Oral History Transcript — Dr. Stanislaus Vasilevskis
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Stanislaus Vasilevskis; July 13, 1977
ABSTRACT: General interview dealing with early life in Latvia before World War I; the University of Latvia in Rega; assistant in astronomy at Rega in 1928 and early impressions of experience in astronomy; graduation in 1932 and position at University in Mathematics; work in fundamental astrometry; Latvia during the Depression; growth of interest in photographic astrometry; life during World War II in Latvia and in Danzig refugee camps; contact with E. Opik; German astronomy during the war; contact with Lick through Trumpler and Weaver; arrival at Lick in 1949; assumed role of assistant for Jeffers; Shane and Lick in early l950s; Struve at Berkeley and possible position there; full staff position at Lick; governance at Lick; search for large scale funding for astrometry; funding for 120-inch programs; construction of 120-inch; development of Carnegie astrograph program in 1950s; contacts with NSF; the automatic measuring engine; work on the translation journal in the early 1950s and the role of refugee astronomers -- Struve’s organization; photographic parallaxes and Schlesinger’s influence; flexure of 120-inch mounting; Lick moves to Santa Cruz, mid-l960s; Lick and the University of California system: diverse interests and influences; staff reactions to the physical move; recollections of Joel Stebbins and Walter Baade.
Session I | Session II
DeVorkin:I know you were born in Latvia, 1907, but I don’t know anything about your family background, who your parents were, what they did, the town that you were born in and the general conditions of life that you were born into. We could start this interview with these recollections.
Vasilevskis:Yes. I was born on July 20th, and my father was a dairy man. Actually he owned a dairy. But in 1914, when the war broke out, he was drafted into the Russian army, and went to war, and never returned. So I spent my early childhood, starting in 1914 when I was seven years old, in the country. The place is called Laucesa. It’s not far from the third largest city in Latvia called Daugavpils. The Germans, during the First World War, came only about ten kilometers, maybe 15, from where we stayed. Most of the civilians left, but since our father was away, mother decided to stay. Therefore I spent my early childhood quite in the vicinity of the First World War. After the war, when Latvia got its independence, my mother remarried, and my stepfather, her second husband, was, you could call him the foreman, the chief worker on a farm. He was a farm worker but he was in charge of all the other farm workers on a large estate. But he saved and was careful and then finally he bought a farm, a small farm himself. It was 35 hectares. So this place was not far from Daugavpils so I attended then school there. Actually my first education was very haphazard. I mostly learned from other people, because during the war there was no school so close to the battlefield.
DeVorkin:Did you have schooling at all before the war?
Vasilevskis:No. Only, at home, there was a neighbor who had a daughter. She had attended gymnasium, or high school. So she taught me some reading and arithmetic. But my actual education started only (school education) around 1918, ‘19. So I was 12 years old when I actually started to attend regular schools.
DeVorkin:So your mother and father did not have anything to do with your early education?
Vasilevskis:Well, my mother did, but she had only primary education, so she couldn’t do very much. But then, since I was not the worst student, so therefore, I started at the gymnasium in Daugavpils, the same city, and I graduated with the so-called certificate of maturity, what they give, in 1926.
DeVorkin:Let me ask a few questions about this, then. How were you supported in the gymnasium?
Vasilevskis:Since it was not far away — the fees for the education were very small. And after one or two years, my education was made free for me by the school. There were dormitories at the school, so I stayed in the dormitory, and it was free also. So only food, and food was supplied by my mother, since they were only five kilometers from Dauvti1s There was no luxury, but on the other hand I went through. And later, a couple of years before graduating I gave private lessons to some people who had a little money, to children, who were not very successful. For example, one of my private pupils was the daughter of a director of a bank, and so I got a little additional support So somehow I managed to go through, without, of course, any luxury.
DeVorkin:Was this the first form of work that you did? Or did you have any odd jobs when you were younger?
Vasilevskis:Well, you see, when my father bought the farm, then every summer, I worked then with him, helped, so that, it was a saving — I worked every summer. But the last summer before graduating, I was a clerk, a summer clerk. Again I got money which I could save.
DeVorkin:This is 1925?
Vasilevskis:It was 1925, yes. But then in 1926, after I graduated, since, as I told you, I was giving lessons to a daughter of the director of the bank, he arranged that after graduated from the school, I was appointed there as a clerk in the bank, in Daugavpils. So I worked the whole summer, until the fall when the university started. So I had a little money saved to start the university.
DeVorkin:Let’s stay in the years of the gymnasium experience for a while.
DeVorkin:I would like to be able to identify bow your interests developed. What kinds of interests did you have, as you were growing up? From as early as you can remember. Did you ever have any directed interests that made you feel that you were definitely going to go to gymnasium, or did you not really think ahead about what you would be doing?
Vasilevskis:As a matter of fact, gymnasium was a school which is preparatory to university, so that, if one would want, at this level of education, to have or learn something specialized, he didn’t go to the gymnasium. He went either to agricultural school or technical schools or something of that level. But I think that some of my friends with whom I was in primary school, went there. As I mentioned, I was a pretty good student, so that therefore I got special attention and went to gymnasium. But actually, it was with the intention, after the gymnasium, to continue my education, at the university.
DeVorkin:You were sure that you were not going to follow in your father’s or stepfather’s footsteps?
Vasilevskis:No. I was sure that I would not follow.
DeVorkin:Was this their interest too? Did they want you to go into some academic or intellectual or professional field?
Vasilevskis:Well, perhaps, yes, because I was very sure that I didn’t have very much interest in their fields. As a matter of fact, it was later, when I graduated from the university, when we were visiting our farm, and my daughter, my older daughter Velta (Zebergs) — she was interested very much in agriculture.
Vasilevskis:Velta Zebergs, who wrote together with Struve — 20th CENTURY ASTRONOMY — my daughter. You know that?
DeVorkin:She is? Oh, that’s wonderful.
Vasilevskis:Yes. She’s my daughter. But she was very interested in agriculture. And my mother, I don’t know whether laughingly or seriously — I think laughingly — told us that since I am good for nothing in agriculture and my daughter is interested, so the farm will pass to her.
DeVorkin:Did it actually?
Vasilevskis:No. Well, you see the Communists came in and this is the next story.
DeVorkin:Sure. We’re not there yet. But somewhere along the line, your interests developed.
Vasilevskis:— Yes. As a matter of fact, I was pretty good in mathematics and sciences, and I hated history. Later I got interested in history, after I graduated from high school. But in high school, when you have only one chapter of history you have to learn, and you don’t see any relationship to other things, or to causes, why one king was killed or something. In mathematics, you always can deduce something from what you knew before that. I saw in the one case logical sequences. In the other, in history, I didn’t see. Later, when I started a little study on my own, privately, then I got interested in history also. But in high school I was strong in mathematics. But then it happened that I had a teacher in chemistry, and I was extremely interested in chemistry. While in gymnasium, I was the topmost student chemist, not only in my grade. Since the teacher of chemistry happened also to be the director of the gymnasium, he appointed me, of course unofficially, as chief of the chemical laboratory. I was making experiments that were supposed to be only made at the university. For example, I made qualitative analysis and several other experiments. But then he left before I graduated, and my interest in chemistry also started to fade.
DeVorkin:There was no one to replace him?
Vasilevskis:No, there was, but chemistry didn’t continue through the last grade, in the gymnasium.
DeVorkin:Why was that?
Vasilevskis:I don’t know. Other subjects came in such as physics — physics started earlier, but physics went through the last year.
DeVorkin:The subjects then were very strictly organized?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. Gymnasium is quite different from high school. You had no choice in subjects, except languages. You had to take two foreign languages, but you could take three if you liked. One of them, English was one mandatory, you have to take English. But then you could choose either German or French. I have chosen German, and English. And then somehow, the interest in chemistry started to fade out, and I was more and more inclined to go into mathematics.
DeVorkin:Who was the chemistry teacher? What was his name?
Vasilevskis:Well, he’s dead long ago. His name was Vagulans.
DeVorkin:Was this the first experience you had with research?
Vasilevskis:Yes. It was the first experience. But then, you see, I had a teacher of mathematics from the very first grade to the very last grade. He was also very inspiring. Somehow I started to feel that I would go into mathematics. There also seemed to be some practical reasons. I started to learn about the university, before I graduated from high school. With my limited means, chemistry was much more difficult, because there were so many experiments, laboratories and so on. Since your very attendance in university was never recorded, registered in mathematics. You could just learn from books and from lectures recorded by other students. And you could learn at home and just pass the examinations. So therefore, I realized that I would need to support myself when I go to university. Therefore it seems more practical that I go into mathematics.
DeVorkin:It seemed to be socially something that was more adaptive?
Vasilevskis:No, chemistry might be more practical later, after you graduated. There might be more opportunities to do something with chemistry than mathematics. Unless, you are at the university to be prepared for academic life in mathematics. Then of course the only thing to do is to go into high school, gymnasium, as a teacher. In chemistry you could be in research, you could go in the academic line, you could be a teacher in high school and you can go into industry or something.
DeVorkin:What I was trying to get at — you realized that mathematics was not as “saleable” a commodity —
DeVorkin:But still you preferred it.
Vasilevskis:Well, I cannot recall whether I realized. Mathematics and science were my strong points, and therefore I didn’t see very much difference. Somehow this original interest in chemistry much faded. Also, after entering university, I attended some lectures of chemistry, just, perhaps, because of inertia. And so in 1926 1 graduated with a so-called “certificate of maturity”. And gymnasiums were, in Latvia of several types, as they are in Germany. There is one type which I attended which stresses mathematics and sciences. Therefore we had in gymnasium not only arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, but also already introduction to differential and integral analysis, and analytical geometry, so I was pretty well prepared already from gymnasium when I went to university.
DeVorkin:You had one teacher that took you all the way through?
Vasilevskis:No, there were several teachers, but one who was the principal teacher. His name was Liberts. He died in Germany, maybe, oh, 15 years ago. I had a little correspondence with him. So this is about all. By the way, of course, it has nothing to do with my interests, but my wife was my classmate in gymnasium. She was also in mathematics and when I went to university, she also went to university. Only after a couple of years of study, we decided to get married, and so we decided, I would continue, she would take care of the family.
DeVorkin:This was not an unusual type decision at that time.
Vasilevskis:It was not unusual, no. It seemed to be normal. But my wife, also, she worked here at the Berkeley Statistics Laboratory. J. Neyman’s and Elizabeth Scott.
DeVorkin:Right. How did you choose the university that you went to? And which university did you choose?
Vasilevskis:Oh, there was only one university in Latvia. It was an easy choice, the University of Latvia in Riga. You only have to choose the field.
DeVorkin:Was there any consideration about leaving Latvia, going to another university in another country?
Vasilevskis:Oh no, not at that time. But later, I will come to it. After I had already graduated from university, and also had received the so called “habilitations”. I will describe it later, when we come to university, step by step. Then I got a fellowship to go to Leiden. But it never materialized, because I got fellowship to go in 1940, and you know, in 1939 the war broke out, so it was scrapped. I went to Leiden, but of course, not for learning but for teaching. It was after many many years. It was last year. I had to support myself through all the years at the university, and so therefore, you couldn’t think very much of going abroad. But if one was successful, then usually one got, after graduating, a fellowship so he could go to other universities for some research or for some studies, and so it was planned also with me, but it never materialized. So I went to RIGA, University of Latvia, and the structure was there, so that there was a faculty of mathematics and natural sciences. And there were two subdivisions of this faculty. One was mathematics and mathematical sciences, or exact Wissenschaften, as the Germans say, — it included pure mathematics, physics, astronomy and geophysics. And another was biological sciences, which includes botany, zoology and geology and things like that. First, you have to choose between these two subdivisions. I went to the mathematical sciences. The first year, regardless whether you are taking pure mathematics or you are taking astronomy or physics, the curriculum is the same for the first year. The basic mathematics, basic physics, also basic astronomy, you have to take, regardless of which way. Only in the second year, things start to specialize. And again, I have to confess, I had no special interest toward astronomy. Originally I was thinking to go into pure mathematics. But just again, some practical considerations were behind why I decided to go into the astronomical field. It happened that most of the lectures and also exercises in astronomy were in the evening. So I could earn my living during the daytime, and go to attend lectures late afternoons and evenings. In mathematics, the professors in pure mathematics preferred to give their lectures during the daytime. So I saw that I would have difficulties in attending pure mathematics. In the first year, it was not yet decided which I would go to — but when I passed the first examination, I passed introduction to astronomy, with supposedly flying colors, I was immediately asked by my professor whether I would be interested to do some work in astronomy, in a small observatory. His name was Zaggers. So I of course agreed, and got interested more and more. So in 1926, I was admitted to university, and in ‘28 I was appointed his assistant, at the astronomical observatory. I have to tell that astronomy there was at a rather limited level, because before the First World War, there was no university in Riga. As you know, before the First World War, Latvia was under Russia, the same as now. And the closest university was at Tartu Dorpat or whatever you call it. And Riga was a very famous and very strong so called Technische Hohschule, technical institute. Now, Tartu is in Estonia and Riga in Latvia and after these countries became independent, then of course each needed a university. And therefore in Riga then, this university was Technische Hohschule, as I said before, and it was expanded into university. In this respect, it was unique, because in many respects, there in Baltic States, already before the First World War, and in Russia, the structure of universities, of higher education, was very similar to German structure. There were universities. There actually was of course medicine and letters and sciences. There was no engineering at the university. Then there were technical institutes, or in German Technische Hohschule, where there was engineering and architecture and so on, chemical engineering. Now, when Rega became the capital of Latvia, the university was built, and it became in this respect similar to American universities, where the university has not only mathematics, sciences and of course humanities, but also engineering and geodsay and architecture and everything, except of course home economics, which was not an academic subject. Only academic subjects. Since there was no observatory, no astronomy in Latvia before its independence, so therefore it just had to be done from the very beginning. It was different in Tartu, where already an old observatory was; as you know, there was Struve who later, from Tartu, went to Pulkovo and founded the Pulkovo Observatory. So the Riga observatory started from the very beginning, and since this was a new country, it stressed branches with more practical applications, and especially geodetical astronomy, because it was used for surveying. For example, Struve’s triangulation went right through Latvia’s territory, so this had to be extended. Therefore, this was the starting of the observatory. This was the reason why actually there was very little astrophysics originally. But it was mostly geodetic astronomy and astrometry and so on, so that astrometry was actually not my choice, because of particular love, but just because of necessity. There was not very much of anything else.
DeVorkin:That’s a very interesting introduction to it. Tartu is a very important observatory. Your mention of it is quite interesting in this regard. This is the type of information we really appreciate, because it gives us a very good view of the structure, the development of the universities and astronomy within them. You’ve identified the fact that you had a new observatory, that had to pay attention to positional astronomy at first, at almost exactly the time that you came into it, a few years going at that time.
DeVorkin:That pretty much explains the origin of your interests.
DeVorkin:Could you tell me a little bit about how you felt about astronomy, in your first exposures to it, as a practical science?
Vasilevskis:Well, I could manage and I got interested then, so I was quite happy. Of course, it didn’t seem to be a very practical field, because with developing astronomy, there was not very much. Of course, I could go, as anyone, to teaching in the gymnasium later. But I was fortunate enough, in 1928, to be appointed as assistant. So therefore, I was immediately at the observatory, everything was available to me.
DeVorkin:Was it still determining lines of position and fundamental reference framework? Was it fundamental astrometry at that time?
DeVorkin:In a way, was there any interest in problems of navigation or in geodesy?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I took also a course in geodesy, and took part as a student in triangulation and in gravity measurements and so on. It happened, when I graduated from university, 1932, that I was prompted by the department to instructor, from assistant to instructor is reaching the academic line. But unfortunately in 1932, was the depression, not only here but was also the depression in Europe, and there was no money to make this promotion real, in terms of money. Therefore, an arrangement was worked between me and the university I will get the same old salary, because there was no money to raise my salary, but I will be only part time instructor, and the rest of the time, I can devote to earning additional salary. And I was then invited to teach nautical astronomy at the Navigation School. So from 1933 to ‘36, I was teaching navigational astronomy at the Navigation School.
DeVorkin:This is a separate school?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. It was a special school for seamen.
DeVorkin:I’d like to talk about your university years, of course. The mathematics that you saw being applied to astronomical problems — was this mathematics at a level that you were happy dealing with? Or was it a little too simple or how would you describe it? What were your own impressions of this?
Vasilevskis:I had mathematics actually more than was necessary for the problems I was tackling in astronomy, because in geodetical astronomy and fundamental astronomy, you don’t need very much beyond integral calculus. And of course I took integral calculus and differential equations, so my mathematical background at that time seemed completely satisfactory for this. Of course, theory of probability came later for the determination of errors and measurement.
DeVorkin:Did you want to do more in mathematics? Did you find a wish to go deeper into mathematics and possibly into physical theory in mathematics at at that time? Did you take any courses in astrophysics?
Vasilevskis:I took, yes. But the course I took were very weak, only one was offered. Of course I took celestial mechanics, and also theory of orbits, but in astrophysics, there was only one course offered, so I took this. But actually, there was no means, nothing to do. It was not a very high level, so that actually I was much ignorant in the field of astrophysics.
DeVorkin:Did you use Latvian texts in astrophysics?
Vasilevskis:No. For example, I used one by Graff in German.
DeVorkin:Did you use anything A. S. by Eddington at that time?
