanics. The first thing he had to do was express the earth's gravitation field with spherical harmonics.
Doel:What was Heiskanen basing his idea of large scale anomalies on?
O'Keefe:He had plots of the situation; the plots of gravity numbers all over the world. It worked out that there must be some pretty large scale — Tenny, I think. He didn't accept Tenny's idea.
He wanted to have a submarine go around and measure the gravity in every square degree.
Doel:Of course Vening-Meinesz was already doing the submarine —
O'Keefe:Yes, he was. He worked very closely with Heiskanen. They wrote a joint book on the whole problem. That's where they put that basic theorem of geodesy. The basic theorem of geodesy was there are no widespread anomalies, but there are. That's what turned up immediately when they started to work with the satellite. Jeffreys had said there are. You see, if there are widespread anomalies that mean mechanical strength. If you dig a hole in the backyard the gravities aren't going to compensate. There's a very small effect coming on a wide area; effects of harmonic. The first thing I did after we got this done is to write a note saying [???] harmonics, the basic hypothesis of geodesy — saying it was no good. That's a mistake because the third harmonic deal had been a very good one and I would have been up for some pretty nice things. I made those guys mad who would have been in a position to do something about it. I didn't give a damn.
Doel:Of course that's in the late 1950s that we're talking about, after the satellite. I am curious about just how you came increasingly into contact with people like Vening-Meinesz and others who were working the different areas of gravity measurements as such. Was it mostly after the war that those contacts were made?
O'Keefe:Yes, one month after. As soon as we started this eclipse business I think we were right close to the high scanner. Vening-Meinesz were never much in my life. I think the answer to your question is this. Floyd Huff was driving us. He wanted an overall picture of gravity — the size and shapes and all. He was driving us to go into this field. He seized the German coordinates, he backed me on TM. He got Atkinson and me to work on velocity of light so that he could use it to measure across the Atlantic.
Doel:It sounds like he was quite a mentor figure for you.
O'Keefe:He was tremendous — about five feet two, redhead, gentle, kind — but very, very persistent and a man of big ideas. I loved him; he was wonderful.
Doel:What other recollections do you have of him, either as a researcher or as a person?
O'Keefe:When we were up in New York we had a deal with headquarters ... known as the "great white father" ... the situation. I hardly knew him as a person. I met his wife many years afterward. He often drove me home and often had me up in the office. If he gets something interesting he says 'OK come up here' and that was all he'd talk about. He was a real conversationalist with real ideas and we'd talk about it. He had done the damnedest thing. He had [???] in Alaska with all those mountain ranges and now changing [???] of the data. It's not supposed to work, but it did. He'd been a coastal surveyor and [???] sent him out with a course.
If he broke a leg they wouldn't know about it for six months. He had been in one of the [???] sections of Columbia where the Indians are now shooting at — in a picture — one of these chainmen, with a spear sticking out of them like that. One of the spears is ... and it didn't even get to the faculty. He had seen the world.
Doel:Just thinking about the Odyssey, of course the Carnegie Institution of Washington was interested in the 1930s and somewhat in the 1940s in gravity measurements. Did you ever have any contact with any of the people who were —
Yes, we did — [???] particularly. The point was this. If Heiskanen had been right and if the earth had been fairly soft then you could tell from what you measured in one place what was going on someplace else. But if the earth was stiff and strong then there would be wide angulations in it. You wouldn't be able to deduce it. Carnegie took the side that there were no broad angulations. They thought you could measure gravity and use it for geological purposes, but they didn't understand Jeffrey’s main point. So we were on opposite sides of that fight. I didn't see very much of the Carnegie people anyway.
Doel:Of course you were in New York at that point.
I was in New York and of course the Carnegie had no contact with them.
Doel:I was curious generally just to see the kinds of contacts you were developing with other groups at the time.
I was very isolated. When I talk about geodesy at most of the colleges — we try to recruit, you know — and they've never heard of geodesy and the straight American text in geodesy is cosmic geodesy, in the 1930s. They are abysmally behind the times.
Doel:How did the situation in the U.S. — in your judgment — compare to that of other European nations, for example, in the training of geodesists?
We were the worst partly because geodesy is a part of mapping and the whole mapping responsibility was taken from the engineers and assigned to the geological survey back in 1870.
