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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Olin C. Wilson

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Interview with Dr. Olin C. Wilson
By David DeVorkin
At Hale Observatories, Santa Barbara Street, Pasadena, CA
July 11, 1978

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Olin C. Wilson; July 11, 1978

ABSTRACT: Interview examines early life in San Francisco and first contacts with Astronomy in 1920; Public Lectures under auspices of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; college years at Berkeley, 1926-1930; interests in physics and astronomy; contact with D. Menzel; move to Caltech and graduate studies; work with Paul Merrill; Mount Wilson in the 1930s; limitations of spectroscopic equipment; recollections of Rubble; job offers and decision to remain at Mount Wilson; origins of research interests and early work leading to Wilson-Bappu Effect; stellar chromospheres and first use of 100-inch in 1938; work on rocket project during World War II; recollections of Walter Baade and W.S. Adams; post-war years at Mount Wilson; Bowen; ONR funding; research on planetary nebulae; instrumentation for the 200-inch; internal peer review system; H.C. Arp’s work; continued work on Wilson-Bappu Effect and need for theoretical understanding; study of the solar cycle; teaching and graduate students; work with Minkowski; re-calibration of Cepheid period/luminosity relationship and Hodge and Wallerstein’s paper of 1967; Baade and Zwicky; the operation of Hale Observatories; kinematics of the Orion Nebula; origin of southern station at Las Campanas; Hale Observatories and Caltech; Bowen’s retirement.

Transcript

DeVorkin:

What I’d like to do is take you back to San Francisco, sometime around 1909.

Wilson:

(laughter) My memory of that year is rather slight. It’s been reported to me, that’s when I was born.

DeVorkin:

Right, exactly, and at that point I’d like to start and learn a bit about your early home life, a few comments on ancestral information, where your family came from.

Wilson:

My father was born in Illinois and my mother in Iowa. They came out to the Coast, if I remember correctly, in 1904. And incidentally, they were in San Francisco for the Great Earthquake, so I’ve heard quite a bit about their personal experiences there, which turned out not to have been by any means the worst. They survived that with no real difficulties. Well, my dad was a lawyer. I was an only child. And I went through the public schools of San Francisco, and by the time I got through high school, I had become interested in astronomy.

DeVorkin:

Let’s find out what your early home life was like, something about your school training.

Wilson:

Well, my home life was basically quite middle class. For example, we never owned a car in those days. My father was an unmechanical sort. I’m not sure he would have been very good driving a car in any case. But San Francisco was covered with a network of streetcars so one could get around. And of course, it’s a relatively small city area.

DeVorkin:

Where did you live?

Wilson:

We lived out in what was called the Richmond district. We were a block from the Presidio on 8th Avenue. About six or seven blocks south was Golden Gate Park. So a bit of my youth -- my play time -- was spent in the Presidio with other kids doing various things.

DeVorkin:

Do you have any recollections of your early schooling, especially your training in science?

Wilson:

I don’t remember in grammar school really anything much about science at all. My father was interested, as an educated man, in various things, and the first that I became at all concerned with astronomy was when he used to take me to lectures which were put on by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. And I found them interesting but not overwhelmingly so.

DeVorkin:

Can you recall approximately when this was?

Wilson:

Oh, this must have been around 1920, thereabouts, when I was a middle-sized kid. Then when I went to Polytechnic High School in San Francisco -- this is amusing, I think -- as a freshman in high school I signed up for a course in general science. Well, the regular teacher of this course was some man whom I never met because he broke his leg and couldn’t come. And they had a substitute, a young woman, I guess just out of what they called Normal School, in those days. One of the things she was supposed to tell us about was astronomy. Well, I don’t recall the details, but I became very dubious about her knowledge of astronomy. It didn’t seem to me that some of the things she said made an awful lot of sense. And so I took to going down to the main library in San Francisco and getting out some books to check up on her. Well, at this late date, I cannot remember now how the checking went, but I became extremely interested in the subject itself. The more books I read on astronomy, the more books I wanted to read on astronomy, you see. So as I went through high school, I became more concerned with astronomy. I took all of the mathematics I could, which was algebra and geometry of various kinds, including a course actually in spherical trigonometry.

DeVorkin:

In high school?

Wilson:

In high school, yes. And my grades in mathematics in high school were not all that good. I didn’t seem to have caught on to the fine points of algebra. So while I was interested, enough to think of astronomy as a career, I always had great doubts that I would have enough mathematical talent to handle the subject.

DeVorkin:

While in high school did you ever go over to the Berkeley campus?

Wilson:

No, I hadn’t. I didn’t know anybody there. My father didn’t know anybody there. So I had not been there. In fact, I never looked through a telescope until I went to college. There were no facilities. You see, there was no planetarium, no things like that. My only contacts with professional astronomy were these lectures that were given from time to time by the ASP. They would have somebody from Berkeley usually or someone else and there would be slides, illustrations and so forth. But that was it.

DeVorkin:

Aitken used to give a number of these talks.

Wilson:

I think Aitken did. They had several people. I can’t remember them all now, from Lick. Aitken was there. Then they had faculty members from Berkeley, people like that. And then every once in a while, they gave a Gold Medal. And I remember Eddington received the Gold Medal during this time, and of course, I went. By that time, the name Eddington meant something to me. I suppose I was maybe a senior in high school or something like that. Around 1925. Anyway, I went to hear the lecture, which, as I remember, was about relativity more than about the internal structure of stars. Anyway, here was a great man, and I went to see him, even though I didn’t understand everything he had to say. That is actually the only one. There may have been other lecturers related to the Gold Medal, but that’s the only one I remember, that stood out in my mind for some reason.

DeVorkin:

That’s an important one.

Wilson:

That’s right. He really was.

DeVorkin:

I do recall that there is a small observatory down not too far from the Wharf, in fact, associated with a small denominational college. You never had any contact with it?

Wilson:

No. I never even knew about it. It may very well not even have been there in those days, you see. San Francisco is a horrible place to try to do any astronomy, particularly out in the neighborhood where we lived; most of the time it was foggy. Certainly in the summer it was foggy. As a matter of fact, as a small kid I grew up thinking this was the way the world was: everybody had fog. I learned later, of course, this was not the case.

DeVorkin:

At the time that you started in the high school year when you were reading books in the library, did you also check out Sky Maps? I was going to ask if you made any attempt to look at the sky.

Wilson:

Oh, yes, that was one of the first things I did. I found that there was a book by a fellow named Garrit P. Serviss. I can’t remember the name of the book, but it was well known in those days. I didn’t know anything about him, but I learned later that he, for many years, had been a popular writer on the subject, and he had this book which had maps of constellations and such in it, and I got it out of the library and went out and amazed myself by finding the first constellation he described which was Leo. And there it was, just like it showed on the map! Well, that appealed to me no end. So I went through this book as best I could in that rather poor climate, and actually by the time I got out of high school, I knew all the principal constellations, and the main bright stars, which is about what any astronomer ever learns about them anyway. So that much I knew before I went to Berkeley.

DeVorkin:

I assume, with your father’s training and all, there was never any question that you were going to go to college.

Wilson:

No, there never seemed to be any argument on that score. My parents were in favor of it. And of course, in those days, going to Berkeley was extremely cheap. As I recall, you paid something like $25 a semester, for what I think they called incidentals or something like that. There was no tuition, and the only problem would be if you had to come from a distance and live there. But at first I commuted from San Francisco to Berkeley on the ferry boat, and then later my dad said, “Well, look, I only go as far as downtown anyway, why don’t we live in Berkeley?” And so they moved over there. But then my father died in 1929. I was about through school then anyway. So I never lived very far from the campus. Well, when I was in San Francisco, it took probably an hour and a half to get there, and when we lived there, I just walked. So that made it handy.

DeVorkin:

Was there any question of Berkeley as the college, or another possibility?

Wilson:

No. Berkeley was where I wanted to go. For various reasons. One was that by the time I was ready to go to college, I realized that they had a good astronomy department, and I was interested in that, of course. And besides that, it was so much more convenient and cheaper than going any place else. You see, my folks didn’t have all that much money. If I’d wanted to go to, let us say, some place in the East, this would have raised a problem. I was quite happy to go. I wanted to go there anyway, and everything just came together, so there was no question about that.

DeVorkin:

So then you were planning to go to Berkeley and you did.

Wilson:

Right. That was in January, 1926. Yes. I graduated from high school in the middle of the year. But you could start Berkeley either in the normal time in August, which was when they started their fall session in those days, or you could go in January. So I went right away, didn’t fool around.

DeVorkin:

Did you have any counseling, as far as deciding upon your major or what courses to take?

Wilson:

Not really. My dad didn’t know enough about these things, but he raised no objection whatsoever.

DeVorkin:

As far as astronomy was concerned?

Wilson:

Yes. And when I got there of course, I began reading more as time went on, and I found out that in those days, the Berkeley astronomy department was more interested in celestial mechanics, whereas I was much more interested in it from the physical side.

DeVorkin:

This is before you got to Berkeley?

Wilson:

Well, about that time. Maybe after the first year, I don’t know. Incidentally, another thing that I did when I got over there which was perhaps a little unusual came during the PhD final examinations which, in those days were open to the public. And so, I said, “Well, I’ll go to some of these and find out what these boys are supposed to know.” And I went to a number of them. I’d sit in the back row being inconspicuous, and watch these fellows being needled a little bit by the faculty. But in recompense for having public examinations, the faculty never really slaughtered the candidate. They would just needle him a little bit, you see. By the time he got to that point, I think it was virtually a certainty that he was going to make it. Nonetheless, they were public, and I suppose that’s a carry-over from the Middle Ages, when people had to defend publicly their theses.

DeVorkin:

It’s still almost that way in parts of Europe.

Wilson:

I imagine so, but I don’t think it is anywhere around here. I don’t think it’s that way in Berkeley any more as far as I know. Anyway, I took advantage of that, got a little idea of what these guys had to know.

DeVorkin:

Do you have any recollection of who you saw being examined?

Wilson:

Oh yes, one was a guy named Louis Berman. And then there were some who have disappeared into obscurity, I mean did not become well-known in astronomy. I can’t at the moment think of their names. I probably went to three or four of these things in this epoch, but I can’t remember the names. I remember Louis in particular, because Louis knew his stuff. And I became acquainted with him afterwards as a matter of fact.

DeVorkin:

I’d like for you to talk about him, later on.

Wilson:

Right. Will do.

DeVorkin:

So then you realized that the thrust under A. O. Leuschner, I imagine, was Celestial Mechanics.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Was C. D. Shane teaching by then?

Wilson:

Shane was teaching by then. In fact, he was my first teacher of astronomy when I was a freshman. I took a course from him, elementary astronomy, and he was interested in the physics of it, of course. But at the same time, the whole department was in celestial mechanics. He also had been brought up, you see, as a celestial mechanic, and was still interested in that sort of thing. So it seemed to me that from my own interest, what I’d better do is major in physics, and take some astronomy on the side. That’s what I did. Well, I guess I didn’t have to decide that until probably the end of my sophomore year, but that’s what I decided to do.

DeVorkin:

You hadn’t talked to anyone about it?

Wilson:

No. I had just looked around and had seen for myself what was going on, and realized what my own interests were, and how they would probably be best served. No, nobody instructed me in all this, although I mentioned it to people -- I think I maybe talked to Shane. I can’t remember for sure. I told him what I was doing, what I planned to do, and he said, “That’s probably the right idea.” Somebody told me that, who would have been in a position to know. It was very likely Shane but I can’t remember for sure.

DeVorkin:

Well, let’s take this with a physics major in mind and ask what kind of training you had, who your teachers were, some of the students you worked with, and maintained contact with who became physicists and astronomers. What was the atmosphere like in Berkeley then for you as a student?

Wilson:

Well, I found it extremely interesting. Of course, I was taking mathematics. My math grades picked up. Apparently I was beginning to click a little bit. In fact, I mostly got A’s in math when I went to college, whereas I mostly had B’s in high school, so I guess it was a matter of maturing, perhaps. I don’t know. Well, anyway, the physics department then was in kind of a transition stage, because there were still a number of older guys around who, in the style of Leuschner, were interested in classical mechanics and things of that sort. But then there was the new bunch coming along, people like Robert Oppenheimer, for example. I did not take any courses from Oppenheimer, but I heard him lecture, and on one occasion, which has stood out in my mind, they had both Dirac and Heisenberg. They were there simultaneously, and gave back-to-back lectures. Well, now, these men by that time were well known to me by name, and so of course, I saw them, heard them lecture. And Linus Pauling came through about 1928 and gave some lectures to the chemistry department. I went to listen to him, too. Now, I must say that this quantum mechanics of Linus’s type was pretty much over my head, because I had not had a course in the subject. There were no elementary courses given, and as far as I could make out, Oppenheimer mostly dealt with graduate students, which I was not. I was an undergraduate, you see. So I didn’t really learn an awful lot of what you might say was quantum mechanics, but I did learn a good deal of ordinary classical mechanics. There was a professor there, his name was William H. Williams, and he was a graduate of the US Military Academy. He was professor of physics, and he gave what I thought was a very good course in classical mechanics -- the usual things that you learn. The principle of least action and so forth, things that were taken over by the quantum mechanical guys and became quantum mechanics. Anyway, I had a pretty good background in that stuff. I see I sound kind of dumb about this. I haven’t used these things for years. At the time, I was quite impressed with them and interested in them and did quite well, but I never got into any theory because I got into so much other stuff, observational work, that the theory sort of went by the board, what little I knew.

DeVorkin:

In your own research?

Wilson:

In my own research, yes. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Well, then, of course I knew Birge very well; I worked for him, as a matter of fact. He was, at that time, just starting on his big discussion of the physical constants, and one of the things I remember was he wanted to go over Millikan’s oil drop experiment, you see. So he had all of the data that Millikan had, and as I remember, it was a linear plot of rate of fall against charge or something of the sort. So he had a bunch of his colleagues plot this up, and just draw the best straight line they could through it, and come out with a value for “e,” as I remember. That’s what you got. He was interested in comparing that with the least squares values and things of that sort. I did a lot of computing for him. I was just working for 50 cents an hour, but that’s what you made in those days.

DeVorkin:

Did you need this money? This was before 1929, though.

Wilson:

Oh yes, before 1929. I could always use a few bucks, yes. I was also a reader in math. That is, I corrected papers at 50 cents an hour.

DeVorkin:

Was this typical for the undergraduates themselves to be readers?

Wilson:

Well, the ones that were fairly good got to do this sort of thing. I mean, I would be taking maybe a course in differential equations by this time, and I’d be reading papers for students taking freshman or sophomore math. So, if you knew enough to do that sort of thing, you could get these jobs.

DeVorkin:

That was quite helpful.

Wilson:

That’s right. 50 cents in those days was a lot more than 50 cents is now. I need hardly mention.

DeVorkin:

In talking about your physics training, it’s useful to know to what degree you were in physics, but I’d like to know your feelings about what was happening both in physics and in astronomy, at that time. I mean you mentioned that you were aware of quantum mechanics.

Wilson:

Oh yes.

DeVorkin:

And of course there were tremendous developments in astronomy at that time.

Wilson:

Oh yes, that’s right.

DeVorkin:

How were your interests developing?

Wilson:

Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve thought about this a number of times. I think, in those days I had three or four heroes, and these people were Albrecht Unsold, Don Menzel, Ike Bowen, and A. S. Eddington. Those I think were the people whom I principally admired, and the reason I admired them so much was because they were the guys who were leading the parade, you might say, in applying physics to astronomy. And you might include Henry Norris Russell in that, but to a somewhat lesser degree. Those four people are the ones that I principally was aware of, as being what I thought were real leaders in this movement, which interested me, because I was interested in physics, but I was more interested in the astronomical applications. And these were the guys who were doing that sort of thing.

DeVorkin:

Yet none of these people you would have had any direct contact with, except possibly Menzel?

Wilson:

I did have contact with Menzel. Well, one of the classical papers was Unsold’s paper in the ZEITSCHRIFT FUR PHYSIK around 1927 or ‘28, I can’t remember now the exact year, in which for the first time he examined the profile of the sodium lines in the sun, and by simple application -- what is now an extremely simple and childish application of quantum mechanics -- could calculate the number of sodium atoms per square centimeter in the column. I thought this was just marvelous. That impressed me no end. And then, Menzel of course came out to Lick in the middle twenties some time, I’ve forgotten when he first came here, ‘26 maybe, ‘25 -- somewhere along in there. In those days, they had a policy of switching people from Lick to Berkeley. They would swap, and the Lick guy would give up his observing for a while and do some teaching, whereas the Berkeley guy would go and do some observing, things like that. And Donald came down to Berkeley in, if I remember correctly, 1927, and gave a course. Anyway, I was a sophomore at the time, and he gave a course, and I can’t remember what it was called, but it was basically the kind of thing he was interested in.

I took his course and became acquainted with him. At the time he was starting this big paper on the atmosphere of the sun, which he did on the basis of spectrograms taken by the Lick people back in 1904 or thereabouts on an eclipse. And evidently he got some money for that, and he needed help. So he asked me if I would go to work for him in my spare time. Well, I said, “Sure” because this was right down my alley. I was interested in that sort of thing. So I worked for him there in Berkeley. Then in the summer of 1929, he asked me if I’d come up to Lick and spend the summer working for him, on the same thing, and I said, “Sure.” So I spent the summer of 1929 up there. If you look in that volume in the introduction you will see that I get a little mention that I worked on that thing. So that was my first professional, first money I ever made in astronomy, in a Lick Observatory publication, a big fat thing. It was called “The Study of the Solar Chromosphere,” of the Lick Observatory BULLETIN. It was a major operation. Here is the reference: “With the assistance of Miss Phyllis Hayford and O. C. Wilson.” That goes way back. This was 1931. And I received this in 1932 from Donald.

DeVorkin:

You were a physics major all through that time?

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

In your contacts with Menzel and with Shane did you ask Menzel too for advice?

Wilson:

Probably. I can’t remember specifically, but if so, he also would have been favorable to it.

DeVorkin:

Certainly. He was a student of Russell’s actually.

Wilson:

He had been a student of Russell’s at Princeton, that’s right, and had profited by the fact that Russell was becoming more of an astrophysicist in those days, and he was smart enough to plow his way into it, and so forth. So, yes, and Menzel was interested in the same kinds of things that I was -- in applications of physics to astronomy, you might say.

DeVorkin:

Certainly your interest in Bowen centered around the fluorescence mechanism?

Wilson:

Absolutely, it was one of the things that I picked up in Menzel’s course. Maybe that’s where I first heard of it, I can’t remember, but there was a discussion of nebulium and so forth, and I can’t recall whether it was just before or just after Bowen’s discovery, but one or the other. In any case, it was made perfectly clear, if this was before, that this was probably a matter of low density, which it turned out to be. And if it was just after, then Bowen was given the credit for it. Anyway, I knew about Bowen’s stuff, virtually whenever it came out, because by then I was enough into it, I would either read it in the ASP in that case, or somebody would mention it. So Bowen became one of my heroes too, at that point. I’d never heard of the guy before, but I mean, this made it very evident.

DeVorkin:

He was just barely on his own, after working for Millikan, at that time anyway.

Wilson:

That’s right, he was. Well, if I may go ahead just a couple of years… I was just going to say that by the time I was getting to the point where I was going to get through Cal with a BA, I decided that where I wanted to go for a PhD was Cal Tech, the reason being largely Mt. Wilson, in the first place, because I tended to gravitate to the best facility there was, and also, Bowen was here. So I came down here to a football game with a friend of mine, actually, in the fall of 1929, and allowed myself time to come over to Pasadena, where I’d never been before, and I called on two people. One was Ike Bowen and the other was John Anderson, who at that time was executive officer for the 200-inch.

DeVorkin:

J. A. Anderson?

Wilson:

J. A. Anderson. And fortunately they were both there, and I asked to see them both, and talked to them a little bit about coming and so forth and what I had to do. But Bowen was in Bridge (Laboratory). And he had a big room in the southwest corner on the main floor of Bridge. It was kind of interesting. I walked into Bridge, and I was poking around, you know, like a new kind of timid guy would do, and I hear this noise coming from down here in the corridor, a periodic noise -- it sounded like a guy firing a .22. I think Anderson had said that’s where Bowen would be. So I walked down there, peered in, and this was his lab, and what I was listening to was the spark discharge. He was doing his UV spectroscopy, and every little while, the spark would go “POW”, and he was sitting over at a desk, and his room was stacked. It was like this [Wilson’s office] except all the way around this big room, just stacked with books and reprints and papers and all that kind of stuff, and Bowen was there in the middle of it, with his machine going bang every little while. So anyway, I had a nice conversation with him, and that was the first time I ever met Bowen. And it was the first time I ever met Anderson, for that matter.

DeVorkin:

J. A. Anderson I recall generally doing very interesting things with the Michelson Interferometer around 1919, 1920.

Wilson:

He worked with that, and then later he and Sinclair Smith took up this matter of exploding wires. They had a big condensor, and they would put a rather large amount of power through a small wire, which, of course violently disrupted it and made it hotter than hell, and they were interested in the spectrum. There are a few papers from that era in the about this. And I think I was aware of that work too, come to think of it.

DeVorkin:

What did you talk with Bowen about? Do you recall the conversation?

Wilson:

No, not in detail. What I was interested in at that point was in finding out how I could get to be a graduate student there. And whether it would be a reasonable thing to do. I probably told him what my interests were, that I was interested both in physics and astronomy, and what did he think of it? As I remember, he thought it was fine. And told me how to apply and all that sort of stuff.

DeVorkin:

This is interesting in itself, but I don’t want to leave Berkeley just yet.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

Let’s ask the question right now. There had been no PhD’s in astronomy at Caltech at that time?

Wilson:

That’s correct.

DeVorkin:

Was he talking about that, and that you had to go there in physics, or what were they thinking about?

Wilson:

Well, I think they were thinking about it. And I do not remember now how the exact course of the conversation went. Or whether anything indeed was really settled at that point. But it turned out that I entered Cal Tech as a grad student in physics, and took all of the candidacy courses in physics or passed the exams, one or the other, you had the choice -- if you were smart enough to get past the exam, and give up the course -- I did about 50/50 on that. Anyway, it was well known to Bowen and one or two others what my interests were. So it turned out that they let me write a thesis in astronomy, although I took all the courses that the physics guys took, you see. And that wound up with my being the first PhD in astronomy at Cal Tech -- although it wasn’t officially astronomy. But it was. You see what I mean. There was no astronomy department, but it was an astrophysical thesis.

DeVorkin:

And your advisor?

Wilson:

Oh, by that time of course I was working up here too [Hale Observatory], and I worked on this with Paul Merrill, but perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

DeVorkin:

OK. Let’s go back then to Berkeley. Was the only contact you had with Lick Observatory that summer that you spent there with Menzel?

Wilson:

That’s right. I’d never been there before, and so I was happy to go. It gave me time to look around the place and talk to people there. That was the only contact I ever had there. Well, actually, I went back the next winter for two or three weeks to finish up, working for Menzel again on this thing, and that was the first real snow I’d ever been in. It snowed while I was there.

DeVorkin:

That’s right. That was the same with me, too, I worked at Lick in the mid-fifties for nine months.

Wilson:

Oh, did you?

DeVorkin:

Yes. Lick was quite an experience for Californians.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Something like the East Coast.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

When your father died in 1929, did this cause any great question as to whether you could continue or not? Was there any question of support from, or for, your mother?

Wilson:

Well, yes, there was. And for a few months, I got some money from my father’s brother. He was a fairly wealthy guy, and he supported us I think with $100 a month. By that time, I’d got a teaching fellowship down here, for the following year, and I told him, “When I get that, why we’ll be ok.” This was at Caltech. So, we got tided over for perhaps six months or something like that. Then, my mother, having no place else to go, came with me down here, and we managed. This is amazing. This was for $750 bucks a year, plus tuition. Tuition was “free.” I got that plus $750. I think it was $75 a month for ten months. This was 1930 by that time and my mother and I could live on this. I can’t believe it. But somehow we did. And you know, not too badly. In fact, I even bought my first car, in about 1931, which, of course, was a used car. I think it was $200. Somehow I saved up this money, and that was that.

DeVorkin:

That’s hard to believe, on $75 per month.

Wilson:

I know it. I often think, “How the hell did we do it?” But then when you think of prices -- I mean, steak was maybe 30 cents a pound, things like that. Unbelievable, back there in the Depression. And I think that everybody like myself, who came to maturity in those years, has never gotten over it. The Depression leaves -- not scars -- but something on your soul. I mean, you don’t feel at all happy with what economically has gone on since in the way of inflation and prices.

DeVorkin:

Well, then, you made it all right on that kind of stipend, with your mother. Was there ever any pressure in your own mind, just to go out and get a job, to be better off?

Wilson:

Well, what happened was this. I came down here, and we spent the year 1930-31 on this $750 when I was a teaching fellow. Then, in the meantime, this place had made some kind of a deal with Lick, whereby they would take on a graduate student from Lick for a couple of years, who would give up his studying for a while and just work as a stooge, you see, to learn some of the business that way. And at that time, this incumbent was Nick Mayall. But Nick Mayall was leaving this job at the end of the term. He was leaving in 1931, and Anderson told me about this. Perhaps he even went to Adams and asked before he spoke to me, I can’t remember. Anyway, I was offered the opportunity to take this job here, but then I would give up my graduate work. Well, I thought: I’ll try it for a bit and see. So for that one year, I worked here full time, at the princely salary of $125 a month! That was a big raise over $75, and this was for 12 months, not ten. This is when I bought the car. I remember now. I felt real flush. Isn’t it funny? (laughter) So I started in at the bottom of the totem pole, and I measured routine plates, and I calculated sun reductions, and I did all this junk that these people do.

DeVorkin:

Sounds like it was all spectroscopic.

Wilson:

It was all spectroscopic, which was my interest, yes.

DeVorkin:

Who did you work for?

Wilson:

Well, I worked basically for everybody. There were routine things to do. There was a routine radial velocity program. Various observers would take the plates, other stooges would measure them, so I did that. I really wasn’t working for any one person. I was just a cog in a machine. After my one year here at Santa Barbara Street, Anderson came to me and said that he was going to give a course in elementary astronomy, the first one at Cal Tech, in the next year, and he would like to have a teaching fellow, and would I be it? I said, “Well, how can I do that and do this job here?” He said, “Well, I’ve already talked to Mr. Adams, and he’s quite willing to let you have that time -- not only time off to be a teaching fellow, but to take some courses.” They were very kind to me. Of course, they weren’t paying me a fortune. It was still $125 a month, and I was supposed to put in about half-time working for them here, the other half-time would be being a teaching fellow, which paid my tuition, and then I could take some courses. So this is how I got through grad school, by holding down basically three jobs. It wasn’t as tough as it sounds. But looking back at it, those people were really very nice to me, because I needed some help. I couldn’t hack all of this myself. I either had to support my mother and me, or go to school, and they just made it very easy for me to do both. So for the next two years I work like this. So now we’re up to 1932.

