Oral History Transcript — Dr. George C. McVittie
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Interview with Dr. George C. McVittie
George McVittie; March 21, 1978
ABSTRACT: Early home life and schooling in Turkey; years at University of Edinburgh and University of London after fall of Smyrna, 1922; work in London with father; entrance and experiences at University of Cambridge; contact with Arthur S. Eddington and scientific interests in mathematical relativity and stellar structure; University of Leeds, 1930-1934; work in general relativity; later academic positions; work in World War II; move to University of Illinois and development of radio astronomy; Steady State Cosmology; general views on cosmology; Channel 37. Also prominently mentioned are: Ludwig Franz Benedikt Biermann, Charles Galton Darwin, Katherine Darwin, Herbert Dingle, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, Ralph Howard Fowler, Stephen Hawking, Werner Heisenberg, Edwin Powell Hubble, E. C. Jordan, Henning Larsen, George Lemâitre, William Hunter McCrea, Edward Arthur Milne, Bertrand Russell, R. A. Sampson, Allan Sandage, Harlow Shapley, Charles P. Snow, George W. Stoddard, George W. Swenson, Jr., A. H. Taub, George Temple, Albert Edward Whitford, Edmund T. Whittaker, Jack Whittaker; Blackford Hill Observatory, Great Britain Post Office, Green Bank Observatory, International Telecommunications Union, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften, Queen Mary College (University of London), Royal Astronomical Society, United States Federal Communications Commission, University of Edinburgh, University of Illinois, University of Kent at Canterbury, and Vermillion River Observatory.
DeVorkin:Dr. McVittie, from your autobiographical sketch that you prepared for the Royal Society of Edinburgh, you give a very interesting and cogent account of your life, but I'd like you to repeat some of the more important highlights, and possibly we'll go into some of them at greater depth. You were born in Smyrna in 1904. What was your home life like, as far as it was a stimulus for your later career?
McVittie:Oh, very little, because the society of the city, I suppose one ought to call it, was entirely devoted to commerce — import and export — and therefore the only thing that young men and boys looked forward to was a business life, the making of money. I remember one of my friends expressing horror at the idea that I once said I would like to be what he described as "a teacher" when I grew up. He said, ''You want to be a teacher? What nonsense! Why don't you go and get a job?"
DeVorkin:Where do you think the idea, the feeling for being a teacher came from in your mind? Or was that something you were just blithely or capriciously thinking about at the time?
McVittie:No, I don't think I was thinking about it blithely. I wanted to spend my life with some intellectual pursuit of some kind. We were speaking, I may say, in Modern Greek at that time with this chap, and I could not speak Modern Greek perfectly fluently. Therefore the best word I could think of was the Greek word for teacher, which I have now forgotten, meaning a schoolmaster or something of that sort. My grandfather, George Weber, had been such a person, and I suppose that perhaps gave me the idea. My father took a very poor view of the notion that one should spend one’s life at anything other than business, commercial activity, which, of course, he had made a good success of after some early struggles, and I suppose he would have liked me to have taken on the business. But, of course, in any case, Kemal Ataturk's army disposed of that possibility in 1922.
DeVorkin:Right. In your early schooling, you mention that most of your schooling was by private tutors or at home?
McVittie:All of it.
DeVorkin:Was public school available at all?
McVittie:Well, there was the school which was run by the American missionaries, a place between the village of Boudjah (Buca), where we lived, and Smyrna, which rejoiced in the name of "Paradise." It was a translation into English by the English company that had built the railway in the 1870's of the Greek name of the village, which was "Paradisos" which is Greek for Paradise. It led to very awkward misunderstandings. For example, one lady in England, when she came here, said that Mrs. so and so, who lived at Paradise and had been entertained, on leaving the house in England, said, ''Well, I hope we shall meet again in Paradise," and the English hostess had been rather taken aback by this forecast of her future life. (laughter) Anyway, there was the American College there, as it was called, and then there was the evangelical high school in Smyrna itself, which was the one in which my grandfather taught French for all his life. It was run by the Greek Orthodox Church. But there was the snob business, from which I think my parents suffered a bit, that their children were not going to mix with — "the natives," rather after the style and attitude in India. It was quite unconscious with them. The American College was filled with the local Greeks, Armenians, Turks, and, of course, so was the big high school in Smyrna. Therefore these were not suitable for my parents' children, and my father felt he could not afford to send my brother and me to public school in England. In any case my mother was opposed to that sort of system. Therefore, we were taught, my brother and I, by Mr. Lucius G. P. Fry. He was a Church of England clergyman, and as I say in something like 2l/2 years, he managed to fill my brother and me with the whole of secondary education, so we could pass the entrance examinations to Cambridge, which just shows, of course, how efficient absorption of knowledge can be, if you are taught in a class of two pupils.
DeVorkin:Quite true. Exactly.
McVittie:I never felt that I was working hard.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with the American University there, growing up as a child?
McVittie:It wasn't an American university; it was an American high school. They called it the American College, but it was based on the American high school system, and was equivalent to an American high school. No, very little. My parents knew the American missionaries who ran this school. Although the so-called "Paradise" was only about a mile and a half or two miles from Boudjah I cannot remember ever mixing with the children of these missionaries. There must have been children. I can't tell you why.
DeVorkin:You had been planning on going to England for your further education. Had you had immediate plans to go to Cambridge when you passed the exams?
McVittie:Are you asking why did I go to Edinburgh and not to Cambridge?
McVittie:As it turned out it was for financial reasons. But on the other hand, that's not sufficient, because in August of '22, I went to Edinburgh and got lodgings and had entered the university. That's before the destruction of the city of Smyrna.
McVittie:So why I went there, I can't tell you.
DeVorkin:Well, possibly this might be something we could develop. About that time, in 1922, you mentioned in here that your father obtained an Einstein book for you.
DeVorkin:I'm interested to know what was the interest. This could start us talking about your personal reading during your life in Smyrna. What books did you read? How did your interests develop in mathematics or engineering? Could we also discuss a little more about this interesting recollection of observing the stars at night and constellations?
McVittie:I seem to remember, vaguely of course, (it was so long ago), that I got interested in astronomy first on the strength of reading a book by Sir Robert Ball. And I realized that you couldn't really do much astronomy without knowing a good deal about mathematics. So I said to myself, I must learn some mathematics. Mr. Fry, who taught us from 1919 until the end of 1921, had taken the mathematical tripos at Cambridge before he had gone into the Church of England, and so he too was interested. Though I don't claim to have been a genius at mathematics, I was competent at it and it was very interesting, and I kept on asking my father to get books out of England about mathematics. He used to import English novels and English books in general, so his suppliers sent me out books. I remember one on analytical geometry, and another, which I found totally unintelligible, on the theory of conic sections, done in the fashion of Euclid. That is to say, by thinking and words, rather than by formulae and analytical geometry.
DeVorkin:Very laborious that way, isn't it?
McVittie:No, it isn't really when you're good at it. They would use some symbols. It's after all the way that Newton did it in his planetary theory. All his arguments are what I would call geometrical. I kept this book for many many years, I think until I went to America in 1952. I cannot remember the author now, but I suppose he was a well-known teacher in England, and it never became intelligible how you did conic sections, as it was called by these methods. I remember that first of all I read an article on relativity in the periodical ENGINEERING. Have you heard of it? It still exists. It's chiefly for engineers of course, but for some reason, my father used to import it. I cannot think why. I suppose there were engineers in Smyrna who wanted it. And there I read an article about Einstein's theory. It must have been 1919, 1920. And this aroused my interest. So I got my father to get the book to which I refer in my autobiography, the book on Einstein's theory, which I found totally not only unintelligible but nonsensical. Unfortunately, it was lost in the chaos of the looting of our house after 1922. The house wasn't burned down, of course. Boudjah did not suffer in that way. But everything in the place was stolen. I didn't bring it to England, so I cannot tell you who the author was, except that the book contained separate articles, which were supposed to make the theory of relativity intelligible.
DeVorkin:I see. So this was not by Einstein?
McVittie:It wasn't by Einstein, no. It was only on his theory.
DeVorkin:Did the original article on relativity in ENGINEERING present the theory of relativity from the astronomical standpoint?
McVittie:Oh no. It was supposed to be a popular article for engineers on what the theory of relativity was about.
DeVorkin:So you didn't see the link with astronomical tests of relativity at that time?
McVittie:That I cannot remember, but since it was certainly after Eddington must have carried out his check, there's no doubt there was some reference to that kind of thing in it. It may have been, you see, as recently as the end of 1920 or 1921. I simply can't remember, and haven't got any records.
DeVorkin:But the important thing is that you had gotten interested, and in a way you were asking your father, rather than your father spontaneously presenting you with the Einstein book, thinking that you should be interested in Einstein.
McVittie:Oh, good heavens no. He wasn't that sort of man at all. He was a hard-headed businessman of the Victorian type, whose one idea was that life was there in order to make money. Good heavens no! He never understood, I think, and hadn't a clue as to what I did subsequently at the university.
DeVorkin:OK. Let's talk about the stars then. When did you start looking at the constellations and stars? Who taught you their names?
McVittie:I taught myself, I'm quite sure of that. I can't tell you when I began looking, but I must have begun from a very early age, because of this practice in the summer of sitting out and staring up at the heavens, in camp chairs, after dinner. We children sat around and listened to Pa and Ma chatting. I would stare at the sky and wonder what it was all about.
DeVorkin:Was the Ball book the first?
McVittie:That's the first one I remember, Sir Robert Ball's STORY OF THE HEAVENS, I believe it's called. But I'm sure there must have been others, because I don't think he gives a detailed account of the names of stars and of constellations in the book, but what the others were, I do not know; possibly just atlases, from my grandfather's library. He had a very big library, I understood from my father, and there I must have got the names of the constellations, and the names of stars. And the winter observing came later when I learned constellations like Orion and all the rest of it. They were done by leaning out of my bedroom window, which fortunately faced south. So I got a good view of the sky.
DeVorkin:Did you ever have the wish to have a telescope?
McVittie:Oh, very much so. My father, who had been buying up the stores of British Navy in the Aegean Islands, bought me a 3-inch telescope. I made a stand for it, and used it to stare at the heavens from my bedroom window.
DeVorkin:Did you realize at the time that you could go beyond that with bigger telescopes, and do maybe variable star observing?
McVittie:No, I didn't know about such things. I suppose I must have read about variable stars, but there must have been no particular reaction, because I never tried to do any systematic observing. It was just looking at these objects.
DeVorkin:That's certainly pleasant. Let's move on to Edinburgh, 1922. You're not sure exactly why you went to Edinburgh?
McVittie:No, but on second thought, I'm pretty sure that it must have been a question of expense. It was expensive to go to Cambridge. My father was going to pay for everything, of course, and certainly going to Edinburgh was much less expensive than going to Cambridge. One lived in lodgings, and the fees were not high, and there was none of the expensive life of Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Any possibility of a national feeling, feeling that you'd rather be in Scotland than England?
McVittie:Well, my father always used to try to pretend to be a Scotsman, but he wasn't really and neither was I. After all, he'd been born and brought up in Lancashire — Blackpool, then in Lancaster and his father had been born on the English side of the border at Longtown, so that the connection with Scotland was extremely tenuous. But still, my father, I think, possibly had a feeling that with a Scottish name, the boy had better go to Scotland.
DeVorkin:How long were you actually at the university before you had to quit to work for your father?
McVittie:Oh, I was only there for less than a month. I was left there in the end of August, '22, as far as I remember, and I was back in London with him by the end of September.
DeVorkin:During that one month, how did you feel you were fitting in? Was everything going smoothly at Edinburgh?
McVittie:Oh, for most of it, most of the time. The term had not begun. This was still the long vacation, and for a good part of it, I remember trying to find work, just to find a job.
DeVorkin:While you were still on vacation?
McVittie:Well, for permanent work because after all, by the middle of September, it was totally uncertain as to whether the family would have any money at all on which to live.
DeVorkin:Did the sacking of Smyrna occur before you enrolled?
McVittie:The actual destruction, the big fire, as far as I remember, was on the 12th and 13th thereabouts of September, 1922. But the sacking of the city had begun a week before that. And certainly by the middle of September, my father knew that his business was ruined, and that the population was either being massacred or being rescued by American shipping, taken over and dumped, as you know, in Athens, where about 11/2 million so-called Greeks were suddenly dumped in the Piraeus area in about two or three weeks.
DeVorkin:So really there was no time spent then in this early period in Edinburgh.
McVittie:Not at all. None at the university.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about going back working for your father, in terms of your ultimate goals of being in school?
McVittie:When one is young, these things are things that happen in the course of nature. This is the only way I can describe it. It was obvious that there was a crisis in the family. I didn't go directly to London, I remember. I went to Liverpool, to Birkenhead, where my mother and the two younger ones, my brother and sister and, of course, my father, had taken a tiny little house in a sort of working class quarter of Birkenhead. I would describe it nowadays as a slum house. What it must have been like for my mother, I cannot imagine. But she was such a reserved woman that, only on one occasion in the two weeks I was there — my sister was rude to her or something, there was some little dissension — my mother suddenly left the room, and rushed upstairs and burst into tears on her bed. I went up after her. I'd never seen her react like this before. She must have had a feeling that all her life was ruined. It revealed itself in this outburst of tears about something which was very trivial.
DeVorkin:You were 18, 19 years old by then?
McVittie:I was 18, yes. And then, after spending about two weeks in this little house in Birkenhead, which was opposite Liverpool across the Mersey River, I came to London and started working with my father, who had been made secretary of the Relief Committee for the British people who had had to flee from Smyrna — most of them in the course of one or two days — with nothing more than the clothes they stood up in.
DeVorkin:He seemed to be quite an interesting organizer. He was always organizing one thing or another.
McVittie:Yes, he must have been a very good organizer. He was immediately elected by Mr. Erik Patterson, I remember, and men who had businesses both in Smyrna and the city of London, a number of others, the director of the so-called Ottoman Railway, the railway that went from Smyrna to Ephesus and then up the Meander Valley, which was a British railway. All this group of about seven or eight businessmen, with interests in Smyrna immediately selected him as the secretary of their committee.
DeVorkin:Fascinating. What was your job in assisting him?
McVittie:Oh, just his personal assistant. I had learnt to type so I used to type his letters, do things like that. He was a great one for having documents copied. He was always afraid that he wouldn't have enough copies to hand out to people who should have them. Well, it was almost a year that I worked for him. I was always being told: "Copy this document, please, George." And I think it must have developed a phobia with regard to having things copied, because I remember, the two secretaries that I had, each one for a long period, in Illinois — one was six years and the other for about ten — were always ticking me off for not asking them to make enough copies of documents. They would say, "Dr. McVittie, you need more copies of this document. So and so and so and so and so and so have to have copies, yes, but you don't know how many other people." I'd say, "No, no, no, it's a waste of paper." Perhaps it was a feeling left over from those days.
DeVorkin:Did you do any bookkeeping at all or mathematical work for him?
McVittie:No. There was no mathematical work at all.
