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Interview of Leo Goldberg by Owen Gingerich on 1983 October 10, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/28196-2
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Appraises Goldberg's (b. January 26, 1913) career at Harvard where he was Higgins professor of astronomy (1960-73) and Chairman of the Astronomy Department and Director of the Harvard College Observatory (1966-71). Goldberg relates his decision to come to Harvard from Michigan, then discusses his scientific work while at Harvard, as well as internal politics and conflicts. A brief account is given of his decision to go to Kitt Peak, where he served as Director (1971-77).
Last time I talked to you about similar things here in the 1930's, and I'd like to start today essentially with the time when you came here to Harvard in '60. I remember at the time I had just come back from Beirut and had gone out to the Midwest, where everybody knew that you and Bill Liller were on your way to Harvard, and I came out here and started telling people, and Dick Teske cornered me and he said, "I've been told that in very high confidence and you're just going around telling everybody, and now people think I've been blabbing the news. You've got to be quiet." I said, "Everybody in the Midwest knows it, and the only place it's a secret is at Harvard," which is typical.
I don't remember exactly when that was that you're referring to.
It was just before you came.
In the spring or the summer? Actually, the die was cast about the end of January 1960, and I believe that we were waiting for the overseers to meet in March before making it official. But the news was spilled in Michigan, actually, at least a month early by the president of the university, who wanted to make some political capital out of my going, by complaining to the governor that the legislature and budget wasn't providing me with proper support and that was why I was leaving.
That must have had something to do with it.
So there was a ringading in the newspapers for a whole week, I think as early as February.
Was it as much that you were lured here as that you were disillusioned with what was going on at Michigan at the time?
Yes. I didn't make any statement at all about it, but according to the president, I was leaving because the legislature hadn't appropriated money for a new building.
Was it a package deal that you and Bill Liller came tocether, or how did that happen?
No. It was negotiated separately. I'd been approached first in 1959. I've always treated this rather confidentially, but it's in the record, I guess, in the dean's office. It's now nearly 25 years ago. But in 1959, Donald Menzel suggested to Nate Pusey that I be invited to come as director, in which case he was prepared to step down, and I was offered the position. I was here in the spring of '59, and I had many discussions and eventually decided not to do it. But a year later I was quite enthusiastic about coming as a professor. I'd had enough of administrative work for a while.
You came out with a joint Harvard and Smithsonian appointment?
And you brought with you some space contracts?
Yes. I began work for NASA approximately the summer of 1959. I had made it clear ever since the agency was formed, a year earlier, that I was very keen about observing the sun from satellites, and NASA actually had asked me in 1959 if I would undertake the responsibility for instrumenting a fourth OAO for solar research. That was a staggering prospect, because the payload was about 700 pounds, and in those days we didn't even know whether moving parts could be made to work, could be lubricated and made to work in a vacuum, to say nothing of problems like high voltage arcing. In any case, I said yes, not knowing the first thing about building instruments for satellites, and so we began work at a modest level at Michigan, and I was still in the process of recruiting people to work on the project when I moved to Harvard.
So the contract came in fact to Harvard rather than to Smithsonian?
Yes. It was a Harvard contract.
It was for a long time the major Harvard contract.
Yes. There were two parts of it — one, the support of the laboratory, and two, the contract to design and build hardware for the satellites, rockets. It grew to be quite a sizeable project. In fact, the last instrument that we built for Skylab, for ATM, cost in excess of 30 million dollars. Most of it was — well, the fabrication was entirely subcontracted to Ball Brothers. But it was a large sum of money nevertheless, and it did provide a substantial amount of overhead, over a period of ten years or eleven years. I might say something about the way the project was organized. I felt right from the start that you had to involve experimental spectroscopists in a project of this kind, and if you were going to attract a first rate spectroscopist or two, you had to provide them with the means to carry on their own work during the long hiatus when you were waiting for a launch.
So I felt there should be a spectroscopic laboratory associated with the project, and it took some time to convince NASA that that was necessary. In fact, the very first major instrument that we got for the laboratory came from the NSF. It was a McPherson grating spectrograph. I've forgotten the focal length. It's still in the lab, still being used. I think that concept was quite successful. It isn't the only way to go. You can always subcontract the work entirely to a company, but I felt that if you did, you had to have the capability of supervising the work, and if you're going to supervise it, you had to have people who are experienced in building that kind of equipment. So we started out to build the first instrument in house, and most of the OSO 4 experiment was built right here, after which we subcontracted most of it, OSO 6 and ATM Skylab.
When I spoke at the AURA anniversary, I showed a series of slides of various steps in the scientific space effort, and I showed one of the OSO 4 computer printouts, which were hand colored, which was really amazing, compared to the graphics now. Very difficult to think back, that that was the cutting edge of finding out about the sun. We were talking about some of the OSO series, and the laboratory which you had brought here. How did it work for you to have a Smithsonian appointment, even though the principal work was with the Harvard contract? Were there problems about that?
