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Interview of David Layzer by David DeVorkin on 2007 December 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33928
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Interview is a biographical profile of theoretical astrophysicist David Layzer, with emphasis on his career at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Topics discussed include his family life, interest in music, childhood interests, reading preferences. Affinity for mathematics. Contact with Jason Nassau at the Warner and Swasey Observatory. Devoured literatures, recollections of English teacher. Decision to enroll at Harvard and contact with Bart Bok. Mathematics courses and contacts with Garrett Birkhoff. Contrasting mathematics and astronomy at Harvard. The Harvard undergraduate experience, interrupted by being drafted into Army service during World War II. Signal Corps duty in radio intelligence control. Return to Harvard and astrophysics readings. Contact with Herbert Jehle. Harvard graduate school, thesis with Donald Menzel, Ph.D. in 1950. Interest in philosophy of physics. Impressions of Harvard College Observatory (HCO) under Shapley and the Berkeley Astronomy Department under Otto Struve. Growth of interests in cosmology at Berkeley and move to Princeton on another temporary appointment. Work for John Wheeler. Impressions of Princeton, lack of security clearance, contact with Martin Schwarzschild and Edward Teller. Return to Harvard in 1953 under Menzel and general recollections of the divisive atmosphere of the place and the coming of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) under Whipple. View of the importance of teaching. Writing and publishing. The growth of SAO and his concerns. Leo Goldberg's concerns about SAO and HCO relations. Layzer's involvement - commentary on letters he wrote during the crisis expressing concern over Harvard's lowered rating among astronomical institutions and what to do about it.
You were born in Cleveland in 1925?
How would you characterize your early home life?
Uneventful I would say.
Did you go to public schools?
At home, did your father have a somewhat reasonable, regular schedule?
Yes. He went to his office every day, and then he came home in the evening.
What is your father’s full name?
It could be L-A-J-Z-E-R?
Yes. He studied in Strasbourg, and attended Gymnasium (school) in Germany.
Your mother’s name is Rhea Volk, V-O-L-K?
Your father came from Lwov?
Your brothers are Arthur and Robert?
Tell me the snippet that Dick Feynman had said to you.
We were at a small conference in Cornell and he asked me if I was related to Arthur, who had just published a paper on the Lamb Shift. I said, "He's my brother." He said, "He's a smart kid."
Did you know Dick Feynman at that time?
We had met at Caltech when I gave a talk there. We were together at a small conference, ten or twelve people, on the nature of time.
What year was that?
Around 1968. A book came out of it, edited by Tommy Gold. It has that kind of title, the nature of time.
Let's go back to your home life.
I've been thinking about it in the last few days, because we'd just come back from Seattle where we visited one of my sons and his family. They have two children. Both Jean and I are struck all the time by how different children are treated, how they grow up. You know, Jean grew up in Liverpool and I grew up in Cleveland. I'm always reminded of how little supervision I had as a child. I don't think my mother, who was very devoted, had any idea where I was from early in the morning until around a couple of hours after school. Of course, she knew I was at school during school hours. I don’t recall any constraints on my activities. If I wanted to ride my bike and go exploring I'd go wherever I wanted to. I went downtown on the trolley.
What part of Cleveland did you live in?
First, we lived on the east side. Then we moved to Cleveland Heights, not very far from the Cleveland border.
Let’s talk about hobbies, family interests, and family activities.
I took violin lessons and I stuck with it, as my brother Arthur did with the clarinet. He became a fine musician. It didn't take with Bob. I didn't work very hard and I didn't have really good teachers. But, I liked to play in the orchestra and I liked the sound of music. I have continued to stay with it. It's now an important part of my life, and I've learned to play reasonably well over the years.
Do you play in chamber music groups?
Yes. During my visit to Seattle I got together with a really excellent group. The cellist had lived in Boston. I knew him there. And, whenever I go out there he arranges quartets or quintets.
Do you ever play with other astronomers?
You know, it's a curious thing, with a few outstanding exceptions, not many physical scientists play stringed instruments at a high level. Physicians are another story. Two members of my regular string quartet are psychiatrists, the third is a cardiologist.
So, music was an important part of your life. Did your mother or father play?
My father had taken violin lessons but he dropped it.
Did you have a piano at home?
Yes, always. That's how I discovered that my brother Arthur had perfect pitch and I didn't. He could identify the pitches of notes on the piano over its entire range.
Did you ever consider music as a career?
No. Partly I just wasn't good enough. Conceivably, I could now make a poor living at it. I can play the standard things in tune and in rhythm, and very occasionally people say they enjoy listening. But I couldn't for a very long time. It's taken a lot of work, and I have no talent whatsoever. But, I like the sound of music. And that, I believe, determines whether people keep up with an instrument after childhood or not. But, I've played all my life, and it's nice.
Okay. Staying in your early life.
The other thing I liked to do was play street games, baseball, football, biking. In my first year of college, I played intramural baseball and intramural football. I boxed. I wrestled. I swam. But fortunately, I was never very good at any of these things. I say "fortunately" because it's meant that I've never had a serious sports injury nor attracted the attention of an athletic coach.
Were you worried about breaking your fingers or something?
Not really. But to be good at a sport I think you have to train and work really hard, and I was never motivated to do that. I had little athletic ability but a great enjoyment of physical activity, and still do.
Did you push yourself in anything as a child?
I didn't push myself, no. When I encountered mathematics I enjoyed it, but I didn't push myself and nobody pushed me.
What about hobbies other than the ones you've mentioned, or reading?
Oh, I was an omnivorous reader. I loved it.
Did your parents encourage it?
Well, I'm not sure. They certainly didn't discourage it. But there was always a public library within reach and I just went and got books and nobody ever looked at or asked what I was reading.
You read a lot of literature, and mysteries, and things like that?
Oh yeah. I read all of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and books, all of P. G. Wodehouse. When I was small I read boys’ books, the Tom Swift books among them. My father used to visit a used bookstore and bring back boys’ books by the cartload.
Did you ever encounter or do you recall Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope?
I don't think I read that.
It may have come out a little after. You were born in '25. This was about 1937. So, you'd be twelve or thirteen by then.
That would have been a little late for me to be still reading Tom Swift books.
But, your dad was a doctor, and, he was a physician, practicing?
Yes. He was a GP.
And you were living in a good part of town. Did you ever sense that you were unable to have the things that you needed or wanted, as far as buying things or having, you had toys and so on?
No. My wife Jean, who grew up in England, was born in 1938 and that was a time of economic deprivation in Britain. She reads a lot and buys most of the books she reads, and then passes them on to our daughters and to a circle of readers at work. You react to your childhood.
Exactly. And, you never can predict. So, in your early home life then, can you recall your parents being concerned about your future?
My father was concerned. And in fact he was concerned with the issue of security, not surprisingly in the midst of the Depression. One summer I fell out of a tree and broke my arm and had to stay at home. So he said, "This would be a good opportunity to get ahead on math," because in his experience math had been an academic stumbling block for most people. And, so he brought home some algebra and trigonometry books, which I read. They were ridiculously easy.
How old were you about then?
I got through the algebra books before we had algebra in school. I was probably thirteen or so. I whizzed through those and then calculus was more fun. I had a very good calculus book.
Were you in high school at this time?
Was calculus a normal thing to encounter in high school?
No. They hadn't begun to teach calculus in my high school yet.
So, you were studying independently of your high school?
Yes. "Studying" is too strong a word. I'd just read through these books and do the problems.
Were your teachers aware you were doing this?
Yes, and they were very kind. I had to go to the classes, but they let me sit in back. I remember my geometry teacher, Miss Olive Peet, who lent me a book of hers called 101 Proofs of Pythagoras’s Theorem, and had me give a little talk to the class about it. The other thing I remember is the head of the math department in my high school asked to see my calculus book. So I brought it to him and to my astonishment he offered to buy it from me!
You were like fifteen, sixteen years old?
What was your interaction with the Warner and Swasey Observatory? When did it happen?
I'd been introduced, through David Dietz, a science writer, to Dr. Jason Nassau, who was the director of the Warner and Swasey Observatory. He had a keen interest in mathematics. I would come to see him every now and then, and he lent me books, and we'd talk about mathematics. He leant me books on projective geometry, which I read and enjoyed very much.
How did your father know David Dietz?
He didn’t. My father wrote to him about me, and he arranged for me to meet Dr. Nassau.
So this came about through your father, not through any of your teachers.
Was there anything about your high school that you think is important in your training and development of interests?
I attended a calculus class, just as a visitor, that was given at Case Institute of Technology. The teacher was Dr. Rinehart, I remember. I wasn't really a smart-alecky little kid but I remember the students were going by the book, so they all knew exactly the same things and I knew different things. Having read Granville’s calculus book, I could, on two or three occasions, answer a question they couldn't answer.
But, you were the high school kid?
Yeah. I was the high school kid. I think Dr. Nassau must have arranged that.
Did you get the feeling that you were different?
How'd you feel about that?