DeVorkin:

Yes, it was about the year of your first publication. [1]

Wilson:

That’s right. It is, as a matter of fact, I’ve looked at that list. I was doing a little observing at the 60-inch at that time, under the tutelage, you might say, of Paul Merrill.

DeVorkin:

I would like to talk about him.

Wilson:

Right. So anyway, that got me through grad school, and I got my PhD then in ‘34, and then, Adams gave me a job which was the same job, basically.

DeVorkin:

You were called an assistant astronomer?

Wilson:

No, I was still a computer. They called them computers. Computers were not machines in those days, they were people. But anyway, I got taken on the staff in ‘36, but here we’re getting ahead of ourselves, perhaps.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Let’s go back to your experiences with Paul Merrill.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

He’s a man we’d certainly like to know more about.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

How did you first meet him, and how did you come to work with him?

Wilson:

Well, as far as meeting him is concerned, of course I was aware of him and his work, from having read the literature. And as far as I can remember, I simply came up here, probably before I knew I was going to get a job here (I mean the computer job) and talked with him. I came in, introduced myself, and talked to him. That’s how I remember it. Perhaps Anderson said, “Go talk to Merrill.” Perhaps Anderson introduced me. I can’t remember the first time I met him.

DeVorkin:

Anderson was on campus?

Wilson:

He was on campus. He had an office down there, because he was the executive officer in charge of building the 200-inch at that point. Well, he also had an office here, but he spent most of his time, I remember, down there.

DeVorkin:

Anderson seemed to be one of the few people who really did have a strong liaison between Santa Barbara Street and the Cal Tech campus.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Other than him, what were the relations at that time between the two? Hale was certainly still around.

Wilson:

Hale was a bit. I never got to meet him. In those days, I didn’t know how to proceed. Later on, after I knew Merrill better, I asked him, “Could I possibly meet Mr. Hale?” This must have been around 1935, ‘36, that I asked him. He said, “Well, no, Mr. Hale is not very well, and meeting people upsets him.” So I never got to meet him. It’s one of the regrets of my life, because here’s another great man, incidentally. He would have been one of my heroes; was, in a sense, but I mean, at a distance. I never met him.

DeVorkin:

We were talking about Paul Merrill.

Wilson:

I was interested in Paul Merrill because he was doing spectroscopy, which I’d sort of become sold on, because it was physics, and I’d also worked for Menzel in a spectroscopic project, and so forth. And I was interested perhaps in a more physical sense than Merrill, because I was younger, and had a little more background of that kind than he did. But anyway, I got in with him, and we got along very well together, and he made suggestions to me. I would go to him for advice or ask him questions. This was in the early days, before I knew which end was up. And he was always a very, very pleasant person to deal with. Our big differences were political.

DeVorkin:

Really?

Wilson:

Paul Merrill was what I would call a “Black Republican.” The sun rose and set in the Republican Party. He hated Franklin D. Roosevelt -- whom I idolized in those days, because my first vote for President was cast for FDR in 1932. So, we learned not to argue too much about politics, because we would both get hot under the collar. (laughter) Well, anyway, that’s somewhat beside the point, because otherwise, we got along just fine, and I learned a great deal from him -- and of course from the other guys, A. H. Joy and R. Sanford, but Merrill was the one I mostly dealt with.

DeVorkin:

Merrill seemed to be the one who was most capable of applying physics.

Wilson:

That’s right. He was more up to date than these other fellows that I mentioned. But I learned a lot from them. The mountain was organized in two shifts. There was the light run and the dark run. I was always in the light run, because that meant the moon was up, and the moon didn’t hurt that kind of spectroscopy. There were two telescopes. So you’d always be up there with another observer, and this would give you a chance to get acquainted with somebody on your side of the fence, you see. I’d be up there with Merrill or with Sanford or with Joy, or Gustav Stromberg or somebody like that. [As an aside, as you requested I was informed by Paul Merrill that something of a controversy arose between Adams and Shapley because Shapley, against the wishes or perhaps instructions of Adams, shipped off a number of Mt. Wilson plates to elsewhere (perhaps Harvard, but I do not remember). In any event this difference led to recriminations and eventually to fisticuffs. I know it sounds incredible, but I have always considered Merrill to be an extremely reliable source and my recollection is that he was here at the time.]

DeVorkin:

Gustav Stromberg?

Wilson:

Gus Stromberg, yes. He only did spectroscopy of that sort. If it was just routine stuff, he wasn’t interested in it. He was a marvelous statistical type astronomer who dealt with determining characteristics of groups of stars from their proper motions and radial velocities and all that bag, which is what he learned in Sweden when he was a young man. He was a very nice fellow. So you’d be up there with these guys. You’d eat at the table with them. You’d maybe visit back and forth a little bit at night, or if the night was lousy, you’d play pool with them, and so I got pretty well acquainted with them and learned a great deal from all of them.

DeVorkin:

What was the atmosphere like up there? I know also Robert Richardson was there.

Wilson:

Bob Richardson was a solar man. That’s right. So you wouldn’t see him around at night, but you might be at the table with him, if he happened to be on the telescope. Seth Nicholson was the head of the solar department, and Bob Richardson worked for him. Then up there was the solar observer who was there most of the time. It was Joe Hickox, in those days.

DeVorkin:

When you observed with Merrill, what was the discussion? I know the instrumentation took a while to really develop, through the twenties and thirties. There was usually a lag between what many observers wanted, and what was actually there.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Did you talk about the future of instrumentation and how things were going to be changing or why they were not changing?

Wilson:

Oh yes. There was always a lot of discussion of that kind, particularly at the table. You know, you’d get there for a meal, and then you’d start something about, “Gee, it’s so hard to get spectra in this region,” or “Why can’t we go fainter?” and then the talk would go on and on. Well, in those days all of the spectrographs or practically all of them were prism. And the prisms were practically all of fairly dense glass, that is, dense in the sense that it was hard in those spectrographs to get below 4000 angstroms. You could do it by shoving on it. Well, as time went on, they got lighter glass for the prisms In fact, at one point they built a three-prism spectrograph of light flint, as I remember, which was intended for the near ultraviolet. It was pretty good. But when I first came, the Coude still had prisms and camera lenses. But just about that time, Theodore Dunham rebuilt the thing, using a grating, and it was the first application I ever heard of for the Schmidt camera, which came out in the early thirties. That’s when it was adapted to the Coude up here. So by the time I came to use the Coude it had been established as a spectrograph with grating and reflection optics for several years. I never actually used it in the old fashioned form of twice through the prism and so forth, which of course, restricted again the wavelength range you could get in the near ultraviolet very seriously.

DeVorkin:

Who were the people who were really pushing for new instrumentation: Babcock?

Wilson:

Well, yes. What kind of instrumentation are you now speaking of?

DeVorkin:

Spectroscopic.

Wilson:

Spectroscopic. Harold Babcock, in those days, so far as I know, spent practically all of his time in laboratory work. Well, he’d never been much of an observer. I think he’d done one or two things. I think he and Birge had a paper one time on the isotopes of oxygen, something of that sort. But it was a period when, looking back at it, progress in the directions needed to improve the rate of data acquisition was very small. You see, all that didn’t come in until after World War II, with electronic methods -- photon counting, image tubes, all that stuff. You couldn’t do that in the thirties and forties, at least not very effectively. Nobody succeeded in doing it. So I think, since there was not the technique and the materials available, people didn’t worry too much about it. Everybody supposed that sooner or later, somebody would manage to beat the photographic plate, which after all, was not sacred. But nobody knew how to do it or when this would happen. So we just went and used the materials we had. I think that’s true of any period of science, in any subject; you use what’s available, and try to advance the science, and you hope for something better to come along. And of course, if you’re smart, and if something is developed in a lab somewhere and you can use it, why, you do it yourself. But there was nothing like that in sight in those days.

DeVorkin:

Well, it was a slightly different element I was driving at. I understand that there were a number of people who were unhappy during the thirties because not enough attention was being paid to auxiliary instrumentation. There was not that much support.

Wilson:

You mean, here?

DeVorkin:

Here. Yes. Did you feel this at all, or did you see it?

Wilson:

No. I didn’t get that feeling. For example, Paul Merrill had a grating spectrograph built primarily for the red, the H-alpha region, which he was interested in. Then Joy and Adams had the UV spectrograph built, for the other end of the spectrum. There didn’t seem to be any serious problem in financing. Of course financing was cheaper then, but in financing things of that kind. What I was referring to were fundamental changes, in detectors and so forth, which just weren’t in the cards then. There wasn’t enough known. They didn’t exist. Even photo cells were new. Stebbins and Whitford used to come out here every summer for a while, and I became very well acquainted with both of them, particularly Whitford, who’s still one of my very good friends. These two guys were really pioneers in photoelectric photometry, and Stebbins had been at it for a number of years. Then he got Whitford, who again was trained as a physicist. And so, I watched these guys work. For example, I’ll never forget one night at the 60-inch. I forget why I had the time, but I did. I was up there and I was watching. One of them was up at the telescope, and the other one was down in the clock room, in the 60-inch, where they had set up an electrometer. It was one of these things, where you have an illuminated scale, and what comes on the scale is a picture of a filament of a lamp, and then the filament moves.

So communication was by hollering back and forth between Stebbins upstairs and Whitford downstairs, and you’d watch this fellow upstairs put in a filter, set on a star, tell them when it started. The doggone filament would just begin to move, very, very slowly and slowly, then a little faster, faster, and finally it would get up here and would kind of slow down and stop. And it might wiggle around a little bit. And this guy down here would write it down in the book. Well, this was high class photometry, of say around 1940. And compared with what goes on now, it was laughable. But that was the state of the art. I remember one time, I told this story before, it amuses the hell out of me. One summer day, I was sitting in my office. I knew Albert Whitford pretty well then, and he came in one day and he said, “Look, I want to go downtown and buy some parts for a new photometer. Would you like to come along?” I said, “Sure,” what the hell, it was a warm afternoon, drop everything and go with Albert to see what he’s up to. So we went down to the dimestore. Woolworth’s in those days had a department which sold all the little widgets and gadgets you needed to build a little radio receiver, you see. This was like in the late thirties some time. And so, Albert goes in there and spends ten or twelve bucks for bits and pieces for his new photometer. (laughter)

DeVorkin:

He got them from Woolworth?

Wilson:

Oh, when I tell people that story, they don’t believe me, but it’s true. Well, that’s the way it was done in those days. You’d have maybe 50 bucks to spend for a piece of equipment, and you’d scrounge around and buy the bits and pieces where you could, which in this case happened to be Woolworth’s, and by God, you could build something pretty good with it, you see. But compared to what you have now, it’s laughable.

DeVorkin:

We’re at about 1932, and you had a number of papers at that point, before you had your degree. One was on three new Be stars, [2] and this was done as part of a large general program to study white B stars.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, that was Merrill’s program. He spent a lot of time on that, and he just took the opportunity of getting a few plates by using that to instruct me in using the spectrograph. So I was doing that basically for him. On his program.

DeVorkin:

I see. Were you getting into any of the general problems of the study of the B stars at that time, because that’s what Stebbins and Whitford were doing also?

Wilson:

Well, yes, they were doing B stars, but for a different reason. Merrill was interested in the spectra, particularly those that showed emission, Be’s. And I found them interesting, but I never got into that bag extensively at all. I sort of went off, partly on my own, after that, and did other things. Let me just give you a little idea about Merrill’s philosophy, which was basically that if you studied stars which had abnormalities -- most B stars don’t have emission lines -- and the abnormality in this case is emission, normally in the hydrogen line… His thought was that if you studied stars with abnormalities, and could explain them, then you would know basically all you needed to know about normal stars. Well, this of course is not true. I mean, in the case of human beings, you can study all the nuts in the funny farms all over the world, and you still won’t know what you want to know about humanity. However, he had a lot of fun with that, by following that philosophy, and turned up a lot of interesting things. I’m not trying in any way to run him down. I just think that he was basically incorrect on this assumption, but for his period and for what was known in those days, it wasn’t a bad idea to start with at all. Perfectly OK. But that’s why you’ll find in his papers that so many of them deal with oddballs. And he made surveys with the 10-inch telescope and an objective prism, looking for oddballs. Then he would investigate them further. He found them with the slit spectrograph, you see. And things like that. Basically, an awful lot of his career was spent doing that. Well, that means he turned up a lot of interesting objects. But when you come right down to it, it didn’t tell us a whole hell of a lot about normal stars after all.

DeVorkin:

Yes, I see. It seems as though many times people do publish studies of peculiar objects.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

And seem to be very anxious to do so. But it also seems sometimes as much the other way -- that people are ignoring peculiar objects.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, you can’t do them all in detail, and some of them are so peculiar that they would require a study all to themselves. And people I think nowadays wonder if all of that detail is as important as Merrill and his group used to think it was. Nowadays, I think there is probably more importance in learning about the vast majority of more or less normal stars. Well, the oddball guys now are the ones that go out into the quasar region and so forth.

DeVorkin:

I just was reading in the paper the other day, yesterday, about something where they’re finding quasars with negative red shifts now.

Wilson:

Really?

DeVorkin:

This is Wampler and some of his people up at Lick.

Wilson:

You’re thinking of blue shifts, instead of red shifts?

DeVorkin:

I’m not sure whether it’s a real blue shift or whether the shift is not enough for the luminosity.

Wilson:

Well, that may be the case.

DeVorkin:

He might have gotten the deceleration parameter.

Wilson:

Yes. I noticed that too, but it wasn’t quite clear to me from the newspaper article, just what had gone on. So we’ll have to wait a little bit and find out.

DeVorkin:

OK, other things that you did. In 1932, July, you have an interesting short paper on the velocity of light in NATURE. [3]

Wilson:

Oh yes.

DeVorkin:

You examined the possibility that the velocity of light varied with time, based just upon the redeterminations.

Wilson:

Yes. Right.

DeVorkin:

What stimulated that interest?

Wilson:

Well, probably my interest in the subject would date back to the time I worked on the physical constants with Birge, because working with Birge you got to thinking about physical constants and what do they mean and so forth and so on. And I remember seeing in a journal, whatever it was, the fundamental new measurement of the meter, which agreed with the old measurement of the meter. And so it occurred to me: what does this have to do with relation to the wavelength of light and so forth? Then, I’ve forgotten just the way the thing was done. But anyway, if you take these two measurements at face value, it means that the velocity of light has stayed the same, you see. So I wrote this little note. Then later on, Birge had a little note on the same subject, in which he refers to me and some other guy. Well, it was Frank Edmondson, I think it was, who had come out with a collection of data, which he said showed that the velocity of light had varied. I can’t remember whether it was a linear variation or cyclical or whatever. Anyway, this was a thing that was in my mind when I read this other thing, which indicated that it hadn’t changed. So I thought it was worth a note. Then Birge of course was interested, and so he followed that with another note in NATURE.

DeVorkin:

Did it have anything to do with the fact that there was so much of the interferometric work being done at Mt. Wilson?

Wilson:

No, by the time I got here the interferometry had all been done. Well, let me qualify that. Pease had built this big interferometer. When I say it had been done, I mean the stuff on the 100-inch, with the original Michelson-Pease group; that was all over. But Pease did have this big one which had recently been completed.

DeVorkin:

That was the 50-foot?

Wilson:

The 50-foot, which never seemed to work very well. I would be up there on a number of occasions at night, working on one of the telescopes and go over to midnight lunch and Pease would come in and I’d say, “How’s it going?” “Oh, we’ve got wormy seeing tonight,” or something like that.

DeVorkin:

“Wormy” seeing?

Wilson:

Wormy seeing. I finally decided, and I think this is basically true, that he never really got any definitive results from that thing, probably because the machine itself was not sufficiently solid or something. I don’t know just what the reasons were. I don’t believe in the literature you’ll find much in the way of results from it. That was still going on. But that had nothing to do with my velocity of light study.

DeVorkin:

There were still also the classical tests for the ether direction being done I believe up here at that time?

Wilson:

No. You see, Michelson had measured the velocity of light between Mt. Wilson and Mt. San Antonio, but that also had been done and was all dismantled by the time I got here. But Pease was continuing the velocity of light experiment down at Irvine -- a ranch down here in the flats -- and that was one of these things which used, I think, the old Michelson rotating mirror method, except here he had a big hunk of sewer pipe which had been evacuated and had multiple reflections back and forth in there from mirrors, so that the whole path length was the order of a mile or two miles or whatever. It was on a fair hunk of ground. He was running that experiment, I remember. Shortly after I came here, but after I’d bought a car, there was a general invitation to go down one evening and see this. I drove down and saw it. You could look in there, and you could see the little images that were supposed to coincide.

DeVorkin:

Did you have any contact with Pease on that?

Wilson:

Not really. I mean I didn’t get personally acquainted with him, no. He was an interesting guy. A great big guy, physically, large, and he died not too many years after that, I can’t remember.

DeVorkin:

Yes, the same year as Hale.

Wilson:

‘38, that’s right. That’s really all I know of Pease. The fact that I saw his velocity of light experiment and I used to talk to him once in a while about his lack of success with his interferometer. That was it.

DeVorkin:

Pease had made the original designs, or had done some of the original thinking about the 200-inch. But Anderson pretty much took the job over?

Wilson:

Well, Pease had been in charge, as I understand it, of the engineering on the 100-inch. And of course that was a successful telescope. It’s an excellent telescope, still is. Then I’ve seen a design, not in all complete detail, but a design of his for a 300-inch telescope.

DeVorkin:

That’s right.

Wilson:

Now, I don’t know the history of this. It had something to do probably because the money for the 200-inch was not given to us, but was given to Cal Tech. I would guess that if the money had come here, which was what Hale originally wanted, Pease might have been in charge of construction of the 200-inch. But it went down there, and they got their own engineering crew. As far as I know, Pease was out of that. I never heard of any connection between Pease and the 200-inch in the engineering sense.

DeVorkin:

Yes, certainly once it was under construction.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

I wanted to know why that was, and I think you’ve given me the reason.

Wilson:

Well, it’s the only one I can think of.

DeVorkin:

OK. The third paper that you’d done, l932, [4] was an application of the radiometer, in place of the electrometer.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

For use in a registering microphotometer.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

You said you worked for Sinclair Smith?

Wilson:

I worked with him. I signed on as stooge because I was interested, and he was just very kind. I did a lot of the testing, and he put my name on the paper, although it was entirely his business. He built the radiometer. He thought up the application for it, and he had all the bits and pieces built. And then I spent a fair amount of time running the thing, making various tests on resolution, stuff like that. So he put my name on the paper. But I had nothing to do fundamentally with it.

DeVorkin:

It was an interesting departure at that time.

Wilson:

It was. That’s right. Well, it never jelled. They went into commercial production. There was a company here run by a guy named Fred Henson, and they did build a few of them, as I understand it. In fact, I think Cal Tech had one at one point. But the radiometer itself never quite made the grade. Other things came along that were better, photo cells.

DeVorkin:

At that time, though, it was better than photo cells. The response was better.

Wilson:

That’s right, because at that time, you see, what they had here was an old, old thing that had a thermocouple for a receiver, and it was exceedingly slow. It would take a week to run across a solar line image! (laughter)

DeVorkin:

I see what you mean.

Wilson:

Well, I may be exaggerating, but it was awfully slow, whereas the radiometer response was pretty fast.

DeVorkin:

OK. Between ‘32 and ‘34 you were working here and teaching down at Cal Tech. You were taking courses -- you also worked on Nova Aquilas and studies of stellar spectra and an analysis of emission bands. You did quite a bit of varied research.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

How did your thesis develop around ‘33, ‘34?

Wilson:

Well, I was working with Merrill, you see, and he was becoming interested at that time, or had been interested as plates were getting better, in the near infra-red. So I did some work with him on early type stars. In these objects what you see in the infra-red is the Paschen Series. Oh, by the way, speaking of Paschen-Brackett and that sort of thing, I should go back to my undergraduate days to a fellow named Brackett, in the physics department at Berkeley. He’s the guy that found the Brackett series, and so, I worked for him also for a while. I made thermocouples for him. I didn’t originate anything. Those guys would say, “Now you do thus and so,” and I would do it. I was just a stooge. But we made these thermocouples by a little welding machine, where you take two bits of wire, antimony and antimony-tin, I think they were, and a little hunk of blackened foil of some kind, and you’d put it all together, come down and weld it together and you’d have a thermocouple. Well, that’s just by the way. At any rate, I was aware of the infra-red, and I was aware of Paschen and Brackett and all those people. So when Merrill was doing this work I guess I expressed an interest. I made tracings of the plates and things like that, and so finally, it came time to do a thesis, and I said, “Would it be all right if I use this material for a thesis?” and he said, “Sure, it’s fine with me,” so I did, and they accepted it. It’s by no means the world’s best thesis, but it was the best I could do at the time.

DeVorkin:

I’m not sure, was that published in any form?

Wilson:

Yes, I think so, isn’t it in the -- “The Comparison of Paschen and Balmer Series” that’s it. That was basically my thesis. That was 80, (1934) pp. 19-50.

DeVorkin:

So that was with Merrill.

Wilson:

Yes. Doesn’t it say so there? It should.

DeVorkin:

No.

Wilson:

Well, that bibliography is somewhat sketchy.

DeVorkin:

That’s all right, it was a good help to me. Well, beyond that, did you see yourself going on in laboratory work, or purely in astrophysical work at the telescope, observational work?

Wilson:

What I was most interested in, was in actually observing, because it fascinated me that you could go out there and look at all these different things, make the proper kind of records and get data and find out something about them. This is what I liked. Obviously you had to apply physics to these problems.

DeVorkin:

In the next few years beyond that, you worked with Merrill, as your bibliography shows.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

You also worked with Adams, with W. H. Christie, with Joy and Sanford.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And you were doing a lot of different spectroscopic problems.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

One of your most interesting ones seemed to be that you start centering on the structure of stellar atmospheres, expanding atmospheric shells, things like that. How were your interests developing? Did you see a line of research that you wanted to follow, particular problems that you wanted to follow?

Wilson:

No. I would say that I was scrounging around, and things would appeal to me, and I would say, “Here’s a little job I can do,” and I would go ahead and do it. I didn’t have any -- I must confess this very frankly -- solid feeling as to a line I was going to take, except in the general sense that it was going to be spectroscopic, because that’s what interested me. But otherwise, no narrow line. I was an opportunist, and I think most guys were. This place in that era was kind of an opportunistic place, and a lot of those little notes and papers you see there are the result of somebody getting some interesting spectrograms of something or other and saying to the guy across the hall, “Hey, look at this,” and one saying, “Why don’t we write a note about this?” or “Let’s measure this and get some more plates.” Things like that, you know. It was just kind of fun. It really was. It was a fun type situation, and nobody worried too much about deep philosophical considerations. We’re not going to solve the problems of the universe, we’re going to have fun and learn a few things. That was basically it. And I liked that. I don’t want to give the impression that all the work was opportunistic. Far from it. There were large, long term, investigations in progress also. For examples, the interstellar line work in which Merrill mostly did H and K and Sanford the sodium lines; Merrill’s long investigations on the long-period variables; Joy’s work on a variety of other kinds of variable stars, etc. And among the dark-time people -- Hubble’s lengthy endeavors among the galaxies and Humason’s extensive observations of their radial velocities.

DeVorkin:

It must have been very exciting.

Wilson:

It was. It was great. And sometimes I have a feeling that -- don’t quote me on this -- some of these guys, you know, the far out guys that are going to solve all the problems of cosmology [are too intensive]. I don’t think they’re going to solve all the problems of cosmology. And I’ve told them that, I’ve said, “Not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime are you going to get to the end of this thing.” But they’re very grim. They’re determined they’re going to solve the big questions. Well, maybe that’s what turns them on. And if it does, fine. But I get a lot of fun out of these more limited and more modest and more entertaining things that we used to do back in the thirties and forties.

DeVorkin:

Of course, we haven’t talked about the fact that Hubble was here.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Would you say that his attitude was atypical?

Wilson:

Well, now, Hubble, you see, was on the other side of the fence. He was a dark-run man and I was a light-run man, [5] so we hardly ever met on the mountain, but I do have one or two funny stories about Hubble. I’ll tell you, if you like. So I never knew Hubble as well, by any means, as I did the spectroscopic guys.

DeVorkin:

Then it wasn’t your contact down here, but it was really, who you observed with up the mountain, that made the difference in whom you talked to?

Wilson:

Well, you see, the people you were observing with on the mountain were people doing the same kind of work that you were. So you had a community of interest. It was not that I was disinterested in Hubble’s stuff. I thought it was fascinating, and I agreed, he was a great man. But he did have his oddities, and it just wasn’t my bag. I mean, I liked spectroscopy, that’s all that it boils down to. Well, let me tell you one of these funny stories about Hubble. Hubble was an extremely formal guy, and he insisted, for example, that at the table on Mt. Wilson, everyone wear a coat and tie -- which made everybody else pretty sore, because it’s hot up there sometimes. I happened to be up there one day, I can’t remember why, maybe it was a changeover day and I was taking over. Anyway, he had been on the 100-inch, so he was sitting at the head of the table, as the 100-inch observer always did. This was the tradition, still is. Well, somehow, somebody -- I don’t know who, I don’t know the circumstances, and I don’t know who these guys were -- had invited two young Englishmen who were touring the country to go up there and have lunch that day. And these two guys arrived, as young Englishmen often did on a tour in the country, in the summer, wearing shorts and something like tee shirts -- I mean, completely, utterly informal, you see. These two guys came in there. And Hubble is sitting at the head of the table. He looks. “Gentlemen, would you arrive at Cambridge for lunch dressed like that?” And one of them said, “Well, of course not. But this isn’t Cambridge.” (laughter) Hubble couldn’t think of a comeback.

DeVorkin:

He was such an Anglophile, too.

Wilson:

Oh, he was an Anglophile from way back, and here were a couple of his British compatriots giving him the needle in a beautiful simple fashion. It just tickled me, because while I valued Hubble as a real great man, he was a bit stuffy. And I always like to see stuffy guys demoted when I can. (laughter)

DeVorkin:

That’s marvelous. It fits.

Wilson:

Oh, just beautiful.

DeVorkin:

You had another story.

Wilson:

Another story about Hubble. Well, Hubble was a strange guy. On another occasion, I happened to be up there.

DeVorkin:

This was in the thirties?

