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Interview of Sidney Wolff by Patrick McCray on 1999 October 28, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/23363-1
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This is an interview conducted with Dr. Sidney Wolff. The interview was done a few weeks before Dr. Wolff stepped down as Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), a position she held since 1987. The interview was done at her office in Tucson, Arizona. The interview begins with Wolff's childhood, high school education, and undergraduate education. From there, the interview goes on to cover the following topics: her graduate training at Berkeley; research life there as a graduate student; training with George Preston; research on A-peculiar stars; use of research facilities; research with George Wallerstein; marriage to physicist Richard Wolff. Hired at University of Hawaii: new astronomy program at Hawaii; use of the 88-inch telescope there; role of John Jeffries in her career; continuation of research on A-type stars; work and initial conditions at the Institute of Astronomy in Hawaii; first telescopes erected on Mauna Kea; building of the Canadian-France-Hawaiian telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope; service on the 1980 decadal survey in astronomy (the Field committee); debate over telescope construction in the astronomy community; role of the national observatory; changes in astronomy publishing trends; trends in telescope design. Dr. Wolff relocated to Tucson in 1984 to become director of Kitt Peak; was appointed director of NOAO in 1987: Decision to leave Hawaii for Arizona; comparison between Hawaii and national observatory; comments on previous directors of Kitt Peak and NOAO (Leo Goldberg, Geoff Burbidge, John Jeffries); plans for building a new, big national telescope; the National New Technology Telescope project and its discontinuation in 1987; founding of the NOAO 8-meter telescope project which eventually became the Gemini 8-Meter Telescopes finished in 1999 as international effort with telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. Gemini Project: international focus initiated by NSF Director Erich Bloch; other plans to build large telescopes worldwide; allocation of time for NOAO facilities. Funding for astronomy. Role of AURA in Gemini project. Dr. Wolff's role in 1990 decadal survey for astronomy (Bahcall committee); recommendation for Gemini as Ir-optimized telescope. Funding and role for Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave observatory (LIGO). Funding for Gemini; design changes; instruments for Gemini; NOAO's future plans for new large telescopes. Wolff's role in writing astronomy textbooks; ideal astronomy course. Popular perception of astronomy. Role of women in astronomy and changes in their status.
I’m in Tucson, and it’s October 28th. I’m interviewing Sidney Wolff in her office. Okay. I got a copy of your CV and I think what I’d like to do is go in a chronological fashion. Why don’t we start with you and your childhood and memories from that?
I have that you were born in Sioux City, Iowa.
Okay. What was you family like? And your siblings? And your early education? What can you tell me about these things?
I have a brother who is five years younger and a sister who is twelve years younger. My father worked for the Kresge Company, which has since turned into K-Mart, all of his life, actually. He worked there for about a year, then he went into the Marines, and then went back to them when he came out of the Marines after the second world war.
So you were the oldest of three?
Yes. For him each year meant a promotion to a larger store in a different city, so I went to five grade schools and three high schools. I even skipped a year so it’s probably even worse than it looks.
So you graduated when you were 16?
17. Sort of like an Army brat but at a different…
That’s right. Everybody always says, “Were you in the military?” It was the equivalent: all over the Midwest, so Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, all over the Midwest.
Where did you end up going to high school?
Three high schools. One of them was in St. Louis, Missouri. That was my freshman year and it was the year they integrated the schools in St. Louis. I remember what a trauma that was for everybody, and so in this high school of 2,500 students, six black kids showed up the second semester and they spent the whole first semester preparing us for it. It’s hard to believe in this day and age. The second year, I went to Bensonville High School, which is in a suburb of Chicago. Then I went my last two years to York High School, which is in Elmhurst, also, a suburb of Chicago. I got interested in Astronomy in about the third grade when there was a spelling lesson with astronomical words in it. I don’t remember the words, but I got fascinated by astronomy.
What about it fascinated you?
I don’t know. I can’t explain that, but it just was fascinating so I kept reading about it. I never was much of an amateur astronomer although I did spend one summer with my uncle and aunt. He was a high school teacher in Nebraska and they had a telescope for their school and it never worked. So he brought it home and I put it together and got it to work. That was the only time I acted like an amateur astronomer. When I was thinking about college, I wanted a place where I could study astronomy. Having grown up in the Midwest, I only thought about small liberal art schools in the Midwest, and Carleton College offered astronomy and that’s why I went there.
That’s in the southern part of Minnesota.
Right. It’s about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities. One of the best liberal arts schools in the country, very strong in sciences. They showed me a graph— I’m on the Board of Trustees at Carleton College now, and they showed me some data when I was there last week that ranked or looked at the Baccalaureate origins of people who got Ph.D.s in the sciences. They looked at the number of such people over some time period (I can’t remember how long) and the absolute numbers of students. Carleton ranked 28th in the country. No normalization or anything, even though they only have 1,800 students. The top 20 are all places like Caltech, MIT, Harvard and Berkeley and the places that you would expect. Carleton is the highest of the liberal art schools and it’s remarkably high for its size.
Any idea of where that comes from?
Liberal art schools have always done proportionately very well, but I think a lot of it is that they do involve undergraduates in research. I think that that motivates the undergraduates in ways that maybe large universities don’t because large universities tend to concentrate their efforts on the graduate students. A place like Carleton, if the faculty wants to do any research with students it has to be with undergraduates. Carleton says that they think now that there are two reasons that encourage students to stay in sciences. One is working with other students doing science in a way that gives you a sense of community. The second one is engagement in research. Now when I was there, of course, they had separate dormitories for men and women and they locked the women up at 10:30 at night. I was almost always the only woman in my class and there were no ways of interacting with the men in a realistic fashion. I did not have a sense of community and I felt like I did it pretty much on my own because there were no women and it was almost impossible to interact with the men in any formal settings in those days.
Were there many women going to school for the sciences?
Not in the physical sciences. There were always women in pre-med and biology, but really not in physics. I was an astronomy major but I had the equivalent of a physics major and quite a lot of math courses. There tended not to be very many women in any of those areas.
So did you know fairly early on that you would be going to college?
Oh, sure. That was just…
…a given. Both my parents went to college.
So you weren’t the first generation to go or anything at all like that? Okay.
No. I don’t— My mother may have been the first generation in her family. My grandfather, whom I never knew because he died when my father was a teenager, was a Methodist Minister, so surely he had been to college. Neither one of their families had any money and I think that a central fact in their lives was the Depression, which they remembered very well. My grandfather, who was a Methodist Minister, died, left five children, and my grandmother managed to put them all through college with basically no money.
Did they go to state schools in the Midwest?
They both went to Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln, Nebraska.
And your siblings, did they also go on? Did either one of them pursue any careers in science?
Not in science. My brother is a lawyer—he’s a trial lawyer. Very good at argument. My sister went to high school at the time of the Vietnam War and was greatly disaffected with the values of the country at that time. She felt that America was too materialistic among other things and decided that she did not care to live to here, so she moved to England and has lived there ever since.