I was probably more ahead in literature than I was in math. The summer before I went to college I read Proust. I had read The Magic Mountain. It was my favorite novel for a long time. I went through all of Aldous Huxley, all of Somerset Maugham, all the standard authors of that time, standard classics, and a lot of American literature. I had a very good eleventh grade, maybe twelfth-grade, English teacher named Sydney Z. Vincent. The first day of class, when we walked into the classroom the blackboards were filled with the titles and authors of American novels. Later I realized he must have taken a course in American literature in college. He didn't say a word about them. They were just written on the blackboard. So, I copied them down and read them all. We weren't asked to read them, though I think he did say, "These are books you would enjoy." So, that was my background in American literature.
So, did you ever talk to him about this or come in at any point and say, "I read these books, now what?”
So, would you say you were very self-directed?
Oh yes. I was completely self-directed. I mean I was interested in what I was interested in. I was very narrow.
So, you're saying focused?
Focused, but I also had tunnel vision.
You’re working away in mathematics. You're reading widely? I'd say that doesn't sound too focused to me.
And I was writing. I didn't take math very seriously. It was just fun. I could just read it like a novel and it was interesting. But I loved to write and, in fact, I thought I was going to be a writer. I wrote radio plays, little dramas, and short stories.
Have you saved them?
No. When I got to Harvard I had just turned seventeen, it was during the war, so Harvard was on a three-semester schedule. I arrived at the beginning of the spring term, February, Nineteen forty-three.
How did you get to Harvard? Did you apply to other places or did your father or mother have any thoughts about your going to college? Why not Case in other words?
I think Dr. Nassau suggested that I apply to Harvard, which was just a name to me. So, I applied to Harvard and that's the only college I applied to. And it seems strange today, doesn't it? Somebody came to interview me and, I was accepted, but I'd never been rejected from anything so I wasn't particularly astonished at that.
What about your classmates in your school? Did others go to Harvard?
A close friend was also accepted at Harvard at the same time. He became a psychiatrist and he's written a couple of best-selling, widely-read books. His name is Willard Gaylin.
Was there any question about financial support going to Harvard?
I had a full scholarship and it was a lot cheaper. Everything was cheaper, of course, in those days.
Your parents were fully supportive? I mean, emotionally supportive, happy for you to go away to school as opposed to stay home?
I'd been independent, in a way, for some time. Of course, I wasn't really independent. I was being fed, clothed, and housed by my parents. The issue of separation didn't come up for me. I think it came up for them.
Did Jason Nassau talk about, or ask you about what you wanted to do as a career?
You know, he didn't. But, when I went to Harvard he told me to look up Dr. Bart Bok.
Had you expressed an interest at that point in astronomy? Because, he was giving you math books.
Yes. I had. There were the exhibits around the observatory, which I looked at. One day, when I went to visit him there was a paper on his desk by van Albada, it was on the Origin of the Chemical Elements. I remember, I said, "This can't be a scientific paper. How can you possibly investigate such a topic scientifically?" It just blew my mind. And, I was very skeptical. I said, "I just don't believe that can be a scientific question."
Maybe this is a good time to ask you if you're religious? Was your family religious?
Did they have any religious affiliation in the family?
Were you basically of Christian or Jewish background?
But not practicing?
No. No one in my family ever attended a religious service.
Did your father rail about religion at the dinner table?
No, he didn't. In those days and with his background he wouldn't have.
So, the Origin of the Chemical Elements you thought was not a scientific question?
Not a scientific question.
Remember, I knew nothing about physics. Had never really thought about it. The chemical elements were just there. It was years before I found out about the expanding universe. But I knew nothing about cosmology in those days.
So, you would not actually say that, that Warner and Swasey Observatory or your contact with Jason Nassau was your introduction to astronomy because you remained focused on mathematics?
Well, looking at the exhibits, and I knew what a Cepheid variable was, because there was an exhibit of a light bulb that was on a dimmer switch that alternated the brightness. And pictures of the Milky Way and so on. So, I had some notion. But, it didn't arouse any kind of desire to become an astronomer.
Did you read any astronomy books?
None? What about science fiction?
I read a little science fiction early on. I remember a book called, When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1933). I read a little. I never really got into science fiction either. And, of course, after I got to learn a little science it really repelled me.
Let's talk then about your experience at Harvard. Jason Nassau suggested that you seek out Bart Bok?
Do you remember your meeting with him and what he suggested you do, or your impressions about what you should be doing after that?
I was at Harvard for one full year, three semesters, before I went in the Army. In my second semester Bok was giving a course called Introduction to Astrophysics.
He was also giving navigation courses and things like that?
Yeah. Frances Wright was really doing the navigation courses then. So, I took Introduction to Astrophysics at his urging, even though it was an upper level course, supposedly a graduate course. Even though it had a low number, Astronomy 5. But anyway, I was still a freshman and had no physics, perhaps a semester of the first-year physics course. And, I remember we had to write three reports during the semester. There was a series of books called The Harvard Books on Astronomy. For the first report I read Goldberg and Aller, Atoms, Stars, and Nebulae, and I wrote a little essay on it. It came back with a grade C+ and the remark, "This is not the sort of level that we expect in this course." So, that was kind of a wakeup call. I wasn't going to get away with reading at the level of the Harvard Books on Astronomy. Not even the Milky Way, which is Bok's contribution to that series. So, the next book I read was Chandrasekhar’s Stellar Structure. It was a huge leap. I loved it and wrote a report I was very proud of. I proved a couple of the theorems in the book in a different and, I thought, more elegant way. I pointed that out in my little report to make sure that Bok noticed it. He did notice it, and he complimented me. Not extravagantly.
That's pretty incredible.
No, it really isn't. I had enough mathematics then to do that.
Who were you taking math from at Harvard?
Well, my tutor was Garrett Birkhoff.
Of Birkhoff and Maclane?
Yeah. Birkhoff and Maclane. I tried to enroll, my first semester, in a graduate course called “Functions of a Real Variable,” which was Math 12. And, at that time it was given by Lynn Loomis, a wonderful teacher and lecturer. I took notes and I solved the homework problems. But, the math department had a meeting, because I hadn't taken any of their calculus courses and no freshman before, perhaps, had taken Math 12. So, I was tossed out of that and into their second or third year calculus course, which I hated, and I think I got a C+ or a B- — something like that.
Well, you certainly were aware of this meeting. Were you a part of the meeting?
No, and the person who told me was rather shamefaced about it. I guess Loomis must have told me. Now a lot of freshmen take courses like that. It's almost routine. And some incoming freshmen are far more advanced than I was.
And why do you suppose did they have that rule?
It wasn’t a rule. Garrett Birkhoff and I became good friends many years later. His father was, of course, the famous mathematician G. D. Birkhoff. Garrett told me at the time that he himself hadn't taken courses at this level until he'd really had a much firmer foundation in calculus. I said, "I've read calculus." He said, "Well, but not the way we do it here." Which was quite true.
So, they expected you to be exposed to a certain level of formalism?
Yes, that's right. Even though Math 12 was advertised as requiring no particular mathematical background, but a certain level of sophistication. And, when I finally took it, it turned out to be a great course — the only one that stayed with me through the years.
How did you feel being kicked out of the class and stuck into a calculus course?
Well I, I was unhappy with that. I majored — "concentrated" as they call it at Harvard — in mathematics, but it made me wonder a little about the prospect of having mathematicians as future colleagues.
That's very important to your career then?
Yeah. The astronomers, on the other hand, were very welcoming there. Like Bok, see the contrast between Bok saying, "Well, this is a graduate course but you can take it anyway." And the mathematicians saying, "Well, you can't take this even though you can do the work you haven't jumped through our hoops."
We're looking at that 1942-43 period and that's, that's extraordinary. Who else, in addition to Bok, did you encounter as an undergraduate?
I didn't encounter Menzel. He was away at war. But when I came back Bok sent me to Menzel as the person closest to my interests. And of course, Harlow Shapley, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Jim Baker.
Now, the person who was certainly very mathematically oriented was Fred Whipple?
Fred Whipple, right.
Yeah. He was at the Radio Research Lab at the time?
Yeah. I don't think I met him then.
Talk about your undergraduate experience.
As I mentioned, in my first year I took this terrible calculus course. Physics A was exceedingly dull. Not that it was easy, but it didn't make much sense. It was easy and dull. Much later, when I became a science educator, I taught these subjects the way I thought they ought to be taught. At the time, I was mainly interested in other things. I took anthropology and philosophy, which I was quite interested in. And, I tested out of the required freshman writing program. I remember writing an essay on Ruskin, whom I'd never heard of. But, I could write about anything then. It wasn't until I began writing scientific papers that I really developed writer's cramp.
Did you find other students who were equally, would you say, iconoclastic in regards to the normal curriculum?
Harvard was full of people like me then. But, of course, people like me didn't socialize with people like me. There were just many others. I socialized with people in my House. I went immediately to a House, because the Yard, at that time, was taken over by the Navy.
Well, where were you living then?
