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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Owen Gingerich by David DeVorkin on 2005 October 18,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
The interview is both a biographical and professional profile. He discusses his childhood and family life in Iowa and the emergence of his interest in astronomy and building telescopes and observing the sky; the family's move to Kansas and to Indiana; his college years at Bethel College; exposure to journalism and interest in chemistry; summer work at Harvard College Observatory and Sky & Telescope; interest in science journalism; his graduate years at Harvard; working as a summer assistant for Harlow Shapley and recollections of him and the department under Shapley; Harvard astronomers and the general atmosphere in the Harvard College Observatory; recollections of Harvard staff: Fred Whipple, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin; faculty divisions over government funding; Menzel's directorship; alternative service at the American University in Beirut to satisfy conscientious objector obligation; encountering Baade's lectures on the Evolution of Stars and Galaxies; teaching at Wellesley; learning to program an IBM 704 for stellar atmospheres work; work in support of Project Celescope; infrared research; reflections on the management of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the late 1960s; factors leading to the creation of the Center for Astrophysics; the reorganization of CFA and Gingerich's migration to history.
This is an oral history interview with Owen Gingerich in his office. The date is October 18, 2005. Auspices are the NSF, the American Institute of Physics, and the Smithsonian Institution. We will be starting with your early life. When and where you were born, and under what circumstances?
I was born in Washington, Iowa in the local hospital. My parents had met in that corner of Iowa. They were both of Mennonite background, in two communities. One to the north. The other to the south of Washington. But, my father had a position as a high school history teacher, and my mother was, as typical in those days, a housewife.
Full names of both?
Melvin Gingerich and Verna Roth-Gingerich.
What was their training, the extent of your father’s training?
It was very interesting because my father was the only one of his siblings who actually finished high school and he went on and finished his PhD. He didn’t get it, I think, until 1938. While I was growing up he was very busily working on his thesis.
Was that in history?
Yes. He was very much interested in American literature but this was Depression times and he had to think what would be potentially employable, and his recommendations were that English teachers would be harder to place than history teachers.
Where was he going to school?
At the University of Iowa. Iowa City was not that much farther north. So, I often accompanied him on the trips to Iowa City. He would turn me loose in the University museum, and I remember how terrified I was being alone with all those lions and other animals.
So, this was a natural history museum? Was it also technology at all or science?
No, just the natural history things. I spent quite a few hours in that museum. [Laugh]
How old were you at that point?
I would have been seven or eight.
The world was such that there was no fear of abduction?
I don’t think in those days. [Laugh] But, he was away a lot because he had to go up for consultations and occasionally for class. One thing he often did would be to bring back books. He would see what my interests were and he did what he could to encourage them. At a very early age I got interested in astronomy. My mother said that it happened when I was about five. My father was away. It was still a hundred degrees at nightfall so she took cots into the backyard and I said, “Mommy, what are those?” And she said, “Those are stars. You’ve often seen them.” To which I am supposed to have replied, “But I didn’t know they stayed out all night.” [Laughter] So, that was identified as the start of my astronomy, but my father encouraged it by bringing books home and specifically by bringing a book that told how to make your own telescope. In this case, out of a mailing tube and lenses, which he got from a local optometrist and bought the eyepiece as a dime store magnifying glass. He was handy with tools. Both my mother and father came from farming families essentially. And he then made a mounting, which could be screwed to the top of a stepladder.
Well, how long was the telescope? What was the approximate size of it?
I was very young then so I probably overestimated but I would guess it was about a yard long. With which I could easily see the rings of Saturn and so it was probably slightly better than Galileo’s telescope. [Laugh]
Certainly reminiscent of it?
Yes, sort of. I remember bringing my grade school teacher out to look at Saturn. It was sort of a coup to be able to do that.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I had a brother, who was four years younger than I was. When I was in my first year of college he was killed in a bicycle accident when he was delivering newspapers.
Oh no. What was his name?
Loren. I had just started college at that time.
Were you still at home?
Yes. But, we had moved a couple of times in the meantime.
Let me ask, how did this affect you in your training? It must have been very difficult within your family?
It was a very tragic loss. As a kind of response and healing process I just basically suppressed the memories of my brother. I can gradually bring back the memories but I just sort of tried not to think about it.
Are there any photographs of your telescope or you with your telescope?
I don’t recall any of that small one. There were later when I had access to other telescopes and built one of my own.
And, you have these photographs?
They could be scanned and digitized and used in your oral history, let’s say?
That’s possible. [Laugh] My father was very much interested in photography. He started out, when he was young, taking tintypes, and then he always had a darkroom and every year made photographic Christmas cards to send to friends. So, that was always an annual affair, somehow getting the Christmas card put together.
So, the Christmas card included, let’s say, a series of photographs somehow?
Sometimes a single photograph. Sometimes a montage. But, usually a properly chosen single photograph.
Did you assist him in any way?
Well, I learned how to do the darkroom work in the process. So, I was always, knowledgeable about doing darkroom work without thinking of a particular time when I was tutored in it.
Now, between the time that it was very hot outside and the recollection your mother gave you about being aware of the sky and let’s say your dad putting together the first telescope for you, how much time was that? Do you recall?
Well, we left Iowa in 1941, when I was eleven. So when he had built the telescope for me I suppose I must have been nine.
Okay. So, that was still in Iowa?
Yes. Nine or ten.
Did his job change when he finished his PhD?
Well, I’ll give you some background because I think it’s rather interesting. During that late period of the 1930s the country was just beginning to come out from the Depression. It was very hard to get academic jobs and when my father got his PhD the local school board began to think that he was overqualified for teaching there and they thought maybe they could prod him to get a job that was more in keeping with this kind of a degree. I should say that while we lived there in Washington we must have lived in five different houses, the reason being that my father felt that it would have sent the wrong signal to the school board if he had bought a house, that somehow he had tenure. And, since he didn’t have tenure, he had to be careful about something like that. So, we moved from one place to another as the landlords decided to do something else with the houses we were living in.
Did this mean that you must have gone to a lot of different schools?
No. Because the local grade school and the high school were about three blocks apart and every place we lived in would have been within a three-block radius of the center point between the two schools.
So, we’re talking about a small, not a large city?
Oh no. The town was about 5,000 people in those days. It was the county seat. And so it had the kind of stores that you would have for a county seat town, with a town square in the middle with a bandstand in the middle of it, and eventually a very elaborate fountain that that took twenty minutes to go through its entire cycle of lights and sprays.
Wow. [Laugh] Did, that means you had a set of friends and you stayed pretty much with a set of friends?
Any of them significant in your life?
I remember the names of some of them but I have never kept in touch with any of them and I don’t know what happened to them.
None interested, let’s say, in astronomy who would have allowed you to form some kind of a friendship or a club, or anything like that?
No, not really.
So, how did your astronomical interests manifest themselves?
I think it was largely through the encouragement of my father to do these things.
And his encouragement took what form?
Well, he helped build the telescope. Because he was interested in photography he made a kind of a camera so that we could photograph a partial eclipse of the sun. Of course, for a little town in that period we had science taught in school, in the grade school, and we were encouraged in that of way. But let me tell you something more about my father. My father came from a Mennonite and therefore a pacifist background, which became an increasingly unpopular position in the late 1930s. In addition to that my father was very keen to work against anti-Semitism. This was a town which had no Jewish families, or maybe a very small handful. There was a preacher who was making a lot of rounds and was fairly popular in that rural region who was virulently anti-Semitic. My father wrote an exposé article on him, which the preacher threatened to sue the publication out of existence.
What was the publication?
It was the Mennonite Quarterly Review, a scholarly journal with a broad circulation. It’s still going. So besides giving those kinds of talks he was also lecturing about pacifism, which did not play well with the school board. And so, in 1940 the school board declined to renew his appointment.
Oh, so here’s this PhD, overqualified and also ...
There was his junior college where he was an assistant principal as well as the high school, in the same building. He had several job possibilities and one after another collapsed. And, he was facing the coming school year with no job. At that point my mother had a nervous breakdown. Literally a manic-depressive collapse and was taken to a mental hospital some distance away. I’m not sure if it was in Davenport, which is one of the main towns along the Mississippi. The school board was aghast at what had happened and immediately renewed my father’s appointment.
Oh, okay. So they were sympathetic?
At least that sympathetic.
So, your financial status was precarious.
Was very precarious. That’s right. We were a family that was living on the margins of things. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a person of moderate wealth and decided that he had to lend a helping hand. So, that is when we got our first refrigerator. At that point we had had only an icebox, which was, I suppose, a typical thing.
What about a car?
We always had a car.
Was that sort of a necessity in that kind of an area?
Pretty much so. Particularly as fairly regularly our family went to church in Wayland, Iowa which is where my mother’s family was from, and usually had Sunday dinner with them. So, you know, we would have had a car to do that. My grandfather had enough money that he was able to help one of his nephews have a car dealership, in Wayland, Iowa, and so he would get the demonstrator model Desoto. [Laugh] And then when he got another one we got the previous one. [Laugh]
So, you were there on the pecking order?
So to say. My mother then contacted a streptococcus infection in the hospital. As you know, hospitals are fairly dangerous places, and this was a pretty deadly disease at that particular time. She got incredibly high temperatures and she always said that she thought the high temperature had driven the mental illness out of her. I have now talked to psychiatrists who say, “Yes. This is a well-known phenomenon, but you cannot induce high temperatures into mental patients because it’s much too dangerous.” And so, what saved her life was the new introduction, essentially on an experimental basis, of sulfa drugs. With the heavy treatment of sulfa drugs — she was scarred for life on her lower back where the sores had been from the infection. She had skin grafts and so on. It was quite a procedure. So, she hung at the point of death for a number of weeks.
And how far away was the hospital from your home?
In those days, you know, you’re not yet a teenager. Distances don’t mean anything. I would judge about thirty miles.
Yes. So, that’s significant. Who was paying for all of this?
That’s interesting. Hospital fees were not like they are today. I suspect my grandfather must have paid it. A question that I’ve never even thought about. But, it’s obvious that the family would hardly have had the means to pay for it.
These were very traumatic times for you?
Yes. I probably didn’t fully understand what was going on.
Did it affect your schooling do you think?
No. I continued in school. I mean, it was walking distance to school.
But, I mean psychologically, your ability to concentrate or compete?
Not really noticeably. I was a perfectionist and I tried to have a one hundred percent score in the weekly spelling contests. And, I remember the agony with which I faced Fridays. Would I be able to maintain this record? If anything, it scared me. [Laugh]
Scared you in a competitive way?
Just the tension that is involved with trying to achieve that kind of record.
Can you describe the nature of the scar?
[Laugh] Not really, excepting that often afterwards I thought back as having been the most dreadful thing in my life.
Oh, my heavens. Okay. What courses did you find, or what subjects did you find most appealing?
Well, obviously the classes weren’t really divided in terms of subject matter.
In grade school you basically had one teacher. So, I was particularly interested in science, of course. I was not particularly spectacular in terms of English, apart from spelling. [Laugh] I did win a little essay contest which the local newspaper ran. I think in the fifth grade I won the school’s contest for a short essay entitled “What America Means to Me.”
Yes. I’ve heard that subject. [Laugh] What about hobbies and leisure-time activities?
My father built a kind of a clubhouse, which I had access to and I had friends come over and we would have good times there. The family was always interested in games as a means of family togetherness so we had a variety of board games. I was never particularly into sports. At some fairly early point I got interested in stamp collecting, and as you can tell looking around the office I obviously have a collecting gene.
Well, I’m interested in where it came from. You said your dad brought home books?
Yes. My father had a considerable library and — well, let me continue with the story. He taught that year, 1940-41. And, another thing is, there was a family that was quite interested in traveling, and for example my father got a summer job teaching in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1938 and again in 1939. So, I remember going up there and seeing the Ring Nebula through an amateur telescope. That was when I was nine.
Any idea of how you encountered this amateur with the telescope?
He set up for kind of an open night at the school where my father was teaching summer school. Before that, in 1937, we actually took a trip to Washington D.C. in a house trailer, in a homemade house trailer. So, we had this wonderful cartoon pasted inside the door of a mother in a very fancy house trailer telling her little boy, “I don’t want you playing with those boys from that homemade house trailer.” [Laughter]
I take it you went to the museums?
Yes. I remember being in the Smithsonian and quite a few of the other things.
Did you actually see the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on the south quadrangle?
You don’t have any memories of that?
Not at seven years old.
Right. But, you definitely remember museums?
Uhm-hmm. And I remember being so impressed seeing a banana tree in the Pan-American Union Building. So, at any rate, so it was a family that was always interested in museums and in the summer of 1941 when we went out to Los Angeles, I often went to the Los Angeles County Museum. And, one day I simply got enough of it so I just left and walked home, which was a long distance away. And, my parents had not the slightest clue that I knew how to get home from there and they went into deep panic as to where I was.
Well, the county museum is an exposition park?
And, where were you staying?
I don’t remember, but I suppose maybe a mile away.
Where was your dad working?
He was taking some courses at the University of Southern California. I know, I know I put them in great panic by doing that. I did it totally innocently of course. [Laugh] Also as the time when we were out there, my family made absolutely sure that we would get to Mount Wilson Observatory.
So, you went to Mount Wilson when you were ten?
Eleven. And I was so small that for looking at the moon with the sixty-inch telescope I was allowed to climb right on the telescope itself and sit on the telescope as I looked through the eyepiece. So, that’s another one of those experiences I still rather vividly remember.
They had public nights?
They had public nights. We went up twice. Once for the public night and once just sort of during the day, because I remember feeding the deer up there. They would eat out of your hand. I remember coming down from the mountain. It got so foggy that my father had to stick his head out the window in order to even get some sort of an idea of where the road was and his glasses fogged up.
That must have been a bit scary?
It was scary. You know, we went down this mountain at about five miles per hour. [Laugh]
Did you go to Griffith Observatory at that time?
