Oral History Transcript — Dr. Dorrit Hoffleit
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Dorrit Hoffleit; August 4, 1979
ABSTRACT: General oral history of her early life in Pennsylvania; German background; training at Radcliffe and Harvard College Observatory; and training at Harvard, Yale and the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Includes commentary on growth of research interests; the administration of the Harvard College Observatory under Harlow Shapley and Donald Menzel; ballistics research during World War II; and woman in science. Specific research areas discussed include spectroscopy, luminosity criteria, astrometry and variable stars.
DeVorkin:You were mentioning that your parents had gotten away from their families. Your family origins were in Germany?
Hoffleit:My parents both come from East Prussia, my mother from Konigsberg, where her father was a physics professor. Sanio was my mother’s maiden name, and her first name was Kate. The Sanio grandfather was Paul, who was the physics professor. And my father’s father first name, I don’t recall. One reason I’m even hazier about my father’s ancestry than my mother’s is that my parents separated, not legally but by personal choice, when I was a small child. So I heard more about my mother’s side of the family than that about my father’s. But I think this (paternal) grandfather was in real estate in the town of Friedland. I’m told that he was an extremely nice person, somewhat of a dictator but still very elegant. They lived in the largest house in the small town of Friedland-a big shot in a small place. My father left home because I think his mother was a bit narrow minded. When a relative wanted to put him through college and all that sort of thing, she objected because she felt that if the relative did that for the one child, they would have to do it for the other three children too. No discrimination. He was the oldest and the only bright one in the family. And so the relatives, I think it was his grandparents, wanted to put him through college. So he just left there and came to America and did all sorts of odd jobs, but never really made very much of himself over here. He really should have been a biology professor,—or in agriculture—because he was very much interested in experimental farming, which of course in a foreign country is the best way to go broke real fast. But he always had the academic interest in nature study, wildlife, and so on, but without the formal training, he just got nowhere with it.
DeVorkin:Were you aware of that before the separation of your mother and father?
Hoffleit:I was aware of his tremendous interest in these things. We had a farm in Alabama. That’s where I was born. There was prejudice against foreigners down there; still the Civil War prejudice. They bought a big farm that had belonged to some people who had been prosperous before the Civil War and lost more and more as time went on. The original owners would have resented anyone who would have bought their property, particularly a foreign person. There was even a case of arson. After the house was burned down, my parents came back to Pennsylvania and father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad off and on for many many years, but he always had this hankering to go back to the farm and try out something new. Then, when he couldn’t make a go of it, he’d come back and work for the railroad a bit longer. Finally he just went off and did the best he could; by the time Herb and I (my brother and I) were old enough to earn, instead of having Father’s support, we were supporting him so he could stay and enjoy his life down there, doing what he liked in the way of farming.
DeVorkin:When did you move to Pennsylvania?
Hoffleit:When I was nine months old. But my parents lived in Pennsylvania before I was born; went down and bought the farm; then after the fire, went back to Pennsylvania.
DeVorkin:So that would be 1907, 1908?
Hoffleit:Yes, the fire was shortly before Christmas of 1907, so it was 1907 or January, 1908, somewhere in the middle of that winter.
DeVorkin:When did your mother and father separate? How old were you?
Hoffleit:I was eight.
DeVorkin:Eight years old. Was there any involvement with World War I?
Hoffleit:That could have had something to do with it, because as a child I experienced a tremendous amount of national prejudice— you know how children will have their little war games and all that. Well, I was always THE enemy. I got beat up in school continually. And my father was a very reticent person. He’d suffer in silence. I’m sure he went through tortures during World War I. Mother went through plenty too, but since he was a silent sufferer, I think he probably ran away from the city life hoping that going to the country he’d be away from that type of discrimination. And maybe he was right. He was a very kindly person and loved all animals and all children, so he always made friends with all the children in the farming neighborhood, which was nice for him.
DeVorkin:Where were you in Pennsylvania?
Hoffleit:Newcastle, right across the line from Youngstown, Ohio.
DeVorkin:Is that as Germanic as central Pennsylvania?
Hoffleit:No. I think there are probably more Scotsmen there than any other kind of people. Probably not very many Irish, because I think we knew exactly two Catholic families there.
DeVorkin:As you were growing up, then, you must have gone to schools.
Hoffleit:I went to public schools in western Pennsylvania.
DeVorkin:Are there any school experiences that you feel are significant to your career, your interests?
Hoffleit:Well, nothing much, The World War provided unhappy experiences, but there were lots of really happy experiences there too. (Pause)
DeVorkin:When were your first courses in science, in public school?
Hoffleit:Well, that was the era when there wasn’t much in the way of science. I went to high school in Cambridge. We’d just recently moved to Cambridge. My brother was 14 when he entered Harvard.
Hoffleit:There were two reasons for our going to Cambridge. We sold our cottage in Pennsylvania as a means for educating my brother. My mother had completely the opposite philosophy from my father’s parents. Her feeling was that if the oldest and brightest member of the family got a good education, he’d take care of the rest of us, which is exactly what happened. If I’d stayed in Pennsylvania I never would have gone to Radcliffe. If I’d gone to college, it would have been one of the small nearby ones that didn’t cost too much. This way, I went to the best and lived at home.
DeVorkin:Your brother was 14?
Hoffleit:He was 14 when he passed his entrance requirements, but his birthday is in the middle of the summer so he was actually 15 when he arrived at Harvard.
DeVorkin:How much older was he than you?
Hoffleit:Oh, 20 months, something like that.
DeVorkin:So you were relatively close.
Hoffleit:We were fairly close together. I started high school the same year that he started college, so it was a good time for transition for both of us.
DeVorkin:That would have been an early start for you for high school?
Hoffleit:Well, I was a year ahead in Pennsylvania, where they wouldn’t let children start school till they were 6 but I was allowed to start in the middle of the year, just after I became 6. Mother couldn’t keep me at home, I always ran after my brother. So if I ran after him to school, I might as well go to school too. Besides I already could read. But when I came to Cambridge, I was no longer ahead, because in Cambridge they started at five as a matter of course. So it was almost as though I were being demoted.
DeVorkin:It’s not exactly clear to me how you moved to Cambridge. Was it predestined that your brother was going to Harvard?
Hoffleit:Well, he went through high school in three years and was tops in just about everything, and that’s where he wanted to go. Mother wanted the best for him.
DeVorkin:What was his particular interest?
DeVorkin:And your particular interest, as you moved to Cambridge?
Hoffleit:Well, in my early years, when I was a small child in school, my big ambition in life was to become the drawing teacher. Not only did I like drawing, but I liked the drawing teacher. And everybody liked the drawing teacher. As I started college, I was torn between mathematics and fine arts. I had a hard time making up my mind which of the two to pursue.
DeVorkin:What drew you to mathematics finally?
Hoffleit:In high school I got the best grades in mathematics. I never thought anything about arithmetic and algebra, but I found geometry was like the fine arts of mathematics. That was my dish. It was really an awakening, getting into a geometry class. All the students would say “Oh, that horrible stuff,” and so on, but here I found myself all agog. They’d all told me it was going to be so bad. Very few children like mathematics when it’s forced upon them. And here it was sort of the first revelation I had. I took education for granted before that— you take what you’re supposed to and that’s that.
DeVorkin:Did you have any interest in science? Was there any contact with science?
Hoffleit:In my high school in Cambridge, they had exactly two science courses of which you took one your senior year. You had your choice between physics and chemistry. The choice was normally based upon work load: if you had an easy program with lots of spare time, you’d take chemistry because it would be fun messing around with things. But if you had a heavy schedule with five courses or six instead of the normal four, then you took physics, because you didn’t have enough time for lab work, I took physics.
DeVorkin:You took physics. Did you have any contact with astronomy while you were in high school?
Hoffleit:None at all. For people who wanted to go to college, the emphasis then, was on the major requirements— particularly Harvard requirements because they were right next to Harvard— and the greatest stress was on languages, which was too bad for me because that’s what I was poorest in, I can’t learn a foreign language.
DeVorkin:It sounds like your brother was quite facile with languages. Hoff left: Oh, he’ll take up any language and be happy with playing around with it. He always calls me illiterate, and I agree with him.
DeVorkin:Was it because of your brother’s going to Harvard and your being in Cambridge that drew you to Radcliffe?
Hoffleit:Oh yes. Yes, as I say, I probably would have gone to a small college if I’d stayed in Pennsylvania. But Radcliffe was nearby, and as I facetiously tell everybody, I went to Radcliffe because my mother didn’t want my brilliant brother to be ashamed of his sister, so she had to have an education too.
DeVorkin:Is there any truth in that?
Hoffleit:I think so, because I was not a good prospect. My high school grades weren’t what you’d expect for getting into Radcliffe. I had to work furiously since the major requirements were the very subjects that I was poorest in.
DeVorkin:But you did get in.
Hoffleit:I got in. Yes, but I had to take some makeup exams. In those days, not so many people went to college, and so if you flunked on some of the College Board exams, you could take makeup exams in September. And if you passed those, then they might take you in. You’d have a fairly good chance of getting in if you passed the makeup exams. So, I had to take history over again. That was very embarrassing because we had practice College Board exams in high school, and the first College Board exam we had was in history. The teacher was very disgruntled about how badly the whole class did— “Did ANYBODY pass?” one student asked. Yes, one person passed. I passed.
DeVorkin:Let me clarify this. Your support was still from your family back in Europe?
Hoffleit:Oh no. My father came to America, as I said, when he was quite a young man, in order to make a life for himself and not be under his father’s thumb.
DeVorkin:So you had no contact with the European family?
Hoffleit:No. The way my mother met my father was that her step-mother, whom she detested, was a cousin of my father’s. That’s how she got acquainted with him. Personally, I don’t quite understand—if they hate part of the family, how they can imagine they can get along with another part of it. But he went back to Germany to get married and then they came over, and I think poverty is what stood in their way. If he’d had a college education, everything would have been fine.
DeVorkin:I see. Your father came first to the United States, then went back to get married, then came back.
DeVorkin:Then both you and your brother were born here?
DeVorkin:But what was the source of your support, while you were going through high school and college?
Hoffleit:My father was supporting us to a certain extent. The major support was, of course, what Mother had obtained when she sold the cottage in Pennsylvania. She hoped to be able to buy one in Cambridge, but she just didn’t know Cambridge. However, the proceeds of her cottage did pull us through my undergraduate years. My brother got pretty high scholarships, so his scholarships not only took care of his personal expenses but contributed to the family expenses too. We really were poor. But we were proud poor, because my mother’s whole ambition was to get the family back on the footing of what her father had been. And my father didn’t live up to that, nor did he really want to.
DeVorkin:Let’s talk about your move to Radcliffe, and your years there; your teachers. Were the first few years there standard— all standard courses, standard curriculum?
Hoffleit:Oh no. Harvard had (I think it’s a good system), a system of concentration and distribution. Everybody had to take English A. You had to pass that regardless of your level. In addition to English A, during the four years, you had to take 16 full courses, and four of those 16 had to be in different fields, not related specifically to the field of concentration. It was “concentration and distribution,” not “major/minor” type curriculum. You had one field of concentration which you picked at the end of your freshman year. You could change that by the end of your sophomore year if you wanted to, but very few people did. Sometimes they might switch back and forth between history and literature, but generally, a decision is final at the end of the freshman year. So it’s a good idea to take subjects that you think you might want in your field of concentration, and then in addition as many of the distribution requirements as necessary. For distribution you had to take one course in literature, not the English A composition course, which could be any language; one in history; one in either philosophy or mathematics; and the fourth one in science. If your field of concentration was any one of those, then you could take any other field. In other words, if you were going to major in science, you might take fine arts for distribution instead of science and so on. I’ve forgotten how many full courses one needed for concentration. I think it was eight, but it was a few more if you went out for honors than if you just went out for straight graduation.
DeVorkin:What brought you to your choice of concentration? It was mathematics, wasn’t it?
Hoffleit:Yes. I struggled very hard between mathematics and fine arts, and so far as my grades went, I got the same grade, B, in both of them the first year there. I went to the dean and asked if I could combine the two, I wasn’t very explicit in those days. I didn’t talk very much. So I don’t think I had my arguments very clear. The dean said I couldn’t possibly concentrate in fine arts and mathematics. Now, if only I just would have stressed the point that if one were going to go into, for example, architecture, one would need both! But I just was too timid to argue anything, so I had to make the choice.
DeVorkin:Were you interested in architecture?
Hoffleit:Oh, I was interested in art as such, yes. So I thought it over and I thought probably it would be better for me to do mathematics, because if I went into fine arts, I’d go into fine arts history, and while I liked analyzing paintings and dabbling in things of that sort, I probably didn’t have enough background in history and literature which would be rather important for college fine arts courses where the practical end of things is not as important as theory. Theory of design and all that were no problem, but I didn’t know enough about the Bible and things like that to interpret the paintings well enough. So I might have had to go into the kinds of courses in which I would have been poor. So I thought, I’ll go into mathematics.
DeVorkin:Who was this dean, do you recall?
Hoffleit:The dean is now Mrs. Cronkite. She was Dean Brown at the time. She was head of the graduate school at Radcliffe in her later years. I got to like her extremely well later, but that was my first encounter with her. Of course she knew that the way Radcliffe was set up, a joint major in those two fields would have been a little out of order, because no course that I would have taken in either field would have tied in with the other at that point. If it had been all geometry, then I would have had a strong point, but mighty little of the math concentration is straight geometry.
DeVorkin:As you went through your math courses then, in your sophomore and junior years, you had to take area requirements then in science?
Hoffleit:The only requirement in science for a math concentration was this one distribution course. But I took physics and astronomy my second year. And after that, I took quite a lot of physics courses. I got exactly two courses in astronomy in Radcliffe because that’s all they offered. For the second one, you had to wait until you got four classmates to take the second course before it would be given. And if I’d started a year earlier I would have gotten a second course and then maybe would have been able to take graduate courses as an undergraduate. The year before they offered celestial mechanics because they had four students then. But I wasn’t ready for it at that time, so I had to wait till my senior year for the second course, and the only way to get four students to take it was to accept a student who initially wanted another course because “she was so intrigued with the way Professor (Harlan) Stetson read Alfred Noyes’ poetry to the freshman class.” She was an English major, so you can imagine, we had a hard time picking the subject matter for our second course. We had one graduate student in physics, I was a math major, there was a junior who was a math major, and this English major. The physics major of course wanted theoretical astrophysics. I wanted celestial mechanics because of the mathematics.
DeVorkin:Is that what interested you in astronomy at that time?
Hoffleit:Well, since I was a math major, that was THE thing to get. The third girl, the other math major, didn’t care what Stetson gave—she was having boy friend troubles that year— as long as she got credit for the course, that’s all she cared about.
DeVorkin:Who were your classmates? Did any of them do any work in astronomy or physics professionally later on?
Hoffleit:The physics graduate student in that class ended up at Harvard Observatory, the same as I did. She tried for a PhD in physics, which she didn’t succeed in getting, but she got a job at the observatory and did very well. That was Margaret Olmsted. I don’t know if you know her. She died half a dozen or so years ago.
DeVorkin:How did Harlan Stetson come to teach this course? Wasn’t he at MIT?
Hoffleit:Oh no. Harlan Stetson was at Harvard for quite a number of years. He started the magazine called THE TELESCOPE (one of the two predecessors of SKY AND TELESCOPE) at Perkins Observatory, as a propaganda leaflet for the large new telescope in Ohio. When THE TELESCOPE transferred from Ohio to Harvard Observatory, that’s the time that Stetson left Ohio, and went to MIT. At MIT he was not strictly an astronomer any more. The reason he was a failure at Ohio with that big high propaganda telescope was that he did very very little with it, because his major interest was in solar terrestrial relationships. I took a course with him on solar terrestrial relationships, the first year after I graduated (before he went to Perkins Obs.). That was really good fun. But he just didn’t make good use of what equipment he had at Perkins because he wanted completely different sorts of equipment for solar terrestrial work. I don’t think he was ever a regular employee at MIT. He was more in the nature of a consultant there to set up a laboratory in Lincoln or somewhere for his solar terrestrial work. He was assistant professor at Harvard I think already when Herb started college in 1920, and he must have left Harvard about 1930. In the whole ten years, he never advanced from being assistant professor. Different from around here, these days.
DeVorkin:Yes, So he was your first contact with astronomy?
Hoffleit:Yes. Well, first formal contact. I’ve always said, half facetiously but half in earnest, that I became an astronomer in spite of Stetson and not on account of him. This was because the way he taught astronomy, you had to have a native interest in the field itself. Now, Margaret Olmsted, on the other hand, thought she never had a better teacher than Stetson. But that was easily accounted for. She was a graduate student. She came from a prestigious family. I’m not sure whether she was related to the Olmsted who was here at Yale. She had strong interests in meteors also so there may have been a connection. But she’s the descendant of the Olmsted landscape architects—you may have seen a good bit about them in the literature in recent times. Her father was a prominent landscape gardener in the Boston area, whose uncle as well as step—father, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the famous landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, and also the area in Washington, that monumental area.
Hoffleit:And he designed most of the parks in the Boston area. He wasn’t really Margaret’s grandfather, but it was her uncle once removed or whatever you call it.
DeVorkin:That’s interesting. From the biographical sketch that Robin had of you in STAR AND SKY, there seemed to be a very early strong interest in meteors.
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I always had an interest in the sky as such, but in those days, the interest was very largely because of the beauty of it. All my interests in my early years centered around fine arts. This was beauty. I was looking for beauty everywhere. I had a very curious experience when I was a little girl. One little girl’s parents took the two of us to a church fair where there was a booth where you could get your fortune told. So Lenore said, “Aren’t you afraid to go in there?” I said, “Let’s see what they’ll tell me.”—this was what amounts to an astrology den in a church fair, your fortune told by looking at your hands or something. So anyway we paid our dime or whatever to go into this attraction at the church fair, and Lenore got the usual story, about how she would meet a handsome young man when she grew up, etc. Then the lady looked me over. Of course she had something over her face so I couldn’t see who she was, and probably wouldn’t have known anyway. What do you suppose, for a fortune, that female told me? She said, “You must remember, my child, that everything in the world is not beautiful.” (Laughter)
DeVorkin:What’s that supposed to mean?
Hoffleit:I don’t know. She may have known me and known that I was always admiring the beauties of nature and the beauties of things around me, and I was admiring the beauties of the skies when we were observing shooting stars. Of course you observe these things and soon you start asking why and how come.
DeVorkin:Were you generally known then, as a child, as someone interested in these things?
Hoffleit:No, this business of observing shooting stars was purely a family thing. My mother didn’t encourage too much contact with other children partly because of the German ancestry in World War I times.
DeVorkin:Did you have any accent while you were growing up? Your parents did?
Hoffleit:Of course I grew up in America completely. I never did. My first visit to Germany was in 1938 at age 31.
DeVorkin:I was thinking, whether your parents spoke German primarily at home?
Hoffleit:Oh, we had two languages. I grew up completely bilingual. But I could never talk German to any stranger. German is what you think when you’re home. When you go outside the door, you stop thinking in German and you talk English. It’s as simple as all that. And I still have difficulty talking to strangers in German because when you’re talking to strangers, you talk English. You have to stop and think. It’s almost as if you do some awkward translating when you’re in the wrong environment. Of course, once I go to Germany, where I have not been very often, but the few and very short periods that I’ve been there, I’ve no problem in expressing myself in German. Of course they know that I have an accent in German, but I don’t think that I ever had a German accent in my American language.
DeVorkin:From your meteor interests, moving back into your college years, did you do any reading in astronomy, popular reading, magazines, when you were a child?
Hoffleit:Oh, of course those types of magazines weren’t as prevalent then as they are now. But I read things here and there, yes. I can’t recall that I made any particular effort to look for such magazines.
DeVorkin:No particular textbooks.
DeVorkin:You didn’t find anything like that in the library?