DeVorkin:OK. How long was it before you went back to Edinburgh and what were the decisions that allowed you to go back to Edinburgh?
McVittie:Well, the story is in here in this correspondence in more detail, letters to my father from Sir John Cowan, and the collection of a fund to keep me going — this is in the autobiography too.
DeVorkin:Right: Well, it's not fully clear. You would not have been able to go back had it not been for this personal "scholarship fund?''
McVittie:That is so. But I was fortunate. Again, all the important things in one's life happen by pure chance. Sir John Cowan was a man who was very interested in doing good in spite of being a hard-headed important industrialist in Scotland. And so he used to come to the ''Save the Children Fund.'' We'd been absorbed by the "Save the Children Fund" because there are legal questions — in England you can't just set up a committee and start collecting money, unless you have an approved status. So the "Save the Children Fund" took us over, and Sir John Cowan used to come to London periodically on Save the Children Fund business. And there he met my father, and they started talking, just by accident. And my father happened to say that his son had started at the University of Edinburgh where Sir John lived, and so on. Sir John pricked up his ears and said, ''What is all this? Where is this young fellow?" So I was brought in and we chatted. He then, with great speed as far as I remember — after a bit of correspondence which you can find among the early letters here, letters to my father from Sir John and replies — he made up his mind that I was to go to the university.
DeVorkin:So that decided where you were going, after that...
DeVorkin:So that decided your fate in going back to the University of Edinburgh.
DeVorkin:At that time, in going back, you were still pursuing relatively general studies.
McVittie:Yes. All the spare time I had while I was working in the Save the Children Fund. I think it was the overall outfit, the Imperial War Relief Fund, as it was called, of which the Save the Children Fund was a part at that time. Anyway, every spare moment I had, and in the train, going back to the outer suburb of Caterham, I read and studied.
DeVorkin:That's where you were living?
McVittie:It must have been in early 1923, my mother got out of that semi-slum in Birkenhead, and we were all living in Caterham together. And in those days it was a long journey to Caterham, with a puffing engine that staggered up into the Surrey Hills with difficulty, so there was plenty of time to read. I remember I did all my reading of history in the train.
DeVorkin:You weren't enrolled in the university?
McVittie:No, no. I was trying to study for what in Scotland at that time — and I think still is — was called the bursary examination. That is the entrance scholarship examination.
DeVorkin:This is before?
McVittie:I was intending to sit for it in June, 1923. And so, from January to June, I worked very hard at brushing up my mathematics, extending them a bit, and history and modern French, of course, because I was bilingual.
DeVorkin:Is this before your support from Sir John Cowan?
McVittie:No, it wasn't before. It was during. But then I thought to myself, and my father approved of this: well, if you can get bursary, of course Sir John's funds would not be as exhausted as it might otherwise be. See, it was an attempt to show a willingness to support myself. I also wanted the kudos of getting entry into the university as a scholarship man. So I succeeded in reaching this, out of, I suppose there were 100 candidates, I was 6th equal or 5th equal from the top. I forget which. It was mentioned in there. So I got what was, relatively speaking in those days, a good scholarship — the princely sum of some 30 pounds a year! Of course, 30 pounds was really worth something then.
DeVorkin:Yes, that makes a big difference. And the support that you received from Sir John Cowan and the other subscribers to your patronage fund, was only in the sum of several hundred pounds?
DeVorkin:At Edinburgh, what were your first few years like? Who were your teachers? You've mentioned Edmund Whittaker and Charles Darwin?
McVittie:Yes. E. T. Copson was a man I became very friendly with. He was a lecturer in mathematics in those days in Edinburgh. He'd come from Oxford, I suppose. I think he came about 1922. And he was only about a couple of years older than I was, three years. So we were in a sense contemporaries. I was of course, at the age of 19, two or three years older than most of those who were entering the university in 1923. They would be going up when they were 17 or 18. Well, I was perhaps a year or so older than the entrants. And Copson was very young, and he used to take part in the social activities of the honors mathematics students, of which I was one, the group of people who were ''reading for honors.''
DeVorkin:What kinds of social activities?
McVittie:Oh, we used to go and have dances in the women's union quite frequently. Then I joined one of the debating societies, which had been started in the 18th century, whose name I cannot now remember, where we made speeches to each other about all sorts of matters. Then there was what was called the Physical Society the students who were reading mathematics and physics. It was a joint degree in those days, theoretical physics and pure mathematics mixed. And the student society was known as the Physical Society. I remember, I became secretary of it at one stage, and there we would read papers on physics.
DeVorkin:What did you find most fascinating, to your recollection, in those papers or speeches prepared for the debating society?
McVittie:Well, I remember one on the early work on mechanics, pre-Galilee. Wasn't there somebody called Stevinus? Anyway, I was rather interested to discover that dynamics and mechanics did not spring full blown from Newton's brain, as I had supposed by reading the ordinary high school textbook, but that there was a long preliminary struggle. I remember struggling through, reading that paper. I must have read others, but I cannot remember very much about them.
DeVorkin:In the Physical Society, what were the papers that were read that were coming up at that time? Were people reporting on contemporary papers in the early twenties?
McVittie:No, it wasn't that kind of thing. It wasn't like a Physical Society in an American university. We would get the members of the staff to come and give us popular lectures — what I would now call, at least, popular lectures — and we would read similar things to each other. We made no attempt to keep up with the current literature.
DeVorkin:What was taking your interest at the time? Early twenties?
McVittie:Chiefly mechanics, and of course, relativity theory. I wasn't much good at pure mathematics. I remember we used to call it "Epsilonology" because the lecturer, and E. T. Copson, used that word too, so it must have come from Oxford, I should think, or it must have been current there. But Epsilonology consisted of doing what I now realize was the proper proof of theorems, with all the logical rigor that was needed. That kind of thing always made me impatient. I felt, and still have felt this all my life. I'm quite sure that it is a very good thing, that Bertrand Russell, was it, in the PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, wrote two volumes of a thousand pages each and at the end of the second volume, I believe he finally concluded that one plus one was equal to two. Well, I decided that it was a very good thing for Bertrand Russell to have taken all that trouble, but for goodness sake, I wasn't going to try to understand how he did it!
DeVorkin:What about your first experiences with Whittaker and Darwin? You recall Whittaker as a very stimulating teacher.
McVittie:Yes, a very perfect teacher. Too perfect a teacher, because he made everything sound so simple, whereas it wasn't, when you came to try and do it and understand it. But he was an extremely good expositor. Darwin, on the other hand, as I say there, was not at all a good teacher. He was the most untidy lecturer. But there was a kind of dynamism in the man that fascinated me: ''Why is this chap so obviously stirred to the depths of his soul by this appalling muddle that he's put on the blackboard, which I can't make head or tail of?'' So I think I learned more from Darwin's bad lecturing, or as much, let me say, as I learned from Whittaker's highly polished style.
DeVorkin:Did you get to know either of the two personally?
McVittie:Oh yes, indeed. I used to go to Whittaker's house, and so did E. T. Copson. We used to go for tea parties on Sundays, and sometimes for informal dances in the drawing room. Beatrice Whittaker, who eventually married E. T., was the girl who interested all of us, including me. The Darwins, of course, were much younger, but both Charles Darwin and Katherine Darwin were very good to me as a student. They used to ask me to come to lunch parties and things like that. And this was really unusual. Both of these things were very unusual in Scottish universities in those days. The tradition that a professor was a high and mighty being who was simply to be kowtowed to whenever you met him prevailed. But on no account were you likely ever to be invited to his house, even as a junior staff member like Copson, let alone a student. That tradition had survived, after the reform of the Scottish university system in the 1860's or 1870's, when all this had theoretically been abolished. It was still very much in existence in Scotland. I remember in 1933, a long colloquium that lasted about ten days at St. Andrews University, organized by the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. We had lectures in the mornings. It was what would be called a summer school nowadays, but we called it a colloquium. D. E. Rutherford and I were running it as joint secretaries. Well, in the course of the proceedings, to amuse ourselves we ran a tennis tournament among the participants. And Jack Whittaker, that's E. T. Whittaker's son who (he eventually became the vice chancellor of Sheffield University, another mathematician) by that time was a fellow of one of the Cambridge colleges and was also a lecturer at Cambridge. I was just a temporary lecturer in Edinburgh.
DeVorkin:1933-34, you were on leave at Edinburgh.
McVittie:That was it. And so we played the tournament, and I won the men's singles. My final opponent was Jack Whittaker. No, Jack Whittaker was a fellow of a Cambridge college, and I was only a temporary lecturer in Edinburgh. Therefore, according to the hierarchical idea of the Scottish university, he was a considerably superior being to me. And I remember Lady Whittaker in her rather gentle voice saying, "You know, things have changed very much during my life in university circles. Once upon a time you would not have been permitted to defeat Jack in the tournament, because he was a fellow of a college in Cambridge and you are not.'' She said it very gently and with a smile. I took no offense. But what she was really thinking about was the hierarchical system in Scottish universities. The only place where I've seen this repeated in my later life was at the Max Planck Institute in Munich.
DeVorkin:When was that?
McVittie:Somewhere in the 1960's, probably 1962. Ludwig Biermann and I had become friends. He was an exchange scholar in Edinburgh, 1933, when I was back there as temporary lecturer, and from then on we were friends, and my wife and I were staying with the Biermanns. He was by this time the head of the astrophysics side of the Max Planck Institute in Munich, and of course W. Heisenberg was the overall head. So one evening while we were there, the Biermann’s asked the Heisenberg’s to dinner with one or two other of the junior staff in physical science, and of course my wife and I were there. It was the most extraordinary evening. There were the younger men; if they spoke at all, without being first spoken to, they would speak practically in whispers. They were all sitting around listening to the "three superhuman beings" talking to each other — Heisenberg, Biermann and me. I was a professor; therefore, although I could not perhaps claim to be in the same intellectual category, I held the magic position. My wife told me afterwards, "You know, it was just the same among the women." Mrs. Heisenberg, Mrs. Biermann, and my wife spoke to each other, and sometimes addressed remarks to these younger women, who never butted in, any more than the younger men were butting in to the technical conversation that we three were having, the three men. Now, to my amazement therefore, I saw in the 1960's as acute a version of this hierarchical system as I remembered, as a student in Edinburgh, though by that time things were much better in Scottish universities. In the 1860's in Scotland it would have been exactly as it was in the 1960's in Germany.
DeVorkin:Do you think this was a peculiar holdover on Heisenberg's part?
DeVorkin:Or this was pretty well indicative of the German university, even today maybe?
McVittie:Possibly. I don't know. No, Heisenberg was most genial and took pains, it seemed to me, to try and bring these chaps into the conversation. Ludwig Biermann admittedly was a more reserved fellow, but he too, and I, tried also. But one didn't get the same sort of reaction from the young. Bringing them into the conversation did not result in their being in continuously, if you see what I mean.
DeVorkin:That's a very interesting observation. Let's move back into the twenties and complete your Edinburgh years, 1922-27, when you graduated with first class honors in math and natural philosophy. You mentioned engineering interests in Edinburgh. What happened?
McVittie:I was never interested in engineering, really. It was my father who wanted me to be. If I was to go to a university at all, I had to do something practical. It was his idea that I should go in for engineering. But I never did.
DeVorkin:OK. In 1927-28, you remained at Edinburgh as a research student.
DeVorkin:For Whittaker. What were you working on at that time primarily?
McVittie:Well, I was trying to work on relativity, but it was with very little guidance. You see, Whittaker and later Eddington, though Eddington was a much younger man, had been brought up in the Cambridge system. And all the supervisor really did a man of Eddington's or Whittaker's generation) was to say, "Look here, so and so, there is this problem here, you might like to look at it. You might go to such and such lectures, such and such seminars —" And that was about it. I went to Whittaker's postgraduate lectures all through that year. He lectured about some unified field theory or other. I can't even remember who had produced it.
DeVorkin:You had the Levi-Civita modification that you later wrote on as of 1929 at least. You certainly were getting very interested in that work.
McVittie:Yes. I was working at that. Whatever unified field theory Whittaker lectured about in the postgraduate lectures, I don't think it was either of those. But again, he gave me the idea of what a unified field theory was, so it was very easy to go over to the Einstein version of 1928, and to Levi-Givita's.
DeVorkin:How were you supporting yourself? Was a research student given a stipend?
McVittie:No. I received what was called the Charles Maclaren Scholarship. That was about 200 pounds for three years, and Whittaker said, "Well, if you go straight to Cambridge, it will be tough going, to live on 200 pounds — why not stay here for a year, do a little more learning, and it's much cheaper to live in Edinburgh, and save up? So I did.
DeVorkin:Is it possible Whittaker didn't want to get rid of you? Would have preferred that you stay?
McVittie:Oh no. Whittaker was all for sending people whom he regarded as his bright students to do something at Cambridge, either to take the tripos, or to do research. For instance, W. V. D. Hodge, the geometer, had left for Cambridge a year or two before I went there. Robin Schlapp went as a research student. He never did very much the rest of his life except be a first class teacher, and run the department of theoretical physics. And there were a number of others.
DeVorkin:Up through 1928 I guess there was no question that you would go to Cambridge for your graduate work? Am I correct in that?
McVittie:I think so. Yes. It was taken for granted, that if you showed promise as a mathematician in a university outside Cambridge, you would go, in some capacity or other, to Cambridge to finish off, so to speak. This doesn't apply to people who had been at Oxford, because Oxford regarded themselves as just as good as Cambridge. Copson for instance, didn't go from Oxford to Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Right. Were you developing or maintaining any interest in astronomy during this time at Edinburgh?
McVittie:Not very much, I'm afraid, because the then Astronomer Royal for Scotland was R. A. Sampson. He was also professor of astronomy in the university. And he —
DeVorkin:He must have been quite old at that time. He was quite active in the 1890's.
McVittie:He was really eccentric.
McVittie:Oh yes. This was one of Whittaker's best stories. Up at the observatory on Blackford Hill, there's a collection apparently of rather important books, rare books in astronomy. In those days apparently professors wrote to each other, rather than picking up the telephone. Anyhow Whittaker wrote to Sampson, and said he wished to consult such and such volumes, and after about a week, he got a letter back from Sampson saying, ''You may consult the books you wish in the observatory library, on the afternoon of Wednesday, so and so, at which time a responsible person will be present in the observatory library." "You see what I am?" said Whittaker. "I'm an irresponsible lunatic, according to Sampson, who would cut up the books!''
DeVorkin:Cut up the books?
McVittie:Well, apparently Sampson thought that Whittaker was not "a responsible person," don't you see. Whittaker might be expected to cut up the books. Sampson would never allow anybody into the observatory, never had open nights or anything like that. He gave a course on astronomy in the university, or he got one of his staff to do it, but it was highly mathematical.
DeVorkin:In the 1890’s, he was interested in radiative transfer in stars. He suggested it. He was one of the first. Was he?
DeVorkin:It didn't go anywhere, of course, just sort of fell. But Eddington recalls this in his book. I just wondered if you had any contact, now that you mentioned him.
