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Interview of Gunnar Randers by Finn Aaserud on 1986 August 19, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/32830
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In this interview Gunnar Randers discusses his career and his involvement in science policy. The interview is based on Randers's autobiography, Light Years. Topics discussed include: his childhood in Oslo and Sauda; Svein Rosseland; University of Oslo Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics; astrophysics; Mount Wilson Observatory; Boy Scouting; nuclear processes in the Sun; Harvard University; Edwin Hubble; Martin Schwarzschild; California Institute of Technology; five dimensional relativity; H. P. Robertson; Albert Einstein; Yerkes Observatory; University of Chicago; S. Chandrasekhar; Edward Teller; the American scientific milieu; service in the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment during World War II; Harald Ulrik Sverdrup.
We are sitting in the home of Gunnar Randers on the 19th of August, 1986, to begin an interview on his career, specifically devoted to his involvement in science policy but also touching on the general aspects of his career. The interview will be based on his autobiography, which exists in Norwegian with the title Lysår (Light Years). Maybe we should begin with the beginning. You were born where and when?
In Oslo, 28th of April, 1914.
What were your parents’ education?
Well, my father was a civil engineer, educated in Trondheim at the Technological Institute there, or rather the forerunner of that Institute which later developed into the Technical University in Trondheim. He took his degree there. He was born in 1877 and he took his degree there around 1900. Of course those details are in books here too, if you like. But that may not be necessary. My mother, as was common in those days, had no particular education. She was born in Vardf, living in Kirkenes, or rather outside Kirkenes in Elvenes, on the border of Russia at the time. My father came up there in order to construct the iron factory. A steel factory up in Kirkenes which was built in those years — and so he met my mother there, and they were married in 1911, I believe.
And when you were born, they were in Oslo.
They lived in Oslo when I was born, yes. They moved back here again.
And what was your father’s position then?
Well, my father worked then in a contractor company called Vulkan, building bridges. It’s here in Oslo, and for that reason, he left again, I think, in 1916-1917. He went down to Sauda to build melting company works there; we lived in that little western city in Norway for a couple of years until 1919, and came back to Oslo again at that time. When I was old enough to start in school, we had moved back to Oslo, so that my childhood living place was really Oslo, except that I remember also the Sauda place very well, which is in some ways a bit surprising. I believed always that I had a clear recollection of the Sauda place in spite of the fact that I left it when I was four, and it was always being doubted here whether I remembered that far back when I was three years old. I didn’t go back there again until last year, which was then 70 years later, in order to see if I remembered correctly or not. And I did. I found my house in that city, the place where the cinema had been, the market place and certain other places as I remembered them. It’s an interesting check, if you have been away from a place since you were three or four, to see to what extent you really remember correctly. And it was surprisingly correct.
How was the economic situation in the home?
Well, I think you’d say it was better middle class. I mean, as an engineer, he had a reasonably good income, but of course the 1920s was a difficult period, and so my father was teaching in the technical school in the evenings to increase the income of the family. We lived in a nice five room apartment, near Ullevålsveien in the northern part of Oslo, and my father was for 15 to 20 years a member of the Formannskap, or City Council in Oslo. So in that way, he was a little more than average involved with politics and city concerns and so on. So I got a little more of that than young people normally did, in addition to the fact that he had therefore also a free passage card on to all the cinemas in Oslo, which meant that we children did go to cinema every day practically. It was important in the day, because the ticket was considered highly, and we children wouldn’t afford to go to movies so often unless we had had that card. It was useful.
What was his party inclination?
He was a representative of the conservatives — “Høire.”
What about the sisters and brothers?
I had an older sister. She was a year and a half older than me. And the younger sister was seven years younger. They were both born in Sauda, so that the younger sister couldn’t be more than five years younger than I.
So you were the only boy?
I was the only boy.
Did you have differences or similarities of interests with your sisters?
Oh yes, in a way. We had difference interests, like normally boys and girls would have. I was keen on being good at school, while my sister, or both of them, were less interested in school, and also did perhaps less excellent than I did. I was always very ambitious to be at the top of the class, while they were not very keen on that.
Did they go on to careers?
No, they were both marries at an early time, around 20, 21, 22 years, so they did not pursue any particular career. At the time that was not as usual as it is today.
No, of course not. What about other influences in the home? Your father’s engineering background — was that important, did he give you some influence?
Well, the background of my father initially was more on the, I think, sporting side. That is, he was very keen on wild life and he was a hunter. He went out to shoot partridges in the fall and he liked to ski. His main interest was really to take me out skiing and going on trips and traveling up to the mountains and so on — to begin with, anyway. Later, of course, we were influenced indirectly by his political activities; we couldn’t help discussing that at home, and we discussed those questions a bit. But he came home for dinner at 5 o’clock and left again at 6 to go to the evening school to teach and came back at 8:30, so he really worked twelve hours a day, and there wasn’t much time to discuss with him.
For how long was he involved?
That was a long time, really, from 1925, at the time when I was going in first grade in school.
After a brief interruption, we return. Are there other influences in the home that you would point to as important in forming your life?