DeVorkin:Well, back to Stetson then. What textbook did he use, to your recollection?
Hoffleit:F.R. Moulton’s INTRODUCTION, and being a pauper, I got a second hand edition which was the previous edition to the most recent one. The edition that I used still said that the Andromeda Nebula was probably the nearest nebulosity in the sky because of its large angular diameter. (laughter)
DeVorkin:I can see how that might be slightly dated. This must have been l925, ’26?
DeVorkin:When did you become aware of the great changes that were taking place in our conception of the structure of the universe, which were happening right at that time? Hoff left: Well, I think under Stetson’s tutelage in 1925, I didn’t catch onto much of that. That was mostly the basics, how things are, now how they got to be thought of as becoming that way.
DeVorkin:In his introductory course, which I assume was general astronomy?
Hoffleit:That was general astronomy, and this other course that we got my senior year was simply practical astronomy. He made a good compromise on our various talents during the first semester. He turned us loose on the transit instrument, and that was real good fun. When I’d gotten all the observations I really needed for whatever exercise it was, I turned the transit instrument on Polaris. Boy! You can imagine Polaris creeping over five successive transit wires. It’s a real revelation. You know, it’s a whole degree away from the Pole. (Laughter)
DeVorkin:Right. That must have taken all night.
Hoffleit:Oh, I didn’t finish waiting for it. But you know, you really get a feel for rotation then, when you get a star on the equator, and you just click those buttons almost as fast as you can click them, and then you go up to the Pole, and you wait all night.
DeVorkin:Exactly. That’s an interesting educational exercise. I should try that out with my students.
Hoffleit:That was real good. During the second semester, he took care of Margaret Olmsted because she was a graduate student. He sort of sneaked her into his office to do some research for him, as part of our course. But he didn’t have any interest at all in the rest of us. We had a laboratory room up in an attic which had an old set of the ASTROPHYSICS JOURNAL in it. So I holed up in there and read all of the papers I could find on celestial photography. Toward the end of the course he came into the room and said, “Well, I don’t know what I can give you an examination on. I think you’d better write an essay for me.” In those days nobody had a typewriter, or maybe a few of the elite like Margaret Olmsted would have owned a typewriter, but that wasn’t common then. So he wanted a double spaced, typewritten essay of a certain number of pages, something like 20, in lieu of the final examination. I imagine that my English friend probably wrote some Alfred Noyes poetry takeoff for hers. But anyway, I wrote about the history and the techniques of celestial photography, because I read all of the old J.A. Parkhurst papers—first thing in the Ap.J.—I had a grand time doing that. But I know he didn’t even read the essay. Anyway, he wanted this thing typed, and I groaned. I can’t type. I don’t know anybody who has a typewriter. He said, “Well, I can’t read my own handwriting, how can you expect me to be able to read yours?”
DeVorkin:Oh boy. So what did you finally do? Hoff left: I went down to the Square and I paid my good money to get it typed.
DeVorkin:Pretty expensive at that time?
Hoffleit:Yes, for a person in my economic bracket it was pretty bad.
DeVorkin:Did you eventually publish something on the history of astronomical photography? I believe you did.
Hoffleit:Oh, I have my pamphlet on some firsts in astronomical photography. That was written in a terrific hurry too, because we were going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first daguerreotype taken with the 15—inch telescope, the first photograph of a star, Vega, a daguerreotype. And I was supposed to get up an exhibit for that. I set up a pretty extensive exhibit in the Fogg Art Museum, and after looking all this stuff up, I wrote it up into an essay. First I was supposed to have only a reasonably short article in SKY AND TELESCOPE but then it just snowballed and Harlow Shapley was real nice and got the whole thing published. But it was produced in a terrific hurry, because if you decide you’re going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of something and start thinking about it not more than six months ahead of time, the pace is hectic. I guess I worked a lot faster then I do now. I couldn’t put all that together in six months now,
DeVorkin:That appeared as a separate publication.
Hoffleit:It’s a separate publication. It’s printed by SKY AND TELESCOPE. It’s in the library here.
DeVorkin:Continuing our discussion of Radcliffe. You’d been taking a number of courses in astronomy. Were you getting interested in astronomy?
Hoffleit:Oh, I was always interested in it. But you see, it never occurred to me that this would be a practical thing to devote my life to.
Hoffleit:I thought that probably as a woman I would go into teaching my favorite geometry, in high school, when I graduated. But this was verging on the Depression and jobs were very scarce. That’s why I didn’t get any job immediately when I graduated. So I went back to graduate school, and took three half year courses in math and one half year course with my friend Harlan Stetson.
DeVorkin:This is after your graduation in 1928?
Hoffleit:Yes, And that’s how I got into solar—terrestrial relationships with Stetson. I liked him better then. He forgot about me too then, but he gave me enough to do so I didn’t need to see him anyway.
DeVorkin:Was there any question in your mind that you were not going to be a career person in some way?
Hoffleit:I was waiting for a job to teach geometry.
DeVorkin:That was it.
Hoffleit:But then at Christmas time, I got an offer of a 40 cents an hour job at Harvard Observatory, looking for variable stars. I was supposed to try it out during Christmas recess. So I went up there for Christmas recess, and if I wanted the job and they wanted me, then I would start when the first semester was over in February. This was Christmas, ‘28.
DeVorkin:And the offer came directly from Shapley?
Hoffleit:Well no, it came through the Radcliffe employment office. I guess the way it happened was that Shapley got a fund from the Swope family because Henrietta Swope was working at Harvard and they gave the daughter an assistant.
DeVorkin:Was that how it was supposed to go?
Hoffleit:Yes. Henrietta’s father was president of the General Electric Co. in New York, and he was very proud of his daughter’s nice job at Harvard. So Shapley indicated to the Radcliffe employment office that he had funds for two assistants. So I and another 1928 classmate who hadn’t gotten a job yet were up there Christmas recess to try this out, and I thought: “boy, this is Heaven itself.” But my friend didn’t turn up again. Months later, I saw her down at Harvard Square. Meantime, after I had decided that I liked this job but before I really started doing it full time, I got an offer from somebody at Bryn Mawr to do some statistics, at $125 a month, which was approximately twice the salary I would get at Harvard Observatory. And I sat myself right down and by return mail said “No thank you, I’ve found a job I like.” I mean, that struck me so forcibly. Here was something I could do, I liked doing, I wanted to do, and 40 cents an hour to me was fine compared with nothing at all. But the differential, of twice the salary, wasn’t as important. It was what I was going to do that was more important. I might have worked into something beautiful on the more highly paid job, but I never regretted that. The same thing happened at the end of the war. They wanted me to stay at Aberdeen, and I went back to Harvard. They promised me a terrific raise if I’d stay at Aberdeen, and instead I went back to Harvard at 40 percent of what I was getting before the raise at Aberdeen. The Harvard plate stacks are the only place in the wide world where I belong. It’s still true.
DeVorkin:How did your mother and brother react to your decision to do this kind of work?
Hoffleit:Oh, I think my mother was as proud as a peacock about my being there. The 40 cents irked her a whole lot, when she knew what other people were getting in other fields. Non—college graduates were getting a lot more. On the other hand, it was Harvard, and it was a field that her father was much interested in. He was a physicist, but she remembers that he had a telescope and showed her things in the telescope when she was a little girl. So she was absolutely thrilled, because she felt that, even more than my brother, I was following in her father’s footsteps. So she was thrilled.
DeVorkin:So there was no pressure from her for you to try to get married or anything like that?
Hoffleit:Oh no. I think she would have been happy if I had. But I think she was happier that I followed my own pursuits.
DeVorkin:OK. You started working at Harvard College Observatory.
DeVorkin:What were your first impressions? What kind of a place was it?
Hoffleit:Well, it was great. Oh, let me go back to this classmate of mine who tried out for the same job. I met her several months later down at Harvard Square, and I said, “What happened to you? Why didn’t you come back?” She said “I’d rather die in the gutter than do that.” I said, “What are you doing?” “Dying in the gutter.” Imagine the contrast.
DeVorkin:Did she explain why?
Hoffleit:Well, I think she preferred literature. She may not have had as good eyesight as I did.
DeVorkin:That’s an interesting thing. You had very good eyesight?
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I had superb eyesight in my youth. Now it’s a little different. But after all, one does wear out.
DeVorkin:You were listed as a research assistant at Harvard starting in 1929. Did you do any telescope work directly?
Hoffleit:Very little. After I’d been there a while, I became a graduate student simultaneously with having a job there, and when Dr. Opik was there for a short time to teach a seminar, which was crammed into I think six weeks for a whole semester course, he had me using the 15—inch telescope to see if I could see any meteorite impacts on the moon. You do this during the dark of the moon, with the biggest telescope you can get, and see if you can see any sparks on the moon.
DeVorkin:Oh, looking for the actual impact?
Hoffleit:Yes. A negative result is as good as a positive, because it’s for statistical purposes. You have probably heard about earthshine on the moon, but if you’re doing this kind of a job for Dr. Opik, you’re aware that earthshine on the moon is the most efficient mirror that you ever did see. The glare of the sunlight from the dark side of the moon makes you feel as though the eye that’s at the telescope is way up there, and the other one is way back here. You get retinal fatigue in no time flat.
DeVorkin:Yes. I can imagine. How long did you do that?
Hoffleit:Oh, I’ve forgotten. I had a little note many many years later in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I think I sent that in as a recollections piece, when somebody else was trying something similar. But anyway it wasn’t over a very long period of time. You know, Cambridge is not the place for lots of clear nights during the dark of the moon.
DeVorkin:You were working with Opik, and you were also an assistant to Henrietta Swope?
Hoffleit:Well, I started out by being under this grant from Henrietta Swope’s father.
DeVorkin:This was actually money from the Swope family?
Hoffleit:Yes. Of course I didn’t stay on that forever, because that was a discrete grant, not something that kept going forever.
DeVorkin:What did you do with her? Was it variable star work?
Hoffleit:She was in charge of hunting for variable stars in the Milky Way, and so she was really my first supervisor showing me what to do and so on.
DeVorkin:But she in turn was working for someone else?
Hoffleit:She was working for Shapley.
DeVorkin:How was it, working for her?
Hoffleit:Well, I hate to say it, but in no time flat, I decided that she was not very brilliant. She was very young, of course. She was older than I, but still rather young for being a supervisor. I think that, while she was doing very excellent work, she really did not understand the work. That is, she understood the work from the standpoint of what to do, how to do it, and she did a very creditable piece of work, very excellent. But I had a feeling she was doing it as a job more than as a research project as such. That is the research came automatically rather than something planned. She was doing her assignment and doing it very very well. But I didn’t feel that she was an original thinker. And a few years after I started working in that field, I was even more forcibly struck by that, because she did not explain to me anything at all about spurious periods. I published a lot of spurious periods because I got assigned a region in which there were small numbers of plates, and if you have a small number of plates, you can easily get a period which doesn’t mean anything, and it was no less a person that E. Hertzsprung who found the spurious periods in my publications.
DeVorkin:Oh, he would. He would find it in everybody’s publications.
Hoffleit:Yes, So anyway, with her experience (she’d had a two year head start on me in this kind of work) she should know about spurious periods. I thought that was very very serious. But at any rate, before I knew about spurious periods, I’d already sized her up as a good person to show you how to do things, but once you caught on, you didn’t need her any more.
DeVorkin:Did she come to Harvard first, before the Swope money was available?
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I’m pretty sure of that. Miss Harwood did tell me that the Swopes had a summer home on Nantucket, and Miss (Margaret) Harwood of course knew Mr. Swope. I never met him. He told Margaret Harwood that if his daughter only showed more interest, he’d buy her any kind of telescope she’d want, but Henrietta evidently was not interested in doing any observing. Only the desk work part. So I really don’t know, but I rather suspect that she went to Harvard independently of her father’s means. Knowing Shapley, I wouldn’t be surprised but what he might have taken her, hoping that he could pump funds into Harvard. He was good at raising funds, and so getting people like that in is to his credit. He knew that if he’d take an able daughter from a family like that, why, he could multiply his resources that way. He was very clever at those things.
DeVorkin:Oh yes. What was your first contact with Shapley?
Hoffleit:At that time. I’d heard him give a lecture years before. I guess the first year we were in Cambridge, we went to some public lectures. I don’t know whether it was the Lowell Institute or at the Observatory. Anyway, I remember that I heard Shapley talking, and I was very very puzzled because from the way he slurred words together, it sounded as though he was talking about “Magic Lantern,” whereas he was talking about “Magellanic.” (Laughter)
DeVorkin:That’s interesting. What did you think of him? What were your first impressions of Shapley?
Well, I liked him, I was a little awe struck because of course, the only contacts I’d had with professional people were purely as professors. And Harvard professors didn’t make much contact with their students, you know. You sat in a lecture. I got well acquainted with one of my Harvard professors because he happened to walk home in the same direction I did after class, and he was very very nice. That was W.C. Graustein. He was professor of Mathematics. He was my favorite professor as an undergraduate. Not many years later he got killed in an auto accident. His wife taught at Wellesley. She was a mathematician too. He’d gone to see her at Wellesley, and he drove back in one of those sleety ice storm days, and his car skidded. There are two cemeteries in Cambridge, the Cambridge Cemetery and the Mt. Auburnm and there’s a very sparsely traveled road between them.
He probably took that road just to avoid traffic, and his, car skidded and ran into the granite pillars that were on the entrance to the Cambridge Cemetery— crushed his car there— and I imagine that he didn’t die from physical injuries but from heart attack. This was just a few years after I graduated. Anyway, Shapley was always interested in people, and I think, if he wanted to, he always knew how to put people at ease. He sized me up right away, that this was something I really wanted, so he could get away with minimal pay. I remember, at the end of the war, Henrietta came up to the observatory just as I was returning. (I stayed at Aberdeen a long time after the war, commuting back and forth intermittently, until such time as it was definite that I was going back to Harvard.) Henrietta came in, and she sort of sidled up to me and said, “What are you getting paid here?” Gosh, I’d like to slap her face for that, because the way I was brought up, you don’t ask such questions. Well, I told her. “Oh,” she sneered, “I was getting more than that before I left here before the war, and I don’t even have a PhD.” Well, Shapley was like that. Henrietta Swope without a PhD and Margaret Mayall without a PhD, both of whom would have liked to get it but didn’t make the grade, were getting higher salaries at Harvard than I was.
Hoffleit:Because he could get away with it.
DeVorkin:Well, Henrietta Swope left for Hale Observatories.
Hoffleit:No, she left for war work. From this almost hissing question that she directed to me, I think she wanted to come back, but wasn’t going to come back at so drastically lower a salary than what she was getting when she was at the Hydrographic Institute, toward the end of the war. She started out at MIT, at the Radiation Lab, and then she went to Washington. I think she would have come back, if she had gotten an appropriate salary. She didn’t need the salary, but she wouldn’t come back to demean herself at a lower one, whereas in my case, the job was the important thing. The only thing that was important about salary for me in my life was whether I could pay the rent and feed myself.
DeVorkin:Those are the primary things. That must have been depressing.
Hoffleit:Yes. It annoys you, when you know you’re being taken advantage of, but if you don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of, you lose the only thing you want in life: which I lost anyway because of that skunk Menzel.
DeVorkin:That was when Donald Menzel took over.
DeVorkin:Right. Let’s stay in the early thirties and talk about your first research and your continuing contacts with Shapley, with the staff.
Hoffleit:Well, at the end of that first year when I was at Harvard, my brother was out in California teaching at UCLA.
DeVorkin:This is 1929?
Hoffleit:He went out in ‘27. Mother decided that she was going to go out to California and be with him for a year or two; and then she liked California so well, she stayed there for keeps. But I thought, “Well, this is the first time in my life that I’m going to be living all by myself, in a fairly large apartment that we all had and for me to take care of, I think it would be a good idea if I did something more than just have a job.” So I got permission to take graduate courses, along with a full time job. It worked out nicely because I had a flexible working schedule. You were supposed to work 42 hours a week for full time, so if your class comes in the daytime, you go back in the evening and put in that many more hours in the evening.
DeVorkin:You could adjust the hours to your own schedule?
Hoffleit:Yes, you could adjust the hours. If you had a regular 9 to 5 job it would be rather impossible to take graduate courses. But there were all these fringe benefits, of being able to divide your time as best you could. So I took a couple of graduate courses, one of which was from Dr. (Willard) Fisher on meteors.
DeVorkin:What other courses did you take?
Hoffleit:The other course that I took that year was H.H. Plaskett’s astrophysics course. With a course or two a year, I got an MA. I had to have the MA because Henrietta Swope had an MA, and if a person who was as dumb as I thought she was had one, I had to have one too. I completed my credits for the MA in summer school in ‘31 but I got the degree in ‘32 because no degrees are awarded in summer school.
Hoffleit:The second time I wanted to take a course with Fisher, I said, “I want to take another course, but this time, I want to pick my own topic.” That was agreeable with him, and that’s how I happened to start the work leading to my paper on the meteor light curves. When I had that all written, I put it on Dr. Shapley’s desk or table where you put things for him outside his office. And a day or two later, he called me up to his office. He looked scowling at me, “What’s this?” I was then no longer a graduate student. I said, “Oh, that’s the paper I’ve been working on when I’ve been coming back evenings,” because you see I didn’t have to work evenings to make up time any more. I was coming back to write up the paper that resulted from my having taken the course I wanted from Dr. Fisher. In other words, he gave me a grade but that’s about all, and counseled me a bit. That was real good fun. That’s what I’d been doing evenings.
DeVorkin:You’d been doing this on your own time?
DeVorkin:And this was your paper, “A Study of Meteorite Light Curves.”
Hoffleit:Right, so Shapley knew what I was up to. I think Opik was around that year too, but I wasn’t studying with him then because I’d gotten my credits for the MA and that was it. I was going to stop there. That was the end of my abilities. But Shapley gave Opik this paper, and Opik gave him a marvelous review of it. And so on the basis of Opik’s opinions he sent it in to the National Academy. Then after that we had the IAU meeting in Cambridge, and after the IAU meeting I got a ruptured appendix, and everybody thought I was a goner, but bad pennies always come back. So when I was sufficiently recovered from that the following fall, I got hailed into Shapley’s office again, in the middle of October.
DeVorkin:That was 1933?
Hoffleit:‘33. And Shapley was sitting at the desk, only his expression was a little different. He had a silly giggle on his face and said: “Sit down, won’t you?” And Bart Bok was there, sitting up very formal and straight, very very serious looking, in contrast to Shapley with this silly grin on his face. Shapley said, “We’ve been just talking, why don’t you continue for your PhD?” Gulp. “I don’t think I’d ever pass THOSE exams.” He says, “Oh, you go back down to your office and think it over for a couple of days.” So ten minutes later, B.J. Bok traipses into my small office, which is about as big as from here to there to there—
DeVorkin:About 6 feet by ten feet?
Hoffleit:Something like that. It was about as long as this and maybe as wide as from that edge of the table to here. And I had a spare chair next to my desk, and Bart sits down on that chair, and this is what he does. “Dorrit—“
DeVorkin:—pounds on the table—
Hoffleit:All the papers fly up, “If God recommends that you DO something, it is your DUTY to DO IT!” (laughter)
DeVorkin:So he hasn’t changed.
Hoffleit:I think that was the happiest time of my life.
Hoffleit:I was scared to death because I really didn’t think I could do it. But I don’t think it ever would have happened except for that meteor paper.
DeVorkin:Really? That’s interesting.
Hoffleit:No because, you see, with the variable stars that I had to find, I was doing the same thing as Henrietta Swope, and she was not PhD material.
DeVorkin:You’d already published at least 10 notes on variable stars by that time, before 1933.
Hoffleit:I don’t remember.
DeVorkin:As your bibliography shows. And you were doing some spectra too, the spectrum of Eta Carinae” Correlation between light variations and variations in radial velocity in Cephoid Variables,” with L.V. Robinson. So you were working with other people too and you were getting interested in spectroscopy.