McVittie:I only heard about him, and my memory is, he was interested in clocks. Time.
DeVorkin:He had a little book on the sun, in fact, in the 1890's, R. A. Sampson.
McVittie:Did he really?
DeVorkin:This might be something to pursue. I could pursue it maybe in the future. I don't know what his general research was on. It might very well have been that.
DeVorkin:Let's move on then to Cambridge, unless there is anything of Darwin's personality, or recollections of Darwin, that you think is pertinent for understanding of him or your relationship with him?
McVittie:In connection with those early days, or throughout the whole of life?
DeVorkin:Certainly throughout. He was in an interesting tradition, George Darwin had a lot to do in astronomy, gravitational theory, and I'm wondering if you'd talked to Charles Darwin about George Darwin?
McVittie:· No. I don't remember ever talking to Darwin, Charles Darwin, about the other Darwins. Maybe he was not very keen to talk about them. I don't know. I've no reason for saying that. It just happens that I never did. I rather lost touch with him after I left Edinburgh, until I went to America, because he was very busy. He became the master of Christ's College, as you know, and then he became the head of the National Physical Laboratory down here at Teddington, and our paths very rarely crossed. But when I went to the United States, he seemed to be always coming over for some reason or another, and we started writing to each other, and he came and visited us in Urbana. I met him, I remember, in 1950 at the International Mathematicians Conference at Harvard, and then at that same year at Princeton, and so on. We got to know each other again, so to speak. When he died, I remember getting a letter from Lady Darwin, Katherine Darwin, thanking me because I'd written a letter of condolence to her and saying that it was a bit of consolation to her that "my Charles," as she always called him, had considered me not only as his favorite pupil but also as a friend. Well, of course, I was considerably younger than he was.
DeVorkin:That's very nice.
McVittie:Very nice. I went to Newnham Grange once when I was in Cambridge in the 1960's and had lunch there; saw the place from the inside. I don't know if you know of the story of the Darwin brothers, sons of the original Charles, written by Charles Darwin's younger sister, Gwen Ravenat?
DeVorkin:No, I don't.
McVittie:PERIOD PIECE. That's the name of it! It's an extraordinarily interesting book, really. I've been reading it.
DeVorkin:Well, we have it recorded; we'll try to get to it. Shall we move on to Cambridge then?
DeVorkin:And your recollections of arriving there, and the development of your interests. Did you work directly for Eddington?
McVittie:I was Eddington's research student, it's true. This meant that perhaps twice a term, I would cycle out on my bicycle to the observatory on Madingley Road, and be shown by the maid into Eddington's study, which I remember always smelt of apples, because he was always eating them, apparently. You know, chewed up apples. Eddington would look up from his desk, and I always had the feeling that he was thinking, "Now, who is this young man and why does he come to see me?" But he was always very pleasant. We would chat about something. I think I've recalled it there, the business of him putting me to work on the problem that Lemaitre had worked on before.
DeVorkin:I want to straighten that out. Was it the fact that he had forgotten about Lemaitre's early work, or was it possible that he'd never seen it?
McVittie:Well, Lemaitre says in a letter to Eddington that he sent Eddington a reprint.
DeVorkin:When it came out?
McVittie:Yes, and I think Eddington had simply forgotten. In fact, I think Eddington told me that. I think Eddington's words were, as far as I recall them, "I'm sure Lemaitre must have sent me a reprint, he's just sent me another, but I'd forgotten all about it."
DeVorkin:Wouldn't that be peculiar, something as significant as Lemaitre's paper? Or would it be possible that he didn't know Lemaitre at that time?
McVittie:Well, of course he knew Lemaitre. Lemaitre had been at Cambridge somewhere about 1925, 1926, and had discussed these questions with Eddington. I don't know that he was working exactly under Eddington, but they certainly knew each other and would discuss these matters. And it was something that had happened in London, I gathered from Eddington, at some talk he had given or something of that kind that must have caused Lemaitre to think, "But how strange, Eddington does not seem to remember that I have done this problem." Therefore he had written to Eddington, sending another reprint. No, Eddington was thinking about those other problems which produced "Fundamental Theory" and "Relativity Theory of Protons and Electrons," those two books. It had begun about 1928 when I got there. George Temple, who became a friend of mine (I met him in those days) was also one of Eddington's research students at the time. He was not exactly a research student, in the sense that Temple was working towards a PhD at Cambridge. But Eddington was the man who had taken him on, because Temple had come with some scholarship from London University, and had to have a supervisor. Eddington became very fascinated with what Temple was doing, because it was closely connected with those matters of what Eddington called subsequently "the E numbers," that calculus that he invented for himself, which is apparently not an unknown kind of method in algebra, and which a research student of mine in London, C. W. Kilmeester, who's now a professor at King's College, rewrote or redid in terms of Quaternions for his PhD thesis. Anyway, Eddington was very fascinated by Temple's work, and Lemaitre, after Eddington's death — after the war — told me that he was trying to understand FUNDAMENTAL THEORY and the RELATIVITY THEORY OF PROTONS AND ELECTRONS, those two volumes, and had decided that the best thing to do was to begin by going through all the references that Eddington gave, so that one could get the proper background. "Do you know," says Lemaitre to me, "that the man who comes up most frequently as a reference in Eddington's work is George Temple, who was a quantum mechanics man, not at all a relativist, practically." Well, Temple had started as a relativist, but had long before lost interest in it and become a quantum mechanics man.
DeVorkin:That's very interesting, because of the reconciliation of quantum mechanics and field theory.
McVittie:That was, I suppose, Eddington's idea, that he was going to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and the only other person's work on which he seemed to rely very greatly, according to this remark of Lemaitre's at least, was Temple's. And Temple was there the two years I was there, 1928-30. But the work that I was doing, unified field theory and cosmology, had become very much side interests of Eddington's. He was not really thinking much about them. What he was really thinking about was this business that you can get all physics out of looking at the way a physicist thinks, without any appeal to observation. Herbert Dingle told me once that he'd challenged Eddington on this subject and said, 'Well, look here, Eddington, tonight the moon is shining. Can you tell me that you could predict that the earth would have one moon simply by looking at the way a physicist thinks, or an astronomer thinks?" To which I gather Eddington made no reply.
DeVorkin:This was at a public meeting?
McVittie:No, no, this is when they were chatting.
DeVorkin:That's remarkable. But that's it, that's the problem.
McVittie:That's the problem. Why has the earth got one moon? And not two like Mars? Can you deduce this? Or no moon at all like Venus. Can you deduce this merely by looking at the way an astronomer and physicist think? Well, the answer is ''No."
DeVorkin:But Eddington gave no answer to that. Interesting.
McVittie:No. I usually sheared off trying to discuss such questions with Eddington. This was not very long before he died; must have been after 1943, because I was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society Club (a dining club) along about then. I remember discussing something at one of those dinners with Eddington, and I said, "But, Sir, aren't you putting too much reliance on Einstein's equations being the final everlasting truth, with regard to gravitational theory and mechanics and so on?" And Eddington looked at me in astonishment and said, "But of course they are! They will never be altered." To which I made no reply, and said to myself: "Well, now, it's no good. He's gone off into these realms. It's no good discussing in ordinary terms with him.''
DeVorkin:I see. Too bad. How did you feel when Eddington brought the second Lemaitre letter to you, announcing that your work had already been done?
McVittie:Very discouraged. It had seemed very interesting. I realized that what I had been doing would nowadays be called perturbations of the Friedmann model universe. So I abandoned it all, until after I left Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Were you excited at all at this time by Edwin Hubble's work in 1929, and also the various possible observational tests for cosmology?
McVittie:Well, there weren't any of course in 1929. I think I'd heard of the red shift, but it didn't really click with me until later, in the 1930's. I must have pricked up my ears about it then.
DeVorkin:Eddington had made no initial remarks, or you weren't with him when he got the news about Hubble's work; at least the paper?
McVittie:No. He never spoke to me. I can remember Jack Whittaker, though, who spent a year in Edinburgh as a lecturer — it must have been 1926 or '27 — coming up from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I met him on the street known as "the Mound" in Edinburgh which is a very steep street going up from Prince Street, and he had a great big tome under his arm. I said, ''What is that you're carrying there?" He said, "Well, it's some work of Hubble's… You know, those chaps in American have found that there's a red shift of spectral lines, and Father — " Apparently Edmund Whittaker had asked Jack to look into it or look into something, but I don't know that anything ever came of it. I think that's the first time I ever heard of "those Americans" having found the red shift but not at Cambridge, no, not at all.
DeVorkin:Of course all through the twenties from the teens, Slipher and others were looking at it.
McVittie:They'd found these things.
DeVorkin:Right. Do you think Hubble really put it together? Was he the first person to have a clear vision of the red shift relationship?
McVittie:The relationship to what he called distance?
McVittie:Oh yes, surely. Because these other chaps didn't have any systematic way, as far as I can judge, of determining the distances of these objects. Around about 1935-36, it's Hubble who decided that the fifth brightest galaxy is a standard candle, and therefore would get a relationship between apparent magnitude of the fifth brightest and the red shift of the cluster.
DeVorkin:But you later criticized some of his work. I don't want to get too far ahead, but his number counts.
McVittie:Oh, the number counts was another story.
DeVorkin:We won't get to that just yet. You've mentioned that by that time, 1929-30, there were no astronomical tests of relativity, but I'd always thought that the gravitational bending of starlight was one.
McVittie:Oh yes, those were there. Those were well known. I thought you meant in cosmology, I believe you said, and I at once thought of the number counts and the red shift. Oh, for heaven's sake, yes, the perihelion, the gravitational red shift of spectral lines and all those things that could be deduced from the static Schwarzschild solution of Einstein's equations. Yes, certainly, they were things which I had got in Whittaker's lectures as an undergraduate.
DeVorkin:Fine. I think what I was driving at was trying to identify a developing interest in you, if there was one, of looking for the observational aspects that would help to differentiate cosmological models. Did you develop an interest in that in the early thirties?
McVittie:Well, yes, that was not until after I left Cambridge, because then, you see, those early papers with McCrea are essentially using very crude perturbation methods which I had been interested in when we were trying to re-do Lemaitre’s work.
DeVorkin:Trying to get condensations, basically.
McVittie:Yes, trying to get condensations and trying to get results which might solve the problem: could the Einstein universe, if you gave it a prod, would it begin expanding or would it begin collapsing to nothing? And gradually in the 1930's, I began to read, chiefly through Tolman's work on cosmology and H. P. Robertson's, of course. That was the big thing in those early days — that paper in the REVIEWS OF MODERN PHYSICS, wasn't it?
DeVorkin:That sounds right.
McVittie:Then there was more unified field theory, and more and more theoretical solutions, either of Einstein's original equations, or modified ones, and I began to say to myself: "There is no way out of this multitude. There is no reason for preferring one rather than another, the way these chaps are going about it.'' And it then occurred to me, slowly, that there is surely a way of getting some order into this confusion, and that is to look at the observational data, and pick out things by that criterion, and not by what seems reasonable or mathematically elegant, or combines relativity and electromagnetism, or as Eddington wanted to do, combines relativity and quantum mechanics. Let's try and pin it down by observations.
DeVorkin:Were you the first one to say that here? Do you feel?
McVittie:Oh, I don't know.
DeVorkin:What was the impression of the people that you were working with when you said, "Let's start looking at the observations seriously?"
McVittie:Well, I was working by myself, you see.
DeVorkin:You did have contact with McCrea.
McVittie:With McCrea, but after we made those attempts on the perturbations of the Einstein universe we were too far apart — I was in Leeds and he was in London – to continue. In fact, the last paper or two had been very difficult. I remember, since his home was not far from Leeds, sometimes we would travel by train together and it was not very easy.
DeVorkin:That was in 1931, THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE, you wrote with McCrea.
McVittie:Yes, those papers in 1930 and 1931.
DeVorkin:Where did you meet him first, how did you start working together?
McVittie:That's what is nowadays called "a good question."
DeVorkin:Did you meet him at Cambridge?
McVittie:No. He was in Gottingen, or somewhere in Germany, I think it was Gottingen during that time, because I remember him telling me afterwards about how terrible the winter of 1929 — it must have been the winter of '29-'30 — was in Gottingen. It was bad enough in Cambridge and the British Isles. I remember a friend of mine writing me from Edinburgh to tell me that the sea froze round the edges of the Firth of Forth. Not the open sea.
DeVorkin:That's still pretty bad.
McVittie:It was bad.
DeVorkin:You didn't meet him here?
McVittie:I have an idea I must have met him at one of those colloquia in Edinburgh, or at St. Andrews. Somehow there, or I may have met him at the RAS.
DeVorkin:You mentioned that you started going to meetings regularly about 1931. But that was already after?
McVittie:Well, as regularly as I could. Remember that I was at Leeds. And my salary was the princely sum of 350 pounds a year. This enabled me, incidentally, to have a month's holiday on the Continent, believe it or not. You can imagine how the Depression had hit things so that 350 pounds a year, 7 pounds a week, would still suffice.
DeVorkin:We should talk about how you got to Leeds? Were jobs getting harder and harder to come by in universities because of the Depression?
McVittie:I just don't know. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't get a job. I don't know that it was conceit, that I felt myself to be such a hell of a fine fellow. In fact I knew I wasn't. But it seemed to me that Nature would provide. I don't know. Thinking back, now that I'm an old man, it seems to me that I was utterly, incredibly naive, or the climate of opinion was such in those days that one knew one would get a job. I remember applying to one or two, perhaps three places, and then getting the job at Leeds during the summer and after I had got my PhD.
DeVorkin:Was there any possibility of staying at Cambridge? Did you want to?
McVittie:No. I didn't like Cambridge. The atmosphere of Cambridge was suffocating, compared with the freedom that we had as students in Edinburgh.
DeVorkin:That's a very interesting contrast.
McVittie:I didn't like it. In my life subsequently I have not been back to Cambridge very often. I've been more often to Oxford, curiously enough.
DeVorkin:What do you think it is about Cambridge? Was it some particular person?
McVittie:Well, C. P. Snow didn't help matters exactly. You know the author? He was a research student with me, in Christ's, and he was an arrogant disagreeable fellow, at least as far as I found him. And it wasn't too pleasant having this system — we were called the BA's. We sat up in what is now the gallery. We had a meal separate from the undergraduates, and separate from the fellows, and so we were not a large number. I didn't like this man and I don't think he liked me. And so it was not very pleasant. I used to go to Society meetings. I forget what they were called now. Somehow, I didn't fit in. Or, I felt myself not to fit in.
DeVorkin:Eddington always remained distant?
McVittie:Eddington remained distant, unapproachable, and unintelligible.
DeVorkin:What about other professors who would have had contacts with astrophysics?
McVittie:Well, S.W.P. Steen, the mathematics don at Christ’s, he had suggested I should go there. I saw a little of him.
DeVorkin:You should go, where?
