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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Geoffrey Burbidge by David DeVorkin on 1977 October 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Geoffrey Burbidge discusses his life and career. Topics discussed include: his family and childhood; Bristol University; Nevill Mott; University College, London; Harrie Massey; David Robert Bates; theoretical physics seminars at Cambridge University; Richard Feymnan; Freeman Dyson; Dick Dalitz; Abdus Salam; Nicholas Kemmer; becoming interested in astronomy and astrophysics via Margaret Burbidge; Royal Astronomical Society; Clive Gregory; research into stellar parallax, stellar atmospheres; Herbert Dingle; Auger effect; Otto Struve; Harvard University; Bart Bok; Donald Menzel; Harlow Shapley; Yerkes Observatory; development of radio astronomy; I. I. Rabi and big bang skepticism; Chandrasekhar; Gerard Kuiper; Enrico Fermi; Cavendish Laboratory, Martin Ryle; nucleosynthesis; Kapitza Club; Willie Fowler; Fred Hoyle; stellar evolution; steady state cosmology; red shift; Erwin Finlay-Freundlich; Max Born; Mount Wilson Observatory; Allan Sandage; Milt Humason; Ira Bowen; status at women at Hale observatories and at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech); Edwin Hubble; Walter Baade; synchrotron radiation; Rudolph Minkowski; Californium and supernovae; Halton Arp; Hans Suess; Vera Rubin's work on anisotropy; quasars; galaxy formation.
As I mentioned, we would like to start out with a review. I’m interested in your early home life: a bit about this, you’re family origins, your genealogy and information of that sort.
I hardly know where to begin. I mean I have no background in science; my family has no background in science.
Well, if you could start with your father’s occupation.
My father was a builder and I was born in a little town in the Cotswold’s in England and I’m an only child. The whole family was very much involved in the construction business for the last hundred, 150 years, I suppose. Before that I don’t know. One of my uncles dug into this and he took us back two or three hundred years, and it appeared that before that he couldn’t do very much and came along claiming that we were descended from the gypsies. But, as I say, I was brought up in the small town called Chipping Norton, which is between Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon. I grew up there without any background really in science or really knowing very much what it was that I really wanted to do for a long time, and then I became passionately interested in history and mathematics. I was largely educated in my first years in this little town in the local grammar school. It’s what they used to call a secondary school and I was there following education at lower levels. I was there until I was 17.
I see. Well, in the educational system at that time, was this a school that you had to take exams to get into?
I see — or have any special interests?
Any financial support?
No. It was a local secondary or grammar school, as they called it. It was called the Chipping Norton Grammar School — still is, I think.
Okay. Now, was it at this grammar school that you had begun to be interested in history?
Yes, though I have little recollection of earlier periods. I went there I suppose when I came out of the lower school, which must have been when I was about nine. And it was that school which really got me interested in anything academic — first of all in history and secondly though very much so in mathematics and had really no real interest in physics at that time at all. The headmaster of this school was an arts man, and he was what you’d call in this country an English major. And when it became clear that I had these interests and I had mathematical interests, my father really suggested that I become an accountant.
I see. What was your father’s full name?
The notation in the Who’s Who listed is name was Burnbridge.
That’s another mistake. Everyone gets Burbidge wrong. I even get checks which I have to endorse Burbridge. No, it’s Burbidge. The hope I think of some of my uncles at one point when they were trying to find out where we came from was that we were related to Richard Burbage, who was the famous actor. I’m not sure what his position was in the Shakespearean period, but it’s the same part of the world and basically the same name, which I’m sure, has been changed in this way.
When was that interest on the part of your uncles? Were you aware of this as a child?
I had one uncle who was considerably older than my father, my father’s brother, and I suppose I became aware of this interest when I was 12 or 14. He was a man of very wide interests, but he was the only one in the family who looked into this kind of a thing and he didn’t really pursue it very far. This was a country town. In retrospect you realize they were very, bright people, but they had no real back-ground, no real education; and so they did what they could.
How did they feel about education? As you’ve indicated, your father thought that your ability was as an accountant.
Well, they were very keen when it was realized I suppose that I was quite good at certain things. My father didn’t want me to go into the business. For a period when I was a teenager I used to help a good deal with the business towards the end of the war. But I guess they were very proud of me in a kind of a way. They were very keen on education but they really had no background. My father and his two brothers were all in business together. It was a large family. There were six brothers and two sisters, and none of them of course had been to university or anything like that. They all left school when they were 14 or 15 in the period of the first decade of the century and my father had fought in the First World War. But they had no background of the kind we talk about nowadays.
I see. And yet he didn’t want you to go into the business directly.
He didn’t want me to go into the building business. He didn’t think that was a good idea. He thought I could do better than that I think. He was very adamant about that — I had one male cousin all the others were girls — who did go into the business, who’s a good bit older than me (he’s still around), and I suppose that in some situations 50 years ago it would have been the natural thing for someone like me to do. Most things you do in life are accidental I think.
Certainly during your early teens, of course — this was World War II — 15, 16 years old: how did this affect your family? How did the Depression affect your family?
I don’t remember. The Depression is an American term, and in England I suppose there was a depression, but I lived in a small Country town. Remember that in the early 1930s I was pretty small, I don’t remember very much. The standard of living I suppose was low, but then a small town goes on. And I don’t suppose I could tell you whether there was any great degree of unemployment. The business proceeded, and it gradually improved, but it was too early for me to have any sensible memories.
But World War II you certainly do recall.
World War II, yes. I was in school during Wor1d War II, and in fact I went to Bristol University just toward the end of it.
The question about the development of your interests, of course, is uppermost at this stage of the interview. You indicated history and mathematics.
What was it that fascinated you about these two and how did it develop into physics?
I don’t know what fascinated me. I began simply to read, and in reading I became fascinated with the past, and I suppose that’s how my interest in history really came. It was purely a question of trying to understand how people behaved and how we got to the state we got to, although I realize now of course that history like everything else that one writes about the past nowadays is frequently fiction. But I can’t remember beyond that. I started reading history when I was about ten and I was absolutely fascinated. In mathematics I simply had a very good mathematics teacher. His name was Leonard Miles; he’s still alive. In fact, he’s the brother of the well-known British actor Bernard Miles. I became very much aware of him in about the fourth form when one is about 14 or something like that, and I went on into the fifth and the sixth forms there were three or four of us who were very keen and he was tremendously stimulating and in retrospect he was extremely good. On the other hand, the man who taught physics wasn’t terribly good at all, and I was not interested in physics.
What kind of physics did he teach? Was it mainly practical or laboratory?
Well, it was kind of laboratory in which I don’t think I was very much good, but I don’t remember what kind of physics one gets taught when one if 14 or 13 frankly. It’s kind of a mixture I think between physics and chemistry, I think. But officially there was no chemistry in this place. Physics was it. I have practically no memories of the physics I was taught in those days. I have notebooks somewhere I suppose. In fact, my mother died a little less than a year ago, and a lot of things were shipped back, and I’ve never even unpacked them, but I suppose that all of the notebooks from school are around there, but I haven’t looked at them for 30 years or 40 years.
What was your mother’s influence on your intellectual growth, if any? What was her background?
Oh, she came from small town. She was a country woman. All I can say about her intellectually is that she was an avid reader, but she really had little education, and she didn’t have much effect except that she encouraged me a good deal without understanding what it was all about.
Was there any religious instruction in the family?
Yes, the whole family was Baptist — in the English sense. That’s not the same kind of Baptists you have over here. When I was brought up the whole family was very much involved in the local church or local chapel. In fact, my uncle was the choirmaster and he played the organ, and my mother was in the choir and I went to Sunday school and my cousins taught in Sunday school and I used to win all Sunday school prizes and so on and so forth. We were very much involved in it and the family remained involved in it. In the town they’ve always been pillars of the church or pillars of the chapel.
Was there any attitude that you recall regarding your religious life or God in general that would have taken you beyond that town, so to speak?
Not really, no.
It was a social thing possibly?
Well, not to them. I mean they believed. I suppose by the time I was in my teens I really didn’t take it seriously. When you’re small you tend to kind of accept what you’re told largely. For my father it was more of a social thing. He obviously would rather play tennis than get involved in these activities, but he would go along. My father was a very good tennis player. One of the things he taught me to do was play tennis, and we were very much involved. My father was a very good sportsman actually. He was very much involved in football and soccer. He ended up as chairman of the football association in the whole county, and he was very much engrossed in activities of this kind, and I inherited some of these interests. I was no good as a soccer player, but I used to play a lot of cricket, and I used to and still play a fair amount of tennis. You know, most of the English are interested in ball games of one kind or another. It doesn’t matter what they are.
I’m aware of that. The history that you became interested in — could this have had anything to do with reading the bible, ancient history, or was it more modern history?
No. The part of history that I first became most interested in was English medieval history. I guess it would be the history of the last several hundred years in England — the things I suppose that were easiest for me to learn about and read about. But, no, I never treated the Bible very seriously as history.
Okay. Well, moving through your grammar school years then, were there any particular friends you had made in your town that you had gone on to college with, or did you lose contact with most of them?
I lost all of my friends in school. None of them (one or two went to college) went where I went, and I have pretty well lost contact with all of the people I knew in school. I mean since it was a small town, a lot of them actually stayed around that area and still live there and occasionally I meet them and they recognize me if I don’t recognize them. But there was no interaction beyond school with essentially any of them that I can recall. There were girls I knew, but even they also disappeared.
Were there organizational or social aspects of school that you were involved in that you recall?
I wasn’t very good at those kinds of activities. I did all the things that one does when one gets to the top of the school. When I was in the sixth form I had various responsibilities — prefects and all this kind of thing.
When you were about 16 years old.
Yes. And, of course, I played cricket for the school and I played tennis for the school — things like that. But it’s not the kind of American nonsense that you have: the tremendous ballyhoo that goes on with high school activities, I have a daughter who is equally unsociable and didn’t approve of that a few years ago.
Well, how did you and when did you first realize that you wanted to go to college? Was this something that came down upon you from your parents?
Well I’m not sure. It was obviously when I was in the sixth form. Obviously the teachers at that point were encouraging me to do that, and they told my father and my mother (my father was actually governor of the school) that I should do that and of course we had no experience in this area. We didn’t have any background at all. And so everything was new and strange to us, and I must admit that I don’t think in retrospect that the headmaster had any very good suggestions to make. Now, remember this was 1943-44. I went to Bristol in ‘43 I guess. I’m not sure. I think that’s what happened, when I was 18. But it was in that period. And it was a very difficult period in Eng1and.
Did you consider options to the University?
We didn’t have options. That’s indeed how I got into physics. You see, in that period for people in my age bracket you could, under certain conditions go to college, basically for a year — at the outside, for two years — before you were called up and went into military service. But then there was a scheme to give people scholarships, which they called bursaries, to go to college and take physics basically and take what they called a short degree course, which would be two years at the outside, with the understanding that they then took a commission, mostly I suppose in the army, but there were alternate possibilities. This was one way in which you could be sure of getting two years in college before something happened. It was some guarantee that you could do something. And I don’t remember who it was, but I was encouraged ultimately to apply for one of these. And that’s what turned me into physics. It was all very accidental as far as I’m concerned.
That’s quite fascinating.
In retrospect I would say that the man who taught me physics just didn’t interest me and the man who taught me mathematics did, but there was this option and I was encouraged to take it and I took it. And I was more or less assigned where I went. I mean you didn’t have much choice about that, and that’s how I came to go to Bristol in the autumn of 1943.
That answers a lot of questions right in that. I’m just interested in how you felt about this option.
I don’t remember anymore. I mean I obviously was excited about the possibility of going and I had a considerable confidence but I really had no idea what I was going to do.
Was this a purely technical short degree course then? You had no general requirements for college?
Well, I passed. We had in those days the school certificate and the higher school certificate and you got this with distinctions, and I got distinctions in all the areas — mathematics and physics and whatever else there was.
This is in grammar school?
Yes. And that satisfied all the requirements. I mean there was no particular difficulty in that at all.
So you were purely in physics.
I then went and I was enrolled in a special honors physics course at Bristol, which is what you would call majoring in physics.
Was this a course which was closely in line with military needs?
As far as I know, it was a regular degree course, but what they were doing was compressing a fairly large amount of material. I think in retrospect — I have never, of course, gone into this — that probably the number of lectures we took and so on was considerably greater than it would have been in peace time.
These were lectures as opposed to tutorials?
Did you have any tutorials or did you have any teachers at the University of Bristol that you regard as influential in turning you into physics?
On, yes, very much so. The man who was head of the H. H. Wills physics lab was Tindle and Tindle was a very influential man. But the man who first got me interested in physics was Mott. That’s what I’ve been telling people this last week. They say, “Who dredged Mott up to give him the Nobel Prize so late?” and I said, “Well, he interested me in physics,” (DeVorkin laughs) Mott was very good. Terribly disorganized, and he was involved in various wartime things, I don’t think he was there the first year I was there. He came back from whatever he was doing, and he lectured, in retrospect, in an extremely haphazard way. But he was one of the people who really intrigued me. And then Powell was also there. I mean it was a very good group. Powell was the only person actually who ever lectured in astrophysics, as I recall vaguely. I must have gone to one or two lectures of his in astrophysics, but I had no interest in astrophysics in those days. And Froehlich was there, and he gave some lectures to us. There was a man who lectured in electromagnetism called H. H. Potter, who’s now dead. Then I took some mathematics courses. I was taking what is called an honors degree in physics and a pass degree in mathematics together. It was an honors degree in physics, but you take a subsidiary set of courses which corresponded to a pass degree in mathematics in England in those days, and so we had some lectures in mathematics. But I began to lose some interest in pure mathematics at that point. There were a lot of people in Bristol who really were very influential. In retrospect I realize that many of the lectures were not that good, but that’s when I first became really interested. I was exposed to it and became interested in it.
What aspects of physics did you become most interested in?
Well, in the early days, things that I wouldn’t take very seriously nowadays, statistical mechanics and things like that but also quantum mechanics. It was Mott who first made me realize the beauty of quantum mechanics and the aspects that I had never dreamed existed before. But he would come in and pick up a topic and lecture on it, and then he would come another week and lecture on something quite different, and you had to piece it together. I mean you were much more independent and on your own even at that stage in England than undergraduates or for that matter graduate students are in this country most of the time.
Did you have practical courses?
We had lab courses, which I was never very good at.
Well, what was the actual thrust of this compressed course then?
We took the special honors physics course, and what was going to happen was that they were going to let us out after two years and essentially put us in the Army or let us have a limited number of choices. And ultimately I think one could complete one’s education. What happened in my case: there was a class of around 30 of us. But by the time we were getting towards the end of the second year, I think what happened was that the pressure was somewhat off; the war was obviously winding down. And they chose six of us who were I suppose thought to be the six best people in the class, and they allowed us to take a third year and take a full honors degree, and I was one of the six. And so I never really did go into that scheme at all. And so I had three years, and I graduated with the full degree.
Had you had any feelings of going into the Army? Did you want to at that point?
Oh, I think the mood that everyone had was that you did it and it happened. And, as a matter of fact, when I graduated I still had some national service to do in some way. I decided I would make what choice I could. And in those days one of the possible options was to take a short service commission in the Navy as a Meteorological Officer. And so I opted to do this. This was in 1946 I guess. And I was accepted and all the rest of it. Then somebody or other stepped in I presume at one of the ministries and decided that they wouldn’t let me do that. Instead they insisted that I stay as a civilian but go into a research lab and I went and spent a year working in a government research lab, which used to be called the Road Research Lab. it was near London outside Slough very close to the London airport. The peacetime history: it was run by the Department of Science and Industrial Research, DSIR. Their peacetime function was to do research on road surfaces and things of that kind; but during the war what they had used it for, because it was very good at manufacturing all kinds of materials, was to do various ballistics experiments — testing the strength of various materials. And when I got there one of the projects that they were very much involved in (though the war was basically over, but they were still running these things down), was the problem of designing bombs which would penetrate the U boat pens, these very thick concrete shields that they put over the U boats in Brest in Western France, where the Germans had their U boat ports. And so we were involved in this kind of research.
We were talking about your work at the Road Research Lab. That’s quite fascinating. What was your actual duty there?
Well, I was very young, I was just 20 I think, and I was put in charge of a section were there were some senior people. One whose name I remember was Pugh, who was a very difficult guy. Another was Wiffin (?) who’s still quite a prominent scientist. I was responsible for some of these tests that were being conducted. What they were doing basically was to design bomb shells really, but using various aerodynamic shapes and then fire these projectiles out of guns at different velocities into huge slabs of material to see how far you would get them to penetrate before they would (because they didn’t have charges in them) detonate. We got involved in all manner of work. They’d been doing all kinds of experiments in this lab, some of them quite horrible. Zuckerman had been doing experiments in this lab earlier on the effects of shrapnel on living things by firing such things into animals. But we weren’t involved in that. This business of the projectiles meant that we had all kinds of guns and all calibers and all muzzle velocities. We measured the velocities by having sheets plugged into timing devices so that the projectile would penetrate them and trigger the various timing devices. And I was in that for about a year. It was a kind of frightening thing because you were suddenly handling all kinds of explosives.
So you did the experimental work?
Well, I was really running a section. I was well qualified. Most of them were experimental officers and I was a scientific officer. But I was responsible, yes. I suddenly fell into the middle of all this with responsibility for quite a number of people; most of them of course knew far more about what had been going on than I did. But after a year I got out of it, and at that point I decided by then that I wanted to go to graduate school in physics, and so I started considering possibilities.
Let’s go back to the university or Bristol and pick up your association with Mott and some of the others. How close was your association?
Oh, not very close. I was simply an undergraduate who used to ask questions and was obviously fascinated and sometimes I used to go across the road to remind Mott that he was supposed to give a lecture. He was kind of an absent-minded professor and used to occasionally forget about things. But I was just another undergraduate. He was always a rather vague man. I’ve seen him later in the Cavendish, but I don’t think there was any close association, I think the person who got to know me best at that time was Tindle, the head of the lab, who was a very nice man interested in the welfare of the students. In fact in the beginning of my second year I had a kind of a nervous breakdown and was out about a term. I think I was just like a lot of other people who tried to do everything and it was too much. I was home at one period, and I remember he actually drove to the town and stopped and came in and saw me and talked to my parents. But he was really the person one had the most personal contact with I think. There were some well-known physicists in that lab. There was Burch, the optical man, who we used to see around who never lectured to us. There was Linfoot another man doing optical work, who later went to Cambridge. And then there was Nabarro, who was a solid state physicist, now in South Africa, who came there I think presumably because of Mott. Some of those people lectured to US; some of them didn’t. I remember more about them than they would remember about me though most of them later on were still around, and by now I think they know me. I suppose I’m one of the more distinguished graduates of Bristol, so now the thing is the other way around a little.
Did you find any problems or aspects of physics that intrigued you particularly, something that you felt you could contribute to in their lectures?
No, I don’t think so as an undergraduate. As I say, I was interested in various aspects of physics. I just wanted to understand as much as I could. I found I was quite good at it, but I can’t recall that there were many problems at that stage that I felt I wanted to solve. It’s very hard to think back that far really. I don’t think I can.
Can you remember any awareness of actually wanting to be, let’s say, a “physicist?” What was the image of the scientist to you or to society at that time, especially during the war? I mean were you considering a career?
I wasn’t in the war that’s just it. You weren’t. You were just living. the war had gone on for a good many years, through a good many of my formative years and all I was thinking of was: “Well, I’ll go through this and then I’ll do this,” and I really never thought beyond that I suppose seriously.
So you had no specific talks or anything you can recall with the professors at Bristol? It wasn’t until “Roads” that you decided to go back into physics.
That’s right. I wasn’t at all clear what I wanted to do. I was like a lot of other people: I probably was clear what I didn’t want to do; for example, to be a schoolteacher or something like that. But I suppose I was begriming to think I could do all kinds of things without being very specific about it. I was a bit of a fatalist and I always have been. I suppose in a vague way I assumed the future would take care of itself, which indeed I still believe happens.
So what do you feel caused your decision to go back into graduate work after “Roads?” — After your first year?
Well, I suppose in retrospect after Bristol and going into this lab, the thing I was most interested in then was learning and studying physics without flaying any clear idea of what I wanted to do in physics. And the next stage obviously was to get into a position where I could legitimately do this, and that obviously led me into the possibility of going to graduate school. I can’t remember exactly what happened. There were three people I got in touch with: one was C.A. Coulson, who at that time was professor of physics at Kings Collage in London. He later became Rouse Ball professor at Oxford and died very recently, an ardent Methodist, by the way; always very involved, in church affairs. And another one Peierls, who was at Birmingham at that time. And the third one was Massey in London. I talked to all of them. I was living in London in Maid-a-vale. I went to Birmingham and visited with Peierls. I saw Coulson in London; I saw Massey in London. They all offered me support — DSIR grants, which were the kinds of things people could get as graduate students if they were accepted by professors. And in the end I chose to go to University College and work with Massey.
Were these three professors that you had simply come to know or were you directed to them?
I don’t remember. I certainly hadn’t come to know them. I had probably got some suggestions from the people in Bristol, but I don’t remember how frankly. What I did know was that the people in Bristol did not like, like a lot of people, think it was a good idea for somebody who had taken a first degree there to stay there — in my case, to go back — to do graduate work, although there were people who ultimately did do that out of our group. But I applied in those places, and I’m sure the people in Bristol gave recommendations. I didn’t really know those people at the time, but I knew of them. I mean I knew of Massey from “Mott and Massey.” I knew Coulson because he’d done quite a lot of work in wave mechanics. And I knew Peierls.
So you certainly were interested in quantum at that time.
Yes, sure, I was aware of where the action was I guess, whatever that means.
Well, that’s quite true. Well, then they all offered you support. Was support needed for your continuance?
Well, my father was prepared to provide some money. He was in a better financial state after the war than he had been before, and he did continuously. I never could actually live on the kind of grant they gave us. But it was a kind of measure of credibility to be offered this kind of support. In those days I think actually all the graduate students that people had got this kind of support. I’m not of that generation so I can’t tell; you’ll have to talk to some of those people themselves. I mean if you were accepted as a graduate student, then that kind of support was automatic if you needed it. I’ve forgotten how much it was. I think when I was finishing it was only on the order of £400 a year, but I’m not exactly sure what the amount was.
All right then, you’re moving to University College, University of London in 1947 approximately?
Something like that, yes.
And you’re going to work primarily with Massey?
What was the structure of your graduate education?
Well, I became a student of Massey’s, and what was happening in those days was that there was this tremendous interest in the two types of mesons, the u’s and the TT’s. And, of course Massey’s group was really doing various kinds of atomic physics and Massey put me onto this problem of the capture of the mesons by atoms basically. And it was very much a kind of situation in those days — and probably still is in many ways in England with a graduate student — where if you can get a problem, than you were kind of on your own. You can do what you like. I used to go and see Massey occasionally. There were no graduate courses that one had to take as such. Some people lectured. David R. Bates was there who’s now in Ireland. And Bates was a very hard-worker in quantum mechanics. He used to calculate transition probabilities and so on. And I think Massey at one point tried to see early on whether I should work with Bates but Bates as one of these people who simply wanted. Graduate students to compute integrals by turning the handle and he soon found that I was much too independent to want to turn up every Monday morning with so many integrals done for Bates. Mike Seaton, who’s a good friend of mine, who also went through that same situation and did that kind of thing; and Delgarno, who’s now at Harvard, did similarly. Well, he’s a little later. But it was quite an operation. We started out in the department of mathematics, you see. Massey at the point that I went there was actually professor of mathematics, and he then ultimately, just when I went, moved and succeeded Andras as professor of physics rather than as professor of mathematics and moved from one part of University College to the other. But we were always doing theoretical physics in this department. In fact, Massey was building up some experimental physics as well, though it was in a math department. So I used to do some tutoring in mathematics while I was in London, too.