Vasilevskis:Oh, yes, and of course I read many papers to share this interest, because we received publications, same as every observatory, from every part of the world. And in Latvia, you see, astronomical population was so small that there was no point to publish anything in Latvian. But then I know Russian and Russian books were extremely inexpensive. Also, there is one big course, I think astrophysics and stellar astronomy, by Numerov, Dneprovski, Gerasemovich, many authors. This is published in 1930’s or something, early 1930’s before all these people were liquidated by Stalin.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with the people at Tartu?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. Well, we didn’t have too much, but still, at first, I went to Tartu, and at Tartu there was E. Opik, who is quite well known, but my interest, because of necessity was mostly in astrometry and geodetic astronomy. Livlander was in this field and I saw him, and he came to Rega a couple of times and I saw him. We had some cooperation. But I wouldn’t say we had very much contact. As a matter of fact, while you were a student there, you had to go to take courses, and there wasn’t very time to do anything else. You had to satisfy formal requirements in my case, since I had to support myself all the time I was at the university, so therefore the first thing was to satisfy all the proper requirements. And in 1932, I did this. As I mentioned, I worked three years for the Navigation School, but this simultaneously. Part of my time I worked at the university, and part of my time was devoted to instruction in navigation. Then in 1936 already, when the financial circumstances at the university improved. I was promoted and given my full salary by the university, so that I left the Navigations School and remained only at the university. Then again, you could graduate in my time from the University of Latvia with a so called “certificate”, so that you didn’t need to make any thesis. It’s something quite like here with some developments. I wouldn’t call it Bachelor of Arts, because and the university you didn’t take any general courses, because all this, all the very good basic education was given in gymnasium. You had all the background, mathematics, history, geography and chemistry, physics and so forth. Therefore, when you went to mathematics and astronomy, you had to deal with those subjects. Of course, you could take, if you liked, any course in the university which is outside this, but they were not required. But then, after or during this, while you’re a student, if you liked the next degree, which was called “Magister of Mathematics” — then you have to submit a thesis. I submitted a thesis, and I got my Magister in 1932. With this Magister, you can be in the university, but not higher than instructor. The instructor was not teaching. He was not offering courses. He was only leading different laboratories and so on, this was instructor. But if you wanted to go higher, then you had to go through what they called “Habilitation”. In order to get the rights of, they call it, “Pro Venia Legendi”, it means to go and to teach, they had to submit another thesis, a research paper. Last summer, I visited Riga, after 30 years almost. And I just received, my thesis from my former students, who preserved a copy — it was in Latvian, of course. The title is “The Possibilities of Absolute Photographic Astrometry”. I developed some theory. This was published in abridged form. It was published when I was invited to La Plata. But I published it just because I wanted a record. I didn’t know that I would get my original paper. It is out of date, because you see, if I would put this out in time, it may have some interest. I published another.
DeVorkin:“Use of Photography in Meridian Astronomy” — this is the PROCEEDINGS of the International Meeting on Problems of Astrometry and Celestial Mechanics, La Plata, 1961. This was not also reprinted in the AJ, was it?
Vasilevskis:No, it was not. It was in the PROCEEDINGS.
DeVorkin:OK. I believe we do have a record of this, this paper, in your own bibliography.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. There is a record of it. But this was abridged here.
DeVorkin:What was the date on your thesis again?
Vasilevskis:It was in May, 1939. Then I was promoted to assistant professor, when I defended this. This you have to defend, at the commission, and a special committee is appointed. Then you have to have them read it and of course they try to criticize, then you have to defend it, at the faculty meetings, and so this is a ceremony.
DeVorkin:So then you must have also had an advisor. Did you have an advisor?
Vasilevskis:No. No advisor, no. This is different, you see. This part is already after you have have finished formal study. You are not a student. You are not a registered student. You have no advisor. This is supposed to be completely independent, and your research, without any advisor, without anything.
DeVorkin:How did you get interested then in photographic astrometry? The technique of photography?
Vasilevskis:Well, I was perhaps studying literature. We didn’t have any astrograph there. But we were thinking about already before the war plans to expand the observatory.
DeVorkin:Did this money come from the government?
Vasilevskis:From the government. So there were plans. As a matter of fact, there even was one area assigned outside Riga, because this first observatory was inside Riga, in the city, which has almost half a million population, so this of course is not very good. Of course for visual astrometry it was alright but not alright for photographic astrometry. So therefore, when we started to plan to move the observatory outside, to build there, there is no question, immediately plans arose, what to do there, what instruments to acquire, what programs to do and so on.
DeVorkin:Was this in the period, in the early thirties?
Vasilevskis:No, I think it was when the depression was almost over. This was shortly before the war.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about the future of your own work in astronomy or mathematics, during the depression? Did you see an end in sight? How did the society feel? How did the people in Latvia that you knew and grew up with feel about the continuance of pure research in a time of depression?
Vasilevskis:It seems that, you could see the depression. First, you see, Latvia was to a large extent an agricultural country, and there the depression was felt, no question. But somehow, maybe it was not as sharp and painful as in more industrialized countries. So that it was felt that there was no means, but otherwise, research could go, without stopping as a matter of fact, I didn’t feel any hardship except of course the salaries didn’t go up.
DeVorkin:But it was an accepted part of the culture in Latvia that you would be supported. You didn’t feel as if the society was against you.
Vasilevskis:Oh no. As a matter of fact, there was one problem in Latvia, that started to worry some people. The drive of Latvian people towards education was more than would be justified. For example, farm workers had to be imported during the summer from Poland.
DeVorkin:They were imported from Poland?
Vasilevskis:Yes. Most of farm workers later came from Poland. Because the Polish were much poorer than in Latvia. In Latvia the farms there were quite well established. One thing, you see, after the war, the First World War, Latvia was independent. I think that they made some very wise decisions regarding farming. First, as you may know, Latvia first lost independence in 12th and 13th centuries. Then Germans took over, and the Germans were owners of big estates. During the war of independence, Germans were very instrumental in trying to prevent this independence. Then, after the independence was obtained, then these big estates, which are many many thousands of hectares, they were then, not quite nationalized, but they were divided into farms. No one farm could be less than 21 hectares, and not larger than 100 hectares. Now, if one farmer dies, and he has three or four sons — even before the law was established — usually the farm was not divided amongst all the sons, but the oldest son was the benefactor. The others had to look for other way of means. They were paid so that the oldest son kept the farm, and then paid some sum already to all the brothers and sisters, and they have to start something of their own — either maybe to try to find farm work, or go to city. Poland was a different thing. In Poland the farm was divided amongst all the Sons. This split the farms in three or four hectares, so that the people became so poor that the farm just couldn’t support them. So therefore they went to Latvia to work on Latvian farms. My step father — when his son became “good for nothing” on the farm — then of course, he used people from Poland.
DeVorkin:Were you the only son?
Vasilevskis:No. But my brother was very different. He was very very capable, but somehow, not very strong—willed, and he didn’t graduate from gymnasium. He died later.
DeVorkin:— Was he older than you?
Vasilevskis:No, younger. I was the oldest son. Between us there was one sister, but she died as a child, so that I barely remember her.
DeVorkin:Your brother and sister were by your father.
Vasilevskis:Yes. My stepfather didn’t have any of the children.
DeVorkin:OK. To go back to the university.
Vasilevskis:Then I was promoted, 1939, when I defended my habilitation thesis. Then I was promoted to assistant professor, and at the same time I was given, in 1939, a fellowship to go for one year to Leiden.
DeVorkin:Now, how did you receive your fellowship? Did you definitely have the plans to go to Leiden?
Vasilevskis:Yes. Fellowships started to appear more abundant just before the war. One rich man who owned the biggest hotel in Riga, and also many big houses, when he died he left all his property to the university. This hotel with the restaurant and the houses brought such an income, and this income was used for fellowships. These were fellowships after graduating, so that those who were graduates of the university, when it was found they were in a worthwhile academic line, then they were given a fellowship, and they could choose. They were given the choice where to go. I moved somehow, from the Meridian circles, from this quite classical astronomy, into photographic astrometry. Photographic astrometry again is related much with galactic structure. And since Leiden was a leading center for galactic structure, it was quite normal for me to decide, you see, to go. Now I was acquainted with techniques, and had been thinking on my own about some techniques, now it was time to go to a place where I can make use of these techniques, and actually do the real astronomy, galactic research. This is the reason why I have chosen Leiden. I corresponded with Hertzsprung, and it was agreed that I would go there. But my fellowship was given, that my stay there would start in January, 1940. I was given it somewhere in the middle of the summer, but awarded it for the next year. And since, as you know, in 1939, the war started, so all this dropped — nothing came out of the fellowship.
DeVorkin:You had every intention after the fellowship to come back to Latvia and use what you’d learned?
DeVorkin:Was this a condition of the fellowship, that you came back?
Vasilevskis:Yes, I think it was a condition. As I mentioned, we were still thinking of expanding astronomy, of moving the observatory outside, and now of supplementing the original facilities for visual astrometry and geodetical astrometry, with photographic astrometry. We would also add the fields that would be more usual in an observatory, as astrophysics.
DeVorkin:Was Zaggers, this fellow you had studied with much earlier, was he very interested in the positional work too?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. As a matter of fact, he left another career, he was an engineer actually, and he started his career as teacher of navigation, in the navigation school astronomical navigation. This is the reason, perhaps, that his courses were so influenced by navigational astronomy. From them I could go and teach navigational astronomy, which is still a little branch, different form the usual astronomy. But — as I mentioned, we were thinking, as the new people, about acquiring new techniques and going into the new fields, and to expand, and finally, after say a certain number of years, we would establish an observatory as it should be. At the beginning, it seemed that the shortest way to astrophysics would be by a little astrometry and galactic research, because galactic research, you have there pretty much, you can do the best already here. You asked me why I was interested in photographic astrometry. I don’t know. Somehow, perhaps from reading the literature, I saw that there many things which maybe could be a little developed or improved or something. So actually, it was the center of my interest, by the end of university and beginning of my own personal research. The gradual interest developed into photographic astronomy and galactic research. And of course, astrometry and galactic research, I thought I could get experience in both of them at Leiden.
DeVorkin:Well, Hertzprung was definitely developing instrumentation at Leiden, asking for larger and larger astrographic pieces of equipment at that time, in the thirties, I know. Was it about that time that Schlesinger started looking into the use of wide field astrograph?
Vasilevskis:Now I have to admit that Frank Schlesinger has influenced very much my thinking, because I saw the Yale transactions. They were available there. As a matter of fact, later when I was already in Germany, D. P. Camps — I’m jumping ahead now — Displaced Person Camps, after the war — I didn’t know that Schlesinger died, so I wrote to Schlesinger in the United States looking for a position, because this seemed to me the closest to what I had interest in.
DeVorkin:Had you known about Schlesinger’s work through the “Yale Transactions” in the thirties?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. I was quite familiar.
DeVorkin:Had you corresponded with him?
Vasilevskis:No. At that time, there was no reason, because we had no instrument, no astrograph, we had nothing to do, so that I didn’t correspond.
DeVorkin:You felt it was more profit for you to go to Leiden, as opposed to Yale, at that time?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, because with photographic techniques, I knew, first, the usual photography, I had one camera, with all my limited means, I had already the usual camera, not astrometric camera, so that I was quite familiar with photographic technique. Now, the theory of course, with the reduction of plates, I got from Schlesinger’s work, from textbooks, from the same Russians I mentioned to you. So I saw that now, what is needed, what has been offered only at Leiden was just a good good curriculum in galactic research. Therefore I thought that when I go there, you see, I felt already pretty secure in photographic astrometry, but not so secure in problems of galactic research. I wanted to widen and to deepen my knowledge at Leiden.
DeVorkin:Most certainly Leiden at that time was the center for that.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. Well, in ‘26 Oort discovered the galactic rotation and subsequent papers of course, with which I was familiar, were quite interesting. So therefore, contact with Oort and with his collaborators, it seemed to be heaven for me. Therefore without hesitation, I asked for Leiden, and corresponded with Hertzsprung, and he was quite agreeable. He regretted that they cannot pay me, they have no means to pay me, but that at that time I wasn’t interested, because if I go with my fellowship, then I am not an employee of Leiden who has to do what he’s told to do, but then I can of course learn as much as I can.
DeVorkin:Did you have correspondence with Oort and with Lindblad and any of the others at that time?
DeVorkin:Just with Hertzsprung.
DeVorkin:Did you correspond with anyone at Groningen?
Vasilevskis:No. I didn’t.
DeVorkin:So definitely it was Leiden.
Vasilevskis:Leiden was place to be there. Groningen of course is close to Leiden. Van Rhijn was there at Groningen, so that they were cooperating. At Leiden of course I knew that I have access to everything.
DeVorkin:They were very close.
Vasilevskis:See, I was observationally oriented, and certainly Leiden was more observationally oriented then Groningen.
DeVorkin:That’s very important to point out, at that time, that you’d gone directly from mathematics through the practical phase and now you were certainly seeing the value of observation.
DeVorkin:Oort at that time was doing both observation and theory, was he not?
Vasilevskis:No. Oort has based most of his research on observations done elsewhere. And Hertzsprung was very particular that all the instruments are used, and even, he was even worried one night when he saw the the dome is closed. He went to check what’s wrong with that. This may be also of course known fact, but Oort was a little similar to Shapley. Both were geniuses. But both didn’t care very much about observing at their own sites. In Shapley’s time the Harvard Observatory observations went down pretty much. The same in Oort’s time. He didn’t care very much about observing at Leiden. He thought that observing elsewhere, especially United States, is so much better, there is no point to base anything on Leiden observations. And when I was there last year, I started one work on Pleiades that should be published soon, Blaauw and myself, and I finished the astrometric part. When I started, Oort was very doubtful whether it’s worthwhile to use Leiden material for work. And I decided, just since I went there for a year, and Leiden was very generous towards me, and so I decided to show them that Leiden material after all is worthwhile. So I decided to base all the work only on Leiden material, and Oort was extremely critical of this. He didn’t think very much of my idea. When I got results, yes, he was then excited. He told people he would not have expected that these nice results would come out from Leiden material. But it happened that there are photographs of Pleiades, starting with 1899, to the recent. There are about, over 100 plates, covering the whole period, so that a study cannot be only in proper motions, in segregation of clusters, but also in internal motions. And the Leiden materials, they are exciting and when I finally showed Oort the final results, before my departure — oh, he was happy and excited. He admitted that he didn’t believe that Leyden material can do such an interesting results and that they have such important material there.
DeVorkin:It’s very important to see that difference between Oort’s and Hertzsprung’s philosophies, because Hertzsprung certainly did feel that one should add to the base of data that is being used. Did they have any differences of opinion that you would know about?
Vasilevskis:I don’t know. I know that there are plenty of anecdotes about Hertzsprung at Leyden. But about difference of opinions, I don’t know. Of course Oort succeeded Hertzsprung. But Hertzsprung, in his letters here, which I have in my file now. They are to Hamilton Jeffers. We did have some correspondence. He was stressing many many times, several passages of his letters, that it is important for us to leave material for future generations. Because we all are using the material that has been obtained by former generations.
Vasilevskis:And just because of Hertzsprung, I feel, this material on the Pleides was so abundant. There was one gap, just after 1946, after Hertzsprung published his catalogue of the Pleiades, and then he retired pretty soon afterwards. There was quite a difference between them. Both of course are outstanding astronomers, but somehow, Oort didn’t believe in their own instrumentation.
DeVorkin:Well, this was not too unusual. Oort was a student of Kapteyn. And I know that Kapteyn was truly, completely enthralled with the observing potential at the observatories in California.
DeVorkin:And this might have been an influence upon Oort.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, I agree completely, and the main thing is, just because of Kapteyn and so on — that Mt. Wilson is the place where the best material is obtainable, and it is unique according to Oort. Yes, because he didn’t seem to realize that now already at Lick we have quite a lot of material, and with Blaauw now we have discussed plans for some cooperation between Blaauw and Lick. Adrian Blaauw has cooperation with the Virginia, McCormick Observatory. I suggested then that they can improve their work if they get in touch with some Lick material. Consequently, Ianna from McCormick visited Arnold Klemola out here, so that there will be cooperation.
DeVorkin:That’s a very important project. Well, in 1939-40, as you were preparing to go to Leiden, you, I imagine, saw the war coming, did you not?
Vasilevskis:Yes, it seemed of course, that war may come.
DeVorkin:By that time the Germans were already in Poland?
Vasilevskis:No. Only Czechoslovakia was swallowed and Austria, but the fellowship was awarded to me in May, I think, of 1939. So therefore, we were perhaps misled by Chamberlain, who believed that now all the problems had been solved, now there would be no war. And therefore later, when Poland was invaded, then it was clear that Holland is out, because you cannot go to Holland without the Germans letting you to get to Holland. The only way was either through Poland, which is impossible, or the Baltic Sea, and of course the sea was ruled too much by the German Navy at that time. No, it was before the war, all this happened. So that when the war came, of course, it was quite a shock to us, as to anyone at that time. Personally it was quite a shock, and the flow of literature started to go down, because of difficulties in communication. Then in 1940, as you may know then, the Russians came in, and occupied. Well, this again was such a shock. And they were interested more in getting further different reports, than in what you are actually doing at that time.
DeVorkin:What do you mean? First of all, was there any organized resistance by the Latvians to the Russians coming in?
Vasilevskis:No, see, for a while, there was even already the thought that before the Russians came, to actually to fight like Finland did. Russians were clever enough to grab one Baltic states one after another. First Lithuania, then it was Latvia. When Lithuania accepted Russian bases and Russian invasion, then of course Latvia was completely cut off. They were close in political orientation to the, as we know now, Western powers, but they were helpless in doing anything, since it was not like in Finland, where there are the natural barriers, the lakes and rocks and a possibility of military supply from Sweden. Here is a border between Latvia and Estonia and Russia, is quite open fields, so that finally, Latvia gave in, and still of course it was promised that nothing would be done other than to secure bases, and so they stationed the army, but otherwise said they would let Latvia be as it was. But of course that wasn’t the case, because immediately there were elections staged where regardless of what you were voting already the results were known. It happened in the election, that the results were known about 48 hours before they actually came in. In London, by error, they reported the results 24 hours before the finishing of elections. The “results” were that Latvians are asking the Soviet Union, to take them in — to join the Soviets. Well, under the Russians then, they started deportations and disappearances. It was quite a terror then, so that this one year was completely lost. You couldn’t do anything. They also asked monthly, among other things, to give your report, “what is your research”? “What percent of research has been done”? “When you are going to finish this research”? Of course, this is complete nonsense, because when you start something you can never tell when you finish, because maybe, even usually, on your way toward the finish, you find something else, and it takes longer. And so, we were just hoping that the rule will not be very long, so that you just gave them something to satisfy them. Unfortunately it was completely a waste of time. Then, you see, in 1941, June 14th or 15th, there were 35,000 Latvians deported to Siberia.
Vasilevskis:35,000 Latvians, yes. Families and children.
DeVorkin:From the entire area or from Riga?
