Oral History Transcript — Dr. William Van Altena
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William Van Altena; February 21, 1977
This interview is a focused exploratory interview covering William Van Altena's brief career history as a student at the University of California, Berkeley and Lick Observatory; interests in astrometry and work for van den Bos and Vasilevskis; work at Yerkes Observatory; state of astrometry and role of automation; discussion of names prominent in community; LST program; funding; tenure.
DeVorkin:Could you review your early education and college studies at Berkeley and how you came to work with Vasilevskis at LICK — basically how you became interested in astronomy. What Iím really interested in, I think, is: did you become interested in astronomy all at once or some facet of it?
Van Altena: That goes back to the earliest days. My interest in astronomy as nearly as I can tell, was probably helped along by my godmother, who was a spiritualist, an astrologer - she took me to the Rosicrucian Planetarium in San Jose, gave me astronomy books at many different points, books on astrology, and just furthered my interest in this area from the very beginning, as early as I can remember.
DeVorkin:How early would that be in age?
Van Altena: Oh, five, six, thereabouts. My education was in Hayward, California and San Lorenzo, California, at local public schools, not particularly good, not particularly bad but just mediocre. I specialized in science and math during high school and went into engineering at Berkeley for one semester, although my first interest was really in astronomy. I had originally planned to go into astronomy but then felt that it might be best to keep that as a hobby and so looked at two possible options, being an optometrist or an engineer and decided for engineering. But after one semester at Berkeley, I just decided that that wasnít really what I wanted to do and I had better do what my first love was. So I went into astronomy. I took an introductory course from Otto Struve the first semester and found that extraordinarily interesting. He was a tremendous teacher, probably the best astronomy teacher that Iíve ever run into.
DeVorkin:What was your parentsí reaction to your going into astronomy?
Van Altena: Well, they had put up with it for a long time. I was sort of an amateur astronomer, not a very dedicated one. I built a six-inch reflector when I was in high school over a couple of years. I started to build a 12-inch but never really brought that one to completion. They tolerated it. My father wasnít an academic type, and his attitude towards academics, although he wished heíd been able to go to college but he wasnít able to, was summarized in the statement that ďthose people who go into academic life are those that fail in business.Ē So while my motherís side did have some academic leanings, they werenít terribly strong. So I went into astronomy I think primarily because of my godmotherís interest in astrology and spiritualism, communication with departed relatives.
DeVorkin:Did any of this experience with your godmother persist even while you were at Berkeley or did you rapidly outgrow them?
Van Altena: Oh, I think I outgrew those at the very ear1iest stage. I think astrology was what prompted her to at least get me interested in the heavens. I never felt that she had biased me or tried to make me believe in astrology, and so Iíve never had any belief in astrology or spiritualism or anything like that.
DeVorkin:So that if we come up to your college years then, your first experience was with Struve.
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:Was this in a general astronomy course?
Van Altena: Yes. It was the introductory astronomy course. Since I was planning to go into astronomy at that point I should not have taken it because it was designed for liberal arts people. But I had an open slot and I wanted to take it, because I wanted to learn about astronomy and this was a good way, at the very introductory level.
DeVorkin:This was in the late Ď50s then.
Van Altena: Yes, I entered Berkeley in 1957.
DeVorkin:And Struve had been there just a year or two or a few years by that time.
Van Altena: Oh, no, he had been there since 1950, Ď51, Ď52, and he left, I believe, the following year in Ď58 to go to Green Bank.
DeVorkin:So then you didnít have much contact with him other than that one course.
Van Altena: No, just this one large lecture course, and I had no personal contact with him at all.
DeVorkin:What textbook did he use? Do you recall?
Van Altena: Yes. In fact, itís up there.
DeVorkin:Itís on the shelf?
Van Altena: Baker, Astronomy — 6th edition. This was right before Sputnik went up, just before, because that went up in the fall of Ď57, and it was at that point that I decided I was going to go into astronomy. So itís the last of the real astronomers or the first of the Sputnik astronomers.
DeVorkin:Could you amplify a bit on your impressions of how Sputnik influenced you, and others you knew at the time, to go into astronomy? When you did go into astronomy, then you pretty much became identified with the Berkeley department and the people who worked there at the time?
Van Altena: Not entirely — not I would say until the last year. I took mostly physics courses, math courses, and general bachelorís type. I wasnít around the astronomy department very much at all, and I would say my general college career was rather mediocre up till the final year. At that point I began to really realize what I wanted to do and I started working and managed to pull my grades up to a certain extent. And during the last year I was associated with the department. I was given a desk in the old Leuschner Observatory, and I think that was very important from the standpoint of my development, being around other people who were interested in astronomy.
DeVorkin:Well, who were some of your teachers then in your senior year in the department?
Van Altena: George Wallerstein was the one that I was primarily associated with. I took two courses from him: Spherical astronomy, which I didnít particularly like, and introductory astrophysics I believe it was called. And I enjoyed that course — it was quite good. He was really the only faculty contact that I had in the department when I was an undergraduate, and itís really because of him that I got into graduate school. When I came to apply for graduate school, I was accepted at UCLA and only UCLA, and he made a special case for admission as a non-degree candidate at Berkeley.
DeVorkin:So then you did go directly into graduate school at Berkeley.
Yes. I had one semester off, because the first semester in engineering put me out of phase from the standpoint of satisfying language requirements and general courses. So I took one semester off in the fall of 1961 and went to Europe and spent six weeks at the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle.
I attended their summer course, during which time they had a number of lectures on astronomy, and we used the telescopes to a certain extent, to the extent that you can at Herstmonceux. I worked in the solar department, which I didnít find particularly interesting.
DeVorkin:I thought you had done some astrometry when you were there.
Van Altena: Yes, I did. I started out in the solar department because I had had an interest from the earliest days in the sun. So when I arrived I was asked what was I interested in, and I said well, I had had some interest in the sun, and so they said, ďAll right, youíll be in the solar department.Ē And so I counted sun spot areas and calculated projection factors for correcting to flatness — very uninspiring, but it was an interesting experience.
