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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of George Abell by Spencer Weart on 1977 November 14,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Early life in California, undergraduate work at Caltech (1947-51), graduate work at Caltech in physics and astronomy, including work at Mt Wilson-Palomar (1951-54), Accounts of Palomar sky survey (1953-56) and work on galaxies Impressions of instructors, among them Rubble, Zwicky, Baade, Minkowski Abell joined UCLA astronomy department in 1956 and describes its history, faculty, and expansion Discussion of Abell’s professional interest in popularization of astronomy since 1960’s (textbook, BBC-Open University work, campaign against astrology, summer science program) and technical work on super-clusters and cosmology.
George, I know from your Who’s Who that you were born in Los Angeles in 1927 but I don’t know anything else about your family, your parents.
Let’s see. I’m a Pisces with Scorpio rising. [Laughter] My father has his name in Who’s Who also: Theodore C. Abell, a Unitarian minister. He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1890, and died in Sacramento in 1960. He had left home to go to college to become a minister. He started off I think to be a Methodist, but I guess when he went to school, as he put it, he went through a hellish reappraisal of his religious convictions and ended up a Unitarian.
Then he became a Unitarian minister?
Yes. My mother was born in 1896, died 1968. Her name was Annamarie Ogden, her maiden name. I was born actually on the 21st birthday of her younger brother. I was named after him. That’s why I’m called George Ogden Abell. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Both she and my father met in Los Angeles. What more do you want to know about my family?
What was her education?
She had studied to be a librarian, and actually worked at a library, I think, for a while; I don’t think very much. She and my father were divorced when I was about six. She eventually went to work and became a social worker.
And you lived with your mother?
I lived with my mother. We lived with my grandfather, as a matter of fact, for a number of years; I guess six years or seven. He was George Ogden, an author of westerns mostly, but fairly high quality westerns.
Did he have much of an influence on you?
I suppose. It’s hard to say.
You knew him?
Oh sure. In fact he died at the age of 96. Born, I think, 1861; died in 1967. He had only an elementary school education, I think up through the eighth grade, left home to work on the railroad, and eventually got a job as reporter for the Kansas City Star, from which he was eventually fired because all he could do was write. So he took the letter with which he was fired to the Chicago Tribune, I think, and was hired there. He was very successful as an author.
Did you have brothers or sisters?
No. I have a half-brother who is about twenty years younger than I.
Your father remarried?
Yes, he remarried.
I see. Did you have much contact with your father after that?
Oh yes, I saw him quite regularly.
I see. Did you read a lot in your childhood? In particular, were there science books that might have influenced you?
I was interested in astronomy from youth, I guess from about the age of eight. I think what got me interested in astronomy was that my father took me to the Griffith Planetarium shortly after it opened, and used to take me fairly often. I recall the lectures by Clarence Cleminshaw always impressed me. He probably got me interested, got me into the field.
You remember -- that planetarium shows that sort of thing?
Yes. Cleminshaw’s lectures and the whole thing turned me on a lot. So I read all the books on astronomy I could find. I read lots of things, but I don’t remember exactly the list, I guess a lot of the usual kinds of books. My grandfather had a large library, things like Robinson Crusoe. I was never much of a science fiction fan. I have read some science fiction, I like some stories, but I haven’t gotten into it to the point where you’d say I was a real fan.
I see. Were there other scientific subjects that interested you, or was it mainly astronomy?
I was in general interested in science in high school, and mathematics, but I guess mainly astronomy. I also read all the standard horror stories -- such as Dracula; and I was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, and through the Holmes stories I got into other of Doyle’s works. As for literature, I was not so much interested in Shakespeare as a youth; that came much later. Today I love Shakespeare. Are you interested in hobbies, too?
Go ahead, tell me.
I like music and collect records; especially old records I have a special interest in collecting vocal records from 1900, of great singers.
And this began already before you went to college?
No. I was interested in music as long as I can remember, but the collection of old records began roughly when I was a graduate student.
Did you do any lens grinding or amateur astronomy?