You might say the good, peaceful, and pleasant surroundings for youngsters in that home. Both my father and mother were interested in music. My father was singing and my mother was playing piano. They had quite a lot of fun out of that, and that of course brought my own interest into that direction. I started playing piano, which I had lots of fun with all the rest of my life. I think that is one of the things that I would credit the surroundings with. Otherwise, there are all kinds of ordinary things. I don’t think there is anything that I would characterize as overwhelmingly important. We moved away from our first place in 1932, but then I was already a student. We moved over to Thomas Heftyes gate (street) near Frogner Plass. But at that time, of course, I began to be more independent, so it didn’t make much difference.
Before we get to that, what about your early schooling.
Well, as I said, I was a kind of perfect pupil, I think. I tried to be very nice and polite to the teachers, and realized early that that paid off. I had no difficulties learning the things one should learn. So I was usually among the best of the class and got accustomed to that. I was ambitious to get top marks, particularly in mathematics, which interested me more than the other things. This went on I think all the time up to Artium (through high school). And so my disappointment was really that for the first time in my life I did not get a top mark when I took my Artium. That was of course a disappointment at the time, which made it even more important for me to get top marks when I took my university exam. In that I succeeded very well. I got what they call “innstilling” for that. That was a ridiculous feel that this was very important. Of course it was somewhat more important perhaps in those days than today, because when I took my university degree — that was of course later than 1937 — there were two possibilities for fellowships for students in the whole of Norway big enough to go abroad. And I realized that something like that had to happen to get that. For the year I think I was the only one at the university who got innstilling. There weren’t many at the time there. There were three years since somebody had done it. So I was fairly sure I’d get that fellowship at that time, but I didn’t, for a reason I’d never know. It was a great disappointment. So you see, it was a kind of consistent interest in good marks, but for some motivational reason, not only to excel, but I realized that was a way to get out of it, and at the time of course I wanted to be a scientist. When I began, I wasn’t quite sure of that.
When and how did that interest begin to crystallize?
Well, that began to crystallize so that you could feel it about when I was 15 or 16. I had then a good friend, Einar Seeland, who was a son of the President of the university, Rektor Seeland. The father was a physicist so I discussed a little physics with him, and I got some books that I read in the first gymnasium (high school) class, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I read some relativity theory papers and so on and that interested me and brought me in on that.
Were these Norwegian popularizations?
No, they were not really. They were in English and German. No, I don’t think there was any Norwegian popular description on it at the time. Well, there was maybe one book by Stømer, Atomenes indra (Inside the Atoms), that’s right, but he didn’t go into details like that. He was himself too old; he didn’t understand relativity theory himself. So I think it was books I got through this Professor Seeland, which were in English and in German. We learned quite a lot of German at the time in school. So, that was not very difficult. And my interest changed, in a way. I thought I should be an architect when I went to high school, because I always liked drawing. We did a lot of drawing. We ran a daily newspaper in the class. Three of us were drawing four cartoons every day. We had to get out an issue every day with 12 cartoons of teachers and people and so on, which took a lot of work in school. We were sitting there drawing, and I also liked to draw houses and so on, and so I decided first to be an architect. But in the last moment I changed my mind. I thought it was too pedestrian to draw ordinary houses and kitchens and staircases and so on. There wasn’t enough fantasy behind it, so I changed it when I was 18.
And Seeland was the main influence in that respect.
He was one of the influences to start me on it, yes. Now, the difficulty with him was of course like Størmer that he was himself at that time an old man. None of them really understood much about modern physics at that time. Of course, in the last 20 to 30 years we had had the whole development of wave mechanics and relativity theory and modern physics. They themselves were not well informed, so I very rapidly advanced beyond them in that field already at that time. So they helped to get me into the interest, but not from there on up. But what happened then, was that I heard from Seeland, who brought me into contact with Professor Rosseland. Rosseland was really the only one in Norway at the time who was a specialist, and so he immediately took me on as his assistant already when I was 20 years old.
You were fresh from the gymnasium?
Well, I took my gymnasium when I was 18, so I had studied for two years, and had taken mathematics. It was during that period I met Rosseland, and when I was finished with mathematics at only 20, he hired me as his assistant in his new Theoretical Astrophysics Institute. That was of course a decisive step for me. When I was 19, he gave me a very famous avhandling — paper — by Einstein, and asked if I could give a colloquium on it. And of course to me it was absolutely Greek at the time. But I worked on it for two months and I gave a talk and I think that was successful enough. He viewed that as a kind of test, and from then on, I moved into the new Astrophysics Institute, which was given by Rockefeller and built that year. So that was a big change in my life. That was a really serious entrance into science.
So you were working closely with Rosseland?
Yes. He was writing a book at the time — a textbook on astrophysics — and instead of continuing my studies, I spent a full year helping him write that book. That is, he wrote the chapters, then I read them and we rewrote them the way I should understand it. I spent a whole year on that, before I took the rest of my exam. It was a very useful thing of course, because it caused me also to take astrophysics or astronomy as my main course, instead of, as I thought originally, mathematics. So he had a heavy influence, and he was of course a first rate scientist, very good. He was inspiring.