We couldn't survey in the United States — the engineers couldn't. They could certainly abroad, but not in the United States. The course in geodetic survey was very, very out of date. What had really happened was in the 1920s a fellow named Bowie came into the geodetic center and he was anxious to save money and do things economically. He didn't pay much attention to people like Oscar Adams or Walter [???]. The X -Y coordinates on the ETM projection was something else that Adams sent in to the Corp of Engineers, about the time that I came in. When I came in he handed me this thing recommending that we change our coordinate system. The engineers asked me and I said "look, I quibbled but I was wrong and I spent three years trying to make up for the time I lost by not recognizing Adams as a great man." I wanted six degree belts and he wanted them in four. My contacts were at the geodetic center.
O'Keefe:Donald Rice was with us in Florida when we were getting the velocity of light straightened out.
Doel:What was his training?
MIT — D. A. Rice.
Tatarewicz:Did you continue to follow at all what was going on in astronomy during the war?
O'Keefe:Yes ... physical journal years after the war was over. I didn't contribute to that journal.
I got too used to the Astronomical Journal but not the Astrophysical Journal.
Doel:Did you know Dirk Brouwer?
Doel:How did you first come in contact with him?
O'Keefe:He read a paper of mine on the figures of rotating bodies. He had me up to Yale. He spoke to me in some meeting and offered me a job at Yale.
Doel:When was that approximately? It doesn't need to be exact. I just wanted to get a feeling for roughly when it occurred.
O'Keefe:1963. That wasn't the first contact with Brouwer.
Doel:This was after the satellite work?
Yes. I guess what brought me in contact with Brouwer the first time was [???]. K. C.
Johns had a committee to study what we could do with satellites when we had them.
Doel:This was in the mid-1950s as I recall.
O'Keefe:That's right. Brouwer was on it and I was on it and O'Sullivan was on it.
Doel:Were other people on celestial mechanics also involved, say Paul Herget in Cincinnati?
O'Keefe:Those guys formed a little club of their own. When they brought the launch Vanguard won. They had a meeting up in Columbia to decide to study celestial mechanics through the satellite. They treated it like a comet and they left me out.
Doel:It was an exclusionary club.
O'Keefe:They gave an opinion that earth geodesy had nothing to do with satellite. By the time they got that thing to print I had the third article out. Happy day!
Tatarewicz:Did you have much informal contact with Herget?
O'Keefe:Yes, I did. Herget quite often — what happened was this. There was a controversy about who would do the satellites and the navy got it. They had a choice to have somebody do the celestial mechanics between Whipple and Herget. I'd rather them take Herget. I advised Hagan. We heard about it in the 1955 meeting of the IAD in Dublin. That's when it came out that the navy was going to get the knot. That had something to look at and they took Herget.
Doel:I don't mean to interrupt this story, but who made the announcement at the Dublin meeting about this? How did you get this information?
O'Keefe:It was in the newspaper.
Doel:The IAD circular?
O'Keefe:No, the public newspaper. It was a very big deal. Hagan and I talked about it.
Doel:That helps. That's what I wanted to know. And you had recommended Herget, you said, over —
O'Keefe:Then Musen came from Herget to work with us. Peter Musen. A very strange man.
Doel:In what way?
He quarreled with everybody. He quarreled bitterly with Herget and with me and everybody else. He felt there should be ... in a major organization. He took a violent dislike to something I'd done, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I wrote to him and said 'I don't know what I've done, but whatever it is I apologize.' He'd be walking across the ground out there and he'd see me come in. He went and petitioned my [???] to tell me.... Anyway, he was much better professionally than [???] — much better.
Tatarewicz:Did you interact much with Herget?
O'Keefe:Only on a conversational basis. He had this wonderful idea about getting a [???] asteroid into the earth and collecting the steel from it. He was also writing theory for celestial mechanics with thrust.
N" on gravitational effects.
He had a very bad stomach ulcer. I think it finally killed him. He was friendly and nice to me.
Tatarewicz:I was just wondering because since he was on the west coast, working and doing a lot of consulting with the aerospace companies and with the missile builders, there's a certain sense in which your work for the army and his work for the developers of the technology were —
O'Keefe:That's true. There's a definite answer to that which I did not give you. It will only take a minute. We had the problem 'what was the value of coordinates to the army.' Above all they're permitted the use of unobserved fire without registering the gun. In other words, the traditional attitude in making an attack. You brought your guns out. You registered each gun — that is the orientation was by firing a shot at a known point. Then you fired from the map in the coordinate data. To do that you had to have very accurate maps and good coordinates, especially for orientation. In the early days of the war what they did was they bombarded a place. If you shell a certain stretch at the front, vigorously for three days, they guess something is coming.