Really? I mean she was twelve years younger, but even despite that, that’s two very different generations, almost, of American children, yours and hers.
I think that’s right because I was in Berkeley in the ‘60s, but that was when the revolution began. By that time I was in graduate school. She was after the turbulence of the ‘60s. I think that there was another factor that was different for her and that was that my parents were significantly more prosperous by that time than when I was going through school. I may be sweeping to conclusions and I don’t have children, but I have often thought that those people that grow up in prosperous families maybe think that there are more choices open to them or they have more time to find themselves. When I grew up we did not have very much money and, of course, the Depression was the central experience in my parents’ life. I really felt like I had to go straight through and get the job done. I wasn’t going to take four years to find myself.
You got your B.A. in ‘62 and your Ph.D. four years later which is quick by any standard, I think.
That’s right. What my parents told me all the time was that they would support me through college, but not afterwards. I believed them. In fact, they gave me no money for graduate school. It was all fellowships and so forth. I think my sister, growing up in significantly more turbulent and more prosperous times, did not feel that same pressure to get straight on with a career.
Astronomy isn’t always seen as the most practical of training. Was there any indication from your parents to get something that would be more practical? A degree in pharmacy? Or medical school? Or become a lawyer or anything like that?
Not really. My father, I think, played a big role in this and even though he was a businessman he really wished he had studied mathematics longer. He thought it would’ve helped him. He made me take math courses all through high school and he used to do something that is very unfashionable these days, but he would pay me for my grades. It was 50 cents for As and I paid him back a quarter for Bs, but the deal was off unless I had an A in mathematics. He did things like that in kind of a joking way to make sure that I continued math. The key to being able to do science at all is that you don’t give up on math. So the fact that he did that, I think, was very important. I figured you couldn’t make a living in astronomy, which was why I had the equivalent of a physics major, and I really thought I would end up doing something other than astronomy. It didn’t come out that way. I never felt any pressure to do anything but science of some kind. I don’t think my parents pressured me one way or the other, other than sticking with mathematics. I think I knew all the time that I was in college that I was going to graduate school and doing it right away. More people went straight to graduate school in those days than they do now. Students at Carleton now say that they’re burned out after four years. They have to take a couple of years off. Also, in those days you could not borrow money to go to college. Now students come out with enough debt, I think they feel like they have to work for a few years to work off that debt, but that was not an option in those days because you required money to go to college. You saved for it.
Your comment about your father is interesting from studies that I’ve read of women who become very successful in the sciences. Support from the father is often given as a large factor in that being able to take place, and your description fits a parental figure who really supported you and, indeed, encouraged you in that area.
My mother stayed at home. She did not work. She may have taught for one year because I think she got out of school a year before my father did, but basically she never worked and she stayed home. She was quite a shy, I would say almost a timid, person so she was certainly not a role model in terms of having a career or doing science or anything like that. My other big choice—I was very interested in Latin. I had four years of Latin in high school. I won the state Latin contest. I got a perfect score on some National Latin contest. Actually, through the state Latin contest I had a full paid scholarship at the University of Chicago that could’ve gone on through a Ph.D. My father ran stores in the south side of Chicago and he knew what it was like. He said he didn’t care where I went to school, but it could not be the University of Chicago. When I went to Carleton, I took Latin my first year. My big choice came the second year because astronomy and Latin met at the same. It was my sophomore year that I decided which direction to go for sure.
So did you ever consider pursuing a career in the classics, something along those lines?
Up until my sophomore year I sort of did, but then I had to choose and I think I chose the right one.
So what were your school experiences like as an undergrad? What would a typical—What was your program like? Did you have any particular teachers who stood out as good or bad?
We had one teacher who made an enormous difference and his name was Robert Kolenkow. He was a physics professor. I remember that my senior year, my husband-to-be and I had to decide where to go to graduate school. We had been admitted three places: Harvard, Wisconsin, and Berkeley. I didn’t especially want to go to Harvard because it was pretty expensive and we didn’t have much money. Wisconsin gave us very generous fellowships. Berkeley, since we were from the Midwest, seemed very far away and kind of risky. A number of Carleton students had had difficulty in the physics department out there. The question was, what to do? We were all set to go to Wisconsin. What Kolenkow said to us was, “When you’re faced with a choice between two things, you should pick the harder one because, unless you really challenge yourself, you’ll never know what you could accomplish.” He turned it around and we went to Berkeley and I’m very glad we did.
So you met your husband when you were at Carleton.
Um hmm [yes]. We dated starting our junior year.
Looking through your CV I’m assuming that’s the R. Wolff that’s in there.
Right. We got married in August after we graduated from Carleton.
So that would have been ‘63.
‘62. Okay. So whenever you were first studying astronomy as an undergraduate, were there any particular activities that you liked with the theory or observations or any particular interest that you pursued?
I’ve always headed towards the observations. We did a little bit of observing in Minnesota, but not a lot. The professor we had was very protective of his telescopes and so he didn’t let students use them very much, something I have to say has changed radically since he left. Which is a good thing, since he retired. We did practical astronomy. We actually made measurements with meridian circles. We learned a lot of spherical geometry and very classical astronomy. In that era, you have to remember that we were just beginning to understand about stellar evolution and we knew almost nothing about the evolution of galaxies. It was in that era that Abell published the first textbook that really focused on astrophysics.
Exploration of the Universe. It’s the textbook. I now write a textbook that just came out. We took over Abell’s text, David Morrison and I, and it has evolved substantially since. That was really the first one that was centered on astrophysics as opposed to practical astronomy. It was kind of on the cusp of that era.
So stellar evolution, evolution of galaxies, these were seen as pretty exciting.
Evolution of galaxies was something we didn’t know about. It was really the era when people were first constructing models of stars, understanding the evolution of stars and why the H-R diagram is the way it is, and how various regions get populated. That was the focus with stellar research in those days. What I did for my thesis in graduate school was stellar astronomy.
At this point did your family have any particular response to your choice of career? Being an astronomer?
Not really…not really.
As long as you could support yourself?
Um hmm [yes].
Okay. At this time what did you envision a career in sciences being like? When you looked to the future, did you have a particular idea of what it would be? Would it be teaching somewhere or?
Well, when I first went to Berkeley, I naturally had this image of going back and teaching at a place like Carleton. At Berkeley, at least one professor said very explicitly that if that was all I wanted to do, they were wasting their time with me. They really were trying to train research astronomers. Naturally you would take on some of the values of the place where you are, so I think that had an impact. They did not value teaching. I would have to say if I were teaching, I would much rather teach at a place like Carleton than at a major state university, because Carleton has time to deal with the students as individuals. The classes are small, the students are very good, and I think it would be richly rewarding to teach there. I did teach briefly at the University of Hawaii. While I enjoyed it, I had two sections back to back with 225 students each and no T.A.s and no graders. That’s not teaching. That’s just processing students. You do the best you can, but it doesn’t offer the same rewards as teaching at a place like Carleton. Then, having been inculcated with the ideas of Berkeley, I really imagined focusing primarily on research, and doing it at a major research institution. I still had this picture, I think, of sitting in my office as kind of a quasi hermit doing my own thing. Of course, it didn’t work out that way either.
