Oral History Transcript — Dr. C. Stuart Bowyer
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C. Stuart Bowyer; July 28, 1976
ABSTRACT: This telephone interview deals with Bowyer’s research in non-solar x-ray astronomy while he worked at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He discusses his functions as a member of a group of scientists, directed by Herbert Friedman, who performed numerous observations of cosmic x-ray sources in 1963 and after. Bowyer relates the competitive, spirit that existed between the NRL group and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-American Science and Engineering, Inc. group that made the first conclusive observation of x-rays originating from outside the solar system.
Session I | Session II
Hirsh:Hello, Dr. Bowyer.
Hirsh:Yes, my name is Richard Hirsh. I’m from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration History Office.
Hirsh:I was talking to Dr. Chubb at NRL the other day and he suggested I call you. I’m working on a project with Homer Newell. Dr. Newell is writing a book on space science and I’m working on a chapter on x-ray astronomy.
Hirsh:And Dr. Chubb suggested I speak to you about NRL and your involvement in x-ray astronomy.
Bowyer:Ah ha, sure. I should find out how I’m supposed to sit in this game. Will be talking to you about my past history In NRI or NRL’s history?
Hirsh:Well, I’ve a few questions I could ask. First of all, do you have time. Can I call back later or make an appointment with you to talk to you or something?
Bowyer:Well, how long do you think it would take?
Hirsh:(laughter) It depends actually. I’ve talked to a few people. It goes sometimes from fifteen minutes to an hour and a half. It depends on…
Hirsh:Well let’s try the fifteen minutes end.
Bowyer:Then we’ll see. Then we’ll call back or decide something else.
Hirsh:Okay, fine. Well, first, do you mind if I record our conversation?
Bowyer:No, that’s fine.
Hirsh:As I said, I’m working on the history of x-ray astronomy especially the early days … up until 1962-1963.
Bowyer:That was about the time of the first rocket at NRL.
Hirsh:That’s right. Yes.
Bowyer:The first one or not the first one. How many?
Hirsh:The first one was ‘63 at NRL -- April 29 of ‘63.
Bowyer:So you’re going to stop right before the first one at NRL?
Hirsh:Well, actually I’d go a little bit further probably up to ‘64 or ‘65.
Hirsh:I’d like to find out first of all, how NRL operated, -- how NRL got into the act of x-ray astronomy?
Bowyer:And Chubb didn’t tell you that?
Hirsh:Well, he gave me one point of view, and I’m wondering if it’s consistent.
Sure, I’ll tell you how it was. That Friedman is one hell of a shrewd guy, and he was working with x-rays. He started off building x-ray counters; that’s the first sort of paper he had. He was developing x-ray tubes, geiger counters, and stuff like that. In the beginning he was an Instrument guy. And then he started looking at x-rays from the sun. Giacconi reported an x-ray source In the sky, and Friedman was sufficiently shrewd that he said, “We are going to do that.” I’ll be very honest with you, I think there’s no two ways about it, Friedman is the guy that set the tone of x-ray astronomy at that time and knew what was going on. Within NRL Chubb worked for Friedman and under him was Byram who was sort of a detail man. Byram had, I believe, a Bachelor’s Degree in electrical engineering and he’d do detail stuff. He really worked hard and he had some pretty good talents though he really didn’t understand the physics or know what the hell was going on. There were three rockets which were going up, which were aimed at some exciting results in ultra-violet astronomy. And Friedman said “We’re going to get into x-ray astronomy.” So he told that to Chubb, and Chubb and Byram were talking about this, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Nothing was happening. It was Friedman who decided that x-ray astronomy was the thing to do and there’s no two ways about it. But it hadn’t materialized. Now I had worked at NRL several summers, and I had just passed my Ph.D. qualifying exam at Catholic University, and I went around to a number of places at Goddard and at NRL to see what I might do for a Ph.D. thesis. It was an intriguing game at Goddard in that although it was a supposedly surging time in space research there were only a couple of positions there and they looked very dull to me. In fact they had one or two research areas that look pretty good, but the group leader wasn’t hiring anybody and was kind of mumbling around. He just wasn’t very aggressive, and Goddard offered me a job in a place that looked like a real dullard. I went to NRL where had worked couple of summers because Friedman looked like he was in the thick of things.