DeVorkin:And you did some astrometry there?
Van Altena: To some extent. The observing that I did was on the 26-inch refractor, I believe, and was visual double star observing. I did that just a little — well, several nights of double star observing — and I found it kind of interesting. But I wouldnít say that that really made me interested in astrometry at all. I was still convinced that I was going to go into some kind of spectroscopic astrophysics more or less like the work that George Wallerstein was doing at that stage. This was what really interested me and what I wanted to do.
DeVorkin:Letís get back to Berkeley then. You went back to Berkeley after this to start as a general graduate student?
No, I went back for my last semester as an undergraduate, because I had had, one semester out. I was actually a five-year undergraduate, but Iíd spent four and a half years at Berkeley as an undergraduate with the half year extra being because of my engineering beginnings. So I wrote to George Wallerstein before I came back telling him what I had done that summer. I mentioned to him the double star work that I had done, but at that point I didnít have any real interest in pursuing the matter. So I went back to Berkeley and finished up my last semester there, and I wanted to go to LICK during the summer. This was after he had made a special case for me to be admitted to the graduate school at Berkeley as a non-degree candidate because my grades simply werenít that good. There was considerable doubt as to whether I would be able to make the grade. So I was admitted, but they didnít really want me to go up to LICK because that wasnít the normal route. People usually went after their first year of graduate school, not between undergraduate and graduate school. And so they wouldnít give me a job up there, but George Wallerstein arranged for me to work with van den Boss during that summer as sort of an apprentice because I had done some double star work, and he was very interested in trying to get people to do double star work.
DeVorkin:Wallerstein or van den Boss?
Van Altena: Wallerstein, simply because there are so few people going into the field, and he thought well, since I had done something in it, maybe I could he lured into it. And I really got to be quite interested in it that summer, but I had no paying job, and eventually towards the end of the summer or about half way through, they decided at the observatory that they would give me a paying job with Vasilevskis. They didnít really verbalize it, but the sense of it was that no one else wants to do this boring kind of work, so you can work with Vasilevskis because youíre so low on the totem pole.
DeVorkin:There is this prevailing attitude on the parts of non-astrometric astronomers for astrometry. Is it justified, that no one indeed is interested in it, or is it because really when young students come into the discipline most of their teachers will not be astrometrists (astrometrists are mostly observatory people) and so they get this negative attitude towards astrometry?
Van Altena: Itís kind of hard to say. At Berkeley there was a negative attitude towards astrometry, very definitely, except for George Wallerstein. Dave Cudaback also was very interested in radio astrometry. Up at LICK Iím not quite sure. There was some negative attitude. Among the students there was certainly a negative attitude towards it. I was one of 40 students. I was the one out of the whole group, and it was generally regarded as pretty peculiar.
DeVorkin:Why do you think that is the case?
Van Altena: Itís simply because itís had such a bad name for so many years. Itís not been a field thatís been relevant to astrophysics. Itís been a field of the older generation, no innovations over many many years.
DeVorkin:At that time.
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:Even in the Ď60s. Then this was before the large automated programs. Even the LICK proper motion survey had become general knowledge as to the new style of astrometry?
Van Altena: Well, at that point there werenít any automatic measuring machines available. The LICK machine had been ordered, but it was not there. Even the blink survey machine was not installed at that point. The Naval Observatory had not yet received, their semi-automatic machine. So automatic measuring machines did not exist except for the old Watson Computing Lab machine, which was sort of an automatic machine. So there was really no automation at all in astrometry at that point. No one used computers. It was all hand reduction, and everything was so far back in the 19th century that no one in their right mind would be lured into the field if they were really interested in doing anything significant. And I think that the only reason I finally decided to go into it was that I could see that the future was going to be much different, with, automatic measuring machines and high-speed computers taking much of the drudgery out of the field and allowing you to do the interesting things.
DeVorkin:In a way you saw both sides of it, didnít you, with van den Boss and then with Vasilevskis? Was Vasilevskis very much into these new automated techniques when you first started working for him? He must have been, I guess.
Van Altena: Yes, as much as he could with the facilities. He was one of the main people trying to bring a computer to the mountain.
DeVorkin:Oh, I see. The 1620?
Van Altena: The old 1620, right.
DeVorkin: I donít want to get off on that track, but there was I recall the interesting policy that when the 1620 came to the mountain, no graduate student could touch it, at least without some control from the faculty.
Van Altena: Right.
DeVorkin:Those attitudes changed?
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:What about van den Boss? I think we should just recall him for a short amount of time and then get back to Vasilevskis possibly and your thesis work.
Van Altena: van den Boss was really an exceptional man. I enjoyed working with him very much. He was interested in perfection in observation, nothing but the best quality. He was an extraordinarily hard worker. I remember a number of nights being so depressed when I would work on the 12-inch refractor while he was working on the 36-inch refractor, and he would be able to make a hundred observations during the course of the night and would have them all reduced by something like 11 oíclock in the morning, and I would drag myself in at three oíclock in the afternoon, having made 20 observations and just barely get mine reduced by the time it was ready to observe again at night. He was just an incredibly strong individual.
DeVorkin:How old was he at this time?
Van Altena: He was in his seventies. I donít remember exactly, but this would have been the summer of Ď62.
DeVorkin:You received your B.A. in í62?
Van Altena: Right. So it was the summer of Ď62.
DeVorkin:That is a fascinating kind of story. Weíve heard those kinds of stories about Barnard at Yerkes.
Van Altena: He had wanted me to really continue and encouraged me very strongly, and when I got into my thesis, I was asked by him to come to Johannesburg once I had finished, because he wanted me to do a double star thesis and then go into double star work and to go to Johannesburg for a period of time. But I decided against it.
