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Interview of Alan Shapley by Ron Doel and Fae Korsmo on 2003 August 21, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/30543-1
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Alan Shapley, son of astronomer Harlow Shapley, was born in Pasadena, California in 1919. The family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts two years later. In this interview, Mr. Shapley shares recollections of his father and other astronomers, including Donald Menzel. He also discusses his own work on radio propagation at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and on solar-terrestrial phenomena at the National Bureau of Standards. As a major figure in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958, Mr. Shapley headed up the coordination of World Days, when intensive measurements would be taken. His memories of the IGY are included here.
Am I pronouncing your name as you pronounce it?
Yes, I mildly try to suppress my full middle name, Horace. That was my father’s twin brother, Horace. The Alan comes from a telephone book, my family says. That was back in the days when Alan was not a very common name.
So you were one of the very few who remember growing up with that name?
I know that you were born on the 23rd of March in 1919 in Pasadena. Unlike many times when we do an interview, we do know about your father and what he did. I’m wondering what are some of the earliest recollections you have of growing up, of being in the Shapley household?
Well, I don’t know whether I remember it or I was told, but we were only in Pasadena for two years after I was born. We must’ve had a house with a small yard. Remember, this was a long, long time ago when Pasadena was out in the country. I remember, or I was told, that we had an orange tree in the backyard, and it had one orange on it, and before the orange was ripe I picked it. So I don’t know whether that’s a true memory or not. The early memories from Cambridge include being taken on a special train to see the eclipse in 1925, I think, and also taking a special train to see an eclipse in 1926. So I saw two solar eclipses, both were in my memory. Those were the days when they ran special trains to things like that. Then I saw the total eclipse of August 31, 1932, at that time in New Hampshire. So by the time I was 13 or something, I’d seen three total solar eclipses, and I haven’t seen one since. It rained in Locarno in 1963, and that’s the only other one I tried to go to. So those were a couple of early memories. I remember Woods Hole, where we used to go for some of the summertime, and I remember...
How often would you get out to Woods Hole?
Oh, you mean as a boy?
Oh, I suppose, I think, two summers. And then we went to Nantucket several times. I suppose we went through Woods Hole. My father was on the board of trustees at Woods Hole. I’m an amateur oceanographer, just as you’re an amateur something or other.
What sort of house was it that you lived in Cambridge? What do you remember about it?
I have almost no photographic evidence. I remember everything in mild detail. It was the director’s residence, so it was built in the 1840s, and it was attached to the big green dome in the Observatory proper. Donald Menzel had it torn down. I don’t think now they tear down many buildings that were built in the 1840s. It was added onto by Pickering, my father’s predecessor. It was Victorian. I know it was a very large place. There was a drawing room, a library, a music room, and a dining room. It was built for entertaining and my family did a great deal of entertaining. On the top floor there were four smallish bedrooms. The fourth child in our family arrived after we got to Cambridge. My sister left by the time my baby brother needed a room. So it was a large place. My mother never, until after they retired, had a home of her own. She had somewhat regretted that. I guess in California, in Pasadena, I’m quite sure they rented. In those days it was common. If you’ve never been to Cambridge, you have? It was attached to the green dome—not directly, but with a couple of offices in between it—and it was a long way from the street. In retrospect, I didn’t live in a neighborhood the way, I guess, kids do now. And I guess we mistreated our daughter also because she grew up four blocks from here. But again, it was a disbursed neighborhood. We grew up, went to Walkton Grammar School.
You mentioned a moment ago that there was quite a bit of entertaining that went on, which, of course, we’re familiar with in general terms. What stands out in your memory of the folks who came in? Would there be at least one dinner that other people were involved in each week? Or was it even more than that?
Entertaining was mostly not at dinner parties. We would occasionally have guests for Sunday dinner. We kids used the dining room table for a ping-pong table. It was almost the right size. The things that stand out are the large parties or functions with the scientific AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers). When they met there was always a garden party. I guess the story I tell mostly is my Einstein story. You knew about Mr. Einstein? Well, he came to the States and was down in Princeton, and Harvard wanted to give him an honorary degree. I don’t know, it may have been HS’s (Harlow Shapley) prodding, and they were going to do it. The Harvard Tercentenary was coming up. It was the 300th anniversary of Harvard and they had long before been making elaborate plans to celebrate that. They figured out—and again, it was probably my father—that if they gave Einstein an honorary degree at the Tercentenary, he would sort of grab the glamour and the press coverage and everything and that wouldn’t be fair, so they decided to give him his degree in 1935. The Tercentenary was in 1936. We seldom had overnight houseguests, for various reasons, which I could get into but it’s probably not important. But Einstein’s wife, I think, had died already. Einstein was to be our live-in houseguest. So HS was—HS is my old man and that’s what we called him.
Yes. I never heard my parents use first names to each other until long after they were retired. My mother was Gretchen and my mother called my father HS to avoid being specific. In any case, Einstein was staying with us. He came up from Princeton, and either by prearrangement or accidentally, he brought his violin with him. So for the first night he was going to be there we invited quite a number of amateur musicians to come and play with Mr. Einstein. We had a really jolly time. It was 1935 and I was 16 and an amateur cellist, but I wasn’t a good enough amateur cellist to play but good enough to listen. And I remember very much when we were having a food break that he and the pianist stayed in the living room. The living room was relatively huge and we were in the library, which is also large but not as huge. They stayed in the living room. The piano player, who was Hubert Lamb, who has since died, and Einstein, I remember, sat by themselves in the very large living room sawing away on a Bach sonata for violin and piano and just going at it, all up to tempo and everything. But he was a very good violinist. I can’t remember what else they played. But I do remember when people started to leave, and Einstein stood at the top of the granite staircase going down and saying, “We do more tomorrow night,” to people. This, of course, took my family by surprise because they weren’t drinking people but they were going to be assembling… So they had the problem of assembling a similar group of musicians. And the piano player, Hubert Lamb, could come and another violinist and that, but the cellist had something he couldn’t get out of and so he had to beg off. So the next morning they had to start looking for an amateur cellist. I don’t know details, but they finally figured out that there was a man named Boaz Pillar, who played the bass bassoon, contrabassoon, in the Boston Symphony and who, on the side, was an amateur cellist and an autograph collector. So they tempted him with Einstein’s signature for his book, his autograph collection. So he hired somebody to take his place in the Boston Pops (at that time the Boston Pops was really from the Boston Symphony) and came over and played with Einstein and he brought his bassoon, double bassoon, with him. And so the first half hour was valuable time. He was demonstrating the contrabassoon, and showing, which I hadn’t known and hadn’t really thought about it before or since, that you wind up a magazine this way and make the thing a little bit longer, and you could get down one or two more notes, lower notes. He did that. So they had a grand time. That’s my Einstein story. And he got his degree.
Did you get a chance to talk to Einstein yourself?
A 16-year-old? Well, I can’t remember. Sure, I mean, I was there. I was the host’s number-two son. I guess, in 1935, I don’t know if my older brother was there or not, or who else was there. In any case, that’s my Einstein story. I can tell you later my Yo Yo Ma story. So that was, to me, a memorable case.
That’s quite a story. Were politics spoken much in your house? Was that a topic that came up?
Yes. My father was not a shy man. I can’t fully remember. Later, in the mid-late 1930s and of course the 1940s, there was a lot of politics.
I was wondering if you remember from the time that you were growing up, was this something that you’d hear about frequently at the dinner table or as family discussions?
