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This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of John Huchra by Patrick McCray on 2002 February 14, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31280-1
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Among the topics discussed: his childhood and early education; his college years at MIT and California Institute of Technology; the effects of the Vietnam war on his young life; his classmates at Caltech; the Apollo moon landing; learning to use a telescope; astronomers poaching off others' work; his skills with a telescope; his discoveries of various asteroids; his early days at Center for Astrophysics; his work in photometry of galaxies and measuring red shifts; his job search after his post-doc position; commissioning the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT); the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics system (MCAO); the demographics of astronomers; funding and growth in the field of astronomy. The second session focuses on his tenure as associate director of Cambridge Center for Astrophysics; comments on structure and organization of CFA, its strengths and weaknesses; the relations between CFA and Harvard and the class structure at Harvard among the scientists; challenges facing AURA; challenges facing the US National Observatory and AURA. The interview concludes with his thoughts on research on dark energy, dark matter, cosmology and his preference for a particular cosmological model. Also discusses religion, time, and cosmology. Some of the prominently mentioned names include: Jesse Greenstein, Allan Sandage, Wal Sargent, Fritz Zwicky.
Okay. Well, not to sound like a therapist, but let's start with the obvious. Let's talk about your childhood.
Okay. I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in a tenement. My folks were not exactly known in the trade as relatively rich. My father worked for the railroad, and my mother had been working as a bookkeeper for a place called Glidden Buick in New York City. This is sort of ancient history, but when I came along she quit and was a stay-at-home mom, that kind of thing. Back then it was pretty normal to do that as opposed to what we see today. I can remember it vaguely, I mean even as a little kid. We lived there for the first three years.
In Jersey City?
In Jersey City. And by the age of three I was beginning to recognize some things and maybe even remember a few things. I remember cribs and walks in the park and baby carriages and a little of that, very vaguely, back in the memory. My father had the interesting problem, I mean just for background in that sense, both of my parents were born in the United States, both grew up in Europe.
My father's parents owned a farm in southern Poland. Well, actually Lord knows. When they owned it, it could have been part of anything, right, but it's right near the current Czech border, near Chestohova if you know any of the areas outside of Krakow. And they came over to visit in 1920, and my father was born when they were over here visiting and he accidentally became a United States citizen, by virtue of being born here. And my mother's parents came over in 1910, 1912, give or take a little change, maybe a little earlier. And my maternal grandfather stuck around and in fact served in the Army in World War I. I don't know if he did service in Europe, but he was in the Army in World War I. And he stuck around. And my maternal grandmother took the three kids back to Poland in the early 1920s. My mother was the oldest. She was born in 1920. And they went back, and basically my mother grew up there, and in fact my mother and my father knew each other in Poland as school kids.
The giant break occurred. She came back in '37. My father came over in July of 1939 or thereabouts. His aunt said, "Hey, there is going to be a war and you're an American citizen. If you stay here you're probably toast," or whatever the equivalent is in Polish. So you know, "Here's a hundred dollars [in szolty], get out of here."
And since he was the youngest son and that kind of thing. That family wasn't particularly well-to-do. He left and came to the States.
Any reason why they picked Jersey City?
Let's put it this way: if you were an immigrant, especially from Eastern Europe in those days, the New York City area was sort of where you came to, and New Jersey was a little easier to live in than New York. Jersey City — I mean, that's where they ended up after the war. Before the war my father when he came over stayed with some cousins of his in West Patterson on a farm. [phone interruption] Yes. So my father came over and basically when he first came over didn't speak much English. Like everybody else, he knew the standard three words: hell, damn and fuck. Right? Or at least that's how he tells it to me. And basically he spent six months or so working on the farm there, and then things were pretty bad because of the Depression, so he went off and was in the CCC, worked as a lumberjack in Washington, and doing various things like that, building trails and Lord knows, right?
And when the U.S. entered the war he wanted to go off and fight the Germans and enlisted in the Marine Corps and ended up in the South Pacific — Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima, right? Really nasty business. There is an interesting segue there, which is that there was a controversy six or seven, five or six years ago — six or seven years ago now — about the Smithsonian and the Enola Gay and the bombing of Hiroshima.
And even though my father never said this to me — I mean, at the time the controversy was taking place — I am one of those people who is firmly convinced that I wouldn't be here if they hadn't dropped the bomb on Japan. Because he was slated for the invasion. The casualty rates were pretty nasty and all that kind of stuff, so.
Did he talk about his war experiences when he returned?
No. No. And in fact that is something that — I'm a bit of a history buff in the sense that I like to read history and learn a little bit about it on my own just for fun. And what they say is true: that generation just didn't talk. My father never talked about the war. Just, you know, just in the last couple of years as he has gotten older, as I have gotten older, I have a kid and all this other kind of stuff, I have managed to draw him out a little bit about it. But like most kids, my father and I weren't real close when I was growing up, so — and in many ways I'm a lot closer to my father now than I ever was when I was fifteen or twenty or ten or five or whatever.
How long was he away for?
What do you mean?
You were born in '48.
Forty-eight, right. So he came back from the war in '45 thereabouts. The other interesting part of the story is I think that was the last time he was ever on an airplane. My mother has never been on an airplane. And I just hit two and half million miles on American, right? And he met up again with my mother. I mean he actually met my mother in '44 on a leave and they got married in 1945 when my father got back. He was in fact still in the Marine Corps and stationed for a stretch at Bennett Field, which is now something else. I forget what it got turned into. It might even be now JFK in New York.
Did you have siblings?
Yeah. I have a younger sister. Basically because my father had followed this route, we were coming to a point which is in some ways a little tricky but also adds some background. He didn't start to work for the railroad until after the war. He was a freight conductor, a brakeman, a flag man on the Pennsylvania Railroad. And the downside of that was that an awful lot of people started working for the railroad in 1939 and '40 and they had, when they went off to the war, they got to keep their seniority. So one of the downsides that my father faced was that the people that he worked with were all more senior than he was in the railroad, so therefore could get better jobs and whatever. There are some bits and pieces there that are interesting to me in that I think looking back on it — I don't know if this is the kind of stuff you want to hear about.
No, this is great.
Looking back on it, in fact it had a pretty big effect on my relation with my parents and how I thought about life as a kid.
Well, my father had a lot of opportunities. Let's put it this way. Both of my parents are bright. Both graduated first in their class in high school and those kinds of things, right? Very smart people, right? And neither of them ever really did anything with it. And I went through a long period, in my thirties in particular, in my twenties and thirties, being ashamed of my parents — you know, deep, dark — not explaining it to the outside world, but deep, dark down inside me. My mother in part because you know she did a lot of things, but it was never sort of a career type activity. She quit when I was born, right, and then pretty much played the stay-at-home mom, right? She advanced in the ranks of the New Jersey State Parent Teachers Association, you know, town president and then country president and all this other kind of stuff, so she had that kind of set of activities, but by and large never got out and never did anything. My parents don't like to travel.
They'd never go anywhere and they'd always get mad at me if I did, even when I was younger kid living at home. And to some extent I always found that a little difficult to deal with.
Did you want to travel a lot as a youngster?
No. Well, not as a real youngster. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't understand. That kind of stuff. And there's a part of me as I said even today that feels that I missed out a bit because my parents were so stay-at-home and shy and whatever. It was sometimes an uphill battle to do things that were a little different. I used to go into New York City a lot, because in those days ten cents would get you a bus ride into New York, and once you hit the subway you could get anywhere. And also in those days — you know, this is the fifties and sixties — in those days New York was a moderately safe place that you could get around without getting into too much trouble too. Kids got left alone. And I really enjoyed doing that, and I always had to do it sort of sneaking out of the house and that kind of thing, even if I was going out to see a museum or something like that.
Were there particular places in the city that you tended to go to?
I loved to go to the Hayden Planetarium and to the museum, and the History Museum. Loved to watch people. I used to get on the trains and just ride the trains up and down.
What would you watch them for?
Just watch. See what was up. That was as a kid. Long time. Anyway, my father also had the opportunity — the railroad offered him the chance a couple of times to get out of business of actually working on trains and to go into management. And they would have paid for him to go to school and all this other kind of stuff. And he always turned them down. And he always turned them down because we were always on the poor side of things and it was — how to put it? — again, I don't know how much you know or the average reader would know about these kinds of things, but in union jobs a couple of things matter. One is that generally speaking in a lot of the jobs that are blue collar jobs — not factory, but whatever — it is often the case that what you make during the week in your 40 hours is not really the most relevant thing. What counts is how much overtime you can get and whether you can get the special assignments that get you more overtime or bonus pay or whatever. So my father was a workaholic. He was a firm believer in bringing money home to cover whatever expenses there were. He worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. And since he was a trainman I basically never saw him. He'd go to work at 2:30 in the afternoon, right, to come back at 2:30 in the morning or something crazy like that or 5:00 in the morning or whatever. He'd go to sleep, I'd get up, go to school, right? By the time I was coming back from school he'd already be gone back to work.
And he did this on the weekends too, so I mean basically I never saw him. If he could get, with his seniority — which goes back to this issue of with his seniority if he could get the job that paid the most overtime, that's what he wanted to do, because that's how he could bring home the most money.
Did he have vacation time or anything like that?
Never took it.
My father, when I was old enough to appreciate this, would take vacations and he and I would go find other jobs. We'd paint houses. My father did a bunch of things, but one of the things we did when I was in high school so I could go with him is that he would take his two weeks in the summer and we'd go paint people's houses for money.
So you weren't going to Atlantic City and spending a week at the shore or anything like that.
You've got to be kidding. Atlantic City was another continent, right? If he had a day off by accident, if he didn't get a job that paid overtime on Sunday, right, we might go to one of the lakes just across the state border into New York State. The big thing was to go to the Pennsylvania border, to the Delaware Water Gap and spend a day in the Poconos, right? But it was always a day. We never went out, in the entire time that I was a kid living at home until I went off to college, like seventeen years, right, I remember once going on a vacation, right, where we actually stayed overnight somewhere for two nights, right, and that was up to Saratoga Springs, and I must have been about nine years old, and that was it. Once. And twice we went somewhere else, but it was to stay with relatives — to Buffalo or Detroit where I had relatives and aunts and uncles and cousins and whatever. And that's three times in seventeen years did we actually go somewhere and stay overnight. A very closed family. And what you did if you had time on Sundays, if you had time to go on to Sunday dinner. So on Sunday my father would not sleep. We'd go off, have dinner. I guess you'd call it dinner, but in those days we'd finish by 2:00 so he could go to work. And we'd go off to the grandparents or to my aunt and uncle's house in Carney, New Jersey. And then he'd go to work. And my mother and I would go home.
Were your parents religious? Was there church on Sunday?
For a while. My parents — long story. I'll add this one to the mix as sort of general background. My father's oldest brother was a Jesuit priest. And my parents were "go to church on Sunday" religious, and we did that until I was probably about thirteen or fourteen and then they sort of stopped, for a variety of different reasons. I don't know all the details. But I would still go. They would still make me go. The highest thing that one could do as a kid would be to get into the local Catholic school as opposed to the local public school.
But you needed to spend five hundred dollars a year for tuition — or it was four hundred I think was the number I remember. And my parents didn't have it. My mother wasn't working and my father, despite all the overtime, they didn't exactly make a lot of money in those days. In fact it was a hoot when I went back in summers in college and started getting summer jobs. My father would arrange for me to get summer jobs working in trucking companies or construction companies or whatever through the union contacts, and I would get paid more per hour than he would. Because the Teamsters rates were better than the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen rates by fifty cents an hour or whatever. And construction worker rates, if you actually got onto one of the higher levels. Again, there are many levels. At the low end are the laborers and at the high end there are the operating engineers. When I was a junior in college I did a construction job building a bridge outside of Newark Airport as a laborer, and I got $4.10 an hour, which was a dollar an hour more than my father was making. And, because my father told them that I was studying to be an electrical engineer at MIT, they had me come in and hook up the gas generators in the morning for the carpenters. That earned me an extra hour's worth of overtime, half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. So I got another — And overtime was time and a half, and if you worked on Saturdays or Sundays it was double time.
You worked for that. You chased that. That's how you made the extra money. That's what my father did. And I can understand why he did that, but the downside was that when he was given the opportunity to go and go to school and play the management game he wouldn't have gotten any overtime so he would have had to take a pay cut to do that, probably for a year or two. He didn't want to do that, so he never did. The net result was that two things happened: one was that when I was about ten years old my father was being a good freight conductor on the side of a boxcar as two trains were moving by, and somebody left a refrigerator car door open on the train. And it turns out that two trains on tracks next to each other, a person on one, refrigerator car door open on the other — because they would swing open with the big insulation, so he got nailed and spent six months in the hospital. I was about nine or ten, give or take a little change. And in 1957 there was no such thing as Workmen's Comp.
So he lost that —?
So there was no money. So we lived on basically — paid the mortgage on whatever savings there were and we lived on handouts from the family. It was interesting. It taught me in some ways the value of money, a variety of things like that. It also scared the hell out of me. He was in the hospital for a good number of months before they let him out.
Did he spend time at home recuperating?
A little bit.
Did you get a chance to interact with him?
No, no. Didn't want that. And again, same thing, a similar kind of thing happened twenty years later, but by then I was already here working in fact as a junior staff member. In 1979 my father was on the side of another boxcar and a truck went through a crossing gate at a railroad crossing, ran the crossing, and crushed both his legs. And that was the end of that. That was it. At that point he was out of the game. I guess he was, 1970, he must have been fifty-seven or fifty-eight when that happened, so that essentially put him out of work and he's been out of work since. Anyway, a bit of background in that sense. There's a part of me that was always a little mad at my father because if he had taken the management job he wouldn't have gotten mangled and maybe I could have done things with him. And I was always mad at him because he was never there, and I was a little ashamed of him for not doing the management thing.
You were closer to your mother presumably?
For a while. I mean at some point in time, like any kid, I rebelled. My mother was the kind of person who made her life her friends and her kids, and I was a typical guy and hit the tender age of fifteen where I no longer wanted to tell my mother everything I did in school that day starting with sharpening the pencils. Probably before fifteen. So we moved away from each other in that sense. It was still hard to leave home, but I ended up being the kind of kid — I went to MIT, and the first week was miserable in a lot of different ways, being away from home. I found some friends. I had been in a couple of NSF summer programs and we can go back and talk about those things.
Where I met other kids from New Jersey who ended up also as students at MIT, so I found friends. And I would actually not generally go home for the holidays while I was a student. I would find jobs and do other things. Looking back on it, in some ways it's very funny because you often don't think about what it is that you're actually doing in the big sense. People say, "John, you are a scientist. You must be always thinking about the big picture." Well, bottom line is that in reality when you're doing things you are never thinking about the big picture. You are really doing things. Looking back at my life in college, I found it rather interesting that I can go back and describe the fact that my roommates and I ended up running a bunch of little businesses and scams and various things like that. "Scams" is perhaps the wrong word, but my roommate and I ran a bartending service for example — a legitimate illegal business. Well, we were underage, but we bartended at fraternity parties and various things like that. And the bartending was not really relevant. You'd get paid ten dollars a night plus all you could drink. But we also wholesaled the liquor, which was where the money was.
Yes. That sounds profitable.
A typical fraternity party might run up a thousand, fifteen hundred bucks worth of booze. We bought it at 80 percent from a place in Boston — which I will not name — no, the statute the limitations is up — and we'd sell it at 90 percent. So they'd get a deal, we'd get a deal, everybody was happy. The liquor store was making money. They didn't care because it was under the table, and for two college kids in the sixties to be bringing in a hundred bucks a week apiece by working two nights was a pretty good deal. Not bad. The other scam that was kind of neat was — You fall into these things accidentally. When I went to MIT one of the things that was very typical as that they'd have refrigerators in the dormitory, but they weren't provided by the school. They were provided by the students. I had some cash when I went, from having worked real summer jobs as opposed to being a camp counselor, and I bought a refrigerator and then rented space in it. I bought this refrigerator for a hundred dollars and rented space in it for twenty-five dollars a year to five people. So in the first year I already made a profit, and by the end of the second year my roommate and I owned six refrigerators. Parlay it into a refrigerator empire. And at the end of four years we sold the refrigerators for the same amount of money that we bought them for. Because you know they don't depreciate very fast, and a used refrigerator is a used refrigerator. And so the refrigerator business perpetuated itself to the next set of people who were going to play that game. So it was quite a hoot. Just a whole bunch of little things like that. I ended up being the social chairman for Burton House, which was 550 guys. And I tell the joke — it wasn't quite this bad, but on the average Friday or Saturday night I might have to be trying, in that position, to find dates for forty or fifty people. Or run a mixer, do something like that. And I had friends who were the female equivalents at dorms at BU — usually BU although sometimes Wellesley — and we would just make the [inaudible word] arrangements. "Hey Sally, I need fifteen tonight. Can you help me?" "Sure John, no problem, but I'll need another three tomorrow, how about you?" It was quite a hoot. We did a lot of things like that.
How did you get to MIT, given what you have described as a pretty blue collar family background?
Let's go back and I'll try to fill things in.
Okay. We want some important influences on you as you were growing up.
Yeah. Long question, and I won't be complete but I'll try to get things out as I remember them. One of the big influences, as I said, is that my father wasn't around. The other was that I learned to read at a pretty early age. And another somewhat curious one was that — which you can try to figure out how much influence it was or wasn't — was that I didn't have a normal path in school the first couple of years. I was diagnosed when I was four years old with childhood leukemia, which was in those days 100 percent fatal. It was a misdiagnosis, as you can tell, but doctors are doctors and you get what you pay for. And this guy had diagnosed me as having leukemia, told my parents I was going to not make it. My parents had my sister to take the place of me dying, and that created a lot of stress still going on forty-five, fifty years later, whatever, there is still all this stress going on about that in the family. And they took me out of school, bought me a new tricycle and waited for me to croak. [McCray: You’re making it sound funny.] Well, the only way to tell it is to tell it that way. Besides which looking back on it, it was funny. Sad at the time. I don't know. When you're five or whatever, you're not in the heads of your parents.
I'm assuming this wasn't made known to you that you were —
Not at the time. No. Of course not. I didn't understand. But I knew I was taken out of school. And so I spent a lot of time with my mother at home, riding my bicycle while she was being pregnant with my sister and not able to do much, and we just read a lot and did all that kind of stuff, and I really got into books and reading. In some ways I think being home with my mother, who cared — I mean she was a learned person in the sense of being very intelligent and reading a lot — made a difference. I don't know how much. When you're five you can't assess these things. But I missed first grade. By the time I went back — by the time I hadn't died, they went back to another doctor, the one who in fact hatched me back in Jersey City, Margaret Hague Maternity, and he said, "Oh, the kid doesn't have leukemia. He's got tonsillitis. Take his tonsils out and he'll be fine." By the time I had my tonsils out and went back to school, I was probably a year ahead of everybody else in terms of where I was in math and reading and all the other kinds of skills. And who knows, genetics might have helped, might not, but being ahead helped and I was interested and I was sufficiently a loner that I used to — still am to some extent — I used to derive a lot of pleasure, spend a lot of my time reading, doing things by myself, going off and wandering.
Were there particular things that you preferred to read?
Yeah, yeah, I liked to read science books.
I read anything I could get my hands on. I remember in seventh grade I had gotten to the point where I'd finally read everything in the children's section in the library. A funny story. I said to the librarian, "Can I now go upstairs and read things in the adult section?" and they said, "Well, no, you're too young. But wait a sec. If you can show me that you've read everything in the children's library I'll let you go upstairs." So she wandered into the shelves, pulled out a book and started reading and said, "Okay. Tell me the rest of the story." And I did. So I got the library card to go upstairs to the adult section three years before I was supposed to, because you had to be twelve to use the adult section. I must have only been ten or nine or whatever. So that was kind of interesting.
What kind of science books? Were you drawn —? You became an astronomer. Were you naturally drawn to that?
Oh, the biggies, the books I remember — and I remember a half dozen in a big way — I read [George] Gamow's books, and he had two of them: Birth and Death of the Sun and 1, 2, 3, Infinity.
So that made me interested in math and physics. There were a bunch of books by Martin Gardener. I want to say Martin Gardener, but I'm not sure he was the right guy, but he was writing on mathematics at the time, so some of the mathematics books. And there were a couple books by Fred Hoyle.
Fred Hoyle. Okay.
And following Fred led me into science fiction. But Hoyle wrote two books. One was called Nature of the Universe or something like that, and one was called The Frontiers of Astronomy. That was a little later. That came when I was more like twelve or thirteen or fourteen. And in fact somewhere around here — or maybe it's at home.
Okay. Yeah. So there are still some books that I remember. I went through 1, 2, 3, Infinity a couple times and I was trying to understand the things that were in it. And I was fascinated by the mathematics, the concept of infinity and everything that went with it.
Did you have any vision in your mind at that time of what being an astronomer meant — or just a scientist in general?
I was interested in being a scientist in general. I didn't know for sure what I wanted to do. In fact the whole business of becoming an astronomer is sort of in some ways accidental. I followed my nose a lot of the times.
Okay. I guess what I mean is, did you have a sense in your mind's eye of what a scientist looked like?
