Marcia Neugebauer

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Samantha M. Thompson
Interview date
Location
Neugebauer's home, Tucson, Arizona
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Interview of Marcia Neugebauer by Samantha M. Thompson on 2017 July 18,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/42831

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Marcia Neugebauer discusses her childhood in New York City; mother's education at Vassar; her education at Cornell University in physics and philosophy; applying for jobs and graduate school; Master's at the University of Illinois, working with David Lazarus measuring diffusion in metals; marriage to Gerry Neugebuer; interviewing with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); hired alongside Conway Snyder to study possible use of nuclear reactors for rocket propulsion; competition between the Army and Air Force; learning to work with instrumentation; Space Science Section of JPL; Ray Newburn; solar wind; Russian probes to study solar wind; Mariner 2 mission and subsequent media; Solar Wind Conference; Christopher Russell; Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ASLEP); International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE); Ulysses; leadership role with the American Geophysical Union (AGU); women in sciences and at JPL.

Transcript

Thompson:

This is Samantha Thompson. It is July 18, 2017. I’m with Marcia Neugebauer. We are at her home in Tucson, Arizona. Thank you so much for joining me. The goal of this project is to really get into people who helped form the field of heliophysics, but in part of that, we want to understand how you got to where you were to be able to do that. So I’d love to start with your youth and ask if you can talk about your family, your parents, what they did, and where you were born.

Neugebauer:

Okay. But before I start that, this morning I reread the biographical paper I published in JGR in 1997, and I would rather have people read that paper[1] than have me try to parrot it back because I wouldn’t do as good a job as I did when I wrote it.

Thompson:

Okay. I’ll try to uncover some of the other stories that you didn’t quite get a chance to get into.

Neugebauer:

I was born in New York City in 1932. Fifth generation born on Manhattan Island. I lived in the suburbs of New York until 1946 when my family moved to Vermont. I went to high school in Manchester, Vermont, at a school named Burr and Burton Seminary (now named Burr and Burton Academy). It was an old New England academy of which there’s still a handful left. It was a private school, but there was no public high school, so the town paid our tuition. It’s still the case that there’s no public high school for tens of miles around. It is an excellent school that gets their kids into really good colleges. I loved the place.

Thompson:

Did you have teachers there that really helped you figure out what you wanted to do?

Neugebauer:

They were very good. It was a small school. My class only had 42 seniors. I think there were 180 kids in the whole school. In a small Vermont town, not everyone goes to college, but you knew everybody. I had an excellent science teacher, but pretty much all the teachers were good.

Thompson:

That’s excellent. Did you play sports?

Neugebauer:

Oh yes, I played sports.

Thompson:

Often in a small town everybody has to be on the team.

Neugebauer:

Well, yes. I got called in by the headmaster once because I was on both the girls basketball team and the girls ski team, and they had the same season. Well, it turned out there never was a conflict. I hadn’t learned to ski till I got to Vermont, so I was not a very useful member of the ski team. My claim to fame was that once I didn’t come in last. I was tall, so I did well in basketball. I played soccer. I played softball.

Thompson:

Wonderful. So you said not everybody went to college, but was it expected in your family that you would go to college?

Neugebauer:

Yes. My mother and grandmother both graduated from Vassar. My father did not finish college.

Thompson:

What did he do?

Neugebauer:

He went into business, and then he was gone overseas during World War II, so I didn’t see anything of him when I was about age 10 to 12. He was very supportive of me when I was a teenager — teaching me to drive a car and use a slide rule.

Thompson:

What did your mom study at Vassar? Do you know?

Neugebauer:

She told me once, but I don’t remember. She never had a career. She and I had different personalities. She was a New York socialite, and I didn’t fit the mold. I was too big. I was too tall. My hair wasn’t curly enough for her taste, and I didn’t like that kind of life. I liked school. I liked sports. I did not like being a socialite, so I avoided that as much as I could.

Thompson:

So when you’re in high school and you assume that you’re going to go to college, why did you decide to go to Cornell?

Neugebauer:

Well, it was always assumed I would go to Vassar, which was still all girls then. One spring break — I guess it was my junior year — the family went to a resort in Florida where I met a girl from Rochester, New York, who was going to go to Cornell. I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting,” so I applied. I’m glad I went there. It was a great place. I don’t think I would have liked Vassar.

Thompson:

Did you go knowing that you would study physics or were you just…?