Not especially. I remember going up on what we called the roof garden. There was a flat roof over the addition that Pickering built, and our kids’ bedrooms would open out onto the flat roof. I remember going on that to watch the election results, which in those days were done by light signals from Boston. If Cox was ahead or Michael Curley was running for governor, there would be one colored light, and there would be another colored light if another person was ahead. So we were aware of politics, but my father—I never got to de-quantify it because he vote it for what’s-his-face almost every time.
No, it was a socialist, Norman Thomas. That was before your time. But he was certainly an FDR type of person.
A moment ago you were starting to mention schools. Were there teachers that you found particularly memorable?
Actually not. I’m disappointed. It was probably my fault. We did the local public school down the street for grammar school. As a family we did that, and my sister went to freshman year at the Cambridge High and Latin School, public school. But apparently they were pretty darn bad and so she shifted to the Cambridge School of (???), a private school, and my brothers and I switched from public school to private school at, plus or minus, the eighth grade. So we took school buses all the way up to Belmont. You probably don’t know that area, but it was called the Belmont Hill School.
Did your father encourage you to take science in particular, or was he open to whatever you were interested in?
As far as I know he was open. If he wasn’t, he concealed it. But my first job was sorting cards for 25 cents an hour over at the observatory, a summer job. Later on I ran the night telescopes.
How old were you when you did that, when you ran the night telescopes?
Oh, I can’t remember how young I was but it was in my late teens. I’d take the Friday nights. The regular man had Friday nights off. By that time the telescopes were out in Harvard, Mass. at the—
The observatory itself was in Harvard, Massachusetts.
Well, the telescopes, yes.
The telescopes were at Oak Ridge Station. He invented the term Oak Ridge before the Manhattan boys did. After the war, when Oak Ridge became a household name, they had to switch the name to Agassiz Station, but it’s still called Oak Ridge sometimes.
And that was where you’d tend the instrument? You’d go out to Oak Ridge?
Yes, to the Observatory and come back at dawn, depending on the weather. Yes, so that was my job. I don’t think I ever got more than 50 cents an hour. Isn’t that awful?
I imagine by that time you were able to have met many of the leaders of the American astronomical community. Henry Norris Russell was at Cambridge often.
Oh, yes, yes. Not so often; once a year maybe.
People didn’t travel as much then. And I think he was one of the others that were houseguests of ours, but it was uncommon.
Were there any other members of the astronomical community who stand out for you that you came to meet in those years as you were growing up?
Well, of course, the locals, the Harvard’s…
You mentioned Donald Menzel already.
Yes, that he had torn down the house.
Of course, Menzel was there at that time.
Oh, yes. He promised me that he wasn’t running for the job, but—
You’re speaking of the 1950s, when—
I think it was in 1950, he and I were staying at the same hotel in Brussels. And Bart Bok, of course, and Fred Whipple. He knew all of them and their various wives and their scandals. There were lots of romances at the observatory. And then a lot of visiting astronomers would come. Yes, I knew almost…name any and I can—I don’t think I ever met Mr. Hubble. He and my father didn’t get along too well.
One senses that from reading the letters that passed between them.
Yes. You probably know more than I.
When you paused a moment ago, I wondered whether you were thinking of a particular moment or something that your father had said. Just before you mentioned Hubble.
If so, I’ve already forgotten it.
Did you sense that you were heading towards astronomy at a young age, or did you have other interests that you thought you might pursue?
Well, I think I realized I was heading to it and I tried to divert myself, and I was partly successful. After the war I did go back for one semester of graduate school. It was in the astronomy department but it was not a success. So I never got my degree.
Right, I want to make sure we get to cover that in a moment. Was there any doubt that you were going to Harvard for your undergraduate degree? Was there any other school that you were considering attending?
I sent away for catalogs, and I remember especially, for no good reason, I sent away for a catalog of the University of North Carolina; why I’m not sure. I think maybe their football team was doing rather well. And I probably didn’t give it enough consideration. My prep school was, at that time, very much Harvard oriented, so a lot of my peers were going to Harvard. If they didn’t go to Harvard it was because they couldn’t get in. I probably should’ve considered going elsewhere, but I was young and immature.
What do you remember reading as you growing up?
Reading? Tom Swift.
That was a famous series.
Oh, you heard about it?
Quite a few young boys were reading Tom Swift back in those days.
Yes, it was the equivalent to Harry Potter, which I had never heard of until recently. I hadn’t heard of Elvis Presley until I was in my mid-50s or something and I got a Herald Tribune in Paris. There was an article about a man named Presley and I’d never heard of him.
Were you reading science fiction as well?
Science fiction? No, they were frowned on, and they were far out.
When you say “frowned on,” do you mean your parents frowned on them?
No, by my contemporaries. They were too fantastic or something like that. Donald Menzel would write science fiction but under an assumed name.
Yes, I was just going to ask you about that. You were aware that he was writing at the time?
Yes, well, sure. He wrote quite a bit. I never knowingly read one of his.
When you were in undergrad at Harvard, one of the things I’m curious about is whether you came to meet those who were in the experimental geophysics group, people like Reginald Daly.
I never met Daly but the old man knew him.
Your father seemed rather close to him.
Oh, I can’t remember things. Geophysics didn’t have a good name in those years, in the 1930s. At Harvard there was a man named—I’m not sure, but he couldn’t get a job at Harvard so he gave Harvard a building on exploration geography or something like that in order that he would be appointed curator or something like that.
But he was mostly at Newport, Rhode Island, during those years, even though he had given the building, as I understand.
Oh, that could be. I can’t get his name. I’m not sure he was around very much but it sticks in my mind that he bought himself into a Harvard connection.
Yes. The name will come to me too. I know exactly who you’re referring to.
But that was exploratory geophysics or something. Now, I took Geology I as an undergraduate, but Kirtley Mather was taking a sabbatical so I didn’t get to hear him. Now, after the war I got to know Kirtley quite well and we exchanged Christmas cards. His second wife interacted with us a bit. Well, I vaguely knew Memnall [?], he was the ionosphere man; and a super technician named Pierce, I think that’s his name. He didn’t have a degree in professorship but he was very, very clever, but he was also in the radio side of things.
I was wondering how well you knew L. Don Leet, the seismologist.
Yes, you know all the dirt about him, do you?
Well, I’m curious what you know, what you’ve heard of that story.
You want to get the truth, I’m not sure. We’ve skipped over another phase of my early life. HS established the observing station at Oak Ridge in the town of Harvard, Mass. I was a young teenager and stuff, so in the summertime I used to go out there and stay with some of the workmen. They’d build bunks in the garage there and dug ditches for a living. I think it was still 25 cents an hour. So I remember digging the ditches for the trenches for the walls of the 61-inch telescope and of several other telescope buildings. This is somewhat related to your question. And one of the last buildings—this was in the 1932 era—was the seismograph station on the Observatory grounds, which was near L. Don Leet, and it was all underground, so we had to dig deep ditches. That’s before we had these mechanical things that you can sit in your easy chair and do. So I had direct contact with the seismograph building, so I had met and somewhat knew L. Don Leet. He built a house on the Pinnacle Road, is that it? I remember that. It was just off the Route 110 or 111 or whatever it was, but he’d drive up there. So he moved up there. The Menzels had a cottage on a pond just down the street from L. Don Leet. All I remember was he and his wife were divorced. That was in the early 1930s or mid-1930s and was usually not done, so I think he picked up otherwise. But I’ve almost never heard of him since. I’ve interacted with seismologists since then and he’s not mentioned.
I was curious what your impressions were of him, as a person or as a scientist.
Well, he left his wife. That was not very positive. I won’t make up any impressions because, after all, I was 14 or 15 years old. He was not visible in the late 1930s or since, so I don’t know.