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I was interested in everything. That’s part of the trouble of my career. I’m not going to be remembered in the future for my astronomy, because I dabbled a little in this and a little in that. If I’d stuck like Helen Hogg to one particular field and specialized in it, I probably would have done a good job in it, but I did too many little jobs.
DeVorkin:But you did get very interested in luminosities.
Hoffleit:Oh, that’s what I was going to spend my life on— that’s only the Menzelian effect.
DeVorkin:Was it? Was it because of him?
Hoffleit:Oh, he had it in for me.
DeVorkin:I misunderstood you.
Hoffleit:If it hadn’t been for Menzel’s succession to director of Harvard Observatory, I would have gone on working on luminosity criteria and all that sort of thing. That is what I wanted to do most of all.
DeVorkin:Well, how did you get involved in it? How did you get interested in it in the first place? Was this through Shapley?
Hoffleit:Yes, he told me to see what I could do with a handful of these spectra. He and Adelaide Ames had looked at some of the old high dispersion objective prism spectra, but hadn’t gone very far with them. And he seemed to have a hankering to get back into that type of work, so he asked me if I wanted to look into this and do something with those spectra for the brighter stars. And that appealed to me very very much. I was a little conceited about it too because up to that point I’d thought only the highbrow astronomers work on spectra.
DeVorkin:This was in the mid—thirties?
Hoffleit:Yes. My first paper on absolute magnitude determinations was for the Harvard Tercentenary volume, 1936: “Spectroscopic Absolute Magnitudes of 377 Stars.” That was the start. Then when it was time to choose a thesis topic, Shapley said I could choose anything I wanted, either meteors or variable stars or continue with this work and so on.
DeVorkin:You were publishing continually in all three areas.
Hoffleit:Yes. In regard to the variable star notes, besides the ones on Milky Way field work, were these on miscellaneous variables, examined when somebody, Hertzsprung or anyone, asked to have them looked up on Harvard plates stars. A high percentage of the time they’d shoot such requests down to me. I always found those relaxing pieces of work.
DeVorkin:There’s something very interesting about Harvard which seems to be different from any other place that I’ve studied, and that is that everything got organized into projects.
DeVorkin:Now, this very much seems to be the legacy of E.C. Pickering or was it even prior to that?
Hoffleit:Pickering was very much of an organizer. What changed between Pickering and Shapley was that under Pickering, everybody effectively did what he was told. That was why Antonia Maury had a tough life there, because she was an independent thinker. All of the other women who achieved greatness at Harvard were doing what Pickering wanted them to. Miss Leavitt probably was the most original thinker among the group, aside from Miss Maury, but she too was doing things the way he wanted them done. It was only Miss Maury who was the independent renegade, and she couldn’t have been that if she hadn’t had an important family background, either. But her family connections, in her case, were I think at least as much of a handicap to her as a help.
Hoffleit:Well, her father wrote to Pickering to try to straighten things out for his daughter. The assumption is that Maury actually pushed his daughter into the job, even though she wanted it in the first place, but she was too shy a young girl to push herself. The feeling is, from some letters that have been found at Harvard, that he did more pushing than he should have, and while he probably meant well for his daughter, I think that having a pushy father around did not sit well with Pickering. And the fact was that Henry Draper’s wife, (Henry Draper was her uncle) disliked Miss Maury, largely, I suspect, because Mrs. Draper was a very elegant lady, and Antonia could care less about nothing than clothes. She didn’t care how she looked, and she looked a sight.
DeVorkin:And you knew her?
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I think I was one of her best friends in her later years. I think, of all the people at Harvard, I was the only one who was invited to go visit her in New York, and that was a real good experience.
DeVorkin:When you started working on the spectra, did you know her before then?
Hoffleit:Well, when I first came to the observatory, I was put in an office that was almost a passageway where all the mail got delivered. There was a fireplace in that room and they placed mail on the mantle piece of the fireplace (there was never a fire in the fireplace of course that was left over from the earlier days before central heat). So Miss Maury would come in and collect her mail there. But I think I had very little conversation with her the first year, since she’d be around only part of every year.
DeVorkin:Spending most of her time in New York?
Hoffleit:Well, part of her time in New York
DeVorkin:She lived at the Draper Observatory, didn’t she?
Hoffleit:Yes, I think she had a lot to do with the organization of the Draper Park Museum. One of her aunts actually donated Draper Park to the city of Hastings on Hudson, and asked that the building be made into a museum or a library, but it was Antonia who really made sure that it was an astronomical museum more than anything else.
DeVorkin:Is that still in existence?
Hoffleit:I’m not sure about that. The Draper Park is, but I haven’t been able to ascertain anything about the museum part. I hope to go there some time. I’ve had correspondence with the lady in charge of the Hastings on Hudson Historical Association. She’s sent me a number of things that I’ve wanted or needed about Antonia. But what the condition of the museum is, I just don’t know. I wrote to the man who was supposed to be in charge of it, recently to ask him if he could remember or tell me some things about Antonia that I wanted to know for the biographical note that I wrote for Radcliffe, but he never replied. I discovered later in my correspondence that I had corresponded with him years ago when Miss Maury was still alive. I don’t know whether he’s about my age or whether he’s more nearly her age. I’m sure he was younger than Miss Maury, but he may be considerably older than I. He’s evidently still alive, because the lady at Hastings had recommended my writing to him. But I got no reply. So maybe he’s just infirm and feeble by now.
DeVorkin:It would be interesting to know.
DeVorkin:Especially if there’s instrumentation there.
DeVorkin:What were your impressions of her? Did you discuss her early work especially with spectroscopic criteria?
Hoffleit:Miss Maury mentioned very little about her relations with Pickering or on anything of that sort. She was very discrete. She certainly had heartbreaking experiences, with that catalogue of hers. So she said very little about it, and thank goodness for Hertzsprung. Her work would have gone down the drain if it hadn’t been for him. He, as you know, did not seek to interpret Miss Maury’s findings. Hertzsprung found on the basis of colors that there was a difference between stars which he likened to whales and fishes, and he was looking for spectral criteria. He said “If what I have found is true, then the spectra should reveal these differences.” And of course Miss Cannon’s catalogues and Mrs. Fleming’s results showed nothing to indicate that. But then when he picked up Miss Maury’s more cumbersome classification the only simple part in her scheme was the very thing he was looking for. People at Harvard were always joking and laughing about Miss Maury, because she looked and acted so peculiar. But her eyes just sparkled if you asked her questions and if she got a chance to talk about things that interested her, and that would be an awful lot of things, because she had a very rich family background, and very rich interests that stemmed from all of the connections she’d always had. So she could talk about art, she could talk about travel, she could talk about philosophy in particular. Evidently she had the same difficulty at Vassar between astronomy and philosophy that I had between fine arts and mathematics. And her philosophy teacher thought she had the best brains in philosophy of anyone he’d ever had, and he wanted her to go on in philosophy, but she went on in astronomy. But she always wanted to talk philosophy.
Hoffleit:She was completely forgetful about herself or everything, but she’d talk about anything. When I was sick one time, and I was in the hospital, but she didn’t know it, she came to see me, Mother was there, because she’d come East since I was sick. And my brother had just come back from Europe. He’d gone back to California, but he’d left a big Perinese print at my house temporarily standing on top of a piano. And Miss Maury comes in, immediately recognizes it as a Perinese, and gives an oration about Perinese to my mother, who didn’t really like this print that Herb had bought, but after she heard Miss Maury, she had a different opinion of the print.
Hoffleit:She’d talk about anything, just out of the blue sky.
DeVorkin:Did she talk about Hertzsprung at all? Did she ever meet Hertzsprung?
Hoffleit:Oh yes, she’d met him, I don’t recall that she specifically spoke about him to me.
DeVorkin:When you started working on your luminosity work, and especially later in the thirties you wrote a paper on the need for subclassifications.
Hoffleit:I didn’t really discuss that much with her. She showed some interest in it, of course, but I can’t honestly say that she gave me any guidance on any of that sort of thing.
DeVorkin:Did she have a feeling though that she’d been vindicated finally? I mean, the 1922 IAU reinstated the characteristic, and then Miss Payne, in her STARS OF HIGH LUMINOSITY included an appendix of stars.
Hoffleit:Yes. She didn’t discuss that matter very much with me. In the days I knew her she was, so far as astronomy research goes, completely immersed in Beta Lyrae.
Hoffleit:And that too was something of a sad thing, because people were sort of scoffing and laughing about that too. She was always looking for the last degree of detail, and most astronomers in her era weren’t looking into minute detail. They were looking for the general picture. That is, it was still an era where one had to find out more about the gross overall properties before one went into the fine details of variations from the average.
DeVorkin:Otto Struve was working on Beta Lyrae at the time?
Hoffleit:Yes, ad I think he too did not think too highly of Miss Maury’s work. But my feelings is that she was ahead of her times, in the sense of collecting and collating the data in such a way that I think if anybody goes back to her observations, they’ll find everything they want to measure right there. I think she was trying so hard to decide why the spectral lines were behaving in such very peculiar fashions, and she had some idea, but the ideas were not popular with other people. I have a feeling that if people went back and looked at what she actually said, didn’t she really come as close as anybody else to interpreting the exchange of matter between the component stars and things like that? That was not popular then.
DeVorkin:But dynamically, it was understood that this would happen. Once something reached the labs.
DeVorkin:She said that you could see that spectroscopically and other people said you couldn’t?
Hoffleit:I think so.
DeVorkin:That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that.
Hoffleit:Of course, there, you should have had the tape recording for her.
DeVorkin:Yes, That would have been difficult for me.
Hoffleit:Everybody comes at the wrong time (laughter).
DeVorkin:Well, it’s a good time to start. You also had contact with Annie Cannon?
DeVorkin:And you would not place her in the same intellectual class as Antonia Maury?
Hoffleit:No, Miss Cannon was socially a perfectly charming person, unlike Antonia, who as I say couldn’t care less how she looked. All she cared about was the intellectual or the natural history conversations, but the amenities of dress and tea time things and all that were things that Miss Cannon was adept at— a perfect gracious lady.
DeVorkin:Were these important things at the Harvard Observatory?
Hoffleit:I think they had a great deal to do with personal advancement. Annie Cannon contributed very little that was new in the scheme of spectral classification. She was what Pickering wanted, a person who would carry out his ideas, and carry them out very very well in the tremendous bulk that was wanted. And I’m glad she did. I mean this was a valuable contribution. But if you’re going to evaluate brains, not just total contribution, Miss Maury had the brains, Miss Cannon had sufficient brains and industry to do all of this, but she would not have had the patience for the minute detail. If she had gone into the minute detail, like Miss Maury, she might have classified a couple of hundred stars in a lifetime instead of a quarter of a million. And it was the quarter of a million that was really wanted. Both people were necessary for advancement of science.
DeVorkin:Did Miss Cannon have a photographic memory?
Hoffleit:Oh, she must have, because she never used any comparison spectra, in order to keep her system uniform. That was all up in her head, She had a superb memory.
DeVorkin:That must have been quite interesting.
DeVorkin:She was still working when you were there?
DeVorkin:So you must have seen her work.
Hoffleit:Oh yes. She worked right up practically up to the time that she had died, about 1940.
DeVorkin:Another person who was there during the years you were of course was Cecilia Payne.
Hoffleit:Oh yes. I think she came in ‘23. She got her PhD in ’25.
DeVorkin:And she was then a faculty member?
Hoffleit:Yes, well, not a faculty member. After all, Women’s Lib wasn’t here yet. She was a research associate.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with her?
Hoffleit:Off and on, yes.
DeVorkin:What was her position, considering that women’s liberation didn’t exist.
Hoffleit:She was burned up about not getting the privileges of being a professor and all that. Oh, she was. But my feeling about Cecilia Payne was that she was not a Women’s libber, she was a “Cecilia Payne fibber.” She made the impression on me that she was not happy to have other women around, except in definitely lower grades than hers.
Hoffleit:Yes. I don’t think she was really for the advancement of women. She just wanted to be recognized, which she was, but not to her own satisfaction.
DeVorkin:She changed her research interests quite a bit in the thirties. Hoffleit Yes I think that was a huge fiasco. When she finally succeeded in landing a man, she demeaned herself to his field, instead of sticking to hers.
DeVorkin:That was the direct reason for it?
Hoffleit:Oh yes; I feel that’s very much the reason for it. Undoubtedly she had plenty of astrophysical interest in variable stars, but I think, from the trend of her work before she got married, she would have been interested in specific stars and the kinds of things that Miss Maury would have done—trying to interpret spectra and things of that sort. I don’t think that Cecilia was the person to carry on the Milton Bureau, getting all the periods for the brighter variables and all that. That was catering to Sergei.
Hoffleit:She probably would resent my saying that, but it’s so obvious, because here was a person doing Eddington—type work, following Eddington up to 1934, and from then on, doing Mira variable stars, where Menzel told me that variable star work was only for amateurs.
DeVorkin:That’s a strange thing to say. When did Menzel say that? Hoffleit Menzel said everything nasty he could think of, to me.
DeVorkin:Through the thirties and forties?
Hoffleit:No, I mean later, I had very little contact with Menzel until he became director. A little but not very much.
DeVorkin:I see. But he always was at Harvard, from the thirties.
Hoffleit:He came to Harvard in ’32.
DeVorkin:Right. From Lick or some place like that.
DeVorkin:You didn’t have contact then with everyone at Harvard?
Hoffleit:Oh, one had social contact, but I didn’t work closely with many people.
DeVorkin:You were primarily with Bok and Shapley?
Hoffleit:Bok and Shapley, yes. Well, that is, from about ‘35 on or ‘34 on, I was mostly with Shapley and Bok.
DeVorkin:How did your luminosity work develop? I think we should start talking about that particular type of research now. I’m interested because you are doing something which obviously was of significance to Shapley.
Hoffleit:What we really wanted to do was to extend, over the Southern Hemisphere, what W.S. Adam and his co—workers had done at Mt. Wilson for the Northern Sky.
DeVorkin:They wanted you to reproduce his work again, and didn’t really give you freedom to do something completely original. Or was that expected as a PhD thesis?
Hoffleit:Well, the part of the paper that I did for the Tercentenerary was already involved in the thesis. But at Harvard, Shapley did things differently, the way it was from Pickering. Shapley would suggest things, but after he’d suggested them, it was, “take it or leave it.” He didn’t demand that you did things. Brouwer did the demanding here at Yale. Brouwer is very much, I imagine, like Pickering, very excellent in many ways, but I had no say as to what research I was doing here at Yale.
DeVorkin:Yet Bok would come in and pound on your table and say “Anything that God suggested, you do…”
Hoffleit:Yes, but you see, he suggests that you go ahead and get a degree. And do some research. But nobody stood over me and said, “You do it this way and no other,” the way Pickering did to Miss Maury; “to hurry up and get this out MY way, not your way.” Shapley suggests a topic, and then you dig into the literature and into the plate vault and see what you can do.
DeVorkin:Now, for spectroscopic criteria of luminosity, as you were developing them. Did you do anything significantly different than Adams?
Hoffleit:No, I started out with the criteria that Adams used. Then I also found that Harper and Young at Victoria also had a catalogue which I personally thought was superior to Adams, but which was less extensive in numbers of stars. But then, with that as a starter, I looked for those criteria on my plates, and looked to see if there were other criteria that I could use, or how to modify them for my plates. After all I was starting out with criteria that were used on slit spectra which may be too diffuse and too bad to use on objective prism plates. It required some research to weed out what you can and what you can’t use, and to see what you can substitute on objective prism spectra for what you can’t use of the older criteria. The important part my work as such was not so much the actual line-criteria used as the methods for calibrating to absolute magnitude.
DeVorkin:Now, your paper in 1939 on subclassifications and the need for subclassification—this was a direct outgrowth of that?
Hoffleit:Well, we didn’t publish these as a whole. You extracted from the thesis what should be published. And so I got several papers that were directly related to the thesis. That was one of them.
DeVorkin:During that time, others were suggesting new nomenclature or new classifications or subclassifications, that would be luminosity sensitive.
Hoffleit:Yes, all this came before W.W. Morgan’s classifications came out.
DeVorkin:Did Morgan have some contact with the Harvard people?
DeVorkin:I know in 1935, Cecilia Payne—Gaposchkin and Henry Norris Russell and a third person got together and discussed the state of classification.
DeVorkin:And then around 1940, ‘41, ‘42, Morgan and Russell met a number of times at Harvard.
DeVorkin:And had discussions on classification and luminosity criteria. I’d like to know what your involvement was in this whole series?
Hoffleit:I’d say very little at that time, I was not in on any such conference.
DeVorkin:Were you excluded, or was it just not relevant to your interests?
Hoffleit:Well, I was just not invited to sit in, let’s put it that way. After all, when the big shots get together, they don’t want to be encumbered by having the lesser people sitting around. A small group can work better without a few extraneous people around.
DeVorkin:But Morgan wasn’t that much of a big shot, at that time. His catalogue was not yet out.
Hoffleit:It wasn’t yet out, no.
DeVorkin:I’ve read some correspondence between Shapley and Struve, where Shapley was very happy that Morgan seemed to be much more in control of himself and was able to talk with Russell on these various problems.
DeVorkin:I’m wondering if you had any knowledge of that?
DeVorkin:This would have been in the forties. You may have been at Aberdeen by then?
Hoffleit:Well, I didn’t go to Aberdeen until ’43. But I was at MIT in ’42. H.N. Russell was around a good bit then, but I don’t recall having been in on any conference with those people.
DeVorkin:I know that in your classification work, you did not discuss any classification other than Victoria and Mt. Wilson.
Hoffleit:Yes. I discussed all the ones that were available to me, and of course Morgan’s came later.
DeVorkin:That explains it, because I believe that through all this time, Shapley’s relationships with the other major observatories weren’t all that great, especially with Mt. Wilson. And I’m wondering if this affected your work.
Hoffleit:I thought Shapley had good relations with almost all of them. If there were unhappy relationships with any observatories, it wasn’t with the institutions as such, but with an individual or two. That is, at Mt. Wilson, I think he was on good terms with absolutely everybody except Hubble.
DeVorkin:I see. OK, that may very well be the case and I misinterpreted it. What were his relationships with Hubble?
Hoffleit:Well, this is a World War I story. The way I gathered the story is (from the little I’ve gotten from both gentlemen) that both of them were employed at Mt. Wilson by Hale, shortly before the war broke out, Shapley, being a conscientious objector, did nothing about war work and went out to Mt. Wilson, whereas Hubble postponed his going to Mt. Wilson in order to work in no other place than Aberdeen Proving Ground where he was a major during World War I. And Hubble insinuated that, while he was doing patriotic war work, Shapley, the conscientious slacker, was at Mt. Wilson taking over the projects that he, Hubble, was planning to work on. And in particular, the work on the globular clusters, I have only sketchy details on this, and that is the way Hubble told me the story. I think I told you a good bit about this before. That’s the impression I got, that Shapley just swiped Hubble’s projects, and Hubble never forgave him.
DeVorkin:That’s very interesting.
Hoffleit:And with the overbearing mannerisms that Hubble could display, I could imagine that he would irritate Shapley no end, regardless of who was right or wrong.
DeVorkin:Yes. Did Hubble visit Harvard?
Hoffleit:I never saw him, I never saw Hubble until I went to Aberdeen. When Theodore Sterne was trying to draft me to Aberdeen, he had told me that if I’d come, I could work either in the computing laboratory or on photographic reductions, and I didn’t have to choose until I got there. Of course, when I arrived I had to go to the associate director’s office to discuss where I was to work.
DeVorkin:That was Hubble?