Looked like. Interesting question. I probably had a better picture of what God looked like than what a scientist looked like. And of course it's wrong. So no, not particularly. I mean I had never met these people, and in those days they didn't generally have pictures of people on the book jacket, so you don't know what they look like. You didn't expect them to look different. Everybody had the image of Einstein, and that was pretty typical. The lab coats, yeah, yeah, sure, maybe, but —
Test tubes, you name it. A little hard to say. I was a bright kid. I tended to give the teachers trouble. I tended to be this cross between somebody who was very intelligent but also very shy. I was born in December, and in those days the cutoff for getting into a class was December 31st, so I was the youngest kid in my class pretty much all through high school and all through everything. I guess in high school the class size is big enough there were probably a couple that were younger than me, but not much. And I was definitely the smallest kid in the class. So basically, since I was a pain in the ass, I used to get the shit kicked out of me pretty regularly — especially as I got a little older.
I had a couple close friends. One guy lived a couple blocks away. In some ways he was like me. I was an orphan to my father working and not really one to spend too much time with my mother, and my friend Andy was an orphan. I mean his mother was around, but his father had been killed in the Korean War. He had been in the Navy. So Andy was pretty much on his own, and the two of us played together constantly whenever we could — which ran from playing softball and baseball in the summer. I'd go out at eight o'clock in the morning and come back at ten o'clock at night. There were lights on the field so you could play at night. That kind of thing to wandering through the swamps in the fall and playing with toy soldiers in the sandbox which was a big thing, and board games and whatever. I spent a lot of time walking back and forth to the library, walking back and forth to school. I gave my teachers a lot of trouble when I talked to them at all.
As you were growing up the space program was getting started, Sputnik happened when you were nine years old, and the Cold War was also happening.
Yeah, yeah. Duck and cover. Yeah. We did that.
Yeah. How did that —?
I still remember the joke, in 1957, the difference between Russian cowboys and American cowboys.
Russian cowboys had saddle-ites. Yeah. That was definitely there.
And did it make an impact in a direct way, or was it just more in the background?
Background. Background. Background. I did not grow up thinking that my sole mission in life was to be an astronaut or an astronomer. I read a lot of science fiction when I finally discovered science fiction. I mean, you could buy paperback science fiction books real cheap, one. Two, the library had a moderately good collection. I had a few heroes. I loved Heinlein.
I'm sorry. Who?
Robert Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke, although Clarke's early stuff was good, his later stuff was sort of flaky. By the time you got to 2001 you didn't want to read it. I loved some of the space operas, and in fact my favorite — If I was marooned on a desert island and could only take half a dozen books, one of those books would be one of the books from E. Doc Smith series, the Lensmen series, because there you have strong heroes who have friends who are not normal who are good scientists but also have powerful minds and can fight bad guys.
Movies at all? There were probably a lot of good science fiction —
I didn't get to — I saw all the classics, but sort of one at a time. Movies were like travel: movies were things my parents didn't approve of.
But The Mysterians, Rodan, The Ten Commandments, all the biblical epics. You had to go see Spartacus.
That was just on TV the other night.
Right. I know. Kirk Douglas. And I saw most of those. TV, there were a bunch of things. I guess I was babysat for a long stretch of time, especially after my sister came along and my parents didn't focus on me that much, said, "All right, he's a good kid, we'll let him do what he wants to do" and tried to deal with my sister. I used to watch the classics on WRKO Channel 9, which would broadcast a lot of the bad, old science fiction movies. Destination Moon, which is actually a Heinlein book thing they made into a movie which was wonderful. One that was about Mars. I want to say Mars Invades, but that's the modern movie.
It wasn’t Robinson Crusoe goes to Mars?
No. This was a little different. It's sort of the 1950s version. Probably not Roger Corman but it could well have been of The War of the Worlds.
But it wasn't The War of the Worlds. It wasn't the H. G. Wells movie. Although I saw that one as well. And these were all broadcast late night on Channel 9. Since my parents weren't taking particularly good care to watch what I was doing, I think by the time I was ten I was drinking coffee and staying up and watching Jack Parr, who was the predecessor to Johnny Carson. So I'd be watching "The Tonight Show" until one o'clock in the morning at the tender age of ten. In some ways it probably set my predilection for working nights as opposed to days.
Staying up late. So as you were reading science fiction, as you were doing well in school and bright but quiet, what expectations were you having at that time of a career?
Didn't think of it. It just wasn't what you did. I thought I'd get a job. I thought I'd try to go to college. By the time I knew about college I thought I'd want to go to college.
What was your parents' reaction to wanting to do that?
They thought it was a good idea. You know, typical middle-eastern well-educated family. They wanted their kid to be better than they were. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, an Indian chief or somebody that would make a lot of money. I still catch grief from my family about that — the extended family. Again a very typical Eastern European thing. When I did go off to graduate school, college is college. Who knows what's going to come out of it when you go to college. When I went off to graduate school, boy there was a storm of protest from my relatives. Not my mother and father so much. Not my father who was also a very quiet person. My mother was sort of not sure what I was doing. [in a high mocking tone:] "Oh, John, why do you want to do that? Why don't you do something useful like be a doctor?" That kind of thing. And the rest of the relatives were, "Why are you wasting your life? Why don't you do things that are good that can make money, bring something back to the family." All of that kind of stuff. My father understood. He was the outcast. The rest of the family thought that the family was it. There was a wall, and once you went outside the family, who gave a damn about the rest of the world or anything at all like that. And if you were to do something that didn't bring something back into the family, you were whatever. So I was the black sheep of the family for ten years, because I was off doing something that they didn't think was particularly useful.
And in California no less.
In California and then Boston. They didn't really think much of the whole business of going to school and wasting your time and doing something that nobody could understand or whatever.
So why MIT? What led you to pick that instead of school in New York?
Well, I applied to a bunch of places. I had heard about MIT. I applied to MIT, Caltech, Columbia, Stevens Institute of Technology, Case Western — well, it was Case and Carnegie, which were separate. Now it's Carnegie-Mellon and Case Western Reserve. Of course I knew they were good engineering and science schools.
And the home safe school was Stevens or Columbia, and the sort of risky place was Caltech, and the somewhat less risky but nonetheless not too far away science school was MIT. And I got into everyplace. And MIT offered me a bit of a scholarship when I had some, and I had a few friends who I knew were going to go there. It wasn't so far away from home that it would be impossible to get back, and Caltech seemed like it was a scary place so I didn't go as an undergraduate. There were also a couple of kids that went a year before me to MIT from my high school, so there had been a small amount of history, although that was an interesting debate. It was the guidance counselor's son who went the year before me to MIT. And the guidance counselor did not want me to go to MIT for fear that I would upstage his son.
By the time you are seventeen you can tell those kinds of things.
So I understood what was going on. That's not why I went to MIT, but I understood the pressure in that direction.
You majored in physics eventually, but did you start out in physics?
Yeah. Well, I started — let's put it this way: like most places, you don't start out in anything.
So my first advisor, my freshman advisor at MIT was in the civil engineering department.
But it's not because I picked civil engineering; it's because they assigned me civil engineering. And I took the physics courses. Actually back in those days at some point in time we might talk educational philosophy. A dangerous thing to do. But in those days, basically your first couple of years were the courses were prescribed for you. At MIT you had to take a year and a half worth of math and at least a year of physics, and most people took a year and a half or two years’ worth of physics. 801. All the numbers, 801, 802, 803, 804. So you were taking those kinds of things and you were required to throw in a humanities course too, just on general principles. Those were always extremely painful because they always struck me as being incredibly subjective.
I had a — I took, the number of courses that you could take was pretty small, and in fact for your first year you were pretty much required to take something that was essentially the Greek Tradition or something like that. And I remember taking a course from a professor who we kindly called Judith the Bitch, because you'd have a class of twenty-five or thirty students taking this class who were mostly, 99.9 percent scientifically pure, or interested in building things, not necessarily good with words, and old Judith would hand out one A, one B, and everything else would be Cs and Ds. So you knew if you were in her class that you were headed for a hard time. I got the B. I felt real proud of that, but you know, but — MIT students, undergraduates in those days, did not generally want to take humanities courses if they could at all possibly arrangement to do something else. It's probably still true. I don't know.
How was physics being taught?
Very interesting question. Yes. Best answer I can give you. Physics was taught in a pretty standard manner. And it's hard to say — I mean how do I put it. You need to — I'll play scientist with you. How was physics being taught? Well, yes, it was being taught. Was it being well, was it being taught badly? It depended an awful lot on the professor and on the course. It also depends a lot on references. What do you mean "well," and what does it mean to teach physics well? When I was in graduate school one of the absolute worst teachers I had was probably teaching the course the best possible way. Nobody could understand what this guy was saying, so we were forced to try to figure it out ourselves, and he was there as background material and the book was there and the notes were there and if you had a question you could ask it. Sometimes get an answer you could understand. But by virtue of being forced to pick it up by yourself we learned more than we would have if he had been a great lecturer and we walked out of the room glowing and forgotten it ten minutes later.
So how was physics being taught? It was being taught.
Were some people better than others? Yeah. Were there courses that I enjoyed more than others? That's an easy one. The answer is yeah. I can answer that yes. There were definitely things I liked more than others. There were good things and bad things. I had gone there. They have sort of placement tests where they try to figure out when you come in what kind of level of classes they want to put you in. And I had read a lot about math. I had never taken any calculus because it wasn't offered in my high school.
Any of that kind of stuff. And I was about to take a calculus class, and they give you a placement test in the math department, and I did very well so they put me in an advanced class. And after about three weeks I was [makes noise like being strangled]. Sinking rapidly.
Just for the tape: you made the gesture of hanging yourself.
Right. Sinking rapidly would be the right way of describing the situation. And it was really bad news. I wasn't understanding what was going on, I didn't have a feel for what was happening. I was really — So I screwed up my courage and went to the math department and said, "Look, you've got to switch me to a normal section. I can't keep this up. It's not working."
And they did. And I got an A in the course. I finally figured it out.
There were a lot of times at MIT in classes — and I don't know if this was the way the class was being taught or me or some combination of the two — probably a combination of the two — where it took me a while to figure out what was going on, what the game was. And I remember there were a couple in particular. One was taking an introductory electronics course. It was 614, if anybody knows the MIT nomenclature. Electronics for scientists and engineers.
And I hadn't done much of this before. I was not an amateur — I, you know, built the standard crystal radio, and I had the Radio Shack kit.
You weren't building your own telescopes at the time.
I wasn't building my own telescopes at the time or anything like that, but I took this electronics course and you know I could wire the things up with the best of them, but I didn't understand circuits and I was having a hard time of it. I was getting a C or a D through the midterm. And then somewhere near the end of the course something clicked and I just all of a sudden figured out what was going on, what it meant, how to approach the problems the right way.
And it was an epiphany. I remember the feeling, I remember it happening, I remember eventually also getting an A in the course. And I remember being scared witless at the beginning because I wasn't clear on what was happening and my classmates are – you know, you generally don't help out your other classmates. It wasn't the thing that people did. It wasn't the way people were being taught in those days. Everybody was supposed to do their own work. So there wasn't a lot of help, and I was afraid to ask for it anyway, but I eventually figured it out and did much better. That happened to me in a couple of math classes too later on, more advanced classes.
Well what was it in the electronic class? You said something clicked, but what was the something?
I figured out how to do RLC networks, the mathematics, the way to approach it mathematically. And I began to develop a feel. There is this old book by Barbara McClintock.
Yeah. Biologist won a Nobel Prize.
And she did an autobiography after that which was called A Fe` el for the Organism.
Right? What I have found — and this is not necessarily that would apply to other scientists, but what I found is that you can develop a feel for the organism, a feel for what it is that you're doing. Intuition? I don't know how to describe it. And you can start out without it and you can get it. And if you ain't got it, you are going to have a hard time and you might not ever be able to figure out how to solve problems in the area. And if you're got it, and once you've got it, it makes a big difference, being able to understand. Two things: to be able to understand what you're doing and why you're doing it, but also to be able to explain it.
It works in the teaching sense too. And I always like to say, about astronomy, that as an observer — and I'm not spending as much time at the telescope as I used to, and I'm sad about that — but as an observer one of the key things that enabled me to do some things was that I spent so much time looking at the universe, even if it was through a telescope. Initially eyeballs, and then later on electronic detectors, Vidicons. I spent so much time looking, and had the opportunity to look at specific things if I got interested in them. If there was a star I heard about that was interesting, "the lowest metal star in the galaxy," well I could swing the telescope over there when no one was looking at the spectrum and see what that looked like. I developed a feel for the organism.
I had a world view of the universe. And as information came in, I would fit it into my world view. And if big chunks came in, it might require me to change my world views and to accommodate all of the information.
I'd like to come back to that. I have a series of questions specifically geared towards trying to understand observational science and observational astronomy, so I'd like to hold off on those questions. But what was MIT like for you as an undergraduate? I mean first of all coming from your background in Jersey City, but also with the Vietnam War going on. How did those —?
Okay. Well, one correction. After three years we moved to Richfield Park, which is a town that's about 10 miles or 12 miles north of Jersey City.
It's a little south of Hackensack. And the best reference is that on the Jersey side it's midway between the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge.
All right? So if you wanted to go into the city you could pick either of those routes with equal difficulty or ease. The tunnel was usually easier. A small town, 90 percent Catholic. Pretty weird in that sense, right?
And in the background sense different because I was a Polack and people did take into account those things in those days. Less so now because of the other diversity that occurs. When I was growing up there was not a single black in the town.
And we were 3 miles as the crow flies from the Empire State Building. Maybe 10 miles or 8 miles, but —
Damn close, right?
Very poor town. Most of the people in the town were blue collar or whatever. There was one little section up in the heights. Towns are like that, where the rich people live. And even those folks weren't very rich as things went. And I lived at the other end. I mean we were in the — there was the town of Richfield Park was split by US 46 and about a quarter of the town was south of it in a real swampy bit, and that's where we lived.
Okay. So there was a wrong side of the tracks.
There was the wrong side. Yeah, the wrong side of 46. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
Yeah. Not in the sense of committing crimes in that sense, but in the sense of it was the poorest section of town where people were really — if anybody was going to be in economic trouble, that was the place. The town was overwhelmingly Catholic. There were 2400 families, two thousand of which were members of the Catholic Church, and everybody else were a smattering of Protestants and Jews, but not a lot, and as I said no blacks. A few Hispanics, but Hispanics from strange places. We would very rarely get somebody from Puerto Rico. We often had immigrants from South America or Spain or some Cuban refugees later on in the game. And one of my girlfriends in high school was a Cuban refugee. But not a diverse town except that in the 1950s diversity meant Irish versus Catholic versus German versus Jewish versus Polack, right?
So in that sense we were somewhat diverse. But there was also a tendency for people to stick together in their ethnic groups. The Italians stuck with the Italians —
Just in terms of neighborhoods? The Italian neighborhood and the —?
No, no, no, that was a little bit more mixed. But the town wasn't so big that it had neighborhoods other than the rich, the poor and the middle. But in the sense of that there was a tendency to socialize with the group that you were in. Since I didn't belong to any of the big groups — the number of Pollacks is pretty small — I had my friends who were the geographically close friends who were also sort of outcasts of one form or another.
Okay. Where were we? We were talking about — you had a question about —
When you go from this environment to Cambridge.
To Cambridge. Yeah. Well, two things, some very standard. One is that when I was in high school I did made good friends with the science teachers — because I was a bright kid and interested in what they were trying to teach. And I had a couple teachers in high school that I really remember as having an effect on me. One was the local biology teacher who took an interest, got me to form the Conservation Club at school and got me a scholarship to go off to a summer camp to study ecology and conservation.
Where was this summer camp?
This is in New Jersey. It was run by an organization called SOTO, the School of the Outdoors. I got a scholarship from the New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen — the fishermen and the hunters, whatever, they funded some kids to go to this school. And I went there for a couple months the summer after my sophomore year. It was again one of the first times I really got to interact with kids that had interests like mine, which was very good. The next year I went to a program in physics at Newark College of Engineering, which is now the New Jersey Institute of Technology. And I went through a couple of different whatevers. And that was NSF funded, and that was great. I got into that. We were baking brownies — real brownies, not Alice B. Toklas brownies — in the ovens in the chemistry labs, and measuring the vapor pressure of organic borate esters. That's a place actually where I met some of my fellow future classmates at MIT, so that was very good. Educational philosophy. This is a good time to stick it in. I am a strong believer in programs like that. And the NSF has been falling down on itself here. They've put a lot of effort into education, K-12, but they have made the wrong — Sorry. They haven't made the wrong decision; they have made a decision which is only partly right. They have decided — the current philosophy of the NSF is that the way they can have the greatest impact especially on the mean is by teacher training. So a huge fraction of the programs of the NSF are aimed at curriculum development and teacher training for science in primary and secondary schools. And they have forgotten that there is a tail, and in fact they need to mind the tail. The kids who are interested in science are getting neglected. And we can see that. We can see that in enrollments in college in science departments. It's not that science isn't interesting or important anymore. It may be less so than it was thirty years ago because of the space race and the arms race, but it's not so much less so, and there's been a tremendous decline in the number of people who are signing up to study physics and astronomy and chemistry. Astronomy has done best, some of the best of all the hard physical sciences. Biology is doing okay.
So the teachers are getting better but they're not having the raw material to work with?
The teachers are getting better, but they're teaching to the mean. They're trying to raise the mean.
All right? And nobody's minding — And the teachers are actually being — how am I going to put it? The teacher doesn't get a bonus when they send a kid to Caltech. The teacher gets a bonus when their class all passes the MCAAS, which is the Massachusetts general equivalent.
So they are teaching to the mean. And there is not much left for the real bright kids. There are REUs [Research Education for Undergraduates] for college kids, but the NSF has stopped a lot of these programs where they used to actually fund high school, well fund colleges or universities or whatever take on some high school kids in the summertime. And I did some of that when I came here and starting working here as a scientist. I got involved in the summer intern program which was aimed at high school kids, and it was great for me. I think it was great for them. And that's gone away. There's not much left of it. And I think it's really important for the country. So this is an oral history, ain't nobody gonna hear it until after I'm croaked or whatever, but the bottom line is that if you ever get to say anything about this anywhere else, I think it's really important to treat the tail too. Because in the end it's not going to be the average kid in high school who actually never pursues a career in science who does something that drives the economy by making a new scientific discovery. It's going to be the tail. It's going to be the kids who are interested.
So this was something that was very important for you growing up.
Yeah. Well, probably the most important thing growing up in doing these is that I got to meet other kids who were interested in science.
In my school there weren't that many. My high school class was 240 kids, and in fact at my high school graduation twenty-five of the 240 kids were pregnant. It was sort of that kind of town. That's twenty-five of the 140 or so who were female.
No. Average. Average. Average poor town in the New York City area. Being out, getting out, interacting with other kids. And those things were very important. The teachers, the classes taught by teachers who were interested and who were actually trying to do something about the tail, who had the time to do something about the tail, were very good. And I had a pretty good — you know, the biology teacher was spectacular: Mr. Mollusky. I think is his name. I'd have to go back and look it up. Curses. Which I could do. Tomorrow I'll bring in my yearbook and we'll look him up.
Okay. We can add it in. That's part of the editing process.
And the physics teacher was okay but not great. I had a pretty good chemistry teacher. And the math teachers were reasonably good too. Not great. One old battle-axe senior year. Real old battle-axe, but her heart was in it, and you could tell her heart was in it, you know, and it was good in that sense.
So in arriving at MIT, how did all that shift?
Fear. Shock. I graduated Valedictorian in high school. I knew I wanted to be a scientific. I went so far is that — I took Latin. I took three years of Latin in high school because I thought a scientist ought to be able to name the things that they work on. I heard all this stuff about Latin nomenclature. And I took drafting in high school. In fact I was offered a job when I got out of going off to work in a drafting company, because I felt that a scientist ought to be able to draw the things they needed to build. And I did great in Latin and drafting.
So you were planning for a scientific career.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Or something like that. I knew that's what I wanted to do. Didn't always tell anybody, but I knew that's what I wanted to do.
And so you didn't go off to college thinking, "Well, I'm not really quite sure what it is I want to do, maybe sociology, maybe engineering"?
No. Well maybe engineering, but definitely engineering or science. You know, I didn't know between the two which way to go in that game. We'd have to see.
You'll notice I didn't apply to Harvard. Never thought of it. It never crossed — it was a ship that never came in.
Where were we?
We were at MIT and undergraduate and during the war.
Right, right. So basically I went to MIT, as I said when I got there I was sort of scared. It was interesting. I can remember a lot of the first week in a funny way. MIT in those days had a system which they still sort of do, although the events in the last couple of years have been leading them away from this, of essentially having roughly speaking half of the freshmen live in dormitories and the other half live in fraternities. So they have this thing before classes start called Rush Week, and the object of the game if you are interesting in living in a fraternity is to go there and to wander around the fraternities and see which ones you might like, and more to the point they look at you and see which ones, you know, which students they might like. And here is a connection which you probably would never guess at, but I had met Dave Schramm before, over the summer, at one of the standard you're-coming-to-MIT type things, and I heard about the fraternity he was in, and when I was in high school — to go back a bit to add some background. I told you I was regularly getting the shit kicked out of me for a variety of things.