At that time, as now, University College was one college among many and they were all scattered through London. Is that correct?
Yes, but the point about London is, you see, that the colleges are so big that each of them is equivalent to a university of its own. I mean University College, even when I was there, had about 3000 students. Imperial College and Kings College are the major ones and then University College. And then there’s Queen Mary College and Royal Holloway College, which are smaller and more outlying. But they’re really independent, each with their own professors and each with their own department in these areas. There was some interaction between them but not an awful lot.
I’m interested in that interaction, because somehow you met your future wife within at least that year or the next year wasn’t it?
Yes, but, you see, she was involved in the University of London Observatory, which was out at Mill Hill but is part of University College and came out of the mathematics department. She used to attend some lectures that Bates used to give on upper atmosphere physics, and she used to come into those lectures, and that’s when I first met her.
About when was that? Was that in ‘47?
‘47, ‘48, yes.
How did your interests develop? What kind of articles were you reading, and what were you finding interesting at that time?
Field theory and things I wasn’t supposed to be working on. I got so interested in field theory and renormalization and things of this kind and I started working on this, you see, and I was trying to calculate some of these things. And the infuriating thing was that much of the material you wanted was in these preprints which we found it so difficult to get hold of. This was when Dick Feynman was doing all this fundamenta1 work. That’s the time when Freeman Dyson came over to this country, and I became very interested in all this to the extent that Massey (who was easy when he found out that people were interested in things although he wasn’t working in that area and he didn’t have people who did) encouraged me to start going up to Cambridge. I used to go up regularly to their weekly theoretical physics seminars, and that’s when I got to know a lot of people I’d known for a long time like Dick Dalitz. He’s a well-known particle physicist now at Oxford, and Abbah Salam and Paul Matthews, all of whom were students in Cambridge at that time as I was a student in London. And the people in Cambridge: there was Nicholas Kemmer, and there was Dirac. And that’s how I first used to go up and regularly see them. Later on, in fact, Kemmer was my external examiner for my Ph.D. in London. He’s a professor now in Edinburgh, or maybe he’s retired now. He’s an Austrian originally, but he was in Cambridge for years as a lecturer. Then there was Jack Hamilton. Hamilton was another lecturer in Cambridge who later went to the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen which is where he still is.
There certainly were a lot of people involved that you came in contact with.
Yes, well, the people I met in Cambridge in those days are people that I’ve known ever since — I mean a good many of the physicists I know, people whose names I mentioned, people like Dick Dalitz and Abbah Salam and Paul Matthews and so on.
It’s interesting that save for let’s say Dyson, who was indirectly you might say in astronomy as a physicist basically all your contacts were in physics.
He’s not. Freeman is a very good physicist but he’s a lousy astronomer.
Okay. All of these people are physicists, yet your wife turned out to be an astronomer. Very interesting. Burbidge. Why is that interesting?
Well, in terms of your contacts. I imagine you met your wife and became interested in her as a person rather than a professional.
Yes, but I also became interested in astronomy. The short and simple way, when people ask me, “How did you get into astronomy?” I say, “I married an astronomer,” which is true. And from the first time that I first got involved with her in London, I used to go out there to the observatory, and while I was working on this I was interested in field theory and technically I was working on mesons and atoms. But then I became involved in working on B stars and making parallax observations and it all was happening kind of in the same time. I would go up to Cambridge one or two days a week and I would run around half the night sometimes helping with the observing, and I would occasionally go into University College and once every two or three weeks I might see Massey. That was a chaotic period.
Did you read at that time any literature on the problem of synthesis in stars and energy sources? Because they were in some ways very similar to what you were working on directly with Massey — capture processes.
No, there was no interaction at all that way. It came in quite a different direction later on. No, I became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is simply something where you get more or less put up if you’re an academic; and I used to go to meetings of the RAS in London, and I became interested in problems of stellar structure, and I started reading. I mean I’ve always read very extensively, and what I started doing was reading the old volumes of the “Monthly Notices” and the old debates in the Observatory magazine, and then I met some of the people. E. Milne was still around. A.S. Eddington, of course, was dead. J. Jeans was dead. Margaret is distantly related to Jeans. But I used to go and listen and read, and all the astrophysics came in that way, plus the fact that I just got involved out at the observatory and that was all largely involved in observational astronomy.
And yet I imagine you found the debates between Eddington, Jeans and Milne quite fascinating.
Wall, reading about them, yes. I was never present at them, but reading about them. You know, there are lots of stories about those things. Yes, I became interested in the whole astrophysical bit.
This was after you met your wife.
Your actual entry, as you mentioned, was through observational work.
Basically, yes. And I never claimed to be an observer. I just kind of got involved in it.
Could I ask you why?
Well, I suppose Margaret kind of intrigued me about it, and, you know, she would go out there and I would say, “Well, I’ll come along and help.” And that’s what happened. They used to make parallax observations, basic observations to measure distances, in which you have essentially to observe fields and take plates practically every night. And so, I used to come along and act involved in it. And then she was, of course, a stellar spectroscopist, and she did her thesis on interstellar spectroscopy some years before, and she was still trying to do this kind of work on certain kinds of stars, B stars, and so I knew that was what she was doing. And we wrote a paper together a year or two later.
On shell stars.
So she was actually not a student?
No, she had a Ph.D. She was assistant director of the University of London Observatory, which was a little observatory. The director was a man called Gregory. And when we were first married we actually lived in his house out in Mill Hill. He had a son and a daughter, and his son, Richard Gregory, is now professor at Edinburgh and works on vision in the eye. You’ve seen some of the popular books by him, R.L. Gregory. Richard is a little older than I am.
Where was Mill Hill?
Mill Hill is out in the northwestern part of London beyond Hampstead, about 10 or 12 miles from the center of London. You just take the tube out there and take the bus. The observatory is still there.
You also mentioned there were some observations at Cambridge also.
No, I didn’t make observations at Cambridge. No, I used to go up to Cambridge to get involved with theoretical people there, physicists. I never got anywhere near the astronomers at Cambridge in that era at all. I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t know Fred Hoyle at that point. I didn’t know any of them at that point.
That was my next question.
No, this was when Fred and Tommy Gold and Herman Bondi were trying to rediscover the universe over tea every day, but I had nothing to do with that. It wasn’t the same period. It was the period ’47-’48-’49 and the early 1950s, but I didn’t know any of them. That was quite a different thing.
Well, you were coming close to your degree.
I was being encouraged: "Geoff, you ought to write a thesis" kind of attitude. Massey used to say that. Of course I did by 1951, but I could have done this in 1949-1950, but I was too interested in writing papers and in astrophysics and trying to write some things up in the u meson business. Massey then appointed me somewhere. I’ve forgotten exactly what happened. I was appointed to lecture in mathematics I think before I got my Ph.D. In that department, Massey, realized that I would make a good bridge between physics and astrophysics (astrophysics and physics, I think) so I was appointed at that time. I held an appointment for a year or two while I was in finishing my Ph.D. and by then I was married and I was living out at Mill Hill and coming in to University College. I shared part of an office at University College and I used to spend a good deal of time in the observatory. Matthew was trying to integrate astrophysics more into the department and having a lot of trouble because Gregory was a very difficult guy. He was one of these originals. He never really made a mark academically because he was such a difficult man, but he was actually a very interesting man, and really I think it was Margaret and I with Massey who did our damndest to improve the situation. He retired prematurely because he got very angry about something. I remember Massey and Margaret and I trying to persuade him not to. He was one of these guys who would cut off his nose to spite his face. By then I was very much involved in all this though of course I was still very young and I was just getting my Ph.D. or something. Massey was one of those people who would at a certain point I think not worry too much about what your background was if he had some confidence that you knew what you were doing. He would give you support.
So then he was supportive of your parallax efforts and observing with your wife?
Oh, yes. I suppose in retrospect I would say that he obviously considered that I had come through a rather unorthodox route into physics, but it was working out. I guess the main thing was (and is) that I sounded interested and I obviously was interested in a whole wide range of problems. Well, I know now having younger people around that if you get people like that, you really cherish them.
I do have here that you were a lecturer in astronomy at University College, London, from ’50 to ’51.
It was mathematics, but it doesn’t matter. I mean sure, that’s recent. I got my degree in ‘51.
The parallax work that you had done with your wife and with Robinson, Gerhardt and Gregory was published.
Well, Robinson was simply an assistant and the other guy was also. Since I helped make some of the observations, they put my name on the paper.
I see. So you had nothing to do with the actual writing or the choice of parallax stars?
Well, it was really Margaret. I guess Margaret and I pulled it together. Clyde Gregory never wanted to write anything else and Anne Robinson, who was an assistant hired there who was not really academically minded. There was the whole business of getting things into print at that point. Margaret and I had a lot to do with it. But she was the person who had designed the program and who saw that it was carried through.
Your wife then did have a lot to do with the actual parallax program, in designing it and all. Was she looking at interesting stars, or was she mainly doing the normal routine?
Well, I’ve forgotten how the stars were chosen, but there were cooperative international programs for parallax measurement, and she was the person who was trying to see that there was this kind of degree of cooperation and things were done according to the way the plans had been set up. Clyde Gregory had considerable instrumental aptitude. He had a very checkered career, and he just was not a well-organized scientist. I mean he was forever doing his own thing. He was more interested in personal relationships than in science, and he was very upset I think that he had not been properly recognized. He was a very bright guy, but there are lots of people like that around. And you only know about them if you become involved with them and since we lived in his house and Margaret had been his student and all the rest of it, we got to know him very well, but he’s not well known at all. He used to fight with the Astronomer Royal, and I remember these terrible debates in the Royal Astronomical Society in which he would take a part and then we would go back and then we would spend half the night trying to calm him down and persuade him not to act in such a stupid way. I mean he was 30 years my senior and he was that kind of a guy.
Were these all about astrometric problems?
Well, his arguments were about instruments and astrometric problems, things that I didn’t know very much about al all and still don’t know very much about. He was part of the British astronomical scene, as I see nowadays. He had been trained under Alfred Fowler, I think, at Imperial College and had this qualification called D.I.C. which is just the diploma of the Imperial College. He’d been at Cambridge. He was an undergraduate at Cambridge. And I don’t remember the details; Margaret would remember them all probably much better than I can. But he then ended up at London. He went for period at Halwan where there’s an observatory, in Egypt. The British used to work quite a bit there. He’d obviously been one of the people competing in the same generation as the man who later became Astronomer Royal, Harold Spencer Jones, and others in that period, but had never managed really to get one of the better jobs, and I think it was probably all due to his personality and his inability to apply himself properly to do what he could intellectually. He was actually pretty good, but he was a very strange character in many ways.
So his training with Fowler must have been in solar physics then.
Where he got this I don’t exactly know. I mean you’ve now got me in a field I really don’t know. No, his training was not in solar physics. He was involved in instruments and he obviously had learned a lot of classical astronomy. But he must have been at Imperial College in a period at the same time as H. Dingle. Herbert Dingle is still around. I mean Clyde Gregory was killed riding a motor bike. He used to ride a high powered motor bike even in his sixties and he was killed that way a good many years ago, probably ten years ago. But I don’t really know much about his early history. There’s an obituary of him in the “Monthly Notices,” I suppose, and one could read that.
Yes. Just as a complete aside, you mentioned Dingle. Was he also a student of Fowlers?
I believe he was. He dates from that period at Imperial College and I think you’ll find that in the early 1920s he probably was a student, because he did a lot of work on atomic spectra and then he went off and wrote essentially one paper on relativity and then later on he was professor of the history of science and history of the philosophy of science. But if you asked what scientific work he did, I think the quite good work one attributes to Dingle was in spectroscopy; and it goes way, way back to probably when he was in his twenties in the 1920s. He must be about 80 now.
Okay. In talking then about the late ‘40s and more about papers that you worked on directly with your wife, these are mainly in stellar atmospheres at that time. What were the kinds of problems that she was coming up with or were you coming with?
Well, I think the things that clearly needed to be done, which came from the observations, were to try to understand the physical conditions in the atmosphere of stars. There was an awful lot of phenomenological work being done, descriptive studies of stellar spectra. But there was not a lot which related theory to observation. And the first papers that we wrote were based on observations, with some rather crude theory, and then after we first came to the States, which was a little later, I wrote one paper on radiative transfer I think when I was at Harvard. But from then on we went to work on abundances of stars, and all this work then is in the United States.
Also, during that time — and we’re getting ahead of ourselves chronologically just slightly — you did come out with one paper similar or based upon your thesis work with A. H. de Borde.
That’s right, with de Borde. Well, de Borde was a following student, and I’d done all these calculations, and there were some difficulties. We weren’t sure whether numerically they were all right. There were lots of complications, and de Borde was put on the problem. E.H.S. Burhop was a senior man with Massey, another professor there. He became very involved in politics. He’s a left-wing type. But Burhop wrote a book on the Auger effect involving the capture of u mesons where they cascade down through the levels. And actually that paper by Burbidge and de Borde is really the only paper in the literature which covers some of the work in my thesis. I keep getting demands for my thesis, but I did a lot of the basic calculations. But that was how the paper came about. That paper was actually written when I was at Harvard I think. It was written because the people in London wanted something written jointly between us and they thought the best way to straighten out the numbers, which I had got wrong in some cases and others had not got right, was to do it this way. So de Borde recalculated and we checked and cross-checked, and that’s how that paper arose. I knew of him, I had correspondence with him, but I’ve never even heard him. I don’t think I have because it was done by correspondence or through University College, because I was in the States and he was in London, and then he’d gone back to Scotland, Glasgow I think.
That’s fascinating. The question of how you and your wife were to work together after your marriage: had you made a conscious decision to work together on stellar atmospheres?
I just started working. I often got an obsession to work something out and in this particular situation there were problems there which simply were worth clearing up, most of which I certainly had not started. All this work on B stars came out of Margaret’s thesis. It was all started because of her, and I don’t think that any of the work that we did together in that period came in any other way. Later on there were deliberate attempts to go into different fields, but that’s a much later period.
Were there problems in anomalous abundances at that time or were you just trying to understand the spectra a little better?
No, we were just trying to understand the spectra. There isn’t any anomalous abundance in the B stars as far as we were aware. It was purely a matter of the conditions in the atmosphere.
Right. You were just doing hydrogen and helium line intensities?
Okay. Was she doing observations at Mill Hill in spectroscopy at all?
Yes. She had written her thesis using a spectrograph attached to a 24-inch telescope out at Mill Hill and she was trying to use that. It was in a very difficult situation because of the climate. And then about 1950, I think it was, after we were married, we decided that we would spend the summer working at Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where they have reasonably good facilities. I remember because we applied for a very small grant from the Royal Society and it was refused.
On what grounds?
Well, they never told us, but later on Redman, who was then professor in Cambridge, told me that it was part of this great trouble he’d been involved with for so many years. Basically, it was because the British at that stage still didn’t believe that people should go abroad to observe. Anyway we went because nothing like that stopped us. We went and spent our own money — didn’t have much money — and we went and spent about six weeks there and got quite a number of observations, which some of those papers actually contained.
What about your decision beyond that point to, let’s say, gain better observing conditions?
Well, that stemmed largely from Otto Struve. Otto Struve visited London around 1950 and certainly put the bug into Margaret that she ought to really come to the States and work with better equipment. He knew her work, and I remember he was a very stimulating man. He came by one day, and we went to dinner with him, and he was full of enthusiasm and he said he was sure that he could arrange something. That was what led us in 1951 to first come to the United States. At that time they were going to reorganize the observatory in Mill Hill. Gregory had retired prematurely. They had decided to turn the senior appointment into a professorship, which they’d never been prepared to give to Gregory, which was one of the problems. In fact since British universities work on the quinquennium, Margaret and I had to work up a five-year plan for the incoming person, whoever it would be. It turned out to be C. W. Allen. But we left before he ever came there, and I went to Harvard and Margaret went to Yerkes. I had an Agassiz fellow-ship at Harvard and Margaret had an IAU grant (it was called a scholarship of some kind) at Yerkes. Well, what happened was that I went to Harvard and she went to Yerkes and then around Christmas time of ’51, ’52, we went to McDonald for the first time, which was being run at that time by the University of Chicago. She had observing time at McDonald, and then she came back to Yerkes, and then she came back to Harvard with me and we spent the rest of that year, I think, at Harvard. And in the following year we spent the whole year at Chicago, both of us at Yerkes, in ‘52, ‘53.
In the summer of ’53 we came back to England, after going to a summer school at Michigan I remember.
Well, during this time at Harvard and Yerkes, did you keep your appointment at University College?
Did I? I don’t know that I did?
Your papers indicated that you were on leave.
I’m pretty sure that I resigned, because in ’53 there was no question of coming back, because we had no intention at that point of staying in the United States. We had no plans beyond maybe that we would come to the States for a year or two; we had these exchange visitor visas so technically we couldn’t stay; the idea of staying and getting the visa fixed up didn’t occur to us in those days; it’s what people do nowadays or try to do. So we came back. And at that point we had a choice of going to Manchester-Blackett offered who offered us appointments. Blackett was in Manchester at that point, and he started some astronomy there with Kopal. And I was offered a job at the Cavendish with Ryle’s group, and we didn’t know what we were going to do. And then I remember in the summer in Michigan we went to a summer school in Ann Arbor — very hot, sticky weather.
This was in ‘53?
The summer of ‘53. That’s when I first met Allen Sandage, who’s one of my best friends. W. Baade lectured there and G. Gamow and George Batchelor. Ed Salpeter was very interesting. He was somewhat older than me. No, I don’t know whether Ed was a lecturer but anyway Ed was there. During that summer school one very hot evening I remember we had this little apartment that we’d rented, and I remember this guy came to the door on a very hot sticky evening and I was wandering around with practically nothing on, and this guy came to the door and introduced himself and it was Z. Kopal. He was visiting at Wayne University in Detroit, and he’d come by because he knew that we’d been offered these positions at Manchester and he’d come by to convince us that we should go to Manchester and after about two hours of Kopal I decided I wasn’t going to Manchester. It was entirely counter-productive and that’s how I went to Cambridge.
Well, let’s stay in the United States. I have a number of questions I certainly wanted to ask you about the U.S. So your wife went to Yerkes and you went to Harvard and this about 1951. It’s fascinating because in both places, of course, there were a lot of changes going on — staff changes; people were still reorganizing after the war, major reorganizations. How did you find American astronomy?
Well, it was my first experience of astronomy really at all. I hadn’t seen much of British astronomy. Oh I liked Harvard. I mean socially I liked Harvard. Harvard was good place, still is in my view, in astronomy, if you know what you’re doing and you want to do your own thing. I think if you want guidance or if you wanted to get involved with some of the major people in American astronomy, it was a lousy place to go. I was very independent and did my own thing and was quite happy, but the graduate students there were my contemporaries because by and large at that stage graduate students were as old as or older than I was because it takes longer in American graduate school and particularly Harvard. They were really at a loss. I mean there were a number of people who were still around, some of them still around from Harvard, who were there at that time: Harlan Smith, who’s now director at Texas, and Else and Henry Smith. Else is now in Maryland and Henry was working for NASA. I don‘t know what he’s doing now. Arnie Wyler, who is Norwegian and worked for a long time at the Bartol Foundation and also worked at Swarthmore and is now back at the Royal Observatory in Stockholm. They were all students at that time and all friends of ours. Oh, and Dave Heeschen, who became director or NRAO and Ed Lilley who was still at Harvard as a radio astronomer. They were put in radio astronomy because they were thought to be some of the weaker students. See, optical astronomers were studying radio astronomy at Harvard. Bok was the key man. These terrible rows were going on between Bok and Menzel. “Who would succeed Shapley” was the great political argument going on at Harvard at that time. Shapley was about to retire. I went there in Shapley’s regime and met Shapley. Shapley was a fascinating old boy, full of all kinds of interesting things, and had been very much involved in American science, American politics, and was kind of fighting Joseph McCarthy and doing all these kinds of things. But he was kind of a low-powered scientist at that point. Shapley was kind of a boy wonder. He had in his twenties and his thirties done major things when he was out at Mt. Wilson. Then he became director of the Harvard Observatory when he was about in his mid-thirties. After that, I think, his scientific work really fell off. He became a major figure in American astronomy, and, I guess he developed the Harvard Observatory the way it’s been developed in modern times. Some people say that’s good and some people say that’s not so good. But modern astrophysics was not their bag at Harvard. That was the trouble. Menzel was very good, but Menzel was also not terribly good with his students. I had some interactions with him. Well, they all became very good friends of mine. In fact Fred Whipple wanted me to work with him, but I never did. But socially they were really very nice people. I had a very good time there.
Well, Harvard actually split around that time into the observatory and then the department and then the Smithsonian came in a bit later.
No, that was much later. The Smithsonian was never brought to Harvard, until about 15 years ago I think. No, it was all the Harvard Observatory. There was a Department of Astronomy, but it was in the Harvard Observatory, and I think they already had a chairman of the department and a director, but Shapley controlled the whole thing and he was retiring at 67 as administrator. In retrospect I realize that most of the problems they had there were associated with arguing among the senior people about the succession. They brought in a special committee to decide who would succeed him. Oppenheimer was on it and there were a lot of eminent people on that committee, and of course when the dust settled, Bok, who felt he’d been promised the job, did not get it; and ultimately Menzel became the director. Bok left. I guess he want to Australia. They were, you see, very different kinds of people. The same situation was at Yerkes. There were personalities there like Menzel, Whipple, Bok, Shapley and the Gaposchkins — Shapley I suppose, by sheer force of personality and because he was the director, had held this group and built this group up in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But they didn’t, I think, care much for each other, many of them. It was just what happened at Yerkes when Otto Struve left, though Struve left before my time. I was only involved in Yerkes after that with a number of well-known scientists in Yerkes, who by and large were much better scientists, I would say. When you had a very strong director running the place, it worked; and when he left, then all the old antagonisms boiled up and that’s what leads to lots of problems in these departments, at least of the old style.
So, Shapley at least wasn’t making his wishes known as to who would succeed him.
Well, you know about directors. I mean you’re not supposed to officially. Well, the stories that I remember were that Shapley really wanted Bok to be the director. But, of course, I don’t really know what the fact of the matter is. Nowadays, on various search committees which I’ve been on, one argues that you don’t choose someone from inside — you’d go outside for obvious reasons.
Were any places doing that at that time?
Well, astronomers are the most backward of the lot. I mean the Hale Observatory still has not managed to go outside. Ever since Hale they’ve never gone outside, and I think it’s one of the problems that they’ve always had, and they’ve done it again — they’ve appointed Schmidt, who’s a good friend of mine and who on the face of it seems fine, but as I wrote to one of them when I made a recommendation, I said: “Well, you probably will recommend Martin, and I can see the positive effects of that, but in ten years you’ll probably regret it.”
How did you get the Agassiz Fellowship?
I applied for it. I was given it.
Did you ask for recommendations from people at University College?