Hoffleit:No, that wasn’t Hubble. He was not a director of the whole Ballistic Research Labs; he was director of one of the component laboratories. He was chairman of one department. When I mentioned that I thought I would fit better in photographic reductions, there was a man sitting on the opposite side of the room, who had his desk facing the wall, apparently working on his own things, but evidently he’d been all ears, and he wheeled his chair around and said: “I think Cunningham needs her more.” Well, I didn’t know who that was, but when I saw Cunningham, I asked him who that gruff man was up in Dederick’s office; that was Hubble. The reason that Cunningham would need me more was because Hubble did not want to have anything to do with Shapley protegees. He didn’t say so in so many words. I never talked with Hubble at Aberdeen. He got transferred into a new building when they added more buildings there. So I wouldn’t run into him just by pure chance. So I saw very little of him at Aberdeen, but after the war I saw him when I visited Mt. Wilson. I went frequently to visit Merrill and Joy; I always enjoyed going to see them. When I was in Merrill’s office, Baade came in, and dragged me out to show me something wonderful he had in his office, just down at the other end of the corridor. As we were going by an open door, someone called me, “When you’re through with him, come in and see me.” That was Hubble. First time in my life that Hubble had addressed me.
DeVorkin:Not at Aberdeen or anything like that.
Hoffleit:No. But in the meantime of course he knew that I was having troubles with Shapley too, because of the same conscientious slacker business, you know. Shapley was favoring the non—war—workers after the war.
DeVorkin:I hope you’ll be able to tell me about this.
Hoffleit:At any rate, that’s when Hubble told me, in his sketchy way, about Shapley. I was glad of that brief conversation, because it sort of showed that Hubble had nothing against me. He just was playing safe that I wasn’t a Shapley person all around, I can tell you the good things in the world about Shapley, because he has done more for me in my life than anybody else; but he’s done it to his own advantage.
DeVorkin:You mentioned Jekyll and Hyde as we ran off the tape.
Hoffleit:Oh, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Well, there’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in everybody.
Hoffleit:That’s true of both Hubble and Shapley.
DeVorkin:Yes. Well, let’s go back to pre—war in the thirties. What have we missed from the thirties that is significant to you?
Hoffleit:Well, I don’t think you’ve mentioned anything about the really good fellowship we had there. Shapley had a knack for interspersing hard work and long hours and all that sort of thing with social events to put everybody at ease. And I don’t think I’ve ever run into any other director who’s had the knack for that, to the extent that Shapley did. I think Demarque has it to a certain extent, but not on as large a scale as Shapley practiced it.
DeVorkin:That’s very interesting. Maybe we should talk about the social aspects of the observatory a little more, the teaching that went on, the people that came through. The difficulty there is that we’re talking about just about every name in astronomy.
Hoffleit:Everybody, yes. There were very few people of that era who didn’t pass through Harvard for some extended period.
DeVorkin:Quite right. Now, I’ve asked you before but that wasn’t on tape about the Harvard Summer School in astronomy, and I was hoping that we could talk about that a little more.
Hoffleit:Yes. Well, I don’t think I can give you very much information on that. Those summer school courses that I took at Harvard were what we called the 20 courses, where you just do some research with one of the senior staff.
DeVorkin:Had those courses always existed, before the summer school?
Hoffleit:Yes, Those are courses that were always available in Shapley’s time by mutual agreement of the instructor and the student and what we might call the administration. Somebody down at Harvard had to approve it. But they were very informal. The informal education is the most efficient, from the standpoint of the individual student, because you learn at your own pace, do at your own pace. You may get pushed if you’re a slow person all around, but basically, you aren’t pushed beyond the speed that you’re capable of.
DeVorkin:Once the formal summer school began in 1935 did the summers change for you at all? I know that you took one course on the sun from Menzel.
Hoffleit:Yes. And that, as I say, was something of a farce, as regards being a course. It was a series of lectures, which is something quite different from a formal course, because he forgot about the students since we had all the visiting brass there and he was lecturing to them.
DeVorkin:Is that really what it was like?
Hoffleit:That’s what it was like from my standpoint. There were two students registered in the course, and he forgot that I was one of them, but the room was full of visiting astronomers.
DeVorkin:So the summer school was for these visiting astronomers? Or for students? That’s the peculiar thing.
Hoffleit:What it amounted to in Menzel’s course and I’m sure some of the others were similar, was that if students— not advanced degree holders— wanted and needed credit, they could take it, but the basic reason for giving the lectures was not the two or three students that were in there, but all the people from all over the world who came to see what was going on at Harvard. And they were good research lectures, They weren’t like preparing a course specifically designed for students, but up—dating astronomers in general on what had been going on in this particular field.
DeVorkin:I know that people as diverse as H.P. Robertson and Dirk Brouwer and a good number of names came and taught. Russell was there.
DeVorkin:Did you attend these other lectures at all?
Hoffleit:I attended a lot of lectures, but not in the formal sense. I can’t tell you much more about those than if you asked me what was going on at some specific AAS meeting. It’s the same type of thing.
DeVorkin:That was the general tenor of it?
DeVorkin:I see. That’s important to know. Were these people in constant contact? Was it sort of like a continuing seminar all day long, where people would get together informally and discuss their specialties?
Hoffleit:Very often. Yes. As I say, you’d better not quote me on too much of this because I’m rather hazy on it.
DeVorkin:Who else was in attendance that you recall, whom I might be able to talk to?
Hoffleit:Well, almost anybody who was at Harvard at that time.
DeVorkin:Certainly Bart Bok was involved?
Hoffleit:Oh, very very much so, and Whipple, Mrs. Gaposchkin.
DeVorkin:And Shapley was definitely running the program, or was it difficult to say that?
Hoffleit:He certainly would have been the instigator for almost anything of this sort. But he did have the ability to redelegate authority, once he knew what he wanted. He wouldn’t do all the personal inviting of all of these visitors and all that. He would give somebody a list and say, “These are the people who might be involved,” and then somebody else would take care of the list. Maybe only Miss Walker was needed to type out a letter which he had dictated on the dictaphone and then he would revamp it a little to suit various different people.
DeVorkin:Miss Walker was his personal secretary?
DeVorkin:I’d be very interested in being able to get to the rationale for the Harvard summer school.
Hoffleit:Since I wasn’t involved in organization of all that, I think you’d better go to somebody who was a little closer to that.
DeVorkin:Shapley organized Hollow Squares, the conferences and everything. What were they like?
Hoffleit:They were great. They more or less alternated with regular colloquia, and were probably less frequent than formal colloquia. The reason for those was that there were lots and lots of small items that he thought ought to be called to people’s attention— individual items too small for a colloquium and not things that he would want to circulate by saying everybody should read this, that or the other. He would assemble a lot of small topics. What it really amounted to was current events in astronomy, culled from the literature, and current research that was not yet ready for full fledged colloquia, but advanced enough so that a person could give a five or at most ten minute paper on what he was doing. In other words, this was for drawing in all miscellaneous information that the staff and the graduate students should know about.
DeVorkin:Why was it called “Hollow Squares”?
Hoffleit:Because he had tables which were arranged in a hollow square— long narrow ones— which were folding tables. I think he got the idea from the Boy Scouts.
DeVorkin:People were on both sides, inside and outside?
Hoffleit:No, they were all around the outside so that everybody could see everybody else.
Hoffleit:And they served tea for the hollow squares. Tea was not served at colloquia but they served tea for these informal hollow squares. I wish more institutions would follow suit on that, because everybody can’t read everything, and to get a real quick summary like this puts everybody at ease. And if you want to read more on the subject, you dig into it, but at least you’re made aware of things.
DeVorkin:Yes, I can appreciate that. That’s very interesting. What other type of social or professional activities did Shapley foster?
Hoffleit:Well, he started the Bond Astronomical Club, which was an armchair amateur group, the public that were interested in astronomy, and found that Harvard Observatory open night lectures came too infrequently and were too well attended and too crowded. So he started the Bond Club where people paid dues, and they met one evening a month. There’d be a formal lecture and then a question period, where this select public, select by their own choice, could ask questions on anything. Then they’d look through the telescope afterwards, have hot chocolate and cookies. That was a very pleasant organization. He was president of that organization several times. I was president of it for a couple of years. You got acquainted with doctors, lawyers, all sorts of nice people there.
DeVorkin:Was that a source of funding too possibly?
Hoffleit:Well, potentially, yes. That wasn’t its function, but the people who came there were the kinds of people who would help him in fund drives. He did a lot of things which made him popular with fund drivers.
DeVorkin:You were advanced from research assistant to associate in 1938.
Hoffleit:Yes. That’s because if you had a PhD, you became a research associate.
DeVorkin:I see, directly as a result of the PhD.
DeVorkin:Did you take a formal thesis defense?
DeVorkin:What are your recollections of that?
Hoffleit:Well, most of it was very pleasant, but what was not pleasant was the smoke screen Cecilia put up between me and her. She had her cigarette in her mouth, and talked in a muffled manner, I couldn’t understand, and since I couldn’t see her face through the smoke screen, I hadn’t the blindest notion what it was she asked me.
Hoffleit:So I looked helplessly at Shapley and said, “I didn’t understand the question,” and he thought that I didn’t understand.
DeVorkin:Oh. But you couldn’t understand the English?
Hoffleit:I couldn’t understand her. But that was the only hard part of it. The rest treated me pretty nicely, and I had a pretty good time. They wanted me to draw a Russell diagram. We didn’t call them Russell—Hertzsprung diagrams then. The diagram is Russell’s, and I maintain this.
DeVorkin:This was for your thesis defense, asking general questions, or was this your comprehensive earlier?
Hoffleit:Well, if you’re dealing with spectra and luminosity, that’s the Russell diagram.
DeVorkin:Was it actually a question, that you even had to consider, to draw a Russell diagram?
Hoffleit:Well, I had plenty of Russell diagrams in my thesis, I was supposed to draw one on the blackboard, and of course I drew one freehand, and Bart Bok jumps up and says, “I’ll help you on this one,” and he takes a yardstick and draws good coordinates. “Now, you can put in the diagram.”
DeVorkin:He’s really something. He is really something, (laughter) marvelous. What about the change in the description, from Russell diagram to Hertzsprung to Hertzsprung—Russell? Did any discussions take place at Harvard in the late thirties, when that name got changed around, that you were aware of?
Hoffleit:I can’t recall anything too specific, but I think it was the foreign influx that did it, not the American astronomers. Of course I saw little of Bengt Stromgren. But you know how K. Strand talks. He would never call it the Russell diagram, because he’s a Dane and so is Hertzsprung.
Hoffleit:I don’t recall specific arguments about this, but I know that I developed extremely strong feelings because just as I was looking for the origin of the terms “giant” and “dwarf” in the Hertzsprung papers, I also was looking for a Hertzsprung diagram, and where Hertzsprung first discussed the differences in luminosity between two groups of stars. I felt what Hertzsprung really found was not the difference between normal giants and normal dwarfs, but the difference between supergiants and the normal naked—eye stars. With the naked—eye stars as such, you don’t yet have the real Y shaped Russell diagram, because with the naked—eye stars themselves, you have mostly this (a group in the upper right of the diagram) with a few stars here, and a snowstorm up there. So what Hertzsprung found was the difference between this array (the main sequence) and this scattering of supergiants above. I plotted out the relevant data on colors and magnitudes that Hertzsprung had and they were very unconvincing for a Russell diagram. Whereas in Russell’s diagram, based only on trigonometric parallaxes that were already available, there was no question of the shape of the Y, for Russell’s material. This was Russell’s 1910 data.
DeVorkin:As early as 1910. That must have been hypothetical parallaxes.
Hoffleit:Well, trigonometric and dynamic parallaxes, whatever he could get hold of. At least individual parallaxes and not inferred parallaxes from photometric data.
DeVorkin:Right. I understand.
Hoffleit:So anyway, I grew up with the Russell diagram. After all, I had been in astronomy a decade before they changed over. And then when I went into the literature, I still found that Russell drew the diagram, and Hertzsprung laid the way for the diagram by saying there really is a difference. It’s all right to have both names on there now; Hertzsprung did not have anything that looked at all like this Y shaped diagram.
DeVorkin:That’s true. His early cluster diagrams were completely different.
Hoffleit:Yes, because he had only the upper half of it.
Hoffleit:So I really maintain it should be “Russell diagram.”
Hoffleit:Actually, I don’t know which is worse, giant and dwarf or whales and fishes. One mythology, the other biology.
DeVorkin:Right. To the credit of the “whales and fishes” it also indicates frequency— far more fish than whales.
Hoffleit:That’s right. I hadn’t thought of that either. Yes. And it also shows that Hertzsprung was versatile in other branches of natural science, whereas whoever invented the giants and dwarfs remembered childhood fiction.
DeVorkin:The interesting thing though is the use of the term giants and dwarfs.
Hoffleit:Russell never claimed it was original with him.
Hoffleit:He merely said, “To these stars Hertzsprung has contributed the excellent terms...” Perhaps he did it orally. That one can never verify.
DeVorkin:Yes. I’m not sure, because he didn’t really meet Hertzsprung until well after he made those statements.
Hoffleit:Whoever originated it, it was Russell who clinched it.
DeVorkin:You knew both Russell and Hertzsprung?
DeVorkin:And I have heard here and there that their relationship was cordial but relatively cool.
Hoffleit:That I can’t comment on, because I don’t think I heard either of them say anything personal about the other.
DeVorkin:OK, fine. Let’s move to 1939, to the Harvard Symposium in Astrophysics. You gave a paper on observations of supernovae.
Hoffleit:Oh, that was at the American Philosophical Society.
Hoffleit:My one and only occasion to go to the American Philosophical Society.
DeVorkin:I know that you had studied the light curves of supernovae before this time. And Whipple gave a paper before you.
Hoffleit:Baade, the big man on supernovae, was invited to give a paper there, and he refused to come. So whoever organized the committee (I don’t remember who that was) asked Shapley to find a substitute for Baade. So he divided up the loot, and said that I should talk about the observations and Freddie should talk about the theory.
DeVorkin:So it was Shapley’s decision completely?
DeVorkin:Why did Baade refuse to come?
Hoffleit:I don’t know. I don’t think he liked to travel very much.
DeVorkin:You had done some work on supernovae before this?
Hoffleit:Well, people hadn’t talked about supernovae up to the time that Baade’s work started. There had been some feeling that there was a high dis—person in luminosities of novae. In other words, the Andromeda nova was a very luminous nova, but there was no general understanding that there were actually different categories of these objects, as distinguished perhaps from a continuous trend. And at the time that I gave that paper, I was not at all convinced that there were two groups of supernovae. Those light curves that I had gotten from both the literature and the plate stacks seemed to me to be arranged in a continuous sequence that depended on the rate of decline of the luminosity. But the dozen or 15 supernovae I had then, with their sparse observations, didn’t show that there was any big gap indicating that half of them belong to one group and half to the other. So to get the two luminosity groups, the light curve as such was certainly not a very deciding factor. The Andromeda nova light curve had a most spectacular curve that seemed to be different from the others. But of course, it was the best observed and the only one that was really bright enough to have been observed over a fairly long period. Therefore, the two groups, according to me, just didn’t show up, whereas a continuous sequence would have looked fine. Now, one could just extrapolate that down and say, “Here’s the first time we know about supernovae, because they’re the ones you can see in the distant galaxies, and except for Andromeda, you can’t see any other novae in any other galaxies, but maybe there’s a continuous trend between those and the bright normal novae.” That was my feeling and my hope.
DeVorkin:At that time.
Hoffleit:While I might still have continued to quibble about two groups of supernovae, there is no longer any quibbling about the difference between a supernova and an ordinary nova. The gap there is real— no question about that.
DeVorkin:Right. Now, your own observations, your own interest— was this delegated to you by Shapley, or was this something you picked up on your own?
Hoffleit:I don’t recall whether he assigned that or whether when I got the first notices, I did dig into that on my own. I just don’t recall. Because I was apt to go into those plate stacks for anything that appealed to me.
DeVorkin:Sure. But yet the symposium was delegated by him.
Hoffleit:The symposium was delegated by him after I’d already done the light curves.
DeVorkin:Do you know why the symposium was held? This was not the Tercentenary?
Hoffleit:I don’t know whether that had anything to do with any anniversary at Philadelphia, or what, I think, there were more things than supernovae discussed at this.
DeVorkin:Oh yes, this was on progress in astrophysics in general.
DeVorkin:Shapley seemed to have a feeling that these forums had to be presented, and in the late thirties, there were a lot of these. The Washington Symposia, did you attend that?
DeVorkin:Well, a lot of Bethe’s work was discussed in 1939?
Hoffleit:Yes, at that Philadelphia meeting, the featured evening lecture was Henry Norris Russell’s on the carbon cycle: the alpha, beta, gamma cycle or “Alpha, Bethe, Gamow” cycle. A funny thing happened there. The lecture was given in a lecture hall where the seats went way way up in the back of the room, and the projector was way up high in the rear; Russell was down at the lecture table, way down below, in the pit, one might say, and something went wrong with the slides. So Henry Norris Russell cups his hands up to his mouth and bellows, “Operator, can you hear me?” (laughter)
DeVorkin:He had a microphone?
Hoffleit:Yes, and he blasted the poor operator right out of his cage!
DeVorkin:He forgot completely that he had a microphone, I guess. Oh that’s funny. It must have been a pretty exciting thing, Bethe’s work.
Hoffleit:Yes, That was the very first pronouncement of the carbon cycle. There wasn’t even anything in the literature yet.
DeVorkin:You mean, Russell’s was the first?
Hoffleit:Russell was the first one to give this paper, after which these primary investigators wrote their papers. Actually they’d undoubtedly written them already but nothing was published yet. Russell was given the opportunity to be the first spokesman for this. And I think one reason the theory went over so well is that the deal of all astronomers was enthusiastically supporting it.
DeVorkin:This must have been something that Shapley had fostered?
Hoffleit:Well, I don’t know. I’m not at all aware that Shapley was the organizer of the symposium. He was asked to find a substitute for Baade. Who actually organized it might be found in the Harvard reprints.
DeVorkin:The reprint I have here is Harvard Reprint 170, “Symposium on Progress in Astrophysics, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, February 17, 1939, papers by Harvard astronomers.” That included Menzel on solar atmospheres, Cecilia Payne—Gaposchkin, variable stars; Whipple on supernovae and Dorrit Hoffleit on supernovae.
Hoffleit:Too bad Chandrasekhar’s paper isn’t there. Chandra got up and talked exclusively to the blackboard.
DeVorkin:Exclusively to the blackboard?
Hoffleit:And Shapley was burned up. He said something to me, when the thing was over, to say that I did all right, and then he griped about Chandra. Shapley was very conscious about how one should present papers and talk to the audience. I don’t think Chandra turned around once. He wrote and talked. Everything fine. Fortunately it was a rather shallow room. I mean it was wide and not deep, so that people were within hearing distance.
DeVorkin:That’s amazing. Chandrasekhar was at Yerkes by then, of course?
DeVorkin:A lot of people came through Harvard— European refugees were beginning to come through— how did this affect the daily activities at Harvard? Did people start grumbling about foreigners replacing Americans in their positions, as the war clouds grew?
Hoffleit:I think we sort of took the foreigners for granted. People were people. In my age group, there were always foreign people around. One way to educate American astronomers was to get in people from all over the world.
DeVorkin:Yes. But strictly, when did you become aware that refugee scientists were coming to the United States? In significant numbers?
Hoffleit:Well, of course Sergei (Gaposchkin) was literally a refugee. But rather an early one. I think he’s the earliest one that one would consider in that character. Richard Prager and G. Jacchia were probably the next ones. There were lots of people who came through but didn’t stay, but those were the two that stayed. Prager was the compiler of the variable star general catalogue, before the Russians took it over. He did that for many many years. We never referred to the variable star catalogue as anything but; “You’ll find it in Prager.” We don’t say, “You find it in Kukarkin,” we say “GCVS” these days: General Catalogue Variable Stars. But Prager was synonymous with the catalogue of variable stars.