Neugebauer:

I declared physics as a major when I entered, but you don’t have to get serious about what you major in till the end of your sophomore year. I was assigned to a quite famous physicist, Philip Morrison, as my freshman advisor, and he tried to turn me off. He said something like “Girls don’t major in physics.” Well, I did and in my junior year I got a different advisor, who was very supportive.

Thompson:

Was it always going to be science that you knew you were going to go do?

Neugebauer:

I guess I must have thought I would do better figuring things out rather than memorizing. If I’d majored in some language or literature or history, I probably wouldn't have done very well.

Thompson:

Once you started taking classes, was there a certain area of physics that particularly interested you or a professor you enjoyed?

Neugebauer:

Oh, we had a full spectrum. No, I wouldn’t say there was a favorite class. In those years physics majors at Cornell had to have a minor, and it couldn’t be math because you had to take math anyway. Among the choices were astronomy, chemistry, and philosophy. In my junior year I took freshman astronomy and freshman chemistry and I hated them both! So I ended up minoring in philosophy.

Thompson:

Really?

Neugebauer:

I took a lot of philosophy courses in my senior year. But things like history of science, logic, and semantics counted as philosophy, so that was fun.

Thompson:

That’s good! Did you have other people that were majoring in science that went the philosophy route as their minor as well?

Neugebauer:

Not that I recall.

Thompson:

You don’t get that sort of thing.

Neugebauer:

We had a very famous physics class at Cornell. We have two Nobel Prize-winning classmates.

Thompson:

Who were those?

Neugebauer:

Sheldon Glashow and Steve Weinberg were both physics classmates, and several other people went on to do very well in physics after they graduated from Cornell and went off other places. My future husband and I were both accepted to graduate school at Cornell, but the head of the Physics Department took us aside and said, “We’d be glad to have you, but we think it’s best if you sample some other place as well.” So we left.

Thompson:

At that point in time, did you know what you wanted to do once you finished with grad school?

Neugebauer:

No.

Thompson:

Was it school for the sake of school?

Neugebauer:

I guess so.

Thompson:

[Laughs] Good.

Neugebauer:

I applied for a job at the same time I applied to graduate schools. I’d done a photography unit in the physics lab, and a photography company in Boston offered me a job — at $2,000 a year! Even in 1954 that was not a big salary. So I went to graduate school.

Thompson:

Do you recall if it was really competitive going to graduate school, finishing up at Cornell? Were classmates competitive?

Neugebauer:

I don’t recall that I had trouble getting in. I had good grades.

Thompson:

So you ended up at the University of Illinois for your master’s program.

Neugebauer:

Right.

Thompson:

Why did you choose to go there?

Neugebauer:

I really don’t know. It had a good reputation. That’s about it.

Thompson:

Had you ever been to that area of the country before?

Neugebauer:

No.

Thompson:

That wasn’t a problem?

Neugebauer:

My father had been in the Army Air Corps and came home from the war sure that airplanes weren’t safe, and no member of his family was allowed to fly. I think I flew to Illinois on my own dime.

Thompson:

Once you got to Illinois you worked for David Lazarus’ lab.

Neugebauer:

Yes, I worked in his lab my first summer there measuring diffusion in metals.

Thompson:

Did you choose to go work for him, or were you kind of placed in that job?

Neugebauer:

I don’t remember. I suspect Lazarus put out an ad in the department asking for people and I applied.

During my first semesters there, I was a TA earning a small amount of money running recitation sections.

Thompson:

Right. You have to do that, yeah. Was Lazarus hands-on in your lab? Was he present?

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah.

Thompson:

How was he as a supervisor, as a leader?

Neugebauer:

Well, we were supervised both by him and by his post-doc, Carl Tomizuka, and we probably saw more of Carl than we did of the professor himself.

Thompson:

Did you find the work interesting?

Neugebauer:

Mmm, it wasn’t dull. It wasn’t fabulous. I found both that job and my next one at Illinois somewhat frustrating — mainly because I didn’t get good data. (See Ref. 1 for more details of those experiences.)

Thompson:

I guess I’m trying to figure out as you’re moving forward, were you trying to narrow down an area of physics.

Neugebauer:

I wasn’t narrowing very fast. I didn’t have a particular field in mind, but I was leaning more towards observation than theory. That was pretty clear.

Thompson:

Did you have to write a thesis while you were there?

Neugebauer:

No. I did pass the written and oral exams required to go on for a Ph.D., even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do it.

Thompson:

So I remember reading in your article that you talked about, you know, you were going to go out to Pasadena, and you had initially thought about applying to Caltech. You mentioned that, but I was wondering if you could tell me more — what those conversations were like early on, if they were extensive at all, or if there was a brief mention.