You mentioned that at the time you were 17 and 18 you were running the 61-inch telescope on Friday nights when—
I didn’t say the 61-inch telescope.
Which one were you running?
Well, I remember once I was running all of them at the same time, dashing—In those days you had to guide by eye. Once I remember I was running everything else on the shop and maybe as sort of a stunt I ran the 61-inch also. As far as running everything—
So you were running the astrograph cameras?
Yes, we called them Patrol cameras. There were four of those and exposures were one to two hours on the 16-inch with objective prisms. I remember some things. The 8-inch was over there, and there was a 12-inch. I never ran the Schmidt camera because that didn’t get built until I was probably out of it. So it was work, 50-cents-an-hour work.
The 61-inch telescope gained a reputation as being a difficult instrument, mechanically, optically. Was that a fair reputation?
Yes, I think so. I worked one summer on aluminizing the 61-inch mirror, and Leo Goldberg was running it. It was a hell of a time getting the right compound, sealing it, tightening down the leaks. So you’re right.
You were attending Harvard as an undergraduate in the late ‘30s and got your degree in 1940. Were there any classes that were particularly memorable to you, that stand out from your undergraduate years?
Oh, yes. I wasn’t a very good student. Theodore Lyman, he taught half of the Introductory Physics course. And one of my physics labs instructors was Purcell. Then another one named Preston, which I think he also turned out pretty good. Then a later class instructor was Julian Schwinger. And I took somewhat after him in that you know, I invited you to come for the afternoon. But Schwinger was above his pad, but he tolerated 11 o’clock. But boy he was a sharp cookie. And he was only what, two years older than I? I didn’t follow that part of physics literature over the years, but I now realize that almost all of them got their Nobel Prizes, except HS.
For certain fields there’s never been Nobel Prizes either.
Well, they tell me that there’s more politics than you and I realize. I remember the year that Percy Bridgman got the prize. Percy Bridgman lived down the street from the observatory. And I think it was Nobel Prizes that they announced at Christmas time. Maybe they were back then. But that was the same year HS was elected president of AAAS. And he said to us privately he’d be glad to switch prizes with Bridgman.
When you were growing up, would your father confide in you the feelings he had about how things were going in the field? Was that something that you remember him talking about?
Oh, yes. I think all the time. For many years, I think it was at the AAVSO, if you know what the AAVSO is.
The Variable Star Observers.
But annually he would attend their dinner with the ten highlights in astronomy in the previous year. So we heard about it, and he would talk about it. You saw the digging up of old—Why, in Physics Today, you read that, you saw the article in the latest issue about HS and Baade and the doubling of the universe, size of the universe. That was unnecessary, and I don’t know why historians dug that up. Or did you write the review? I have it here somewhere.
I actually haven’t seen that edition yet of Physics Today. [Note: the letter to the editor, “Baade, Shapley, and the Doubling of the Universe,” appears in Physics Today, August 2003, page 13.]
It’s in the Book Review section. Oh, I won’t spend 60 seconds looking for it if I don’t find it. I’m not very well organized. This is a letter.
But I thought that was gratuitous. So was your father perfect? And yours?
Certainly not. I’ll take a look at that.
But for the tape, why don’t you read the letter?
This is from Physics Today in August of 2003 on page 13, “Baade, Shapley and the Doubling of the Universe,” van den Bergh’s letter on a Hetherington review.
See, that was taken from his annual highlights. And as far as I can tell, it was well-meaning and well-intentioned. But historians, they’ve dug up a lot of negatives on my father.
They’ve also dug up quite a bit that’s positive, and some of the most recent biographical writing that I’ve seen has highlighted many of the contributions that he wanted to make. One thing I’m really curious about. Your father is known primarily for the astronomy that he did. Obviously he was director of the observatory. But he was also deeply interested in areas of geophysics, within the Geophysics Committee, when he worked with Reginald Daily. That appears at least in the letters that passed between the two of them. Was that something that he spoke with you about? Or was that an area of interest that he didn’t discuss as much?
Well, he mentioned that, and my impression of things is that geophysics was sort of a bad thing.
Right. You had mentioned Hamilton Rice…
Rice, yes. Well, mentioned. But Alexander Rice.
Yes, exactly right, at the Geography Institute.
Okay, but there was Harlan Stetson.
Your father was instrumental in bringing him from Ohio to Harvard for that project.
Which probably he regretted.
Harlan True Stetson, came from the Perkins Observatory up to Harvard. At the time, it was the Great Depression.
Yeah. And I think he took the undergraduate astronomy teaching spot, which wasn’t a wonderful observatory until sometime in the ‘30s. And Walter Andrews [?] was there later. So they were astronomers, but not connected to the observatory. But I think it was Harlan Stetson who ended up at MIT.
In a field called Cosmic-Terrestrial Relationships.
He got very interested in sunspots and weather and a number of other issues.
Yes. Then I guess he got bounced out of MIT and ran it from his home in Waltham or something like that. So it was solar-terrestrial relationships which got that term off to a bad start. I think I helped overcome that and it’s no longer a freak of science. So you got me. Oh, I think it’s all right, actually, if you want to do some investigative reporting. One of the things that my father was proudest of, well, he loved to give speeches. And he was a very, very, very good speaker, unlike myself. And the Astronomical Society did the right thing, or a good thing, and so they had the Harlow Shapley visiting lectureship there in the astronomy program, which I read in the AAS newsletter, it has a bank balance of a half a million books. So it is apparently still heated. I thought maybe it was off-limits. That’s where astronomers would volunteer to go on an expense-only basis to spend two or three days at a college that didn’t have an astronomy program the public, and college audiences and would give two or three speeches. And that’s the kind of thing that he was good at and did a great deal on. He was also, I think, very proud of his work with Science Service. He was president for years and years and years. My older brother is still Treasurer. And the Science Talent Search, which used to be wholly Westinghouse, and now it’s joined between these companies that are always bought and sold. But my brother did a 50th anniversary or something, a history of it.
I wasn’t aware of that. That’s good to know that.
But they completely expunged my father’s role.
In the 50th anniversary event?
No, in the history of it over the years. You know, it’s an annual. Seniors would write projects. I screened essays for quite a few years, and then they’d bring 40 of them to Washington and wine and dine them, and they would pick two or three or four. They called them all winners, but two or three, four of them got sizable scholarships. But apparently Westinghouse decided, well, because of politics and things. My brother called me to see whether I had heard anything about that. Apparently he didn’t feel that as Treasurer he could influence that. But there’s some dirty work there, and it’s unnecessary.
Why he was expunged from their records, it may have something to do with Watson Davis and the Science Service. I never met Watson Davis successor. He’s asked me to go to Washington now a couple of times—of course, on Science Service business.
I’ve also found—and it doesn’t seem to be widespread knowledge—the extent that your father worked to raise funds, not just for the observatory, but for broader research programs on campus, including with the biology program. There are parts of your father’s story that I don’t think have ever been adequately told.
I remember when he raised money for Howard Aitken, Mark I and Mark II, whichever it was, because I know they’re preparing envelopes in the observatory offices there, several envelopes, handwritten. I’m not sure he has full credit on these sorts of things. Around the dinner table, by no means was it all astronomy. It was refugees. He was one of the early ones on the International Rescue Committee. Almost every week he’d be on the Owl Train to New York. This was before the flashlight days.
We’re resuming after a brief pause. You had mentioned that during the time you were growing up, you hadn’t gotten to the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory?