DeVorkin:I think I can see why in terms of your interests in automation and the application of computers. Even today are there any real applications in double star work, in visual work?
Van Altena: To some extent it really seems to me that double star work right now is very much a dying art, almost a dead art, and the only way that weíre going to get these crucial observations is not to get more people to go into the field but to find ways of automating the procedure, of making the observations photo-electrically in some way such as with the scanner that Otto Franz has developed, only I think in a more sophisticated way; so that people will he encouraged to go in; they can see that they can perhaps commit maybe 30% of their career to making double star observations and not 100% of their career, because right now the visual observer must commit 100% of his career to double star astronomy if heís going to make a real impact on the field and become proficient enough to warrant confidence of other people, using the observations. So right
now itís a very difficult situation in double star astronomy. Iíve maintained a very strong interest in it, but I havenít gone into it, because I really think that until we develop some kind of photo-electric method for determining position angle and separations, not much is going to be done.
DeVorkin:Letís get back to Vasilevskis then and move on to your thesis. How did you come to choose your thesis topic? It was on the Hades wasnít it?
Van Altena: Yes. Well, that first part of a summer when I worked for Vasilevskis, I did some assistant type work for him on a cluster and then following that I wanted to do a research project over the year, and so I took IC l805, a cluster that I measured, and had started the reductions on at Berkeley during that year. I also took a course from Vasilevskis on astrometry in which I was the only student. We alternated commuting, so that he would teach down at Berkeley once a month, and I would go up to Mount Hamilton once a month and weíd have about four hours of lectures.
Then during this time you were taking regular course work at Berkeley?
Right. I believe it was during my second summer on the mountain or towards the end of it, I was looking around for another project to do, and at that point I believe that Vasilevskis had had a letter from Haro in Mexico wanting to know about the membership of some flare stars in the Hades, and so Vasilevskis suggested this as an interesting and worthwhile project to look into, a one-term project. So I began to work on that, and this developed into my thesis project. Rather than just looking at the flare stars, I set up a search for new members over what I thought was going to be a large region, of the Hades, but eventually involved only the central region of the Hades cluster.
DeVorkin:Did you treat the group and the cluster separately?
Van Altena: I didnít treat the group at all. I just treated the cluster itself. It turned out to be a larger project that I had expected. The survey machine had arrived at that point, so I was able to blink the plates and locate the members. But the automatic measuring machine which had been due to be installed for some time was not available. So I tried measuring the plates other ways without too much success, because they were big plates and we had to copy them onto smaller plates for measuring, and it just never worked out very well. So I was frustrated from that standpoint in not getting access to a machine that could do the measuring, and I ended up using my blink measures for the determination of proper motions.
DeVorkin:This was before Hodge and Wallersteinís important discussion on the revision of the distance scale in 1967.
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:But I would imagine that their discussion was brewing for some time.
Van Altena: Not really, not as far as I was aware. I had no advance word of that at all.
DeVorkin:Because they did sort of come at the same time.
Van Altena: Yes, just about. My thesis was published in Ď66 at some point but I finished up in March of Ď66, and their paper came out after that. I didnít have any advance notice of that, as far as I can remember, and so it wasnít really an issue at that stage, and my work was purely differential and not tied to any distance at all.
DeVorkin:But eventually you had it in mind, without their paper, to do the work again with the automatic machine?
Van Altena: Oh, yes. In fact, as soon as the machine was installed and operational but not even accepted at that point, I made a trip back to Santa Cruz, where the machine was installed to measure the plates and do the job properly.
DeVorkin:This brings us up pretty much to your time at Yerkes, but Iím still interested in possibly anything else you might want to say about your graduate years at LICK. I do know that you were made aware of the job at Yerkes quite early, and it caused you to move pretty quickly on your thesis. Do you have any comments on that? And I also want to ask you more about automation.
Van Altena: Well, I donít have any real comments on the job. I donít know that I was aware of it. I almost put my foot in my mouth at one point, and that was with respect to the job because W. Hiltner was at LICK for a period of time working on his image tube with Kron, and since I was doing a thesis in astrometry and Yerkes was a place that astrometry had been done, I was interested in learning more about the status of the 40-inch refractor, and so I talked to Hiltner one day about the refractor and its current status and what was happening, but this was not by way of trying to lead into a job or anything, because I didnít have any ideas in that direction at that stage. Well, actually it turned out that at that point I was being considered for a position at Yerkes and Hiltner had been talking with Vasilevskis about me while he was there, and so I found later that, he assumed that Vasilevskis had leaked this to me and hence thatís why I was talking to Hiltner. I found this out several years later, but in fact that wasnít the case.
DeVorkin:It certainly didnít change anything.
Van Altena: No.
DeVorkin:Yes. Well, about automation then, during your time at LICK, Weitbrecht from SRI designed the automatic camera for the 36-inch refractor, and there were various other items that he was working on at the mountain: integrated amplifiers. Did Vasilevskis have any direct work with Weitbrecht? Who brought him in? Or did you have any direct experience with the installation of that camera?
Van Altena: Not really. A good fraction of the camera installation was done while I was at Berkeley, so I wasnít involved in the actual installation. Weitbrecht was around off and on tuning things up. He was making it work in general. Weitbrecht got a masterís degree at Yerkes designing an auto-guider for the 40-inch refractor and then he moved to Sanford Research Institute.
DeVorkin:Weíve been talking about Weitbrecht and his development of the automatic guider for the 36-inch and how he came to produce this guider. You indicated that SRI, Stanford Research Institute, was pretty much interested in keeping Weitbrecht happy, and Weitbrecht was quite interested in extending his work from Yerkes, and so this would place SRI as a primary funder probably.
Van Altena: I believe so. Iím not sure. Perhaps there is some information in the annual reports.
DeVorkin:Possibly we could move on to your work at Yerkes. I think part of the interest I have is what the original of their revived interest in the 40-inch was, their interest in supporting astrometry, and what the conditions of the facility were when you got there. Was there anyone full time on the staff doing astrometry at that time?