That happened at least at the beginning of high school quite a lot. And again I could still remember some of the nasty parts. A real classic was that for about three weeks running whenever I'd be walking up the stairs from ground floor to a second floor carrying my school books this one bully would come along and he had a technique of whapping the collection of books. He never would hit me. He would hit the books, and I and the books would then go falling down the stairs. I remember having this once happen right in front of the assistant principal and I looked at him and said, "Are you going to do anything about this?" and he said, "No." At which point I knew that I had to take matters into my own hands. Anyway, for better or worse in high school I figured out in sophomore or junior year that the thing to do was to get involved in sports — in part because of my friend Andy, who I mentioned earlier. He started going off and running. So I signed up for the track team and the cross country team and eventually the wrestling team and various things like that. And as soon as you make friends with the shot-putters who are 6-foot-8 and 300 lbs., the guy who hits you with the books goes, [in a high voice:] "Oh, are you a friend of his?" [in a deep voice:] "Yes." [in a high voice:] "Oh. Okay." And then you get left alone. I didn't do it for that reason, but the consequence was that after I got into that game, after I started going out for being involved in sports I stopped being picked on for a variety of reasons. The other thing was that I actually got good at some of the things. I never lost a match wrestling.
I wrestled 102. I was the skinniest darn thing you [inaudible word] ever saw.
You weighed 102?
I weighed 98. I wrestled in the 102 lb. weight class. Typically I'd automatically win the match by forfeit since the other team would never have anybody as light as I did. And then I'd go off and wrestle exhibition, somebody who weighed 15 or 20 lbs. more than I did, and I never lost any of those either. I was just mean little bastard. I was fast. I had very strong legs from running and from a variety of things like that. You still walk to school a couple miles every day with my friend Andy, also from the wrong side of the tracks. They didn't have school buses then.
So, you know, I just got good at that kind of stuff. And it was fun. Hard. Running was hard, especially if you didn't win. I liked long distances. I was never a great runner, but I was good enough to contribute and won a few races in my time, but mostly I was in the pack but near the front. And in fact my year the cross country team, which is I think my favorite sport because you could do it alone, but my year the cross country team actually almost made it to the State Meet, which was for our town a big deal. We took sixth place in the county, and if we'd taken fifth we would have gone. And that was the best finish that anybody had ever had and probably ever has since then, and I don't think they've done much better. And it was great. We had a great time. But I had that as a background, and I graduated Valedictorian and all this other kind of stuff. And you get to MIT, and in those days — I think they've again changed, as a result of too many suicides or whatever, but in those days you'd go into Kresge Auditorium and after you go through Rush Week and while you're still waiting to find out if you get picked and there's “the look to the left of you, look to the right of you, one of you three won't be here in three years” story.
And then they post the college board scores, the SATs. And I looked at the scores and I looked, "Oh shit." For that tape, that was “oh shit”. I was in the top third of the class verbally, which was a little surprising to me. And I was well in the bottom third of the class in math, I mean in the quantitative reasoning and whatever the other one was called [inaudible phrase].
So you were nervous.
I was. I was nervous. I was scared.
Scared of just —?
Scared of flunking out. Scared of not doing well enough. I mean, I'd always done well and I'd always been, it has always been impressed upon me to do well. I was one of those kids that would get a quarter for every A, nothing for every B, and beaten for every C when I was in school, from my parents who were pretty hard about that kind of stuff. Physical punishment was allowed in those days, and was often applied if I didn't do well — or did something to my sister that my parents didn't like.
Did your sister go to college at all?
No, no, no. Long story there. Deep, dark psychological things, mostly on her part, but to some extent, mine and definitely on my parents' parts. You know she had a tough act to follow, and she is five and a half, six years younger than I am. And it didn't matter. The teachers still remembered me. And my parents still remembered me. And I think my parents did the classic thing. When I wasn't around I was far enough older than my sister that we didn't interact. We didn't have the same friends or play together or whatever. Six years is a pretty big difference. But I'm sure my parents did the old, [in a high voice:], "Why can't you be like Johnny? Yehhh." That kind of stuff. And I'm sure that that got her. And so she was everything that I wasn't. She was beautiful, socially extremely popular, voted the most likely to get married and have lots of kids, whereas I was known as the little professor in high school, that kind of thing. And just completely opposite. And I'm sure as I said, because my parents ragged on her she didn't do well in the game — purposely. And that led to a lot of things, but what can I say? My sister is into abusive men, which has not been very good. So. Gotten married a couple of times and had some long-term not so good relationships. She's got three kids and she's in big trouble most of the time.
For a long stretch of time I was sending her a lot of money to try to pay the mortgage and take care of the kids. I don't do that anymore. But a source of stress in the family too. Now, I'm not shy about talking about it, as you can tell.
In some ways I'm a little ashamed of myself and her and my parents, but it goes back to that. Anyway, when I went to MIT it was clear that I was going to have to work. And the first year there was hard, and I just managed to get above a B average. I did okay in the physics and math courses, but I didn't do quite so well in some of the other things, especially the humanities courses, the requirements. It was tough.
As you were doing this, did you have an attraction to theory or instrumentation or experimentation?
Your freshman year your attraction is to somehow managing to get all those problem sets done.
Okay. I guess I'm thinking maybe by the time you get to your junior or senior year. I mean, did you have some sense of which?
Yeah. By then things were a little bit better. First of all I didn't flunk out. I had a B average after the first year. It got better in the second year, because I had learned to pick classes a little bit better and stay away from things that I really didn't like. I switched to physics as soon as I could, so my sophomore year I was a physics major and knew pretty much I wanted to do that. I thought for a long time about trying to do both math and physics, and I would have gotten degrees in both math and physics except for Vietnam, which got in the way. I had to choose between them. I didn't have enough credits to do both, because MIT shut down the second half of my senior year. Basically no classes. The Tet Offensive, things that went along with that. So it would have been difficult. I need to take one more — get another twelve credits, one more class basically.
Did you have any fear of being shipped overseas?
Yes. Yes. I was drafted. Didn't really want to go. Didn't not want to go. I lost a lot of friends from high school, a lot of the kids that I ran track and cross country with went over. I was pissed. How to describe this? I mean things had gotten a bit better in certain senses, but there I was, twenty years old. I got drafted. I was a senior at MIT finishing up. The Draft Board knew I was going to finish in June, so now my number was up. I was twenty years old, I could go off and get killed for my country but I couldn't get a fucking beer. It was that — I couldn't vote. Right? I mean, the voting age was 21, the drinking age was 21, and the dying age was 18. So I was really mad about that. I was mad at my friends. Sorry. I wasn't mad at my friends. I was mad about my friends getting killed.
And there was a part of me that wanted to go over there and I don't know how to describe it. I'm not your average scientist. I am not a liberal. I am not — well, I don't know what I am, but I was mad. And if there were a way of ending the war by dropping a 100 megaton bomb on Hanoi I would have done it.
There wasn't, and I didn't. I never had the option. I wasn't morally opposed to the war. I was morally opposed to people dying for no good reason — on both sides of the fence. I read stories about the Vietnamese and it seemed to me that the thing that they most wanted to do, especially the ones that were not associated with the corrupt governments, was just to be left alone — tend their farms, raise their families and be happy. And it struck me as insane that both sides were pushing agendas that weren't really of great interest to the people who were involved in it, whether they were the people in the service fighting the war or the people in the country living there and being eaten up by it.
How did your views fit in with those of your classmates?
Not, basically. But, you know, it wasn't a big deal. Or to put it another way, I understood the views of my classmates well enough. I participated in a few protests. I would often participate in protests especially if there were discussions so that I would have a chance to present the opposing point of view. Or the point of view that, you know, the war is bad, but it's not bad because we're going over there and getting killed. It's bad because it's just dumb, which is different.
I don't know how to describe it. Anyway, I got drafted, went to the Boston Army Base to do my physical since I was here, even though the Draft Board was back in New Jersey. And this is actually a defining moment in my life. A bunch of things were going on. I was scared shitless. I mean, it's not unfair to say that that fear wasn't a part of the factor. I had also spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I didn't know what I was going to do. My father, who was a DI in the Marine Corps when he was in — he was a drill instructor. He was a sniper in the Marines in the Pacific, who you would have expected to be as hard an ass as you can imagine on this issue, and was, public persona, — came to me and said, "Son, if you want to go to Canada, if you want to get out of this, I'll help."
I never talked to my father, you know, about any of this stuff, but he had that point of view.
But then again his experiences in the war gave him a sense of if you went what you would be experiencing.
Right, right, right. But I would have expected him — As I said, his public persona when he did ever talk about this with the relatives or anybody else was definitely, you know, "Those darn communists." You got to realize that my father's parents — well, my mother's parents and my father's parents were still living in Poland. A huge wing of the family that in those days were still living under communism in an Eastern Bloc country, and the news that was coming back from them was pretty grim. They weren't having a great time over there.
Were you shocked when he told you this?
Yeah. Yeah. I wasn't expecting him to talk to me at all. And if he did, I wasn't expecting him to tell me that he'd back me in whatever I wanted to do. But I do remember it happening, and that was kind of funny. Then when I flunked my physical the Army thought I was cheating. I flunked the eye test. I didn't flunk anything else, and in fact I aced the Army intelligence test. There were two people in the group that aced it: a guy who was on heroin who was clearly completely out of his gourd, and me. And the Army — It was actually funny, because again, you know, you're old enough to watch people. I told you I like to watch people.
You're old enough to watch people and try to understand what they're thinking, and it was clear the Army was thinking, "We want this guy." Right? "For what, we don't know for sure, but we want him. But he just flunked the physical. What's going on here? Is he trying to cheat? He aces the intell — "Well, I was the only person there besides the hophead who understood how the treads on a tank worked. Not because I was a physicist, because I like to read history. Anyway, they sent me off to a specialist because they thought I was cheating in flunking the eye test. And being poor, even being a student in MIT being afraid of doctors as a result of the childhood leukemia business, I walk into a doctor's office and [hits table] crash. The doctor says, "Hi, John" and I'll faint. It's that kind of thing. Went to see the specialist. The specialist said, "Well kid, you're right. You can't see out of your right eye, and the reason is this." And he said, "You've got keratoconus, which is a disorder of the cornea where essentially the cornea begins to assume the consistency of a fingernail as opposed to the consistency of something that's nice and transparent and curved and whatever." And, "Kid, this is what's going to happen. Right now we could try to fix it by giving you a cornea transplant. But two things: one, cornea transplants are expensive — and the Army doesn't really want to pay for it — and two, the probability of success is very small and if it fails you lose the eye." And that's all she wrote, you know. "However, this is what's going to happen. This is how the disease progresses, the disorder progresses. You have it in both eyes. Typically what will happen is you will go into remission in one eye and it will get much worse in the other as time goes on. Eventually it's going to crack, it's going to break, it's going to blister. You are going to go blind. And when that happens, you go off and get yourself that cornea transplant. Meanwhile, go to graduate school" — because by then I had gotten into Caltech and I was going to go there if I didn't go to the rice paddies. This was 1969. "Go to graduate school, do your thing, and when you get there, you find yourself the best ophthalmic surgeon you can find and get checked. Go in there and get checked out and have this monitored. And what's happening is that there are great advances being made in this type of surgery — in particular the transplant surgery for corneas — and if you can hold out ten years, the probability of success will go from 35 or 40 percent to 90 or 95 percent. That's how things are progressing." And you know, "Do it then." "Have a good life, kid," and kicked me out of his office. So I went to graduate school and did find a good ophthalmic surgeon, and read up about it and tracked what was happening. And sure enough, it did happen thirteen years later — no, twelve years later.
And you had the cornea transplant?
Here. Yeah. That was another interesting story.
Successful as it could be. Right. I'm still very much left-eyed. I don't have them here, but if I were to show you — these are new — [shows glasses]
I can see the lenses are very different.
Yes, but what you don't know is that you are looking at $700 worth of glasses, and it ain't the frames. This is the new extremely high optical density plastic that they make the lenses out of, and for most of the last twenty years I've been wearing glasses where my right eye was essentially covered by an extremely thick potato chip. If I showed you my sunglasses, you'd get a chuckle out of it. Hugh, with a huge correction for a stigmatism and all sorts of stuff. So it's better. I can see your face, but I'm not exactly going to be reading books with my right eye. Curious, in fact, there are a lot of one-eyed astronomers. More than you would imagine.
As you were saying that I couldn't help but think of the irony of an observational astronomer in the situation you just described.
My thesis advisor has only one eye.
That was Wal Sargent.
Yeah. Lots of things like that. Anyway, so I went to graduate school.
Well before that, I just want to ask you —
Well, we'll go back.
I tend to think in a linear sense. Did you start taking astronomy classes at MIT or developing an interest in it?
Well, there's a story. I knew I wanted to do physics or math and had some interest in some of the engineering aspects of physics. For a while for example I thought I was interested in being a nuclear engineer, power plants and all that kind of stuff, return something to humanity or whatever. I was good at certain things. Because of the math connection. I was very good at math, mathematical physics. And I was smart enough to figure out that when the time came to do laboratory classes I could find somebody who was really good at the other stuff and the two of us as partners could often do things that we could never do as individuals. So I had a lab partner in the physics junior labs at MIT that he was an “electroniker” and was good at it, and I could do the theory, and we'd turn in perfect lab exercises because he'd get the mechanical and the electronic parts right and I'd get all the theory right. So that's what we did.
I didn't know what branch of physics I was interested in. I had the opportunity of doing a junior project and I looked around and there were a couple things that were available. Two of them happened to be astronomy related. One that I didn't do was with a guy by the name of Steve Price who moved to New Mexico and who has gotten very heavily involved in the education game. And the one that I did do was to work on some sounding rocket data in X-ray astronomy with Hale Pratt. Now my undergraduate advisor was George Clarke, who was an X-ray astronomer at MIT, and he was essentially the head of the group in those days. And I hooked up with Hale almost independently of George and started working in the X-ray group there. And it was fun. I was aligning modulation collimators for sounding rocket flights, which eventually were satellites. And I don't know if you know what a modulation collimator is, but basically in those days there really was only one kind of useful astronomical X-ray detector, which was a proportional counter, which is basically a box with gas in it with wire grids in it to collect the electrons and protons that are created when an X-ray goes through and ionizes the gas.
And left to their own devices, they have exactly zero directionality.
In terms of telling where things are coming from.
In terms of telling where things are coming from.
Okay. So it would just detect sources but it wouldn't be able to tell you the location of them.
Right, right. So there was this idea that a guy by the name of Minoru Oda came up with. Let's see if I can find a picture for you. [tape turned off, then back on] ...The collimators, the original ones were honeycomb collimators, which are just essentially pipes made out of some appropriate metal. That would give you some directionality. But of course there are multiple paths going through these kinds of things and they were not very efficient because things would be observed on the side. And Oda came up with this idea: crossed-wire grids where in fact if you actually took this thing with the cross-wire grid and you spun it or scanned it you would get directionality more than one direction that would allow you to actually pinpoint the direction of an X-ray source to a very high degree of accuracy.
There are a lot of books on this kind of stuff. This one's an oldie — oldie but moldy. But the first techniques that were actually useful for accurately pinpointing X-ray sources were these modulation collimators designed by Oda and built by a lot of other people, and particularly the MIT group was flying these. And I got the job of aligning these modulation collimators and then working on some of the data that came back from them.
Was this your first exposure to astronomy in a direct sense?
Yeah, yeah. That's right. That's right. And in fact I hadn't taken an astronomy course before that, just physics and math courses. In fact I almost never really took an astronomy course until I got to graduate school.
Okay. Did you like it?
It was fun. It was different. It allowed me to do things by myself, because the job usually involved going in late at night after all the secretaries had gone home, cranking up the 50 kilovolt X-ray machine standing behind large quantities of lead and taking pictures of these things and then adjusting it until the alignment was right, until you got the best alignment. And so it was a lot of night work in that sense. And I did that, and I enjoyed it. And then I had to find a senior thesis, and I had started taking some electives. I took a course from C.C. Lynd, who was in the math department at the time, on galactic structure. He was developing this idea of spiral density waves, or density waves as driving spiral structure in galaxies. He had a graduate student at the time, Frank Shu, and there were other people. And I took Lynd's class as an undergraduate, and it was a graduate course and I did pretty well in it. In fact he came to me and said, "John, I don't want to tell you this, but you're doing a better job than all of my graduate students." And I said, "Would you write me a letter to graduate school?" So he wrote letters to graduate school for me, and it was probably Lynd's letter that got me into Caltech, I don't know. [Inaudible word] go back and look at the history. And then I started doing a senior thesis, theoretical studies, with Icko Iben on pulsation in RR Lyrae stars and cepheids.
I'm sorry. On what?
Pulsation in RR Lyrae stars and cepheids, cepheid variable stars. And that involved a lot of work with computers. I had become a pretty good programmer. In fact I worked for a stretch, while I was working for Iben I worked for a stretch as the systems managers in the physics department, the LNS, Laboratory of Nuclear Science Computer Center. And that was also fun. And when I applied to graduate school I applied to graduate school in some cases in physics but mostly in astronomy.
Did you ever give any thought to particle physics, going that route?
When I started thinking about science at all at MIT, the two things that probably most interested me were astrophysics and particle physics. Now there were a couple of other defining moments at MIT I don't want to leave out. I was very lucky as a freshman to get into two freshman seminars. The first one was with Phillip Morrison and it on the astronomy of cosmology. And in fact I teach the same course now.
Nice symmetry there.
Nice symmetry. I had a great time doing that. It wasn't a course in the sense of, you know, it wasn't set up that way, but I had fun interacting with Phil. He probably doesn't remember me. Actually he does, but mostly through the later life, not due to me taking a class from him. And I took a course in particle physics at the Cambridge Electronic, and I want to say it was with Harold Frisch but I'm not sure. I have to go back and take a look. And that I remember less well — in part because a fair fraction of the effort involved in taking that course was just getting back and forth to Harvard Square. The redline was not — didn't play that game in those days, so it was the bus, and in the winter it was something else.
You had your first publication I guess — I don't know if it was while you were still an undergraduate or right after.
With Icko [Iben], yeah.
Okay. Yeah. It was an App. J. article on helium abundance and RR Lyrae stars.
Right. Based on how you determine what the helium abundance is relative to the pulsation properties. That's right. So, yeah.
Okay. Most people tend to remember their first publication as very important. Do you have any particular recollection?
The second one was better.
My thesis was the second paper with Icko, and that was in astronomy and astrophysics. Essentially on — there's, it's now been forgotten, but it was the first time I ever had anything — probably the first and the last time I ever had anything named after me. But there's, what we found was called the Iben-HUCHRA transition edge, and it's essentially the place in the HR diagram where things will primarily pulsate on one side in the fundamental mode and on the other side in the first harmonic pulsating stars.
How did you get the data for this work?
No data. Theory.
All theory. Okay.
Yeah. That was essentially all theory. I mean you start with a stellar atmosphere and hit it with a hammer. Stellar atmosphere that's been irradiated from some course that would have the energy flow through it, and then you hit it with a hammer. And the codes existed in those days to do perturbation analyses in the atmospheres. And you looked at the stability whether the modes would grow or not.
Based on all sorts of things — chemical abundances and that kind of stuff. And I was — you know, it really was Icko's idea. I was just going through and doing the grunt work, but I began to develop a feel for that, and that was fun.
Did you like what you were doing in terms of doing the theory work?
Yeah. I mean it wasn't — how can I put it? I hadn't made a decision I was going to spend the rest of my life doing it. And even when I went to graduate school, I hadn't made a decision I was going to spend the rest of my life doing it. I was just following my nose. The easiest path was to go to graduate school, so I did. I applied, got in. When I told Icko, who I had not asked to write me a letter, that I had gotten into Caltech where he had been as a postdoc, he looked at me and said, "Just go, you know, don't think about it." "But I applied to other places." "Just go. Go to Caltech. Don't think about it. You've got to go there."
What other places did you apply to?
Interesting question. I applied to MIT and didn't get into MIT. They tended not to take their own students, and I wasn't that great a student. I swear that the reason I got into Caltech is that somebody mixed up my grade with somebody else's grade in 807. But I got an A and the guy next to me in the alphabet got a C and he thought he should have gotten an A and I thought I should have gotten a C, but I was not going to complain at that point in time. But basically I applied there, I applied to Arizona, I applied again to the Case, Carnegie, Columbia situation, and I frankly don't remember much more of that. I applied to Caltech because it was free. Most places had a 40 or 20 or 40 or $25 fee for applying to graduate school, and the Caltech application was free, so I threw it in.
And I had a few people writing letters for me, and as I said, probably C.C. Lynd was the most important one on that list.
When you showed up for classes was that your first visit to California, to Pasadena?
Drove across the country. I worked for Icko over the summer, which is the genesis of the second paper, and essentially writing up the thesis.
Okay. You were saying you bought a car.
Okay. I bought a car the year before, the summer of my junior year, because I'd been making reasonable money in the trucking companies and whatever. I guess that summer I was working on a truck dock and loading freight. Red Star Express, if you ever come across it. They are still in business, Northburg in New Jersey, so not too far away from my hometown. And I made a reasonable amount of money and I could afford to actually buy a used car, so my father and I went out and we bought a used car, a 430 cubic inch engine. I was into those things. I once made the trip from Boston to New York in 2 hours and 12 minutes.
That's pretty good.