I guess so. It was a good fellowship in name, but it paid zero in money. When we went to the States, we lost money by going to the States. We both had what nowadays would be called permanent positions in London. Margaret was the assistant director, and I was a lecturer, and we went to the States on these grants and fellowships. I’m sure we weren’t on leave of absence. We couldn’t get those things in those days. And so the Agassiz Fellowship paid $1680 a year, $140 a month and we had between us about $3000.
Did you live in Cambridge then?
We lived across the river in Allston. Well, when we were together we lived in Allston. I remember when I first went there I had a room on Linnaean Street, which is off Garden Street.
When your wife was at Yerkes, did she spend all the time at Yerkes? How were her finances?
Well, Van Biesbroeck (who was one of the senior astronomers at Yerkes, the old man who only died recently at about 90) ran a kind of a boarding house and she stayed there. In fact, when we were there together the whole of the first year, we stayed there also. We had a room and there was a kind of dining room. It was a kind of boarding house just adjacent to the observatory in this little town, Williams Bay Wisconsin.
Well, with those finances, though, you managed to persevere for a few years.
That’s right. In the summer of ’52, first summer we were there, there was an American Astronomical society meeting in Victoria, British Columbia and only one of us could afford to go to it and it was obvious that Margaret should go to it because she wanted to look at the west coast observatories. And so she went off and she drove with the Wyllers right across the country. In fact one of the pictures that came back from my mother’s things that we had shipped back after my mother died (I have it) was a picture of an astronomical group taken in 1952-53 of this Victoria meeting and I essentially say, “Spot Margaret” and they have trouble in doing that. It was the old days, one of the crude group photographs.
So it wasn’t just a few people. It was quite a few.
It was a group photograph. So she went out that summer, but we couldn’t both afford to. I remember that I stayed home. I stayed at Harvard all summer. It was a hot, sticky summer. That was my first experience of the kind of heat and humidity of the American East and Middle West. Of course, the apartment we had was not air-conditioned and I used to come in the morning to Harvard and I used to make some calculations (I was doing that radiative transfer problem) and by lunchtime I was so hot and sticky, I used to go down to Harvard Square and go to the movies because it was air-conditioned. And later on, after about six weeks, I found that practically all the algebra I had done had mistakes in it. I was quite convinced I couldn’t work under those conditions. It was kind of an interesting summer but it was not the kind of conditions under which I found I thrived and still don’t.
You mentioned that in coming to the United States you were giving up two relatively secure positions. Let me turn the tape over and ask you what was the main reason for coming to the States then on those grounds?
Well, it was simple, as I say that there seemed to be some good research opportunities. It really again stemmed largely from Margaret’s possibility of getting close to some major astronomical facilities, a major telescope.
With Struve — would this have been McDonald as opposed to Yerkes?
Well, it was Struve who put the bug into her head or into our heads so that we could go to the States where the facilities were better, where astrophysics was in a much better state. It was already obvious to me after a year or two around British astronomy that there was something horribly wrong. I mean the problem was that while I was young and innocent, I heard all these discussions about the way astronomy was being done, about the boundary conditions associated with working in England and so on. And I knew that the establishment felt that it should all be pursued in England and I somehow didn’t think that it made sense, even in those days. I just smelled that the thing was wrong and I was being told by all the authorities this and this and this, and I felt somehow they have to be wrong. I’ve always been somewhat of a rebel, but under these conditions I was absolutely sure that I was right and they were wrong, that this was not the way to do it.
And when you got to Harvard?
Well, Harvard was an interesting eye-opener because Harvard of course had its own problems and I found that they also didn’t have some of the things that you expected them to have. And, of course, what had really happened was that Harvard was the closest that you could come in the United States to the European way of doing things, and of course it was much later because on that whole trip we never got involved on the West Coast. But no, the place where one realized that the great potential of astrophysics was where we had been in that time, and that was Yerkes. There was a period in the ‘30s and the early ‘40s before we were over there, when I think Yerkes was probably the best place to go. If you wanted to do any work on stars, there was of course even then all the fundamental work going on and all the ballyhoo going on on the West Coast at Mt. Wilson. But apart from that, I think Yerkes was the place to go and it attracted a large number of leading people from all over the world. And Struve for about ten years really dominated American astronomy in that period and he went out later to Berkeley and did a lot of work there and ultimately came to Green Bank where he was a failure because they’d put him into a position that was not him.
Who did you associate most with at Harvard and what kinds of problems?
Well, as I say, I worked very independently and I worked largely on problems of radiative transfer. And the nearest, I suppose, to association with any of the senior people was with Menzel, though I must admit I used to talk extensively to Whipple and these people and go to their seminars and he was always trying to persuade me to work on some of the problems they were interested in. And I played with them, but I never really did anything; I never published anything on them.
The problems at that time that he was working on were meteor orbits and that sort of thing?
Yes, the physics of meteors basically.
Plasma physics? Did he see that far?
No, not plasma physics in that sense. I was interested in a wide range of problems and I would read all manner of things and I suppose be fairly bright about things, but the only things I actually concretely did were centered around stellar atmospheres and radiative transfer.
Well, the 1953 summer meeting at Ann Arbor — that was already after your research fellowship at Yerkes.
It was right at the end of it, just before we went back to England, yes.
How did you go to Yerkes after that? Was that just an arrangement to be together with your wife or what?
No, the whole of the second year I was at Yerkes. As I say, we went to the States in the fall of ‘51. Until Christmas I was at Harvard; she was at Yerkes. Christmas we went to McDonald. After Christmas we divided the rest of the year between Yerkes and Harvard — I forget how. We both went one place and we both went the other. The IAU Fellowship that Margaret had she could hold essentially anywhere. I mean as an Agassiz fellow, they wanted me around Harvard. I was part of the ornaments of Harvard. I used to make cynical remarks about this, incredibly cynical remarks about it.
What were they?
Well, I can’t remember. I remember one. There’s an observing station outside Harvard called the Agassiz Station where a tremendous amount of money has been spent. It was in the old British tradition. You take a lousy climate where you can’t really do anything and you spend a lot or money on it, and I was dragged out there for one of these. Agassiz ceremonies I think it was and somebody asked me what I thought should be done about the Agassiz Station, and I said the best thing I could think of was a case of dynamite. I mean this was the kind of remark I used to make. Dr. Shapley was very upset. I said, “Well, let’s go and talk to Dr. Shapley,” who had quite a sense of humor. He had this marvelous rotating desk and I’d sit there and he would kind of take-this-gaff — he knew what I was like. You see, a lot of Americans took a long time and still take a long time to ever get to my sense of humor, which is pretty hard to take if you’re a serious, solemn fellow, and if you’re dedicated. I’ve got into trouble all over the world by making rude remarks.
Radio astronomy was just starting at Harvard at that time.
Radio astronomy was starting. It was already very much a part of Australia and England. Optical astronomers really hadn’t got into it at all. Oort saw the potentialities and Van de Hulst used the 21-centimeter line, which of course Van de Hulst had predicted, and the Dutch started very early, and they were very solid and they went after it the proper way. In this country I think what really happened was that a few optical astronomers got interested in it, but there was no technical expertise among the people who were interested in it. Bok was interested and Jessie Greenstein was interested in it, and if you tried to do it using the classical astronomical approach, you invariably blew it. The other way was to bring foreignness in. So, for example, Caltech imported John Bolton. Of course, this again is a somewhat later period, and Alan Maxwell was brought to Harvard. He’s a New Zealander who was trained in Jodrell Bank and came and started solar radio astronomy also somewhat later at Harvard. But Bok was interested. But Bok was and is a man who kind of counts the stars and counts the nebulae and does various kinds of work on different parts of the galaxy and had these students working this way. As I say, the people at Harvard decided to get into astronomy, but they didn’t get into it by basically getting one of the key electrical engineers, as it were, or physicists. Well, this is still happening. I mean there’s a paper that recently appeared in the literature by Ed Salpeter and a student based on some measurements that they made at Arecibo in radio astronomy. And I gather from everything I’m told that these measurements are meaningless essentially because neither of them really were radio astronomers, and a lot of the effects they discovered were nothing but side lobes. But, you see, this is the kind of problem you can get into. But the whole beginnings of radio astronomy in this country I think really depended on a few of the right key people, and a lot of the troubles that NRAO and Greenbank had in the early days were associated with this fact, with this same kind of a difficulty. Anyway they had all manner of problems, and these problems really were associated with the fact that a lot of the senior scientists were not really radio astronomers. Now I mean the place has turned into something very different from the early days of the 140-foot. Well, even putting Otto Struve there was a solution. They were going to hire an Australian, whose name is also gone, but he never came over to take the job. Anyway, he was going to be the director at NRAO. He was chosen and invited to come over, accept the job and then they diagnosed cancer and he died before he ever took up the appointment. It was after that that Struve was brought in and Struve, being an optical astronomer, just didn’t understand it. That was not a rather good period. And after that they had to find somebody and so they brought Dave Heeschen, who was on the staff there, who was not thought to be a strong candidate at all. He wasn’t a leading astronomer. He had no reputation. He’s turned into probably the best director of an observatory we’ve had in this country for 50 years.
Was there a certain difference in philosophy or was it just the need for technical competence?
You should ask some more technically minded people, but I think basically, however you cut it you’ve got to have people who really know how to make the instruments work and make the instruments work properly and they have got to be people who are trained in physics and electrical engineering and astronomy basically comes later. I mean all the pioneers in radio astronomy who have made things function —Ryle, whom I don’t terribly get along with these days, but Martin Ryle is a genius in his own way; Lovell, Graham Smith, John Bolton, Tony Newish, Bernie Hills.
What was it about I. I. Rabi?
He’s an honorary trustee of NRAO. He came up to me, he’s usually very orthodox and gives me a hard time about many things, but he came up to me and he said, “Do you really believe there was a big bang?” He said, “Isn’t it a bit too simple?” I said, “Yes. Well, that’s what Fred Hoyle has been saying for years.” He said, “Well, now, Fred is a man of very good taste.” And Rabi was going up to everybody apparently, all the astrophysicists and the radio astronomers saying “I’ve become convinced that it can’t be right.” The reaction has begun to set in now that everybody has sold themselves so heavily on it. It’s Old Testament. I mean maybe it is right, but if it is, it’s very disappointing and very simple.
Have you seen that book, the Weinberg book?
No, I’ve heard about it. I’ve never looked at it.
Okay. Well, we were in the middle of talking about problems in early radio astronomy.
But only in a very peripheral way, because I was not really involved in that situation. But it was obvious that the difference between the United States and England and Australia was just that the key people in England and Australia developed a whole new discipline in their own way. There was either very little optical astronomy or there was very little connection with optical astronomy. They went their own way and they had their own sources of funds. Whereas in this country, where optical astronomy was and is very strong — I mean the optical astronomers had considerable input — they simply were not understanding enough of the kind of people needed. Well, eventually they were. Caltech simply said, “Well, we want to get into it. We’ll do it the right way. We’ll hire somebody.” And they got John Bolton and John made a marvelous job of it.
Yes, they saw the right way to do it by then.
And John trained people.
But there were no native or very few Native American radio astronomers. There were a few. There was Connie Mayer and Fred Haddock and one or two other people at the Naval Research Lab and later on Fred Haddock went to Michigan. Connie Mayer is still at NRL. But by and large those people were not really known in American astronomy and the Establishment in American astronomy just was optical astronomers. They just didn’t know much about it.
So that people like Reber and Jansky weren’t needed?
Well, they were, as far as I know (and this, of course, was much earlier), pioneers all right but they were pioneers who were too early in a sense. They found things, and then people worried about them essentially before the war, but they were doing things in their own backyards or on the side where they were. It was not involved in academia. The beginnings of real radio astronomy, the development, really started after the war with the people who’d been trained in radar and in areas of that kind who were physicists mostly. I mean John Bolton’s an Englishman. A good many of them were English that came after the war and were pushed by people like Blackett and others and just went off in their own directions and rediscovered the universe for themselves. Some of them still haven’t recovered from that.
Would you say the best blend of astronomers and the technical expertise needed was in the Netherlands?
In a certain sense. I mean the Dutch are very solid on the ground. A friend of mine made a very good remark. He said “the Dutch are really very solid — they keep all three feet on the ground.”
Who was that, an astronomer?
Yes. But they’re very conservative, but at the same time Oort is still very much their leader. He’s the same age as the Century. You should go and talk to Oort by the way. And he’s very vigorous. He’s just written me a long article for the ANNUAL REVIEWS of ASTRONOMY and ASTROPHYSICS about the galactic center. He really has given rise to a number of very good people. The only problem with the Dutch is to a large extent they think they know what the universe is and how it was made and where it was made and what the galaxy is made of and they’re filling in the details. This is the argument you’ll get from Fred if he speaks freely, which he may not do. You know, the problem is that they’ll miss anything new. The Dutchman of the ‘20s, kind of had the shape of the galaxy all wrong because, as Fred says, he never was in a clear place and would look at the sky, or he was seeing the Milky Way and he couldn’t have had everything.
Are you thinking of Kapteyn?
Yes, Kapteyn. But to go back to what you say, yes. Van de Hulst was the man who first predicted that one would be able to detect the 21 centimeter line and then did so. Of course, the early detections were made in this country also in Australia. But the Dutch realized what a tremendous tool it would be to exploit the galaxy, and so they really worked extensively first of all on 21 centimeter measurements. It was all line work basically and only more recently have they built this great array at Westerbork which was really one of the most powerful radial telescopes. Currently it’s probably the most powerful radial telescope in the world. The VLA isn’t properly on line yet and Westerbork is somewhat better than Ryle’s machine.
Let’s move you to Yerkes in ’52-’53 approximately to a time when the 21 centimeter work was beginning to be done, at least on the spiral structure of the galaxy, and when Morgan and his group were very actively finding the optical counterpart, a very interesting year there.
I wasn’t very interested in that. That was peripheral to me. I mean Morgan, Stewart Sharpless and Don Osterbrock, who was a graduate student of Chandra’s, were doing this work, and it was very interesting. I mean I was just learning about things. I’ve never taken an astronomy course in my life. I never systematically learned about the different part of astrophysics. I’ve got into various areas, quite a number of areas, basically in an erratic way through research. In those days I was still working on stars and was not interested in galactic structure. I’m still not passionately interested in galactic structure, at least in our own galaxy. But, sure, that was one of the landmarks and that did happen while we were there. That’s absolutely right. And they simply went and took these wide-angle pictures and published them.
But I’m interested in the attitude, let’s say, amongst the optical astronomers basically having the answer first.
I don’t think Morgan paid the slightest attention to radio astronomy.
That’s interesting, yes.
I mean the whole question of spiral structure is still very much up in the air. This is unfair. But why do we believe in spiral structure? We believe in spiral structure because we can look at external galaxies. When Lord Roose first saw spiral structure in 1851, spiral structure was seen; and now there is even some idea as to why it’s there though for a long time that problem has been up in the air and some people say it’s still up in the air. If you ask C. C. Lin, he will deny that violently. The situation is that if we didn’t see obvious spiral structure in external galaxies where we see these arcs, these loops, and our imagination tells us we’re looking at spirals in our own galaxy. But if you talk about spirals as spirals you’ll have a hell of a job to demonstrate them. You can see certainly these kinds of lanes. But we can’t classify our own galaxy really. Some people say it’s an SB and some people say it may have a bar. But in practice the analogy always give the students [???] it’s as if we’re shut in this room here and we can’t open that door. We can look out of that window. The real thing is: How much can we tell about the structure of this building? We can see a building across the road and we ultimately say “Well, it’s probably like that.” Now it’s not quite as bad as that, but it’s partly as bad as that.
You gave an analogous statement in a paper replying…
But in a delightful way. If I recall, you asked what could an observer in the Magellanie Clouds be wondering about our own galaxy if they were sitting there looking at us and you said “He’d probably be wondering if there were spirals in the Magellanie Clouds.”
I believe that was in response to papers between you and Brandt on the scale of the galaxy.
Jack Brandt. I think that’s probably right.
I thought that was quite interesting.
Jack Brandt was a student at Yerkes.
Was he there at that time?
Later on. Jack was a student when I was on the faculty there between 1957 and 1962. He was a student of Joe Chamberlain when he was working on upper atmosphere physics. He wasn’t in this area.
I had known him as a solar system man basically. Well, that year I’m interested if you had contact with Chandrasekhar.
Oh, yes, we got to know Chandra very well. Chandra was and is a very good friend of ours. We first met Chandra in London around 1950 when he came over to get the Gold Medal of the RAS and we got to know him very well when we first went to Yerkes. I think he likes the English. Of course, with his background he loves to talk about the Cambridge business and he has this English attitude. Most of the things he used to like to talk about were still the old days when he was in Cambridge and running between Oxford and Cambridge. Most of the stories I’ve hear about Milne and Eddington and Jeans come from Chandra. And we got to know him and Lalitha very well and they’re very good friends of ours, as I say. He’s the man I think who largely got us to go back to Chicago later and was very sorry when we left. We’ve had him out to California. I’ve never actually written a paper with Chandra. We’ve talked about it. We’ve gone back and forth and when we were there we always helped, too with the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL and all manner of things. He works night and day. He used to. But he would talk science and gossip about scientists. He loved gossiping about scientists. Lots and lots of stories that I know really come from Chandra who really will let his hair down. He’s quite a difficult guy in many ways and very formidable to many people. Chandra was the person whom I think we were closest to at Yerkes in that period.
He was living there, was he not?
Well, yes. I mean they all had houses close to the observatory. Morgan we saw quite a bit of. Morgan is still living there. Kuiper was there and we saw quite a bit of him at that time and later on we had all these problems with Kuiper.
You did personally?
Oh, sure, we had terrible rows. I mean there was a big upheaval at Yerkes in the period ’59, ’60, and ’61. A whole group of younger faculty, involving me and Kevin Prendergast, who’s now at Columbia and Joe Chamberlin and Margaret and Bob Kraft and Helmut Abt all went down to the Dean and said, “You know, we just can’t tolerate this. We’re not going to.” Well, anyway, Kuiper finally was not re-appointed as chairman, but there was a terrible row and it really I think broke up Yerkes.
Was Dean Bartle still around?
No, the dean was Zachariason.
I’d like to talk about that when we get to it.
That was a very difficult period indeed but all those people were there. Stromgren was the director, you see and you know, “the Great Dane.”
Was he there in your first period?
I think he was. I think he was and I think he was actually the director but I may be wrong about that. I’m pretty sure he was because in the second period that was when Kuiper was elected — that’s when we had all this trouble. But yes, Stromgren was there. He’d come over and become director and he wasn’t a very good director. He was a very good scientist but he just didn’t do things and Chandra used to have to do most of the things that were done.
You mean he wouldn’t get the day by day problems done?
Well, he just didn’t answer letters. He just didn’t do things. If you wanted to get Bengt to do something, you [???] thing: “Unless I hear from you by so-and-so, I plan to do so-and-so.”
That’s how you had to write to him?
I mean he’d gone there I think because he liked Yerkes — he’d been there in the ‘30s — he wanted to use McDonald and he saw it as a great place to do research. He was not cut out to run a major American Observatory. I mean he just didn’t. He just didn’t do the things that needed to be done.
Then to your knowledge why was he chosen?
Because Chandra wanted him. Chandra was the power behind the scene. Then Chandra found he wasn’t doing his job, Chandra said, “I don’t think he should be re-appointed,” so he wasn’t re-appointed. But Chandra had great power. I used to always tell Chandra: “You have great power and no responsibility.” He said, “Geoffrey, that’s unfair.” “It’s not unfair Chandra.” We used to go back and forth. It’s true of course. And Chandra I guess enjoyed it. I mean not many people would talk to him that way. He and I used to drive down to Chicago every Thursday. We were involved in the Fermi Institute. We used to go and spend a day a week in Chicago and these were the days in the early period when Chandra was doing his famous work with Fermi on cosmic rays, and I used to drive down with him and he used to take me in sometimes and I used to sit in a corner while he and Fermi did these things. It was very funny because Chandra wasn’t at all like Fermi. Fermi would kind of talk in a physical way about problems and Chandra would essentially wait to get his homework assignment as I used to say. And Chandra was a different personality around Fermi because he was very deferential. When he was down in Chicago he didn’t try and dominate the scene at all. When he came back to Yerkes, he always was kind of very much in the ascendancy. But that was a very interesting period indeed and we used to go to these regular weekly afternoon colloquia. Before the colloquia they had an informal seminar in the Fermi Institute where people would go without any prearrangement and get up and talk about things they were interested in working on or they’d read about and something and Fermi would always make this a marvelous thing. After Fermi died and I went back, the later period it was very different. It never worked in the same way. But it was really pretty good when it went on.
Well, I’d like to ask you more about that and also about some of the observing trips down to McDonald at that time and how the structure was set up…
We had day-to-day interactions with Chandra and a lot of work got done in that period in the visits to McDonald. All I can remember was the bad weather. During winter in Wisconsin there was an incredible lot of ice and snow; the sub-zero temperatures, which I really wasn’t used to. I mean we only went to McDonald once or twice in that period. It was very nice down there. We liked West Texas. But I don’t remember a lot. We did a tremendous lot of observing because we didn’t think we would come back again and so we had all kinds of material which we eventually took back to England.
At that time you embarked on spectrophotometric work in earnest — at least on 2 Can Ven and peculiar A-stars.
That’s right. Well, we got interested in abundances in ’52. There was a meeting we had at Yerkes. I don’t remember the details, but I remember that Harold Urey was there. Harold was still at Chicago and Kuiper. And I don’t think that the question of the abundances of the elements had very somehow got into prominence with us before, but sometime in the period of that meeting (I think that Margaret has a better recollection than I do) they did. Somehow we decided that some of the stars which showed very remarkable apparent anomalies were worth looking at in detail and no studies of this kind had very been made before and so we chose some magnetic stars which 2 Can Ven was one of the best; and we went to McDonald and we got lots of Coudé spectra of that and others. And actually those weren’t analyzed until we went to England.
I see. That’s an important thing to identify.
Things were started, but in fact they were really not. That must have been in the winter of ’52, spring of ’53, probably we went observing and we left in the summer. We left by June of ’53 and went to Michigan and from Michigan we may have gone back briefly to Yerkes, but we really then went back to England.
You went to Michigan specifically for that summer school, yes. Okay, well while you were looking for interesting and peculiar objects to examine did you start making contacts and getting interested in nucleo-synthesis at that time?
Because you started suggesting mechanisms like surface reactions.
Well, that was after we analyzed things like Can Ven.
Already back at Cambridge?
Yes, I think you’ll find the dates of those papers. I mean yes.
Yes. 2 Can Ven…
1955. Am ApJ Supplement, Volume 1, page 431.
That’s it — that’s the one: “Analysis of Magnetic Variables 2 Can Ven.” I don’t want to get to that then, since the analysis was back at England and I’d be jumping just a bit ahead but not too much. We’re just about there. You noted discussions and aid from Horace Babcock and William Fowler at that time.
Had you met them or was this through correspondence?
Yes, we met Horace at some meeting or other — I’m not sure exactly when. Willie Fowler we met in Cambridge.
Oh, so that was also later again. Okay, fine.
We went back in ’53 and all this stuff with Willie was really started in ’54 basically.
At the Cavendish?
Yes, in the Cavendish.
The structure of that Ann Arbor meeting was quite interesting. Was this a summer institute or summer school?
Summer school. We were just students there basically.