I had never been there, no. But yeah, I think it was dying on the vine, and it was in place of what used to be the Weather Bureau to save it. Well, we haven’t gotten to my career.
We’re just getting to that now. I was just going to ask you about when you were finishing at undergraduate Harvard in 1940, what did the prospects look like? What did you think might be possible careers? What were you thinking about?
Well, it might be possible that the Depression would end. I didn’t know. I wasn’t a very good student. I won’t go into details on that.
Could I just ask you on that, because I was very curious, what was it like to be the son of the observatory director and be a student at Harvard? Did you feel that made it more difficult for you than if your father hadn’t been?
Oh, yes, it was more difficult and more easy. I started out generally in physics, but I wasn’t particularly motivated by it. So I took Astronomy I. Well, I knew the instructors and stuff. I don’t know formally whether my degree was in physics or astronomy. But I wasn’t an especially good student. The folks sent me to a psychological testing group. I can’t remember its name now. It was an early attempt to measure what you’re good at and what you were for. I don’t think they could figure me out. College doctor said that I was prematurely senile.
He didn’t say that directly, did he?
It was close to it. And to say that to a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old, it was—Well. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A friend of mine in the Boy Scout community was in the process of being converted to Jesuit-ship or something like that. He was a crazy, mixed-up person, I now realize. He was the math instructor at what became Cambridge Junior College, so he got me that job for the year after I graduated from Harvard. I could see the MIT catalog. My father was a life member of the corporation at MIT. And I was attracted to a half-year course on the differential analyzer. So I was farsighted, and I said, “Let’s find out what Van Bush has been up to.” He and my father were fairly close—But Van Bush had already moved to Washington and some other guy taught it. You know about the differential analyzer, it’s the Victrola record.
You didn’t meet Van Bush at the time?
No. I’m not sure. I’m sure I met him, but whether it was in Washington or Cambridge or what, but as a son and not a personal…But after that story, when we had the unpleasantness in the early ‘40s, I went to Washington and me and brother cracked meteorological codes in China. My mother took at job at MIT, I think under Kopal, if you knew Kopal.
Yes, whose daughter lives in Boulder and the mother was here retired, I think. The job there was to do tables of projectiles (they weren’t called missiles then) by five-place logarithms to check up on the differential analyzers’ results. So it was an RDC project for these lady computers. Computers were then ladies. In the old days, they were young ladies at the observatory. I think a lot of them got married off to graduate students. You heard of Seyfert? His wife was one of the girls. So my mother had the evening shift and would take the streetcar out from Concord Avenue, and you change at Harvard Square and take the Mass. Ave. streetcar down to MIT. She’d use five-place logarithms and do her work on that and then come home. And she said, “It’s wonderful. I come home and I have a bottle of wine, and it makes me feel so much better.” She was essentially a teetotaler; they both were essentially teetotalers. So she checked up on the Van Bush crew of differential analyzers.
That’s very interesting. How many hours did she work in the evenings during those years?
She probably got off at ten to ten-thirty. It was late. So my guess is, I don’t think it was after midnight. She was 53 years old, and you had to be careful. So how did I wander? My wife says I talk too much.
I’m enjoying everything you’re telling us now. You also had the one position before you left for Washington. You were an engineer at the Sylvania Electric Production Corporation. How did that job come about?
Well, in the first place, IBM turned me down. Walter Lemon, ever heard of him? So they brought me down to New York and I interviewed. I was young and naive. The thing then was the electric typewriter. I was much impressed, and I think they weren’t much impressed with me. Gosh, I don’t know who got me to write to what was then the High Grade Sylvania Corporation, and I don’t remember how I—however, they hired me. I knew that I wasn’t the teaching kind. That would not have gone well. I don’t know if anybody drew me in. So I was hired as an electrical engineer in the photometry and the life test product domain. High Grade Sylvania had a factory in Salem, Massachusetts. They’d been making light bulbs since 1888 or something. But they were quite new in the then new fluorescent lamp business. So this was in the fluorescent lamp thing. We did colors and life tests and intensity. It was an engineering job. I was the most junior of employees. I showed up, and my new boss said, “There’s a broom: go sweep up that broken glass.” So I got money. I had a nice time there. For the first time moved way away from home. I was in dormitories save my four years in undergraduate Harvard. So yeah, I did that. Then it was Menzel that turned me in on the Washington job. He never let me forget it.
How’s that? That he would remind you that he got you that post?
Yeah. I could write this kind of a book on Menzel.
You’re pointing to the book Science and—
No. This kind of book.
Now you’re pointing to Physics Today.
Okay. He says the man that had this dirt on HS, has been known to do things like that. Oh really? You mean those contradictions? Could I get you some water or Sprite or something?
Let’s pause for a minute. [Pause] We’re resuming after a brief pause, and you just mentioned some of your other activities in growing up—Boy Scout leader and taking the group to the World’s Fair in 1940. What do you remember from that affair?
Not too much, because I was so busy controlling the kids, you might say. I do remember that somehow I—or I don’t know who, somebody must have helped me—negotiated a special price for the Boston to New York trip on the boat, the ship, that went from Boston to New York. So it cost five dollars a kid. We didn’t get a stateroom, but we got blankets and found some storage area or something like that. And five dollars was a lot of money then. I’ve forgotten, we must have paid food money or something when we were down there. But I had a problem because my brother was getting married that week, and he asked me to be the better person. Maybe he used some other funds or something. But he was getting married in Chicago. So I got permission for 24-hours leave from the New York Fair and the kids. I somehow got to La Guardia and got on the airplane, DC-3, and flew to Chicago, where I was met by my cousin. I went to the International House in Chicago, if you know that, which is where the wedding was going to be, and supervised. My brother was cutting himself shaving, and it was straight razors before the electric razor came. So then we had a service there at International House, and we had some kind of a reception. Then my cousin drove me all the way back to Midway, driving through Cicero. That impressed me a lot because Cicero was a gangster suburb. And I took the sleeper plane back to New York. So not many people are still alive who’ve taken lower berth DC-3 sleeper plane. I woke up in the middle of the night and peeked out through those little windows that they have there, and that plane was sitting on the actual airfield. It turns out they set down in Pittsburgh to let us sleep and get our proper sleep and then took us off to land in La Guardia at 6:30 or 7:00 o’clock, we got picked up. So I surmounted that. Then I guess I got back from the World’s Fair, I must have, in time for me to go to my Harvard graduation, but I have no memory of that. So how did I get onto that topic? Oh yeah. I ended up being a Scout Master and raising a couple of generations, until I went to Salem.
Before we took that brief pause, you were about to tell us your recollections of going down to the Carnegie for the first time in 1942, when Don Menzel had helped, as you put it, to arrange the position. What was that like for you when you went?
Well, again, I don’t remember. I remember lots of things, but on that, I think I was accepted by Carnegie sight unseen, because I don’t remember going down for a trial interview and that sort of thing. And I don’t think I drove down—I had a 1940 Chevy at that time—though I did bring the car down later. So I don’t think I went for an interview and no one else will know, because they’re all dead. So I only barely knew what I was getting in for. Here’s Donald, The big thing about it was hush-hush. It was the lowest amount hush-hush in the scheme of things. You know, restricted. So I went down as a team of one. I didn’t get an assistant for a couple of years, and my boss didn’t use me as an assistant in any way. He left me alone.
Would you have preferred to be more in a team? Or did that suit you?