Which is pretty good. At night. Pedal to the metal and all that kind of stuff. You couldn't do it anymore. It doesn't work that way. But it was fun. Anyway, I was home at the beginning of the summer and had driven back to spend some time before this job with Icko here. I actually spent the summer in Boston, which was the first time I'd done that, working at a computer geek in the physics department. And I was driving down this hill in Teeneck, New Jersey, and they were raising the manhole covers. And I didn't make it. I hit the manhole cover, hit the raised — Which broke the front axle on the car. All of a sudden the car comes to a screeching halt — no screeching halt, just comes to a halt instantaneously, and the front of the car droops.
And I sit there and I open the door and I look out, close the door, turn off the ignition. Most people forget to do that. If you are ever in an accident, one of the most important things you can do is turn the ignition off on your car. Turn off the ignition and sit there and eventually get out and look at the damage. And I was lucky in that there were some folks building a house on a corner, and the guy who was one of the carpenters there came over and he started talking to me and he looked at the manhole cover and looked at the car and he said, "Kid, tell you what. We're going to call the police and then we're going to call the Building Inspector, the town building inspector." Because there were no warning signs, and the manhole cover was clearly high enough to hit axles on normal cars. I wasn't in a low rider or anything at all like that. This car had a big engine, but it wasn't anything special. It turns out I was the fifth person that week who wiped out on this manhole cover. And the construction company that the town had hired to do the work on the road had not put up any warning signs at all. So the cops came, the cop brought his sergeant in, and the building inspector came, and there were three reports saying that the construction company was negligent not having sufficient warning. This was a really steep hill. I could not have stopped, not without taking out things on either side. I thought I might be able to clear it but didn't make it. And you know, got all of those things, which is good, and then I sent in the insurance claim to the construction company doing the road work and they sent back a note saying, "Well, the foreman says there were plenty of road signs and it's your fault, so we're not going to pay." So I went with my mother and we went down to the construction company and I limped into the office and showed them the copies of the three reports from the policeman who did the accident report, his sergeant, and the town building inspector which clearly said there were no signs. Said, "Well, tell you what. You can pay me for the car, or you can pay me for the car plus my leg plus pain and suffering." And they looked at me and cut me a check right there on the spot. So I got another car.
This is the one that you ended up driving up —?
For many, many years. Its name was Igor. It was a white — it was my parents' used car. A white 1968 Buick LeSabre. It weighed 4,000 lbs. It had no emission controls that you could think of. It got great gas mileage, because it had no emission controls that you could think of, and I packed it up with all of my worldly possessions, which consisted of a lot of records and a stereo system and not much in the way of clothes and a lot of books and drove to California, not knowing what I was going to find or how I was going to deal with things.
Did you have a place to live already or —?
No. I tried to get into the dormitories, but it was too late, so I didn't have a spot in the dormitory. So I got there, I stayed in the motel for a couple of days, went around looking for apartments, and I finally found one which I couldn't afford and moved into that. For about three months. That was about all I could afford to live there. The apartment was $125 a month for rent, and I was on an NSF grant. I was $200 a month.
Doesn't leave much left.
That was what you get paid. I got a job in the astronomy department working on building a pressure scanned Fabry Perot interferometer as a lab grunt with Guido Munch, who was my initial advisor. And that made it $240 a month, but that's still not enough to pay $125 a month, buy books, pay car insurance, buy food and have a life, so two months into it a guy I knew from MIT who was in the physics department and another friend of mine from the astronomy department went out and said, "Well, we're going to find an apartment and live together, because living together is the cheapest thing we could do." And we found a place, 269 Ohio Street in Pasadena, just near the South Pasadena border. We found a place that was, an apartment building that was owned by an ex-professor of chemistry at Caltech who rented it out, liked to rent it out to students cheap, and he rented us this place for $175 a month rent split three ways. That I could afford. And it was not a bad place for that money either. It was unfurnished, but that's okay. And if there was an earthquake and it fell on you, you probably wouldn't have gotten hurt. That was okay. Because there were a couple of earthquakes. There was the big one in February in '71 that was a hoot. I can tell you stories about that. But anyway, so we settled into there, and I actually was there for the rest of my graduate student career, almost six years. I went through something like fifteen roommates in six years, because people cycle through.
How did you find Caltech after MIT just in terms of the people?
Different. People were more serious. First of all, it was graduate school versus undergraduates. The hierarchy at Caltech was actually very funny. It was — the students were very conservative, generally politically more conservative, orders of magnitude, more politically conservative than at MIT. This is 1970 we're talking about. And in fact if you went through the school what you would find is generally speaking the undergraduates were the most conservative, the graduate students were more liberal, and the faculty was extremely liberal. It was an inversion of the hierarchy — whereas at MIT it was the other way around. The faculty were all building bombs, you know — bomb site or radar detectors or whatever from their work at the instrumentation labs and all that kind of stuff, which are now the Draper Labs. So in that sense it was very different.
Who were some of your classmates?
Who did I go to school with? Well, I'll start with the lesser known, children of a lesser God, the lesser of the folks. Some of the people I've stayed friends with over the years, one guy whose name was Paul Nachman eventually left Caltech, transferred to the University of Chicago and got a Ph.D. in astrophysics with Pat Palmer and Ben Zuckerman, Pat Palmer when he was still at Chicago doing radio observations. He thought that Caltech was too nutso, so he left. The teaching wasn't good, so he left. And he's now doing laser physics for Rockwell or TRW, I forget, in Los Angeles, and we still stay in touch. We do a lot of canoeing together up in northern Canada. My other classmates, Bob Kirshner, who is here; John Kormendy, who is here. We were the three who stayed in the field. And the fifth person in the entering class is a guy by the name of Gary McCleod who the last — I have not seen Gary in twenty-five years. He flunked out and took up a career. He had gone to school, he had gone to ROTC, he had been in ROTC when he was in college, so he owed the Air Force a couple years and went into the Air Force, and the Air Force bought him out after two. They had a program whereby they didn't really want to keep too many officers around after the Vietnam War started cranking down, so McCleod dropped out, got out of the Air Force in '74 and then took up a career as a photographer, as in Playboy — as in nudie magazines, as in make a lot of money and spend time on the beach with the bunnies you might say. So there was a small part of me that envied Gary this career. I don't know. Yes. But that was a long time ago. So you've never heard of McCleod. Nachman is around and you could find papers by him in the literature. And he did a stint as a physics professor. He got back into laser physics in Colorado, did a stint as a physics professor at New Mexico but ended up going back into industry.
And Kirshner and Kormendy are around. Kormendy is now at the University of Texas and Kirshner is here. Graduate school was funny in a lot of different ways. Curious is a better word, rather than funny. There were interesting dynamics.
This is something which I now, after many years of experience, understand how they change with time and how things go on and what's good and what's bad. But when I went to Caltech as a graduate student, we really were in the golden years.
Caltech was in the golden years.
Caltech was. It was a time when, for better or worse, the department was home. And I mean this in the sociological sense. People just got along. People did things together — both social things and scientific things. Sometimes you couldn't separate the two. There was a party or something going on every weekend with the faculty and the postdocs and the graduate students and whatever. People just interacted, and that interaction was wonderful in many, many different ways. Because for example, we would often go off, as groups of students and postdocs and sometimes the faculty, we'd often go up to the Sierras and go hiking. You know, so you'd get a carload. And since I had Igor, I would drive a carload of astronomers up to the Sierras to go backpacking in the summer or go skiing in the winter or something like that. And it was a six-hour drive up the eastern side of the Sierras.
; Up to Bishop or Mammoth [inaudible phrase]?
Yeah, to Bishop or Mammoth. Yeah. Or to Biz Pine we had observatory at Biz Pine, so we'd go up there. And basically you talk — about science, about life — a lot about science, a lot of ideas came on off just the discussions in the car. I can remember some really great things. The parties that went on, just because people would interact. Caltech is kind of isolated. It's not like you've got a lot — It's better now, but in those days there wasn't a lot do in Pasadena, and Caltechers were isolated from the rest of Pasadena. When you talk about little old ladies, they meant it.
And the big social thing in Pasadena was PCC, Pasadena City College.
Right. That's down the street from Caltech.
Right. And the PCCers didn't want to have anything to do with Caltech, for many reasons, because they were into the body beautiful. I don't know if it's changed, but the rules used to be that in order to be the Rose Queen you needed to be a student at Pasadena City College. So there was this flock of bounteous bouncing beauties that would show up at PCC, and of course the incumbent following of males who were tracking the bounteous beauties of PCC, where the scene was to go up the ladder and become the Rose Queen, lead the Rose Bowl Parade on January 1st. That was the big deal. They could give a flying hoot about academics or learning anything. They were there for the other side of the fence. And in Pasadena it was just sort of like that. There were sections that were, you know — there was the JPL section up in La Pinata, pretty far away, and there was the Caltech ghetto, but Caltech is a very small school. So in many ways, even though it has an intellectual impact, it's not an impact which is very well felt in a community this size. Pasadena had 100,000 people. And I don't know what it's got today, but it's not a small city as things go.
The first time I went to Caltech I remember being struck by just how small the school actually was.
Mm-hm [affirmative]. So in that sense there wasn't a huge connection to the outside world. So there was a huge connection on the inside. And people really got along with each other. There was a lot of interaction, and that interaction I think made a big difference in terms of the ability to think and to do things. Now there were people who didn't fit. Gary and Paul. And there were people that were kind of odd, who will remain nameless, but by and large the people got together, did things, socialized, whatever. We may have been outcasts in the real world, but amongst ourselves we were all very happy.
What were student-faculty relations like? I mean you worked with Guido for a while —
And then Wal Sargent.
And George Preston somewhere in there?
George Preston. That's right. I had to do a research project, so I did it with George.
Whenever you arrived, let's see, [Jesse] Greenstein still would have been — I guess it's not department chair but program head or —
Yeah, yeah. Program head. Jesse and I did not get along. That's a different story.
I was too religious. Not religious in a go to church religious, but religious in the sense of that I thought that cosmology and philosophy were definitely linked, and this was an anathema in his eyes. Separation of church and state or science and religion. And I still have the belief that you can't entirely separate them, which makes me a little odd.
How did you come to realize that you two had this difference in opinion?
Because I flunked my qualifiers, and old Uncle Jesse wanted to flunk me out, flunk me out. And a couple people — most notably George Preston — went to bat for me. George and Wal Sargent actually. It was Jesse and Marshall Cohen who sort of led the charge to flunk me out. And you think students — most faculty members think the students don't know what the faculty is saying behind closed doors, but don't you believe it. And it was George who said, "Oh, I asked him questions that were much too hard." Because George was at Carnegie, so he didn't understand what was being taught in classes. So it was George and Wal — and there were probably a few other people, maybe Jim Gunn too — who said, "Give him another chance." So the second time I took it I passed it with flying colors. First of all because I could remember my name, which I couldn't the first time around. "What's your name?" "Uhhhhh." It was complete total — It was orals, so it was complete, total and utter stage fright. I got up there and I was just shy and terrified. I was shy and terrified a very large fraction of my life. Now I'm shy and terrified, but I know how to hide it well. That's the difference.
Not to get too far off track, but Greenstein is a person that is of personal interest to me just because, just that period of astronomy that he was so prominent in, in the sixties and seventies, is of interest to me, so I am always on the lookout for good anecdotes from that period.
Jesse stories, yeah.
Well, this is a not so good Jesse story. I actually got so far as to — and it's funny that this comes up in this interview, because it's actually something that's come up in the last couple of years of my life. I actually went so far at that time, when there was an effort made to cause me to go bye-bye. Jesse won't remember it. He's too old now. To set myself a goal, and if I stayed in the field, of eventually out-publishing Jesse, because he was known as the person who had written the most papers in Astrophysical Journal, dot-dot-dot.
You know, had this grand old man reputation, whatever. And I did it already.
Two years ago. I'm up just a little under 400 published papers.
Okay. When it happened did you —?
No. I forgot. I mean you forget these kinds of things. A couple things happened. I had not ever kept track with this, but two different people came in and said, "Hey, you know, we've been doing these citation searches for fun, and you are the most cited astronomer in the world!" Which, I mean, I had known I had written a lot of papers, and there was motivation for doing those kinds of things — some of which was science, some of which was just competitiveness, some of which is I like to tell stories. But I hadn't realized that I was the most cited astronomer in the world. And that came as a bit of a surprise. It was a very pleasant surprise. And then I looked back and started thinking about what it is I wanted to do. We're jumping way ahead, sort of breaking the time line, but I'm at a stage in my career where I have been seriously thinking about doing different things.
Different meaning outside of astronomy?
No, no, no. Just different. No. It could mean outside of astronomy. I don't know, it depends. I'm near 400 papers. I don't know. It's about that. It might be a little below, it might be a little above, who knows. I've got 10,000 citations or whatever, which is more than the next person by 20 percent or so. This is in all of astronomy, so that's not so bad. I've done three or four really major projects. I'm finishing up one right now. You saw the poster on the door. The 2-micron sky survey [ZMASS] is one of my babies. We finished the H-nought Key Project, which is also one of my babies. 2MASS actually I want to take a lot of credit for. I don't take all the credit, because I didn't build the cameras. I didn't do that. But the basic ideas were things that came from here back in 1988. The Hubble Key Project with the space telescope is finished and the last papers came out last summer. I've done a lot of work on red shift surveys and finished three or four of those — some of which I never expected to be able to finish, at least in the early game, and I think I have managed to have a fair amount of impact on the field. And it's time to make way for other people. It's time to help other people do those kinds of things. I don't want to make the same mistake that some of my mentors in graduate school did.
In this case I'll give you the example of [Allan] Sandage. And maybe when I say this, this will be the reason why you keep the record sealed. Allan is a very mean man.
You say "mm-hm," but you know one on one personally, if you're not on the wrong side of the scientific debate with him, he's a wonderful man. But if you ever end up in any way competing or disagreeing — but competing in particular — he will stick a shiv in your back faster than anybody you can think of. And I watched him do it. I watched him do it to other people, back in the seventies in particular, and watched him try to do it to me once upon a time, and once, one time he succeeded.
While you were at Caltech?
No, here. And once upon a time he succeeded in doing it to me, and I didn't fight back, and I probably did the right thing not fighting back, but it gave me a different perspective on being an old man.
Allan used to essentially shoot down the NSF proposals of anybody who disagreed with him. He would go so far as if he saws a preprint that disagreed with him to call up the editor of the journal and say, "This paper must not be published." And if the editor was any of the wimpazoids that we've had for years — some of whom are incredibly famous wimpazoids, pardon my French — so we will seal this one — the editor will go, "The great man says this is wrong," and the paper will get pulled. The referee wouldn't say that; it would be the call from the great man that the paper was wrong. I can't stand that approach to science.
Maybe it's because I got burned a couple times when I was young whippersnapper, but I can't stand that approach to science. It should be above board, the competition should be fair, and you should allow opposing points of view to have a chance. You do not let the fox judge where the chickens are going to live or who goes into the chicken house.
You just don't do that. I don't want to get to be that way.
Okay. Were there other people like Sandage, since you bring it up? I'm aware of the reputation that he has in that way.
There are a lot. Not as many as some people would think.
I guess what I'm trying to get at is, one senses that the field of astronomy or just physics in general has changed in that papers have many authors and that when you look over the landscape you don't have the same giants striding across the field as say you did in the twenties or thirties or forties or fifties just because there are more people doing it in the field is so fractured and whatnot. Are there other people like Sandage who can have that kind of impact that you've just described in terms of squelching new ideas? Or is it not possible anymore?
It's an interesting question. I think the answer is yes, but it might not be individuals. It can well be groups of people. There are instances where groups of people have gotten relatively powerful for one reason or another, especially in dealing with funding agencies and things like that, where they can make it incredibly difficult for people to get resources. Sometimes the community as a whole does it without thinking about it. You know, whether they are right or wrong is a different story. Mentally I'm a conservative; operationally I'm a socialist. I'm a firm believer — and sometimes people change, too. I was the associate director here for nine years and the directory of the observatory out in Arizona. [portion of transcript restricted] You should always give them room to try out their ideas. When their ideas fail you can ask them to try something else, but it's not right in science to cut people off at the knees because they disagree with you — especially because they disagree with you. Because you could be wrong. I told my freshmen, I told my graduate students — and this is almost a joke now in the field, but — that I have ten favorite words that I want them to be able to use, and it's very funny especially not here because Harvard undergraduates in particular are not well known for being able to say these words. Those ten words are: "I don't know, "I am wrong," and "It can be fixed." It's the first six that people have a lot of problems with. Yeah. And I think those are really important words to live by. Ain't nobody perfect. Ain't no theory that can't somehow be improved, and ain't no theory that should not be checked. Ain't no data set that's perfect. In fact, the great skill at being — or I should say the skill at being a great experimentalist is to know how to accurately portray the errors that are associated with the things that you do, the uncertainties, the systematic boxes, whatever. And I don't know if you are interested in trying to do these kinds of things, but if you ever go back and look at, well among other things great experimentalists, you will invariably find that the people who were the best at the game are the people who are the best at characterizing their data and not over-interpreting it. Theorists are allowed to over-interpret data, but only just barely, and the experimentalists who take it are never allowed to over-interpret the data. They have to be as straight and as honest as could possibly be, because that's the coin of the realm. [tape turned off, then back on...]
; We’re back from lunch. Before continuing on with Caltech, I did have one question which I meant to ask but I didn't. Did the Apollo moon landing have any particular effect on you worth mentioning, or was it just something that happened that didn't really strike you?
I was pretty — I mean so far into it at that point. And it did strike me. I mean all the moon landings were of course spectacular. In fact I got to spend an observing run at Mt. Wilson while one of them was taking place, and it was interesting, but for many different reasons. If anything that struck me about the Apollo moon landings is the fact that we haven't been back.
It's a different question. But, you know, by the time it happened I was so far in that it didn't have that big an effect. When you're falling in the potential well a little blip along the way doesn't make any difference. Whee! into the black hole.
Already going at it. Okay. At Caltech, Wal Sargent was your thesis advisor. How did this come about. Why him?
Why him. That's an interesting question. I have always regarded myself as the dumbest graduate student in my class at Caltech. Some of that stems from just natural insecurities, some of it stems from flunking qualifying exams, some of it stems from the belief, especially in that early stage, that nobody in their right mind would want to have anything to do with me. But that comes from growing up in northern New Jersey in a poor town and all that other kind of stuff. I was looking around for something to work on, I knew I was interested in working on galaxies because I'd spent some time doing theory and spent some time working on correct nomenclature stars and stuff like that. I had actually thought about trying to do some work on supernovae, and I went to talk to Bev Oke about it but [Bob] Kirshner got there first, so he did the supernovae stuff.
Didn't you work in the Palomar supernovae survey?
Yes. I had gotten a job in fact working with — how do I put it? After I finished working with Guido for my forty dollars a month on Pressure Scanned Fabry Perot. I wanted another job doing some work to make some more money, so I got job doing the Palomar supernovae search — which at the time had been handed over from [Fritz] Zwicky to Sargent and Cyril. So I started working on the Palomar supernovae search in 1972 and did that for three plus years as a way of earning money. And Sargent was in charge of that, and basically I ended up talking to him after Oke said that he had already filled his slot to work on supernovae with Kirshner. I ended up talking to Wal about various different things and we came up with an idea — I guess it was primarily his idea to try to do something with Markarian galaxies and whatever. So I did a little bit of a research project with him looking at spectra, working on the galaxy luminosity function — of Markarian galaxies as opposed to whatever. And the idea that Wal had set me started on was essentially to try to understand the ages of these galaxies to see if we could use photometry and spectroscopy to say something about young versus old versus all these other kinds of things.
Just for the record, Markarian galaxies are ones that have strong UV emission.
Markarian galaxies are galaxies that were found by Markarian.
Which is the cleanest definition. Markarian or his students, because eventually he stopped doing it. They found on objective prism plates that were essentially blue-sensitive plates, the blue plate special, and to some extent later red plates, looking for H-alpha. There were galaxies that had excess ultraviolet fluxes, but sometimes they weren't.
Okay. Something had really large, a really high surface brightness or if there was a super close star over where the objective prism went or whatever you could sometimes get fooled. So what Markarian was looking for were things that looked unusual on these plates.
A reasonably large fraction of Markarian galaxies are pretty normal, so nothing special one way or the other.
A large enough fraction of them are active galactic nucleon, Seyfert galaxies, a couple of quasars thrown in for fun. Some of them aren't galaxies. There's a famous case. We're still writing the paper. I was once observing at Mt. Wilson, doing photometry on the 100" telescope of a couple of Markarian galaxies that were in my thesis catalog that I wanted to try to get UBV photometry of for the stellar population mark. And on the 24" my roommate, an infrared astronomer and graduate student, Jay Elias, a couple years younger than me, was working on this object that had been found in a catalog of variable stars by the Italians, and on the 60" there was another guy working on an object which was thought to be a dwarf nova of some kind, a really strange UV-emitting or erupting star. And we sat down to dinner and we found we were all looking at the same object. It's Markarian 388 and it's GR-151 and it's ET Cankry (???). It turns out to be a star that's got extremely strong, broad emission lines. Markarian mis-classified it as a Seyfert galaxy. Then in fact the Russians measured a radial velocity for it at 600 km/sec. That's because it had these big, fat broad lines and they couldn't make very accurate measurements. So for a while it was the world's closest Seyfert galaxy, except it wasn't. Right? So it was in the catalog as a Seyfert galaxy, because the Russians had a measurement of its velocity which put it outside the Milky Way. But it wasn't. That turns out to be wrong. And it's a variable star, which is in Markarian's catalog, and it's got big, broad emission lines and it's weird but it's not a galaxy of any kind. So the catalog contains all sorts of stuff. But if you were to make the assumption that it represents a complete survey down to some limit of things that had UV excess, you could use that to try to study what's now a real hot topic, which is the whole question of the star formation rate in our local universe — and the star formation rate in the universe is a function of time. So this is actually the first crack at the Madau plot. Except in those days Madau was still wrapped in swaddling clothes, so it wasn't called a Madau plot.