Physically NRL was a dump. You’ve been to both places, I’m sure, and seen them. Goddard is a beautiful set up; it’s a little run down now but it was a beautiful set up with beautiful secretaries running around. I went over to NRL and Friedman said, “We are going to get into x-ray astronomy, and if you come here, your Ph.D. thesis can be in x-ray astronomy. If you can build an x-ray detector in time to be put into a series of three rockets we have scheduled here, we will take out some of the existing instrumentation and put in your x-ray detectors.” The reason there were three rockets is that there was a burning question at the time in ultraviolet astronomy called the “nebular glow around Spica.” A group at Goddard who had previously been at NRL under Friedman had obtained some uv results while at NRL which seemed to indicate the existence of an ultraviolet glow around Spica. They took the data to Goddard and published it. Various people at NRL were upset about both the propriety of their taking data obtained at NRL to Goddard and the results they obtained. So Friedman set up a rerun of the experiment. But the rocket failed. So Friedman flew yet another, I believe, and it failed also.
At this point, Friedman finally said “Fuck it, we’re going to settle this!” Well, he didn’t say this, he was a very gentle soul. (laughter) What he did say was that NRL was going to settle this. “We are going to fire three rockets and going to get this squared away. Get a bulldozer.” So anyway, Friedman said, “If you come here and then you build an x-ray detector, we will take out one of several telescopes that are in the payload to look for the nebular glow around Spica.” I guess one of the rockets had just gone, but I’m not sure. Anyway for some reason or another, the three contracted to two. Why don’t you scratch that I ever said three. I would say there were three rockets because there was a foul-up. There were two rockets, okay? (laughter) In fact there were three and somehow it reduced down to two but anyway, he said, “You build a detector system and we’ll yank out some of the telescopes that are in there and put in this x-ray stuff because we want to get in this stuff.”
Hirsh:This was after AS + E’s experiment done by Giacconi?
Bowyer:Yes. What happened was NRL had flown one x-ray detector a number of years before Giacconi’s rocket which was a little tiny thing. In principle, it couldn’t have seen anything. And the reason why Friedman wanted to get into the act again was because he saw the potential of x-ray astronomy given Giacconi’s discovery. And like I say it wasn’t getting anywhere. They were going to build an x-ray rocket and all that, but they didn’t. There was nobody doing it. Friedman said, “Chubb,” but nothing happened. So Friedman said “If you come here, Bowyer, your Ph.D. thesis will be to build an instrument to get into x-ray astronomy. So you’ll be doing it. You’ll be building this one. In fact, if you get one built in time we’ll yank out some of these instruments in the ultraviolet rocket and put the instrument that you developed in there.”
Hirsh:This was about 1962 or so, late ‘62, ‘63?
Bowyer:Yes it must have been … It was like that, well I know when it was. Find out when the first rocket from NRL saw Scorpio.
Hirsh:That was April 29, 1963.
Bowyer:Okay … (pause) the discussion I’m talking about was summer of ‘62.
Bowyer:And I started to work at NRL during the fall of ‘62 -- something like that. Fall or early winter.
Hirsh:But this was all after Friedman said, “Let’s get into it,” after the AS + E rocket flight which discovered the source in Scorpio?
Bowyer:Sure, absolutely. Why?
Hirsh:I was initially surprised. I thought they were parallel developments with AS + E and NRL.
Bowyer:No, no, no, no. Chubb told you this?
Hirsh:Yes, basically yes. It’s just I who didn’t believe it, so I’d like to just hear it from a few people.
Bowyer:Yes. No, no, there’s no question.
Hirsh:So you were doing this as a Ph.D. dissertation?
That’s right. I got to NRL and I was supposed to work under Byram. Byram was a very difficult person to work with. He was a very eccentric person. The way it evolved was there were two approaches that were decided to be used to build x-ray detectors, and I was supposed to be working on both of those under Byram. But In fact, Byram was, as I say, very difficult to work with. What happened was he essentially developed one and I made another. So these got done in spite of a very short time scale and a lot of reluctance from some people at NRL-not Friedman of course -- but the technical people. You know one guy told me, “You’ll never get this done and there’s just no sense in wasting your time doing it.” He was the head of the whole mechanical engineering group. (laughter) Anyway it was a mixed bag there.
Anyway, the detector that Byram was working on didn’t work and the one that I got together worked, and I got a patent on that detector. So it worked fine and saw a bunch of x-rays from some spot in the sky. Then a second rocket went about two months later that also carried my detector. I’m not sure, -- I think they might have dumped Byram’s detector by then, but I’m not positive. And the second detector revealed another source. It got some of the galactic center cluster of sources which happened to be up two months after the first rocket experiment. Then it came down to how you analyze this and what you do about it (laughter). It didn’t dawn on me that I had to be involved in that, so I was kind of waiting to see what somebody would do next. I was supposed to be writing a Ph.D. thesis but since I hadn’t done that before I didn’t know what I was doing. So anyway, Friedman did the right thing. He got the stuff analyzed and wrote it up in a letter in NATURE.  And then he said, “All right, the next thing we’re going to do is we’re going to forget about these piggy back experiments; we’re going to devote a whole rocket to x-ray astronomy experiments. In fact we’re going to use a whole series of rockets.” I’m sure at that point he made a mental commitment that x-ray astronomy was going to be a huge area. That we were going to switch out of ultra-violet astronomy and switch into x-ray astronomy. But anyway he didn’t tell me that, but within two years the major branch effort was x-ray astronomy.