Well, I didn’t have much choice. But I guess I didn’t really know any different, so I guess I was content with it. I soon made up my own team. So you know all about how we won the war in radio propagation? They split the work between the, I forgot if it was the Combined Committee or the Joint Committee. It’s very technical differences from the military. They wanted propagation services, both on frequency selection, short-wave, and on propagation disturbances. So the Bureau of Standards got most of the cake. But then pre-war, there was a rivalry between Bureau of Standards and Carnegie on the ionosphere. And the Carnegie milked the ionosondes and the Bureau of Standards did the mapping. So I was Carnegie’s point person on the radio propagation disturbance side of things. But the other observatory, business Carnegie was going to set up the four new observatories and then collect the ionospheric data and feed it to the Bureau of Standards program, what we now would call ionospheric mapping. So my old pals at DTM were the radio engineers that Carnegie was hiring to run the four new observatories.
Who are you thinking about in particular? Who did you get to know particularly well when you were at the Carnegie?
Oh, everybody. I mean Scott Forbush, who played the cello, who I didn’t see very much of. He would smoke his cigarettes down to the stubs and his mustache would get charred. But he was a wonderful guy. Scott Forbush—the Forbush Effect in cosmic rays. Harry Vestine I got to know reasonably well. There was a young lady. She’s still alive and is in Boulder, Eleanor Crow, the daughter of O.W. Wait, who was our atmospheric electricity man at DTM. I never really got to know my boss, Harry Wells, very well, you know, as a person. He was distant to almost everybody. John Fleming was a big guru, the director.
What was he like, Fleming?
He was a very distant person. But at least he did all his own work. He’s not like you and I. How many secretaries do you have, Fae? At least you have one.
It was near the end of his career during the time that you were there.
Well, he lasted the war. Yes, he was [whispering]…he wasn’t very bright. I did not say that for the record. But he started the journal that’s now the Journal of Geophysical Research. It was on terrestrial magnetism and atmospheric electricity. And he did almost all the work himself for hours and hours. He gave AGU its…well, hired their first hired person, Waldo Smith. He gave him a desk up in the attic of DTM. Have you been in the attic of DTM?
No, I haven’t.
Oh, I see. What’s his name, the man that referred you to me, he said he found some goodies about me in the attic at DTM.
Oh, Shaun Hardy. We can add names to the transcript later. [Note: Shapley could have been referring to Tom Bogdan and/or Joe Bassi.]
Well, I’ve found some things, also, up there. I went back once looking for something. So Fleming had a good heart. I don’t think that he did nefarious things like you were talking about. I don’t think my father did many nefarious things. Maybe I’m a simpleminded country boy. That’s how we got onto this. I was a country boy.
Which we will get to when we talk about Hugh Odishaw and other folks. Did you see much of Lloyd Berkner in the wartime years?
No. I knew about him, of course, because he claims to be the chief engineer of the DTM ionospheric sounders, and probably was. So I knew about him. I think maybe Menzel saw some of him. But I don’t think he was in the radio propagation market. He was in the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics or something. So I gave my answer. Kay, I think a couple of refills would be appreciated. They didn’t realize that I would be such a dry speaker.
Just think how dry it would be if I hadn’t come out.
1947, you were over at the National Bureau of Standards itself, or at least your position tended to be focused more—
No, after the war, after we won the Battle of Washington—which was bloody in some respects—I was actually in Trinidad, West Indies.
So you were setting up one of the stations?
Well, the station was set up. It had fallen apart. And I talked Harry Wells into letting me go down. And the Canada man that went had gone really crazy and tried to get the station back on the air with the bands on there. So I was in Miami, and the A-bombs were dropped on my way down. All right, so the war was over and I came back not knowing what to do. So what did I do?
You had thought to go back for graduate school at some point then.
Oh, I’ll come to that in just a few minutes. So by the time I got back in November, I think, things had settled down a little bit. But the A-bomb business was frightening. And that was when I soon got connected with the Washington Association of Scientists, which will come up in a few minutes. Of course, and I didn’t know, but DTM decided quickly, Merle Tuve, that it was going to get fully out of the ionosphere business except for a plum for Harry Wells without any assistance or team. So the Carnegie field station at Kensington we’d use a lot. But they gave Harry Wells a field station in Derwood. I think I was only there once. I’m not sure where it is—in a suburb of Washington, but on the Kensington side of the town. And our jobs would be coming to an end. But the boys at the stations, they had annual contracts or something. Oh, the DTM was going to get out of the business, and the Bureau of Standards would take over with the DTM part of the program. And we were, I guess, implicitly all offered jobs at the Bureau. An unrelated scientist at DTM, Alvin McNish, who did the magnetic mapping project. But in any case, he applied and got taken on as Chief of Research in Radio Propagation at the Bureau. I was in the midst all this time of being bitten by the computer age. And we had in the last year of the war or something, got of the whole suite of punch card machines, office business machines. Have you ever seen them in museums with plug boards and slotters and things? I developed a homemade scheme to do correlation coefficients on the machines. So I had a big project with me doing something quantitative with what we then called the 27-day recurrence tendency in magnetic activity. So I asked if I could stay on at DTM to finish that up, which took a long, long time. So I stayed on at DTM, commuting to Boston. I can’t recall the details, because almost every week I was on the Federal Express. And I eventually finished that work and published it in the Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, which then Walter Smith and Fleming were trying to turn into a proper scientific journal. And it’s there, one of my first papers on that. So I decided to take a crack at graduate school in astronomy. And again, I did a lot of commuting back and forth. So I went for one semester and it didn’t go too well. I was made a reasonably good offer from the Bureau of Standards to head their solar-terrestrial research under Alvin McNish. So I decided I would blame the war on my not getting a Ph.D. rather than me blaming my grey cells.
It was interesting when you mentioned that you’d gone back for astronomy rather than the areas that you’d been working on, particularly in the war.
Well, of course, astronomy, you could stretch the points and say that solar terrestrial relations was astronomy. But as I told you, solar-terrestrial relations were not in good repute, then so I didn’t know that I’d get away with it. And I’m not sure what I thought I was doing.
Did you have a thesis topic in mind or were you still looking at the possibilities?
Not really. So I took a class under Menzel. I’ve forgotten what it was on, except I remember Lou Branscomb was there. And Walt Roberts, I knew. That was before the war. And apparently, Walt showed up at Climax and I was entering the entry points of the Climax data into the system. But Walt didn’t know that I was doing that, just like Helen Dodson, if you know of her, she was sending in daily reports and telegrams and stuff. John Fleming used the old scheme and all correspondence was over his name. People like me, even Harry Wells couldn’t sign his own name. That’s interesting. HS was never that way, but the l9th century people I guess were.
I can imagine for the later generation that must have chafed to have things go entirely through John Fleming.
Well, it ended as soon as Fleming retired. And Merle Tuve—I didn’t really work under Merle Tuve—I’m sure never did that sort of thing. So that’s how I did a zigzag and got back into the radio propagation business.
What seemed to you the most interesting areas at the time within radio propagation. Were there particular subfields that you wanted to work in, problems you wanted to address?
I worked in most of them. I was Lead Person in Radio Astronomy for this country for a couple of years. In Physics Today there’s an obituary of Grote Reber. And I held Grote’s hand. There’s a mistake in the obituary. His Bureau of Standards was after the war, and not before or during. Oh, everything was exciting—radio meteors.
That was the work that Lovell was also doing in England?
Yes, Lovell. But we did a lot here, and Cliff [?] Elliot is in New Zealand, and Bob Helliwell. That was just solar-terrestrial relations.
When you mentioned Grote Reber and radio astronomy, I was curious what else you were thinking about a moment ago, of what you were doing at the time.