Wilson:

This was back in the thirties. I don’t remember the year. These are just funny incidents that remain in my mind. I happened to be up there when both van Maanan and Hubble were on the mountain, and they were by no means friends, because, as you recall, van Maanan had measured plates of Andromeda which showed that it was rotating, and Hubble had measured the distance, and showed that it just couldn’t be rotating that rapidly. I mean you couldn’t see it, according to his distance. So they didn’t like each other. Well, anyway, van Maanan was the 100-inch observer, and so his napkin -- we all had our own napkin ring with our name on it -- was at the head of the table. I was sitting out there in the other room. Hubble comes in, and he goes in the dining room. Van Maanen hasn’t arrived yet. I peer around the corner to see what he’s up to. He snatches van Maanan’s napkin ring and puts it over here, and puts his own at the head of the table, you see, because by God, he’s not going to sit there and let van Maanan preside over this meal. So I think, “What’s going to happen now?” I couldn’t wait to get in there. So I go in when they ring the bell, and van Maanan goes in and marches up to the head of the table, and looks. Can’t believe it. It says, “Hubble” here. He looks over here and it says “van Maanan” over here. Hubble’s a big guy. Van Maanan is a little guy. So, he just has to go over here where his napkin is. Haha. (laughter) And Hubble comes in, you know, sits down at the head of the table, and that’s it. (laughter)

DeVorkin:

That’s incredible. It meant that much to him.

Wilson:

Oh dear. It meant that much to him. As I say, he was a great man, but such a strange fellow, and I’ve seen him on other occasions. I’ve talked to Allan Sandage about this, who knew him fairly well too. He allows it’s so. There would be a visiting celebrity, Albert Einstein, let’s say, who did visit here. And there would be someone with a camera, and it was obvious, there was going to be a photograph taken of whatever little group was around. Inevitably in such pictures, you’ll find Hubble right in the middle of the group, right next to the celebrity, every time. He sort of wormed his way or muscled his way in. That’s where he wanted to be photographed, with the great man, you see. How strange, for a man who needed none of this kind of crap. Oh dear. Don’t ever quote me on these things.

DeVorkin:

You have control of the transcript.

Wilson:

OK. But I thought you’d be interested. You can attribute it to some anonymous person, that’s all right, because I think it gives an insight on the personality of some of these people, that you wouldn’t get unless you’d been around and seen them in action.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Since you were on the light run and he on dark, usually you weren’t involved with him, or with others doing deep sky photography in the allocation of telescope time.

Wilson:

No.

DeVorkin:

But you were with Merrill and others.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

How did you go about getting telescope time? Say you were here in the office, and you had an idea, you wanted to get something done?

Wilson:

Well, it was extremely informal in those days. You see, there was a sort of fixed number of guys. There’d be Merrill, Joy, Sanford, Adams and eventually me as regular observers. In those days, Joy made out the schedule for the light run, and he would just put everybody down for two or three nights. I mean, you’d go and say, “Look, I’d like a couple of 60-inch nights and a couple of 100- inch nights,” or whatever, and you’d usually get it, and you’d keep on getting it, because the demand was not all that big. We had very few visitors of any consequence to come and take observing time. And so it was sort of a small closed corporation, and very informal, as I say. And speaking of scheduling, if I may anticipate a little bit -- it got very much worse as time went on. After the war, you see, I became the scheduler for the light people, and I did this for about 20 years. And when I started, right after World War II, or shortly thereafter, a few years after World War II, it was still pretty informal, except now you were beginning to get a few graduate students. You were beginning to get some people from Cal Tech. But still the numbers were small enough so you could handle it in an informal manner. But finally, it got to the point where I went to Bowen and I said, “Look, this isn’t going to work anymore.” I said, “What we need to do is to have people make advanced requests quarterly or something like that.” And he said, “No, I don’t want to do that, because if we do that, people will be asking for time that they won’t want to use.” Well, normally I would go along with what Bowen said, but this time I kicked over the traces, and I said to myself, “To hell with that, Ike, it isn’t going to work.” So I circulated a memo to everybody on the staff, to the effect that: “The scheduler now needs certain information on a quarterly basis, how many nights, what equipment do you want and so forth and so on.” And so I got that started. Bowen never came around and squawked about it. I mean, Bowen was a guy who might tell you, “No, you shouldn’t do that,” but if you did it and it worked, well, OK.

DeVorkin:

This was by early or mid-fifties?

Wilson:

Early fifties some time. I can’t remember now the date. Probably first half of the fifties, sometime like that. It was simply getting out of hand. Well, then it has gotten even more complicated. I gave up that scheduling in ‘73, I think it was. I sent a memo to Horace Babcock and said, “Look, I’ve done this for 20 years -- my fuse isn’t as long as it used to be, I’m getting more and more teed off and I want to get out of it.”

DeVorkin:

You were scheduling for both mountains?

Wilson:

Both mountains, but only half the run, you see. That is the spectroscopic half. Yes, the additional mountain made a lot of difference. Then you had guys coming from all over. You had infrared guys, and they often had only one set of equipment which they wanted to use on both mountains. Anyway, I won’t go into this, but scheduling had become virtually a job for a computer or something like that, although we never tried to do it that way. But you did have to have this information. You did have to lay down some rules, like you can’t change it too damn many times, things like that, or it would all just get fouled up completely.

DeVorkin:

Was it almost exclusively spectroscopic during the bright run, or did you have a lot of instrumental changes all the time?

Wilson:

No. In the old days, it was all spectroscopic. Except, maybe there’d be the occasional experimenter with some kind of infrared thing or something like that, but not very much. It was very cut and dried, for a long time, and there were only a limited number of spectrographs. The 60-inch would have the one prism spectrograph. The 100-inch had only a few. It wasn’t too difficult, no. They’d only make the change then two times a month from one side to the other. It wasn’t all that tough. All that has gotten different, too. Everybody and his uncle has got his own piece of equipment now. So, well times change.

DeVorkin:

Let’s go back to 1935 or thereabouts. You had just gotten your degree?

Wilson:

In ‘34 I got my degree.

DeVorkin:

And you decided to attend a Harvard summer school.

Wilson:

I was invited to attend it by Don Menzel.

DeVorkin:

I’d like to know more about that.

Wilson:

Well, he wrote to me and said that they were having a summer school, and would I like to come back and spend six weeks there, to assist in the instruction. I don’t think I gave any lectures. I really don’t remember now just what I did do. But anyway, I went. Fortunately a friend of mine, David Thackeray, who recently got killed in South Africa, was Comonwealth Fellow here at that time. As a Commonwealth Fellow he was supposed to travel around the USA and he was going to go East. And so he and I drove East together in his car in 1935. Now, looking back at it, that’s almost prehistoric, in terms of driving across the country. But we did fine. We had paved roads, as I remember, all the way. Of course they were all two lane, but even so, it was reasonable. So we got to Cambridge, and I spent the six weeks there. Thackeray spent about half that time there and then he had to leave and go off on his travels, so I came back by train.

DeVorkin:

Who were the usual attendees at the summer school during that summer? Were you talking to astronomers or teachers of science or what?

Wilson:

Well, I don’t remember an awful lot, as I say, about what I did there. Mostly, I enjoyed it very much and I met people whom I’ve known ever since. Leo Goldberg and Jesse Greenstein were both students there. And I remember, when I got back, I was thinking of these guys, and I thought: “Now, is it Goldberg and Greenstein? Or is it Greenberg and Goldstein? And I had to stop and think, which it was.” (laughter) But they were grad students there, and I had some conversations with them. And I met Shapley. Shapley had been off to Europe, and he arrived during the time that I was there, and his arrival was sort of grandiose. I mean, here came a mob across the campus where the observatory is. It looked like a mob to me. Well, it was Shapley arriving, you see, and all his adherents, gathering around to welcome him back. It wasn’t a mob, I mean, it was a dozen people, but to me it looked like a mob in that place which had been very somnolent, you see. Anyway, that was fun. I met Struve for the first time, too.

DeVorkin:

He was there too?

Wilson:

Struve was there. And as a matter of fact he asked me how I was coming back. I said I was coming by train. He said, “Through Chicago?” and I said, “Yes, through Chicago.” He said, “Now, when you come back why don’t you come out and see me at Yerkes?” and I said “Fine, I’d be delighted.” So we set a date. I told him when I’d be there, and when I arrived in Chicago, I took a train to someplace in Wisconsin. I’ve forgotten just how I got to Yerkes. Some place nearby where he met me.

DeVorkin:

Right. There could have been a train right to Williams Bay at that time, Lake Geneva or Walworth.

Wilson:

Walworth! That’s the place. Walworth, I remember the name. And so, I had dinner with him and Mrs. Struve, and his mother, who was alive a time. But then I had to go on, so he took me back to catch the train, back to Chicago, and then on home. So I didn’t spend the night there. But then after I got back here I got a letter from him, offering me a job.

DeVorkin:

That was my next question.

Wilson:

Yes. At Yerkes. Well, that surprised me. This was the first real offer of a regular job I’d had, aside from here. I thought about this for a while, and it occurred to me that several things were against it. First of all, some things were for it. I was a great admirer of Struve by this time, for instance, as most people were. He’s a great guy.

DeVorkin:

Especially in spectroscopic work.

Wilson:

In the spectroscopic business, right. But, I thought, “well, look, they don’t have the equipment that we’ve got here.” I can’t remember whether McDonald was in the works at that point, or not. It must have been.

DeVorkin:

It was just barely starting.

Wilson:

It hadn’t been finished, and I knew it wasn’t going to be as big as the 100-inch and so on. I said to myself, “Furthermore, the climate back there in the winter is bad. It’s cold and it costs you more for clothing and for heating and all that stuff, and also what the hell would I do with my mother?” I knew she wouldn’t like it back there. So, finally, I went to Adams, and I gave him this letter. I said, “Look,” and he read it, and, by this time, I guess he thought that I was worth keeping. “Well,” he said, “we don’t want to lose you.” I said, “Yes, but he’s offering me $2500 a year.” Which he was. Well, Adams was a tight man with a buck, but basically a good soul. He hemmed and hawed and he said, “Well, I think maybe we can get you $200 a month.” I said, “OK, till give up the $100, I’d spend more than that keeping warm back there anyway,” and so I stayed, and I became then an assistant astronomer on the staff, beginning in 1936. I owe it all to Otto Struve. Well, this is how most guys advance. Somebody offers them a job and the other guy offers them this much to stay and so on. So that didn’t bother me. Anyway, I was now on the totem pole. I was not just a peon, but a member of the staff.

DeVorkin:

Still, your work, other than being spectroscopic, didn’t come to a focus during this whole period?

Wilson:

No.

DeVorkin:

I can see, looking at some of your later research, especially your famous work, that there were the beginnings of it back then.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

But in what degree? Say, looking for luminosity criteria in spectra. Was it really a conscious effort on your part?

Wilson:

No, it was not. I have been a fortunate victim of serendipity several times in my life, and that’s no negligible factor, believe me. You’re looking for something, perhaps something rather stodgy, and you find something that’s really swell that you never even thought of before. And the only claim to fame is that you noticed it and didn’t let it slip by. Otherwise, it’s just pure damn luck. I think this must happen more often perhaps in science than is realized. Like the guy who discovered penicillin by having this dish of bacteria out on a window sill or something. This was dumb luck too.

DeVorkin:

We were talking about the thirties, your focus and organization.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, no, I really wasn’t organized. I did work with Merrill on interstellar lines, which I was interested in. I was interested in a variety of things, but not in the sense that any one of them was going to take me 20 years to do, you see, at that point, and be a major factor. I was just interested in doing a variety of things and learning about a variety of things.

DeVorkin:

Well, one thing that did start to occur as an interest was looking for spectroscopic evidences of expansion. This certainly would apply to novae events, possibly all the way back to your studies of shell stars, I’m not sure.

Wilson:

Yes. And also, I was thinking of that in terms of Cepheids. But in those days, it was pretty hard to get Cepheid evidence. It’s been done since, by the way with modern equipment. I mean the actual variation in line shapes has been found. But it was just a kind of an interesting thing. I wrote a paper[6] on that. It’s absorption lines due to an expanding atmosphere or something like that. Slightly theoretical. It just seemed like fun to do that and it was simple so I did it. But it never developed into anything observational, at least for me.

DeVorkin:

You’d also been working on the interstellar lines, but then you started working on nebulae.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

I guess you started with the Orion Nebula. You were working on this in 1937 or so?

Wilson:

Oh, that. [7] Now, here’s a case of serendipity. That was an outgrowth of my work with Merrill on the interstellar lines. [8] I said to myself: “What will we find in the way of interstellar lines in stars involved in the Orion Nebula? Will we find any evidence of interstellar lines formed there?” So I took a couple of spectrograms of stars in the Trapezium, and I looked at them in the dark room, and I thought, “what the hell is that?” There was a sharp line, it looked like an interstellar line, but it wasn’t K. It was down where Helium I comes in. That’s what it turned out to be. Here was an absorption line produced by the Orion Nebula, and nobody had seen that before. So I did a little work on that subject. I got the intensities and the velocities for the Trapezium stars and a few others around there and so forth. Then, let me see, I thought of something else that was serendipitous. Oh, the Wolf-Rayet stars. That was also serendipitous and also goes back to the interstellar lines. You see, you can get the ratio of the two sodium lines, the sodium pair, in stars without any trouble, but when it came to the H and K you had this damned H epsilon in there in most stars. But there were a few stars in which you didn’t have it, and the Wolf-Rayet stars were examples of it. So I was taking spectra of those with the idea of getting a better value of the K to H ratio, and comparing it with the D2 to D1 ratio for the sodium lines.

DeVorkin:

You were also interested in absolute magnitudes at that time. But this was more from determining distances to Wolf-Rayet stars from the interstellar lines.

Wilson:

Yes, that’s right. That was again an outgrowth of that whole interstellar project. Anyway, what happened was, in this one star H D 1 93576, I had a couple of plates of it on the comparator and I lined up the interstellar lines, and holy cow, the emission bands were shifted in these two plates.

DeVorkin:

How did you feel about that?

Wilson:

“Jesus, look at that!” Then I called in guys from around, “Hey, look at that.” And they all looked at that and allowed it as real. So here obviously we had a binary. And I remember then, I got a run on the mountain (this was all done with the 60-inch) shortly after that, and I never worked so hard in my life, because I took plates of this star -- this was in the summertime -- all night long. And then the next day I’d get up after a few hours shut-eye, and I’d go over to the lab, and I’d measure these plates. And I was taking plates and measuring them and plotting them for four or five days.

DeVorkin:

You were working really fast to get an orbit?

Wilson:

Well, just to make sure that it was going to look like an orbit. Well, it did, of course. And this tickled the hell out of me, because up to this point, no one had really had any means of finding out masses of these WR stars. So, well, that was serendipity again. I wasn’t looking for a binary, I was looking for a good place to measure the ratio of K to H, which is a useful but stodgy thing, and here comes this beautiful binary. Well then, of course after that, I looked at some of the others and found a few more binaries. And other guys found binaries.

DeVorkin:

The fact is you were working on allied problems, trying to get to understand the Wolf-Rayet stars better, I mean, your expanding atmosphere work.

Wilson:

I was just using them basically as a continuous background.

DeVorkin:

Oh, really?

Wilson:

Yes, because I could measure K, I could measure H, and it wouldn’t be all screwed up with H epsilon. No, I really was not doing anything with them. They had all been studied very thoroughly by Beals in Canada. Anyway, they’d been studied also by Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, and all these identifications had been made and so forth. Well, I was curious as to the nature of the emission bands and the physics of that, but I didn’t have any grand ideas about it. Well, except what I published. [9]

DeVorkin:

But you continued on working on the H and K lines, when you tried Arcturus in 1938. [10]

Wilson:

Yes, but that was again serendipity. I’d just recently been allowed to use the 100-inch.

DeVorkin:

“All owed?”

Wilson:

Yes. In the old days, you had to climb up the totem pole for a little way before they’d let you use the 100-inch. It wasn’t for grad students or other such klutzes. (laughter) And times were more leisurely then. So I said to myself: “OK, what am I going to do with the 100-inch?” I’d better first of all make sure I can get good spectra with the Coude, which is what I wanted to do. I’ll just take a few practice shots on bright stars, why not? -- and sharpen my talents, such as they were. So among other things, I got this spectrogram of Arcturus, and I looked at it. It was high dispersion, 2.8 Å/m.m. actually. I looked at it. I said, “What’s that?” There was a feature there that looked kind of funny to me, so I made a tracing of it. It turned out to be H epsilon in emission, aside from the H and K emission which, of course, I expected to see but here was H epsilon, so I wrote a note in the ASP about it in ‘38, I think. [11]

DeVorkin:

That’s right, yes.

Wilson:

And this was the beginning of my interest in chromospheres.

DeVorkin:

You considered the possibility that there was an extensive chromosphere?

Wilson:

Well, yes, I figured this must be. I was never a solar guy but I talked to the solar people and I could read what came out, and I realized that the calcium emission at the center of H and K came from the chromosphere, and here in this case undoubtedly, H epsilon did too, but why didn’t we see it somewhere else? So I began to think about these things, and to consider doing some work in that field. The other thing I was interested in at that time was the fact that in the sun, the H and K emission, as seen in spectroheliograms, varies in step with the solar cycle. There’s very much more of it when the spots are maximum, much less when it’s minimum. I said, “Could this be seen in stars?” So shortly before World War II, around 1938-39, I took a series of spectrograms of a wide variety of stars -- a wide variety of absolute magnitudes -- all the way from things like 61 Cygni to Alpha Orionis, I suppose two or three dozen of these spectrograms. I had the idea that later on I would take more spectrograms and see if I could detect any changes in the emission in these objects. I was kind of naive, as I realized when I looked at the spectra -- because the spectra were just lousy with absorption lines, and if you’re going to have to measure down to a very few percent, that isn’t the best way to do it. But also in looking at these spectrograms, I was struck with the fact that if you put 61 Cygni for example, on a comparator with Alpha Orionis, they looked utterly different. I mean, here in 61 Cygni you had little sharp emission, and Alpha Orionis has this big broad thing. “What the hell’s going on here?” Well, I didn’t do anything about it until I was invited to go back to a symposium at University of Indiana much later. It was the early fifties, by the way. I had done nothing with these damn lines up to that point, because I’d gotten stuck in the planetary nebulae business, you see. But then I got invited to a spectroscopic meeting [in Indiana].

DeVorkin:

It was in ‘54.

Wilson:

‘54, I was invited to give a paper. I thought, “Hell, what have I been doing in stellar spectroscopy? What have I been doing in stellar spectroscopy lately? Well, not much. I’ve been doing planetary nebulae.” Then I thought of this collection of plates. “Aha.” I got them out, and I had a lady working for me then, Mrs. Coffeen, and I took them to her. I showed her what I wanted. I said, “Would you be so kind as to measure just the width of these lines for me and let me have them?” and she did. And I plotted them against the Mt. Wilson spectroscopic luminosity criteria and I got a very nice curved relationship. I thought, “Gee, that’s interesting.” Anyway, it gave me something to go back and talk to these guys about on their favorite subject, so I did.

DeVorkin:

Right, that was it. That was the beginning.

Wilson:

That was the beginning of that. But then of course, I’d become quite interested. “Why is this a curved relationship? What goes on here?” And so forth. So then, the Yerkes luminosity criteria had just come out shortly before that, so when I got back, I replotted the thing. I did two things. My original plot was just the actual width in angstroms or something, whereas the other scale was magnitude, so it was logarithmic on one side and not on the other. So then I said, “Well, let’s try log-log, and let’s also try the Yerkes luminosity,” and by God, I got a beautiful straight line.

DeVorkin:

You found a systematic difference between Yerkes and Mt. Wilson.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, that had long since been known. I think it was suspected for other reasons, too.

DeVorkin:

It’s interesting to me that as early as 1938, when you worked on Arcturus, you suggested examining giants of various spectral class and absolute magnitudes, to see how this effect changed -- this emission feature.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

So it’s evident that you’d been collecting the material for quite some time.

Wilson:

Well, I began thinking about it then. And then you see, the war intervened, and I collected these plates that I’m telling you about just before the war, and then they sat on the shelf. When I came back I got all gung-ho on planetaries, and so I didn’t resume that for a while. And it wasn’t until the early fifties, when I was needled by going to this meeting where I had to have something: “Well, I’ll try that.” That’s why I did it. I was very glad I did, because it led to fascinating results, that I think still have the theoreticians buffaloed.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes. Poorly understood theoretical problem.

Wilson:

(laughs) That’s right.

DeVorkin:

How did it become known as the Wilson-Bappu Effect?

Wilson:

Oh, because after the war, this was in the early fifties, I had these plates, and I wanted to collect more. You see, I had this sample of plates from before the war, but the exposure times on planetaries was long and all my time was going to that subject.

DeVorkin:

On planetary nebulae?

Wilson:

On planetary nebulae, which I didn’t want to just turn off. I wanted to get some completion on that. So I had these two projects. And Bappu was here. He came here from Harvard, where he had been some kind of a fellow, and he came here, I think, as a Carnegie Fellow. He’s interested in spectroscopy. So, in talking with him, I said, “Look, would you be interested in taking part of your time getting some plates on this business?” I showed him what I had. And he said, “Yes, he would.” So he did get some plates, not a vast number but a few.

DeVorkin:

This was after Indiana?

Wilson:

I think it was before Indiana, probably. Yes. I think he was here in ‘51, ‘52. I’m pretty sure. Anyway, after Indiana, after I completed the planetary project, then I went gung-ho on this business, and I got lists of standard stars. I got the Yerkes standards and that’s where I got the first calibration of it, as a matter of fact, and the first good modern calibration.

DeVorkin:

Bappu then didn’t continue with the project?

Wilson:

No, he didn’t continue it. He went back to India. But when I came to write it up, well, I had done, I would say, 95 percent of the work, both taking plates and measuring. Nonetheless, I thought that I ought to put his name on it. He was a nice young man and I liked him very much, and what the hell, it would give him a boost. Guys had been nice to me when I was young. So I did that. That’s why it has the name Wilson-Bappu.

DeVorkin:

I see, so he didn’t do any of the final work?

Wilson:

He didn’t do any of the measuring or any of the writing of the paper or anything, except he did take a few plates, which were useful for me.

DeVorkin:

OK. You had to get the calibration. You had to be pretty sure of the effect.

Wilson:

Oh yes.

DeVorkin:

What was the initial reaction in 1954 at the Indiana meeting[12] to this?

Wilson:

Well, it stirred up some interest, particularly on the part of Leo Goldberg.

DeVorkin:

Goldberg?

Wilson:

Yes, he was there, and of course he was always a spectroscopist, in a sense, although not always observational. He was quite interested in it, and I think Struve had some interest in it too. Struve was also there. And otherwise, I think, it was one of those meetings where a lot of people have a lot of papers, and it tended a little bit to get lost in the shuffle. But it caught on fairly well. And, of course, then I pursued the matter after that.

DeVorkin:

But the lack of understanding as to why this luminosity effect existed -- it was a pure empirical study -- did it keep anyone from using it, do you feel, in the beginning?

Wilson:

Oh, there have been various people who have criticized it in various ways. But none of them have really been able to make a dent in it. No, I don’t think so, because one has very handily the analogy of the fact that Cepheids were used as distance indicators before it was known what made them “Ceph.” It was just an empirical calibration, which began with Mrs. Leavitt in the Magellanic Clouds, you see.

DeVorkin:

Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes. I’m well aware of the role of empiricism. But we’re now in an age when we start to think that we can understand anything, and here something comes along that is so powerful and striking, yet so…

Wilson:

-- so obscure in its workings. That’s right.

DeVorkin:

You’d suggested a number of things from time to time. It seemed to center on turbulence in the photosphere.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, you see, the reason you find in all of my work -- and other people have taken it over now, it’s ridiculous -- I always give the width in velocity, kilometers per second. Well, it was done purposely, because in the supergiants, you get widths of over 200 kilometers per second, and I wanted to bring this out unmistakably. If I had used Δλ, some theoretician might pass over it. But 200 kilometers per second, gee, in velocity terms, that’s big. So I did this on purpose. Well, now it’s become the fashion. And it’s not an ideal way to do it, but still it probably serves the purpose of calling attention to this. Well, this is why I couldn’t figure on any other reasonable broadening mechanism than motion, to give that kind of velocity. Well, it’s a long story. Theoreticians and I do not see eye to eye.

DeVorkin:

Really?

Wilson:

Oh yes. The theoreticians, on this subject, most of them, have learned in school how to handle the equation of transfer, and how to handle the source function. They know how to fiddle around with those things, and come out with something that looks like what you’ve got in reality. However, as you know, when you look at the solar H and K, with very high spatial or angular resolution, and high wavelength resolution, you find that those emissions are just little elements, little tiny things that are probably less than a second of arc, in many cases, the actual emission. They don’t always match on the two sides. In fact, there are many mismatches. You find emission on one side and not on the other. And so, what you’re seeing in integrated sunlight, and I’m sure it must be true in integrated starlight, which is what we deal with, is the integration of probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these little things all over the surface.

Now, when you do that you get a smooth curve. And when you get a smooth curve, and you turn it over to these theoretical guys, they say, “Ah ha, we have a layer, we have a source function that does this and that, we have the equation of transfer, and we can solve that problem.” They come up, by diddling the parameters, with something that looks like this. But, it doesn’t convince me. It’s like studying disease without knowing about germs, in a sense. I mean, here’s this fine structure. I talk to these guys, “Now, what about that fine structure?” Well, they look the other way, “Well, yes, but anyway, we can solve that problem this way, you see.” And the only theoretician I’ve talked to who takes my point of view is Dimitri Mihalis, who came into my office a couple of years ago. We had a little conversation. He couldn’t stay long. And he said, “Why don’t the theoreticians face this fact?” I said, “I don’t know. You’re a theoretician, why don’t you go talk to them? I’ve wondered the same thing.” (laughter)

DeVorkin:

He’s a pretty powerful theoretical ally.

Wilson:

Yes. He’s come along. I knew him as a student, you know. He was a student here. He’s got quite a reputation, and I think, a well deserved one.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes.

Wilson:

He’s very good.

DeVorkin:

So Mihalis was one of the only theoreticians to be sympathetic and aware of this?

Wilson:

Well, the others are aware of it, but they sweep it under the rug. And I think I can understand them. They’re just guys like you and me, and it’s probably a very difficult problem. I suspect it involves all kinds of things besides the transfer of radiation -- motions, magnetohydrodynamics, God knows what goes into it. And so they have the very human tendency to stick with something that they have in a textbook, or basically a textbook solution for. But that isn’t the way science has to go and Mihalis realizes this. So far as I know he hasn’t done anything about it yet, but maybe he will some time. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do about it. But at least he knows what’s kosher and what isn’t.

DeVorkin:

Right. OK. Let’s go back then, into the late thirties.