So he was the main influence in guiding you specifically —
— to astrophysics.
Yes, you can say so, because my main interest originally was really more towards pure mathematics. So I think it was a useful thing.
Was that discouraged or was it just that Rosseland was stronger than any other influence?
There was really no other influence. You might say that the other professors were not very inspiring, and not very interested in what the students were doing. I had a feeling that he was the only one who had inspiration and was keen and interested. And he had the means because he had been in America himself and brought the money to build up the Institute from the Rockefeller Foundation, and when it was finished, that was when we started.
What was the general milieu like at the Astrophysics Institute at the time?
There was no milieu. It was really Rosseland. He had come back from America and he had got this money and spent some time building these things. I came in as his assistant, and then, in order to fill up that Institute to begin with, he had Professor Bjerknes, the old dean of science in Norway. He moved in there, and Professor Størmer with his northern lights, which didn’t interest me very much at the time. I thought it was too much sitting all night observing and measuring heights, without thinking about it, and I thought that was awfully dull. But he moved in there. Then there was Professor Solberg, who was a meteorologist, so these three professors moved in to begin with and filled up. There were a couple of other students in astrophysics but nothing to inspire me very much. What was important was that the name of Rosseland brought foreigners like Dr.Schwarzschild from Germany for example, and people like Tuominen from Finland. People from Finland, Germany, American, England, South Africa came and worked with Rosseland and in that way I even got in contact with foreign astronomers there, which was also unheard of in Norway in those days. It was an incredibly poor milieu in Oslo at the time. There was one position. I remember my father was wondering a bit about my plans when I studied astronomy. He said “There is a young professor.” That was Rosseland, who was 35 years old. That was the only position there in astronomy really. And what was my future in that? I had to sit and wait for 50 years, 40 years, until a professorship would be ready? So, that wasn’t much. The next year I did get that fellowship which I had wanted the first year, and then of course Rosseland arranged immediately for me to go to America to the Mount Wilson Observatory, so then I got into a milieu for the first time in my life really.
After your degree?
That was after my degree, which was a physics degree. There were only two milieus in Oslo that really were of interest at the time. There was astrophysics under Rosseland, and there was the meteorological milieu, where Bjerknes and Solberg and Svene Pettersen and a couple of others were working scientifically at quite high levels. But Oslo as such was really, when I look upon it now — and I thought so at that time too — a developing country when it comes to the scientific milieu. There was nobody to talk to and discuss with.
Rosseland too must have had some thoughts about that.
Yes, of course. The group around him grew a bit, and we had these foreigners all the time, so we did have a few publications each year. When he started his Institute, the first publication was one he wrote himself, the second one, was one I wrote, and then came two or three a year, but that was all. So it grew slowly, very slowly, and I don’t know what would have happened if the war haven’t come. Rosseland was planning for some time to take leave and work in England, Germany or more than anything else America again, which he came to do after all, but that was for the war reason later. So there was this beginning from 1934, when the Institute was established, and then up to 1940, when the invasion came in Norway — five or six years the institute existed. We had one interesting development which Rosseland, and I too, were very interested in. That was building the first big computer in Norway, which was a big mechanical computer, 7 meters long, with 12 integrators. You could integrate a whole lot of simultaneous differential equations and so on. But it was an incredibly primitive type of machine, run with a motor with mechanical drives, and we used show strings as belts for the drives. We used big wrenches and coupled up the different shafts in a long room in the cellar. But that was a very useful thing, because the whole idea of making integrations and solving differential equations, except by the Størmer method with these small calculators, was something entirely new. It was useful for me to understand this when I later came to America, and met von Neumann who was starting a new type of computer; then I was already familiar with the idea.
You talked about your astrophysics textbook. What was the fate of that eventually?
Well, that was published in Cambridge by Cambridge University Press, and became a standard textbook — the first one I really think in modern astrophysics using quantum mechanics and relativity theory and advanced methods. So it was an excellent book, and for many years one of the standard textbooks all over the world — in American too; it was also published by Cambridge University Press in America.
You also mentioned that you did translations of Einstein and Infeld, and Hogben’s book. When was that?
That was in the first years I was studying, really, that I did that. That was of course occasioned by Professor Edgar Schjeldrap who was a big kind of popular science man and a professor at the university in those days. He was interested in translating Hogben’s book on mathematics and so on, and so he gave me the task of translating certain of these chapters. It was interesting to me, and of course at the time I was saving money to go to America. That was the point. Since I hadn’t got a fellowship, I had to try to make some extra money, and I made money on translations like that, and also on the Einstein book. It was useful, because in America I rapidly met both Einstein and Hogben and other people I had translated like that, so it was kind of a key — when you met them you could talk with them.
Certainly. Would you describe the contents of your dissertation and the interest behind that?
I might perhaps, before we get to that, mention — I don’t know it it’s important — my first visit to America, which came before in 1936.
That was before? I was thinking about the Norwegian dissertation. Was that after your visit to America?
