Judith Goldhaber

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Ursula Pavish
Location
In her husband, Gerson Goldhaber's office, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
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Interview of Judith Goldhaber by Ursula Pavish on 2006 February 28, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/34517

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Abstract

In this interview Judith Goldhaber discusses topics such as: her family background; James Jeans; Arthur Eddington; Briane Greene; her writings; her husband Gerson Goldhaber; what makes a scientist successful; her husband's switch from particle physics to particle astrophysics; how astronomers viewed her husband; Robert Cahn; how she and Gerson met and their family. 

Transcript

Pavlish:

Before we start talking about Professor Gerson Goldhaber, I would like to ask you to tell me something about yourself. I know that you are a creative writer and a science writer. I wonder which one came first. Were you interested in science first or in writing first?

Goldhaber:

Writing.

Pavlish:

Writing?

Goldhaber:

Writing. I was a poet in my teens. My whole family is writers. I have many more writers in my family than Gerson has physicists in his family.

Pavlish:

Really? Wow, and he has a lot of physicists in his family.

Goldhaber:

When people meet our kids they say, “Oh I guess they must be physicists.” I always say, “No, we have a lot more writers in my family dating back to grandfathers on both sides.” So everyone in my family assumes they’re going to be a writer unless proved otherwise. My father’s a journalist. My mother was a poet. But, I fell in love with science in college. Definitely through the work of nonscientist science writers for the layman. Actually, they were scientists in those days but in those days scientists knew how to write. I don’t know if you’ve read any of James Jeans’ works. He was a great scientist but he also wrote wonderful, understandable works for the layman on physics. Sir Arthur Eddington also wrote wonderful layman’s books on physics. Nowadays there are people who do that, like Brian Greene, people like that. It seems to me that in those days, at least in Britain where they got a good liberal arts education, they were much better writers than today’s crowd. So I read Eddington and Jeans mainly, and other popularizers of science. I fell in love with physics, specifically, and astronomy. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a science writer then because of all the writers in my family none of them had anything to do with science. They were either creative writers or journalists or writers about politics. So I was sort of the lone person in my family who was the least bit interested in science at that time. My sister and brother are both writers also, not professionally interested in science.

Pavlish:

You say that even your great-grandfathers were writers?

Goldhaber:

Grandfathers. Great-grandfathers too actually, on one side.

Pavlish:

In poetry, fiction, journalism?

Goldhaber:

Journalism. In Europe still. The Yiddish press, the Jewish press. Into New York and four or five of my relatives worked for the very active and healthy New York Yiddish language press around the turn of the century. I had three or four of my uncles and grandfather work for the Yiddish, my father worked for the one called The Day, The Jewish Day. Another worked for The Morning Journal, one of the great New York newspapers for Yiddish speaking people. My grandfather on the other side wrote a column for the Yiddish press about union organizing which he was active in; the ILGW, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union that unionized all of American clothing trade. They were into all that and journalism having to do with that. I think the most influential thing in my background, by far, is the fact that I was raised in the country, in a house without electricity, indoor toilet or running water till I was sixteen. That had a very strong effect on me.

Pavlish:

How so?

Goldhaber:

It was my parents, particularly my mother who was a back to the earth environmentalist long before that was a popular current in America. She and my father wanted to escape the city and get back to nature and they couldn’t afford to do so except by buying a ramshackle old house. It was actually near Princeton, in Rocky Hill. It is out towards New Brunswick. But in those days it was very rural. The house we lived in was actually a house which George Washington had slept in. It dated back to Revolutionary days and had never been fixed up so it had no plumbing or electricity or running water. We had a well. It was sort of a Thoreau-like existence. It took me very close to nature. That’s when I started writing poetry. We moved back to the city when I was around fifteen.

Pavlish:

What was that move like?

Goldhaber:

I didn’t like it. None of us liked it. We did it only for one reason. New York City then, and still has a wonderful free college system. Since my parents couldn’t afford to send us to college any other way, they actually moved back to the city so that my sister and I could go to Brooklyn College. As soon as we were out of Brooklyn College my parents moved back to the country. None of us liked living in the city.

Pavlish:

My next question is how did you start writing about science?