Neugebauer:

I never applied to Caltech because it didn’t accept women. I left Illinois to marry Gerry who was then a graduate student at Caltech.

Thompson:

Were you looking specifically at JPL for jobs, or were you looking at other places?

Neugebauer:

I applied to both JPL and Hughes Aircraft. I had an interesting conversation with my grandfather, who was Yale class of 1903. I told him that I had these two job possibilities and what they were, and he got in touch with his old Yale classmate Colonel McCormick who told him, “Don’t let your granddaughter work for Hughes! He’s a dirty old man!” Of course Hughes Aircraft and Hughes the man had very little to do with each other. But JPL was a lot closer to Caltech than Hughes Aircraft, which was across town.

Thompson:

Did you have to interview for those jobs?

Neugebauer:

I did interview for JPL. I don’t remember interviewing for Hughes.

Thompson:

With JPL, did you know who you were going to work with or was it a general position that you were going into?

Neugebauer:

I was hired to work on the possible use of nuclear reactors for rocket propulsion.

Thompson:

I read that you first started working for or with Conway Snyder when you were there.

Neugebauer:

He and I were hired the same week and shared an office. He’d come from Oak Ridge.

Thompson:

How was he as a coworker?

Neugebauer:

Generally very good. We were famous for having a few fights on technical matters at the tops of our lungs maybe once or twice a year. But personality-wise we got along fine, and there were a lot of very nice people in that group.

Thompson:

Did you have a big team that you worked with?

Neugebauer:

It was a small team. When I started, there were maybe five people worrying about nuclear propulsion, and then when that ended, we sort of wandered around for a while.

Thompson:

Why did that end?

Neugebauer:

The Secretary of Defense said the Army couldn’t work on nuclear propulsion.

Thompson:

What were feelings about that by the team at JPL?

Neugebauer:

Oh, we hadn’t gotten into it very deeply. It was all pencil and paper. Except for paying our salaries, there was no real money spent on it.

Thompson:

What project did you tackle next?

Neugebauer:

Well, as I said in my article,[1] we started looking at ionized gases. And then the space age started.

Thompson:

So I really wanted to ask you about that. Was there a sense of what the space race meant at that time? I mean we think about it now looking back, but do you have a sense?

Neugebauer:

Well, until Sputnik, at JPL it was always Army versus Air Force rockets. It wasn’t US versus Soviet rockets at all. Another thing I didn’t put in that paper[1] was JPL got involved in developing Explorer 1 when the Vanguard mission didn’t go anywhere. So we at JPL knew it was going to be launched on a certain night, and we were sworn to absolute secrecy. The press didn’t know the launch was going to happen that night, and we were told, “If this leaks out, Eisenhower himself is going to find out who told!” My husband and I and two other people were driving to Yosemite to ski for the weekend. The other person in the car who knew about the launch and I kept saying, “Turn on the radio! We want to hear the news.” Our travelmates thought we were nuts.

Thompson:

Did it end up getting covered by the news?

Neugebauer:

It certainly did.

Thompson:

Were you directly involved with Explorer 1?

Neugebauer:

Very peripherally. I was one of the JPL people who helped the people who provided the scientific instruments as their on-site eyes and ears and to watch out for their interests as the spacecraft was being put together. I was assigned to the dust experiment, which used a microphone to listen for micrometeorite impacts.

Thompson:

Right! Wonderful. Did you quickly adapt to working with instrumentation? Were you confident going in with your ability to work on technical things?

Neugebauer:

Well, yes and no. I thought about the experiments. I was very active in designing our instruments, but they didn’t let me touch any flight hardware. My role was thinking about the hardware, what it had to do, and how to do it. Professional engineers took care of the hardware in every experiment I’ve been involved in. Once our first solar-wind instrument was built, we had to take it to calibrate it somewhere, but Conway got to touch it; I didn’t. [Chuckles]

Thompson:

Why was that?

Neugebauer:

Well, I don’t think I trusted myself. I don’t think they trusted me. Conway had built instruments in the past. I was perfectly happy with my role. I didn’t want to do it any differently.

Thompson:

Yeah, that makes sense. I guess the next instruments were launched when JPL was transferred from the Army to NASA. Could you sense something internal to JPL that things had changed? Did you notice any effect on day-to-day staff work?

Neugebauer:

JPL formed a Space Science Section. Before that, I was in a section called Physics and Chemistry. And the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory is now a misnomer. JPL stopped focusing on propulsion decades ago to do spacecraft, communications, trajectories, and all that.