Wilson:

OK.

DeVorkin:

You mentioned your work on interstellar lines, and you did produce with Christie a major catalogue of radial velocities for 600 stars. [13]

Wilson:

That was just part of my routine job that I had started when I was down at the bottom of the totem pole. By that time, the boss man, Mr. Adams, had enough faith in us two guys to say, “Here, you put this together and write that paper,” and we did. Just routine.

DeVorkin:

OK. Well, in addition to that, along the lines we did talk about, your work on nebulae, on the doublet ratio of interstellar H and K, and the absolute magnitudes of the Wolf-Rayet stars and a lot of other work, especially your line ratio work and things like that seemed to turn out to be of great value for studies of galactic structure. Had you been getting interested at all in galactic structure at that time, or were you simply aware of the problem?

Wilson:

Oh, I was aware of the problems, but I was not interested in the sense that I tried to do anything about it, except to contribute, as you say, in these ways.

DeVorkin:

Were people pretty sure that O and B stars were going to map out the spiral arms?

Wilson:

Oh yes, and indeed, the local guys here had basically done all that. I mean, out there in the hall in front of Merrill’s office for many years hung a big chart in which they had radial velocities of stars, and as I remember, interstellar lines, plotted against galactic longitude, where you could see this wave there very beautifully.

DeVorkin:

Really?

Wilson:

Oh yes.

DeVorkin:

Well, what’s happened to that chart?

Wilson:

I don’t know. When Merrill left I asked them to leave that chart on the wall, but it finally disappeared, and I don’t know what happened to it. It was just a working chart, but it was beautiful.

DeVorkin:

It would be very valuable.

Wilson:

I know. All kinds of dandy things disappear around this joint. Guys come along and say, “Aw well, what the hell is that? Let’s get rid of it,” out it goes -- unless somebody is around to salvage it. I saved it once, and I can’t remember now how it got away from me, but it’s done gone, been gone for years now.

DeVorkin:

They certainly had the curve?

Wilson:

Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, just like Oort said it should be.

DeVorkin:

That’s great.

Wilson:

So, I was not in on that. That was before I was into the interstellar business.

DeVorkin:

But you were aware of it?

Wilson:

Oh yes. Quite so.

DeVorkin:

Well, we’ve covered a good chunk of your pre-war research.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

I’d like to talk to you about the effect of the war and what you did during the war.

Wilson:

OK.

DeVorkin:

Your recollections of really what the Hale Observatories and Cal Tech were involved with during the war. I know you were involved with the rocket project. Could you discuss how you got involved in the war?

Wilson:

How I got involved in the war was that the damn war came along, much to my disgust, because I disapproved of war in general, but there was nothing I could do about it. So I said to myself, “Well, this is going to be a toughie, and you’d better find something useful to do.” So I went down and I think I talked to Bowen first. I said, “Look, are you guys doing anything down here useful with respect to the war?”

DeVorkin:

When was this?

Wilson:

This was in the beginning. Well, shortly after Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. So it was probably that month. He said, “Why don’t you go and talk to Willy Fowler?” So I said, “OK.” I knew Willy. I didn’t know him well. I went over and said, “Willy, I was talking to Ike Bowen…” so forth… “are you guys doing anything useful about the war?” He said, “Yes, we are. We’re working on new weapons.” I said, “Well, do you need another hand?” and he said, “Sure. We can use all the people we can get.” I said, “All right, but give me about a month, I’m just finishing a paper. I’d like to finish that up,” -- which I did, in January. Then I went down there. I had the most entertaining experience. These guys wouldn’t tell me what they were working on, at Cal Tech. But the first thing they did was, they wanted to take me out to the range. I didn’t know it was a range. They didn’t call it a range. Out in the desert.

DeVorkin:

Inyokern?

Wilson:

No, this was out beyond Barstow, out at Camp Irwin. I was going to say “Gallstone,” they used to call it “Gallstone,” but it’s Goldstone Lake. Anyway, a bunch of us went out in this car. There was Charlie Robinson. There was Ike Bowen. There were one or two other guys, I don’t remember who they were, to take me out and show me this place. They said, “OK, we’re going to run a little experiment here. You don’t know what we’re doing?” I said, “No. Nobody’s told me what you’re doing.” “OK, you listen to our conversation and see what you can find out.” See, this was the secrecy bit. So we drove out there and I was listening to these guys, and I was amazed when we got there because a bunch of Japanese soldiers came out. It turned out, the place was being guarded by Japanese-American soldiers. Anyway, they straightened me out on that. We got there and they said, “Oh well, what did you find out? What are we working on?” I said, “Well, fellows, if I had to make a guess, I’d say you were working on rockets.” There was dead silence. You see. Because I wasn’t supposed to know this. They said, “How did you know that?” I said, “Well, I pieced it together from your conversation and the jargon you use. It’s pretty obvious.” That’s what it was. In the early days the rocket business was very exciting, because most of them blew up. And they would blow up in the most inconvenient places, and you’d have bits and pieces flying around, and hope you didn’t get hit by one.

DeVorkin:

What kind of rockets were they?

Wilson:

Oh, these were small rockets in those days, maybe 2-1/2 inches in diameter, so long. They were just learning the business.

DeVorkin:

About a yard long?

Wilson:

Well, yes. All solid fuel. They were just learning the business, and they didn’t know much about it. This all had to be found out. Rockets would blow up first because the pressure got too high, but the pressure could get too high for more than one reason. Anyway, there were lots of explosions in those days. So I did a variety of things during that period -- designing rockets and testing them up in the canyon, and going out with them. On one occasion I nearly got blown up. We had an explosion down there in Kellogg Lab. On one occasion, there was a guy by the name of John McMorris, a friend of Willy. He was a chemist. He was sort of in charge of the propellant business there. And he had a place down in the basement, a room, and he had what we called a “gorilla.” All the stooges were known as gorillas in those days. He had a gorilla working there, and this guy had a lathe, and he would turn what they called grains on his lathe. But they were big cylinders of solid propellant -- and this was commonly done, because the ideal, of course, was to get the die and your press to put out precisely the size you wanted, but in these experimental days, they had to turn them down on a lathe. And it was hotter than anything with a bunch of this stuff stacked all around in that room. Another guy and myself were going out to test the following day. We went down there to talk to Jack McMorris about something. While we were talking, his gorilla was working on this lathe. Well, this other fellow and I left and went upstairs. My office was directly above this room, and Jack McMorris, as it turned out later, left and went to the toilet. Well, the building was partitioned off, because there was an upstairs place which was not secret, and there was a toilet up there, and the one down below was full, so he went out of the building and around and up, and he was up in the top floor, in the john, when all this happened. Well, what happened was, this guy somehow set off all this powder down there.

DeVorkin:

Oh no!

Wilson:

Sylvan Rubin and I were sitting in our office -- he’s since been working for many years for Stanford Research and as far as I know still is. So we were sitting there, and it was a room with no windows. It’s where they had their big X-ray equipment at one time for cancer research, and now it was our office. But we could see out in the hall. The floor started to shake, a rumbling sound. I looked out the door, and I could see this red glare in the hall -- “Oh Jesus, it’s gone off!?” So we beat it as fast as we could go out the back door. Do you know where Throop Hall is or was? It isn’t there anymore. Well anyway, we went out by there, and looked back. All kinds of hell was going on, because this guy was actually blown out, fortunately away from us, the other door of the building, by a blast of hot gas. People in offices on that floor and on the floor above panicked. Some of them broke windows with their hands. Afterwards I saw all this blood flowing down the side of the wall. Fortunately nobody was killed except this one guy.

DeVorkin:

That fellow was killed?

Wilson:

He was killed deader than a doornail. Well, it’s not surprising. That stuff is awful hot, and there was enough of it to just pick him up and blow him out of the building. Well, anyway, why did we get into this? This is what I did during the war.

DeVorkin:

You didn’t work in fuses?

Wilson:

No. Bob King was the fuse man. I was involved in just the general miscellany of rocketry. And then for a while, I ran a school chiefly for the Navy. The Navy was one of our better customers, and so they finally organized a school. I had about three or four guys working with me on this, and we had Navy officers and Marines. They were all officers, anywhere from commander on down. And every two weeks we’d have about ten or twelve of these guys come through. This went on for a year or so.

DeVorkin:

What was the school for?

Wilson:

It was to teach them about rockets. And so we tried to give them, first of all, the why and how rockets worked, and the care and feeding of rockets. We had a fuse section. We had samples of all the fuses, and these guys had to take them apart and put them back together again and see how they worked. And some of the fuses had little springs in them. It was very amusing in the fuse class because every once in a while -- “phsweewwhh…” -- springs would pop out all over the place and there would be guys running around trying to find them and put them back, you see. Well, anyway, so then they went out to the range, and actually did some firing. They went up, I think they wound up, if I remember correctly, up at China Lake, with the aircraft firing of rockets. So altogether they got about two weeks of experience and practice in rocketry. But I wasn’t sure they were ever going to use it. I talked to some of these guys. I couldn’t believe some of them: here we were, in the middle of a war, and these guys had been in the Navy, some of them, for already two, two and a half, three years, and had never been anywhere except to schools. The Navy had dozens of schools of all kinds, some of them lengthier than our session here, and these guys would just be sent from one school to another. Now, occasionally a guy would come through who would say, “Yes, I’m going off to the South Pacific when I get through here,” but most of them were off to some other school. Oh, I guess this was all right. There were a lot of things they had to learn, and by the time these people went through all the Navy schools, they’d know everything -- but they probably would have forgotten the first part of it.

DeVorkin:

That’s surprising.

Wilson:

And I remember there was one guy, I can’t think of his name, turned out to have been a former Notre Dame football captain. He seemed like a nice guy, a big, husky fellow, as you might expect. A nice fellow. And another guy was a chiropodist. He was a lieutenant in the Navy. I said, “Hey, fellow, you’re in the wrong business. Wouldn’t the Army be better for your trade?” He said, “The Army wouldn’t give me a commission, and the Navy would.” (laughter)

DeVorkin:

That’s marvelous. What about other astronomers?

Wilson:

Oh yes, there were a number of them.

DeVorkin:

Who were they and what did they do?

Wilson:

Well, Horace Babcock was there, Franklin Roach, a name from the past who hasn’t been in astronomy for a long time, you may remember the name, was there. Gerry Kron, my friend Gerry was there. Who else in the astronomy business? There were all kinds of engineering types and some physics types and miscellaneous types of all sorts. Of the astronomers, those are the principal ones certainly. I don’t want to do anybody an injustice. I think Nick Mayall was mixed up with it for a while, too.

DeVorkin:

He was also with the Naval Research Lab?

Wilson:

I think he was here for a while. Not as long as the other guys. And who else?

DeVorkin:

I know that Gerry Kron was down here.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

And that you had quite a bit of contact with him.

Wilson:

That’s right. He and I worked together on a number of things.

DeVorkin:

What was the general atmosphere? Did you spend any time up here at your offices on Santa Barbara Street?

Wilson:

No. I completely divorced myself from this place.

DeVorkin:

Well, who stayed around here? Was there any activity during the war?

Wilson:

There was some activity here, and there was at least one research project going on here, maybe more. I never really found out much about that. They had some kind of project here in which they were concerned with B-29’s but maybe it was aircraft in general. They were studying evasion tactics, and also, as I remember it, the way to fire, to protect the plane. Particularly they couldn’t shoot off their own tail. That was a no-no. That sort of thing. But I never knew the details of it.

DeVorkin:

You don’t know who was working on it?

Wilson:

Dunham was mixed up with it, for one, and perhaps a few of the other people who stayed here but I don’t know. My friend Harry (W.H.) Christie went off, and went up to Berkeley and got a job working on the uranium separation.

DeVorkin:

W. H. Christie?

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Do you know what he did up there?

Wilson:

He was a very clever sort of guy, actually, not trained as an engineer, but he had an engineering type mind. He did various things for them, but I don’t know exactly what. Then later on, after that, he worked down here. I left the rocket project about 1944. It was just sort of tapering off, and it was clear there wasn’t going to be much more fun in it. I moved up to Green Street to the Aircraft Torpedo Project.

DeVorkin:

Green Street?

Wilson:

Yes. This was run by Fred Lindvall. And I did a variety of things there. Lindvall was a professor of engineering at Cal Tech.

DeVorkin:

What did you do there?

Wilson:

Oh, various things. We had a place where there’s a dam a few miles out from here. You go up from Azusa, up the canyon there. It’s named after somebody and I can’t think of the guy’s name.

DeVorkin:

Not the Hansen Dam?

Wilson:

No, not Hansen, that’s out the other way. No, this is east, and then north in the mountains there. Well, anyway, they had fairly deep water there and a fairly big expanse of it, and they set up this huge tube with a big air tank and a valve arrangement so they could put a torpedo in here and close it up and fire it. These were aircraft torpedoes, so it would come out and hit the water. I remember now, it was Morris Dam.

DeVorkin:

I see, from above the water.

Wilson:

From above the water, you see. And they were studying entry characteristics and reasons why they would broach and do other bad things. We didn’t have very good aircraft torpedoes. Particularly in that job, I read a lot of intelligence stuff that came in from various parts of the world, and the fact of the matter was, and it was fully acknowledged, the Japanese had by far the best aircraft torpedo of any of the combatants, much better than ours. Probably one of the reasons they succeeded so well at Pearl Harbor -- their torpedoes went in and they stayed in and they went for the target, and they hit it and they had longer range. They were just damn good torpedoes. And we weren’t doing so good.

DeVorkin:

What was your particular responsibility?

Wilson:

It was a variety of things. Like in all those jobs, you sort of tried to find a niche or something that needed doing at the time, and you worked on it. So, I did some statistics on these entry problems and things like that. The war was getting towards an end then, and we were taken over. That whole thing was taken over by the Navy for the last six months or so; I was a civil servant working for the Navy.

DeVorkin:

All these were contracts for various branches of the armed forces?

Wilson:

That’s right, they were all contracts for the services.

DeVorkin:

You were never approached by the draft, anything like that?

Wilson:

No. Well, yes, I was approached. But you see, in jobs like that, that’s all they could do was approach you. I got as far as the physical exam here one time. But the connections and the importance accorded to these projects was such that they wouldn’t draft you. But you had to stay on the job. I mean, otherwise, you’d get drafted.

DeVorkin:

Did you feel that the war changed your career any, or the way of doing science here?

Wilson:

Oh, it certainly changed the way of doing science in the long run, because of the technical advances, the technology.

DeVorkin:

But did it change anything close to your work, as far as the technical advances go?

Wilson:

Not right away, certainly. Not right away. When I came back here, we were doing business in the same old way, photographic plates and so forth. The plates gradually increased in speed as time went on. Eastman made improvements. But no, there was nothing fundamentally new for quite a while. Then Bowen of course was aware of the fact that things had to be changed, and that maybe technology was coming along. He hired Bill Baum to get into the photoelectric business, and Bill actually was getting into photon counting, which was the first I’d heard of that.

DeVorkin:

We’re getting a little ahead there. I’m still interested in wartime era. Did you have any contact with Baade?

Wilson:

Not during the war. But I had had a lot of contact with Baade, in the sense that, while we never worked together, I found him a most fascinating guy to talk to, and a guy who was very willing to talk. We had many conversations in which he did most of the talking, and I would sit there and listen to him. In that sense, I knew him fairly well, and I had great respect for Baade. He was a fascinating and highly intelligent guy. In fact, he once invited me to join the nebular group here, to my surprise. And after thinking about it for a while, I said, “Well, I appreciate that, but I think I’ll stick with the things I know something about,” so I turned it down.

DeVorkin:

When was this? Was the nebular group an identified group of people who worked together? When, in your opinion, did astronomers at Mt. Wilson begin to form into these research groups?

Wilson:

I think it was shortly after the war. By this time there was a fairly good division in a formal sense. Hubble was the leader of the “dark men” or nebular people, and, after Bowen arrived, Merrill had the same job for the spectroscopists. After these two departed, there no longer seemed to be anyone who held these posts. Perhaps Bowen had wanted such factotums in his early years as Director, but this is only a guess on my part.

DeVorkin:

All direct photographic work?

Wilson:

Well, they did their own kind of spectroscopy, of course, which was of faint objects, which was why they had to work in moonless nights. There was no such thing as sky subtraction in those days. That was all photographic.

DeVorkin:

Were you in contact with him then through the thirties?

Wilson:

Yes. When he first came here, he came here a year or so after I did. I think he came about 1932, and I came in 1931. So we started at almost the same time. But of course, he was 20 years older, or more, than I. And he came, not as a stooge, but as a member of the staff. Baade threw parties every once in a while. They were very funny parties, because all you ever got to drink was martinis. But Baade had a method, in these parties, and I’ve seen it on numerous occasions. I always fell for it. You’d go in there, and there’d be a bunch of people, you know. You’d sit around and start conversing with this one or that one, and you’d have your martini there. Well, after a while you noticed that even though you drank your martini, there was always more martini in your glass. And what he did, he kept making more martinis, and he would very quietly slip around behind people and just keep their glasses full. The net result of all this was that after a couple of hours, everybody had drunk much more martini than he should have, and was getting a little free and easy and would talk, you know, in a manner in which he wouldn’t ordinarily. And Baade loved to listen to these conversations that took place, and he had this slick method of getting people completely disarmed, you see. He wouldn’t drink that much. He was busy filling people’s glasses. And it was really fun. (laughter) …I guess…

DeVorkin:

Do you remember any specific instances?

Wilson:

No, I don’t remember. Except this happened more than once to me, and I remarked on it to other people. And they said, “Yeah, well, that’s the way he operates.”

DeVorkin:

Would you say the Hale Observatories offices here could be described pretty much as the “upstairs” and “downstairs,” and they were very different in character?

Wilson:

Well, it wasn’t so much the upstairs -- partly upstairs and downstairs, because the spectroscopists were always upstairs, and the other guys were downstairs. But Baade made this remark one time to me, or maybe it was at the table on the mountain. “Ah,” he said, “those damned spectroscopists -- they don’t live. They just exist.” (laughs)

DeVorkin:

What were the differences?

Wilson:

Oh, the differences were that a lot of the spectroscopists, like Merrill and Joy and Sanford, were all staunch Republican conservative types. Drank very little if anything. I don’t think any of them drank at all, probably. Practically none of them smoked. Whereas Hubble was a smoker, Baade was a smoker as well as a drinker -- they just lived a more sophisticated life, I would say, than the guys up here. I’m sure it was an accidental situation, because while I lived with these guys, I drank and smoked and helled around. But not to the extent that I ever turned them off, you see. On the other hand, I could get along pretty well with the Baade-type guys, because I was not a Puritan.

DeVorkin:

If you had been would it have been difficult?

Wilson:

It would have been more difficult, yes.

DeVorkin:

That’s interesting. So he was a very boisterous person?

Wilson:

Well, not really boisterous, but he was sort of outgoing, and outspoken, and he liked good food and good drink and good conversation. He was just different from these more retiring types that lived upstairs. That’s true.

DeVorkin:

You didn’t mention Adams. Did he stay apart because he was director?

Wilson:

Well, Adams, of course, was an older guy. And, he was the Director. And he was an interesting fellow, too, because he was one of the tightest guys with a buck I ever ran across.

DeVorkin:

Was there good cause for that?

Wilson:

No. He just was a New Englander, you see, and he’d been brought up on all these New England thoughts of thrift: “don’t throw it away, use it up, wear it out, never buy a new one,” that sort of thing. Just by way of an example, at one time, the man who was the general maintenance fellow here was also a New Englander. His name was Beebe. He and Adams got along beautifully this way. And I remember seeing from my office one day, this guy had an old toilet seat which he was starting to refinish, and he apparently had no other job to do that day. He had this old toilet seat. In those days you could have bought one for a buck. He spent a whole day working out in the yard, first of all sanding this toilet seat, very carefully smoothing it up, then covering it with the proper coating, two or three coats of whatever he put on it. Well, this is typical, you see. This guy, of course, would be just extremely popular with Adams because Adams was that way, too. Well, I grew up somewhat that way, but not quite to that extreme. No, Adams was very kind to me at all times and I liked the old boy, but I realized that he had his little oddities -- as we all do.

DeVorkin:

Let me turn the tape over, and then let’s talk about the reorganization of the observatory after the war.

Wilson:

OK.

DeVorkin:

You worked in a number of different projects during the war. When did you come back to the observatory?

Wilson:

I came back to the observatory in January, 1946. I was away from here almost exactly four years. And I simply made no attempt to keep up with astronomy, or to come here, to talk to anybody. Well, I didn’t have much time on those jobs. It was amazing, we worked practically seven days a week, and it finally got to the point where, I remember, the administration down there said, “Look, everybody has got to take a vacation. And they have to take it. They can’t stay here and work. They have to take a vacation,” and they made everybody do it. Guys otherwise would work to make the extra dough. And people were just getting tired.

DeVorkin:

One point that I did mean to ask you about that period. You were married in 1943?

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

In the midst of all this?

Wilson:

That’s right. I met my wife down there at Cal Tech. She was secretary in the publications section. Well, they published for the proper people -- I mean, the guys on the list.

DeVorkin:

Right. So you hadn’t known her before?

Wilson:

No. I’ve often remarked, one good thing that Adolph Hitler did was to bring my wife and I together.

DeVorkin:

What was it like getting back into astronomy? After the four years?

Wilson:

Well, it was kind of funny, because in the meantime, we had just had a small daughter, who was born Christmas Eve before I came back to work, you see. So she was only a week old when I came back to the job. Do you have children?

DeVorkin:

Yes.

Wilson:

Well, you know what it’s like, with the first one particularly, and you’re an inexperienced parent, and they get you up at night, and all this stuff was going on at this time. And here I was going back to work, with a new director, whom I knew, fortunately.

DeVorkin:

Bowen was already director?

Wilson:

He took over the 1st of January, ‘46.

DeVorkin:

That was the transition.

Wilson:

That’s right. Actually Adams had stayed on a little longer than he would have because of the war, and they wanted to make the break after the war was over. Well, anyway, so what happened was, at first, I’d come to work, and we only lived a few blocks from here, so I could walk, but some of these days I’d come and I’d sit at my desk and I’d fall asleep. Once or twice, Bowen came in and shook me awake -- (laughter) but he was very nice about it. He understood what the problem was -- I’d been up with the kid the night before. Yes, 2 or 3 or 4 AM, whatever it was. Well, anyway, that, of course, was temporary. Otherwise, I thought it was just marvelous to get back. For four years every sheet of paper I’d seen had “Confidential” or “Secret” on it, and now, I could talk to anybody about anything that I wanted to, and they didn’t have stamps on the papers I saw, and it just felt great. I was delighted to be back.

DeVorkin:

Were you involved at all in the choice of the new director? Was there ever any discussion with the general staff?

Wilson:

No. No, and this is a very funny story, because these things were kept very secret. It was a secretive place in those days. I was working down there. By this time I was at the aircraft torpedo place, and Bob King’s father, Dr. Arthur E. King, the old boy who had been retired from his physics job here, was working there too. He was measuring some of the pictures of the projectiles. And anyway, he and I would pass the time of day occasionally, and on one occasion, he told me that Bowen was going to be the next director. So I said, “Well, gee, that’s fine.” And on the next opportunity when I was down at the campus I dropped in. Bowen was down there, and I said, “Congratulations.” And Ike looked at me. “What for?” I said, “I hear you’re the next director.” “How did you hear that?” Well, I told him how I heard that, you see. It was all right but he was just [cautious]. Then Merrill told me afterwards that he learned who the next director was going to be -- and this is the funny part -- from the truck driver. The guy who drove our truck, who talked to everybody and heard everything, knew before a prominent staff member who the next director was going to be. Well, that was one of the funny things about this place, you wouldn’t believe it. You probably won’t believe even if I tell you these things, but that’s how it was.

DeVorkin:

How did people feel about it who had been around for a while, like Merrill and Hubble? Were they interested in the directorship?

Wilson:

Well, now you’re getting onto a touchy point. I think that Hubble was disappointed. Now, I never talked to him about this. I wouldn’t. I didn’t know him that well. But I heard that he was, and I suspect that he was, because he was the big name in astronomy here. People like Merrill were pleased, because of course he had worked with Bowen, had a mutual interest in spectroscopy and so forth, so he was not at all put out about this. But I think Hubble probably was. I’m only saying, “Probably.” What I’ve heard. No direct evidence.

DeVorkin:

Usually we stick to what you yourself experience, but if there is something very important that might be considered hearsay, we still would like to know about it.

Wilson:

Sure.

DeVorkin:

And understand it as hearsay.

Wilson:

Sure. Well, I try to make it very plain, as in this case.

DeVorkin:

That’s fine. Now, you mentioned you had contact with Baade. What was the regard of the staff for Baade after World War II?

Wilson:

You mean, because he’s German?

DeVorkin:

Well, yes.

Wilson:

Oh, I don’t think there was any feeling against Baade at all. I never detected any. Baade had young relatives, nephews, in the German armed forces. I knew that. He told me that. Yes. And he was concerned about them. I never knew what happened, whether they came through or not. I don’t really know whether his sympathies were with Germany or not. He’s not the kind of a guy, I would think, who would be very fond of Adolph Hitler. On the other hand, he was a German. And the Germans could be pretty German at times.

DeVorkin:

He was definitely a German, as opposed to a German Jew?

Wilson:

Oh, he was not Jewish. No. But you see, his good friend, Rudolph Minkowski, whom he brought over here, was also not Jewish, but his wife was. And so they were refugees from Hitler, and they came here in ‘35. Baade got him to come over here, and then, I’m sure -- though here again, this is not personal knowledge -- worked on the administration and finally got him a job here. Because for a while, Rudolph didn’t have any job. But they were great friends. So I don’t think there was any anti-Semitism of that general type on Baade’s part. At all. I never saw any evidence of it. But, I mean, he could have. As a matter of fact, curiously enough, when the war started -- I talked to Rudolph about this -- Rudolph was not absolutely opposed to the war himself from the German standpoint. It was pretty clear that he felt that Germany had not had the best possible deal and maybe war was the only way. But I’m sure he didn’t maintain that feeling. Well, he’d been kicked out. Maybe he was hoping that Hitler would get his pants taken down. I don’t know. He didn’t make it clear. Could have been.

DeVorkin:

Once the war was over and the staff was back together again, was there no social boycotting or anything?

Wilson:

Oh, none that I know of at all. Certainly not. No, I never felt that way. I never saw any evidence that others felt that.

DeVorkin:

There were scientific differences though?

Wilson:

Oh, scientific differences, yes indeed. Those you always have. It makes life interesting.

DeVorkin:

How much did they pervade the daily life, the difference in philosophy between Baade and Hubble, that you saw?