Goldhaber:

Well, actually I never wrote about science until I got a job writing about science. I read a lot about science. I read a lot about science. When I came to San Francisco, on my own the way people did in the 1960s, looking for a job, I was able to do book reviewing for The Chronicle and The Examiner on science books because I read a lot of them. Then, when there was an opening at this lab in 1961 for someone in the public information office to explain science to the public, I was easily able to get the job because they didn’t want a scientist. They wanted someone who was better at writing about science in a nontechnical way, which is what I was good at. And there I stayed for thirty-five years.

Pavlish:

You’ve published over 1,000 articles, I read somewhere.

Goldhaber:

About the time I retired, I counted them up.

Pavlish:

That’s extraordinary.

Goldhaber:

It’s in so many different subjects. The job was so interdisciplinary. I worked on many different things. I was probably the first to write about Alvarez’s dinosaur. I remember, one day in the cafeteria, I was sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch and Alvarez came over and sat down next to me and said, “I’ve got something very exciting to tell you about, you ought to write it up in the newsletter.” And so he did, and I did. I’ve never forgotten it. Another guy who was sitting with us said, “This is really very exciting. Someday this is going to be very famous work. Alvarez is going to be on the cover of Time magazine.” All that happened, only much later. Calvin won the Nobel Prize for his studies of photosynthesis. I certainly fulfilled my fantasy of doing a lot of writing about science, popular writing. And I met a lot of scientists.

Pavlish:

Have you found that there is a characteristic of scientists that distinguishes them from people of other professions?

Goldhaber:

Sometimes I answer that one way; sometimes I answer it in a completely different way. When Gerson or our other physicist friends do something incomprehensible to me, I’m famous for saying, “Well, try to imagine how a human being would act.” But on the other hand, it’s hard to pin down because the stereotypes don’t apply. I don’t find that scientists are all business more than other people are into their business. I don’t quite know what it is. The only thing that it might be is a tendency towards accuracy in situations where it doesn’t apply. Like Gerson might correct me if I say, “Millions of people came out for the show.” Human beings recognize this is metaphor. He doesn’t do that anymore.

Pavlish:

Have you ever written anything about Professor Goldhaber?

Goldhaber:

About him specifically?

Pavlish:

Yes.

Goldhaber:

No. Certainly not in any straightforward writing. Maybe obliquely in my poetry. I’m not sure. I wrote a poem called “Married Love,” which I guess applies to him since that’s whom I’m married to. You know, I wasn’t sure I was going to show you this, but I think I will since you seem to be asking about this sort of thing. I don’t know if Gerson mentioned it, we are going to be featured on a show on the Hallmark Channel. The Hallmark Channel, it’s a Cable channel. They have a show called New Morning, it’s actually too New Age for my taste, it’s sort of inspirational and religious, none of which we are. But they sought us out when they heard about our book. And they thought we were an interesting couple and they sent a crew out to our house, just a couple weeks ago. We were very nervous about doing it because we thought we might end up looking a way we did not want to look. On the other hand, we were always very anxious to sell books. It’s fantastic publicity for our book. I’m going to show it to you. It’s just four minutes. There was something we were doing that I didn’t want them to show but they said, “It makes you look so human,” as if we weren’t. I think you’ll be interested. I made the mistake of telling them that we sometimes start our day by dancing to salsa music. Instead of having to do aerobics or other boring exercise, we do this. [four minute DVD of Gerson and Judith Goldhaber is shown]

Pavlish:

That’s charming.

Goldhaber:

You can have that copy. It hasn’t aired yet. She sent us a bunch of these DVDs so you can have this one.

Pavlish:

It’ll be fun to show my family.

Goldhaber:

I think it does a little to counteract the stereotypes.

Pavlish:

Thank you very much.

Goldhaber:

Back to the interview.

Pavlish:

What personal characteristics do you see as contributing to the success of scientists, and to your husband’s continued steady success in particular?

Goldhaber:

Definitely, a childlike curiosity.

Pavlish:

A childlike curiosity being more persistent than an adult’s?

Goldhaber:

I don’t know about persistent, but more about everything. Like, on a personal note. Sometimes it’s a little annoying. I can’t leave a piece of paper about the house without him picking it up and looking at it. Maybe it is none of his business but he can’t pass by anything that looks interesting to him without picking it up. I think that’s really basic to people who like to figure out how things work.