Thompson:

That makes sense.

Thompson:

You wrote about working with Ray Newburn to create a list of priorities for future space missions.

Neugebauer:

Ray had a master’s degree in astronomy. I don’t know why they picked me. JPL wanted to get into doing science missions for NASA, and they were, in the beginning, mainly interested in deep space missions.

Thompson:

Okay. In that report, you focused on what became solar wind and comets.

Neugebauer:

Well, that was Ray’s and my contribution to the report. As I recall, other people wrote about the moon and planets. I don’t have a copy of the report.

Thompson:

Were you aware of kind of the debate circling solar wind?

Neugebauer:

Oh, very much so.

Thompson:

Did you have personal thoughts on it or no?

Neugebauer:

No. We just followed the literature and we came face-to-face with some of the proponents. Gene Parker came to Caltech on occasion and we got to talk to him and ask him questions. We were totally up on the controversies before we started designing the instruments.

Thompson:

Okay. The Russians sent up a couple of probes first. Were you excited for that? I guess I’m trying to get a sense of was it “Someone’s going to get some data and we can help work from there to design instruments,” or “We want to be the first to send something up”?

Neugebauer:

I don’t think we thought in either of those terms. It was just something we wanted to do. Fortunately the Russian experiments didn’t scoop us.

Thompson:

Right. And you had the same issue with Ames and MIT probes as well.

Neugebauer:

MIT came closest to scooping us.

Thompson:

How much time and approval needed to go in before you could get an instrument on a spacecraft, on a rocket? I just think of now if you try to get something launched, it’s years and years.

Neugebauer:

It was much quicker and more informal then.

Thompson:

Was there a sense of because you were internal to JPL you had a leg up on getting instruments on board?

Neugebauer:

No. It was quite competitive. The selection process has been described in a book by John Naugle,[2] NASA was trying to be kind to the universities. After all, Van Allen was at a university; Simpson was at a university; Parker was at a university. But NASA was also trying to spread the wealth.

Thompson:

Your role as project scientist — what kind of responsibility did you take for directing your teammates? Did you have a lot of managerial responsibility at that point?

Neugebauer:

Teammates? No. Back then, there was no such thing as a deputy or assistant project scientist. Here I’d like to just refer people to the “Project Work” section of my biographical article1.

Thompson:

Moving on to your instruments on Mariner 2, what pressure was there from the scientific community at large to answer certain questions?

Neugebauer:

The pressure to see whether or not there was a solar wind was very high.

Thompson:

How did they express that? Could you just have a sense of it, or did you have people actually contacting, seeing people at conferences? Were you going to scientific conferences at that point?

Neugebauer:

I can recall going to two scientific conferences before. One was an IUGG meeting in Helsinki, and the other was a conference on rarefied gases.

Thompson:

Were you reading scientific journals at that point?

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah.

Thompson:

Do you remember which ones?

Neugebauer:

Well, I think the earliest papers in our field all came out in AGU publications such as JGR. Lately, the field is tending to shift towards the Astrophysical Journal.

Thompson:

When the miraculous Mariner 2 made it, you guys got to go to D.C. for a news conference. I would really love to hear more about that, how you felt about going. Did they come to you and ask you? Did everyone from your team get to go?

Neugebauer:

The press conference was held to announce the interplanetary results before Mariner 2 got to Venus. There was only one representative for each instrument team. Conway and I were co-PIs, and I don't remember how it was decided I should go instead of Conway.

Thompson:

Were you happy to go?

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Thompson:

Was it a normal press conference? Were reporters asking questions, or was it kind of a “This is what we learned”?

Neugebauer:

I don’t remember. It was open to the press clearly, yes, but I don’t recall it being a huge room.

Thompson:

Yeah. I mean it appeared in some of the newspapers, so it was definitely —

Neugebauer:

The detection of the solar wind was on the front page of the New York Times above the fold!

Thompson:

So it was a big deal.

Neugebauer:

It was a big deal. Yeah.

Thompson:

So it wasn’t long after that that a lot of you started the solar wind conference.

Neugebauer:

The first Solar Wind Conference was held in 1964. It included data from the IMP-1 mission as well as Mariner 2.

Thompson:

What was the original purpose of that? Was it to get people in the same field to come together, to share information?