Well, I was reminded of him because he finally died. He was 95 years old and lived outside of Hobart, Tasmania. I thought of looking him up. We went on a cruise down there and we spent a day in Hobart, or running out of Hobart. I wasn’t sure whether he was still alive, and I guess he was. He was a maverick. We would go out and chase meteors, do visual observations at the Sterling Field Station, which you never heard of. It’s, I think, only a 60- second story. But in the old days, the Bureau of Standards had an ionosphere field station. This was shortly before the war, and the Army came in and said, “We want your real estate.” They said, “We’ll do a new field station with brick buildings, not our one-story buildings and huts, out in Sterling, Virginia.” So the Army proceeded to, on the old site, to build what’s now Andrews Air Force Base. So we had our new place in Sterling. That’s when I was active there. It’s where we did all of our experimental work. Then by that time—it wasn’t Air Force, it was civilians, I guess—said, “Oh, we want your real estate.” And they wanted it for this Dulles Airport. And we said, “Well, we’re tired of you doing all that to us. We’re moving to Colorado.” So whenever you land at Andrews or land at Dulles, you can envision all the good scientific work on radio physics and geophysics that was done on those grounds.
When you were doing the radio meteor work soon after the war, how much were you in touch with people like Fred Whipple? There weren’t that many people who were doing that much work in meteor studies in the U.S.—the visual studies.
Well, of course I’ve known Fred Whipple since the days of the first Mrs. Whipple. And I knew of work he was doing out in White Sands, etc., etc., etc. Although on that, I will say that the fall of it would have been ‘46 when I was at Harvard, that was when there was that highly touted Jacobinic meteor shower, and so I was one of the boys that flew in the Coast Guard amphibian airplane to get above the clouds that kept normal people from seeing it. It must have been later when they had the—Now what we were doing was to correlate visual observations with what we were getting on what we now call radar and connecting the two together and figuring out how the ionosphere was affected by them. So we had the whole range of research topics. McNish said that he’d give it two years and he’d have all the problems of the ionosphere solved, and then he could get onto more interesting work. It took more like 40 or infinity. We chased solar eclipses with ionosondes. In fact, I introduced the term “ionosonde,” Dana Bailey and I.
The people at the Bureau and even at DIM, they called them ionosphere recorders, which wasn’t very meaningful. So we worked on a little bit of everything. I didn’t write as many papers as I should have. But it sort of blends in to the brick and mortar side of things. One of the newest buildings at Bureau of Standards campus in Washington—which is now, what, a community college—Van Ness Street was the radio building. But that was built in late ‘30s or something. In the war time when there was this big explosion of activity, the interservice radio propagation laboratory—IRPL. So it was improvised in that they took the lecture hall in the east building and put waist-high partitions in it. They didn’t have proper quarters for any of the—neither the paperwork nor the engineering work. I was not involved in it, but the military decided to support a continuation of the IRPL, and DTM didn’t want anything of it. But the military wanted civilians to do it, not military. So they organized a central radio propagation laboratory, which was to take over from the wartime work and much of the, not only the Bureau of Standards work but also Bureau of ships and Signal Corps and others. And somewhere they got construction money to build the new laboratory facilities. That came at just the time when Harry Truman and the country were frightened about the A-bomb. And for one or two years there was a policy that there shall be no new major scientific building of facilities in metropolitan areas. We had to get the hell out. But we wanted to be in it, ties with the university, so the nearest we could move to would be Charlottesville. So I didn’t know about Newark, Delaware. I’m not sure they knew about it themselves. It was a vague system. It would take us as long to get from Charlottesville to the Washington bureaucrats as some other place. So this is when I started getting involved in more things.
Ed Condon was the director of the Bureau of Standards at the time, and I knew Ed. He lived on the grounds of the Bureau of Standards in Washington (they called it the Manse) with his flashy wife. I knew of him through another whole thread here, namely what’s now the Federation of American Scientists. I was, as I said, a member, or joined up with, the Washington local. And to jump ahead and coming back as I may, and was mildly involved with their monthly meetings when the real boys were doing all the good work on the civilian control of atomic energy. Willy Higginbotham and Ed Condon’s. Ed Condon, you’ve never met him probably. He’s a jovial and respectfully overweight physicist, a wonderful guy. He was out in Boulder fishing with Donold Mengel and Walt Roberts, and other people. He apparently had the idea that Boulder would be a good place to build the radio propagation laboratory that had been authorized by Congress. I’m not sure where the appropriation went, because the money hadn’t been appropriated, but he wanted to be sure. So he sent a telegram—in those days we sent telegrams—or somehow to CRPL headquarters in Washington saying that he had an idea and he would like Newburn Smith, who was the director of CRPL—Dellinger had retired—and Alvin McNish and the top administration person whose name escapes me at the moment, and me, a junior guy, “I want you to come out to Boulder. I have an idea.”
Had you been out to this part of the country before?
Well, see Walt Roberts essentially worked for me during the war. I made one visit out there during the war, but at the Climax. I think I’d been out here another time. But I had connections with Walt and through Walt at the university. So I was involved as a junior man, and then of course as, I suppose, Mengel’s pet, or call it what you want. So at least two of us were at a scientific meeting at Penn State in College, and we were summoned. We hurried back to Washington and got onto a DC-6 non-stop. And he’d never rode a DC-6, but had sort of a lounge at the back. So we sat in the lounge with our scotches and sodas. We figured out there why we were summoned. I let them in on all that I knew and didn’t know about here. And to almost everyone else, we had a hard time selling it. It was scientific Siberia, and it was too far from Uncle Max that sort of thing. But we decided on our second drinks that we would agree. So we stopped out here, and there’s big Ed Condon. There’s also big Ed Johnson, a senator from Colorado. I don’t think he was there, but a man named Bronson, a professor of physics. They’d lined up all sorts of dog-and-pony stuff to sell us on the idea of having help. We told them, “Well, we decided on our way out that we would agree.” So they had to figure out other legitimate reasons for us to come out there, which included a circuit trip over Trail Ridge Road in Leadville. Mengel was either born or raised in Leadville, I don’t know, ending up at Climax. I guess we over-night at Leadville. But in any case, we found some legitimate excuses. So the effective decision was made to build the new radio propagation laboratory in Boulder. Oh, then they appointed an unbiased committee to look into the nationwide search for the suitable places for a radio propagation lab.
I’m sure it was the first time that ever happened that way.
Well, we paid for it, because word got around. And the other thing in our minds was the Stanford area, but Stanford would have none of us. They didn’t do that. The Boulder people bought the land and gave it to the Bureau and stuff like that. But sure enough, the University of Mississippi thought that they’d be a good place for it. Then we would have had our headquarters in Oxford. Right? I’ve never been there. It’s where the University of Mississippi is, in Oxford. And then Delaware came into the act. I’ve never set foot in Delaware. I’ve gone through it on the train in Wilmington and in the car I guess. So I’ve never been to Newark. But we had to give the physics professor at Mississippi a job, and he was an albatross on our hands for 30 years, at least. But he did, he got into the history business, so he may have gotten you a job? All right, so that is some of the story of us moving out here.
One of the questions I wanted to ask particularly about this period, when you look back, what do you think were your most significant publications of the time?
I have so few. I have more unfinished work that became important, later on. Oh, it’s hard to tell. I’m not proud of my publication record. One of the I think significant activities was running an international committee that specified the standards of analyzing ionospheric sounding records, or vertical instance sounding records. It started out named the Ionospheric Radars. Mid-latitudes, it was fairly straightforward and well behaved. But at high latitudes, there’s all sorts of messes and spurious echoes or doubtful echoes, and also down at the equator there were things. So I was part of the international group called URSI.