Yes. Were these kinds of summer schools common at that time?
I think that they weren’t common. I mean they were a thing we felt that we could apply for. I think we got some small grant and went there. It was the first summer school I’d ever been to as a student. I think probably the only summer school I’d ever been to as a student. I probably lectured a lot but I don’t remember being a student again. It was very interesting. It lasted about three weeks. It was like all summer schools. You had a few lectures and seminars.
You mentioned quite a few names in regard to that particular summer school and some of them of course later were quite important in your own work in synthesis…
Well, at least they began some of the ideas. Salpeter was influential, was he not?
No, Ed wasn’t. I don’t know what Ed was talking about, but there was no impact from that summer school whatever on nucleo-synthesis. Gamow was talking cosmology; Baade was talking about stellar populations. That’s when I first got interested in stellar evolution, and I used to say, “You’ll never sort anything out” to Allen Sandage, who was there and who used to get mad at me when I first met Allan. And George Vassar was talking about turbulence in the interstellar median, which was quite related to these ideas about cosmic rays in the galaxy, which Chandra and Fermi were working on and I by then got a little bit interested in cosmic ray problems. But really there were no people directly influential. Well, I suppose Ed was in a way but I can’t remember really what Ed did there, but it wasn’t something that had much impact on me at the time I don’t think. It may have done at the time but certainly doesn’t in retrospect.
So again in retrospect, the melding of particle physics and astrophysics really hadn’t happened until you got back to Cambridge.
Okay. Now, you mentioned that you had these options — that you’d talked to Kopal, who had convinced you not to go to Manchester, which I find to be highly interesting. There were other choices, though, beyond that in Cambridge, were there not?
Not any that I remember taking seriously. There may have been, but I don’t remember them anymore.
So then we can move on unless there’s something that I am missing from your earlier life.
We can move on.
We can move on to the Cavendish. You knew that you were going to be working specifically with Martin Ryle.
I had taken this research appointment with Ryle’s group — that’s right.
And did you know your position there? Were you their theoretician, so to speak?
I was technically a theoretician, yes.
And what were you going to be doing for them?
Oh, I was playing with radio astronomical problems theoretically; I guess was what I was starting to do. Well, that’s what I started doing. But, I had these other interests and I intended to pursue them and in fact we did pursue them. Margaret didn’t have a position in Cambridge. In fact, one of the amusing things in retrospect and one of the most irritating things was that even when she was measuring down at the Cambridge Observatory, they tried to make her pay what they called bench fees.
Well, since she wasn’t a member of the staff, and she wasn’t a student, they were making her pay; and we thought this was outrageous. I remember that Littleton was also very upset about it and Fred, who we first were meeting around that time. It was one of the strange ways of the people there. No, I worked in the Cavendish with the radio astronomers and did some things, wrote some papers. But there was this difficult atmosphere, and there were all kinds of things that Ryle would do. He tried to compartmentalize things so that you weren’t allowed to know about certain kinds of things that were going on. For example, I was not involved in cosmology at all, but the whole of this long argument which Ryle was about to burst upon the world in his own way, was kept from me completely, so much so that when Ryle came out and said all this, when he gave the Halley Lecture at Oxford in ’54 probably, I was so angry. I mean people said, “Come to Oxford and you’ll hear what Martin’s been doing.” And I said, “I won’t.” Margaret went. I refused to go. I absolutely refused to go. I said, “I will not behave in this way.” I mean the secretive behavior that was associated with that group was one of the things that really I guess got me mad. I just was not prepared to behave in that way.
Was he doing his own theory then?
Well, no, they were reducing their material and he was preparing to burst these results upon the world kind of thing. But I was a member of the group, for example. I mean there were all these nonsensical things. For example we used to go over to have tea in the Austin Wing of the Cavendish. We were in the old wing where Rutherford used to work. And some afternoons Fred Hoyle would walk in to have tea and I wasn’t really aware of the feelings that Ryle had about this situation, but if every Fred walked in to have tea, Martin would simply signal to one of his people and that would be a signal to go back and close everything up and shut everything down and lock all the doors, thought Fred was only in the building. I mean Fred had no idea what was going on. There was this kind of behavior. You know, there are marvelous stories of the same kind of thing. There’s the story that Ken Kellerman tells of Ryle coming into a room when they were first working on the scintillation of a radio sources in Cambridge and Ken Kellerman was visiting and was in (I think it was Ken) talking to one of Ryles’ people — it may have been Tony Hewish — and Kyle came into the room. There was no apparent reason for his coming in, but he came in and stood by and said a few words and then went out again. And when he went out, Ken noticed that a lot of shoe boxes, which were up on a high shelf containing records had all been turned around and all lids had been put on them; and at that point Ken asked, “What is all this about?” That kind of behavior pattern is indeed well documented. There are many stories of that kind that you can get out about that kind of behavior pattern.
It’s not incredible — it’s factual — this kind of business of being very secretive. I had no connections with Fred in those days. The only problem could be that I was a theoretician. But this whole business of arguing that the counts of radio sources demonstrated evolution, which is what he believed and has continued to believe and therefore disproved the steady state — he was not prepared to indicate to me. His graduate students and John Shakeshaft and Peter Scheuwer, I guess they were, who were all still there, were involved in this; but they obviously were instructed not to talk to me about it at all. And any discussions of the major results and what Ryle was going to say were obviously to be done in another place. I was sharing an office with some these people, but it was all arranged so that I at least was kept out of it. Whether other people were kept out of it I really don’t know. But that’s the way one functioned and functions.
Why should you be kept out it?
I don’t know, apart from the fact that I was a theoretician, because I had no connections with Fred at the time.
Were you there on a temporary assignment?
Yes, but no more temporary than a graduate student basically. I mean I had a research appointment, which was good for two years or three years or so. You are looking for some logical answer. There is no logical answer where people like that are concerned.
But he must have had something in mind bringing you to Cambridge in the first place?
Well, then I think he didn’t want to share it with me and I think also he probably could have thought that I might be able to understand it or even be able to think of alternative ways of thinking about it. I’m only speculating, because I really don’t know to this day but I recall how, when I really realized that they had been keeping something like that from me, I really was angry and I just refused to have anything to do with going and being part of the ceremony there when it was given to the world. Exactly the same thing happened with the pulsars, you see. The pulsars were kept extremely secret from everybody. There are incredible stories — true stories about communications much later involving the pulsars. I was not there and they’re all second and third hand but exactly the same thing happened. There’s always been a difficult in communication between the Cavendish group and people outside. Now, I was inside but even so I was thought to be outside. In the case of the pulsars, one story, which I know to be true, is that John Faulkner, who’s now at Santa Cruz and Peter Srittmatter had a discussion over lunch with John Shakeshaft with the express intention — both sides were trying to improve communications between the Cavendish radio astronomers and the other astrophysicist in Cambridge — of discussing ways in which they could interchange information and could have more joint colloquia and so on. And they apparently did this for about two hours. Anyway they had this discussion and right at the end of it apparently John Shakeshaft was a little concerned, I suppose, because he saw what was going on and he was privy to all this. So right at the end of the lunch the last thing he said more or less to them was: “By the way, we have got an amazing new discovery. If you’ll come to the RAS on Friday, you can hear all about it.” And they always give that as the classic example of the way those guys function and that’s true. And then, of course, even after they published the paper on the first pulsar, they said in the paper that they found some other pulsars. At that point I was in La Jolla and Marshall Cohen is one of the radio astronomers who was then La Jolla — he’s now at Caltech — and Marshall was very anxious to get the positions to work on them himself. And Tony Hewish was a friend of his and he telephoned to Tony Hewish and I said to Marshall: “It won’t be any good, you know, Marshall.” And it wasn’t. They refused to give him the information. They refused to give him the coordinates. They wouldn’t tell him where the objects were. They got terrible press from that kind of behavior, but that’s what they did.
Was this part of the problem with the assignment of the Nobel Prize?
Well, that’s another issue, I think. Well, they handled it. No, I think the whole thing was badly done. I can argue about the way the prize was awarded and who it should be awarded to, but the point is that this group functions in that way. They have meetings before they go to meetings to decide what they will say as a group, what their spokesman will say, what position he will take. I remember years ago when we were in Cambridge one summer at the Institute when (Fred was still running the Institute) John Bolton came over. So John was at the Institute and gave a seminar and they all came to the seminar with the exception of Martin, who usually doesn’t come to these things. They all sat in different parts of the room; and I happened to be sitting next to Malcolm Longhair. And Malcolm was kind of jumping up and down and saying, “That’s wrong — that’s wrong. This is wrong. You mustn’t say that. You shouldn’t say that.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you say something to him then?” And Malcolm finally spoke up and objected to something John Bolton was saying and then from all over the room in different places, different members of Ryles’ group started to cross-examine John and they had all arranged beforehand what they were going to do. And that’s the way the group functions.
Is this unique in astronomy?
As far as I know, it is.
That’s quite fascinating.
If you go to a meeting, like the meeting in Bonn, where Malcolm came and everybody else gets up and gives a report on something that they’ve been working on, but Malcolm get up after every paper and says, “But we at Cambridge essentially say the following position.” I mean: “The position of Cambridge is as follows.” It’s just like the Russians. I think the Russians do this. Zeldovitch does this.
You later on had some interaction with Verontzov-Velyaminor and with Ambartsumian and I imagine you still know them.
Oh, much later.
Yes, much later and I hope someday to get to that point where we can talk about them.
Well, yes, we met them eventually.
Well, this is a very confusing situation, at least at the Cavendish. Let me ask you this: When you went there with all this data that you had gathered at McDonald, which obviously had nothing to do with Ryles’ work, how did you divide your time?
At this time I just kind of worked all the time on all these things. I usually worked mostly in the Cavendish on those things and at home or elsewhere on the spectra but it’s not clear. Margaret spent nearly all her time working on the spectra. I don’t remember anymore how the time was divided.
So Ryle never brought that up to you or anything like that.
No. I imagine that Martin found, as most people have found, that in those days I was very independent. He obviously could only tolerate people around who fit in in a special way. I also was not a practicing radio astronomer. You know, I went where the interesting problems were in their field as any other. But I mean there’s no question that my interest in radio astronomy and my insight into a lot of the material did come in the first instance from that group. There was a lot of information that I did have that I worked up and when I later on did quite a lot of work in using radio astronomical things when I was back later in Pasadena there’s no question that the original insight into the language of radio astronomers and the kind of things that they would do and couldn’t do I got from there — from the Cavendish in the first place. So I mean I owe them a good deal.
If they were just doing the statistics of number counts…
Well, that’s one of the things they were doing.
What were you actually involved in?
Well, I wrote a paper, for example, on halo and radio radiation around our galaxy based on a lot of their work — John Baldwin’s work. Also, I did one of the first calculations on supernova explosions, which was in fact never published because I sent it to the Monthly Notices and then got very angry because of the politics of British science and withdrew it. But there were a number of things I started there, some of which were published later. Some of the carbon rates of acceleration papers that I wrote later on really started there.
Okay, those are the ones I was interested in, but I have difficulty knowing what you were working on at any particular place.
Well, I can tell you: between 1953-54 and for four or five years I was working simultaneously on abundances of the elements, on nucleo-synthesis on radio sources and on cosmic ray physics. And there were periods in those times when all these things were happening at the same time basically. And I know when I was at Caltech and we were doing nucleo-synthesis work, Fred and I wrote one or two other things. Willie didn’t know that the hell was going on. We were writing about M87, I was writing about radio sources. That was all done in the same period and it was work that started and started coming to a culmination frequently. I mean something would get cleared up and written up almost every month in that period.
Yes, so you’ll excuse me if I’m getting a few of these dates and places mixed up.
I don’t think you have to worry too much about it. I mean it’s confused to me. I don’t know anymore.
I certainly want to get it straight for the historical record as far as when you became aware of problems in nucleo-synthesis.
The nucleo-synthesis as far as I was concerned started in the following way: we certainly got first interested in abundances in 1952 in Chicago when there was this little meeting. We made observations which bore on element abundances in magnetic stars in that period. We then brought them back to Cambridge; we analyzed them. Now, when we first completed the work on 2 Can Ven and we were pushing some of the ideas that nuclear processes take place on the surfaces of stars, I gave a talk in Cambridge to I think the Kapitza Club. There used to be two clubs in Cambridge — one called Kapitza. The other was called [???], The Kapitza Club, as you know, was the club set up by Kapitza, to which Rutherford promised not to come. You knew Kapitza’s argument. He said, “Rutherford, you are a great man and therefore we must have a place where you don’t come.” That’s how the Kapitza Club was formed. [???] was the theoretical thing. I think I gave it at the Kapitza Club and these things were held after dinner in college somewhere or other. Depending on who was the secretary for the given term, they were in that college. But I gave essentially a seminar after dinner at one of these colleges at which I discussed this material and there were a number of questions including some from this bald-headed character, this American who I’d seen around but I didn’t know at all. He came up to me afterwards and we got talking and it was Willie Fowler and I was pushing these ideas around and Willie was obviously very interested in them and interested in the whole thing and I said, “Well, Dr. Fowler, we should probably spend some time together talking about this,” and he agreed. But I always remember he said, “But, you know, I’m only an expert on the light elements. I don’t know anything about the heavy elements.” But we were talking about everything and that’s how the first collaboration with Willie started. Willie had come as a Fulbright professor to Cambridge. He had come because he thought he could use the van de Graaff. He found when he came, that things in Cambridge didn’t work and it wasn’t the way that it had been in Rutherford’s day. He was fairly disillusioned, I think, with some of the things you couldn’t do. We started spending a lot of time together, and out of that we started doing real nucleo-synthesis which was because surface reactions are not interior reactions. We did write one paper on the surface reactions with Willie, but we also started working on the processes which generate neutrons in stars — C13N and Ne21N, things of that kind. And in that period, essentially now in 1954, we began to see more of Fred. Willie knew Fred but he knew him because Fred had been at Caltech. He’d never really collaborated with Fred. Fred used to come in and in that period we got to know each other pretty well and Fred used to come in and often used to start off at tea in the Cavendish and then go on to Willies and drink martinis until nobody could think straight anymore. And then we started working extensively, though in that whole Cavendish period we didn’t write a paper with Fred and then Willie persuaded us and said, “Why don’t you come to Pasadena?” And I applied for a Carnegie Fellowship, which I got and Margaret got a research appointment at Kellogg and that’s how we went to Pasadena in the summer of 1955.
Right. Let me ask you a question about surface abundances and then I’ll get back into the regular nucleo-synthesis. Did you ever consider the effect of mixing as opposed to surface enrichment by nuclear processes?
Well, we could see very early that you couldn’t do this by mixing to the surface because the abundances were so peculiar and are so peculiar. I mean there’s still an argument going on. Some people have moved away from nucleo-synthesis on the surface, but some people have not. I still think they have to be important. But no, you could easily demonstrate that this couldn’t have anything to do with things from the deep interior just because of the anomalies of the heavy elements basically.
When it came to something like the presence of technetium in red giants by Merrill?
Merrill first discovered technetium — that’s right.
What was the thought on everyone’s mind at that point?
Well, that was a source of neutrons, but that was a comparatively rare thing and there were no other anomalies basically among the red giants or very few anomalies among the red giants. That was a different kind of an argument.
How well aware were you at that time of the present state of stellar evolution, let’s say between ’52 and ’54?
Well, we were as well up on it as everybody was at that point. I mean Martin Schwarzschild and Fred had been calculating these evolutionary tracks and Alan Sandage had written a paper with Schwarzschild on the same thing, “The Evolution off the Main Sequence onto the Giant Branch.” And color-magnitude diagrams were all the rage. That’s what I used to give Alan a hard time about. Sandage just spent one year in Princeton as a visitor with Schwarzschild and they wrote one paper, which was quit an interesting paper. But really most of the detailed work was Hoyle and Schwarzschild’s work.
So that was the work that definitely had evolutionary tracks to the red giant stage.
Yes. Well, there were several things at that time, of course. There were other people who were also playing this game, but we were certainly much influenced by that group. And, of course, as soon as we got involved with Fred, then he would discuss it in his way and that’s what you would always use.
Well, at that point, though, I can’t quite be sure exactly who was aware of what at that time because Salpeter came in almost at the same time with his helium burning process.
Oh well, we were using that. The 3-[???] process was part of the whole picture.
But it also required a core of helium and did they immediately see that this required the red giants to be an evolved type of a star?
Well, I mean one knew what the evolution off the Main Sequence would do. One knew that it would lead to high temperatures in the core.
Salpeter in his paper said that certainly one would need further contraction of the helium rich core, but he didn’t refer to the core alone. He thought the entire star had to contract and this was the prevalent theory of evolution at that time up to ’50-’52.
Well, this after ’52 then. I’m talking about two or three years later. I think you’ll find Hoyle and Schwarzschild published in ’55.
Okay. That’s the one I want to find.
I think that’s right. Hoyle and Schwarzschild in the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL or the SUPPLEMENTS in 1955.
So you were aware through your contacts and Fowler’s contacts with Hoyle?
Well, but we were also entirely familiar with the literature of that time and I’m sure the literature of that time had taken us that far. But we were really working as Eddington did. We started off with some observational evidence that nuclear reactions were taking place on the surface. We then started worrying about the interiors. Eventually we got ambitious and decided we could maybe make a case for all of the elements being made in the stars. I remember we used to say this to each other and we would try and decide what conditions were required in each stage and see how far we could go and how well we could tie it to observation and we would bridge the gaps or jump over them or ignore them where we couldn’t. I mean that was basically I think the philosophy that began to develop, either spoken or unspoken, with Fred always jumping ahead in a certain way, and perhaps I did the same thing. And Willie would always kind of want us to go through all the nuclear physics or go through it himself. He always did it properly, and Fred and I kind of jumped around. And Margaret was playing with the observational material, and of course when we went out to Pasadena we started doing abundances of elements and stars where we did think nucleosynthesis was going on: Barium II Stars, for example. And there the problem was that there were various observational lines that you could follow, which again had never been properly followed out, though they could have been followed out by other people but they weren’t. And so starting when we went out to Pasadena again, a deliberate attempt was being made to look for observational evidence for nucleosynthesis as distinct what had been done before.
Yes. Your papers with Fowler, were these written while you were still at the Cavendish?
We wrote two when we were at the Cavendish.
“Stellar Evolution Synthesis of the Elements” and “Nuclear Reactions and Elements Synthesis on the Surfaces of Stars.” The first one – you made a lot of interesting statements in it. Now, you’ve identified the synthesis on the basis of neutron capture, and this I guess was the first major statement on that score. And you also strongly suggested continual synthesis of elements in stars, but that was pretty much from Hoyle’s work. Is that correct?
Yes, well, we were aware of it. Fred wrote a very fundamental paper in ’46.
And that was up to the iron peak.
But you’d taken it all the way up to the α emitter – the naturally radioactive elements.
That’s right, that’s right. We decided that you could do this with the neutron capture if you played the game properly.
Yet you were working with the heavy element synthesis, how did you actually avoid problems, at least in terms of the cosmological formation of elements 5 and 8? You mentioned continual synthesis in this paper?
Well, we were accepting that you would jump over those from using the helium reactions. I mean that was already implied, was clear.
You also made an interesting disclaimer in that paper that you were not discussing synthesis from cosmological modeling, either primeval or continuous creation.
That was the cause of that statement?
The underlying drive in this subject, which was not ours or Willie’s, had come on the one hand from Gamow and his colleagues, who having accepted the big bang, as we now call it, were working on the problem of the formation of the elements and ran into these difficulties, which remain. And then on the other hand, the steady state cosmologists had no option within their framework but to argue that the elements were formed in the stars, because they didn’t have any condensed phase — they didn’t have any primordial phase. And, of course, I’m sure that this was always a driving force for Fred after 1948-’49 probably, but then Fred gets interested in the physics of the problem whatever its origin is. But we simply didn’t want our ideas coupled. I’m sure Willie probably felt this more strongly, and I can’t remember how I felt. But we didn’t want the fact that we were writing papers on nucleo-synthesis to be interpreted as meaning that we favored the steady state cosmology particularly or any other cosmology. And, of course, in retrospect, in terms of all the more recent arguments that one has had, one sees that this is one of the problems that you have in almost any of these fields of astronomy. Any way that it can be related to cosmology, people want to put you in one box or the other. Gamow was very clearly on one side. I mean he used to give these lectures. He did in Michigan I remember. He used to write down on the blackboard “primeval atom, believed by Vatican,” and then underneath he would write “steady state, believed by Kremlin,” and he was absolutely wrong about this latter statement, as I learned later. Namely, no one is more sure of the Big Bang than are the Russians. I mean everybody hates the steady state. It’s kind of a state of mind which I began to become aware of in the ‘50s. In England it started with these lectures that Fred gave I think and the way and the way these guys handled themselves. But astronomers didn’t ever want the steady state to be right. They would use any argument against it fair or foul, mostly foul. I mean if you look at the history through this log N/ log S business you find that really when those guys started on the steady state in ’48-’49, the first cosmological arguments brought against them was the value of the deceleration parameter, which had no meaning whatsoever. The second argument that was brought against them was the Stebbins-Whitford effect, which disappeared altogether. The third argument against them was log N/ log S, which endured for a very long time and gave Ryle a tremendous number of honors and publicity and led to all these troubles with Fred and all the difficulties in Cambridge and England and all over. The fourth one is indeed the discovery of the microwave background. As Fred says, he used to say anyway, the steady state has survived all the crises but this last one and it will probably survive the last one, is what he used to say and maybe he still thinks this. But if you look at the history of it, and I wrote a paper entitled, “Was There Really a Big Bang?” in which I said all this, which many people think is a very good article and people like Alan think is the worst article I’ve ever written in my life, because Alan thinks it’s biased. I don’t think it’s biased. A lot of people don’t think so, but people who “believe” do think so. But a cold-blooded attempt at a modern history of the subject, which is what I tried to give there demonstrates I think that this immense prejudice has always been present.
Well, you’re actually quite gentle on the Stebbins-Whitford effect. You didn’t go into the instrumental problems that they had to any great degree.
But the point was that the Stebbins-Whitford effect was claimed to be an effect and it was never properly retracted, though it was wrong. As a matter of fact, there’s a paper by Oke and Sandage written only a few years ago in which they point out there is no Stebbins-Whitford effect. But five years after the Stebbins-Whitford effect was known to be wrong observationally, people like McVittie were quoting it as the evidence against the steady state. McVittie was violently opposed to the steady state. Nearly all the leading cosmologists were violently opposed to it.
One thing that kind of confused me a little bit about it, though, was that when I looked at it, it seemed to make one question the red shift relationship itself. Am I incorrect in that?
No, I mean the Stebbins-Whitford effect is a reddening over and above that to be expected from the red shift effect. You make all the normal corrections for the red shift. You put all the 1+E2 terms in. When you put them all in, you’ve still got an excess reddening. That meant if it were correct, that at an earlier epoch the galaxies really had intrinsically different energy distributions, and that meant that at a different epoch the galaxies were different, and that disproved the steady state in the same way that Ryle argued and continues to argue that there is an evolutionary effect in radio sources as a function of epoch and that is also the same thing. So it was something which demands some kind of evolution. The point is there is no excess reddening that anybody has been able to measure.
So it did not cause people to look at the red shift distance relationship itself and wonder whether that was suspect.
They accepted that. They accepted that.
That was “Cannon Law” so to speak.