Neugebauer:

There were theoreticians as well as people showing their data, arguing about it, and explaining it. It was a strange conference in that we had a court stenographer taking it all down and then transcribing it, and of course some of the words were new to her and she did her (sometimes humorous) best. Then two of us at JPL took the transcripts and turned them into publishable papers. We also recorded the discussions and included them in the book. Although the book got rave reviews, I don’t know that anybody has ever tried that again!

Thompson:

It was a lot of work on your part.

Neugebauer:

Oh, it took us over a year. JPL’s reports group lent us someone for that year who taught me a lot about writing good English.

Thompson:

Was there any sense that you were kind of forming a new subgroup, subfield in the discipline?

Neugebauer:

No, I didn’t think of it that way.

Thompson:

Okay. Was there any discussion of — and I can check out the transcripts, but was there discussion of “We want to form a coalition. We want more instruments. We want to keep studying this”?

Neugebauer:

There was some mention of what it would be nice to do next. …Oh, one interesting thing was that the book was translated into Russian.

Thompson:

How did that happen?

Neugebauer:

I don’t know.

Thompson:

Did you have any Russians at the conference?

Neugebauer:

No.

Thompson:

I think I read that there were some 80 participants there.

Neugebauer:

That’s right.

Thompson:

Was this your first time meeting some of the other people involved with solar wind?

Neugebauer:

I’d met the major players by then, but some of them were new to me.

Thompson:

Did the theoreticians that were working on solar wind have any response to data proving them wrong? Did they feel like they needed data proving them right?

Neugebauer:

By the time of the conference everyone appeared to be convinced that the solar wind exists, but, of course, many aspects of it remained to be explored and debated.

Thompson:

You worked on many other missions after that that continued to study the sun, but you also worked on studying comets. Did you have an interest in one versus the other? I’m just wondering where your interest lay.

Neugebauer:

Not really, no. I never had to decide, “Do I work on this versus that?” I could analyze solar-wind data from one spacecraft while being project scientist for a comet mission.

Thompson:

After Mariner 2 came the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory?

Neugebauer:

Yeah.

Thompson:

Do you remember how that project began, what the impetus for it was? You worked with people like Chris Russell. Do you remember how he was as a colleague?

Neugebauer:

When we started to work together, Chris was a graduate student at UCLA. He had the OGO magnetometer data and I had the particle data and it made sense to put them together.

Thompson:

When I’m reading about the work you did, you seemed to enjoy the collaborations and the projects.

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Thompson:

I’ll let you speak if there’s anything you didn’t enjoy as we go through, but when you were working on the Apollo lander experiments, did you get the opportunity to work alongside any of the astronauts who were setting up instrumentation on the moon.

Neugebauer:

Not really, no. We were pretty far removed from the astronauts. That project was incredibly drawn out. The astronauts would practice with a mockup of the instrument to put it down in a certain orientation, but when they got to the Moon, they just plopped it down without aligning it.

Thompson:

Oh, really?

Neugebauer:

Luckily they remembered to take a picture, and so we could tell how far off it was so we could take that into account when we analyzed the data.

Thompson:

I guess that’s good luck.

Neugebauer:

Years later, Harrison Schmitt came to JPL. I briefly told him what we had learned comparing Apollo 15 and Apollo 12 ALSEP data. He was interested. His specialty was moon rocks and things like that and he hadn’t heard about some of the ALSEP experiments.

Thompson:

Was Conway Snyder still working on that project?

Neugebauer:

Yes, he was.

Thompson:

Was it just after that that he went to go work on Mars, or did you have more projects together?

Neugebauer:

I think that was when he became project scientist for some Mars missions. He never built another instrument but stayed in the management end of projects.

Thompson:

With him moving over, did you take lead or did they bring someone up?

Neugebauer:

I led the science group, but JPL never built another solar-wind instrument.

Thompson:

Was that on purpose? I think you had done proposals to do more studies.

Neugebauer:

Yeah. We proposed for ISEE (the International Sun-Earth Explorer). Our proposal wasn’t selected by NASA because they didn't want to pay for instrument development. They just wanted off-the-shelf, something ready to go at minimum cost. (More details in Ref. 1.)

Thompson:

Had they provided funding for instrumentation development before that?

Neugebauer:

Yes. And later we got instrument development money for our contribution to an instrument that flew on Giotto. For comet missions there was enough lead time to design and build new specialty instruments. (More details in Ref. 1.)

Thompson:

After Giotto you had Ulysses, right?