No, there were no problems actually. All it meant was that Smithsonian, until I became director, paid for half of my salary. They just simply paid Harvard the money.
I see, you didn't receive double checks.
No. In effect Harvard was reimbursed by Smithsonian for half of my services. But the project itself was carried out under a contract to Harvard. Well, the laboratory work was supported by grants and the hardware by contracts.
I assume that Alex Delgarno's coming was seen in part as an extension of the power of this laboratory, and laboratory astrophysics.
Well, yes and no. I think I would have been eager to have Alex come whether we had the laboratory or not. And perhaps it goes back to my beginnings in astronomy. It was the atomic physics in astronomy that helped to attract me, rather than the orbits of planets, the solar system or the rotation of the galaxy. I always had the feeling that atomic physics or atomic molecular physics was astrophysics.
You had started a shock tube laboratory already at Michigan. Is that right?
No. Just to recap, we hadn't started the laboratory at all at Michigan. I had recruited a young spectroscopist named James Samson, who had just gotten his degree at the University of Southern California, to come and work, and he was supposed to come to Michigan. I decided to leave Michigan while he was en route by automobile from California to Ann Arbor with his wife. I think he was a little upset when he arrived to find we weren't going to be working at Ann Arbor. I had simply assumed that of course it wouldn't make any difference to him. In fact I thought he might even prefer working at Harvard than at Michigan. But it was just that I hadn't consulted him. I couldn't very well consult him. The discussions were confidential, and besides, I couldn't reach him before he left California. I hadn't made up my mind before he left California. Well, anyway, he went on to Cambridge, he and Bill Liller went to Cambridge in June or July. I didn't come until the first of September. They got started here, with the laboratory. They hadn't gotten very far when in November Jim decided to leave and join GCA, Geophysics Corporation of America, to which I had introduced him, thinking that he might like some extra income doing some consulting.
So he ended up getting all of it from them.
He ended up getting all of it. There we were in November with an empty laboratory and one instrument, I think a 1 1/2 meter McPherson monochromator that was to be used for calibration purposes. I called upon some of my friends in Europe for help, and Swings sent Andre Monfils over, who spent several months here, getting that monochromator working, and doing other things that were very helpful in getting it started, giving us the capability to test the instruments that we were preparing for a rocket flight. Then Reg Garton came over in January of 1961, looked over the situation. All he saw at that time was an empty laboratory with a crate containing a spectrometer in it. But I told him, what my hopes were, and he told me about two young postdocs at Imperial College that he felt would be just the right people, Reeves and Parkinson.
Had they been doing shock tube spectroscopy?
That was a relatively new technique at that time?
It goes back to the fifties. Arthur Kantrowitz when he was at Cornell was one of the pioneers with shock tubes, and so was Otto LaPorte at Michigan. Otto LaPorte had a shock tube and several young people who were trained with it. When I began negotiating with Reeves and Parkinson, immediately thereafter, late winter of '61, I asked them to send me a prospectus of their plans, what would they do in the laboratory if they came, what kind of equipment they needed, and they provided that very promptly. In fact, there was a vacuum spectrometer that they built over the summer at Imperial College and then brought over.
Of course George Ellery Hale, early in the century, had envisioned a laboratory for atomic spectroscopy, laboratory astrophysics, as an integral part of the observatory, but in general this procedure was not followed at observatories.
That's true. I used to quote George Ellery Hale.
Did you find a certain amount of resistance to doing this sort of thing? or did people see that this was an integral part of the program?
No resistance locally. As I say, NASA was reluctant to support that kind of an undertaking, but frankly that was simply one person, Nancy Roman, and NASA didn't really get on board with enthusiasm until Nancy was separated from the solar physics program, and Henry Smith was brought in to take charge of solar physics. Henry was a very good friend at headquarters. They did support us. As were the people at Goddard, John Lindsay and Lawrence Hogarth.
Well, were there similiar things built up at other observatories, or not until JILA?
I think at Princeton Lyman Spitzer recruited a Swiss spectroscopist named Dressler, who was very competent, and I think Dressler had a modest laboratory, but nothing like this, the laboratory that evolved here. He's back in Switzerland now. We trained a few people. You remember Jerry Newsome got his degree working with the shock tube, and Jerry went to Ohio State and set up a laboratory there with the shock tube.I should mention Yerkes Observatory, of course. Herzberg was there. They had a very important laboratory at Yerkes, before he went back to Canada.
What would you say were the leading scientific results from the shock tube lab, or from the spectroscopy lab?