We went to the concerts under the stars in Griffith Park.
Oh, at the Greek Theater?
Right under the Griffith?
But, I don’t remember if we went to the planetarium or not. We probably did, because it would be so totally in the nature of things, but I don’t remember it. I remember though going to hear Aimee Semple McPherson in the Foursquare Gospel Church. My father was quite put out about that because her church was round.
Because of Foursquare, how could a Foursquare’s church — oh I see. Was it your habit to try out different services or to just attend different denominations? “Your habit” being the family habit I should say.
The family habit would have been to go to church and I just don’t remember that they went to any regular kind of church when they were traveling that way.
Okay. But you went to Amiee Semple McPherson?
One night, just to see what the big show was. So, anyway, we did that traveling. When we went it was quite a journey because from Iowa we went south through Missouri and cut across into Oklahoma. And when we came back we went north through Colorado and Nebraska. So, we completely circled Kansas. I was in school for one week in the fall of ‘41. One day when I came home from school my parents said, “How would you like to visit a state that you’ve never been in?” And I immediately said, “Kansas?” because it was this one that was, you know, completely encircled that we hadn’t been in. [Laugh]
So, when you traveled did you keep records on a map?
My parents did.
And so, what was the state they had in mind?
They said, “Yes. We’re packing up immediately. Your father has a job in the middle of Kansas.” He was able to leave Washington, Iowa in an instant because the post there was extremely tentative. And so, we headed out to Kansas, and I remember we took the telescope with the stepladder out.
The original one. But, I fairly soon fell in with a local amateur astronomer, Pat Baumgartner who lived about a block and a half away. And, I got a free run of his six-inch reflector, eventually. A homemade one. And, this must have been after we were there for a few years, because I can’t imagine he would have given this to a sixth grader, but he was certainly pleased to give it to a ninth grader to use. And so, I started observing not only the Messier objects but also variable stars. And that links in with the story I’ve told on my Ad Astra Per Aspera piece.
Any particularly important high school teachers you had?
One that was significant was the teacher who taught both the dramatics class and the journalism class. And, the journalism class had a very important consequence, because I took that when I was a junior in high school. And, had our family stayed there I would probably have become the editor of the high school newspaper in my senior year. But, at that point my father got a job in Goshen, Indiana and so we moved. Rather than go back into high school I went directly into college. So, I skipped my senior year and did not graduate from high school until a year ago, when I was finally given an honorary degree by the Newton Kansas School Board. It was not a sudden impulse to go to college rather than finishing my senior year of high school. In fact, the situation had a lot of complicating factors. I entered high school during those years of WW II, and the school was filled with a lot of military propaganda, which made for considerable tension for the “campus kids” from Bethel College with its intense pacifist ethos. As a consequence, an “Academy” was started at the college, and about half of my friends elected to go there. But I wanted to take Latin and chemistry, not available at the academy, so after immense agonizing (a decision my parents left entirely to me) I decided to continue in the Newton High School, whereas my best friend (a girl) skipped the eighth grade and went straight to the academy. Her older brother and some others had skipped their senior year, and I saw this as a way to catch up with her. There was a senior year requirement to take a course in American history, which was taught by the assistant principal, a Mr. Stuart, who believed there was only one way to teach American history, his way. He was a war enthusiast and put a particularly militaristic spin on things, which was a major reason some of the older campus kids skipped their senior year. To graduate from high school required 16 course credits plus two years of “physical education” (which I detested). In my freshman and junior years I had taken a “five solid” program, and in the sophomore year four classes plus the gym, so I needed another course to keep my options open. This I took as a correspondence course from Kansas State University, world history, which I finished in the summer when I went on the cattle boat to Poland, so I was actually working on some of the lessons in the Newport News public library while waiting the several days for embarkation and later some on the ship itself. This then meant that I needed only the dreaded phys-ed class and the problematic American history course to get my high school diploma, so I planned to go directly to Bethel College, or possibly go half time to the high school and half time to the college. I didn’t have to make what offered to be another agonizing decision because my parents’ move to Indiana resolved the issue.
That’s great. [Laugh] About the journalism, can you describe who the teacher was, what his name was?
His name was Aubrey Bilger. And he was probably the one teacher I ever had who never mispronounced my name.
How do you mispronounce your name?
Gingerich [pron. jingerich]
Okay. I see. I’ve never heard that.
And now you understand why he never mispronounced it?
He didn’t want anybody to say his name was Bilger [pron. Bil-jer].
Oh. [Laugh] I see. I didn’t make that.
You didn’t make the connection? [Laugh]
No. I didn’t make the connection. Did he ever say that to you?
No. But, he always pronounced it Gingerich [pron. ging-er-ich]. [Laugh]
I see. What fascinated you about the journalism class?
I don’t know but it taught me how to write directly and pithily. We covered the waterfront on everything from how to sell advertisements to how to count headlines. And, counting headlines was then something I did a lot of.
What does “counting headlines” mean?
You count how many characters are to see if the headline’s going to fit. You count a half for i and l. You count one and a half for w and m. So yes, to see if the headline is going to fit.
Did you work on the student newspaper?
Yes. That was part of it. You had to write for the student newspaper.
What sort of articles did you write?
Pretty much anything related to high school activities. I have what’s called a “string book” somewhere, where all the articles are clipped out and pasted in.
Anything on astronomy?
I don’t think I did anything on astronomy. Probably nothing on science.
So, this was basically reporting on class activities and things going on in school. But, what was it that appealed to you about journalism?
I haven’t a clue what got me into it, but it had a long-term effect, because when I got to college I right away got immersed in working on the college newspaper. I knew for example how to do page layouts, which essentially nobody else on the staff had any training in. So, I did lots of the layouts, and therefore lots of counting headlines. And in due time, I became the editor of the college yearbook and then the editor of the college newspaper.
Okay. And that’s all at…
Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. And that is what, in turn, led to my getting the job at Sky & Telescope.
Okay. Let’s back up and talk about Bethel College. Your dad worked at Bethel?
And, that was when you were living in Washington?
When we were living in Washington he got the job offer to go to Bethel College, which was in North Newton, Kansas. And he taught there for six years before we moved to Goshen, Indiana.
To Goshen? Okay. So, at Bethel, in your essay, the Ad Astra, you mentioned that you became a pest to the chemistry teacher?
Your father was teaching there, you were in high school, and you had access, therefore, to the campus through your father?
We were living on the campus. The college was at a little suburb called North Newton, which was independent from Newton, had its own Mayor and everything, and a population of maybe a hundred permanent people and a few hundred students. [Laugh] That was then very promptly during the war years, and eventually I became what was called a “clerk hire,” in the post office, because North Newton had its own post office there.
While your dad was at Bethel?
And, he was teaching history at Bethel?
He was teaching history, coaching the debate team, running the weekly movie entertainment, and running the lecture music series. So, we met lots of presumably famous people who were coming through. People who come on lecture tours out in the middle of the Midwest are not necessarily the most famous people, but I did get an autograph from Alfred Noyes who wrote, “The highwayman comes riding, riding.” And, I’ve often then used his poem called “The Watchers of the Sky.” So, I have his autograph here in the book. I had no idea at the time, of course, that he had written such a thing or that he had been invited as a guest on the first light of Mount Wilson Observatory.
So, you didn’t know that connection?
I had no idea of that connection, but I’ve pasted the autograph into the book now. And, there were other people. I mean, like Norman Thomas. My father was a great fan of Norman Thomas and I suspect that he rather regularly voted for Norman Thomas, but this was something that he did not dare mention at home in Washington, Iowa. Because if I had casually mentioned that in school it probably would have been enough grounds to fire my father.
It was a very Republican town. I remember having a Landon button, and was so surprised when he didn’t win.
Yes. [Laugh] Your interest in science seems to have expanded though by then. Could you talk a little bit more about how you made a pest of yourself to the chemistry teacher?
Well, I got sufficiently interested in chemistry to have a Gilbert chemistry set. This was the way lots of kids learned science in those days, a very, very nice kind of thing to have and lots of experiments you could do, which were mostly harmless but one could make wonderful fireworks. And, I do remember when the sodium blew up in the sink perforating my mother’s towels that were hanging there. Somehow she never seemed to be very angry that I had done that. [Laugh] I think I had, in general, very understanding parents. So, I had a chemistry laboratory in the basement and I was always looking for other things like pieces of glassware and so on, and regularly searched the trash of the Chemistry Department for flasks or beakers that had been thrown out as being too dirty to clean, and I assiduously cleaned them. And so, I would go in the halls of the Chemistry Department and I got very interested in the atomic models which they had. The CPK models.
Is that a brand?
It’s Pauling, Corey, and Koltun. A very famous kind of atomic model set, because they’re scale models, space-filling scale models. And so I, in fact, bought enough of them through the chemistry department so that I could make the whole battery of sulfa drugs in molecular form.
What were the models made of?
They’re wood, but very carefully shaped and enameled and with little brass pegs that would hold them together. If we were at home I’d show them to you.
So, you still have them?
Still have them, yes. So I was often, you know, prowling the halls of the Chemistry Department to see what was going on. There was also, in the basement of that science hall at Bethel College, a print shop, and there I learned how to set type, and saw the various kind of printing things and the Linotype operators there. I always wanted to learn how to run a Linotype, but I never did. It became obsolete before I learned how.
Do you know the name of the chemistry professor who you later asked to write on your behalf?
His name was Leonard Kreider.
Have you ever searched for the letter in Shapley’s papers?
No. I’m going to do it eventually. [Laugh]
But, that’s definitely something on your mind?
Yes. Well, I figure I want to write a biography of Shapley and as soon as I get around to doing that I’ll certainly look for it in the archives. [Laugh] I got Shapley, before he died, to write a letter saying I had complete access to the archive.
That’s very smart.
So I’m not blocked by any of these rules.
They seem to be getting more and more strict. Even Whipple’s private papers now have to be screened.
Yes. And I found that out, much to my annoyance, today, but that’s another story.
Yes, well anyway the previous archivist knew for sure that that letter was there. He often told me so. The present archivist probably doesn’t know it and hasn’t a clue where to find it. So, there may be a hassle at some point.
The letter giving you permission?
Well, going back to your Ad Astra essay, you very nicely lined out your summer jobs and your desire to take out lifetime membership in the AAVSO, but I’d like to know a little bit more about how you learned about the AAVSO.
Well, the college library had a subscription to Popular Astronomy, and Popular Astronomy always had, every month, an AAVSO report. In addition to that Mr. Baumgartner had the complete set of the Harvard Books on Astronomy. So, I saw that and I realized that Harlow Shapley was the ringleader for that series, and he was also essentially the godfather for the AAVSO. And so, these things all sort of fit together and I was aware that, from an amateur astronomy point of view, Harvard Observatory was the place. He also subscribed to Sky & Telescope Magazine.
Which had just started by then?
That’s right. I owned one issue of Sky magazine, which I had got that summer when we were in Los Angeles. It had Mars on the front cover and it had an article about Chichen Itza in it, which has always been a great destination in my imagination, like Shangri-La. And, of course, I was eventually able to go there and eventually to sit on the steps as dusk fell watching Halley’s comet. [Laugh] And you have to understand that was by special permission because normally visitors are thrown out at sunset.
Yes, I can imagine you would have wanted to arrange that. [Laugh] These interests then that you’re so well known for started very early in life?
That’s right. I did not feel directly that my interest in history came from my father who is a historian. I think that developed rather independently, but of course always in a background of a home where there were lots of books. And, what happened when my father got out to Kansas, Newton was a great railroad center for the Santa Fe Railroad and there was the Fred Harvey House. And, there was a stall there that sold remainder books from bookstores, twenty-five cents a book. And my father was a regular there and he started a book review column for the Mennonite Weekly Review. And so, from sometime in the early ‘40s until maybe 1970 he wrote a book review every week. He more or less never missed. Eventually of course, he got on the list of a lot of publishers for receiving books. We had books all through the house, including in the basement. [Laugh]
So, you were pretty familiar with books?
I had a good idea about them.
Did you have any special regard for them? Did they represent something to you?
Well, a window on the world. This was all before television of course.
Did you listen to the radio? Did your family have a radio?
Yes. We always listened to the radio over the supper hour, Fulton Lewis Junior, who was a kind of a news muckraker. And, it’s something that drives my wife crazy because I still, to this day, generally watch the nightly news on television over supper.
We’re basically working in parallel with your Ad Astra piece. You described your college experiences, but primarily the summers when you started going to the Harvard College Observatory, and you describe very nicely how you got there. But, you didn’t describe too much, or at all, your college experiences, the teachers you had and the development of your interests.
As I’ve indicated just now, I was doing a fair amount of journalism. That meant often working into the wee hours to meet deadlines and set headlines, and read proof, and all that kind of stuff. So, I did skip some classes. I also spent pretty long hours in the chem lab because I was a chemistry major. And, lots of time in the physics lab because eventually I became a student assistant in the physics lab, which meant I graded a lot of lab reports. There was a spectrograph there, a homemade one, a big one, and I helped one of the teachers named Robert Buschert, to put that in working order, which included making an arc lamp to be able to put specimens in. We would photograph onto thirty-five millimeter film. So, I did a lot of spectroscopy that way and in fact I wrote it up in some detail for Albert Ingalls’ “Amateur Telescope Making Book III.”
Yes. That’s probably the first professional paper I wrote, if you would call it that. Of course, I wrote it as an amateur. At that time I was also building my own eight-inch telescope. Because when I left Kansas the telescope I had been using I no longer had access to, and there was nothing comparable at Goshen.
Where did you get the mirror and the materials?
Oh, well this was standard. You’d buy a Pyrex blank from one of the many companies. There weren’t as many then that sold such things as there are now, but there were advertisements in Sky & Telescope.
So, that’s where you went for materials, Sky & Telescope? You didn’t look locally for materials?
No. But, making the telescope itself was done locally. I mean, I got patterns from an amateur I had learned to know in Wichita, Kansas, and he lent me the wooden patterns, and I had them cast in a foundry in Goshen.