Well it was about the same time. My first visit to America was really as a Boy Scout.
Oh yes. Please go on.
It might be of interest because one of the influences in my youth was certainly the Scout movement — from when I was 11 till I was up to 18 or 20. One thing was its role in regular life, but at that time we did make some expeditions to Hungary, to camp there, and to England, to meet some Scout people there. Later, when I stayed in England during the war, I got in contact with them again. It was useful. And in 1936 we went on a Scout trip, around in the then Norwegian part of America, singing and dancing folk dances, you know, having camp fires and playing piano and singing and so on for them. We had concerts around, which really financed our whole trip. In that way we spent a month in America. It was my first contact with America, which in many ways played a part, because I liked America immediately and wanted to come back there. There was a certain urge in me for getting there as soon as possible after I studied. I just mention that.
That was before your contact with anything scientific.
Oh yes. It was long before that. Concerning my dissertation, that was Sven O. Rosseland’s ideas. It was a rather advanced thing, because we didn’t know at the time when I started my studies there, what gave the energy in the sun. During my studies, there were some suggestions and articles by American and German physicists or scientists about the possibility of nuclear processes in the sun — about how these cycles should go; they were still fairly uncertain. At the time Rosseland was also studying the possible instability of stars. You know, stars sometimes start oscillating, and one of two things can happen. Either it continues to oscillate for a long time, or it grows more and more violent and explodes. The question was, what was it that caused them to explode? When were they stable and when were they not stable? And what was it that made them pop up and down? You have to have some energy for it. So he gave me a task — trying to write about the pulsating stars and their energy, what could make them unstable, and what nuclear processes that could come in. And this was rather successful. I did work on certain processes. One of them turned out later to be impossible, but theoretically it was very good for bringing helium atoms together and making higher level atoms from helium. Now, it of course turned out that it has to be a hydrogen atom together with helium atoms, but in principle it was the same thing. I did write a thesis on that which was fairly successful, and after I’d finished it Rosseland and I wrote an article on it together, which was published internationally and which was quite good. Of course, I wasn’t very experienced at the time. There were a whole lot of mathematical methods I didn’t know so I used very simple mathematical methods, which were refined in the article which Rosseland came in. But it was my first experience in writing a paper, and it was rather useful because a man like Rosseland had the old principles of how to write a scientific article. Particularly mathematicians and this type of people very often simply write equations without words and you have to guess what’s going on, while Rosseland taught me that there should always be sentences. You have to start a sentence, have a “subject” — or noun — and predicate and periods and commas. Even if you have formulas you must write them as sentences and some of these rules for how to write scientific papers in mathematics has come in very handy. It was really one of Rosseland’s great strengths to prove that you must have a certain discipline, and not to get off writing things which are absolutely impossible to understand and to read for anybody else. That was a useful school.
The language was important; that was part of your background.
Yes. And the whole idea of learning English well was also helped in Rosseland’s Institute, because of the fact that he always had German and British and American students there. We had to give our lectures in English.
It was the only faculty at the university that did that at the time. It wasn’t even, I believe, legal, because it should have been really in Norwegian. But of course I was only a student in hovedfag (master’s program), and I didn’t mind. In that way I learned English fairly well before I came to American, and it was a great advantage to be able to understand lectures when I came to American without having difficulties.
So English was actually the main language at the Institute?
German and English equally, fifty-fifty. So I learned both of them at the time. But of course very rapidly when I came to America later, English took over as the main language, but still I have no difficulty in German.
Because before the war German was still the second language in Norwegian schools. Your main source of support while at the university was the assistantship?
At the university it was my assistantship; yes, that was the only job I had. I don’t know how much I was paid; I think I got 150 kroner a month, which was a tremendous amount of money to me at that time. It increased after I took a degree I think to 250 kroner a month, but at the time, of course, a professor at the university didn’t earn more than three times that. He has 7,000 or 8,000 kroner, or something like that.
So you survived easily?
I survived. I lived at home during those years; that helped quite a lot.
After finishing your dissertation you continued as Rosseland’s assistant for another year.
Yes. I continued for a year, and started writing other articles. I wrote on this computer, and had a kind of interesting milieu with those foreigners, particularly, Schwarzschild, from America. But all the time it was my plan to go to America, and so I decided to go even before I knew I had a stipend. I had saved enough money that I could pay my way over. Rosseland arranged for me to come and work in the Mount Wilson Observatory with a stipend. I mean, they didn’t pay me at that time. So I was going to come there in the spring of 1939, which I did.
That must also have been Rosseland’s influence, to go to America.
Yes, oh yes. There is no doubt. I could have gone to England, where a man called Eddington was a theoretical physicist of first rank, and so on, but my wish was really to go to America. I can’t remember whether that was only my own wish or whether Rosseland influenced it. At least we agreed that I should go to America.
He thought that America was the key place.
Yes. And then of course I could have gone several places in America too, if one should choose. But I think his feeling was like mine that to be an astronomer and never to have seen a telescope, as it was in Oslo, was bad. So I should go to a place with a big telescope, so I went to Mount Wilson.