We’re talking about the late 1940s, and that was also the time that your father had some of his greatest political challenges, given the McCarthy era and the attitude in Washington. I’m wondering what comes most to your mind as you think back to what he told you, what you knew about what was happening with him at that time?
Oh, he didn’t hold anything back. We saw quite a bit of him because I was Washington-based until ‘54. Well, he saw us one morning in Washington. I guess he’d just shown up, and he told me about, “McCarthy gave a speech in West Virginia last night,” or night before last or something, and that he was involved. I’ve forgotten whether he had the clipping or how he knew. But that was the first McCarthy speech, the message of which had the names of, was it two or four or 13 state department members that were Communists. He was one of the two. But as it turned out, immediately, as far as HS was concerned—Never in his whole life was he on a government payroll. He was Vice Chairman of the US National Committee for UNESCO, I think. And so he got listed, as I have and probably you have, in a roster of, they’re called now, what, NGOs or something? So that’s when the McCarthy thing was started. It got diluted by other people being similarly led.
That meeting that you had with your father when he told you about McCarthy’s speech, how did he seem? How did he feel at that point? Was he angry? Did he expect it? What could you tell of how he felt?
No, I don’t think he was angry. He was like me—he was a simple country boy. And he literally was. He was born on a farm in Jasper, Missouri.
Not too far from Hubble, for that matter.
The same state, yeah. I remember that, but I’d forgotten. It doesn’t matter. I think he was astonished that he was given that much attention. And he never used the simple country boy analogy, but that’s what he was doing all the time. See, this was just before the Henry Wallace era.
Right around in the same time.
Yes. He was very much involved.
In the Wallace campaign?
Well, he declined to be the candidate for governor of Massachusetts on whatever that party was called. He was urged to do that. But he was very much involved in the Waldorf-Astoria do and some other big do. There was a committee on US and Soviet friendship or something like that. So as far as I know, there was nothing uncouth about his involvement in all of these things. He did feel strongly about the refugees’ situation. And he was leader or pro forma leader of that group of (were they scientists or intellectuals or both?) that Frugelhas had run around the world, including Soviet.
Was that when he went to the Pulkovo Observatory?
It could have been, yes. And I think he came home, I think that was in the winter just after the end of the war, and came back to Alaska, Fairbanks, visited the Geophysical Institute there. And as I recall, he said that he wasn’t head of the delegation, but he was sort of pushed forward by the others. I’ve forgotten now who else was on a DC-4. I’ve flown DC-3s plenty of places, but not done really many things in DC-4s. So he was known as being on the progressive liberal side. The Waldorf thing, and they also had a big do in Madison Square Garden, and he brought up his ideas at some of these and was visible. As far as I know, nothing that was hidden. And people that we talked to were proud of him. Except there’s that awful man in New York (I’ll think of his name sometime) who’s still somewhat active, so he must have been very healthy then. He’s a professor at Columbia or NYU or something. But he pulled some fast ones on HS. But I was busy with other things then, and he lived in Cambridge and I…
Did you share his politics, generally, in those years?
Oh, I think so, yeah, because they were down-to-earth, sensible. He was proud of Wallace.
But he had known Wallace also in the 1930s from some of the work on the correlations between sun spot activities and meteorology that Wallace had been interested in when he was in agriculture.
He was Secretary of Agriculture, and hybrid corn is what I remember Wallace from.
You mentioned a few times in this period, too, your relationship with Donald Menzel. I wonder, how would you characterize that relationship as you look back on it now and over the years?
I guess you wonder whether he was—Well, I should be able to find the correct, the mot juste, is that…?
Mmm hmm [yes]. It’s a perfect phrase.
I never found out what your—Are you an Ivy Leaguer?
My Ph.D. is from Princeton, the history department at Princeton.
I see. Wow, HS was Ph.D. Princeton. You knew that?
And my brother Lloyd—you know of him?
Mm hmm [yes].
He was Ph.D. Princeton. And have you read the book, A Beautiful Mind? I haven’t read it yet. I finally bought one. If you looked under the acknowledgments, Lloyd is acknowledged as being the suggester of the title A Beautiful Mind.
I didn’t know that.
They were fellow graduate students at Princeton, but you’re another generation or two. Are you Princeton also?
Not at all.
University of New Mexico.
In Albuquerque? You know how many Q’s and U’s. Yeah. They have that huge music hall, auditorium. So I went there once—had a free ticket. I think it was some kind of an opera. But I think there were maybe 45 or 55 people in the auditorium, which was not even a drop in the bucket. See, that’s another whole era that we don’t know about. I went there for a meeting of the American Symphony Orchestra League.
When did that happen?
Oh, 20 years ago or something like that. I helped start the Colorado Music Festival. So five weeks ago, they had a dinner party for me. Soloists and the Brahms Double Concerto, for violin and cello. So they came and brought their instruments. We had 25, 30 people in this room and had a nice time.
Did you keep playing after your youth?
Off and on. I sold my cello when I moved here. Yeah, so when we get you to sign the guest book, you’ll see on the page before there’s Glen Harold, the cellist, and Helen Nightengale were the two performers. Yeah, I’ve another whole side to my existence. And they’re all printable so far.
One good thing about oral history interviews is that they’re not published as documents. They’re a part of history in the way that private letters and other documents are.
Another thing we haven’t gotten onto yet is, I suppose I took after the old man in a sense. I was the Foreign Minister for the lab. So I’ve been almost everywhere except Corvallis. But I did go to the other New Mexico university, New Mexico State in Las Cruces?
Mmm hmm [yes]. Before it was called that.
It was the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
And it provided a job for Clyde Tombaugh.
Yes it did. I’m interested you mentioned that, because I was thinking as a question of how, on the international aspect, that you and your father do have a lot of commonalities in that dimension, in what you do in science, beginning, certainly, in the very early l950s, and what he was doing at the time.
Well, I guess he took us along on a lot of things. My first real scientific job was in 1932 when the IAU met at Cambridge, Mass. That was unusual for those days, for the only Cambridge was in England. But that was because the eclipse was happening, the one that I mentioned, in New Hampshire and Maine. I haven’t any idea how many foreigners came, but they put them up in the Radcliffe College dormitories in Cambridge, down the street from us on Linnean Street and Shephard Street or something like that. So my job, I was posted down there as they’d come right in their limousines and taxi cabs and things, so I’d carry their bags to the dormitories.
You were 13 or 14 around then?
You’re correct on that, yes. So I went to that IAU and the 1935 one in Paris. My sister and older brother went. In 1938, the IAU was in Stockholm, and I and my next younger brother went. And then they were canceled until after the war. I started going to them after the war and also for URSI meetings. That lasted for ten or 20 years. Where was I? HS and internationalism, so yeah. So I of course got a lot of dinner table things, knowing HS. An Irishman?
DeValera, you’re right. I didn’t know where to put the accents on. But somehow they met at, I guess it was at Shannon airport, and he put together a deal for the Irish Harvard telescope in South Africa. Little things like that, and lots of the refugees came through. A lot of them stopped in Harvard till they could get other jobs. I can’t remember all their names. So he was on the international circuit. I guess he was never like a president of IAU, but that’s all right. I decided to drop out of running for president of URSI.
I want to make sure we get to that, certainly, in the interview session tomorrow. One other thing I want to make sure we covered is the time that you spent in the late 1940s in Alaska, and particularly in and out from Fairbanks. In the interview that you did with Brian Shoemaker in 1997, you’d mentioned that at one point you were offered the directorship of the geophysical institute at Fairbanks but had to turn that down. I was curious, was it tempting at the time? Or did it seem to be where you wanted to be?
