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Interview of Elske v. P. Smith by Samantha M. Thompson on 2017 July 5,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/42780
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Elske van Panhuys Smith discusses topics including: her childhood in Monaco, Austria, Holland, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and the United States of America; undergraduate education at Radcliffe with Harlow Shapley; marriage to Henry Smith; graduate school in astronomy at Harvard University with Bart Bok; job interviews with Leo Goldberg, Jesse Greenstein, Carnegie Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM), Jack Evans; job offer at Sacramento Peak; reception from graduate professors concerning solar astronomy; family life and children in Alamogordo; High Altitude Observatory; fellowship at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder; move to Washington, DC for husband's job offer at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters; teaching position at the University of Maryland; American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the early years of the Solar Physics Division (SPD); discrimination against women in scence; Ed Dennison; Donald Menze; Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) teaching and administration in the College of Humanities and Science; research at the Naval Observatory and Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
This is Samantha Thompson. It is Wednesday, July 5th. I’m in Lenox, Massachusetts with Elske Smith. Thank you, Dr. Smith, for speaking with me today! So I want to get started by talking a little bit about your background, where you grew up. I understand you were born in Monaco. Maybe if you could tell me about your parents, the kind of work they did, about your childhood.
Okay. My father was in the Netherlands Consular Service, so he was posted in Monaco at the time when I was born. But shortly thereafter, we moved to Innsbruck, Austria, and that’s where I spent my first six years. So at that time I learned German and Dutch, and English came a little later, but right now English is the only language I’m fluent in! [Chuckling] And then from Innsbruck, we spent a little time in Holland, but then went on to Maracaibo, Venezuela where my father was posted. That’s where we were when the war broke out, so we were on this side of the Atlantic. Actually, my sister and I went to Costa Rica for a couple of years because of her health, and then we came to the United States in 1943 when my father was posted to Boston. Then he went on to other postings, but I stayed in the States to study both in high school and then college. I went to Radcliffe, where I met my husband Henry Smith. We were both majoring in astronomy. We got married and stayed for graduate studies at Harvard.
You said you have a sister. Was she older or younger than you?
Well actually, my sister was younger. Yeah.
Did she come to the United States also? Did she stay?
Yes, she came to the United States also. Yes. The whole family came originally, and she also stayed, yes. She married an American.
Wonderful. Was it difficult switching schools constantly, going to a different country?
No. Mostly we were homeschooled while we were moving around through a British correspondence school. So we managed to get papers back and forth, even during the war. [Laughs] Then when we came to the States, we went to a private school and then a boarding school.
Did you have teachers that were particularly supportive of you going to college? Was that always assumed that you would go to college?
It was assumed that I would… I don’t know. Somehow. Well, certainly when I was in high school in the boarding school, I think it was taken for granted that I would go on to college.
Were you always interested in science or astronomy in particular?
Well, I’ve been trying to think about that. I was certainly interested in science, and in fact, initially, I didn't major in astronomy, there was sort of a general science curriculum. I do remember reading a book about the sun as a child, but I have no idea — I have sometimes wondered what that book was, but I was never able to track it down.
Were there other subjects you were interested in? Or other extracurricular activities you were involved with?
Well, chemistry. I enjoyed chemistry. Not physics particularly. Actually, as I say, I started out just in a general science curriculum, but my freshman year, one of my friends was taking an astronomy course. I talked to her and looked at the book and I said, “Gee, that looks interesting,” so… And the rest is history! [Laughs]
This is your freshman year at Radcliffe?
This is at Radcliffe. Yes, yes.
How did you decide on Radcliffe?
Well, I looked at Radcliffe, Barnard… I don’t know whether I looked at any others. One of the things that I think was very good about Radcliffe was the first year all the freshman classes were, at Radcliffe, just women. The later years were mostly with Harvard students, advanced courses. The freshman astronomy was still just women, and I think that helped a lot. The professor who became my major professor was very encouraging, as was his teaching assistant. So that made a big difference, yes.
Do you remember their names?
Oh, yes. Bart Bok.
Oh. [Laughs] That’s a good introduction to astronomy!
[laughter] Yes indeed! He played a very big role in my life, yes.