I lived in Eliot House my first year. E-51, way up in a kind of garret, and right next door was the room where Norman Mailer had lived and he had left just as I arrived. Norman Mailer was famous at that time because he'd won the Story short story contest. Story magazine had an annual contest for best short story, maybe the best short story by a college student, and he'd won it. I tested out of the required expository writing course, so I took a chemistry course instead. I thought I should know some chemistry, and they had weekly quizzes. And the first weekly quiz I got a seventy percent, on the second, sixty-nine percent, and the third week, sixty-eight percent. So I transferred out of chemistry into English Composition.
Okay, the seventy, sixty-nine, sixty-eight — that was an indicator that you weren't interested in it, or you were? I mean, is that good or bad?
I thought, this stuff is even worse than physics. (Much later, at the suggestion of Dudley Hershbach, I developed and taught a two-semester chemistry-physics course, Chem 8/9, at Harvard. When I began to write the notes for it I hadn't ever taken a chemistry course or opened a chemistry textbook.) Anyway, I took this writing course. I began writing essays and stories. I had the same writing teacher as Norman Mailer. Halfway through the semester I picked up a story I'd written earlier and reread it, and halfway through I burst out laughing. It was so bad. I mean, I had some rudimentary taste by that time. I'd read a lot. So I knew that what I’d written was really, really bad. And I instantly abandoned my ambition to become a writer. I loved my philosophy course, with Raphael Demos and John Wild. That was my first year. Then I went off to join the Army.
Was everybody going or did you volunteer? Because you could have gotten a deferment.
Perhaps. My roommate Will Gaylin got into the Navy, stayed in the Yard, went to medical school, and became a psychiatrist. At that time you needed 20/20 uncorrected vision, which I did not have, to join the Navy. I'm not sure whether I would have or not. Anyway, I was drafted.
So, you were drafted? You did not have a deferment? Or, I guess there were no deferments?
I didn't ask for a deferment. I'm not sure if one year of college would have gotten me a deferment. But I was happy enough to go. So I spent the next two and a half years in the Signal Corp. I went through basic training, learning Morse code, and Japanese Morse code. When the European war ended we were at a port of embarkation for the European theater. So we were sent to the West Coast, to a port of embarkation for the Pacific theater. Somehow our company was mistaken for a unit returning from the Pacific Theater and sent to a rest camp in La Jolla, where I spent mornings playing tennis and afternoons on the beach — or maybe the other way around. By the time the mistake was discovered, Japan had surrendered. So we were sent to Virginia, where I became an instructor's instructor, teaching classes on radio intelligence control. I wrote the manual, because they didn’t have one. I probably made most of it up.
Radio intelligence control. This is an operations kind of a thing?
Yeah. I think the specialty was called Radio Intelligence Control Chief. I have no idea what it involved. I've washed it from my mind.
Where were you in Virginia?
Vint Hill Farms Station, near Warrenton, Virginia, a little south of D.C. I led a good life. The canteen for breakfast, read the Washington Post. It was a better paper then than it is now. Anyway, I'd do my teaching and writing. It was a soft life, and pleasant. I read the philosopher Henri Bergson while I was in the Army, but I didn't read any math or science.
And so, you figured, once you get out you'll go right back to Harvard, and you went back as a junior or as a senior? You had only been at Harvard for...
I had had three semesters. And I'm not sure what my status was when I came back but I finished up in three more semesters. And when I got back Bok sent me to see Menzel. Menzel leant me his copy of Condon and Shortley, The Theory of Atomic Spectra. That was one of his specialties. So, I read that and I began to be interested then in physics.
That was at a level that could interest you?
Yes. And I had the very good fortune to meet a physics lecturer named Herbert Jehle. He was a refugee, a Quaker, who was German-speaking and his English was not very good, and he was giving a course in mathematical physics and there was a conflict with some other course I had to take. And, he offered to give me lectures personally before he gave them, sort of help improve things. One on one.
So, he would practice on you?
Yes. That's what he told me.
That's great. I mean, but that gave you a wonderful insight?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Incredibly generous.
But, you were helping him too?
Well, to some extent, but how much help could that be? He later published an article applying quantum mechanics to the solar system. The planet orbits as Bohr orbits. I think it appeared in the Physical Review.
That's the old Saturnian model of Hantaro Nagaoka. Well no, wait a minute. These are quantized?
Quantized planetary orbits. Yes.
Okay. Did you find it fascinating at that time or was that later?
You know I never read that paper. I looked at it.
So then I was taking graduate physics, I didn't take any more undergraduate courses in physics. I took the graduate courses in quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and so forth, and some graduate math courses. And about that time I discovered Dirac’s great Principles of Quantum Mechanics. Our textbook in quantum mechanics was Wolfgang Pauli's article in the Handbuch der Physik. I believe he also wrote the article on relativity. Anyway, it wasn’t translated. We had the Ann Arbor German edition.
That was from the Ann Arbor summer school?
No. During the war Ann Arbor reprinted technical books in the original languages. Pauli's style was sort of rough going, even making allowances for my rudimentary German, it wasn't that smooth. Then I discovered Dirac. Widener Library’s copy had been lost or stolen, and you couldn't buy a copy. So, it occurred to me that it might be translated, and it was. It was translated into German and French, and I got the French edition, which I read, and just loved. He's a wonderful writer. That was the beginning of my love affair with Dirac’s work. I remember that the appendix in the French edition dealt with a technical topic that our professor had asked about, and he couldn't find a source for it. The appendix in the French translation of Dirac had a beautiful account of the topic, and I was very pleased to give him the reference. I took the third semester, relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as statistical mechanics, from Wendell Furry. He was a wonderful teacher.
You mentioned you were taking some courses from Menzel, and eventually Menzel asked you to teach?
Yeah, in my last semester as an undergraduate. I knew quantum mechanics well, and he asked me to teach. I remember that Lawrence Aller was in the class. I felt a little silly lecturing to him. Aller already has his degree at this point.
He was back at Harvard? This was a special course?
Yes. And why were they there? Maybe...
Was this the summer school by any chance?
You know, I don't remember.
So, you're taking physics, and are you thinking about graduate work?
Oh yeah. This was kind of a seamless transition. So, I went from there to graduate work.
And was there a question of astronomy or physics at that point?
Well, I was doing physics. I was doing quantum mechanics, and I wrote my thesis on atomic physics.
Was that with Menzel?
Yes. He took drafts of it to Julian Schwinger to show him. I finished up my undergraduate in the fall of '47, so I must have gone through summer school. I came back in '46 and took three semesters, and then went right into graduate school and finished up in June or July of 1950.
You gave a series of lectures on quantum theory in Menzel's graduate seminar?
And that was sort of the flavor of the place, in a sense?
In a listing of your publications that I put together from the ADS database, the first one listed in is 1951 The AJ, Patterns of Term Structure in Simple Spectra. Is that a result of your thesis or is that independent of your thesis?
Yes. That's a result. Right. Before that I published a paper on the philosophy of quantum mechanics. In the journal Philosophy of Science.
So, that certainly wouldn't have been in ADS. So, that was your first publication?
I think so. Yes.
Okay. How did you characterize then your state of mind then at this point, as to your self image, your view of life, what you wanted to do with yourself? Whether you wanted to get married, have a regular life?
Well, I did get married. In 1950 I don't think I looked very far ahead. There was a lot going on. I was newly married and after getting my degree I went to Michigan. I had applied for and been given an NRC postdoctoral fellowship, and that's where I met Leo Goldberg.
How did you come to choose Michigan?
Perhaps because Goldberg and Aller were there. I don't think I'd met Goldberg before, but, it would have been because of Goldberg. I didn't know very much about any place other than Harvard. In fact, I could have gone anywhere with the fellowship.
Is it something possible Donald Menzel had suggested?
Yes, I'm sure he would have suggested it.
Let's talk about how you met your wife and decided to get married.
She was a secretary to the Director of the Observatory, Harlow Shapley.
Now, this is a very interesting time at the Observatory. Would you say that you began spending most of your life at the observatory in '48, '49, '50? Or were you still very much based on campus?
Oh, certainly at the Observatory, yes.
The Harvard College Observatory at that time was not what you'd call monolithic. There were staff who had gone away to do war work and there were staff who stayed. And, I'm wondering if you remember those days, the atmosphere and the growing, you might say, schism between them?
Oh yes, very much so.
Well, describe it for me, as you would describe it in telling a story or something.
Well, it seemed as if there were fiefdoms. Each professor interacted very little with the others. Each had his own group and interest. Cecelia, the only senior woman, was pretty much off by herself. I remember when I came back from Berkeley and was on the other side of the student/teacher divide; I was probably the most outgoing person around. I mean I talked to more people. During '49-'50, Whipple was very much off on his own. He and Bok seemed to have little to say to each other.
At that time there was a renewed effort on the part of the Harvard Corporation and Conant to bring the Observatory administratively onto campus. There was also the, the rift between people who had gone to war, done war work, and that was primarily Menzel, Whipple, Stern, and people like that. Then there were the people who stayed and taught, Bok, Cecelia, people like that. There were people who were sort of in the middle who had come back, like Dorrit Hoffleit, less senior-level, non faculty. And then of course there was Shapley. And, Shapley was already making his great humanitarian effort and there was a lot of backlash to that with the Army-McCarthy hearings in the House. How aware were you of those kinds of tensions?