No. It was tempting, but my lack of a Ph.D. killed it. They offered me the Director of the Institute, but not Head of the Department. So I didn’t really give it a second thought. But I had been up there a lot and I can’t figure out the dates. I’ve barely touched on it, but one of the things during the war was giving short-term warnings of propagation disturbances. And what I was doing was mainly the somewhat longer-term—I forgot, weekly or biweekly or something like that—where you could apply solar-terrestrial correlations and things. But the short-term warnings was run out of the Bureau of Standards, except I got involved and I got my two cents worth in all the time, under a lady called Virginia Lincoln, who died three weeks ago. She was here when she died, and she worked for me for 40 years. So what we did during the war was warnings for what we called the North Atlantic radio circuits. They were short wave radio circuits. And it got done on a 24-hour basis before the end of the war, by various techniques. Then after the war, we figured out that there were also radio propagation disturbances on circuits in the northern Pacific route over the Pole. And so they got the idea of having a North Pacific radio warning service. By that time, the Bureau of Standards had ionosphere stations at Anchorage Air Force Base. And there had been one during the war at Fairbanks with the old Carnegie equipment. After the war, we put in one at Point Barrow, so there was a presence, shall we say, in Alaska. We also put one at Adak on the Aleutians. So I undertook to set up the North Pacific warning service, which was both trying to work out the algorithms for making warnings and core [?] paths, and also to do a sales job users, which were mostly military users. So I spent a lot of time in Alaska doing logistics and setting things up. So that’s how I got to know the institute at Fairbanks and how they got to know me. That’s one of the reasons I was approached.
When you think back on that period, what were the greatest challenges that you faced in making the North Pacific warning service come together?
I guess the greatest challenge was to see whether it made scientific sense. And it just barely did.
And why was that? Was it the state of the theory? Or was it the network of observation?
No, the way that nature operated. There weren’t such distinct stars, you might say. It was the weather, and it went on for years. I don’t know whether it still goes on or not. But it gave me a lot of contact with Alaska types and a lot of traveling.
I know that tomorrow we’re going to be concentrating on the IGY and your deep involvement in that. Did you have any other questions that you wanted to pursue?
I want to get back to the Federation of American Scientists that you mentioned during that era. I think you were, an officer in that, right? Is that correct?
Oh, yeah. I ran the place.
And as that, you must have had a lot of political involvement.
Well, I had to be careful, because I was a Fed. And I don’t know how long, but eventually, the Federation of Atomic Scientists—that’s what they called themselves to begin with—and they did yeoman work and succeeded in the civilian control of atomic energy. And Lilienthal and all of that. A lot happened just those first couple of months when everybody and his cousin testified on the Hill, including HS. And said, “Senators, Cleopatra drank an atom of this water in my glass.” Stuff like that. It was easy if you have imagination. But the boys were gradually dispersing and going back to proper work. Brookhaven was open, and that’s where Willy Higginbotham went, and Orile Borst. I know there were just dozens of them. But they’d done their thing. And they wanted it to go on, but they couldn’t continue to be that much involved. They got a man, named I think, it was Bob Meier, from Richmond. In any case, who agreed to be a sit-in on the office at 1749 L Street. See, I remember everything. It used to be the whole building, and then you’d give up downstairs at a novelty shop. And they asked the Washington Association, “Will you man the office?” And I’ve forgotten details on it. We set up an executive secretariat. We sort of invented that. And they asked me to be the Chairman, and Clifford Brookstein, who was the Institute of Health biologist, and Bill Horvath. I was talking to somebody in the last couple of months. I couldn’t think of Bill Horvath’s name. Now it’s on the tape, so I guess it won’t be lost. So we were supposed to—oh, and then one secretary, Dorothy Higginbotham, who was Willy Higginbotham’s sister, who lived here with her aged mother. For about four or five years, I ran the show. I started their newsletter, which exists but with a slightly different name. But we used the newsletter there. At that time, it was the Federation of—we soon changed the name to American Scientists—but it was the Federation of Locals. There was the Oakridge Association, the Los Alamos Association in Chicago, association etc. That helped the finances go south. And I supervised changing it into a national membership organization. So we had direct contact with the members rather than going through inefficient local associations. Then we tried to cope with one crisis after another. Fairly early—oh, I don’t know whether it was early and what’s late—was the problem with the Science Foundation. See, you didn’t know you were a problem. You’re too young for that also. And it was at the same time, it was the loyalty oath crisis. And there was a Congressman from northern Virginia named Smith, Judge Alexander Smith, who put in a requirement to the NSF bill that to get an NSF scholarship, they had to sign loyalty oaths. And so actually, one of the few sessions of Congress that I’ve sat in on was there as to should—the question was the bill with the loyalty oath in it worse than no bill at all or putting a waiver on it or whatever it takes. So we decided that we’d bite our teeth or gums and approve it. That night we sent out 5,000—our whole address list—to support the thing, telling people to support the bill. And there’s one time I’ve really seen the Condon case. And there’s the AD-X2 scandal and the Astin Affair. But we were the eyes and ears, because we couldn’t get Howard Meyerhoff. Have you ever heard of Howard Meyerhoff?
We had all hell getting anything quasi-political into Science magazine. So we had to serve what Science now does all the time without thinking about it. But we were the quasi-political eyes and ears of the scientific community, and I was just a civil servant. So we didn’t advertise the fact that—although once I picked up the phone in NBS Washington and heard a name, “This is Roy Cohn.”
When you were on the phone?
I’d lifted up the phone.
And it’s Roy Cohn?
Oh my. And you knew, of course, who Roy Cohn was?
Oh of course. Of course I did. In the Condon case, I’d interacted a lot with my big boss out of the channel, and Hugh Odishaw, who was Condon’s right-hand person.
What do you remember of the phone call from Roy Cohn?
Oh, I remember what it was all about. It was about the sitting of the antennas for the Voice of America. I’ve forgotten what dirt he thought he had dug up, but I quickly got him to agree that I was a workman, not a mover and shaker. So I bumped it upstairs to Phil McNish and directly up to Odishaw and Condon. It was an item of that day, but they didn’t catch me. But I was apprehensive for a millisecond there. And my whole life has been a geophysical year. I mean, there’s a lot to talk about.
We’ll get to that, I hope quite soon. What you’re talking about involves considerable political skill to negotiate an organization, make it go national, work within the climate of Washington. How did you learn to do that in those years, when you look back?
I suppose trial and error, but Dorothy Higginbotham was extremely useful. Cliff Grobstein was different, but useful—at least Cliff was more Grobstein on policy. They did some very good writing. Bill Horvath was in some hush-hush DOD work. I’ve forgotten what. But he was a sensible, down-to-earth person. But organized. I guess I have a flair for organization. We haven’t gotten to that. I was the negotiator for the Bureau of Standards when they formed what’s now NOAA. And also, as I say, I was one of the contacts on moving the Bureau of Standards to Boulder. I don’t know. I’m self-taught. Could have done better, should have done better.
We all can see that, I think, that what you did on the FAS was quite a story.
Yeah, it was. We’re almost the only two that are alive. Do you realize how much of this—I’m sorry, Honey, I should have—
I didn’t know that you had stepped out.
Well, I didn’t want to interrupt you.
We might just take a break.
I do want to thank you so much for this very long session. And I wanted to put on the tape that neither the tape nor the transcript will be released to anyone without your express permission. You’ll get a form for release of the document later.
All right. And I respect you and trust you, and I’ve no games to play.
I appreciate that.