Well, very early on, we were able to identify the fourth positive bands of CO, you remember that, in the rocket ultraviolet spectrum, simply by getting spectra in the laboratory under somewhat the same conditions — temperatures of several thousand degrees, and absoption. That was a lot of fun. There's been a long range program resulting in a steady flow of transition probabilities, f-values, of high accuracy. They exploited the hook method in the laboratory, particularly in the sixties when Martin Huber was here, and they've gone on, ever since, and row I'm really very pleased at the way they are addressing specific problems in astrophysics. For example, somebody comes up with the idea that a certain intersystem transition in the ultraviolet is a good diagnostic for electron density, and so they can go into the laboratory and measure an accurate transition probability for transitions of that kind.
I know they were very responsive even earlier. For instance John Rich measured and they helped him to measure the silicon absorption coefficients.
Yes. At the very beginning, of course, they weren't very familiar with astrophysical problems, and they were inclined to continue the spectroscopy that they had done at Imperial College as students — work on auto-ionization, for example. That was very useful. But as time has gone on, and they have been exposed to astronomy, they have shifted their own interests to problems of more astrophysical importance.
The work on auto ionization was very important for you, in some of the theoretical interpretations, was it not?
Yes. Yes, very much so. For example, it led me to go in a number of different directions. For example, it got me interested in dielectronic recombination, and I think I was able to show, in collaboration with my student Andrea Dupree — we had a letter in NATURE — that the carbon I levels of high total quantum number would be overpopulated by dielectronic recombination, that you could get anomalous intensities and radio recombination lines, as a consequence. We thought at first that that would explain the intensities of the carbon recombination lines in what we thought were H II regions, but which later proved to be H I regions in front of the H II regions.
But you did something with the very high levels of radio hydrogen?
Oh yes, that came first. But that had nothing to do with dielectronic recombination. I showed in 1966 that slight departures from a Boltzman distribution would lead to population inversions, and give maser-like action that would strengthen the recombination lines, and the purpose of that was to explain why the temperatures that one derived from radio recombination lines, assuming local thermodynamic equilibrium, were always lower than the temperatures that one derived from forbidden lines. I think I was able to show that, in many cases, the lines were anomalously strong, which corresponds to a lower temperature, because of stimulated emission.
And you were involved somehow with an ionized aluminum line. That's in the ultraviolet spectrum?
Yes, it's around 1900 angstroms. I remember Eric Chipman made that the subject of his undergraduate honors thesis. A lot of astrophysics was stimulated by the work on auto ionization in the laboratory. By the way, there was a paper at the AAS here last January, giving pretty strong evidence for the first time, that certain recombination lines originating from high levels of a recombining ion are indeed seen because the upper levels are overpopulated by dielectronic recombination. I've forgotten whether it was in carbon or some other element, where they found that the only way you would explain the great intensity of the radio recombination lines was by that process. In the case of carbon I, it turned out not to work, because it required a temperature of 15,000 degrees — I mean the case of carbon I in the Orion Nebula — and that was a bit too high.
What would you say were the principal scientific achievements or highlights from the OSO and the Skylab series?
Well, I think we got pretty good at inferring the temperature and density structure of the chromosphere and lower corona. As you know, the thrust of these experiments was to make monochromatic images in any desired wavelength, and that worked very well. You simply send a command to make an image, in nitrogen V or carbon IV or magnesium X, and by means of these images, one could look at different levels in the chromosphere, and the transition region particularly, and do pretty accurate diagnostics. I think we were the first to draw attention to the coronal holes, and once we did that, then it was realized that there were many other ways of observing them, and that they had been seen in other images, say in X-rays.
They were very dramatic in X-rays, but you first found them in magnesium X or something like that?
And silicon XII. I remember standing with a group at a table, and we were flipping the pages, a series of images made in silicon XII and magnesium X, and I pointed to one of these features and said, "What do you suppose those holes are? The holes in the corona." I think I named them, coronal holes, and George Withbroe for one, got very interested, and set out to derive temperatures and densities for the holes as compared with quiet regions and active regions. By the way, when I say diagnostics on the structure, I mean both for the quiet atmosphere as well as for active regions, prominences, coronal holes and so on. Yes, then a lot of people began working on these holes at that time, and particularly AS&E people went over their records and showed that the solar wind is enhanced when the coronal hole passed the meridian.
Did this work lead to appreciably better understanding of the coronal heating mechanisms?
No, I think it's still mostly mysterious, but it certainly led to a better understanding of the role of magnetic fields in the corona. I think that's been the big achievement of solar ultraviolet studies, particularly from Skylab, where you have high resolution, high spatial resolution.
What's the future of solar studies from space?
Well, right now I think the future is all wrapped up in the so called SOT telescope, the Space Optical Telescope, which will give one meter diffraction limited resolution. I think it's clear that the way to go to understand how the corona is heated is to study the sun at the very highest spatial resolution. There's sort of general agreement that the most likely source of energy is the magnetic field. It's a question of just how the magnetic field feeds the energy, the mechanical energy, the thermal energy, into the corona.