Van Altena: No, at the time I was appointed to the staff at Yerkes, the only person doing astrometry was K. Strand, and he was not doing it in residence. He had been a research associate at the observatory for a number of years supervising the astrometry program, but observations had effectively ceased in I believe Ď62, aside from a certain amount of cluster work that was being carried on primarily taking occasional plates for work on clusters by Strand. And when I arrived, since no one had been interested in astrometry, the equipment was in fairly bad shape. It was a rare night when we managed to get through the whole night without having some kind of mechanical or electrical failure with the telescope. The first thing when I arrived that year at Yerkes that I wanted to do was to get an automatic guiding camera for the telescope. It was difficult to guide because of long focal length and just the general age of the telescope. It had a large periodic error. So that was my principal interest: getting one as soon as I possibly could. I also was very interested in renovating the telescope and in getting some kind of measuring equipment for the observatory. As it turned out, the measuring equipment stayed the same for the full time I was there aside from the implementation of a photo-electric bisecting device put on the small machine.
DeVorkin:Using the small measuring machine?
Van Altena: The small measuring machine. And also putting an encoder on the machine and a paper tape punch. So at least that part of the process was automated so that the errors in writing coordinates down were eliminated. That was a great boon. And the photo-electric bisection device worked quite well. We managed to improve our precision by quite a large factor over those with visual measurements.
DeVorkin:The technology for this kind of improvement for standard engines, small Rydell measuring engines, I guess, or Gaertners, had been around for quite some time. Yet no one had taken the interest in producing these semi-automatic improvements. Do you know why this is so?
Van Altena: This is the thing that I found most distressing about the whole field — simply that there was no interest in any kind of automation, generally speaking, aside from Vasilevskis and Strand. It was a very backward type of atmosphere. There was a general feeling that ďwell, itís of no value; if you can hire 25 monkeys to put on measuring machines, then thatís much better than having one good measuring machine that will do things automatically and rapidly.Ē
DeVorkin: What were the arguments letís say of the old guard against automation, or was this an active issue at the time? Were they simply ignoring the possibilities?
Van Altena: To some extent they were ignoring it. But there were some that were
very active against it. And the primary arguments against it were that F. Schlesinger had developed the field; he had shown the right way to do things; and so everything was being done as Schlesinger had indicated back in the early 1900s. And since Schlesinger didnít have access to the electronic devices for image centering, it shouldnít be done this way. The same way
with the reductions; although much better methods were available using computers. Still one should continue with the old reduction methods because thatís the way that Schlesinger did it, even though it wasnít the better way.
DeVorkin:Who were the people youíre talking about now?
Van Altena: I would say that the most active person with regard to holding the line was P. van de Kamp, although there were many others that did feel that way but were less vocal about the whole process. Wagman at Allegheny continued using old approaches, but he was very quiet about it. He was not the type that was going to argue with anyone that they shouldnít do it. He just continued doing it his way.
Van Altena: I think one of the things that I find most interesting is that if you read Schlesingerís papers, he had developed most of the approaches that weíre now using today but had modified them and reduced them to the kind of level that one could deal with in that day and age when electronic computers and automatic measuring machines were not available. He anticipated most of the things that weíre doing nowadays, but had to back off because the technology wasnít there. And Schlesinger, if he were alive today, would not be doing things the way he did then. And so the old astrometry people, being locked into Schlesingerís methods, were locked into the technology that Schlesinger had at that time. If Schlesinger were alive today, he would, I think be dismayed at the way people hung onto his old methods.
DeVorkin:This old method that youíre referring to: the efficient method is the method of dependencies?
Van Altena: Yes, primarily.
DeVorkin:But there were techniques that were available to correct second order effects, the method of dependencies — were there not?
Van Altena: I believe so. It was never used. I think it gets rather complex when you try to include the second order effects. There isnít such a great savings in labor. But Iím not too sure
DeVorkin:But it was an elegant technique.
Van Altena: Oh, yes, very elegant mathematical technique, but you lose so much information about the individual stars and what is happening on that plate that itís not good for today when you can measure a number of stars on an individual plate.
DeVorkin:Where would you place W.J. Luyten between the old guard and new ideas regarding automation?
Van Altena: He was quite interested in automation, but from the standpoint of astrometry, Iíd put him a little on the fringe because he was interested in one particular problem and only one problem, and that was blink surveys. And so he was very interested in automating that aspect of it but not in other aspects of astrometry.
DeVorkin:Was it after you got to Yerkes or even before that you criticized some of Luytenís work of using the Palomar Sky Survey and the Schmidt telescope at Palomar?
Van Altena: Well what youíre probably referring to was in my thesis because I was working on the Hyades and Luyten had also worked on the Hyades and had published proper motions. I made a comparison and from the comparison of stars that he found with stars that I found, I tried to estimate completeness factors. Also, Giclas was involved in this. Based on my comparison I found that Luyten was not as complete at smaller motions as he thought he was, and so I did have some critical remarks in my thesis about this. But they were qualified to the extent that I was searching for Hyades members explicitly, and looking for small motion. He was doing a general blink survey, looking a little harder than usual, but not to the extent that I was looking. And so it would have been unfortunate if I had not been able to get better completeness than he.
DeVorkin:And so you did point that out.
Van Altena: Yes. And this, of course, led to numerous attacks then and ever since then.
DeVorkin:It seems that his reaction then was pretty strong.
Van Altena: Yes, it was a very strong reaction, but having some perspective on the issue at this point, if anyone in astrometry or in any vaguely allied field does anything that Luyten has already done, then this is the beginning of the end, because once a field has been worked on by Luyten, itís no longer fair game for anyone else, and that person is liable to attack by Luyten. Itís as simple as that.
DeVorkin:What are your opinions about his use of the Schmidt plates? It seems as though as long as heís simply doing a blink survey, they will be quite useful. But he does get actual proper motions, does he not?