Neugebauer:

Yes. JPL had no hardware responsibility for the Ulysses solar-wind experiment, but we handled the data. Commands were sent from JPL, and the data went through our group’s computer at JPL before we distributed it to Los Alamos, which was really in charge, and to the other co-I’s spread around the world. We did a lot of data analysis on Ulysses.

This brings me to my current crusade. NASA has a data archive, which I’ve used a lot in my research. We sent them all the Ulysses data they required, which was only very simple parameters — velocity, density, and temperature. But many modern studies require full 2- or 3-dimensional distribution functions. Now AGU, and probably other organizations, won’t publish a paper unless the data are available to the public. Well, all the Ulysses ion data are sitting on antiquated computer in an office at JPL and it’s not connected to the Internet. So three of us have submitted a proposal to NASA to revive all this very valuable calibrated and reduced spectral data to make it publicly available. I think that for more recent missions NASA requires a lot more than they did back in 1990. (Note: NASA did fund the proposal a few months after this interview.)

Thompson:

Did you similarly work with data from SOHO, or what was your involvement with that mission?

Neugebauer:

I was a co-I on the CELIAS experiment on SOHO. I worked a bit with them in designing their instrument, but I wasn’t very useful. I used the SOHO data to discover that there was a time when the Earth was in the magnetic tail of Venus.

Thompson:

Really.

Neugebauer:

. I also used SOHO CELIAS data when I compared five different spacecraft observing the same interplanetary shock wave.

Thompson:

While you were working project after project after project, I know you spent some time at UCLA. I’m wondering, did you teach at all or was it lecturing?

Neugebauer:

I gave a series of Regents Lectures at UCLA. It was just one semester.

I also spent one academic year at Caltech in geophysics. Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and I gave a course on comets and asteroids, and that was sort of fun. They did asteroids and I did comets. It was a lab course, which meant that the Shoemakers gave the kids images they’d taken, and the kids had to find asteroids. If they found new ones, they got to report them to Cambridge, and if they were confirmed by someone else, they got to name them. We had one pair of students who put in two findings, and one of them was confirmed. What did they want to name it? Well, they each had a girlfriend with a different name, so finally they said, “We want to name it Mother.” “No. Mater maybe, but Mother, no.” Luckily the second one came through and they each got to name one.

Thompson:

Did you ever have grad students at JPL that worked under you temporarily?

Neugebauer:

We sometimes had summer students, yeah. One of them went onto graduate school and stayed in the field.

Thompson:

Do you remember who that was?

Neugebauer:

Kristin Simunac.

Thompson:

Did you enjoy working with younger students?

Neugebauer:

I’m afraid my first experiences weren’t very good. I didn’t really know how to get them doing anything useful. By the time Kristin came along, I was doing better.

Thompson:

It’s a learning experience for all of us, yeah.

Neugebauer:

Right.

Thompson:

What was the community like at JPL? Did you have parties during the summertime or the holidays?

Neugebauer:

Well, it was a huge place, and our group had occasional outings and things. Now here is one place where being female made a difference. At one point, the guys in one of the Sections I was in would reconvene in a local bar on Friday afternoons. Well, I never was invited to join them. Of course, I had to go home to my husband anyway, but those guys didn't care about rushing home to their families. That kind of thing.

Thompson:

Okay. Wow.

Neugebauer:

It was basically a friendly place, but you tended to socialize just with people in your own section or division and not too much with others.

Thompson:

Did you continue to go to other conferences?

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah. I was very active in the AGU for years.

Thompson:

And you had some leadership roles with AGU?

Neugebauer:

Yeah. AGU has sections, and there’s one now called Space Physics and Aeronomy. I was talked into running for section secretary and I won. That meant I had to organize who gave what paper and that kind of stuff. Then I ran for section president and I won that. Then I applied to be editor of what was then called Reviews of Geophysics and Space Physics. When I went to the interview in San Francisco, I looked at my feet and saw I had on one black shoe and one brown shoe, but nobody said anything. I was asked if I’d like to do just space physics, and I said I was willing, but that I’d much rather be editor-in-chief, so that’s what they picked me for. The aim was to have all of the review papers be intelligible to people not in the author’s specific field. I had assistant editors in the different fields, so one of my criteria was that I had to read each of the papers, and if I didn’t understand it, they had to define their terms better. After a few years I’d learned those terms, so I wasn’t that good at the job anymore! But I really enjoyed it and I learned an awful lot.

Thompson:

Oh, that’s fantastic.

Neugebauer:

The assistant editors were all new and gung ho. It worked out very nicely. It came out four times a year, and there were only four to six papers in each issue, so it wasn’t a huge job.