Vasilevskis:From Latvia. No, from the entire area. Before that, many thousands were shot and arrested individually, but this was the mass deportation.
DeVorkin:Were you ever touched? By this time you were married.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, I was married.
DeVorkin:When did you get married?
Vasilevskis:1929. Oh yes.
DeVorkin:And you had a family by this time?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. My daughter was born in 1930 and my son was born in 1936. Nothing could be done. Then in 1941, as you know, war started between Germany and Soviet Union, so there came German occupation. Again, Latvians were naive enough so they thought Germans would restore Latvian independence, and the army when they came, — of course I didn’t know anything about their higher politics here — they were received with flowers and so on, as our liberators. The Latvians had flags everywhere — but it was only after about one week or so after, when the politicians came, we called them “Goldfasane” means pheasant, and “Gold” is gold — we called them “gold pheasants” because they had such a goldish uniform, all these party members. Then of course, all the Latvian signs were taken down. All the streets were again changed the names from Latvian names to different Hitler names. Then also, formally the university could continue to do its work, but there was supervision. And at faculty meetings, one of the first under the Germans, one German came who was a party member who was in charge of cultural affairs in Latvia, he came then to the faculty meeting, interviewed everyone, and asked what is his research? Then he decided in which of four categories it falls. The first was “Kriegsentscheidend”. It means “Was decisive”. Then the next was “Kriegswichtig” — important. The next category was “Kriegsaufbau-wichtig”. “Aufbau” means economically important. And the final was “nicht-dringend”, not urgent. And astronomy was classified into nicht-dringend. But we were told by the German man, “You shouldn’t worry about it, because there are many jobs in Germany which need mathematically educated people”, and so they will see that we are removed to Germany, where we can be helpful in the victory, in applying our knowledge.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about the prospect of being moved to Germany? Vasilevskis Well, I felt this way. At that time, none of us had any intention to go to Germany. Therefore, one of my colleagues helped, one of the two brothers whose name was Slaucitajs — one with initial L, other initial S. The initial S, he is an astronomer at LaPlata now. L. Slaucitajs was a geophysicist he died about five years ago. And his field was earth magnetism. Somehow the Germans decided that earth magnetism was Kriegwichtig. Therefore this colleague offered to me and to his brother, “Why don’t you join me on a paper? then you are safe from being moved to Germany”.
DeVorkin:They would keep you at Riga.
Vasilevskis:At Riga, yes, because I would be engaged in Kriegwichtig. Well, I didn’t want to do this just as a formality, so I decided that I would learn a little and actually I did some field work in Latvia on geomagnetism, during these years. So I was going there, and then also I could, — even though communication was normally restricted during the German occupation — still get tickets on all the trains, and I could get a bicycle, and by bicycle go every seven kilometers to make one observation point, and to measure the vertical intensity of the magnetic field. So I could visit my parents, and as a matter of fact, even took my family once in a while to the farm. So astronomically, of course, these years were pretty much wasted.
DeVorkin:What about your personal comfort and safety? Was food always available to you?
Vasilevskis:Mostly, because my parents were farmers. Then it was possible to ship from the farm to Riga, potatoes, for example, and some other things. We were given the ration cards, but they were not sufficient. But since Latvia as a nation was basically agricultural, almost everyone had relatives and friends on farms, and they took very good care, in spite of the German patrols took very good care of their friends and of their relatives. So therefore, as a matter of fact, we didn’t have very much difficulty in food. Now regarding the safety, as far as the life is concerned — there are two distinct things which are between the — Soviets and Hitler. In the Soviet regime, everyone is equal, everyone is friends, everyone is equal and everyone of course has freedom and so on, but you never knew why one of your friends had disappeared. You know that he didn’t do anything, any Sabotage or something — but denunciation was already part of it. There were spies everywhere. Therefore, there was no obvious system whether you are safe or you are not safe, because you could expect that any night, for some reason, someone will knock at your door and you’ll be told to pack your things and go, go with them, yes.
DeVorkin:And you never knew.
Vasilevskis:You never knew. Of course, one thing — if you were a political leader before, then you almost knew that you would be, because — the same with these 35,000 — they were mostly political and economic leaders were taken, deported, because if you cut the head off of the nation, then you can handle the rest of the body, without more difficulty. Now, there’s no question that Hitler’s regime was not more humane. But they talked much more than Stalin. If you were a Jew, of course, then you knew that, that’s it. It’s too bad with you. If you were not a Jew, then as long as you actually didn’t do any sabotage, or didn’t try any involvement in political things, you were quite safe. Since I was a university man, I had no interest in anything else, so there, I didn’t feel any danger, under Germans. But still, astronomy could not be done, so I did some magnetic work and so on and on this publication, my names appears as an observer, but this is all. So that actually all these war years were completely wasted, as far as my astronomical work was concerned.
DeVorkin:So this would be 1940 to —
Vasilevskis:1940 to ‘41, under Russians, and ‘41 to ‘44 under Germans.
DeVorkin:I have the impression that you were more severely affected, eventually, somewhere in the war. You were a displaced person.
DeVorkin:Are we ready for that part?
Vasilevskis:Yes. I will continue. Now, you know that Germans were victorious at the beginning of the campaign, as they went very very deep into Russia, and then, again, the tide started to roll back. And we were very hopeful and naive that history would repeat itself, that both the big countries would collapse, the same as after the First World War, Germany as well as Soviet Union. Therefore, our intention was to stay as long as possible in Latvia, not to try to leave Latvia because there would be a moment when everybody would be needed, to start again as an independent country.
DeVorkin:Was this a feeling that you feel was stronger in your own mind and your own family than in the average?
DeVorkin:Or was everyone very strong?
Vasilevskis:Everyone felt quite strong about it.
DeVorkin:Were you able to meet and talk about these hopes for the future, even under German domination?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, we could do this, we could meet of course at home, only, not to be overheard by any German. Latvians trusted each other, of course. You talked with friends and so there was no question.
DeVorkin:All this time, there was literally no communication with the outside world.
Vasilevskis:No. Nothing. I prepared one, publication in Latvia which was published during the German time, just before the Communists came in, but there was no way to send it out to the outside world. And it was when the Communists came in, in 1944 then they didn’t distribute it outside after the war also, because you were supposed to show that nothing was done at that time. So in spite of all this, I published one paper during the German occupation. But they were distributed at most in Russia. So when after the war, I was in the United States, I met for the first time Zverev. “Oh”, he told me, “I read your paper. It was very interesting. I didn’t have this paper,  but now I have it”. He is my good friend. Unfortunately, I caused him some troubles unintentionally because — well, if you are interested, then later, maybe — I will tell you what happened later in LaPlata. So, we were convinced that history would be repeated. But while being convinced, we saw that the Communists were approaching the Latvian territory. Now, what to do?
DeVorkin:Did you feel good about this?
Vasilevskis:Very bad. Very bad. Because we knew that so many Latvians had been deported, during the original occupation, I was in Los Angeles a few years ago. It was the 50th anniversary of Latvian independence. It was in 1968 — 1918, it was founded. Then, there was one ceremony in Los Angeles. The mayor, actually the present mayor, Bradley, was sympathetic, so there was a large arrangement, and one speaker was a Jew, formally from Latvia. But he left Latvia before the war, and he was praising that Latvia was the only country he knows where the minorities were treated in such a gentle way, in such a considerate way as in Latvia. Because for example, in Latvia there were Jewish schools, supported by the country, and Polish schools and German schools and Russian schools, supported by government, so that you, as a minority, have every right. Of course in each, one had to learn Latvian also, but the rest was in their own language, so there was not any attempt, say, to assimilate them if they don’t want. Of course, everybody was welcome. The percentage of Jews in Latvia, I think, was about 4 percent, so it was much lower than in Poland for example and others. Also, all Latvian sympathy was for the Jews, and many Jews, when the Germans came, they already knew about what to expect, so they moved back with the Russians. But the others, non-Jewish people of course, they, most of them stayed, except the real Communists who felt endangered by Germans. So, now, during this Russian occupation, the population lost much more in deported and killed than during the four years of German occupation. Therefore, it was felt, although there was no friendliness towards Germans — for 700 years, Latvians have been enemies — but still, between two evils, they felt the Germans were the lesser evil. And oddly enough, Germans permitted to Latvians, from Baltic states, and others, to go to Germany, when the Russians approached. Most of them were put into factories, if they wanted to work. But even already, when the end of the war was in sight, still they were permitted to go to Germany. And now, when we saw that the Russians were approaching, then quite a number of intellectual people, who were in a little more leading positions, felt endangered by Russians. To everyone it was clear that Germany will lose the war. Therefore the intention was, now, if we were permitted to go to Germany, we would go to Germany, try to reach there as far West as possible, because when the Western powers do come, then of course you will be safe from Germans and from Russians both.
DeVorkin:The intention was definitely to reach the Western powers.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. Yes. Now, when already the Russians started to enter into Latvian territory, still I, and I was not the only one, felt that men would be needed, when both these colossuses will collapse.
DeVorkin:There was still this strong feeling to stay.
DeVorkin:A lot of intellectual people and others did move into Germany as far West as possible.
Vasilevskis:Yes. But now I would like to tell about myself, which was not a unique case. I decided, in order to have free hands — I was still rather young — therefore, to use this opportunity to move to Germany, I had some friends in Germany already, so I moved my wife and children, into Germany, let them go. But I stayed in Latvia. I thought I would stay as long as possible.
DeVorkin:How did they feel about that?
Vasilevskis:Well, they weren’t very happy. But on the other hand, they moved, and in Germany, in spite of all this, there was something called Dozentenschaft — an organization of professors in Germany, which found it possible to take some care of former faculty members of Baltic States. So in that way, it was possible that I knew that already from my former colleagues in Germany, some Germans — we had a number of Germans in Latvia also before at university, I had some correspondence with them — that some care would be taken of my family in Germany. So therefore I arranged it for them to go, in refugee transports, but I remained. I thought that I may be needed, because there was still some hope.
DeVorkin:You were ready to fight and defend.
Vasilevskis:Yes. But then in the last German convulsion of the political group in power I was caught on the Street as a saboteur, who doesn’t want to leave Latvia to go to Germany, and was put on a boat for forcible removal to Germany to dig trenches.
DeVorkin:Had you actually engaged in any kind of sabotage?
Vasilevskis:No, I was not engaged in any kind of sabotage.
DeVorkin:But they thought you were.
Vasilevskis:They thought I was. They decided then that able bodied men who stayed in Riga, they have something on their mind. They have to be moved. I don’t know how many people were caught and put on the boat.
DeVorkin:You weren’t aware that anything like this was going to happen.
Vasilevskis:No. I wasn’t aware. So even I wasn’t permitted to go home to take something. So I was put on the boat.
DeVorkin:You lost your personal possessions?
Vasilevskis:No, but this was not the case — the story was quite different. Then I was on the ship, and I stayed there over night. But then next day, still there was something going on in industry in Riga, and they were catching workers or they were even catching cashiers who were going to pay to workers and so on. There was complete disorganization. So they saw that they went too far. So they permitted some German people there to go and to examine, and interview everyone who was caught, whether he might be doing something useful here. And I happened to be then the so-called dean of our faculty. The real dean has left, and I was his substitute. Then when German came, who was in charge of cultural affairs, he asked me, “how you are here”? Well, I told him. He didn’t know, of course. I showed him papers, that I am the dean. “Oh, how you are here”? Well, I told him, I’m caught as a sabateur. “Oh no, your duty is to pack all the faculty things, for transport to Germany”. So I was released, and was instructed to pack things there, the library and everything and instruments. Well, I was packing, but with very little efficiency. I would pack and feel better if more valuable things remain here in Riga. So I was packing mostly to have boxes here. But then when I went to report to them that they can be moved to Germany, I found no one to move the material because as the Bolsheviks approached Riga so close, all the Germans already were out. Now I was almost without any means to leave Latvia myself. Fortunately I met some acquaintances who managed to get one truck. So we went by truck and were permitted to cross the River Daugava and were permitted to go to the western part of Latvia.
DeVorkin:We are recording again. This is after lunch. And you are on your way to Germany.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So then, we managed to get out of Riga. It was already one day before Riga was taken by the Communists. As a matter of fact, we were bombarded by Russian artillery. We went to western part of Latvia, Kurzeme (in German called the Kurland) and there I met some of my friends, personal friends, who were arranging for transport to Germany.
DeVorkin:Were these personal friends involved at the university?
DeVorkin:Did you have a lot of friends who were not involved with the university?
DeVorkin:That’s something I would like to know more about.
Vasilevskis:Quite a number of my friends were from fraternities. As a student I was a member of a fraternity. And so I had quite a number of friends there. Then it happens that two of these friends I met, they were also students, they were university people.
DeVorkin:But they didn’t continue on.
Vasilevskis:Well, they graduated, but they worked somewhere out of the university. I had also friends in the university. But these two, one of these friends was with the Latvian dairy industry, so that they arranged for some trucks and they were also leaving Latvia because of the incoming Communists, and they also were going to Germany, so they made me a dairyman again because my father was in dairy. So we got then to the coast, to Liepaja, it’s called, the city, the second largest city in Latvia — it is a port. Then already it was arranged that the German boat took us to Danzig, Germany. So we were put into a camp for refugees, and were supposed to be put to work in factories or something, but I immediately got in touch with my friends in Germany, colleagues in Germany, whom I asked before to keep track of my family. I was told that my family is in Holstein in northern Germany. So when I got this, I got permission to buy a ticket. — I left Riga with only what I could take in a rucksack. Everything was left. Our apartment was left in Riga intact for the new occupants. Then I got in touch, and I was able to send telegrams, to warn them that I am coming. They were put into so-called Aufangstelle. It was also a camp, but a little higher level, which was run by the, I mentioned before Dozentenschaft, which took care of them. There I saw, I met Opik, who was there already before.
DeVorkin:He had left Tartu at about the same time, then?
Vasilevskis:He left earlier, no, he was already there.
DeVorkin:But only by a few months.
Vasilevskis:Only by a few months, that’s right. All this that I told you, it was in 1944 in the summer. I left Latvia by the end of October, or beginning of November, as a matter of fact. So I left Riga October 12, but still I stayed in the Western part of Latvia for about two weeks, and then I went. So I was one of the last to arrive there. There, this camp had another privilege, that the people were not put into work against their will — just assigned to work. They were given opportunity to get in touch with German colleagues, and maybe some of them could employ them. But if they couldn’t get employment, within reasonable time, I don’t know what time or how long it was then they had to be put into general camp, because they could not keep these people forever. And Opik, by the time I was there, already went through procedure of looking for a position. And he had a long list of possible opportunities. By the time I was there, he was offered an opportunity by O. Heckmann at Hamburg — Otto Heckmann. Otto Heckmann then hired 3pik. Then Opik gave me the list, and he told me that now I could have something to start with, and to write from the list, to different people. So I wrote.
DeVorkin:How long was your contact with Opik during this period?
Vasilevskis:I was with Opik for about couple of weeks. I have seen Opik afterwards also.
DeVorkin:Did you know him before then?
Vasilevskis:Yes, I knew him from Tartu. But that was where we got acquainted, and established closer friendship. We traveled together through Germany looking for a position. Once I went to Neuminster, where my colleague Slaucitajs was working, trying to get a position there. But there was nothing available. Then I wrote letters to several German professors, and got two answers. They were interested in me. One was from Professor Walter.
DeVorkin:Where was he?
Vasilevskis:He was supposed to be working in a branch of Astronomisches Rechen-Institut. But this institution was moved from Berlin, and divided in several sections. One was close to Berlin, not in Berlin but in a forest in a village, where Walter was. Another, I learned later, where Kopff was and all these big wheels, this was in Saxony.
DeVorkin:But still in Germany.
Vasilevskis:In Germany, that’s right. I was eventually quite close to them, only about nine kilometers from them. So he invited me. You couldn’t travel without any special permissions, because there was civilian curfews. But he sent me permission, and tickets, to reach Berlin area, north of Berlin. All right, I was quite happy, and I went there, arrived in this place late and it was dark, so I finally asked for directions and I found the place. It was a big house in the village. I knocked there. There was nothing visible outside. This is some institute. So I knocked, and I heard “Enter”. I came in. I saw two people, looking as if they were not quite Germans, and I asked, “Is Professor Walter here”? “No, he is not, but he will come in about one hour”. But I heard this completely Russian accent, so I asked them, are they Russians? Oh yes, they are both Russians. They were of a mathematical background. They were prisoners of war. And so they were taken by Walter to do some computing work. So we had a good time, in Russian, since I was quite fluent in Russian, even now I can speak in Russian. Finally Walter came. After some conversations, he was so happy that I came. He told, “You know, with these Russians, they don’t know German very well and they are pretty poor in computing. I need someone to supervise them, because I spend most of my time in concentration camp”.
DeVorkin:Do you mean Walter had been in a concentration camp?
Vasilevskis:No. He was supervising people with mathematical background who were on the campus, and to whom he gave then some computing work. Well, this was new to me. Of course I stayed overnight, and then he told me he would be so happy to have me. But I said “I cannot tell yet, I have to go home and so on”. Fortunately I wasn’t forced by him to accept the position. Now, when I had arrived there, it was during the night. But in the daylight I saw there in forest there were people behind barbed wires. So I thought, “no, regardless of whether I get position or not, I’m not going to return to this place”. So I returned to home, to my family, and fortunately found a letter from another place, from Leipzig, from Hoppmann, who was also inviting me. (He died not long ago.)
DeVorkin:Let me change the tape.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So I got a letter from him. He also wanted to interview me. I received permission to travel there, and tickets. So without even thinking, immediately or the next day I took the train which went to Leipzig, and went there. Well, there were different things. It was not in the city. It was outside, 25 kilometers outside Leipzig, because Leipzig Observatory was bombed out in a previous winter. This was in November of 1944, but I think it was bombed out in ‘43/‘44, somewhere around the end of ‘43, beginning of ‘44. And so they were building new observatory.
DeVorkin:This was, this late in the war, they were still building a new observatory?
Vasilevskis:Yes, they were building a new observatory.
DeVorkin:Isn’t it quite remarkable that they were still doing this?