That’s wonderful. Well, how were the other students, like in your all-female astronomy class? Were you guys all coming at the same level?
I don’t think there were even ten of us. [Laughter]
That makes sense. So did Bart Bok help navigate you towards the astronomy?
Yes, he did. Yes, yes. He became my advisor, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, yes.
Was this mainly through coursework, or had you started doing research with him?
Well actually, I did an undergraduate research project with Harlow Shapley. He was another name to conjure with.
What did you work on with him?
Looking at plates of the Andromeda Nebula and trying to determine it’s…how far extended. Since then, of course, we know that it’s very much more extensive than we knew at the time, but I think… I don't know how much Shapley had anticipated that, but…
That’s amazing. Do you have a sense of, at the time, what your options were in astronomy? Was it go to grad school and then become an astronomer, or did you think you had other options at the time?
Well, once I decided, which would have been in my junior year…It sort of came… I didn’t really work it out ahead of time that much, yeah. When it came time to think about graduate school, we did look at other universities… I remember in particular interviewing with Leo Goldberg at… Michigan, was it?
And Jesse Greenstein at Caltech. And normally they didn’t encourage students to stay and do graduate work at the institution where you did your undergraduate, but for some reason, they encouraged us to stay at Harvard. So we did. [Laughs]
You said “we,” so this was with your husband Henry?
Yeah. Henry and I worked together on this, yeah.
Okay. Wonderful. And people were encouraging of that, to stick together?
They were encouraging. I remember at the observatory library they had all the dissertations lined up, and there were a number of women among them. But they sort of disappeared! The men — I mean, there was Leo Goldberg, Jesse Greenstein, Eric Lindsay, and I don’t know who all else, you know, all there and you knew where they were! But the women… And I thought… At that time I was naïve enough to think that they had made the decision not to go on, not realizing the hurdles that they met to go on. I’m quite well aware and happy to share this with you — that I think my marriage to Henry made an enormous difference in my career. Well, for instance, when we started looking for jobs, we looked at various jobs and it was sort of not mentioned but taken for granted that his job was the primary one, but there had to be something for me. I remember we were interviewed at what was then DTM, Department of…
It’s still DTM, yeah.
In Washington. Because of the work I had done for my dissertation, we knew John Hall at the Naval Observatory, but the best they could come up there with was looking at moon maps. I guess it was preliminary to the space program, but that was so totally different from anything that I’d done or was interested in…And then another possibility was at Vanderbilt, which had a teaching position as an astronomer for Henry, but the best they could come up with for me there was an instructorship in mathematics, and what a dead end that would have been. Then we interviewed Jack Evans, or Jack Evans interviewed us about Sac Peak, though never thought about switching to solar astronomy. We both were doing nighttime astronomy.
But at Sac Peak there was the opportunity for both of us. Initially I was half-time, but there was a position for me which was much more meaningful than anything else. Besides, Sac Peak was just really getting off the ground. So it seemed like an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of building an institution, and I think that was the way it did work out. Henry was in charge of the Harvard project. They had a small telescope, a small coronagraph, and an H-alpha filter to look for flares. So he was in charge of that, and a lot of his research was devoted to that. And some of the stuff that’s in there (referring to the book co-authored with Henry, Solar Flares) comes out of that! [Laughing]
I was more interested in the chromosphere and flares and did most of my work at the big dome, as we referred to it, which is the big telescope with the big spectrograph. It had a big spectrograph, and it also had a spectrograph that separates the spectrum into…here [referring to the book, Figure 17, p. 120]… so you get the whole spectrum, but it’s separated to keep it in a manageable extent. So we went to Sac Peak. After one year, I walked into Jack Evans’ office and I said, “You know, this half-time isn’t working. Can I be full-time?” He said, “Yes!” [Laughs]
And one of the decisions… I guess it was sort of a decision not to have children until I was in my thirties. Well, I just became 30, which at that time was a little late for most women, which enabled me to establish my career before I had children and had to take time for the children — which again, I mean you know, now people do that, but at that time that was a little less often.
Were you still at Sac Peak when you had your first child, then?
How did they…
Both of them were born in Alamogordo, which you know is where the atoms bomb was tested the…[Laughs]
That’s fantastic! Were the staff at Sac Peak fine with taking time off?