Pavlish:

Do you have any interesting personal anecdotes relating to Dr. Goldhaber?

Goldhaber:

In thirty-seven years, you can imagine. I’ll get back to that.

Pavlish:

How do you see the personal element as important in Gerson Goldhaber’s life in particle physics and particle astrophysics?

Goldhaber:

I don’t think he would be as good a scientist if he didn’t have a lot of other things going on in his life. He’s always had a lot of other things going on in his life. Lately, it’s been his art. But also, he raised children. He was very involved in raising our children. We’ve also traveled a lot. We’ve gone to see sights and museums. He’s by no means an ivory tower kind of person. Although I must say that he does not have as broad interests as I would wish in some things that I think people should have broad interests in. Like literature. He hasn’t read anything. That’s mainly because of his refugee background. He didn’t have a language; he didn’t have a stable place. He never read Shakespeare, he never read Tolstoy. Nowadays, lots of young people haven’t read Shakespeare and Tolstoy but in his generation, most people with a good education had. But because he was fleeing, and learning Arabic, and things like that, he didn’t get to do a couple things like that. Never read poetry in his life until…

Pavlish:

Until you? He does read your work, I was going to ask you that.

Goldhaber:

Oh yes, yes. Well, I read it to him.

Pavlish:

And he enjoys that.

Goldhaber:

Certainly, he does.

Pavlish:

That’s wonderful. My next question is, would you narrate the story of your collaboration with Carl Pennypacker on your musical about Stephen Hawking, “Falling Through a Hole in the Air”? Because it also relates to Professor Goldhaber’s switching into particle astrophysics.

Goldhaber:

First of all, I should say about myself that all my life until my collaboration with Carl started, I thought that the last thing in the world that I would ever want to do is collaborate with anyone about anything. Because I like to do things my way. I’ve been pretty fortunate in always being able to do things my way, even when I was writing as a journalist. Of course I had editors and bosses theoretically. I went through thirty years of life without ever having to change something. I thought, this is incredibly nice and lucky. This never happened to me since school. I really liked that. However, I changed my mind completely after these two collaborations. I must say that both these collaborations are special in that we each had our own thing: in the musicals, Carl does the music, I do the words; in the book, I do the words, Gerson does the art. So in that sense, nobody is telling me what to do. But on the other hand, it does involve very very close, intimate venting of your thoughts and feelings with another person. Like I said, the theme of this Hallmark show, they wanted a theme, so the theme she came up with was intimacy. So I think that’s reflected pretty well. The intimacy also worked with Carl. We are not really social friends, but in our collaboration we were very intimate. There is nothing that I wouldn’t say to him, ditto, about the work. You have to be like that or it just doesn’t work. So, the story of how it happened (I’ve told you the story before but I’ll tell you again) is that Stephen Hawking came to campus to give the Hitchcock lectures. I went down; everyone who possibly could go did go to hear him. I’m sure you’ve taken the bus? On the way back, I sat down on the bus and Carl, whom I knew slightly from the lab, sat down beside me and we started discussing the talk. We found that we had both been moved to tears, actual tears, by the experience of hearing Hawking. So when I got back to my office, I wrote a poem about Hawking. And I wanted to show it someone and since Carl and I had talked, I emailed it to him, or maybe that was before email, I might have stuck it on his desk. Anyway, he liked the poem very much and the next thing I knew he said that he wanted to set the poem to music. And my reaction was the same like I had said about Gerson, “How am I going to say no without hurting his feelings?” He actually didn’t ever set that poem to music but he wrote some music that I then wrote words to. We were both so inspired by this experience that in two months we had written six songs based on ideas from Stephen Hawking and his life. And we made a tape and sent it to Hawking. And he really liked it. He sent us word that he liked it. His publisher liked it. Everyone was very enthusiastic about it. And we kept writing more and more songs. Pretty soon we had eleven or twelve songs. It seemed like too many for people to sit through. It evolved slowly in a period of ten years into the show, the musical about Stephen Hawking, which Stephen Hawking also liked. We sent him a videotape after it was produced in San Francisco. So I became very close to Carl because we were working together for ten years. Gerson at that time was winding down in particle physics. As you know, he didn’t want to get caught in the SSC. And Carl was always around. And I was fascinated by the work that Carl and, at that time Carl and Rich Muller were the only people on the project. Gerson got interested and the rest is history. He decided to switch, which was a very great thing to do, it was not easy. Even now, he’s not known and respected in astronomy like he is in particle physics.