Your husband at this time, was he also more pointed towards research as well?
Yes, and he was in the physics department at Berkeley so his Ph.D. is in physics. When we finished, we wanted positions together at the same place and in those days it was a lot easier to do than it is now. We interviewed several places, but one of the places was the University of Hawaii, which at that time had— this was spring 1967. They had money to build a telescope on Mauna Kea but they hadn’t started it yet. A friend of mine from graduate school, Anne Boesgaard, had gone to the island with her husband, who was going to be the engineer for the building of the first telescope on Mauna Kea.
The husband was?
Yes, and she was an astronomer. She talked us into interviewing in Hawaii. When we went out there it was such a new place and they were so desperate for staff that I never even gave a colloquium to persuade them to hire me. They spent the whole three days trying to talk me into going there. So my husband went there in the physics department and I went there with the astronomy program.
I would like to talk about your graduate training at Berkeley. Who did you work with? Who was your primary advisor there?
And what was his particular area of interest?
Primarily interested in stellar astronomy in two areas. He did a lot of work on RR Lyrae stars, which are variable stars that can be used to quite accurate distances, and so they’re useful for probing the structure of the galaxy, for example. The other area was peculiar A stars, stars with strong magnetic fields. I did my thesis on the peculiar A stars.
I noticed you had several publications on Ap stars. It took me a little bit of research to figure out what the P after the A was. So what is a peculiar star?
These stars have the temperatures of A stars, which means they’re in the range of 10,000 degrees, give or take a few thousand degrees. They have very strong magnetic fields. They also have peculiar abundances of elements so they are rich in things like holmium, dysprosium, neodymium, europium and things that you don’t see in normal stars. A lot of them are also variable with fixed periods. Usually over a few days, you’ll see the strengths of the lines increase and decrease. All of this was known, but there was not a very good understanding of why. There were big debates in those days about whether the anomalous abundances were due to nucleosynthesis processes that had somehow produced them, or whether it had to do with the stratification of the elements in the atmosphere. What we now know is that radiation pressure can drive certain elements up in an atmosphere, and if the radiation pressure is lower than average, certain elements will sink. It depends on where the lines are for each of the ionization states and exactly what the balance is between radiation pressure and the other forces in the atmosphere. We now know that these stars are unusually stable because they have magnetic fields which inhibits meridional circulation and convection and so forth. You can get the stratification of elements and you can produce the peculiar abundances. Also, some elements move well along magnetic field lines and not across field, so you can concentrate certain elements, say at the region of the magnetic poles. The magnetic pole is inclined to the rotation pole, so as a star rotates you see variations in line strengths and the spots come in and out of view. When we started all of this, we didn’t know that.
So these elements are not— I mean they’re distributed very unequally then.
Very unequally over the surface of the star. In those days we were trying to understand the basic physics of these stars, what caused the over-abundances. What was the nature of the magnetic field and how close was it to a dipole? Were the magnetic fields primordial or could they somehow have been created afterwards? Just a lot of the basic properties. It turns out that these stars I think are an interesting laboratory for the physics of stellar atmospheres because the atmospheres are so stable that you see phenomenon there that you don’t see anywhere else. I don’t think they have anything much to do with the global issues of stellar evolution, because they’re just kind of a peculiar class– about 10 percent of the stars do this in this particular temperature regime. The reason you don’t see them elsewhere is that as you go cooler, for example, you get a lot of convection at the surface that keeps the elements stirred up and you don’t get the stratification. The Ap stars were interesting, but I have to say they didn’t lead anywhere. Now if it had turned that it was somehow nucleosynthesis going on in the atmospheres of these things producing all these strange abundances, then they would have been a pretty amazing phenomenon.
Working with these Ap stars, was this your first research project or was this something that, after a period of time at Berkeley, you began to do?
I actually did some other research with George Wallerstein on things like binary stars, primarily, and identification of elements so that you could do abundances in metal poor stars and so forth. I did this project for my thesis with George Preston.
What was he like as an advisor?
He was a lot of fun. In the first place, he’s very clever and very imaginative and very creative. There are some people who are just smarter than you are and you know that, right? He was in that category, but he was also a lot of fun. He was always joking and having a good time. He was also 6’7,” which I am not. He was the first one to show me how to use a telescope, and I did a lot of my observations for my thesis on a telescope called the Crossley at Lick Observatory. You operated there at the Newtonian focus up at the top end of the telescope, so you’re operating about 30 feet off the floor on some narrow platform. He could do things with that telescope, because he was 6’7,” that I just simply couldn’t do. Anyway, he was a lot of fun. He subsequently went to Mt. Wilson in Pasadena, but I continued to work with him because the first three or four years that I was in Hawaii we didn’t have any telescopes. I continued to go back to Pasadena and see him and get plates that he would give me. He did a lot to help me maintain continuity of research while I was waiting for a telescope.
How was your work at this time funded? Or I guess what I’d like to do is get a picture of what a graduate student’s life at Berkeley was like at that time.
I’m trying to remember. The first year I was on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. The second year I worked for George Wallerstein on a research grant that he had. I can’t remember the third year and whether that was still George Wallerstein or not. The fourth year, I had a fellowship from Berkeley itself.
Okay. Did you teach during this period as well?
I never had a teaching assistant.
Okay, so you were in a research assistant position then.
Uh hmm [yes]. The first year with the Woodrow Wilson fellowship, I didn’t have to do anything. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I think it probably would’ve been better if I’d been more integrated in the department and been working for somebody either as a T.A. or an R.A. from the beginning. The first year I wasn’t, so I simply took courses and got some momentum built up. Then I worked as a research assistant the rest of the time.
And what was Berkeley like at this time?
It’s a pretty amazing place. Because that was the time of the free speech movement and that was where…that’s a lot of where the ‘60s were happening. I have to say that the science students were more observers than participants. I can remember going to big student meetings in the Greek Theater on campus and seeing Mario Savio yanked from the stage by some cop dragging him off by grabbing him around the neck, and all the demonstrations on campus. I remember all of that and we certainly stood around and talked about this. I can remember Louie Henyey, who did stellar interiors, coming out in the hallway one time. We were just discussing politics, and he kind of sniffed and said, “Surely you have better things to do than this.” I think that was the attitude of a lot of the scientists, that it was going on around us more than we were participating in it. Inevitably you come out of that experience with some ideas about, I don’t know, some idealism, some notion that government ought to be a force for good, but I’m no longer convinced that it is very effective.
Your other students and the faculty, how did they fit into the picture of your life at that time? Were there any that you were particularly close with or ones that you enjoyed work with?