Now I want to turn back towards some of the administrative aspects of your career here. You became department chairman around 1970?
I became department chairman and director in April of '66.
All right, now this position of being both department chairman and director of the observatory had not been combined since perhaps in the 1930s when Shapley was both?
Was that a specific request on your part in taking up the directorship?
No, but I think it was something that the department wanted very much. I think there was a very strong feeling that the observatory had unduly dominated astronomy at Harvard. I could see that myself. You know, when I came here as a professor in the department of astronomy, the chairman of the department, if I may call her chairman, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, had nothing to do with the negotiations. They were carried out entirely by the director of the observatory, Menzel. I remember, after I'd accepted, when I visited here in the spring of 1960 and I dropped in on Cecilia, and told her that I might be interested in the second semester in teaching a course in solar physics, she just overflowed with happiness. It was almost as though I was doing her a favor. That was clearly not a desirable situation.
Bill Liller followed her as department chairman fairly soon after that?
I think as soon as he arrived.
That was my impression. And then you took over from Bill when you became the chairman?
That's correct. Yes.
I know you felt very strongly that the chairman had certain perogatives that hadn't necessarily been used, namely, the power to assign who would teach what.
Well, not necessarily. I just thought that there were members in the department who simply weren't doing their share of teaching. However, I didn't feel that I could make them teach, and I certainly didn't succeed. I think things improved after I left, perhaps in part because I called attention to the problem. I remember George Kistiakowsky once saying that at Harvard a professor need, only offer two 300 courses, and that would be enough. Nobody could make him do anything more. Well, that's a bit extreme, I think. But you know, when I had my dispute — we'll call it that — with Fred, I looked into the statistics on teaching, and I found that in a given academic year, half the courses were being offered by people with Smithsonian appointments, and the remaining half were being offered mostly by three people, Layzer, Dalgarno, and myself out of nine professors. Well, I thought that was not a very healthy state of affairs. Not that I wasn't appreciative of the help that Smithsonian was giving. It was just that I felt that if the Smithsonian staff were going to carry such a large share of the teaching load, that we ought to have more of a voice in the appointments in the first place. Fred's answer to that was that we didn't have to appoint them to the department if we didn't want to. On the other hand, if a certain field of specialization is going to be handled in the Smithsonian by only one person, and if our students are going to have to have the benefit of a course in that field, then it would be very difficult to say, this man isn't qualified to be a Harvard faculty member, so we won't appoint him a lecturer. That was one of the reasons why I was unhappy with the situation, and why I thought there should be a single director.
You had earlier been offered the directorship of Harvard Observatory. Was there any sort of tacit understanding that in due time you would succeed Donald (Menzel) ?
No, we never discussed it. Actually, what actually happened of course was that unfortunately Donald became ill, and while he was still director, had open heart surgery, as you recall. I think that must have been in 1965, when he still had two years to run as director before the mandatory retirement, and frankly, I didn't understand why he didn't just quit as director, because he wasn't really able to do that job properly. But it was all right with me if he wanted to continue. Then in 1966, beginning of 1966, I was besieged by NASA to become director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. The previous summer there was a summer study at Woods Hole, a very important one, very major one, at which the astronomers came up with a whole series of grandiose space projects, and by coincidence I was chairman of that working group on astronomy. There was Space Telescope, X-ray telescope and so forth. At that time, when the future in space seemed unlimited, before the money started decreasing, jim Webb was trying to reorganize so that those projects could be implemented, and he wanted to make Goddard the lead center for astronomy, as he called it. As part of the discussions that went on at that time, the Astronomy Missions Board came into being. I considered it for a while, but I had no desire to take on a five or six hundred million dollar a year operation, 95 percent of which was not science.
Yes, this is what I would think — that even if it hadn't worked out that you would get the offer to succeed Donald Menzel, are you sure you would have wanted to have NASA be that kind of astronomy center rather than have it more distributed into the university?
Well, it wasn't a question of either, or. I think it was important, it is important to have a NASA center deeply involved in projects of this kind. They have an enormous amount of expertise in building spacecraft, and also instrumentation.
They hire many astronomers as well.
Yes. They were very worried at that time because they were not hiring first rate astronomers and they wanted to know why they weren't, but that's another story. Martin Schwarzschild and I tried to explain it to them. No, I think the astronomers felt that there should be one NASA center that would be the focus of these efforts, and we also felt I say "we," there was a committee appointed in the summer of 1966 by Webb to recommend arrangements that would lead to close relations wita the university community. Norman Ramsey was the chairman.
What were the principal reasons you and Martin Schwarzschild gave that they hadn't been able to hire top quality astronomers?