How do you spell that?
M-a-d-a-u. [tape turned off, then back on...]
That's your thesis, your holding.
The last copy in real form of my thesis.
What was Wal Sargent like to work with as an advisor?
He was pretty good. I mean he left me alone. He'd point me in the right direction. He pointed me where I needed to go to get resources to get things done. My chief interaction was with somebody who taught me a lot of the real basic things was with Charlie Kowal. Charlie was the data aid type person, the professional master's level astronomer professional working on the supernovae search. Charlie generally did the 48," I generally did the 18" except when one of us was on vacation when we'd both do both, either do both telescopes.
And Charlie also did a lot of other work for Wal, including photometry of supernovae at Mt. Wilson and various things like that. So actually I learned a lot about the nitty gritty of photographic plates and stuff like that from Charlie, who had the right kind of attitude, which was a little bit of devil-may-care "this is what is takes to get the data," and that's what we did.
Okay. That ties in actually wonderfully into my next line of questions, which was, at this time when you were a graduate student, how did people learn how to use telescopes?
From each other. Although that wasn't always the case. Here's a funny story. When I was a graduate student starting on my thesis this new telescope had just been completed at Palomar, the 60" — the “Oscar Mayer wiener” (named because of donation by the Oscar G. Mayer family) telescope.
I forget who — somebody donated the dome and somebody donated the telescope, and it was essentially all back to the Oscar Mayer family. And there were some new instruments that were being built on the telescope. And the rule at the time — The director at Palomar Observatory at the time was Bev Oke. Bev was a little dangerous in the game. As director he was a little bit — he was kind of on the strict side and had not such a good attitude about students, because the rule of thumb at the time was that students of course go places and break things. So Bev's rule for Palomar was that no student was allowed to use an instrument or a telescope until they had been checked out by the senior astronomer in charge of that instrument or that telescope. The catch-22 was that Bev was the senior astronomer in charge of the 60" telescope and Leonard Searle was the astronomer in charge of the spectrograph on the 60" telescope. And Leonard had just left for a one-year-long sabbatical in Australia. So I went to Bev and said, "I'd like to use the spectrograph." Said, "Well, you've got to be checked out by the astronomer in charge." And I said, "Who's that?" and he said, "Leonard Searle," and I said, "But Leonard's just gone to Australia for a year." And he said, "Yeah. You have to wait until he gets back." My fellow astronomer John Kormendy had the same problem, wanted to use the spectrograph to do various things and Oke gave him the same line. Wal was also John's advisor, so Wal went in to Bev and had a little bit of a knock down and drag out. And eventually Wal was able to convince him that since Leonard was in Australia it might be okay if somebody else were to check them out. Bev didn't want anybody else to check them out except himself, but Bev didn't want to go to Palomar with us to check us out. So what ended up happening was that Bev told us that we had to go down to the 60" during the day. We could look at the spectrograph when it was off the telescope and try to figure out how it worked – no instructions, no manual, you know, I mean just some scribbled notes from other people who had done this before and we would come back and he would give us a test. And if we could pass the test, then we could use the spectrograph. So Kormendy and I did that. I got my old '68 Buick, we trundled on down to Palomar, spent the day pushing levers on the spectrograph in hopefully nondestructive manners and all these other kinds of things.
Was it simple to understand how it worked?
No. In fact Oke had screwed it up. But we'll get to that a little bit later on. He had put the collimator mirror in it upside down, so the spectrograph didn't work. And you didn't know that during the day. You'd have to test it out. We eventually did find this error, but so there was — the great joke of course was there was Bev not wanting to let anybody use the spectrograph until they had been checked out, but it was in fact his misconstruction of the spectrograph that caused it not to work in the first place. Anyway, so we went back and took our little exams and passed and did whatever. The interesting thing that goes along with this — and here I'll ask you to turn off the tape — [tape turned off, then back on...] (John do you want to add your story of the tipsy astronomers...it could be sealed for a period of time?) As a result of things like this, eventually what happened was that it was realized that it would be okay for people who knew how to use the instruments other than the astronomer in charge to check out other people.
And I actually ended up being the astronomer in charge of all the small instruments on the 60" and also on the 48" Schmidt. I mean, checking out people on using the Schmidt. So oft-times I'd go down there — again, lots of interesting and weird stories. One of us had to check out visiting astronomers on how to use the Schmidt telescope. And one of my funniest stories — and I don't remember if all the players remember this, but I was down there. Alan Dressler, who was then a young wet-behind-the-ears graduate student at Lick Observatory had come down to work on a project where he was going to get photographic plates on the 48" Schmidt on these clusters of galaxies, which ended up being his thesis project. And Sandy Faber, who was his advisor, I think, didn't come down but he needed to come down with some official astronomer type from Lick, so Joe Wampler came down.
You know, to act as his advisor. Joe was at Lick at those days. This was a long time ago. And the funny part of the story is, you know, I did the standard thing, showing them how to use the 48" and sticking around for the first half of the night to make sure they get the plates in without breaking things and stuff like that. The funny part of the story was that there had been a discovery a week or so, a month or so before in the Ap. J. — the Ap. J. in those days was published once a month — by Roger Lynds and a couple of other people about the filamentary structure in NGC-1275, where they showed that in fact there were these gaseous filaments around this galaxy. And there were two different sets — one at a velocity of about 8,000 km/sec and one at a velocity of about 4,000 km/sec. So Peter Van der Kruit, who is now in the Netherlands, was a postdoc at the time and this topic of conversation came up in the living room before we sat down for dinner at the observatory. So Peter is there, I'm there, Alan's there, and we're trying — we're talking about this and since neither, none of us had actually remembered in gory detail what actually was written in the article. Here we are trying to piece together what had been said and what it meant. Meanwhile the head electronics guy, who was a good friend of mine, was there sitting reading Time magazine or whatever in the background and [Joe] Wampler was sitting there not uttering a word. This conversation goes on for half an hour, and at the end of half an hour we more or less have reconstructed what Lynds said in the article on NGC-1275 — at which point Wampler pipes in and rattles off the conclusions in two minutes flat exactly of what was said in the article, what it means, dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot. And the chief electronics guy comes over to me and goes, "John, is this guy a real asshole or what?" Anyway, be that as it may, yet another reason to hide the tape for another ten years. But I still remember that. That was amazing. Because by definition, I mean I and Van der Kruit — I mean, I talked to Peter afterwards. The two of us were at least embarrassed by all of this. I'm sure Alan was too. I didn't know him well enough to ask the question, but this is not entirely in the best interest of scientific discourse to sit there and be given — he was essentially giving us a test, which was on a subject that made no difference. He could have been part of the conversation, but he wasn't.
This idea of people learning how to use telescopes by working with other people. We'll pick up on this later with other questions, but does that still persist today or has that —?
It's going away. It's going away. One of my biggest fears is that the new generation of telescopes which is wonderful for astronomy may be bad for astronomers in the sense that we're now at the stage where they don't want you to go to the telescope. Try to go to Gemini. You will be discouraged. And even if you are a student. I mean if you are a student you will be even more discouraged. The whole idea is queue scheduling and all this other kind of stuff. And yeah, you get more bang for your buck on any given set of projects, but in the long run it could hurt the field.
It could hurt the field.
It could hurt the field — to say it loud enough so that it appears on the tape. Complicated philosophical issue, right?
Because this is a debate which goes on under the tables. It rarely comes to the surface in the field. Every once in a while you know sometimes you'll see a paragraph written about it in the decadal survey. And I don't think there's a right answer. There are a lot of wrong answers, but I don't think there's a right answer. The issue is basically — it goes down to basically — how much time, how many resources, what fraction of the resources do you give to people to play versus what fraction of the resources do you want absolutely peer reviewed and guarded to the nth degree so that only x, y and z get done where x, y and z get proposed.
And there are many, many, many different sides to the argument. One of the early versions of this is that back about twenty-five or thirty years, maybe not even that long ago, there was a lot of poaching going on. Which can happen. So somebody would observe x with telescope y and the next observer would come along and look at the log sheet and see that astronomer x observed object y and, "Oh, maybe object y is hot, so I'll observe object y and beat them to press."
That really happened?
Are you kidding? There are famous cases of people not being — which I will not mention — there are famous cases of people being told that if they ever do it again they'll never see another NSF grant ever. Or if they try to publish the paper they will be barred from the field of astronomy, or various people in black Cadillacs from Newark, New Jersey will appear on their front doors. There are cases of senior astronomers poaching off people's theses when the people had asked them — A famous case — This tape — ah, you can leave it on. When I was a graduate student I had a fellow graduate student whose name was Annelia Sargent. Annelia was working with Gerry Neugebauer and Peter Goldreich doing work on star formation. And she was starting to make some of the first millimeter wave observation, CO observations and things like that and several star forming regions. Back in those days you could look at something in a new wavelength range and it was new piece of work. And it was known that there were other people around also interested in similar kinds of things. So the common courtesy was for you or your advisor to call up the other groups and say, "I want to do this for a project. Are you doing it, and if you are I won't." And, "If you're not doing it, it's my thesis, can I talk to you about it and can I have the observations." Tried to set it up so that people knew what was going on. She did. And two years later one of the people that she called up sent to press a paper on her thesis. It got yanked. Because these conversations had taken place at a relatively high level. This guy had agreed not to poach and then did. And that's really dirty pool — really, really dirty pool. It happened. It's not the only case. I happen to know about that one because we were graduate students together and there was a big stink.
This was common enough then where people would be genuinely concerned about it.
Mm-hm [affirmative]. And there were certain fields which were worse than others. The classic example of the interstellar line game where back again in the mid-1970s. Radio astronomers in particular developed a new set of relatively sensitive line receivers that they could use and better correlators, and they would be going off after the identification of new species of interstellar molecules. There were huge fights over who got there first, and an awful lot especially at NRAO where the logbooks were public knowledge, which people were poaching on previous observations. Nowadays because of that kind of stuff you will sometimes look for — Well, Hubble Space Telescope is a good example. If a proposal is accepted to look at x and y has gotten observation x, that usually locks out anybody else from looking at object x until y gets his or her data. It's harder to do on the ground-based telescopes where you can point them any which way you want.
And there are more of them.
And there are more of them. But there is that kind of poaching that goes on. There is a difference between people who accidentally look at the same thing or maybe even on purpose look at the same thing but without prior knowledge of the other group, and you know combing through the logbooks to find the interesting objects that the folks before you have looked at. Anyway, that's one side of it. The other side of it is really this learning function. If all the small telescopes in the world get closed and if only big telescopes are operated and only in the queue mode or remote observing mode or wherever where you are bound by proposals and someone else is taking the data for you, people aren't going to learn, one. Two, people aren't going to get to try new things. A fair fraction of what I've done in my life — not all of it by any means, but a fraction of it has come about by virtue of being at the right place in the right time and being able to make a key observation.
Serendipity. Sometimes it's because something comes up and you get a chance to do something, and it's not even serendipity. You get pointed, but you are able to change the program to do that. Sometimes it makes good sense. One of the problems that I see in the current queue mode is that people — Gemini in particular — is that people have not yet learned to pack the queue properly. And the classic example is that the time allocation committee will go through and there will be proposals to do the hardest things in the universe and it of course will all seem great, so they'll pack the queue with fifteen proposals, all of which require perfect conditions.
Which is stupid. The way to pack a queue is to have things that require perfect conditions and those that require less good and less good and less good. So you go on down the line. And the ones that really require lousy conditions people will say, "Well, why are you doing that on Gemini?" It might well be because Gemini is the only place where there's an instrument. Even though you don't really need an 8-meter telescope to do it, you need the thing at the back end to do it. But they'll never get taught, even though they're the perfect backup programs. If you are going to the telescope by yourself you can take your backup programs.
So you go and if the weather is x you do this program, if its y then you do this program.
When I go to a telescope — and I may be the exception rather than the rule, but there are enough people like me. And I don't go that much anymore, which is the sad thing, but when I used to go to the telescope a lot I'd typically take six or seven programs — some things to do at the beginning and the ends of the night and some things to do when the moon was up and the hard thing to do when the moon was down and the conditions were perfect, spectroscopic programs that didn't require that it be photometric, the backup programs. You can get an awful lot done if you can operate in that mode. Good queues operate in that mode, but–
So queue isn't the only way to be efficient.
Well, queue is a way to be efficient, but you have to do it right. What queue will not let you do is those things that come up that you didn't propose for. So sometimes there's an opportunity to do something that's very interesting that it wouldn't have made any sense to try to propose for. Classic example, I got involved with an embroglio with the Princeton guys back in ninety-eighty-something-or-other, '85, '86. It's actually another funny story. I was working on the MMT [multiple mirror telescope] doing spectroscopy of galaxies for the Century Survey. I had my backup programs and whatever, yeah, but I got a call from a friend of mine, Ed Turner at Princeton, saying that these guys had discovered a possible cosmic string (hypothetical one dimensional live defect in the structure of space-time).
A cosmic string?
I don't know if you ever, if you heard about this. All right. It was a pair of quasars that ARC [Astrophysical Research Corporation] had actually discovered way back when, separated by two arc minutes that looked like they had the same redshift. This was in 1986.
So they in fact were — if the separation was really that big, the only thing that would be massive enough that could produce that kind of separation, if it was two images of the same quasar, was a cosmic string. So they had the press release ready for the New York Times and all of this other kind of stuff, dot-dot-dot-dot-dot. And I tried. The first night I was there I couldn't get them. The second night I was there I couldn't get them. The third night I was there I got some good UV spectra of both of these quasar images. [whispers:] And they weren't the same. The redshifts were a little bit different, and the spectra were different in the UV. When the Princeton guys observed it initially with the ARC telescope they only saw one part of the spectrum, and I was looking at different wavelengths where there were different features. They only had one strong line and it looked the same in the two spectra. I got the rest of the spectra, and they looked different. And in fact when you did the cross-correlation they had a different velocity by about 400 km/sec — which is enough to indicate that what you probably have is two quasars in a small cluster or a group of galaxies, not one quasar whose image is being split by a cosmic string.
Okay. Could never have done that even in queue mode, because there would have been no trivial way of inserting a project like that into a queue without peer review or whatever — unless the director would insert it. But a J. Random Astronomer could certainly never do it. The second part of the story was that I of course called up Ed and said, "Hey, they're not the same," and he said, "Uh-oh." Because it was that morning that the article appeared in the New York Times, "Princeton Astronomers Discover -– "You know, front page. I don't know. It was the front page of the science section or whatever, but it was a big splash in the New York Times. So we then got into an interesting situation where I took the observations I had, wrote them up, sent them to the Princeton guys saying, "Let's write up a paper about what was really going on," and they didn't respond. So by definition this is the astronomical community, people talk about it. I did tell the director of the observatory, Fred Chaffee, at the time that we had made these observations and that the quasars weren't the same. He was quite happy to have had those observations made at the MMT. And the rumor mill works pretty well. It wasn't a rumor. I mean, we were talking about this kind of stuff. And after about two months of non-responsiveness from the Princeton guys. Bernie Burke, who was a co-author of the paper met me in the lobby at a party over here and started yelling at me about how I was saying bad things about the cosmic string and why didn't I just publish my data. And I had a draft of the paper with his name on it which I had sent around them saying, "Let's write this paper" and they hadn't responded, which is why nothing had happened. He started yelling at me in front of twenty people downstairs at a beer blast. And I just got so mad I went upstairs, removed everybody's names except mine and submitted the paper to Nature. And that ended the cosmic string, because it wasn't. We got into big fights. I mean, Jim Gunn was saying, "Your observations stink!” all this other kind of stuff. It was very vicious. It was vicious for about ten months or so. They got really mad at me.
About some of the observations stinking, you have a reputation for being an excellent hands-on – a good observer? How did you develop the [inaudible phrase]?
I didn't get the same answer.
Obviously I must have done something wrong. Long story. There's an old joke which says that an observer believes everybody's data except his own or her own. And a theorist believes only his own or her own theory and never anybody else's. And truth of the matter, it's not quite so clean cut and there is this tendency for people to pooh-pooh the other side of the fence. Especially if the answers you get are significantly different. So there was this question as to whether or not I had done something wrong with the spectrograph and whatever. They were setting up their own rumors to try to discount the data. But I had it, so that was it. Which is to say I hadn't screwed up.
Thinking of yourself and then thinking of other people who also have reputations for being really good observers with telescopes. Are there any similar personality traits that? I'm not asking you to delve too heavily into psychology, but when you think about this just something —?
There are many different levels of good, and they can mean different things. I have certain traits that are very useful for being an observer. And there are also things that I worked on by accident but that in terms of a philosophy of how one deals with telescopes and data are perhaps not what you'd expect but turn out to be extremely important. I try very hard not to think at telescope. Okay? I don't think about the whichness of the wire or the grandeur of the universe. I have an observing program and I'm very careful about trying to get as much of that program done as possible.
I think about the operational aspects. I think about, "Should I go to object A or object B? Which one has the fastest slew time." I'm trying to be prepared. I try to have things set up in advance. I've gone to telescopes with other astronomers while they've been doing their observations and they'll finish an observation and then take out their list of things to look at and spend five minutes trying to figure out what to look at next. Uh-uh-uh [negative]. I know what I want to look at next. And usually it's been filtered through conditions and where the moon is and all those other kinds of things. But I keep track of all of that stuff. So some of the things that make me a good observer are that I'm an anal son of a bitch when it comes to trying to think ahead and to minimize the time that's wasted.
Okay. Some of it is this thing that we were talking about walking back from lunch. I have worked hard. I'm not as good as I used to be, because I'm falling into the same trap as everybody else of trying to understand the equipment and the observations and the data analysis tools that are being used. And I think that in some ways growing up rough in the astronomy game where I did have to learn how to use the instruments — in many cases on my own, but also with minimal help. And where I did have a chance to have hands-on experience with a lot of different things, teaches you that requirement – that requirement that you understand the properties of the instruments that you use. It's much harder to develop that stuff if you don't have hands-on experience. So a reasonably large fraction of the fact that I'm a good observer is that I'm a good observer. I've spend a lot of time in the slot. Somebody who's flown a plane 2,000 hours is going to be better than somebody who has flown a plane 20 hours.
You remarked at the beginning as a child riding the New York subways that you like to watch people. Any connections?
Maybe. Some of it is patience. I would characterize myself — not everybody would — but I would characterize myself, especially when I'm on a mountaintop observing, as somebody who has an incredible amount of patience. So it's a combination of a lot of personality traits which might not get you anywhere in the real world, but they are good for, you know, being anal, being patient. You have to be both anal and patient. Think about that. A combination.
I'm thinking of these questions more in the terms of whenever you were first, whenever you were working as a graduate student at Caltech. But I realize we're sort of hopping around here. When you first started to really get into using the telescope observing, what did you like about it? What really —?
Its beauty. Most of the work that I did early on was on small telescopes where you'd spend a reasonably large fraction of your time out in the open air, if you're seeing things. A serenity that goes with it, too. I mean, there is nothing quite like taking a three-hour-long exposure underneath a Schmidt telescope wrapped up in swaddling clothes, you know, blankets to try to stay warm on a long winter's night, listening to music in the background and you have time to think, and you're doing a task that doesn't require all of your intellect-guiding the telescope.
You had big paddles to guide the telescope and you were just —
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You get pretty good at it. Some of it was just the beauty of the place. Even now, I love to talk to people but I also love not to talk to people. And I love to be alone. My preferred style of working still is — you know, working. These collaborations where you have to get together and talk to people, but my preferred style of work when I'm trying to get something done is to lock the doors, put on the headphones, turn up the Jefferson Airplane and just work until I get it done, or whatever is required. But without a lot of interference or connectivity or whatever.
What do or didn't you like about observing? What's the downside of it?
Downside of observing? Well, when I first started working here I was probably on the mountain 160 nights a year, and if you throw in the travel at either end then it's probably closer to 200. Not 200 nights on the mountain, but 200 nights on the road. It's good, it's bad. If you love it, you love it. I loved it. It can eat your soul. It means that you don't have much of a life outside. And actually one of the things I think that I see in today's graduate students and postdocs is that most don't have quite that same kind of ethic. There's a little bit more of a view towards having a real life in addition to – you know, instead of dedicating your life 100 percent to doing this. Okay? Again, maybe it's personality traits. I see the downside now. I would have loved to have had kids 15 years earlier. I had Harry (Huchra’s son) when I was 47, 48, something like that. And it means that the probability of me seeing my grandchildren is zero, or very close to it and I'm sad about that. That's one of the downsides.
As you were doing your research at Caltech, did you see yourself as a specialist in one particular topic or as more of a generalist interest in a range of things?
I'd say for the first four years I was there I saw myself mostly as a scared little bunny rabbit.
Okay? It wasn't at all clear to me. I remember I told you about having epiphanies in some classes.