Oh, that’s pretty serious.
Yes. And, in order to machine the fork I had to have, a giant lathe there was enough manufacturing in the town that I could find somebody who was prepared to do that.
So, this is a fork mount?
Do you still have this telescope?
No. Parts of it, it got taken down and parts of it got dispersed and I never did find out what happened to the mirror. It was stored someplace and then disappeared, but a lot of parts of it I have and I’ve given them to David Aguilar, in the Observatory’s Public Relations Department.
What about photographs?
There are photographs because there was an article in Sky & Telescope about it, which was then reprinted in one of Thornton Page’s books.
Uh huh. He had a series of books that I think were reprinted articles from Sky & Telescope, and that was reprinted in there. So, I did a fair amount of observing with it for variable stars, and in fact at one point I stumbled on a comet and with great excitement telegraphed its position to Harvard Observatory only to receive a postcard saying, “Thank you very much for your observation of comet Honda.”
Honda, right. [Laugh] Yes, you say that very nicely. You have a good set up for that in the essay.
I had forgotten that. But, at any rate. Yes, I was taking a lot of interesting courses. Now, besides science courses it was a liberal arts college. So I had to take things like philosophy, ethics, a couple religion courses, and so on. Did I say anything in the Ad Astra essay about going on the warship to Poland?
No. What was that all about?
That was in 1946, just a year after the European war. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration reconditioned a lot of liberty ships as ships for taking horses and cattle to war-torn countries. Some ships went to Yugoslavia but most went to Poland. My father heard about this program and decided to try to get a crew of thirty-two cowboys together to take one of these, and that, in fact, happened in June of 1946. Now, that is all written up in considerable detail in an essay in the American Scholar, and I’ll give you a reprint of it.
What’s the name of the essay, for the record here?
I wish I could recall it. But, leave a blank and I’ll fill it in later.
Sure. There was definitely, I think, some reference to this, but it was cryptic in your essay and I didn’t know what it was. I have this impression. I didn’t take any notes on it, but it was some term that you used for it.
I said it was on a “cattle boat.” But, in any event it was that episode that, in fact, led indirectly to my tremendous interest in Copernicus.
Because we went to Poland. It was interesting because coming back from Gdansk the ship had some problems and needed to stop at Copenhagen for repairs. So, one of my fellow cowboys and I visited the observatory in Copenhagen and a very hospitable lady named Julie Vinter Hanssen showed us around. As a young, sixteen-year-old teenager I had not the slightest vision that eighteen years later I would taking over her job, which was running the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, and moving it here to the Smithsonian Observatory, which is part of the story you probably need to cover, although Brian may have told you all about it already. But, at that same meeting where we were arranging the transfer I met Jerzy Dobrzycki. And, when I told him the circumstances under which I had visited his country he insisted that I should come back to visit in 1965 for the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science. So, I went back. I got, as a result, very much involved in the preparations for the Copernican quinquecentennial. And that involved a lot of interesting people before we were done. That’s when I met John Wheeler, for example, because he was on the committee to help plan the big celebrations jointly with the Smithsonian and the National Academy.
Yes, that was a big deal. Going back — You had chosen a chemistry major?
Was astronomy still a hobby, an avocation? You did not think of it as a career?
I didn’t think of it as a career in the first instance, but I think I must say in Ad Astra how I had gone to the Astronomical League meeting and found out that an amateur could get a summer job in astronomy.
And all of that was very good, but then you said that you “met Huffer and Whitford in Madison,” and said that that was the first time that you took a serious interest in a career in astronomy.
And, why was that?
Well, the idea that here were two people who were very professional and eminent astronomers who are willing to talk to somebody like me made it was a very memorable experience.
So, you’re saying chemists weren’t willing to do that?
No, chemists were willing to do that but I had a much stronger interest in astronomy. However, I was at a church college which had, as its motto, “Culture for service.” And, it seemed to me that from a Christian point of view, could one afford to use one’s life in something so useless as astronomy? Now, unknown to me, within the Evangelical community — and Goshen College does not consider itself an Evangelical church or a college, but nevertheless they were influenced by that sort of thing — the Evangelicals had a very strong suspicion of higher education for the first half of the 20th century, and at that time they were waking up to the fact that they were not going to get anywhere in this modern world if they didn’t have trained people in many areas of higher education. So, when I raised some of these questions with my teachers, in particular with the mathematics and physics teacher whose name was H. Harold Hartzler, he said, “Well, we can’t let the atheists take over any particular profession. If you feel that you have a calling to go into astronomy you should go for it.” My father was also very open-minded and encouraging in this direction as well. So, after I had had the summers here at the observatory, I thought, “Well, I know the lay of the land...”
You said after you got here to the observatory you “knew the lay of the land” in the context of astronomy as a calling.
I decided to apply for graduate school at Harvard and I only applied to graduate school at Harvard, which today would be just total madness. But, I figured that if I hadn’t got admitted I would have sent in an application to Ohio State and would have gone on in chemistry.
Were you thinking of journalism at all?
I was thinking of journalism, and in my application specifically said that that was my goal, to be a science journalist.
So you wanted to learn some science but you definitely wanted to be a science journalist at this point, that was your idea?
That was my idea at that point. And so, having never had a student from Goshen College and not knowing what their standards were, Harvard decided to admit me only for an MA, which was the university’s way of playing it safe at that time. So, I was admitted and I came.
Now, you’d already been here a number of summers?
Yes. And, I still had a summer job at Sky & Telescope.
You had the summer job, so you were actually working? Now, there’s a few questions I have just to fill out your Ad Astra essay. You mentioned the different features here that you first encountered at Harvard, such as the Sears Tower, the Post Telescope. Were these patrons, Sears and Post?
Sears was a principal donor for the fifteen-inch telescope, and so the tower in which the telescope was placed is still, to this day, called the Sears Tower. The Post Telescope, I suppose, was given by somebody named Post to the AAVSO.
So, it was AAVSO’s telescope?
I think so.
Now, in your Ad Astra you describe the rooms and the locations of professors in the various buildings, and in the warrens, but you didn’t describe anything about their offices. And, I think this would be a very valuable thing to try to recall how they kept their offices. I know you also said that you never went inside of Menzel’s office, but that implies that you did see the other offices?
Well, I was certainly in Shapley’s office quite a bit, and it had a very famous rotating desk in it, which had come already for Pickering as part of the so-called “Gift of 1905.” It had a bookshelf on the upper axis, which could rotate independently of the desk itself. So, he had various projects on it at all times.
Was this thing motorized?
No. He could easily turn it around by hand. The one thing that didn’t go around was the dictating machine, which was on a separate desk alongside. It was the old-fashioned cylinder, Dictaphone cylinders. And, there was a telephone there too, and then another corner of the office was apparently the bookshelf where the treasure collection was kept.
So, these are old Harvard books?
Old astronomy books, from, which would be called in the rare book category.
Well, these are Harvard books or were they Shapley’s own?
No. They were Harvard books.
Okay. What kind of pictures on the walls?
I just don’t remember that. I don’t have that kind of a photographic memory.
Okay. Any instrumentation? Any memorabilia or particularly interesting things in his office?
Not that I remember at that time. I remember later on when, after he was director, that he always had interesting curiosities around that served as conversation pieces or so on. But, I don’t recall exactly what pictures there were.
Was there a clock in his office?
I don’t recall anything like that either. My impression of the observatory in the earlier days is the photographs, which I’ve seen since then rather than real-time pictures. I remember that in general there were, throughout the observatory, books in every place that you could possibly put them so that in the corridor between the auditorium and into Building C was loaded with bookshelves, had the index to papers of the Royal Society, for example, and things like that in the bridge, the covered bridge which came over between Building C and the Sears Tower. There were many book stacks in what had once been the Prime Vertical Room, and these included the early sets of ephemerides, going back into the 18th Century for the Connaissance des Temps, and the Mimot Leschet correspondence of Van Zach. And, quite a few of these old things. Bode’s Astronomisches Jahrbuch. So, it was quite a, quite a collection of what would now be considered rare books. And some of them are still here, but locked up in a special room that the library has.
Are they part of the library system, the Harvard library system?
Yes. I think early on they were probably not recorded in the university library system. Because I remember even relatively recently when I got Volumes I, II, and III of the nautical almanac that I thought Harvard didn’t have them, because they weren’t recorded in the regular catalog. But, when I made a field trip down to the Harvard Deposit Library I discovered that the whole run was on the shelf there. [Laugh] So, a lot of these things were not too well recorded and it took a long time before the treasure books, which Menzel moved down to the Houghton Library, to be cataloged. And, it was one of those things. You just sort of had to know they were there, and ask somebody to dig them out for you. No catalog record of the fact that Harvard actually owned them.
Now, you worked for Shapley?
I worked as a summer assistant for Shapley. That was the year when he was teaching an actual general education course. The first time I think ever that he had done any undergraduate teaching.
The Cosmography course. And, so he used the old-fashioned size lantern slides. Robert Cox, who worked part-time for Sky & Telescope and part-time for the observatory, and who was basically in charge of developing the plates coming in from Oak Ridge Observatory, then taught me how to make the lantern slides and how to develop the plates so that when he went off on vacation I was suddenly on my own. Did I tell the story of Shapley coming to talk to me about that, in the Ad Astra?
I don’t recall it.
One night Shapley came over. I had the office right across the hall from him. He came to say that he had learned how to make lantern slides when he was younger and when he went to his first professional meeting, the American Astronomical Society at Pittsburgh, he took his own lantern slides. But, when he saw the professional quality of the others he spent all of his lunch money quickly having his slides remade professionally, which struck me as a very characteristic thing for Shapley to do, because he had that kind of sensitivity of certain qualities of a showman in him.
So, what about some of the other faculty and staff and their offices? Anything that strikes you, that’s memorable?
I think Whipple’s was not very large, and pretty thoroughly cluttered. But, I don’t remember much more about that other than, of course, it had a pretty strong smell of cigarette smoke hanging over it.
Did everybody smoke cigarettes or were there any pipes or cigars?
Cigars would have been smoked in different social context. So, it was just a lot of cigarette smoking.
I know the Gaposchkins, or Cecilia certainly did.
Cecilia, during class, would light one from the previous one. [Laugh] I learned, for the first time in my life, what is meant by “chain smoking.”
You also mentioned that Shapley and Menzel were together on the top floor of Building D?
Was this a pecking order sort of a thing?
Quite possibly. I’m not quite sure why that happened but Menzel was, of course, around at the time the building was built. So, I suspect he got grandfathered in.
Okay. Yes. Now, you got a desk in a room that was filled with photographs of the Magellanic Clouds?
And, was this something of a plum to secure this? Because, students were scattered all over this place, and this was when you were a summer assistant.
Well, as a summer assistant Shapley wanted me close at hand. So, I sat right across the hall so that I was handy to do whatever gopher activities were required.
Okay, let’s move on then to the plate stacks. Ever drop a photographic plate?
No. And, there’s a famous story of one of these famous women astronomers and I can’t remember which one it was, who boasted that she had never broken a single plate. The reason being that she had dropped a whole stack of them.
[Laugh] Gees. And, no idea who that could be? [Laugh] Leavitt maybe?
There’s got to be somebody around who will remember who it was. Maybe Barbara will remember.
Okay. Who taught you how to handle photographic plates?
Well, we had a plate stack librarian, Miss Hanley I think it was, who was in charge of those. And of course Mrs. Virginia McKibben Nail, Shapley’s chief scientific assistant, knew how and was quite willing to instruct one on how to take them out of their paper envelopes.
Do you remember what the instruction was?
Well, you had to hold the envelope at the two sides and push it in so that it would bow out and not scratch the emulsion when you took the plate out. And, there was always a certain direction in which the emulsion was supposed to sit in the plate, in the envelope.
Again, away from the seal?
Yes, I guess.
That’s my recollection. At Lick it was a very formal instructional process that I got in.
No. This was just one-on-one tutorials. But, what I was soon put to doing was to fetch the plates for this star discovered by Willem Luyten, who was looking for high proper-motion stars and he found that this particular star was sometimes very much brighter at irregular intervals. And, we called it Luyten’s Flare Star. It has become, of course, known now at UV Ceti. And so, I was taught how to fetch the plates. And fetching the plates was a two-step process. The patrol plates were all filed under the rough position of where in the sky the patrol camera was pointing. Because, there were standard positions where the patrol plates were set for. And, the other plates were for specific objects but not for specific coordinates. So, you had to look through the card file, which was filed by right ascension and declination, and find the plate numbers because those other runs were filed serially and then you would just go and find the plates in the plate number and pull the plates out. So, I fetched approximately two hundred plates, if I remember, and brought them upstairs so that Shapley’s assistant, Virginia McKibben Nail could look at them and determine the magnitude. And so, one of the most interesting things that happened was that one of the plates was accidentally bumped during the exposure, and it showed the image twice, once where it was flaring and once where it was in its normal brightness, which was a very interesting plate to have.
Did you get curious as to what was causing the flares yourself?
No, not really. I was not that far along to even worry about it.
So, this was almost like a physical activity for you?
You mean carrying the plates?
That’s right. [Laugh] And then I got good enough at knowing how to find the plates, meant, by the same token I was then good enough to file the cards for the new plates that were pouring in, and these had to be filed in order. And, I believe, does it say there that I filed something like 15,000 cards?
Yes. An amazing amount.
Yes, they were well behind in their filing.
Was that over a summer’s time that you did the 15,000?
Yes. Well, I wasn’t doing that entirely, but that was the work that kept me busy when there wasn’t anything more pressing to do.
Now, you mentioned that Mrs. Nail showed you how to find variable stars, taking the photographic positive and then comparing them and looking for variables that way, and that Shapley wanted you to learn how to do that but you didn’t get a chance in one of those summers. My question is, “Didn’t people use blinks by then?”
We were never using blinks here.