I’m assuming most of them had children in that town.
Well, yes. I mean all the other astronomers were men, which was an interesting dichotomy. The astronomers were all married, and their wives found various things. One was a secretary, a librarian, or they stayed home. They often had parties, and I tended to gravitate to talk to the men because I didn’t have any children at the time, you know? [Laughs]
It was a fairly young group of people, too, at Sac Peak.
It was a young group, yes. Jack and Betty Evans were the senior people, and I think the rest of us had our PhDs more or less the same time. In fact, Dick Dunn didn’t get his degree till later. I mean he was there, but he collected his dissertation material at Sac Peak, working on spicules. Let’s see. There was Dick Dunn. There was Jack Zirker, Frank Orrall… John Jefferies came originally as a visitor, and then I think he stayed on at Sac Peak for quite a while. We had other visitors. Michard from France. Dolfus from Pic du Midi.
How active was the Sac Peak community within the astronomy community at large?
Oh, very much so. We also had a very close relationship with the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, and every year there would be a joint meeting, usually in Santa Fe, which is a delightful place. I think we’d stay with… I’m not sure whether we stayed at La Fonda, or not, but anyway — and have presentations about the latest work and just share ideas. Oh, one of the people who was very involved — he wasn’t with the High Altitude Observatory but with the Bureau of Standards; that’s a different story — was Dick Thomas who was a theoretician but interested in our observations. Dick Thomas got his degree a little bit before we did. I’m not sure what the transition was, but then he was instrumental starting the Joint Institute for Laboratory Science with the High Altitude Observatory and Bureau of Standards. So that’s what the joint was, JILA.
After we’d spent seven years at Sac Peak, we went and we spent a year in Boulder. We had anticipated it would be longer. We bought a house and all nine yards. Henry was at the Bureau of Standards, and I had a fellowship with JILA.
When was this, again? After one year at Sac Peak? Or how long?
No, seven years. We were seven years at Sac Peak.
Okay, after seven years. Gotcha.
And we only spent one year in Boulder. It must have been ‘62 or something like that. Then, sort of out of the blue, Henry got an offer from NASA in Washington as an administrator, in an administrative position — not at Goddard, but downtown.
At the headquarters?
Yes. It looked like a good offer, and we figured that I’d find something in Washington, and indeed I had two offers — one from Goddard Space Flight Center and one at the University of Maryland. I took the Maryland position.
Did you want to go into teaching? Was that the purpose or was the research —?
Well, I thought it would be an interesting transition, and indeed, I mean after that, teaching was my focus rather than research. My research sort of didn’t go very well after that, to be frank. [Chuckles] I did do some, but you know.
Did you find just as much joy in teaching as you had in research?
I enjoyed teaching, yes. I taught an introductory astronomy course. That led me to write a textbook, jointly with Ken Jacobs, “Introductory Astronomy and Astrophysics,” I also taught a solar physics course, a laboratory astronomy course. In fact, I was teaching the laboratory course during the 1970 eclipse, which was on the eastern shore of Maryland, and we arranged for the whole class, which was maybe ten or so, to go down and see the eclipse. I mean it was a total eclipse; it wasn’t one of these partial eclipses! [Laughter] That was a great adventure for them. I also took the whole family.
So you got clear skies for the eclipse? Everyone was able to see it?
Oh, we had beautiful skies, yes.
It’s the only eclipse I’ve seen, but it was really lovely.
Fantastic. I want to go back a little bit more and ask you about your involvement with the Solar Physics Division as part of AAS. If you can speak to that, kind of how did you get involved?
Well, I forget when they established the Solar Division.
I have that.
Initially there hadn’t been these subgroups.
Right. It looks like it was ‘67, ‘68 was one of the first few meetings.
Okay. It could be. So of course, obviously having been involved with solar physics, we were involved in that. At some time I became…I think it was treasurer of the… yeah.
Do you remember —
And I was on the Astronomical… the AAS council. That must have been later. I certainly… I can’t remember all, I suppose.
[Laughing] Not a problem. We can look that up, too. But yeah, I was just curious if you were involved with any of those… what those first meetings were like, if you had a sense of where the field was heading, how people saw themselves.