Well, you went to Harvard first.
Yes, that’s right, because I left in the springtime and I was not expected at Mount Wilson before September or October, so I spent half a year really at Harvard University. It was really my first contact then with the American milieu of astrophysics, which was very good at the time — in many ways probably even better than Mount Wilson, when it came down to it. But I didn’t know that, because in Harvard you had a very young and new type of activity, and lots of irregular types of work at new things coming in, while Mount Wilson of course was, at that time, a very sedate place with very old and important professors. Of course you had one, Mr. Hubble, in Mount Wilson who was at the time finding out about the red shift in the universe. That was of course to me most interesting. But in Harvard you had a whole lot of young astronomers — among them Schwarzschild, whom I met there — and they were going in all directions. It was really a much livelier place than Mount Wilson, which I didn’t know at the time, so I left and went to Mount Wilson. But that summer was a very useful summer, and there was one thing happening of course, that we could see — war was breaking out. I think it was Mrs. Rosseland who indicated to me that if I ever wanted to marry my girlfriend in Norway, I’d better do it now. So I did as I say in my book. I sent her a cable, and in order to not have it drag out, it must be as of now and no later — so she came.
That was when?
August of 1939. And of course, at the end of the month the war did break out, so it broke out before she came. She came with the last of the Norwegian-American Line boats that went to America. The next one they torpedoed on the next trip. So that was good timing.
I should say so!
So we were married in New York in the Seamen’s Church, in Brooklyn. Then we went right off, and drove by car over to California and Mount Wilson.
That took a while, of course.
That took three weeks. It was a long time in those days. You didn’t have those good roads. And we didn’t hurry. We weren’t accustomed to driving 500 miles a day as people do now. 200 miles was more than enough.
And I guess it was kind of a honeymoon as well.
Oh yes. I bought my first car in my life over there. It was an extraordinary feeling of wealth, compared to Norway at that time, to have your own car.
So then it was Mount Wilson. Maybe you could say a little bit about the environment there and compare it to Harvard, which you did compare to it already, and to Oslo.
Yes. Of course Mount Wilson was a surprisingly formal place in many ways. The main building there was not air-conditioned, and when we were sitting in the main library studying there, you were supposed to have on your tie and coat on, which is incredible in America, of course, of all places! But when I came there and was sitting in my short sleeves, the secretary came over and told me, “In this place you have to have a coat on.” And you had a whole lot of veterans there at the time. Mr. Adams, who was the director, was probably about 70 years old, and so were most of the main professors, including the old Swede, Strømberg. He was the only one who I had really close contact with. I mention him in my book. Since they were Scandinavians we associated with them quite a bit more than with the others. The other meetings were more or less formal — big dinners, lunch and so on. With him and his wife we associated a bit. And of course, it was a completely new world to us — the whole area in California which was really very pleasant in those days. Pasadena was a very beautiful place — no smog and very little cars.
At that time.
At that time, yes, Los Angeles was really a small city too, compared to now. We did a whole lot of hiking and trekking around. Very soon I discovered that the California Institute of Technology was a more lively and interesting place, with more interesting young people than Mount Wilson. So gradually my association was more really with the people in Caltech than in Mount Wilson. So we enjoyed quite a bit of staying there. When we are back now, of course, it’s all spoiled; it’s not fun anymore — so many cars, so many roads. When we came, old Professor von Mann, who was originally Dutch, had been there for 75 years. He of course told us that now everything was spoiled, because 30 years ago when he had come, you had to go by horse up to the observatory. You used a day getting up there, a day coming down, and there were mules to carry equipment and so on. It shows it’s probably always that way; people feel that the good time is when they come the first time, and then when they come back, and it has been destroyed with development.
You had complete freedom there essentially, didn’t you?
Yes. Well, I worked with Hubble, because that was my main interest. I was at the time interested in cosmology and the development of the cosmos, and he was of course in those days making that fundamental discovery of the red shift proportional with velocity and the expanding universe. I spent times at night up with him in the observatory, taking pictures of spiral nebulae and measuring the red shift, and he was my main contact for my work. But my trouble was that I had already started on a far more mathematical side of the same problem, with Einstein’s universe, trying to develop five dimensional relativity and so on. During the time I was there, I did finish that paper, I gave it to Hubble, and of course Hubble didn’t understand it. That was the trouble. He himself was an old fashioned observationist, so one could expect that, but I didn’t realize that. So he sent it to a man called Robertson, who was a rather famous astrophysicist.
He admitted that he didn’t understand it?
Yes. He admitted it and sent it to Robertson, and I got a rather harsh criticism from H.H.P. Robertson, a big relativist at the time — he’s dead now. He pointed out that a lot of these things I had done had been done already, which I wasn’t aware of. Unlike today we really didn’t have these computers where you can pick out references easily.
Had you worked that completely on your own?
Oh yes. I had no idea what other people had done or not. But then there were certain things that he admitted were new ideas. At first, I had a tendency of being very mad at his condescending criticism, but gradually I was luckily grown up enough to understand that that was useful, so I wrote him a letter and thanked him for his criticism and said that these other things which were new I’d like to discuss with him. We became very good friend, and he was really a great help for me the rest of his life in this field, because he was on top of all that; he understood it and could discuss it with me.