Thompson:

Still time-consuming.

Neugebauer:

And then somehow I got asked to run for president of the AGU and I won that. So I was the first female president of the AGU.

Thompson:

Do you think you felt closer to the AGU community than AAS or any of the others?

Neugebauer:

Well, my husband belonged to both the AAS and the AAAS, and there was no sense in paying two sets of dues and getting two subscriptions to Science magazine

Thompson:

Over the course of your life, you’ve won a lot of awards. Did any of them mean anything extra special to you? Do any of them really stand out? I have a long list of them all.

Neugebauer:

I think the awards that meant the most to me were being named the California Woman Scientist of the Year (1967), AGU fellow (1989), NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1989), COSPAR Award for Space Science (1998), Honorary Doctor of Physics, University of New Hampshire (1998), National Academy of Sciences Arctowski Medal (2010), and American Astronomical Society Hale Prize (2010).

Thompson:

I’m curious how you saw yourself as a woman in a scientific field, that if you were conscious of it or you thought, “I’m just working”?

Neugebauer:

No, I was clearly an anomaly, at least at first. Back in physics classes at Cornell, I noticed an interesting thing. It was better to be the only woman in a class than one of two because if there were two of you, the guys figured you could talk to each other. If there was only one of you, everybody was friendly.

As far as being a female in the workforce, I never was harassed, but I certainly was discriminated against. I started out with a lower rank and lower salary than a male colleague who did not have as strong a background as I had.

When the Space Science Section was started, it was broken into groups and I was head of one of the groups. The new organization chart showed a Group Supervisor for every group except mine; I was the Group Leader. The boss’s explanation was that I didn’t make enough money to be Group Supervisor. I quickly suggested a remedy for that! By the time I left JPL decades later I was earning a wonderful salary.

There was also an awkward in-between period when every committee seemed to have to have a token woman. I did not like that. They also had to have a token black, and the token black and I sat through many committees together because they often picked the same two of us.

Thompson:

So I guess it had its ups and downs as to being singled out.

Neugebauer:

Yeah. I think that as for being elected president of AGU, being female probably helped. Some people seemed to want to push females at that particular time.

Thompson:

Did you notice any time when more women started to be hired, or was it a trickling effect?

Neugebauer:

Oh, the numbers have really gone up in recent decades. Absolutely. Especially in astronomy. Astronomy is almost 50% women now, isn’t it?

Thompson:

Yeah. My graduating class, we had more women than men.

Neugebauer:

Where was that?

Thompson:

I was at Berkeley. That was undergrad, but it was five to four, women over men.

Neugebauer:

Yeah. Things have really changed a lot.

Thompson:

You retired in 1993?

Neugebauer:

‘96.

Thompson:

‘96. Did you stick around JPL?

Neugebauer:

Oh, yeah. I came back the next day. Instead of wearing a skirt and pantyhose, I wore jeans, and I came back as a Distinguished Visiting Scientist and worked as many hours as I wanted because I had brought in my own grant money. I had retired because I didn’t want to do anymore project scientist jobs. NASA would have you work your tail off to plan a new mission and then decide not to do it, and I didn’t want to do that kind of work anymore. So I came back the next day as a Distinguished Visiting Scientist, kept my office, and did science instead of management.

Thompson:

What did you work on after that?

Neugebauer:

I got involved in the Genesis mission, whose purpose was to collect solar-wind ions in space and return them to Earth for detailed elemental and isotopic analyses. Genesis started out with some development funding from Caltech and ended up as NASA’s 5th Discovery mission under the leadership of Don Burnett, a Caltech cosmo-chemist. An extensive description of the mission is given in Ref 3.[3] My role included some of the design of the instruments built by Los Alamos and development of the algorithm to determine when to deploy each of the several collectors. Genesis collected solar wind from late 2002 to early 2004. Unfortunately, the parachute didn’t open and the return capsule crash landed in the Utah desert, which meant that the people at Johnson Space Center have had to work very long and hard to separate solar matter from Utah matter. I have not been involved in the sample analysis, but I believe the cosmo-chemists have been able to use the samples to address several significant problems in planetary science.

At the same time, Ulysses was continuing to measure the solar wind at high solar latitudes. On investigating what looked like some very anomalous data, I discovered that Ulysses had spent a week in the tail of Comet McNaught.