DeVorkin:The reason why I bring up the question of refugees is that there developed a concern amongst astronomers, amongst scientists, that refugee scientists were replacing American scientists. Were you aware of this at all?
Hoffleit:At the time that was happening, I was one of the ones who was away, at war work.
Hoffleit:No, I don’t think that I felt that very strongly at Harvard. It seemed to me that Shapley was very very influential in bringing all sorts of refugees over, but I think he was also influential in getting them redistributed all over the country. And I don’t think the job crunch at that time was quite as severe as it is now.
DeVorkin:Yes. But there was a policy statement by the AAS, in the early forties, about this question. Do you recall that at all, because I haven’t found a record of it?
Hoffleit:No, I don’t recall anything of that sort.
DeVorkin:I’ll continue to look.
Hoffleit:That sort of thing might very well have been suppressed, in the literature that came to Harvard Observatory.
DeVorkin:Have we really covered the 1930s to a reasonable extent so we can move on to the war years?
Hoffleit:I think you’ve got enough for the general picture.
DeVorkin:How did you get drawn into war work?
Hoffleit:Well, I imagine that Teddy (Theodore) Sterne had an awful lot to do with that. He kept hounding me to go to Aberdeen, where he went. But Shapley found me a job at MIT instead. That didn’t work out very well, for numerous reasons which we’d better just skip.
DeVorkin:Why, were they personal reasons?
Hoffleit:Well, it was partly personal. I think the environment probably had more to do with it than anything. I was working together with F. Kopal, and he was arranging the computing of firing tables in such a way that three of us worked on the same firing table at the same time; each one would compute something different. But whatever results you got for your column in the table, you had to transmit orally to the next person, who would then compute what he needed, and another person would read from density tables what atmospheric density was involved, and stuff like that. Well, we were doing this in a noisy room, I personally would have preferred to do a table myself, rather than this three ring circus.
DeVorkin:This is an attempt at automation, using people as computers.
Hoffleit:Yes. At first there were just three of us, Kopal and I and a subprofessional boy from Harvard Observatory, who’d been doing some clerical work and filing plates and that sort of thing.
DeVorkin:But not an astronomer.
Hoffleit:Not an astronomer. And he was supposed to take these tables, out of which you read out numbers that you need, sort of like reading logarithms. We would give him a number, he would give the logarithm back, or something like that. Well, Kopal was very hard to understand. I couldn’t understand his enunciation half of the time. Can you imagine that you can be confused as to whether a number is a three or a four? Three was “sre,” four was “uur…”
Hoffleit:Oral communication, with the old fashioned IBM machines, you know the sorters and the key punches at the other end of the room, “rackety rack rack rack—.” And the room was just stifling hot, so they put in a ceiling fan because the MIT man in charge of this Navy project said, “Hot air rises.” This was winter time. First it was stifling hot. Then later it became ice cold. And when it became ice cold, they moved the fan from the summer level to up near the ceiling, because the theory was, “hot air rises, so you put the fan up there to drive the warm air back down.” So with that racket going on, from a big fan and these two people, neither of whom I could understand, I was just going absolutely stark crazy. So I got out. But it was wartime. Shapley of course was simply delighted that I was coming back to Harvard.
DeVorkin:He thought you were coming back?
Hoffleit:Well, I never left actually, because after a while, I was on the swing shift. Go to work at 4 o’clock and leave at 1 AM or something like that. I spent my morning working for Shapley. I always felt that he really gypped me. At that time, he was supposed to write a Jefferson Memorial paper, and in my time off from MIT, I spent the time in Widener Library digging out all the references marking all the things that Jefferson had said about science, and in particular if he said anything about astronomy. And I charged all these books out and brought them up to Shapley, and when he wrote his paper, I didn’t get any “thank you” for them. So instead of just spending my free mornings at Harvard, I was back, and given all the chores. At this time Teddy Sterne kept calling me up about how important it was for me to go to Aberdeen. Sterne’s wife’s cousin was Constance Boyd, who was working at Harvard also, and she probably informed Teddy Sterne that I was back at Harvard. So he kept hounding me, and I finally weakened. You know, you have to be patriotic.
DeVorkin:So you went to Aberdeen?
DeVorkin:That was in ‘43 already?
DeVorkin:The situation must have been changing quite a bit, at Harvard, at the observatory.
Hoffleit:Oh yes. After all, I mentioned before the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde business. We began to see sides of Shapley that we’d had no inkling of before. In other words, he aided young people who shirked war work. There’s the case of one graduate student who told me there was no sense in filing the fact with the draft board that he was a Quaker or conscientious objector because he said, “My eyes are so bad, I’d get rejected anyway.” So he felt he did not have to make known the fact that he’s a conscientious slacker. As the war got worse and worse of course, the requirements about eye sight weren’t what they were originally. So Shapley enabled that young man to take a job as an orderly in an insane asylum in Maine so that the regular orderly could be released for the draft. That, I thought, was pretty bad, because this boy who had failed to record the fact that he was a conscientious objector should have been penalized for that. In another case, there was a 32 year old female who was pursuing a 19 year old graduate student whom she forced to marry her. So Shapley fixed things up so that he got deferred from the draft because he was a newly married person and about to become a father.
DeVorkin:Were these astronomers you’re talking about?
DeVorkin:Would you name them?
Hoffleit:No, I think I won’t name them. Because it’s dirty. I shouldn’t even tell it. But anyway, those are the kinds of people that Shapley gave preference to, and the kinds of people to whom he gave preference after the war was over when people wanted their jobs back. He couldn’t afford to take most of us back; he couldn’t afford to take me back. I came down in terms because I wanted the job so badly. But actually I had no business going back, except for my own need to get back into those plate stacks. But if there was a choice as to who was to get a job back at the end of the war, it was obvious to me that the preference was given to those whose major contribution had been teaching navigation where they could stay home. I’m very fond of Dr. Bok, but he hurt me badly when I came back from the war, because he told me in very haughty terms that “I taught navigation during the war because that was saving lives.” Whom would he expect to go on those Navy vessels if the rest of us hadn’t computed the firing tables?
DeVorkin:Did you say that to him at the time?
Hoffleit:No, I was burned up, I knew if I’d say anything, I’d say too much. But that was the attitude at the very end of the war toward those of us who had done things really to help out in the war effort, in ways that hurt. But we did it because it was the patriotic thing to do, not because we liked and wanted that kind of work, but because it had to be done. Otherwise America would have been licked. We saved Bok’s and Shapley’s hides during the war. They didn’t save it.
DeVorkin:Shapley supported the optical shop.
DeVorkin:And war work at the optical shop. Was this in character with his pacifism?
Hoffleit:Well, his pacifism went through lots of aberrations, in lots of ways. I think they had a feeling that although the armed services needed the optical equipment, the optical equipment as such was not a war device. And the experience gained from building the war devices was that much gain for astronomy after the war. I think he was looking at both sides. He was weighing the evil against the good and said, “This is ultimately going to bring more good.” That’s the way I analyzed that situation.
Hoffleit:Also it’s one way of keeping some good people around, because if he hadn’t given Jimmy Baker this opportunity to have his shop at Harvard, Jimmy Baker might have gone away and not come back.
DeVorkin:Is that true?
Hoffleit:I don’t know that it’s true, but that is just a line of reasoning which is possible.
DeVorkin:Right. Did you have contact with James Baker? Did you know him?
Hoffleit:Well, I knew him, of course, because he was about the best graduate student we ever had at Harvard.
DeVorkin:Was he always interested in optics?
Hoffleit:I don’t know if that showed before the war effort started. He was, I think, more interested in astrophysics, and I think he’s the one who would have been interested in the theoretical interpretations of Miss Maury’s type of work. He wrote papers with Menzel on planetary nebulae. He was brilliant in whatever he wanted to tackle.
DeVorkin:But he did go into optics?
Hoffleit:—I think the optics came to the fore because of the war effort. And then he was so brilliant and so advanced in all of that, he just didn’t have a chance to get away from it.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with the way he set up the optical shop? He was in charge of it?
Hoffleit:It was his shop. Yes, But I had nothing to do with it.
DeVorkin:Do you know if Shapley maintained control over it?
Hoffleit:I don’t think he had control, excepting in the fact that he was releasing space for it.
Hoffleit:Again, I just don’t know. I wasn’t involved in everything.
DeVorkin:OK. Shapley was very proud actually, in his correspondence with Struve, of the many things that astronomers at the Harvard Observatory were doing in the war effort.
Hoffleit:Well, after all, his worked at MIT with Kopal. She and I overlapped most of the time that I was at MIT. We became quite friendly then going home at 1 AM together.
DeVorkin:Yes, I can imagine. I wouldn’t do it today in Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Well, I’m still trying to get a little more on Shapley and Shapley’s role and Harvard’s role in the war effort. But let’s go on to Aberdeen. Once you went to Aberdeen in 1943, you pretty much lost direct contact, continual contact, with the doings at Harvard?
Hoffleit:Well, not altogether. Indirectly, I continued to write news notes for SKY AND TELESCOPE all those war years. I did all that for free, and that took a lot of time. At Aberdeen I frequently worked 70 hours a week attending night firings of rockets and things like that, and in addition wrote all the news notes. So in that way I maintained contact with astronomy, and a little correspondence too. Miss Walker would write me. Miss Walker and I were good friends, and she’d write me what was going on pretty much.
DeVorkin:Do you have those letters? Have you kept that correspondence?
Hoffleit:I may have some, but they’d be in a mixed up state right now. With all the moving I’ve had to do, I’ve thrown away an awful lot of things that I might have kept if I had a permanent home.
DeVorkin:I hope that you don’t throw away your correspondence.
Hoffleit:I’ve looked through a lot and picked out sample bits of things that were good. But what I’ve retained is in a very disorderly condition right now.
DeVorkin:Well, let’s talk about Aberdeen. You went and then you had this interview with Dederick. Hubble was in the room. Then you were sent to work for Cunningham. You thought you were going to work with Sterne?
Hoffleit:No. Sterne was merely recruiting people. He had his own section, but I was not in that section. He was fully staffed by the time I got there.
DeVorkin:I see. What was his section?
Hoffleit:I’ve forgotten what his section was called. He was part of the computing lab too, but the theoretical part. I think he was involved in theoretical ballistics.
DeVorkin:Well, you worked for Cunningham. What were your specific duties?
Hoffleit:With him, we were the aircraft firing computer section. We did firing tables for air to ground missiles.
DeVorkin:This is all then computing work. Your particular role was as computer?
Hoffleit:As supervisor for about 20 WACs.
DeVorkin:Did you have any particular projects?
Hoffleit:Well, I did a lot of things down there. I eventually got out of the computer lab, toward the end of the war, to more exciting things. But when I was with Cunningham, we did the aircraft firing tables, and I was generally the one who got sent out to the firing range to collect the data for determining drag functions. That was fun. The tables as such were horrible.
DeVorkin:You went to the firing tests.
DeVorkin:You made observations?
Hoffleit:Well, you collect all the data on where they fire missiles, using solenoid coils. We determined the time interval it takes the missile to go from hereto this place to this place to this place, and then figure out how the atmosphere slows it down and all that sort of thing. That was fun.
DeVorkin:Who did you work with there?
Hoffleit:Well, this was all Cunningham’s section: the aircraft firing section. That was for collecting the input data that were needed for computing the tables.
DeVorkin:Was this done photographically?
Hoffleit:Oh, there were lots of ways. For that particular scheme, they fired projectiles through solenoid coils, which would tell you the exact time intervals for the projectile to go from one coil to the next.
Hoffleit:Then they also shot the missiles through cardboard for yaw determinations. The missile wobbles when it goes through a sheet of paper. We would measure the hole in the paper and that would tell what the orientation of the missile probably was.
DeVorkin:How big were these missiles?
Hoffleit:The smallest ones were on the order of a half inch in diameter, and the biggest ones that we worked on were 150 mm. For some missiles I made no observations but was given data to analyze. They were for large secret missiles, and we fudged everything—the constants that went into the firing tables—so that they’d look as though they were 105 mm. We had to multiply certain factors by ten and divide other factors by ten, so it would look as though it was a perfectly normal missile, and it turned out to be a thing about 30 inches in diameter called “Little David.” When the WACS heard about Little David, when it got declassified, they came to me just agog and said, “I wonder who computed the firing tables for THAT?” I said, “You did.” (laughter) That was real satisfaction.
DeVorkin:Did you know anything about that?
Hoffleit:Well, I knew a few things about it, because Cunningham told me how we were fudging the factors.
DeVorkin:When was this?
Hoffleit:Probably about ’44.
DeVorkin:’44. How did you feel after you knew about the bomb?
Hoffleit:Well, you know, you keep on working so hard that you don’t really have feelings. Your feeling was to get this thing out before it’s too late.
Hoffleit:That’s what hurt Cunningham during the war. He felt it was important that only he write the introduction for the firing tables. He had about six missile firing tables piled up but he wouldn’t let me write the introduction. I said, “I’d be glad to write it. All we have to do is change constants in the introduction.” No, only he could do that. He finally got kicked upstairs to a better sounding but less responsible job.
DeVorkin:We were just at the point where Cunningham was kicked upstairs.
Hoffleit:That’s an impolite way of putting it, but everybody knows.
DeVorkin:Right. So what were your duties after Cunningham?
Hoffleit:Well, after he left, we got an Army captain in Cunningham’s place, and what you just read is what happened after that.
DeVorkin:OK, so basically, what I just read is a short talk you gave at the 50th anniversary of your class at Radcliffe.
Hoffleit:Yes. It was the after luncheon speech for the 50 year and older classes.
DeVorkin:So what we’ll do is put that in the working file at American Institute of Physics. We’ll take a copy of this, so we won’t go over it here.
DeVorkin:But I’m interested in what you did, all the various aspects of your work at Aberdeen, and also other astronomers you were in contact with at Aberdeen.
Hoffleit:Cunningham, of course, was the one that I worked with directly. In the beginning I had minor contacts with a man from Lick named Zug. I don’t know whether you ever knew him?
DeVorkin:Was Cunningham from Berkeley?
Hoffleit:Oh no, Cunningham went to Berkeley after he left Aberdeen. But Cunningham got his degree at Harvard.
Hoffleit:Yes. He didn’t have it yet at the time he was at Aberdeen. War interrupted that. Cunningham was interested mainly in cometary orbits. Although he was doing his thesis work and got his degree at Harvard, he actually came here to Yale and did a whole lot of work here with Brouwer, for his thesis, and learned from the people here. Columbia and Yale were ahead of other people in introducing IBM equipment into astronomical problems. W. J. Eckert of course started here on all of that. So Cunningham spent a lot of his thesis writing time right here at Yale. And then when he got his degree at the end of the war, he got his job at Berkeley, and he’s been there ever since. You knew him at Berkeley, did you?
DeVorkin:No, I didn’t. I was at UCLA.
Hoffleit:But you were there after the days of “Mr. Alpha and Omega” of the department, namely Frederick Leonard?
DeVorkin:Well, I met him once. He was already gone when I got there as a student. Do you know him also?
Hoffleit:Oh, I knew him quite well.
DeVorkin:Through your meteoritics interests?
Hoffleit:Largely that and partly because my brother taught at UCLA. He was a bit older than my brother. As a matter of fact, I think Freddie was exactly ten years older than I, to the day. But anyway, when Herb first met him, he was always bragging that he was the “alpha and the omega” of the department. I’m afraid that toward the end it became more omega than alpha. (laughter)
DeVorkin:He was different. He was really different. Of course Dan Popper was at UCLA for many years.
DeVorkin:I guess he let Leonard make all the shining local statements anyway and went quickly on his own research.
Hoffleit:Well, yes, if you have a person like Leonard for public relations, why not let him, and then you can work in peace.
DeVorkin:Right, exactly. All right, well, you mentioned a man named Zug?
Hoffleit:Zug had been at Lick Observatory before he went to Aberdeen, but he never went back into astronomy. He was the type of person who wasn’t really happy wherever he went. He was modest in his way, but obviously he was more ambitious than his abilities allowed. And so he wasn’t advanced at Lick the way he wanted to be, so he never went back.
DeVorkin:He was a staff member?
Hoffleit:I think so. But I’m not sure of that. But anyway, he was a very nice person. I enjoyed getting acquainted with him down there. Billy (William) Bidelman was in another department, and Richard Thomas, Boris Karpov had been at Lick and Minnesota, I think. He did not go back. And Dirk Reuyl of course. I worked with Dirk Reuyl at the end after the war, when we got involved in all the V2 work. I did a lot with him. There was a Mr. Cobb you wouldn’t have known. He did not have a PhD, and I’ve forgotten where he was from, but he was a very nice type of person and technically very competent, but not theoretically competent. He was good on the organizing programs, firing programs and stuff like that. Chandrasekhar was a consultant, Martin Schwarzschild came occasionally. He was there for a short time in uniform. He was stationed there for a short time.
Hoffleit:Sterne, of course. There were lots of astronomers there.
DeVorkin:It really seems so. Did you meet Robert Atkinson?
DeVorkin:Was he there too?
Hoffleit:Want a funny story on him?
Hoffleit:Well, he was there as a representative from England, for the British, and you know the British know everything better than the Americans do, on everything. He was helping the British at Aberdeen on the bombing programs. And of course the bombs landed in certain fields on the proving ground— nice, big, proving ground fields. Well, Dr. Atkinson was supposed to watch and spot the impacts or something. He had to be on the bombing field, and in those days, men didn’t wear shorts quite the way they do nowadays, so those that did were a little bit on the conspicuous side. Well anyway, Atkinson, having been in the Southern Hemisphere and what not, was accustomed to wearing shorts when the weather dictated comfort like that, but it wasn’t comfort in all respects. There was very tall grass tickling his legs. And so the bombing program, costing thousands upon thousands of dollars, as you can imagine, had to be stopped, and he had to get the maintenance crew to come and mow the whole big bombing field so it wouldn’t tickle his legs.
DeVorkin:Oh, I can’t believe that.
Hoffleit:Yes, it’s true. (laughter)
DeVorkin:Maybe he couldn’t see the bomb craters in the tall grass?
Hoffleit:Of course, I wasn’t in on those programs, so I just heard what the men talked about.
DeVorkin:What a great story.
Hoffleit:And they came back from the bombing field very happy about this. I was on the bombing field quite often too somewhat later, when I was involved in the Radio—Doppler reductions, but I had no problem about the tickling grass on the bombing field. What they did to me is chain me like a mad dog to a post, because I had one of these field telephones that was mounted on a post, and I had to stay there in order to get my commands and give my observations back; watching the impact. We had a radio dish in the middle of the field, and what I was supposed to do was tell where the bombs fell relative to the impact dish. I’d stay right chained to my post. And the post was right on a former asphalt road that was rather pitted, but it was a good place to stand in all aspects of things.
DeVorkin:How far away were you from the bombs?
Hoffleit:Oh, I’d say the impact would be about as far as from here to Whitney Avenue, which is rather a little bit on the dangerous side (200 yards). I was here watching, hoping for the impact at the dish, with a big wide open field between me and the dish, But once one landed “CRASH, in the middle of the woods behind me—!”
DeVorkin:You mean the bomb went all the way over your head?
Hoffleit:No, it didn’t go as far as the target. It came down short.
DeVorkin:But you were actually in the trajectory?
Hoffleit:Well, more or less.
DeVorkin:They weren’t firing or dropping perpendicular to you?
Hoffleit:Actually, if the target is over there where the clock is, the dish would be a little off side like that, and the airplane path would be over highway 40. It’s target practice. Some fall short. Some fall far, and so on, and the whole purpose of all of this stuff was partly to get statistics on that sort of thing, and partly because we had to know where the bomb was going so we could interpret the Doppler records properly. When they aim right straight for the target then the signals are real good— but if the thing was offside, it’s a little more complicated reduction problem. So I had my fun down there too.
DeVorkin:It sounds like it was rather dangerous at times.