For one thing, I felt that there was too much bureaucracy at Goddard. They had all these layers of administration with the scientist down below there somewhere, and it was very difficult for a scientist to know whom he was working for, and in particular astronomers don't like to report to administrators. They want to report to a fellow scientist, who has an administrative position. Also, there was an almost anti-science attitude in many quarters of Goddard. It was dominated by engineers whose only thought was to get the satellites up in orbit. Martin and I made frequent visits to NASA over a period of a year on our own initiative just so that we could talk these matters over; nobody elected us to do it, we just did it, and that led by the way to the appointment of the missions board. But in the early days of the OSO program, we had difficulties here. We were inexperienced. There was a period of about a year when we just weren't properly organized to build equipment and get it ready on time for a launch. At one time, there was a deputy director at Goddard who was heard to exclaim, "By God, we're going to launch on time, and if Harvard wants to be on board this satellite, they'd better deliver on time or we'll fly bricks in their place!" I tell you, one reason why I was tempted to become director of Goddard was to fire this guy. Of course, Martin expressed the exasperation of the scientific community at the gulf between manned and unmanned space flight. At one point we were sitting around the table, and he said, "The trouble is, there's an iron curtain between you, Homer, and you, George." (Newell and Mueller)
When you did become director and department chairman here, I think there was a wide scale perception, not here but in other places, that Harvard Graduate School had slipped and was no longer in the top, say, three or four slots. Were you aware of that, and trying explicitly to bring the program into better balance and more attractiveness?
Oh, very much so. I was very much aware of it. I knew what people were saying on the outside. They thought of Harvard as sort of a strange place, with Smithsonian. Smithsonian had made a number of fairly second rate scientific appointments. I think it was detracting from the reputation of both places. I didn't begin to do anything about that till near the end of my stay here. But yes, I felt, as a graduate school, that we had a lot of students who had been around for a long time, and I don't know what the average time for a PhD was, but it was pretty long, and we did reorganize, when I became chairman, or maybe even before. we initiated the CAS.
I think that was initiated in a year when Chuck Whitney was acting chairman.
That's right. Bill Liller was on a sabbatical year. I think that was a very good step. I think we began to pay more attention to problems of students. The stipends were very erratic, depending on the individual principal investigator, how much they paid research assistants, teaching fellows and the like. A lot of the requirements for the PhD were rather out of date, and in short, I think, you know, we consciously addressed the question of what kind of an education the students were getting, and tried to make improvements. I've often thought, when I attend scientific meetings and look around, that in the sixties we turned out quite an impressive crop of PhDs. I'm thinking of, let's see, UCLA now has Mike Jura, Ned Wright, and Ben Zuckerman. Berkeley has several, of course, Frank Shu, who's getting to be very impressive, I think; Jonathan Aarons. Of course if you don't distinguish between undergraduate and graduate, we've had a lot of undergraduates who've done their graduate work elsewhere like Judy Cohen and Bob Kirshner. Among other outstanding graduate students, John Black, Steve Strom, Don Hall, Sandy Faber, Pat Palmer and many others could be mentioned.
I suppose a lot of the image came about because there was a theoretical orientation which was Menzel's natural strength, and the failure to get something going in ground-based observational astronomy.
Yes, I agree. But also generally Harvard had a bad reputation in the field of the instrumentation generally, which goes back to Shapley's time.
That's because Shapley always tried to run things so much on a shoestring, or just he wasn't an instrumentalist?
Both. I remember one exchange of letters I had with him, when I was at Michigan, and I decided the first thing we would do was to build a duplicate of the Case Schmidt, and I remember, I got a quote from Warner and Swazey of $184,000 for the telescope and dome, minus the optics, and I wrote Shapley about this. He was horrified at how expensive it was, and of course he never believed in "fancy fronts," as he put it, and by way of illustration, even as late, mind you, as 1947 or '48, he was still pointing to the Jewett Schmidt as an example of how you could build a telescope cheap. He said, "That cost $30,000." Well, even by that time already it had been demonstrated that it was junk. So he just had a blind spot, as far as instrumentation is concerned. Now, it hurt radio astronomy here, in the initial years, when Bok proposed the 24'foot dish. I attended meetings of the Astronomy Advisory Panel at that time, 1952, because I was a member of the divisional committee, Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, and I remember the discussion. They were very critical because there didn't seem to be any indication that Harvard was going to have a first class electrical engineer to look after the equipment and make sure that it was running properly. They didn't approve the proposal until they'd gotten assurances that such an individual would be appointed, and then they OKd it, which was a good thing, of course, because it led to the training of people who were very important.
Some of the do it yourself aspects must have been the right thing, in the sense that there was a good crop of radio astronomers trained here, including Dave Heeschen.
Yes. That actually led to this training of people who have been very important to the development of radio astronomy in this country. But it took a while for Harvard to get over that reputation.
What specific steps did you take to try to entice more instrumentalists or observers here?