McVittie:To Christ's. He had been at Edinburgh as a lecturer in the middle 1920's, had gone back as a mathematics fellow to Christ's. I suppose I must have written to him saying I'd like to come to Cambridge — where should I go and he said, "Oh, come to Christ's." So I went.
DeVorkin:Did you have contact with R. H. Fowler?
McVittie:Yes. I went to his lectures. He used to shoot in to the lecture room at the Cavendish, recite a large portion of his book on statistical mechanics at high speed, and when I say recite, I mean recite, like an actor — "zzzt," it would all go off. It was hopeless to take notes from. But after the first two or three lectures, you realized it wasn't necessary. All you had to do was to go and look it up in the appropriate part of the book.
McVittie:Dirac lectured in a similar fashion. He had just written his first book, QUANTUM MECHANICS, QUANTUM THEORY. And he recited it. The customary way, I discovered, in Cambridge, if you hadn't understood or wanted more exposition of a point, was to interrupt the lecturer and say, ''Would you please repeat that, Sir?" This was understood to mean, ''Would you explain it at greater length?" I remember once Dirac was confronted by this remark, from a man called R. H. Hulme, who subsequently became vice chancellor of one of the New Zealand universities. Anyway, Hulme, who was I suppose regarded as the brightest one of the research students taking this course, said to Dirac, ''Would you please repeat that, Sir?" And there was a moment's silence. Then, by God, Dirac repeated exactly what he had said before, which we had not understood, in exactly the same words! But I understand that this was his first attempt at advanced lecturing, and I've heard in later years, the younger men have told me, that his lectures were extremely lucid and not at all simply recitations of his book.
DeVorkin:That's an interesting recollection of Dirac and of R.H. Fowler. But Fowler by that time, and Eddington still and others were continuing their work in stellar structure and in the various theoretical aspects of it. You did work on something very interesting here in '31, "Gravitational Effects of Radiation on Stellar Structure."
McVittie:Yes. I got very interested both in E.A. Milne's work on stellar structure, and also on R.H. Fowler's papers on the theory of the Lane-Emden equation, which were published about the same time. I remember reading those papers in considerable detail. When I looked at R.H. Fowler's papers again, 40 years later, they might as well been written in Chinese, for anything I can understand of them. But at the time I found them fascinating. And of course, Milne's papers too.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with Milne? Of course, he was not there physically.
McVittie:No, he wasn't in Cambridge. But again, I met him presumably at the RAS, and also at one of these St. Andrews colloquia. He was one of the lecturers. That was later on, after he had produced his version of relativity theory.
DeVorkin:He was working in relativity, thermodynamics, doing some very interesting work. At least he was writing review papers in thermodynamics, as applied to stellar structure, at that time, and of course there were many differences of opinion between Fowler and Milne on one end, and Eddington and Jeans
McVittie:— on the other, yes.
DeVorkin:You mentioned you had started attending RAS meetings when you could. Before we talk specifically about your move to Leeds, do you have any recollections of the RAS meetings where people would hold forth on their various theories and argue?
McVittie:No. I've often been told by older members that there had been very acid exchanges, on the subject of stellar structure, between Eddington and Milne, Jeans, and so on. But either I was unlucky because I couldn't attend all the RAS meetings from Leeds, but all the ones that I did attend, until 1936 when I came to live in London and started going regularly, in all those earlier meetings, there were never any altercations between these chaps.
DeVorkin:OK. Who were some of the people that told you about the meetings that experienced the arguments?
McVittie:Oh, I must give evidence?
DeVorkin:Maybe something we can trace and possibly talk to them, if they're available.
McVittie:It might have been Herbert Dingle; might have been. But I'm not sure. It was just chat, possibly at RAS Club dinners. I went once or twice before I was elected; went several times in the 1930's as a guest. It might have been there that people would talk about these things.
DeVorkin:They were quite famous at the time; the story goes that the MONTHLY NOTICES subscription increased tremendously during that time. OK, how did you decide upon going to Leeds? You mentioned that you had sent out forms of application to a number of universities. What was your idea at the time? This was the Depression.
McVittie:Well, the Depression didn't come into it. I just looked at advertisements. This was the customary way, and it still is, to some extent, in Britain, in getting a job in a university. You look at the advertisements in NATURE and the TIMES, and you say to yourself, "Ah, here is a job which I might hope to get." So you then wrote to the university and got the application forms. You filled them out and you sent them in.
DeVorkin:Did you have references; people to write letters for you?
McVittie:Oh yes. Eddington gave me a reference, a kind of blanket reference for any job. And Darwin must have, I suppose. Whittaker I'm sure must have done. I haven't got these documents, but they must have existed. You had usually to send in three references, and, to an American it wouldn't perhaps be intelligible, but you've heard of the things the British are so fond of eating called biscuits, haven't you? What you call a cracker in the United States.
McVittie:Well, now, there's a very famous firm that makes these things, called "McVitie and Price" — with one t, unfortunately. That's why I had to earn my living by working instead of being rich. Anyway, I remember I went to the University of Reading. I'd applied there. It's up the Thames from London, and I was subsequently told by a member of the board, I was on what was called the Short List — four or five people among the applicants who were asked to visit. And I was told that the chairman of the board was a rather peppery chap, and I suppose he hadn't done his homework. But at any rate, he came into the meeting, and he took a look at the list of candidates and said, "What's this? Is this somebody's idea of a joke?" And the other members of the board looked around, and said, "No, what do you mean?" ''Well, look at this list. It begins with McVittie and the next man is Price." Reading, of course, has very big biscuit factories; another one of these relatively big biscuit factories is Huntly and Palmer's — not McVittie and Price. But the chairman of the board knew all about biscuits, living in Reading and here was somebody trying to be funny with the list of applicants — or so he thought.
DeVorkin:Did that keep you from going to Reading?
McVittie:Well, I wasn't successful — Price got the job. I remember, I applied to University College of Hull, but I never got from the registrar the application forms. Some years later I asked him why he hadn't sent them to me, and he was really perturbed and said, ''Well, it must have been a slip-up. We sent them to all applicants." Then I saw the job advertised for Leeds, so I applied for that and I got it. All this happened within five weeks.
DeVorkin:In moving to Leeds, what were your interests when you got there? Teaching? A combination of teaching and research?
McVittie:Yes. That is what you would expect to do. I went there as what was called an assistant lecturer, which was the lowest grade at university, and we were supposed to teach. Part of our job was teaching undergraduates, and also to do research. I remember, I used to give nine hours of lectures a week. We lectured sometimes partly to the honors students in mathematics, and partly to what's called the ordinary degree students and also to engineering students.
DeVorkin:These were lectures. Did you have tutorials also?
McVittie:No. We just had lectures. Then we would put out problems which the students had to solve. Then we went over them and just handed the papers back with comments.
DeVorkin:That's not too different from the American system. You were at Leeds from 1930 to 1934, and on leave at Edinburgh 1933-34. Was there any reason for that leave?
McVittie:Yes. I think one of the lecturers there had gone to America on a visiting fellowship, and I took his place for a year.
DeVorkin:During this period, you started commenting on the expanding universe.
DeVorkin:— providing some interesting discussions of what would happen to a mass particle. I'm wondering if you began to develop skepticism, at that point, for the interpretation of the expanding universe, in terms of the velocity distance relationship, as it's well known today? Later on you had this cautious manner regarding it.
McVittie:It wasn't until after the Hubble counts. That was what caused it. Up to that time, if you look at the paper I wrote on the mass particle in 1933, you'll get the impression that I'm quite confident that I know what distance means in general relativity. In fact, I'm confident because I never really much thought about it. I'm simply more interested in getting an exact solution, to replace those approximate ones that McCrea and I had used. By the way, that solution has been resuscitated by Nathan Rosen who has a long paper about it. No, it was the Hubble counts and his juggling, not only with the counts results, but with what I would now call the apparent magnitude versus red shift results — this manipulation that he went in for — on what he called distance. It seemed to me to be very confusing. He was confusing the subject by monkeying about with what he called "corrections" to the apparent magnitudes. I couldn't see why one should make these so-called corrections, and what they could possibly mean physically.
DeVorkin:Did you have a direct correspondence with Hubble?
McVittie:Yes. But alas, I haven't kept it. Why, I cannot imagine. I know I had letters. And I wrote to him. But they have disappeared. There was the war, but I cannot imagine why I didn't keep them.
DeVorkin:Could they have somehow gotten into your working file, your working notes on those particular topics?
McVittie:I don't think so, because I'm not the sort of man that kept working notes. Once I'd got a paper published, I threw most of the notes away. Perhaps they were destroyed by accident, more likely. But certainly in 1948, when for the first time we met at Zurich, Hubble and I knew each other by correspondence. But where this correspondence is, I don't know. Hubble's executors may have it.
DeVorkin:You said that you corresponded with him?
McVittie:Well, I believe I did. I must have done.
DeVorkin:Approximately 1936 or so?
McVittie:Yes, after his counts came out.
DeVorkin:Do you recall at all his reaction to your criticisms?
McVittie:He never said, "Yes, you're quite right," but he may have said something like, “Well, that is a possible alternative," or words to that effect. But those papers, perhaps they were confused. I don't know. I was very muddled. I felt muddled in the head, with this business of taking what used to be called the velocity-distance relation, and changing the apparent magnitudes by taking some multiple of the red shift and subtracting it off, which is what Hubble was doing.
DeVorkin:An ad hoc relativistic correction?
McVittie:Yes, that sort of thing. I don't know what it was supposed to do. And it was continually changing in fact. It was more or less three, but sometimes it was less, sometimes it was more, and I couldn't understand what was happening. I said to myself, "Well, we'd better abandon this kind of method. Why not just take what the observers say are the apparent magnitudes, and what they say is the red shift." Of course, all the business of what's now called the K Correction and so on wasn't at all clear at that time.
DeVorkin:You've been using the term red shift, and Hubble used the term red shift also. He always seemed to be very reticent at using the word "velocity," the direct interpretation as a physical recessional velocity.
McVittie:Well, it indicates a recessional velocity. But the difficulty is that there's no simple relationship between the amount of the red shift and what you can call the velocity of the object that's emitting.
DeVorkin:Do you feel other people have used this term too freely?
McVittie:You mean the velocity of recession? Oh yes. Good heavens, yes. To this day, c times the red shift is the velocity of recession, however big Z may be. If you apply that to a quasar, you'll say it has a velocity of three times the velocity of light which is clearly nonsensical. And therefore, it's not that c times Z cannot be equal to three times c, it's the interpretation of the velocity that's at fault or one's interpretation.
DeVorkin:But it's a fundamental question of how people perceive the universe and how they wish to perceive the universe?
DeVorkin:Has it developed into some sort of a rigid form of thought that we just must be living somehow in an expanding universe, that's physically expanding?
McVittie:I don't question the fact that it's expanding, certainly. There is something that can be called the velocity of, say, the Hydra Cluster of galaxies with respect to our own. Certainly there is. But you've got to define mathematically how that velocity is connected with the red shift. It is not simply the simple Doppler formula, c times Z — Z is the red shift. For example, you can say the relationship could be that of special relativity, where you get much more sensible results. But there are many other possible connections between the velocity of recession and the red shift, according to the model universe you choose to use. This is the difficult idea to put across.
DeVorkin:Were you objecting to Hubble's techniques, more than to the model he was coming up with or trying to come up with, as far as the linearity of the relationship was concerned?
McVittie:Yes. At the time there was a great deal of talk about the relationship being linear or non-linear. If you've read the literature of the Times, great significance was attached to this. I was one of the people who was thinking that it doesn't matter a damn whether the relationship is linear or non-linear, because your velocity is supposed to be increasing linearly, I think. That is where the trouble lays, the definition of what you mean by the velocity of recession, in terms of the observed red shift. It seemed to me, from the very beginning that the linearity was totally irrelevant, because the theoretical formulae did not show that there was necessarily any such linear relationship between the logarithm of the apparent magnitude and whatever variable is introduced to get this linear relationship.
DeVorkin:But Hubble was going through various corrective procedures almost to make it linear, in some cases, it seems.
McVittie:Yes. He surely was. He was faking, it seemed to me.
DeVorkin:Did you talk with other observational astronomers or people familiar with observational data, about what Hubble was doing, to try to get some feeling for how data was handled by observational astronomers?
McVittie:No, because I had never made an astronomical observation, and I haven't to this day, in spite of the fact that my colleagues in Illinois say I have, on the grounds that one evening when we were chasing Sputnik I was the one of the group that was on the top of a tall building in Urbana, waiting for a Sputnik to come along. And of the entire group, I was the one who saw it first. On the strength of this observation, I was declared now to be an observer! But at any rate, to go back to the more serious things, the question of the linearity or otherwise, of this so-called velocity distance relation, was to me a question of definition. You could always make it linear if you wanted to, by suitably changing what you meant by "the velocity." You don't have a velocity. You don't have a change of position in the sky. Everything looks exactly the same now as it did 100 years ago, in this cosmological connection, of course. Nothing moves. Nothing moves across the line of sight, nothing moves in such a way that a galaxy appears to be smaller than it did to people in the 19th century. Therefore the only thing you have is the displacement of the spectral lines, and the theory shows that this is connected with the apparent magnitude of the object, in different ways, according as you choose your model of the universe.
DeVorkin:So there's no verification of any one of these models?
McVittie:There is a selection process by which you can reject a large number of models, because they do not give anything like the relationship that is observed. But that leaves a considerable group of possible models of the universe, between which it's very difficult to select.
DeVorkin:We'll get into that as we move on. Why did you take the leave at Edinburgh, while you were on leave?
McVittie:Well, because Whittaker asked me to go there to stand in for one of his people.
DeVorkin:But then during that year, you must have decided not to go back to Leeds because you went on to Liverpool, as a lecturer in applied math, '34-'35.
McVittie:It was a better paid job that was all. I wanted to get married. I think my salary increased from the princely sum of 375 pounds a year at Leeds, to 450 in Liverpool.
DeVorkin:Then there was a job opening at Liverpool?
DeVorkin:Did Whittaker have anything to do with this? Or was this again through advertisement?
McVittie:It was the customary way in British universities, through answering an advertisement.
DeVorkin:Yet you were there two years?
DeVorkin:Then you came to University of London after that? What were the conditions like, let's say, between Leeds, Liverpool and University of London? Were things getting progressively better for you?
McVittie:Yes, financially. And it was also more interesting. I was being promoted up the scale, let's say I was what's called an assistant lecturer at Leeds, and I became a full lecturer in Liverpool, and then I became a reader, what is called an associate professor in America, in London.
DeVorkin:Was it easier or common at the time for university lecturers to move from one university to another in order to be able to advance, rather than to advance at that university?
McVittie:Yes. It was almost essential in that period, the prewar days, to move. There was a good deal of criticism among university people about this. One was always supposed to get rid of one's good men to another university. This is what it amounted to, in many cases at least. I don't say that I was by no means the only example of this kind of thing. Promotions had to be obtained normally by moving to another university, rather than being promoted in your own.