Van Altena: Oh, yes. He gets proper motions and theyíre good proper motions in terms of the kind of accuracies that one can get with that base line and that scale. Theyíre quite good proper motions. And itís a very good project. Scientifically thereís very high merit in the whole project, and I think no one disputes that — the fact that it is a very good project.
DeVorkin:There was a question, though, at the beginning as to the reliability not of his methods of course but of the reliability of the Schmidt plates themselves, the flatness of the field.
Van Altena: Well, I think that this is something that still hangs on in many areas that no one trusts reflectors and the Schmidt is a reflector. And no one tests reflectors primarily, I think, because of van Maananís work at Mount Wilson, which was good with the 60-inch but was bad with the 100-inch, which Strand has shown was probably due to using reference stars that
are too far from the optical axis. And so from that time reflectors have had a bad name, and I think that the bad name which the Schmidt has is due to that primarily and also to other problems that you have with a curved focal surface. But this does not affect Luyten at all, because heís dealing with proper motions over a very small area, over about 12 millimeters by 12 millimeters on the plate.
DeVorkin:This comment about van Maanan is interesting, of course because itís a continuing, historical question the origins of the motions he saw in the spirals. But his reduction procedures — I havenít read his papers or anything — were not limited, short-cut procedures. He did not use, if I recall, the method of dependencies because the method of dependencies really hadnít been worked out in full form by Schlesinger until the mid Ď20s. But yet wouldnít you say now, with the computer and with the ability to include higher order correction terms, that the reflectors again are becoming very important in astrometry?
Van Altena: Oh, yes. I feel that theyíre extremely important. Itís the only way we have at the present time of going to very very faint magnitudes, and I feel confident in work done with reflectors as long as very great care is taken in the modeling of the field, distortions of the field particularly at the prime focus, because Iím doing quite a bit of work now with the four- meter at the prime focus at Kitt Peak and there the distortions are enormous. But they can be modeled accurately and very accurate parallaxes and proper motions can be obtained. Itís not clear what went wrong with van Maananís work. I canít comment on that.
DeVorkin:Letís get back to Yerkes. You found the refractor and general astrometry program pretty much in disrepair. There was some observing being done but not too much.
Van Altena: Not astrometry.
DeVorkin:None at all?
Van Altena: No, just clusters — occasionally. But it was being used extensively for spectroscopic work by Hiltner and the Cowleyís. And when I came they continued to use it for a while but gradually my astrometry program took over and it was the only use of the telescope for about eight years.
DeVorkin:This required, somewhere in the Yerkes structure, a decision, an administrative decision that they were going to support astrometry again.
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:Who do you think was behind this?
Van Altena: I think W.W. Morgan. Morgan and W. Hiltner were the two persons who were most interested at that early stage, and itís not clear to me, although I think probably Morgan was the one that felt because of the value of the telescope and just the history that itís something that should be done again. I think he could see some of the technology improving matters and making programs feasible again and really relevant.
DeVorkin:The question, I feel obligated to ask is do you think there was any element of retaining Yerkes as an active campus at the University of Chicago astronomy department in this kind of decision, showing the use of the telescope, showing that they are unique?
Van Altena: Itís not clear to me. Chandrasekhar had moved to campus a couple of years before I came. There had been a push for the astronomerís to move to campus since the early days of O. Struve in the Ď30s and Ď40s. So there had been a push by campus all that time to bring people to campus. So itís not clear. That may have been a factor in it that if the big telescope could be reactivated for astrometric purposes, that would help seal the future of the observatory and keep it viable. But Iím not sure.
DeVorkin:Did you ever have any discussions directly with Morgan about this. He certainly would have known about the early attempts to move and the various differences of opinion that everyone had?
Van Altena: Oh, yes, at a later stage, primarily when I became director of the observatory in discussions with him about the past and the numerous problems that did occur at that stage — when I was director — and the more active role that the University played in trying to move the faculty to campus.
DeVorkin:Would you care to comment on some of the sources of this kind of pressure as you saw them, as Morgan recalled them?
Van Altena: In the early days?
DeVorkin:In the early days and then bring it up to the present day.
Van Altena: I think the basic pressure is simply that when you have an off-campus institute itís not very visible, and you would like to have an astronomy department on campus. If the astronomy department is off campus, then the rest of the University doesnít reap any benefit from having it around. So this was the primary interest of the University, to make it more visible on campus.
DeVorkin:This is an administrative problem rather than a problem of one astronomer against another or theoreticians against observationalists?
Van Altena: Oh, yes. It was primarily a question of wanting to have astronomers on campus and not being able to support two separate units of astronomers but just one unit. Some astronomers did move to campus so that conflicts did arise between the two groups occasionally. No question about that. But the original motivation of the University, I believe, was simply to try to get astronomy on campus and to operate the observatory perhaps only as an observing station rather than as a resident unit.
DeVorkin:So that the various problems that astronomers had with one another at Yerkes — the ones that are more or less legend now pretty much ran independent of this particular problem that Yerkes was constantly experiencing, moving to campus.
Van Altena: I think so. It was, of course, a factor in some cases — conflicts between various individuals: campus vs. observatory. But I think that the real issue was one of getting astronomy on campus, and itís still an issue today. It still hasnít been resolved, because there isnít a real viable unit in either place — either at the observatory or on campus.
DeVorkin:What was Chandrasekharís role in this? Was his move symbolic when he did move out of Yerkes? While you were there at least, did he support Yerkes actively or was he passive?
Van Altena: He was on the outskirts pretty much. It was clear that he didnít take too much part in department activities, but he played a role in the University approach to the observatory. It was clear that he was consulted by the administration after decisions had been made within the department on appointments and things like that. He was a very powerful figure, but he didnít take any real active role within the department structure and decision making within the department.
DeVorkin: What about Morgan?
Van Altena: He took a fairly active role. He was chairman when I came to Yerkes for a brief period of time — until Ď67 when C.R. OíDell took over.