Hoffleit:I didn’t mind. Then when I went back to Harvard, I saw Frank Carpenter— he’s the brother of the Carpenter who was at Tucson— but this one was head of some part of the biology department at Harvard. He was prominent in Sigma Xi so I saw him there when I went to meetings. I said, “I saw the most beautiful bug down at Aberdeen, but nobody’s been able to identify it.” He said, “Well, describe it to me.” So I described this beautiful glossy black beetle shaped thing, with a red band around I guess the rear lobe of its two lobes. I said, “Absolutely beautiful. It’s about I’d say three—quarters of an inch long or something like that.” He looked very serious and said, “You didn’t pick it up, did you?” I said, “No, I was chained to my observation point, I couldn’t…”(laughter)
DeVorkin:He wanted it?
Hoffleit:No. It was called a mutilid wasp, meaning it was a wingless wasp, and if I had tried to pick it up, I would have been killed. The sting is poisonous.
DeVorkin:They don’t come up here, I hope?
Hoffleit:A hazard. Relative to the black widow, one might say. The black widow has his red spot invisible unless you’re under it, but it was the same color scheme and the same deadly effects if it stings you. But I was really lonesome. That bug moved over in my direction day after day when I had to be out there. Oh, he was very friendly: came to say hello, is the way it felt. Here I was all by myself out there, between flights of the bomber, why, nothing to do but stand and look around. This friendly bug comes my way. One day I came there and a truck had run over him. He was squashed flat.
DeVorkin:Well, considering the whole situation, I’m just as happy you didn’t pick him up. Let me ask a few other questions about Aberdeen. I know that Russell was also a consultant?
Hoffleit:He was a consultant there.
DeVorkin:What were his duties? Did you have any contact with him?
Hoffleit:Well, he came to some of the meetings for the consultants who met as a board of overseers to discuss whether what they were doing was proper, and to give suggestions. Veblen was on that same committee. Veblen was actually on the proving ground for a high percentage of the time. And they would just discuss with the director of the laboratory what projects were going on, and give advice on what better methods could be used, what better equipment might be available and so on. In other words, just donate their know—how. A very important person who spent a great deal of consultant time there was von Neumann. He was prominent in all the computer design problems. Astronomers did a great variety of things. Dirk Reuyl was actually in charge of the photographic reductions. I didn’t know that at the time I went down. I would have worked for him if Hubble hadn’t interfered. I wouldn’t have known that before I went down, but if I chose that field rather than the straight—forward computing, that’s where I would have been put, with him. He had been there quite a while already.
DeVorkin:What were the basic technical duties that you had that required specialized knowledge?
Hoffleit:Well, I think that for my original job there supervising computing, I guess the most useful courses that I took in my life, that applied there were the ones in theoretical mechanics and mathematical mechanics. It would have been good if I had gotten the celestial mechanics that I’d wanted in my early days at Radcliffe, but I never really got that. The only thing converging on celestial mechanics that I had as a graduate student was a somewhat slipshod course that Freddie Whipple gave on computing. Not computing orbits, computing ephemerides. But I had a facility with the desk computing machines, which were the most high brow thing that was available then.
DeVorkin:After the computing bureau, when you were doing actual on site observations, was there anything in your training that was required?
Hoffleit:No, I think those things came when I finally got relieved of the computing business and got in mainly on the drag functions and things of that sort. This was after this business about the colonels not allowing women to do independent work.
DeVorkin:This is what’s explained in your typed lecture.
Hoffleit:Yes. After women got their professional ratings. As you can imagine, that snowballed, so that everybody came in on the bandwagon too. But that was all right, the thing came through. Then when the captain left, I refused to work under my co—worker, who was a good mathematician, I have nothing against him, but this was just a matter of principle.
DeVorkin:—identified as Dr. J.
DeVorkin:Is that J the first letter in his name?
Hoffleit:That’s the first letter in his name. He was a mathematician. Actually he was a German refugee.
DeVorkin:A recognizable name?
Hoffleit:I don’t know. If you’re not in the field of mathematics, it might not be. But I don’t think that should be in the record here. Well, anyway, after that, Dr. Tom Johnson, who was in the ballistics measurements branch, was looking for somebody to do certain Doppler reductions, but by new electronic techniques. Major (Al) Bennett, who was supposed to see to it that I didn’t do anything except subprofessional work, volunteered that I could do these reductions for Dr. Johnson. I was having a good time doing those. I was learning things there. It was much more exciting than just cranking out numbers.
DeVorkin:This was determining the trajectory from Doppler data?
Hoffleit:Yes. This was actually measuring the trajectory rather than predicting it. Firing tables are for predicting it.
DeVorkin:Right. These must have been through radar then?
Yes, I’d get all of the records for him. A lot of it was really deadly, but in principle, if you had in mind what you were supposed to get out of it, it was fun. But actually it meant, before automatic measuring engines, counting sine waves, how many sine waves per second, and so on. I noticed that Dr. Johnson never went home at quitting time, the way the average civil servant does and I always worked overtime. I always had too much to do. We were always pressured to get things out. One evening after work, I just marched myself down to talk to him. Everything had to go by proper government red tape. Dr. Johnson would send the tapes that I had to measure through Major Bennett and then they’d come down to me, then they’d go back through the Major— the results—and back there.
So I thought, well, I’ll just go take these results in to Dr. Johnson. And I said, “I wonder if you’d like to see my latest results?” Oh, he was a very affable person—a civilian of course. He was very close with all my enemies up in the colonel’s office. I just gloated over his smiling and being happy about it, knowing full well he was just being courteous to a woman. But either you bat ‘em down flat or you’re very gallant. He was the gallant type. I said, “Dr. Johnson, why can’t I work directly for you, instead of sending all this stuff through channels back and forth? That just takes extra time.” He looked real happy, somebody wanted to work for him: “Well, I’ll ask the colonel.” I said, “Oh,” knowing full well that the colonel would bat that down because he was, you know, just anti—female except as secretaries or in the kitchen. “Well,” he said, “I’ll ask Kent.” That was an associate director. There were two associate civilian directors, Kent was the chief of the associate civilian directors, and it happened that the next day the colonel wasn’t in town, so Johnson went to Mr. Kent and asked if he could have me transferred into his laboratory. Kent says, “If she wants to work for you and you want her, I don’t see why you can’t have her,” so he just signed the proper papers for the transfer. A couple of months later, there was some sort of senior staff meeting where women are excluded, and they were discussing some miscellaneous job like my variable stars at Harvard—you know, you just throw in a few extra jobs for somebody to do now and then. Somebody wanted something done. And who’s around who can do that? Somebody said, “Miss Hoffleit could do that.” And the colonel turned to Major Bennett and said: “Well, why don’t you ask her to do it?” Major Bennett said, “But she isn’t working for me any more.” The colonel asked, “She isn’t? Where is she?” She’s working for Dr. Johnson. “How did that come about?” “Well, I guess because she likes Dr. Johnson.” (laughter) So anyway, from that point on, I had a good time at Aberdeen, because I was respected and I respected my immediate supervisor, my immediate superiors. Whereas before, you know, I never could respect poor Dr. Bennett, I was always sorry for him, because as a man in a uniform, all he could do was say “Yes sir, Yes sir” to his military seniors, no matter how he felt.
DeVorkin:I see. That’s always very difficult.
Hoffleit:So we were all happy about that. It was shortly after that that the colonel went to Europe and got all the captured V—2 rockets that went to White Sands. So that’s how I got involved in the missiles.
Hoffleit:The colonel who was in charge of the Ballistical Laboratory. He was a really good person. He thought that I suffered from this much more than I did. I really did suffer, I was more prepared for that than the average woman was, because I was brought up on discrimination as a way of life. Mother was all for my advancing, but when it came to women, there’s a place where women belong, and the proving ground of course is not likely to be a place where a woman ought to be. But of course, if you’re asked to come to a place like that (I didn’t ever volunteer to go down there, I was pressured to go down)—to be pressured to go take a job there, and then be discriminated against: being told that your services are needed to your highest capacity, and then arriving there and are told that somebody is supposed to see to it that you do not use your highest capacity, only because you’re a woman—(is hard to take). The colonel told me afterwards, when we became friendly, much later, that the reason that he didn’t want women in good positions on the proving ground was that they come down there and as soon as they’ve learned the job, they run off and get married and follow the soldiers somewhere else. I said, “Not when they’re over 30, they don’t.”
DeVorkin:What did he say to that?
Hoffleit:Little did I know. (Laughter)
DeVorkin:Right; well, when the V—2’s came over, you were asked directly to do work with them?
Hoffleit:They fired those at White Sands, of course, because they were too big and too dangerous for the Aberdeen location. But basically, the Doppler techniques that were used for tracking the V—2 missiles were the same as we’d used for the small things at Aberdeen. Everything was on a more massive scale, and everything was developed while it was being tried out. What we did at Aberdeen was try to make the missiles almost hit the target. Of course if they hit the target, which is the radar dish, we would lose the radar dish. But if it was a near miss and went right over it, why, then we get awfully good records, right up close to the ground. They used somewhat different techniques for the high altitude things ultimately employing three and four stations for triangulation in addition to the radial velocity. What you get from the Doppler is the radial velocity. If you get several of these radial velocities, then by integrating all of the instantaneous velocities, the trajectory is found.
DeVorkin:Were the techniques for integrating these various calculations worked out there, or did you work out the techniques?
Hoffleit:I worked them out in a very clumsy way, and actually Boris Garfunkel was there too toward the end. He came shortly before I left. And he improved the mathematical procedures of all of this.
DeVorkin:This was at Aberdeen?
Hoffleit:Yes. All the reductions were done at Aberdeen. I was sent down to White Sands a couple of times, just sort of as a bonus, to watch what was going on.
DeVorkin:That must have been quite exciting.
Hoffleit:It was. It was great.
DeVorkin:Could they actually, within safe limits, predict where those V—2’s were going to come down?
Hoffleit:Of course, what excited me about the V—2’s, was that they were no longer being used for long range targets. What intrigued me was that they were shot straight up, or almost straight up to see how high into the atmosphere they could go. In other words, what was being done at Aberdeen was von Braun’s original dream for the rockets. The V—2’s were designed originally for space exploration, not for military purposes. They were diverted to military purposes when Hitler was having difficulty. The people at Peenemunde had offered Hitler their services early in the war, and he’d turned them down. This was just, you know, a newfangled stunt. But then when he got into difficulties, then he turned back to them, and retroactively accepted their services. But von Braun before the war actually started had been working on rockets of this sort, designing them for the purpose of getting outside of the atmosphere. And so we were resuming that, to explore properties of the atmosphere. I was involved only in the tracking reductions. But the purpose of it all was what was so exciting. I almost might have stayed at Aberdeen if they had pursued that; but Washington changed priorities between the various services, and this high altitude stuff was diverted to the Air Force rather than the Army. And so the Army was told to mind its own business working on long ground—range intercontinental ballistic missiles rather than on high altitude problems. Of course, the war was now over. There was no patriotic reason any more for working on the ballistic missiles as ballistic missiles. But the bonus of going to the upper atmosphere, that was great. The first shoot they sent me to watch was the very first one that was a night firing. Fritz Zwicky had his artificial meteors in that shoot. None of us who were watching to see whether the artificial meteors would emerge from the projectile could see them. Zwicky said, “Well, they might have been too faint to observe,” but added, “My cameras at Palomar will show them if they went off.” Imagine that! But they never did. Whatever the mechanism was for shooting off the artificial meteors in that rocket failed. On the other hand, it was extremely exciting, because it was the first missile that went higher than 100 miles. And I was the one who got the 114 mile altitude out of the Doppler records using a quick approximation before all the records got sent to Aberdeen for detailed reduction.
DeVorkin:Weren’t the two stage experiments started around 1947?
Hoffleit:Yes, I think they were, but not with these big things. They started them I think with smaller rockets first.
DeVorkin:They used an Aerobee on top of a V—2,
Hoffleit:Yes. Those experiments I think came after I left the proving ground.
Hoffleit:I left the early part of 1948. I still went back for consulting, but made only minor contributions from there on.
DeVorkin:During this period, you went to Inyokern also, to China Lake?
Hoffleit:No. After I left Aberdeen, Dr. Arthur Bennett— who used to be an astronomer here at Yale working on red variable stars—had charge of a department at Inyokern, and he wrote to me at Harvard to ask if I would come for a summer.
DeVorkin:This is a different Bennett than the one at Aberdeen?
Hoffleit:Yes. The one at Aberdeen was a Brown mathematics professor. The mathematician was Albert Bennett. The one here at Yale was Arthur Bennett. Anyway I thought for one summer I’d go see what the Navy was doing, and I reached the conclusion that the Navy doesn’t deal with water, it deals with sand.
DeVorkin:I’ve been there. I’ve been to China Lake, I know what you mean. It’s just a dreary place.
Hoffleit:Oh, I was very excited about all of it. A tremendous experience for me. I didn’t like the job that I was doing there, but I really didn’t have time, not quite a full summer, to get my teeth really into much of anything. But so far as learning more about nature goes, it was a fantastic experience. There was a lobby in the Michelson Lab that was a square room about as big as the long dimension of this room (20 feet) and that was the transition zone between a chilly 7l degree drafty air conditioned room, and 114 degree outside.
DeVorkin:I can believe it.
Hoffleit:But the 114 felt better than that drafty air conditioning. I had to sit in the draft. And so I brought my spring coat to work, and sat in that the whole time, because if I didn’t, I was sneezing my head off, and catching cold.
DeVorkin:Well, the 100 degree plus temperatures are very dry out there, too.
Hoffleit:That’s what was so fantastic, because I’d never been in a place that dry.
DeVorkin:What were your duties there?
Hoffleit:Oh, I’ve almost forgotten what I did there. It was a small job. I did a bibliography job for somebody down there, but I’ve even forgotten what I made the bibliography on.
DeVorkin:As long as it wasn’t astronomy?
DeVorkin:OK. Let’s return to Harvard. You went directly back to Harvard from your war work in 1948.
Hoffleit:Well, I made a bargain with Shapley and the colonel that for three years, I’d spend a certain amount of time at Harvard in order to hold my job there, so that that would give me time to do these V—2 things.
DeVorkin:This was ‘45 to ‘48?
DeVorkin:So you spent some time at Harvard each year.
Hoffleit:I spent three months a year at Harvard, three isolated months. I commuted back and forth, “between Heaven and Hell via Hellgate Bridge.” And the colonel asked me, which end was which, and I really couldn’t say! (laughter)
DeVorkin:I was going to ask you the same thing. Well, when you went back full time, Shapley was still director?
DeVorkin:Was it a different place?
Hoffleit:It was a different place for a while, because there was certain tension, as I mentioned this morning. I constantly heard about who saved lives by teaching navigation instead of dealing with missiles and so on. So there was some uneasy feeling there. And my feeling that all these people who had sacrificed the least for war work were the ones who seemed to be most welcome. For a year or so, things were not too comfortable, but then things settled down and became more normal when in 1950 Shapley started organizing the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first daguerreotype of a star—that’s when Harvard became the good old Harvard again. From that point on, I was at home with everything there. There’s one thing that made me very unhappy when I went back to Harvard. I had made out a terrific observing program for Bloomfontein, where the 13—inch telescope had been the one that got the high dispersion objective prism spectra; dispersion of 52 angstroms to the millimeter, maybe it was 45 spectra. I already had plates mostly from all the stars brighter than 5th magnitude, but we were going to push that down to 7th magnitude, and the program was running beautifully when I left for Aberdeen. But before I returned to Harvard, Shapley wrote me that he had killed the spectral classification project at Bloomfontein because Paraskevopoulos was shorthanded down there and they just thought mine was the best program to cut out, because for many of the other projects he didn’t do much guiding. Harvard depended on instrumental guiding, that is, the driving mechanism was good enough for most direct photographs, but it wasn’t good enough for spectral objective prism spectral work.
DeVorkin:Because you had to let it drift accurately.
Hoffleit:Yes. Errors blurred things. Anyway, that program evidently gave more problems than most of the other instruments did. I wrote Shapley saying I’d be delighted to go down there and take my own plates. I never got any answer from him, so the next time I went on my tour of duty, I went to him and said, “I really meant it, that I’d like to go to South Africa and try taking these plates myself.” He said, “Oh, that’s impossible.” Again, discrimination against women in the worst sense. Shapley said, “If you went down there to take those plates yourself, you’d disrupt the entire social life of the Parasses.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yes. They have only one guest bedroom and you’d have to sleep there.” Then he said, “And besides, the natives wouldn’t approve of a woman working all night!”
Hoffleit:Of course, after all of this happened, why, wives at Harvard— graduate students marrying each other, like Elske Smith—got to go and observe. That was all right. But for a single person to go down was all wrong. That made me very unhappy, because that was literally what I went back to Harvard for, to work on these spectral classification problems.
DeVorkin:You weren’t able to continue on that, then.
Hoffleit:Well, there were several thousand plates already that had been taken and that hadn’t been worked up. But Harvard always had a pride in the completeness of its plate collection, and we had decided we were going to have all the Southern stars down to 7th magnitude, and here we had a blotch here and a blotch there. It was way way off from being complete. Then Bart Bok went to Bloomfontein to erect the ADH telescope. That was a heartache too, because they put the ADH on the mounting that the old 24—inch Bruce was on, which had certainly not outlived its usefulness.
DeVorkin:Then Bruce came back?
Hoffleit:The Bruce lens came back, yes, and the ADH was put on its mounting.
DeVorkin:Is the Bruce being used now?
Hoffleit:Not that I know of.
DeVorkin:The lens is dismounted?
Hoffleit:Well, they took the Bruce off of its mounting, down in South Africa, when Bart went down to put the new ADH on the same mounting.
Hoffleit:And what’s become of the Bruce now, I just wouldn’t know.
Hoffleit:They may have sold it. They may just have it in dead storage. I don’t know. But lots of people were unhappy about that. Especially Willem Luyten was burned up and still is about the discontinuance of that, because that was his baby for the proper motions, which he wanted to continue. But when the first plates of the ADH came back, Bart brought in to me a handful of three or four plates: “this is typical of what the ADH will now be doing.”
DeVorkin:This is Armagh-Dunsink-Harvard.
Hoffleit:You know how that got started, how Dr. Shapley happened to be in an Irish airport, and he saw someone sitting in the waiting room who looked kind of familiar?
Hoffleit:Then, light dawned: it was de Valera, the head of the Irish Republic. So Dr. Shapley walks right up to him and introduces himself and tells him all about Bloomfontein, because Shapley was on his way there at the time, I guess. And thus Shapley set up the beginnings of a deal with North Ireland, South Ireland and the United States to make it economically feasible to run the ADH.
DeVorkin:Amazing. He just saw him in the airport.
Hoffleit:I think that’s the first real international cooperation in an observatory. All of these Cerro Tololos and what have you are sort of an outgrowth of Shapley’s brainstorm when he saw the head of the Irish Republic in the airport.
DeVorkin:He was able to simply approach him directly.
Hoffleit:Shapley can approach anybody.
DeVorkin:I guess so. Right.
Hoffleit:Anyway, Bart brought back these beautiful photographs, and no other photographs from the ADH ever matched those initial beginner’s luck masterpieces that Bart brought back. He gave me an objective prism plate, I guess the dispersion was around 200 angstroms per millimeter, much bigger than what Miss Cannon normally used, but small in comparison with most slit spectra. I classified over 1500 stars from that one plate. And then I was waiting for more plates and asked, pleaded with Bok, to have some taken on my old defunct variable star fields. No, he was going to take them on fields that he wanted, and he got some very good plates. But nothing like those first few. He also brought back direct photographs a blue one and a red one, of the Eta Carina nebula, this was about half of the diameter of the field (pointing to pictures in office)—this is just a picture of that one plate. He had me mark up the plate with all sorts of nebulosities, and I was having the grandest time analyzing the nebulosity forms and whether there were blue stars in these little knots and things. Oh, I was having a grand time with it. I’d mark up that plate with about six different colors of ink, to indicate what kinds of stars I found inside of each nebulosity. Then Bart would come saying he’s going on some trip to a symposium or something somewhere and wanted to take that very plate with him. So he took the plate to Fogg Museum and had a print made of what I had put on the glass side of the plate. Well, all my six colors of course were lost, so far as that goes. And he gave me no time to mark the colors on the black and white chart. He handed me the print and went off to his conference. That happened about three or four times. And I thought, some day that plate’s going to get busted. Well, it did. The last time I saw it, it came back in two pieces, clean cut, but no longer the showpiece.