You had continued relations?
Yes, they continued until he died. He died in 1955 or something like that.
You have a substantial correspondence with him probably too, then.
Yes. I have some letters here at least from him.
Of course, one main experience on that trip to Princeton was your meeting with Einstein.
Yes. You know, I met Einstein the first time already in 1939 when I went over there. There were a couple of things in that book I translated — it was just coming out — which I was a little doubtful about. So I went up to see him in Long Island where he was in the summer house, and we talked together, so I got to know him then. Then later Mr. Robertson, when I had written, suggested that I talk with him. I had also met another man from Princeton over in California. Professor Ladenburg, and the two of them arranged that I should see Professor Veblen about my work in Princeton. And when I saw Veblen he suggested that I rather talk with Einstein about it, so I was brought to Einstein in Princeton then. So I went to Princeton and stayed for a few months to go through this work together with Einstein. That was a very useful and inspiring period, of course, even if I found it was awfully difficult, because we would get into a very high level of scientific discussion, and you are supposed to know everything — more than I knew, of course, at that time. But Einstein was all right. He was not formal, to say the least. He was usually barefooted when he walked around. Of course, one can’t talk about the details of the work, because that was a rather complicated mathematical study. But as I mention in my book, certain other things we talked about and it was very good. He was fond of playing violin and I could accompany; but it was mostly pure sessions in mathematics, or in advanced physics. (noise on tape wipes out voices) But the important thing is to get all these connections. As I also mention in the book, I had already been at Mount Wilson for half a year, when the invasion of Norway came in, and of course that changed the situation again. But in the meantime we had established ourselves fairly well in California, and had gotten to know these people at the California Institute of Technology, so in a way I was sorry to leave. But on the other hand we had no money anymore, because my money came from Norway each month, and suddenly it stopped.
This was when?
This was in April 1940.
It was just immediately after the invasion.
And that was the end of the semester too.
Yes. Well, it stopped. I got money each month. It stopped practically the day the invasion came. I realized I wouldn’t get any more money. Then the question came up what to do next. Of course, in Mount Wilson itself, it was very difficult. They had these top professors at high levels and I couldn’t expect to get in there. And I wasn’t particularly interested in being a pure observer. So it was, but they’d more or less brought me in contact with people, so I had some offers. One such asked me to come to the Sperry Company in Cambridge, and work for the war effort — scientific equipment for airplanes and so on.
Yes, it was the beginning of that already, because at the time, they were preparing for what might come.
Long before Pearl Harbor.
But then I got this offer from the University of Chicago — the Yerkes Observatory — and of course I was really delighted at the time. I remember I was considering all kinds of possible solutions — going back to England immediately, trying to get back to Norway — and it wasn’t easy to know what to do. But this solved it for us. It was a good solution. We packed up all our belongings, which was easy at the time, and drove back to Chicago.
How was that arranged? Did you apply?
No, I didn’t apply. There was sent a letter to me from the director, Mr. Struve of Chicago, so I suppose it was heard in the grapevine then that I was a very young astronomer. They heard I was Norwegian, they all knew that Norway was invaded, and they probably were positively inclined. I don’t know, but I suppose that Struve had asked the Mount Wilson people and Hubble whether I was a useful scientist, and that they had answered reasonably positively. There was no application from my side. I only wrote a letter and thanked him for the offer and said I accepted it. And during the summertime in June we went there, so that was it. We settled out on Lake Geneva where the Yerkes Observatory is.
So that was the position. You didn’t have the same kind of freedom there as you’d had earlier?
No. Then I didn’t have complete freedom, although as it turned out, I really did. At least the first half year I stayed out there and did not have to lecture any. I stayed on and continued working on the scientific paper that I started with Hubble. I spent most of my time on that. Of course, we had a difficulty; we didn’t have a visa that made it permissible for me to work. We had a student visa, and now I suddenly had a position, so I was forced to leave the country again. The choice was between going to Canada or going to Mexico to apply for a visa from abroad. We decided on Mexico simply because we liked the idea better. To see Mexico was something new; Canada was not so exciting. So we did that during that fall, and that took a month. We drove down to Mexico and other places, but I tell about that in my book. So that brought us on a legal way back again. When I came back I met Fermi and all those scientists who were then beginning to gather in Chicago already. That’s when I met this lady, Mrs. Libby, too. She was an assistant there at the time, and we had a lot of good scientists in Chicago. Chandrasekhar was one of them. That’s how I met him too.
You mentioned Chandrasekhar.
Yes. That’s right. That was, of course, still using the old hand driven computers. We computed and computed, integrating ourselves from the boundary of the star to find conditions in the center of the star. We worked for a month, and finally, when we were nearly buried, we discovered that we had used some wrong boundary conditions, which was typical of the time. I mean, today this wouldn’t have done any harm because you would have used an ordinary computer which would have done these computations in a few hours, while we had spent two months; it was a tragedy. I’ve kept all that pile of papers, just to show how much one could work without anything coming out of it at the time.