It was almost entirely using this photographic method of a negative and a positive.
Something that dates all the way from Henrietta O. Leavitt’s time, or maybe even longer?
Yes. I think there may have been a blink comparator someplace down in the basement but I never saw anybody using it.
And was there a reason for this?
I guess it was found that the other way was much more efficient.
Because you could look over a whole field and look for any little kind of ring or anomaly?
Right. As far as I was concerned reading about blink photometers was something that went on at Lowell Observatory but not here.
A few other things. You identified a number of the different instruments out at Oak Ridge and one of them you called an “IR refractor”. Was that an infra-red photographic?
No. It had nothing to do with being for infrared.
Okay. What was that?
I have no idea why it was called IR. But, there must have been a reason for it.
Okay. So, a lot of the different telescopes had designations. Like one was called “H”?
Yes. I think it stood, somehow, for the Harvard telescope.
Yes, but you said there was another word for it that people had?
Yes, well it was obviously being assigned to “hell”, because this telescope was a strange one. Its rest position was down in a kind of a rotating box. But, when you wanted to use it you had to open the shutters by climbing on top of this rotating box and then the telescope would rise up out of it. And, the photometer was at the Newtonian focus. So, you were standing on top of this shed during the observation so you were subject to the wind and the cold in the way that you were not, if you were in a dome, or in one of the sheds. So, it was the hardest work to be assigned to that telescope.
Well, just being very picky about this, you wrote about this in Ad Astra at a time when you were doing this in the summers?
That’s right. But even so, at 3 a.m. it can still get kind of chilly.
Now, we’re back to around page eleven of Ad Astra. And, by the way I am assuming that this is going to be a parallel manuscript to the oral history, or we wouldn’t be doing it this way?
Sure. I’ll give you a copy of it. But Irwin had a certain number of questions that he annotated in it and before I make the final copy I should go through and see if I can answer any of those.
Sure. We’re back to the point where you state that meeting Huffer and Whitford in Madison put astronomy at a different level for you. And, I was just hoping that you had a little more on that for why.
Probably it meant that this was my first serious connection with professional astronomers as opposed to the amateur world. But, that was before I came here to Harvard, I think. I went to Milwaukee and then it may have been later. I’m not totally sure of the sequence here.
“In fact,” you said, “However, I did break into print in the spring of 1950 after I’d hitchhiked to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to attend a regional meeting of the Astronomical League. There I gave a short paper on the photographic discovery and analysis of variable stars based on my experience the previous summer.” And, in fact, that is recorded in the ADS as your first paper, given at the North Central Regional Convention held at Oshkosh. And then you say, “A particularly cordial side meeting in Madison with C.M. Huffer and A.E. Whitford was very significant in setting my course toward a career in astronomy.” So, I’m just trying to open that up a little bit.
Yes, but I don’t have any further memories of it other than the fact that I did have that meeting and it was something that I recalled even though I couldn’t recall exactly what we had talked about.
Another thing that struck my fancy on that same page was how the Federers took over the Sky magazine and brought it to Harvard, and how Menzel was involved in it as well. But, he said that “Federer, Charlie Federer at least, criticized the original Sky magazine.”
He said that he and Helen had got together because they were both in independent jobs at the Hayden Planetarium in New York where Sky magazine was published and they got together because they would mutually criticize the magazine.
So, they came together criticizing the magazine?
But, you don’t know particularly what they were criticizing?
No, it was never specified. But that was how they had got together. Then of course Harvard had got less interested in running a magazine called The Telescope, which Menzel had been editing, and they were looking for how to handle that and at the same time the Hayden Planetarium felt that they couldn’t continue supporting Sky magazine. So, Shapley then brought the Federers up here to edit the combined magazine.
Harvard must have been, I mean as we well know, the fascinating place with all of these little bureaus and these little central coordinating elements like the AAVSO, the Sky & Telescope, the Harvard Announcement Cards. I don’t know how many observatories ever did anything like putting out Harvard Announcement Cards.
Well, Harvard had picked that up already with the Harvard Circulars in Pickering’s time. So, this was a longstanding kind of bureau here. So, from an amateur point of view this was the center of astronomy.
But also, I mean, Pickering’s goal, initially, as I understand it, was that Harvard be the center of astronomy, that even funding, at one point, be vetted through the Harvard Corporation. And, of course, Hale didn’t agree with that, and other people. But, it seems like the feeling, the philosophy, the atmosphere persisted over the years and through the Shapley administration. And, I’d love to have your thoughts about that as it manifested itself in the atmosphere of this place as you were here in the first few years.
Well, there’s an interesting kind of conundrum that goes back to Shapley getting this job as the director, because as you’re aware he was brought here not as director but as just sort of the senior scientific person, and yet within a matter of months they decided to make him the director. And, if you ask the question, “Why did they turn themselves around so quickly to make him director?” if you look at his, what you could call his string book, where he pasted the various articles, not necessarily that he was writing but he was feeding to the press, his training as a journalist meant that he knew how to get an angle on these things. And the Kansas City Newspaper had a wonderful account of the Shapley-Curtis debate all done in baseball terms.
Yes. And, it’s anonymous but it just absolutely smacks of something that Shapley telegraphed to them.
And, when you look at the kinds of articles he was putting into the paper about what wonderful things were happening at Harvard Observatory, one of his detractors, who felt that he was perhaps not a big enough man for the job, was the very person who was inviting him to come and speak at their club about astronomy. He must have won the day that way. And, of course he was an important organizer of Science Service with Watson Davis, so that he was feeding a steady stream of science articles that way. And, of course, because of the Harvard Announcement Cards he could always make a story on something that is coming out on a Harvard Announcement Card even if it was a discovery being made in the West Coast. This infuriated the people at both Lick and Mount Wilson. Shapley could claim, well, “No, no, no, he wasn’t doing this. This is just how Science Service was, happened to treat it, with a Cambridge byline.” There was this feeling that this was a kind of a central place. The AAVSO would regularly invite Shapley to address their annual banquet, and he regularly devoted it to the ten most important developments in astronomy of the past year. So, he had his finger on everything that was happening. And, it did make it seem like this was the central place where the news was flowing in. He would also have these hollow squares, which I don’t know if I mentioned in the Ad Astra.
You mentioned it briefly. Yes.
The tables would be set in the auditorium in a big square and everybody would sit around. Not everybody could be at the table, but there would be another rank of chairs around that.
I wanted to ask about the hollow squares. Did anybody sit inside the square?
No. The tables were pushed together to make just this big square. That’s why it was hollow.
Was it sort of an equalizing thing where everybody could see everybody else?
Yes. Shapley would then call upon various people who he knew had some specific news, so that they could report on it. He himself would report on other news that had come from afar. So, it was a kind of a magazine format, one might say, of getting the news. It was an occasion to introduce visitors, and they were held irregularly, but it was a way of bonding the group together.
Let’s go to your actual entrance to Harvard College Observatory in the fall of 1951. How did you get here? You said that you hitchhiked for your first summer job or did you hitchhike for this?
I hitchhiked for this. I probably shipped my bicycle in a big, cardboard box, and I may very easily have shipped a number of other things. Postage was such in those days that I could regularly send my laundry back home in one of these sort-of canvas bags, which was quite a typical thing.
Let’s try to get a sense of the nature of the place. You came in as a grad student but you had prior experience here? You came in with Heeschen, Lilly, Tom Matthews, Dick McCrosky, and Chuck Whitney. And, I was just wondering, was there any kind of orientation in the beginning?
This was probably the largest class that they had during those years. I don’t remember that there was a particular kind of an orientation. I’m not sure to what extent we got advising, but all of what we signed up for had to be approved by the department chairman, who was Fred Whipple.
Okay. Your primary contact then? That was sort of the Department of Instruction relationship?
Yes. And I was kind of scared of him. Because he was a devout atheist, and heavy smoker, and had pretty strong ideas about what kind of courses I should or shouldn’t be taking. [Laugh]
What did he want you to take?
Well, I don’t remember those in particular, but I know that it was kind of a formidable experience to go in and see him because you didn’t know exactly how this was all going to come out. In the first semester I only took two courses, although I may have audited a couple of additional ones, because I was working half-time for Sky & Telescope. But at the end of the first semester my draft board said that would not do. If I was not a full-time student I would be drafted. So, I had to give up working for Sky & Telescope which made it kind of tough financially.
How did you support yourself?
I am not exactly sure. I think I might have been given some kind of a fellowship from the observatory, because at some point I certainly started working under Mrs. Gaposchkin’s aegis. Maybe that was the following year. I’m not quite sure.
Well, I have a number of questions that all center around the final two years, approximately, or three years of the Shapley directorship, and I’d like to go through them with you. I think this might be the most cogent thing to do at this moment. If that’s all right? First, I’d like to know the general mood of the place. Because I’ve been getting hints in the archives, from various memoranda, that there was a lot of tension here during that period, that there were campaigns for succession. And, you do state in Ad Astra about how Bok was the popular choice.
Of course, Bok was away part of the time. I think I mentioned that he was on a leave to go to South Africa.
To the Boyden Station?
But, soon after he comes back, the talk starts about separating Harvard from the Boyden Station?
Let me think about this. To begin with it was the McCarthy period. So, even when I was in my office I could sometimes hear Shapley talking about some of the political issues that were going on. And, I remember Mrs. Nail coming around and saying, “You know, you mustn’t repeat anything you’ve heard from here.” Shapley was under somewhat duress during that time because of McCarthy’s claims that he was one of the communists in the State Department. Bok always looked out for the students. He was very friendly. He always made sure he knew what was going on with them. I probably mention about his keeping track of which students came to the colloquia. Menzel was much more aloof and was known for taking only the most mathematically gifted of the students, as graduate students, whereas Bok was willing to take anybody. As a result Bok had probably the lower group of students in terms of their abilities and promise than what Menzel had.
Did Whipple take students?
Yes, Whipple took students. Now, I’m looking at the sheet of PhDs from the Astronomy Department.
What is this document?
It’s a list of all the astronomy PhDs, in order.
And you compiled this?
No. It’s from the Astronomy Department itself. So, just to see who was here when I first came here. In 1949, Bob Fleischer got his degree. It was noised about that he was more or less the one person who had flunked his PhD exam. He was told he had better go back and read Russell, Dugan, and Stewart very carefully, and come back again. And so, he came back again and passed. It says, “An investigation of the region surrounding Chi Persei.” That’s obviously a Bok thesis. He took a job then at Rensselaer Polytechnic over in Troy, New York. When I went with Charlie Federer out to the Cleveland Astronomy League meeting during the summer we stopped off and visited Fleischer there. Fleischer later became a very important person in the astronomy directorate of the NSF. I think he probably always had it in for Harvard, for having flunked him. [Laughter] And so, it didn’t help that Harvard had done that. The next year Salah Hamid, Dave Layzer, and Al Linnell got their degrees. Salah Hamid was an Egyptian who worked with Whipple on the “Formation and Evolution of the Perseid Meteor Stream.” Dave Layzer worked on the “Theory of Atomic Spectra” with Menzel. Al Linnell on “Astronomical Photoelectric Photometry” was the person who set up the photometer out there at the station, which was on the H telescope. These were all people that I met because they were around here when I came. Stan Wyatt was here, another Bok thesis. Barbara Bell. She’s still around, by the way. “A Study of the Doppler and Dampening Effects in the Solar Atmosphere,” looks to me like a Menzel thesis. Jim Warwick, “Some Problems of Magnetic Stars,” that was, I’m pretty sure, with Mrs. Gaposchkin. Ali Naqvi, another one from India. “A Study of Atomic Energy Levels.” That would be clearly a Menzel thesis. Vainu Bappu, “Problem of Wolf–Rayet Atmospheres. “ It sounds to me like a Mrs. Gaposchkin thesis, undoubtedly. Connie Warwick, the wife of Jim Warwick. “Distribution of Interstellar Absorbing Material” would have been a Bok thesis. Uco van Wijk, a Dutchman, “Various Applications of the Virial Theorem to the Dynamics of Galactic Clusters.” Clearly a Bok thesis. Ivan King, a “Photoelectric Standard Magnitudes.” That would be a Bok thesis. Bert Donn, “A Study of Some Problems of Interstellar Matter.” Wow. I can’t immediately identify who would have been his advisor.
What year was that?
Now we’re up to 1953, the previous five were ‘52.
Well, that could have been a radio-type thesis?
No. He was a person who was into the astrophysics of the particles in interstellar matter, because he continued doing that kind of work for a long time. Here’s Hal Zirin who came through lickety-split. He had been an undergraduate here, I think, and finished his thesis in like two years. Something very, very fast. “The Radiative Opacity of Stellar Matter” is undoubtedly a Menzel one. Here’s Art Hoag, “Applications of Direct Photoelectric Microphotometry.” He had been around a long time because he got his thesis done but still hadn’t passed his German exam. [Laugh]
That could really hang you up?
It really hung him up. Yes. That’s clearly a Bok thesis. Joost de Jonge from Holland, or maybe from Indonesia, on the “Absolute Magnitudes of the A-Type Stars” could very well be a Mrs. Gaposchkin thesis, but I’m not sure. Here’s Dave Heeschen now. He’s the first one through from the group that entered with me. But, he came in with an MA, and he had this engineering background, so he was great for plunging right into the radio astronomy with Bok. And this is on “The 21-Centimeter Line of Neutral Interstellar Hydrogen.” Harlan Smith, “Short-Period Cluster-Type Variables” with Mrs. Gaposchkin. Arne Wyller. “Vibrational Temperatures of Carbon Stars.” And, that is, I assume, with Menzel. I can’t be sure.
So, there were no other PhD-granting people like R.N. Thomas? Wasn’t he here, or was that later?
He was here. Yes, by this time but I’m not sure if any of these were being done with him. Arne Wyller’s conceivably could have been. I wonder who Chuck Whitney did it with. He’s also coming out in this same year, 1955, “Stellar Pulsation.”