Pavlish:

The astronomers don’t know…

Goldhaber:

Not at all. Some of them do now. Now that he’s also made a contribution to particle astrophysics. He had reached a very high level in particle physics. When we used to go to meetings in Italy or someplace, he used to be at the head table and giving big talks. That’s always nice, you get a lot of stroking. Whereas when he switched to astrophysics he came down to graduate student level. Here, he was respected. But outside. Particularly, astronomy is a whole different field and they’re very different people. They didn’t know anything about him or his accomplishments. So I think it was very commendable of him to do it, because he was really interested in the work and that’s what scientists should be, really interested in the work and not worried so much about all these perks that you get. Even now, he is by no means at the height of comfortable eminence in his field that he would be in particle physics. Of course, in particle physics it turned out that there wasn’t that much left to discover, whereas here, there’s a lot. I take some of the credit for him having switched.

Pavlish:

That’s a really fun story. It is very special.

Goldhaber:

It’s always special. There’s always so many different factors. In fact, a whole list. At one point we tried to write a book together, based on Gerson’s course that he developed, “The Experimental Foundations of Particle Physics,” and he and Bob Cahn developed it, it’s a very good course for people to take to show people that there’s always an experimental foundation to theory. So we had an idea to write a popular book for the layman which would make us rich and famous based on this course. We worked on it a whole year. We couldn’t get anywhere. In fact what we got into was a lot of fights. We say jokingly that it would either be the marriage or the book. I don’t think that’s really true but we were very annoyed with each other. The thing was, that we had totally different points of view. As a science writer, very used to interviewing people and writing about their work, I regarded myself as the writer and him as my source. And he sort of, subconsciously regarded me as his ghost writer who would fix up his English. But it was a lot more than fixing up English, it ran far far deeper. And this brings me back to what we were talking about, about the stories about how somebody got interested in something. When we talked about each of these experiments in his book, “The Experimental Foundations of Particle Physics,” I wanted to know and to put in our book, how did the guy get involved in this experiment, how long had he wanted to do this experiment, what was involved, what kept him from doing it earlier. Everything, in some sense. He was horrified. Physicists feel that it’s very very inappropriate to put stuff like that in a science book. It’s not inappropriate in a book about how science is done. So I absolutely refused to have anything to do with a book that left that kind of stuff out, and he refused to have anything to do with a book that had that in it. First of all, it was too much work for him to find out all of that. When Fermi was in Rome doing those experiments outside of Rome, doing those bombardments, what was it like? He didn’t know. We both would’ve had to do a lot of research. Anyway, that was the only time that we really tried to collaborate. Well, we have done some other things together. There was an article in SLAC beamline.

Pavlish:

Before I go onto the next question, I’ll change the side of the tape. May I ask you, how did you and Professor Goldhaber meet?

Goldhaber:

Yes, at the lab. We knew each other for probably ten years before we began to be a couple. Because of course he was here, we were friends before his first wife died. I knew Sula too, quite well. So a couple of years after her death we became more than friends.

Pavlish:

How do you understand the science that Professor Goldhaber has done? Does he like to explain it to you or do you have your own sources?