After the second experiment, Friedman said: “Well we’re now going to build a full rocket,” and so he started building a detector which was a factor of ten times larger than the last one. The first one I had the patent on was ten times larger than what AS & E had flown. So now we were going to go get another order of magnitude. And so I started working on that. And then we shot about two or three of those, and then that’s already 1965. And Friedman went around and gave a huge bunch of talks. The reason you think it was a parallel effort was because Friedman completely dominated the scene. AS & E shot its first rocket in 1962 and then it flew another rocket which was exactly like the first to the opposite part of the sky. Then it flew a third that was exactly like the others. It lost a lot of time doing these repetitive experiments because it didn’t have the resources and/or the resources it had were not utilized wisely.
Bowyer:Then the stage after that AS & E went wild. But there was a period in there when we (at NRL) would have a rocket every three or four months. I remember going to a conference and people would ask, “Well, what’s the latest at NRL?” You would hear theoreticians at every conference discuss new results from NRL. They would say: “Here is our speculation derived from the last set of NRL data; what’s the new data?” At that point Friedman was completely dominant.
Hirsh:I see. So you had the technical expertise and the resources at NRL to really take off.
Bowyer:That’s right. Well all right, I’ve already told you about some of the technical expertise (laughter). You must realize that there are a lot of factors involved in a rocket experiment: NRL had a whole organization trained in flying rockets. The fundamental detector was built by a guy who was doing his Ph.D. thesis and never saw a proportional counter before except in a textbook.
Hirsh:That was you?
Bowyer:Yes, me! The system capabilities existed at NRL and Friedman had the foresight to say x-ray astronomy was the area we are going to go in. This is an aspect of the story you wouldn’t get from NRL because Friedman is very competitive. I once heard him talking to an outside person about how things go at NRL. “Who do you look to first,” this guy asked I forgot who it was. But it was a formal interview. “Of course if I want the major overall picture I’d go to Chubb and Tousey because they were both branch chiefs and then if I want more detail…” and he went right down the organization chart. In fact within a year and a half of my being there, Friedman would come to me for x-ray astronomy stuff. I was a very controversial figure there because I got stuff done but I raised a lot of hell. Friedman got his money’s worth out of me because without me he wouldn’t have built the first set of detectors. He was telling the other guys to build them but nothing was going on. On the other hand, I sure as hell got my money’s worth out of Friedman. So it was a combination of a variety of things that augured very well for NRL’s early ventures in x-ray astronomy. In fact those things sort of went away in the next cycle of research. AS & E made the first x-ray discovery, but then it blew two more rockets. It had the rockets and the grants and the Air Force to support it, but it didn’t do anything more. Each of Friedman’s rockets had two orders of magnitude more of detector area. (Oh, by the way, the second detector I built also got a patent (laughter).) Friedman did the right thing; but then during the next stage of research he sort of dropped back, and AS & E went charging ahead. It is a funny thing how things all click together sometimes. Then some personnel change and things don’t click together again.
Hirsh:How did you raise hell there? You said that you were controversial because you were raising hell.
Bowyer:Oh, well for instance I was told by Friedman, who clearly wanted the job done, to go build a proportional counter. I said “fine, I’ll go find out how to do that.” Well he said, “You go to the head of the mechanical engineering section and the head of the electrical engineering section and you tell them your needs.” Okay, so I went to each of those guys and one of the mechanical engineering guys said, “You’ll never get this done in time.” Now the nature of things then became that the mechanical engineer had a vested interest in making sure I didn’t get the counter built in time; otherwise I would have made a liar out of him.
Hirsh:Who was this person?
Bowyer:Joe Nemecek (laughter). Anyway I tried about two things with him and I said, “Fuck It,” and I went off. I tried to go to another major machine shop to get the job done. Well, Nemecek went to Friedman, and Friedman told me I can’t do that. So I said, “I see.” So the next thing I did was I went to a little machine shop at NRL. I went to four little machine shops and had four different detectors made up, trying out different ideas. And then I tested all four of those, and I got one that worked. Then I went to Friedman and said, “Well, here’s this beautiful thing from the engineering section that doesn’t work, and here’s why.” I gave him some test results, and then I said, “Here’s one I built in this little shop on the side and it worked.” And Nemecek was unbelievably steamed up, but Friedman then said, “This one does work so you ought to build this one.” Well, it was a similar deal on the electronics section. It was a little better but still…
Hirsh:When did you get your degree then?