Well, I think the two really important were George Preston and George Wallerstein, with whom I did research. There was an astronomer named Dick Michie, who taught a course my freshman year, and he subsequently died of cancer very young. He was the best professor I ever had. He was teaching physics to astronomers, so he was picking out those things in general relativity and radiation physics and quantum mechanics that an astronomer really needed to know. He had such a good understanding of the physics that he could do that. He had a good understanding of all of these different areas and so he could then abstract the things that were relevant to astronomy. He was wonderful. It’s not very often where you could take one one-semester course from a person and he has as much impact as much as Michie did, so he was special. Most of the students at Berkeley then have stayed in astronomy. Anne Boesgaard, who was a year ahead of me, remains one of my best friends. We were in Hawaii together for 17 years and we still go out there every year for Thanksgiving so we’re on our way again this year. For more than 30 years we’ve been doing that.
Her husband was one the who worked with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, or this was the University of Hawaii telescope.
The University of Hawaii telescope, the 88-inch. He did the 88-inch and then he went to work for Keck, so he was mechanical engineer on the Keck Project.
How about the facilities at UC Berkeley? You mentioned using the Crossley reflector.
They had a program whereby graduate students could go spend the summer at Lick Observatory, and both Richard and I did that a couple of summers. Then I did my observing there, so I just commuted down there to observe. I needed a combination of photometry, which I did myself on the 36-inch Crossley and spectroscopy. George Preston did a lot of the spectroscopy that I needed with the 120-inch. Students in those days weren’t allowed to use it themselves, but he used my project as a filler. My stars were mostly bright and easy to observe and so he was doing them when conditions weren’t good enough for his own programs.
And your dissertation topic again was on the type A stars. You probably mentioned in the course of talking, but any particular reason why you picked that?
Well, George Preston called me up one day and he said, “Sidney I have this problem, how would you like to work on it?” In those days, we didn’t know even the temperatures of the peculiar A stars because they have all of these peculiar lines in their atmospheres that distorts the energy distribution. You can’t look at the colors of the star and expect to get a temperature out of it. What I was trying to do was quantify the impact of the lines on the energy distribution, correct for that, and get accurate temperatures so that we would know whether we really had… A-type stars.
…Some students finish up their dissertation and never want to see the topic again, but judging from the work that you’ve done you pursued it for quite a while.
What the thesis was, was mainly understanding the temperatures, and then what I did after that was more “what’s the nature of the magnetic fields and what’s the nature of variability?.’ I kept working on the same kind of star but answered different questions. No, I enjoyed it. It was interesting. I like to say in retrospect that I think that the Ap stars are primarily interesting in and of themselves, rather than that they help you understand some large question about stellar evolution. When we started out, you couldn’t know what was going to happen.
So you finished in ‘66 from UC Berkeley.
And then shortly thereafter you ended up at Lick.
My husband Richard was still finishing his thesis and so he finished in about August, I guess, of that year. George Preston gave me a post-doc. I can’t remember how it was funded, whether it was observatory funding or whether he had a grant. I can’t remember. The staff at Lick Observatory had moved to Santa Cruz, I think, in about November of ‘66. It had been a staff that was resident with the observatory. Ever since the founding there had been a resident staff assigned to live up there. The university decided that they didn’t want to continue that. They wanted to run what was an observing station. As I understand it, they gave the staff the choice of being distributed among the University of California campuses or moving as a staff down to UC Santa Cruz, which was a brand new campus in those days. They picked Santa Cruz, so what I did was commute down to Santa Cruz. I would go once a week or once every other week and stay for a couple of days and work with George. I did the rest of my work back at Berkeley.
By this point, were you able to use the 120-inch at Lick?
No, I never did, not on my own. Richard and I had both looked for jobs that spring. We visited Hawaii at the very beginning of May and it was obvious to me that that’s where I wanted to go.
What did you like about Hawaii? I mean, it was a brand new program at the time, wasn’t it?
Um hmm [yes]. There were a half dozen astronomers there, most of them were solar astronomers. There were only two nighttime astronomers there at the time and no telescopes. I think it was partly the thought that at a place like Hawaii we could really make a difference. There wasn’t anything there, so how well we did would have some impact. A place like Caltech, it’s been there for all of this century, practically, and it’s a wonderful place and it’s going to be a wonderful place whether you’re there or not. Hawaii was just different. It presented a whole new, different kind of challenge and, of course, it’s beautiful too.
That’s a very pretty area, certainly. Your husband at this time, was he— I mean were the physics and astronomy departments combined or were they separate?
They were combined.
Okay, so you two had—
I actually had an appointment in what they called the Institute for Astronomy. Hawaii realized that it wanted to develop strength in certain of the sciences where the student enrollment would never justify the size of the program they were trying to develop. And so they had research institutes, and one of them was in astronomy. They had another one in geophysics, and I don’t remember what else. I had a research position in astronomy, and my husband started out with an appointment in the physics department. He transferred to the Institute for Astronomy after a few years (I can’t remember how many). But he’s always been interested in instruments and software and so he has a lot of skills that are valuable in astronomy. He decided he preferred that to teaching.
I’ve been doing these interviews with astronomers for about the past 15 months and one of the things that has struck me is there are a lot of couples in astronomy. Is this just— am I getting some weird sample size or do you think that’s fairly true?
A fair fraction of the women in astronomy are married to men in astronomy. The reverse isn’t true because the numbers don’t work out right. I think it’s true. Although in our case we got married before we ever got near graduate school. But people got married younger in those days than they do now.
It just strikes me as really interesting. I was just seeing the names in course catalogues and going, “Oh so and so is married…” It’s just always a really interesting coincidence to me and I was wondering if I was on to some larger demographic pattern or not.
A large fraction, I don’t know what the fraction is, but a large fraction of women in astronomy are married to men in astronomy.
I mean I asked a male astronomer this one time and his response was basically that male astronomers just were completely socially clueless. All of a sudden woke up one day and realized that there was a women astronomer nearby and the natural impulse was, “Well, I must marry them.”
That’s right. I mean it’s easier than going out and looking for somebody and working at it hard, right?
Right. So in Hawaii were you continuing with the same research that you had been doing as your graduate and postgraduate training?
Well, certainly for the first few years, when we didn’t have a telescope, I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. It was George Preston who really kept me alive. I have to say that after the telescope got finished and was dedicated in 1970, it was probably in regular science operation by about a year later. I would say that since about that time, research has not actually been my primary activity. What happened in Hawaii was, as is often the case with brand new telescopes, the telescope was not working very well. It was not very reliable. It was awfully hard to get data from it. I may have taken the first scientific plate with that telescope. If I didn’t, Ann did and then she went home and I took the second one. I can’t remember. It didn’t work very well and I was getting extremely frustrated. I went to John Jefferies (you should talk to him). I said, “Look, this telescope doesn’t work and I can’t do my research. If you don’t do something about it, I’m going to leave.” He put me in charge of the telescope.
That’s a way to solve the problem.