Wilson:

They got along very well, actually. Yes. So far as I could tell. And every time I would be talking with Baade and he’d mention Hubble, he always did it with respect and so forth. No, to my knowledge, there was no feeling of antipathy there. They mutually respected each other.

DeVorkin:

What were the directions? What was your first faculty meeting or staff meeting like after getting back, with Bowen running the show?

Wilson:

This is going to amaze you: we didn’t have any.

DeVorkin:

Didn’t have any?

Wilson:

We had never had staff meetings before. This is one of the strange things. When Bowen came, there were no staff meetings. I thought maybe there would be, and I waited and waited -- no staff meetings. I saw a lot of Bowen when we were working together on the Palomar Coude, and we spent the whole first year dividing the observing. I spent a lot of time with Bowen, driving back and forth with him and down there at Palomar.

DeVorkin:

This is late forties?

Wilson:

This would be in the early fifties.

DeVorkin:

You’ll certainly want to talk about that.

Wilson:

Right. But just let me say this. So finally I said to him, “Why don’t we ever have a staff meeting? Gee, you know, it would be nice if we could get together and have a little agenda, and discuss things.” And he said, “Well,” -- now, this is typical of Bowen. He said, “You know, officially the observatory committee are my advisors. Now, suppose we had a staff meeting, and the staff voted differently than the observatory committee. What would I do?” Well, I felt like saying, “It’s obvious what you do. You’re the guy who makes the decisions. You make it.” But I couldn’t say that to him. And so we let it drop there. Several times I asked him about staff meetings. We never had any. He didn’t believe in them. Strange. We didn’t have a staff meeting until after Horace (Babcock) took over. Isn’t that odd?

DeVorkin:

That’s amazing.

Wilson:

Yes. So, you ask me what I thought at the first staff meeting -- that was a long time after the war until we had one! (laughter)

DeVorkin:

But there must have been a growing awareness of differences in direction. Did you start to think more about students and developing work? Did the war show you how to do big science, government funded science?

Wilson:

Well, yes and no. I think it did Bowen a great deal of good, because Bowen had been a poor boy country type guy from upstate New York, and most of his maturity had been in the twenties and during the Depression, and he was not about to throw money around. However, during the war, he had to throw some money around. He was in charge of all the photographic stuff on this whole project, and he designed the Bowen Camera and he had to get them built and so forth. And so he had to spend some money, and I think this did him good. I think if he’d had to take on the job of director without that experience, he would have had to learn to spend a little money and it would have taken him that much longer to do it. Well, now you ask about funding. You may remember that the president of the Carnegie Institution was Vannevar Bush, in those days. I met Bush several times, and found him a fascinating guy. I wish I’d seen more of him than I did. Anyway, Bush went through the war running the whole research operation for defense.

DeVorkin:

The NDRC?

Wilson:

NDRC. And when the war was over, I think due to his experiences there, he laid down a hard and fast rule that the Carnegie Institution was not to get any government money, because, he said, “If you take government money, in effect the government is going to tell you what to do, and we can live without it. We’ve gotten along fine, we have enough money -- so, no, you cannot.” So nobody could ask for money. Now, Bush retired about 1955, and Caryl Haskins took over. Well, after a year or two, it became apparent that this rule was being eased up, that people could start getting funding, but only in a small way. But by this time, everybody else had had experience at getting money, and we hadn’t. And so, what to do? Well, it happened that, in my own case, I think I only got a little money once, in a joint deal with Guido Munch. It was only $3000 or something. We got it from ONR. This was for the Orion Nebula stuff.

DeVorkin:

Right. I knew you were an advisor for ONR.

Wilson:

Yes. I was on their committee for about four years. But that was during the period when ONR was quite poor. In fact, at one of those meetings we went back there to bury ONR. It was going out of business.

DeVorkin:

Oh, this was after the Congressional amendment to make sure that research was supported by a nonmilitary organization?

Wilson:

I can’t now remember the reason. I’m not sure that that was the reason. But anyway, it was supposed to be that we were going to hold the obsequies for ONR.

DeVorkin:

Do you remember the date approximately?

Wilson:

This must have been around ‘55, ‘56, somewhere in there. Anyway, this meeting was duly held, and it turned out that the corpse was not quite dead. In fact, we were given to understand that it would be around at least another year. That’s why I served four years on the committee. Normally it would be three, but they weren’t going to appoint a new committee if the thing was going to die the next year, so we came back. Well, it revived and grew healthy again. But it only had like 50 thousand bucks a year. And six or eight guys would go back there to this committee meeting, and divide up this miserable little kitty.

DeVorkin:

You mean the entire funding or just for astronomy?

Wilson:

For astronomy. Oh, I don’t know what they had, we didn’t know about that, but for astronomy I think one year it was only 40 thousand. I mean, that’s not big dough for astronomy. However, we tried to do the best we could, and we always fought the universities and other places on the question of overhead, because we thought, with so few bucks, every damn buck ought to go for astronomy and hell, they could pay the janitor out of something else. We tried to make a rule, as I remember, to hold overhead to 10 percent. And we did for a while. But, of course, the explosion of funding just carried that away finally. I don’t know what happened. It’s long gone, I’m sure. Well, that’s about it. I haven’t thought about those days for some time. It’s kind of fun and illuminating, but again, it was a period of what I would consider not very lush funding, as far as astronomy is concerned, from the ONR.

DeVorkin:

Right. Certainly you were getting support from the Carnegie people.

Wilson:

Carnegie, yes. Carnegie was doing all right. You see, some time back in the thirties they had a problem. I remember this is just from reading in their Annual Reports. They had to go to the Carnegie Corporation and get, I think, five million bucks to help them out, to add it to their endowment. Then they seemed to do pretty well financially, up until the last few years. But if you know recent economics at all, you know that beginning about the middle sixties, from then until now, the old idea that you could make money in the market just by letting it rise, has gone by the board. It doesn’t work that way anymore. So at the present time, in recent years, there are hard times again. Well, anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

DeVorkin:

Yes. This is a question from after the war. I know that two staff members, Gustav Stromberg and Theodore Dunham, did not continue here after the war.

Wilson:

You want to know why?

DeVorkin:

Well, yes.

Wilson:

Well, as far as Stromberg was concerned, Adams told me that he himself had persuaded Stromberg to take an early retirement. I don’t think it was terribly early. A few years, maybe. And the reasons were fairly obvious. Stromberg was by that time fairly obsolete. I mean, he was not an astrophysicist ever. He was a statistical type guy, and by then I guess the statistics had been “statisticked” to death. And also, he had gone off on a Theosophical kick.

DeVorkin:

That’s what I’d heard.

Wilson:

Right. And while he was an awfully nice guy, I mean, he was a hell of a nice guy and everybody liked him, I think Adams felt that he was not going to pull his weight in astronomy around here, and that probably Bowen shouldn’t have to deal with this. This is my guess. He didn’t tell me that specifically, but he did tell me that he persuaded him to retire, and I think that’s probably the reason.

DeVorkin:

I see.

Wilson:

Now, Dunham came back and I think would have come back. Bowen told me about him. What did he tell me? I’m trying to remember. Well, I can’t remember it specifically, but the basic idea is that Bowen felt that Dunham would not be necessary from the instrumental standpoint because Bowen himself was here, and Bowen was a good instrumentalist and I think considered himself (I’m only guessing here) better than Dunham in the long run, which is probably true because Dunham had a great tendency to fuss and fiddle and never finish anything -- although he did some good things.

DeVorkin:

This was another feeling I had, that I wanted to ask you about, and this is as good a place as any, about Dunham’s characteristics. We talked to Dunham.

Wilson:

Oh, you have?

DeVorkin:

Yes.

Wilson:

Is he still in Australia or Tasmania or wherever he was?

DeVorkin:

He’s in Cambridge, usually, and he has a house up in New Hampshire.

Wilson:

I see. Is he in good health?

DeVorkin:

Well, he seems to be active. I can’t tell how good his health is but he’s certainly active. But I’ve heard, not from Dunham but from others, that his tinkering and his constant attention to improving instrumentation proved to be quite frustrating to people who wanted to use the instruments.

Wilson:

Well, I can give you an example of that. One time, I was going up to the 60-inch, and Adams was with me. He was going up to the 100-inch. And in due course, we encountered each other again on the mountain that day, and Adams was absolutely fit to be tied. He said, in effect -- these were not his words, but in effect, what I would have said -- “That God damn son of a bitch,” he said, “has taken the slit of the spectrograph down to Pasadena!” (laughter) And he was just boiling. So what he did, I think, if I remember correctly, is that he called up Dunham and said, “Get the hell up here and bring me the slit.” Well, that’s just a little incident. It was the kind of thing that could happen with Dunham. Dunham had all the good intentions in the world, and he had some good ideas, but nothing was ever good enough, and he never would leave it alone. I mean, you had to chop him off and say, “Look, go away -- we’re going to use it.”

DeVorkin:

OK. That fits and makes sense. As far as why he was leaving here, was his interest in medical research also involved?

Wilson:

That was part of it. That was part of it, although I had the feeling from Bowen that he would have come back, if Bowen had encouraged it.

DeVorkin:

I see. OK.

Wilson:

But I can’t be more specific than that.

DeVorkin:

OK. Well, you certainly had a publishing gap between ‘42 and ‘46.

Wilson:

Well, I was writing crummy reports for rocketeers.

DeVorkin:

Right, but then when you got back into it, post-World War II, you worked on a lot of spectroscopic problems again, but more on planetary nebulae.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Especially this seemed to culminate in a big paper in 1950, “A Survey of Internal Motions of the Planetary Nebula,” [14] which has been highly cited.

Wilson:

That’s right. Well, that was the first modern one. You’ve got to remember one thing, that the internal motion in the planetaries up to that time depended all on that Lick volume of 1918 by Campbell and Moore. And in fact, I remember as a young guy looking in that thing, “Gee, these guys have done it all.” Well, as I realized what a modern Coude spectrograph could do, compared to what they had, I thought: “My God, they barely scratched the surface.” So I became interested, during the war actually, in thinking about this and trying it when I came back, and I did, and it was highly successful and quite interesting. I put in about three or four years on that, I guess, something like that.

DeVorkin:

That 1950 paper was considered to be a preliminary work?

Wilson:

Yes. You mean the survey?

DeVorkin:

The survey, yes.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, I had some plans that, for example, as things got better, going to the planetaries of low surface brightness. Well, I never actually did much on that. I did get some plates at Palomar later, and they were measured, but I never published anything on them. I should have.

DeVorkin:

You found that the velocity of expansion of the gas could be determined from the hydrogen and helium lines, and this does not seem to have been previously known. Or do I have it wrong?

Wilson:

Well, I think the point is that with Campbell and Moore, mostly all they ever got was the oIII, NI and NII (N1 and N2) lines.

DeVorkin:

The chief nebular lines.

Wilson:

The chief nebular lines, because those are brightest, and with their equipment, that just about did it. Whereas here I could get a range of particles and excitation and ionization potentials, you see. And you could see that there was a relationship between spatial distribution in the nebulae and the ionization and the velocity, that made sense.

DeVorkin:

Yes.

Wilson:

But it just hadn’t been done before because nobody with modern equipment had done it. But in those days, too, you’ve got to remember that the only modern equipment basically was here. In the sense of spectrographs. McDonald had come along, they had one by then, but they hadn’t had much time to use it, you see.

DeVorkin:

Part of it was your own responsibility in producing the Coude spectrograph, on the 200-inch, that you worked on in the late forties.

Wilson:

Well, I didn’t do much. He (Bowen) turned over to me the design of the slit end of it. He did all the optics. He was very good at this. In fact, a guy as good as Bowen can be both a blessing and the opposite. And the reason he’s a blessing, because he can do all these things. But he’s the opposite because his talents discourage anybody else from spending any time and trying to do the kind of things he does. And good as he is, nobody’s perfect. See what I mean? Other guys could have done perhaps some things better than Bowen, but nobody wanted to try, because it was normally a losing game.

DeVorkin:

Were you interested yourself?

Wilson:

Not really. I would occasionally make a suggestion to him, and he would generally tell me where I was wrong, and I thought: “Oh hell, I’ll go and observe.”

DeVorkin:

Right. Did anybody else have the same experience or felt suppressed?

Wilson:

I don’t want you to say “suppressed.” I wasn’t suppressed at all. Bowen never would discourage anybody from trying. It just seemed that, with a guy of his caliber, unless you were very lucky, you weren’t going to win the ball game. So why try? At least that was my feeling. No, I don’t think so, I can’t recall anybody. He was just acknowledged to be tops in that sort of thing. And he loved doing it. So everybody said, “Fine, we’ve got a good guy, let him do it, we’ll do something else.”

DeVorkin:

Around 1950 or thereabouts, the ApJ went through a big change, and also, the observatory here was encouraged more to publish in the ApJ than it had in the past.

Wilson:

Well, no, I think we’ve always published mostly in the ApJ. Well, the major papers.

DeVorkin:

The referee procedure had been changing. Up to that point, a paper had to be accepted by a local referee here.

Wilson:

That’s right. And for many years, F. H. Seares was the local referee. Then when he left, Paul Merrill was. Or perhaps they had a separate one for the cosmology types. I’m not sure. But certainly in spectroscopy, Merrill was for a while.

DeVorkin:

Could you describe how that system worked?

Wilson:

Well, it just worked. I mean, you wrote your stuff and you gave it to Merrill, or maybe the typist passed it on to Seares if it was his day, I don’t remember just how, and then you got it back. He came with it, most likely, and said, “Well, look, this isn’t very clear. Shouldn’t this read so and so?” And I found that guys like that all have certain little ways of expressing things and little words that they like. And if you write it differently, they want you to do it their way. Well, it’s much simpler, since their way is OK, nothing wrong with it. Just don’t argue with them. Do it their way. Then, as Merrill said, “You know, what happens in that case is that all papers that come out of this place sound like they were written by the same guy.” (laughs)

DeVorkin:

When did he say that?

Wilson:

Oh, I don’t remember. On one occasion. Well, it was true, because this is while Seares was doing it, I think. And Seares did have these rigid little idiosyncrasies. He liked “relationship” instead of “relation” so it had to be relationship.” That’s one I remember. A number of them. So anyway, they all did have these characteristic signs of editing.

DeVorkin:

Did Merrill change that or did he have his own?

Wilson:

Oh, he had his own little idiosyncrasies, sure. Everybody does. I don’t think he was as rigid as Seares.

DeVorkin:

When it did change over, when the required external referees, how did things change here, as far as deciding what papers would be published? Was there any internal refereeing that was maintained?

Wilson:

I can’t give you a good answer to that. There was some. There have been some cases where the director took a hand and didn’t want certain things published. But I cannot recall that he ever succeeded in stifling this altogether. My own procedure, and that of most of my colleagues, has always been, when I was writing a major paper for ApJ or even a minor paper, I gave it to some guy here. My friend George Preston, for example, read my last paper. I asked him, “George, read this critically, will you please.” And he did and he gave me two pages of little suggestions for modifications and improvements. Well, some of them I agreed with him on and I adopted them. Some others I didn’t. I liked my way better. And I said, you know, “What about the science? Do you see anything wrong with it?” No, he didn’t see anything wrong with it. That’s the main thing. If I split an infinitive, that’s my business. But if I say something wrong in science, I want to know about it. But most of the guys around here do that. It’s very helpful to have someone that you know, who knows what you’re doing or trying to do, read your stuff, because you can read over the same damn thing two or three times -- I’ve had this experience -- and you just slide over some little thing that ought to be changed as you’ve written it. Well, now, to answer your question as to internal refereeing, as far as I know it just went out. But like I say, there have been times when I’ve been told by other staff members that the director didn’t like what they did. I won’t go into that.

DeVorkin:

Oh, you could if you wish.

Wilson:

I could. Well, Halton Arp is one of them. I mean, Horace has complained to Arp two or three times about things that he has written, because Arp tends to be a little bit of a far out guy. We’re getting away from my field here. But Arp is a kind of [a special case]. I’m a fairy godfather, because when Arp was coming out here as a student in the late forties, I got a letter from my old friend, Freddie Whipple. Freddie had been a graduate student at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate. But we took some courses together and I got pretty well acquainted with Freddie. And he went back to Harvard. This letter, as I recall, said, “Now we’re sending out a young man by the name of Arp, and would you just sort of keep an eye on him?” I wrote back and said, “Sure, I’ll keep an eye on him.” Well, it turned out -- “Chip” didn’t know about this -- years later, I told him, “Look, I’m your fairy godfather, didn’t you know that?” I told him about this letter I’d had from Freddie.

DeVorkin:

That’s the kind of letter we’d like to see.

Wilson:

Well, I may have it stowed away somewhere. If I, some day when I get real desperate for something to do, I’ll go through all these old letters, and any entertaining or interesting ones, I’ll send them to you. I save most of my letters and they are probably full of trivia, because I was writing to friends about this, that and the other. Once in a while there’d be some science in there, but nothing that I can remember that’s spectacular. But now you’re getting me interested in it. I saved all those damn letters, and maybe someday I will look through them and see what’s in there. Just to satisfy my own curiosity.

DeVorkin:

You mentioned, you wrote to other spectroscopists, let’s say.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

So would you have correspondence with Struve, beyond the job offer and that sort of thing?

Wilson:

Yes, some. But I would write to people like Whitford, who was a personal friend, although we were in different fields. I corresponded with Gerry Kron, again different fields but a personal friend, and then letters with other guys whom maybe I didn’t know personally but would write to me and want to know something, and I would write back and so forth, that sort of thing.

DeVorkin:

Yes, well, that is all important. Let’s say, taking the possibility that through the fifties, when other large telescopes were being contemplated, and the only real instrumentation for large instruments was here, you must have gotten some queries and questions from friends as to how to go about designing something.

Wilson:

Well, yes. And if I did I’d say, “Write to Ike Bowen.” Which they would generally do. I’ve said that to a number of people, whether they wanted to build telescopes or instruments. I remember back in 1965, I was back at Harvard for something, some kind of a meeting, John Jeffries, who is now at Hawaii, was then in Colorado, and he had just succeeded in getting money for a telescope for Hawaii. We had a long walk and a long conversation. He wanted to know what to do, and I said, “Well, John, what you do is obvious. You go and call on Ike Bowen, who, if he doesn’t know, will tell you who does.” And he did and Bowen set him straight, because Bowen knew all the engineers and all the guys who built telescopes. He was just a compendium.

DeVorkin:

Let’s say in a situation, with your first paper on the Wilson-Bappu Effect, and in any situation where you’re talking about an observation which is possible with other telescopes, but is at the limit of smaller telescopes and instrumentation -- and yet is such an important technique for determining luminosities. You must have had a lot of correspondence asking for data or advice.

Wilson:

Oh yes. I have had. And telling me what an idiot I was.

DeVorkin:

Really?

Wilson:

Oh yes. I remember in that particular case, I think it was that paper, I was sent a referee’s report by Chandra who was then the editor, and this referee, whoever it was, I never found out, was very amusing because he took the point that I had no business doing this because it could only be done on a large telescope. So I wrote back to Chandra (Chandrasekhar) and I said, “Certainly, and it said so in the paper. This referee evidently thinks I’m doing something nefarious here. This is absurd.” And I went on, sent all this back and didn’t change anything in the paper, and Chandra just went ahead and published it -- as he should have, because these were childish comments, I thought.

DeVorkin:

Someone was accusing you of not using a large telescope?

Wilson:

Of using a large telescope, so the method wasn’t really very valuable because unless you had a large telescope, you couldn’t do it -- you see? That kind of dumb argument. In my opinion.

DeVorkin:

That’s incredible. I never heard of anything like that.

Wilson:

I didn’t either. And I so wrote to Chandra. And I guess he didn’t think much of it either, because he went ahead and published the paper without further ado.

DeVorkin:

Carrying through just on this one theme, the Wilson-Bappu Effect. How did you go about strengthening the relationship? What directions did you take in trying to substantiate it theoretically? I know that at one point you wrote a paper with Fred Hoyle. [15]

Wilson:

That’s right. I got Fred interested in it. Again, he put my name on it, but he did all the theory. Well, I don’t know whether there’s any truth in it. This is just one of the many attempts that have been made to account for this damn thing. My own feeling at the present time is that nobody’s really got to the bottom of it, and that the bottom of it may be very complicated. (phone interruption)

DeVorkin:

This is after a pause for lunch, and continuation of discussion of the Wilson-Bappu Effect.

Wilson:

OK. Right.

DeVorkin:

You just started talking about Fred Hoyle’s work.

Wilson:

Oh yes. Fred came here that year [1959] and he didn’t seem to have anything very urgent on his mind, and I got him interested in this problem. And he did take an interest in it, and came up with the theoretical discussion that is in that paper. But as I say, I think it is just one of the many attempts that is probably incomplete. And my own feeling is that the whole thing still has to be explained in a logical fashion, including the fine structure that is seen on the sun -- which has been neglected, so far as I know, by all of the theoreticians who have worked on this.

DeVorkin:

You mentioned Mihalis is about the only one who noted it.

Wilson:

Yes. He thinks we ought to face the facts.

DeVorkin:

Do you feel still that this is a turbulence effect in the convection zones?

Wilson:

Well, I certainly have a suspicion that it must be related to the convection zone, which seems to run all of these things that we see on the surface -- the granulation, and probably the chromosphere also. If I were smart enough to do this, I would do it. I’m just not smart enough. I don’t know enough theory. And as I say, I suspect that it’s a rather complicated problem.

DeVorkin:

A year before Hoyle collaborated with you on it, you did write a short paper on theory. [16]

Wilson:

Yes. Well, that was, as I recall, a discussion of not really theory, but it was a discussion of different widening mechanisms. Leo Goldberg had suggested abundance broadening. I can’t remember now what I put in that paper, but I tried to establish some kind of reasonable limitations on some of these things.

DeVorkin:

Right. But you definitely feel no headway really has been made on it?

Wilson:

I don’t think so. I think the whole thing must lie in this fine structure. We have to understand that, I believe, before we understand what you see when it’s all integrated. That’s my feeling about it.

DeVorkin:

Other than Mihalis, do you feel that there’s anyone around capable of getting interested in it?

Wilson:

Oh, there have been a lot of people interested in it. I’ve probably gotten, particularly from Europeans, something like half a dozen preprints of papers. But they all use basically the same procedures -- that is, the equation of transfer and so forth. And they all come up with a reasonable reproduction of what you see in the integrated light. But I don’t take an awful lot of stock in it, because, when you examine it in detail it doesn’t look like that.

DeVorkin:

Right. That changes things completely. Would you say that most of your work since then, even to the point of your very detailed work on the chromosphere, is pretty much related to this study of reversals?

Wilson:

Yes. Since the mid-fifties, I’ve done virtually nothing else. But you see, the subject is a fascinating one, in this way. Chromospheres, while they don’t account to anything in terms of mass compared to the rest of the star, contain a tremendous amount of information. And you can use the information, if you can calibrate it or otherwise squeeze it out, even if you don’t know why it works. For example, from the width you get the luminosities. From the variations in the intensity, you get things like cycles, which I have now gotten in other stars.

DeVorkin:

Cycles?

Wilson:

Cycles; analoges of the solar cycle. And that’s the last paper on that list, which will come out in December, this year (1978). On the last page, at the bottom. [17]

DeVorkin:

Page 9, “Chromosphere variations in Main Sequence Stars.”

Wilson:

Right. Right.

DeVorkin:

That has not been published yet.

Wilson:

No, it’s in progress. And then also, in the case of Main Sequence stars, the intensity is a function of the age. There seems to be absolutely no doubt about that now and people accept it, and so, these little appendages of stars, you might say, tenuous and not significant in any other way, have all of these bits of information in them.

DeVorkin:

You started the chromosphere work -- finding the age dependence of chromosphere activity -- around 1963, ‘64.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

You’ve been, at that point, on really what looks like very detailed calibration work -- did it lead up to that? I’m thinking primarily of your work on the color-magnitude diagram for late-type stars. You started in 1959.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, that, of course, was from the widths.

DeVorkin:

That’s right, but you were also getting turn-off ages at that point.

Wilson:

Well, you can get them, yes.

DeVorkin:

Is that a by-product?

Wilson:

It was a by-product, yes. It seemed to me that, since the method seemed to work, it ought to be exploited and used. And of course I was in a prime position to use it because I had the necessary equipment. I could get the observing time. And I knew more about the details of it than anybody else, having started the damn thing.

DeVorkin:

Through this period in the mid-fifties, Sandage went through what he refers to as the “unknown part of his career,” working on color-magnitude diagrams.

Wilson:

That’s right. He did a great deal of that.

DeVorkin:

You did use some of his colors?

Wilson:

That’s right. Well, that’s done in that more recent paper[18] of 1976, which is “Absolute Magnitudes of Stars from Widths of Chromosphere Call, emission lines.” I spent a lot of time and I had over 700 of them, so that the color-magnitude diagram is pretty detailed in that. And I did the same thing there that I’d done previously, used his measures of NGC 188, which is the oldest cluster that he knew about. I found that his measures on the cluster fit very nicely the lower bound of the field stars, which means that the ages are essentially the same. Not an exciting result, but it would have been exciting if there had been a big difference. One way or the other.

DeVorkin:

Any time you can get an age it seems like, especially for the intermediate populations, like NGC 188, you’ve got a very important problem there, especially for galaxy evolution.

Wilson:

Oh yes. And the field work, you see, then gives you some idea of ages, or could if you had a complete sample. Distribution of ages in the field population.

DeVorkin:

Right. Now, you compared the Hyades to the field population in a ‘59 paper[19] on the calibration against the sun and yellow giants in the hyades?

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And then you went on in ‘62 and compared colors and spectra of late type Main Sequence stars, between the Hyades and field stars, and you found that the Hyades were far more chemically uniform. [20]

Wilson:

No. I didn’t do abundance things. I was concerned there with using the Hyades and the Pleiades and the sun as age discriminants. DeVorkin Oh, I see, OK.

Wilson:

And those were the three things we knew or thought we knew reasonably well. And then, you see, getting field stars -- these were all done by eye estimates so they weren’t highly accurate, but plenty good to separate the sheep from the goats -- you can pick out stars with ages like the Hyades and so forth, and you find that most of the stars are much older than that, they have weaker emission, for a given spectral class.

DeVorkin:

You discussed primarily the scatter plotting, Mt. Wilson spectral types against Eggen’s colors, and Yerkes colors, and then you turned to the Hyades for calibration. This is 1962. You found a better correlation for the Hyades, and then you suggested that this was because they were chemically purer than field stars. You invoked the Vogt-Russell theorem at that point. I was wondering if this was an empirical way to get at the Vogt-Russell theorem?

Wilson:

The Vogt-Russell theorem, of course, has come under criticism. There’s a paper by (John) Faulkner which says it’s completely baloney.