DeVorkin:Well, today I detect amongst younger people working in some of the British universities a sort of a frustrating feeling that if the professor's chair is filled, it's very hard to advance within the department. Yet I don't know if this is characteristic of all the universities. Is this some element that still exists here?
McVittie:Well, yes, I think so. It probably is. They've changed so much in the 20 years I was away that I'm not quite sure about this point, but it does seem to me that, for example, during the late 1950's and the 1960's, with the starting up of all the new universities all over Britain, which had to be staffed, were all staffed by men who were, as senior men, in their late thirties or early forties. And now, everything is jammed. That is to say at the University of Kent, where I am, one of the new universities, the regular staff, I would say, with perhaps only two or three exceptions, out of four or five hundred, are all under the age of 55. When I go there, particularly in the summer when I don't wear a hat, I'm stared at. ''What is this old man doing?" Or perhaps they're being polite, and thinking, "How interesting to see a man with white hair on the campus!''
DeVorkin:That must be something. I never thought of that.
McVittie:It was a really silly thing, that violent expansion in the universities in Britain round about 1960. There isn't the proper arrangement of ages in these new places. There's not the proper proportion of old men and middle men and young men in them. That's why I'm at the University of Kent. Not only am I there, but there are retired people from here, there and everywhere. A retired professor who's now 80, from the University of Manchester; a professor of electrical engineering from Scotland; another from the London School of Economics, and so on. All these people are well over the retirement age of 68 in British universities, and are there as what they call "honorary professors." They are sought after in order to give a leaven of normality to the distribution of ages of the staff. But of course it doesn't give a normal distribution. What there should be is a lot of men between the ages of say 50 and 68 — not stopping at about 55, and then jumping to "dotards" like me. The professor of French, from Manchester, whom I just discovered is no less than 80 years of age! I wouldn't have thought it. But you see, again, there's a curious distribution, as a result of this over-expansion of British universities.
DeVorkin:That's a fascinating thing I hadn't considered.
DeVorkin:This is the continuation of the interview, after a very nice lunch at the Athenaeum. We've been talking about the Hubble counts, primarily, just before lunch. We'd finished pretty much with that. I'd been asking you about the interpretation of the red shift relation, and the quest, you might say, for linearity, and I think we had a pretty good discussion of that, so we should move on to your period of time at University of London, King's College, where you were a reader in math, 1936-48.
DeVorkin:Now, during that time, did you start making more contacts in astronomy, being in London, being closer to astronomers? Did you get to know McCrea better by that time? Was he still here in London?
McVittie:No, I think he'd moved to Belfast, or did shortly after, but it's certainly true that when I came to London, I could attend the Royal Astronomical Society meetings in this building where we now are, of course much more regularly. So I got to know more astronomers, and the more I got to know, I got more interested in astronomy. I may say, by the way, that I never had a formal course in astronomy, ever, except for one course on stellar structure when I was in Cambridge under Sir Arthur Eddington but as an undergraduate, none. So all the astronomy I've learned has been learned under my own power, simply by reading and by coming to the meetings here, at Burlington House, before the war.
DeVorkin:I should have asked you about that course. That was prior to 1930, then, that you had taken this course; under Eddington?
McVittie:Well, yes, it was 1928. Of course Eddington wrote a book on stellar structure, and he gave a course on it, and I attended it in one of the years I was at Cambridge.
DeVorkin:Can you recall that course in terms of the ideas he expressed at that time?
McVittie:They're all the ideas that are in his book INTERNAL CONSTITUTION OF THE STARS. It was just a potted version of the book. But that was why, immediately before and during the war, I got so interested in Milne's ideas on stellar structure. I had been given the background on that by Eddington's lectures.
DeVorkin:Could we talk about that for a moment, especially the fact that during the late thirties and early forties, with the thermonuclear reaction processes at least being understood a little better, there was a tremendous advance in our understanding of stellar structure. We considered seriously for the first time unmixed heterogeneous models, and that sort of thing. How did your interests develop?
McVittie:Well, I suppose it started, listening to Eddington in this course, though he proved to be, when lecturing to students, one of the most appalling lecturers, in the worst Cambridge style, unlike his public lectures which he prepared beforehand. But anyway, then there was the altercation with E. A. Milne, over the way in which you ought to tackle the problem of solving the constitution of the stars, with the energy generation in it: That is to say, the production of radiation, inside the star, which helps in the equilibrium. And it seemed to me that Milne's ideas were so obvious, that if you started from the part of the star you knew, which was the outside, and worked inwards, you might well be solving the problem by using a solution of the hydrodynamic equations which would give infinity at the center. There seemed to be nothing mysterious or unexpected about this. But Eddington went off the deep end over that. You HAD to begin from the center, because you had to have a solution which had a finite value at the center of the star. Milne said, "But why? You don't know about the center of the star, but you do know about the outside.'' So I got quite impressed by his work on stellar structure, though Milne's work on cosmology, I can't say the same about. I thought it was rather silly.
DeVorkin:Milne's feeling that you didn't really have to fit the center at all is interesting, because at that time people were wondering what the central conditions were, in order to have the nuclear processes.
McVittie:Exactly. He said, "Well, look — you begin from the outside, where you do know something. You have a set of basic differential equations which are supposed to control the inside. Go in from the outside, until conditions become unreasonable — for example, suppose the temperature becomes enormously large. For every centimeter you move, there was a factor of 106 came in." "Well," he said, "obviously that won't do, so stop outside, stop when you've got a certain distance in, and think again. And there's no reason why you shouldn't fit one mathematical solution continuously to another, until you get to the center.'' Well, all this seemed very sensible. It was more difficult than what Eddington was doing, who started always from the middle, where he gave himself nice smooth conditions, and then worked to the outside.
DeVorkin:Trying to fit observed conditions on the outside?
McVittie:Well, yes. So for a time I was very interested in this altercation.
DeVorkin:Did you publish anything on it?
McVittie:This was the only one, "Note on Polytrophic Equilibrium in Curved Space."
DeVorkin:Oh, I didn't see that.
McVittie:I thought I'd written more than that, but perhaps I didn't. Anyway, I was extremely interested in the question.
DeVorkin:But this interest didn't continue. Was this because of the war?
McVittie:Yes. The war was a great big discontinuity, as far as astronomy went. You see, if you follow here, I wrote this little book, COSMOLOGICAL THEORY in '37, and then all these papers on kinematical relativity, these arguments with Milne — then the war comes on.
DeVorkin:When the war did become imminent, what were your plans?
McVittie:Well, I got myself registered in the Royal Society. C.P. Snow organized this business, to do whatever one thought one could do, if a war did come on. And so I put myself down. There was obviously not going to be any astronomy involved in the war — not in 1938 — so I put myself down to do meteorological work. Not that I knew any meteorology. Not that I knew anything about it, but it seemed the nearest approach to what I did know about. And so, indeed, it proved to be. Except of course, that what I did eventually get involved in was not mathematical meteorology, but it was reading Hitler's correspondence, as we used to call it, cryptographic work.
DeVorkin:How did you make that change?
McVittie:How did I make the change?
DeVorkin:Yes, was this something that the War Office had you do?
McVittie:Yes. I put myself down in the sort of register that C.P. Snow organized, to do meteorological work, which I imagined would have meant forecasting weather for the RAF or something like that. But as it turned out in practice, I was sent, at the end of November, 1939, to the chief cryptographic outfit in the United Kingdom.
DeVorkin:What were your specific duties there?
McVittie:To read the enemy weather messages. To decipher them, and pass the deciphered weather messages — by that I mean the professional weather messages used by meteorologists, not verbal ones. At least at that time, the information from each observing station was telegraphed or telephoned in to a regional center, in a sort of code, which was an international code. Everybody knew how to read it. The code was arranged in five figure groups, and the Germans put a cipher on top of those five figures, so I started single-handed and by the end of 1943 I had a staff of 60 doing this, reading the enemy's enciphered weather reports and breaking the cipher.
DeVorkin:Did you break the cipher yourself?
McVittie:At first. Yes. It wasn't a case of "a" cipher.
DeVorkin:There were many different ones?
McVittie:During the war we must have broken at least 50 different ones.
DeVorkin:How did you go about doing this? Is this recorded anywhere?
McVittie:Oh yes, it's recorded all right. At the end of the war, let's say in the summer of 1945, I was kept on at this outfit, Bletchley Park as it was called, to write a history of the group that I'd headed, which I did. But I was so conscientious that I did not steal a carbon copy of what I wrote because it was all covered by the Official Secrets Act. Well, perhaps it's just as well I didn't steal it, but in fact, I thought the experience had been so devastating that I would never forget.
McVittie:Well, it wasn't very funny, those six years of the war.
DeVorkin:Certainly not but in terms of your personal experience?
McVittie:No, in terms of reading these ciphers. I thought I would never forget how we did it, and so on. But when I came to try and write this, I found, by God, I had forgotten.
DeVorkin:But the fact is, this copy does exist somewhere at the War Ministry?
McVittie:Yes. There is a copy of this document. They wouldn't let me have it to refresh my memory. Presumably it's still there.
DeVorkin:And it's still secret? That's too bad.
McVittie:Secret. How we broke the ciphers, I was told, was still a secret. That we broke the ciphers is not. Too many beans have been spilt. So you will see that there's a remark to that effect in here.
DeVorkin:Also though, in your biographical sketch, you mentioned that your war experience stimulated your interest in hydrodynamics.
DeVorkin:Was that from the meteorological standpoint, directly?
McVittie:Yes, gas dynamics. I spent the first three months of the war, let's say from the 3rd of September, 1939, to near the end of November, at the university library up here in London, and I read books on dynamical meteorology, because I didn't know what I was supposed to be going to do. So I thought it would be a good idea to learn something about the subject. And I found it very interesting, especially the work of a man called David Brunt, who had written a book called PHYSICAL AND DYNAMICAL METEOROLOGY, a very fat tome. That is the only book on applied mathematics I've ever read in my life beginning at page 1 and continuing to page 350. My normal method of reading books on mathematics is to skip about. Perhaps yours, too. But this one, I read page after page, and it was very interesting, and I learned a lot about the theory of meteorology. So, it was interesting to see how the data were collected, distributed, used, and to take a part in this activity.
DeVorkin:You certainly didn't lose your interest though, during that period, in gravitational theory and cosmology. There are papers in '42, '44, '45.
McVittie:An encyclopedia article on cosmology was done after the war. But these three were done during the war. There were periods when I thought I would go crazy if I went on dealing with these ciphers. These two papers (25, 26) came in the war, but they were merely quarrels. That is the last pre-war paper, No. 24.
DeVorkin:The ones that you mention were "mainly quarrels?"
McVittie:The altercation with E.A. Milne and Walker. Those didn't take long to do. But the ones at the top of the next page (27, 28) were really serious. At least they were serious attempts, and I'm interested in reading them over again, in writing that sketch, to see how they contained various ideas that other people, or various methods that other people have made a great song and dance about.
DeVorkin:Which were these in particular? You mean your hyperbolic model?
McVittie:No, this business of the Regraduation of Clocks. That contains things which H. Bondi and postwar people made a great song and dance about. I didn't really develop it as much as I should have, but it contains the same ideas.
DeVorkin:Can you expand on that? Where you got some of your ideas? How they developed?
McVittie:You mean during the war?
DeVorkin:Yes. You mention that these were papers and studies that you did to try to stay away from some of the war work from time to time.
McVittie:Yes, "Regraduation of Clocks" of course arose through the previous altercations with E. A. Milne, where he said if you re-graduate your clocks you have made great changes in this, that and the other thing.
DeVorkin:But he didn't have the perfect cosmological principle he said that things in the universe should always look the same no matter where you were.
DeVorkin:He didn't have any time elements in there though.
McVittie:No. But he also said that everything had to look the same and the time scale you employed was indifferent. You could regard the red shift as due to velocity, if you used one clock system, and not due to velocity, if you didn't. I forgot all about the paper on re-graduation until I started writing this autobiographical sketch in the last two or three years. I see that what I did was, in effect, something that J.L. Synge, in his books on relativity, has in fact also developed, to a greater extent, than I did in this one paper. That's what I mean when I say that this was something which I was surprised to find that I had thought of and then forgotten about. You see? That's all.
DeVorkin:I see. The question of time scale in the late thirties was a crucial one, because when people started trying to do dynamical ages of clusters, and just ages of stars, from stellar reaction rates and that sort of thing, they weren't being reconciled at all to cosmology.
DeVorkin:This is one of the problems. Was this one of the questions that Milne addressed himself to, when he said it didn't matter what time scale you used?
McVittie:No, I don't think he was specifically thinking of that. His idea essentially was that all measurements were essentially measurements of time, and there was no correct, unique way of measuring time. J. L. Synge also had a rather similar idea, in his books on relativity, but he doesn't push it to the extravagant extremes that Milne did.
DeVorkin:I see what you mean. But considering what I just mentioned, the problem of reconciling cosmic time and the Hubble constant with other lifetime requirements, were you interested in this aspect of cosmology at all?
McVittie:Well, I was interested, in the sense that it seemed to me to be a puzzle. But I've always been chary of pushing these cosmological models to what you might call their birth times. People were always wanting in those days to get one particular model picked out of the infinity that you had in general relativity, calculate back to the start, whatever that means, and then find that you have too short a time. I used to say, “Well, yes, that's fine, if you're a pure mathematician, this would no doubt be the answer. But the trouble is that you don't know that the conditions that you're assuming which fit pretty well now, conditions such as the more or less uniform distribution of matter, and so on — were always there." The extrapolation strikes me as being a bit risky, don't you think?
McVittie:Then everybody would say, "Oh nonsense, of course it's all right," so I shut up.
DeVorkin:Who would usually say that?
McVittie:Oh, everybody. Yes.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about that? You'd keep quiet about it?
McVittie:Well, yes, because I suppose there was no reason why one shouldn't push these models back, except that it seemed to me highly improbable that when the entire radius of the entire universe was one mile, and all the matter in it was therefore compressed into this sphere, that the physical conditions were or would be of such a kind that we could assert that they were "so and so." And in fact, to this day, the problem of compressibility, when I talk to nuclear physicists, is not solved, in the sense that they do not know. What do they call the things nowadays: Hadrons? When everything is so squashed together that one hadron is interpenetrating another, what is the then condition of matter? Well, any nuclear physicist that I've put this question to has said, "Don't be silly."
DeVorkin:What do they mean, "don't be silly?"
McVittie:That the question has no meaning, in the sense that you don't know that the hadron, as we now conceive it under the present circumstances, would be a reasonable thing to think about even, when the conditions of compressibility are such that one hadron is inside another. "You've got to have another thought," say the nuclear physicists. So I say, "Well, all right, give me your other thought." They say, "We don't have any. We can't answer." I have had these discussions, and listened to discussions in London, since I've come back, about what happens when particles get within the Compton radius of each other, and so on. So, you see, what I am saying is that extrapolations backwards to an alleged infinite singularity have always struck me as being very dangerous and chancy, though I suppose one ought to think about it, but for God's sake let others do it, and not me!
DeVorkin:OK. You returned to University of London, in 1946?