Bowyer:Oh, that was another interesting thing, you see. NRL wasn’t really set up as a Ph.D. institution. I’m a professor now and my students get an entirely different introduction into the world of research than I got. But what happened was that like I said, in an earlier comment, -- I didn’t realize that after I built this instrument that then I had to reduce the data, (laughter). On top of that, the results were really fantastic, so it was clear that I should charge on. I was not so concerned about the Ph.D.; It was clear I was in on the ground floor of a great field, so I just kept charging ahead. I think (pause) it was the summer of ‘62 that I said, right, and this was ‘63?
Hirsh:Right. Could it have been ‘65?
Bowyer:I bet you it was ‘64. Okay, what happened was that after the second NRL rocket was flown, I started to get pressure from the head of the department at Catholic U, who said I should get my thesis done. At NRL, I was building the instruments, but there were lots of guys associated with an experiment, both in its developments and the data analysis. Friedman would run the results off right away because they were really splashy. And I said, I was never going to get a Ph.D. this way, so I’d made an arrangement to get a part of a rocket experiment that nobody else would mess with and then that part would be the subject of my Ph.D. thesis.
Hirsh:Which rocket was this?
Bowyer:Well, it turned out that the rocket had a funny failure concerning its spin and I got no data. Then I went over to Catholic U., and I was crushed. (laughter) Obviously, fantastically crushed. But anyway I went to Catholic U. and they said, “That’s bullshit, don’t worry about that; you just hand in anything.” (laughter) “You’re getting to be better known than we are and should get your Ph.D.” So I wrote up all the stuff that I had done: introduction, design of the instrument, etc. I had some theory in there, papers that I helped write before that, and they gave me the Ph.D. I think that was like ‘64.  The following doesn’t belong in any book but a comment of people at NRL was that while Friedman was saying, “AS & E saw this x-ray source; now we are going to tear the world up by charging ahead in the field, Chubb decided that he was going to send a kid -- a sophomore in college -- who was on a summer scholarship at NRL to report the results of our first x-ray detection to the American Astronomical Society. That kid was a favorite of Chubb but he had nothing to do with experiments at all.
Bowyer:Well, anyway I was insulted by that, but it wasn’t my business and Chubb was my boss; but I was insulted Anyway Chubb discussed it with Friedman. It turned out that Chubb’s plan was not going to be followed. I thought that it would be appropriate if I reported the results. Ha, ha. Friedman was much shrewder than that, Friedman said, “No, I’ll be reporting the results,” (laughter) and he did. It was clear he should have, too! We were on the second page of the WASHINGTON POST. The whole second page, or perhaps two thirds and the other third was an ad. (laughter) But anyway if I’d given it, it wouldn’t have had anywhere near that impact, and if the summer student had given it it wouldn’t have had any impact either, quite aside from the fact that he didn’t have anything to do with it.
Hirsh:Okay. You were all in the Optics Division, is that right?
Bowyer:No, no, no. It was Upper Air Physics branch.
Hirsh:Okay, I thought Friedman was in the Optics branch.
Bowyer:Friedman was originally in the Optics branch building geiger counters. He was promoted when NASA -- the science part of NASA -- that formed Goddard -- split off.  Half of Goddard came out of NRL. At that point Friedman got promoted to Division Chief of (pause) Atmospheres and something else.  It was an atmospheres division at that point and Chubb became head of the Upper Air Physics branch, so this was all going on In the Upper Air Physics branch. And there were other branches under Friedman, but in fact, this was the branch that Friedman worked through. There was one in radio astronomy which he just kept track of, and then there was one under Tousey. There might have been one other one but I don’t know. I think those were the three main ones. The old Optics branch became, mainly the Upper Air Physics branch under Friedman, because Chubb had worked for Friedman, in that branch.
Hirsh:Talking about credit and who should be reporting these things, I notice that all these reports, -- for example your first report in NATURE and then subsequent reports in SCIENCE, -- have your name first.
Bowyer:Yes, they are alphabetical.
Hirsh:Oh, that could be it. I didn’t notice that.