That is “Cannon Law”.
Interpreted as a velocity shift.
Okay, so there’s no question about that. Okay. Well, I do recall the various arguments you had, and you had a very interesting paper in ’54, which I couldn’t get my hands on. It was in the Phil. Mag. on the red shift law.
Oh, that was a side issue. There was Findlay Freundlich, and actually Max Born had become involved with them a little. Born wrote a paper, which is referenced in that paper. And Findlay Freundlich raised the old problem that there are various kinds of stars and other objects which have small, anomalous contributions to their red shifts, and so he was raising again: “what is the red shift due to?” And we wrote a paper in the Phil. Mag. in ’54, based on observational material on stars, demolishing this argument, very critical of this, which after some fuss was published.
These are stars now within our galaxy.
Yes. They were really back talking about possible red shift effects due to atomic transitions and all the rest of it, and Born really tried to do everything he could in his later years to see how far he could go in thinking about this theoretically, and of course you can’t do anything with it. And so we wrote a paper which was highly critical of the unconventional interpretations of Findlay Freundlich. McCrea also wrote a paper along the same lines.
W. H. McCrea?
Yes. It’s also in the Philosophical Magaine I think. That was simply a little paper which was supposed to demolish some of the observational arguments that Findlay Freundlich had put forward. I don’t remember the details anymore myself.
Okay. Well, as long as it had nothing to do with log N/ log S or anything like that.
No, it had nothing to do with log N/ log S at all.
Okay. Well, you now had established a very close working relationship with Fowler evidently.
And to the point where I guess you were coming to the end of your stay at the Cavendish, and what were the options open to you at that point?
Well, I mean we didn’t discuss it. I think in the spring of ’53 Willie had said essentially, “Come to California,” and so I applied for a Carnegie Fellowship, which was what seemed to be the thing to do, and Willie was going to arrange something or other for Margaret and presumably something or other for me if the Carnegie Fellowship had not come through. The Carnegie Fellowship did come through, so we weren’t concerned with options. We were going to go to California and carry this work on, and we went.
Was Fowler aware of the difficulties of women observing at the observatories, Mt. Wilson and Palomar?
Not until we got there. Willie began to learn through us about all the problems. All my friends at Caltech began to learn about that. First of all, the Carnegie fellowships are supposed to be for observers, and I applied and I put down a research project, which was to measure the rotation of a galaxy because we were interested in this in the beginning. I believe that that part of it they didn’t like because their idea was and still is probably that if somebody wants to come in on a short term basis to work on a research problem that some of the staff are working on, that that’s an argument against it. Guido Munch was supposed to be working on that problem, I’m told. I don’t know, of course, what happened. I know that I was awarded a Carnegie fellowship. I’ve been told that Walter Baade, who didn’t know me, argued very strongly on my behalf; although I was most unorthodox, I was the first theoretician they’d ever appointed as a Carnegie fellow.
The first theoretician?
Yes, sure, they were all observers. Maartin Schmidt was also a Carnegie fellow the same year or a year after, but he was born like most of the young Dutchmen with a silver spoon in his mouth. He had Oort backing him. The same thing with Lou Woltjier. Oort carried Woltjier around the world and he carried Maartin around the world. So I went there and, of course, it was obvious from the beginning that Margaret would want to observe. Well, what happened in Pasadena was that I could apply for observing time – they wanted me. I mean while they got this unorthodox Carnegie fellow wandering around and talking about things they didn’t understand…
But they wanted you to do it.
They didn’t know what the hell was going on because we had an office in Santa Barbara Street, and we had an office down in Caltech and I guess it really turned the place upside down. Alan said it was very good for Mt. Wilson. Alan was my very good friend who was really looking forward to our coming. He wasn’t married at the time.
And you knew him.
We’d met him in Michigan, and most of the time we were at Pasadena, Alan used to practically…he didn’t live with us, but he’d eat dinner with us every night and go out with us all the time. One of the amusing things about this generation of astronomers is that they think – many of them apparently think – that Alan and I are on very bad terms. They kind of wait for confrontations between us. They wait for us to appear at meetings – we’re the same age and all the rest of it – and they don’t seem to realize that Alan, who’s a very difficult guy in a lot of ways I guess , he and I understand each other and we do outrageous things together, but we’re very good friends. Some of them still don’t understand that. I found last year at the scheduling committee meeting at Kitt Peak, Alan had come on the committee and I was still on it, and they all came because they thought there was going to be a big row between me and Alan. Very funny. Alan said, “Geoff, do you think we should put on a show?”
(laughs) Did he say that?
Yes, sure. You have to get to know Alan. He’s not an easy guy, I know that. But anyway over this observing business I applied for observing time, and everybody knew full well that Margaret would come observing. And we went observing together, and we used the 100-inch at Mt. Wilson and the 60-inch, and of course she was the observer when we got on the mountain and all the rest of it, and no argument was made. I never made the slightest attempt to argue that I was the observer once we got on the mountain. And I guess we let this go on for about six months, and we used to drive up to Mt. Wilson, and we went to stay in the Kapteyn Cottage because one of the problems was that they had the monastery and women couldn’t stay in the monastery. We just ignored that finally. We didn’t come to confrontations until we had to. Well, we had to after about six months because we had a Chevrolet we used to drive there, an old Chevy. It wasn’t an “old” Chevy; it was two, three years old. But on one run we didn’t want to drive up ourselves and we wanted to go up in the observatory vehicle, which goes up every day, and so we told Milt Humason, who was at that point the secretary of the observatory who made assignments at the observatory. He was a very conservative old boy. We got to know him when he became a very good friend of ours, but at that point we didn’t know him very well, and we simply said this and Milt came back with this incredible statement. It’s still incredible to me. He said, “Well, you can go up in the observatory truck but Margaret can’t.”
In the truck?
In the observatory vehicle, see, because I was officially observing and she wasn’t. And that I think is what did it. You know, we went to Bowen and asked Bowen. He was a very nice guy, very conservative and he didn’t know what to say but he had to stick to the rules and he made the same statement. So then all hell broke loose. Alan got very angry and he started making representations to Bowen and nothing did any good. So we went down to Caltech, and everybody at Caltech knew about this shortly, everybody was saying, “What a lot of bastards” kind of thing. I don’t think Dick Feynman actually said that, but something like that. And in the end we went to DuBridge about it and it was forced on them; they were made to change around. They just absolutely put the squeeze on them. But that was one of the first times that the people at Caltech had ever seen the kind of nonsense that went on, and they weren’t aware of it. They may have been blind to it, but they weren’t aware of it. It’s amusing because now it’s better, much better, but still the attitude is there. Now Margaret is one of the people. I mean they want Margaret to observe, but they still say “Margaret can do anything,” but any other woman they’ll have to consider again, you see. It doesn’t happen often enough so that it’s kind of pushed home. I mean of course how my generation’s in charge. I don’t think Maartin Schmidt, the new director, would try and make rules of any kind like that. I don’t know whether they still have rules like that in the monastery. I know that Walt Sargent’s wife, [???], was a student, and there are a lot of women’s lib rushing around at Caltech. But there are still no women; there’s no tenured faculty member who’s a woman at Caltech.
At Caltech – not just Wilson and Palomar or in astronomy?
The entire campus?
No woman tenured professor.
That’s as I understand it. But anyway we ran into this and it was a real hassle for a few days.
I was just really storming around and banking the desk and just saying, “This is it. Come off it.” And amusingly enough, I will say that in the period that we were there, they did come around. Oh, the arguments that were made, the incredible arguments that used to be made about women, and women couldn’t order night assistants around. The night assistants wouldn’t like to be ordered around by the women was one of the statements. The classical one that he made to some earlier Norwegian woman that there was no woman’s toilet on the mountain. I mean that was his classical thing, and she talked about using the bushes or something and he got upset about that. But by and large, the interesting thing is that when he retired, Milt Humason turned a lot of his observing material over to Margaret, and by the time we finished, Margaret was one of the people he most respected, because what these people above all admired was a good observer – if you’re good with equipment. Of course she’s one of the very best, and once they saw that and they’d been forced into this situation where they had to accept in some sense that she was observing, then I must admit they all turned around as far as Margaret was concerned. Margaret was one thing, and as I say, everybody else might be something else.
Did she feel it was a personal thing or did she see that it was a larger thing against women in general?
I don’t know – you’ll have to ask her. I imagine that it was a personal thing, and the point was that Alan and I were so angry. There are things that sometimes happen. I’ve had a lot of trouble in science in dealing with people, but there comes a point beyond which I don’t really care. It doesn’t really matter. I’m not concerned about what repercussions there will be. I mean something is bad and it’s wrong – this is what happened in Chicago later with Kuiper – you have to do something about it. And I was just in a state, and so was Alan. I could see Alan kind of going up and kind of banging his fist on Ike [Bowen]’s desk saying, “Look, you can’t do this.” And you know, we were all young Turks who had no tenure, no status – but it was one of those things. Of course, at some stages, in any situation you have to do that. One of the things that bothers me nowadays is that so many people are so scared of rocking the boat.
Of course, Bowen himself couldn’t be considered to be really a classical Mt. Wilson man. I mean there was a big turnover in the early ‘50s – Merrill and Hubble going.
Bowen was brought in really because he was the man who could complete the 200-inch. I believe there was a big to-do. Hubble wanted that job very badly, and it wasn’t given, and he was very upset about it, and that led to some friction, very considerable friction I believe, because Hubble essentially said he would never accept direction from Bowen, and Bowen was in his own way a very shy man. He didn’t want to impose himself. There was no attempt at directing scientific research; there never had been. And I think it’s been bad. But the point is there that they had Hale, Adams, Bowen, Babcock, and now they’ve got Schmidt. And at the time that we were there, Baade retired. Baade was one of the people who was very outspoken and very upset at the way Mt. Wilson was going, and Baade made this famous remark in our house or at a party that we were at, a lot of people were at. He had a number of interviews with DuBridge in 1956, the year he retired. He was very bothered I think about the direction of the observatory.
Do you know if they’ve been recorded or anything?
I don’t imagine they were recorded.
I mean on paper.
Well, who would record them? I don’t know. You can go and talk to Lee DuBridge. Anyway he got very upset. See, we lived on the next street to the Baades, behind Caltech – and Baade used to babysit for us sometimes. The Baades used to babysit for us. Our daughter was born in 1956. In fact, Margaret was already pregnant when we were doing B2FH and Willie used to be very worried that something would happen in Kellogg. But Baade was very upset about the direction of things and wanted the place shaken up, wanted new blood brought in and all the rest of it. And, you see, they had and still have this complicated arrangement whereby Carnegie institution really has this part of the operation, and Caltech has the other part. At any rate, Baade went and apparently had some interviews with DuBridge wanting things to be changed, and obviously not getting much satisfaction, probably because Lee DuBridge didn’t quite know how to rearrange things. Humason retired the year before Baade did I think, and they were going to appoint someone to be assistant direct to succeed him instead of being secretary, and it was obvious that who became assistant director was the man who would probably become director. There were three candidates. One was Babcock; one was Greenstein; the other was Armend Deutsch, who later died. Well, Babcock was chose, and therefore Babcock was seen as the crown prince – the man who would ultimately succeed. And Baade was really furious, and he made this remark. He came to a party one night after having a meeting with DuBridge or something, and he said, “This institution will never survive three clams in a row.” And by that he meant that following Hale, there would be an Adams, Bowen and Babcock, who he considered were the wrong people, and he was absolutely right. I don’t know how many of them will ever talk to you about it, but it’s well known they’ve been desperately wanting to get rid of Horace for years. He’s a terrible director. But again, it’s all been done internally. You may say Caltech, but it’s all been done internally, and they’ve never had any new blood since Hale, and they still don’t. They’re going to practically the end of the century with Maartin, and it’s all been internal direction, so you never get outside. Well, lately they’ve been going through this business of having a search committee and having candidates from outside. I don’t know what you say about that, but Baade thought it was bad, and he saw the troubles with Horace coming, and he was absolutely right and some of the rest of us were right, too.
You saw the same thing?
Well, I was young and innocent, but I could see that Horace had his problems. He didn’t know how to handle people, and I used to say in my terribly cynical way that it seems to be a rule that American observatories out west must be run by introverted, shy, instrumentalists. But the way that an awful lot of it did go and the fact that I’d been outspoken about this for years has done a lot for and against my reputation around. Well, I mean it’s changed now. It’s quite different.
Do you feel that your own career has been affected by the way you spoke against it?
To some extent. You see, I don’t have an orthodox background for an astronomer at all. For an American astronomer I should be trained at Caltech or Berkeley or Princeton or something and then I should be an orthodox observer or an orthodox theoretician. Well, I’m none of these. I mean I cut through an awful lot of things in a different way. But, no, to a lot of people I think I’m reasonably worthy of respect – and I think a lot of people are reasonably well disposed towards me, but I certainly have made enemies, some of whom are alive, some of whom are dead. But I mean part of it is this outspoken behavior with the way observatories, major observatories, have been run in the past and the way I thought they had to develop. And they have been developing in this direction, but, you know, it’s like being a “prophet in his own country” kind of thing. And we’ve had these arguments. I’ve been on these various committees – the Greenstein committee and the early one arguing that major observatories should be run the way Vicky Weisskopf ran CERN and that kind of thing. But even the suggestion that theoreticians become directors or become responsible people [was controversial], and you don’t always go to the same kind of people. Well, that’s all in the past, and I’m too ticklishly involved in the national centers now to talk in any way other than seriously off the record about this and I wouldn’t because I mean it does have an effect on what other people do and what I do and the effect we have on major developments nowadays. The mere fact that I am involved in so many of these things I guess demonstrates that people think that I am reasonably sensible about it, but there was a time when I was just over 30 when I was saying some of the same things and people just found it very hard to take.
This was in ’55?
Well, when the Whitford Report was produced.
That was ’60.
That’s right. Well, Alan and I in 1960 were involved. Alan was on the committee and I was asked to testify to it, and we had a put-up job. I prepared a statement which he examined me about, but basically the theme was that there aren’t enough young directors and there aren’t enough people with the broader base, and I said this in front of a group containing Babock and Whitford and Bowen and the whole lot. Obviously it was not the most diplomatic thing, but I think that the direction of astronomy – while this country has been more powerful in observational astronomy than any other and it’s gone on very well – is determined by the influence of a few people and the way they behave. In the earlier days, the director of the Lick Observatory and the director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory really largely controlled and had an awful lot to do with what happened. For example, in the time period we’re talking about, in the middle ‘50s, there were two occasions in the years ’55, ’56, ’57 when separate groups came to Bowen, who was the director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory and therefore the leading observational astronomer in the country. In one case a group apparently came from the Carnegie Corporation – with a suggestion that maybe a large telescope should be built in the Southern Hemisphere and that they would provide the money, and Ike said “no, it wasn’t needed.” And within six months a group came from Los Alamos suggesting that they build an optical telescope, and I said “no – it wasn’t needed.” And he never consulted anybody, and I remember Alan and I jumping around when we heard casually over lunch that he’d done that kind of thing. But that’s what I mean by the qualities of the leader you have. In the case of Carnegie, he didn’t want to get involved; it would have meant more worry and trouble to him. But, you see, there was a lack of vision, a lack of realization of where fields are going.
There certainly were plenty of people around who realized what the Southern Hemisphere meant.
But we had the same problem with Al Whitford at Lick. NASA offered us a telescope, a University of California telescope, with some strings attached, the strings being that you spent part of the time on planetary work, and because there were strings attached and Albert was called on the telephone, he turned it down. And so the University of California was offered a telescope before Hawaii and before Texas. We could have got one. We’d been trying to get one for 15 years.
This would be for the Southern Hemisphere or just any telescope?
No, like the telescopes that now exist in Texas. I mean those were the days when NASA was more or less giving some telescopes away. They offered one to us at Lick and Albert turned it down on behalf of all of us without discussing it with us because there were strings attached.
This is early to mid ‘60s then.
Yes. And then they asked Texas and Texas said “yes,” and they asked Hawaii and Hawaii said “yes.” But, you see, that kind of thing leads to real disaster.
Yes, and you’d [University of California] been trying for a dark sky site for quite some time.
That’s right. But I mean one knows those kind of things happen. And now people are somewhat more enlightened. Basically a lot of these observing astronomers, particularly on the West Coast, were living really in ivory towers. They were privately funded or university funded. They didn’t really want to get into the politics, the nitty gritty, the things we were complaining about at lunch time. But I can’t say in retrospect they were right.
What do you mean?
Well, I mean by now you could argue it’s a nice time to get away from the government if you can, but there’s been an intermediate period when it’s been very good.
Yes, absolutely. In the ‘60s it was very important.
But I mean we did have those problems, and they stemmed I think from the personalities of some of the people who were thought from outside – and were naturally thought to be the official leaders. And I think this is why some of these positions are still very very important. They’re a key to what we do in astronomy still, but basically more enlightened people are being put in these positions by and large. Maartin Schmidt is certainly more aware of the world than his predecessors have been. I still think the difficulty is (which is true of most of my friends at Caltech, who stay there all the time) that their only concern is always Caltech fist and everybody else last. And that is the difficulty you find. I mean you find that when it comes to doing things on a national level, those people are not very much to the forefront. It’s very hard to get an AAS meeting in Pasadena. They never want to invite anybody because it means you do a lot of work and never get anything out of it. And the last three presidents of the American Astronomical Society were all from the University of California. Well, Bob Kraft and Margaret and now Ivan King will be. But UC has a very good record in this case, because we’ve got a large number of astronomers now. But when I look at the number of things that the UC astronomers are involved with, it’s a fairly impressive thing, but I don’t want to start that.
Well, we’ll get to that eventually certainly. Let me still get this straight about your synchrotron papers. You had started thinking about them at least, at the Cavendish?
I thought about the process in radio emissions – that’s right. But I mean it was the interaction with Baade and Minkowski that really led to those papers.
Minkowski is a person we haven’t talked about yet.
Oh, Rudolfph was quite a character. I’m going to be writing his obituary for the Academy.
You are going to be writing his obituary?
I am supposed to but I’m terribly out of date. I haven’t done it – it’s a terrible thing. He’s been dead a year now.
Yes, but those obituaries sometimes come out five, six, seven years later.
Well, I don’t really approve of that. I haven’t done it.
It’s not atypical for them to come out late. Well, he was very much there with Baade during that time. Did they work relatively close?
Oh, yes. They were old friends. I guess it was Baade who brought Minkowski to Mt. Wilson. They were very different personalities. Baade was a marvelous man around young people. He never wrote anything down hardly, but he would talk about science, and he would argue about science, and he also was a friend of Pauli’s. He enjoyed the idea that he put some physics into it, though he was no physicist himself. He used to have these terrible arguments with Alan Sandage up and down the halls, and the amusing thing was it was Alan who got so upset. I remember these arguments when Walter would be red-faced and shouting, and Alan would be too, because Alan didn’t really get along with Hubble. The worst thing you can call Alan is “young Hubble.”
To his face?
Well, Marty Schwarzschild once called him that to his face and apparently it led to great trouble. But anyway Baade used to have these terrible shouting matches, and Alan would just retreat to his office and be so upset, and we’d sit there and Alan would say, “God, Geoff, why does he say these things? He’s so wrong – why does he say these things?”
What were they arguing about?
Oh, color-magnitude diagrams and whether Arp should be brought to Mt. Wilson, which Alan felt very strongly he should be and Baade felt he shouldn’t be.
Sandage was in favor of that?
Alan thought that Chip was the greatest thing that ever happened to Astronomy. He was a graduate student with Chip. Alan has certainly changed around over certain things.
And Baade was against Arp?
Baade was against it. And I think Baade was wrong, but Baade was against it. But anyway Baade and Sandage were mostly arguing about stellar evolution, and indirectly about stellar populations and the Hubble relation. The amusing thing is that after these terrible arguments when Alan would be so upset and Baade would appear to be so upset and Alan would retreat to his office and I’d go in there and we’d talk and talk and talk because Alan needed it – he just had to talk to somebody. You know, he’d say, “Geoff, you don’t agree with me either but you’re not like Walter is” kind of attitude. Then about five o’clock in the afternoon, suddenly this great face would poke its head around the door and say, “Come and have a drink,” and Walter would make up. He was marvelous. He really was. I mean he was a marvelous man for the younger people to be around. Minkowski was also a very nice man, not as articulate, and basically intellectually I don’t think he was anything like as good, but they were doing all this work on the radio sources very slowly. Schklovsky was very upset that they didn’t move faster. And I was on the spot and I was interested in radio sources, and I already thought about the physics of them, and so I wrote these papers, one on M87 in 1956; and I remember I was really excited by this, and it was right in the middle of our nucleosynthesis work and I was going around talking about this and people like Willie didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about I think most of the time. I remember it was Dick Feynman I used to go and talk to that kind of problem. In fact, Dick suggested that instead of calling that a synchrotron radiation [???], he wanted me to call it radiation from the synchrotron M87 or something. I remember Dick talking to me about that at the time, because he was so amused at this. He saw where the argument took us, using this theory and using this mechanism to predict the energetics; and, of course, the thing that I really did realize early on from these calculations was the immense energetics problem – the problem that we had with these immense energetics. And for a long time I think a lot of people didn’t understand it and then when they understood it, they didn’t like it and thought there had to be something wrong with it. It was one of the first really controversial things I got into. I mean the statement of these high energies, which are now treated commonplace by so many people as orthodox, in the early years – like other things that one does – they were treated as something which was absolutely ridiculous. I mean either people didn’t understand it at all, and people were saying, “Well, what’s this Carnegie fellow doing here writing papers like that? We don’t even understand the title of it.” Or they were saying,” Well, this is nonsense. You can’t have all that energy floating around. Something’s wrong somewhere.” I mean this was the kind of reaction you got. It was another piece of terrible unorthodoxy for me.
But you were talking at that time about the halo containing more material than previously supposed.
Halo and radio emission around our own galaxy.
Around our own galaxy. That was one of your first papers.
That’s right. Wrote that in Cambridge, yes.
Yes, this was before M87.
But still you had the same kind of energy problem because once you had the mechanism, and you computed the density of the material, you found it was sufficient to accelerate cosmic rays, but that was about it.
Well, but we knew something about the cosmic ray energy density in the galaxy, and it wasn’t the same kind of a problem. No, I don’t think that’s right. I think if you look at the problems of the jet and M87, they’re quite different.
But with M87 and then following that the other Parks radio sources and the generality of the argument, which I think really eventually got to people. Then by 1959 when I gave an invited paper at the Paris symposium on radio astronomy, (I think the meeting was in ’58), that was the meeting where I was the only person working on it. See, the Russians had been doing this parallel with me. Ginsberg and Shklovsky and [Silovatsky(?)] and so on had been working in the same area, but it was really not known to us at all well. And I guess in ’59 when I came to Paris and gave that talk, that was when I think people finally kind of accepted that we understood the mechanism of radio emission, and that the energetics problem was with us. And 20 years later it’s still with us. You’ll hear all the black hole nonsense, but they’re not much further forward at all.
You were talking about primary protons and even bringing up the possibility with Hoyle of anti-matter.