I was aware of the tensions, but people didn't gossip. It was very clear that each of the senior people was, in a sense, isolated. Probably Donald was the most gregarious of the lot. Bok wasn't speaking to Whipple.
Do you know what the rift was between Bok and Whipple?
I never understood or knew. Do you know?
There is some conjecture. There are some claims. There certainly were differences. At one level it was that Whipple was very much pro doing, as was Menzel, military support, for science. And, Shapley was very much against that, as was Bok. But then there was something deeper, and it seems as though Bok had a blind spot for apartheid in South Africa. And, even though he was a humanist, the possibility was that he sympathized, and that Whipple was appalled at this.
So Bok sympathized with apartheid, with the South African regime?
This is only a rumor, which I'd hate to spread. But, I'm trying to better understand if that was the case, because it centered on the Boyden Observatory in Bloemfontein.
Yes, of course.
How does that make sense to you? Because I need as much insight on this. It's so serious, you know, but it's so diffused.
After I became Menzel's student, Bok was rather standoffish with me, I think because I wasn't his student, he wasn't interested in me as a student any longer.
Well, Bok was doing stellar statistics, stellar systems, and you were clearly interested in things that dealt with quantum physics and stellar spectroscopy, and that sort of thing?
Yes, my interests were much narrower then. But, what I remember most about Bok was his passionate interest in the appearance of the sky. He just loved the night sky and how it changed when you went from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. He loved the southern sky. It just had an aesthetic appeal to him, and the night sky had none of that for me.
He loved the southern sky. He also loved the southern observatory that he was most wedded to, and one of the biggest rifts came when, with Shapley's retirement Menzel became acting director and closed the Boyden station, or at least divested Harvard of it. In a way he was forced to do that by the corporation, but by then there were many reasons for there to be rifts. But, what I'm most interested in is what preceded that. Because all of the problems that were going on get overwhelmingly obvious. But, let's stick with your history. You went to Michigan, and you had the NRC Fellowship? Who did you work with and did it change your view of what you were going to be doing in astronomy, or whether you were going to be an astronomer at all? I take it you must have worked with Goldberg and Aller then?
I didn't, actually. I worked very much on my own. I worked on doing calculations of atomic spectra. It was an astonishingly narrow interest.
By 1954, at least, you were on energy levels in highly-ionized calcium, and in the same time you wrote a paper, Is the Origin of the Solar System Connected With the Overall Structure of the Universe? And, you were moving back and forth with philosophical questions, because you also had in the AJ a very interesting article on the Significance of Newtonian Cosmology?
Oh yes, that was very important in my career. I was trying to remember when I read Struve's book called Stellar Evolution, whether that was in Michigan or soon after I got to Berkeley. I think it was in Michigan.
That was 1951, approximately, that book came out.
I think I read it then. That book awakened my interest in astronomy, I have to say. In fact, this was a bone of contention between Shapley and Menzel at my oral exam. I knew nothing about astronomy. But luckily, Henry Norris Russell had come from Princeton to attend the exam. And Shapley had been his student as well. Russell was interested in spectroscopy and the theory of atomic structure and spectra, which was what my thesis was about.
Well, he was fascinated with spectra, and with energy-level diagrams and working them out as puzzles.
Yes. And when I couldn't answer a question that he asked, he would turn to Shapley and ask it and Shapley did not appreciate that. He did not succeed to concealing his discomfort at the way things were going.
This is fascinating. So, he was sticking it to Shapley, basically?
Well, he'd ask Donald questions, too. Donald was in some ways a vain man, but that didn't bother him at all.
He probably had the answer?
Sometimes. But his ego wasn’t bound up with being able to answer every question someone asked him. You know, a lot of the time he deferred to me when I was his student. Not in terms of administrative or political, or anything else like that. No question about that. But from the beginning, when I knew very, very little, he treated me as an equal when we talked about science.
Well Donald Menzel was comfortable with the Condon and Shortley level. He introduced you to that. And I think he collaborated with Shortley, at least to some point. Russell appreciated all of this very highly, but remained more of a classical sort of a fellow. But, Shapley, who was Russell's first student, never worked to Russell's satisfaction in spectroscopy. You know Menzel was also Russell's student?
Yes. So, there they were, these two students, and I remember Russell asked, "Why is there so little analysis of the spectrum of scandium?" And he asked Donald, as I didn't know, of course. And, Donald humorously said, "Oh, I don't know," kind of smiling, his way. And he asked Shapley and Shapley was very annoyed. And, Russell's said "Because they can't get any of it."
That's right. That was, scandium was a big deal. I know that Charlotte Moore-Sitterly, was Russell's long-term associate, He was constantly pushing, in an integrated way, nationally, getting different laboratories, like Harrison, Michigan, and all of these spectroscopic laboratories to try to fill in stuff. This was a very poignant time and I think he was getting pretty annoyed by the late '40s, and that's fascinating. But that he would stick it to Shapley, I think, is wonderful. Now, you actually collaborated with Gerhard Hertzberg at some point, didn't you not?
No. I didn't.
Okay. I'll have to go back and look. I may be getting you mixed up.
Yeah, I knew his work, of course, but I didn't work with him.
Well, how did you go from then Michigan to Berkeley?
Well, reading Struve's book. I was very interested in astronomy. And, I was just fascinated.
Now, Struve wasn't the only one publishing in stellar evolution at that time, at the popular level at least. Cecelia had one on the lives of the stars as well?
Yeah, what was it about Struves' book that fascinated you?
What fascinated me was the statistics of double stars. And, the statistic I found especially interesting was that something like half the stars in our solar neighborhood are known to be are members of binaries. Struve mentions some of the theories, how doubles could have been created. And, none of them are satisfactory. I tried to read up on that.
Equating the spectroscopic characteristics to their dynamics, to this, to that?
Yeah. So, all of that was interesting to me, but the really fascinating thing was the problem of the origin of double stars. The collision theory wouldn't work, and Ambartsumian had a capture theory and that didn't work. By that time I'd heard about the expansion of the universe. I don't think I would have read about it, but maybe somebody dropped a remark about it.
Even under Shapley at Harvard? Boy, that's interesting.
My interests were very narrow at the time. So, I thought, "Well, binaries could have been formed early on when the universe was much denser, because if the stars formed early they would have been close together and it would have been very easy, as the universe expanded, for doubles to be left behind. Then I thought, "Well that could account for the origin of the solar system." I presented a paper...
You mean on an Encounter Theory hypothesis? In other words, the Chamberlain Molten, the idea that if the Universe was smaller, collisions would be more frequent?
Yes, but not really collisions. It was more that as the early more or less homogenous universe expanded, it was a clustering. It was a theory of successive gravitational clusterings.
That is the 1954 AJ, and the title of the paper is, Is the Origin of the Solar System Connected With the Overall Structure of the Universe?
Then I think I gave a report on it in '51 or '52. I've seen the New York Times story on that by Charlie Federer. I remember I was visiting my then in-laws in New Jersey but I think the meeting may have been at Princeton. So, there's a fairly accurate account of my talk in the New York Times.
You're moving to Berkeley. You're fascinated with this question of the origin of the Solar System. There was another element to Struve's work and that was the change in the rotation rate of stars at around F5? Was this an element of fascination for you too, as well?
Not then. Actually everything about that book fascinated me. I don't know why.
Had you read Russell, Dugan, and Stewart by any chance?
Yes. I loved that book.
And you knew who Russell was then.
Yes. I may have even read his book on two solar families. I admired Russell very much.
Well, what did you do at Berkeley?
I'd gone to Berkeley because Louis Henyey had gone to Princeton to work on Project Matterhorn, so they needed someone to teach astrophysics. So I developed two new courses, which to my astonishment, stayed in the course catalog for some years. I don't think they're there any more.
What were they?
One was Stellar Atmospheres, and the other was, I think, Introduction to Astrophysics. It was a very small faculty. I loved Berkeley. At that time they were housed in these little houses on a hill.
Leuschner Observatory. That's right. And covered with wisteria and people used to say that the wisteria kept the buildings up, or something like that. Was there that sort of feeling about it?
They're little huts, and it was very homelike. I enjoyed teaching. I liked the graduate students. I liked my colleagues and I went to the faculty club every day for lunch and got to know a good fraction of the faculty. This was my outgoing period.
What about your relationship with Struve?
Oh, we had a wonderful relationship. He was a grand old man, very friendly and human.
Struve was campaigning during this time, I'd say you're talking 1952 to '54-'55. He was very worried about who speaks for astronomy. And, this was during a period when he wasn't as radically against federal funding in astronomy as Shapley was, until Shapley realized that actually it was working out pretty well. But, Struve was very concerned and I'm wondering if this was something you were aware of at all?
I had no idea. You know, at that time there was a much bigger gulf between senior and junior faculty than there is now.