Goldhaber:

Well, since I’ve been a science writer for so long, whenever a scientist tries to explain what he is doing, this is not just Gerson, this is anyone, I very rudely interrupt him every second word and say don’t use that word, I don’t want to hear any jargon, or I say why do you do that, and those kinds of things. I want them just to tell me the story in English and I’ll worry later about getting all the data and facts and all that. So people often found my style kind of annoying. But then when they saw the finished product they were happy because they said, “Wow, I can send this to my mother and she can understand.” So yes, Gerson might come home and try to say something to me in jargon and I’ll stop him right away. Of course, by now I know enough about the background of Gerson’s work that he doesn’t have to explain the whole. But I still will stop him if he says something in jargon to me. Even when I know what it means because it annoys me. I want him to get in the habit of speaking English to nonscientists. Specifically, he’ll say, “This was a real high z supernova.” High z means nothing, you can say distant. That’s all it means. So I’ll always insist that he use non-jargon words with me. There’s something with jargon that’s so interesting because they don’t realize that they’re using it even. It is just second nature to them. And it’s very valuable of course when they’re talking to each other. Because I have for so long been writing in interdisciplinary fields I know that every field has its jargon. Sometimes, Gerson will say, “Well, this is so simple. Why can’t you just learn what high z means?” And I would say back, “Well, why can’t you just learn what transductional shift from geology means?” And he hasn’t the foggiest idea what that means. But yes, I try to keep up with what they’re doing. The pace of science is very slow so sometimes I forget exactly what’s going on. But in general, I try.

Pavlish:

Now, I would like to ask you in relation to your book, “Sonnets from Aesop,” did you grow up with Aesop’s tales?

Goldhaber:

Yes, and every other part of literature. My family was very very literary. I read Shakespeare and Tolstoy before I was in high school.

Pavlish:

Do you have a favorite writer or favorite works?

Goldhaber:

All of literature. Well, among poets I guess my favorite poet is Yeats, William Butler Yeats. Among modern novelists, I’m crazy about John Updike.

Pavlish:

Do you have a book of his to recommend for somebody who hasn’t read any Updike?

Goldhaber:

Yes, the whole Rabbit series. It’s a series of four books.

Pavlish:

Rabbit?

Goldhaber:

Yes, Rabbit is a person. He writes four books about this character Rabbit. He’s written so many books. There’s one about physics. He writes a lot about physics. That’s one of the reasons why I like him. He’s a physics groupie. In fact, this is an interesting story. Gerson came home one night and I was asleep. He had been working very late at the lab. And I was asleep. He shook me awake, which is something he never usually does and he said something like, “I think we’ve got the answer.” It was really that dramatic. And that was when he had done this analysis which made them realize that the universe was going to expand forever. Of course that was worth waking me up for. That was interesting. I had fallen asleep; reading a book by John Updike called “At the End of Time,” which concludes with this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful description of the big crunch. My first thought after Gerson told me was, poor John Updike. He got it wrong. No big crunch. The next day I wrote a letter to John Updike, telling him about this experience. Telling him about Gerson’s discovery. And John Updike wrote back to me. I guess he had read about it in the New York Times. And he thanked me for writing to him and said that yes, he agreed with me, he felt kind of sad about no big crunch. I think that most artists like the idea of a big crunch. Something about it feels right. He had felt that way, and I had felt that way. I don’t like the idea of just drifting off.

Pavlish:

What are some of the interests of your children and are they continuous with your and Professor Goldhaber’s interests?

Goldhaber:

I’ll tell you a good story about that. You know that two years ago now, was the Gersonfest. You heard about that. Well, there were a lot of talks that day, and then at dinner there were also a lot of talks, after dinner talks and before dinner talks. And so after dinner, of the people who were asked to be put on the program to talk were our two daughters. One lives in New York, one lives in L.A., so I didn’t know what they were going to say. But they were introduced by the master of ceremonies and the two of them came up to the podium. I should say, one is around thirty; one is around thirty-three. They came up and they said, “I am Michaela Goldhaber,” and “I am Shaya Goldhaber,” and then they said in unison, “we are Gerson’s artsy fartsy daughters.” Then they went on, taking turns, to say really the most touching thing. They said, all their lives as they grew up, they found that their interests were towards the arts (one is a makeup artist, one is a theater director) and you know, we were always very supportive of them, and all that. But they said, both of them, all their lives, were waiting at the back of their minds for their father to sit them down and say, “Well, that was all very nice and well girls, but the time has come for you to be more serious about life. How about going into science?” And they both said, “And that’s a lecture that never came. He respected our choices.” So that shows how they feel about his support. His only regret, about them going into the arts, and that’s a very strong regret, is that he’s not in a position to help them. If you’re in the sciences, the Goldhaber name doesn’t hurt. But in the arts, it’s useless.