Yes. Partly with Max Krook and people in Physics Department?
Oh, that’s right, you just talked to him. Is that what he told you?
Okay. Elske [van] Smith, Dutch background, “Interstellar Polarization of the Southern Milky Way.” So, she must have been down there with Bok. Ivan King, by the way, spent quite a bit of time in South Africa as well. So, maybe he was there at the same time that Bok was. Because I remember Bok telling me how he made it a strict procedure to read his copies of the New York Times, which were delivered many weeks late, strictly in order. He would get upset about things, all stirred up, that had long since been settled. [Laugh] Because he was out of sync with the real world.
Well, he’s famous for his hot-bloodedness. But Whipple was much more reserved and I understand from the dean’s correspondence that there were a few instances during this period, in the last years of Shapley’s directorship where Bok and Whipple had some real differences of opinion. But, they weren’t specific as to what they were, and I’m wondering if you knew anything.
A large part of the tension between them was on the accepting of government money, because Whipple and Menzel both felt that the big bucks needed to do astronomy in the form of government grants from the newly-emerging NSF. But not just the NSF, from the Naval Research Laboratory and from the Air Force as well. Bok was extremely suspicious of this, saying that “This will bring entanglements,” which obviously it did. Because at Harvard, for example, the number of administrators that Harvard has had to accumulate very rapidly beginning in that period to bring Harvard into compliance with all of the federal regulations that go with accepting federal money just made the whole administrative structure of Harvard mushroom. In a sense, Bok was right about being reserved about this. But, it was Bok and Shapley versus Whipple and Menzel, very heavily on the question of “Where does the future of the observatory lie with respect to funding?”
And where was Mrs. Gaposchkin?
Mrs. Gaposchkin was known as the tie breaker. The graduate students had a lot of confidence in her because they figured that she would do her best to effect the compromises needed to have this place get along with itself.
And did she?
Apparently. She then got appointed department chairman after Whipple became SAO director. I remember coming back from Beirut, because I was away from ‘55 to ‘58, and congratulating Mrs. Gaposchkin on having become a professor. And, she said, “Well, I guess they just had to do it because there was nobody else to be department chairman.” [Laughter] Well, anyway this gives you at least a little flavor of who’s advising the theses. And, you see that Whipple’s name is not very frequent.
Whereas Bok is very frequent at this point?
That’s quite interesting. So, Whipple seemed to be very ready to hire people but he did not have that many actual students?
Before I get back to that thought though, I want to ask you about how Menzel became the successor to Shapley as the director of the observatory and also the chairman of the Harvard Council. Were you aware at all of the fact that there was a big review committee in ‘52, ‘53, and it was headed by Robert J. Oppenheimer?
That was very much news to me when I saw that this was what you were finding. His name had never surfaced here.
What had happened was that Oppenheimer, who was on the Board of Overseers, was asked, along with four or five other very senior people, to first look at the Harvard College Observatory and to make an assessment of it. And then they would determine what the right course of action was to fix the financial and infrastructure problems. In other words, Agassiz was deteriorating seriously. It wasn’t a competitive observatory. That was the sense of it. Then whether a director should be hired right away or whether there should be a hiatus. That was an interesting thing to consider. They made a number of recommendations. I haven’t seen the solid piece of paper of Oppenheimer’s recommendations yet. I have not been able to get that, but I’ve gotten all around it and tried the corporation records. Nothing. I mean, at least nothing they’ll show me. But then Oppenheimer was asked to lead a committee to choose the new director, and he wanted Strömgren. And we know about Strömgren. He was famous for not answering his mail. Conant would write him and he wouldn’t answer.
I know. [Laugh] I got faked out by him in the General History of Astronomy.
Anyway this went on, but during this time Menzel was acting…
Yes. And it was felt that Menzel had gotten the position because he had a few months seniority over Bok, and that’s why he got it. That’s the story that the graduate students all passed around. But, I think that in the dean’s office, there was a great deal more sentiment in favor of Menzel than Bok, because Bok had been a conscientious objector in the war. He had taught navigation here, but he had not participated in the same way, whereas both Whipple and Menzel were greatly imbedded in the military. Therefore, they had the same kind of background that Conant had, working with the Manhattan Project and so on.
Right. But, I thought in the biography of Conant that there was this issue where he did not want an overtly large military component or classified research or anything on campus. Am I wrong about that?
That could be the case. But, nevertheless it wasn’t that Whipple and Menzel were asking for classified research but they were looking for heavy government support for the kind of programs they were envisioning, and Menzel was getting big bucks as a consultant on classified stuff.
Right. But that didn’t take place here, with the exception of the cryptanalysis, I understand. There were students, and he was training people in cryptanalysis here. But, I don’t know anything more about it, since they won’t let me read the files.
Well, I asked Menzel about it when I did an oral history interview with him, and it was fascinating that his speed dropped to about half when he answered the questions about cryptanalysis.
Really? And, he was more careful about what he was saying?
Very careful about what he said. Now, you’re aware of the Menzel autobiography I assume?
Yes. But I’ve not read every page of it.
I’ve got the two bound volumes up here on the shelf. It’s fairly unprocessed. I mean, he just dictated it out and he never revised it really.
Right. But, what I’m trying to get at is that Menzel did emerge as the choice finally but only after Conant invited him as the Higgins Professor. And, I understand the money for the director does come the Higgins Fund, and the Payne Fund. Then, about six months later, Conant invites him as director?
No. The Higgins Professorship has nothing at all to do with the observatory. It is a physics professorship.
But there’s also a line item where money for the director was coming from the Higgins Fund. This is in ‘53.
But, I don’t know that Menzel ever got that title.
He didn’t. So, they were trying to get at Strömgren. I’m going to have to go to Oppenheimer’s papers or even Strömgren’s papers which are at Aarhus.
Michael has just accepted a paper from this guy over in Copenhagen who has been working with the Strömgren papers.
Right. I was on his thesis committee.
I see. And so, you have a copy of his thesis?
All right. So, he’s the kind of guy who could help you find that, maybe?
Yes. He’s been working on that. He’s got more general duties at Aarhus at the museum. Anyway, I take it there’s no light that you can shed on what was going on?
I just want to show you one little thing here that’s going to be a digression. Look at these four theses. “21-Centimeter Study,” “Neutral Hydrogen,” “Neutral Hydrogen,” “21-Centimeter.” There are four theses in a row in 1958, all Bok radio telescope theses. The only 1957 one is in the spring. No other thesis out in that year. There’s a very interesting sort of dip there.
Well, the Radio Telescope Project was huge in that they saw the radio telescope at Agassi as the primary scientific instrument. This is during the years that you were at the American University of Beirut. But, it was clear that there was a difference of opinion at this time. I’m talking about ‘53, ‘54, ‘55, about the future of Agassiz Station, and that many of the telescopes should be mothballed (a few of them should be saved), but the radio telescope is where they’re going to put all their bucks. Any sense of that?
That’s basically what happened. It was a whole other ballgame when CCDs came in, and suddenly the efficiency of the sixty-one inch telescope was completely changed around. You must have found out a lot about that from Dave Latham?
Dave Latham and Dick McCrosky.
See, what was going on here during the summer when I was here, Harlan Smith, who later became director at Texas, and Frank Kameny, who’s totally vanished from the astronomy scene, had a summer project to aluminize the sixty-one inch. They worked really hard. It was a heroic amateur effort. [Laughter] They proved that it could be done, and essentially saved the sixty-one inch so that it would be, in the future, available but not right away. Because, there weren’t that many — I mean, look, there are no theses coming out of it.
Well, Menzel and others did admit in a position paper that he wrote on the Status of the Observatory for Conant that “no major science has come out of the sixty-one inch Wyeth reflector.” He made a big point about it.
And, that was true, but only at that point. Subsequently a great deal has come out of it.
Right. Let me try to move on to your stint at the American University in Beirut. You definitely clarified that you had to go there as part of your draft service. But how was that chosen as a destination over some other kind of service?
At first, conscientious objectors were simply deferred and not drafted, but as the result of the Korean War it was felt that these young men were not only getting an unfair break but subject to a lot of local pressures and that it was better if they could do something else. But, the government experience of running conscientious objector camps during World War II was not entirely satisfactory, because these men were rounded up and sent to these camps but they had to provide their own food and clothing.
What were they to do other than that? Just subsistence?
They essentially replaced the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corp, so that they were chopping down trees, and making fire breaks, and all that kind of thing. As the war went on, large numbers of them became orderlies in mental hospitals. There were mental hospital units all over the country and, as a result of that experience the whole scandalous state of what was going on in mental hospitals became publicly known.
Oh, because these people were honest about what was going on?
Yes. So when, when the whole process was rethought it was decided that these people had to go into what was considered “alternative service,” and many of those drafted were then sent to civilian jobs in mental hospitals.
So, let’s talk about how you got to the American University in Beirut.
The American University of Beirut, or rather the Near East College Association, in New York City had asked Selective Service for approval to hire people under this program. They were the hiring agency for a bunch of colleges in the Middle East.
Did they have a religious affiliation? Any affiliation with your Mennonite order?
No. Harlow Shapley received a letter from the dean from the American University saying, “We’ve had this observatory practically since our founding but we haven’t had an astronomer since World War II and we would like to hire an astronomer. Can you help us find somebody?” [Laugh] Shapley knew that I would be looking for a job and said, “Hey, this might be interesting to you.” So, he pointed it out to me as a possibility, and I realized, doing a little bit of investigating, that in fact I could teach there for my alternative service. Now, I got into a terrible scramble with my draft board because I didn’t understand some of the legal implications, for instance the difference between a hearing and an appeal. And so, I asked for the wrong thing. So I was automatically thrown into the state Selective Service Board rather than my local board. What happened was that when I got my MA my local draft board figured that I had done what I had been deferred to do, as a student, and therefore I was draftable. And so, they put me into the CO category and I appealed to get my student deferment back, which I was entitled to. The State Board took it upon themselves to decide that any conscientious objector who asked for any other kind of classification could not be sincere and therefore put me straight into 1A, which was totally against all the regulations.
Now, where was this draft board?
Because of your last permanent residency?
Because it was the State Board for Indiana. I was still under the Indiana Selective Service. [Laugh] This is a crazy story but it’s not necessarily related to what you want to record, but I’ll tell you anyway. [Laugh] Well, this was a unanimous decision which meant it couldn’t be appealed, but the people at the Mennonite Central Committee who were watching out for the draft situation took the case to General Hershey who was the head of the entire Selective Service System in Washington. And General Hershey realized that the State Board was acting illegally, so he reopened the case to get my student deferment back. And, the Presidential Appeal Board, of course, gave me my student deferment back and that was only good to the end of the year. This was my third year of graduate school whereupon the local board put me back to the previous classification, which was 1A. [Laugh] So, this time I had to go through the appeal. I had a hearing with the local draft board.
You had to go to Indianapolis?
No, I had to go back to Goshen. And the local draft board, of course, was just delighted to be able to say they couldn’t go over the heads of the State Board and therefore it had to be 1A. [Laugh] They were just, cheerful to give conscientious objectors any possible hard time they could. So then I had an appeal, this time to get my conscientious objector status back. That entailed having a total FBI investigation and then a hearing with a judge. I had to go out to South Bend and have the hearing with the judge and I saw the FBI papers on his desk. It was a folder about an inch thick. They had sent an agent out to South Dakota, where the minister who had baptized me happened to have been asked if he had baptized me. He said, “Yes.” [Laugh] And my landlord here in Cambridge heard that the FBI was looking for him and hid out for three days. [Laughter] Somebody knocked on the door of our apartment and I answered, and he said, “I’m from the FBI.” He sort of said, “Who are you?” I said who I was and then said, “I think you’re investigating me.” And he said, “That’s right.” [Laugh] He had no idea why he was investigating me. [Laugh]
They must have spent a mint on you?
Yes. That’s right. [Laugh] It was weird. So, the judge said, “This is all kind of absurd.” He said, “There’s nothing negative in this file whatsoever. I’m sorry you had to come out here, but any rate you’ll get your classification back.” So, I got the conscientious objector classification back but then I automatically got the deferment until the end of the year because I was registered as a graduate student. So then during that whole fourth year I knew that at any moment I could be pulled out and drafted, so it was a real year of treading water. In the meantime everything had gone through with Beirut they were very eager to have me come. It was $2,800 a year, plus transportation.
Sure. And you were married by then?
Yes. At any rate I was drafted out of grad school and I went over to Beirut, but I still had something hanging from here. Because, I still had one PhD exam to pass.
Right. You described that very well, actually.
I passed with flying colors, finally. So, that was what I did in February of my year in Beirut. I had to stay there only two years, but I got the opportunity to teach the junior mechanics course, and I was very keen to have the opportunity to really study that area very well. So, I taught that upper-level course.
What was the university like? How big was it?
I’m just going to guess that they had two thousand students. It was very carefully balanced between half Christian and half Muslim students, and they had many students from foreign countries. Quite a few came up on so-called Point-Four Fellowships from U.S. State Department, from Ethiopia. There were a lot of students from Iraq, a certain number from Iran. They were picking up students from all around there. The students were all quite proficient in English. If they weren’t, there was a special preparatory year that they could take to get up to speed for that. They had a really quite decent library and at the observatory we had the Astrophysical Journal from Volume I, and a huge run of Monthly Notices. And then of course Beirut was the crossroads for going on to India or any parts of the Middle East. So, all sorts of people came through. Here I never would have had the chance to sit down with Lee Dubridge at lunch, but there I could. [Laugh] Dubridge came as a visitor. We took Van Vleck up to Biblos and entertained him, and the physics department wasn’t that big. [Laugh] So, in a curious sort of way it was not as isolated as one might think.
Well you had quite a few papers by then, but most of them are popular; Sky & Telescope throughout the ‘50s, and you reported once on the American University observatory. I remember reading that as a child, and wondering “What is an American University doing in Lebanon?”