DeVorkin:Then you could work on it.
Hoffleit:Yes. As I say, this study of the history of astronomical photography, and then followed up by the Bart’s marvelous plates from the ADH made me feel at home and in my element again, when Shapley retired. And I think the best scientific paper I’ve written was that last one that I wrote at Harvard, the last one that I had in the Ap.J. about the nebulosities and embedded stars. I have very few papers in the Ap.J.
DeVorkin:That was in 1956. That would be, “Distances for Southern Early Type Stars, especially Carina?” ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL, 124.
DeVorkin:That’s a very well cited paper, too, over 16 citations to it.
Hoffleit:Well, I was real happy, not too long ago, within the last year, to see that somebody cited me as having been probably the first one to make the suggestion about primoridal dust clouds remaining as shells around the red stars. And I was really happy thinking about that. That was my own idea; that nobody had stated it before was gratifying.
DeVorkin:Your earlier paper on Carina, “A preliminary Survey of Nebulosities Associated with B Stars in Carina,” was in 1953, which was also highly cited. It was on similar work.
DeVorkin:That’s a different track for you. I mean, it’s an interesting thing. You worked on this with Bok?
Hoffleit:He instigated it, of course. We talked a lot together. I actually did all of the work, but he was interested in that, very much, of course.
DeVorkin:Now, Shapley retired in ‘52?
DeVorkin:And there were three years before you left Harvard.
DeVorkin:You knew of course that Shapley was going to be retiring.
Hoffleit:Yes, and of course Shapley was rooting for Bok to become his successor. Bok was a little too forward and was telling everybody what he would do when he became director. He had lots of enemies in the department. How much he had enemies, one didn’t realize until Shapley was about to retire, when there was this big scramble. Whipple and Menzel and Bok all wanted the directorship. Power politics played a role there, Bok was particularly hurt and upset about Whipple because Whittle was backing Menzel, even though Whipple apparently wanted the position himself. However, I think that he already knew that he was going to get the Smithsonian, though most of us didn’t know that. But anyway, Whipple apparently did some nasty talking about Bok. What hurt Bok so badly there was the striking ingratitude toward a friend and benefactor. Not too long before, just at the time when World War II broke, in 1940, Whipple had been invited to Chicago. I don’t know whether he went to Yerkes or whether it was in Chicago itself, but anyway, he was supposed to give a big paper at some symposium or conference. Right during the conference Whipple collapsed, with encephalitis. At this time he was already divorced from his first wife, and sort of a lone person. So Bok dropped everything to go to Chicago to father Whipple to take care of him and see that he got back to Cambridge and all that. Bart had been so much of a Christian spirit helping Whipple to recover. And that man now did the worst talking to bat down Bart’s becoming director perhaps because he thought he could manage Menzel better than he could manage Bok. Well, nobody can manage Bok. He stands on his own feet.
Hoffleit:Very direct and forward. You know where you stand with Bart. But Whipple’s rather catty, in many ways, and this was the first time Bart had an inkling of how two—faced Whipple could be, so he was badly hurt.
DeVorkin:I can imagine.
Hoffleit:But those three years, after Shapley and after it was announced that Menzel would be the director, were absolute torture.
DeVorkin:Did you want to leave as soon as Shapley retired?
Hoffleit:I did not want to leave at all, but I was going insane, with that insane man at the head of the institution.
DeVorkin:Were you able to see what was coming or was this a surprise? Once he took over?
Hoffleit:I anticipated some, but not to that degree, I knew he was jealous of Shapley. What Menzel really was doing was trying to obliterate as much as he could of what Pickering and Shapley stood for. When Shapley came, he was really building on what Pickering had done, as a foundation. Menzel did not want to build on another person’s foundation. He wanted to demolish that foundation, in order to put himself alone above all other considerations. Theoretical astrophysics and solar astronomy were to be the rule of the day; everything else was obsolete now. I said to Menzel one day, “If this work on the spectral classification and the investigation of stars involved in nebulosity is obsolete, why would Thackeray at the Radcliffe Observatory write me to say that if I ever was thinking of dropping this project, he would like to take it over?” Menzel said, “I thought you had sense enough to know, it is obsolete at this observatory,”
DeVorkin:What did he expect you to do?
Well, I’ll tell you the reason he was against me so much. Even if this hadn’t happened, I still would have been miserable, if he hadn’t been mad at me, I would inevitably have gotten mad at him when the invaluable plate collection was being demolished. That was more than I could take. Then he forced me to take charge of sending old record books to Widener Library because there was ostensibly no room for them at the Harvard Observatory, even though he was building a new building—things like that, making me do lots of dirty work. But the reason Menzel disliked me anti—dates this. On one occasion when I went to White Sands Proving Ground, he was down there too. Both of us were surprised to see each other there. We had lunch together. I knew Menzel never thought much of me because I’m poor in theoretical astrophysics and that’s all that interested him. This was before I was back full time at Harvard. I was still toying around with what I really would do in the future. Menzel started commiserating me on how awful it would be to return to Harvard with the low salary I would be getting. It really wasn’t right, and so on. Then, as though he had a brainstorm, he remarked that he had some large government funds, and if I would work for him on sunspots, then I would get a decent salary.
I was sincerely flattered and said, “Well, I’ll have to think this over. I couldn’t say yes or no right away, but I certainly thank you for thinking of me that way.” Then when I went back to Harvard, after I’d thought it over, I said that I regretted that I felt that I must not accept his offer at this time. I had made a great point about leaving a job that was better paid at Aberdeen, because I was going back to Harvard to finish work that I had started before the war, and that that was very dear to my heart. But if I would finish that work and bring it to a good stopping place, then later I would probably be very glad to transfer into his department; but that it would be morally wrong for me to accept at that particular time. Well, he never forgave me for that. He is the big shot, and if I turned him down, well, he was jolly well going to turn me down, and he really did. He was as nasty about things for one thing, you aren’t supposed to send papers to publishers without going through the right channels, through the director. I had a nice paper on the new planetary nebulae that I’d found on the ADH plates. Shapley had recommended that it go to a certain publication, but I thought, “Well, since Shapley wasn’t director any more, I can’t send it, it has to go over Menzel’s signature.” So he batted down the paper. This was not anything that he wanted published. And he had some nasty remark about everything that I did. You read there what he said to me about, “If I were as well heeled as Mrs. Van Vleck—.” What he meant was, if I had money like Barbara Bell, I’d be welcome, but he didn’t want any paupers around there who were just proud paupers, who were going to work their heads off for the glory of the institution.
DeVorkin:Barbara Bell? I don’t remember her.
Hoffleit:She graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe and then got a PhD under Menzel, and then he employed her.
DeVorkin:And that’s it?
Hoffleit:That’s it. I’ve heard very little of what she’s done. When he was naming the craters on the backside of the moon, why, she was the one who was helping him do that. It’s very erudite work!
DeVorkin:Sounds like she could have done better elsewhere.
Hoffleit:Of course she lived in that location, and I heard the year that I taught at Wellesley that she was an expert on the Stock Market. She was a really nice person.
DeVorkin:Did Russell continue to advise and visit in the summers at Harvard after Shapley retired?
Hoffleit:I can’t say. I really don’t remember whether he did or didn’t. He certainly did through the years that Shapley was still there, but after that, the last time I recall that Russell was at Cambridge, which was before Shapley was really retired, he was taken ill. Mrs. Russell was with him, and Shapley said he thought I ought to go call on him in Mt. Auburn Hospital. As a patient, he was fantastic. Mrs. Russell really had to make sure that the visitors got out on time, because in the hospital bed where he was supposed to be resting, he was talking a blue streak as usual.
DeVorkin:Didn’t stop him at all. Do you know what it was, what illness he had?
Hoffleit:I don’t really know, but I suspect it was probably heart trouble.
DeVorkin:He had a coronary in the forties.
Hoffleit:That was probably it.
DeVorkin:So this was in the 1940’s? ‘42?
Hoffleit:This was after the war.
Hoffleit:I don’t know why, but Mrs. Russell took a great liking to me, and I visited them in Princeton, largely because she was persuading me to stop by on my way when I was commuting between Aberdeen and Harvard. Both places where he was consultant.
Hoffleit:So one time I stopped there and spent a weekend with them.
DeVorkin:Well, what finally was the intolerable condition that made you leave? And how did you come to leave and come to Yale?
Hoffleit:The real reason I left is that I could not tolerate his putting an ignoramus secretary in charge of disposing of one—third of the plate collection.
DeVorkin:Was this done directly against you?
Hoffleit:Well, no. The reason that Menzel was “agin” me and everything I was doing was this business of my not bowing and accepting a job from him right away. But the plate collection would have been destroyed by Menzel in any case, because it was of no use to him in his solar work. Some time before Shapley retired, he had asked me to go into the stacks and sample plates, and make three piles:—those that I was sure everybody would agree we ought to keep ones that some people might want to throw away and others might want to keep; and the ones that I thought everybody would want to throw away. He said, “When you’ve made this sampling, tell me how many plates there are in each pile, and keep the piles of the doubtful and the bad.” Then he would look at some of those, he wanted the numbers of how many plates I’d looked at in this search.
DeVorkin:This was just a spot check.
Hoffleit:Spot check of various series.
DeVorkin:He didn’t want you to throw anything away.
Hoffleit:No, just spot check the series, oh, I guess maybe 100, 200 for each of the major series. And when I had done that, he looked at the doubtful and at the poor plates, and he agreed with me that the doubtful ones ought to be kept. There was enough there so that there just might be a use for them some time. Then he said, “And the ones that are bad enough to throw away are so few that it isn’t worth looking for them. You throw those away when you happen to find them.” So, after that, Menzel got this ignoramus secretary— she was a college graduate in psychology, but she’d been a personnel manager at the Jordan Marsh Department Store when he got her. He got her from the “bargain basement”, so to speak. She was put in charge of making sure that she would dispose of ONE THIRD OF THE PLATE COLLECTION. The plate collection took up an entire three floors of Building D, the plate vault side, and he wanted one of those floors completely vacated for expanded office space. You can’t imagine any worse space for offices than that room that was built for stacks of plates! Low ceiling and lots of iron stakes, you know, for stability.
DeVorkin:You couldn’t have been the only one who would have objected to this?
Hoffleit:Well, no. There was a rather big exodus from Harvard when Menzel was doing such things. I think even Bok might have stayed at Harvard if Menzel had been reasonable. But he was absolutely power crazy, insane.
DeVorkin:And he had the power to do this.
Hoffleit:He had the power. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, and wrote the dean. Of course, once you write the dean that’s serious. I had tenure at Harvard, I never had tenure at Yale, but I had tenure at Harvard, so he couldn’t fire me, unless he could make a big case of it. Well, once you’ve written to the dean, to say that the brand new director is doing things that ought to be considered illegal, that this was the most precious collection in the whole wide world, and indicate that Shapley had asked me to do on the sampling—this was simply outrageous.
DeVorkin:Which dean was this?
Hoffleit:Let’s not mention the names here.
DeVorkin:What was the Dean’s reaction?
Hoffleit:Zero reaction. He sent the letter to Menzel.
DeVorkin:Now, was Bok reacting against this? Or any of the others?
Hoffleit:Well, Bok of course didn’t know I wrote the letter until everybody knew that I’d written it. Bok said he was sorry I wrote it; you just can’t live with that sort of a situation.
DeVorkin:Was there any criterion this woman was going by, to select the plates to discard?
Hoffleit:Miss Cannon had classified the plates. The classification was really the weighting system, rather than classification system, because “5” were the best plates, “1” were the ones that were bad enough to throw away. The secretary obviously couldn’t find very many l’s and 2’s, the ones about which Shapley said, “Throw them away if you find them;” so they started on the 3 minuses and there weren’t enough of those either, so they went into the 3 i’s which are simply good plates that are trailed slightly, egg shaped images instead of round. Finally, when there was much hard feeling about what she was doing, then he decided that instead of actually throwing the plates into the trash bins, he would put them in the “dungeon” to make room in the stacks. The dungeon was the cellar under the 15—inch telescope, which had a dirt floor. The foundation of the 15—inch building is granite blocks about 3 foot cube, and the roots of trees had grown between those and were hanging down into the dirt floored cellar.
DeVorkin:That is a dungeon.
Hoffleit:And the only way to get down to that place was through a trap door and down a ladder. He asked the machinist— we didn’t have a carpenter—to go down there and set up some six foot shelves, planks, to put these plates on. And Mr. Locke said, “But you have to put more partitions in between, if you have a six foot plank that won’t hold much weight without sagging.” Menzel answered: “This is what I’m asking you to do. You do it.” And so they moved the plates there, and when I went down there to look for some plates, naturally, with these catenary shelves, every set of plates was supporting the shelf above it. To say nothing of the dampness. Dampness and weight. In other words, he couldn’t have destroyed them more than by putting them down there.
DeVorkin:Were there any other places that would have taken these plates?
Hoffleit:Oh sure. But he was much too much in a hurry to get rid of them. Clyde Tombaugh came around one time. We had some very unusual plates dating back to the very early days of photography. They had some little camera that was a night patrol. If it wasn’t raining, then the camera was exposed all night. It was to give the cloud coverage around the North Pole.
Hoffleit:So for meteorological purposes, that would be fine. Well, that, he decided to throw out wholesale, too. I guess not too many people around Harvard objected to that, though I think he should have offered it to the meteorology department before he threw them out. But anyway Clyde Tombaugh said he would have taken all of those, if he could have gotten them.
DeVorkin:What would he have done with them?
Hoffleit:Well, Clyde Tombaugh is rather a queer duck too and I think he would have made some good use of them.
DeVorkin:He would have blinked them. Every one of them.
Hoffleit:I wouldn’t be surprised.
DeVorkin:But still, the ones that he did throw out, they covered all parts of the sky?
Hoffleit:Oh, all parts of the sky and all series.
Hoffleit:And the really sad thing is that she of course did not take the time to weed out the card catalog. So now you find a plate number and you look for the plate, and if you don’t find it, well, normally you used to assume it was misplaced or something. Now you just assume, well, it’s part of the Menzelian fiasco.
DeVorkin:Whipple certainly survived through that period and is still there.
Hoffleit:The Gaposchkins and Whipple.
DeVorkin:Liller? He wasn’t there then?
Hoffleit:Liller was a graduate student who then went to Michigan and taught there for a long time. Liller came to Harvard when Menzel retired mysteriously and Goldberg came. Goldberg brought Liller with him.
DeVorkin:I see, Goldberg had been at Harvard too but he’d left earlier.
Hoffleit:Goldberg had not been an employee of Harvard before. Goldberg got his PhD the same year I did. And he’d been various places. He was the director at Michigan. Goldberg was really Menzel’s chief protegee among all the graduate students. He was the brightest of them all, and very alive in all the things that interested Menzel. But I hear on the grapevine that they broke up somehow, too, that they didn’t remain friends.
DeVorkin:Yes. The two things I want to finish up are your coming to Yale, and what you found here, your recollections of the first few years here. And then your recollections of your first years as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory. They happened about the same time, didn’t they?
Hoffleit:They not only happened the same time, they were the same deal. When I decided to leave Harvard happened to be the time that the Board of Managers of Maria Mitchell was looking for a successor for Margaret Harwood. Dr. Brouwer was the chairman of the search committee for a director for Maria Mitchell. While Margaret Harwood was a full time employee of Maria Mitchell, with privileges to be away four months of the year at any other institution, the value of the endowment had gone down, and the cost of living and everything had gone up. They also had to pay her a pension, because there was no TIAA or anything like that at that time, or for Nantucket in any case. So they had to consider paying her a pension as well as paying me a higher salary rate, for several reasons. First the cost of living increase and also because I had a better education than she did. So, they claimed they could not hire anybody for more than a half a year at a time. At the same time, Vassar College was looking for a successor to Mrs. Makemson, and I was being considered for that. I wanted to combine the two Maria Mitchell observatories, so I wrote Dr. Brouwer and asked if he could do something about resolving the conflict that Nantucket wanted six months and no less than six months, and Vassar wanted nine months and no less than nine months. I thought we could just manage that by the coincidental vacations that colleges have—a little time off for Christmas and a little time off for Easter or spring break, and so on, and sort of work out a good compromise. Well, Brouwer didn’t want to involve himself in anything as complicated as that. He wrote me back very promptly, “It would be much better for you to spend the other half of the year doing research at Yale.” Bok thought that was a great idea, but Shapley had his suspicions about it, and I’m afraid Shapley was right, as usual. Menzel was the major factor in killing me off as a good research scientist.
Hoffleit:At Harvard, Everything I did for him was “obsolete now” because he was in charge. What Bok was doing was obsolete too, incidentally.
DeVorkin:Well, you left about the same time.
Hoffleit:Well, yes, same general reasons. Bok stayed one year longer than I did.
DeVorkin:He had a lot of students and the radio facility to work on.
Hoffleit:He had lots. He always has lots of everything. Brouwer was very fond of me, but I think he literally finished off what Menzel started. As I say, I know that he liked me very much, and the main reason I stayed at Yale through the Brouwer years was because I had my difficulties down at Nantucket too. Miss Harwood thought she was going to get me down there, knowing that I was going to leave Harvard, and she thought that I’d come sort of in disgrace and she’d take me under her wing and then I would do her bidding while she lorded over me. Now, after I had been appointed, at her recommendation, she decided she wasn’t going to retire. And then she told the whole town of Nantucket that it would take her at least two years to teach me her job. Now, as for teaching me her job, Margaret Harwood could not do any independent research at Nantucket. All of her work had been indirectly, informally directed by Bailey, King and Pickering, before Shapley came; and by Bailey and King as long as they were alive, Shapley permitted her to continue to use all of the facilities of Harvard Observatory, but he wasn’t butting into her projects. And she couldn’t get any advice and support for her projects from Shapley. When I first met her, she told me about how when Shapley first came, she was teaching him how to be a director! She told me things like that. Margaret’s work goes back along way. When Shapley decided that a Milky Way project of which Henrietta Swope was mainly in charge was not paying the dividends that he wanted he dropped it. He had wanted KR Lyrae stars for studying galactic structure; had but interstellar absorption spoiled what he wanted to get out of this project. It was now more important to get colors, rather than periods, because he couldn’t get the distances for the Cepheids unless he knew how to apply extinction. But nothing was then known about extinction laws.
Hoffleit:So, he literally stopped most of the Milky Way survey projects right then and there. I had discovered 450 variables in Sagittarius, and had worked up ten of them, when he— clipped it off, right there.
DeVorkin:That was in the thirties.
That was in the thirties, mid—thirties. Well, at that time, Margaret Harwood was at loose ends. She was working in her Scutum Region, doing reasonably good work there. But she faltered because she didn’t know why she was doing her work; if Shapley was stopping this work, should she stop it or shouldn’t she? And the indecision on that slowed her down. That’s one of the reasons that she accomplished so little in so many years. She depended on the moral support for her projects from Harvard, and Shapley didn’t tell her whether she should stop or not. Because that wasn’t any of his business. So she’d come around to me, and I would encourage her and tell her, “Well, what Shapley wants out of these Milky Way regions isn’t the only reason for doing variable star work, There are all other varieties of variables, and what we want to know is more about the statistics of which variables of other classes occur, here, there and anywhere, and if Harvard isn’t interested in doing this, there are lots of other astronomers who are.” So I was all the time urging her. But she felt that if the head man says no in his department, what does his underling know? She didn’t know anything about spurious periods either. I taught her that part. She always came to me for advice.