At MIT. I never had that problem as a high school student, because it was too easy, but I think the same thing happened to me as a graduate student. I had my problems with the qualifying exam, the research oral, because I didn't have a deep enough understanding of what it was that I was doing. When I started working on my thesis projects and the like, I could crank out plates on the Schmidt telescopes with the best of them. In fact I'm still as fast as most of my students. I have a few that are better than me, but I'm still as fast as most of my students in terms of being a telescope jockey and getting things done. But basically I was pretty scared that I didn't know where I was going to go and I didn't know if I was doing the right thing. I didn't know, on the microscopic scale, if my thesis was going to turn into a really interesting research project or not or if I'd ever be able to finish it. A lot of self-doubt. And there were again things that happened, some of which are kind of funny. One thing that was good was that I got a lot of support from my fellow students. And that goes back to what I was talking about before. We did things as a group. So you could discuss both new ideas but also problems with your fellow students, so there were a couple people to whom I owe in a thesis sense a fair amount of, a big debt, in terms of giving me crucial ideas or thoughts at just the right time.
Are there particular people?
Paul Schechter was a student with me. He was in the physics department, and we talked a lot about luminosity functions. And I think he's given me over the years — our discussions have produced a lot of interesting ideas that I was able to follow through on. Jay Elias taught me a lot about programming. Steve Willner, who is now here, ditto at the time, taught me a bit. I worked with him on my AP star stuff. So a lot of the people I was interacting with I was learning with, even though the interactions might not have been formal. Steve was my bridge partner. We had a professional bridge team. We'd go off and play in tournaments. It probably contributed to an extra year in graduate school.
Do you still play?
No. Yes and no. I mean, I'm not anywhere near at the same level. I play bridge once a year and now lose.
As you were doing your observing and doing your dissertation research, how were you supported?
Different things. Early on I had a fellowship, and I can't remember which of the two. There were NATO traineeships and NSF traineeships. I had a traineeship. I think it was an NSF traineeship. I'm not sure. It doesn't appear on the CV there because I'm not sure. That was for the first couple of years. I had this job doing plumbing, Pressure Scanned Fabry Perot, and then I started doing the Palomar supernovae search and by definition got an RA for that. Later on in the game —The last year, last year and a half I was there, I also did some consulting work for the geology department.
This is the “being there” part of it. I ended up doing a lot of different weird things. Not necessarily because I thought I should be doing a lot of different weird things, but because I just ended up doing a lot of different weird things. So for example, you'll never find my name in the books, but I had a small part to play in the original work of Shoemaker and Helene on earth-crossing asteroids. And this goes back to Charlie Kowal. Charlie, who was Wal's and Leonard Searle's data aide, observing assistant or whatever, who was doing the supernovae search, did the supernovae search but on the side he had a couple things that he played around with. One was looking for moons of Jupiter. If you go back in fact you can find that he found a few new moons of Jupiter and these occulting disks and whatever on the 48" Schmidt — which I helped him with. It was kind of fun, getting to go up there and try to get these things installed and play around with. The other was that when you do the supernovae search you find things, and it's the act of looking. And he'd find asteroids with relatively reckless abandon, and every once in a while you'd find one that was interesting or unusual. And it even got to the point where Charlie was trying to find, to recover — the word is recover — some of the ones that had been lost for a bunch of years. So there were some probable earth-crossing and Mars orbit-crossing asteroids that had been discovered in the twenties and thirties by people and the orbits were never computed accurately enough and they got lost. So he got into the job of trying to recover some of these. And I, very much by accident, found two. I recovered an asteroid that's called Ganymed, Ganymede without an "e". It had been lost since 1937, give or take change. It is a Mars orbit — or an earth orbit-crossing asteroid, so it is one of the rocks that can take us out if it happens to be there at the wrong time. And I got sort of interested in following this up. You know, I found it, it looked like a comet, it turned not to really be just a– I found a comet too, but I recovered Ganymed and I found a comet and got into all this stuff, so I became known as one of those people who could not only teach you how to use a Schmidt telescope but might help you find asteroids. So I got hired by the rock pounders to help them measure the coordinates of the rocks they found, and used the Schmidt telescopes to do that. And it was kind of fun. I got to name one of the Mars orbit-crossers that I discovered a new one.
What was this one?
Asmodeus [pronounced "ash-moe'-dee-us"]. There's a convention. Earth and Mars orbit-crossers must be named after mythological figures, preferably gods or goddesses of some kind. So Icarus and various things like that — whereas belters you can name after your dog, and in fact many are. Belters, there are so many them they get named after your daughter or your son or your aunt or your uncle, whatever.
And Asmodeus is —?
Asmodeus, among other things, is a Babylonian god of lust. But he shows up in a lot of different places. But he's another name for Satan in the Hebrew mythology, Asmodeus [ash-moe-day'-us]. But the original name comes from the Babylonian god of lust, so I thought it was kind of neat to name an asteroid after the Babylonian god of lust. I had to work on that one, but it's in the catalogs.
Alan Lightman did an interview, or maybe one of his students, for a book whose name escapes me, but it was interviews with various cosmologists. In the interview you mentioned that you had taken some economics courses while at Caltech.
And this fed into what you were doing?
It did a lot of different things. It wasn't economics for economics sake. I took a couple of courses when I was a graduate student that were off on the side. The economics course was a course in linear and quadratic programming. And you understand that my thesis work was trying to come up with population synthesis. The theoretical part of my thesis is population synthesis models of the emission line and photometric properties of galaxies. They show you examples of color versus age and all this other kind of stuff. And I took that course to try to learn about the mathematical techniques that would be useful for doing stellar population synthesis.
Not to become an economist.
Was that fairly common?
I was weird.
You were weird. Okay.
I took a biochemistry course. I went over and sat in on a course in biochemistry with Max Delbruck — which was absolutely wonderful. I had a great time. Max tried to convince me to bag astronomy and go off and become a biochemist. We had a great time talking. Because I was by definition the weirdest of his students, coming across from astronomy. An astronomer in a biochemistry class.
What did you hope to get from —?
I was just interested in it. And I had a little time to kill, and thought I would do it. Might learn something. Bad habit, curiosity. So I did that. The economics course was a hoot, because of course I actually was a much better mathematician that anybody else in the economics course, so I became the professor's darling, and he kept holding me up and saying, "Here is this astronomer doing much better than you guys. Come on." It was great. But that's how you learn things. I love learning things. I'm not as good as I used to be, but I still love learning things.
You graduated in '76, July.
I finished my Ph.D. work in July of 1976. The official degree date is June '77, but that's because Caltech awards degrees once a year. When I came here I showed up in Cambridge — interesting story. I drove back across the country in my 1968 cream-colored Buick LeSabre, 4,000 lbs. worth of car plus actually probably 6,000 lbs. worth of car plus stereo system, plus books, plus records. I showed up here on August 20th and immediately left for France and Switzerland and England for the IAU that summer.
Vacation and IAU?
A little bit of vacation. Basically I went through three Cambridges in the space of three or four days: Cambridge, Ohio; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Cambridge, England. I had arranged to meet up with Scott Tremaine, who was a postdoc at Cal — Well, Scott and I and Doug Ridgestone (?) had done a lot of hiking together in Pasadena. And I had arranged to meet up with Scott and we went climbing in Switzerland and southern France for a couple of weeks before the IAU meeting in Paris.
How was the climbing?
The climbing was great. Ice climbing up the Mer de Glas. It was quite a hoot. We went up the Matterhorn in a blizzard. This was a long time ago. And I was younger then, in better shape. My parents are still — They probably don't remember, but they got pretty mad at me. They gave me orders to come back with a bunch of Hummel figurines. They didn't give me any money; they gave me orders. And I came with a hundred — and the only thing I brought back from Europe was 150 feet of new climbing rope. So I show up at JFK with Moshe Dian, flying back from Paris. He's in first class and I'm in coach, but this was a TWA flight back in 1976. I get off the plane in JFK, and my parents are waiting for me, which was a big chore for them because they didn't want to drive as far as JFK. But there my parents are waiting for me, to go to my sister's wedding rehearsal and to pick me up. And we of course get kept on the plane for an hour and a half while the Israelis all clear security, or clear out security as the case may be, you know, get the VIPs off. So my parents were pretty pissed at Moshe Dian for holding me up from going to my sister's wedding rehearsal. And I still remember that. That's bad. Anyway, we had a lot — it was fun. We had a good time.
You came back here in '76 as a fellow.
CFA [Center for Astrophysics) Fellow. Yeah.
Okay. Why here and — two questions. How was that arranged and why?
Good question. I got a job in 1975. I started applying for jobs basically in the spring of '75, the winter of 1974-1975, and I was offered a job based in part on Wal's recommendation, but also based in part on Allan Sandage's recommendation, who was a good friend of mine at the time — I mean as much as he could be with a student — at Mt. Stromlo.
Who was the third? And I was going to go in the fall of 1975 to Mt. Stromlo and work with Alex Rodgers on galaxy population synthesis and redshifts and stuff like that. And I was just about ready to really polish up the thesis and turn it in and do that kind of stuff. I had spent the whole summer before — and this was the summer of 1975 — holed up in the cottage at Palomar writing my thesis. Which was an epiphany. I mean, I pulled all the things together for the first time. And basically I locked myself in this cottage for two weeks with all the graphs and all of the computer output and all the data and all this other kind of stuff, spread it out on the floor and sat there just trying to make sense of it — and I did. And it was good. So I had gotten the stuff pretty much straight, started writing it up, getting ready to turn in the thesis, probably in a month's time from the beginning of September, you know, pack everything up and move to Australia, when I get a telegram from [Olin] Eggen saying, "Don't come. There has been a vote of no confidence for the Prime Minister. They have to reorganize the government and all government jobs in Australia are frozen until they elect a new Prime Minister, which is going to take a year," or six months or whatever. So I swallowed my thesis. I didn't turn it. Because if you turn it in you've got to leave. So I didn't turn in my thesis. I sort kept polishing it and getting things better, started working on a bunch of other little things and other little projects that were of interest — many of which turned into papers pretty quickly, which was good. I had a year to think about things and to make things better, to really mature. And I applied again in the second round of cycles. The first round the only job offer I got was Stromlo. The second round I only applied to two or three places. I applied here as a longshot and I applied to Kitt Peak, and I thought I had the in at Kitt Peak. I was sure I was going to get the job at Kitt Peak. Everybody had said I was sure to get the job at Kitt Peak. I went to Kitt Peak for an interview; they desperately wanted to hire me. Well that year Kitt Peak decided they were going to hire two theorists.
And CFA, which had this long record of theorists that year, hired two observers.
Leo Goldberg was director at Kitt Peak at that time.
Goldberg was director at Kitt Peak.
And was just probably getting ready to step —
No. Goldberg was director at Kitt Peak. The story is there, but not for this tape. JH — would you elaborate on this? We can seal it.
So the Kitt Peak thing didn't work out.
So no, I didn't the job at Kitt Peak and I was really surprised, and I got the job offer at CFA and I was really surprised, and I said, "Oh hell, I love Boston. I'll come back." I always thought, when I was finishing graduate school I had in my mind, at that point I had in mind the picture of a career, and the picture of a career I had was going to work at an observatory where I'd live 15 minutes from my telescope and sit there and work and come home and work and maybe meet a nice girl and settle down and have kids.
Was there anybody doing that who — I don't want to say was an idol, but sort of a role model, who had that sort of —?
Well, most of the astronomers in Pasadena. I mean, there was Mt. Wilson 38 miles away. I mean, not even as the crow flies much less. So I could get up to Mt. Wilson in 40 minutes. Did my thesis there essentially. A lot of work at Palomar. Palomar was 2 hours away. I hadn't thought about staying at Caltech. I didn't think I was good enough. But I did think about going to places like Kitt Peak where if you go to Kitt Peak, you live in Tucson, you're 35 miles from your telescope or 45.
It's less than an hour to Kitt Peak from Tucson, especially if you manage to find your way into living someplace in South Tucson it's even faster, or in the west. So living near my telescope. Going to work at Lowell Observatory where you live within five minutes’ walk of your telescope, never mind drive. Or Lick. At that time, in those days the staff at Lick was at Lick. They actually lived up on the mountain. And it wasn't until five or six years later that everybody moved down into Santa Cruz proper. So that was the view I had. And to come to Cambridge in some ways was to really split away from that. For two reasons: one of which was that Harvard didn't have a telescope, not really. I mean it had the 16" which wasn't in particularly good shape, and they were involved in other things maybe, but pretty far down the line. Time scale for a postdoc in those days was two years. So a CFA Fellowship was for two years. So you basically had a year to work and then a year to find your next job. I thought I'd give it a try. Didn't have any other options, because I really only had applied to two places. And I mean I did have some other options. I had some irons in the fire at JPL if I was really desperate and could do things like that, because I had worked for the planetary science guys. But it was a bit of a shock to come back in that sense, because it was not what I had expected to do. My mind's eye of living near my telescope and going to work every night was not about to happen.
Were you still able to keep doing as much observing? How much observing were you doing?
There was a slow period. A couple of things. One is that — well, a lot of history. I will preface this by saying that I will give you my version of the events, and you may see different pictures in different directions. But essentially in this year or this extra nine months I had in Pasadena. I probably would have finished the end of October. Instead I finished the beginning of July the next year. In this extra nine months in Pasadena we started working on a bunch of things. There were some ideas that had been floating around. One was Ed Turner and J. Richard Gott were there. And I've written about this, and I'll give you a copy of what I wrote if you need clarification on the bits and pieces. This is Ed, not Mike. And they had been working. Ed had started doing, not as his thesis but as sort of a side project an analysis of the clustering properties of the galaxies in the Zwicky catalog. Old Fritz. The blue volumes.
Yes. That's the one that has the —
Yeah. No, it's not the one that has the — the red one.
What's the one that has the — No. With the essay at the beginning about the high priests of astronomy.
The red one. That's the red volume. The red volume is — I have a copy. In astronomical parlance it's worth $3 million. And I'll show it to you.
Okay. [tape turned off, then back on] You were saying you dated Fritz Zwicky's daughter.
Yeah, right, right. Eldest daughter. He had three daughters. A different story. Anyway, so Turner and Gott were working on studying the clustering properties of these puppies, and they didn't have redshifts for very many, because there were very few redshifts that existed. So a plan was made, and I don't know who the absolute ringleader was if there was an absolute ringleader, but I'd started doing some work with another postdoc who was there whose name was Trin Thuan who is at the University of Virginia now. Well, he splits his time between Virginia and Paris. And Wal Sargent and Jill Knapp, I think were the ringleaders, came up with the idea of really trying to put together a program to measure the redshifts for the galaxies and the Turner and Gott sample on the Zwicky catalog. This is before the CFA Survey. And by definition Wal and Jill — Jill was going to go do the 21 cm observing at Greenbank for the spiral galaxies, but they needed some grunts who were good for doing the other stuff — the photometry and the spectroscopy of the early type galaxies at Palomar and other places. So I signed up as the grunt. I was interested in luminosity functions and I thought it would be a neat thing to do because I'd been interacting a lot with Ed on various things that were associated with this particular project. In effect my first really independent non-thesis paper after that period was on the magnitude system of the Turner-Gott sample. 1976 AJ or maybe '77 AJ, the Zwicky Magnitude Scale.
That was doing the photometry of that sample, starting on it. I guess I was sort of a natural and I got enlisted. And I don't remember the details of the chain of events. I think it was Thuan, who came to talk to me, but I got into the project and the four of us started out trying to do a redshift survey based on the Zwicky catalog of the Turner-Gott sample, which was Zwicky the 14th magnitude, 14.0. But a thousand galaxies. Which actually represented a pretty daunting task in those days, because in those days — and that was when Paul Schechter just finished his thesis — the largest complete sample of redshifts was 235 objects. And that's all she wrote.
Okay, so this is five times more than what's out there.
Right, right. Exactly. It would have been 1150 objects or whatever, so five times what was out there. So we started that in 1975. And then I came here, and I still was observing in fact. We had got a bunch of Palomar time, we had got a bunch of Greenbank time, we got a bunch of time at Kitt Peak on the small telescope, on that number one, the number two 36" for the photometry and the redshifts. So I was still doing that observing. I'd fly out to Palomar and fly to Tucson and go to Kitt Peak and try to do some stuff at Mt. Hopkins, but the spectrograph and facilities at Mt. Hopkins stunk.
They just had the 16" there?
They had the 16" and no instruments.
Okay. And the MMT was being built.
MMT. Yeah. The MMT was five years later before it became a real useful telescope. There was nothing to do, so I was doing that. At the same time, I had another idea — which is in fact probably the idea that got me tenure. I was in Pasadena in the spring of 1976 when Brent Tully came through to give a talk about the Tully-Fisher method and new distance indicators and new ways of measuring distances to the galaxies and Virgo and stuff like that. Brent gave this talk and Sandage was in the audience. Brent of course got a value for the Hubble constant different than Sandage's value for the Hubble constant, so Sandage gets up and starts throwing rocks at him and barbs and slings and arrows of outraged fortune. The whole nine yards. A shouting and yelling match. The debate that these guys were having was centered on a piece of the problem, not the whole problem. I mean nobody argued about the velocities or the other observational parameters. What these guys ended up duking it out over was reddening and the effects of reddening on magnitudes for inclined spiral galaxies. And I had been doing a huge amount of photometry of galaxies.
I'm sorry. Inclined spiral galaxies?
Well the point is that you use the — the Tully-Fisher technique is you look at spiral galaxies as they spin and correlate the spin rate with the luminosity, which presumably is correlated with — sorry. You correlate it with the mass which is presumably correlated with the luminosity. And the actual correlation is spin rate with luminosity or spin rate with diameter size. Okay? It doesn't work for face-on galaxies, because they're spinning this way [indicates] and you can't measure the spin.
So it only works for edge-on galaxies. Because if you look on edge-on galaxies, the more or less dust that the galaxy has, the brighter or fainter it will appear in optical light. Tully and Fisher and Sandage and Tumon JH (?) — and De Vaucouleurs — who entered the game later on –- each had incredibly complicated and different techniques for correcting for the extinction inside these galaxies.
I had the idea of — and this was while I was still in Pasadena but before I had come here — I had the idea of trying to measure the infrared to optical colors of the spiral galaxies and taking out the extinction by using the reddening law to do that. And in fact my research proposal to come here was to build a photometer to do that, to measure the optical and the infrared properties of the spiral galaxies. Never did. I mean I never built a photometer, but did the science anyway after I got here. And when I got here I was lucky enough to come across a graduate student here, Marc Aaronson, who had in fact for his thesis project with Eric Persson and Jay Frogel, working underneath Giovanni Fazio, had in fact built a photometer to make large aperture infrared measurements of galaxies. So I hooked up with Marc and we decided we'd start this project by trying to get infrared photometry for spiral galaxies. The telescopes here weren't good enough to really play the game, so we walked to Jeremy Mould, who at that time was at Kitt Peak as a postdoc and Jeremy found that there was some spare time, spare bright time on the 36" telescope. But he also said, "You know, that's a good idea, but instead of correcting the optical magnitudes by making the infrared measurements, why don't we just do it all in the infrared?" Reminiscent of The Beatles, "Why don't we do it in the road?" We said, "That's a great idea." I had the initial idea, Marc had the photometer, Jeremy had the telescope time and Paul had the idea, and we trundled along off to Kitt Peak and we did that and found in fact a better correlation. And that was the advent of the infrared Tully-Fisher relation. And it dates —
You had worked as a team [inaudible phrase] like this?
More complicated. Mostly Marc and I did the observing.
Okay. And Jeremy provided the time and intellectual insight, and in the end we all wrote the papers together. We'd sit down in an office in Tucson and put things together. That's how it worked.
Was that your first encounter with collaborative paper writing or research project?
No, no, because there was this other collaborative effort on redshift surveys which came first. The redshift survey stuff started in '75 in Pasadena. This other stuff really started in 1977 here and in Tucson.
Okay. So these things were running somewhat simultaneously.
That's right, that's right. And in fact there were periods of time in the late 1970s where I'd go observing for six weeks straight. I'd spend two weeks of dark time at Mt. Hopkins measuring redshifts, two weeks of bright time at Kitt Peak doing photometry, and then two more weeks of dark time at Mt. Hopkins measuring redshifts. And that was actually a great way for a postdoc to survive. Because while I was on the mountain I could spend no money and my food was covered. Same thing. Postdoc's salary was $11,500 a year in 1976.
Yeah, so saving the food and the housing costs and all that.
Well, the housing I had to pay for. You've got to have an apartment somewhere, but you don't get to buy books or whatever. You don't spend money and your food is covered. It makes a big difference. Anyway, those were the things that really started about the time when I came here, and although I must admit I spent two or three months worried about what I would do next, I got so enmeshed in working on this stuff that I never worried about it ever again — just kept doing things.
Because in '78 you were promoted or became an astronomer as Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory [SAO].
It's a long story there.
By definition I didn't know in '78 — Most of these things hadn't come to fruition by definition. The Tully-Fisher papers didn't come out until '79 and even though we had finished most of the work by then. And the first of the CFA papers didn't really hit the streets until 1980 or so, although Marc and Margaret and I had written a paper before that on the clustering properties of galaxies and a brighter sample of galaxies. The bottom line was that I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do when my postdoc finished. I actually applied for a bunch of jobs in industry, jobs in other places. I interviewed — there was an assistant professorship here. There was this Smithsonian position here. I interviewed at Penn State, at Northwestern — I don't remember more than that. I was offered a job by a company in Virginia that mostly involved finding and sinking Russian submarines, which I thought was kind of neat at triple the salary I got here. And as you might well imagine. A bunch of things like that. And here I was actually offered both the assistant professorship and the Smithsonian position. The assistant professorship was a standard Harvard junior faculty position and the Smithsonian position was a four-year term appointment. But the difference between the two was that with the Harvard professorship I'd have to teach and I'd be required to raise grants to get my summer salary and Harvard had no official access to any facilities whatsoever. Everything was owned by the Smithsonian. And on the Smithsonian side I had only to do research. I didn't have to worry about finding my summer salary, and the Smithsonian owned the telescopes.