It was considered to be sort of the birthplace of Arab Nationalism, because they were giving courses in Arabic at a time when it was part of the Turkish Empire.
And, how did you feel working there? Did you feel as if you were an agent of change?
Well, I felt I was doing a lot more good for America than I would have been in a lot of other potential positions. That’s the time when Sputnik went up. Russia went way up in local estimation in what they had accomplished there. It was interesting to see that from outside the United States.
Did you know anything about the IGY or what was going on?
Vaguely, but very little about what was the turmoil and everything that was going on here, to do the satellite tracking and all of that. I was very much out of the loop as to the kind of thing that was happening here.
So we should really then pick this up with your coming back and doing your thesis work, and how did you choose to go into stellar atmospheres?
I was hoping to get a NSF fellowship that was specifically for future college teachers. Since I was already there as a college teacher I would have been eligible for it. But, unknown to me they changed the deadlines for the whole thing, and I missed out on it. So, I was really baffled as to how I was going to support myself. I did not understand the fact that the observatory would have taken care of me in some way or another.
You didn’t get to feeling like this was a big happy family? Or a family at least, when you were here in the first few years?
I was not aware that they would have found some means of support for me. So, when I was then asked by Sarah Hill at Wellesley, if I was prepared to come and teach there for one year while she went off on a sabbatical leave, I was very happy to accept that. The people here at the observatory were not totally pleased [Laugh] Because they thought I was, you know, once more postponing my graduate work. But, I said, you know, “I didn’t see what other support I had,” and by that time we had two children. Our oldest two children were born in Beirut. So, when I came back there was something interesting here, namely Baade was giving his famous course of lectures. I came in twice every week from Wellesley to hear Baade’s course. See that blue volume up on the shelf just next to the safe? That is the transcripts of his classes.
“Evolution of Stars and Galaxies"?
Well, that’s what eventually Cecilia edited into the book?
That’s right. You see the raw material with all of his candid remarks about other astronomers. [Laugh]
I do have a version of that with the remarks, and it’s actually on the shelf at the Naval Observatory.
It’s probably a bound copy of this.
It’s unbound. Oddly enough. And, it’s nowhere near as thick, but I think it’s printed on both sides.
That would account for it. This is one-sided.
Yes, I may want to take a look at it just to compare.
You can, because you can see who’s asking the questions, so you can see who’s in the audience.
It’s a wonderful document. So, did this help you think about what you’d be doing for a thesis?
Well, I had already got some material from Mrs. Gaposchkin which I had started looking in Beirut. Although, it was basically hand-me-down spectra, the spectra of Arcturus, which is a K giant that has some anomalous abundances in it. It became clear that if I was going to be able to do anything with this material I was going to have to do some kind of abundance analysis of it, which then had the possibility that perhaps I could use the new computing facilities. Now in the meantime, Whipple had arranged to get the fastest computer in New England, which was an IBM 704, located down at the IBM Building. It has recently been torn down. It was behind the fire station down at the Harvard yard. And so, the IBM suits all had their offices on the first floor, and on the second floor were all of the programmers, and the people who are actually using the machine. Chuck Whitney was, by that time, an assistant professor. He was very much interested in being able to use the computer to do stellar atmospheres, but he was too busy to do it himself with a variety of other kinds of work. He suggested to me that I might want to do that.
Was this basically the tracking stuff?
He had done a lot of tracking stuff, but he was phasing over to go back to his kind of thesis material to do some further studies on pulsation. Didn’t he tell you that?
Oh, yes. I just want to get it from your perspective because you would have the perspective of being a student and one of my hopes is to try to see how far down in the infrastructure the Smithsonian and its methods and its presence pervaded the place.
He had an office which was maybe slightly bigger than this one, but not much. And, I sat in it too.
So, fifteen by fifteen area?
Yes. So, we both sat there. I sat there beginning to do programming. He showed me that a student in his class had made a basic program just to solve the equation of hydrostatic equilibrium. I looked at it and I began to learn FORTRAN by reading other people’s programs and reading the manual.
So, you didn’t have any formal courses?
You didn’t take any kind of training down at the Computer Center? There was nothing like that?
No. Chuck told me what books to read and I was dependent on certain basic ones, like Woolley & Stibbs, which was a very important text. And, and Stibbs really liked my thesis and I became friends with him. He’s gone to Australia now, but I did see him at Mount Stromlo. There was another book by Kourganoff which was very useful. Then there were some books that were just totally useless, like Chandrasekhar.
Why was it useless?
It was highly beautiful mathematics, but it did not have the cookbook aspects that I needed. [Laugh] So, I very quickly saw that there were basic things that needed to be changed in this other program to make it more flexible, and more generalized. For example, instead of just having one source of electrons, one would want a whole mixture of the abundant atoms to be included, and so on.
So, your study of non-gray stellar atmospheres, which you have a short paper on in the AJ in 1961 and then followed by your thesis, “The Study of Non-Gray Stellar Atmospheres?”
Chuck said I should not call it “A Study of Non-Gray Stellar Atmospheres,” because he said, “After this, all atmospheres will be non-gray and it will no longer be necessary to specify.” [Laugh] But, thorough-going non-gray atmospheres was blazing a new trail.
So, you were dealing with scattering? You were dealing with collision cross sections?
I was dealing with Rayleigh scattering in it, and I was adding, as time went on, more and more opacity sources. I had to add opacity sources that were not making a big difference in terms of the entire radiative balance, but in order to get the ultraviolet spectrum treated correctly. Basically I found, for the first time, how tremendously important a role silicon plays in the ultraviolet. Silicon atoms are the highest absorber of any of the common elements. Quite remarkably so.
You’ve already told me in previous informal discussions, that a lot of the work of this group, and the group itself, was rationalized by the needs for Project Celescope. Were you aware of that during the time you were doing your thesis?
Absolutely. One of the reasons that Whipple was particularly keen to support a Stellar Atmosphere’s Group was that he thought it was going to be very important for the interpretation of the Celescope results. This was very disappointing to Whipple. I think Whipple, at some point or another, remarked that the Stellar Atmosphere’s Group had failed him by not really coming through in a brilliant way to interpret the results from Celescope.
Around that time.
I talked with Gene Avrett, of course. There was this enormous problem with calibration.
That’s right. And how you would map it in terms of the filters and so on. At that point we were much more interested in what line profiles looked like. And so, that was the Wisconsin Project out at the other end of the satellite. We were, of course, interested in good photometry of the ultraviolet, but as a function of wavelength rather than in terms of big-block filters.
You wanted to get intensity distributions?
I mean ones with greater resolution than the broadband filters could give you?
The stuff that was useful to us was, in fact, coming from Wisconsin rather than from Celescope. In fact, the real useful ultraviolet observations were coming from the things that Parkinson and Reeves were doing, from the balloon experiments, as well as what ONR and Tousey were doing with the rocket observations of the sun.
Sounding-rocket solar observations? Those were directly applicable? What is the Parkinson and Reeves work?
They were sending up some balloon-borne cameras to do solar ultraviolet.
In the early ‘60s, or late ‘60s?
Early ‘60s. Bill Parkinson, who’s still around here. What happened was that when Leo Goldberg came he had been in the forefront of doing laboratory astrophysics at Michigan with a shock tube experiment and he decided that Harvard needed to have these shock tube people. And so, Parkinson and Reeves was the team that was doing the shock tube things. But, they also got involved in sending up these balloon experiments. And then, by and by Goldberg got results from his solar satellite, the OSO’s. And, I remember my day of greatest scientific triumph was the afternoon when I persuaded Goldberg that approximately half of the carbon monoxide lines that he was finding in the ultraviolet were noise. Because, my calculations showed that with one of those silicon edges, on one side of the silicon edge the opacity was such that you could get all these wonderful carbon monoxide lines correctly, but on the other side of that edge there was no way. [Laugh] The continuum level had just simply changed. We went in with the calculations and the spectra, the identifications and so on, and by the end of the afternoon Goldberg conceded that there weren’t carbon monoxide lines on the one side of this boundary.
When was that and is that reflected in your publications?
I think it was early 1966. I don’t see that you’ll find a paper that you can specifically identify with that, but there is an abstract of a paper give at the American Astronomical Society.
Now, I did find a paper here that looks very possible. “Metallic Continuous Absorption Coefficients in the Solar Ultraviolet.”
That’s it. It was given jointly with John Rich, a graduate student who had worked up the carbon monoxide UV spectrum in the shock tube laboratory because he worked there with Parkinson and Reeves. But, when Rich learned how important the silicon was, he actually went ahead and did the silicon absorption function with the shock tube as well. Originally I had just used a hydrogenic approximation which turned out to be unexpectedly good.
Where was the shock tube?
It was here?
There’s a big laboratory here. And, I’m just looking up to see when it was that John Rich completed his thesis. So, I was more or less half of his thesis advisor. He finished up in 1967, and he had a job with the Air Force. So, he more or less disappeared into the military science establishment rather than into academia. So, we eventually published this work in Solar Physics.
You also did infrared work with Leo Goldberg and others, didn’t you?
Yes. The infrared work was the first time I sort of branched out on my own, no longer under Whitney’s wings. And, I did that mostly with Shiv Kumar, who is from University of Virginia, and we went down and did that computing at the Goddard Laboratory in New York City, where there was a lot of computer time available.
Yes. My greatest triumph there was with Ed Spiegel, who was working on stellar interiors and was working through the convective zone with this tremendous over-shoot of the convective cells, which he was modeling with exponential integral functions. I said, “By the way, how are you computing your exponential integral functions?” And he said, “Well, with the series expansion of course.” “Well,” I said, “you know, that’s not a very efficient way to do it. You really need to have this sort of standard function based on Chebyshev polynomials.” It turns out that his runs were like twelve hours long, all night long. They were spending ninety-five percent of their time calculating the exponential integral function expansions. As soon as he switched it to the Chebyshev polynomials it cut his runs down to about an hour. [DISCONTINUITY DUE TO SWITCHING OF TAPES] …that was a paper that we gave at the American Astronomical Society about this work. And so, it must have had the results about where the carbon monoxide was and where it wasn’t. And so, when was that paper?
That was Volume 71, 160, pp. 161.
You did work with Leo Goldberg and others in the infrared work?
The infrared work was basically with Kumar and it very much inspired the stratoscope experiments down at Princeton. And, I was always a little bit ticked off at Martin Schwarzschild who came up occasionally to find out what was going on here, and he saw our predictions of what the Betelgeuse spectrum should look like. That was one of the targets specifically chosen for the stratoscope balloon, and it verified our predictions, which was this enormous spike in the spectral regions at 1.65 microns.
But why were you annoyed with him?
Because he never gave us any credit for having inspired this particular experiment.
Maybe he forgot?
Well, people do that sometimes. [Laugh]
And tell me more about “On the Infrared Continuum of the Sun and Stars.” That’s Bob Noyes, Owen Gingerich, and Leo Goldberg. That’s APJ, in 1966.
I forgot about that one. I think Bob actually put more of it together than I did.
And the significance of Leo Goldberg on the paper?
Because of the OSO experiments and getting the data back.
That makes sense. Okay, I want to go back to Celescope and Whipple’s disappointment, or his implication that the Atmospheres Group failed him. Did you hear that directly from him?
At some point I’m sure I must have learned it either very immediately or indirectly. Now originally, I was in fact assigned specifically to work on Celescope.
Who assigned you?
I suppose it came down from Whipple through Chuck Whitney. By that time I had been invited to teach and I was teaching my Astronomical Perspective course. It may have been the first time through. This course eventually became the longest running course at Harvard under the same management.
That started as NATSCI 9. Okay, so I had to skip classes for a whole week to go down to Washington to get briefed on what the interface was going to be on the Celescope satellite. In other words, how we would send instructions to it using the computer to code in the instructions for it?
When was that?
I started teaching the course in ‘63, ‘64. So, it was in that year. To me this was an extremely frustrating exercise, having nothing to do with Bob Davis, but just the fact that the engineers were so vague at that time as to how exactly this interface was going to work. They could talk about it for a whole week without giving us any specific instructions of what we actually had to do. [Laugh]
I just saw a memo in the Celescope files in Whipple’s papers that are here. For some reason they weren’t sent down to Smithsonian, oddly enough. It’s very clear that this was a mess.
On the other hand, I had become essentially the leading systems programmer on the 7094. I understood the FORTRAN compiler and how all the input/output routines worked, and so on. I mean, in the real guts of it, so that was wonderful. Once you become the local expert on something all the puzzles are brought to you. So, naturally you’re always at the head of the curve because you know more oddball things about little minefields in the way the compiler works. [Laugh] Among other things there was an alternative system that a lot of the programmers liked a lot, because it had certain debugging features in it and also a kind of a generalized input/output. I carefully wrote programs that could do the generalized input/output with the regular FORTRAN compiler. I made a function called “Reread,” which was, in fact, distributed throughout the entire network of IBM users as a possible program that they could have. It allowed one to read an input card twice, so that you could read it and look for an identifying word anywhere on the card. If you could identify that word you could then use it to decide how the card should be read, so that you could then have a divide point at this point and read the card a second time and get whatever numbers you wanted off of it. You could specify what it was that you were trying to input. We adopted that system for the Celescope and the programmers who then followed me, used this so that anybody putting instructions in for the Celescope pointing could type their cards in randomly. They didn’t have to make sure that everything was in the right column, that you could put the instruction there and the number and it would get that and do it. So, the whole input system was made very flexibly, which was probably my sole contribution to the Celescope operation. Because Bob Davis, as I think I’ve told you privately, just drove me crazy. Whenever I would go in to ask him a question, that should have had a five-minute answer, I would get a thirty-minute lecture, and on things I did not want to know. [Laugh] I don’t know if you sensed any of that when you were interviewing him or not.
Just a little bit.