Yes, well, then we shot that down ourselves. That’s only been revived by Alfven and Teller, who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s true. Ask Gary Steigman, who’s written an ANNUAL REVIEW article about this. But sure. I mean this was a very interesting creative period when all manner of things were possible to work out to a certain stage, and then we were left with a major problem, and the interesting thing in this whole area of high energy astrophysics to me (this may be me talking and showing how old I’m getting), is that the problems that were unearthed in that period up to the early 1960s have not been resolved to this day. And there’s little basic work that has been done. New things have been discovered but the old energetics problem, which I had a lot to do with discovering but really came once you understood the theory and the objects, still remains. As I said at the Solvay Conference in 1964 when I was cross-examined extensively by Oppenheimer and Segre and some of the other people on the Solvay Commission including Heisenberg – all the leading physicists were sitting there pontificating. I gave this long paper on the energetics of sources (Margaret and I gave it, but I actually gave it about two hours): there’s no way to reduce the energy except by bringing the objects closer, and the energies tend to go up. Now these are orthodox galaxies and you’re not supposed to bring them closer, but it is a fact of life and those numbers are very large. And that is really a central problem, I think, but it’s one that we haven’t got to the bottom of.
In the ‘50s you made a very interesting statement where you were talking about a period of life in the galaxy, where for one reason or another there may be an explosion. You were talking about explosive events in galaxies, the remnants of which were in the radio region that we were observing now without optical identification.
And again you were talking about tremendous energies from extremely small objects.
And these turned out I guess eventually to be quasars, as we call them today.
All of this seemed to be going in this one particular very strong and interesting line of work, and I’m quite fascinated with it. I think you’re probably right and that the most significant thing that came out of that was just the realization that a tremendous amount of energy was there.
That’s right. Otherwise it’s all phenomenological. There are all kinds of bits and pieces of information. We wrote a paper in ’63 with Sandage in the Reviews of Modern Physics on violent events in galaxies. That paper has an interesting history because I have a tendency when I get involved in a problem with a lot of facets to sit down and write down everything I know about it and all the questions I can ask about it just to bring myself up to date. That’s how the book on Quasi-Stellars got written in the first place. That’s how this article got written. I wrote a draft of that paper, and Alan and I talked at length about it, and of course I’d been involved with Margaret with it. And Alan said, “Well, Geoff, I was going to write something like this, but you’ve written it, so why don’t we get some pictures together and publish it,” and that’s how that paper came about. Alan will tell you that. Yes, a tremendous amount of observational material has been generated since, but understanding is still very limited. I just gave a talk in Bonn at a meeting on nuclei of nearby galaxies, and we’re exactly at the same point. But Oort, for example, refused to have explosive events in galaxies for a long time when we first proposed it. Now he’s come right around, and he pushes it very hard. He didn’t like the idea that it was exploding from the center. He would try anything rather than that.
Yes. That’s quite fascinating. Well, along different lines but in the same period, you were working on Californium.
Well, that was all part of the nucleosynthesis pushing these things onward and upward.
This was another very fascinating phase, when you were equating the decay half-life of Californium to observations of thermonuclear explosions.
Well, that was in the whole period of B2FH and what happens there was that the Californium may be right and may be wrong, and many people now think it’s wrong, but the interesting thing was that at the time it had a big effect. I discovered it. I mean what happened really was simply that I read, and we had this light curve of Baade’s, and I was just up on Mt. Wilson with Margaret one snowy run, and I read this paper in the Physical Review, and I noticed that the half-life was the same, and the whole thing really came to that, and I came down and went jumping around saying, “Look what this shows,” and Willie didn’t understand. Willie looked blank and Fred said, “Ahh, yes, that’s right. That’s how it’s done. That’s how it’s done.” We got tremendously excited, incredibly excited about this. Actually I think that was in the period when we were doing all this work, and this was the latest, most exciting thing, and this was the thing which led to an interesting experience at Caltech. We got very excited about this. Baade was involved. There’s a paper in the ASP with Baade’s name on it as well as ours and Christie. And we were jumping about over lunch all the time, and Bob Bokker, who was chairman of the division, said at lunch one day when we were talking about it madly at lunch: “You guys really seem to be interested in something. Why don’t you give a seminar?” We said, “Sure.” And he said, “Well, what about this afternoon? There’s nobody speaking in our seminar on theoretical physics.” And this was two hours later. And Fred looked at me and I looked at him, and he said, “Yes, sure.” And so after lunch Bob Christie, who was running the seminar, started telephoning people to say there would be a special seminar. And by about three or four o’clock they had rounded up some people, and we went and all four of us spoke – Margaret and Fred and Willie and myself – and it was all bits and pieces but it was interesting. And then the interesting thing was that Zwicky came and Baade came, and this was the only time I saw them together in action, and I don’t know how it started, but there was quite a long, disconnected talk by all of us, and then there was some discussion, and suddenly soon after the general discussion started, I don’t know how it happened but Baade was on his feet and Zwicky was on his feet saying, “You bloody Nazi you,” and they were doing this back and forth [shaking fists].
Yes, they were on their feet, kind of both red in the face, kind of cursing each other. And Christie didn’t know what to do, and in the end he simply said, “Well, this meeting’s adjourned,” and we walked out. That was the only time. You see, they hated each other and their later years, and one doesn’t know exactly the basis of it. They originally worked together. But we knew there was this bad blood. That was the only occasion that I ever saw them doing it. But they did it, and it was very bad. It had something to do with the supernova light curves, I guess. Zwicky was not accepting that. I don’t remember the details, but we were using Baade’s light curve, and of course it is the case that there are probably many different kinds of light curves, and Baade had led us to believe that they were all of one type or the other, and I guess that was probably wrong, and people were arguing now why you can’t make this argument in general. But all I can say is that at the time it not only added tremendous conviction to us that supernovae were the places where all the heavy elements were made, which we still believe is the case. But it was observational evidence for it. And so it was extensively used, and it may be an example of a situation where a discovery helped a field tremendously but turns out to be wrong. I don’t deny that possibility, but I also don’t deny the tremendous excitement of finding it, right or wrong.
Right. Did you have a mechanism for the light production in the beginning?
Not at the time. I mean Christie worked for years on that, and we could always see the difficulty. But Fred and I would keep arguing the usual way. We’d say, “If it’s right, it has to work.” I mean Fred and I have somewhat of a philosophy and I certainly would say independent of Fred that there is this philosophy these days in astrophysics that there is a terrible tendency for people to say if they can’t explain something theoretically, that’s a good argument against it. I think we understand so little that I don’t give you much for that argument. I don’t think it’s a very powerful argument at all. There’s a terrible tendency, which other people – Kevin Prendergast and I used to argue was a “Dutch tendency;” we used to always argue with Ludwig Waltjier about this – about the question of energetics of radio sources. We used to say the “Dutch theory,” and I’m being a little catty now. But the Dutch idea was that if the energy goes above a certain point, there’s something horrible the matter, you know. The energies are very large. How large is “large?” nobody wants more than 1060 ergs or is it 1061 ergs or is it 1062 ergs? Where do you stop? And at what point do you say: “This is an argument against the theory.” And since I don’t think we properly understand what the hell we’re talking about, I’m not prepared to make that kind of a rule where some people make it. You see, in some senses there is an awful lot of “taste” in doing astronomy nowadays – interpretation. And so many decisions as to whether you believe one hypothesis or another are, when you get down to it, not a matter of fact, but a matter of taste.
Would you actually go so far as to say not only taste but actually a belief structure?
Well, in cosmology, but I don’t think beliefs are so important in the other areas.
Beliefs are important in cosmology, though.
Incredibly important. I mean belief is driven. Most of the people I know. If you try and get someone to write an article on cosmology, a review article – it’s very hard to find somebody, because anybody who is distinguished and is working actively in the field, almost certainly has an ax to grind. It’s very very hard to find somebody to review the Hubble diagram, for example. It’s very very hard for somebody to give an objective view of the evidence for or against the theory. I did that in that article in Nature, and I think it is an objective view, but many people don’t.
“Was There a Big Bang?”
Was there really a big bang? The mere title upsets many people. Was there “really” a big bang? I told Alan that in view of the way the microwave background radiation argument has gone wince then, I would probably write an article entitled “There Probably Was a Big Bang.” And he said, “Well, that’s much too condescending, Geoff. How can you write it that way?” But I don’t really know. In cosmology there is no question that things are highly colored by belief. I’m sure Alan has religious beliefs. I know Ryle must have religious beliefs. Obviously John Wheeler has religious beliefs. All of the same kind. Now, there are people who aesthetically say they would prefer the Steady State but feel the evidence is against it.
I’ve heard that.
I mean that’s a Phil Morrison type of approach.
Then it certainly is hard to get around the kind of simplistic interpretation. But presumably at some stage a reaction will set in. The trouble right now is that the dogma is being proclaimed with such certainty everywhere in the textbooks and everywhere else that it gets harder and harder for people to think independently. That’s one problem. And the other problem is that it’s very hard. I mean one of the worst things I think in astronomy is that the observers tend to take positions of believe. It’s very easy. One easy statement is that you only discover things that you believe are there.
That’s very true.
That’s one thing.
Has Fred Hoyle said that?
I don’t think he’s said that. That’s me saying that. I mean it’s basically what one means. The negative way of saying that – I remember at a meeting we had at the Vatican in 1970 on explosive events in galaxies and so on, we got into some of the anomalous red shift problems, not the quasi-stellars but for galaxies, groups of galaxies, and there is a very interesting and serious problem, which has not been solved. And there are anomalous red shift phenomena, and Walt Sargent, who is somewhat young than I am (he’s about nine or ten years younger than I am), was there from Pasadena. He actually gave quite a long paper which he wrote jointly with Margaret which is in that proceedings, and he read it, in which they were arguing that indeed there were these anomalies and they were very difficult to understand. Well, he was under attack, and he hadn’t been used to this. He was under attack from Oort and from Lyman Spitzer and from Maartin Schmidt and basically from the orthodox people. I mean all these things have to be accidents otherwise there’s something horribly the matter in this whole field – accidental projections and so on.
Accidents? In other words double spectra?
Well, projections. Essentially you see five objects together in the sky. One of them has got a red shift very different from the others. This means that it really has a physical meaning. It’s shooting away from the others at a high speed or coming towards us away from this direction high speed, or there’s some “new physics.” Even those words are bad to most people.
Yes. Or else it’s an accidental projection. This object really is far away and it’s accidentally projected onto it. These are the accidents that you’ve got to use to explain away almost all the anomalous red shifts for quasi stellars or for galaxies. We’ll go on to that in a minute. “Wal” was kind of under severe pressure from these people in a discussion which he’d not really been expecting to have to contend with, and he gradually backed more and more away from the position that he’d taken which was that there really was good evident that these things were real.
The observations were real?
That the anomalies were to be interpreted as real anomalies which had to be explained rather than due to accidental projections, and Fred sat there getting more and more kind of agitated listening to Wal gradually backing away from what he originally said. By the time Wal had finished, he more or less had given up and essentially said, “All right, so maybe there’s nothing to it after all.” And as we walked out of the session, Fred – he knows Wal very well – said, “Well, Wal, congratulations on not having made a great discovery.”
Well, what is the argument against those who would go for accidental effects?
The problem is purely one of statistics. I mean this applies in general, and we can say this once and for all: how do you measure distance in astronomy, extra-galactic distance? You can only measure it by measuring the red shift, assuming the red shift is a measure of the distance, and thereby deriving distance. That’s one method. The other method is if you know the distance of one object through this red shift scheme and you can find another object which you argue is physically associated with it, then you say they’re both at the same distance. Now, what kind of evidence do you have for physical association? You have two kinds. One is that you can find luminous connections between two objects. The other is: if you can demonstrate statistically that it’s very unlikely that one object is very close to the other by chance projection. Those are the only methods we have. Now, until the quasi-stellars came along with these anomalous galaxies, all the Arp stuff and so on and before that – the anomalies – every time you found two objects in the sky which you believed were physically associated, they had the same red shift. Now there are quite a number of cases, both of quasi-stellars and galaxies, where you find objects very close together, which certainly have different red shifts, no argument about the red shifts – they’re different. Now, each of those, every one of those, according to the conventional wisdom, have got to be an accident of projection; there’s no other way.
According to the conventional wisdom?
Yes. Any time you believe one of them, even one of them, you’re based with a fundamental problem for which you don’t understand the answer. So the debate that has gone on, which many people want to close altogether, sweep under the rug, as I once said at a colloquium at Caltech and one of the students later presented Maartin with a little rug (DeVorkin laughs), is whether you have to face that problem or not; and all the conventional people have to say, “Every time that Arp finds an object, it’s another accident,” and as Fred says, “How accident prone are we?” but the real problem is this whole field is just as simple as that because we don’t have a theory, and that’s why people are so uptight about quasi-stellars and the possibility that a few of us have maintained that the red shifts may not be associated with expansion of the universe. Or a group of galaxies where one appears to have a red shift five times the others or something like that: each one has got to be an accident. So tremendous efforts are made either to cast doubt on the bridges between objects that Arp finds, or there is a lot of elaborate statistical work but always being done in the sense that you want to disprove it. And some people quite rightly, and I feel the same way in many ways myself in physics, don’t want to use statistical arguments at all, but it’s one of the only arguments that you have in astronomy in this situation. But an awful lot of the heat that is generated is associated with just this difficulty, and I don’t know how long it will take to resolve. There is a finite possibility that people will simply delay it by refusing to kind of listen to the anomalies. You know, if Art was run over by a bus tomorrow and one or two other people were wiped out, no one would even look for these things, because nobody wants to find them. Most people don’t want them found. They’re an embarrassment. They really can cause trouble. The fact that the trouble may be the next revolution in thinking in physics does not appeal to astronomers, and most physicists simply appeal to authority, so they want to count the number of authorities who believe one thing or the other, you see.
It’s just as white dwarfs were ignored for 20 years.
That’s right. I mean I asked Chandra that at one time when we first got interested in massive objects and collapse and so on and wrote a paper in ’64 – Margaret and Fred, Willie and me – about gravitational collapse, and we even had a section in there which Fred and I wrote about black holes in the galaxy. That was a bit early for the black hole population. And, of course, nobody wanted that. In those days nobody wanted that kind of thing at all. And I remember talking to Chandra about this and saying, “Chandra, why do you think they feel so strongly about this?” and he said, “Well, Geoffrey, it’s just like the white dwarf problem.” He said, “I went through the whole white dwarf problem, and then of course the neutron star problem is basically the same problem. But,” he said, “the real problem is: observational astronomers are not prepared to accept the existence of things they cannot see.” He said, “They’ll resist until the death.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that now, because black holes are now incredibly popular. They’re the solution to everybody’s problem. There’s no question but that people’s feelings about [problems], to find out what they can find out about [them] is certainly very much to the point. I remember we first suggested that quite a lot of matter in a cluster of stars could end up as dark matter. Olin Eggen and Jesse Greenstein went to great pains to try and demonstrate that they could account for all of the mass in the clusters by saying that it had gone to white dwarfs, and they could add up all the stars and there was nothing left over. There was no need for something like this.
And were the clusters still stable in them?
Why, sure. I mean you just say that there is nothing missing ultimately in the end. The point was that they wanted to demonstrate there was no need for this radical hypothesis that we have suggested, which is based on perfectly good physics, if you believe general relativity to its ultimate. I don’t know if Fred does.
Is this getting to the point now where you’re talking about a cosmological question purely – missing mass?
Well, no, I was talking in a context of matter, of whether or not normal stars ultimately can collapse. All these problems are related and there’s a certain cult developing. Well, it’s easy to say: black holes must exist, missing mass must exist in the haloes of galaxies, the universe may be open, it never used to be – we never were allowed to call it open, but it could be open now. Princeton says that it could be open – otherwise it should be closed. John Wheeler believes it has to be closed – Mach’s Principle. John couldn’t have it any other way. All red shifts are cosmological. The universe must evolve. The Steady State must be wrong, and there are a few more of these things that you can make up.
This is Canon Law.
“Accretion is of great importance, but it was not discovered by Boyle and Lyttleton.” You must make all these statements correctly. And then it’s fairly easy to see that the drive comes from a few people. In any age, I think, the opinions are there. That’s not to say that a tremendous amount of work in detail and good physics doesn’t go on which is not controversial. Where are some areas where it’s very controversial.
Quite so, especially when it’s so close to whatever meaning we can place on existence I guess.
That’s right. It gets right down to the nitty-gritty – that’s right.
In your work back with what I’d like to just call B2FH, since it’s certainly well known as such, in your Californium papers and later in your identification of Californium in nuclear blasts, there’s clear evidence for your γ process. Did you meet with any of the same kind of resistance on the parts of astronomers to understand nuclear processes through the ‘50s?
No. I think that it was not so close to [???]. Well, I think that first of all the nucleosynthesis work was done in much more detail. The nuclear physics was and is first class. There was a serious attempt to tie it to an observational problem which certainly existed – the abundance changes. And it was a bringing together of a scheme which fitted an awful lot of observations and answered a large number of questions. I mean it’s one of the pieces of work which I think I got the most satisfaction out of, if not the most, in all the things I’ve done or been involved with. And it didn’t really run into that kind of thing. There was a general kind of acceptance of the ideas. I think now, to be quite blunt about it, that if Fred alone had come out with something like this, he would have got into more trouble, because people were still thinking that Fred was simply going to make the elements to fit into the Steady State, which they didn’t want to have around kind of on any basis. But it was perfectly obvious that we were, as a group, trying to put together a number of fields and were doing it quite effectively, and we were answering a lot of questions to which there were not well believed answers already present, which is what happens if you argue about the red shift, for example. And moreover, there really is good physics in that; there is none in the red shift problem – and therefore I think it was quite different. Now, when it comes to violent events, energetic processes, synchrotron radiation, violent processes and all the rest, that was certainly treated as very radical, meaning that it just wasn’t believed or not understood by many astronomers to start with, because they didn’t understand. There was some convention that radio galaxies should be colliding systems. I was one of the people who attacked that, but basically that didn’t last very long. Other people attacked it as well. They were ultimately only too ready to give it up. And I think the radio astronomers themselves accepted explosions and these violent events in the large energies, because people liked large numbers, you see. That’s another one of the problems you faced going the other way. The X-Ray astronomers loved to find sources which they hope are more powerful than the radio sources. Another problem with the red shifts is: “what’s the point of hunting for large red shifts if they have nothing to do with distance,” you see. For a long time the hunt was to find the largest red shift. Margaret holds the record with Joe Wampler.
I remember in the ‘60s when 3C 9 was announced and we would be waiting around for the next larger one – well over the speed of light classically.
Jesse Greenstein kind of offered a prize to anybody who found one over 3. I think he offered a case of champagne to whoever found it. I think it was a case of champagne. Peter Strittmatter might have collected at 3.4. Jesse never made another bet, because a month later Margaret and Joe and those people got 3.53, which is still the record. But there is no questions that the idea was provocative: therefore you’re also looking 9 billion years or something like that – is tremendously intriguing. Anyway all I was trying to say was the nucleosynthesis did not give that kind of difficulty. Moreover a large number of physicists, you know, were very receptive. Well, I say it myself: this work has been very well received.
I’d like to identify a few of the phases of work in there.
That’s very hard at this stage.
It seemed like one of the major breakthroughs was that Suess and Urey were able to give an abundance curve for the elements, at least in the solar system.
Yes, we used Suess and Urey very extensively.
Yes, to the resolution that allowed you to see the periodicity in the peaks. Now, who saw that periodicity first amongst your group?
Nearly all of this work in Caltech was done on a blackboard in a windowless office that Margaret and I shared, and since Willie was always having to conduct business in his office and Fred was much happier in my office than anywhere else, it was done on the blackboard there. It was all done that way. It was nearly all done on the blackboard, and then elementary computations Margaret and I were doing using hand calculators or something simple. The first iron peak calculations were done that way by Margaret and me. Computers were used hardly at all. I can’t tell you. I mean all I can tell you is that things really grew out of long blackboard discussions. Sometimes Margaret would take some notes. I think she was the only one who did. The thing would go on. It got incredibly hectic. We got so excited and so interested ourselves that it went on kind of night and day month after month, and we used to adjourn from Kellogg and if we went down to Willies, the martinis made it impossible; and so we used to go around to our place sometimes. Fred was kind of by himself living in the Atheneum or something, sometimes staying with us, and it would go on and go on after dinner, and eventually you would be in a state of total exhaustion, and we’d quit. And then the next morning Fred would be around knocking on the door at breakfast time sitting down to coffee and saying, “Look, I just thought about this…” As a matter of fact, I don’t think the paper would be written even now if it didn’t happen that in the summer of 1957 I think it was, the spring of 1957, there was a meeting at the Vatican on stellar populations to which Fred and Willie were invited; but we were not invited. We were not considered distinguished enough in those days. And they went off to the Vatican conference, and Margaret and I proceeded to write the thing up. The thing was getting so unwieldy, and I had come to the conclusion that we ought to write some of it up in some kind of form. Actually a tremendous amount of pulling of it together – sections of it had been written in various forms – was done while Fred and Willie were in Europe. And they came back and Willie was still rewriting things. Then we really did want to publish it. And then the question came where to publish it, and I wanted to publish it in the Astrophysical Journal, and Willie wasn’t sure, Fred didn’t mind. And I remember I asked Chandra – I sent him a draft of it – and he called me and said, “Geoff, you know, this is very interesting.” He said, “I would like to publish it, but it’s too long. Can you cut it down?” And I said, “No, Chandra, we have no intention of cutting it down.” And he finally said he couldn’t publish it, and he told me he has always regretted that. And then Willie called up the editor of Review of Modern Physics, the guy who used to be the head of the Bureau of standards.
What interested me was that it appeared first in abstract in Science while you were writing the larger paper.
That was Jesse’s fault. Jesse tried to get into the act.
Well, what happened there?
Well, I think Jesse was rather jealous. See, the problem really was that Jesse Greenstein was there, he’s an eminent stellar spectroscopist; he’s interested in the abundance problem he could have worked on this problem with Willie for years, but he never did. So he was quite jealous I think of our involvement with Willie, and there was some National Academy meeting (I think Jesse had just been elected or something) in which Jesse, who was interested in it all went and presented an invited talk with Willie, and somehow out of that a short paper was written, and Jesse I think was in some way involved in that. Actually Fred was quite angry. I must admit I was too naïve in those days to worry too much about that. But I think that’s how that came about. Or maybe after that they said that a short paper had to be written in Science. It could be that there was some pressure on the Institute to get something out quickly in Science and maybe I was thinking of something else from the Academy, but I know that there was something short written, but it was perfectly obvious that the only way was to put as much of it together as we could and put in the diagrams and the illustrations. But I remember we had everybody in Kellogg writing and typing and retyping. They had two secretaries and a part time girl in Kellogg, and at one point they were all working on it, and the cynics around there – Charlie Lauritsen was going around saying, “Nothing else gets done around here now. Willie, are we turning over completely to astronomy?” and things like that. Tommy was his son, and they were both very nice and we liked them and we were around them. You see, we weren’t really in the astrophysics part of Caltech. We weren’t in Robinson; we were over in Kellogg. So we went between Kellogg and Mt. Wilson, and Fred was always, of course, in Kellogg, and that’s how it went, but it was a chaotic period. I think it was about 15 months when it all got finally hammered out and put together and written down.
Two things that I’ve found: one is purely a sociological question. I’ll ask that one first. The work was supported by the ALC and ONR combined.
That’s right. That’s Kellogg. It’s all Kellogg supported.
Okay. I was just wondering if they were particularly interested in the fat that you were making scientific use of the military nuclear tests.