The SAO director would have been George Field.
George Field. Right, right. The other thing was that I was told by the search committees which had considerable overlap who the next people were on the list. And they were different. So if I took the Harvard job I knew who would get the Smithsonian job, and if I took the Smithsonian job I knew who would get the Harvard job.
Who was that other person?
Well, the person who got the Harvard job was Paul Schechter. And he only stayed for about a year and a half and then went off to Kitt Peak actually. And the person on the Smithsonian side would have been Ted Williams. This is a deep dark secret. He may or may not know this, and he certainly would be really pissed at me if he ever found out what I just said. And both Ted and Paul were friends of mine. Ted was my office mate; Paul was somebody that I'd actually done some work with.
Interesting position to find yourself in.
Oh, of course. This is why it’s very difficult. And I was probably more swayed by the not to have to hunt for grants and only do research and not teach than anything else, but that other piece of information certainly was there in the back of my mind when I made the decision. That of course ended up in its own cute way, independent of all the science and the other things that would happen. There is a long story there that is sort of worth knowing about, especially if you have some interest in how this place, how CFA works.
But I took a term position, which technically means that I was a federal civil service employee with a job for four years, and at the end of four years it's out. It's not up, it's out. Because technically you're not supposed to be allowed to continue term appointments. That's changed a bit here at least, where there is some wiggle room to re-post jobs and do various things like that. Now the term appointments are considered to be the equivalent of tenure track, but in those days it wasn't, so it was a bit of risk. And the thing that was rather curious is that I had been doing a lot of work on infrared photometry of galaxies for all this Tully-Fisher stuff. I actually ended up with a graduate student back in the late seventies who was working on far infrared photometry of active galactic nuclei, quasars and Seyferts. I have an interest in that, have dabbled in that game a bit. And at the same time there was a person here by the name of Doug Kleinman who the then associate director, Herb Gursky, was really trying to force out. I don't know the reasons why. As they would say in the government, "It was above my pay grade."
Susan Kleinman's husband?
Susan Kleinman's husband. So suffice it to say that a move was afoot to get Doug to go somewhere else. Doug left in 1979 to go work in industry, work for Honeywell. I think he's still working for Honeywell. I see them from time to time. And a job opened up, so they suddenly had a slot — a real position, a career position — and I applied for it. Because I at that point in time had written, whatever, ten papers on infrared observations and was supervising a thesis student and all this other stuff that was going on, so I figured I had a reasonable background in this game. I wasn't an infrared astronomer. I may be creeping over the line. Nowadays I actually am an infrared astronomer, but in those days I wasn't, you know, I hadn't been bloodied the right way or whatever, hadn't paid my dues to the right organization.
At that time, for the people who will be listening to this, my understanding is that — I mean, now there is a fair amount of overlap of astronomers working in different wavelength bands, but at that time the optical and the infrared were — were they fairly distinct?
It’s backgrounds. At that time every infrared astronomer who had a name as an infrared astronomer wasn't an astronomer. They came over from solid-state physics, they developed some techniques, they needed something to work on, and they fell into doing astronomy because they happened to be there.
Someone like Frank Low.
Frank Low, George Rieke, Giovanni, and all sorts of people like that. Their backgrounds were different. And I wasn't a card-carrying solid-state physicist. I was an astronomer who happened to be working in the infrared.
This is different than an infrared astronomer. So they weren't interested in somebody like me, but I applied for the job and on paper — I mean, the best as I can describe this – I don't know if you'll ever find anything else about it, but I always find it interesting thinking about it, looking back. The best way I can describe this is that on paper I look like the best damn infrared astronomer they were going to ever be able to hire. But I wasn't an infrared astronomer by the field's definition. Herb and Giovanni came to me and said, "We'd like you to withdraw your application." They didn't say, "because we want to hire a real infrared astronomer." They said, "We'd like you to withdraw your application." And I said, "Why?" and they said, "Well, you're not an infrared astronomer." And I said, "Well, I'd still like the job." And they said, "But you're not an infrared astronomer. Please withdraw." And I said, "No." And this went round and round and round, and eventually they decided to create another position, because I wasn't an infrared astronomer by the purest definition of the word. Much too much interested in those short wavelengths. So another job was created, and I got a job in 1980 which was essentially formed out of money for the MMT, written down as an astronomer on the Smithsonian, which is when I "went career" as they would say in the government, and my job was really to help commission the MMT.
Who did they end up hiring for the infrared?
Steve Wilner. Who you probably will never hear of. Right. But they did get to keep me, so it wasn't so bad.
Let me just pause for a second. [tape turned off, then back on] So in 1980 the MMT is dedicated, I think it's May 1980.
Probably '79, May of '79, but yeah.
Okay. Jacques Beckers was the first director?
He's the first official director, yeah. There were people before in assorted sloppy positions. Right, right, right.
So tell me about the MMT.
Okay. MMT was a construction project, and since that was the first time I'd ever really been involved with a telescope that was coming up from ground zero I didn't quite know what to expect. I was by the way at the time still very heavily involved in all the observing projects on the other side of the street. I was spending a lot of time at Mt. Hopkins for the redshift survey.
And this is the first redshift survey, so this is Marc Davis, John Tomry, Dave Latham and me and a cast of thousands. No. About another five or six people who had important background roles to play. That was still going on, and a fair amount of effort was being spent to doing that kind of stuff. At the same time we were trying to get the MMT up and running, and a lot of things had to be worked out. There are a lot of differences. Differences and similarities. And to some extent I think that one thing that helped me in what little I had to do — I was not a big player in commissioning the MMT, but I helped a little bit — but one of the things that helped me in that position was that, as I was mentioning before, by that point in time — Well, Aaronson and I used to have a game that we played, and the game we played was to see which one of us could observe on the largest number of telescopes in anger. Which is to actually work with the telescope, take data and publish a paper based on that data. It doesn't count to go to the telescope and look through the eyepiece. You've got to take data and publish it and then you can say that you worked with the telescope.
The anger phrase.
That was the anger phrase, you know, "take data in anger." For a real purpose — not just to play around. We were playing this game, and for better or worse — I don't know how seriously we played it, but for better or worse by 1980 I had probably worked at, between Cerro Tololo and Kitt Peak and Palomar and Steward Observatory and Mt. Hopkins and all the other places — Greenbank, Arecibo. I probably had my foot dunked in the water at ten different observatories with fifteen different styles and different ways of approaching how one deals with telescopes and different instruments and various things like that. It was just experience. Plain out being there. And it's hard to get away from the fact that if you are at all awake and watch what's going on around you, you can learn an awful lot about how things work, how things operate by just seeing different things, different styles. There are telescopes I have not used in anger, but at this point in time I probably have taken data at every major observatory in the world, including ESO. I have not been to the VLT yet, but we're getting there. Anyway, that I think was an important thing to bring to Mt. Hopkins and to the MMT. For one it enabled me to diagnose the fact that we had some real problems with the spectrograph on the 60". So just from the point of view of the redshift survey, literally they had bought a spectrograph to use and it had been put together wrong. It suffered a lot of the same problems that the original 60" spectrograph at Palomar suffered. The optics were in incorrectly. The collimator mirror was in the wrong place, there was too much vignetting by the focal plane viewing system, and all this other kind of stuff. So, you know, we literally went in there, Dave fixed the detector system, Daryle Woolmarth and I literally went in there with hacksaws and rearranged all of the optics so that they were in the right place and fit and upped the efficiency of the spectrograph by a factor of 20 by really getting it right.
This same kind of thing was going on at the MMT. A tremendous amount of uncertainty about how to actually do things. A lot of preconceived ideas which weren't right. Classic example, the original system that was developed by Woolf and [Roger] Angel and a bunch of other, Nat Carleton and a bunch of other people, was to use lasers to keep the mirrors aligned. It never worked. Part of the problem was that to keep the mirrors aligned continuously you had to use really strong lasers. And frankly, if you use really strong lasers inside a telescope you are not going to be able to see very faint. Unless you manage to, you know, so you can isolate that wavelength feature from everything else you are doing. The other problem was they had to use lasers that were so strong, we think, that they were producing so much heat that they literally messed up their own optical paths. The turbulence, the atmospheric turbulence right above the mirror in the telescope was affected by the lasers.
How about the stories that the lasers attracted bugs?
[make the sound of a "raspberry," meaning he thinks that is poppycock] I mean, you know, there were all sorts of things that were happening. Lots of bugs, but that wasn't a real killer. The laser system just never could work. And eventually one of the guys, young computer programmers that we'd hired in fact originally to work a little bit on the redshift survey stuff, Bill Wyatt, who is still down the hall here, was given the job. You know, had thought about this a little bit, and he had – he was an undergraduate astronomer here and then took up computer programming, so now he's a computer scientist in this division. He thought a bit about the problem about doing image analysis. The first of the frame grabbers were around for taking video camera data and digitizing it into a PC, all that kind of stuff. He wrote a program that would essentially take the images from the six mirrors on the MMT, separate them out, digitize their positions, move them enough so you could measure the derivatives, the connection between servo steps and motion in the focal plane, measure them again, re-center, redo the centroiding, and then use that information to fit a polynominal to move all the mirrors on top of each other, just by doing the analysis in the image plane.
No lasers. And it worked.
So that was more of a software solution as opposed to an optics solution.
Mm-hm [affirmative]. Threw out the hardware. You know, half a million bucks worth of laser stuff out the window, but it worked, and that's what we used on the MMT from that day forward.
Did it work at that point then?
It took about two weeks to get it to work — as opposed to the year and a half that went into the laser system. And I should tell you, when we first started using the MMT there wasn't much on it. I can remember we would literally take the spectrograph from the 60", take it off the telescope, put it in the back of one of these tan Ford ancient Air Force surplus pickup trucks, covered it with as much plastic as we could find, slowly drive it up the dirt road — because it wasn't paved in those days — up to the MMT from the ridge, and strapped the puppy on the back end of the MMT. And since there was at that point in time no good slip viewing system for the MMT, I would hang onto the side of the telescope, looking into the eyepiece of the spectrograph, and call out to the telescope operator over the intercom, "Move mirror E 3 seconds west!" [makes noise like a buzzer], to align the images. We did that for six months. And that was the way we got the initial set of observations.
And you would be doing this all night long or just each time you pointed at a new object?
Depends on how fast you were moving. But there was no viewer, so every time you pointed to a new object you wanted a guide. But I was used to that. That's how we did all the observing before that. It wasn't really until around 1980 that you started seeing this break between people doing observing by having Vidicons and sitting in warm rooms — even on big telescopes. Before that you were out there.
I used to observe at Kitt Peak, we'd be up in the prime focus cage taking plates all night long.
Still by around 1980 it still was fairly common?
Even later. Even later.
Okay. I want to come back to that in a second, but just a couple other questions on the MMT. In its original flavor with the six mirrors, how successful was it ultimately?
Pretty successful. We got a lot of good stuff out of that telescope. It was cheap, it was what it was. It didn't have a big field of view, but you can look at discoveries that were made with the telescope. The first gravitational lenses. Chaffee and Carswell. Foltz wasn't around then. Chaffee, Carswell, Weyman and Rauch. Work on the cosmic string, work on various other things. I discovered rotation in the M31 globular cluster system. Doesn't sound like much, but actually I think it's an important result. All sorts of stuff like that were done at the MMT. Host of papers on quasar absorption lines.
Okay. What percentage of it was working a scientific instrument versus technological test bed.
Oh, the technological test bed idea got thrown away pretty quick, especially when Beckers left. The bottom line was that people played with the MMT, but at the point when it's really started being used for astronomical observations, which I would have said was '82 or '83, the idea of using it as a technological test bed went away. And you can, if you want the absolute record, there was a development contract that we had running for a long stretch of time from the National Science Foundation to essentially develop this concept of a multiple mirror telescope. And you can look at the work that was done on that. And after a while there basically wasn't much, but it worked. We knew how to make at least a six-mirror system work. It had its problems. The mirror was terrible. The optics on the telescope were terrible. But if you want to do the spectroscopy it worked.
Terrible in what sense?
Surface accuracy of the mirrors was very poor, so even under the — if you were to fly one of the original MMT mirrors, even though it’s the same diameter as the Hubble Space Telescope within tolerances, 1.8-meter as opposed to 2.4-meter, you would have still gotten arc-second images. Because the surface accuracy was so poor. Now there is a history to that. The MMT mirrors were surplus thrown out by the Air Force.
These are the mirrors that Aden Meinel rescued from the Air Force?
Right, right. Aden Meinel. And they were thin mirrors, and they needed to be re-figured for the MMT, and you couldn't take much glass off of them without breaking the puppies. So they could only do a little bit, and they couldn't sit there and polish and polish and polish until they got it right. They could sit there and polish and polish and polish and then they had to stop because they run out of glass to take off. So they didn't work real hard on making the thing optically very good. We fixed one mirror, so one out of the seven mirrors was fixed. It was a spare.
And that was mirror E, the famous mirror E, forgotten for posterity, which could produce .2, .3 arc second images if the conditions got that good. And the rest of them couldn't do anything better than about .6 or .7 arc seconds. So it wasn't a telescope for taking pictures.
Okay. One of the original — looking at the original proposal for it describes it more as an infrared light bucket. At least those were some of the ideas that were suggested that could be done with it. Was it ever used that way?
Umm, yes and no. There was an infrared photometer. There was a bolometer system and an infrared photometer that were put on the telescope. The infrared photometer, by the time it had been on the telescope for a couple years there were five people between the two observatories that could use it. It required a plug-in Reike module, as we used to say. If George or Marcia weren't there most people couldn't get it to work.
So you needed a person familiar with the instrument to make it work.
No, you needed a plug-in Reike module. Not a person familiar with the instrument.
Okay. You needed one of them.
A person ridiculously familiar with the instrument — I could make it work, but I'm one of the best in the world when it comes to making weird things work, and I was probably the only person from CFA who could really make it work. There were a few other people who tried to use it and had a lot of grief. You could get data on it, but it helped to have Reike there. If you used the instrument right after Marcia used the instrument, you stood a chance. If you came in cold, you're dead. And the bolometer system was even worse. So they got some stuff out of it. You could probably look at the papers that they produced. It was still single object, single aperture. It was not an array. So again, you are not taking pictures with it, a single aperture system. And the minute that the arrays started coming along in 1990, give or take a little, anything that you could do with a single detector was pretty much wiped out.
And you are speaking of array —
Infrared array detectors. Okay. In terms of the MMT, why was it not followed up then with other telescopes using the similar design but with large mirrors?
It was. Keck.
The difference between the MMT and the Keck segments are a little bit smaller. Not much. And there are just a lot more of them.
Okay. I guess I'm thinking of 6-or 7-meter mirrors on a common mount.
Well, okay, down and dirty. Roger the Dodger has got a proposal to build something he calls 20/20.
Angel. Every astronomer has a nickname. You may or may not ever find out about them all. Roger Angel has got this plan for 20/20. What he wants to do is make two 20-meter diameter telescopes, each one of which consists of six or seven, or seven or eight — I forget the number — 8.2-meter single mirrors that are put together like the petals of the original MMT. Okay. Now the Mirror Lab has produced 6-meter class or larger, 6 meters or larger — I don't want to count the Air Force mirrors — since it started working on these. And remember the MMT mirror was cast in —
April '92. Oh shit, so it's worse than I thought. Alright. It's produced two Magellan mirrors, one MMT mirror, and two LBT mirrors. So add those up.
Five — in eleven years. So there is no enthusiasm outside of the University of Arizona, and who knows maybe even in the University of Arizona, for building 20/20 with multiple 8-meter telescopes cast in the mirror Lab.
But going back to what you said at lunch, if they don't run it in a corporate-style manner it ain't ever going to produce things fast enough to make it worthwhile. They have to spin off the mirror lab, make it a profit-making corporation, and charge realistic rates, in which case probably nobody would want to do it because it would be too expensive. Classic problem. Jerry Nelson and company are looking for the cheap way to get to 20-or 30-meter class telescopes by extending the Keck concept, but in order to make it cheap they have got to make the cost of fabricating the segments dirt cheap. That's the real game. There are three pieces of it. The three big pieces of it are the enclosure, which you more or less know how to do because you build superdomes. There is the mount and mirror support system, which you don't quite know how to do but you think you can do, and then there is the optical surface itself, the primary mirror, which you know how to do in an expensive manner but not yet cheap. Or to put it in another way, in a 30-meter class telescope if you scale up the cost of making a Keck telescope you've got to put a couple hundred million dollars’ worth of glass into it. You can't afford to do that.
So still when it comes to making big telescopes the mirror is after all the different technologies that have been developed, still the bottleneck.
It's a piece of it. There are two things. I mean, here we are straying away from oral history, but I'll tell you this anyway. Point of view. There are two or three things that are, at the moment, big issues with regard to the feasibility and the desirability of going forward with the next generation, the yet next generation of big telescopes, i.e., the 20-to 30-meter class or bigger telescopes. The big unsolved issue is this thing called MCAO, multi-conjugate adaptive optics.
Okay. If MCAO cannot be shown to work, if there's a fundamental "gotcha" somewhere in the idea, then it's probably — then in my mind the case for building a 30-meter telescope really begins to go away rapidly.
So if you can't get the atmosphere correction for a 30-meter telescope it's not worth doing.
Right, right, right. On the ground. This is the atmospheric correction. We won't talk about space. Leave that one out of the list. The other issue is the cost issue, which is that you need to break two barriers, one of which is the cost of actually constructing the mirror. It's going to be hard to do anything about the mount, because steel is steel and we know that the cost of steel hasn't changed. Unlike Moore's curve for computer chips, the cost of steel hasn't changed a lot in the last fifty years. You know what that's going to cost you. It's the mirror surface and the cost of fabricating the optics that needs to be brought down by a factor of two or three or five or ten to make it affordable or reasonable. And it's this MCAO business. Those are the two big questions that are outstanding.
If you solve MCAO, you might be willing to spend the money to build a mirror as we know it today. It would be a billion dollar telescope instead of a half a billion dollar telescope. The third thing, which is tied to MCAO, is essentially the control system for the telescope and the inactive optics, but it's tied to MCAO well enough that you can really include that. Because, let me say it in a different way. Gemini, relative to Palomar, is not an improvement of a factor of eight over five squared. It's more like a factor of twenty or thirty, or maybe even a hundred.
Well, eight over five squared is what. It's 2.3. Here we go. Right. 2.56. [does math] There you go. It's more like a factor of twenty or a hundred. It may be even more than that. Why? You might also get multiplexing by taking multiple objects at the same time, but you could do that on the five meter. The big game is an image quality. At Palomar you get 1 arc second images most of the time, whereas with Gemini, which is at a better site and which has active control over the secondary in the sense of at least doing low order adaptive optics most of the time –- wave front sensing, autofocusing, tip tilt corrections on the pointing. You can now get 0.3 arc second images most of the time. So you've got a factor of ten. Not in the diameter of the telescope; you get a factor of ten in the fact you get better images.
If you build a 30-meter telescope where adaptive optics doesn't work and where you have to worry about flexure of the telescope, making the image quality worse and all this other stuff, if you build a 30-meter telescope and the best you can get out of it is 2 or 3 arc second images, an 8-meter with 0.3 arc second images, it's going to clean its clock. Whereas you might have just spent a billion dollars on your 30-meter that produces lousy images. You've got to get the good images. And it could be through MCAO, it could be something else. You fly it in space. There are a lot of ways. But you need those good images to make it scientifically interesting. A factor of two is not interesting. A factor of ten is getting there. A factor of fifty is interesting.
How has using a large telescope changed since you became an astronomer?
Well, I mean first of all some things haven't changed. It still is not easy to get time on a large telescope, although it's getting a bit better, in part because there are now, or there will be in a few years, something on the order of seventeen 8-meter class telescopes wandering around. Whereas when I was a young whippersnapper in the game you could count the number of 4-meter class telescopes on the fingers of one hand. Even including the MMT. At the time that the MMT was commissioned you had Palomar, you had this 6-meter in the Soviet Union which didn't work, you had Kitt Peak, you had Cerra Tololo and you had the MMT. So four and a half 5-meter class telescopes. And a couple of years from now when the LBT is finished and salt is finished, as I said there are going to be seventeen 8-meter class telescopes around [Large Binocular Telescope and South Africa Large Telescope]. It makes a big difference. So that's one thing. But how have things changed in other ways, well; there have been a lot of changes. First of all, you will nowadays see almost no one using anything other than digital detectors on the back of a telescope. In fact I mean everything, everything is done with digital detectors at all wavelengths. Okay. When I started out you could still make observations by eye and an awful lot of work was done using photographic plates. In fact even spectrographs in those days usually used photographic plates behind image intensifier tubes. The quantum efficiency of the detectors that we play with has gone up a lot. Even the photographic plate, the best of them detects about half a percent of the photons that falls on it.