Vasilevskis:And what is remarkable was this. First, my professor was in military uniform. Second, German Navy officers had attended some astronomy courses at universities, and so they knew astronomy professors, and now just for the sake of formality, in order to keep observatories running, they somehow for formality put observatories, not all but most of them, under Navy supervision. So they were fictitiously working for the Navy or something. But there was nothing for the Navy there. As far as I know Hamburg Observatory wasn’t engaged in anything with Navy. I don’t know if at Hamburg it was the same, but here, so that they could work, I was appointed then after an interview. Hoppmann liked very much my work in astronomy. I was what he just needed, because he wanted to install an astrograph. He wanted to do some testing, and he had plates taken in Sonnenberg by Hoffmeister, and with plates taken by Zeiss-vierlinser. It means four lens. Vier is four.
DeVorkin:Four elements. Pretty much like the Ross design.
Vasilevskis:Four elements. Like the Ross, yes. Wide field.
DeVorkin:This is for wide field work.
Vasilevskis:Yes. Well, I of course was excited and very happy, first because I now could get officially rid of this supposed so-called Rechen-Institut. You see, this Rechen-Institut — this place was actually not doing astronomy — were computing something for the military, I understand yes?
Vasilevskis:So now I got rid of this. And so I got in bona fide astronomical work. And moreover, I got direct contact with photographic astrometry, which I didn’t have before, you see. Before I just worked on paper most of the time.
DeVorkin:Do you know why the Germans were still so actively supporting astronomy, even so late in the war?
Vasilevskis:I don’t know. My personal observation, (I also read it somewhere) that when Germans are on the winning trend in the war, their organization is extremely good and efficient. Why they were winning their organizations just had to be admired because the bridges were built immediately, everything was working just like Swiss wristwatch. But when they are losing and already they had lost their faith in the victory, and they lost already by 1944, no question, in spite of all Hitler’s pronouncements — then it seems that they just don’t care. They let each thing run as it was running, and they don’t care — I saw them first this disorganization, in Latvia for example, trains which had been going with such precision, now all the tracks were occupied by some garbage and trash, so that, it seemed as though sabotage was at work. And I heard from one high administrator — I don’t remember his name — after the war, who had been working in some factory as an engineer building tanks or something. He said that there was so much sabotage. I think that in the first phase, when they were, as I said, on the winning trend, they just thought that they can afford to do this. And later I think, when they were in their losing trend, they just forgot about all this, so it runs by inertia. Somehow, I just don’t know. And why I could get this position was that all the able bodied Germans were drafted into the army. So therefore, only the older professors were left, without any help. And I, as a foreigner, so that I wasn’t a German, so I had the opportunity to be appointed, as a research fellow. So I started to work. This was extremely hard winter, ‘44. Hoppmann found for us one small house.
DeVorkin:So your family was together.
Vasilevskis:My family was together. Yes. I brought the family. But we had not very much fuel to heat the house, so we were freezing. We didn’t have very much to eat, although we were in a village, but German is German, you see. He would obey his Fuhrer to the last. We couldn’t get anything. There was no black market there. At least we couldn’t find anything. So we were starving. But the professor was very nice. He saw that I’m completely — coming from Latvia, which is the German Lettland??, called sometimes “Fatland”. You know, Fatland, Fat is Fat, because there the food is very good, compared with everything else. So therefore I was accustomed to maybe eating a little more, my metabolism was such that I was starving — my wife thought that I would die pretty soon. But still I was measuring plates, and as a matter of fact, I have at Lick Observatory some of the plates I was measuring then and reducing. But then I was appointed, I started to work I think in January, 1945, so this already was after three or four months, the war was over, because the Americans came I think to Saxony, in the middle of April, 1945, and I was so happy that our calculation was correct: we were far enough West so that we were under the Western powers.
DeVorkin:You reached the most Western place that had given you the offer of a position?
Vasilevskis:Yes. I got only two offers. First Walter, which would be of course terrible — it was near Berlin. And the other was here at Leipzig. But already, in the last weeks or last months of war, there was no idea, we had no idea where the American soldiers were. We only knew the Americans moved in. We didn’t realize that we were only seven kilometers from Mulda, and Mulda was the river, you may remember, where American and Russian forces met each other, Mulda. We had no idea that our escape was so narrow. So we were quite happy now, and we got hold again of some friends. One of our Latvian friends somehow organized himself to be a manager of one German estate, and so he could supply us with food. Then I became, from being quite thin, healthy again. So it seemed all right now, the war would be over. Still of course we had hopes, some hope that Americans and Westerns would see that Russian penetration was so far — we didn’t know how far they are — we hoped that something would be settled, and what the different rumors are — Suddenly we got hold of STARS AND STRIPES, and we saw that Saxony, where we are, is going to be given to Russians. So, well, immediately then, we have to get out of Saxony as soon as possible. So I immediately found again some 15 Latvians and somehow — I don’t know how you find them — we immediately organized a committee. I was elected chairman of the committee, and then we heard that in Leipzig there was an American military governor who was taking care of Latvians and other Baltic people, to move them to Bavaria, which will remain in Western area. But since we were not Leipzig, we were in other county, County near Mulda, so I went to see the American military governor of this whole area. I went there. I was told to wait for an appointment. I am sitting and suddenly I see, a Russian officer with big epaulettes entering the office. Oh, my feet got cold, you know. Then after the Russian left, I was admitted, and I told him that well, we are displaced persons here — Latvians. “What, Latvians? You are not displaced persons. I will take care that you will be taken home”, you know.
DeVorkin:Where was home, Latvia?
DeVorkin:This was the American.
Vasilevskis:American, yes. He is American governor, he has such local powers, and so little understanding of what was going on. In a few cases, they were just collected and deported back to Latvia, to the Communists.
DeVorkin:I assume you didn’t want that.
Vasilevskis:No. Then, we went to Leipzig. I went immediately there, and there was a Latvian committee there. I asked maybe we could somehow join them. No, we would not, because then with American occupation there was no freedom of movement. As a matter of fact, every seven or nine kilometers you went you had to show papers. So we could not join them — they cannot arrange it. There had to be contact with American military government, and there was promise that they would all be moved closer to Bavaria, which would remain in the American occupation zone, but they cannot include us. The only thing that they could do (the committee) was to give us in English one paper that said we were 15 displaced persons going to Bavaria. Then, since I had little money, German marks, by luck I had some schnaps, some vodka. With this collected we hired one German truck to take us to Bavaria. And we thought that we can escape this governor. And so we were going to Bavaria, early morning, and we had passed about seven or so kilometers — Americans stopped us: “Stop, your papers”. I showed this paper issued us by the Latvian committee. And that good soldier didn’t know that his governor wouldn’t permit us to leave this area. So he say, “OK, go”. So we went already. Now, already, we felt better. And after, again, at regular intervals we were checked and checked. The most severe check was the last check, when we were entering Bavaria. Then the soldier actually climbed into our truck and counted, whether the number is exactly the same as in our paper.
DeVorkin:That’s the only thing he was interested in?
Vasilevskis:They were interested, yes. And then we were in Bavaria, and so we were out of Russian occupation zone. Of course it was I think, middle of June. And on July 1st, Saxony was given to the Russians. When we read it, we didn’t believe that a great power like United States would give to Russians the area which had been occupied by American forces. Anyway, then we succeeded in entering to the displaced camp, in northern Bavaria, Hof, the city is called. Actually, we were admitted there by mistake, because I speak a little Polish, and just it happens that the displaced camps were run by one displaced person, but the American Army was responsible for this. There was an American soldier who was of Polish origin, so somehow I mentioned either my name of something, he started immediately to speak in Polish a little, not very good Polish. I answered in my as bad Polish, might be even worse yet. But he was quite friendly. He told, what is it about? I said, “We are with children and no place to go”. “All right”, he says, to open the Polish camp. To open this, and we entered. We were put into a barn, and the next morning, I was called to the camp leader, who was a Polish engineer. He told, “How did you get in”? And I explained it to him. “Well, you know that our camp is closed, we cannot take anyone. But all right, if you got in, we will have you. But you will not get food until we can arrange it”. So for a few days, we were without food. But not for long; we were moved to another displaced camp in Marktredwitz, a Latvian camp. They tried to put camps according to nationalities. There, I learned that in Munich there had been established UNRRA University — United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, UNRRA.
DeVorkin:I’ve seen this term in your vita. It’s an interesting thing. I hope you can describe not only how you heard of it but how you became associated with it.
Vasilevskis:See, where we were in Marktredwitz there were none of my old Latvian friends. There were of course Latvians, but they all were strangers to me. But our best friends were in another place nearer border with Austria. I had bicycle. See, I was given bicycle there in Saxony where I worked for the observatory. Since everything was going to be given to Russians, I stole the bicycle and went with the bicycle to Bavaria, because I saw that Russians will take it anyway.
DeVorkin:You took it with you on the truck?
Vasilevskis:Yes. And since my professor was in military uniform, he was taken as prisoner of war when Americans entered. Hoppmann, Yes. So I was the only one actually who was left at observatory, who was out. But now it was given to Communists, so that I took my German-Navy bicycle retained by the naval observatory. It was given to me because I had to reach my working place from my home. I had to have a bicycle. So I took the bicycle there. And I took the bicycle and I went to look for my friends. And I went there, and found that my friend went to Munich. So I wanted to see him, so I went from there to Munich, and found that the UNRRA university was being organized. My friend, as a matter of fact, also had been invited to join university as a faculty member. He’s in economics. So then I immediately submitted my application, and pretty soon I got a notice that I am being appointed in my old, last status, from Latvia. I was assistant professor, so I will be assistant professor there. And so we moved to Munich.
DeVorkin:This (university) is definitely a United Nations effort?
Vasilevskis:It’s United Nations effort, yes. So I moved there. The university did not exist very long. I think it was founded when we moved. I think it started in 1946, I think, and it went through ‘47.
DeVorkin:What was the purpose of the university? Was it for the refugees?
Vasilevskis:For the refugees, yes. The professors and the students were refugees.
DeVorkin:Didn’t they think that this was going to be a long protracted condition?
Vasilevskis:I didn’t know what they think. Another similar university was Baltic University, in English zone, near Hamburg. This started earlier, and was continued longer. This was purely Baltic. All nationalities were there in the UNRRA University.
DeVorkin:Now, Hamburg is in the English zone and that is where Opik went.
Vasilevskis:English. Yes, Opik went to Hamburg, yes.
DeVorkin:He was trying to escape just as you were from the Russians.
Vasilevskis:No, Hamburg was never given to the Russians.
DeVorkin:Right. Initially when you first met him, he had the same feelings that you did?
Vasilevskis:I think so, yes. I didn’t discuss it. No. I cannot tell you exactly what. But there, you see, you didn’t have time for philosophy. You wanted to see how to save your skin, when you are so far. So then Opik was instrumental in building this Baltic University. But the Baltic University was only Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians. This UNRRA University in Munich. I wouldn’t say this was well planned or well organized, but here the first UNREA employees were from Western powers. They were Americans, Englishmen, Dutchmen and Belgians and so. And all of them hated Germans, so they thought it was not proper for a refugee to go to a German university and do anything with Germans. So therefore since there are so many academic people, so that let’s have a university, our own university. I wouldn’t say this was a success, because the group was so heterogeneous. There were many Ukrainians. I’d say that in Munich, Baltic people were not in majority. But still, still we did some serious work. But pretty soon, when already there were new ideas — a change from complete occupation to independence of German people, so, obviously there were some pressures from Germans to close this university. And in addition the university was located in Deutsches Museum, which is one of the most famous museums of technical history. If you are ever in Munich, visit this. You can see the original diesel engines and so on. It’s very interesting. So the museum couldn’t open because we were occupying it. And so in 1947, I think, the university was closed. Then, another thing, I don’t know if it’s interesting but it might be of some. In order to be displaced person, one has to be screened by the Allied, by Americans, in order to see that you were not a collaborator. And it happened that I was screened and screened out. I was a collaborator because I didn’t work in the factory but worked in my field in Germany.
DeVorkin:That was their definition?
Vasilevskis:Again, this screening was even more local than I mentioned with the military governor. It depends very much on the political view of the person who was screening you. And later, it was clear that the person who screened me was a definite Communist. Moreover, at the very beginning, the very early stage, as you know, Joe Stalin as “Good Uncle Joe”, you see. There was quite a sentiment in favor of Russians. It was before the Cold War era, before the famous speech by Churchill in Fulton about the Iron Curtain. So therefore, there, you see, I was almost told that, those who have not been collaborators, they are dead. My fault was that I wasn’t dead yet, because if I wasn’t dead, it means I was collaborator. In addition I worked in astronomy, so this is something quite unusual, because usually all displaced or most displaced persons were put into factories.
Vasilevskis:Hard labor. But the German Dozentenschaft, they somehow were able to take special care of former faculty members. In any case, my family were DP’s. They were screened by different persons, so they were recognized as displaced persons. So now, I was the only black sheep in the family. When UNRRA University was closed, I was invited to Flensburg. There was a displaced persons navigation school. Flensburg, it’s in north Germany at the Danish border.
DeVorkin:Now, you were invited. Did you actually seek this? Did you start looking around?
Vasilevskis:No, but there were some Latvians, and I was quite happy that I can go there and work at something, because at the university, I couldn’t get any work.
DeVorkin:So you were known by these people.
Vasilevskis:Yes. I was known.
DeVorkin:These Latvians you knew in Flensburg invited you.
Vasilevskis:Yes, they invited me to teach there. And of course, you couldn’t move because Munich where we were was in the American occupation zone, and Flensburg was in the British occupation zone —
DeVorkin:— and it was difficult to move between them?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. There was all this control. And you couldn’t actually move easily. But I thought that I would go anyway. But it is such long distance. So, I would move and go teach, but I could not relocate myself and my family. But still I accepted this. Only I asked them to arrange so that when I’m there, I would give all my lectures, all my lessons, and then will leave and go back to Munich for one month or something. Then again next month I would go there, spend one week and teach the whole thing, so that everything could be devoted to my course there. They agreed. Another thing I was going to say, it was quite personal, again, but the British in their screening, the British somehow being Europeans, knew a little better the circumstances. There it was almost unknown that one of the Baltic people would be thrown out of displaced persons ranks. So then, I went there, hoping maybe I could somehow move my family there, because none of us wanted to stay in Germany.
DeVorkin:I was going to ask you that question. At this time, you did not want to stay in Germany.
Vasilevskis:At this time — no.
DeVorkin:What did you want to do?
Vasilevskis:Well, we wanted to go home, but not as long as there are Communists. And by this time, all the hopes were lost, because with what we saw, there is no hope. So therefore, we were waiting maybe for the possibility to emigrate from Germany, because Germany was a very poor state after the war in any case. Germany was over-crowded, so that we knew that there it would be very difficult to get any work, because so many German refugees from the Eastern part were there. So this was a very sad state. But you could not emigrate under any United Nations program if you are not displaced person, bona fide. And I was not. So I thought that I could become one there, but this was not so simple, because I was from the American occupation zone, I saw that nothing can be done. But then the wind started to change, and there was a bill passed here, a displaced persons bill, in Washington. There was new screening. And at that time already, since I never concealed my anti-Communist feelings, so that this time when I was screened, then my anti-Communistic feelings were just in my favor. So immediately my DP status was restored, then so that I could look for a position. I think I wrote one or two letters to Australia, because of one American officer. We were in the Latvian camp there. We were under American supervision. And once an American officer came and asked me — well, I was at the camp at that time — now what are my plans, to emigrate, where to go? I told him I hope I can get to United States. “Why” Why not Australia”? He asked.
DeVorkin:Why did he say that?
Vasilevskis:I don’t know. “There is no better place, no better opportunity than in Australia”. I think he said this because during the war, Americans were given the red carpet treatment in Australia, just because of stopping the threat of Japanese. And even now, in 1973, when I was there I saw there quite a strong pro-American feeling in Australia, at that time. So perhaps he had such a nice life when he was there that he thought it was the best place to go.
DeVorkin:He didn’t see it as an excellent place for astronomy to grow?
Vasilevskis:Oh, he wasn’t astronomer. He was military officer. Very pleasant, very nice.
DeVorkin:So it wasn’t a coincidence?
Vasilevskis:No. But still, I wrote one or two letters to Australia.
DeVorkin:Who did you write to?
Vasilevskis:I think I started from the wrong place. During the war, you see, all the contacts were lost. I didn’t know what was going on. I think I wrote to Melbourne. I received a letter, suggesting to write to Mt. Stromlo, because Melbourne was actually closing.
DeVorkin:Yes, right. At that time, this is ’47?
Vasilevskis:I think it was in ‘47.
DeVorkin:I think R.V.D.R. Woolley was down there.
Vasilevskis:Woolley was at Mt. Stromlo. But I wrote to Melbourne. But then I decided to try America next. And first I thought that since I am in astrometry, I thought I would write to the United States Naval Observatory.
DeVorkin:This is well after you wrote to Schlesinger, thinking he was still alive?
Vasilevskis:Oh no, this is before.
DeVorkin:So you were still going to write to Schlesinger.
Vasilevskis:Yes. See, I wrote to Australia just because the officer suggested. But once I received letters back, I wrote to Schlesinger.
Vasilevskis:1947. I think it was postmarked 1947. Well then I got a reply that Professor Schlesinger has died. I didn’t know that he was dead. I guess they said they had no position or something so I wrote to the US Naval Observatory, and there was a response that they can employ only American citizens, which I was not. But then one of my colleagues, not astronomer but he is professor of forestry, in the same camp, he was a Baptist, and he had been visiting United States before. He was familiar. So he got in touch with the Unitarian Service Committee, and he told that the Unitarian Service Committee, New York, they were willing to help former professors and former faculty members, of Communist-occupied countries. And actually he got, through them, an offer. So I decided to write also.
DeVorkin:Oh, I see. He was in forestry, and they helped him in forestry. They were helping all different disciplines.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So I wrote. There were two approaches. One of my colleagues, who is now professor at University of Minnesota, Kaufman is, he did differently. He collected addresses of colleges. In that time you could get American college addresses in Germany, you could go to the library, you could get all information about the United States. And he wrote 100 letters at the same time, different colleges. He was not interested in research. He was interested in teaching. I think he wrote a hundred. Out of this hundred letters, he got I think three or four offers. I, somehow, didn’t feel it was fair to write them and then to take or not. I thought I would write to one, wait for a response, write to another — but of course it was very slow. It’s honest, but a very slow process. So I was happy that now, an organization is trying to do this, to try locally to look for something. So I wrote them.