Pavlish:

Not with your writing.

Goldhaber:

Maybe someday. So far it hasn’t done them much good. But they’re making their own way. If Gerson ever tried to explain his work to them, they would always come to me for the jargon-free version.

Pavlish:

Please tell me how the performance of your musical about Einstein’s lost daughter, Lieserl, went in New York City this past December.

Goldhaber:

It was just a reading. That went well. It was nice to hear the dialogue. It gave me many good ideas about how to improve it. That was the purpose of the reading. For a playwright really doesn’t know how things are working out until you hear it with real actors. My daughter the director gave me a lot of good ideas. Afterwards I went home and cut a lot. Our Hawking play had a real production in San Francisco, at San Francisco City College. It had twelve performances. That was just the highlight of my life. It was wonderful. It was very well attended. Everyone loved it. We’ve been trying to get a second production at the same school, unsuccessfully. It’s a very difficult show to do. Because it was at a college, you had all that good labor. All the student actors, all the student musicians. It really can only be done by students or on Broadway with a billion dollar budget because you have singers, dancers, musicians. It’s been difficult to get a production. The musical is in the Broadway style. I think the total cast is seventy-five. So when I send it off, I always say, “Well, our first production had a large cast but it can be done with less” which isn’t really true. Well, if you use canned music.

Pavlish:

Please tell me a little bit about your book of poetry, “The Garden Spider.” Is it a collection of poems from your whole life?

Goldhaber:

Actually, I wrote a lot of poetry in my teens and early twenties. And then I hate to admit this, because it looks very bad for women, I didn’t write any poetry for thirty-five years or so while I raised children, worked at a job.

Pavlish:

You were writing about science.

Goldhaber:

Still, in retrospect, it’s really too bad. I feel incredibly lucky that somehow I was able to recapture it. I started writing poetry again about five or six years after I retired. Now “The Garden Spider,” is the collection of what I call real poems. It’s ready to be published but I haven’t found a publisher for it yet. I don’t want to publish it by ourselves because it’s different. And it doesn’t have pictures in it. I’ve had a lot of poems in it published. Many of them have won prizes. There are a lot of prizes, but I haven’t found a publisher to publish the whole book.

Pavlish:

The physicist Victor Weisskopf says in his book, “The Joy of Insight,” that “artists and writers seem to have a clearer sense of the meaning of life or are at least searching for it in their creation.” He also says, “We find such a conviction among scientists when they are inspired by the greatness of nature and follow their urge to know more about the world.” How would you compare artists and scientists?

Goldhaber:

I agree with what Weisskopf says. In my case, as an artist, that early exposure to nature formed an important part of my perceptions. Now, Gerson, who isn’t particularly in tune with that kind of nature at all, is in tune with different aspects of nature. The why and how of it all. Both are aspects of wanting to understand more deeply.

Pavlish:

So with that, my questions end. If you have any more anecdotes or something you would like to share?

Goldhaber:

What was it I was going to go back to?

Pavlish:

Do you have any interesting personal anecdotes about Professor Goldhaber?

Goldhaber:

I’ve told you quite a few. Sometimes I tease him. He has a reputation of being incredibly observant when it comes to data. That’s what he made his reputation on. But he’s not so observant when it comes to regular life. I tease him about that. You’ve been in our house; you’ve seen our art displayed. Like sometimes I’ll move something and I’ll say, “Ok, something’s different. Can you see?” And he usually can’t. If all the daffodils suddenly started blooming in the front yard and he comes home I’ll say, “Did you see the beautiful daffodils?” He’ll say, “No.” So I find that so interesting, that he can be so observant in some areas and not in others. I should say that in the thirty-five years that I wasn’t writing poetry, it sure wasn’t his fault because he was always very very supportive. Trying to do everything to encourage me to write beyond. It’s tough. I had a job, and kids, and a house; but he certainly always was very proud of me. Well, what are you going to do with this?

Pavlish:

It has been a pleasure to interview you. Thank you very much.

Goldhaber:

Thank you. It is fun to talk about yourself.

Pavlish:

As a writer, I expected that you would be very eloquent. But this is really wonderful. I’ll turn the tape recorder off now.