Of course my first six years I was concentrating on my own program, the space program, and I think we were producuig excellent instrumentation. It worked. It worked very well, and I think helped to enhance Harvard's reputation generally. Later, I tried unsuccessfully to promote a moderate sized reflector in Chile, jointly with MIT and Yale. We got John Danziger here, and well, frankly, I was disappointed in the direction in which Bill Liller moved. Bill spent a year in England and became enamored of observing through clouds, and Roger Griffin — considering his handicap — had done his best to overcome it by having dual channels, scanners, that sort of thing, one monitoring the sky, the other a star. Bill, instead of looking to the Southwest or to Chile, tried to see what he could do at Aggassiz Station, and at one time he and Steve Strom came up with a proposal for a Coude spectrograph, which was going to cost $250,000, which I refused to support. I suggested that he ought to go out West and do his observing there, or go south to Chile, and I'm glad to see that he eventually took that advice, with good results.
Yes. So John was eager to try to get a telescope in a good 'location. I felt very strongly about Chile as a place. We had a lot of discussion with AURA about the possibility of putting this on Cerro Tololo, to,which their reaction was favorable. In the end, we couldn't get MIT to move. on this. They were casting about for some kind of a cooperative arrangement that would give them access to a decent telescope in a good climate, but they never ever said, "No, we won't do it," but then they didn't say they would do it, either, and the project just sort of petered out.
This was also the same time that the Smithsonian was pushing ahead with Mt. Hopkins.
That's right. Fred just decided he was going to build, put a telescope on Mt. Hopkins, and it was one of many instances in which he went ahead without consulting the Harvard side. Now, I think I understand what his reasons were. It goes back into more or less ancient history, when Donald was still director, and wanted to get money from NASA for a telescope on Hawaii. I don't know whether I want to talk about that or not.
Why don't you?
Frankly, it's sort of boring. I've been over the ground so many times. Well, it was around 1964, I believe, when Donald came back from a trip to Washington full of excitement because he'd talked to his friend Urner Liddel in the Lunar and Planetary section of NASA, and he thought that NASA was prepared to build a 90 inch telescope on Hawaii, and he thought that Harvard could get the contract to do it. But it all had to be done in a hurry, this week or the end of next week, something like that, and some members of the council were not too happy about this. In particular they wanted some discussion of the overall plan for optical astronomy at Harvard, what was going to happen to Agassiz Station for example. Were we going to close it, or try to keep on if we had the telescope in Hawaii? I guess the biggest hangup was that there was nobody on the scene here who was willing and competent to take over the management, the supervision of the design and construction of this telescope. Bill Liller just said he wouldn't do it. He didn't want to do it.
He certainly didn't have engineering staff to do it.
Well, we had Hector Ingrao and it was Donald's idea that Hector would be put in charge of it. That wasn't good enough. And I agree.
Surely Hector would not have been of the caliber to do a 90 inch telescope without some fairly strong guidance from somebody who wanted to really push it.
That's right. And we didn't have that person. Nevertheless, I could see that the council did not want to be in the position of vetoing such a proposal, because everyone recognized how important it would be for astronomy at Harvard to have an excellent telescope in a good location. It would fill a need that had been felt for a long, long time. So they did agree to go along with it. But then it turned out that Donald hadn't yet approached the president on this. He'd not even talked to him about it. He set about doing it in a way that at best I would describe as clumsy. He arranged an appointment in Pusey's office for himself, the whole council, the dean of the faculty, Franklin Ford, and the chairman of the visiting committee, Irving Pratt. We found out later that one thing that Pusey absolutely hated was to be confronted by a large number of people on a matter with which he hadn't been briefed in advance, and was being propositioned for the first time. I guess Fred was there too — well, Fred was on the council, of course — and Donald presented the proposal, and Pusey looked around with a sort of distasteful look on his face, and he said, as far as he was concerned, there had been a committee that Conant had appointed years ago, in the early 1950's, and this committee had recommended against Harvard's undertaking stations in far off places, and of course they were pointing to Bloemfontein — it wasn't quite that bad; what the committee had said at the time was that Harvard should either spend the money necessary to make it into a first rate observatory or get out, and Conant decided to get out. Pusey just turned it down on the spot. He said, "As far as I'm concerned, that's still the guideline that we follow." Well, Donald and Fred were both very upset by this and they blamed the council for it, for now showing enough enthusiasm at the meeting with Pusey, just completely ignoring the fact that Pusey was dead set against —
Had the council really had much opportunity to speak?
How could they have shown their enthusiasm — by cheering?