DeVorkin:Did you write to a particular person at the Unitarian Service Committee?
Vasilevskis:No, just as a group. I knew there was somebody. I don’t know if I have copies of letters. I wrote, and to my surprise, after a few weeks or something, I received response, that there is one offer for me, from Lick Observatory. Also, a copy of Dr. C.D. Shane’s letter to them, and then also Dr. Shane wrote to me. And said that he regrets that he can’t offer higher position than assistantship, and the salary was I think $2400 a year or something. At that time, of course, a dollar was quite different from what it is now. So I wrote him that I prefer to start at the lower position because of my difficult time during all the war year, so that I prefer to start at lower position successfully than at higher position unsuccessfully. And so I immediately accepted, wrote the Unitarian Service Committee thanking them and asking them to stop their search, and told Dr. Shane too. And so we started.
DeVorkin:From your description of what you had done through the Unitarian Service Committee — had you indicated, and was Shane aware of your background, your professional background?
DeVorkin:That you had done work in astrometry?
DeVorkin:Then he was particularly interested in your background.
Vasilevskis:He was interested. And I was appointed. Now, one thing — I still haven’t found out, I haven’t gone through my files to see what is there, that’s something quite confidential — maybe I will go one day, but I am usually, as a matter of fact, I’m not interested much in the past, even though it has been rather colorful, once in a while, you see. But after all, I was about 42 years of age without too many publications, and with background from a not very well known university, that is, in astronomy.
DeVorkin:This is in ‘49 then?
Vasilevskis:This is ‘49, yes.
DeVorkin:OK, so you spent upwards of two years in the northern area, in Flensburg, is this correct?
Vasilevskis:Yes. But the last year, I was working as accountant with I.R.O., International Refugee Organization, is cooperating with the military government, in Munich, Bavaria. I was working there. But I was also cooperating with Munich Observatory. There was Schoenberg, who was formerly at Breslau in Poland, who was director of Breslau Observatory, and then he was director of Munich Observatory.
DeVorkin:Is this the Schoenberg who had collaborated with Chandrasekhar on stellar interiors?
DeVorkin:This is another one.
Vasilevskis:Another one. So I was going there to colloquia. As a matter of fact, I took some part in the research with Schoenberg. He was also a little astrometrically inclined. And I gave colloquia and I attended colloquia, but this of course I wasn’t paid for, because as I mentioned, Germany was overcrowded. There were many more people than there were positions. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have to work, because in the displaced persons camp, people were supported completely. But I didn’t like this type of vegetation. Therefore I just wanted to work. I worked at the military government there, and cooperated with this observatory, and so finally, I got to Lick Observatory, I suspected one thing. There was Weaver. Harold Weaver was on the staff. And he and his father-in-law, R. Trumpler, were both Unitarians. So I think it might be so, that the Unitarian Service Committee, somehow knew the Unitarian astronomers. And perhaps they came to Trumpler to suggest “why not to have this person”. Of course, I described all my experience and so on in detail. I was particularly happy about Lick, because the American House in Munich, I got some literature, and it told about Lick Observatory and about the 20 inch astrograph in the Dimitroff and Baker book, there is a picture of astrographic lens.  So I thought, well — now I’ve got an offer from Lick. I was hoping as well as suspecting that I was offered just because of my astrometric background, and because I have done some astrometric research some thinking, because they needed somebody in this proper motion program. And so when I arrived at Lick, I was almost disappointed that I was not appointed as assistant to work with the 20-inch, but instead with the much larger telescope, with the 36-inch, for H.M. Jeffers. Of course I was quite happy. And so I worked for Jeffers my official time, but unofficially on my own, still C.D. Shane was very cooperative, so that I did some photography with the astrograph and did some investigations, and also published on my own time even. I was at Lick Observatory staying in the dormitory and my wife and both children were in Berkeley, because my daughter was attending university and my son was attending high school. So it was decided that it was much better for her to live there, and for me to be alone there.
DeVorkin:Why did they choose Berkeley instead of San Jose? Because because your daughter was at Berkeley?
Vasilevskis:Well, at first we stayed in San Jose. But my daughter had already graduated from gymnasium in Germany when we came here.
DeVorkin:Your children had managed, as you were being moved around in Germany, to continue their education?
DeVorkin:Was this a fortunate situation, a unique situation, or did most children continue their education?
Vasilevskis:Since the displaced camps were quite one nationality campus, many of them, then in the largest camps, there was established gymnasium for Latvians.
Vasilevskis:And in our camp, when we were in Munich, it was too small. There was no gymnasium. But in a large camp, near Nuremberg there was a gymnasium. Then our daughter, she went alone there, and she studied. Actually, we three stayed in one camp, and our daughter went into other camp. She stayed there in order to get an education at the gymnasium. My son was in primary school. The number of grammar school children is much larger, of course, and the number of teachers is smaller. There was a grammar school in our camp. So our son graduated, it happened, just at the time — he was six years different, between their ages. One was born in ‘30, and the other in ‘36. And our daughter graduated gymnasium about one year before our leaving Germany, before coming to United States. So she decided, since we were going to the United States, not to try to enter university there, but she was working with I.R.O. Her English was excellent. My English was much poorer, but hers was excellent, and so she worked there, and as soon as we moved, first to San Jose, she became restless pretty soon.
DeVorkin:Because she wasn’t going to school. While you were in San Jose.
Vasilevskis:No. She wasn’t going to school. She worked also, because my salary was low, and we came without anything, without a penny in our hand. By some misunderstanding our limited luggage, it was sent to a different place, so we were without luggage for a while. So she was working and saving for her education.
DeVorkin:Was your wife working?
Vasilevskis:My wife was working. But my wife was working just home work for other people, originally, in the beginning. Later she got work in Berkeley.
Vasilevskis:Cleaning and so on. But Velta had good English, first she was hired with United Fund Drive. They needed some temporary workers. After that around Christmas, she got a position with a company which was supplying fruit packages for Christmas to Eastern friends. You can order them here, boxes — she was there. After that, she got a position finally as legal secretary with an attorney. But then, it was for only half a year, and then she decided that she already had enough savings to stop. Then she moved to Berkeley alone. She started in spring semester in Berkeley. Then, our son was in junior high school in San Jose, and as soon as he was over his junior high school, it was decided to move the family to Berkeley, and it was a very good opportunity, because Trumpler had house in Berkeley, so Trumpler was our landlord.
DeVorkin:He must have been very friendly with you.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I think that Trumpler was responsible for our getting to Lick, because as soon as we arrived here, first we were located with an American family in San Jose, until we get something of our own. And then, I think, about two weeks after our arrival, Trumplers visited us. And it happened that, by August of the next year, the house became available — they have a couple of houses in Berkeley — on Parker St. I don’t remember the number now. And then they offered it to us — the rent was extremely reasonable, and so we moved then to Berkeley it was the best thing. My son also entered high school at Berkeley, and then my daughter Velta could live at home, and I was commuting, so once a week I came home. The rest of the time I stayed at Lick, and of course I was working like mad, and it was good that I didn’t have family there, so that I had nothing to do but to work. So that in my own time, I prepared a couple of the first publications while still I was working for Jeffers.
DeVorkin:You were doing double star work with Jeffers?
Vasilevskis:Yes. But I published a couple of first papers in my own time. I made measurements and compared them. And also, some of them were connected with the 20-inch astrograph.
DeVorkin:You still were — You started examining the feasibility of using the entire 17 by 17 inch plate area? 
Vasilevskis:Yes, what accuracy can be obtained, yes. And so on.
DeVorkin:This was all on your own time?
Vasilevskis:All on my own time.
DeVorkin:Was W.H. Wright still around?
Vasilevskis:No, he was retired.
DeVorkin:He was retired, but did you have contact with him?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. This is again one thing which is interesting. I had a very cordial relationship with Wright, so I knew him, and — I can tell you about Wright, if you are interested. Then I published one paper, on the relationship between the proper motion and the meridian circle observations, on my own time. 
DeVorkin:Yes, you seemed to be very interested in that comparison, even though it seemed from time to time that this comparison really didn’t have to be made. Am I correct in that?
Vasilevskis:With meridian circle?
DeVorkin:With meridian circle, you found that it wasn’t necessary, you could make your own system.
Vasilevskis:No. When we come to programs, then I can tell you what was Wright’s idea and what were the additions I have made.
DeVorkin:By this time you already had firmly in mind the idea of using galaxies as a reference frame.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, but this was Wright’s idea. But if you have the VISTAS IN ASTRONOMY article there I have, you see — a history of proper motion. I already had, even then, quoted one letter between Wright and Vamaed. But I had nothing to do with the conception of the problem.
DeVorkin:OK, I was going to lead to that.
Vasilevskis:No, completely, no.
DeVorkin:Because the idea of comparing it to meridian circle work —
Vasilevskis:Yes, well, the thing is this, you see. That Wright’s original idea was conceived very early, in 1919. You remember, this is the time of the big debate between (H.D.) Curtis and Shapley, whether spiral nebulae are extragalactic or they are galactic. And since Curtis was a Lick man, later he went to Michigan, sometimes the Lick men believed Curtis more than Shapley. So the reason I think, this is my hypothesis as to why also Wright believed that the spiral nebulae are extragalactic, therefore they can serve as reference. Then his student was Vanasek, and he asked him to do some experiments, to measure some plates, to find whether such a program would be feasible. And then Vanasek found that it was not feasible because the images were too poor and too few and the field was too small.
DeVorkin:— They were not using the 20-inch at that time?
Vasilevskis:No, the 20-inch came later. They used some Crossley plates or something.
DeVorkin:What you’re giving me basically is a history, then.
DeVorkin:It goes way back before you time?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. And then, as I mentioned to you, there is my article, VISTAS IN ASTRONOMY, where you can find about this history.  Then, it seems that for a while he dropped this, but when Ross designed a large field lens, this idea was revived, and then before the war Wright got Carnegie Corporation support, to construct such an instrument as the 20-inch astrograph. But the telescope couldn’t be finished during the war. And after the war already, Wright retired, was retired. He retired I think during the war. Moore was after him.
Vasilevskis:J.H. Moore, yes. Then Wright still hoped that, even in retirement, he could be in charge of this program, because it was his baby and the next director then will have no interest in this program, so perhaps he will let Wright to do the work. But when C.D. Shane was appointed, he mentioned to me, there were too many former directors around for him to work successfully. You know, sometimes it’s difficult because some former people are looking over your shoulder and thinking that you are not doing the right things here. So he decided to do this, so that Shane took over the photography as planned by Wright. So the plan is by Wright, to use this four magnitude grating and two different exposures and so on. We may come to it later, if you come to my work, then I can describe it little bit. Of course, this is described in many places, the program. Yes.
DeVorkin:I’m interested in funding sources, and the internal problems that might have arisen with the number of man hours that were required for the the First Epoch plates. And how Carl Wirtanen’s time was devoted to this work. Shane certainly, being director, had the ability to bring the funding in and all, but I would like to know from your direction, how support was supplied. At that time was it always assured?
Vasilevskis:Oh, it was. You see, Wirtanen was already, before my coming, appointed as permanent assistant, and he was assigned by Shame to Shane, and so his exclusive duty was to take care of the 20-inch program. So he and Shane both observed, and Shane, either before or then, I don’t know, you can of course ask Shane, developed an interest in counting nebulae, but he wanted to make some use of the work, of the man hours he’s put in and work he’s put in, into taking the photographs.
DeVorkin:Of course, at this time N.U. Mayall was there, very much involved in galaxy counting, — he had been for quite some time.
DeVorkin:So all this was involved. Now, with Wirtanen being appointed as the permanent assistant, and definitely working then on the 20—inch project, this is probably why you were working for Jeffers?
Vasilevskis:Yes. No question about it.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about it? Did you ever talk to Shane about the possibility of working with Wirtanen?
Vasilevskis:No. But I decided on a better form. Somehow by intuition I decided to use my spare time, my free time, on doing something with the 20-inch. In that case, I was completely free, what I am going to do, of course with permission of Shane, but on the other hand, not restricted to thing delegated or allowed by Shane.
DeVorkin:But still, it seemed to work out so well, that you were the person who was able to assess the positional accuracy of the 20-inch and of the whole project, the technique. Basically you were working up the theoretical end.
DeVorkin:It seems as though your position was more formalized than simply the fact that you were working independently on your own time.
Vasilevskis:Shane was very cooperative, though he had no interest in proper motion, he immediately saw: that I had interest in proper motion. Therefore he had no objections. In fact he was encouraging me to do, if I liked, something on my own time. But since I was appointed full time to Jeffers, therefore I had to use my own time.
DeVorkin:But in a sense it also seems that not only would he agree with your interest in doing it, but he was actually dependent upon it. He needed someone who could do that.
Vasilevskis:Well, at that time, you see, there was even not known when the second epoch will be. There were some questions.
DeVorkin:They had done studied to determine when the next epoch?
Vasilevskis:Yes, but it is afterwards. Yes, I did such a study. Now, I am coming to some, maybe accidental circumstances which started to change the picture. So I was going on my own, and I was trying to do some things, and the first thing was, the work for Jeffers was boring — but I tried to be as conscientious as possible.
DeVorkin:Were you doing visual work?
Vasilevskis:He was doing visual and photographic. But I was doing photographic only. But I was observing and, also I was doing measurements. You know, measuring day by day is not a very inspiring task. So therefore, I was measuring and thinking about other things, what I am going to do and so on, and then of course, I was observing evenings. I went on my own and did some things, and some studies about the 20 inch, because I was genuinely interested in the 20 inch. Perhaps subconsciously I was hoping that maybe sometimes my interest would be recognized, maybe I would get somehow involved in this program. And then, I was put in charge of the library, there was always an astronomer in charge of library. It was (Fritz) Neubauer. He retired in 1950 — Fritz Neubauer.
DeVorkin:Did you know Fritz Neubauer?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. We shared offices.
DeVorkin:Oh. You could probably tell me something about him, later.
Vasilevskis:Well, I think it would be better for C.D. Shane to tell you, because I know him only slightly but he was so happy to retire. He was so happy that he would not go to the telescope another night, and he was counting days to his retirement. He retired in 1950. But he was in charge of the library.
DeVorkin:He was a full time staff member, wasn’t he?
Vasilevskis:He was full time staff member. But I think the best thing is to ask Shane, because Shane knows the history. He has told me, but I think it’s better from the original source than from other sources, if still the original source is available, Shane. Then when Neubauer retired, George Herbig became in charge of library.
DeVorkin:He must have been very young at that time.
Vasilevskis:He was young. But you know Herbig, he knows how to organize. In Neubauer’s time the library was an inordinate mess. There was no catalogue to speak of, the catalogue was, and his head of course was not the youngest head here on Mt. Hamilton. So that as soon as Herbig was appointed librarian, Beverly Turner, now Beverly Lynds, was his assistant. She was appointed to him, and they both did very nice organization of the library. But Herbig realized that some system of classification should be introduced, so he arranged that Berkeley would be engaged in the classification of books, because they started to classify using I think the Dewey System. But later it collapsed, and so there was no system at all to speak of. But Herbig saw that it takes so much of his time — he suggested to Shane to appoint me librarian. It was in 1951. I still was an assistant.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about somebody else feeling that your time was not as important as his?
Vasilevskis:Well, I felt quite well, because in the library, I could devote my official time.
DeVorkin:Oh, instead of working for Jeffers.
Vasilevskis:Yes, instead of Jeffers.
DeVorkin:I thought maybe, in addition to working for Jeffers.
Vasilevskis:No, but in addition, yes, but now I would not need to measure all day, but I could use one part in the library, and of course with honest work, not with some simulation, and work in library is very stimulating in itself, yes.
DeVorkin:I like library work very much.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So that, you see, I was supposed to be more proficient in languages, and after the war Russian publications all came in Russian, and Herbig had to consult me quite often, what does it mean? So that he suggested to Shane, and then Shane asked me, and I agreed, and I was appointed librarian. I think one third of my time or something, official time, I could devote to the library. About two—thirds, I still needed to work for Jeffers, and of course my free time remained for my own work. But now already, since I had more variety in my official work, I was fresher to my personal work out of hours.
DeVorkin:You were doing a lot of observing at this time?
Vasilevskis:I was doing a lot of observing. I measured. But of course already one third I spent at the library. And then in 1952 they organized a meeting. It was one of the first, quasi-symposia, an astrometry of faint stars. And Shane was invited too. He was attending the Rome meeting, and he was invited to present a paper on the Lick proper motion program. Then as soon as he had the invitation, he came to me. He told, “You know, I am invited, but I don’t know anything about proper motion and these things, you have been working, can you compose something”? I said that I think maybe it would be good now to give what accuracies can be obtained with the 20-inch. “Fine”, he said and he asked me to write it. So I wrote, and I insisted that he is also the co-author of this, because he’s going to present this. He was very grateful.
DeVorkin:This is from the TRANSACTIONS of the I AU, Vol. 8, 1954, page 794.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So I became more or less officially involved. After returning from Rome, Shane said that this report has been received very favorably there and people were interested much and had started resolutions that the same type of program should be established in the Southern hemisphere and so on. And so he proposed now that my time be split into three parts — one part for Jeffers (approximately), one-third for the library, and one-third for my own work. So that then, although I was an assistant, I was given one-third of my official time to work on my own problems.
DeVorkin:Did Jeffers have any input on this? Did he want to keep you as much as possible?
Vasilevskis:Yes, but I never asked Jeffers, but I learned from his correspondence with Hertzsprung. When later I was appointed astronomer, he wrote to Hertzsprung that he, on the one side, regrets that he’s losing me; but on the other hand I have done work and that I fully deserve to be promoted to academic life. While reading these letters, I thought of course he may say something bad about me, but he was a real gentlemen, in writing Hertzsprung.
DeVorkin:So there was no visible problem or dissension between Jeffers and Shane when Shane made this arrangement?
Vasilevskis:No. I don’t know, but, there might have been some discussion, but I am now aware of anything.
DeVorkin:Would you say, during these years, that Shane was able to direct the observatory with a very forthright manner?