DeVorkin: It would he lovely to be able to have an assessment of Morgan just for the record, primarily what he was doing while you were at Yerkes, your feelings about the size of his contributions.
He has to be one of the most remarkable men I have ever met, extremely quick-minded, just very far-seeing — just a tremendously great man. I think as with all really great men, theyíre a little strange at times, a little short-sighted in some ways. They have tremendous filters that filter their views of whatís happening on the outside. You see this with other people, such as Sandage, very moody types, but just extraordinarily great men. And Morgan has to be, along with Vasilevskis, the major influence in my career. I spent a great deal of time talking with Morgan learning astronomy from him, learning about people — a very rewarding experience.
He was doing primarily spectroscopic work, the work on clusters, doing a lot of work on galaxies at the time also.
DeVorkin:How would you suggest, since you certainly do know Morgan and youíre probably one of those who know him best of anyone now, that we approach him for a formal history?
Van Altena: I really donít know. Thatís something that would have to be done with great care, because heís a very sensitive person.
DeVorkin:So you would not suggest any kind of form letter?
Van Altena: No.
DeVorkin:Iíve had the feeling from listening to you that Morgan is one that requires special treatment, and we are simply concerned with how to go about approaching him.
Van Altena: A form letter will insure rejection. I think I can state that fairly certainly.
DeVorkin:Yes. So we want to be careful. Okay weíve talked about resistance to new computational techniques. Would you say that this resistance even lingers on today?
Van Altena: Yes, to some extent. I think the more mathematically tractable approaches are fairly readily accepted. Even van de Kamp now uses, or has John Hershey do the reduction at Sproul and he uses plate constants to the extent that he can. He has pulled things up quite a bit.
DeVorkin:Okay. I would like to ask you some direct questions about van de Kampís work since weíre talking about him. What are your feelings about van de Kampís long efforts on Barnardís star?
Van Altena: I feel that primarily what has resulted from that is improved parallax, and proper motion, a good study of secular acceleration of the proper motion. I think that the search for the perturbation has been largely unsuccessful and has dominated unfortunately I think, the evaluation of his work. It has I think led to a realization of the kind of long-term errors that can occur in astrometry and long focus astrometry — the systematic errors and changes in telescopes with time. No individual telescope is constant with time. But I think that itís been a disaster from the standpoint of what it has done to his career and the fact that virtually everyone identifies him with Barnardís star at this point, and people forget that he has produced a good fraction of the best masses, the best stellar masses, that are available at the present time.
He, of course, is at fault as much as anyone else in this because it was something that he could ride for a while. He thought that he had really found it. I donít think that he found it. I think that itís not there. If itís there, itís there at a very small level.
DeVorkin:Did you have these feelings before the work of G. Gatewood?
Van Altena: Yes, because what youíre dealing with are extraordinarily small values, just so close down to the limit and his dealing with obsolete methods of reduction, obsolete observing approaches that leave you wide open for systematic errors of this kind, and you just cannot find them; you cannot deal with them.
DeVorkin:Weíve been discussing reduction procedures and their limitations in regard to the study of Barnardís Star. Would you be able to finish that comment?
Van Altena: Yes. The fact that the plates were exposed only to get three or four reference stars makes it impossible to look for quadratic or non-liner effects on the photographic plate. And these occur due to optical problems, shifting of the components, one with respect to the other due perhaps to thermal changes over the course of the night in the objective lens. So youíre really dealing with different objectives at different times. This can 1ead to a systematic displacement of the parallax star or central star with respect to the reference frame — which could be modeled out if you had enough reference stars, but because you do not have the reference stars, it cannot be done; you canít even find it. So youíre left with the effect in the plates; regardless of how you re-measure them, youíll come up with the same displacements.
DeVorkin:And you did re-measure these, as you mentioned, on the Grant measuring machine?
Van Altena: Yes. And so I think that probably the measurements are all right, the effect is there; but I believe that itís an optical effect. Itís on this side of the lens and not on the other side.
DeVorkin:I also asked after the tape ran out about the effect that this work by van de Kamp has had on the regard for astrometry in general. Could you recapitulate that, your reactions to that, just quickly?
Van Altena: I believe that because of the great ballyhoo that was made about Barnardís star and the supposed planet or planets going around it in the press and in the astronomical community, that when grave doubts appeared as to the reality of the effect or the astronomical reality of the effect, it led people to think of it again as another van Maanan effect with the rotation of galaxies. And so astrometry was again put in a bad light, I think. Generally speaking, at least from the astrometry standpoint, most people in astrometry are not too concerned about it, because there is a general realization that this is a problem you get into when youíre dealing with very small quantities, which van de Kamp was dealing with. And from the standpoint of stellar masses, which have been his principal product during the course of his many years at Sproul, those I think remain as probably some of the best masses ever determined.
DeVorkin:So his basic techniques are okay in the several — micron displacement region, as you pointed out.
Van Altena: Yes, certainly.
DeVorkin:Itís just when youíre pushing that technique to the limit that youíre liable to come up against all of these spurious instrument layers.
Van Altena: Itís time then to start pushing the other techniques, the observational and the measuring techniques, to the same kind of level, which has not been done.
DeVorkin:Is there any plan to do so?
Van Altena: Well you simply canít use those plates because you donít have the stars on them.
Van Altena: So measurement of the plates probably would not serve too much purpose on a precision measuring machine.
DeVorkin:And youíre talking about a large time scale where many observations are needed?
Van Altena: Oh, yes. And so itís something that could be repeated now. I personally donít intend to get involved in it.
DeVorkin:Is there anyone interested in doing this sort of work?
Van Altena: Gatewood seems to maintain an interest in this area, but I think heís probably the only one that has a really active interest in planetary companions.
DeVorkin:Heís at Allegheny now.
Van Altena: Yes.