That’s right. So I’m afraid that I have been trapped into running things ever since.
How do you feel about that? Do you wish that you had stayed more strictly research? Clearly from your position here you’re good at it?
I’m probably better at this than I ever was at research, so I have enjoyed it. My father managed people all of his life. I don’t know whether some of that rubbed off or just some of the basic personal characteristics rubbed off, but I have enjoyed it. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to be an administrator for the sake of being an administrator. I never had the ambition to go back to run programs at a university or something like that because I really do like astronomy and I like managing astronomy. I really wanted to stay close to the subject.
At this time, and this is a very vague question and I apologize for that, but I’m trying to just get a sense of what astronomy was like as a culture and as a science in that point in time, say the early 1970s and what it is like now. Maybe we should save this topic for later on, but I guess it’s something that I like to toss out to think about. I’m trying to just get a sense of how it has changed. Not just in terms of the research topics that people pursue, but just what it means to be an astronomer. Do you have any insight into what it was like back then at that point in time?
One of my role models in astronomy in some sense was George Herbig, who has done a lot of research on pre-main sequence stars. I met him first at Lick Observatory. He’s another one of these people who was very thoughtful and sets a standard that you could never possibly match. He was kind of my role model, the person who sat in his office and thought creative thoughts all by himself. One of the things that worries us—or worries some of us—in astronomy is whether there is still a place for people like that. Big money was starting to come into science in the late ‘60s, but it still was the case where people were, by and large, supported by their university. One of the reasons I’m a little hazy about where the money came from when I was going through graduate school is a lot of it did just come from the university. Science in universities has become big business since then.
The emphasis is on getting grants. At the University of Hawaii in the early days, one of the nice things about that place, I did have grants from the NSF, but the University or the Institute of Astronomy had enough money to keep you alive as a scientist whether you had one or not. It paid for travel to the observatory, travel to science meetings, paid for charges to publish your papers and so forth. So I think that over the last 25 years there has been a greater emphasis on people with a kind of an entrepreneurial spirit. People who want to raise money, who want to establish research groups. The science itself is becoming sufficiently difficult to do, whereas in, say, the late ‘60s, you could expect to understand everything about the project you were doing. From the building of the instrument, to using it to reducing the data, to even developing the theory to interpret the data. By now, I don’t think that the projects that really matter can be encompassed from end to end by a single person. So you’re virtually forced to work in teams.
I think there have been some profound changes. Astronomy, in some sense I think, is still wrestling with the change from being a small science done largely by individuals to big science. For a long time what we said was we used big science facilities. I mean the Hubble space telescopes is probably the most expensive thing ever built for science. We still used it in groups of twos and threes, so yes, big facilities but still done in a kind of small science way with small research groups. I think that that’s changing. If you want to understand the evolution of galaxies of high red shifts you’re going to need large sample sizes, huge databases, tons of observations, and so I think we’re moving past the discovery of individual objects and small problems to try and discover the processes that got us from a nearly smooth universe in the beginning to the complex world we live in today. It’s just a much bigger effort. I think it’s not only the facilities that are taking us in the direction of big science, but the way we have to work with masses of data.
Do you have any sense of what is leading that? You mentioned the facilities and the nature of the science problems that people are working on and the funding. Are any of those leading the process or are they all intimately bound together?
I think they’re pretty intimately bound together, but I think we’re driven in that direction whether we want to be or not because of the kinds of questions we want to answer. Right now you would like to know how and when large-scale structure in the universe evolved. We now know what we didn’t know ten years ago, that galaxies evolve at red shifts that we can actually observe, so now you don’t only have to do the theory of the evolution of galaxies, you can actually see it happen if you work at it. You really have to pick unbiased samples, and there are so many factors that affect the evolution of galaxies: their environment, their metallicity, their mass, all kinds of things, and we can’t run controlled experiments, so all you can do is try to get a fair sample of the universe. That just takes a mass of data. I don’t think you’re going to answer the most important questions now with a few observations.
So it becomes necessary to do surveys and then extended work on the data produced from those?
I think so.
So when you were at Hawaii, what were some of your important collaborations with people that were…
Let me tell you the important thing about Hawaii. I’m going to change your question. The great thing about Hawaii was that when we went out there, there were no telescopes on Mauna Kea. The development of that observatory changed ground based astronomy profoundly.
Tell me about that.
We discovered– Mauna Kea is nearly 14,000 feet high. It has better image quality than practically any site on earth, maybe better than any site on earth. Because it’s so high, it’s superb for infrared astronomy which people were just beginning to do in those days. The first useful infrared detectors were becoming available about the time we started developing Mauna Kea. The site for Kitt Peak was picked in 1958 and nobody even looked at mountains over 10,000 feet because there was no particular scientific reason to go that high and it’s hard to work above 10,000 feet. When we went to Mauna Kea, we found superb image quality and dryness because you’re above most of the water vapor. The dryness for infrared astronomy really changed what people thought they could do from the ground. I think it’s been a key step in the development of ever more ambitious ground-based facilities.
When we started out there— and John Jefferies deserves the credit for Mauna Kea. When we started out there, there was a lot of hostility in the astronomical community to the development of Mauna Kea. There were people who would send around literature from the Air Force about how pilots have to breath oxygen over 10,000 feet, which is true because their thinking is not too clear, and so forth. They asked how we could possibly run a high tech facility at 14,000 feet, held active campaigns against putting the telescope up there. There was a person at NASA named Bill Brunk who funded the project; I think he took an enormous chance, though I’m not sure a government official would have the nerve to take it these days. It was a very important development.
We put the telescope (our 88-inch telescope) up there and we had a couple of 24-inch telescopes. One of the 24-inch telescopes was part a network of seven telescopes that took pictures of the planets, particularly Mars and Jupiter, and looked for changes in the atmosphere. When the French were looking for a site to put their telescope, they looked at the images from this network of telescopes and concluded that Mauna Kea produced consistently the best images. It was on that basis that the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope went to Hawaii. I think that that was a crucial step in the development because that meant that we weren’t crazy any more, that some other group had looked at the information they had and decided it was the best available site, with the possible exception of Northern Chile. We still need to verify how good the seeing and so forth is in Chile. Mauna Kea is the best site in the world.
Tell me about John Jefferies. You mentioned early that you wanted to come back to that.
I think he’s had the most influence on my professional career of anybody. You read a lot about mentors and so on; he’s the one. He went to Hawaii as a solar astronomer in the early ‘60s. He’s Australian by origin and went to Hawaii to run the solar program. NASA, Gerard Kuiper from the University of Arizona, you’ve probably heard the name.
Was doing site surveys in Hawaii for a location for a planetary telescope and he surveyed Haleakala and Mauna Kea.
Haleakala is on?