In 2002 my husband and I moved to a retirement community outside Tucson. It was founded by Henry Koffler, a retired president of the University of Arizona, who wanted a place where old folks could keep their brains alive. My husband and I each had adjunct appointments at the University of Arizona. He was at Steward Observatory and I’m with the Lunar Planetary Laboratory. The LPL heliophysics group is largely theorists and they do computer simulations, while I do data analysis. I’ve been integrating information about the solar wind into their studies of energetic particles.

Thompson:

Are you still working on that?

Neugebauer:

Right now I don’t have a good project to work on.

Thompson:

Are you looking for one, though?

Neugebauer:

Once the Ulysses data are available, I may look at distribution functions behind shocks to compare to my colleagues’ simulations.

Thompson:

Right.

Neugebauer:

A while after we moved here in 2002, I was invited to be on the advisory committee and the Board of Directors for the Arizona Senior Academy. Then in 2004 Henry Koffler decided he didn’t want to continue as the President of the Academy and I took on the job. I was President of the Academy for ten years, which meant organizing its many programs (concerts, lectures, Spanish and art classes) while I was also in charge of the building, the finances, and everything else. Three years ago, I decided I didn’t want to do that much anymore, so now I’m only the vice president in charge of programs. When the roof leaks, it’s someone else’s problem, but I’m still quite involved in the Academy.

Thompson:

Wonderful.

Neugebauer:

It has its frustrating moments, but it’s been fun.

Thompson:

Do you go to the University of Arizona very often?

Neugebauer:

Well, no. We have so many lectures and activities out here.

Thompson:

Right.

Neugebauer:

Unfortunately we’re awfully far from the University. When my husband was alive and still active, we went fairly often. We each had an office and would spend maybe ten or more hours there a week. I don’t go in that often anymore. It’s so easy to play with data at home. Why drive 23 miles and then worry about a parking place?

Until last year the heliophysics group of LPL had a weekly seminar luncheon with the National Solar Observatory staff. Unfortunately, the Solar Observatory has now moved to Boulder, leaving only a few solar physicists behind. Now we get together at LPL once or twice a month to talk about our current work.

Thompson:

Still, you’re doing a lot!

Neugebauer:

I just do it for entertainment and to try and keep my brain alive.

Thompson:

Do you have a dream project? “I wish I could have done this project. I wish I could have gotten the budget for it.”

Neugebauer:

Oh, I was so jealous of the Rosetta mission! NASA could have done it with its CRAF mission which I’d worked hard on for a few years, but it decided not to. The Europeans did a wonderful job of sending the spacecraft to live with a comet.

Thompson:

Yeah. I was lucky enough I was at a DPS meeting actually here in Tucson that year when Rosetta landed, and that was very exciting.

Thompson:

Are all of your papers at JPL? Did they hold onto things?

Neugebauer:

I doubt it. I have all my publications on a shelf here.

Thompson:

Do you have any sense of where you’d like to… if you’ll leave them with an archive somewhere, like at U of A?

Neugebauer:

Nobody cares about keeping the published papers because they’re all available on line.

Thompson:

But some of those — working papers showing your process…

Neugebauer:

I don’t keep many working papers. No. Nobody’s going to learn anything from any papers leave behind.

Now my husband had a very different situation. He was a founder of infrared astronomy, and there was a period when he was the Director of the Palomar Observatory and then chairman of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Math, and Astronomy. As Division Chair, he was embroiled in what we called the “LIGO wars” which involved some serious personality conflicts in the early years leading up to the detection of gravitational radiation. All his papers from those struggles, and other efforts he was involved in, are now in the Caltech archives. I just wish he’d lived to see that LIGO worked.

Thompson:

Yeah, it’s been a real success now.

Neugebauer:

So anything else you want to ask?

Thompson:

I think that’s it. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention?

Neugebauer:

You asked me about our kids. I didn’t tell you anything about them. I have two daughters, one on each coast.

Thompson:

Did either of them end up in a science?

Neugebauer:

No. About age 12 or 13 each of them in turn declared, “I hate science! I hate math!” One of them majored in psychology and got a law degree, and the other majored in political science, got a master’s in that, and became a congressional staffer before being employed by the NAACP. So very different from their parents.

Thompson:

That’s fantastic. Yeah. Thank you so much. It’s been helpful.

[1]Marcia Neugebauer, “Pioneers of Space Physics: A Career in the Solar Wind,” Journal of Geophysical Research 102 (1997): 26887-26894.

[2]John Naugle, First Among Equals: The selection of NASA Space Science Experiments (NASA SP-4215, 1991)

[3]Space Science Reviews, Vol. 102, Nos. 1-2, p. 1-171, 2002