DeVorkin:All right. As a parenthetical aside, we might ask about Allegheny. I know that in the Ď60s the University of Pittsburgh wanted to close the observatory, but it remained open: and theyíve been sort of touch and go for a while. What is your prognosis for the future of that observatory? I know theyíre looking for a new director.
Van Altena: Yes, they are looking for a new director, and Iím not clear at the present time how thatís going to go. I hope they will get an astrometry director, because the history of the observatory is primarily astrometric. It has a good telescope, an excellent collection of photographic plates, and can produce a tremendous amount for the future in astrometry and astronomy in general.
DeVorkin:Whoís interested in the job? Is Eichhorn interested?
Van Altena: H. Eichhorn, A. Upgren.
DeVorkin:You have nothing to do with the future of the observatory yourself?
Van Altena: No, I was asked some opinions, and I sent in opinions, and I was apparently on the list at one point, but I had my name removed from the list.
DeVorkin:That would be quite a change and a lot of work and possibly getting you back into the Yerkes-type position again.
Van Altena: Exactly, and, as I say, Iím not going to get into that position again.
DeVorkin:Well, now that youíre here and weíre talking at Yale, Iíd like to ask you about your present research, your present interests, and especially about the LST because it seems to be one of the more involving and, unique elements in your work at this time. Could you give me a brief history of how you became involved in the LST project and what your part in that project is?
Van Altena: I became involved in the project while I was still at Yerkes, primarily because of OíDell and his involvement in the LST project. And in fact when it came time to submit proposals for the Phase B, I had not submitted a proposal, and I had my arm twisted by OíDell to submit a proposal, to become involved in that. I did and I was selected as team leader for the astrometry instrument definition team, other team members being Otto Franz and Larry Fredrick. Over the three years that went from that point, we ďsupervisedĒ the preliminary design. We set specifications for the astrometric instrument and then supervised the designs that were done by Itek, Perkin Elmer, Ball Brothers, and came up with some designs that could possibly do astrometry. In the end, cost considerations and the general attitude of people towards astrometry dictated that astrometry not be a high visibility item in the instrument package and astrometry has ended up in the fine guidance system, which still enables astrometry to be done with high precision, and I would say close to as accurately as it could otherwise be done with a specialized instrument. But it ties astrometry to the LST so that it cannot be removed when the telescope is brought back for refurbishment after a couple of years. So from the standpoint of astrometry itís tactically a good approach in that it gives a long base line of time to do astrometry, because unless they want to pull the fine guidance system out and replace it, which is unlikely, astrometry will remain in it, which it would not if it were a principal instrument.
DeVorkin:I see. What will be some of the projects that you will carry out with the instrument beyond its service characteristics of fine guidance?
Van Altena: The principal ones that I would be interested in are getting accurate calibration points for the distance scale of the galaxy, studies of particularly interesting spectroscopic binaries where we can derive a visual orbit from the LST observations to get good masses, search for low mass companions to stars because of the high resolution capability, and then just other interesting things that are bound to come up from the standpoint of astrometry. But my principal interests are in the distance scale.
DeVorkin:These are direct parallaxes you were talking about?
Van Altena: Yes, direct parallaxes.
DeVorkin:What do you feel the increase in accuracy will be?
Van Altena: Over methods that are easy to do today — letís say can be done with not quite, state of the art, but can be done by anyone who really has an interest in doing good astrometry — a factor of 10. And my general feeling has been that if we cannot get a factor of 10 increase in accuracy over ground-based astrometry, then itís not worth doing because of the tremendous expense involved.
DeVorkin:So this means something like a thousand times the number of stars will become available for parallax work?
Van Altena: You can look at it that way. I prefer to look at it from the standpoint that we can get parallaxes that are ten times more precise.
DeVorkin:The ones you already have.
Van Altena: Right, rather than extending it further out. But certainly thatís another aspect, which you can now get into the realm of getting individual parallaxes for Barium stars, for other peculiar high luminosity objects that were beyond the reach of trigonometric parallaxes before.
DeVorkin:Are Cepheids within this range?
Van Altena: Delta Cephei. Thatís about it. Some RR Lyre stars within a hundred parsecs or so. So there are a number of stars that are quite interesting that you could get and that certainly will be done with the LST astometrically. But I look at it primarily as trying to get higher precision rather than pushing farther out.
DeVorkin: In terms of higher precision then, going back to the Ď67 Hodge and Wallerstein paper, what is the effective accuracy of the distance of the Hyades at this stage of the game and how do you think the LST will improve that?
Van Altena: Right now I think itís about five or ten per cent. The distance modulus is about 3.2 plus or minus a tenth of a magnitude or thereabouts. With the LST we should be able to do much better than that.
DeVorkin:What do you think the long-range significance of their paper will be or do you think itís already had some great significance?
Van Altena: I think itís had tremendous significance, because what it has done is make people realize that the errors quoted for observations such as the distance to the Hyades were really totally unrealistic, because they related only to the internal accuracy and not to the external accuracy of the distance. Itís had a great impact, caused a great number of people to do work on the distance scale, to reevaluate systematic errors in trigonometric parallaxes, proper motions, methods of calibration.
I imagine that youíve had personal conversations with a lot of people concerned with one or the other techniques of calibration, but I recall that several people who had various axes to grind had different types of reactions. O.C. Wilson had a different type of reaction than other people. Did you have any talks with Wilson about the re-calibration of the Wilson Bappu effect?
Van Altena: No. In fact, Iíve never met Wilson. I know many people have had very negative reactions toward it. Olin Eggen is one — people who have based a lot of work on the assumption that the distance modulusís is 3.0 and, just being incredulous that such a large discrepancy could exist up to 3.4.
DeVorkin:Do you think their paper; the 1967 paper, of Hodge and Wallerstein then pretty much highlighted the need to bring astrometry more into the forefront?
Van Altena: To a certain extent. I think they overdid it a bit, but thatís easy to say in retrospect.