Well, it was just a sense as to what the relationship was. You were a pure theorist?
Pure as the driven snow.
He wasn't so much campaigning as much as Shapley was. The question there was who was in control among astronomers. That was the issue. It was really the question of the traditional observatory directors as opposed to these new organizations that were doing astronomy, such as radio. This is before space. But this was physics, radio, the question of national facilities. He was very concerned about the health of astronomy as he knew it.
When did NRAO get started?
About this time. Meetings were beginning to be held not only for national radio facilities, but also for optical facilities in the guise of a photoelectric observatory that Leo Goldberg was championing, and math, and all of that was at Michigan.
So you, but you enjoyed Berkeley?
I loved Berkeley. The Astronomy Department had a very good library and it was there that I found Henri Poincaré’s Leçons sur les Hypothèses Cosmogoniques. It was a bit out of date, but I devoured it.
That discussed issues about rotating fingers of equilibrium? And...
In fact it did. Also, I remember the hypothesis of T. J. J. See was given a lot of space. It had a whole chapter.
Oh really? I didn't know that. Okay.
That's astonishing, isn't it?
Yeah. Now, there was a certain mathematical elegance here in Poincare’s work that, of course, there was a question as to whether his version of the math fission mechanism were George Darwin's form efficient. And Russell was, to a certain extent, interested in that, and a number of people. Was Struve actually interested in that?
Not that I remember. Struve took a very benevolent interest in the people on his staff. So he was very supportive. I mean, very different from Shapley, who was somewhat hostile.
Shapley was hostile to you?
Not, I think personally. But he made it clear that he didn’t think what I was doing counted as astronomy. Of course he was right.
Oh, expand on that.
My interests were very narrowly focused, and Shapley believed that general knowledge of astronomy was very important. At that time they had qualifying examinations for doctoral candidates, and each senior faculty member contributed a question. I very nearly didn't pass them because I couldn't ever answer Shapley's questions.
This was 1950?
Yeah, '49 and '50.
This was a, this was a very sensitive time for Shapley because he was being forced to retire.
Oh really? He was forced to?
There was the pro forma period of time, but they were all on appeal. It was not uncommon for people to be extended a year or two, or a few years, especially as a director or a major player. But Conant showed him no sympathy.
His interests were very specific and didn't extend to astrophysics. They certainly didn't extend to Hubbell.
Certainly not. But you, you were somewhat aware of that then?
Oh yes. He really did not like the fact that somebody with my interests and scant knowledge of astronomy was getting a PhD from the Harvard College Observatory. Of course, it was the Department of Astronomy. But that didn’t make it much better in his eyes.
Okay, well let's just go back to Berkeley. And, you say Struve was very different?
He was very supportive. In every way. And, we visited the Lick Observatory, and had picnics…
Did visiting Lick interest you at all in observational studies?
Not in actually doing them. Observation didn't interest me at all. I remember when I visited the McDonald Observatory and Gerard Kuiper gave me a personal tour of the heavens, that was the first time I'd ever looked at the night sky through a large telescope, and that was very exciting. Especially seeing Saturn’s rings.
When did you first look through the McDonald telescope?
It must have been around that time, maybe a little later.
Okay. And of course, if Struve had been director at Texas, and McDonald, of course, was an arm of Texas very much so. Was there a connection there through Struve that you went to McDonald?
No, I wasn't aware that he'd been director at McDonald.
So, what were your years at Berkeley?
Well, at Berkeley the main thing was that I became interested in cosmology and I began to read up on general relativity and cosmology.
You said this was a period of time when you were very outgoing?
And how would you characterize that? What was going on?
The department was a very happy department. We all visited each other. I usually had lunch at the Faculty Club and Berkeley was very friendly, very different from Harvard. And, I would have happily stayed there if I'd been offered a position. I was happy teaching, I taught graduate courses, but I didn't have any graduate students of my own. I couldn’t have. I was just there for a year replacing Louis Henyey.
Oh, so that was a temporary position?
You were not tenure track?
No. I was just subbing for Henyey.
And when he came back I took his place at Princeton, working for John Wheeler.
So, that was the Wheeler side of Matterhorn, not the Spitzer side?
Yes, that's right.
Was that something that fascinated you at the time? Is it something you can talk about?
By that time I'd read Wheeler's work and I just jumped at the opportunity to work under him. I wasn't disappointed in that respect at all.
What were your duties there, particularly, or did you have duties?
I didn't have duties, but he set me two problems. One was the problem of Taylor instability. Taylor instability is the instability of superposed fluids. It's where the top fluid is heavier than the bottom fluid, so there's an unstable equilibrium, as between fresh water and salt water. The first-order theory perturbation theory of the instability is elementary. And, there was also a theory of the final quasi-steady stage when you get bubbles of the lighter fluid rising and the heavy fluid running down the sides of the bubbles. So those, two solutions were known. And, Fermi had worked for a while on the problem of completing the solution. I don't think he'd spent much time on it, probably half an hour. But, he published a very crude approximation. So, I worked out an approximate theory of the whole process. That got published in the APJ, because it turned out to relate to interstellar structures that Spitzer had identified as being examples of this kind of instability. My paper is called, The Instability of Superposed Fluids in a Gravitational Field. It was published in 1955.
Now, does that imply that you had contact with Spitzer there?
I didn't. I never saw him. But he and Martin Schwartzschild did offer me a place there, a postdoctoral fellowship. But, I would have had to work on problems of their choosing. I didn’t want to do that, so I didn’t accept their offer.
Well, what were your options? You were married?
Yes. I came back to Harvard.
And, you must have had kids by then?
Yes. We had two children.
You ended up having at least four or five children, six?
Jean and I have four children.
Yeah. Because, I looked at Judy's book.
Yes. She's doing great at MIT.
That’s great. Is she your oldest or youngest?
She’s the second oldest of the four of Jean and my children.
So, the other problem that John Wheeler assigned me...
This was a very specific project?
But there, but some people certainly must have had more freedom than others?
Yes. Well, I felt I had complete freedom. Occasionally John would come and see me and we'd take a long walk and he had a wonderful way of conducting these talks. He would say, "I'm very stupid. I don't understand. Could you explain?" He always said that, but he said it in a very sincere way. I knew that he was lying, of course.
That's very interesting, because there's one other person I've encountered who's done that, and that's Martin Schwartzschild.
I've seen him in the early 1960s stand up in various meetings saying, "I must be very stupid, but I can't, can you please explain something?"
I wonder whether it's coincidence or whether one...
Immediately wonder. So you would have interacted with Wheeler in the mid '50s then?
'52, '53. The other problem Wheeler set me was flame propagation. I wrote a paper called, I think, On a Linear Theory of Flame Propagation. It was published in the Journal of Chemical Physics. And, when I came to Harvard one of the professors, George Carrier, had been interested in this topic and came knocking on my door to talk about it. I was very flattered. That was my last involvement with flames. My security clearance never did come through, so I never got to work on classified problems. The reason it never came through was that there were three suspicious items in my FBI file. One was my association with Shapley. The other was my association with Bart Bok. They wanted to know whether I approved of their activities.
Such as they were, supposedly?
Right. And the third was that while I was at Berkeley, Paul Robeson had been given permission by the city council to give a concert and some people organized a petition drive to have the permission revoked, and one of the people with a copy of the petition came to call on me, and I declined to sign it. I guess she turned my name in to the FBI. So when the FBI interviewed me, they wanted to know why I had declined to sign the petition.
Isn't it interesting?
Interesting? That's outrageous.
Well, even then I felt outraged. So, I didn't, I didn't get the Secret clearance that I needed. It wasn't clear what I really needed it for anyway. I was working at a level of theory that wasn't very specific to work on hydrogen bombs.
So, you had essentially a postdoctoral position but, if not assigned, these problems were suggested?
They were assigned.
But, you were working without the benefit of secret clearance?
Was there a question that you would stay there?
No. I could have stayed in Princeton. As I said I was offered another postdoctoral fellowship with Spitzer and Schwarzschild I also had an offer from Edward Teller to go to Livermore.
Did you seek these out or did they simply show up?
They showed up.
Actually, I've never applied for a job in my life.
That isn't true. The summer before I went to Harvard I applied for a job at the Warner and Swasey factory in Cleveland. They made machine tools. And, I got it and I worked all summer at that. That was fun. But, Wheeler decided he was just going to give up Matterhorn and it ended in the middle of March, April, something like that. And he had invited me to a dinner party where Teller was visiting and Teller offered me a job. But, Teller and I got into a little shouting match, which I'm certain I didn't provoke. But Teller was a kind of thorny person.
Yeah. Do you remember what the subject was?
I don't. I've racked my brain. I don't, I must have suppressed that. It certainly wasn't personal.
Did it have something to do with the H-Bomb.
I'm almost certain not. Because, I don't think I even knew that this was an H-Bomb related project. I didn't know what Livermore was.
Without a clearance. Oh, Livermore? Well, what about Oppenheimer and the hearings, and all of that that was going on?