DeVorkin:

That’s very recent?

Wilson:

Yes, John Faulkner, a more recent paper. But I was brought up to believe that it was, and it seemed to me from reading it in Russell, Dugan and Stewart, [21] which was an early Bible of mine, that indeed it was probably true. And so I was making use of that. That would imply that if you ordered the Main Sequence stars, they would all lie like beads on a wire. But that is apparently not so. Well, there are differences, in metallic abundance and things like that, in things WC call Main Sequence stars.

DeVorkin:

But I think they were talking about orders of magnitude?

Wilson:

Well, for orders of magnitudes it’s still true. Right.

DeVorkin:

In calibrating your scale, of course, there was that rather difficult period of time when there was some confusion over the calibration, brought about by the 1966 papers by Hodge and Wallerstein.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

I was quite interested at that time. I’d just graduated at that time, but I thought that was a very significant paper; whether it be right or wrong, it got everybody really working on calibration.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

How did you react to it? How did you hear about the paper first, and how did you react to it?

Wilson:

Oh, either they sent me a paper or it came out in the ASP. I can’t remember which. They probably sent me a copy. And my feeling was that they were, in that original paper, putting a little too much weight on very few objects. And it stimulated me to look into the trig parallax business, and my treatment of the trig parallaxes and my widths led to essentially the same calibration that I’d gotten from Hyades and the sun. But then you see, following that, more people got working on the Hyades, “Is van Bueren’s modulus correct?” and so forth. And the latest work that I know of is by Hansen at Lick, who used the automatic measuring machine and got, from that work, as I recall 4/10 of a magnitude bigger modulus than van Bueren, which I thought was rather big.

DeVorkin:

4/10 was the original correction that Hodge and Wallerstein wanted.

Wilson:

Well, yes.

DeVorkin:

From about 3.6 to 4.0. But I haven’t heard that it was that big?

Wilson:

Yes, Hansen got .4 of a magnitude from his own work. But then he backed off from that, and took the mean of other things and came out with something like .3. Well, no, none of this bothered me at all, because I wasn’t defining the distance of the Hyades at any time. I was merely a customer. I was using it as a calibrating point, and always said, “Well, if these guys would get together and really find out what it is -- fine. I don’t care one way or the other.” And in that paper on the luminosities, I provide a little table whereby, if you don’t like the present luminosity, you can calculate from the entries for the luminosities that I give, the correction for moving it by a tenth of a magnitude out to four-tenths bigger.

DeVorkin:

That was the 1976 paper? [22]

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

I didn’t look at that one, but that’s an interesting indication of the stage of the game. In other words, you’re really, at this point, you have to say: “We have to wait and see what the calibration is.”

Wilson:

That’s right. You see, since there is no theoretical basis. Ideally, let’s live for a moment in an ideal world, you would have a theory which would enable you to compute precisely the shape and the width of these lines for a given luminosity, surface temperature, any other parameter you want to put in. And then you wouldn’t have to calibrate it. You’d have it directly from theory. But we don’t have that. So the only thing you can do is some kind of empirical calibration from something else. And as far as the tests of it are concerned, it’s not easy to make tests of the method. In the first paper that Bappu and I wrote, I did some of that by looking at binary stars, and they all checked out very well. I mean, the difference in apparent magnitudes which you got from a straightforward luminosity measures agreed very well with what I got from the difference in line widths. But there weren’t too many of them, you see.

DeVorkin:

They had to be relatively late.

Wilson:

Yes, they were all late-type stars, that’s right. But of course, in that case the actual distance of the object didn’t matter. You were only dealing with differences. For example, one of them was gamma Leonis, as I remember. It agreed very, very well, within a tenth of a magnitude or so, whether you take the observed apparent luminosity, or the thing calculated from the widths. So as far as it goes, the tests seem to me to be very reasonable. But they didn’t go as far as I’d like, but it isn’t easy. I got a letter from a guy in South Africa the other day, wanting to know something about that, and I said, “Well, you just do the best you can. It’s not an easy matter.”

DeVorkin:

Who was that?

Wilson:

Not a guy that I remember the name of. I get a considerable amount of mail. I think this is it. South Africa, the guy’s name is Dean, John Dean. (laughs) Famous name. I don’t know who he is.

DeVorkin:

How do you feel the problem with calibrations is going to be aided in the future? What kind of instrumentation do you feel is going to be most helpful?

Wilson:

Gee, I don’t know. I’ve thought some about this. I’ve wondered if some of the satellite business would ever develop into astrometric measures, really a lot better than what we can do on the surface? You eliminate the seeing problem and so forth. If that were true, would it ever be possible to get really good parallaxes for some of these objects? But I don’t know whether that’s in the cards or not. I don’t know what you can expect from astrometry out there.

DeVorkin:

Well, I talked to Bill van Altena and he’s hoping that the space telescope will provide an order of magnitude increase in the accuracies of parallaxes, within the range already measured.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

He’s more interested in refining parallaxes that have already been measured, rather than going farther out and producing crude parallaxes of more distant objects. How do you feel about that kind of a choice?

Wilson:

Well, I’ll refer you to a paper in the ANNUAL REVIEWS OF ASTRONOMY in 1966 by S. Vasilevskis. That is a paper that I’ve recommended to a number of my correspondents that they should read, because Vasilevskis takes a very critical view of parallaxes. Have you ever read it?

DeVorkin:

I’ve read it, a long time ago.

Wilson:

Well, he points out the actual skullduggery that went on at one time, in which people attempted to get the same value that they got at Allegheny because Allegheny was under the control of a pretty good guy, Schlesinger, and things like that. Then he has another little table in there; some Russian, I’ve forgotten which one, recommended a list of stars that should be re-observed, and he gives this little table of the original observations, and what they got when they re-measured them. And there are a half a dozen cases where they should never have re-measured them: it got worse instead of better. And at the end of that paper, he has a statement which, I think, all people should read before they ever look up a parallax in a catalogue, and it goes something like this. He says, “Undoubtedly there is a lot of valuable information in these parallaxes,” that is the trig, parallax, but, he said, “It should be treated with great caution.” And he winds up by stating, “Only parallaxes bigger than 15/100 of a second should be treated as really reliable.” Now, 15/100 of a second is next door. So, he himself is not suffering from any illusions about the parallaxes. And indeed if you go through the parallax catalogue, as I’ve done on many occasions, looking things up, and you look on the right hand page where they list not the final value, which is on the left hand page, but on the right hand page they give you the value from different places. And you look at the range. Sometimes from a lot of measures from reputable observatories there are factors of 2 or even worse sometimes in the parallaxes. It’s terrible. So as far as using them for precise calibration [is concerned] I’m quite dubious about it.

DeVorkin:

That’s very true about parallaxes. But let’s say in the case of the Hyades, you had more than parallaxes. You had the cluster motion to work on.

Wilson:

That’s right. That’s why I used them as the calibrating point. It seemed to me they were the best we had in giants, and indeed it was good. I mean, the changes, if any, that are coming about are a few tenths of a magnitude.

DeVorkin:

Which is small.

Wilson:

Which is small for parallaxes. In fact, if you look up the parallaxes, and there are published trigometric parallaxes of the Hyades stars, they show a big range. And so there you are. Well, that whole problem is a very difficult one, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, how it can be improved. One thing, of course, one big improvement would be if the theoreticians could show that the precision really is good. Even if they couldn’t come up with a theoretical formula that would give it to you, if they could demonstrate that [for the Wilson-Bappu Effect] it would help a great deal. But I don’t know whether anybody will do that.

DeVorkin:

The idea being that once they can decide on a reasonable mechanism, a rational argument, it may turn out to be something which varies within certain limits, in a star.

Wilson:

Yes. It may be a function not only of the mass, which is the main thing that determines luminosity, but other things, surface temperature and what not, in ways that we don’t know. At the present time, indeed from the paper of Bappu and myself, it appears that there is no relationship with surface temperature, because we had a range of spectral types from the early G’s to H and they all lay, as far as one could tell, intermingled on this plot. So I don’t think there can be any big effects. It’s things like that that gave me a feeling of considerable confidence in the overall thing. But if you were to ask me: “Suppose your measures were perfect, neglect measuring error how good are they?” I couldn’t tell you. I would hope they’re good to within one or two tenths of a magnitude, but I’m only guessing. From all of this somewhat indirect evidence.

DeVorkin:

I’m aware that there certainly are many other elements that could come into it, producing the lines in the first place and that sort of thing, including rotation.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

And that was something that you’d worked on, from the beginning.

Wilson:

Right. That’s something you have to worry about.

DeVorkin:

How well do you think rotation has been eliminated in each particular case?

Wilson:

Well, with the general consistency, when you can check it against, for example, the Yerkes standards, which were my first calibration, indicates that it’s not a serious matter. I would not expect it to be very serious in the giants. The giants certainly must be slow rotaters. But I mean, you could have two or three kilometers per second there, and it could differ by that much, which would be, I don’t know what it would be, one or two tenths of a magnitude, I suppose.

DeVorkin:

It could be.

Wilson:

Yes. Just from that cause.

DeVorkin:

So really, this is probably one of the most sensitive criteria, describing the spectrum of a star. I mean, once you get at the reversal, there’s got to be some sort of a second order or third order phenomenon which is very, very sensitive.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, in the ‘76 paper, I pointed out the fact that there’s a big disagreement, in a lot of stars, between my values and what you estimate from λ 4077.

DeVorkin:

Yes, the lines.

Wilson:

The line strength. Strontium II. And that was called to my attention by Phil Keenan, whom I think I mention in there, on one particular star, “something” Cygni, and it set me off to looking at that. So I very carefully estimated λ 4077 in the whole plate collection and plotted it and in a rough sort of way the λ 4077 and my absolute magnitudes form a roughly linear progression, except there’s a big bulge of stars between roughly +2 and -2, which have much stronger 4077’s than they should have. Then I took the tops off that distribution and the one out where the stars are really bright, and compared the proper motions, and I found that the mean proper motions for about 30 odd stars in each group were such that it would mean that my values from the K line are roughly the right order of magnitude, and the 4077 was just giving the wrong answer. And Keenan is convinced of that too, now. And of course, that is an s-process thing. In fact, I even went so far as to take special plates of a pair of those stars, one of which had strong λ 4077 and the other one didn’t, and I found indeed that all the s-process element lines are weak mostly, and then you look carefully and see if they’re stronger in the star with the strong 4077. But the line widths give the same luminosity. So I think it’s better than that particular kind of criterion.

DeVorkin:

Yes. It’s obvious that you can go back to those spectral criteria for a check.

Wilson:

Yes. You cannot use them just blindly.

DeVorkin:

That’s fascinating. What other surprises did you come up with, since you began doing this study?

Wilson:

Oh, no surprises that I can think of. The reason I wrote that paper, I decided as I approached retirement that I wanted to do things that I had got my hand into, that I knew how to do, and could probably complete in the time I had left, and there were two of them. One was to get the luminosities for this whole bunch of stars, and the other was this business on the cycles, which I began actually in 1966. My last observations were a year ago this month. So, it’s just time, I just made it.

DeVorkin:

How involved did you get with that? I didn’t follow your work with that too much in determining various stellar cycles and solar cycles, that sort of thing. Could you describe it for me?

Wilson:

Well, yes. This was all on Main Sequence stars, and I had 91 of them all together. These covered the Main Sequence from the place where such emissions become prominent, which is about F 5, down the Main Sequence, and the lowest one was one M 2 star, the brightest available red dwarf on the Main Sequence. They get faint down at the lower end. Well, I found that fluctuations are practically universal. But the first actual cycle I came to was a G 2 star. And then as I got later and later, cycles appeared more and more frequently, because the lines are more prominent as you go down there because they’re competing with the continuum. The continuum goes down because as the stars get cooler, the lines become more prominent, and you can measure them easier anyway. But oh, I’ve had probably eight or nine, maybe ten stars that show actual cycles; essentially completed cycles. I have a number of others in which they’re probably cyclical but the time wasn’t enough to complete one cycle.

DeVorkin:

Can you calculate how much energy there is in each of these emission cycles? Compared to the energy output of the star itself?

Wilson:

Energy in the cycle, how do you mean?

DeVorkin:

What fraction of the (energy) output of the star in these cycles? How much does the entire energy output of the star vary?

Wilson:

Oh, I would say it’s utterly trivial, because I’m just measuring the calcium in the chromosphere. Like in the sun. I mean, Abbott worked for years trying to find, you know, an overall energy change with the cycle.

DeVorkin:

That’s what I mean.

Wilson:

No. I don’t. Well, no, I haven’t made any calculations. However, in some of those stars, the amplitude is so big that if people are concerned with this -- and the weather guys are, for example -- there would be good stars in which to look for it, because you’d presumably amplify all of these things, you see. But no, that was beyond the scope of my effort.

DeVorkin:

Sure. But it is the sort of thing that you’d naturally think about, especially with John Eddy’s recent work.

Wilson:

That’s right. And in fact, some of the people at Boulder are quite interested in this business.

DeVorkin:

Who?

Wilson:

Well, they had a meeting there a while ago, and produced a volume called THE SOLAR OUTPUT. I think that was it.

DeVorkin:

That 1976 paper you’re referring to was basically mechanisms of solar activity.

Wilson:

Here we are. “The Solar Output and Its Variation” they sent me that. And Eddy has a chapter in there, because I’ve seen his stuff before. This is not my work, this is theirs. But they are interested in it, and they refer somewhere in there, some of them, to what I was doing. They were aware of it. In fact, they were quite interested, I think. I’ve had some correspondence with them, Dick White in particular was the editor of that volume. They were, six months ago, interested in setting up a very large project to study the solar output in detail, in all its ramifications, and see what they could do with weather. Well, they are also, and I think very properly so, interested in seeing what you could learn from stars. And now that I’ve demonstrated that there are cycles, it’s up to the next generation to carry on these things, further studies.

DeVorkin:

In this little dedication Orin White gave to you in the front, he wrote in there: [This is O. R. White, The Solar Output and Its Variation] “Have a look at page 335, Figure 6. Bill and I have three years of solar data on the K index.” You can see it there.

Wilson:

Yes. Well, it turns out that I anticipated those guys, because I observed the sun, by means of observing the moon, from 1966 on, with a gap in it. I went over the top of the solar maximum, and then I quit for a while, and I started again in 1975 and went through the minimum. And I locate the minimum quite precisely. That is, if you look at a plot of the Zurich data and my stuff, and by God -- of course mine is much more scattered than the Zurich which is every day, mine would be once a month with luck, a few a month -- I found the minimum just about where Zurich finds it. And then I had the amplitude and so forth. I did that to make sure that what I was doing would indeed, I hoped, be able to distinguish the solar cycle. If I was going to find cycles in stars, somebody was going to say, “Why the hell didn’t you look at the sun?” So I outwitted them and looked at the sun. (laughter) And it turns out that because of the fact that the solar chromosphere is a rather feeble one, and the sun is a relatively early type, the observed amplitude is really quite small. It isn’t very big. It goes from like .175, let us say, at the top, to .163 at the bottom, so that’s .01. I observe the flux in a one angstrom band at the center of the line. And so you’re getting, in that one angstrom band, not only the chromosphere itself, but you’re also getting the residual photospheric flux at the absorption line center, which would be there if there were no chromosphere. And that, in the case of the sun, predominates, so that the variation that you get is rather small. So if you make a rough approximation at correcting that, then you find that the amplitude is more like 40 percent or 50 percent in the chromosphere part itself. And that agreed pretty well with the determination made by Neal Sheeley on the preceding cycle. He worked from calcium spectroheliograms that were made here, and so, we’re in the same ball park. Neither of the approximations can claim 1 percent accuracy, of course, or probably even 10 percent. But he got 50 percent and I got 40 or the other way around.

DeVorkin:

That is beginning to tie up the whole thing observationally, bringing it into a package. You’re correlating solar activity, stellar activity, cycles, the emission, everything is coming together.

Wilson:

Right. And this is why the solar guys are beginning to take an interest, which they never used to do, in observing the sun in integrated light. Because hell, I mean, they get a great big image of the sun and all kinds of fascinating stuff, so they focus on in little details. Now they realize that to tie the sun in to what you can do with stars, you’ve got to have integrated observations. And that’s what this reference is to. They’re doing that. And they’ll probably continue that now, and there are two guys here who are carrying on the stellar work, George Preston and Art Vaughan. So I’ve referred all of these people who write to me about these things for future work “you write to these two guys.”

DeVorkin:

Now, Preston came here relatively recently. Ten years ago?

Wilson:

He came here in ‘68. Yes. Ten years ago.

DeVorkin:

It seemed to be rather an interesting trade. Now that we’re talking about this, he came and (Robert) Kraft went to Santa Cruz.

Wilson:

Kraft went first.

DeVorkin:

Kraft went first? Then George Preston came?

Wilson:

Yes. Kraft went first, and he always told me one of the reasons was, he liked George so much and he was happy to go up there and have George as a colleague, you see. And then George ups and leaves and comes down here.

DeVorkin:

Oh, so they really went independently of one another?

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Oh, I see.

Wilson:

Oh yes. Well, George had been here as a fellow in the late fifties. And when it was about time for him to go, I went to Bowen and I said, “You know, this guy Preston impresses me. Maybe we ought to make him an offer.” Ike said: “Well, it’s too late, he’s already got a job at Lick.” Anyway, from what he’s told me, I think he got fed up with the way things were going at Lick. There was just too much committee work, too much of this, that and the other. So he up and wrote to Horace and asked about a job here. Horace consulted me and I said, “Gee, that would be swell. My only reservation is that we offered him a job once and he turned us down.” Horace said, “Yes, but he would like it now.” I said, “Swell with me.” So he came. I’m delighted. George is a very fine fellow. Very interesting guy and very smart guy, and I just get along great with him.

DeVorkin:

He’d been working on A peculiar stars.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Now more on later type stars?

Wilson:

He’s broadening out. He’s sort of stuck with his magnetic stars and Ap’s for a long time. In fact, I don’t think he’s working on them now, at least not to a significant extent, but he’s doing other things and this is one of them. They’re also going to do something that you can do with this intensity age business, that I didn’t have time to do because it involved a lot of stars, and that is, take all the stars that they can get in the general neighborhood of the sun, to whatever magnitude limit is effective, and get at least relative if not absolute ages for all of them, from the intensity of the chromospheric emission. This would be a very valuable thing to do, because then you can begin to study the relationship of other characteristics with age. For example, one thing that I think is pretty clear, if you think about it -- all of these kinematic guys come out with the fact that as stars get older, due to collisions and gravitational interaction, their orbits tend to become more eccentric, and the inclination tends to go up.

DeVorkin:

This is one of the newer pictures.

Wilson:

Right. But it seems to fit. Woolley and I wrote a paper that agreed very nicely using my estimates of age, from the lines. It was in the MONTHLY NOTICES about 1970. “Calcium Emission Intensities,” MONTHLY NOTICES, 1970. [23] The point I was bringing out is, the thing that seems to me to be lacking in all this is like chemistry. You can mix a couple of things together in a test tube and make something. The thing that’s difficult is the rate of these reactions. And here is a possibility, from extending all of this kind of stuff, to get rates of change of orbital characteristics, in the long run. You’re not going to do this in a week or two, but in the long run they can do that. And this ought to tell something about the mechanics and the more intimate relationships that bring about these changes in orbital characteristics. So there’s a great future in this, if people will do it. But, it’s awfully slow going, hard work. I spent eleven years on that cycle thing. That’s all I did. Every time I’d go to the mountain, I’d just sit there and observe the same stars over and over and over. But you have to do that. And at my age, it was a good thing to do. I mean, it kept me out of trouble and it was obviously going to pay off in some way or other and it was just fine. But for a younger guy, it’s difficult to get him interested in problems of that kind. Well, George is now old enough. He’s got a reputation. He doesn’t have to worry about getting out a paper every other month. But the young guys want to get out a paper quick and I understand why they want to get a job. So it takes an older, more established guy really to handle these things. Or what they should do, and I think will, if they can get the money, is to automate. Arthur Vaughan built a machine to do this on the 60-inch -- the same thing that I did with the 100. And I think eventually they ought to hire some young guy or a series of young guys to do a lot of the observing, which is very tedious routine stuff. But that will mean getting grants and stuff. They got the money for the machine from NASA.

DeVorkin:

From NASA?

Wilson:

Yes. Arthur wants a little more dough to refine the machine now. It needs an interface between the machine and a card punch, for example, because it all comes out on a tape and the reduction gets sticky.

DeVorkin:

These kinds of problems that you’re pointing to are important. First of all, choices within career problems, how one goes about choosing research topics, things like that, and funding. What kinds of changes have you seen in attitudes for choice of problems? As your career has developed? Not necessarily with you personally but with the astronomical community in general? You noted that people were doing a lot of interesting problems, almost in a shotgun method, because there was so much to be done here in the 1930’s. Was it sort of the same thing for being in the beginning of a career, just trying all sorts of things, rather than embarking on very long projects?

Wilson:

Yes, I think so, for young fellows. It probably was. I felt that way too when I was getting started. I didn’t have any clear- cut idea as to where I would wind up or what I would do. But there were so many fun things to do that I would do them as I go along, because you learn, and you get out a few papers and build up a little reputation at the same time. I think that’s basically it. I think it would be a mistake for a young man to decide at the age of 22 or 23: “I am going to solve this particular problem,” because he doesn’t know enough at that point in his life, whether a, the problem is worth solving; b, whether there’s any chance in hell that he could ever solve it, and so forth. I think a fellow has to sort of grope around a bit, and then attack the soft underbelly of the enemy, in a profitable way.

DeVorkin:

You certainly had a number of students?

Wilson:

No. I haven’t. The only student I ever had was Helmut Abt. I didn’t particularly want students, which is probably selfish of me. But I’d been around here long enough, in a kind of ivory tower situation, and I was pretty satisfied with the whole setup, that I just didn’t really want students. And when they set up the organization down there [at Cal Tech] they fairly quickly got enough faculty to take care of the thesis problems and so forth.

DeVorkin:

But you did teach courses. You mentioned having courses at 1 o’clock in the afternoon?

Wilson:

Oh, that’s when I was a student. When I was an undergraduate at college I gave up big lunches because I’d fall asleep.

DeVorkin:

Oh, now I understand perfectly. Sitting in a lecture.

Wilson:

Sitting in a lecture. And it was always a big lecture. 1 o’clock class is always a big lecture, and if I ate a big lunch, my eyes would droop and pretty soon I wouldn’t hear the guy any more, off I’d go. There was no profit in that, so I had to give up the lunch rather than the classes.

DeVorkin:

This didn’t affect you when you were actually lecturing.

Wilson:

No. I can talk at 1 o’clock if I have to.

DeVorkin:

What teaching did you actually do? Did you teach any courses?

Wilson:

I have never done a great deal of teaching. I was a teaching fellow in physics at Berkeley, before I left there. Then I came down here, on that teaching fellowship that paid me 750 bucks. It turned out I was supposed to teach a course in calculus, which I did for a year. I’d had enough mathematics to do that. I could keep two jumps ahead of the students. That was the only long formal course that I have ever given in my life. I have given, oh, a few lectures from time to time to some of the classes down there, but that was in the early days before they had a big enough staff, and as soon as they got enough people to handle their own stuff, I said to hell with that. I’m fundamentally a lazy guy.

DeVorkin:

Well, teaching is kind of rough.

Wilson:

Teaching can be fun, I think, if you can get into it when you’re young. But by the time I could have gotten into it, you see, I was already 45, something like that. I’d got set in my ways. And I didn’t want to start a career of teaching at that age. I just didn’t feel like it.

DeVorkin:

But you did have one thesis student. Why that particular thesis student, Helmut Abt?

Wilson:

Well, Helmut Abt turned out not to be a thesis student. He did a thesis under somebody else finally. Helmut was one of the first students that they had there. Helmut and Chip Arp, I think, were the first two actually. And Helmut was interested in spectroscopy, so he and I became associated. I’ve forgotten just how. We did a few things together, one or two papers, and he was my student to that extent, but not formally. He did his thesis actually on W Virginis, which is a Population II Cepheid, which I had nothing to do with whatsoever.

DeVorkin:

Over a period of years, starting in the fifties, you wrote quite a few reviews, and also addresses on occasion of awards.

Wilson:

Oh yes. Well, I was president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. It just happened that during that time, we gave a medal to A. Unsold and Baade. One of the duties of the president of the ASP is to write the little blurb that goes with the medal.

DeVorkin:

I see. So that was a direct duty that you had to do.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

It wasn’t a question of your association with these people.

Wilson:

No. It was because of my high office. (laughs)

DeVorkin:

OK. Then I won’t ask you anything particularly, because we’ve already discussed Baade and Unsold. But you did write a review of (Lawrence) Aller’s NUCLEAR TRANSFORMATIONS in 1954. [24]

Wilson:

Well, that was a book review, right. Why did I do those things?

DeVorkin:

Well, I’m interested, not only why did you do book reviews, which is a useful thing, but in this particular case, you had just been associating yourself in research with Aller --

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Then you went about writing a book review of his work.

Wilson:

Well, I remember those book reviews that I wrote. Seth Nicholson used to be the editor, at least the local editor, maybe the whole editor for the ASP at one time, and so books would be sent in for review to him as editor. And he would pass them out to his friends and associates around here. He’d come around every once in a while and say, “Would you like to review this?” If it was something I felt I knew something about, and a book I wanted to own, I’d say, “Sure, I’ll do it.” So I’d get a free book in exchange for a page or so of review.

DeVorkin:

So there’s no question, even though you collaborated with Aller, that there was any conflict of interest?

Wilson:

Oh no! (laughter) You mean, a little Watergate? No. Lawrence Aller is a great guy and I liked his book and I felt every confidence in it.

DeVorkin:

It was one of the first texts of that type, that one and then his ATMOSPHERES OF THE SUN AND STARS.

Wilson:

Yes. Right.

DeVorkin:

Did you go through these and find these to be of great value for training, even though you weren’t teaching?

Wilson:

I used them as references, when I needed to know something. I didn’t sit down and read the whole thing, but I would look up things I needed to know. Methods of doing things and various bits of information that were in there. That’s mostly what I use books for.

DeVorkin:

OK. Fine.

Wilson:

When I was in Russia with the IAU in 1958, Lawrence (Aller) was there. And I found out how the Russians handled this business of paying for books. They pay the author a royalty, but they pay it in rubles, and it can only be spent in Russia. So Lawrence went there and found that he had several thousand rubles in the bank. He couldn’t take them out with him. I guess he bought a few things there, you know, souvenirs and stuff. Maybe he’s still got money in Russia, for all I know.

DeVorkin:

That’s funny.

Wilson:

That was funny. Haha.