Nowadays with CCDs, with indium antimonide detectors in the near infrared with bolometers, you are up at quantum efficiencies for the most part that are well in excess of 50 percent, and in many cases close to 85 or 90 percent. We're coming to the point where we have perfect detectors. We have almost no noise in the detectors. They have almost perfect quantum efficiency. And the only things that we're fighting against now are atmospheric background and atmospheric transparency.
So that has changed. Instruments have gotten more complex as a result of this, and in fact we're about to go through another phase shift in observing because I happen to think — I mean, I may not be absolutely right here, but I happen to think that in three, four, five years you are almost never going to be using a telescope that doesn't have at least some sort of a crude adaptive optic system working on it. Because even in the optical if you can start making corrections for low order atmospheric aberrations or distortions and do things like fast focus and auto guide and tip-tilt corrections, you can get significant improvements in the image quality. Every little bit helps. So those are coming. It's going to be the case you might on a really big telescope end up having five or six people sitting at five or six different consoles, each of which are operating five or six different pieces of the telescope. You'll have a telescope operator whose job is primary to point the little puppy — or the big puppy as the case may be. You'll have an AO specialist whose job will be to keep the AO system running, including perhaps a sodium vapor artificial star laser. You'll have somebody who's a mirror figure, mirror controller thermal specialist. Then you'll have the astronomer and the data reduction analyst sitting there, all at the same time. And that will make it interesting in and of itself. There has also been a move — we were talking about this before — there has also been a move to go more and more away from classical forms of observing where there's an astronomer or even a team of astronomers sitting at a telescope to these things that are called remote or queue observing. Queue observing really is the game. Where essentially there are a couple of people who are professional observers whose job it is to run the telescope who will execute a series of five or six or seven different programs that they happen to have in a hopper for any given night. And the astronomer will actually propose to take the data. You know, she ain't gonna go there anymore. She'll get the data by tape or by the Internet a few days later, or whatever. And if it absolutely requires interaction, you may be observing in a remote mode.
And they may call you up and say, "Is this good enough?" and you'll get a chance to look at it over the Internet if it's fast enough. So, in those senses, big differences.
Is going to the telescope still as important as it was when you were a graduate student starting out?
Tough question. Again, we discussed this a little bit before. My own belief is that if you really eliminate all of the going to the telescope you are going to end up with a class of astronomers who don't understand what it is that they are actually trying to do with the data. No, I could be wrong. I'm a bit of a dinosaur here, but you can look at some of the experience with space telescope and how people have treated that data. To give a counterexample, you can learn to analyze data from instruments you've never seen or put your hands on or even operated. On the other hand there is a tremendous advantage I think to having a real feel for how these things work, how the instruments work, what the sky is doing when you're doing ground-based data. I don't think I trust anybody to do photometry for me for example.
It's a very hard job. It's awful easy to get it wrong. And if your reputation depends on being able to measure the brightness of something at the 1 percent level, and you are working in a dark sky where it's hard to see those clouds, and there's no really objective criteria by which you can test the data — or at least it isn't built into the system — then you are much better off being there than anything else. It depends on how critical it is. On the other hand, I spend a lot of my time doing redshifts, and there we found at Mt. Hopkins for example where we were on a queue, which is essentially two-thirds of the time covered by professional observers, people with bachelor's or master's degrees in astronomy, and one-third of the time covered by the real astronomers coming out from Cambridge to take their own data or even take data for other people. There we find that because the observations are pretty regular, like you don't require massive amounts of judgment to decide what to do next or how to change the instrument setup or whatever — there are no such changes –– the queue becomes incredibly efficient. You lose some freedom. You gain not having to fly to Tucson every week. Trade-off.
How does this affect what it means to be an astronomer? An astronomer then is somebody who can get data tapes and work with the data at their terminal.
That's hard to say. This is one of those questions you should have asked me yesterday so I could have spent the night thinking about it.
I can ask you again tomorrow if you'd like.
I'll try to give you an answer now. Ask me tomorrow and see if it's the same. I think that — now this is again being a bit of a dinosaur — one of the things that attracted me to astronomy a long time ago was the fact that it was ever so slightly, maybe more than slightly, romantic. And given that today is Valentine's Day, that's a rather interesting remark to make, but I think it's true. There is a certain romance in doing astronomy, in going to interesting places and being one person against the darkness and trying to discover things. And there's a big difference between the thrill of discovery that comes when you get a data tape in the mail and then sit down a week later and analyze it after your graduate student or undergraduate or whatever has dumped the tape onto a machine and you analyze it using some canned software that somebody else has developed, to the kind of thrill of discovery that you'd get by being at the telescope and watching the data come in and having the Eureka feeling right while it's there. In many cases that thrill of discovery will be different because, frankly, if you really find something that's really interesting or really untoward you want to be able to check it. And if you don't go, if you are not at the telescope when the data comes in, you won't be able to check it right away. So you'll have to wait. All that other stuff that is good for people to do when they are making critical observations of things that are not well understood. If you are there you can check it right away. You can look for the systematics and the weird things. I mean, a classic example, find an asteroid track on a place. It looks long and it looks like it's pointed towards something. But if you don't another plate within an hour or two and you have to go back two weeks later to find it, you might not. And you certainly can't do anything officially until you do find it again so you have enough of an orbit to check it out.
So does this change what it means to be an astronomer?
I think it's going to change who becomes an astronomer. I think we'll lose the romantics. We may have lost them already, I don't know.
Where have they gone?
Mmm. Poetry. Playing the cello. The arts. I don't know. The jungles of Peru. I've thought about a few things in my career as an astronomer, and one of the things that I sometimes think about, especially on cloudy nights on mountaintops — which can be incredibly frustrating times — one of things I've thought about is this issue of what else might I have done with my life. As I was telling you this morning, I'm sort of in some ways at a crossroads where I'm trying to decide what to do next and where to go next. I have some ideas and some interests. We're not talking leaving the field of astronomy, but we're perhaps talking about trying to do something different. I mean for example I've got a job application in to be the director of a new cosmology center out in Stanford. Which would be a very interesting challenge and I can have a lot of fun doing that. Different. Different. Trying to build something. Not a telescope, not an instrument, but an organization. Okay. But the question that I ask is what else could I have done and what might I have been happy doing it. And what I've found or what I've realized — and this is actually something which has given me a lot of strength over the years is that I think I could have been happy doing a lot of different things. I could have been happy being a professional truck driver. Different. The advantages are that you rarely take your work home with you, or if you do you have to park it in the street. But you know, the advantages that it's a job with a beginning and an end and there's completion on short time scales. You don't get the thrill of discovery, but you get the thrill of delivery. You have more time I think to spend, and I probably would have had a family sooner if I had a somewhat more solid job. And frankly, driving trucks pays more than being an astronomer. Yeah. Which is a curious thing to say, but it's true. I could have had a lot of fun being a forest ranger. Very interested in the outdoors and nature and that and the environment. And there's a part of me that thinks if I ever retire from doing astronomy I might try to become a volunteer with the Forest Service or do something like that. You know, be a docent and teach people about the wilderness. The night sky from Yosemite. I have often found myself on trips with groups of people. I used to go off and do a lot with the Appalachian Mountain Club here and the Sierra Club in California, and you go off on long excursions. People find out you're an astronomer, so you find yourself giving an impromptu lecture on the subject in the middle of Yosemite on Christmas Eve to twenty people who are interested, and you are standing out underneath the sky looking up. And it's 5 degrees out, but that's okay, because that's part of the thrill. I like that kind of stuff.
If astronomers are going to telescopes less, what implications does this have for training future astronomers?
It's a tough problem. I was saying, you'll end up with a class of astronomers who don't have the same kind of feel for the data, for the instruments. There are probably — I mean perhaps when I said something this morning I was being a little too cynical. Because you can look at, as I said, the space telescope experience, and people do get into the data and whatever. But it's a little different when you have to rely on what's there in the can. I'll give you an example. One of the problems with HST that took a long time to figure out, and it was only figured out because the people that were using it had a lot of experience on the ground in advance, for example, is that the wide field and planetary camera has a (WFPC) number of relatively difficult defects that you have to deal with. One is that there is a charge loss in the electrons as they are transferred from one corner of the chip out to the read buffers on the other corner that produces a non-uniformity which is at the level of a few percent. A lot of people would say a few percent, who cares? A lot of people just looking at the data, unless they were slightly anal about it would never even notice that there was a 2 percent difference. Two percent is hard to see in a lot of these things. You can't see it in flat fields or anything like that. Besides this charge is only lost from objects, real objects, not just a background. And how much is lost is in fact a function of how bright the background is, so it's a complicated business. On the ground a good experimentalist would do the tests for this kind of stuff. I mean it's not atypical, it's not uncommon if I go to a telescope and use a new detector for the first time, and I’ll put it through its paces. I'll take whole bunches of test exposures, flat fields and biases, all the standard star exposures, and a variety of things like that to check things out. That's because I'm there, I've got the ability to do that. With queue observing you can't. You have to propose the calibration things that you are going to do in advance, and you may not know to look for the next thing unless you actually see that there is a problem. Example: I was at Cerra Tololo last year and I found that there was a roll-off in the response of the CCD chip that was being used for spectroscopy. It had no effect on me in the sense of I was just measuring redshifts, and I could calibrate it out well enough so it didn't make any difference. Nevertheless it's important for people to know about because those programs that do require calibration and lock slip data need to go back and deal with this.
And unless you actually looked for it, you'd almost never be able to see it in the data. You have to take the specific kinds of exposures that allow you to see it.
A similar question to the one I asked about students, but slightly different. How are students today trained?
How does somebody learn to use a telescope?
Well, you still take them out. I take my students to the telescope. Usually the ones that are going to work with me. But we do have programs here to take out students that aren't doing theses or research projects with you. So for example there's a lab course for undergraduates where students are encouraged to go out and use the telescopes at Oak Ridge or the radio telescope on the roof over there or some of the local things. For the graduate students we used to, and we'll probably again next year, every first year graduate student gets a trip to some telescope somewhere with some person, just to see what it's like to be off observing.
As long as those opportunities exist, we'll keep trying to fill them. One of the things that works for us is that we are an institution that has connections to our own small telescopes. CFA has now three small telescopes in Arizona, optical, and a small optical telescope back here in Harvard, Massachusetts. And the bottom line is that it is possible to get students to those telescopes, and even to walk away and let them have the key and drive themselves. Provided you stay on the phone, in case there is a problem — stay near a phone in case there's a problem. So you can do that. Whether or not that is going to be possible to follow that up in the future, I don't know. The other issue is that there are differences between using small telescopes and using big telescopes. On the other hand it's better than nothing.
Okay. What are the major differences between the large and the small ones?
Fear. Well, let's put it this way. On the Keck telescope — or let's say the Gemini telescope. That gives you some example. The two Gemini telescopes integrated total costs of about 200 million clams.
You can amortize that over twenty years, which is probably a reasonable thing to do. So it's roughly speaking ten million a year worth of amortized existence, construction cost. And if you throw in the instrumentation you might make it another twelve. The operating cost of the observatory is another $22 million a year, so that's — let's call it $40 million a year to operate the two Gemini telescopes. What's 40 million divided by 365? Say 300, to take out the engineering time.
It's a lot.
Right. It's a lot. You are talking about 100,000, 150,000, 200,000 dollars a night at the telescope.
That's about a dollar per second.
There you go. So the bottom line is that if you waste time on these telescopes you are wasting money, and if you waste — if you blow an hour, you've just wasted 20 percent of your graduate student stipend. It's expensive to make mistakes on big telescopes.
Does this tie into then the language that I see when I look at proceedings about using big telescopes where you see terms like efficiency and customer and productivity? Terms that you wouldn't have seen twenty-five years ago, and it seemed to be almost lifted from a business plan.
Some of it is that, yeah. Everybody is trying to get the biggest bang for the buck. As I said a little while ago, I think that in some ways this is bad, because it does keep people from playing, from doing some experimentation, from trying some outrageous observations or for looking at things that aren't on the list of what they are absolutely supposed to be doing. Because they had a bright idea that they just wanted to give a try to. That kind of science is going to be much, much harder to do, and something will be lost because of it.
How has Hubble changed the community's use of telescopes?
Boy, that's a $64,000 question. Hubble is the first of the really modern facility class telescopes. The only way you can use it is in fact by queue observing. There are target of opportunity observations that you can stick in. But even those you stick in on the time scale of a couple of days, not the time scale of a couple seconds. So there is a fair amount of planning that goes into the game. Important things that have come out of Hubble, the realization that if you are going to deal with any kind of complex data you need resources to do that. In a rather curious way, perhaps the biggest impact that Hubble has had is not the science that it's produced — even though it's produced one whole helluva lot of science — but the fact that it's provided resources to people who have gotten observing time. Grants.
Because if you get the time, you get the grants?
You get a grant. If you do come back with a complex data set from a hundred orbits of HST time, you will get money to hire people to help you analyze it, so it's funded people, it's provided resources in that sense, it's provided person power.
There's an interesting thing you might not have thought about. Demographics in astronomy. The unemployment rate for astronomers, for Ph.D. astronomers, is ridiculously small. Much less than 1 percent. The unemployment rate for a Ph.D. physicist is about the same as the national average.
It's 5 or 6 percent these days. Okay? Why. The only answer is that at the moment there is a lot of soft money in astronomy. It's good, it's bad. It's bad because we have created a class, a much larger class than there used to be — sort of the postdoctoral fellow type astronomers who have as their primary function analyzing data and doing research on these data sets especially from NASA satellites but also from some of the big ground-based projects. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good part about it is that the integrated scientific output with the community has gone up tremendously. The publication rate, the number of papers being published each year, and the number of pages in the Astrophysical Journal are growing. Not quite Moore's law, but a lot. This is actually the first year I don't have a subscription to the Ap. J., and it's because my wife has told me there's no more space in the basement. We've hit the limit. We're producing papers so fast you wouldn't believe. The Ap. J., Ap. J. Letters and Ap. J. Supplements are up to — I forget what the number is, but we're talking five times ten to the fourth pages per year. A huge number. Fifty thousand pages give or take change. Other journals are growing like topsy as well. So there's a tremendous amount of work being done. The downside is that you have these people in these soft money positions and if there ever is a real depression in the funding for basic research in astronomy — which is coming — you know, it's hard to see that that would continue forever — there will be a lot of people who do have to go look for work.
Has it created some sort of class system astronomy? How do you describe the class system?
The answer is that in some ways it's always been there. And it goes through cycles like everything else. I did a study — You have unfortunately asked the wrong person — which is to say I know the answer, so that's bad. I did a study for the National Research Council I finished about two years ago on federal funding for astronomical research. And part of the study included taking a look at the demographics of astronomers in the United States — in the United States in particular since its U.S. funding. And there are some interesting statistics that come out of this. First of all, integrated total, if you include all of the different flavors of astronomer that one can find, include the planetary sciences and the like, there are probably a little under ten thousand astronomers in the country. If you cut that by people who have more or less long-term jobs — for example if you pick full members of the AAS as opposed to student members or junior members or associate members, you cut that by about a factor of two, so there are something on the order of five thousand long-term tenured, long-term position astronomers in the United States. That number has been growing over the years. It's still growing, slowly, although that's begun to flatten out over the last five or six years. It's an amazingly large number. And if you go back fifty years — I mean I can remember pictures of AAS meetings from the 1920s where all the members were present and you could see them all on one 8"x10" photograph where you could very clearly see the faces of all the people. All eighty-five of them showed up in 1932 and there they were. So there have been a tremendous change in the number of people working in the field, and it's pretty big. There are a lot of things going on. Two, where those people are hasn't changed that much. The numbers have gotten bigger; the distribution has stayed pretty much the same. What those people do doesn't change that much. Over a ten-year baseline here are some interesting numbers. About 40 percent of the professional astronomers — here we're taking as a surrogate sample full members of the AAS — about 40 percent of professional astronomers are at research universities. About another 10 percent are at small, very small universities or colleges, teaching universities, teaching colleges. About 30 percent of research astronomers are at government laboratories, which is not a number that most people would have thought. And everybody says, "Oh, there aren't many people there," but 10 percent of the AAS is at CFA, and we're a government lab. And you've got Goddard Space Flight Center, the DOE labs, Marshall — I mean, I can throw — JPL — throw all of those in, and it really turns out that's something on the order of 30 percent of the professional astronomers are associated with government laboratories. You've got about another 10 percent associated with private laboratories. And about another 10 percent that are at really private things in industry. The private laboratories are things like the national observatories, which are not direct government funded. The really private things are things like the aerospace industry, Aerospace Corporation which hires some astronomers. Or the Carnegie Foundation, Carnegie Institution in Washington large number of astronomers, relatively. And as I said, that demographic hasn't changed. It's been the same over the last decade. Roughly speaking 25 percent of all astronomers are theorists, 75 percent are experimentalists or something else. That number hasn't changed much. The biggest group of people are people who are working on classical optical and near-infrared astronomy. About 50 percent of the field is somehow involved in optical and infrared astronomy, either as theorists analyzing optical and infrared data or as observers taking it, whether it is from space telescope or from the ground. And then the other 50 percent are split among the other fields of astronomy — X-ray astronomy, radio astronomy, more esoteric theory where you can't pin it down, and all that kind of stuff.
And that doesn't change much with time.
; You were describing how the future telescope would be used by five or six people, with adaptive optics specialists. Is it creating this sort of specialization and people with Ph.D.s becoming just adaptive optics specialists or whatever?
Mostly the Ph.D.s aren't doing that. Those kinds of positions are often filled by people who don't have Ph.D.s.
I mean as I said, the remote observers, the queue observers that we have out at Mt. Hopkins, one is a master's and one is a bachelor's. You don't need to know how to do research in order to be an AO jockey or a telescope jockey. Or even run a queue. You need to have judgment, but that's different.
I don't have any other questions about the changing practice of astronomy. We have a little bit of tape left. If there is anything that you feel is important that I haven't asked about how doing astronomy has changed, you can talk about some more of your specific stuff tomorrow.
Mm-hm [affirmative]. I would have said that some of the discussion we were having sort of over lunch — this issue of people coming into the field with less and less and less of a fundamental background in things is a bit tricky. I see the field growing in a way that particle physics did. It's the case now that more and more people are working in larger and larger groups as opposed to individuals. There are still individuals doing astronomy. The number of refereed non-review papers – review papers don't count, but the number of refereed papers that are done by single authors in the main journals is pretty small. Theorists still do some, but even the theorists are working in groups. You can look in my field, where the Virgo consortium is a half a dozen people doing these complicated n-body simulations, and that's kind of neat. One of the other differences is that — and this is not a difference, this is in some ways a dangerous thing — again something mentioned before is this question of models and the connection between models and reality and the like, and I'm a little worried about that. There's a tendency to be too black boxish about stuff. I was taught to question authority — or question the software that somebody else had written, which is much the same thing. People don't do that, even though they should. Examples. In the early days — here’s a really perverse one, and it's not as astronomical but it nonetheless is true — once upon a time when I first came here we used as — curses, curses, what was it? It was a CDC-6400, which is a computer that had 64 bits. And boy, there was never any round-off error. So when you did a calculation, you didn't worry about the accuracy of this stuff. The algorithms that were being used to produce whatever it is that you wanted to use, besides which it had been around for a while, so it had been tested. We switched over to VAXs, the first of the digital machines that were in fact 16 bit machines instead of 64 bit machines, and all of a sudden I was doing catalogs of groups of galaxies and things like that, all of a sudden I was getting very different results. I didn't understand exactly why. But I was eventually able to track it down to the fact that the sign and the cosine routines had round-off errors when you only work at 16 bits. When the algorithms aren't well developed, there's enough of a round-off error that small angle approximations don't work well, so you get a different answer just doing the round-off error. I ended up having to write my own double-precision sign and cosine trig routines to work on these algorithms, because they hadn't yet done that for the new machines when they came out. I think most of today's astronomers couldn't write those routines if they had to. They would go looking through the catalog to find if somebody working for Microsoft or whatever, you know, Sun, had updated the algorithms and they could download them and then they'd use them, but they couldn't write them themselves. Bill Press could, but he doesn't count. It's that kind of thing. There's an awful lot of stuff out there that's canned. And it's good; it makes life a lot easier. Let's put it this way. When I started working in astronomy, you typed your papers. And if you needed a copy you used carbon paper. And if you were lucky you could Xerox the paper after you've made it, but Xerox machines were expensive and not always easy to come by. And if you made a mistake you had to retype the page, depending on the kind of mistake, or use whiteout or whatever. I would not go back to those days. On the other hand I've seen Microsoft Word produce some rather interesting things out of things that I typed when it tried to make the grammatical corrections.
Would you go back to a time where you were working in the dark and the cold using the telescope?
I'm too old. I like being warm. Would I go back to a time when I was mostly at the telescope by myself? Yes. But that's the romanticism again. I still like to go observe on the 60" for exactly that reason.
But being in the prime focus cage in December?
That has some thrills, but only some. Also you wouldn't want to do it for other reasons. You're too big a heat source.
I hadn't thought about that.
Some of the advantages — how to put it, some of the technological advantages that we talk about, like improved image quality on telescopes, has come because we've removed the astronomer — you know, that 100-watt light source, or in my case 120-watt light source, from the environment.
That's a good point. Let's pause here for now. I think we're about to run out.