DeVorkin:OK. And you remained as reader until '48, at which point you were elevated to professor of mathematics, department head. Queen Mary College. During this period, was the department developing tremendously after the war?
McVittie:It depends, what college. King's College was going pretty strong. I was there until '48, of course. Then I went to Queen Mary College, which was another one down in the Far East End of London.
DeVorkin:What caused you to make that change? You were given the professorship?
McVittie:Yes. And then I went there. From the start, the principal of the college, the head man and I were not what the Spaniards call "sympatico." Somehow we got onto each other's nerves. However, he did allow me to go to the United States for one term in 1950. And so I went to Harvard, Michigan first of all, then I came back.
DeVorkin:You went to Michigan first?
McVittie:Yes, the summer school in Michigan.
DeVorkin:That's right; there were a series of summer schools there.
McVittie:Leo Goldberg was involved. He used to organize them. I gave some lectures there, in the summer of 1950.
DeVorkin:Let's stay in England for a moment, then, and talk about the Steady State Cosmology which appeared around 1948, if that's the right way to look at it.
DeVorkin:How did you first hear about it and what were your first impressions?
McVittie:The first time I heard about it, I was at King's College and Bondi came to see me, before he and T. Gold went to a meeting of the Royal-Astronomical Society which was held in Edinburgh, as far as I remember. He came and told me about this theory, and I said, "Well, yes, Hermann, do it that way, but this is much more restrictive than general relativity." I didn't show any great enthusiasm. However, I was somewhat taken aback when, after the meeting in Edinburgh, the meeting of the Astronomical Society where this was first expounded publicly by Bondi and Gold, E. T. Whittaker wrote to me and said that he'd heard the most interesting account, from two youngish men called Bondi and Gold, about a new theory of the universe and so on. So I said to myself, 'Well, dear me, have I missed something?" So when it appeared in print, I looked at it, and the more I looked at it, the less I liked it. For one thing, it was very restrictive, compared to general relativity, and for another, it contained this mysterious creation process.
McVittie:It seemed to me that if you allow yourself, in the mathematical physics game, to have creation out of nothing, well, you can do anything you like. It's like breaking the rules when you are playing a game. If you allow yourself in the game of American football to take knives on board with you and stab your opponent, now and again, of course the results will be very remarkable, particularly if one side only has the knives and the other is merely the recipient. I thought: this isn't the way the scientific game is played, at least, not by me. So it was really that, plus, incidentally, the realization that what was going on really in cosmology was going on in the United States — and after our visit to Harvard, my wife came with me and she liked life in America — we decided to go to Illinois.
DeVorkin:What was it about life in America that decided her? That she also wanted to go?
McVittie:Well, from her point of view, she's a very meticulous and conscientious housekeeper, and life there was so much easier. I mean, she could clean her house the way it should be cleaned. She could go out shopping and get things to run the house. You see, after the war, life was very difficult here for many years. Rationing went on for a long time, years after the war. Shortages and shortages and everything was very hard, particularly for the women to run households. So it wasn't entirely that. She, like me, liked the Americans. There isn't all this "social position fuss" in America. In fact, if one has a complaint, they're too "hail fellow well met" in America. You don't always want to tell your innermost thoughts to a person you've met in the first ten minutes.
DeVorkin:Unless we're interviewing. We can move on to that period. It's a very interesting period. You've given me a nice interesting impression of your first contact with Bondi and Gold. But it seems as though there's more to your involvement with them. There are some interpretations of your work after that which shows that you were sympathetic to some of their ideas. Is this true?
McVittie:Really? Is that the impression you obtain?
DeVorkin:From John North's book THE MEASURE OF THE UNIVERSE. Certainly you were critical; you were not a major supporter in any way, as were McCrea, Spencer Jones and those people. But there seemed to be an element of support you'd given, some initial contacts that might have been supportive.
McVittie:Well, this is very interesting. I wouldn't have thought that that was so. No, the more time went on — in fact, one of the reasons why I went to the United States, I think, was to get away from the atmosphere of the steady state theory in this country. There was such a hullabaloo about the new revelation! Everybody McCrea was trying to climb onto the bandwagon and did for a bit.
DeVorkin:Did you have arguments with him about it? Direct arguments with McCrea and others about it?
McVittie:Well, I suppose I had arguments, discussions at least. But no, I was rather disgusted; let me say, that people like McCrea should take so artificial a theory so seriously.
DeVorkin:OK. How did you come to go to Michigan Summer School? You just applied for a leave of absence to attend?
McVittie:The summer school 1950? Yes. The first reason why I went to the United States at all in that year, of course, was because of the International Union of Mathematicians (as it now is) meeting at Harvard. And somehow, I wrote to somebody, or must have written to somebody and said, "Look, I'm trying to get to this international union, is there any hope of my giving a lecture here and there for a fee? Just to help matters out. You know what the situation in England is. One can't take a penny of one's own money out." Five pounds, I think, was the limit. Letters started coming in saying, "Yes, come and give us a lecture," "Yes, come and do that."
DeVorkin:From a number of different ones?
McVittie:Yes, Princeton and various places. And then, Leo Goldberg must have written and said, "Look, come and talk at the summer school." So I went there. That was where I met David Layser. In fact, we shared an office — first met him.
DeVorkin:Interesting. Had you known then that you would spend the fall term at Harvard, when you went?
McVittie:Yes. Then the invitation from Harlow Shapley came. The conference of the International Union of Mathematicians was going to be at Harvard, and Harlow Shapley asked me to stay on for the term or the semester generally.
DeVorkin:Any difficulty with the University of London?
McVittie:No. I don't think the head of Queen Mary College liked me anymore than I liked him. I think he was rather pleased at an excuse, a reasonable excuse, not to see me for a whole term.
DeVorkin:What were your differences of opinion?
McVittie:Oh, it was not differences of opinion. He had wanted to keep the college separate as far as possible from infiltration from the other larger colleges, like King's where I was, University College, the Imperial College, and so on. He had his own little coterie of people who'd been there, man and boy, for God knows how long, and he wanted one of these to be head of the mathematics department. He fought tooth and nail to keep me out, because I was the one that was put forward by the selection committee of the University of London, you see. Of course he was there; his representatives were there, but not enough to vote down anything. And so there was a tremendous altercation, lasting for several months, before the college agreed to accept the recommendation of the appointments committee, namely, me. So he wasn't unhappy if he didn't see me around. Of course, I didn't miss him. But what I did miss was that after everything was fixed up for me to go to Illinois, which was the summer of 1951, what does this character do (Ifor Evans) but resign, to be head of University College. And they appoint a man, whose name for the life of me I can't remember, as head of the Queen Mary College, whom I had known at King's College. And the change this man made in the whole spirit of Queen Mary College, in one year, was really fantastic. By the summer of '52, when I was due to go to America, believe it or not, I was regretting leaving Queen Mary College. I couldn't have believed that one man could have made such a difference to the whole atmosphere of the place.
DeVorkin:What did he do?
McVittie:He was just an awfully nice fellow, and a very efficient administrator. He'd been in the Colonial Service, British Colonial Service; a sympathetic man. You could talk to him. He understood difficulties. He wasn't an academic, but he understood the difficulties, and he produced harmony and pleasantness in the college. I remember thinking, my last day at Queen Mary College, well, it will be very nice to go to America, but why am I leaving this college?
DeVorkin:That's very ironic. You mentioned that Shapley had something to do with your going to Illinois?
McVittie:Oh, a tremendous amount.
DeVorkin:Could you review that for me?
McVittie:Yes. He was, of course, the head of the Harvard College Observatory in the autumn of 1950, naturally, and for some years afterwards. Apparently, the dean of Liberal Arts of Illinois had run into a problem with their then professor of astronomy who was a man who had insisted for many years on only giving two elementary courses that he wasn't going to have any research students or anything in advanced astronomy, he didn't want any staff except to have one assistant — and he went on like this.
DeVorkin:This was R. H. Baker.
McVittie:Baker, who was a very good writer of popular textbooks. And so it finally came to Baker retiring. The Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who was a very tough type, of Norwegian ancestry, called Henning Larsen, wrote around and went to see various people, including Harlow Shapley. He saw Harlow apparently. Harlow didn't like him at all, he told me afterwards. He said, "I don't trust that man." I found him all right. I was rather surprised. Larsen said they had thought that they ought to abolish astronomy, that their man had been very unsatisfactory. And apparently Harlow Shapley blew up at this and said, "Ridiculous, you can't have a university the size of the University of Illinois without any astronomy." They batted around this kind of thing for a bit. And finally, Harlow I think, convinced Henning Larsen that since the Middle West was not very good for observation, they should get a theoretician, a man who was interested in theoretical astronomy.
DeVorkin:This was Shapley's idea?
DeVorkin:Do you think he had you in mind?
McVittie:Yes. Because he went on to say (this was about early 1951): ''We've just had a man, from England, who I think would be just the sort of man you want. He's not going to ask for big telescopes." Little did poor Harlow know what was going to happen? Anyway, that was a very sound conclusion at the time. And so finally, after some correspondence, I was asked to go and meet the president of the University of Illinois in Paris.
McVittie:He was in Paris?
McVittie:Well, yes, he was on UNESCO business. He was always on that sort of thing. That's George W. Stoddard. He was then president of University of Illinois. So I went over to Paris and met Stoddard. I spent two or three days there. He was busy with meetings in the day so we used to have dinner together, chat and so on. He seemed to me to be a rather strange bird, in the sense that he seemed very shy, for a man in such a position. It may have been purely accidental. When he was talking about anything that was difficult, he didn't like to look at you. He would gaze at the floor, presumably to concentrate, in case you distracted him. But of course, he gave the impression that he was shy. Anyway, he decided, it would seem, that I was the sort of man he wanted to have in his university. So he went back and they appointed me. All this happened, as I say, by the middle of the summer of '51. Meanwhile in October, '51, the new head of Queen Mary College came along and there's a complete change in the atmosphere of Queen Mary College, or so it seemed to me; from being a place that I was only too anxious to leave, it began to be a place I wanted to stay in.
DeVorkin:What did your friends and colleagues think about your moving way off to Illinois?
McVittie:Well, it's very amusing to read the letters which they wrote me when it was eventually announced. It was puzzlement, bafflement. Why is he doing it? What is he doing? What is the possible reason for leaving Queen Mary College?
DeVorkin:The reason was the original president.
McVittie:Well, also, the autumn of 1950, that term we spent at Harvard, was so pleasant. My wife liked the United States, which was an important thing.
DeVorkin:Did you have any idea what the weather in Illinois was like, whether it was any different from Harvard?
McVittie:No, but we'd had some sample of winter weather at Harvard. We knew that the climate would be disagreeable, as indeed it was.
DeVorkin:What about the university itself, its mathematics department, people in the area?
McVittie:I knew there was one man there whose work I liked very much, and that was A. H. Taub. He's quite an expert, as you probably know, in relativity theory, and I had read his papers and followed his work from before the war. And then, when Harlow Shapley had told the Dean of Liberal Arts, Henning Larsen, that there might be a possibility, you see, A. H. Taub started writing to me and saying how pleased he was to hear that I was interested, and could he urge me to come? I said to myself, ''Well, if Abe Taub is there, that's something," because in those days, 1952, there were very few people working in relativity and cosmology in the world as a whole, and to get two in one place was coming out of the wilderness, so to speak, or out of the solitude.
DeVorkin:Chandrasekhar was at Chicago.
McVittie:Chandrasekhar was up at Yerkes, not Chicago. He was way out in the backwoods.
DeVorkin:Did you think of it in terms of his being in the locale?
McVittie:Well, it was nice to think that he was there. But I looked it up on the map and it seemed to me to be a hell of a long way off.
DeVorkin:Which it was.
McVittie:Certainly by standards in Britain, it was a very long way off.
DeVorkin:Yes. Well, you moved to Illinois, and I'd be interested to know your first impressions there. You had a one-man department.
McVittie:One and a half. I was the one. There was a half time mathematician, a chap called Langebartel, who I think had been promised the job that I now held, by Robert Baker. Langebartel, you never heard of him, I dare say. Swedish name. A young man who was a pupil of Baker's, and he was, of course, from his name as you see, a Swede. He'd taken his PhD degree in Stockholm, had come back, and I think Baker had promised him to be professor of astronomy.
DeVorkin:Was Baker still around?
McVittie:No, Baker had retired. I tried to find where he was. I got an address and went there, but what did it turn out to be but a trailer camp. You know? Where they park themselves and live in caravans.
DeVorkin:He lived in a trailer park?
McVittie:Well, he had lived, because his name was on the letter box, but he'd taken off for California before I got there.
DeVorkin:So you never met him?
McVittie:Not on that occasion, but I met him later on.
DeVorkin:Did you have any difficulties with Langebartel or anybody else, about your position?
McVittie:No. Well, that's not true. I discovered gradually, or my wife and I discovered independently, usually, and with great difficulty, that George Stoddard, as he often did, had had a hell of a row with some of the legislators from Chicago for appointing another "damn foreigner to a post in Illinois. George Stoddard was always doing it. In fact, when we arrived there, it turned out that the faculty was a cosmopolitan collection — French, Germans, Austrians, and Canadians, anything you could think of; far more so that we'd ever known in London. It was full of Europeans, you see, of one kind or another. Well, here was another damn foreigner being brought in to the sacred precincts of the Middle West by this man, who was not very popular with one very powerful group in the state legislature of Illinois — in other words, the men from Chicago. We gradually discovered these things. But we were both, my wife and I, treated with the greatest kindness. Every effort was made to conceal from us, quite unnecessarily, that there had been violent opposition. Vernon Nickell was Superintendent of Education for the whole state of Illinois. Apparently he had blasted out in all the newspapers, "What is this double, blank, blank" — he didn't use these terms but this is what he meant, "double dyed outsider George Stoddard doing by appointing still another of these damned foreigners to our university — who is this fellow McVittie? Aren't there astronomers in the United States?" Of course, the answer to that was: "Yes." Anyway, these were things my wife and I only discovered very gradually, because we'd heard about the Middle West, but we never came across any animosity to foreigners. We never found any hostility at all. I cannot remember a single incident. We could just as well have been in London or in New York; it didn't matter, although we lived in the Corn Belt, in the "sticks" according to our friends in Boston.
DeVorkin:Right, but what about students and developing a program there?
McVittie:Well, that was the difficulty, of course. This chap Langebartel stayed with me for the first year, and I thought up some courses. Then I got Stanley P. Wyatt, Jr. Between us we set up, first of all, courses in astronomy, and then a Master of Science, and then, after I'd been there five or six years, a PhD course in astronomy.
DeVorkin:Had all this been guaranteed you before you came there, that you would be able to develop a program?
DeVorkin:So this was not part of your interest in going.
McVittie:Oh, nothing had been guaranteed. But it had been suggested that this would be a good idea, if that's what you mean.
DeVorkin:OK. I framed my question incorrectly.