Well, we went just about every year to… I think actually the meetings were twice a year, but we’d go to most of the meetings. We also went to the IAU, the International Astronomical Union meetings. In fact, the first one we went to was ‘58 in Moscow, and that was an adventure! [Laughs]
Do you have stories from that? I just would love to hear. Do you remember specific talks, what the feeling was amongst the astronomers, how sharing of information went?
Well, they were very welcoming, and in fact, I was looking at the introduction here (referring to the book, Solar Flares). In the acknowledgements, I mention this Severny from the Crimean Observatory, who was very welcoming. We corresponded. Some of us… It’s hard to know Russian. [Laughs] In doing that, we also tried translating some of the papers. Alice Dunn was one who was most instrumental in doing that. She translated a number of articles because at that time they didn’t have even abstracts in English. So that helped find out what they were doing, yeah.
Was there a lot of, you know… How did you communicate with people during talks? Were there translators or did you find people spoke English enough?
There were translators. I can’t remember… I think Severny spoke a little English, but it was mostly translators. Well, I think they were more fluent in English, as I come to think of it. Yeah.
So if you’re still kind of coming at this from a solar physics point of view, did you have a sense for how the rest of astronomy saw solar astronomy, how much money was coming into the field…
Just how much money was coming into the field, if there were enough people getting involved in solar astronomy in particular. I’m just wondering how the whole field of astronomy saw specifically solar astronomy.
Well, I do remember as we were traveling from Cambridge to Sac Peak, we stopped, I believe, at several observatories. But I remember in particular W. W. Morgan at Yerkes. Henry’s dissertation had been something that Morgan would have been interested in, so we were keen to talk to him. Henry’s work was on Wolf-Rayet stars. So we stopped and talked with him, and I remember him saying, “Well, do you think you will ever come back to real astronomy?” [Laughs] There were a lot of stellar astronomers who didn't consider solar physics as a legitimate area of astronomy in the same way that—I mean even less the planetary stuff.
Interesting! [Laughs] Could you give us —
You know, there was a real prejudice!
Do you have a sense of why that was?
I’m not sure.
Was there tradition involved?
I remember Bart Bok felt that way. He felt we were traitors to go to Sac Peak! [Laughing] Yeah, there was a real discrimination there. Well, now we made the transition from stellar to solar. I think it would be much more difficult now because they’ve become so much more specialized.
But that wasn’t a problem for people at Sac Peak, hiring stellar astronomers? They just assumed you’d pick it up?
Yes, yes. For instance, Ed Dennison had done galactic work. I’m not sure what the others had done, but I do remember Ed’s particularly.
Did you have a sense at any point that there were more students coming in that were being specifically trained to study the sun?
Not that I can recall, but there may have been, yeah. Now Donald Menzel was at Harvard, of course, and he was solar.
You worked with Menzel later, but did you work with him at all while you were at Harvard?
I did take an independent study with him on the aurora — you know, just a one-semester thing. Yeah, yeah.
Actually, Bart Bok was very supportive of us as graduate students. For instance, he arranged for us to go to Bloemfontein, Boyden Station (the Harvard Boyden Station). This is South Africa. So that’s where we did our dissertations and got our data.
What did your dissertation end up being on?
Polarization of the southern Milky Way. Yeah, “Interstellar Polarization of the Southern Milky Way.” That topic was a result of Henk van de Hulst, who was a Dutch astronomer visiting at Harvard. I did an independent study with him, and he had done theoretical work on the polarization. When we thought about going to South Africa, it’s sort of, “Okay, what are we going to do?” So it was sort of a natural follow-up of that. He was another one who was very encouraging to me.
That’s incredible. That’s nice to have. When you were at Maryland, I know you taught a wide variety of courses. Did you have any students that popped out at all?
Yes. Well, one was Sou-Yang Liu And David Gottlieb. I think he changed fields after getting his degree, and I’m not sure what happened to Sou-Yang. I had a number of undergraduate students. I was advisor for undergraduate students interested in astronomy, so there were a number of them, whose names I’m afraid I can't remember.
That’s all right.
There were a couple of them went on for graduate work.