DeVorkin:

How is he to work with?

Wilson:

Oh, he’s a great guy. Well, he has some funny characteristics. He’s very big and strong and he’s a little bit inclined to be rough on machinery sometimes and equipment. He’s well known for this. I mean, every place he goes he busts a few things.

DeVorkin:

I was a student of his indirectly at UCLA.

Wilson:

Oh, I see.

DeVorkin:

So I have a feeling of that but I’d like to get the story.

Wilson:

Well, that’s true. One time I remember, up here in our Coude at the 100-inch, at the 32 inch camera, the mirror and the plate holder is mounted on a thing and it runs on a couple of bars. There’s a wheel at one end and a groove at the other, so you can pull it out of the way when you don’t want it, and shove it back in place. I was up there one time and Aller came around and found me: “Oh God,” he says, “come and see what’s happened.” So I went over, and he had pushed in the wrong direction a little too hard, and he’d just derailed this thing. It was all cocked over and lying half way down and he said, “Oh God.” Well, we put it back on the tracks. I said, “OK, take a focus plate,” and it turned out there was no harm done. But it sure looked awful at the time; (laughter) good old Lawrence. He’d get a little too strong in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve heard other stories from Lick about him, too. Same kind.

DeVorkin:

Has he ever been denied access to instruments because of it?

Wilson:

No. I don’t think so. I think what happened was, people recognized, this was a characteristic of Lawrence Aller. He’s basically a real good guy, and we just keep a sharp eye on him. And admonish him from time to time. No, I think that’s about all.

DeVorkin:

What do you feel about his abundance work, his early-type stars, detailed atmospheric abundance studies?

Wilson:

Well, I don’t really know. I’ve never done any of that abundance work myself, except in the case of Zeta Aurigae which was a special case, through the atmosphere. So I’ve often wondered how good some of those abundance things were. But he seems to come out with numbers that agree with other people’s. And I suppose, as far as the methods are concerned, they’re OK. I certainly would see no a priori reason for taking any exception to them.

DeVorkin:

OK, so there’s nothing particularly peculiar.

Wilson:

No. I think Lawrence is a first class man. But he has these little odd qualities.

DeVorkin:

Oh yes, I know that. We tried to talk to him last year but he was off on one of his trips to Australia. I understand he’ll be back pretty soon. I probably won’t be able to come out but someone else will. I also shouldn’t since I was a student of his.

Wilson:

Well, there’s a little of that Watergate ruboff again.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Let’s go through some of these other papers.

Wilson:

OK.

DeVorkin:

I want to talk about your Orion work.

Wilson:

With Guido Munch?

DeVorkin:

With Guido Munch eventually, but there’s one paper before that that caught my eye. I’m very interested in finding out more about it. In 1956, with Minkowski, you wrote a paper “Proportionality of Nebular Red Shifts to Wave-Length.”

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And you used Cygnus A, very strong source, as a test of the red shift being proportional to wavelength. What was the whole idea behind this? Were you trying to better, or refine, or test the Hubble Diagram or what?

Wilson:

No. I think there were several things. I had done a similar thing on NGC 4151, some years before that. That’s on your list there somewhere. [25] And found that I couldn’t see any effect. The really was constant. Which is what you get in a case of velocity shift. In my own mind at that time I was still always wondering whether red shifts were really velocities, you know?

DeVorkin:

Wasn’t this a sort of heretical thing to ask, in these confines?

Wilson:

Oh well, I didn’t ask it, I just did it. I wrote a note back in 1939 on the use of supernovae, which is still a possible thing. “Possible Applications of Supernovae to the Study of the Nebular Red Shifts” ApJ 90. [26]

DeVorkin:

Tell me more about this. What was the reaction around here?

Wilson:

Well, I got to thinking, just thinking in my office one day about Cepheids and things like Andromeda, for example.

DeVorkin:

This is way before Baade’s recalibration?

Wilson:

Oh yes. And it occurred to me that any periodic process like that would be just like light waves in principle. If you watch Cepheids on one side of a rotating galaxy, compare them with Cepheids on the other side of the rotating galaxy, there would be the equivalent of a red and violet shift, which would mean that the periods would be a little different. Then I proceeded thinking about that. I thought: “Well, gee, it doesn’t have to be a periodic phenomenon.” At that time Baade had come out with a study of about three supernovae, and those three particular supernovae had light curves that were virtually identical. The rate of fall, per unit time, was the same. And so at that time, he and all the rest of us thought: “Well, all of these things are doing exactly the same thing.” But a light bulb came on -- “gee whiz, if you go out far enough, this rate is going to change because of the red shift.” The rate of change of luminosity with time. So that’s what that little note was about. And Baade thought it was an excellent idea. But, there are several troubles. All supernovae do not have the same characteristics. That’s one of them.

DeVorkin:

From what we know now.

Wilson:

That’s right. And the other one is that to get out far enough to where this would be a measurable quantity, you have to get to very, very faint supernovae, like down to 20th magnitude or something like that -- which the boys couldn’t do in those days. However, a whole book came out a couple of years ago by a guy named Rust, who’s been trying to do this very thing to find this effect, and refers to my 1939 Note as a basis for it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he thought he’d found something, but I didn’t really think so. But I still think that in the course of time, if anybody’s interested, it might pay, because this is exactly what you’d get if it is a velocity. See, if it isn’t a velocity, if there’s some peculiarity, like “tired light” guys used to talk about -- tired light wouldn’t do this. But a velocity would. So I was still thinking in 1939 of this possibility of a non-velocity explanation for the red shift. I don’t know whether anyone takes that sort of thing seriously any more or not. Well, anyway, the hell with it.

DeVorkin:

Well, not here at Hale Observatories so much as down at La Jolla or some other places.

Wilson:

Well, that’s right, but you see, I’m not committed to any of these cosmological viewpoints. I’m not cosmological. It’s not my bag. So I feel free to question these things a little bit if I wish to. Nobody objects.

DeVorkin:

How free in general do you think the astronomical community is to still question the red shift is a velocity? I mean, Hubble himself never really seemed to have made up his mind, whether the red shift was a real velocity or not. He always called it the red shift.

Wilson:

That’s right, but even Zwicky always referred to it as “Apparent velocity” or “indicated velocity” or something of that sort, indicating that there was a chance that it was something different. And for all I know maybe there’s still a chance it’s something different. I don’t think it’s a very good chance, but I think one should always have an open mind on all this, particularly on all these basic questions, because if you make a mistake on a very basic point, the rest of the structure rests on sand. And that’s bad.

DeVorkin:

Do you think that there’s sufficient open mindedness in the astronomical community at this time, or do you think people become too grim, as you pointed out?

Wilson:

Some of them are very grim, and will not think of anything new and different. Others, I think, are perhaps inclined to be too fanciful. I don’t really know. But I have a strong belief in science as a market place. I mean, in the long run, truth is going to prevail. There’s going to be always enough guys chewing around the outside, that aren’t happy with the conventional, that if there is an opening and a weakness, they’re going to find it. But it may take a while.

DeVorkin:

Speaking specifically about this place, the most significant controversy has been centering around Arp’s work.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

How have you seen this develop, and where do you think the loopholes are?

Wilson:

Well, I have been as time goes on rather more and more impressed with some of the things Arp has found. For example, he gave a colloquium down at Cal Tech a couple of months ago, and he had some brand new stuff. He had one galaxy in which he had three quasars right in the disc of the galaxy. Now, that could be an accident. But the trouble is he’s finding more and more of these things which strain credulity and strain the theory of probability, to the point where I think he’s got something. Now, what it is, I don’t know. And of course the opposition has been very intense here. And every time he finds one of these things like that, he’s going to mow them down, he’s going to convince them, he’s going to kill them off -- well, they never quite get killed off. But my feeling is, there’s a bit of retreat here and there, in the light of these things of that sort. I mean, that’s hard to swallow as a chance accumulation of quasars, in a square minute or two of arc and I think there are too many of these things now. That’s my own feeling about it, just from talking to Arp mostly, playing my role of Godfather.

DeVorkin:

Has this opposition worn him down any?

Wilson:

No. Oh, I’ve encouraged him, I’ve told him, “Look, Chip, pay no attention to these guys. If you think you’ve got something, go do it.” I don’t know whether it’s had any effect, but no, he keeps plugging along and he keeps finding more and more of these oddball things. I think it’s good. I think there should always be room in science for the unconventional and the new. But again, like all people, I think he’s tended to push it a little too hard and a little too fast from time to time. I said to him, “Now, Chip, look, cool it a little bit. I mean, who wants to have such things as brand new matter which has different physical characteristics from ordinary matter? Let’s not get into new physics unless we really have to,” is my advice to him.

DeVorkin:

How about his treatment around here, in terms of getting observing time?

Wilson:

It’s gotten much better than it was.

DeVorkin:

It was bad, for a while?

Wilson:

It was bad for a while. Horace didn’t like what he was doing. Sandage didn’t like what he was doing. Nobody liked what he was doing, unless you include me on the other side. I liked what he was doing but it didn’t cost me any observing time.

DeVorkin:

Yes, because he certainly needed dark time.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

Who was running the dark time allotments at that time?

Wilson:

Well, the guy who makes the schedule no longer has anything to say about allotments. It’s all done by committee now and has been for a number of years. Everybody puts in an annual request.

DeVorkin:

Annual? You mean it’s not quarterly anymore?

Wilson:

It’s annual now, but it’s subdivided into what you want for quarters and which telescopes and all that stuff. These all go to a committee. Outsiders send this stuff in too, and the local set. Everybody is treated the same that way. Then this committee meets for maybe a couple of days, and tries to settle all this stuff and allot the time. It’s a terrible, terrible job.

DeVorkin:

You’ve got lots of telescopes, you’ve got Los Companas.

Wilson:

Well, yes, we’re getting that now, which is going to add to it. I’m glad I’m out of that racket. I’ve been on that committee in the past and it’s kind of a merry-go-round, people say, “Well, so and so,” particularly some outsider, “he doesn’t know that he can’t get that faint” or whatever it may be, “he just can’t do that,” so that guy’s program goes out. Another program might come up and some member of the committee says, “But I’m doing that myself or I’m going to do that myself,” so that kind of puts a damper on the other guy, because naturally the local staff gets precedence. Whatever the problem, it’s all put together, and finally the scheduler is given this great big sheet that tells everybody who’s going to be on any telescope what he gets in which quarter. Then he makes out the schedule from that. It’s a hell of a job.

DeVorkin:

I see how it works. Not too different than Kitt Peak.

Wilson:

No, it’s probably much the same, because when you get an organization and the numbers of people that they deal with or that we deal with here, you have to have a method. You can’t just say to some guy, “Look, how about running up a schedule for next month?” Uh huh, we don’t work that way anymore.

DeVorkin:

So then really Arp’s situation has gotten better.

Wilson:

Oh yes, it has.

DeVorkin:

Making some headway.

Wilson:

That’s right, he is making headway. He seems to have a lot of adherents in Europe. I sometimes kid him by saying, “You are just like old Fritz Zwicky. He didn’t have many friends around here but he had them in Europe.”

DeVorkin:

How close was your contact with Zwicky, can you talk about him?

Wilson:

Oh, I’ll talk about Fritz, sure. When I came down here as a student at Cal Tech, I took a course in mechanics from him.

DeVorkin:

Celestial mechanics?

Wilson:

No, ordinary mechanics. He was a funny guy, because he was a bit sadistic.

DeVorkin:

Sadistic?

Wilson:

That’s right. We used one of these English texts by Love or Lamb or one of those guys. The problems in it were from the tripos examination at Cambridge. He would assign these as homework, you see. I’ll tell you more about this later. Well, some of them were just dastardly. Anyway, he soon found out who in the class had a pretty good chance of having worked the problem and who probably didn’t get it. He would call usually on the guy he thought didn’t have any idea: “Now, Mr. so and so, get to the blackboard, will you, and show us how you do the problem.” Well, the guy would stumble along, and old Fritz would needle him, you know. He wouldn’t exactly call him a horse’s ass, but the implication was there. Nobody enjoyed that very much. Well, funny, the payoff of this story is that years afterwards, I happened to be walking across the campus one day, and here came Fritz in the same direction. We joined forces and walked along, and he got talking about that course. And what surprised me was, he said, “You know, some of those God damn problems in that book, I couldn’t do them myself?” (laughter) So he was a pretty human guy when you got to know him, but boy, he used to scare the hell out of the students. Cause them a lot of misery.

DeVorkin:

Was he always at Cal Tech, or was he ever associated with Hale?

Wilson:

No, he was always there. He started, I guess, as an assistant professor of physics down there back in the twenties some time. Then he became interested in astronomy, I think largely through Walter Baade. They worked together for a while.

DeVorkin:

I didn’t know that.

Wilson:

Oh yes, on supernovae. But then they split, and at one time I remember Baade told me, he was physically afraid of Zwicky.

DeVorkin:

He was what?

Wilson:

Afraid of him. He said, “That man is going to beat me up some day.”

DeVorkin:

Baade said that of Zwicky?

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Baade was quite large himself.

Wilson:

Well, no, Baade had a limp. He had a bad leg. He was only about our height. He wasn’t a very big guy. But Zwicky was a kind of brawny sort of bird, you know. So when they had this split, I guess they really took a dislike to each other. A powerful one. Funny. I can’t remember what it was they split on. Something.

DeVorkin:

Well, I know that they were very much opposed to each other through the war, World War II. Could it have had anything to do with the war?

Wilson:

No. This happened before the war. The war probably didn’t do it any good. I just don’t remember why they had this split but it was a pretty severe one.

DeVorkin:

Zwicky started being interested in supernovae and he continued pretty much the work. When he applied for time here was there any problem with giving him time? Let’s say after Palomar was built?

Wilson:

Yes, there was a problem. There were some problems. He started off, you know, using the 18-inch Schmidt. In fact, he was instrumental in getting that built, for a supernovae search. That’s what it was originally set up to do. And for a long time, he used that instrument, but then eventually he wanted to use the big telescope, you see. This was by the time Bowen was director, and Bowen sort of made it clear to him, “Well, OK, but you’ve got to start on the 60-inch, then maybe you can move up to the 100-inch, then if you don’t break up anything you can go to the 200 --? Words to that effect. I don’t know how he said it but that was the idea. So Fritz did that. He started on the 60-inch and then he moved to the 100-inch, finally he got to the 200-inch.

DeVorkin:

So he followed that, he didn’t protest?

Wilson:

Well, he probably protested. He was dragged kicking and screaming in that sequence. Because after all Bowen was the boss. But Zwicky had a lot of ability and did a lot of good things, but he could be very difficult, and he could rub people the wrong way without half trying, and usually did. I think he enjoyed it. Funny man. But he had his moments of complete honesty, as when he said, he couldn’t do the God damn problems himself.

DeVorkin:

Yes, that’s pretty good.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

It’s kind of rough on the students, though.

Wilson:

Yes, it was rough on the students.

DeVorkin:

I’m beginning to have the feeling that people are starting to appreciate Zwicky, for one reason or another, more now than when he was alive, let’s say. Was it a personality thing?

Wilson:

Well, it may be true. Now he can’t belabor them with calling them names. He had various names for people up here. “Bastards” of course, and “cadavers” and things like that. He was very outspoken. “I told those bastards in 1935” so and so and so and so. He seemed to get along with me. He’d come up here once in a while, drop in and chew the fat, and we were in different fields. We were in no way competitive. So I guess he felt free to talk to me. And then, I’d been a student of his, and although I kept my distance from him, because he always worried me a little bit. However. So I heard quite a bit from Fritz about “the cadavers.” (laughs)

DeVorkin:

To your knowledge, what part of his work do you feel will survive?

Wilson:

Oh, I can’t say I’m familiar with all of his work, but certainly his catalogues of galaxies are very useful I think to people today. And his work on supernovae, the search is being continued by Sargent who is in charge of it now. It is certainly worth doing. He had what he called pygmy stars. They turned out to be normal late Main Sequence dwarfs. They turned out to be fraudulent. He would sometimes go off the deep end with things that turned out to be of no value, but he would do also some very good things, very useful things. We’ve gotten off of me and onto my colleagues here, but I suppose that’s part of the deal.

DeVorkin:

That’s part of it certainly, but usually we like to get to those people that you collaborated with.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

In this paper[27] with Minkowski in 1956, that we started this discussion on, why did you choose Cygnus A primarily as a source?

Wilson:

Well, the thing with Cygnus A was that it was known to have a large red shift. See, the previous thing that I’d done, NGC 4151 only had a little less than a thousand kilometers per second red shift, which means that it could just be local motions, whereas this was around 20,000. We’re getting into the actual distance/red shift relationship. And the point there that we were really interested in was to see whether we could detect anything, and if so, what the implications were of any possible rates of change of physical constants with time. And there was nothing. Nothing.

DeVorkin:

Cygnus A also had emission.

Wilson:

Oh yes, Cygnus A had emission which was easy to measure. Well, that’s the whole point. I wanted to cover a range of wave lengths. Incidentally, this constancy of Δλ/λ has been continued into the radio region. Now there’s no question about it. I mean, you have enormous changes in lambda.

DeVorkin:

And so far you can see it’s constant.

Wilson:

It all seems to be according to Hoyle. (laughter)

DeVorkin:

Whether he likes it or not, according to Hoyle.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

It makes the universe a little simpler.

Wilson:

Yes, right.

DeVorkin:

OK. Well, looking at 1959, I want to get a coherent review of your studies of the Orion Nebula, [28] the internal kinematics of the nebula, and I know that a little controversy arose after you wrote that paper, was it with Wurm?

Wilson:

Yes, Carl Wurm. [29]

DeVorkin:

About the place of the trapezium stars. Could you give me the background on these papers?

Wilson:

Well, I’ve kind of forgotten now what the argument was about and who won. I don’t know if anybody won.

DeVorkin:

Where the Trapezium stars were. You placed them inside.

Wilson:

Yes. He wanted them on the near side. I think there’s been further work done since. I’ve lost track of it. I haven’t done anything or even thought about Orion for a long time. But I made one real invention for that, and that was the multi-slit. And that saved enormous amounts of time, because we had 31 slits and we had a little marker on the central slit, a little ink dot which made a little gap in the line, and then we’d center a guide star on that, so we knew where we were, so for 31 slits and the whole length you had the scale laid out, so you could measure the shifts and know exactly where they were.

DeVorkin:

And these slits were spread out across the nebula itself?

Wilson:

That’s right. We were dealing with an emission line spectrum, you see. You couldn’t do this with a continuous spectrum with absorption lines but with emission spectra it’s fine. An image of a line would just be what looked like 31 lines, and so you really saved an enormous amount of telescope time for getting that kind of detail. I’ve forgotten what the spacing was, I suppose a second of arc, something on that order, maybe a little more.

DeVorkin:

Did you have trouble with superimposition of lines, or could you calculate where they should be roughly, enough to know?

Wilson:

We had very little trouble with that, because the images were separated enough. The only trouble that I can remember was that the multislit was ruled in aluminum, and then it had a cover glass over it. It was ruled by Don Hendrix and it was done quite accurately. I measured it and found no significant errors in it. But you got a reflection from the backslide which would come back up and then reflect down, so you got ghost lines. They were very faint compared to the bright lines, but where the bright lines were very strong you could see them. But you knew what they were. They didn’t really cause any trouble.

DeVorkin:

That was the only problem you had.

Wilson:

Yes. It turned out to be a very effective procedure, for that particular job. And I took a picture of a planetary, which I never published. I should have because it was beautiful. Here was this round thing, and you could see the lines, you know, doubled; maximum doubling in the middle and then getting less and less as you went to the sides. It was really a pretty picture. I should have published that, just as a picture. But I didn’t.

DeVorkin:

What happened? It never would really fit in a publication or what?

Wilson:

Oh, I put it off, you know, one of those things, “I’ll do that someday,” and I never did.

DeVorkin:

How did you divide up the work with Guido Munch?

Wilson:

Well, Guido and I divided up the observing. Then this was the one time I got some money. We got some money jointly to hire Miss Edith Flather to do the measuring, and then I had Mrs. Mary Coffeen working for me here. So Guido had his own measuring setup down there, and I had one in the basement. We both did some measuring at first to see how it went. We each measured one plate, I think. Very completely. And then we instructed our respective girls as to what we wanted done, how to do it, and then turned it over to them, so they did most of the dirty work, after we had plowed a path through the field.

DeVorkin:

You discussed turbulence in the nebula.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

And supersonic shock fronts, that sort of thing, getting at the internal structure of nebula, and this was really quite a highly cited paper, too, about 700 citations for this paper. At the end of the paper you ask a very interesting question: “Why does the Orion Nebula exist at all?”

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Had you really had this in mind -- that the turbulences would be so great?

Wilson:

No. The thing that surprised us most, certainly surprised me and I think Guido also, was the fact that these lines were double in places. A line that should be single, and was single over most of the plate, you’d come down to the lower region, it would actually be double, like you see in a planetary. You see some of it going away, some of it coming toward you.

DeVorkin:

Very high turbulence.

Wilson:

Yes. And this surprised us. There were a number of those in the plates that we had. And then we also, as you recall if you looked at that paper, measured the line widths, and compared them with what you’d get from thermal broadening, and of course they were much broader, and the broadening varied. You could see the broadening change from place to place and so forth. Bowen didn’t think much of that paper. He said, “This is nothing but a study of weather.” (laughs) I said, “Well, OK --

DeVorkin:

Pretty violent weather, large scale.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Here you were talking about a region, let’s say that’s crucial to understand star formation.

Wilson:

Well, you’d think so. I mean, it must have a niche in there some place. And it hadn’t been done before. But he had his little likes and dislikes. He didn’t think much of that kind of work. It’s up to him. I don’t care.

DeVorkin:

Fascinating. But you were able to do it. He didn’t stop you?

Wilson:

Oh no. That’s one thing I should make very clear. Never in my career here have I ever been told what to do or told what not to do. That’s one of the beauties of this place. Right from the start. I’m sure it will continue that way. Complete freedom, to choose what you want to do and to do it. Well, if what you want to do costs an extra million dollars maybe you can’t do it. But I mean, within the limitations of what we have or reasonable expenditures, you can do it.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Talking still about that nebula work, Wurm did react, saying that the turbulent velocities or something about the whole structure of the nebula would change if you placed the trapezium stars in front of the nebula. You ended up simply showing that it couldn’t be in front if you looked at the fine structure of the nebula.

Wilson:

Well, also, years before that, I had found a helium absorption line in the trapezium or other stars, so we knew damn well that there was some of the nebula out in front, and there was some of the nebula with fairly high excitation, so we couldn’t see any way in which it could all be behind the trapezium. Some of it had to be out there. The question probably was, how much? I believe I’ve seen in the literature since then papers addressing themselves to this question, but I couldn’t tell you now what the answer is, what the conclusion is. I’ve lost track of it. The literature is becoming overwhelming anyway.

DeVorkin:

That is happening. Yes. I’d like to have your general views. I’m pretty much finished with most of the material I’ve outlined here. There are a few specific questions we might cover. But what are your general feelings about the direction of spectroscopy and stellar astronomy today?

Wilson:

Well, I think that there’s still plenty to do in stellar astronomy and stellar spectroscopy. But I notice that very few students come along who are interested in it. And the reason I think is that so many professors and guys who would provide leadership for these people are off in the wild blue yonder, chasing quasars and black holes and the big questions of cosmology. So naturally their students get carried along with this, and they all fall into the pattern. And I think this is unfortunate, because, first of all, these cosmological problems, virtually all require the biggest telescope you can get a hold of. They all require the darkest sky you can get a hold of. And these commodities are both limited. For example, someone was telling me the other day, maybe it was Brucato. Our telescope in Chile is hardly used at all in the light of the moon. Now, this is a very sad circumstance, because here is a large investment, an awful lot of money, an awful lot of work on the part of people, and there it sits. It’s like a car sitting in your garage that’s depreciating and eating away at funds and isn’t producing anything.

DeVorkin:

Were you in favor of that telescope?

Wilson:

Actually, I plead guilty to starting that telescope.

DeVorkin:

You did?

Wilson:

Yes, and I’ll tell you how it happened. Back in 1963, Bill Baum was on an image tube committee, the Carnegie Image Tube Committee, and he came back from a meeting of this committee in Washington and told the staff -- this was 1963, the year before Bowen was going to retire -- that Merle Tuve thought the Institution should consider very carefully now what they’re going to do in astronomy, and maybe make a move of some kind. Tuve would welcome suggestions from the staff. So Bill delivered this message, and I thought about it. And I sat down, I wrote a five page letter to Tuve. At that time, you have to remember, there was very little optical power in the South. All the big telescopes that are there now were not even started or weren’t even in prospect. I mean, Cerro Tololo was a little place, if anything, at that time. So it was a prime opportunity, and I pointed out in this letter that I’d spent a lot of time with the 200-inch, which was a marvelous instrument; that the opportunity was there and the time was ripe, and if the Institution really wanted to make a move, that was the place to do it. Well, evidently my eloquence was sufficient. I got a reply back from Tuve. He said, “Your letter has already started a discussion with the trustees.” So then shortly thereafter, we learned that the trustees were interested in the South, and they voted some money for a site survey. By this time Horace was director, and so he spent a lot of time going down there himself and hiring other people. But the funny thing was, none of these guys knew where the suggestion had come from. I’ll tell you about that. So time went on, and it looked like they were going to get the money for a 200-inch from the Ford Foundation. In fact, the story as I had it -- now this is second hand but it’s probably true -- was that they were just on the point of voting us the money when their president retired. The new president, McGeorge Bundy, was an old Harvard man, and so before “Okaying” this thing, he went to his friends at Harvard and said, “How about giving these guys this telescope?” And our friends at Harvard said, “Why, no, they’re a very selfish bunch out there, they won’t give us time on the 200-inch,” and things like that, so it killed the whole project.

DeVorkin:

Oh, I see.

Wilson:

Haven’t you ever heard this story before?

DeVorkin:

No.

Wilson:

Oh dear. Well, then time passed, you see, and nothing seemed to be happening. In the meantime all this site survey stuff had gone on in Chile and in Australia, actually I think in New Zealand. Well, it wasn’t very concentrated there because the climate is not very good, but anyway, I think they looked at it a little bit, and Australia, fairly extensively in Australia. Anyway, it was decided that Chile was the place. Finally about 1969, I think it was, Greenewalt, who was a trustee and had married the boss’s daughter, the boss being DuPont, and who was a wealthy guy, came up with a million bucks or a million and a half, whatever it was, to build what is now the DuPont Telescope. But by this time, we had missed the boat, because Cerro Tololo now had a big telescope. The Europeans were moving in to their place in Chile. The Anglo-Brits were moving in. I mean the Brits and the Australians were moving in to Australia. Well, we hadn’t missed the boat entirely, but we missed the best part of it.