Bowyer:Yes, they are alphabetical. There’s a clever thing, because you were dealing with a bunch of primadonnas and Friedman wasn’t that interested in getting involved in internal politics. As the general manager he set the priorities and tried to have people do the work and then just not get involved too much. So anyway he arranged the names of the researchers alphabetically, which was fine because everybody knew that Friedman was the chief. Even when I came along as a student -- he just went along with techniques of putting the names in alphabetical order. I noticed that after I left,  when things started charging along, that Friedman had his name on articles first. I think it’s clear that if he had to do it all over again and thought about it, it wouldn’t have been that way.
Bowyer:Anyway (laughter) it was.
Hirsh:I didn’t really notice that. That’s very stupid of me.
Bowyer:No, no it’s alphabetical. Friedman changed the policy later, at least sometimes, and now he has gone to a policy that the guy who is most heavily involved often gets his name first. You see that’s a more emotional thing because then you get arguments over who did the most work.
Hirsh:Right. I see. Who’s responsible -- I suppose Friedman may be -- for that lunar occultation experiment of 7 July l964. 
Bowyer:There was standard operating procedure going on that time; that is, Friedman had a bright idea and then there would be a meeting in his office. There would be various assignments or tasks, and then everyone would go off and do their part of the job with some sort of coordination, but not often a lot. So Friedman got the idea for this experiment because he went to lunch with his branch chief in radio astronomy, who was talking about lunar occultation experiment that he was doing in radio astronomy. Then it went click in Friedman’s mind; he could do that too. My role typically was to build the detectors. (pause) I can’t tell you what Chubb’s role was really in principle, it was supervisory, and Byram’s role was more detailed supervisory. In fact in the real flight Byram had a lot to do with the data analysis -- analyzing where the rocket was at each moment, where the source location was. In fact that turned out to be slightly wrong. (laughter) It was an insignificant point however.
Hirsh:Was that with the occultation experiment?
Yes, there were a couple of things wrong with the occultation experiment but that’s alright. You know how a paper goes. You get one really good result and then you wing off about several things, and there are usually some errors here and there, that’s the nature of any paper. You remember it because of the great idea; but you just can’t publish a one page thing saying I did the following. That’s not the way it’s done. One thing wrong was we had to say where the position of the source was and that depended on where the position of the rocket was, and Byram got that wrong. And later someone tried to write another paper doing it right. There were two things wrong with doing that however; one was, it didn’t change the results really, and the second thing was that their paper came to Friedman for refereeing and that ended it.
Anyway, back to the main points of the lunar occultation experiment. We had a meeting, in which we discussed how we were going to do the occultation experiment. And here are the things that were problems. We needed an attitude control system. The attitude control system that NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center had been developing, had flown 27 times. It had worked -- depending on how you define “worked” -- six to nine times. I mean, if you asked Goddard people, they’d say, “Well, it worked nine times,” but that’s because most of it had worked. But if you asked, “When did it do everything the way it was supposed to, exactly the way it’s supposed to?”, that was more like six times. The previous four or five shots, before the one we had, had been failures of a very gross order. So the thing was that this occultation shot was the last one that would occur in that cycle, and you’d have to wait another nine or ten years for another occultation. So it was only this one that would go. And you had to have the rocket go off within a one minute time or you’d miss the occultation. You had to have the attitude control system work, and I just told you what the failure rate on that was up to that point. And you had to have an instrument built.
It seemed to me like we had five months, on the order of that, between when Friedman got this idea, at lunch, and then we were going to fly. And almost always it takes a good part of the year for a flight and often it takes longer than a year, depending on who you are and how fast you’re zinging it, to get everything ready. We had about five months to go on this one. And there were various people in the branch that said, “You can’t do it, it can never be done.” On the other hand, this was such a winner that Friedman said, “Yes, we will do it and we’ll stop everything else if we have to.” Also it involved a detector that was really easier than the larger area detectors that we were already flying. But it required a fair amount of engineering just to make the pieces. You can just add those elements together and you get a huge statement of the probability of success, resulting in the conclusion that success wasn’t likely. On the other hand, the results were potentially outstanding. There has never been a neutron star discovered before Friedman and everyone at NRL thought it was a neutron star at the center of the Crab Nebula that was producing the x-radiation. That was our bias. But on the other hand, I talked to people just two months ago, because of the recent occultation and the opinion was divided between those people who were convinced it was synchrotron emission, and those who were convinced it was a neutron star.