At first, she’d just come to me, acting as though she was interested in what I was doing, and I finally caught on that she was asking me about my work in order to find out how to do hers. Socially Margaret was generally delightful. Not so when it came time to retire. Once I was ready to go down there, she discovered that she couldn’t just use me as somebody to boss around until something might happen to her. She expected me to take over the directorship in name only, but she’d just continue to direct me— after my having taught her how to do her own work! And she spread all sorts of lies around about me. She told everybody I was evicting her from her cottage there, and some of the high school students told me, “It’s her cottage, what are you doing here?” I said, “It is not her cottage. It was given to the Association for the benefit of the director.” I had already told the president of the organization, “Look, if she doesn’t want to move out, let me live in the attic of the Hinchman House. That’s OK by me. She can stay in the cottage.” He said, “That is illegal. That’s not what the house was given for. She has to get out.” Well, she went around telling everybody that I was an old ogre, and she tried to tell the girls how bad I was, behind my back of course. It was ten years before Dr. B.F.D. Runk persuaded her to keep off of my neck during the summer.
He was the president of the Maria Mitchell Association from 1963 to 1975. Brouwer was the chairman of the astronomy committee for Maria Mitchell. And the reason for bringing all this Maria Mitchell misery into the picture was that, it was Brouwer who as chairman of the astronomy committee, did his level best to straighten out as many things as he could on the island, and I think, except for that, I probably would have left Yale. I had come because I was interested in the astrometry projects and I wanted to continue on all this spectroscopic absolute magnitude work I’d done at Harvard. There were my major problems, major research interests; problems of getting absolute magnitudes and the calibration problems. It’s easy enough to find absolute magnitude criteria, but it’s a completely different and more difficult subject to find out how the magnitudes vary with these criteria. You know that the strontium line, say, is bright relative to an iron line, and therefore you probably have a hot luminous star; but what is the absolute magnitude corresponding to the intensity of the lines? For that you need trigonometric parallaxes or any kind of criteria for luminosity, and of course there are very very few trigonometric parallaxes, except for dwarf stars. Proper motions are the major source of statistical parallaxes for giants and super giant stars.
DeVorkin:Exactly. This is tape 6. Only about 5 minutes was taped on tape 5, which seems defective, Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Well, it’s largely because of how kind Brouwer was on the Nantucket conditions that I really stayed at Yale. I’d come to Yale, accepted Brouwer’s offer here, because proper motions had been the main source of calibration material for Harvard spectroscopic parallaxes, and since there was a high deficiency of proper motions for such stars, I thought it would be rather right and proper for me to get the material myself on the proper motions here. I was pretty much frustrated here, in the sense that Brouwer held the stick over me. He wanted these things done much more rapidly than I was able to carry them out, and I was given no time to think things through. He seemed to be under the impression that IBM machines did so many arithmetic operations per second, and he estimated how many such operations were involved in one catalog, and that determined how many hours it should take to get out a catalog. I was also supposed to supervise half a dozen incompetent people on key punching everything under the sun for the Naval Observatory in a joint project with the Naval Observatory, and also at the same time get out the Bright Star Catalog which he expected me to get out in one year.
The conditions were absolutely impossible. While I liked the kind of work I was doing, the pressures that were applied were such that I knew I couldn’t do as good a job as I’d be capable of if I were allowed freedom to decide how long it would take, instead of being told “You do it in so many days and then do everything else besides.” Just as at Harvard, he had a lot of little things to give me, like writing biographical notes that he was asked to write, and he’d hand them over to me because he knew I liked doing that sort of thing. So all in all, the pressures that were applied here were great, while the atmosphere was friendly, as it was not under Menzel. But there was a lack of independence. At Harvard, if you started a project, and a tangent project looked more promising, then there were no problems about going off on the productive looking tangent. But here, you could spot the exciting tangents, but you could do nothing about them, because you were supervising lots of people who needed continual supervision, and had to do things under such conditions. It really wasn’t good. I feel that I did not fit into Yale at all. If I’d come when Mr. Demarque first came, I think things would have worked out for me as happily as they did at Harvard, because he has that same attitude that Shapley had. He doesn’t like Shapley from what he’s read and heard about him, but he’s much more like him than he realizes, both with the social adeptness and his knowledge of and liking for people. Things like that. Brouwer was a very rigid European director. He had among the men very few people here who were not in celestial mechanics, his own field. But I had a feeling that they were allowed to work independently at their own rate; but I don’t think even Miss Barney and Miss Jenkins, who did such excellent work here, ever were allowed to do any independent work. They did routine work and did it beautifully and very intelligently. But I don’t think Miss (Ida) Barney every put in very much independent research and independent ideas. When I helped her finish her last catalog, I put into the introduction some comments about the numbers and kinds of double stars that were involved in the common proper motions for various stars. She was almost adamant that I cut out that section out of that I’d written. She had wanted me to write the introduction, but when I added anything new she would say “Schlesinger didn’t do that, there’s no reason you should—.” That was an eye opener. She was an excellent mathematician and did superb work. I don’t think Schlesinger held the whip the way Brouwer did. Miss Barney seemed like a very harassed person when I came. She was already officially retired but on half time pay in order to finish this last couple of volumes of catalogs, and I think he was pushing her the way he always pushed me. So a very likeable person (Brouwer) was not always likeable to me.
DeVorkin:I see. There were people here not in Celestial Mechanics Harlan Smith was here.
Hoffleit:—Yes, He was doing radio astronomy. People said a lot of bad things about Harlan Smith and his research and things like that, but I always felt that his being asked to leave was an injustice. He had to leave because he hadn’t published enough. I felt that Brouwer should have been a kind enough man to say that the reason Harlan Smith didn’t publish so much is that he, Harlan Smith, did the bulk of the work that the editor of the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL should do. In other words, Harlan Smith did almost all of the editing. Brouwer passed final judgment, but the detailed editing and proof reading and all that sort of thing was done by Harlan. He had a heavier teaching load than anyone here at the time in the astronomy department. He was trying to build up this brand new field of radio astronomy, in which he as a greenhorn, but really working very hard. He helped out with visitors nights, and everything under the sun. So, he didn’t publish. Now, maybe he should have said “no” to the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL. Maybe he should have said “no” to a whole lot of other things. But what would have happened if he had said “no”? Brouwer gave him these jobs in the first place. Just like what he did to me. He overloaded the boy, and then criticized him for not accomplishing these things. I got criticized too for not accomplishing enough. And goodness knows, for a person who’s supposed to be working for Yale full time for only six months of the year, I was giving him far more than his money’s worth. But always criticized for not doing enough.
DeVorkin:That’s really too bad.
Hoffleit:So far as my career as an astronomer goes, what I’ve done at Yale is full of innumerable errors, which I knew better than to commit. But what can you do, when you have those pressures over you? You know that you’ve made the errors because you see them afterwards. You know that some are bound to happen, but you have to get things into the computer and out of the computer, and into the presses as fast as you can. You don’t do it leisurely, when you feel rested, but you put in overtime because you’re supposed to get it in his hands by a certain time. I don’t feel that any of the men ever felt these pressures that I did, unless Harlan did. Harlan did have considerable freedom for a choice on his research. I don’t think Brouwer interfered in any way with the radio projects. They didn’t interest him as part of his own project. But the people who came here to do celestial mechanics didn’t feel any pressures, because he could talk with them.
DeVorkin:A. Wesselink came of course to do some stellar astronomy.
Hoffleit:Yes. Wesselink, and of course he was a man and he was a Dutchman.
DeVorkin:So there was a lot of comradeship.
Hoffleit:Yes, And also the overlap was small. Wesselink was not here very long before Brouwer died. Wesselink came to replace Harlan Smith, but Wesselink too was dissatisfied here, in the sense that he got a research associate position, and he understood that he was getting a research professorship.
DeVorkin:Oh. I see,
Hoffleit:It was a pure misunderstanding, but it made Wesselink very miserable and disgruntled.
DeVorkin:Yes. That’s an economic difference, too.
DeVorkin:OK, we have come up to about 1960.
Hoffleit:I think so. We just mentioned, Brouwer died in 1966.
DeVorkin:That’s getting dangerously close to the time when I got here, in ‘68, so we won’t go that far.
Hoffleit:Yes. I have a lot of good things to say about my being at Yale. I admit all the good things, but I myself felt out of place all those years.
DeVorkin:That’s too bad. But still, you did a lot of work with the catalogues and that’s crucial work.
Hoffleit:I did a lot of work, but it’s not high grade work. It’s the quality that comes out when you’re not allowed to think things out carefully.
DeVorkin:I see. What about the revisions in the Bright Star Catalog, and trigonometric parallaxes, in the last five or ten years?
Hoffleit:Oh boy. Well Bill van Altena is mainly working on the parallax catalog, and he had hoped to get a first draft of that done by the IAU, but I understand, he’s not that far advanced. It’s been much slower for the Bright Star Catalog than I anticipated. For one thing, this new machine downstairs is supposed to do a lot of wonders, and it does do some wonders, but is not yet in full production.
Hoffleit:Yes. I have a feeling that it is much slower machine than the more recent IBM machines.
DeVorkin:Oh, the computer.
Hoffleit:The computer part. And not only that, but while the measuring engine, the PDS, was being installed, the computer system could not be used. They’d have to kick everybody off of it while they connected up that machine. And so, we’ve done a whole lot of hand work that would normally have been done on the machines, just in order to keep this poet assistant of mine busy until he could get back on the computer.
DeVorkin:When they purchased this computer for the department, did that mean that they didn’t get as much access to the main computers on campus?
Hoffleit:I don’t know what the whole story is. People still have access to the computer there, but we have to pay more for using that one, than for using this one.
DeVorkin:I see. Yes, because there had to be some compensation.
Hoffleit:Yes. So I hope this coming year, things will run more smoothly for the computing aspects of things, but I did have several people working for me who were expert computers for the machines of that day. I myself know nothing about programming, because I’ve been too busy weeding out the errors that come through. That’s half facetious, half legitimate truth. So I don’t know how to guide people on how to do things on the machines, at all. I depend on them. And I do not have an expert programmer. Last year, for one month I got a student of Bill’s who was graduating in music, but had taken a computer course and a basic astronomy course. She started putting notes on the computer for me. All I had at that time was notes. And then she taught this poet boy that I got. He had a job at Stirling which he didn’t like, and when we advertised for jobs here, we were obliged to take somebody who wants to transfer from another department. So we got this boy, who is really very nice and quite conscientious, but his interest is in English literature and poetry. All he wants is a job to earn money so that eventually he can go back to graduate school. That’s the only assistant I’ve had on the job. After he went partly on vacation and to summer school to do more poetry, for the last two weeks I’ve had one of the graduate students doing some work for me. He understands the programming. That’s good, but I thought, for Mike, the boy who’s really my assistant, we really paid him far more for learning how to program than for doing the actual work. Considering his qualifications and all that, he’s doing a bang up good job, but if I’d had a person who knew programming, I’d have about twice as much work done in the same time.
DeVorkin:Yes, I understand that. Things aren’t the way they were when I came.
Hoffleit:Regardless of the bad things I’ve said about Brouwer’s pressures, he did give me an overwhelming number of assistants of various calibers. You know Jim Didrickson, of course. Well, I had no say in whether I wanted him or not. I had to keep him busy. And regardless, I had lots of people who were completely unqualified for the jobs, and Brouwer would say to me, “You have to keep them busy,” and we kept most of them busy on key punching for the Naval Observatory on the contract where institution punches and the other verifies, or different people in the same institution do both jobs. Whenever I went away to Nantucket, I’d suggest to Brouwer that these people who couldn’t do anything but key punch could punch up the Henry Draper Catalog. That will keep them busy till I get back, Brouwer said: “No, no, no.” Finally, both he and I ran out of ideas of what other catalogs to punch up. So I said again: “How about the Henry Draper Catalog?” And very grudgingly, he said, “Yes,” and of course, if I hadn’t done that, then Nancy Houk (at Michigan) would have a devil of a time reclassifying the Henry Draper Catalog. That tape is really being used, (the Henry Draper tape) more than any of the other catalogs we punched up.
DeVorkin:Well, I remember using the trigonometric parallaxes tape. You had the tape of Kukarkin and all of those were very valuable.
Hoffleit:Yes, but of course they’re all out of date, completely.
DeVorkin:Well, at the time I was using them, they weren’t.
DeVorkin:Now, let me ask you something totally different. The many many students that you had at Maria Mitchell seemed to be a bright spot.
Hoffleit:They certainly are. They treated me real nice upon my retirement.
DeVorkin:That’s what I understand. They sent you to New Zealand. Even sent you a ticket to come back.
Hoffleit:Well, not really. The trip was a lot more expensive than what they gave me, but the fact that they gave me the bank account with $700 in it clinched my going.
Hoffleit:Of course they’ve been very nice to me. There’s a blessing in disguise no matter what goes wrong. I think it’s THE tragedy of my life that I felt I had to leave Harvard. It would have been more of a tragedy if I’d stayed there, because then I would have been in an institution before long. But it’s funny, when I first went to Harvard, I thought I was so lucky to get a research position instead of a teaching position. But once you get started with a program with these youngsters at Nantucket, your outlook changes. That program at Nantucket isn’t like teaching elementary astronomy. At a college you can have a grand time teaching but at the end of the year, you get this let down feeling. They all leave you and next year you start over. You don’t progress from there, you start over. Of course you up—date it a little and so on, but basically, it’s a treadmill type of thing. At Nantucket, to a certain extent this is also true, but you never give anybody the same star somebody else has done unless the previous person didn’t succeed with it.
DeVorkin:So many of the people who went through there have gone into professional astronomy.
Hoffleit:Yes, a high percent of them. Of course the majority of them would have in any case. I think Margo Aller is one person who would not have become an astronomer if it hadn’t been for the Maria Mitchell experience. She was majoring in French at Vassar, and there was very little astronomy at Vassar. Not much encouragement. She was there the last year that Mrs. Makemson was there. It didn’t look very much as though there was much of a future there. But her opportunity at Nantucket made her pursue it more vigorously, and she could pursue it more vigorously because now she’d had some experience that she could flaunt. She was entitled to take better courses and so on. I think she’s the only one that I can cite where I feel quite strongly that Maria Mitchell made the difference for her.
Hoffleit:I think we’d better stop talking. I haven’t got any voice left.
DeVorkin:Can I ask you just one quick question? Look over your entire career. What one thing stands out in your mind, you feel is the most satisfying thing you did?
Hoffleit:I imagine, if you asked me that question once a day for seven days. I’d give you seven different answers.
DeVorkin:But what occurs to you today?
Hoffleit:There are two things that stand out as being great joys in my Harvard days, one of which was after Menzel was director actually. One is what I told you about, when B.J. Bok said: “When God suggests something…” The other one was, after I got my PhD, I got a Phi Beta Kappa. I didn’t get that as undergraduate but I got it when I got my PhD at Radcliffe. Eventually, I got put on a number of Phi Beta committees at Radcliffe. One of the committees was a committee on honorary and alumnae members. Radcliffe can confer a Phi Beta key on non—Radcliffe people who’ve come from institutions that don’t have a Phi Beta chapter, but who have done outstanding work, We gave them an honorary key. It’s equivalent to an honorary degree but Radcliffe didn’t give honorary degrees so it gave honorary Phi Beta keys. Also, outstanding alumnae are picked from certain re—union classes. Their records are examined to see if any among them have done sufficiently great work to be awarded an alumni key. Well, if you’re on this committee, you’re on it for three years, and the third year you’re the chairman of the committee. The chairman of the committee goes to the Alumnae Banquet and gives a speech about what the graduate keys are all about, a general thing, and usually makes a few comments about the current recipient of the honorary key. And so I gave that speech one year, and was directing my speech mainly toward the seniors who were present; guests at the Alumnae Banquet, I addressed my remarks to the seniors and said even if they were fifth groupers, if they worked hard and enjoyed what they were doing, they might achieve something, even though they hadn’t gotten much better than C average in college. But after you get through college, you concentrate on your main field. You don’t have distribution courses to lower your grades and so on. Now when you choose the alumnae member, you’re not supposed to have access to the grades that the students had had, but you write to various people for recommendations. And in the case of the girl who got the key this particular year, somebody had written me that she was only a fifth grouper in college. She had very bad eyesight which probably reduced her grades. Now she was working in the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary on optical problems. I hadn’t asked for the information, I got it just by pure chance, I brought that out to encourage the dumb ones in the class to continue to ply their efforts. Well, when the banquet was over and we all filed off; the head table was on a high platform above all the hundreds of people down below. There was an elderly lady standing at the foot of the stairs of the platform where we were, beaming from ear to ear. As she stepped forward, she said, “Remember me?” I looked at her, I said, “Yes, you’re Miss Sampson.” That was my physics teacher in high school, who had worked very hard to get me to take the right things and do the right things to get into Radcliffe. She was so pleased with me, because it was her efforts on my behalf that 20 or 30 years later paid dividends. Those are two highlights in my memory.
DeVorkin:That’s very nice.
Hoffleit:At the end of my freshman year, I’d gone back to see her in high school. I said, “Do you think it would be all right for me to take Physics C next year?” She said, “Well, I think it will be hard for you, but if you want to take it, try it.” She knew that if I wanted something, I’d try. So here these years later, when I saw her at another Radcliffe commencement, she sidled up to me. She said, “Did you take that physics course?” “Oh,” I said, “yes, I took that one and several others too,” “What grade did you get in it?” I said, “I got a B.” “Oh,” she said, “that’s better than I did when I took it.” (laughter)
Hoffleit:I like teachers that tell you these things.
DeVorkin:Oh yes. Well, that will keep me active when I go back to teaching. Thank you very much. This has been a long session at this stage but it’s been very good.
Hoffleit:It sure has.
DeVorkin:I think it’s been really excellent.
Hoffleit:Well, I hope it entertains you, even though its been rather useless for scientific purposes.
DeVorkin:For historical purposes, it isn’t.
Hoffleit:Menzel should be remembered for his having been to Harvard College Observatory what Hitler was to Germany. And I believe that because we lost a high percentage of the plate collection. We lost a high percentage of record books. I could tell you another story on that, too. And most of the good history of science books that would be useful for history of science got shipped down Widener or Houghton. Not where you could get hold of them easily at Harvard Observatory, that is. And the loss of Boyden Station is very largely his doing. After Hitler one half of Germany recovered. After Menzel half of what HCO stood for has recovered: The plate stacks are again buzzing with productive activity.
DeVorkin:I see, Thank you for all your comments.
”Some Firsts in Astronomical Photography.” Harvard, 1950. Pp 39.
Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 37 (1943) p. 216.
Pubs. Of the N.A.S., 19 (1933), 212-221; Harvard Reprint #88
HCO Bulletin #888 (1932), 12-16
Harvard College Observatory Annals, 105 (1937).
Spectra of Bright Stars. Harvard Annals, 1897.
Proc. Am. Phil. Soc. 81 (1939), 533-545; Harvard Reprint #177.
Her autobiography, however, tells that Sharpley was responsible for her changing her field. The above are my impressions as I knew her; her autobiography, available months after this interview, changes the picture.
Symposium on Progress in Astrophysics. Harvard Reprint #170 Proc. Am. Phil. Soc., 81 (1939) #2. Meeting held 2/17/39.
Deposited at the AIP in Dr. Hoffleit’s file.
Op. c. t.
No. 45 A/mm was with the single prism
Some firsts in astronomical photography (Op. cit.)
See Op. cit. lecture, AIP
Catalog of Bright Stars, Pubs. Yale U. Observatory, (1964). Pp. 415.
Alumni are men. We were all women. Alumnae.