Nice. So after Maryland, you ended up at VCU. How did that happen?
Right. That happened because I was getting into administration. At Maryland I was one year… when Frank Kerr was on sabbatical, I was acting director of the astronomy… Well, at that time we called it the astronomy program; it was really part of the Physics Department. I’d also become involved in the administration of a general science program for undergraduates, and then I ended up as assistant vice chancellor at the central administration. After two years of that, the vice chancellor got a letter about looking for somebody for the dean at VCU and asked me was I interested? I said, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and I ended up there! [Laughing] And I felt good and I feel good about that transition. I was getting away from the research. The teaching was so-so, but I think I enjoyed being dean and it worked out very well.
That’s fantastic! [Laughter] It’s not many people can make that transition, so if you have the skills, that is excellent! And then from there, did you retire?
Well, after 12 years as dean, I decided that was enough, but I wasn’t ready to retire yet. So there had been talk that hadn’t gotten anywhere very much to do an environmental studies program, so I offered to take that on and ended up starting an environmental studies program, which has really blossomed since then, but it was pretty meager at the time I was there. Yeah, yeah.
I’m going to ask a little bit more about your involvement with trying to promote women in science.
Yes. I did have… One of my presentations at the AAAS was actually on, by invitation, discrimination of women in the sciences. So I did a study there, contacted a number of women astronomers to get their reactions and some sense of their experience. One of them was Connie Warwick. She and her husband had been both at Harvard, and to some extent there was some parallel between their careers and ours. They spent some time at Sac Peak. Yeah, she was another one who she was one of Bart Bok’s students, I think, and ended up doing solar. I remember at Maryland we had a couple of women students, and I never really thought very much about being a role model or anything, but I remember one of them saying later that I’d been a role model for her. [Laughs]
I think sometimes just seeing somebody in that role is enough.
Yes. Now you know, I’d never thought of Cecilia Gaposchkin being a role model, but the fact that she was on the observatory faculty and that I took a number of courses from her just indicated that yeah, it’s okay to… There are women astronomers who are active. [Laughs] Yes, and of course she was a very important astronomer. I don't think she got her full due. In fact, I wrote an obituary for her in Physics Today.
That’s wonderful. So you were able to take courses with her?
And you did?
That’s fantastic. Did she take a personal interest in you?
Well actually, Henry did his dissertation under her direction, so I don’t think she took a particular… It’s not as if she took me under her wing or anything.
Going back through your resume of sorts, it said that you spent a year at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Were you actually in Flagstaff or was that just associated?
Well actually, that was the first year at Sac Peak. I wasn’t initially that keen to change totally to solar physics, and I got a grant to do work at Lowell doing some more interstellar polarization. In fact, it was a couple of papers. So I would take a week at a time or something and spend it in Flagstaff. It wasn’t actually at Lowell; it was the Naval Observatory telescope in Flagstaff.
Who were you working with? With Art Hoag there?
I did some work with Art Hoag. Art was, I guess… Was he at the Naval Observatory or was he at Lowell?
He ended up at Lowell, but a lot of people started at the Naval Observatory. I’m not sure. I’d have to look it up.
Of course, Art ended up at Kitt Peak, and when I was at Maryland, I spent some time at Kitt Peak at the solar telescope on sunspots. Yeah.
Was it easy to get funding and time away to travel to do research?
Well, I remember I got a small grant for the Lowell stuff. The other…I may have. I know at one — That’s right. I was in charge of a big grant that was administrative with the Godard Space flight Center. I’m not really sure… There are publications. [Looking through papers]
Okay, yeah. I’m sure we can look in the survey.
Yeah, I was treasurer of the Solar Physics Division ‘70 to ‘74. I think I was Chief US Delegate to the 17th General Assembly of the IAU in ‘79. Yeah, research fellow… Oh, it says Lowell Observatory. Well, okay. That’s odd because I’m pretty sure it was the Naval Observatory telescope that I used.
I think I remember that from one of the papers that used the 40-inch at the Naval Observatory.
That’s right. Yeah.
There’s a lot of sharing in Flagstaff, so…
Yeah. It could well be. Yes, yes.
Did you ever serve as an editor for any of the journals or publications?