Well, people could have spoken up and said, "We think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, we just have to do it" but nothing like that. But then, Donald didn't prepare an agenda. He didn't say, "Now, I'll lead off, and then I would like you to come in and support it." It was very disorganized. Well, they blamed it on the council, and not too long afterwards, I kept hearing reports about how Donald was upset and wasn't able to sleep at night, and I think not too long after that he had his surgery. He had this attack. So Fred then, not too long thereafter, just went ahead with Mt. Hopkins on his own. It was kind of a Catch-22 situation, because I remember much later they also embarked on the multi-mirror telescope project with Arizona, without telling me, and in fact I remember how embarrassed Bob Noyes was, when I was talking with him. He already had a brochure that they had prepared, that I hadn't seen. He said, "Haven't you seen this?" I said, "No." He squirmed. What was the reason? Well, Fred didn't have anything against me, at that time, but it was the council. I think he felt that I wouldn't do anything unless I got the approval of the council, and he totally ignored the fact that since I'd become director, I hadn't had any problems with the council. The council had never vetoed anything that I wanted to do. We had a meeting with the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian in Fred's office to discuss my concerns about the lack of communication between the two observatories, before important decisions were reached, and the subject of consultation came up. Fred practically blurted out, and his voice practically shook, that "I won't have a thing to do with that council," he said. "They gave Donald a heart attack and nearly drove me out of my mind. That was his attitude. That was the reason, as I say, he went ahead on his own. But I have to give him credit. I wrote him a letter, at the time they named the place after him, and told him, in my opinion, he deserved every bit of it. He had done it single handedly. But later, you know, when they did the MMT, I remember Lundquist telling me one day, "You're making a mistake, you really ought to get in on this." I said, "Get in, on it? What do you mean, get in on it? What do you want me to do, give you money? I've never been asked to get it on it." That's what I mean by Catch-22.
I suspect, on the one side, Fred realized that an observatory would hardly be considered really a great observatory if it didn't have a telescope. It's very difficult to identify an observatory if it's just occupying buildings with another institution and has a staff but not really a telescope. I just have a feeling that he saw that as the kind of ultimate break in the monument he was making, and that he really had to have it and it was not going to be blocked by anybody.
He didn't want to risk it being blocked by talking about it, you see.
But on the other hand, there was so much in John Danziger's attitude, that he was Harvard and would have absolutely nothing to do with Smithsonian, and that the principal reason that he thought Harvard ought to have a telescope was so it would be a Harvard telescope and nobody else could tell him what to do with it — and that kind of an attitude, I suppose, didn't help in bringing about cooperation.
Yes. Well, I don't know what John said privately. He never said anything like that to me. The main thing is, as I say, I don't think that those things can be used as an excuse for one director not sitting down with the other and having a frank discussion of the hopes, the aspirations, and so forth. I don't know whether he ever did with Donald either, or whether Donald's attitude always was, "Whatever you want to do, Fred, it's fine with me."
I'm not condoning that particular approach, but I think that there was a lot of pulling in different directions, that did get involved, among other things, with John Danziger's personality and probably Fred's and so on.
But I think that was just an excuse.
Was there not a time when both Harvard and Smithsonian were working with infrared groups that weren't speaking to each other?
Oh, I don't think that's true.
I exaggerate a bit, but they were certainly going off quite independently of each other.
You might ask, whose fault was that? The decision, on the part of the Smithsonian, to go into infrared astronomy, indeed to go into radio astronomy, was also made without consultation, and Fred thought that he had consulted. He'd consulted with Ed Lilley. He had entered into a treaty with Ed Lilley to support radio astronomy. So it was interesting that Fred thought that radio astronomy was an example of how well he'd cooperated with Harvard, and I thought it was just the opposite, you see. But in the end, I think that Harvard and Smithsonian got together on the infrared, and they came up with a proposal for a balloon project, to which Harvard would contribute, and that came to a climax during this row that we were having, but I didn't let that hold me back. I wasn't going to say, no, until we got the ground rules straightened out. I put up the money. It became a joint Harvard-Smithsonian project and I guess it was pretty successful. Anyway, that's all water under the dam. But I think my description of it is pretty accurate and correct. And, as you know, everything wasn't rosy within Smithsonian either. There were a lot of unhappy members of the Smithsonian staff who felt that they weren't being consulted about anything. I believe that at one time Chuck Whitney inaugurated a series of evening meetings with the scientific staff to talk about the future of Smithsonian, and Fred heard about this, and he called Chuck in and gave him a dreadful bawling out, and put a stop to it. So there were all those things going on.
I remember some of the antecedents to that. I think it was a meeting at Yerkes of the AAS, and a number of us were out there, and we discussed things about the direction of Smithsonian. Fred was operating in pretty much of a free wheeling way, without consulting his senior scientific staff particularly, and Chuck thought that there ought to be some sort of equivalent to the HCO council on the Smithsonian side, and talked around with some people. I'm not sure who he ultimately brought in to talk about this, and Fred considered this a palace revolt and put it down with a very heavy hand. With the result that I think it stopped Whitney's scientific productivity just in its tracks.