But you learned something.
Oh, I learned quite a bit at the time — all the discussions and so on. On the whole that Yerkes Observatory was a very pleasant place, lying in the middle of a golf course, and had a lake there where we could sail, and we worked very hard all the time.
Was that problem conceived by Chandrasekhar?
Yes. Well, it was a mixture because he had read some papers I’d written about certain rotating stars, and so he decided that he would use his methods of integrating models on my rotating stars. So it was a kind of combination of my hydrodynamics and his nuclear, or let’s say astrophysics, method. So it was a kind of mixture.
It wasn’t a question of pure assistantship?
Oh no. This was collaboration all right. But then at the end of that year I was transferred to the University of Chicago campus in Chicago, which is about 50 or 80 miles south. Then, of course, I was not free any more. I had an office there. I had students and two classes, one elementary class of about 20 students, and then some graduate lectures. I had some candidates whom I had to help personally, so I really had lectures every day. This was perhaps my first time that I had regular university lectures in my life, and that was very useful in a way. I did one smart thing. I asked my wife to pretend being a student sitting in the class and listening, to criticize, and to say what I did wrong. And of course I got a lot of criticism! She criticized mannerisms and what was not clear and so on. It was a useful school, and of course American students were much more inquisitive than Norwegian students. When you give a lecture in Norway, everybody sits quiet and leave when the hour is over. In America they interrupt you all the time and ask questions and talk and come up and sit on the table. It is a completely different atmosphere, which was also useful for me to learn. I could use that later in Norway — the whole method of teaching, and how to work with the students. This was unheard of in Norway; you couldn’t go to the table of Professors Størmer or Vegard — and the old mathematics and physics professors — or Seelan. Any time of day you couldn’t sit yourself down and ask questions. So it was a very useful time — a very lively time in Chicago by that time. More and more people were coming there for these growing atomic energy studies, which had really started then, and which by that time was transferred to Chicago seriously. Earlier it had been worked upon in Princeton and a lot of other places. Now it was all transferred, and all these big shot Americans came there. Everybody who knew about it, so I met them all, because I had my office right there in the center of this. So that was extremely useful to me at that time. Mr. Teller worked there, we had Oppenheimer visiting — well, the whole list of them. So that was probably the most useful scientific year I had in my life — that year and the next year in Chicago — and at the same time learning how to lecture, writing my own lecture books and so on.
It was a new chapter beginning in Chicago too in a sense, in addition to your first exposure scientifically to the war.
Yes. But at the time we never really discussed much the war effort. We discussed the fission aspect all right — the scientific thing. But it was surprising how our main points of discussion all through, with Teller and all, was astrophysics. It was always energy in the stars and development of the universe and so on. It was only when we had to that we discussed reactor science. And gradually this became closed off too, of course for security reasons. But to begin with we could discuss it, but even when it was permitted, we didn’t discuss it much. What interested us was really the pure science and not reactor business.
In your books you’re comparing American teamwork in a positive sense to Norwegian and perhaps European approaches to doing science.
How did this difference strike you at the time? How strong was the experience of such a kind of different approach?
Oh, it was so different that I didn’t even compare it. You didn’t have this kind of people moving around to each other’s offices. Of course, one difference which you’ll notice even today is that if you go around in one of the university departments in an American university, everybody sits with their doors open, and you just walk in and talk. It would be unheard of to sit with your door closed — that you had to knock each time that you go in, like people still do here —- still, they have an office each, and you knock and go in. In America this was not even considered good to do; you’re supposed to be more sociable than that. And of course what struck me, you could meet a man like Fermi in the corridors any time and talk with him. He was usually sitting around on tables in some of the rooms, discussing with students. When I was an instructor at the time, there was no difference between the professor and students. It wasn’t so that you felt that now you were talking to the big professor, as I was really accustomed to from Norway. So it was a striking difference in the way they associated. Of course, in Chicago at the time we had a surprising number of foreigners, so you should have thought it would have been different — that they would have brought some of their German and Italian and Austrian habits with them. But practically all of these people behaved in the same way, and that was really a great experience. I remember very clearly that I made notes of the fact that there were things we had to bring back to Norway — this way of associating with your colleagues and with your students, with everybody.
So even at that time, you did have aspirations or wanted to go back to Norway?
Well, I was beginning to doubt it. I did think real hard about the kind of surroundings I had in Norway as to colleagues, interests, liveliness and so on. I remember at the time I very often had bad dreams that I was back in Norway again. I told my wife, “My God, I dreamt last night that I was back in Norway and it was horrible to work there again — all this lack of inspiration, lack of milieu, lack of anything. Maybe we should plan to be here in America.” As a matter of fact we did follow that up, and decided it wouldn’t do any harm to apply for citizenship. We did apply for citizenship and took out our first papers, and if we had remained there we could have stayed on.
When did you take out your first application?