The results were bound to be astounding to some segment of the scientific community, no matter what your bias was. And the public would have wanted the neutron star. While we were building the rocket I walked into Friedman’s office to tell him what was going on and what had to be done next and why we were falling behind in some area. He was on the phone, and said, “Sit down.” I sat down. Then he said on the phone, “Well, just a second.” He asked me, “Stuart, how does the data come out in the block house? So I told him. Well, he returned to the phone, blah blah blah, -- he wanted to know this and I told him, “Oh, it comes out on the strip chart thing -- out of a machine; It just kind of unfurls.” He told this guy on the phone that. And then he said finally, “Well, I’ll let you know, OK?” He hung up and I asked, “Who was that?” “That was CBS News. They want to have two television sets in the block house, and zero in on the paper chart when it comes out, when the signal drops to zero, why, all the scientists jump up and down and say, ‘It’s a neutron star!’” He said, “I don’t think we’re going to do it. And the reason I don’t think we’re going to do it is that if it’s a neutron star, we’ll get all the publicity we want. If it doesn’t work, we don’t want a bunch of TV cameras on us.”
Hirsh:Yes. He seems to be the one to know how to get publicity for his work, for all of your work.
Hirsh:Did he think this would get him more support?
Bowyer:Oh, I think everybody likes recognition for doing a good job, and he was clearly doing a good job.
Hirsh:Yes, right. Let me just set something straight with you. Although I’m working for Homer Newell in his book, not everything that we say is going to go into it. Actually I’m just writing a few papers, some drafts, for him, for his use. I’m using this possibly for my own dissertation at the University of Wisconsin.
Bowyer:Oh, I see. How about that.
Hirsh:So it’s not all going into a book. And even if I do use this for a dissertation, you never know whether that’s going to get published either.
Bowyer:Yeah. Well, you ought to tell Newell that when he writes his book, I want to get a copy. Tell me where I can buy a copy.
Hirsh:OK. NASA is going to publish it. It’s going to come out in a couple of years, not quite yet.
Bowyer:Yes, sure, you know eventually. Anyway I ought to get a copy (chatter omitted …) Or your thesis; well, it doesn’t matter --
Hirsh:To me it does.
Bowyer:Yes, yes. No, no, I told you I’d have it right; that’s fine.
Hirsh:Let me ask you this. It seems to me that the people who got into x-ray astronomy especially were not astronomers.
Hirsh:Why do you think that’s so?
Bowyer:Well, because the techniques involved were physics techniques. And the approach used was out of an entirely different stream than what astronomers were used to. Astronomers were using optical telescopes. The same thing happened in radioastronomy, you see. When radioastronomy first started, the techniques used were electrical engineering, and all the early radio astronomers were in fact electrical engineers. After it started to have promise as a way of discovering the universe, then astronomers got into it. And the same thing has happened in x-ray astronomy; the early people were all physicists, or people involved in space research. In fact, when I left NRL and went to Berkeley, I was the first guy who went into an astronomy department, although my Ph.D. is in physics, and in fact, most of the people now in x-ray astronomy are not in astronomy departments. They’re in space science departments or physics departments. But now there are a fair number of x-ray astronomers and space astronomers, in astronomy departments. Any field is a field that perpetuates itself on the basis of its own concept of how it’s doing things, and then, something comes in from the side. If it has true merit, it gets incorporated into the field.
Hirsh:I see. Did you at NRL have much contact with AS & E?
Bowyer:No. The only guy who had contact with AS & E was Friedman, and competition was extraordinary and even semi-cut throat. Friedman and Giaconni would send each other sarcastic Christmas cards for example. Then some of the stuff they’d pull on each other, you wouldn’t believe.
Hirsh:-- this doesn’t have to go in the book either.
Bowyer:OK. Well, I knew the dirty tricks that AS & E pulled. And I knew the honest, but still questionable things that NRL did. NRL threw all its resources into x-ray astronomy -- it had a lot of resources -- and did the right things. And Friedman once said to me after he went flying around to every place to talk about NRL’s work, “Well, nobody’s even talking about AS & E anymore.” It was clear that he was not worried in the long term about the philosophic-moral implications of writing history books that AS & E had discovered and the first x-ray source. He suggested that now everybody had forgotten AS & E. But, as a matter of fact, they didn’t, because where AS & E lost out in this second round, it was busy on the third round, and it went way ahead on that one. Even before Uhuru it got in there with several things which laid the ground work for Uhuru. And the whole idea of x-ray telescopes. Friedman was not laying the groundwork for those.
Hirsh:So what were some of the AS & E dirty tricks?
Bowyer:All right, the AS & E ones: We had flown a rocket with x-ray instrumentation on board and then Friedman went to the Texas Relativistic Astrophysics conference in 1964, where all the big names hang around. He was going to report on ten new x—ray sources that we got with our large area detector. At that point there was (SCO) X-1, the Crab Nebula, and one other one that we had reported, I think, and one that AS & E reported. So there might have been three or four sources. So Friedman had not said anything about our new stuff, but we had new data on ten sources, so it more than doubled the known number of sources. Friedman made one stop before the Texas Conference and gave a talk at a university. Two or three days before the meeting. He got down to the meeting and was slated to give a talk, and it was going to be this bombshell. At this point there might be only 4 or 5 sources in the whole sky, and he was going to double the known number of sources. This is much more significant, -- doubling from four to ten -- than it would be doubling from 40 to 80.