No, ONR and the AEC are the people who have always supported Kellogg.
Okay, fine. And the other is that of course much later, well after this paper, in fact ten years after, there was a book that came out on nucleosynthesis in which you were asked to give commentary on it at the end.
What book was that?
It’s called Nucleosynthesis. That was the title of the book. The book was a collection of papers from I guess a meeting that were edited by Arnett, Hansen, Truman (?), and Cameron. The important thing was that at that time Suess had immediately come on and said that…
He doesn’t agree.
Yes, that he does not agree.
That’s right. Suess has never wanted to accept it. I don’t know why. He claims there are irregularities in the nuclei which say that there are associations between isotopes made according to us by different processes. He’s said this for years. We’ve never known what to say. He is kind of an intuitive person. If he’s right, then there has to be something awfully wrong with it all. Our arguments rest very heavily and, as far as we can see, quite fundamentally and unchangeably on the properties of nuclear physics. So we don’t know any way around that. But it’s true. Suess has from time to time said he doesn’t believe it and when he’s asked what he does believe, he doesn’t have any answer, and I haven’t discussed it with him for years. He’s in La Jolla, but he’s a funny guy.
He did say that there was this possibility of a breakdown from super- or proto-protons or poly-protons.
That’s an old argument. That goes back. Marion Mayer played that game with Teller and it won’t work. I don’t know the answer. I mean Suess is critical I guess, but he’s critical on other grounds, and he never really documents what is there, and he may very well still hold these same beliefs. I don’t know. But he’s one of our few critics in the field. I don’t know of any others.
I was surprised to see that in the book. This is why I wanted to bring it out.
I think Willie was probably upset. I’m a bit like Fred in that respect. Beyond a certain point, if people criticize, well, they have to criticize. You can’t spend your life answering them. But I never quite understood what he was driving at. I’ve heard him at meetings, I don’t know whether you ever hear him. He’s an extremely hesitant and disorganized speaker. You never quite know what he means. I mean he’s a clever guy.
There seems to be just a bit of irony, that it was his data that you used.
Well, there are always bits of irony.
I don’t know whether you’ll recall a particular conference that was held at UCLA on the abundances of the elements. This was in the early ‘60s.
I was there? I don’t remember.
Yes, you were there – Fowler, Boyle…
I remember a press conference.
There was a press conference during this meeting.
That was the press conference where I get very angry because the reporters wanted to turn it all into nuclear explosions and I made some horrible crack which sent them all away at the time. I remember the crack very well, because there was one reporter whom I had seen some years before who had asked me some questions. It was a crack in extremely bad taste, but I was angry. They were just pressing. All they wanted to know was: what about bombs? And one of these guys asked a question and I said, “Do you know what happened to the last man who asked me that question?” He said, “No.” I said, “He’s dead.” And they didn’t know what to say. They weren’t used to that kind of British dead pan humor. (DeVorkin laughs.) But I remember the press conference because of the irrelevance. It was one of the first press conferences I took part in and the sheer irrelevance of those guys got to me. That’s all I remember, but I don’t remember the meeting.
Well, the meeting was primarily on abundances in the solar system, and Hans Suess gave a talk at that point and he had an incredible scatter diagram, and he drew a straight line through it, and I cannot remember whether it was Jesse Greenstein or Fowler who had gotten up afterwards and wrote on the board: “Let men not make straight what God hath made crooked.”
That was probably Willie.
Okay, and he turned around and said, “Brethren, let us pray.”
You were there?
I was the light monitor in the room, but I was hoping that you would remember something about that.
I don’t remember it at all.
This was 1960, and of course you were at Chicago. Well, let’s move back then chronologically to an interesting point. Again, about synchrotron radiation, you had written an ASP leaflet on synchrotron radiation, and you mentioned there, as you have previous to that tie and also after in several places that you prefer to call it acceleration radiation.
Well, I didn’t succeed.
And I’m interested in why.
Well, it is acceleration radiation. Synchrotron radiation is a term which came from the people who discovered it using synchrotrons, when in fact it’s classical radiation, and it’s radiation emitted by a charged body which is accelerating and if you go back to Schott in 1910, you’ll find that indeed that is what it is, and I thought it was a better term, but like everybody else who’s ever tried to say, “I prefer to call it something,” nobody wanted to, and I’ve given up.
Well, is it a misnomer to think of synchrotron radiation or let’s say acceleration radiation in terms of constantly cycling magnetic fields, spiraling magnetic fields? That was my first concept of it.
Well, that’s really the simplest way to think. But, no, its’ just a piece of terminology, which I said was to be preferred but which I made no headway with.
You gave in some of those same papers a number of different sources at that time for the tremendous amount of energy in things like the jets in M87, and the first possibility that you’d consider was the primary beam, the protons; and then the matter/anti-matter interaction and then the third was the continuous flow of energy, and that flow could come from – what? – collisions?
Well, no, the primary beam would give collisions. No, you would have to think in terms of continuous acceleration or sources spread all along the jet, which I suppose is what we have to think of in these terms. I mean the primary proton argument still can be used in some cases. The matter/anti-matter thing I think is useless; it won’t do you any good at all. It’s still unclear.
What about the mechanisms in the Crab Nebula?
Pulsar. We found the pulsar. Somehow it happens; nobody knows why.
That seems to be it, because that is a peculiar one. You had mentioned other supernovae where you did not have this radiation.
That’s right. But I mean this is the problem. We now use the Crab as a prototype without knowing how it works. We do that all the time in astronomy. We make quasi-stellars out of many pulsars. We make violent events out of many pulsars without knowing how they work. It’s a well-known gambit.
Well, let’s turn this over and then start asking you about your move back to Yerkes.
God, yes, 1957.
Okay. When did you start looking for another position after your Carnegie Fellowship? Did you want to stay at Caltech?
Well, I think we would have stayed had we been asked to stay, and I suspect that there were arguments made about that – I don’t know the details. I know that clearly some people were clearly pushing to give us positions. I suspect that some of the problems were, again, associated with the personalities of the people who were for or against this, and also some were presumably associated with the fact that there were two of us, and they knew by this time that Margaret had better be given equal status, but I don’t really know the details.
And this was a big issue.
Jesse used to say that he wanted us there. Baade wanted us to stay there. Willie wanted us to stay there. But I don’t know what happened. Anyway we weren’t offered appointments.
How did the appointment come from Yerkes?
Well, at that point we were being offered appointments at various places, and Chandra was kind of on the phone saying, “Why don’t you come to Yerkes?” So we went to Yerkes. We knew Chicago and Chandra was very keen on having us and so we went there.
Was the University of California interested at that time at all?
No. Later on there was a very funny piece of behavior where Berkeley tried to get us, and then we agreed to go, and then Berkeley found they couldn’t come through with what they promised. But that I’ve learned the University of California is always so peculiar.
That was later in the ‘60s then.
It was while we were at Chicago.
Oh, I see. The fact was that certainly in the ‘50s, with the very fine relationship that let’s say astronomy had with the president of the University, with Sproul, it seemed like they were able to grow if they wanted to.
Yes, I think one of the problems I think for us in that time was, you see, what you have to remember is what we were doing was really plowing new ground as far as astrophysics was concerned. We really were much closer to the nuclear physics and particle physics people than most people in astrophysics. There’s an awful lot of talk about collaboration between physics and astrophysics. It’s still a rarity. There are very few people, for example, like Willie Fowler, who really got involved in astrophysics. There are lots of people with interests. For people like us at that time – it’s hard for me to put myself back in that time – you see the astronomy departments of the University of California were very classical. Their astrophysics was classical. Lick was certainly only interested in certain kinds of observers. At Berkeley Henyey was the man who was working on stellar structure. He was the man who later on got involved in this debacle over trying to get us there. There were many people I knew at that time… What’s-his-name, the man with the Scottish name, was director of the rad lab, who were quite interested in our coming to Berkeley. I remember having discussions with people I met through Willie. They were all physicists and nobody at that time was putting astrophysicists into physics departments. I’m sure in retrospect it was a problem for many people. They’d have to work out two appointments, and this kind of thing was not done. It just needs the right kind of people in several different places in the University to do that kind of thing. It still does.
Yes. How do they work it out at Chicago? Or could Chandra just work out whatever he wanted?
Well, at Chicago we started off by having two appointments. Chicago had its nepotism rules, which were that only one appointment could be out of University funds; the other was out of research funds. And that’s how it was handled. They then were getting involved in this row with the Mayers, with Joe and Maria Mayer, who were in Chicago; and Maria all that time had had an appointment as an honorary professor, as they called it, as Margaret did, with funds coming from Argonne. And the Mayers got fed up and said they were going to move anyway, and in the end the Rents, or whatever they are at Chicago, changed the rules; but the Mayers had already left. And by the time we were going, I think the rules had been changed to that extent. But the nepotism rules again always work against the woman, you see, the way they’ve normally been played, the way the game has been played. But that’s what happened with us. The salary arrangements were perfectly adequate.
As were the arrangements for research?
They’d always accepted Margaret. I will say that Yerkes and McDonald never had any difficulty with Margaret as an observer. From the very beginning they understood that she was a very good observer; she was a very good astronomer; from the very beginning when she was there in ’51. They were anxious that she observe with the telescopes and there was no discrimination whatever in Chicago at Yerkes about her being a woman.
So they didn’t worry about facilities on the mountain or anything like that?
No, they never do. It’s the old Mt. Wilson game. But it’s still a problem.
Well, it was at Lick, too?
Well, I don’t know what the situation for women at Lick was. When we first started going up to Lick, which was while we were still at Chicago, by then Margaret’s reputation was large enough so we were invited to Lick. Mayall wanted use to come out. We’d seen them at McDonald. And we went and stayed on the mountain four or five weeks and Margaret did quite a bit of observing I guess, and I helped her. There was all this fuss about visitors against staff and that kind of discrimination, but not women as far as I know. As far as I know, they have certainly in our experience much less male chauvinist. I mean the Caltech-Mt. Wilson syndrome is a very bad one. They still have it. As I said, they don’t have women, and I’ve also heard lately that there are many women who now go there as visitors and so on who hate it because it’s the last preserve, I’m told, of the faculty which feels that if women are there then they’re available for all purposes. I know some people like, Jim Gunn, who’s a very well-known astronomer, is kind of behaving like an idiot, chasing any woman in sight.
Of course, Guido Munch has a similar reputation. Ask Virginia Trimble, one of the women who’s been through that situation.
I was an undergraduate with her. I recall her.
We met accidentally yesterday at the airport in Washington.
Well, the reason I brought up Lick, just as an aside, is that it has only one bathroom in the living quarters for the observers, and it’s obviously an arranged and that way in the basement of the 120-inch.
You’ll have to ask Margaret. She’s the leading observer on the 120-inch no, so I don’t know. She and two or three other senior people more or less control the 120-inch. If Margaret isn’t around, they don’t know what to do. Margaret is now, as I say, one of the ornaments of the whole establishment. She carried practically as much weight as Don Osterbrock, the director. I mean everybody wants her; she’s in great demand to go and talk to the Regents and everything else. But I must admit that we never saw this problem on Mt. Hamilton. There were many difficulties with them, but that was not one of them.
Good. Because in the history of Mt. Hamilton, especially during Campbell’s reign, women were either astronomers or married and not astronomers. There was a very strong rule that way. But that’s the ‘20s.
I don’t know anything about that.
Okay, fine. The experiences then you had at Yerkes…were you actually at Yerkes for the five years that you were there?
Yes, we lived in Williams Bay. We held appointments, which were joint appointments between Yerkes and the Fermi Institute. We had office at the Fermi Institute; we used to go down there usually about once a week. We spent quite a lot of time away from Yerkes; we were frequently observing at McDonald; we also used to spend the summers at Caltech – we used to drive out for three or four months. You know, they used to make jokes: “Geoff’s come home to pick up his paycheck.” Never Margaret, but “Geoff’s come home…” You know one of the well-known saws in astronomy is that if the Burbidges do something people like, Margaret did it; but if they do something they don’t like, Geoff did it. That’s one of the rules. That is used actually. That is a joke and yet it’s not a joke. Margaret has found it out quite unhappily. She’s been quite unhappy about some of the things that she’s found in meetings that I’m being accused of.
That’s quite interesting. Well, possibly they find you a little easier to attack than they do her? Is there a possibility of that?
Oh, they’re scared shitless of me, honest to God. Well, not exactly, but they don’t know quite what to expect. I mean they know perfectly well. But they blame me. Ray Weymann became director of the Steward Observatory succeeding Bok, and Ray behaved in a very heavy-handed way, and somebody said that Ray is running the place the way Geoff Burbidge talks.
(laughs) That’s interesting.
Oh, I don’t know whether it’s true. Well, I think it’s got better. It’s not been terribly easy because if you do new things and if you don’t come with all of the conventional attachments, then I guess it’s harder for people to assimilate. I guess that’s the charitable way of putting it, I suppose.
I see a difference in some of your papers.
You mean some are right and some are wrong? [laughter]
Well, no. A change in direction let’s say in relating nucleosynthesis to cosmology by 1958 at least.
Well, no, I wrote a little paper about helium, but I don’t think there was anything else. I’ve never really got into cosmology. I’ve never written an original paper in cosmology. I’ve written cynical papers about cosmology.
Well, in a later article in Science in 1958, “The Formation of Elements in Stars,” you wrote with your wife…
It was a review article, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was basically a review article, but then you did bring in the Steady State and the Big Bang and the production of Gamow’s ylem. And you showed each element for each cosmological theory had its own elemental origin, and then you reviewed the cosmological tests. Was this meant merely as a review article, not to show anything?
Okay. Yes, okay, that was going to lead me into a question about Stebbins-Whitford effect, but we’d already discussed that. You stated then by ’58 that attempts to distinguish between the cosmological models by looking at the distributions of radio sources led to nothing but confusion, and then you referred to the disparate observations between England and Australia.
I still believe that.
Nothing since has helped to straighten out the situation at all, the Ohio survey?
No, I think there’s a basic problem with radio sources, and it has been that you can go and count objects till you’re blue in the face, but unless you know what they are and where they are, you can’t say much about the universe. And if you look at the history of radio astronomy and the discrete sources, we know tens of thousands of sources, but the number for which we have red shifts is only in the hundreds; and without getting into the argument about the nature of the red shifts of the quasi-stellars, it’s still a very poor sample. In fact, the people who talk – even the Cambridge people – have been soft-pedaling the whole log N/ log S interpretation lately. In a certain sense, as someone was saying the other night, a very well-known radio astronomer down in Greenbank: the major function of the counts, was indeed to denigrate the Steady State in a time when there was nothing else that came to hand. They’ve picked that up from my argument probably. But I mean in a certain sense that’s true. I mean people will use whatever stick comes to hand, and they do it uncritically. I mean, for example, you take Steve Weinberg who I know quite well and who I served on a committee with. This is some years ago; we were on some panel of the Greenstein committee together, a panel that Bob Dickey was the chairman of. Steve and I were talking after the meeting one day, and Steve was writing his book, the big book that he’s written on cosmology and gravitation. And he was talking about these ideas of Hoyle and Narlikar on field theoretical ideas and saying that they were interesting, but he thought they were badly done and much more could be done and so on. And so I said, “Well, Steve, you’ve got students and you’re interested – why don’t you get some people working on this field yourself?” He said, “Well, I really intended to,” he said. “But I understand that since this theory is tied to the Steady State, and the Steady State is ruled out by the counts of radio sources, there’s no point to it.” And I said, “Well, what do you know about the counts of radio sources?” He didn’t know anything about it, but he believed what Ryle had told him or what Ryle had written. And I think that that kind of method, which is a method that is frequently used, is very dangerous. It’s being used even more nowadays. It’s almost impossible even for me. You know, we’re at the stage where if you talk in a dispassionate way about a subject, people say you are biased, because they are so sure of the answer. How can you be asking a question when the answer is so well known that you don’t even ask the question anymore, so how can you ask the question? This is the kind of situation that you get into. I mean I got into this argument the other night with a whole group of young radio astronomers who wanted to talk. They wanted me to stimulate the young radio astronomers, so a large number of them met at Greenbank after our meeting. That’s why I was so tired. I stayed up till about three in the morning discussing radio astronomy with them. They were talking to me about the radio sources and all the structures and all the sizes, and I said, “Well, how do you know this?” Well, they knew it from the distances. I said, “How do you know the distances?” “Well, well…” The chain of argument they don’t realize is an inverted pyramid and you’re not very sure of what is on the bottom. But by now we’ve got a generation of people who’ve swallowed it all.
Were you feeling this even in ’58?
No, I don’t think this whole thing came upon me until I got into the quasi-stellars and the arguments about the quasi-stellars and their nature and the realization that Fred and I had in 1965 and ’66 that they might be far away but maybe they might not, and we thought the arguments were reasonably believed, so we wrote a paper to that effect and then began to wonder, and I at least have been wondering ever since. But I sit on the fence. I tend to think there is serious evidence that they’re not so far away, but I’m not sure. But most people not only want them to be far away but they don’t want any discussion of the fact that they might not be. That is the problem that we have now. We had a meeting in Paris last year, originally sponsored by the IAU, about the red shift problems. I was on the organizing committee. The first thing that happened was that there was resistance within the executive of the IAU of allowing this to be a meeting at all of the IAU, so much so that in the end they had to split the meeting, and the first two days of it were about the Hubble constant and that was accepted and it was called an IAU symposium. And the second half had to be simply sponsored by the French alone, because the IAU didn’t want it to be that way.
Who within the IAU?
Well, this was the executive of the IAU. This is the president and the vice-presidents and the astronomers who were nominated form different countries who form the executive, but who are not informed but who have been told and have got the point. Now, so that was the first stage. So, it was going to be that way. That’s all right. The next stage was: “Well, what’s the best way to see that this meeting is not successful?” A large number of the people, the authorities in the field, would not come because they didn’t want to appear at a meeting where authority was being questioned, so they wouldn’t come. So Alan wouldn’t come and Maartin wouldn’t come and these people wouldn’t come. Some people did, but some people wouldn’t come. The believers won’t come. But that is the way in practice that science happens to be done. You apply what pressure you can. I mean this idea that science is done by dispassionate study of scientific fact is bullshit. I mean you use whatever weapons come to hand.
They’re working within a very well defined framework, and they don’t want to shake it?
At Princeton they don’t have observers except for space observers, so they invite people to come for periods. They only invite people who are going to talk orthodoxy. They wouldn’t invite Arp to Princeton I don’t imagine for anything. “Chip” is getting quite a reputation around now, but it’s not through the orthodox centers. Chip’s a very good observer. That’s the least you can say. And yet some of his colleagues try and blacken his reputation by saying that he’s a lousy observer. Whatever comes to hand you use.
But still they use his observations. I’ve seen that happen many times.
That’s doesn’t matter. After all, people have tried to keep him off the telescope. That’s the first thing you do – keep him off the telescope.
I didn’t know that.
This has gotten to be an administrative boycott almost.
Well, it hasn’t been successful. I mean other people have resisted, and he gets some time, and he gets some time in Pasadena, but I’ve seen this kind of a situation. I’ve seen the kind of things that are said and done. I can tell you about other things which have nothing to do with Arp. Vera Rubin has recently been looking in and has found with Kent Ford and so on these anisotropies in the Hubble relation. Now, I know about an observing proposal which she made to complete the survey two or three years ago before it had been completed. She had preliminary results. She wanted to complete the survey to really see whether the results she had stood. And two leading astronomers, who I will not name, but very respectable astronomers and very well thought of and well known, said in my hearing very clearly that she should not be given time because the result she had was rubbish and it was pointless to waste any more time on it. That was their way of trying to sweep that one under the run. Now, that was stopped.
And yet people have been looking for anisotropy for years.
But you don’t find something you can’t understand. We’ve got a real problem on our hands with that one now in the anisotropy that’s been found at Berkeley in the microwave which is in a different direction. You’ve got a real problem. But people don’t like problems. Fred and I love mysteries and problems because we think they’re going to lead somewhere. Most people don’t like them. They’re scared silly of them.
You wouldn’t say this is a nationalistic tendency, would you? We’re more prone not to be interested?
No, the Russians have got it even more so. I think the orthodoxy which is essentially dogma is strong in any field where you don’t have much real information. And then the greater the uncertainty, you know, the crack I always make, which is not a crack, is that the parallels between cosmology and religion are simply that they’re alike in the following respects: they both have a large amount of belief and a small number of facts. And that’s why people feel that way about them. We don’t know much about the universe. We don’t know much. The further away you go, the harder it is to get information. The smaller the number of photons, the harder it is to do morphology. You can’t tell what you’re looking at, and we’re told that galaxies at red shift of ½ are ellipticals. We don’t really know.
You don’t know their inclination, their orientation?
No, you can’t tell. Go and look at one of them. You can’t tell. So the idea is: you find a few things around you, and then you pray to God everything is the same everywhere else. It may be that the cosmological principle doesn’t hold, in which case you can’t do cosmology; so the cosmological principle must hold by definition.
In order to do normal science.
Yes. And we have this problem in astronomy. It’s an observational science. But I think people should be aware of the kind of traps you can fall into in this way, and whether you’re anywhere near on the right track. You know this business of climbing a tree – the analogy that I’ve given elsewhere – and it really starts with Fred I think. But I mean, you know, you blindfold somebody and you tell him to climb a tree. He comes to a fork – which way does he go? He comes to a fork – which way does he go? What is the chance he’ll get to the top of the tree? It’s rather small. But that’s what we’re doing in this game. We’ve made choices already in various places. Are we off in the wrong direction? Are we not? Probability theory tells us there’s a very good chance that we are off on the wrong track already. But if I get up and say that, then people won’t invite me to a Texas meeting because they’re afraid I’ll get up and say that. They do invite me to the Texas meetings. But if I get up and say that they get very upset, and they come round afterwards and say, “Geoff, you don’t really mean that, do you? You give people the wrong idea by saying that, Geoff, because you’re very well-known and people listen to you. If this was Terrell saying this, it doesn’t matter, but if you say it, Geoff, there’s trouble.” I mean this is the authoritarian way of doing science, which is, of course, a great problem.
Did you have any input to the recent conference on stellar populations?
At Yale? I was invited but I didn’t go.
You were invited to that.
I was invited to that. Oh, yes, I get invited to all these things. I’m told it was a very good meeting but very one-sided. Well, that’s fair enough. I would expect that.
From the standpoint of the evolution of galaxies?
I would expect that. But there again, there are many things which may very well be right. The problem is that there are so many basic uncertainties, and it’s a question of one’s philosophy. I think that the fact there are many uncertainties is a very interesting one. Alan says, “You see, Geoff, you can’t make progress by kind of wading in quicksand. You’ve got to get on some firm ground.” And I say, “Yes, Alan, so essentially if there isn’t any firm ground, you manufacture some.” I mean this is the problem and I understand it. Alan’s feeling is: if he doesn’t believe and he can’t get the right value for the Hubble constant in the next five years, he feels he doesn’t want to work on this problem. You’ve got to believe to work, and I understand that in a certain sense. I understand that philosophy, because I know it’s what drives lots of people. But it’s an extremely difficult problem to know how you really should do this kind of science in the best way. And cosmology and all the far out things usually involve drawing conclusions in a very indirect way, like the black hole. I mean it’s easy enough to explain away the cases which might be good black holes. So John Bahcall has been doing this. I pointed out to John, “This is fine.” I mean John’s famous Cyguus X-1 – John and somebody else said, “Well, there might be a triple system.” In fact, Freeman Dyson got into this act, and there might not be a black hole at all. And that’s a way around it, you see. Now, for some reason they like that idea. Okay? Now I say, “John, look, you’re not using the principle of Occan’s Razor or whatever you throw at me about other things.” He says, “Geoff, what’s the difference?” And I say, “In what way is it different?” He says, “Well, it might be a triple system, it might not be cosmological.” John says, “All nonsense.” This is taste again – where each of you will draw the line.