A little bit? Well, it just drove me nuts. [Laugh] And so, to the extent I could, I devoted myself both to teaching, and this was an extremely fruitful period in pushing ahead the stellar atmosphere calculations. My thesis was finished, and as I say in the Ad Astra paper on the morning of my PhD exam Max Krook came in and said, “I’ve finally got the answer. I know how to make it iterate now.” Maybe you haven’t read it yet?
Maybe I didn’t read that section.
I had been complaining to him that his method was not iterative. And, he said, “But it doesn’t need to iterate. It gets the correct answer the first time.” [Laugh] And I said, “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t”.” So I had to cobble together a bunch of other ways to bring about radiative equilibrium. I remember he came in and he said, “I’ve got it.” He filled the blackboard with the whole derivation of the thing. And I won’t say I was in a literally stoned state, but in anticipation of this oral exam I was in no fit state to follow what he was doing. He did the same thing to Gene Avrett, and Gene said, “Wait a minute, let me get a pencil and paper.” [Laugh] But Max Krook went on, erasing as he went, leaving us more or less the final equations. And Gene, however, copied down as much of it as he could and reconstructed what the steps had to be leading to it. That’s why it’s called the Avrett-Krook Method, because Gene sort of figured it out. Within days, I was able to program the new method and find out that, in fact, it worked.
I haven’t found it.
But, it is in here, because I just scanned through it. To Beirut and back. So it has to be after returning to graduate school.
Right. I looked in there. I remember reading about the drum memory and all of that.
Here it is.
Oh, okay. Page thirty?
“By March I felt I had caught up to where I’d been in December.” That was with the 7090. We didn’t yet have the ninety-four. “Now fully convinced that Krook’s temperature correction scheme was incapable of iterating. Max Krook had been so insistent that there was something wrong with the way I was handling it that I lost a lot of time before I finally convinced him. Eventually, on the morning of my PhD exam he rushed in with a new variation of his method, which became the famous Avery-Krook Procedure for correcting the temperature distribution. However, by April I had found an alternative scheme so that I could use ’Krook’s procedure for the initial correction and then with a less powerful, but iterative, procedure to finish it off. Finally, I had a working tool, etcetera.” [Laugh] So, it was a matter then of adding more opacity sources, and just in general, making the program continually more sophisticated. After I had done my thesis I added the silicon and began to work seriously about the ultraviolet spectrum and then also doing the work on the infrared spectrum. Here is something really very funny. Quite a few years later I was asked to referee a paper for the ApJ. Or, no, maybe it was for an NSF fund proposal. Anyway, it said, “Gingerich and Kumar had predicted these luminosity criteria for M-type stars, and so and so had verified this for types IB through V, but it had failed for IA.” [Laugh] Luminosity class. Well, I had no clue that this relatively simple kind of calculation had been observationally verified. It was like reading about the work of somebody entirely different. The person was looking for funding to get it straightened out for the brightest of the luminosity classes. That was a lot of fun, but it had to do with the height of this extraordinary peak at the 1.65 microns, which is right between where the free-free and the bound-free of the H- absorption took place. So, there was a lot of that stuff. I was working very intensively on stellar atmospheres in this time that followed my thesis. And then, of course, changing computers. All this knowledge I had about the FORTRAN compiler just became obsolete overnight when we switched to the CDC 6200.
What did you use there? Didn’t you still use FORTRAN?
Yes. But, what I previously understood was the machine language. I decided I would stick with FORTRAN and never learn another machine language. [Laugh]
But, there are a lot of things you can do with machine language that you can’t with FORTRAN.
Well, nowadays FORTRAN has had so many bells and whistles added to it that you can handle most all of it. But, they are in the process of switching to an upgraded FORTRAN, which is much fussier and it’s incompatible with my generalized input program so we’re going to have to rewrite that again.
So your program is still at the core of the atmospheres work that’s done here?
No. Bob Kurucz went off on a quite different tack and my stellar atmospheres program was taken by one of my graduate students, Duane Carbon, out to the West Coast and continued to run it for a long time after I was no longer active in it. But, Bob Kurucz’s program probably has no coding in it at all now that would have come from me. Although originally, of course, he would have used my opacity routines.
In 1965 you, Gene Avrett, and Charles Whitney, co-edited a SAO special report that was a conference on the theory of line formation, held at the observatory. The observatory had been holding these conferences?
I think they held three or four of them.
That’s right. This was in the palmy days of funding. We could bring people over from Europe for it. Here was really, in those days, the headquarters for stellar atmosphere computations. We had fellowships for extended periods of time for several people from Paris and other places.
Was there any competition with Lawrence Aller’s group at UCLA, or any other atmospheres groups at this time?
There was, yes. You probably could find a paper in my bibliography on an archetype “Non-Gray Stellar Atmosphere” which is jointly authored by me, Dimitri Mihalas, Satoshi Matsushima, and Steve Strom. They were our competitors. We all got together.
So these were the basic core of people who were doing the atmospheres. Now, where Mihalas got going on this I’m not quite sure. He later was at UCLA, or at Boulder, and Satoshi was here for a while but had gone off and was at Penn State, pretty sure. So, that was where the competition was. They were the other people who could do it. Steve Strom was here. We got together and made a model that was sufficiently standard in what we included so that we could all demonstrate that we were getting the same results. And so that was put out as a test case so that people who were wanting to get into the business could make sure their programs were running correctly.
Now, all of this work during this time, did you have the ultimate needs of Celescope in mind at all?
Fred Whipple did. [Laugh] We were not particularly working in that direction because we didn’t know exactly what it was that Celescope was going to be able to come up with.
Something that would relate to ultraviolet continua I would imagine?
That’s right, and we were trying all the time to get our opacity sources straightened out for the, for the ultraviolet.
Now, in the early ‘60s, about ‘63, the original Celescope was supposed to be three photometric telescopes and a slitless spectrograph. When the detectors could not be made sensitive enough they canned the spectrograph. I take it that the slitless spectrograph was to look for line profiles? I’m not sure what else it would have been for.
Yes, but how could a slitless one look for line profiles?
I don’t know. What does slitless do then? I thought it was for higher dispersion?
You can’t resolve the star so the star essentially has its own slit.
So, basically you’re looking at a continuum?
I guess, that’s right. Well, but you could maybe see some lines.
Anyway, they cancelled that. So, I take it you weren’t aware of that.
It didn’t enter into our considerations. Basically, we were just pushing it ahead to be able to handle the ultraviolet part. Which meant making sure that we had our opacity sources in line.
Gene Avrett did most of that work in the early ‘70s? You’d moved on by then?
That’s right. The last paper like this I did was the “Harvard-Smithsonian Reference Atmosphere,” which is the one you had here. It was published in 1971, I believe. Then after that I kept my finger in the pie to the extent that I taught the Stellar Atmospheres course several times, but I didn’t publish again a technical paper on it. And, with changes in the computing scheme I then no longer had a program that would run.
But much later on you had “The Effect of Silicon and Carbon Opacity on Ultraviolet Stellar Spectra.”
How much later on is that?
That’s 1970, with Dave Latham.
Yes, 1970. That’s still the same time.
Because you’re doing the ultraviolet stellar opacity here I was wondering if there was an increased attention to the ultraviolet here and if that was stimulated at all by Celescope?
Well, only in a general sort of way.
Was the reference atmosphere supposed to have anything to do with it?
Yvette Cuny is somebody from France who was here working for a while and did a lot of the non-LTE work relating to some of the hydrogen contents. Now, that is the paper that’s had, six hundred literature citations.
Oh yes. It’s extremely highly cited.
Okay. So that was the final paper of the sequence. These others are actually basically connected with Dave Latham’s thesis. He never published his thesis, but the ones where I’m jointly with Dave, is work that was coming out of that.
The ultraviolet work there?
He was basically doing an abundance comparison between Sirius and Mirak.
Yes. Taking Mirak seriously. Yes. He was something –- that was an interesting title. “Model Atmospheres for Cool Dwarfs.” You had “Composition of Sirius.” So, there were a good number.
It’s curious. I think I’ve even forgotten that I wrote some of those. You’ll notice that the first paper was entitled, “Studies in Non-Gray Stellar Atmospheres I” and another paper was entitled III. Now, the whole series of maybe six papers were proposed originally, but because I got invited to conferences where they expected a conference paper to be in their proceedings, these other proposed papers were all written but they were taken out of the Astrophysical Journal and published in other places.
So, you did them in that numerical order?
Chuck Whitney had advised me in the beginning that I shouldn’t start numbering them that way unless I actually had them written and was ready to submit them. [Laugh] And he was right.
Well, is there anything else you feel I should be asking you about Celescope and about your atmospheres work?
Well, as you can see there’s a considerable disconnect between what we were doing and the Celescope. I think it was that disconnect that Fred Whipple sensed. But at the same time we were building this into the international center for this. It was the stellar atmosphere work that was really giving the Smithsonian Observatory its scientific reputation. Because it had been known for all of its satellite tracking work. But, people at the American Astronomical Society were not necessarily very interested in satellite tracking or the standard earth, or even conceivably the very important work that Jacchia was doing about the Earth’s atmosphere. But, people would remark, “Well, it’s nice to see that the Smithsonian is doing real astronomy.”
They would say that to you at AAS meetings?
Yes, or to that effect. That may not be the exact quote. But it was enough to realize that this group and this particular work was what was giving the observatory its international reputation as far as astronomy was concerned. The Stellar Atmosphere Conferences helped with that because they were international, as well as our role at the Dutch Bildenberg Conference and the resulting Bildenberg Solar Model.
Yet, Whipple was not happy with the group, as you said, and there was a falling out between Whipple and Chuck Whitney?
That had nothing to do with the quality of the work that the group was doing.
What was that all about then? I’ve asked Gene Avrett this. I’ve asked Chuck Whitney this. Now, I’m asking you. [Laugh]
All right. This is veiled in a great deal of secrecy and you probably know more at this point than anybody else. I’m going to give you my spin on it. Whipple had, during this whole time, very much of a free hand in who he could hire. There was a lot of money flowing. He could be very quick in making an appointment and bringing somebody in. These people were pretty good and were obviously the people that should be teaching the advanced courses in this subject.
Leo Goldberg thought that the astronomy department should be making the decisions about who should be hired to be teaching the courses, or that at the very least Whipple should be consulting with the department when he was making some of these senior appointments.
I’d have to think who was doing it. Obviously Brian Marsden was here as an expert on celestial mechanics, so who should be teaching the Celestial Mechanics course? Brian. Who’s teaching the Stellar Atmospheres course? I’m teaching the Stellar Atmospheres course.
Or Chuck Whitney?
Chuck Whitney did it first and then later on I did it. Or it may not be actually teaching classes but guiding theses and so on. There gradually became a sense that perhaps some of the senior scientists, at the Smithsonian, perhaps be involved in these decisions rather than having them made more or less single handedly by Whipple. I remember there was a meeting of the American Astronomical Society at Williams Bay. It’s easy for you to look up and find out what the date of that was, but probably 1967. And, it was beautiful spring weather, and great sunshine to sit out on the grass, and a number of us . . .
So, it was a June meeting?
Yes. So, a number of us talked about what was happening at the Smithsonian Observatory.
Was it all Smithsonian staff members?
They were Smithsonian staff members basically. I don’t remember who else was there but I know it was a topic of discussion at that time, and Chuck was there. Chuck, more or less, became the ring leader to propose that there should be some sort of a Smithsonian Observatory Council to help make some of these major decisions. Whipple saw this as a palace revolt. He put it down with an extremely heavy hand. What he did to Chuck Whitney, I have no idea but it was as if Chuck’s spirit of doing science was completely broken. Out of that came Chuck’s withdrawal, like a turtle pulling his head into a shell. That was in effect the end of Chuck’s sort of lieutenant leadership in the scientific role at the Smithsonian Observatory. And, I’m hoping you’re finding out what this was all about, because I could only see the outside effects. I only knew what caused it and what the consequences were. But, I don’t know what the turning events were. It was plain to see that something dramatic had happened.
Now, Gene Avrett then sort of stood in when Chuck Whitney left?
Chuck took off, he was gone from here for almost a year, but he wasn’t traveling he was just at home?
Yes. Something like that.
So, you must not have seen much of him? I mean, he must have come in.
There was this turning point and Chuck, who had up to that time been engaged in a considerable variety of things, including laboratory work trying to find out what the source of some of the interstellar lines, or interstellar broad bands were. He was working even in a laboratory sense. After his withdrawal he began to work more and more on educational software, and things like that, and he was just given an award by the AAVSO for being the editor of their publications for thirty years.
Oh yes. He mentioned that.
I had been very, very close to him, yet he never shared with me what it was that had happened.
Was his decision to write The Discovery of Our Galaxy and other historical things a manifestation of this too?
I don’t think so. He had been working on that for some time. It’s interesting and uneven.
That’s true. But, the stories I’m getting do dovetail. I mean, I can say that. But, they don’t go much farther than what you have told me, even from what Chuck Whitney told me. There were a few more examples of Whipple’s behavior.
What happened was that even though Whipple managed to put it down, he did not succeed in stopping this movement. And he was forced to have a Smithsonian Council.
Who finally pushed that through?
I don’t know whether it was pressure from Leo Goldberg or pressure from above. Even from them all. Because I know. I was on this Smithsonian Council then, for a certain length of time. I’m not sure what serious decisions we made as a council, but I was appointed a member of it.
I’ve not seen records of the Smithsonian Council.
Well there was such a thing, but I cannot, in my memory, tell you anything about who else was on it, how often we met, or so on.
Did somebody take minutes?
I don’t know.
I mean, they certainly did for the Harvard Council, the HCOC, the Harvard College Observatory Council?
Yes. That was a long-going thing way back in. No, this then dissolved fairly soon because then George Field came. George Field was selected as Harvard College Observatory director and chairman of the department. It was then, because of what Goldberg had forced, even though Goldberg had by that time left.
What had he forced? Is this is the Goldberg-Whipple issue?