Vasilevskis:I think so, yes. As it happens once in a while, that one doesn’t appreciate his ability to handle the observatory while it was being administered, that only later by hindsight you can see that he has been able to do it quite, quite well. He gave sufficient freedom to everyone, and still made unity of the observatory so that I think he was a successful director. Of course, when he was replaced by Whitford, this was high time for him to be replaced, because already Shane, obviously, because of age or something, he somehow could not draft all the available resources to finish 120-inch. Somehow it started to drag. And when Whitford came, then immediately he with his keen interest in technological things and so on, he could really use his whip and put everything in order, and the 120-inch was finished.
DeVorkin:The proverbial whip, for that.
Vasilevskis:Yes. Now — shortly afterwards, after the Rome meeting, I got invitation to attend First Astrometric Conference at Evanston, and to report on Lick proper motion program. I had published couple of papers. Then, something unpleasant happened. I got an invitation, but Jeffers was not invited — my boss, to this conference. So I went to Shane and I told him that I felt very awkward, that I am invited and my boss is not invited. Finally Jeffers also was invited. So I reported then on Lick proper motion program, which is again one of the papers which is reported, and Shane also took part in this, and Jeffers took part. But Shane told me that my participation was the most important to Lick Observatory. I returned later than he did from Evanston, because I decided that at the same time we will see the United States, so I went by car over from here, to Chicago to, East Coast, and visited many of my old friends, and attended meetings and came back by car. As soon as Shane saw me, he called me in and he told that he’s thinking of promoting me to academic rank, because he sees now that the 20-inch program shouldn’t be left, just wait until the next time, too many things to do now. Of course I was happy at that. At the same time, Struve also expressed interest to appoint me at Berkeley.
DeVorkin:At Berkeley. I was going to ask if you had been offered other positions elsewhere, including back in Europe. Had you ever developed during this time any interest to go back?
Vasilevskis:No. The only thing which I maybe would have obtained, and this might have moved me a little faster towards the academic line, was, when D. Brouwer visited the Lick Observatory, and I was just doing something with 20 inch, observing. He and Shane came to me. This is first time I saw Brouwer. And Brouwer asked me something. So we had some discussions, with Brouwer. And later, Shane implied that Brouwer is interested in me. But obviously Brouwer wouldn’t make an offer, when he came to visit Shane, without Shane’s consent — and the next developments were so rapid, one after another.
DeVorkin:But Struve made an offer?
Vasilevskis:Yes, Struve made an offer. He first invited me to give a course in celestial mechanics. So while being assistant on Mt. Hamilton, I went every Saturday to give that one course. So I gave one semester course.
DeVorkin:Your daughter was studying there?
Vasilevskis:No. She already was a graduate.
DeVorkin:Had she had contact with Struve yet at this time?
Vasilevskis:Yes, she had. She had contact. But still I met Struve, even before he knew my daughter, he was coming to observe on Mt. Hamilton and so on, and we discussed. I was cooperating with this newsletter translation of Russian papers into English, so Struve was involved with this. 
DeVorkin:— Yes, I want to talk about that particularly later.
Vasilevskis:Yes. So Struve later told me that in writing the same book with Velta he felt like a dinosaur. He had to go through so many things and learn so many things before he would dare to try on his own, but now young people just learn a couple of things and they publish, and of course, they don’t care that this paper will not be of any value after a year or two years. So he wanted to offer classical topics. First, he was disturbed by that Cunningham was offering Theory of Orbits, but was not offering Celestial Mechanics.
DeVorkin:L. Cunningham at Berkeley?
Vasilevskis:At Berkeley. So he suggested several times to Cunningham, but Cunningham would not give this course. So he invited me. And Shane also twisted my arm, and I reluctantly agreed. It meant pretty much for me a new preparation. Of course, I took this course as a student, but this is quite a different thing, to take it as a student, and to offer it to other students.
DeVorkin:And it was quite different from the celestial navigation courses you taught?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, of course. But this time, there is one contribution I made. Perhaps Cunningham did not like that celestial mechanics goes to an outsider. And I didn’t promise to give this course more than once. And perhaps Struve also was hoping that after this, maybe it would be easier to get Cunningham to teach celestial mechanics. And he was correct, yes. The next year, Cunningham started to offer celestial mechanics, and offered it all the time. Then when he left, I think, in connection with NASA things for one year or something, to the East Coast, Struve again asked me to teach celestial mechanics in his absence. But then I refused. I told him it’s better not to do this.
DeVorkin:By this time, you were already a staff member.
Vasilevskis:I was already a staff member. But after this celestial mechanics course was over, Struve still wanted to get me, and to have classical astronomy and geodetic astronomy. He was interested. After all, his great-grandfather was famous for his triangulation. And I had a pretty good background in geodesy, so he wanted to establish this also. So he was trying to get money to appoint me there. First from National Science Foundation. But then when Shane was ready to make an off to me, Struve also was ready to offer me a position. Shane had ideas; but he had no position.
DeVorkin:He had no what?
Vasilevskis:No position. He had no academic vacancy. So then he thought that the best thing would be for me to be half time Lick, and half time Berkeley.
DeVorkin:This was Shane?
Vasilevskis:Shane’s idea. Then Struve didn’t like this idea, and he wanted either all of me or none of me, but he wouldn’t share me. Then Shane offered me the full position and converted my assistantship into academic position, so that Lick Observatory got one additional academic position through my promotion, and lost one assistantship.
DeVorkin:There certainly must have been more funds available for that.
Vasilevskis:Yes. I don’t know. You can maybe find out from Shane, if he remembers, but certainly there was some. So in 1954, July 1, I was already then in academic line.
DeVorkin:Let me ask you a few questions about that general period, then. It seems as though, in this particular case, that Shame’s interest and Struve’s interest were at odds. And you might speak of it as the Lick interest as opposed to the Berkeley interest. There seems to be some friction between the two. Did you sense this?
Vasilevskis:You mean, between Struve and Shane? Or between both departments?
DeVorkin:Between the departments, but Struve and Shane being the directors.
Vasilevskis:No, but Struve and Shane were I think cooperating admirably. But there was friction between both departments, which is no secret.
DeVorkin:But I want to get your recollections.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, there was no question, there was. The friction was partly responsible for our proposal to the president to move to Santa Cruz here. So this friction has been, there’s no question that friction has been around. And of course, since Struve and Shane were heads of both departments, so that they could not arrange something on their own, still they were getting along admirably. But on the other hand, since they were part of this friction, this of course is quite human. Then of course, I was offered the choice. I was offered the choice, either to remain on Mt. Hamilton, or to go to Berkeley.
DeVorkin:Which would you have taken?
Vasilevskis:I took Mt. Hamilton.
DeVorkin:Were you actually offered an appointment by Struve also?
DeVorkin:So then you had a clear choice.
Vasilevskis:I had a clear choice. I had a clear choice, yes. Struve called me once and asked me to come down to Berkeley, and he told me that he’s offering me a position. I told him then that I would think it over, and I told him I would discuss this with Shane, because Shane also has indicated something of this kind. And then, I returned from Berkeley, and told Shane I have an offer from Struve.
DeVorkin:What was Shane’s reaction to that?
Vasilevskis:Shane’s reaction was that he said, “Well, fine”. Then I said, “If you talk to Struve, an arrangement might be that he also wouldn’t like to lose me, and it would be all right with me to share my time between Lick Observatory and Berkeley.”
DeVorkin:So Shane was willing to compromise, but Struve was not willing to compromise. All or nothing.
Vasilevskis:I don’t know whether Struve was, but from what I was told, this was the case, that Shane then proposed this to Struve, that I would be shared, but Struve could not do this without consent of his department. So he went with his proposal to his department, because obviously he had to get the department’s consent for my hiring. And the decision of the department was to tell Shane that either I move completely there, or I remain on Mt. Hamilton, of course it’s up to me, but they are not interested in sharing.
DeVorkin:But from what you know of Struve, and a little bit of what I know of Struve as director, the decision was his own.
Vasilevskis:It may be. But on the other hand, I think that, there was quite a difference between Struve at Berkeley and Struve at Yerkes. I think there at Yerkes you see, he was real organizer. He was really a leader, who raised the place from almost ashes into a position of brilliance. And here, I think that he want to have a little more time for research, and to have a little relief from all the other administrative positions, so that I don’t know how strong he was, but at least from what I heard, he was not as strong a leader as he was at Yerkes.
DeVorkin:I see. Did you ever talk to Struve directly about his experiences at Yerkes and why he left?
Vasilevskis:No. I never talked about it with him. Talked with him about many things but not about this. So then, I was given a choice, either to go to Berkeley or to go up to Lick. There was no question in my mind that I will remain at Lick. I would like to remain at Lick, because I wanted to be associated with Lick and the 20-inch program, and so I remained there. From there on, of course, I had regular escalation in promotion. So this is the first Lick years. Of course, in 1974, I reached the age of 67, so I retired. Then at the same time, I got an offer from Leiden to go there in 1975, and I was very happy to accept this offer. Originally, they were thinking, in bringing me there, that I would help them in the development of an automatic measuring engine, but the irony of this was that the automatic measuring engine arrived the same week when I was leaving.
DeVorkin:Let’s go back, then, to your early years at Lick, certainly.
DeVorkin:I’d like to ask you a general question. How did you find the atmosphere for stellar research? As you came to Lick, and as you worked more and more into the astrometric program. Did you find it a competitive atmosphere, amongst the various staff members? Did you find it a warm atmosphere?
Vasilevskis:I found that the atmosphere was very very good. If you ask about competition, I don’t know if there were any two persons who would compete, say, in the same narrow field or something. Somehow, the lines I think of research did not cross each other. For a while it seemed that there may be, G. Kron and M. Walker, there may be some crossing, because you know that Kron was brought here as a Stebbins student, to develop electronics, and Walker was appointed and he also was in photoelectric photometry, so it seemed that there will be some friction or crossing of lines, and maybe for a while there was something, but as far as I know they became best friends. So this was nothing. If you take now others, there was never crossing of lines between N.U. Mayall and G. Herbig, between Mayall and Shane or Shane and Herbig. I think that interests were so that it happened, I think, that each supplemented each other, more than there was some real competition, and I find that on the average the atmosphere was very very good and very cordial. From my point of view.
DeVorkin:What about the question of productivity? Did you ever have anyone talking to you about the number of paper you were expected to write, or what?
Vasilevskis:No. There was complete freedom. One thing might be that maybe the degree of independence might be a little too, too high. Because after Shane returned from Rome after ‘52, — but then, I think I still was assistant. He called a meeting of all the astronomers, and I was included because I had also some independent research. And he told that he was embarrassed, of being Director and asked by other people what his people are doing. He couldn’t answer. And therefore, he wanted now to have regular meetings at Lick. I mentioned to you that Shane even said that he should know a little more about what people are doing, were though they were quite independent. And so he said that then we will have some regular meetings, where each will report something on what he is doing.
DeVorkin:How formal were these meetings?
Vasilevskis:Oh, just coming together. Quite informal.
DeVorkin:They were not colloquia?
Vasilevskis:No, no, quite informal. But I always remember, this was the first and the last meeting.
DeVorkin:Only one meeting?
Vasilevskis:Only one meeting.
Vasilevskis:I don’t know. Shane didn’t call more, and so this was then discontinued.
DeVorkin:Was that one particular meeting uncomfortable?
Vasilevskis:No. It wasn’t uncomfortable. Everybody seemed to be happy. But, I don’t know. I don’t know the background. You can ask Shane, if you see him, why they were discontinued.
Vasilevskis:One thing, at Lick, I have to confess, especially, is that I heard later from other people, like for example Tom Kinman complained when he was here.
DeVorkin:— But Kinman was not there at that time?
Vasilevskis:No. But later, was in Whitford’s time, but in any case, there I have had sometimes feeling that maybe people were really too independent. Not only that the director didn’t know, but also, one didn’t know what the other is doing. There was maybe not enough cooperation, because there are so many projects, maybe, where one contributes to the other, and if you see Lick papers, I think that most of them are under individual names. There are few joint papers, not too many.
DeVorkin:You had a good number of joint papers, with students.
Vasilevskis:Yes, but just with students. Well, I wouldn’t say that they were quite joint. The senior author was the real senior author, not only because his first name was put there and the student just assisting. I felt that I would like to acknowledge the cooperation by the student. Of course he didn’t take maybe any part in discussions, he just computed, but he was involved, then I just put him as an author, but I have been responsible for those, in most cases. Later, of course, I started to bring in others. I tried to do it especially when approaching my retirement, to bring in, when possible, successors and younger people, and gradually to give him more and more of the credit, because the problem of “publish or perish” was not important to me. Therefore, later, you see that some papers were with Arnold Klemola and others.
DeVorkin:Now, in the early 50s the primary instruments were the 20-inch, the 26-inch refractor, and the Crossley.
DeVorkin:Was there an observing committee or a panel of astronomers who would determine what kind of telescope time was given to each particular interest, or to visitors from off the mountain, from Berkeley or UCLA, and wouldn’t this have been some sort of a coordinating element?
Vasilevskis:No, there was no committee. And the pressure was high on each of the instruments. Not the 20-inch. The 20-inch was quite independent, under Shane, but the 36-inch and the Crossley, they were and there, the arrangements was very simple. Jeffers was in charge of the 36-inch telescope, and Mayall was in charge of the Crossley telescope. And just every once a week, at a certain hour, I don’t remember which, they were in the library, both of them, at separate tables, and all people that were interested in using that telescope the following week came there, and they told him how many nights they would like to use, and so on. And then, just then, Jeffers arranged for the 36-inch and Mayall for the Crossley, so that all people got what they could get. But the pressure was not nearly as high as now for the 120-inch. For the 36-inch, as a matter for fact, people from Berkeley did not require or did not request much time. Struve at the beginning, when he came to Berkeley, observed a few times with the 36—inch, but when Struve sent a letter asking them for a couple of nights, then I don’t think that there was any intention to examine his program and to cut him down. He may be used three or four or five nights in the month, here, and it was given. But It was given without much difficulty, and I think that in the case of Jeffers, Jeffers was using the 36-inch telescope pretty much and Mayall was using Crossing pretty much also, and so the telescope was never idle, so they perhaps tried to divide time as much as possible to satisfy all others who requested, and then the rest, they assigned to themselves. There was no committee. The committee started only after the 120-inch was fully operational.
DeVorkin:OK. Now, as you began doing more and more of your own work, when did you start becoming involved in seeking out funding? For your own work?
Vasilevskis:This is the story which I think I’ve got some notes on which I would like to use. You see, now, this comes with the proper motion program. The best thing to do would be to spell out briefly Wright’s ideas about the program, and then what I might have contributed, some contributions of my own to this. If you take Wright’s paper, which is in 1950, Philosophical Society Transactions, then, his idea is still here, and also I had numerous discussions with him, that the main purpose was to study proper motions and positions of bright stars, of those stars which can be observed with the meridian circle to tie these proper motions to external galaxies. In order to do this, there is an 8 magnitude difference. He said 7, but actually, 8 magnitudes were needed. The stars were 8th magnitude and the galaxies were 16th magnitude, so you need then to have 12th magnitude stars to tie them together. It means using two exposures and four magnitude grating. And he considered measurement of 12th magnitude stars, we called them “Bridge stars”, which permitted us to connect bright stars with faint stars and galaxies — as a necessary evil, because they need to be measured.
DeVorkin:That’s right. You couldn’t possibly have the grating magnitude reduction of 10 magnitudes.
Vasilevskis:No. And the main purpose of the program would be the determination of precession. It means determination of rotation of the earth. Wright had his ideas, also ideas from observing and so on, and he was very unhappy that Shane took over the observing and Wright had nothing to do.
DeVorkin:— After his retirement.
Vasilevskis:After his retirement. He was hoping that he will have much more to do with the program. And in ‘54, when already the first epoch plates were taken, — as a matter of fact, the when last plate was taken Shane brought Wright to Mt. Hamilton so that he would participate in taking the last plate of the first epoch — it was a nice gesture — but he still was grumbling, and he wanted to participate — he wasn’t happy. Well, he became extremely happy, just apparently because of the change, when I was appointed in charge of the 20-inch. He became very cordial to me, and whenever I went to San Jose, he asked me to stop in. So we stopped and we discussed these things and so on. But independent of him already, you see, when I took it over, or even before taking it over already, as a matter of fact, in my paper I delivered in Evanston I considered that the determination of precession is a far too limited goal for this program and that actually a much larger contribution would be a contribution to galactic research. And from this point of view, 12th magnitude stars are not necessary evil. This is a no-cost benefit, because you see, you have to measure them anyway, and since you are, since there is no general source of proper motion of stars of 12th magnitude, then therefore this would be completely new material. Then next, since you have to measure galaxies at 16th magnitude level, then of course, why not to measure also stars of this level, 16th? Then again you will have different samples of stars. Then, it wasn’t at first felt here, but gradually it developed, then, that first we would do catalogue stars which would tie — these stars on the Lick proper motion program to the fundamental catalogue. Then 12th magnitude stars. General selection. And 16th magnitude stars, general selection, which would then give enormously important material for galactic research. Then in addition, since astrophysics becomes more and more important, in addition there should be a number of selected stars of special astrophysical interest, at any level, say between 8th magnitude and 16th magnitude, which would be put on the program because of their importance. But now, if you add now this, of course, the amount of work in measurement becomes so large, if you use a conventional measuring engine, then the work is enormous. And this led me to thinking that the measurements should be automatic.
DeVorkin:Yes, I recall you stating in one of your articles in the early 50s that you would have to go to automatic procedures because there were so few people working in astrometry.
Vasilevskis:Yes, that’s right.
DeVorkin:That was a very interesting statement at the time. Is this what led you to automation? Or was it also a feeling that you couldn’t imagine a bright mind doing all that tedious work?
Vasilevskis:That was one thing. A second thing, you see — it would be maybe more expensive without the automatic machine. Because if you take that one conventional machine, it is working eight hours a day on measurement, all the first and second epoch plates. It would take approximately 40 years to measure all. Now, no one person can sit measuring plates for eight hours and measure all the time. It means that you need at least two persons to measure. Even they may be crazy after 20 years, and you cannot keep anyone for 40 years. It would mean that two persons should be measuring for 40 years. Of course the alternative would be to buy ten machines, but then you have to employ 20 people if you like to be efficient.