Bowyer:Anyway, Giacconi had somehow found out from somebody at that university what Friedman was going to talk about, and some of the details. Giacconi then went to the head of the Texas Astrophysics meeting, and insisted that he had to address the conference because he had some outstanding news to report. And he got permission, because of this outstanding stuff, to talk one day before Friedman. And he went in and said, “We now can report on 7 x-ray sources or something like that.” This was indeed astounding, because the number, like I say was 3 or 4 and went to 7, so it doubled the number. The ones he reported on were the ones everybody knew about: (SCO) X-1, Crab Nebula and the galactic center mish mash, and some source in the galactic center. He talked about the basis for each of these, emphasizing AS and E’s results. Then he laid out three more, though he didn’t say where they came from, but they just sort of all went together, and he named three of the seven more that Friedman was going to announce. And his only basis for stating that there were these three more, was that somebody from that university had tipped him off. And it didn’t come out that these were NRL sources. But then the next day, Friedman came up, and he announced that we have discovered ten x-ray sources. Well, fuck that, there were just seven yesterday. After that, a guy from MIT, George Clark,  came up and said, “What do you think of our intelligence system, Herb?” Oh, he was livid, man, I’ll tell you. It was fundamentally crooked, in that he swiped the sources and didn’t give NRL credit; it was extremely Machiavellian that he had it plotted out that he was going to steal Friedman’s thunder.
Hirsh:How did Friedman take that?
Bowyer:Oh, he was incensed. He was incensed.
Hirsh:I see. One thing I’d like to find out, though. AS & E shot up their rocket in June ‘62. They published only in December ‘62. Then your rocket went up in April ‘63?
Hirsh:That means you did everything in four months?
Bowyer:Well, what happened was, they shot in December ‘62 and they started talking about it right away -- that they had seen something. And that was December ‘62, no --
Hirsh:You mean June ‘62?
Bowyer:They shot it June, ‘62?
Hirsh:Right. And they published December ‘62.
Bowyer:OK. What happened was, that they started talking about it long before they published it. And I went around NRL in the summer of ‘62. And then already Friedman knew about it, and knew that non-solar x-ray astronomy was something that he had to chase.
Bowyer:The point is, AS & E had shot a rocket in June, so they might have talked about it a couple of months later, in June, July, August or something, so by the time I came to NRL, Friedman had heard about it and decided that was something that had to be chased. Then I started in the fall -- I guess September. We launched our rocket in March, I think.
Bowyer:I’m not sure. There was one in March and one in May, I guess, or one in April and one in May, something like that. But it was very rapid. So it was clear that very rapidly Friedman had assimilated the significance of the AS & E discovery and said, “We’re going to charge ahead.” The reason it didn’t require very much time to shoot a rocket was because all the systems were already built and the x-ray experiment could just fit into the existing rocket system. But even so, it’s clear that if I hadn’t raised all kinds of hell, we never would have made it. Then instead of five or six months after when Friedman started, we would have had to wait for the next series of rocket experiments which were scheduled for almost a year after that. So it would have been a year and a half until we could have followed up AS & E’s results.
Hirsh:So NRL really picked up on x-ray astronomy very quickly; correct?
Bowyer:Oh yes, yes, yes. Giacconi of AS & E has many attributes similar to Friedman’s, and he was off crowing about his work early on, so AS & E might have gotten the results out in a month or a couple of months, I don’t know. I know that when I got to NRL, Friedman had already decided that he was going to do x-ray astronomy, and hadn’t succeeded in getting anything done. There was just nothing. They said, “We’re going to do this,” but in fact absolutely nothing had happened.
Hirsh:Very good, that winds up my questions. Tell me, do you have any nice juicy letters in your files or anything?
Bowyer:I’m a great throw-awayer.
Hirsh:Oh, you’re kidding. You’re not an historian.
Bowyer:No, I’m not an historian.
Hirsh:That’s too bad, because the type of stuff I find in files is terribly sterile: just covering letters for proposals, and things like that. They don’t really give me much flavor for the times. And I’m afraid I have to do more to document my case than just what people are telling me.
Bowyer:Yes. You know, that’s why oral history is part of the anthropology department, real history is part of the history department.
Hirsh:Right. So there’s nothing like that that you can recall?
Bowyer:Not that I have, baby.
Hirsh:Well, too bad. Too bad for me again.