McVittie:No. I was very interested in their methods. The then way in which the University of Illinois was run, until it became too large to be run in this fashion, was essentially a straight and unmitigated oligarchy, which consisted really of about four top men, the president and one or two deans and the vice president, of course. And if you could persuade these three or four men that something should be done, by God, it was done. Now, of course, it's done in the usual way, with 231 committees. And therefore nothing much can ever be done. But in those days, in spite of the fact that it was considerably larger than the University of London, I thought: "Well, now, this is the way to run a university" — after experiencing the University of London with its endless committees. They really got things going. And so it was quite obvious to me, after the first few months that I was on trial. "Here was this fellow," they obviously said to themselves, "coming from England. We really don't know anything about him except what is public knowledge. Don't know what sort of man he is. We'll let him have his head, gently, but we'll see what he does."
DeVorkin:So when you got to Illinois, it was with the understanding that they weren't going to prevent you from moving ahead and developing a department.
DeVorkin:How did you go about doing it?
McVittie:Well, the first thing to do was to get staff, which I slowly did.
DeVorkin:Did you have to argue for each position?
McVittie:Well, I had to persuade the dean, who was Henning Larsen, but under this system which I've described, it seemed to be an oligarchy at the head of the university, so if you could get the ear of those men, you were pretty well all right. There was the difficulty of George Stoddard being fired at the end of my first year.
DeVorkin:Was it partly over the fact that he was hiring foreigners?
McVittie:Possibly that came into it. It was, I think, the coterie — the representatives in the state government connected with Chicago who were determined to get rid of him; the legislators from Chicago. They wanted to get rid of him, and they succeeded, one evening in July, 1953. We'd not really been there a year when he was suddenly fired. Then of course there were difficulties for a year or two because there was great indignation among the citizens of Illinois, too, and they had to have an interim president. The chief accountant, chief finance officer was interim president. Then David Henry arrived finally. He came, I think, from Detroit or somewhere. Anyway, he came to be president. But this is only along about 1955, '56. They had to wait some time for this tremendous ruckus over essentially the firing of George Stoddard to calm down.
DeVorkin:But during this time you had already started working on developing radio astronomy?
McVittie:Yes. I don't mean to say that the university didn't function, but it didn't function as quickly. The man who started me on that was the head of the electrical engineering department, E. C. Jordan. He was not head of the electrical engineering department at the time, but indeed did become within a short time. It was he, right away from the beginning, '54, and ‘55, who was urging me to take an interest in radio astronomy, since there were difficulties with optical astronomy in the Middle West. The seeing is not good. In fact, he got me sent by the dean of engineering to a meeting in Washington about radio astronomy, and that was how the whole business started.
DeVorkin:What were your own feelings about this? Did you have any background, other than seeing how radio astronomy could potentially be useful in astronomy at that time?
McVittie:Well, I saw how it could be useful in cosmology, because the radio astronomers were already saying that they thought — although they hadn't any very clear idea of the distances of some of these extragalactic radio sources — that they were excessively remote, and probably came from objects which were perhaps inaccessible to optical astronomy. So of course, this made me prick my ears up like anything. So I got interested in it, and indeed, this is how it turned out, after all.
DeVorkin:What was the nature of the meeting you were sent to in Washington?
McVittie:Oh, they were committee meetings, so vague that I cannot remember what went on. We batted around the question of whether the United States astronomers, or whatever one likes to call it, should go in for radio astronomy, should think about building radio telescopes on the scale that the British were apparently doing or proposing to do. Bart Bok of course was then at Harvard, and he had built a radio telescope.
DeVorkin:Was O. Struve involved in these talks too?
McVittie:Struve, no, not at that stage. No. People who were electrical engineers and people like Bok and myself, astronomers who were in a sense representing electrical engineers, as I certainly was. I didn't have the foggiest clue as to how you built a radio telescope, but I felt sure E. C. Jordan did, and I was his mouthpiece at these meetings.
DeVorkin:Talking about what it could do for astronomy.
DeVorkin:What were the negative reactions?
McVittie:They weren't negative, but they were very cautious. There was a kind of unwillingness to go ahead with this, and it seemed very odd to me, except for Bart Bok. He, of course, was all for it. I can't remember who was there, but there were representatives of many other observatories, and I do remember making what I now realize was an extremely reckless statement, because I remember saying, “We all seem very uncertain as to whether we should go in for radio astronomy, but suppose we were the chieftains on an isolated island in the Pacific, and somebody had come along and asked us to (I forget what I used, some illustration like…) build a factory. We've never seen a factory before. We haven't a very great clue as to what it might be. And we're naturally hesitant. But surely the chieftains would have been wrong to have turned down this factory. And perhaps we would be wrong to turn down this radio astronomy project in the United States." But I put it more crudely than that. I can't remember the exact words. But anyway, I was thinking about it going home on the train afterwards. I worried that I had made it perfectly clear that I thought all these Americans were nothing but untutored savages, shouting in the wilderness! This had not been my intention. What I wanted to say was: "Of course we don't know what this radio astronomy can do. But surely, since others are doing it, it is worth having a try." Which is what I should have said but I didn't. Anyway, these were the meetings which eventually resulted in the Greenbank operation.
DeVorkin:Were you involved in the subsequent meetings about Greenbank?
McVittie:Oh yes. Right up to the time when that big unhappy radio telescope on an equatorial mounting, (which still exists) was started.
DeVorkin:The 140 foot?
McVittie:Is it as big as that, the 140 foot, at Greenbank?
DeVorkin:There is one that big.
McVittie:It is an equatorial, follows the source across the sky?
DeVorkin:Yes, that's the one.
McVittie:Of course, it was a devil of a thing to construct. Nobody had ever done anything as big as that before. It took years of argument and effort and so on. And as you know, it's the only one of that size that's ever been constructed. Much more efficient methods were later discovered, efficient from the point of view of the mechanics. I remember, the engineer who thought up this scheme giving us a talk about it. He used the word "shim." Do you know what it means?
DeVorkin:Well, it's a little piece of material that you stick in between something else.
McVittie:I didn't know what it was. And I asked what it was. Nobody who was at that meeting has ever forgotten that I asked, or has failed to pull my leg about being so ignorant, not to know what the word "shim" meant. How was I to know? I was a theoretician. You don't have “shims” in theory.
DeVorkin:You started then to build the Vermillion River Observatory telescope?
McVittie:Yes. By then, you see, Ed Jordan, who had by that time become head of electrical engineering, said, ''Now, look here, is there anything in this radio astronomy business?" I said, ''Yes, very much so. I have an idea that it's the coming thing. They seem to think that they can see objects with their curious methods far more remote than those that can be studied by ordinary optics." "Tell me," he said, "there's a young man called George W. Swenson, Jr. — he wants to come here. How about putting it up to him? But if he comes, he'll have a joint appointment in astronomy and electrical engineering, and we'll send him around the world to Australia and Britain." (He did in fact go around the world, I don't quite know why, but anyway he did, to look at radio telescopes) “and come back and see if we can swing it to build one." So we appointed him, about 1955 or '56, and he did go around the world and saw the various radio telescopes of that period. And he came back with the idea of the fixed paraboloidal instrument, which, with the help of the Office of Naval Research, we subsequently built, started it on its program, carried out about one-third of it, and then ONR stopped their support. They cut off the money.
DeVorkin:Yes, I was aware of that. Why did they cut off the money? What was happening? Funding was growing at that time, late fifties, not diminishing.
McVittie:But it was long after that.
DeVorkin:How long did this project take?
McVittie:Well, we started about 1958, '59. Observing was going on till about the middle 1960's. It was toward the end of the sixties that the money was cut off.
DeVorkin:I see, so it had been in operation for a good while.
McVittie:It hadn't been in operation all that time; we had to build it first!
DeVorkin:The survey was not finished.
McVittie:Yes, it was not finished. They lost interest, the Office of Naval Research.
DeVorkin:Did you apply to NSF or NASA?
McVittie:Well, we did, and they gave us a little money. We got into a real mess over that, because, before the Office of Naval Research cut off the money, about a year before, we'd applied to the NSF to let us build a 140 foot partly steerable disk. They had accepted, they had funded it, and we'd started work. This was to work in conjunction with the big paraboloidal cylinder, so it would be a much bigger radio telescope.
DeVorkin:You were talking about trying interferometry at that time?
McVittie:Yes. And we got ourselves involved in this other project when, what happens, Naval Research cuts off the money for the paraboloid; the other half of the instrument.
DeVorkin:Was there any justification? There was another thing going on at that time, too. There was some federal legislation about the military support of basic research.
McVittie:That's right. It was partly a casualty of that business. They were trying to push all the support of science, wherever it was needed, from the federal government, onto the National Science Foundation, and certainly take it away from the Navy. But whether they succeeded or not, I don't know. Anyway that's what happened. It was a pity. A certain amount of the catalogue of sources which we had meant to make was completed. It's published.
DeVorkin:Was there enough to begin to do number counts, in your own mind? Did you feel you'd started to produce enough data to draw some conclusions?
McVittie:Well, yes, as in paper 95. One could have done number counts. But I suppose as time went on, it seemed less important to do number counts. Number counts were the first thing thought of to do. Then, it was soon discovered that when number counts were made, the interpretation of the number counts was so difficult that one began to wonder about the value. At least I did. The early people like M. Ryle and Mills in Australia, I'm sure thought that they'd got the answer to the maiden's prayer in number counts. But as soon as one began trying to analyze them, one found it was much more complicated than expected. The number count of radio sources did not have the stability, shall we say, of number counts in the optical. They seemed to indicate, relatively speaking, very rapid secular changes in the number of these sources. They're much more short-lived than in the optical.
DeVorkin:There were other surveys developing at that time too. Wasn't there one in Ohio?
McVittie:Yes, there was one at Ohio. That has been completed, I think. That was done by a radio astronomer who has stuck to it with extreme persistence. He's written a book about it. George Swenson, as soon as the telescope, the big instrument, was built, felt that his work was done, and he went off to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He took incessant leaves of absence, year after year, and I was left without any aid in trying to run the operation, as well as doing everything else.
DeVorkin:You were responsible for the operation of the radio telescope?
McVittie:That's what it turned out to be. I had supposed that when it was finished, George Swenson would have been interested in using it. But he really wasn't. He was merely interested in building it.
DeVorkin:Were you able to get someone to replace him?
McVittie:No. That was why the progress was so slow.
DeVorkin:I see. You had observers, people who were operating it?
McVittie:Well, the instrument operated more or less automatically, but then afterwards, you had to take the records — as with all these radio telescopes which, as you know, consist of miles of "lavatory paper" (it looks like it) — and then you've got to look at every squiggle, and compare it with the other squiggles, till you determine where the radio source is. Particularly with a transit instrument like the one we had, you have to wait for each source to come into the beam. The beam was fixed relative to the earth, and therefore as the earth rotated; it swept out and "looked at" a small bit of sky, about six minutes of arc wide. And this produced an immense record on paper — you know, miles of stuff.
DeVorkin:Who reduced all that data?
McVittie:Well, exactly. I thought that George Swenson would be interested, if not in actually doing it himself, at least in being there to see that the reduction was done. But instead of that, having built the instrument, he buzzed off to Greenbank.
DeVorkin:Well, then who did the reductions?
McVittie:Well, he had a man called Wendker, a German, he came for a time. And then there was a chap who went to Canada. These were junior staff who were interested. Then there was J. R. Dickel. He worked at it for a bit. But there was nobody there who regarded it, after the instrument was built, as his main job. You see?
DeVorkin:I see the problem. That's why it took so long.
McVittie:It took so long and so little was done.
DeVorkin:What was Wyatt doing all this time?
McVittie:Well, he was writing his textbook.
DeVorkin:I see. Was he doing research when he came?
McVittie:He had done some research. Yes.
DeVorkin:He didn't maintain it?
McVittie:Well, very little. That textbook. It's all right to keep it up when once it's been written, keep it up to date. But the first job of writing a book like that is really quite something. It's not the sort of thing that you can do in three months.
DeVorkin:That's right. At least do correctly in three months. It makes one wonder, with the number of textbooks coming out today, whether they are done in three months.
McVittie:Well, of course, it's become a business now. Everybody pours them out. And there are a few good ones. Wyatt's is one, I understand. I never tried to teach that level so I don't know.
DeVorkin:What levels did you teach?
McVittie:I would do the mathematical things, like give a course in relativity, in cosmology, and one on celestial mechanics — the calculation of orbits. In the early days I must have done some dynamics, I think.
DeVorkin:Who were some of the other people on the Illinois staff in the fifties?
McVittie:In the fifties? There was Ivan King.
DeVorkin:How long was he there?
McVittie:He was there some years in the fifties. He was there during the Sputnik business. He was a good orbits man.
DeVorkin:Was he doing cluster dynamics at that time?
McVittie:Yes. It's difficult to remember people's names. There was Jack Meadows, who's now a professor at Leicester here. There was Pierre Demarque, who is now at Yale. He was there for a time. Then, towards the middle sixties, Ken Yoss came.
DeVorkin:How was the department structured by that time? Were others taking over from Swenson? Did you bring in another radio person? None of these people seem to be radio astronomers.
McVittie:No. I didn't because Swenson was still supposed to be a member of the staff. He was merely taking one leave of absence after another.
DeVorkin:Oh, I see. And he never came back?
McVittie:Yes, he did, eventually. After all this cavorting around the place, Greenbank and what not, he found that they'd finished with him at Greenbank.
DeVorkin:They'd finished the building period, in other words.
McVittie:Yes. And so he came back.
DeVorkin:I see. When he came back, did he start using the radio telescope again?
McVittie:Well, I can't make out. You see, he came back shortly before I left in 1970. But I don't know what they're doing. One of the ideas my successor had was to save himself trouble. My successor was Icko Iben. His idea was to drop the annual reports of the University of Illinois Observatory published by the American Astronomical Society. So for some years, in fact getting on for about eight now, as far as the astronomical world goes, from looking at the astronomy reports, nothing has been happening at Illinois. So it's really difficult to make out what goes on, without these reports.
DeVorkin:Why did he decide to do that?
McVittie:I have no idea. Apparently it's now dawned upon him that this wasn't such a clever idea after all, and now the report, I understand, has been started again, and is to be written by Stanley Wyatt, who is a very good writer. He originally took a degree in English, and he can write. So I think it's a very good choice, except that presumably the man who gets the most money in the department should do these chores. So now we'll be able to find out again what they're doing at Illinois, by looking it up in the BULLETIN OF THE AMERICAN ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY, after an interval of nearly ten years, when one might have supposed that it had disappeared.
DeVorkin:I'd like to ask about Channel 37 and your fight to keep it open. Then I'd like to spend the rest of the time asking you to review how you think the study of cosmology has changed during the period of your career. Let's do Channel 37 right now. How did that whole issue develop?