Maui, and it’s about 10,000 feet. He decided that either one was suitable for a planetary telescope that would do infrared work. NASA then solicited proposals for a telescope and Arizona proposed, Harvard proposed, and John Jefferies and his upstart solar astronomers proposed and they won. That was another reason there was probably a lot of hostility. These people who didn’t know anything about planetary astronomy, and that nobody had ever heard of, won the money to build this telescope. John Jefferies is one who decided to go to Mauna Kea instead of Haleakala and Mauna Kea is much better for nighttime astronomy than Haleakala. Given that nobody had ever built an observatory at 14,000 feet, given that there was no road up the mountain at the time, and no power line, I think it was a remarkably courageous decision. Besides his vision, there was an integrity about the man that I just enormously admired.
I interviewed him last March at his home and we spoke a little bit about Mauna Kea and we talked about the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and getting that built. What are your recollections of this period when Mauna Kea was emerging as a really important site for astronomy?
Well, with respect to Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, John was on sabbatical in France at the time when they were making up their minds and so he had a lot of influence in getting them to look at the images. It was just a tremendously exciting time in retrospect. When you do something like that day by day, you’re kind of doing normal progressive things and you perhaps don’t realize what you are doing. Maybe you don’t appreciate it at the time, but you look back on the accumulative accomplishment. I still go stand on Mauna Kea and think, “I can remember when there was nothing here.” The other thing was that nobody especially wanted to go to Hawaii in those days. The university was not that good and there was no astronomy program. Those of us who went were perceived to be taking an enormous risk. I remember when I decided to go there a wife of an astronomer said to me, “Why are you going there? Don’t you want to do any more work?” The people who went there, I think because we were all similar in age and quite young, because John Jefferies had this profound influence on all of us, we kind of grew up together with the same set of values. In many ways the closest friends I’ve had came out of that period. There was Ann Boesgaard and David Morrison with whom I write the textbooks. There were some other people there at the time, all whom have left now, but it was just an exciting time. I think we all felt that we were doing something that somehow transcended our own individual interests. A lot of science department people are kind of out for themselves and there we knew we were doing something together that mattered more. So we kind of subordinated our personal interests, our personal selfishness, and our personal ambition to this greater goal.
Were there particular science topics that were hotly pursued by people at Hawaii at this time or in the larger community?
Infrared astronomy was just beginning, so there was a fair bit of work done on infrared observations of the planets. For example, they found out that Io was brighter in the infrared than they would’ve expected, and once Voyager got there we discovered it was because it has volcanoes. They didn’t realize it at the time, they just knew that there was emission where they didn’t expect it, but that was one of the examples of discoveries with infrared observations of the planets. Another topic where Hawaii made a big contribution was in the study of quasars at the height of the controversy. Some work that was done there established that quasars were at the distances indicated by their resift. Observations of quasars and of the galaxies surrounding them in small clusters showed that the red shifts matched and that the quasars must be at the dame distances as the galaxies. That was another example of some of the work that was done out there in the early days.
They had been recently discovered, too, in ‘62 or ‘65.
They were discovered in ‘63. This telescope went in service in about 1970. But because quasars are on average about 100 times brighter than galaxies, if they’re at the same distance it’s hard to observe the spectra of the galaxies. And so image tubes were available in those days. People were starting to look beyond photograph plates, not yet to CCDs but image tubes that made it possible to observe spectra of faint objects.
You mentioned the infrared work a couple times. How much does the infrared work owe to military work that was being done at that point?
Quite a lot. Until very recently, nearly all of the development of infrared detectors piggybacked on developments for the Defense Department. There are other people who are more of an expert in that than I am.
Who would you suggest I talk to?
Frank Low. He’s “retired” from across the street, but he’s still around all the time. He was, I think more than anybody, the pioneer of infrared astronomy.
At Haleakala, the telescope there, as I understand, also had some of the first adaptive optics work being put on that. Is that correct?
Probably, but probably primarily by the military. It was pretty classified. They also did a lot of laser ranging out there. Adaptive optics is a relatively recent development, and so most of the adaptive optics would have been more developed after I left. I left in ‘84. We were just starting our own adaptive optics program here at NOAO in 1984 so that was a little bit after my time.
So also around this time, you were on the 1980 decadal survey. You were on the optical IR UV astronomy committee?
What are your recollections of that? What were the hot topics that were being talked about then?
Well, that was when we began talking about building telescopes that were significantly larger than the four and five-meter telescopes. We were beginning to realize that the technology allowed us to build something in the eight to ten-meter range. I remember that it was when Jerry Nelson started proposing segmented mirrors, and that was perceived to be radical by much of the astronomy community. There was a huge debate about whether these large telescopes should be monolithic or whether they should be made out of segments, etc. Astronomers can be a very conservative lot, but in retrospect it’s amazing how much concern there was about what Jerry was proposing. What the committee actually recommended was the construction of a 16-meter telescope.
The rationale for that was that we thought that with new lightweight mirrors you could build a 16-meter telescope whose moving weight was about the moving weight of a four-meter on Kitt Peak. We calculated that the dome would be around the same size as the 4-m dome if we built a 16-m telescope with a fast focal ratio. So we figured somehow physically it could be done, and that’s why we recommended a 16-meter telescope [note: National New Technology Telescope]. I think that as a part of that decade survey a lot of the people who had been thinking about ways to build telescopes came together and started exchanging ideas and began to develop the momentum towards large telescopes. There was an effort here before I came that had started out talking about 25-meter telescopes [note: Next Generation Telescope program]. There were a variety of exotic designs put together for large telescopes, but those were clearly beyond the range of technology of that time.
Were there any particular science goals that were driving this or were they being done because detectors had reached, or were going to reach fairly soon, their limit, and it was just necessary to build a bigger telescope?
I know the science that we based our case on nine years later because we wrote our own proposal about 1989. I can’t remember, in the early ‘80s, whether we had targeted specific problems, or if it was just the usual, you want to look to higher red shifts and fainter objects.
The Field [note: chaired by George Field] report that came out, I can’t recall what the major priorities were, the first one, I think it was to build the VLBA [Very Large Baseline Array], wasn’t it?
I know there was the large telescope, the 16-meter was in there but it was not the first priority. I think it may have been the third priority.
Yeah, I can’t remember.
Were you part of the discussion to prioritize those major initiatives?
I was only on the Optical/Infrared Panel that time around. I remember what we recommended and we were having the usual debate that optical astronomers always have. Should we build a fleet of four-meter telescopes or one much larger? I remember that debate. I have to say I was not on the executive committee, and I don’t remember the overall recommendations but the VLBA was built, so surely that must have been on top.
That’s interesting that you mention that the debate was always to build a bunch of small ones. Where does that come from? That seems to have been a perennial debate for many years for which to build?
I actually think it’s a legitimate debate in astronomy, because astronomy is phenomenon rich. There are lots of objects to look at for lots of different reasons, and they span a whole range of brightness. So you have to look at the tradeoffs between having lots of observing time to observe lots of different kinds of objects against having the ultimate facility to observe the most challenging objects. Astronomy is, I think, fundamentally different from physics where they cross an energy threshold and then they’re not interested in lower energy phenomena. In astronomy that really is not true. Given the nature of the field, I think it was more of a valid debate.