DeVorkin:With 20 personal equations.
Vasilevskis:The personal equation yes. And in addition you have expenses which may be much higher than automatic measuring machine. So this led me. Already my first ideas were formulated, about it, and already I think specifications were written. This is 1959, and already the contract I think was signed with Gaertner Scientific Corporation. I discussed it with Wright, and asked him, has he ever thought about the enormous work of measurement with conventional machines? And has he considered this before? He said yes. And this was one of the reasons for his opposition to 120-inch telescope. You may not have heard that Wright was opposed to the building of the 120-inch telescope. Only when C.D. Shane came here, did the idea of a larger telescope become accepted. And then Wright was imagining that the proper motion program would replace now the traditional radial velocity program. As you know, starting with Campbell, actually the Lick Observatory was devoted completely to radial velocity, and there was not a single night, not a single clear night was permitted for the telescope to be idle. This was the program of Lick Observatory. The rest was secondary. And so Wright was thinking that now, since this is one component of motion, now there are two other components, proper motion of course was next in line. So this then would supplement radial velocities then the Lick Observatory will be building a complete picture of space velocity of star. But now if you move to this 120-inch there would be other priorities. So this part, which I think maybe should not be published immediately, an answer to the puzzle, why Wright has opposed the 120-inch. And he confessed to me, this was the reason, that he saw that this would be the observatory program. Now, when I took over, the 120-inch was already a reality. It was clear to me that all the resources, or most of the resources would be devoted to the 120-inch and to astrophysics. Therefore, unless astrometry will become a complete step-child, you have to get outside support. In order to get outside support, the program should be efficient enough to justify the support. And it cannot be with manual measurement. At that time already there was one successful experiment, at least it showed the guidelines. A machine constructed by IBM, at the Watson Computing Laboratory in New York. An old engine was converted, an old engine with a wooden nut. The screw was a two inch screw, and with the nut, it was attached to fancy electronic equipment to be automatic. It was actually a semi-automatic machine, because it went to the star, but it did not center automatically. You saw this star in the field, then you pushed the buttons, and then you moved it to one cross, and then you pushed another button, which then started the automatic measurement of the spinning sector. It centered on the image, and you got then the measurement.
DeVorkin:It did finally center itself electronically?
Vasilevskis:Yes. So then the personal error was eliminated, with this, but it needed an operator to sit all the time. It was extremely inefficient. But it was already better than manual setting.
DeVorkin:Oh yes, it certainly was a step forward. Let me ask you something again about Wright feelings against the 120, just to make this as clear as possible. He was against it because he saw all of the resources of Lick going into it, and the possibility of doing the proper motion survey cancelled. This is what he was worried about.
DeVorkin:Or not done correctly.
Vasilevskis:Yes. He thought that the resources of Lick Observatory should be mainly devoted to the 20-inch program, the proper motion program. Again, this was human, because this was his child from 1919, and finally it came to realization, so it had to be supported with all the means. And at that time when he started, NSF didn’t exist. So then outside support started so I started to work on it. Shane sent me to Yale, and I went to Watson Laboratory, and I used the Watson Machine there for a week to gather some ideas, what are there.
DeVorkin:Now, this is well before ‘59?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. It was all before ‘59, yes. It was actually in ‘54, ‘55, just at that point where I went to academic lines. “The Accuracy Obtainable With the Carnegie 20-inch Astrograph. The paper was published in 1957,  was submitted in ‘56. Actually the measurements I think were done either in ‘55 or late ‘54, I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Then, I went to Yale. Our original work, which was done with Shane, with precision obtainable, was on small 10 by 10 plates because we didn’t have any measuring machines which would measure larger plates. Yale had the large Schlesinger machine, which could measure 17 x 17 inch plates. The same as the automatic machine. So I took I think six plates, a very very heavy load of six 17 x 17 inch plates. Each I think weighs almost six pounds. There I spent two weeks at Yale, measuring.
Vasilevskis:With Brouwer. Yes.
DeVorkin:At IBM, you were working —
Vasilevskis:— with Eckert. With Eckert, we corresponded only. And then the machine was put at my disposal for a little more than a week, and I measured there a couple of plates also, first to see the difference between the manual and automatic measurement, and then to see whether the whole field can be utilized, to make decisions about what is the interval between both epochs should be, and also, to gather ideas for possible automatic measurement. And as soon as this, was done I started to twist arms of gentlemen at NSF.
DeVorkin:Did you work through the astronomical liaison people at NSF personally? Did you have any contact with Frank Edmondson or any other people?
Vasilevskis:The thing started before Edmondson. When I went to Yale, at that time, the director for astronomy was Peter Van de Kamp. So on my way back from New York, I went to visit van de Kamp, and survived one hurricane there which I think was for the first time, it was yes, Hurricane Hazel.
DeVorkin:Now, your techniques of course at that time, for reduction, certainly were different from those of van de Kamp. None of your techniques really would have been too adaptable to Schlesinger’s method or anything like that.
DeVorkin:How did van de Kamp receive many of your ideas, especially on automation?
Vasilevskis:He received automation. But you see, at that time, I didn’t even think about parallax. The parallax program and ideas for the program started considerably later.
DeVorkin:Just the proper motion.
Vasilevskis:Just proper motion. And here I explained to Peter van de Kamp that I am planning to submit an application, and so, and then, finally, van de Kamp encouraged me. He told as a matter of fact that it’s good to submit application because the trouble with astronomy, that astronomers are so full of self-criticism, they only submit application when they think it’s really worthwhile. And the problem was that NSF had more money than was requested.
DeVorkin:That’s the way it was at that time?
Vasilevskis:It was at that time. Just contrary to other branches, where there are so many applications, and they are very simple applications. Many many of them are without merit, and so it’s very easy to weed it out, but at least you can show that it is clear that money is needed, to satisfy the meritorious, but, in astronomy, they may start to cut the budget off. He told me this maybe a little later, but I think that it was then.
DeVorkin:I’m very interested in how different people regarded the promise of automation, in the early fifties, when you were just becoming aware of the possibilities yourself. I would like to know what their impressions were, because Van de Kamp had not used automation.
DeVorkin:And only recently has he gone to automation.
Vasilevskis:Yes. He was, as a matter of fact, one of those who were against too much sophistication. He was so fond and absorbed by the way he was working. The most typical example is the late van den Boss, you know, double star astronomer, because he was so proud of never taking a single photograph, he told me. “Real observing is observing”, you see, being his eye piece.
DeVorkin:He told you that?
Vasilevskis:He told me, yes. Yes. And that he didn’t spoil his record by taking a single photograph in his life. So once I encountered this, in van den Boss I was startled. I thought, after all, he has observed, it’s a matter of observing. But no. He was just standing around when Jeffers was observing. But Jeffers usually would always include the name of the man who was observing and later, just being gentle, polite, he had his name put as observer. But van den Boss just was just watching now he is observing, so that I restored the log to Jeffers name which is correct, because I know the circumstances. And for example, van de Boss, in one of his papers, states that “computer is a clever idiot”. And he’s correct. But there is a degree of bitterness in his statement.
DeVorkin:Van den Boss’s said this?
Vasilevskis:Van den Boss, yes. He told. It’s in one of his papers, I think in the PASP. I can find this if you are interested.
DeVorkin:This is not van de Kamp?
Vasilevskis:No, no, but it is just as a sample. And I understand this, you see, that it took ingenuity and knowledge to compute a double star orbit with old methods, just logarithms. And now a young fellow goes and pushes a couple of buttons and by the time Van den Boss writes a few figures the orbit would be out. So maybe there was some subconscious resentment. And this might be true of van de Kamp also, but I have to tell that I did not feel it at that time. At that time, he was acting as program director for NSF, and so he was considering the proposal it seems quite objectively. He didn’t of course promise me anything, but he encouraged this application. I submitted, but nothing came out of this. Van de Kamp was succeeded by Helen Sawyer Hogg. Yes, she was the next program director. She seemed to have more genuine interest. But the trouble of course is, when you start to work on some specifications, then with everything, when you start with more and more, the price goes up, and your request goes up also. She seemed to be genuinely interested in this. As a matter of fact, she came to Lick Observatory here and she spent quite a little time with me discussing it and seemed to be impressed. And then I saw her when there was a meeting on the Cosmic Distance Scale, in Charlottesville. She was director. I saw her. She also seemed impressed. But then she was not very hopeful that the money will be obtained, because there the funds were limited, and usually normal projects are much smaller than for this type of automatic machine. Then finally she was succeeded by Edmondson, and I again went to Edmondson without much hope because already two directors could not be swayed.
DeVorkin:At this time though did you have letters of support from Shane and from others, Brouwer or from Eckert? Feasibility studies that you could use as documentation?
Vasilevskis:I don’t remember. Of course, certainly from Shane, and I explained myself and I think that I got from Heckmann. Suddenly I think that Heckmann wrote to Edmondson and told that we had a very good project, and some others, somebody who wrote something, but suddenly there was developing pressure at NSF to do something about automatic measurement. And then the picture was reversed. I did not submit application, but Edmondson asked me to prepare a proposal as soon as possible. So it looked quite hopeful. And then I immediately submitted. I have in my files quite a number of different things. Then it went to NSF. But it was, again, was tabled for the time being.
DeVorkin:Who do you think was behind tabling it? Anyone in astronomy?
Vasilevskis:Well, I had a spy and I learned that one at least was objecting, that the ideas may not be sound, and was proposing that I should get acquainted with this and with others. I don’t know whether it would be proper to mention names. I don’t know.
DeVorkin:I would appreciate knowing. Again, it’s something that you have control over.
Vasilevskis:Yes. All the discussions at NSF are confidential. But Mayall was one member. And he told me that Strand mentioned different other possibilities, that this is not the proper way — there is Fred’s machine at Argonne National Laboratory.
Vasilevskis:Fred, yes. It later developed into the Grant machine using two profiles. This was at Argonne National Laboratory, and his last name is Fred. Then again, if Mayall told me, I think that this is nothing improper. As a matter of fact, I think that if National Science Foundation had raised any valid objection, they should tell the author what the objections are because it would benefit him, and the author could correct it. Names are not necessary. They are not important.
DeVorkin:But the objections are very important.
Vasilevskis:The objections are. Yes.
DeVorkin:To your knowledge, Mayall told you that Strand was objecting on the basis that there might be better ways to do it?
DeVorkin:Was he objecting to the design of the automation? Or was he objecting to automation?
Vasilevskis:No, he was objecting to the design. He thought that I am fresh and inexperienced, and there are some very nice machines, such as Fred which I didn’t mention in my own proposal. So when I learned that I did miss these things, it happened that I was invited shortly afterwards to this Cosmic Distance Scale Conference in Charlottesville. In the old good days, the NSF sponsored meetings. It was nice in one respect, that they gave you a check for a flight in first class, but they didn’t care how you traveled you may crawl, as long as you’ll be there. This was the same with the Cosmic Distance Scale. So I decided then not to use first class, but to use coach, to add, a little of my money and I think I got a little from Lick Observatory, and went by Coach, visited Argonne National Laboratory visit Sheffield Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, and also the Farrand Optical Co. in New York.
DeVorkin:And you later used some material from Farrand?
Vasilevskis:No, we didn’t use it.
DeVorkin:You proposed it. I know you mentioned it a number of times in your papers.
Vasilevskis:So that I visited a number of places, before and after Cosmic Distance Scale meeting, so that I could evaluate. I have to confess that I was not aware of some of the things. (Paul) Herget suggested something to me also — this was at Sheffield Metrological Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, —
DeVorkin:— is this in a letter?
Vasilevskis:No. He mentioned to me personally, personal discussions.
DeVorkin:Herget was very close to Eckert, and computing of course — and he was probably also involved in automation to a certain extent?
Vasilevskis:Yes, but yet he gave me a suggestion. And then A.R. Hoag also mentioned Farrand Optical Co., because they were using his so-called Inductosyn, at the United Naval Observatory branch in Flagstaff. So I went there, and I was actually very grateful for this. I was grateful, without Strand’s knowing, grateful to Strand, that he prompted me to do this research, and was grateful to Mayall that he considered it important enough to tell me that maybe I should take a look at some things. So then of course my ideas started to develop.
DeVorkin:This is still in the late fifties, then?
Vasilevskis:It was in the late fifties. It was when the Cosmic Distance Scale was, I don’t remember. And then the director was Helen Sawyer Hogg. Then when I came back already, I had plenty of needed information and when Edmondson finally became director he asked me to make an information proposal, so I supplied information about it, for that. I repaired several sheets with different descriptions, of course about the necessity of automatic measurement, the means, and so forth.
DeVorkin:Was there anyone at Lick at this time, on the staff, helping you with the technical end of the automation, instrumentation? Anyone in engineering staff?
Vasilevskis:I would say, no. There was not very much. But you see, there was one thing in what I was a strong believer: the astronomer is the one who wants and who can define what he needs and engineers are those who have to find the way out how to achieve this. Therefore, in the specifications which I wrote as specification for performance I specify for example the accuracy necessary, the degree of automation, the time interval between successive measurements — for example, the mechanical screw cannot be used because after so many measurements it wears out, so that there is some other means; then the centering device again should be automatically brought. So that mainly it should be this, but it’s a purely astronomical meaning for engineers to use to come with their proposals on how they can achieve this. Of course I circulated this. George Herbig was reading it and so forth, all the people who are interested. Shane, by the way, from the very beginning, was not very enthusiastic. But later he became more enthusiastic, but by that time the change came in directors and Whitford already came, by the time the final thing started to be realized. And still, in times of Edmondson, nothing came out yet, but already in NSF there were many many papers I had written with different reports, and also with some requests from outside. I know also that O. Eggen who was at Greenwich, supported the idea.
DeVorkin:By that time Eggen was, yes. He had spent some time at Lick?
Vasilevskis:Yes, but afterwards he went to Greenwich. One time Peter Felgett spoke about automatic measuring machines in Great Britain, and Eggen heard that I was thinking about this. He tried to stop Felgett because he thought it not right to develop two machines and Lick’s would be good for R.G.O. And he also wrote something to Edmondson. At least there I think I got some outside support for me, automatic measurement.
DeVorkin:You don’t have those records here? They’re at NSF?
Vasilevskis:This is at NSF. So finally, Edmondson was replaced by Geoffrey Keller. Keller was the next one. The thing started to move in Keller’s time. Then already somehow, NSF got genuinely interested. My first request was only for the development of design, without construction. And then I submitted bids and this happened just during the Korean War, when most of the firms were engaged in military production, which is of course much more profitable than scientific work.
DeVorkin:This is Korean War?
Vasilevskis:I think it was Korean War.
DeVorkin:Aren’t you talking about the early sixties?
Vasilevskis:Oh. Vietnam. But there was something that, we got only a bid from Gaertner Corporation, and we got one from Farrand Optical Co. And we were expecting from Bell and Howell Co. to. The director of research, Lessman, who advised me and had excellent ideas, and I regret that somehow his ideas were not incorporated to measuring machine. But he told that he knows the Bell and Howell Co. will not make money on this type of project. But on the other hand, to keep good people, he has to give them sometimes something real to think about — and so his ideas just were popping. So I expected also a bid from them. But finally everything went to technical budgetary considerations with the Bell and Howell administration which were more important, and so they decided against bidding, and Lessman got so mad that he left Bell and Howell Co. and established a consulting firm in Southern California.
DeVorkin:What is the name of the firm?
Vasilevskis:I think it was under Gerhard Lessman. Yes. I have in my files somewhere a letter from him. His idea was very very good in measurement. Now, Farrand Optical Co. was accustomed to defense projects, and they gave cost plus fixed fee. They didn’t spell out that much how they would achieve it. You have to trust that they will achieve everything. Gaertner was the only one which defined in every detail how they achieve this, every detail worked out, and they were the only one, the only firm which offered a fixed price. So therefore it was inevitable that Gaertner would take it. Gaertner of course was known for accurate work. But it was never known for electronics work of something. And the ideas, of course, and the troubles with machine are solved — the machine is working excellently now did you see it now or not?
DeVorkin:Not this time, but I would like to see it.
Vasilevskis:See it. It has been upgraded. Yes, it is working quietly. It’s just going there, you can work and do some other work. You don’t need to sit at the machine.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes, it is. Now. But, so we accepted Gaertner’s proposal, and then of course I went there and consulted. And here I would say, this is pioneering work. Of course this was the first fully automatic measuring engine ever specified. But the trouble was similar to those which I heard voiced by Russians in a publication about the Carte du Ciel Astrographic catalogue: “If it would have been started 20 years later, it would be finished at least 20 years earlier”. Then after the contract was made, after all the specifications were made and after everything spelled out, after Gaertner started to work — then, you see, the Space Age came.
Vasilevskis:With so many new developments, which of course could not be incorporated already in a project which is started. Still the measurement has served very well, and recently, we got additional money to upgrade it. An on-line computer was installed, and punch cards were replaced by magnetic tapes, and automation was increased to a high degree, so that now the machine’s serving excellently. So it is a beautiful machine, and it cost approximately half a million dollars.
DeVorkin:That was the initial cost? Or is that the total cost?
Vasilevskis:I think upgrading cost $50,000. Initial cost was $450,000. But this was two machines, as you may remember — there is a survey machine and measuring machine.
DeVorkin:I recall the survey machine had been in operation quite a few years before the measuring machine.
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. And this you see was delayed pretty much — an unfortunate thing, yes. The machine was delayed.
DeVorkin:Let me ask you a question at this point. The measuring machine that was on the Gaertner design, the one that was finally worked out, does not use a long screw, and you indicated why.
Vasilevskis:Which you mean? The automatic machine? Yes.
DeVorkin:Yes, right. Now, Strand, during this period of time, which has now spanned well over a decade of time, came out with his own automatic machine, which did utilize a screw. Was he working on an automatic design at the time that you presented you original proposal?
DeVorkin:He started after you —?
Vasilevskis:He started after, and his machine was finished later, but it is not with a screw.
DeVorkin:Oh, I thought it was.