Yeah. It might have been something to do with that, but I wasn't very political then. I wouldn't have been very politically aware. Conceivably, I can't think how I could have done that — got into a shouting match with Teller — in my position, in Wheeler's home.
Well, you didn't go on with Teller?
No, that never tempted me.
How did you get back to Harvard?
Well, Menzel asked me to come back as a research associate. This is ’53. I’d spent a year in Michigan, a year at Berkeley and, and eight or nine months at Princeton. Then I came back.
So, this is before Smithsonian came to Harvard, and also it's before Menzel was permanent director?
This was actually quite a difficult time. Were you aware of any of what was going on?
No. I was aware of a coolness in the air, between the principals.
There were staff petitions against some of the things Menzel was doing. It may have occurred just before you got back. It's hard to say. The divestiture of Boyden that Bok vehemently. And then the removal of the AAVSO from Harvard. That was taking place in '53, '54. The regularization, you might say, of the library as part of Widener, and the culling of the plate stacks. Were you aware of any of that going on?
I was certainly aware of the library, but I didn't realize it was controversial.
It was, to some people, very much so. You see Shapley had a collection of rare book that got literally removed back to Widener. There were a number of people who considered that, and this was Dorrit Hoffleit, that these were Shapley's books. And this was just a way to erase Shapley.
AAVSO. Of course, I knew Leon Campbell. I remember that they relocated down the street. That was controversial?
Yes, it was, among a certain faction of the Observatory that was very much oriented toward the old bureau structure that Shapley had built, that was really a legacy of Pickering. Within this bureau structure the AAVSO was very important to the Variable Star Bureau, the Middleton Bureau. And, it was the closing of the bureau and the removal of the AAVSO that was very emotional. But, my question is, how generally was this emotion shared?
In a general way I was aware of the conflict between the old sort of 19th Century kind of astronomy and Menzel's more forward-looking kind of astronomy. Of course Menzel was interested in spectra, specifically atomic spectra. That's why I never got to really make contact with Hertzberg, because Menzel's interest didn't extend to molecules. His other great thing was solar physics. And so I eventually became interested in magnetohydrodynamics and solar physics as well. I was aware of that conflict. Dorrit Hoffleit is a very sweet person. I was fond of her, but that kind of astronomy, and especially Shapley's whole way of doing astronomy with a bevy of women to do the heavy lifting was, it seemed to me, almost medieval, never mind not up to the 1950 minute.
Did you perceive anything about Harvard's status in astronomy, where it was in relationship to Berkeley, to Princeton, to Chicago?
I didn't really. Chicago, of course, with Chandra was sort of a luminous place. But, I didn't have much of a feeling for that, interestingly. I went to all the meetings. I went to international meetings, and then of course Princeton, with Spitzer and Schwartzschild, was outstanding.
But, the perception was, by a particular blue-ribbon committee that was looking at the future of the Harvard Observatory, that Harvard had slipped quite a bit.
Now, you had gone back to Harvard and I'm just curious if you were aware of that?
No. I wasn't, because I was focused on my own research, and I guess I began to focus on teaching, as I had done at Berkeley, and I enjoyed that. I had no interest in associating with the most luminous figures in theoretical astrophysics, or being at the most prestigious place.
So that was not an issue for you?
Not at all.
Placing you back at Harvard in a time when Menzel became director as of '54. But then, within a year the Smithsonian shows up? Now, I've not found your name in anything regarding the negotiations with Smithsonian. And so, I'd be curious, as someone who is a member and I take it you were a faculty member at Harvard?
Junior faculty member.
You were junior faculty, you had an appointment at Harvard, and you see the Smithsonian coming in. Did you have any thoughts or any feelings about it at the time?
At that time, it was Whipple's thing. It was, in my mind, associated completely with Whipple. Everybody had a little empire, except Fred Whipple, and it seemed to me that he was about to acquire one, and I think Menzel was supportive of that. Of course, it wasn't like that at all. I understand that now. I certainly wasn't aware of any negotiations. I was much too low on the totem pole to have been consulted, or informed, or hear any discussions about that. So, I didn't know what issues there were.
So, you weren't aware of how Bok reacted to it?
I'm not even sure that it was negative, but I would assume so because Bok and Whipple were at loggerheads.
Yeah. Bok was furious. But, I'm taking it from your reaction that this was not generally known broadly in the whole department?
It must have been. The mutual animosity of Bok and Whipple was not even an open secret. It was very open.
And very clear. Yeah.
Any idea where the other senior staff resided within this animosity, like Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin?
She would have been an ally of Donald's, but she was very much isolated, all on her own. It was a great shock to come back to Harvard after Berkeley or even Princeton and the groups I belonged to there. It was very uncollegial.
Did you think you would maybe look elsewhere?
And why was that?
Because, it didn't have very much effect on my day-to-day life. I did research that I wanted to do. I taught the courses that I wanted to teach. I had excellent students.
But there is an issue that, as it develops. And, we can move sort of into the late '50s, into the '60s here. Smithsonian is building up and it's getting huge, and there was a question of who was going to be teaching all the courses. And, you were always listed as somebody who was teaching, you and Dalgarno, and a few others. But, but there were plenty of people who weren't teaching.
Yeah. That's right.
And, how is it that you saw teaching as part of your duties whereas others did not? Did you have differences with people?
Yeah. You know, I always had this view of graduate education as being a collegial thing where graduate students were junior colleagues and they were the analogs as apprentices to skilled artisans or skilled workmen. You taught them to do the kinds of things that you could do. For instance, Donald, though he wasn't much help with the science, was very keen on writing and he loved to give little talks about things like dangling participles. He was very keen on writing; he'd written Popular Science articles. I liked having contact with students. Not many people were teaching. There were these courses to be taught and since there was so little interest in it I could shape the curriculum to my liking.
And was it particularly enjoyable to teach Harvard students?
Did you teach undergraduate as well as graduate?
I'm not sure when I began to teach undergraduates. I think I began just with graduate courses and graduate research students. But I did give undergraduate courses, a course in Probability Theory in the Natural Sciences.
I had the impression that some of these courses that you gave, and I looked at a few of the titles, had a stronger philosophical element to them, a broader element? A synthetic element, so to speak.
When I began to teach after coming back from a sabbatical in Sweden that kind of wakened my social conscience.
When was that?
We were there in '68-'69.
I didn't know that part.
That arose from the paper you mentioned on Newtonian Cosmology, in the early '50s, I'd had learned a little relativity and cosmology, and I noticed that some people, Otto Heckmann and others, were writing about something they called "Newtonian Cosmology." It seemed to me that there were some basic mistakes in what they were arguing. So, I wrote a paper to the effect that what they were arguing was that Newton's theory, or a natural extension of his theory, could explain the cosmic expansion. And, I believe that was mistaken and I argued about that.
That was 1954, the AJ, Volume 59. You also wrote on it in 1956, in The Observatory, on Newtonian cosmology.
So, that led to my meeting Herman Bondi, who read the paper and liked it. And Oskar Klein also read it and invited me to come to Sweden for the sabbatical. He let me use his office in the department of theoretical physics. That was a wonderful group of theoretical physics at Stockholm University.
You continued on with a good number of articles, from Why is the Sky Dark at Night? In Nature, the Significance of the Cosmological Energy Equation, and Z Expansion.
Z Expansion is back to atomic physics.
That's by the late '60s again and you suggest a unified approach to cosmology in '67, and you were still working in atomic physics but you are also doing cosmology, in Blackbody Radiation in the Cold Universe, Cosmogonic Processes by the early '70s, and Cosmology in the Arrow of Time. So, you have a broad range of interests but you have several different threads going on, because you have this wonderful, Towards an elementary theory of the periodic table, by 1971. Right in between working on Cosmology and the Arrow of Time. You were interested in the microwave background at this time, and you had contributed to the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics in a number of different ways. So, what was going on and how did you see your role in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology evolving during this period of time?
I didn't think I had a role. I simply read and wrote what interested me.
So, this was all still very much based upon the direction of your own interests? You weren't looking at the community and seeing what had to be done?
What about looking at Harvard and how Harvard was changing. How much attention did you pay through the late '50s and early '60s to the fact that Smithsonian was growing so large?
Well, you couldn't help noticing that it was growing large. In the beginning it was very much an extension of Fred Whipple's interests — small bodies in the solar system, 19th Century stuff. I thought the number of people and the size of the budgets devoted to calculating orbits and tracking satellites was, well, inappropriate. I wasn't strongly opposed because I didn't see that it did any harm, but it certainly didn't seem to me of much benefit to the instruction or research program.
Leo Goldberg became quite worried about that in the late '60s, and you did take your sabbatical in Sweden, but it was at a time when Leo and Fred were definitely at odds. I don't quite want to get there yet. Donald Menzel continued as chair of the department through the early '60s and though there began to be problems building up very large programs on both the Harvard side and the Smithsonian side. The Smithsonian was building up these huge projects, Celescope and the tracking that you mentioned and all of that, but there was also the question of "What was Harvard going to do in the way of observational astrophysics?" Donald Menzel had a number of projects that were apparently not supported by the faculty.