Yes. I know. Yes, Whitney once told me, after it was all over, that I had done what he wouldn't have the courage to do. But I'll tell you, I think the record ought to show how that controversy got started. I think I probably would not have done anything about it. In fact, I was preparing to go on a sabbatical for a year, 1970-71, until in the spring of 1970, when the visiting committee came here, they did something very unusual. They asked me to come in during their executive session that broke all tradition. In the past they'd had their executive session and they would decide what they were going to put in the report, and the director, chairman, never saw the report, so you didn't know what recommendations thay had made to the overseers.
This was typical of other departments as well. That whole system was changed six or seven years ago. But anyway, they called me in and they said, "We're concerned about what appears to us to be a lack of long range planning, in that you're very heavily supported be government grants and contracts" — which was an under statement — "and what do you do if NASA should terminate its support? What's your game plan? We think you ought to carry out an exercise in long range planning." "That's fine. Sure." The guy who was pushing that mostly in the committee was Dillon Ripley. Louis Branscomb was there too, and of ccurse Irving Pratt and so on. I said, "Well, I think that's fine." So I went away and began to think about it, and I hadn't thought very long when I realized that it was impossible for me to engage in long range planning unless I did it jointly with Smithsonian. It's so obvious.
With Smithsonian having an infrared program and radio astronomy and Mt. Hopkins already and having started on the multi-mirror telescope. So that led me to postpone my sabbatical, as it turned out, cancel it, and to try to begin a dialogue about long range planning, and I expected to find a very sympathetic ear in Dillon Ripley. I went to Washington and visited him in his office, and I told him why I thought we couldn't carry out this exercise without Fred Whipple's cooperation, and that up until now, he had been pretty adamant about not wanting to share in any decision making having to do with Smithsonian, and I asked him if he couldn't begin talking about this with Fred. He hemmed and he hawed and said, "Well, it's difficult, you know. We appointed the director. The director has complete autonomy" and so forth. He really in effect just gave me the brushoff.
I've never thought as well of Dillon since that time as I had before. And I don't think he was much help when things came to a head, either. So it was really in response to a request by the visiting comittee that we set out to change this arrangement.
I see. So that in fact, when you saw that it was almost impossible to get together for some long range planning, you became more explicit about why this was not being done, and this brought matters to a head, or?
Well, I went to see the dean, after Fred's famous explosion about not having anything to do with the council. I had many discussions with John Dunlop about this, and he was entirely sympathetic, and I suggested that it would be time for the president to appoint an ad hoc committee to review the relationship between Harvard and Smithsonian. I did nominate the members of the committee, and then after Fred was consulted, at first he didn't want to have anything to do with it. In fact he showed me a letter in which he'd recommended to Ripley that Smithsonian stay out of it altogether, so that they wouldn't be responsible for any recommendatiom that the committee might make. I think Ripley did persuade Fred that that was not advisable, whereupon Fred asked that Kuiper be added to the committee.
Now, I got to thinking about the whole thing, and I thought that it would be pretty bad if Fred stayed on as director until age 70, which he had shown every intention of doing, and I didn't think Ripley was going to deny him that possibility, and I just did a little arithmetic. At Harvard an administrator retires at 65, so when Fred retired I would be 63, and I'd have two years in which to straighten things out, try to straighten them out, if they could be, after five more years had gone by, and really, you know, I didn't become an astronomer to engage in long drawn out battles with people who used to be my friends. It just wasn't worth it to me. So, just about that time, I was offered the Kitt Peak job. I decided that would be a very interesting thing to do.
So the offer to go to Kitt Peak came after the other business was well under way?
It was under way, yes. It came in the fall of 1970, after I'd already decided to give up the sabbatical.
I was on sabbatical 1970-71, so all of this happened while I was completely innocent of it and uninformed of it until I got back.
Well, it was so amusing — Fred's reaction — I sent Fred and Don a letter informing them that I was going to leave, and Fred's reaction was typical. He came down and told me that I was very smart to pull out, because if I stayed and had a fight, and fought, I would be sure to lose. It was more amusing than anything else.
You left, and won?
Sure. I think so. Because as I say, the dean, at one point, Dunlop told me that he agreed, it would be a catastrophe if Fred continued until age 70, and he took steps to make sure that that didn't happen — which he could do, because in order to be director of SAO, you have to be a Harvard professor, and Harvard professors retire at 66, unless the appointment is extended. I don't exactly know this, but I'm reasonably sure that Dunlop made it clear to Fred that the appointment would not be extended, if he didn't step down. Dunlop, being a hard boiled labor negotiator, had a rather colorful way of expressing the negotiating process, which I won't repeat for the tape.
Well, we're about to run off the end, and when it does, you can repeat it.
This has been a taped interview with Owen Gingerich and Leo Goldberg in Gingerich's office on the 10th of October, 1983.