Vasilevskis:No, it is not. It is called a Farrante grating. It’s British. Now, we were considering this design by the way. I was fortunate also in that just at the stage when I was trying to write specifications for this, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory were also thinking about automatic measurement of bubble chamber tracks, so they heard then about my project, so we came together. I was with the Radiation Laboratory over here in Berkeley. And then we had common discussions, you see, and I could benefit from their knowledge of many things I wasn’t aware. And they could benefit from many investigations and knowledge of mine.
DeVorkin:Who were you in contact with?
Vasilevskis:I think it was Hugh Bradner — I forgot — I went to one symposium together with him.
DeVorkin:Do you have letters? Correspondence?
Vasilevskis:I have, yes. I have letters in my files. At Lick Observatory.
DeVorkin:They’re all there? I see.
Vasilevskis:Yes. Now, if you find that you would need something, just drop me a note here, and I will then look for things which are missing.
DeVorkin:OK. When you did get the money and appropriations, was it understood that you would be getting the survey machine before the measuring machine?
DeVorkin:You thought you’d be getting them both at the same time?
DeVorkin:But the technical difficulties with the measuring machine were greater?
Vasilevskis:That’s right, yes. And as it turned out, Gaertner didn’t have a very strong department in electronics. At Gaertner there were some difficulties, you see. There were different noises and so which were very difficult to eliminate. And now at Lick, you see, the upgrading was done completely by Lick electronics laboratory, because now Lick laboratory is excellent, regarding the man power. See, there is Lloyd Robinson, who is known for development of the Robinson-Wampler Scanner, and so he’s excellent at computers. So therefore upgrading is all electronic. There was nothing mechanical that had to be changed in upgrading. But the electronics had to be changed completely, because it had electrical parts that were still mechanical — relays and you know, relays are not always reliable. Now there are these printed cards for circuits, which are much more reliable, and so now the machine is marvelous.
DeVorkin:Could I ask you, at that time, Weitbrecht was already involved to a certain extent in producing an automated camera for the 36-inch refractor.
Vasilevskis:Yes. It was a little later. I think it was in ‘61 or ‘62 when Weitbrecht was involved in this.
DeVorkin:Was there any interest on the part of Stanford Research Institute or Weitbrecht or anyone else in associating his capabilities with the measuring engine? Or was this completely separate?
Vasilevskis:This was separate. This was when we contracted to the firm. No outside output was possible.
DeVorkin:So Gaertner had the entire contract.
Vasilevskis:Yes. And as a matter of fact, here I tried but I didn’t succeed. I specified only that no mechanical screw can be involved. So Gaertner came with this quartz scales, engraved lines on quartz ready by plate micrometers, you know the plate is rotated and then the measurement is interpolation between divisions, so this is done. And Lessman in my office came with one brilliant idea — and I regret very much that Lessman’s idea was not incorporated in Gaertner’s design and I’ll tell you about this idea.
DeVorkin:He was from Bell?
Vasilevskis:He was from Bell and Howell Co. But I suggested indirectly to Gaertner maybe they could think of this something. But when the contract was made, the president of Gaertner was Dr. Jacobson, who was collaborator and personal friend of Schlesinger’s. He had a brilliant mind. He was president, but he was a very poor financial president, but he was a very very good physicist and very good in technical things. But already he was old, and so therefore, he was thinking about this scale, you see, as it appears in manual machines — there are some mechanical scales and then you read this of course manually, you are using microscope micrometer, and interpolating. Now, he said, this will be automatic with plate micrometer. It’s fine. But still this is not complete innovation. You can see the remnants of the manual machines. Lessman had a different idea, which I liked much better, which is the same as with Farrante grating which Strand used. But the Farrante grating had the minimum unit of one micron. And even when I was interested, I was considering Farrante, then from what information I had, this micron accuracy could not even be guaranteed. But even if it can be guaranteed, I thought that you can get one micron with an automatic setting and you should get even maybe better. So that if you don’t have decimals of microns, decimals may not mean very much, but at least in computation, rounding off effects with only one micron may mean that you may get two microns. And that way, you are back to the accuracy what manual machine can do. This was one reason why I rejected the Farrante grating.
DeVorkin:At that time.
Vasilevskis:At that time. And when I was in Holland, from Holland I went to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, where they have an automatic machine called Galaxy Automatic Measuring engine which is very efficient. There are many things which could be taken over from Lick machine. But on the other hand, this is extremely efficient.
DeVorkin:The Galaxy was at Greenwich or was it at Edinburgh?
Vasilevskis:Edinburgh was the first, but the second is at Greenwich. The first one is being converted into the “Cosmos”. But one thing with Galaxy, of course Galaxy means “General Automatic Luminosity” something, I don’t remember.
DeVorkin:The technique you were going to talk to me about, that was devised by Lessman —
Vasilevskis:Yes. I will tell you now … (coffee break…) The Lessman design and Farrante grating have one thing in common. Also the Lessman machine could give you a fraction of a micron. And Lessman’s idea came simply while he was sitting in my office. I should mention, I specified no screw should be used. He asked “You mean a screw gives mechanical contact with the nut”? “Yes”. He again asked “But if there is a screw without mechanical contact, would you object to this”? I said, “By no means”. “Fine. There here is my idea”, he told. To have one precise metal screw, divided. And then, outside, on nut, which is not made of metal, but some nonconductive material. But this nut would not touch the screw.
DeVorkin:Do you mean air space?
Vasilevskis:Yes, an air space.
DeVorkin:There would be an air space, OK.
Vasilevskis:Then, on the inside of this nut, there would be a metal strip. Now, with this technique, it is possible to make a metal strip — so that on each of the field two of them, so that they would act as capacitors, with this metal screw. And now, if the capacity is not equal, on both sides then a signal is supplied. Then the screw will move up till the capacity is equal. So that it would go now, you see, without touching the nut, only instead of the mechanical contact with his holding nut into such position, in reference to the screw, now these capacitors would hold. The advantage of this as with the Farrante grating is that you can immediately, read off the present position of the screw, you see, without having micrometers, which take time to center, to go. Of course the Farrante grating also gives immediately a count of how far you went. You get the position directly so that you would improve the speed. But Gaertner was not willing to consider it.
DeVorkin:Why was that? Because of Jacobson and his more mechanical way of doing things?
Vasilevskis:This might be one reason. But it was a fixed fee contract. And the Lessman screw already was patented, it’s used at Bureau of Standards.
DeVorkin:Oh, it is used at Bureau of Standards?
Vasilevskis:Bureau of Standards, Lessman told me. So they just would not risk it. In any case, Gaertner lost $200,000 on this machine. Because of the unforeseen difficulties. And you see, again, they were hoping to finish this maybe in four years time, and it took seven years to finish, and that’s why, inflation made so many difficulties you couldn’t foresee. So this is the machine. Now, maybe in order to wind up this proper motion program, I wanted to mention, that there was one yellow-corrected lens installed also in the 20-inch.
DeVorkin:Right, but the blue lens was the first lens?
Vasilevskis:Yes and the history flow may be of interest to you. Wright had no interest in double astrograph.
DeVorkin:I didn’t know that.
Vasilevskis:But Trumpler was interested. When Trumpler was at Lick Observatory, he was interested to have photographs in blue and in red. And so far as I know, I heard that Trumpler was twisting Wright’s arm to design a double astrograph, and put one blue, one red lens. But by the time the astrograph was made, and the blue lens was designed, and before that I think, Trumpler left Mt. Hamilton, and he went there only for a couple of times to observe, but then he didn’t to observe.
DeVorkin:He was retired.
Vasilevskis:No, he was active at Berkeley still.
DeVorkin:Do you mean he actually left Lick full time?
Vasilevskis:Went full time to Berkeley. Oh yes.
DeVorkin:Do you know why he did that?
Vasilevskis:The main reason was quite personal, because of his large family, his many children. There were hardships. Half the children were already ready to go to high school. You see, this is to expensive. This problem was for several astronomers. W. Bidelman moved down from Mt. Hamilton to San Jose, and commuted just because of the lack of these things. Mayall, of course, didn’t move, but also there were other difficulties when children there were of high school age where there is no high school. So this has been problem at Mt. Hamilton, which has been solved in Santa Cruz. So there was no push for the red lens. And Wright it seems didn’t bother about it, so that only blue lens was made and was installed, and the empty tube just was loaded, fortunately with big chunks of iron, so that if the lens would be ever put in, so that the instrument wouldn’t need to be re-designed.
DeVorkin:So this explains why the telescope was originally designed for two lenses, but the yellow lens was so much later in coming.
DeVorkin:It wasn’t a financial thing?
Vasilevskis:No. It was just, it seems that Trumpler’s pressure was off, and Wright didn’t care about it. In those days the feeling was so that for astronometry, you shouldn’t use filters and you shouldn’t use another color. The most efficient was a blue corrected lens, a photographic lens, and therefore there is no question about this. When Shane became director and became interested, he wanted to install the second lens, the red lens.
DeVorkin:A red lens?
Vasilevskis:And the same with Trumpler. Not yellow but red lens. Yellow lens was my idea. By that time, James Baker was research fellow at the observatory. He became an optician and headed up optical design, so that he did plenty of design, but he wanted still to be an astronomer. So he was very happy as a research associate at Lick Observatory, without any pay, and Shane asked him to design a red lens. By that time, he was in optical design, and Shane bought glass from Schott, it was brought to Lick Observatory and stored.
DeVorkin:— for the red lens?
Vasilevskis:For the red lens. Four pieces of glass. And then Baker started work. Some of this is in my one article on yellow lens where history is explained.  Shane changed specifications a couple of times. Then, Baker was very late with his design, so he didn’t design the lens, and when I came into the picture, when it was in my lap, I started to calculate. The pressure for red lens was taken off because of the Palomar Survey. The Palomar Survey took photographs in blue and red.
Vasilevskis:But now I still thought to keep the other lens for the empty tube, so let’s try to think about the lens, Then I figured, about red lens, I didn’t there see any advantage. First, there would be no advantage to take say two photographs with both lenses, because the red lens is approximately three times less efficient, so it would mean that it would not get the same limiting magnitude.
DeVorkin:Why did Trumpler want a red lens?
Vasilevskis:I think for cluster work maybe, I don’t know.
DeVorkin:The UBV system had not been standardized then, I guess.
Vasilevskis:No, it had not been standardized, but at least he wanted to get faint cluster members. He was engaged in clusters. He wanted to extract some photometric information about them. But I was told that Trumpler’s idea it was the red lens. Maybe partly for the same reasons why red photographs were taken at Palomar Plates, because the red could get H alpha.
DeVorkin:In the case of the Palomar Survey, where there is very little absorption by glass with the Schmidt design —
DeVorkin:But in the case of a four element lens, like the one that would be designed for the 20 inch astrograph, it was far less efficient than something in the middle.
Vasilevskis:Yes, but you see, when this idea by Trumpler was, there was nothing at Palomar. It was before Palomar.
DeVorkin:And before Schmidt too.
Vasilevskis:And absorption in blue is much higher than absorption in red.
DeVorkin:In the near-red, yes.
Vasilevskis:But the main thing, absorption is not as high as one imagines. You lose more light by reflections than by absorption. Your four surfaces, or actually eight surfaces given quite a reflection loss but not much absorption. Except selective absorption in ultraviolet. When I came, I saw that there is no point, you see, to have red lens, but I started to calculate, and form that if you take well designed yellow lens then actually in a two hour exposure you practically can reach all stars you have with the blue one, except the bluest ones, maybe, the real blue stars.
DeVorkin:— This was your thinking well after the UBV system?
Vasilevskis:Oh yes. That would represent pretty much the V—system. And therefore I wrote specifications, made experiments and so on, designed all the corrections which we wanted, put this application to NSF and there wasn’t any question of money, and it was made by Perkin Elmer, the second lens. And so we have the second yellow lens. And it’s too bad the yellow lens wasn’t installed from the very beginning, because images are so much better than with the blue lens. You see, the yellow lens would be the first epoch. You would have a check now, you see. You would have proper motions from two instruments, actually quite independent. Now I’m quite convinced there will be a third epoch. Now, you see, the second epoch is taken in both lenses. And also, now instead of two original plates measured, there’s three for every field, because blue is first epoch plate and blue and yellow second epoch plate. This will give colors, so you have the colors, these color indicators, and yellow lens will serve as the first epoch for the third epoch when it comes eventually. It will come because the accuracy will be much increased, first by the expanded time interval, second by double photography. So this is the yellow lens. This is all what I can say about the proper motion program and my part in this.
DeVorkin:You also have, of course, the cluster program that you were maintaining.
DeVorkin:It started also early in the fifties, and in addition you had the parallaxes which you later took on, late fifties and sixties.
DeVorkin:But considering that amount of time that we have left, I think I wouldn’t want to start on either of those now, but I would like to ask you something about the early fifties, and the committee of astronomers that you were involved in, in translating journals. How did this committee come about? And specifically you were identified as a foreign astronomer who had come to the United States as a result of the war, and I want to know the astronomical community accepted you here in the United States, and how you felt about it, so maybe it had something to do with this committee, I’m not sure, but I’d like you to talk about that.
Vasilevskis:You see, first I can say that I have been accepted excellently by all the personnel. I have never felt that I am a foreigner, or stranger. Yes. So I cannot mention a single man on the staff who would show any resentment. I was on extremely good terms with not only all five directors, but also with everyone, including instrument makers and janitors, so that this was no problem. But regarding this translation, it was very simple. See, the editor of the NEWSLETTERS was Otto Struve, and as soon as I arrived, on his first trip to Mt. Hamilton, he asked me whether I could also do translation. Now we come to a story which certainly should not be published now. Struve was a very outspoken man, and sometimes not quite maybe, well, too tactful. So he asked me to translate. I immediately started to translate. And as soon as I made first batch of translations, I sent them to him. I was quite new. Struve of course was well known. I was a little uneasy how my translations were.
DeVorkin:Was this in 1951?
Vasilevskis:No, 1950, I think. It was the very beginning. Well, when he came next time, I asked him, “How were they”? He thanked me for my translations. I asked if they were acceptable. “Oh yes, they were excellent, no difficulty”. “See, I had no difficulties with Vyssotsky. But one man who causes me all the trouble is Sergei Gaposchkin”, he told me. He continued “So you know, he forgot his Russian. He hadn’t learned English. In addition he doesn’t know astronomy and when he translates here, I have to retranslate everything, here”. This of course should be taken out. But he was not discreet, you see. Struve was very outspoken. So this is all my involvement.
DeVorkin:This was “The Abstract of Russian Papers on Astronomy” —
Vasilevskis:Yes, it was ‘53. It is later than I thought. Yes. I thought that it was earlier. But then, this work died down, then also, of course it was discontinued and my duties were also stopped. But contact was completely between Struve and me. I knew Vyssotsky personally. I met him several times. I respect him very much and he was very fine man, fine astronomer, there’s no question there.
DeVorkin:Well, it’s evident Struve made the choices of the other people you would translate.
Vasilevskis:Yes. Struve was the complete manager then.
Vasilevskis:In the publications maybe there was a committee involved. But the people who were to translate were selected by Struve. That I know.
DeVorkin:And so it’s possible that he wasn’t aware of Sergei Gaposchkin’s limitations or his personality before he asked him?
Vasilevskis:Possibly. I don’t know. It’s very interesting with Struve — he never tried to speak to me in Russian. Of course, he knew that I know Russian. But the only thing that I knew was, he knows Russian because of his NEWSLETTERS, and also when the IAU meeting was in Moscow, then we had a display there, there was I think some exhibit, and I had to supply the description of the photographs, so then I wrote them in Russian, but still, since Russian is not my native language and it was native language for Struve, I wanted him to read them. He read them and made a couple of corrections, so that I saw that he is excellent in Russian. But he never tried. Other Russians, like Pogo who was librarian at Mt. Wilson —
Vasilevskis:Alexander Pogo, yes. When he saw me, then I knew that I cannot get away without half an hour, speaking Russian because he wanted to talk in Russian. He was just longing to have someone to talk Russian with. But Struve — never. I don’t know why. We always had conversation — both we had accent of course in English, but somehow, he always, and I never tried to. So maybe he felt that I don’t want to. speak in Russian, because for both of us, Russians are associated with the present regime, and you know he was quite outspoken against the regime also.
DeVorkin:Well, there’s many things that we want to certainly cover, especially, in addition to the work that we’ve mentioned and your several lines of research, we’ve covered the beginning at least of the proper motion work.
DeVorkin:When we meet again — I’m just going to start this for the end of the tape so I can refer back to it — we will be discussing the parallax work.
Vasilevskis:Yes, and the cluster work.
DeVorkin:And then the people involved, certainly your recollections of Joel Stebbins.
DeVorkin:Did you have professional association with him too?
DeVorkin:So this would be a personal reminiscence.
Vasilevskis:Just personal. Personal. I can say the same about Baade, about Struve, — I have jotted here a couple of notes. And also regarding, I once spoke with Kuiper about astronomy. — we were discussing some people, and then, he said, “You know, the structure of astronomy can be strong and beautiful only when there are good brick layers and there are good architects. We need both of them”. Well, I considered myself as a brick layer. Because you see, I have mostly been engaged in instrumental development and the developments of methods. For example one instrumental problem, on the flexure of the 120-inch reflector, you see. This was such a puzzle that no one could find out the strange behavior of the telescope, and finally Whitford asked me to do something about it. I was not an engineer.
DeVorkin:Did you work with Mayall on this?
No, with Mayall I worked earlier on the testing of the 120-inch mirror. But “Flexure of the Fork-Mounted Telescope”  is under my name.
S. Vasilevskis, Uber Die Wahl Der Sterne Zu Zeit — W. Azimuthbestimmungen, Univ. in Riga, Wissenschaftlicme Abhandlungen, Mathem. Abt., 1, No. 3, 1943.
G. Z. Dimitroff and J. G. Baker. TELESCOPES AND ACCESSORIES (Blakiston, 1945).
AJ 56, 107-109, 1950.
AJ 58, 126-128, 1953.
VISTAS IN ASTRONOMY 15 p. 145. A. Beer, Ed. (Pergamon, 1973).
ASTRONOMICAL NEWSLETTER [1953-1956; Abstracts] AAS PUBL.
Fundamental FK4 Stars
AJ 62, 113-119, 1957.
PASP 76, 14-21, 1964.
Abstracts of Russian Papers on Astronomy see: Op. cit.
AJ 67, 464-470, 1962.
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