Yes. Goldberg had forced Whipple’s retirement because as a federal employee Whipple could have kept going as the Smithsonian director. But, Goldberg pointed out that the agreement by which the observatory had come here the position of the Smithsonian director was to be handled in a comparable way to the Harvard director. Since the Harvard director was required to retire at age sixty-five, or something like that. By the Harvard administrative rules — I have this all down in the memorial notice I just wrote for Fred.
For Harvard. It’ll be published shortly.
Good. Because I certainly would like a copy.
I could print it off the computer because the dates are given there. Because Whipple could retain his professorship, which he did, for another five years, because then you had as a professor, either to retire at sixty-seven or at sixty-five to go halftime on teaching and then you could stay until seventy. So, he stayed as professor until seventy but he was obliged to give up the directorship at sixty-five. Now, David Challinor was on our committee and he actually gave me an interesting piece. He said he had to come up and be very diplomatic to lever Fred into resignation, and that Fred was really resisting it. He said he came up a year later with some trepidation wondering what Fred’s attitude would be and Fred greeted him with a big happy smile and said, “Dave, this is the best thing that’s happened to me. I don’t have to worry about all that bureaucracy and I can be doing my research.” And he said that Fred was very reconciled to it but the implication was that he had not been at that moment. Of course it was plain then -– I mean, George had already been hired to come as Harvard Observatory director and he suddenly had the Smithsonian directorship handed to him as well, which is not what he had been recruited for. As a consequence he realized he had to give up being department chairman because this would have been way too much of a job. At that point the basis for the Center was put into place and the Harvard department chairmanship, which was then essentially the representative of the graduate students, I mean for the whole teaching program, fell to the chairman of the department and that was then severed for the first time from the directorship.
Well, who became the department chairman?
I think Alex Dalgarno.
But, he is still up here? He still had a CFA appointment?
Oh yes. The whole concept of making a Center for Astrophysics was George’s doing and he saw that as the way to get peace between these two very competitive organizations — I mean, there was an infra-red group that Whipple had appointed and a competing one that Goldberg had appointed. So, we had two infra-red groups, which weren’t necessarily talking to each other. And, we had similar competition in building a large telescope.
Tell me about that. I understand that Goldberg was interested in a telescope for the Southern Hemisphere but Whipple wanted to build Mount Hopkins?
That’s right. They got locked into this and I think Goldberg must have hired John Danziger to be the optical telescope person for Harvard, which was going off on a totally different direction from what Smithsonian was. There were these pockets of direct competition. George saw that if he would have associate directors who were appointed totally independently as to whether they were supported by Harvard or by Smithsonian he could make a paper entity, the Center for Astrophysics run by the associate directors, which was not a Smithsonian affair and was not a Harvard affair but a joint affair. I guess you’d have to say that George’s genius was the idea of having the Center for Astrophysics as this kind of paper entity that joined the two competing observatories. And also, he brought in the High Energy Group. But, in order to bring in the High Energy Group he essentially had to reserve all of his positions for those people and he had no slots left to bring Duane Carbon back to work with me on stellar atmospheres. Duane had left here and had taken a postdoc out at Kitt Peak with the expectation that he might be able to come back here. George said, “Well, I don’t really care. If you would prefer to do historical work that would be in keeping with the principles of this place and that would be just fine.” And so, at that point I switched my principal efforts to doing the historical work, and it was because of that reorientation. At the same time, by setting it up under the different associate directors, the Stellar Atmospheres Group got broken up. Some of them went to solar and stellar physics, some to the OIR, some to the Theoretical Division, and it was George’s really crazy idea to mix everybody around in their offices, so that they wouldn’t have all the Theoretical people sitting together and then all of the Observational people in another place, and so on, that they should all be talking to each other. As a result of that I got moved out to here. I was kind of upset at this.
Where were you before?
Over across from where Bob Noyes has his office, in one of the best offices. A corner office in Perkin. What made me peeved about it was that I had to get the rumor, that my office was going to be moved, from Tucson. The people out there knew about what all was going to go on. It was a total secret up here. [Laugh] I remember driving down to Woods Hole where George was attending a National Academy meeting of some sort, and confronting him with this, [Laugh] “What’s going on?” As a concession they carpeted the entire floor of this building and they put up these Venetian blinds to match all of the nice Venetian blinds over in Perkin. So, if you go downstairs and look in the offices you see they’ve all got tile floors. [Laugh] But, up here we have nice floors. This was the result of my going down to Woods Hole.
At one point you had three offices.
I just moved a week ago, and they re-carpeted and moved graduate students into that third office.
But you acquired three offices here?
I did because Joan Jordan, my secretary, always had the middle office. So basically, I had these two offices separated by Joan’s. When Joan retired people were flocking around like vultures, expecting to maybe capture that office. Irwin came over and had a look and saw how much stuff I had and retreated, and signed a paper saying I was grandfathered into all these. [Laugh] But, Charles Alcock did not feel that he was necessarily bound by such decisions that Irwin had made, in a lot of different cases.
Well, I guess that transition is still happening?
It’s still going on and there’s some people who are kind of riled up about it.
I wanted to keep you to the Whipple period. Certainly if there’s more that you can direct me to about the Whipple-Goldberg relationship that would be helpful.
I’ve got an oral history interview with Goldberg someplace. It may have been sent down to the AIP?
I think I’ve seen it listed. There’s at least three or four. I’ve done one. Spencer has a long one. So, you have one and you did ask him about this period? Who are the people now that you have interviewed? You interviewed Leo?
I gave you the Chuck Lundquist one?
Yes, Chuck Lundquist. Who else?
Well, on this particular period not really anybody else. I did talk to Whipple at one point.
Oh, is that recorded?
Yes, I recorded one. But, as I say it wasn’t necessarily a very helpful interview because he was not particularly forthcoming.
But you also did Goldberg?
Certainly I’ll be very interested in getting access to those.
I’m sure that can be arranged. And, among other things maybe I’ll be able to find them. [Laugh] I’ll have to look.
Well, we’ve gone pretty far. It’s five thirty. Should we start to close down this session? Or, is there any overview comments that you would like to make regarding Smithsonian History, regarding Whipple, regarding your experiences here? I presume this is not going to be the last interview with you. At least at this point can you think of anything that might be helpful for my work? Celescope specifically?
I don’t know but I should probably, at some point, give you a little bit more background on Dave Latham. I should probably have been able to do that before you interviewed him rather than now. But, Dave was very instrumental in things that had to do with the MMT. I don’t know how much you talked to him about that.
I did, and I was quite surprised because when we did the documentation of the MMT the others didn’t say much about him, Nat Carleton and people like that.
That’s right. I thought that Dave was a very good person to have on board here. He had been my graduate student and there was some clash of personality between Dave and Nat Carleton. And Nat Carleton told me off, saying it was inappropriate for me to have pushed for my own graduate student that way. There was something where I suspect, at one time, Nat Carleton might have tried to get Dave fired. I don’t know because Dave clammed up about it even more than Chuck Whitney did about what Whipple had tried to do to him.
I think I’m free enough to say that Dave wanted to talk more but he didn’t. There’s a number of things that are still bothering him very deeply.
It’s bothered him so deeply that even though we’re very close he has never told me what it was that happened. And Nat Carleton was an associate director.
Oh, he was at that time?
Or was it Herb Gursky?
It was Gursky.
It was Gursky. I’m sorry. But after Gursky retired, Dave became associate director. His whole role was a sort of redemption that Dave was able to do a lot of serious directing of the division while he was the head. But I think Nat Carleton is quite reconciled to having David around, but I’m not at all certain that David is reconciled with what Nat had tried to do to him.
That’s fine. [Laughter] I don’t quite remember exactly what he said, but he did talk about it to a certain extent. The other issue dealt with his development of Mount Hopkins as the sixty-one inch or sixty-two inch.
Yes. And the Z Machine.
The Z Machine was conceived of by Marc Davis but Dave was able to actually make it work. And he may have told you that?
Oh yes. Then I asked him questions about the structure of the group that was doing large-scale structure and how John came in. Dave said he hired John Huchra, I think it was?
And he hired Margaret. He told me the other day he hired Margaret. He didn’t mention that he had hired John. I’m not sure.
I could be wrong. But anyway, that also was a discussion that went to a point and then stopped with him. I don’t have to pick it up at this point, but there’s clearly some very strong…
I just saw Marc Davis when I was out at this meeting in Berkeley. But, he’s had a stroke and his whole right arm is paralyzed and he looks kind of crooked, but he’s carrying on.
Well, he’d be worth talking to, if I can ever get out there. [Laugh] We haven’t talked about things like Moon Watch, Baker-Nunn, any of these things. Did you have any significant contact with the data reduction or with any of those programs?
Well, Chuck did a lot. And, I would to chat with Chuck about it at some time. Not to record it but to get a little bit more briefing. There’s a lot of information in Nelson Hayes’ account.
That’s a good book.
And that’s what I use as my basic text for trying to look into that kind of thing. But, I just wasn’t here during that period. And when I did come back I was keeping my nose to this grindstone.
So, it was all stellar atmospheres?
You might say “All stellar atmospheres, all the time.” [Laugh]
Except then I started teaching. I started teaching even before I got into the 336 NATSCI 9 course. I taught, to some people’s chagrin, before I actually got my thesis finished.
I looked at some of the years in the early ‘60s of the course catalogs, and, in fact, I looked at several different ones. I looked for early ‘50s and then a few in the early ‘60s. And one thing I was surprised about in the early ‘50s, of course, I.B. Cohen comes in with some of the natural sciences ones, and so does Gerry Holton, very early.
They were rivals.
I always thought it was a mentor-teacher relationship?
Oh no. Rivals. Gerry Holton had come in as a student of Bridgman.
Cohen was Sarton and somebody else, from the history department who had finally told Bernard to stop working on his Newton and Franklin book and just turn in his catalog of the early scientific instruments here at Harvard as his thesis, which Sarton rather grudgingly accepted. [Laugh] But, Bernard brought out his Franklin and Newton book a number of years later, which was, you know, getting bigger and bigger. But then, in a way, you appeared in the early ‘60s.
I appeared as a teaching fellow for Bernard in ‘53.
I think I saw that. That’s maybe what I was trying to remember. So, you were a teaching fellow for I.B. Cohen?
Yes, for two years. And that was an interesting situation because, in fact, he had me give a course lecture or two, which was quite unusual for a teaching fellow. When I came back from Beirut, Leonard Nash, who was another one of those teachers was not necessarily wanting to do a whole year. Bernard was a bit phasing out of it. So, they drafted me as a part of a triumvirate and the three of us gave the course together. I suppose I was a lecturer there well before I got my thesis done.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes. By that time I was pretty well practiced having taught all kinds of courses in Beirut with very obstreperous young men who, if you didn’t know your subject matter cold, could be very ornery. DEVORKIN: Yes, you mentioned that in your essay.
I had to read that sentence several times to understand what you were saying. [Laugh] You were in a university where there were Arab students? [Laugh] I kept having to remind myself. Okay, do you want to go on into your historical work or should we leave that for another day?
At this point I suppose we should think of leaving it for another day so I can check out some other things. Another day, probably on a different trip?
Oh yes. I think it would be really helpful to process this, give you a chance to go over it, and then I come back with more questions probably of this early period.
How far are you going to go with your history?
Well, officially we go through Whipple’s years, which includes Whipple’s retirement, Whipple’s stepping down in ‘73.
It would, in many ways be reasonable to go up to the dedication of the MMT.
That’s not a bad idea. That would give me a chance to show how the institution changed under Field. And, that’s Whipple’s crowning touch?
Well, it’ll be on the tape and it’ll be something to think about.
Not published. Can be found in “self interview.”
Albert-Ingalls, “Amateur Telescope Making Book III,” Scientific American, New York 1953, pg. 141 – 44
T. and L.W. Page, Telescopes, How to Make Them and Use Them, MacMillan, New York, 1956, pg. 100 – 104
Gingerich, O. “The Return of the Seagoing Cowboy,” American Scholar 68 No. 4 (1999), 71 – 82
Owen Gingerich, Sky & Telescope, Volume IX, pp. 190
Copies at Harvard, AIP, Smithsonian
Walter Baade (ed.), Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (ed,), Evolution of Stars and Galaxies, The MIT Press (1975). The blue volume was the original transcripts…
Owen Gingerich, “A Computer Program for Nongray Stellar Atmospheres,” AJ, Vol. 70 pg. 285 (March 1961)
Owen Gingerich and John C. Rich, “Metallic Continuous Absorption Coefficients in the Solar Ultraviolet,” AJ, Vol. 71, p. 161 (April 1966)
Owen Gingerich and John Rich, “The Far Ultraviolet Spectrum of the Sun,” Solar Physics 3 (1968), 82-88
Robert W. Noyes, Owen Gingerich, and Leo Goldberg, “On the Infrared Continuum of the Sun and Stars” AJ Vol. 145, pg. 344 (July 1966)
ApJ 55 part 8 (1965), 316-19
O. Gingerich, R. Noyes, W. Kalkofen and Y. Cuny. “The Harvard-Smithsonian Reference Atmosphere” Solar Physics 18 (July 1971) 347-365.
Owen Gingerich and David Latham, “The Effect of Silicon and Carbon Opacity on Ultraviolet Stellar Spectra,” Proceedings from IAU Symposium, No. 36, 1970
Owen Gingerich, “Studies in Non-Gray Stellar Atmosphere I,” ApJ, Vol. 138, pg. 576, (August 1963)
Owen Gingerich, Stephen E. Strom, and Karen M. Strom, “Studies in Non-Gray Stellar Atmosphere III,” ApJ, Vol. 146, pg. 880 (December 1966)
Gingerich and K. DeJager, The Bildenberg Model of the Photosphere and Ion Chromosphere,” Solar Physics 3 (1968) 5-25.
American Astronomical Society Meeting, Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin. June 12-15, 1967.
Charles Whitney, “The Discovery of Our Galaxy,” New York, Knopf, 1971.