No. I occasionally reviewed papers, but…
Which journals did you primarily use?
Astrophysical Journal. Not the Astronomical Journal much, except that they published the abstracts of the papers that were presented at the AAS meetings.
This is kind of for historians that might use this later. Have you attempted to either save your papers or your husband’s papers? Maybe Henry’s papers are at NASA, but I’m wondering, all your work at Sac Peak, if your notebooks, things like that, have been saved anywhere.
Well, when you contacted me, I started looking for my papers, but I have a feeling that… I couldn’t find them, and I think that in a mood of getting rid of a lot stuff, I threw away… [laughing]… which is sort of silly, but…
No, that happens and that’s why something like this really helps.
Is there anything else you can think of that might help people understand the progression of solar physics, especially during your time at Sac Peak? And I think Sac Peak is special because it was the small environment, the small staff and kind of a small city, little town.
Yes, yes. Sac Peak was a special place. As you say, it was a small community; we used to say, 100 souls counting children but not dogs! There was support staff from the Holloman Air Base in Alamogordo. Well, at that time flares were not well understood at all. There were different theories as to how flares occurred and we made this attempt to try and clear that up, but it wasn’t really till the space program. I was interested that even in the preface here, we realized that the book might become obsolete shortly after it was published because the space program was building up, which indeed happened. [Pauses] I’m not sure how best to answer your question. Can you…
Yeah. What do you think the major accomplishments or points that you really moved forward with? I mean you said things may have become outdated really quickly, but the work you did is what allowed for future research to happen. Was there a sense for that or just… I’m just wondering how you saw your work at the time and what you were contributing to, if that makes sense.
Well, we were looking to understand what was going on on the surface of the sun. I did work on both solar flares and on the chromosphere and trying to understand the transition in temperature from the photosphere through the chromosphere to the corona because there was enormous difference in temperature that we didn’t really understand. How could the corona get that hot? I don’t know that we really contributed to that, but that was part of the problem. Our research was very much observational in nature. We were making the observations to try to get an understanding of what was happening rather than having a theory and seeing whether the observations would verify it. An associated institution was the radio astronomy observatory in Fort Davis. It was also run by Harvard, and we coordinated with them. They had originally thought of establishing it at Sac Peak, but that didn’t make any sense because it needed protective so that you wouldn’t get other radio signals. Fort Davis was…They couldn't get TV, for instance, which the local people didn’t like, but the astronomers thought it was great! [Laughing] When we met in Santa Fe for several years, the people from radio astronomy would usually be there. Alan Maxwell was in charge of that. I did some work on trying to see the connection between flares seen in H-alpha and certain radio bursts.
Kind of on that note, but my final question is about the instrumentation you used — how active, how hands-on you were with what kind of… whether you were using photomultipliers or photography. I’m wondering what your experience was hands-on with instrumentation.
Yes, yes. I’m trying to think. I think it was all photography that we were doing. There was the big dome, which had essentially two telescopes on the spar. The spar was a long… It was a four-sided tube. So they had one telescope which had an artificial… which was a coronagraph, and that’s what Dick Dunn used for the spicules. Then we had another lens that fed into the laboratory, which fed the spectrographs. Then at some later time, a heliostat was set up, but that came much later. And of course since then they’ve built a big telescope. I’m not sure how instrumental Henry and I were. I think Henry was quite instrumental, particularly in building what we call the universal spectrograph which had the separation of different sections of the whole spectrum by means of an echelle grating. But the big spectrograph was one of the early instruments that was designed and built by Jack Evans. And then there was a patrol camera, which was one that patrolled, got both—again, dual use. It had an H-alpha filter to get the pictures of the disk and a small coronagraph that did routine monitoring of the corona in, I think, three or four wavelengths. They were both patrol, and it was the staff for that telescope that was the group that Henry was in charge of.
Thank you. Is there anything you think I’ve missed? [Laughter] I’m sure there’s lots, but do you think there’s anything really important that you want preserved? A story or people that I’ve missed?
I think we’ve pretty well covered things.
Okay. Yeah, we can always add more later, for resources.
Yeah. Or if you have other questions as you go over stuff, then yeah.
Okay. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for that! That was fantastic.