One of the things that you mentioned about the way the big picture of the sciences changed is the complexity of the problems that people are looking at in the facilities. When you were at Hawaii, was there a lot of work in terms of making at observations multiple wavelengths and incorporating them? Or were people working within fairly distinct spectral ranges and staying within them and not bringing in the results from different wavelengths?
I think that there was more wavelength chauvinism in those days and it was probably partly because the techniques were newer. I can remember we did a lot of the development of infrared detectors here and the application of it to astronomy here from 1984 on. It’s only since 1984 that we began taking infrared pictures instead of having these single pixels that painfully mapped only a small area of the sky. I can remember a meeting here where Ian Gatley came in with some new infrared detectors and was showing images and saying what their sensitivity was. Somebody in the room said, “You mean you can finally do science with these things?” He was an extra-galactic astronomer, but we’d finally gotten sensitivity to work on the problems he wanted. Also the techniques were getting closer to what you use with optical CCDs. Once infrared technology became more mature, you didn’t need the infrared cowboy who knew everything about the instrument to go and nurse it and make it work. You could turn it into an easily used facility. So I think people had become better able to work in multi-wavelengths as the technologies have matured and become more robust and better understood.
Have you extensively used the national facilities that you eventually became a director of?
No, no I never used them. I paid one visit to this place in my whole life.
Before you came…
Yes, there was an AAS meeting. Well, that’s not true. I paid one visit to it in the beginning. There was a AAS meeting and I remember going up and looking at the four-meter, which was relatively new in those days. Then I spent a little bit of a sabbatical here around 1981, but I didn’t go observing. I was writing a book on A-type stars.
That’s the NASA publication on A stars?
Right. So I spent some of the spring here. I don’t know, it may have been as much as three months here.
At that time, even though you weren’t using the national facilities, what was your perception of how they fit into the overall infrastructure of astronomy at that point?
I think that the national facilities changed U.S. astronomy in an important way. Prior to the construction of Kitt Peak, there were only a few telescopes, they were in private hands, and only a few people got to use them. People owned certain subjects, so if somebody was working on galaxies at a particular observatory, probably nobody else was. There weren’t the kinds of competition that lead to checking of results or checking of ideas. National observatories opened up telescopes to anyone with a good idea, or at least that small fraction that managed to survive in competition. I think it made the field more competitive, but it also meant that people were checking and verifying other peoples’ results and challenging peoples’ results. For example, if somebody owns the subject of the Hubble constant, are you going to get the right answer or do you need six or eight groups with different ideas of how to determine that constant, comparing end results and trying to understand why they disagree? I think opening up the field really changed it and now we have gone in that direction at all national observatories. We have national radio observatories, and NASA has followed that model with its space observatories opened to the whole community.
What are examples of people who own particular areas of research?
I think this was particularly prevalent at Mount Wilson in Palomar. I think you would have to go back and read some of the histories to say that this particular individual owned the subject of star formation, or whatever. They clearly set off territories and other people didn’t compete with them.
Allan Sandage’s work is the one that comes to mind first and foremost, and it seems that he’s certainly been challenged in the last 10 or 15 years.
I think Hubble before him owned a fair fraction of the intergalactic research that went on at Palomar.
How about the work that you were doing? Did you own type Ap stars or were there other groups who were offering alternative ideas about them?
I think it’s fair to say that we had the biggest telescopes and the best instruments. I think that George Preston and the people who worked with him, including myself, probably made the best contributions at that time in that field, but it was because we had better equipment than anybody else. There were certainly other groups working on them. It was about that time that the whole subject stopped being controversial. We got good enough data to establish the overall picture that these were stars with concentrations of material rotating across the variations. The idea is that radiative diffusion causes some elements to settle and others to rise in the atmosphere. It ceased being controversial through that period of time. I think probably because the observations were getting so much better.
Did you feel any sense of loss that it didn’t become a more mainstream topic?
I wish it had. I guess I would rather open up new doors than solve a problem, but I think through that period of time we basically solved that problem. There are a lot of people still working on that field. I would rather work on something that opens up more avenues, so I’ve done a little bit of work on star formation, not very much. I think that the things that have gone on there, such as understanding how the star formation process takes place, the formation of disks being ubiquitous phenomenon, helping us to understand the formation of solar systems. You’re getting to fairly big questions there and I think that kind of research is more interesting. Or using the results from stellar astronomy to do other things like establish the distance to nearby galaxies, which are the foundation for everything you know about the Hubble constants. Use your good understanding of stellar physics to get at some of the questions about the distances to galaxies or the structure of galaxies or the evolution of galaxies. If I were doing research, I would tend to pick areas like that.
When you finished your doctorate in ‘66, that was shortly after the national observatory was created. That was also right around the time that optical astronomers began to avail themselves to federal funding more than they had previously. I’m curious why there was a hesitancy on the part of optical astronomers or radio astronomers to jump in and grab federal funding the same way that particle physics did. Do you recall any perceptions or conflicts that people had at this period of time about taking federal funding for their research?
I don’t remember looking at it in that way, and I hadn’t thought about the difference in whether radio astronomers leaped in more or less. I think part of what may have been different about astronomy is that there has always been substantial private funding for building the facilities themselves. The biggest telescope in this country has, at all times, been built by private funds: the 16-inch, the 100-inch, the 200-inch, Keck. Once you build a facility, astronomy up through the ‘60s, at least, was a relatively low cost science. The facility cost a lot, but to take the data and analyze it and publish the papers really didn’t cost very much money. Maybe there was not the same need for money that there was in some of the other big sciences like physics or particle physics where the government needed to pay for the facility. Even then, you were talking about large groups of particle physicists sifting through huge volumes of data, so maybe it may have been needed for all I know.
What about publication practices? Did that change at all? When you mentioned the people working on different topics changing where you would go from single authors to multi-authors but…?
What I suspect, and maybe I’m just getting crotchety in my old age, is that there is more of a tendency now to publish short small results rather than wait until you have a complete picture. I think astronomy was more leisurely when it was done by the gentlemen of Mount Wilson and Palomar. There weren’t any other telescopes. If they didn’t publish it, it wouldn’t be published because nobody else could get the data. The very first project I did when I went to Lick Observatory was looking at the width of H alpha in late type stars. It turns out the more luminosity the star, the wider the line, and it’s a luminous indicator . I found that result my first summer there. I was very pleased. The first scientific result I ever found and it was quite exciting to me to discover something that nobody ever knew before and prove that you could calibrate it and get rough distances at least.