Doel:They can guess where it's coming from!
O'Keefe:If you don't you have a briefly violent [???] to start the thing off. You have to have the guns registered. You put them in by surveyor by registering. If you register them they count up the number of guns you put in and figure it out in the [???] count, so you put them in without registering them. That's where the coordinates came from. Ed [???] had a conspicuous success in that way and Floyd [???] knew about the results that Ed made.
Doel:That's a good point and I'm glad you made it. Just to follow up a moment on Joe's question. Did you also have contacts with Leland Cunningham on celestial mechanics?
No. I knew it existed, but I don't think we did do anything. We did contact Herget earlier. One of the things we tried to do is compare occultation observed in Europe with that observed in the U.S. and measuring intercontinental distances. There should have been a slight discrepancy. We got a list of well observed [???] star and occultation. I got that from Brouwer as a matter of fact and worked it out. He told us that the discrepancy was not big, but didn't really give a very good figure.
Doel:Was Brouwer the liaison because of his Dutch heritage or was it because of other contacts he had?
O'Keefe:Brouwer was the great man in the moon. Occultations tell you where the moon is. He was a great man in occultations regardless.
Doel:It was the basis of his research at Yale that he was interested in having the contacts with the larger groups of astronomers in Europe who were also looking at occultation.
O'Keefe:He collected the data in occultation.
Doel:I know that we're not going to have too much more time today on the interview. We might either begin with a few questions about your work with Tektites[??] and the move into NASA or we could simply pause at this point and continue that in the next session.
Tatarewicz:Before we move on I don't think that we've really dealt with the occultation or the eclipse work. What's our choice there? Should we go with that?
Doel:Let's do that.
Tatarewicz:You mentioned earlier that it was in the late 1940s that it had become important to deal with intercontinental distances and begin to tie the coordinate systems together.
O'Keefe:That's right. Originally it was [???]'s baby, but it gradually became more and more real.
Tatarewicz:You turned to eclipse measurements?
O'Keefe:We started with eclipse measurements because we heard that is what the Europeans were doing; the eclipse of 1945.
Doel:This was Lindblad who helped you?
O'Keefe:Lindblad on one side and [???] on our side. I don't remember. It will come to me. Anyway, they had actually made the observation and it eclipsed in 1945 on both ends. When we tried to work it up we couldn't do it. We didn't get the kind of accuracy that we wanted. It indicated some enormous discrepancy — well, not anymore; it's pretty big. You didn't know whether to bet with them or not. So we went to occultation. The eclipse of 1948 was an annual eclipse, but very nearly total. It had places in Japan, Korea, and China with B-29s flying over it. Out of all that came [???].
Tatarewicz:What is the source of the inadequacy of the eclipsed method?
O'Keefe:Fundamentally ask the question about the sharpness of the sun's limb? How sharp is it?
Tatarewicz:Same as the transits of Venice and the transits of our theory for parallax.
How sharp is a [???]? That's a matter of equilibrium — how to study from the atmosphere of the sun. What really did the damage was a Polish astronomer — Kordokvsky — who studied the problem and had concluded that it didn't know how to work. He got mixed up between seconds of time and the motion of the second [???]. That was enough to screw things up — the value or not the value. The other thing was so much cleaner; so much better.
Tatarewicz:And the origin of the occultation technique?
We developed it, on the survey map. What was the idea? Well, the idea was this. If you have an occultation of the star, by the moon, that means that at the moment of occultation a shadow of the moon is falling on a certain area of the earth which goes through your site. You are at the edge of the moon's shadow because when the shadow sweeps over you the star goes out. The idea was to observe this thing here, draw the shape of the moon shadow on the earth and then you're somewhere on that line. ...you have an intersection and you have it fixed ....
The difficulty is, of course, that the moon has a rough edge. You must choose your sites in such a way that the same part of the moon occults the star in both places. If you do that everything turns out beautifully. Errors in the stars position cancel out; errors in the moon's position cancel out. The only thing that survives is errors in the position on the earth. That technique works very, very well.
Tatarewicz:Was this your idea originally?
Tatarewicz:How did it come to you?
O'Keefe:Modifications in the eclipse method. It was really sharper, but you could get an occultation every month and you get an eclipse once a year and usually not where you want it.
Lambert had been thinking along these lines and he gave a set of lectures, not exactly relative to this but very close. W. D. Lambert was the outside influence.