DeVorkin:Yes. Just a few final questions on the LST then. Weíve seen it funded, not funded, reduced in size. How do you think this reduction in size is going to affect its overall effectiveness other than just the loss of light-gathering power?
Have there been other reductions in quality, specifically in the pointing accuracy in your line of work? Have you had to compromise in the design of it?
Van Altena: No. In fact, it seems to me that the reduction in size is good. The technology for doing the three meter LST — itís a much bigger telescope, the area is much bigger and the mass is so much greater — causes trouble with the pointing of the telescope. There are just a tremendous number of technical problems at that level. Back at the 2.4 meter level, which is dictated primarily by limitations in existing equipment for manufacturing, the telescope becomes smaller. It can be reconfigured so that it will fit in the shuttle so that you reduce the moment of inertia of the telescope, and the guidance problems become much simpler. So I see it as a mixed blessing or maybe as a blessing in disguise, because it now makes the probability of success much higher than it was before. So I think itís a good move to go to that direction. It has lost some light, but itís not a tremendous amount of light. Pointing precision has gone down a little bit but not too much and not enough to bother astrometry significantly. So I see it only as real gain.
DeVorkin:Thatís a very interesting point. The receptor on the LST is going to be some sort of area scanner? Or will there be any photographic techniques?
Van Altena: No. The output of the LST will be numerical output.
DeVorkin:How are you going to be actually determining positions? Is this Otto Franzís work?
Van Altena: No, this is uncertain at the present time. Because of astrometry being tied in with the fine guidance system, it depends on what approach is adopted for the fine guidance, and that hasnít been decided at the present time. The other types of astrometry that will be done, though, are with actual area detectors such as a television-type system where youíre getting a digital image, an array of data points around an image, intensities and then from this array of data a position can be computed. And Larry Auer and. I have worked over the past two years or so developing techniques for analyzing this kind of data to produce high accuracy positions, and we have been involved in this from two points of view. First is space astrometry and utilizing the data that we get from the LST. The second reason has been the more immediate one, and that is trying to get higher accuracy positions out of photographic plates. We have measured a large number of plates now on PDS microdensitometers and developed our techniques to determine individual positions with very high accuracy. I think that weíll be able to apply these fairly directly to the LST data, although most of the LST data that would come from this would be the determination of relative positions of double stars within small areas, not for parallaxes and proper motions.
DeVorkin:You bring up Larry Auer and that brings up a very common situation that you find all across the country nowadays, the problem of tenure for very well qualified people. Do you have any comments on tenure problems that exist today, the retention of tenure?
Van Altena: It seems to me that itís a system that has outlived its usefulness, developed to protect academic people from political persecution. This isnít a real problem at the present time, and itís used primarily as a way of getting a lifetime job. I think that itís not good. It puts too much pressure on people and is a goal that most peop1e set for themselves rather than doing good research. I would like to see it done away with. I think the probability of it being done away with is zero. Too many people have too much to lose. What I would like to see is the development of term contacts of perhaps five years, seven years, rather than short-term contracts as one gets on. You do come to the difficult situation, when youíre dealing with people in their late fifties and sixties when perhaps you have a person whoís been very productive during most of his research career gradually doing less and you donít really want to turn them out on the road at that point. Itís not quite clear how to deal with a situation like that.
DeVorkin:Do you think itís a situation that would be eventually solved by a faculty union, or is this a decision that must go university to university?
Van Altena: I think faculty union would make things ten times worse than the tenure system at the present time, force the tenure decisions down to a small number of years rather than the present seven to ten years which now exist depending on how you interpret the tenure requirements. I can see only negative things happening if faculties become unionized. I can see nothing good coming from it.
DeVorkin:Well, what about governmental funding in regards to tenure? We saw Kingman Brewster on television the other night saying that he is going to set up a test case in terms of governmental funding. Has there been anything at Yale a general undercurrent, about continued searches for funds? I know that youíre pretty much tied into the government yourself.
Yes. Our sources of funding are primarily governmental — NSF, NASA. And I donít think weíve seen any overt pressure from NSF. NASA is a different kettle of fish because theyíre very much mission oriented. But NSF is not so mission-oriented, although they do try to get their fingers in the pot a little bit and try to decide what research areas will be supported and which area will not. This may cause some people to become more interested in doing things. A good example is the planetary companion project, which some people at NASA now feel is an interesting area to spend money, and so you see more and more people thinking of ways to look for binaries or planetary companions.
DeVorkin:Did this aid the astrometric portion of the LST?
Van Altena: No, I donít think so. I donít think it got into the LST, but I see it right now in proposals that exist for detecting planetary companions around the stars as ways of perhaps getting astrometric instruments. If you will play NASAís game of looking for planetary companions for a while, then you can do the real astrometry.
DeVorkin:Why do you think NASA is interested in this?
Van Altena: Itís a good public relations gambit.
DeVorkin:And as long as it does support basic research in this direction, pragmatically do you see anything right or wrong with it?
Van Altena: I think itís an offensive way to go about getting funding. I donít like it, but if itís the only way of getting funding, then some people are certainly going to do it. But If I can get my funding other ways, Iím not going to do it.
DeVorkin:How do you see the overhead problem in funding presently; University overhead, institutional overhead?
Van Altena: Thereís no question that overhead does exist in any kind of research. You require more faci1ities that arenít supported explicitly. I hire an assistant who works for me who needs office space, so thereís no question that it is a factor. However, I find it rather difficult to believe the kind of figures that are used at the present time. On the other hand, the universities need money. And this is perhaps one way of getting the money. But I really donít know much about how the overhead rates are set, the details of that.
DeVorkin:Okay. Unless thereís anything else particularly in mind, say, with present trends in astrometry that you feel quite important that we might have missed, I think weíve covered quite a few bases this morning. Anything presently in mind?
Van Altena: No, nothing that I can think of.
DeVorkin:If something does come up on my side, I can always supplement this by a phone call.