I remember George Preston saying to me that the only other person in the world who could have data on this was Bob Kraft at Mount Wilson and we should find out if he had any. That was the kind of field it was in those days. We called him up, it was the summer of ‘63, I suppose. We called him up and he said, “Yeah, he had a lot of plates in his drawer and he had been looking at the luminosity, and that was probably true.” It was a very small world. You knew that if anybody else had data that related to this topic, there was one other person because there were only two big telescopes in the world at that point. A very different world. Now I think there’s more competition, more of a sense of beating the next guy, but also a tendency to publish lots of papers with fairly short results. I think some of the funding practices in NASA have contributed to this. It’s my personal opinion. There was a satellite where the maximum grant you could get was $10,000.
This was the ultra-violet explorer satellite?
Um hmm [yes]. Many people were supporting their salaries with that money, but it would take about seven of those grants to support an annual salary, or at least when it was flying, that’s about what it would take with overhead. That would drive you to publish virtually seven separate papers so you had something to show for each one of those grants rather than taking the body of data and reaching some large conclusion.
The form in which people publish, I mean, I don’t want to get into the topic of electronic publishing because— But you mentioned smaller articles. Was there more of a trend to publish more monograph type studies at this point in time in the ‘60s and ‘70s versus short articles in ApJ.
They certainly had papers at all ranges of length, including notes. A paper on the spectrum of really strange star would be two pages long. I think that certainly the established figures in the field tended to wait until they had something to say. We once gave tenure after I came here to somebody who had only published a dozen papers. Every single one of those papers was worth reading. Now I think you’re more likely to have somebody have written 40 papers, maybe eight or ten of which are worth reading. I think that the other thing that has changed is that I assume nobody actually reads the journals anymore. That’s not your source of information. When I started out in astronomy, you found out about a paper when it came out in the journals. Now with electronic reprints and all your friends and the networking and all that stuff, you learn about what’s coming out in some other fashion. I think that the journal is the ultimate in printed form that is probably right and has been properly refereed and all of that. The journal still plays an important archival role, but journals no longer your first source of information.
So they almost serve, in a sense, to put the final stamp that was the result obtained, but not necessarily the mechanism to disseminate the information. Well, next time I’d like to talk about your trip to Arizona that’s lasted for quite a while. Before we close, would you have any topics about Hawaii and the period of time leading up to 1984 that I’ve missed.
No, I think we’ve done pretty well. It was a great adventure. To do something like that, to create an organization where there wasn’t one and to create an observatory where there wasn’t one. There are more big telescopes on that site now than anywhere else in the world. To do that from the beginning was a wonderful experience.
How many large telescopes are there now? I mean there’s the two Kecksters, the Gemini, there’s the Japanese telescope. There’s the UKIRT, the CHFT…
CHFT. The 88-inch is still there, but I assume we’ll push that over for something else sooner or later. There is a sub-millimeter interferometric array that Smithsonian is putting in. There’s the JCMT, which I think is 15 meters, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope for sub-millimeter astronomy. Caltech’s sub-millimeter observatory. Now I remember in 1970, I took a picture of the cinder cone which Keck now stands, and I put underneath it a label that said, “future site of the world’s largest telescope,” or something like that, and I stuck it in my slide file. It was a little more than ten years later that Bob Kraft called up in ‘83 and he said, “Sidney, we’ve decided where to the put the California 10-meter telescope. Can you guess?” I said, “If I can’t, you got the wrong answer.” Of course, it went on that cinder cone. One of the last things I did before I left Hawaii was measure the site between, or have an engineer measure the site between the 88-inch and the CFHT to see if there was room for a large national telescope there.
Apparently there was.
There was. For several years I kept going up there and standing on the catwalk of the 88-inch and looking and saying, “Is there really room there?” because it’s an awfully narrow site. Gemini is standing there now.
Do you have a favorite? I know Gemini probably has a special place, but do you look at one of those of any of the telescopes and feel a particular fondness for it?
Well, the 88-inch, I suppose, because I helped commission it. I’d never done anything like that before and I observed a lot there. Actually, Dave Morrison and I (nobody knows this) wrote the proposal for what became the IRTF. John Jefferies was on sabbatical or otherwise out of town and they needed a proposal in a hurry and so we wrote that one. I’ve always been kind of fond of that one. I enjoyed using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Of course, Keck because that came directly out of the decade survey. That was when Jerry Nelson first started talking about it, so I was very pleased when they picked that design approach.
Did the people from California talk to you or talk to John Jefferies when they were trying to decide where to put it to get…?
Some, but not very much as I recall. Hawaii was pretty well established by then because the four, well, the 88-inch, IRTF, UKIRT, and Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope were all in operation by that time, so it was pretty well established. The other place that they looked at, they looked at two other sites I think. They looked at one in a coastal mountain range near Monterey, but it’s potentially sacred to the local Indian tribes, so they were going to have environmental problems with that one. They also looked for a time at White Mountain in California. It’s about 10,000 feet, no it’s 14. They had a lot more problems physiologically than we ever did on Mauna Kea. I don’t know if it’s because it’s colder or what. They didn’t do any independent site surveys, so I think they mainly relied on what was available and documented by that time, but I don’t remember very well.
Any thoughts just on telescope design during that period? You were present when several telescopes went up on Mauna Kea and there were lots of plans in the ‘70s to build a newer class of telescope. What was the sort of potential wisdom?
Most of the ones in Hawaii were pretty conventional designs. CFHT derived from the four-meter at Kitt Peak and the Palomar five-meter. The one that was the most innovative was UKIRT, which had a thinner mirror by the standards of the day. It was a far more flexible telescope and, of course— Well, what has made very large telescopes possible now is that we’ve gone to these very lightweight mirrors and lightweight structures. That means you need all the computer controls and servo systems to keep everything aligned and adjusted because they do flex. You have to correct for that and they blow around in the wind and you have to correct for that. The UKIRT was part way to where we are with these modern lightweight telescopes. They actually had quite a lot of trouble commissioning UKIRT because they had difficulty distinguishing mechanical problems and computer problems and optics problems. There are just too many variables in constructing the telescopes, at least the first time around for UKIRT. That was the pioneering telescope and it has performed very well and they’ve continued to use it. It produces very good image quality. That was the most pioneering and most of the other telescopes on Mauna Kea were pretty conventional. I remember when we did— The 88-inch was the first telescope that was essentially completely computer controlled, if you can imagine that. When we did the IRTF, which was started about 1975, we were going to obviously do that with all computer controls. I remember the advisory committee that we had said that it was too risky, so we had to build in hardwired backups. Well, I’m sorry. Any hardwired backup has more complications than a computer, but that shows you where they were. They were still into massive rigid telescopes, hardwired electronics, not terribly innovative.
You mentioned that astronomers tend to be more on the conservative side. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. You do see that. I don’t know whether astronomers are unique or people fear change. It’s also true if you’re spending tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, you are limited to how many risks you can take. One of the things that Jerry Nelson said when we were reviewing this one project was that you really can’t afford to innovate on a telescope. You can innovate on an instrument, but if you blow the budget on a telescope, you’re dead. So there’s a limit to how much you can innovate on a telescope.
Okay. Why don’t we close there and we can pick up whenever you arrive in Arizona tomorrow.