McVittie:Well, we wanted to build this parabolic cylinder. I sent George Swenson on a tour of radio astronomy outfits in the world, Australia, England and so on, and he came back with the idea of the parabolic cylinder, a fixed transit instrument that sweeps out the sky simply by the earth rotating. And we decided, for engineering reasons that we could only build a really big one if we had a frequency round about 600 megahertz. Otherwise, the perfection of the reflector, if we went to a shorter wavelength, was not something that you could by the acre, at least not at that time, which was the late 1950. And so we picked upon this 610 megahertz band as the observing frequency. And so then, we started and built this instrument, really out of earth essentially and a kind of asphalt-felt liner, plus wooden towers to prevent as much disturbance as possible from the presence of metals.
McVittie:So we built this thing eventually. It wasn't an expensively thought out instrument. It would have been adequate, had we been permitted to carry on with the annual maintenance. This is what destroyed it. Every year it required a good deal of maintenance. It was cheap to build, but it was a little more expensive to maintain, but it was still possible and was done, in fact, for the first four or five years of observing, until the Office of Naval Research decided they would have to economize, and cut off the money. One season of Illinois winter, without appropriate maintenance, and the surface was pretty well ruined. It had to be rebuilt again from scratch.
DeVorkin:So when did the Channel 37 issue arise?
McVittie:Well, the Channel 37 issue was connected with the question of how could we get some little band of frequency in which we would not be interrupted by human-made interference. We had hit upon Channel 37 as about the sort of frequency that we thought the instrument could operate on, and so we asked the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, if we could have a silent zone there. Most of our radio astronomy friends said, "Look here, you two, Swenson and McVittie, you are just crazy. Do you mean to say you are asking the American public to give up one television channel for science? Who ever heard of anything so absurd?" So we said, ''Well, the channel isn't being used." "Yes, that's true, it's not being used very much but it is being used in the neighborhood of New York, and places like that." So I said, "We're not in the neighborhood of New York." Anyway, we got laughed at. But we persevered, George and I, slowly, I don't quite know how, we found Representatives and Senators who were sympathetic, or who for one reason or another wanted to support it. The legislature of Illinois, for example, supported it. I don't think the legislators understood what it was about, but it was something that would be important for Illinois, for the kudos. So, they started sending resolutions to the FCC, all sorts of people heard about it. I think the governor of Utah, of all places, sent a supporting letter to the FCC, and that was what these radio astronomers around the country kept on shaking their heads about, like you did. Just ridiculous.
DeVorkin:The governor of Utah? Out of a clear blue sky?
McVittie:Out of a clear blue sky.
DeVorkin:No one approached him?
McVittie:Oh yes, people approached him. He'd been a professor of electrical engineering, I think, or was an electrical engineer, and he knew what it was about. Naturally the Federal Communications Commission kept on saying, "No, no, a thousand times no, it's a ridiculous idea. We can't remove a television channel from the television service for the sake of you radio astronomers. Go away." But we wouldn't go away. And finally the International Telecommunications Union was to meet in whatever year it was, '61, '62, thereabouts. It's an international union, scientists and government representatives who meet every three years. This was a meeting round about 1961 or '62. They were meeting in Europe somewhere. I know that they were meeting in the summer. I was in England that summer, and I tried to get through an acquaintance of mine in the British Post Office, a high up civil servant, an interview with the delegation from Britain to this international conference.
DeVorkin:There is some material on Channel 37 in PHYSICS TODAY, 1964, discussing an order effective November 15, 1963. That was the FCC decision in your favor?
McVittie:It must have been '63 then. Yes. Well, that's the meeting that I'm talking about. I was over in the summer, and I tried to get the British delegation to support a silent zone for that Channel 37 band, but needless to say, they wouldn't.
DeVorkin:Why not? They were much more advanced in radio astronomy over here (England) and had a much bigger stake.
McVittie:Oh, probably they had some other axe to grind. I don't know. But certainly, the head British delegate, the moment I set eyes on him, my heart sank, because he was the most stupid looking Post Office engineer I've ever seen. At any rate, I'd been ill and a friend had taken me out in their car to a park in the neighborhood of Urbana, where we lived, just for an outing, and the local paper telephoned to my wife and said, "Where is your husband? Where is your husband?" She said, “Well, he's gone out. He's been ill, you know, and he's being taken for an outing by a friend." This man, whom we knew also personally, said to my wife, "Well, I'm not going to tell you what I want to talk to your husband about, but when he hears it, he's going to get better quickly." So when I came back, I rang up this man from the local newspaper and I said, ''What gives?" and he said, "I am delighted to tell you that, for no reason at all, the FCC has made a silent zone for the whole of North America, of the Channel 37 that you want." I said, "No, really? How did it happen?" No explanation. To this day I've never discovered why, after something like three years of saying, ''No, no, a thousand times no, we shall never take this channel away from the television service," why they did it a week before the ITU meeting, which must have been in the autumn of '63.
DeVorkin:Maybe they didn't want a bad press. Who knows?
McVittie:Well, rumors have had it that during that summer or spring; somehow the news got around that here was this new way of listening to little green men on Mars. This is what radio astronomy seemed to the ordinary public. And the FCC was preventing it from being developed in the United States. We got rumors, George particularly from friends he knew, that gradually a huge accumulation of letters arrived at the FCC, protesting against this nonsupport of this new science, whatever it was. And that this finally persuaded the FCC that they'd better give in. Nobody knows.
DeVorkin:That's certainly an interesting experience, and it turned out right.
McVittie:Well, apparently it's still a silent zone in the United States after all this time.
DeVorkin:There should be some. Radio astronomy is getting more and more difficult to pursue.
DeVorkin:Let's talk then about your general views on cosmology. Maybe I'll leave it up to you to give me an overview of how you think cosmology has progressed in the last years.
McVittie:Well, it has progressed very slowly. Radio astronomy seemed to be the answer to the maiden's prayer. It seemed as if here was the way in which one could solve the problem of what sort of model the universe approximated to, shall we say. These number counts, which is what I started on. But alas, it has not proved to be as simple as that, any more than sticking purely to the optical domain, as Allan Sandage has done all these years, has given the unique answer to what model of the universe best fits. You can do a class of models, and the result, it seems to me, in radio astronomy, is that the choice is even wider. That is to say, practically any model of the universe can be manipulated so as to fit the radio astronomy data. Not everyone, but most.
DeVorkin:Have there been some surprises along the way. How did you feel when you first heard of the Stebbins-Whitford effect early fifties?
McVittie:Well, that was a nuisance, and indeed finally was, as you know, withdrawn by Stebbins and Whitford.
DeVorkin:You were one of the first to imply that it was an observational problem.
DeVorkin:I believe so, if I go back to a number of the statements you've made — that somehow astronomers used the wrong calibration standards, that sort of thing.
McVittie:Oh. Well, I don't remember. I do remember vaguely about the Stebbins-Whitford effect, but eventually, when it was killed off I think by Whitford eventually, I remember heaving a sigh of relief. I couldn't tell you what I did about it before that.
DeVorkin:It never gave you the idea that you were actually seeing an evolutionary effect? Did you ever consider?
McVittie:No. I'm very doubtful about these evolutionary effects, even to this day. There is as you know a school in the United States of younger cosmologists. There's a woman involved, Beatrice Tinsley, and a man called James Gott. And of course, there was Elizabeth Scott with her: "Look out, chaps, all your data may be prejudiced," which was, of course, quite a reasonable thing to say, and all these difficulties. The curious thing is that I cannot understand the mental attitude to science that these people have. It seems to me that the conclusions that you draw in theoretical work are dependent upon what you feed in. If you feed in, into your data, a supposed evolutionary effect, you will get one answer. If you leave it out, you will get another, a different one. And so I say: so what? Why are you expressing surprise? The answers that you get out, it seems to me, in all science, certainly in all observational sciences like astronomy, where you really can't go and alter the circumstances the way a physicist can do in his laboratory — it's something that is given to you whether you like it or not — depend upon how much information of different kinds you pump into any particular investigation. And the answer will necessarily depend on the amount you've put in. The amount you "decide" to take in. And so I am confirmed in my old age, in what I suspected right away from the beginning. The optimists in this game, Allan Sandage was one of them, I don't know if he still is, think that in my lifetime or at any rate in the lifetime of a younger man like Allan Sandage, the whole problem of the universe, the astronomical universe, will be solved. But I always thought this a little too exaggerated, and that each time one has thought that one has got a clue to the answer it fails. The radio sources, the distribution and depth of radio sources, seemed in the 1950's perhaps to be such a clue. But every time one of these clues has been hit upon, further investigation has found it to involve all sorts of complications, which at first did not seem to be there, and that the business was going to be much longer than we'd thought.
DeVorkin:Is this also the case with the 3 Degree background radiation? That's not clearly a single source?
McVittie:Well that I don't know. Isn't the distribution still pretty well isotropic?
DeVorkin:Vera Rubin from Carnegie, do you know her?
McVittie:Oh yes, I know Vera.
DeVorkin:She's been making some statements recently, if I have it right, that there is anisotropy.
McVittie:Well, if that is confirmed, then again you have another complication, which was not apparent at first, and which will make the problem of taking account of this background radiation much more difficult.
DeVorkin:In your recollection, would you say that's one of the most significant observations that have been made?
DeVorkin:The original detection of the 3° radiation.
McVittie:Yes, it's been a very interesting one. Everything is new and nothing like it had been detected before and therefore it is interesting. I wouldn't say that it was any more interesting and exciting than the discovery of quasars, for instance, which still present essentially an unsolved problem, as to what these objects are, how they function, how they put out such enormous energies as they appear to do.
DeVorkin:Looking at the problems of quasars, it seems many people are starting now to link them with radio galaxies and nuclei of galaxies. It looks as if cosmology, from the observational side especially and partly from the theoretical side, is merging more and more with the question of evolution of galaxies.
McVittie:Yes, that is the fashionable view at the moment, I agree.
DeVorkin:How do you feel about that direction of study? Do you feel it makes any difference?
McVittie:Oh, it certainly ought to be explored. Oh yes. Any avenue ought to be explored.
DeVorkin:But do you think it's the most efficient method of exploration at this time, for studies in cosmology, as opposed to the Hubble technique, cosmology on the grand scale, looking at nothing smaller than clusters of galaxies?
McVittie:Oh no. No. I think it is an avenue that ought to be explored, certainly. After all, there is no "royal road" to science, is there? There is a great deal of fashion. At one moment, certain things are extremely fashionable. But that's not quite the same thing as saying that therefore, they are forever very significant. Radio astronomy seemed originally to be highly significant in many respects in cosmology. But I think that what it's done chiefly is to produce a lot more and very complicated but very interesting problems, rather than answers to anything.
DeVorkin:Do you think space astronomy is going to produce as much revolution as radio astronomy did?
McVittie:I shouldn't be surprised in the least. After all, if you mean by space astronomy that one observes without the interference of the earth's atmosphere, which I think is what you mean, for example, an observatory on the far side of the moon, or a space lab which is really clear of the earth, that would be bound to produce new phenomena; things that we — fortunately perhaps — have been sheltered from, on the surface of the earth.
DeVorkin:What about advances in theory? What do you see as important trends presently developing?
McVittie:Well, in cosmology of course, and theory generally, there is this changeover to the work of R. Penrose and Steven Hawking. I think someone told me, and I think it is correct that what these men have done is return to the methods of the earliest differential geometers of all, which were abandoned at the beginning of this century by men like Bianchi and Levi-Civita, and so on. And they have returned to earlier and certainly different methods of looking at differential geometry. That's what it largely amounts to — all this talk about topology and so on. It seems to me that the propagators of these ideas, these methods, are much more in the nature of pure mathematicians. Let's say they are interested in getting the thing logically and mathematically exact — rather than in applying what they get to physical problems.
DeVorkin:How do you feel about that sort of trend?
McVittie:I feel I am too old to bother, really. The time will come when these things will be put on what I would call an applied mathematics or applied astronomy basis. They will be used by men who are not primarily interested in the matter as pure mathematics, but with some application to the physical universe in view. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, according to how you wish to look at it, I have a very enthusiastic research student at the University of Kent at the moment who's writing his thesis, and has been completely captivated by this modern approach, as he calls it. Well, I keep on asking him awkward questions: "This is excellent, but look, you will see that Hawking and Ellis describe this particular development as due to esthetic reasons, and I am not an artist, but an applied mathematician and I would like you to tell me what on earth this has to do with nature?"
DeVorkin:This was the same sort of philosophy that started Bondi and Gold out on the steady state theory, a feeling for the esthetic, in many ways, that principle.
DeVorkin:In other ways though, you seem to be tied closer to the realm of observation that you wish to take into account what exists.
DeVorkin:What was your reaction in the early fifties when Baade doubled the size of the universe in space and time?
McVittie:Oh, I said, 'Well, that's jolly interesting, isn't it? We're got away from all these difficulties." You brought up these difficulties earlier on that the history of the universe was too short; if you take the beginning seriously. And now, they've put it further back in time, so then those who take the beginning seriously are not worried.
DeVorkin:Do you think there are any fundamental differences among theoreticians and observationalists now that have to be reconciled? In the future?
McVittie:Well, I can't think of any at the moment.
DeVorkin:There's no one great theme. It seems that everybody is working off in his own direction. Ultimately they're somewhat compatible, working on the same model at least.
McVittie:Yes. I must say, it's difficult to tell at my age whether this is due simply to disillusion that comes with age, or whether it is in fact the case, that there doesn't seem to be anything very interesting going on, either in theoretical or in observational work at the moment. But perhaps this is the normal way one rather tends to dismiss this with: ''Well, I suppose I'm growing old."
DeVorkin:OK, fine. Well, we're about at the end of the tape. Are there any final ideas we've missed that you feel should be mentioned?
McVittie:No, I can't think of anything.
DeVorkin:I thank you very much for your time and appreciate these four hours you've given me.
McVittie:Four hours, is it? Just 4 o'clock.
 Copy at AIP
 Noted from his autobiographical sketch
 (Cassell, 1886)
 Correspondence on microfilm at AIP
 Simon Stevinus, 1548-1620, Dutch mathematician
 autobiographical sketch
 Phil. Mag. 8 (1929) p. 1033
 ”Period Peace,” Faber and Faber, London 1952
 Autobiographical Sketch
 My question was indeed misleading (see p. 21). - Ed
 M.N. 91 (1930) p. 128; 92 (1931), p. 7
 M.N. 92 (1931) p.7
 M.N. 92 (1931) p.55
 M.N. 93 (1933) p. 325
 The Internal Constitution of the Stars (Cambridge, 1926)
 M.N. 96 (1936) p. 683
 McVittie’s memory was at fault. He had also written “The Gravitational Effect of Radiation on Stellar Structure," M.N., 92, 55, 1931
 (looking at Bibliography)
 (Methuen & Co. 1937)
 Autobiographical Sketch
 Obs. 63 (1940) p. 237; 64 (1941) p. 11; Proc. R.S. Edin. Ser. A. 61 (1942) p. 210
 Proc. Phys. Soc. Lond. 51 (1939) p. 529.
 Op. cit. Obs. 64
 Proc. R.S. Edin. Ser A 62 (1945) p. 147
 Sir Thomas Creed
 Radio telescope for U. of Illinois
 Kraus, Big Ear