DeVorkin:

Yes, comparatively.

Wilson:

Oh yes. Oh, Jesus, if they could have gone ahead in the early sixties, started to build and been in business by say ‘68, ‘67, with a big telescope -- God, it would have been marvelous. Well, they couldn’t do it.

DeVorkin:

This might answer one question in my mind, because some people who were not associated with the Hale Observatories but were associated with AURA, there was a period of time in the early sixties when -- if I understand it right, and I was reading some of the minutes of the AURA board -- it sounded like there was a good chance that the Hale Observatories and AURA were going to go in together on something. But then the Hale Observatories (CARSO) pulled out.

Wilson:

I don’t know the details of that. There was talk. Well, one thing I know from personal experience. Woolley happened to be here. Woolley talked to me a lot. We got along very well together, and I knew that he was planning to build a telescope. He wanted to build a telescope because Herstmonceaux was a poor location, and he was thinking maybe of building one in Spain. He had an observing station there in southern Spain in the mountains somewhere. And he came into my office and we were chewing the fat, and I said to him, “Would you be interested in taking the money and going in with the Institution, building a telescope in the Southern Hemisphere?” (you know, a feeler) And he said, “I sure would.” So I said, “Well, now, look, you go down and talk to Horace about this,” because you see, after Ford had let us down on the 200-inch, it was pretty clear that we could hardly swing it alone, and a partnership would be a good deal. So he went down and talked to Horace, and the next thing I knew Horace had gone over to England to talk to the Brits. However, you see, the reason for this was that the Anglo-Australian deal had been hanging fire. The Australians were hanging back for some reason. And by that time, Eggen was the director up there at Canberra.

DeVorkin:

That’s right, he had succeeded Bok.

Wilson:

That’s right. But they had not actually made their deal, you see, for the Anglo-Australian telescope. So Horace, being a nice guy, talked to people high up in the British hierarchy, and it all looked pretty good because they were teed off at the Australians for not doing anything, and it looked quite good. But before actually signing any papers or anything, he sent a telegram to Eggen explaining this situation to him. Well, of course that pulled the plug, because Eggen immediately telegraphed to the prime minister, he knew everybody in Australia, Eggen was that kind of a guy. He said, “Look here, they’re going to steal our telescope.” So immediately then the Australians got in touch with the Brits, and since they had prior interest in the thing, the Brits had to go along with them. So we were out on that deal, too. Then there was also talk of a deal between us and the Canadians at one point. A guy named Odgers came down here from Victoria. He was interested. He came over to the house, as a matter of fact, and talked to me about some kind of deal between us and the Canadians, who also wanted a bigger telescope in a better climate. But nothing came of that. Nothing came of anything until Greenewalt came through, with his dough, and then we had to swing the whole thing ourselves, and it’s been awfully hard on the Institution, financially. It’s going to continue to be hard.

DeVorkin:

So initially it was a good idea.

Wilson:

Yes. It became less and less urgent as time went on. But as time went on we got this money from Greenewalt. And of course we’d sunk money on the site survey, and of course everybody thought we had to go through with it. Thank God, it turns out that everybody -- I haven’t been down to see the place -- who comes back from observing there has the utmost praise for the site and for the telescope. So I’m relieved in that sense, that I feel that my nickel’s worth may not have been in vain. I think we’ll get a good telescope out of it and some good work. But I hope it doesn’t bankrupt the institution. This is a letter to Haskins from me, “when he was out here suggested that I send you this copy of a letter I wrote to Merle Tuve.” And here’s a letter from Tuve. “Dear Olin, Your fine letter is a most important instrument, and has opened the door for very free discussions with President Haskins and the trustees. It will take a while, but this is the line of action with the trustees group now beginning as it should, cordially yours, Merle.” This is March 26, 1963. And here is another letter from me to Tuve in which I just point out how good the 200-inch is. I was promoting the 200-inch. This letter is fairly short. It says, “Thanks for your letter which I interpret as encouraging. May I add just a few remarks. If there is indeed a chance for a large southern observatory, should we not go for broke and try to hold out for a 200-inch? I believe there is good reason for this. The Palomar telescope is a really marvelous instrument and its designers did a superb job. In my opinion, based on many hours work with it, there are no significant deficiencies at all. In other words, the engineering is all done and with [the] skill and foresight such as to insure many years of useful and productive life. I would think that this might not be an insignificant factor, in comparison with a somewhat smaller instrument which would have to be designed from the ground up. In fact, with a complete set of blueprints, a first class supervising engineer and, here’s the rub, a bag of money, we should be in business very soon.” And so forth.[30] Well.

DeVorkin:

Yes. It looked good until McGeorge Bundy got in there.

Wilson:

Yes. They were on the point, as I understand it, of getting the money. Now, that’s all the official correspondence I got. Bowen never knew about this correspondence. Horace never knew about this. Finally I told them, asked them if they’d ever heard of it and they hadn’t. This is the funny way the Institution operates. I can’t understand it. But anyway I don’t give a damn.

DeVorkin:

It is funny. Do you think things would have been different if things could have worked faster? If everyone had known what was happening?

Wilson:

I don’t know. I don’t know what the reason for it is. I would think that Haskins would have mentioned it to Bowen, that I’d suggested this thing. But apparently what they did was just tell Horace, “We’re thinking of building a southern observatory, here’s some money, how about site surveying...”

DeVorkin:

What has been the relationship between Carnegie and the Hale Observatories here? Has the communication always been poor? Or just sort of vague?

Wilson:

I think it’s tended to be vague. The trustees very seldom came out here. I never saw a trustee of the Institution in my life until recent years. A few of them showed up. Yes, I don’t quite understand it myself. It’s not the way I would run a place. But then, nobody asked me to run it.

DeVorkin:

Had you been interested in that, to actually run the place?

Wilson:

No!

DeVorkin:

That would have been quite a change.

Wilson:

I was very happy being left alone and doing my little jobs and writing papers and having correspondence with guys. It was fun. That was enough for me. No, I never had any interest in running things, but I must say, I did think at times it was run in a rather strange manner. I mean, the whole Institution. Not just this place.

DeVorkin:

Cal Tech?

Wilson:

No, I don’t mean Cal Tech. I mean the Carnegie Institution.

DeVorkin:

Well, certainly it affected astronomy in terms of the Southern Hemisphere telescope. But what about the money now in recent years? How have changes in the Carnegie funding structure and their tightening affected the observatory?

Wilson:

Well, now, here again, this is hearsay -- I have heard that they’ve dipped into their capital to build this instrument. And that is bad, because capital is hard enough to preserve even if you don’t spend it. Since I retired, I made a study of the portfolio of the retirement fund and I found that 2/3 of it was paying 3.1 percent, in 1976. Than I had a long correspondence with various people in Washington. I finally wound up with Phil Abelson. Had a long correspondence with him. But I also got in touch with one trustee who really knew what it was all about, and was sympathetic to my viewpoint. That was a guy named William Golden, who is around on various things. He’s mixed up with a lot of various projects including AURA. He’s a businessman. He’s a wealthy guy. They undoubtedly run their operating funds the same way, and you know what’s happened to all kinds of pension funds in recent years. They used to count on the market going up. It used to be said, for many many years, you could get 9 percent out of a good portfolio, counting capital gains plus dividends. And it was true, from about 1932 to 1965. I’ve done a lot of reading in business, since I ret i red. I read business magazines and books now and I’ve learned one hell of a lot. I didn’t know a bond from a hole in the ground, before. You don’t want to talk about this, do you?

DeVorkin:

Well, to a certain degree, as far as the economic health of the place is concerned.

Wilson:

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s precarious, but I wouldn’t say it’s robust. That’s my impression. I don’t think it’s precarious. I don’t think it’s going to die. But I don’t think it’s going to blossom like the rose, unless they make more efficient use of their funds. Put it that way. And you can. You can get more money out of a savings and loan than you’re getting out of these stocks. 3.1 percent?

DeVorkin:

Yes, that is small, very inefficient.

Wilson:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

You’re the people who are ultimately suffering from this.

Wilson:

That’s right.

DeVorkin:

And yet you have no say?

Wilson:

We have no say whatsoever, unless we write to these guys, in which case we’re liable not to get any answer. My first letter in regard to the retirement fund was to the chairman of the finance committee. He’s a banker in New York. I never got any answer from him. Didn’t get any answer from anybody. So after about three months, people told me this man Golden was a good guy who took his job seriously. I finally wrote to him. He’s also in New York, on Wall Street, 40 Wall Street. I think his address must be close to the Exchange. I sent him a copy of the letter that I sent to Perkins. Well, he immediately took an interest. He called me by phone, talked to me about this. This is a long story, you don’t want to go into it. Anyway, what happened, after all this lousy correspondence, the bottom line is that last year we got a 12-3/4 percent increase in our retirement annuity. But don’t think that’s so wonderful, because in 1976, the purchasing power of our annuity was down by 25 percent. This 12-3/4 percent raise didn’t bring it back by 12-3/4 percent because in the intervening year, there was another 6 or 6-1/2 percent loss. We’re now down about 20 percent. So, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it doesn’t really bring us back to where we ought to be. And you see, their operating funds (and I suspect they do) suffer the same way.

DeVorkin:

Yes, this is what I’m interested in.

Wilson:

Then inflation is getting them at both ends. It’s raising the cost of what they have to buy. It’s lowering the amount of dough they have available to spend. So, there you are.

DeVorkin:

I am interested in it, because as you can well imagine, rumors abound about the future health of the observatories, and what may happen.

Wilson:

I daresay they do.

DeVorkin:

What kind of rumors do you feel have the most validity, as far as the possibility that Carnegie would have to dump the Observatories? How then would the Observatories be maintained?

Wilson:

Well, I don’t see how they could be. Who would take them over?

DeVorkin:

Maybe they’d be nationalized?

Wilson:

I haven’t the slightest idea. I doubt it, after Proposition 13 out here -- which I was in favor of, by the way, I think it’s getting out of hand -- I think it’s going to make it tougher to get government money for all sorts of purposes. Well, of course, what the Institution can do -- and they have tried it, I don’t know with what success -- is raise more endowment money. That sometimes works -- hit the right guys at the right time. Also, I think it could be managed better. I’ve learned something about managing money, and that is, you don’t just put it in one place and leave it there and hope for the best. You’ve got to move it to where the action is, and where the returns are. And if they would do that, they would do a hell of a lot better. But I don’t know whether they will or not.

DeVorkin:

Meanwhile though, you don’t see any immediate danger here?

Wilson:

I haven’t seen any signs of doom and gloom to the extent that next year we’re out on the street. Although there was talk, a few years back, that maybe they’d have to close down Mt. Wilson.

DeVorkin:

Really?

Wilson:

Yes. At that point, this was in the early seventies. I wrote to Abelson in the early seventies and said that I’d heard this, that I thought it would be a dreadful mistake, and that in my opinion, in view of all that had happened in the South since I’d originally written that letter to Tuve, that I thought it would be better to chop that off, before sinking any money in it. I got back a one line reply, that he was going to be out here pretty soon, he’d talk to me. He never showed up. No.

DeVorkin:

But Mt. Wilson is not in danger at this point?

Wilson:

Not that I know. I would ask the guys who are still active around here, how’s the budget and everything. No. Still there. They get a few bucks more. Not enough to take care of inflation, but at least they’re not going to be chopped off at the ankles. Maybe only at the knees.

DeVorkin:

OK. Well, we’ve come quite a long way.

Wilson:

We sure have. We’ve covered all kinds of things here. Except dirty stories. Haven’t had any of them yet. (laughter)

DeVorkin:

We don’t have any room for them.

Wilson:

I know you don’t. I’m only kidding.

DeVorkin:

But I would like very much to know more about the relationship between Cal Tech and Hale Observatories, if you feel that you have anything to contribute there.

Wilson:

They’ve had their ups and downs.

DeVorkin:

Right. But you have been here since the thirties, and since Hale’s policies were directly in force.

Wilson:

We were about to talk about relations between Cal Tech and Hale.

DeVorkin:

Give me sort of a chronological perspective.

Wilson:

Well, yes. I’ll try to do that. When I first came here, there were really no relations between them whatsoever. There was nobody at Cal Tech who was interested primarily in astronomy. They were interested in physics and things like that. And the people here (Santa Barbara Street) were the astronomers. What relationships there were seemed to be perfectly friendly, but fairly distant. Then, Zwicky came along and got interested in supernovae, and had a partnership with Walter Baade, and then, because Cal Tech had the 200-inch, it was decided they ought to have an astronomy department ultimately. But of course both the 200-inch and the department were postponed because of World War II. The 200-inch just sat there not being worked on for three or four years, whatever it was. Well, then after World War II, Bowen took over here, but the joint operation didn’t come right then, it came later. Bowen took over here. And he came in to see me one day, and we were talking about the fact that they needed a professor of astronomy down there. And my friend Albert Whitford had been through here recently from some place, and had talked to Jesse Greenstein, who was then at Yerkes, and had told me that Jesse was browned off with the administration at Yerkes and would be glad to move. He was “browned off” with the administration at Yerkes, at that time, and would be glad to leave there.

DeVorkin:

Why?

Wilson:

Oh, it was Kuiper, I think. Kuiper was directing at that time, if I remember correctly.

DeVorkin:

This would be like ‘49?

Wilson:

‘48. Along in there. Right. Anyway, so, when Bowen asked me for a suggestion, did I have any suggestions, I told him. I said, “Well, I hear that Jesse Greenstein would be open to an offer, and he’s a good guy, knows a lot of astronomy.” Of course Ike didn’t know Jesse from a hole in the ground at that point, because he didn’t know too many astronomers, just the few that he had met in the nebula business. Well, anyway, he apparently looked into this, and they made Jesse an offer, and Jesse came. And I kid Jesse every once in a while, when he gets uppity. I say, “Jesse, now remember, I got you this job here.” (laughs) Well, anyway, so then relations became obviously closer, because we had astronomy at both ends of the axis. At first everything seemed to be, as far as I could tell, very friendly. Jesse gradually built up his staff, and people used the equipment on Mt. Wilson for a few years.

DeVorkin:

Were they (Cal Tech) treated as outsiders though as far as telescope time was concerned?

Wilson:

Were they treated as outsiders? No. See, joint operation was established in 1948. Bowen then became director of what was then known as the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories. So it was under unified management, and everybody was treated the same, as far as access to telescope time was concerned. Those people had access here and we were supposed to have access down there as soon as the 200-inch was finished. Then, the actual dedication of the 200-inch, if I remember correctly, was in ‘48. I think that was it. But then they didn’t have any spectroscopic equipment to start with, so it was all direct. People like Baade and Hubble, and they might have had a photometer, I don’t remember. But anyway there was no Coude work because the Coude wasn’t finished. And then in 1950, Bowen asked me if I’d come down with him and help him set up the Coude. And I did. It took us a couple of weeks, I guess, to get it all working right. Anyway, we were down there a couple of weeks doing it.

DeVorkin:

But the design had already been completed.

Wilson:

Oh yes, the design was finished. It was putting the parts together and aligning everything. You know, making sure that the optics were all workable. However, at that time we had only one camera. That was the 36-inch camera; that was the only camera that was completed. So Bowen said, “Well, I think you and I had better take all the time down here, because we only have one camera.” Even that camera left a little bit to be desired, if I remember correctly. I think the first corrector plate wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. But Bowen wanted to take long exposures on planetary nebulae. He was interested in getting new lines and getting abundances and things like that, and I had some interest in the kinematics of it, so I said “Fine,” and we did that. For the whole year we divided up the light time and spent practically all of it on planetary nebulae. Once in a while he couldn’t go and I’d be down there for two weeks. Some of the longest runs I ever had. But the work was easy, because we were making two or three night exposures on these things. It was just tedious. Well anyway, now, once we got that thing finished and the other cameras in there, then it was thrown open for general use. People from Cal Tech of course wanted to use it. But along about that time was when the setup was changed so everybody had to apply for time, see. You could no longer have informal arrangements. Well, then as the staff grew up down there, I had the feeling that there was a certain amount of aggressiveness on their part; that they began to look at Mt. Wilson as kind of an obsolete played- out place, and all the action and all the fun was going to be down there at Palomar. “We have a bunch of bright young guys here and we have the biggest telescope and all, this is where it’s at…” Well, I don’t say that relations really deteriorated, but I think they weren’t as close as they might have been. There was always this feeling. Indeed, one of the reasons why I wrote that letter, which I didn’t read, that long letter to Tuve, was the fact that I did feel that Mt. Wilson was being put upon and regarded as a has-been, unnecessarily so, and that if Carnegie wanted to stay in the astronomy business, they really should do something. I mean, the competition was getting tough, not only from them, by that time, but from Kitt Peak and the 120-inch at Lick and so forth. We no longer had a monopoly. We shouldn’t have a monopoly, but while we had it, it was fun. It meant we were Number 1. Well, we were no longer Number 1 then.

DeVorkin:

You feel Mt. Wilson’s position had slipped?

Wilson:

Well, our position had slipped, because as an observing station, Mt. Wilson, for dark skies, was lousy by that time.

DeVorkin:

You’re speaking of Mt. Wilson alone, not including Palomar.

Wilson:

Well, Mt. Wilson was the Carnegie contribution.

DeVorkin:

Palomar was not.

Wilson:

Was not. That was Cal Tech. So I felt that our contribution was indeed becoming somewhat second rate. Something ought to be done about it, which was one of my motivations in writing to Tuve. Well, at any rate, I don’t think there was any serious problem between the two places as long as Bowen was director. And then Horace took over, and I think people down there felt that he was not doing all he should to round up money and things like that. But you’ve got to remember that he got involved in this deal in Chile, took an awful lot of his time and energy, and he’s done a hell of a good job, but he couldn’t do everything. I would say his weakness, if there was one, was that under those circumstances, he didn’t delegate as he should have, as a real entrepreneurial type would do. Give some of these jobs to other people -- give them not only responsibility but authority to do them. He didn’t want to do that. The net result was that some of the things that should have been done, didn’t get done. He was just putting so much time in this other thing. I think that turned them off and led to some fairly bad feelings on their part.

DeVorkin:

You always maintained very good relations with the people down there. I know you encouraged R. Leighton to observe at Mt. Wilson.

Wilson:

Oh yes.

DeVorkin:

He recalled that.

Wilson:

Oh, did he really? That’s nice of him. Till you mentioned it I’d forgotten that, but it’s true. That’s when he was doing planetary stuff. So that’s a long time ago. That’s right, yes.

DeVorkin:

But even though this kind of thing continued, it was more at the administrative level? Or were there jealousies similar to the ones between the Lick astronomers and everybody else in the U. Cal. system, where “You people don’t have to teach, you’re on 12 months.”

Wilson:

Oh yes, there was some feeling. I’m sure there was some feeling of that kind. Yes, there was. It’s inevitable. But nothing came of it. I mean, at one time, Bowen wanted to get everybody up here to do some teaching, and finally, he was leaning on me to do some teaching down there, and I said, “Ike, let me see my contract.” Of course there wasn’t any contract. I said, “Well, if it isn’t in there, it isn’t written down, I don’t have to teach. And I prefer not to.” And he let me alone. He was a good guy. I mean, I could see his side of it too. He probably had those people leaning on him, because we weren’t teaching. On the other hand, we didn’t have to teach. The Carnegie Institution didn’t say we had to. And if you like it, fine. But like I say, I was getting too old. I didn’t want to get started teaching at that age. If I’d done it at 25, I would have liked it, I think, because it’s kind of fun to have a bunch of people. You know, you can influence them, and see how you’re doing it. Sometimes in lectures, I get going, and I can tell I’m getting across to people. Well, it’s fun to do that.

DeVorkin:

Sure. There are Postdoctorals and Carnegie fellows here and others who are still very recent PhD’s that you must have influenced.

Wilson:

Well, not so much in recent years, because they all come out here to solve the big problems, you see. They1ve got to find a black hole or something.

DeVorkin:

But I’m thinking of the fifties.

Wilson:

Oh yes. I think so, yes, in those days, I probably did. I never hesitated to work with these guys or give them advice or give them information that I had. No, I was always happy to do that. That kind of teaching I never objected to. But the formal teaching, where you have to be in a certain place at a certain time three days a week -- that didn’t appeal to me, by that time.

DeVorkin:

Yes, I agree with you, right. I did that about six years.

Wilson:

Well, you should be getting used to it. I think if you grow up with that kind of deal, no sweat. But having not done it for so long, I didn’t want to start. And I resisted successfully.

DeVorkin:

Well, as a final question, just on astronomy in general -- Kitt Peak has come up once or twice -- in our discussions. And I’d like to have your opinion on the future of Kitt Peak, and the nature of funding an organization like that. Probably Hale Observatories is one of the few major private observatories left.

Wilson:

We’re the last refuge of capitalism.

DeVorkin:

Right. It is not funded by NSF, something like that.

Wilson:

Well, we do get some help from them on instrumental matters, yes.

DeVorkin:

And that’s important, you needed that money, I understand.

Wilson:

Right.

DeVorkin:

But it seems as though everybody else is funded by NSF and more and more NSF money is going into Kitt Peak each year, a fraction at least of the astronomical allotment. How do you see this affecting astronomy in the future?

Wilson:

Gee, I don’t know. I’d have to think about that a little bit. It seems to me, however, that if what you say is true, it must be because the overall astronomical budget, the total amount of money, must be decreasing, because my friends at Kitt Peak tell me their money is decreasing. So they must be getting a larger fraction of a smaller amount all the time. Is that about right?

DeVorkin:

I think so.

Wilson:

Well, I think that’s very unfortunate, because while Kitt Peak has excellent equipment and some very good people there, I would certainly like to see money for other people at other places, to build gadgets, and in some cases to operate fairly small telescopes. You can do a lot of things with small telescopes -- photometry, for example. I would not like to see it all go to Kitt Peak. On the other hand, Kitt Peak is such a valuable place that it should not be pinched beyond the point where it ceases to be effective. So I think there are two book ends here, squeezing in on this thing. I would like to see either extreme avoided.

DeVorkin:

But you feel, let’s say with the new director there, things might change? Burbidge is going to be coming in.

Wilson:

I know he is.

DeVorkin:

And in the past, the nature of Kitt Peak has changed radically, depending on which director is there.

Wilson:

I know.

DeVorkin:

Its accessibility for visitors and that sort of thing. Certainly that’s a very important part of Kitt Peak, the visitors.

Wilson:

Well, as far as Kitt Peak is concerned, all I know is what people tell me. And I can get from different people diametrically opposite opinions, as to how so and so has done for this observatory. And I just don’t know. From this distance, I can’t tell.

DeVorkin:

Right. You’ve had no direct contact, you’ve never been on a visitors’ committee?

Wilson:

I’ve never been on a board or visitors’ committee. No. So I’ve had no direct contact. All I know is hearsay, and it depends upon whom you talk with. Mr. A. says, “Oh, he did a marvelous job, he built this place up, just great,” and Mr. B will say, “He practically ruined the place.” I’m not kidding you. And I won’t say who A and B are. But you can guess.

DeVorkin:

That’s OK. The important thing is, there’s a very wide range of opinions.

Wilson:

That’s right. It depends, I suppose, on whose ox has been gored. Or something of the sort. Or the personalities involved. So I don’t know. And I don’t know how Mr. Burbidge is going to get along over there.

DeVorkin:

Well, he and his wife have been here, or at least at Cal Tech.

Wilson:

Yes. They were here.

DeVorkin:

I’m just wondering, did you have any contact with them? Or did they do any spectroscopy?

Wilson:

Yes, they were getting out of it, though. Yes, I had some contact with them. Not a whole hell of a lot. And I don’t think there was any problem with them, here. But in other places where Burbidge has been, he’s caused a considerable amount of commotion. At Yerkes he did, and down at La Jolla and so forth. So I don’t know. I hope, for the sake of Kitt Peak and for the sake of Burbidge himself, that all goes well. But I have no idea whether it will or not.

DeVorkin:

Well, I’ve pretty much finished my little package of questions. Certainly if there’s anything that we’ve left out, or anything that you would like to add at this point, I’d be very appreciative of anything.

Wilson:

Well, I can’t think of anything. I must say, I’m beginning to get just a little bit tired around the edges. I’m getting too old for this sort of thing. I’m not interviewed every day in the week, you know. And the next guy that comes around, all he’s going to get is “No comment.” (laughs)

DeVorkin:

I hope it wasn’t that bad.

Wilson:

No, no, I’m kidding. I meant to say if, when you go over all this junk, you come to any places where you’d like a little clarification or anything of that sort, either call me up, or send me a letter, and I’ll try to straighten it out, because there may be some such places. I don’t know.

DeVorkin:

Well, let me finish the tape by thanking you very much.

Wilson:

OK. Let me say, you’ve more than welcome.

DeVorkin:

OK, fine.

[1]"Three New Be Stars" PASP 44 (1932) p. 124.

[2]Op. cit. ref.

[3]Nature 130 (1932) p. 25.

[4]with Sinclair Smith. ApJ 76 (1932) p. 117.

[5]Observers during period when Moon is present or absent.

[6]ApJ 82 (1935) p. 232-245.

[7]PASP 49 (1937) pp. 338-340.

[8]Pub. Am. Ast. Soc. 8 (1936); ApJ 86 (1937) p. 274.

[9]ApJ 90 (1939) p. 244.

[10]PASP 50 (1938) pp. 245-47.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Proc. Nat. Sci. Foundation (1955) pp. 147-157.

[13]with W.H. Christie ApJ 88 (1938) pp. 34-51.

[14]ApJ 111 (1950) p. 279-305.

[15]ApJ 128 (1958) p. 604-615.

[16]ApJ 126 (1957) pp. 525-28.

[17]ApJ 226 (1978) p.

[18]ApJ Suppl. 20 #1 (1976) pp. 823-840.

[19]ApJ 130 (1959) p. 499.

[20]ApJ 136 (1962) p. 793.

[21]Astronomy I, II (Ginn, 1926, 1935).

[22]ApJ Suppl. 20 #1 (1976) p. 823.

[23]With R.U.D.R. Woolley MNRAS 148 (1970) pp. 463-75.

[24]PASP 66 (1954) p. 261-262.

[25]PASP 61 (1949) pp. 132-33.

[26]ApJ 90 (1939) p. 634-636.

[27]ApJ 123 (1956) p. 373-376.

[28]PASP 49 (1937) p. 338; ApJ 91 (1940) p. 360; Pub. AAS 9 (1939) p. 274; ApJ Suppl. 4 (1959) p. 199-256 (w/ Munch, Flather and Coffeen).

[29]Z. fur Astrophysik 56 (1962) p. 127-137 (w/ Munch).

[30]Letter deposited at AIP.