Right. Sac Peak.
Yeah. What was going on there?
I spent some time there. I visited it. It was a thriving solar observatory.
You were certainly growing, assuming a senior position on the Harvard faculty, and I'm wondering how you reacted to the various proposals that Donald Menzel had for supporting and building up Sac Peak, and other things of that sort?
To me Sac Peak was a fact of life. It was being built up but it never occurred to me to question it. It seemed to me important astronomical research, which I didn't feel about Celescope and tracking, and so forth.
Now, a very important change, of course, came with Leo Goldberg. Were you involved at all in bringing him to Harvard? This would have been '60-'61.
No. Leo became a very close friend. I was involved in bringing Alex Dalgarno to Harvard. He came to see me about papers that I had written, and we became very friendly. I was already friendly with Leo, so that all came together. It was Leo's idea as well as mine to invite Alex. And, of course, Leo would have had the power to put Alex's name forward for an appointment.
Through the '60s Leo started worrying that more and more Smithsonian staff were engaged in teaching and that fewer and fewer Harvard faculty were.
I remember that. Yes.
There was a very definite problem with the fact that Harvard College Observatory had an oversight committee, but the Smithsonian did not. And, I'm very curious about how you participated or how your concerns for this kind of growing rift, whether you shared Leo's views?
I certainly shared his views. I think we agreed on virtually everything. But, even though we were close it's not something Leo talked about much. Leo was the most gifted administrator that I've ever had any personal contact with.
Well, what was his gift? How would you describe his gift?
It's hard to describe. For one thing, he was always perfectly honest and above-board. But, most people who are honest and above-board about what they want and would like to see tend to put people off. But Leo had a way of making people spontaneously want to go along with him. He didn't seem to be directing, but in fact he was. He was sort of directing forces by slightly influencing their direction, little by little. He was also very conciliatory. He wanted to avoid conflict within the organization. Of course, when he came it was full of conflict, nothing but conflict. He managed to create and maintain a kind of equilibrium. He was never outspoken, never extreme in his stated views, but you knew that he had views and values.
Were others very outspoken and extreme?
Well, in retrospect Leo didn't sulk, or pout, or go off to his room. He acted like a grown-up, and that was something new. Menzel, of course, was a grown-up too.
What about Whipple?
Whipple was a very withdrawn man. I found it astonishing that he had the interest or the ambition to create a little empire. So far as I could observe, he had no rapport with people whatever. Babby humanized him to a great extent.
That's a very significant and poignant observation. She is a remarkable person, and so was Fred, I appreciate your perspective, it's very helpful to me. What were the big issues, though? Can you identify them when Goldberg showed up? Because, I've had the impression that the problem started when Leo showed up, because Menzel and Whipple were very close and they worked very well together, but there also seemed to be a problem between Menzel and the staff, keeping the staff either in line or more in agreement with the projects that had to be done.
By "staff" do you mean the other faculty members?
Other faculty members, yeah. That would include you.
What, what was going on?
Shapley instituted something called the Council.
That's what I'm thinking of, the Observatory Council.
And, we had regular meetings. I don't think that the really important matters were settled through discussion at Council meetings. And that was, of course, another way in which Leo's tenure differed from the others. There he would bring up important issues and they would be discussed and a consensus would be arrived at.
Right, but that really didn't start until 1966 when he took over?
Did things really change a lot when he took over like that?
Well, it was just a pleasanter place. Although, Donald was director then, before Leo.
But Donald had had a heart attack and there was question as to what brought the heart attack on. Any sense there?
I thought it was an aneurysm?
Yeah. Physically. But emotionally there was some sense that, problems with the...
It's true that he was very stressed. Of course, I was close to him. My wife Jean and I were over there all the time and we were close to him and Florence. He was stressed but as I mentioned he wouldn't have really confided to me about what was bothering him. I could certainly tell that he was under stress, as opposed to Leo who must have had much the same problems to deal with but didn't ever appear stressed.
He was a younger man and he had many other options.
Even though he was a Harvard trained person and very devoted to Menzel, he had many, many other options and he knew it. Well, okay, 1966 Leo takes over. As you say, the atmosphere changed. How did you come to go to Sweden? What was that? That was your first sabbatical?
As I say, Oscar Klein, who was one of the leading theoretical physicists in the first half of the 20th Century, read one or more of my papers and he said, "Why don't you come to Sweden for a year?" I hadn't had a sabbatical, so I said, "Fine." So we packed up the family and four small children and we went to Sweden. It was a wonderful year.
You were there for a full year?
When you got there and you were working with Klein and others, but you were gone from Harvard after being at Harvard, I'd love to know how you felt about the change in atmosphere?
I was aware of the atmosphere, but it didn't weigh heavily on me, I have to say. I was, of course, always on the best of terms with, with Menzel, and of course, with Goldberg, both close friends.
When did you get back then from Sweden?
Fall of '69.
Starting in 1970, things were really starting to get very tense on a number of levels, and one of the things that was happening and I'm not even sure very many Harvard people even knew about it was that the Smithsonian was being audited by the OMB [Office of Management and Budget].
I didn't know about it.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory by late '70, the general feeling was that "the SAO has engaged in 'unstructured' growth."
Yup. I think that's fair.
It grew hugely on NASA funding, but by the late 1960s, with NASA cutbacks, it was beginning to cost the Smithsonian dearly. And so, the question arose, "Is SAO needed?" All right? Did you have any awareness of this or any role to play?
No. I didn't know it was ever in that much trouble.
What I am beginning to realize is that it came from the central Smithsonian, not from Harvard. But, I am still trying to straighten that out. But, that's something that was beyond and independent of the other.
Things went very smoothly. And, the quality of the research that was being done and the quality of the people doing it improved gradually, and monotonically.
That was your feeling about the Smithsonian? Through the late '60s then?
Yes, from the outset.
What was the cause for that?
Partly it was because Menzel, and especially Goldberg, were using the Smithsonian as a resource. So, for instance, Alex was brought in with the Smithsonian, paying his salary. And, other good people, Gursky...
Well, did Gursky come that early? I'm not sure. You could be right. I'm sure, obviously you're right.
Well, yeah, that was later. And, who's his partner?
Oh, well, Ricardo.
Riccardo Giacconi. So there were people and many others. John Huchra, Margaret Geller, who were first-rate scientists and they were being supported by the Smithsonian. That was what the Smithsonian ought to have been and was doing. Because as a department we were very tiny, with very few resources. And the alternative would have been, which some people but not many might have preferred, to have a joint physics and astronomy department as some younger universities have done.
Was there actual talk of the Harvard College Observatory and the Department of Astronomy expanding its scope within Harvard to bring in the Physics Department and others, and to make it stronger? Did Leo ever talk about that to you?
I think there was some talk about it.
It never happened. That's true.
I don't think there was ever any concrete proposals along those lines.
Right. I'm going to jump a little more into the future, 1970, on almost the last day in December you wrote a very long letter to Dean, John Dunlap, and I'm going to give you that letter.
I don't remember writing such a letter.
I'm going to ask you if you would be so kind as to have a look at this letter. I'm giving you your own writing, so to speak, from many years ago. I'm going to take a break, and give you a few minutes to read that.
Just, just for the recording, I've given you a copy of a letter that you wrote to Dean Dunlap, who was, of course, very much involved in the issues between Harvard College Observatory, i.e., Leo, and the Smithsonian, in other words, Fred. I found your letter — there were a number of people who wrote, and I found your letter one of the most powerful indictments, and I would like very much to get your thoughts about it. I mean, we could go through it, or just give you the chance to read it and refresh your memory?
Yes. I'd forgotten that Bok founded the first radio astronomy program. Oh yes. Talking about Bok's resignation in the late '50s. Yes, I remember that we had one applicant. A straight C student from the University of Oklahoma.
Yeah, that one was really quite surprising.
[Yes, Tommy Gold was a close friend of mine, as well.
This is not hearsay about the reason that Gold left for Cornell.
So, you were saying that, based on direct discussion with Tommy
Okay. That's helpful to know.
Oh yes. Which Tommy described it as a "huge digestive apparatus, indiscriminately gobbling up large contracts and excreting small ones." That's Tommy all over.
But was that an accurate description of what was going on?
I think so. Yeah. It's an uncharitable description.
Uncharitable, but accurate?
But accurate, yes.
Do you still feel that's a fair statement or again uncharitable?
Yes, both. "Publicity men", it would now be, "PR persons." I wasn't using the serial comma in those days. A little self-serving here.
Where is that?
This small group of faculty trying to, how did I put it, "begun the task of building up a graduate and undergraduate curriculum of comparable quality to that of other science departments in the university, a standard Harvard's Astronomy Department had never before aspired to."
You feel that sort of a self-serving statement? On your part?
Yeah. But it's true. We did aspire to that and it's true that the observatory was a 19th Century institution. Shapley never gave a graduate or undergraduate course until he retired, when he gave something called "cosmography." I don't even know whether Shapley ever supervised a graduate student. He must have done.