He will use the simplicity argument in some cases, but not in the cases involving unorthodox suggestions.
That’s right, you use it where you like it, and it’s a matter of taste.
To him the matter of taste meant that he would like to do away with black holes?
Well, maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know.
Yes, I’m using that one specific case.
Yes. But now if Fred writes a paper saying he doesn’t believe there are black holes and he believes there are changes in physics, then John will say, “Nonsense.”
That’s even more difficult to take.
Well, you know, as soon as you talk that way, then you’re in real trouble. That’s right. But we have that problem. I mean Ken Brescher is in trouble at MIT. He’s under pressure from various people because they’re talking about fat, obsess neutron stars and things of that kind, and that’s unorthodox, and people have been saying, you know: “Brescher shouldn’t do this kind of thing. It’s no good.” It’s a short step from that to saying Brescher is no good. But that’s not the way I think you ought to do science, but it’s the way we do it in this game.
Was science being done this way let’s say without the crisis of quasi-stellar radio sources?
All the excitement in astronomy that you see – I don’t know if the historians of science see it – but so many people have made all the successive discoveries has largely led to this situation, because one after the other have come pell-mell a series of discoveries which are simply just the tip of the iceberg every time and nobody has penetrated below the surface in hardly any case. We don’t really know what we’re looking at. We take very small samples and draw very extreme conclusions. We do the easy thing. That is: we understand the mechanism of radio emission and then we don’t know what’s giving rise to the bloody machine. Early on I was involved in this and predicted that X-ray sources were binary systems. That’s nice, but once you get into the nitty gritty you get into trouble. Pulsars are probably rotating neutron stars. You understand the clock, you don’t understand the radiation mechanism. That subject has more or less been dropped and people moved on because it’s too difficult. Nobody understands that. And so you go. And we’ve done this one thing after the other. Now a set of hypotheses have grown up. You go and pull a textbook out which bring you up to date, it will tell you, “There are this – there are that – there is this – there is that – these are here – those are there – the age of the universe is that – it is the other.” None of those statements is well established. They’re all based on little blips into information, most of which we don’t have.
All of these problems ultimately gear up to the question of the energy sources.
The problems we were talking about earlier, yes.
Right. And well, even the ones more recently – when you’re talking about quasi-stellar radio sources and that sort of thing. And you started by asking where does the tremendous amount of energy you were seeing in galaxies come from? You were suggesting that it remained stored as a form of kinetic energy, magnetic energy, whatever; and I want to make sure this is definitely pre-quasar that we’re talking about now.
It is. What happened was that by the late 1950s, early 1960s, it was clear that radio sources were not due to collisions. By 1960-’61, other mechanisms had to be considered. The obvious mechanisms really in some way had to be tied to gravitational energy. I came up with a very ingenious scheme in ’61 which involved a chain reaction of Supernovae. Now that was very intriguing and very ingenious. Fred and Willie didn’t believe it. Most other people thought it wouldn’t work. Fred and Willie didn’t believe it. They were closest to me. It was a summer in Cambridge, the summer probably of ’61 or ’62 when I was peddling this around. They were very nice about it; they didn’t believe it. And I kept hammering away. For about a month my only thing was: “Well, then let’s come up with something better.” Well, they came up, due to a lot of my prodding but really not with me to start with, with the idea of gravitational collapse of massive objects, of which they said, “We will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye and a cold shoulder to how they arise,” as they put it, “but they’re there.” And that led to the whole idea. That was the beginning of the whole gravitational collapse arguments, which came in ’62, ’63; and we then – the four of us – wrote a paper in ’64 in the APJ about this. But they had written elsewhere on it and all that, the beginnings of that, predated the discovery of realization that the quasi-stellar had large red shifts, which came in early ’63. And I don’t really think any of us predicted the quasi-stellars in that obvious sense that you could say maybe one should have done out of this if they were distant galaxies, which I still have considerable doubts about. But the variants now on gravitational collapse have all been plumbed, and in ’64 at the Solvay meeting where I reviewed all the possible energy sources, you’ll find nearly everything outlined in there. And we’ve gone through periods with multiple supernovae exploding rapidly, Stirling Colgate’s kind of thing, large masses rotating, obviously the kind of thing the Russians have pushed around and that Morrison has pushed around, and now we’re at the point where people have got very keen on the idea that matter somehow is associated with accretion onto a black hole. But it’s all the same basic idea. You use gravitational energy. What is not clearly understood is how the object in question or objects in question center form and how it is that the energy ultimately comes out in the form of synchrotron radiation or relativistic particles. And those fundamental questions have been with us for 15 years and not answered. And people are simply going around in circles. Wolgjier said at a meeting in the summer that he used to say very cynically that what had been happening was that new people were giving the same papers, but what he said at this meeting was: “The same people are giving the same papers with a time scale for forgetting what one said before is five years.” He said this at a meeting we had at the Bohr Institute in June on nuclei in galaxies, and there’s considerable truth to that. There’s no serious breakthrough in understanding in my view, but I mean the wide-scale reporting of some ideas is much more common than it was 15 years ago. I mean Jerry Ostriker keeps rediscovering problems we’ve all known about for 20 years and then he comes out with some naïve first order solution which is widely heralded, and then I get another call from Princeton saying, “Don’t we have a genius here?” and I say, “No.” That’s a rude way of putting it, but basically that’s the kind of thing that is happening. He happens to be a particularly, in my view, naïve young man who manages to keep popping up saying things.
Are you talking about his accretion ideas?
I’m thinking about all the different things he’s been playing with. I mean he’s now making galaxies or whatever he’s doing with them. But none of it is very original and what I look for is originality, and there ain’t much originality. It’s very hard to be creative about one of these problems, and the problems that I’ve been on and off involved with for many years, I don’t see much sign of real creativity. Few things have been discovered leading to new thoughts, like pulsars, but a real step forward in the problems that I’m familiar with, I find it very hard to know how to make them. I’m not saying that I can make them, but I’m saying that I don’t think that anyone has made any serious advances for quite a long time to put it mildly. Fred is one of the most original thinkers around. He’s over 60, and you’re not supposed to do that now. He’s been struggling with modified Field Theory, but he’s not been very successful at it; and it’s obviously paid not the slightest attention to, and it may be wrong, but there just are not many things that are happening. People are playing. We’ve got a certain number of pieces in the puzzle, and they’re rearranging the pieces, but no one has fitted them together, and no one has found the missing pieces. I think there are a lot of missing pieces, real missing pieces.
What about one of the most important missing pieces? I haven’t found a statement of it in your writings. But at least I find a very interesting series of studies that you did while you were at Yerkes in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and that is that at one point here you begin worrying again about the sources of radio emission, not only in galaxies but in clusters themselves, wondering about stability, and then all of a sudden you come out with your wife with a blitz of seven papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1959 on observations completely.
Well, we went off and started working on galaxies, and that led to a lot of the observations. The physics of galaxies, you see, is a field that hadn’t been touched in those days hardly at all. Nearly all the dark time that could be used with the big telescopes was used for the cosmological problems with the 100-inch. And Hubble and Humason, with the exception of what Baade was able to do and Minkowski, really dominated it. And what really started there was quite a different chain in the way we looked at the evolution of stars – we thought we understood a lot about them. I’d been interested for years in the evolution of galaxies. That’s why I made this proposal as a Carnegie fell to measure the rotation of M81, which I was not allowed to, because I had realized in reading extensively that you couldn’t do much about evolution unless you knew something about the basic parameters of galaxies, and we didn’t have that information when I read the literature; we didn’t have that information. So we wanted to look into it. So one of the major developments, which was very successful, was that Margaret put into operation an old spectrograph that Horace Babcock had originally built when he was at Yerkes for a year in 1939 and which Thornton Page had used a little but not very much. Margaret put it back into operation and we worked extensively at McDonald for a number of years on galaxies and mostly on normal galaxies but somewhat on peculiar galaxies, and this tremendous spate of material came and we started working extensively down there. And, well, in about ten years we wrote about 30 papers on the rotation of galaxies, nearly all with Kevin Prendergast, and we also started working on peculiar galaxies and on clusters, and this was a whole new field of extra-galactic astronomy, which was really pioneering. This was all really Margaret’s doing. I mean she was the observer, she certainly was the senior author through all that material; and it was a very successful period. And from there, basically the observations went towards quasi-stellars, which is where they’ve been ever since.
Right. I want to take you up to quasi-stellars and no further than that while we’re here. You mentioned in one of the first papers on the observational evidence that you were collecting – at least in peculiar systems – that they were brought to your notice by Vorontsov Velyaminov. Wow, was this in direct discussion with him?
Well, no, he started sending material. We met him later. We met him one or two places. I don’t remember where. We may have first met him in 1958 in Moscow.
But you did meet him in ’58?
I don’t know. We thought we did. Well, what happened was that he sent material. He sent positions, and he kind of sent a plea for people to make observations. He made this catalogue from the Palomar Sky Atlas, and I guess we were some of the few people who were interested in doing it. We started doing it.
Did he send out a general plea? Is that what it was?
Oh, I see.
But, as Alan will tell you and some of the others will tell you, of all the people…[I mean there was so much work to be done in that field, still is], Margaret was the only person who really was prepared to exploit possibilities. Some of the things we were doing could have been done by Humason in 1950.
They could have been?
It’s just that this goes back to the problem, the pressure on observing time, the shortage of large optical telescopes, the shortage of dark time, and it’s ever present, because there still isn’t a lot of optical work going on on rotation of galaxies. Vera Rubin and the group she’s got now have carried on somewhat. She came and worked with us. That’s really what started her off working full time.
Did she have similar troubles at Mt. Wilson-Palomar? Because she did work there, too.
Then later. Yes, Vera had a lot of trouble at one point. I don’t remember. You should talk to Vera.
We hope to.
But at one point when they got a very decent piece of equipment working at Flagstaff, she is from the Carnegie Institution Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and they wanted to bring out out and put it on one of the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, and they were told brusquely well, they could do that, but then it should be simply handed over to the competent astronomers at Mt. Wilson, the astronomers who would properly use it – that was the implication. Vera was told to bring her equipment out and leave it there, and that’s the way it would be done. Well, you can ask Vera. It may not be. That’s the way she told it to me. That was the way it used to be. I don’t think it is now. It really has changed quite a bit. Now all my friends are in control, so I don’t criticize – I can’t afford to.
In some of the first papers in this string of seven on the observational work that you were doing…
We were just taking pictures.
Taking a lot of interesting pictures.
You were also making some very interesting interpretations. The first one came on NGC 2445.
A young galaxy. Well, that argument is still going on.
That’s a very interesting one, because it’s a question of what do very young galaxies really look like.
Well, I can tell you: we wrote a paper about that, and then we wrote another paper with Fred on that subject later on. The question of young galaxies is a burning one and has been since, and other people have worked on it a little. The conventional wisdom has to be: all galaxies were formed soon after the Big Bang by some unspecified process, which only is understood in Princeton and Moscow is the way I always put it, with a little bit of interpretation in Cambridge. But the idea that there are young galaxies, you see, in the day when we first started working on young galaxies, meant in many people’s eyes “Steady State.” And when we wrote a paper with Fred saying, “Maybe they are young galaxies…”, Alan went out and made observations of that galaxy just in order to prove that he could measure colors which looked as though there were old stars there as well. But the whole thrust was not about young galaxies. If people can understand young galaxies in an evolving universe, no one will worry. In fact, now we’re getting towards the point where people are beginning to talk in a more reasonable way about young galaxies…possibly. But if you think young galaxies prove the Steady State, then you’ll have everybody on your back saying, “They’re not young.” And that’s exactly what happened if you read the paper that we wrote. You better read Alan’s paper after the paper we wrote with Fred.
Where was that?
I don’t know. It was the Burbidge, Burbidge and Hoyle paper in ’63 I think in the APJ, which is where we studied a number of systems, including that one, and said, “Maybe there are young galaxies,” and then we said some of this may have something to do with the Steady State. Soon after that Alan wrote a paper. I mean young galaxies may be around. Sargent and Searle have written papers about young galaxies; other people have. It’s not terribly popular. If you want to argue that everything could only be made when the universe was highly condensed, then how can you hold it up and only make it recently – you see is the feeling. Somehow that doesn’t happen. But then in all honesty I don’t think anybody really knows how galaxies are made. But, there is a huge literature growing up, and half of the bright young theoreticians who do get jobs in astrophysics are working on this problem. And what it boils down to is putting in fluctuations at the beginning so that you get out galaxies at the end. And it’s of no interest to me. Maybe that’s what happens, but it’s of no interest to me, because anything where you put in the answer to start with and then get it out is not a problem as far as I’m concerned. But I’m such a simple-minded guy that when I say that, they say, “Oh, Geoff, that’s nonsense,” and I say, “What do you mean?”
In other words, fluctuations are needed to produce a galaxy?
You see, the point is that it’s been long ago shown that if you really have a Big Bang and expanding universe in the normal way you think about it, what you would see is a microwave background, yes, but you wouldn’t see anything else, because there wouldn’t be any discrete objects. I mean there are two properties of the universe that you have to contend with: one is the microwave background is predicted by the Big Bang, and discrete objects certainly are not. And it turns out that because of the rapid expansion and the tidal effects, any lump that is in there naturally will be smoothed out. Therefore, you’ve got to put lumps in which Δp/p is too large. And what turns out is you put in when you call primordial turbulence, which means you put lumps in. But it’s not surprising that if you put the lumps in and they’re big enough, you’ll get them out. If they’re dense enough compared to the background, you’ll get them out. Now there’s a huge literature growing up on galaxy formation by the Russians and by some of the other people in this country and in Europe and in England, and it’s just a question of how you play the game. There’s quite an interesting review written by a young man called Jones which was published in the Reviews of Modern Physics which discusses this whole theory a couple of years ago. There was a whole state of the theory and it’s a fairly cynical article. Well, he’s one of the people who does this.
This was in the last few years of the Reviews of Modern Physics?
Yes. It’s not hard to find. But it’s, I think, a good article, but it tells you [a lot]. You see, the real trouble with the first three minutes and what follows is that if that’s really the way the universe is, and happened, then I don’t know how we’re ever going to prove it, because nearly everything interesting happened so long ago that you’re always looking at the last little remnants of anything that happens in terms of cosmic evolution; and therefore the universe would be a much more interesting place if fundamental things can go on locally, because the information content goes down so fast with distance and epoch that you are in trouble.
Do I detect in that a very strong feeling that you wish the universe were interesting? – that you want the universe to be interesting?
Oh, sure, I want the universe to be interesting. It would be much more fun. But on the other hand, I’m prepared to accept [another interpretation]. Look, I accept that the only interpretation of the microwave background which seems to make any reasonable kind of sense at the moment is that it’s the result of a primordial Big Bang. I did not accept that a few years ago when the radiation did not appear to have black body form. I may not accept it a few years hence if this anisotropy argument cannot be cleared up. It is now a very critical argument. But the way to clear it up is not to try and escape it but to face it.
Is she getting her observing time?
Yes, sure. Vera’s getting time. Yes, that was all cleared up. I’m just telling you that the attitude of many people is, “Let’s stop this. Let’s stop this.” I mean it’s very hard, and the younger people say to me, “Well, Geoff, it’s all very well to talk like this, but if you were a young man trying to get observing time, wouldn’t you say, ‘I’d better stick to the straight and narrow’? because how do you answer the question that ‘I won’t get observing time if I don’t.’” And I don’t have an answer to that, because it’s true. I fought for observing time for Arp myself, and he is a senior person. With all of these methods now of examining proposals to do everything, it’s very hard to allow people to do their own things.
Is this one of the reasons why he’s showing up more often at Kitt Peak?
Well, he gets time at Kitt Peak. But he’s a very good observer and it’s a very good telescope – the 4 meter at Kitt Peak and the 4 meter at Chile, which he’s also using. No, Chip is not doing too badly, but he’s not been well treated. He’s not been well treated in my view because of what he chooses to work on.
Okay. Well, there was one other topic. We might want to spend just a few minutes on it to cover the Yerkes period.
Well, let’s put ten minutes and quit.
Okay, fine. Your paper 5 in this series, ApJ 130, was on mass distribution, physical conditions in the inner region NGC 1068 and this was a Seyfert galaxy.
That was the first one, the only one still, in which we know the mass of the inner part, because you can knock out massive black holes.
Right. But you found a velocity dispersion in the nuclear regions which you said suggested an ejection mechanism. Was this one of the first times that you really started thinking in terms of explosions going on in general?
I don’t know.
Well, I know you’d already done M87.
I suppose it probably was. I mean it took until the early ’60s to realize, for me at least to realize, that all of these manifestations were different manifestations of violent activity in the centers of galaxies. We had the radio and the optical synchrotron evidence. The Seyferts were an obvious class of objects which might be doing this, and that was one of the first studies. After Seyfert’s classical paper of 1943, that was probably the next paper in which anybody looked in any detail at the Seyfert galaxy. They were just neglected; they were just ignored; nobody knew what they were.
For almost 17 years.
Sure, people were not interested in the physics of galaxies.
Now, you said this ejection model also supported an early age for the Seyferts. Do you still hold to this?
Well, there’s a problem with the Seyferts, and the problem has been there ever since, and the next paper in the APJ in that same volume is a paper by Ludwig Woltzier in which he was trying to contain all the mass and it was amusing because he was trying to contain all the mass by making the nucleus very massive and he was at Chicago with us at Yerkes, and he’d get this idea into his head, and Kevin and I didn’t believe it. He had it in his head that he was writing a paper and we went and made these observations and we measured the rotation and then we showed that you couldn’t put such large masses in, and so we said to Low: “Look, Low, you can’t have a mass like that in this galaxy. There’s good dynamical evidence against it.” And Ken and I naively thought that Low would therefore have to concede that. But what did Low do? If you look in his paper, you’ll find he just put a footnotes saying that this argument doesn’t apply to 1068. And it’s that kind of thing that while Low is a good friend of mine and I enjoy him – he’s very bright and very clever – it’s that kind of thinking that I find so difficult myself to contend with. You can’t make a general argument – I’ll grant you that. But when you want to use one observation to disprove something, you use it. But when you don’t, you just ignore it. And it’s very very hard to make progress. You know, if Jim Gunn finds one galaxy next to a quasi-stellar with the same red shift, everybody puts it on the front page of the New York Times and says that’s evidence for cosmological red shifts. They don’t do any statistics on the problem. If Chip finds one quasi-stellar with a different red shift next to a galaxy with a normal red shift, then people say, “Find another one.”
Yes, I’m familiar with that attitude.
Well, I suppose it has to mean that it takes a lot to turn orthodoxy over.
What kind of reactions did you get at that time when you started concluding that clusters of galaxies like Hercules and Virgo were unstable and expanding, as you did find with Stephan’s Quintet also?
Well, this was Ambartsumian’s basic idea, and we were finding observational evidence which certainly supports this, and everything that’s happened since suggests that if you look at the observed matter and the observed velocity dispersion, the Virial condition is never satisfied. That is, on the face of it, systems are not bound. Now, for certain kinds of clusters – not those clusters but the spherically symmetrical well-relaxed clusters – there’s every reason to believe the system is bound and there is missing matter for the remainder of the systems – I think it’s entirely possible they are unbound; they’re coming apart. That’s Ambartsumian’s claim. Now, if that’s true, then they formed comparatively recently. And that violates one of the basic beliefs of astronomy. Back in 1961, there was a meeting on this problem held in Santa Barbara before the IAU in Berkeley, and there both these viewpoints were discussed, and Oort just absolutely told the audience which side they had to believe, and Ambartsumian really didn’t do very well, and they have believed ever since. Now people are hunting like made for missing mass in everything, and I think that in certain kinds of clusters it must exist. My own suspicion is it’s dead galaxies, and I’ve been trying to do some work on this in my own way.
Galaxies that are highly evolved. Their luminosity has really gone right down. But in many cases I see no reason from the forms of the clusters, from the configurations, that they are bound systems; and there I think we ought to ask the question. If this is evidence for a system expanding, how do they form? But you can’t get anybody to work on that problem, because they’ve all been told that they’re bound. They’ve all been told that they’ve got to account for them a long time ago. And if I go and I have many places and given talks about this with all the necessary observational data, I can become very convincing. And if I’d done this, for example, at this recent meeting at Yale, there would have been a great deal of embarrassment because people don’t like put in front of them. You see, you get all these young people who are not familiar with the background of these problems and can actually put together very good observational arguments about these things. I mean I’ve been told: “Geoff, we don’t want you on the platform for an hour. You’re really going to convince them.” I mean I’ve had this discussion with my friends, candid discussion with my friends; but it’s very true. I gave this famous colloquium at Caltech about quasi-stellars about five years ago. They wanted somebody to talk about quasi-stellars and the problems of the red shift. I said, “Well, I got a call from Kip Thorne,” who’s a friend of mine. Kip said, “Will you come and give a physics colloquium?” I said, “Well, why don’t you ask Arp?” He said, “I can’t ask him.” He said, “My colleagues won’t let me ask him.” I said, “All right, I’ll come and give a talk.” And I gave a talk. Some of the key people were out of town. A large number of people – all the physicists – came, a large audience. And I went through this talk that I’ve given in a large number of places called “The Riddle of the Red Shifts.” I’ve stopped giving it, but I gave it many many places in the early times. So I collected all the information pro and con, both sides of it and went all through this information, not sparing myself, not sparing other people. And I got continuous interruptions, and people like Bob Leighton and Dick Feynman and so on were saying, “Well, where did you get that from?” and that’s when I was led continuously to say, “Well, I’m sorry – some of your colleagues know about this.” “Well, what do we know about it?” I said, “Well, they swept it under the rug.” And this was the famous story of the rug. But it’s true that if you give a talk like that and people see what all the evidence is – all of it, unvarnished – then their attitudes often are quite different from the attitudes that you hear. Now, you call up Jim Gunn now and ask him where the quasi-stellars are, he’ll say, “Well, they’re cosmological red shifts,” and you’ll say, “What’s the evidence in favor,” and he’ll give you something, and you’ll say, “What’s the evidence against?” and he’ll say, “There isn’t any.” See this is the problem.
I just have to ask you this very quick question. We only have about a minute here. Within that paper on Hercules and Virgo, you indicated that Zwicky was still unable to accept Sandage’s revised Hubble’s constant. Did this have anything to do with his preconceptions?
Well, no, I think this was part of Zwicky’s problem with accepting anything that Hubble said. We were new in the field at the time, and I was trying to be fair all around. We were trying to be fair all around.
It had nothing to do with bringing the cluster closer and making it bound?
No. Zwicky had raised the problem in 1935. Zwicky and Sinclair Smith raised this problem in 1935, and it’s been an ever-present problem. Apparently nothing or hardly anything is bound unless there’s a lot more matter around than you can see, and therefore which way do you go? And I think you go an obvious way in some cases and a very unorthodox way in other cases.
Okay. Well, thank you very much.
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