I think it was already in 1940, or maybe 1941. I think it was 1940, immediately after we got our visas. We went regularly down to the Immigration Office to have stamped our papers to show that we were there all the time. So my idea, I think, around 1941, was that maybe we’ll be here.
You had contact problems of course with Norway and relatives in Norway
Very little contact, of course, because letters were censored. We did get a letter once every second month from my parents. That was about all.
But at least that made you learn about the situation.
We knew how conditions were in general. And of course we understood that there was at least no improvement, and how it would develop after the war was quite uncertain. So it was a difficult decision to make and we didn’t have to make the decision yet, so we just postponed it. But my hope and plan was really at the time to stay on in America.
What were your wife’s feelings about it?
She, in a way, agreed, but she wanted to move back to California because of the weather and the more pleasant surroundings in some ways. So we were thinking of that possibility; when the time came that we had an offer from California, we might go there.
She didn’t have problems getting into the social environment?
No, she was very popular there at that time. I might mention, when you asked about my wife, that when we lived in Pasadena, she had of course nothing to do there. She was sitting in her flat all day. She took up studying library activities, and went to the University of Southern California for that. She continued that in Chicago.
She was allowed to do that on her visa.
That’s good. You said that you started lecturing for the first time in Chicago.
What kind of lectures were those?
These were astrophysics lectures; it was the ordinary course, the standard course, in astrophysics. It was about pressure and temperatures and the build-up of stars and currents in stars, and all the regular things. Then I had an advanced course which was on related developments. I used Rosseland’s book partly, but also had to use some books by Baker and American books, which were standard. But then already in 1941, I was asked — everybody at the university had to do something for the war, in order not to be drafted immediately — to start lecturing in stellar navigation, which I did.
Navigation by stars.
By stars, yes. And this I did. Surprisingly, I had a full house of 30 students keen on learning. They thought this was useful for the war. They were beginning to think about the war over there at the time, after Pearly Harbor at least this was a very central concern. I had to teach myself this of course first. This very classical astronomy had never interested me much; it was kind of dull subject, I thought. But gradually I got into it. I had to teach myself to use a sextant and so on. But anyway, it’s a little bit silly, because when people really got to the point in their war that they needed to navigate, developments had gone so far that ordinary stellar navigation was really old fashioned. They were already using these octants, where you do things more automatically. But on the other hand, some people had to know the basis for how to develop the system of stellar navigation, so that they could teach others. At least it served its purpose, so I wasn’t drafted immediately.
That was at the University of Chicago.
Yes. That was my three lectures — an elementary one for undergraduates, and two advanced ones for graduate students. In addition, I gave the navigational course, so that meant I had to give two lectures every day.
Full load. Yes.
And since I had to prepare myself for lectures, it took lots of my time.
How did you prepare yourself for the navigational thing?
Well, I read other people’s books. That was all, I had nobody else to learn from.
That was something you were specifically asked to do.
Yes, that was it.
That was required.
It started with spherical trigonometry — how to measure angles in the sky — and went on to using the standard almanacs and so on.
We’re now in 1941-1942 are we?
And it was about this time that you started to think about joining the war effort.
Well, what happened of course was that Rosseland had come to America. He fled across China and came over that way. We had some talks about what was going on.
You met him personally?
Oh yes. And he had of course some contact with the Norwegian government at the time because he had come out of Norway and had contact with the resistance movement there, so he knew a bit about what was going on. Then Professor Svene Pettersen, who was later the head of Meteorlogisk Institute in Oslo, came and became a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. He invited me to come and give lectures on certain new hydrodynamic methods which I worked on. I spent a month giving a series of lectures in MIT on some particular advanced methods in hydrodynamics. During that period he was called to England to take part in setting up the FO 2, Fossvorets Overkommando second branch (Defense High Command), which was a technical division. I should follow the British technical development, and he told me that he had to go to England, and that when he went to England, he wanted me to come too. I didn’t commit myself. I said, “Yes, write me.” But then in 1941, I was called up for service in the American Army. Since I had my papers in America, I was in principle liable to be called. At that time, it became necessary to make up my mind, because if I wanted to stay in America, I would have to go to the service there. I really felt at that time that I had to participate in this business; you couldn’t just sit there and have the pleasant side of life. So I decided I had to go, either to join the Norwegians in England or the Americans. When there came a specific request from the Norwegians, I had to turn that down. Then I decided that, well, maybe it was the right thing to do. I still felt more loyal to Norway than America, and that we had to do that — particularly when I found out that my wife could be called to duty at the same time in London, so she didn’t have to sit back in America. So in the summer or spring of 1942 this came up, and we decided “All right, let’s agree that in the fall we’ll go.” And we left America.
When were your lectures at MIT?
Those were in October 1941.
Where were you then?
I was in Chicago; we returned to Chicago at the time. Harold Ulrick Sverdrup came over. He was an oceanographer and head of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla. He wanted me to come and help him. He was going to make, for the America military, some estimates about Norway from the meteorological side — how many days of snow, how deep the snow was, when did the snow come down and so on. These estimates were for planning the winter effort. He needed technical people, so I joined him for three months when we stayed in Washington where we did this kind of work.