O'Keefe:We finally got the technique to work and we determined the position of [???] in respect to the Philippines. The Japanese continued to do it and got some more data. I think it was written up by Ivan Muller in a book called Celestial Geodesy or something like that. He even has maps. Muller thinks that my [???] is exaggerated or something like that, so you won't find much about me in it but you can see what gravitation method is all about. Let's see if I can tell you. What this meant was you picked out a place-we tried the Azores and a particular mountain there — and men were stationed there to observe these occultations each time. They would carry that line across there on the European or the African continent and they'd put on that line. The trouble was that we failed at the Azores every time in the campaign because the weather was bad. We had tried it first in the United States where it worked and then in the Pacific where it worked. It was a beautiful technique and of course we hoped that we'd get all kinds of astrophysical goodies and we did. As a matter of fact the last occultation we ran in the United States we did get three occultations of the same place and we got a double star, which was not previously known. Does that answer your question?
O'Keefe:We didn't get a tie between Europe and America. We did get some Italian position; some information of Hawaii.
Tatarewicz:But the main problem was the uncertainties of the weather and the very precise requirement that both stations to observe the occultation be located —
The weather was really the whole thing. If the weather was good we would get it. The first time you've got to fill out [???] — a little bit indifferent. You miss one of those things and ah! They'd kill an investigator.
Tatarewicz:How many people did you have as observers in this campaign?
I don't know how many we ended up with — a lot. Are you talking about —
O'Keefe:Of course the director at Mt. Wilson was also O'Keefe,
O'Keefe:Preston and Spinrad — anyway, a lot of the hopeful in astronomy.
Tatarewicz:You mentioned that one of the problems as well, in your autobiography, was one of the problems was the mounting of the telescopes and everything. Where did you get the telescopes that you used?
I got them from Hane(?) in New Jersey. He advertised in Sky and Telescope and he would build them promptly, but they were terrible telescopes. They were very loose. That didn't really matter, it turned out. What really mattered was the fact that he had the telescope on a pipe about four inches like that across and that bent in the wind. You wouldn't believe it, would you? You wouldn't believe it was vibrating. As bad as the [???] was, it was alright if you blocked around that front right with rock-just build a rock pile on the only place that was concrete was the best thing to do. Unsteadiness. You wouldn't believe it, but of course you have a long [???] around it and if you'd try to focus the damn thing it would dance right out of the field. The other thing that we did is we went to study with Whitford. We followed Whitford in devising an eyepiece. The problem is how do you get the star image on the photo cell and not get a lot of light from the sky. You make a little aperture. Whitford's idea was you look up through the aperture and you show the star and it was alright. That was terrible because the star wanted out of the aperture and when it was gone you wouldn't know where to look for it. Instead of doing that we did something simple. In a spectroscope when you have the stars on the jaw of this stick you see when it's there and can push it back in when if it gets out. We made a little circular hole in the mirror and pushed the star into that hole and let the light go through there. If it got out of the hole we could see where it was and in what direction it was moving. It sounds simple, but it made a hell of a difference. The first few times we tried it without that and it failed.
Tatarewicz:Were there any other competing techniques that were in a way up and coming for doing this kind of work?
O'Keefe:There was gravity-a big gravity survey-to help determine what gravity was doing to the direction of the [???]. There was an eclipse method. Heyden kept working on an eclipse method for a long time, but I didn't think it was any good.
Tatarewicz:I am trying to remember who was supporting his expeditions.
O'Keefe:The Air Force.
Tatarewicz:That was Air Force.
O'Keefe:Air Force with radar.
Tatarewicz:Did you discuss with Heyden-
O'Keefe:Yes. He was our [???] chief in 1948 in Korea. I would talk to him often. He was a very nice man; a very good man.
Doel:I am very glad we didn't forget to get those questions out at that time, but again I feel I should ask if this is a good time for us to break before we start a next set of questions?
O'Keefe:I think I am about done.
Just to end for a moment, when we spoke at lunch you mentioned about some correspondence and other materials of yours that you have kept here in the office. I just wanted to hear roughly what it is — we're looking right now behind me here. It's in these file cabinets?
O'Keefe:There are three file cabinets. These two on the right are just reprints — you don't want them. The left hand —
Doel:The two left hand?
O'Keefe:One left hand.
It's five items — five full cabinets.
Doel:Four drawers and there is a fifth drawer down there. Let me thank you very much for this long session. We will, of course, not make the tape available to anyone or its transcript without your express knowledge and approval as defined in the permission forms that we will be giving you along with the edited transcript. Let me thank you very much.
O'Keefe:You are very, very welcome.