Bowyer:You know, not a thing. I might have some stuff about the beginning parts of my independent career, but I think I’ve seen started to throw that out.
Hirsh:You don’t have any funny comments in your notebooks, anything like that?
Bowyer:I even throw my notebooks out when they get outdated, man.
Hirsh:You’re kidding. Can I suggest that you don’t?
Bowyer:Well, as historian you can suggest that, but see, I got my own views of what I’ve gotta get done.
Hirsh:That’s true. Well, if you want to get rid of them, send them to me, I’ll file them somewhere. I’m serious, why not?
Hirsh:OK. Let me ask you this finally, is it OK to quote from you in my work?
Bowyer:Yes, it’s fine. I’m a controversial figure, and you shouldn’t quote me in such a way that I’m being only hostile to AS & E or only hostile to NRL.
Hirsh:Right. Don’t worry.
Bowyer:I don’t mind being controversial, but I would want any way you quoted me to support the view that I’ve given you, which was I think balanced.
Bowyer:You understand, you can talk pleasantly to a newspaperman and find out what he’s really after is a slashing attack. And he’s going to screw somebody, so he can sell his newspaper. Well, you don’t have to sell your thesis or your book.
Hirsh:No, I’m not going to do that.
Bowyer:So you can quote me. I just don’t want to be the heavy in the scene. I don’t mind being controversial. OK.
Hirsh:OK. And finally, I’m working in conjunction with Spencer Weart who is at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. He has asked me to ask people I talk to whether it would be OK to deposit this tape and a transcript of our conversation with the Center. Would that be OK?
Bowyer:Hm. You’ve --
Hirsh:-- before you say yes or no, if you do have doubts, after there’s a transcript, and before I would deposit it, I would give it to you for your comments --
Bowyer:I’m aware of what I said, that’s all, and the discussion is such that I think you’d provide a balanced report of whatever it was. But will the next guy?
Hirsh:Right. I see, yes. Well, again, you can put conditions on the depositing of the tape or whatever, the transcript, after you see it.
Bowyer:OK. All right. Fine. But let’s put a condition that before somebody uses it, or quotes from it, they call me up, all right? Yeah, sure. I can imagine another historian from Giacconi’s crowd who would be out to show how incompetent NRL was. The thing is that both Friedman and Giacconi are getting older and mellower, so it’s not as likely, but at the time, they were really very hostile to each other. (laughter) All right. End of game. OK, see you later.
Hirsh:OK, very good, thanks a lot, bye bye.
Dr. Talbot A. Chubb, (born 1923) has been at the N.R.L. since 1950 and was interviewed by R. Hirsh previously.
Dr. Herbert Friedman (born 1916) has been at the N.R.L. since 1940 and was the chief scientist for many rocket astronomy experiments. He is currently the chief scientist at NRL's E.O. Hulburt Center for Space Research.
Dr. Riccardo Giacconi (born 1931), of American Science and Engineering, Inc. Dr. Giacconi & others from teh company discovered the first non-solar x-ray source in June, 1962.
Dr. Edward T. Byram, also of the N.R.L.
Goddard Space Flight Center, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) center, in Greenbelt, Maryland.
S. Bowyer, E.T. Byram, T.A. Chubb, H. Friedman, "x-ray Sources in the Galaxy," Nature 201 (1964): 1307-1308.
Richard Tousey (born 1908) was one of the original upper atmosphere rocket researchers at N.R.L. He joined N.R.L. in 1941 and since 1958 has been head of the Rocket Spectroscopy Branch.
The Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory supported AS & E's early x-ray astronomy experiments.
It was 1965 when Bowyer received his Ph.D. from Catholic University.
Atmosphere and Astrophysics Division.
to become an assistant professor at Catholic University in 1966 and then an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967.
The experiment entailed observing the x-ray emission from the Crab nebula as the moon gradually passed in front of the source. If the emission faded gradually, the Crab source would be assumed to be diffuse in nature. If the emission dropped to zerio quickly, however, the source must be very localized and small, possibly a neutron star. The results of teh experiment were reported in S. Bowyer, E.T. Byram, T.A. Chubb and H. Friedman, "Lunar Occultation of X-ray Emission from the Crab Nebula," SCIENCE 146 (1964): 912-17.
Uhuru (also known as the Small Astronomical Satellite - A or Explorer 42) was the first orbiting x-ray astronomy satellite. Launched on 12 December 1970, it was used to develop a catalog of celestial x-ray sources by systematic scanning of the celestial sphere.
George W. Clark (born 1928) has been a professor at MIT since 1952 and associated with AS & E since the company was founded in 1958.
Session I | Session II