Yeah, I'm not sure off hand.
I remember how enthusiastic Bok was over the advent of radio astronomy, because of the, the twenty-one centimeter work. So he and Doc Ewing, as he used to call him, it was just a great time for him.
Now, your depiction of how Bok was treated here is very pointed. Do you have any further thoughts on it?
No. I'm really happy to reread those. It's, I think it's very accurate. This all comes back.
That's what I need to know. That's very helpful.
I know that the quality was comparable to the Physics Department because I had several physics graduate students and several astronomy, graduate students, and we were just a small number. It was Alex, and I, and Leo, taking care of all the theory students. The Physics Department had more than they could handle and some of the more adventuresome and very good ones came over to us. So, I must have been aware of our low national rating.
That was, of course, uppermost in Leo's mind?
Right. And we did turn out the people who went on to have very distinguished careers.
Can you share who you feel has been most successful?
Well there were, the radio astronomy people, Campbell Wade, for instance. And, let's see, and M.K. Vainu Bappu who went back to India, I think. David Heeschen These were Bok's students. I had several very good students. John Bahcall went on to the Institute for Advanced Study and became a permanent member.
And he was, was he your student in the '60s?
Yes. And, one of my first students was Carlos Varsovsky, he became director of the National Observatory of Argentina. Paul Blanchard, Tony Burke, who's a professor at Victoria in British Columbia. John Burke is a professor at one of the California colleges. Holly Doyle. I wasn't the only person who had graduate students. I just knew mine somewhat better. That list is more than a little bit prejudiced.
I was thinking of your students particularly.
I want you to finish and then we can, we can talk about it.
Oh. I didn't realize I'd written two letters. They're more political than I'm painting myself.
Where are you referring to now? This is on page three?
Two items written to Franklin Ford early in '66 that you wrote. I haven't seen that by the way. These refer to the pluralistic structure of the observatory and the pressing need for reform, and they urge the appointment of Leo as chairman and director. That could be the very first instance that they had to be combined.
This came from the Harvard Archives, in fact, in Leo Goldberg's papers. I had to find them in the non administrative records because the administrative records are closed. These are in Leo's personal papers, which are open. Oh, yeah, what are you responding to there?
"For the first time in my twenty-seven-year-long acquaintance with the Observatory, all the professors are permanently on speaking terms with one another."
This is all the professors within the Department of Astronomy at Harvard? Wouldn’t that include Whipple?
Yes, of course.
As I mentioned, we were often entertained by him. We had the Whipple's over. I especially remember one New Year's Eve at our house that Fred and Babby attended. Fred was in high spirits. This probably is the part that's most interesting, to you, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Page four. [Reading] "The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is not like other government laboratories I'm acquainted with. These have a hierarchical structure with scientists of progressively greater stature and experience occupying positions of corresponding to wider authority and responsibility. Heads of divisions have autonomy within well-defined limits. The head of the laboratory prepares, in cooperation with the division heads forming its long-range policy, makes final decisions on the allocation of resources among the divisions, and hires and fires the division heads. He, in turn, is accountable to higher authority for the performance and morale of his laboratory. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory departs radically from this pattern." "Model," I should have said. "Authority for the planning and supervising of research, in particular areas, is not delegated to senior scientists. In fact, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, with an annual operating budget of around $7 million," gee, "has only one full-time scientist of professional standing, Alex Dalgarno. Dalgarno, like Goldberg when he held a Smithsonian appointment, has never been consulted by the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on a matter of Smithsonian policy, although both he and Goldberg have had conspicuously successful administrative as well as scientific experience in important areas where Smithsonian's performance is notably deficient. Who then formulates Smithsonian's scientific policies and programs? Does it, in fact, have any? Only Fred Whipple knows the answer to these questions." Goodness, that’s very sharp. "It would serve no purpose to elaborate on Smithsonian's shortcomings. What is relevant here is not how the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is administrated, but that the Harvard-Smithsonian relationship weakens rather than strengthens Harvard's academic program. Prospects for significant change in this picture are nil so long as Fred Whipple remains director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Because corrective action has been delayed for so many years, the need for it is now urgent. I recommend that the Harvard Administration, after satisfying itself as to the facts in this case, request that a new director to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, named by Harvard, be appointed by July 1971. It seems unthinkable that Smithsonian's top management in possession of the relevant facts would not accede to such a request from Harvard. What scientific distinction the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory possesses is owes to its association with Harvard. The record of administrative incompetence is abundantly clear, as is also the failure to implement the terms of the understanding on which the Harvard-Smithsonian association was predicated. Nevertheless, if Smithsonian decides to terminate this Harvard connection, Harvard must be prepared to accept the consequences of this decision. It may seem an attractive solution to postpone decisive action for another year, when Whipple will have reached the normal retirement age, but it's just possible that in this way Harvard could achieve its objectives without making a fuss. But, in my opinion, the risks inherent in such a plan far outweigh its advantages. I fear that if Harvard does not take prompt action that we will very soon find ourselves in a situation where no useful action at all can be taken."
Very, strong. Yeah.
I would love to get some perspective on this. You do not remember that you wrote this letter?
I don't remember it all.
As I read it the phrases are familiar.
I can recognize my own writing.
Does it bring back any of that history to you?
Yes. I think I hadn't remembered the enormous enthusiasm that Bok displayed and which he inspired in his group of students, a remarkable group of students. The first generation of radio astronomers.
But of course they were long gone by then. You're writing this twelve, thirteen years after the fact.
So, was this remembered then, at least by you as a great opportunity missed?
Right. And now that you mention it, I remember those days of declining numbers of students.
This must have worried you very deeply?
Yes. I didn't think of leaving. I'm not sure. I could have. I certainly wasn't besieged with invitations. But, but then I was doing constructive things. So, I was perfectly happy.
You had tenure at this time?
Oh yes. I got tenure in '59.
Do you remember talking with anyone about this letter or this letter coming back to you from anyone? Did you talk with Dean Dunlap?
No. I didn't talk to Dean Dunlap. I must have talked to Alex. I sent him a copy of the letter.
You think you did?
It says so at the end.
That's right. Blind copies to Goldberg and Dalgarno. And, of course, I found this in Goldberg's files.
Yes. I don't remember either of them commenting on it. I sent it; well mainly because I wanted to be sure my facts were straight.
So, you don't have a memory of any of them coming back to you?
This pretty much says, it's demoralization of students, the frustration of having an institution with this huge budget and no scientific stature except the one person that Leo and I had brought.
And, and you looked at it that way?
The situation continued to smolder and it led to the convening of an Ad Hoc Committee on the relations between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Harvard College Observatory, and the Department of Astronomy. This is another one of those sorts of long reports that was given to both Dillon Ripley and to President Nathan Pusey, at the time, based upon a committee meeting on January 22 and 23, 1971. So, we're talking literally just less than a month after you wrote that letter.
This was the committee meeting with Dunlop, acting as chairman of the committee, and Undersecretary James Bradley of the Smithsonian, representing Ripley. The membership of the committee included Jesse Greenstein, Gerard Kuiper, E.M. Purcell, E. E. Salpeter, John Simpson, and Lyman Spitzer. And the charge to the committee, which was, in fact, before your letter, which is December 14, pointed out that collaboration between the two organizations …
. . . let me interrupt. With this off.
Do you want me to turn this off.
Yeah. [Recording paused]
Now we're recording. We're talking about this Ad Hoc Committee that and Leo had already taken his leave of absence and had tendered his resignation as chair, but not as professor of astronomy. His formal statement was read out in a letter on January 19, 1971, then Fred Whipple spoke, and then a number of witnesses were brought in. You were one of them?
Alex came in, then, and I guess this is in order. Alex Dalgarno, David Layzer, Ivan Danziger, John Wood, Arthur Lilley, Eugene Averett, Charles Lundquist, and then three Harvard graduate students.
The report does not explicitly state who said what to whom, but it gives general findings and general discussion. And, I'm wondering if you have any memory of this proceedings, how it felt to be there? Can you sort of set the stage for me? I don't know if it, they said where it was held. No, they don't. And, if you recall that, that would be very helpful also.
I don't remember. Somehow I think it was at the Observatory. But that doesn't seem reasonable. But, I remember very clearly being questioned by Ed Purcell, who was also a friend, I remember that he was somewhat distressed by the proceeding. And, that's my only memory, though I must have been questioned by others as well.
Do you remember what sorts of questions he asked you?
I don't, I'm sorry.
Do you recall ever reading this report?
No, I've never seen that.
What was the bottom line? What did they end up recommending?
They still envisioned the future relationship as being directed by two directors, and the two new directors propose a mutually-acceptable plan. And, I think it was strongly sensed that it would be "new" directors. They stated, "Professor Whipple has the option to remain as director of the SAO, if he continues as a Harvard Professor, until age seventy," and that was six years. It added that, "In many institutions these days the retirement age is sixty-six," which would have meant the one year. And then it added that, "It's desirable for the two institutions to have the same retirement policy for administrative personnel."