Not really. I did make a mirror once for a telescope, but never actually got around to mounting it. I’m not very interested in mechanical things, that is to say, I’m not an instrument person primarily.
I’m always interested to find out whether people made mirrors in their youth or not.
No. I wired up amplifiers and that sort of thing.
Was your schooling partly at home or mainly in school?
No, it was regular public schooling.
In your early home life, what sort of feeling did people around you have about science, what general impressions?
It’s hard to remember. My mother was a disaster at scientific things. I once asked her much later in my life to draw an angle, and it had hair on it; completely non-mathematically oriented. My father was very interested in natural things, all things, science, natural history, flowers, trees, everything.
I see. So this is why he took you to the planetarium. He would take you to museums and so forth?
That’s right. I think he probably was more influential than anybody at getting me oriented toward science, although never overtly; he was just interested in things himself.
I guess it’s a natural thing. He sees you on the weekend or whatever and you go to a museum…
That sort of thing. Also before my parents’ divorce, I remember, he was interested in things like that. My grandfather was widely read but had no special interest in science, although he certainly was widely read and had some knowledge.
What about in your school? Did you learn anything in particular, were there secondary school teachers that had a particular influence on you?
Not overly. I remember some who were quite good, and some that weren’t, but no one high school teacher got me into science. I was already committed.
You were already interested.
Sure. I took the usual science and mathematics available at Van Nuys High School. I got essentially A’s in all the math and science subjects.
Were there other courses that particularly interested you that you enjoyed particularly in high school?
I remember I was not very interested in languages and did not do very well. I got A’s, but I didn’t like it very well, in things like Spanish. I generally liked school pretty well. I liked English, history less but all right, I guess I got more interested in history when I was older.
We’re interested in what effects the family’s social or financial position may have on future scientists. Can you think of ways your family’s position this way may have given you an advantage or disadvantage?
No, I don’t think so. The family was not poor or rich. My mother and father were average income. He was a minister as I say, but also he was the founder of the Hollywood Humanist Society.
Oh, I’ve heard of that.
There is an American Humanist Society now, which is not related. The Hollywood Humanist Society I don’t think still exists, but it flourished when he founded it. I believe he gave it up soon after the divorce and I think it stopped the society, if I’m not mistaken. But he had regular radio programs, and my parents were okay during the Depression, I understand. Not well to do, but not having financial problems. My grandfather was fairly well off. He lived in a big house in Van Nuys. Again he wasn’t wealthy, but he got along okay, always plenty of food and that sort of thing. My mother and I lived with my grandfather and grandmother after my parents’ divorce. My grandmother died when I was 12. Later, my mother wanted to be on her own, and she and I moved out when I was 13 or 14, I’ve forgotten exactly. We were struggling then. The family helped her along somewhat. She at first tried doing clerical work; wasn’t very good at it, but got a job as a social worker.
Did you have part-time jobs?
Oh yes, I had many, many part-time jobs. Everything I can think of, many at once. Let’s see. I delivered newspapers, worked at a gas station on Sundays -- these are different jobs at different times -- sometimes I worked at the post office in Van Nuys, had a regular mail route after school, an afternoon delivery to the Mexican area of Van Nuys, worked at bowling alley setting pins and also at the soda fountain at the bowling alley, I worked at a restaurant (in fact for several years that was one of the better jobs), at a grocery store, mowed lawns, washed windows, I always had jobs.
You kept very busy.
During the war it was easy. School never took any time; my homework was always done during classes, so I worked every afternoon and evening and on weekends.
There was plenty of work for people during the war.
Yes, it was very easy then for young people to get jobs. Not so today, but at that time it was very nice. There were other jobs too, but lots and lots of part time jobs.
I have a picture of you as continually busy.
Yes. Then of course when I graduated from high school I went into the service. I had volunteered; I would have been drafted if I hadn’t, so I volunteered in what was then the Army Air Corps.
Before we get into that I have one other question: did you have any formal religious training when you were a child?
No, I didn’t.
What were the feelings about religion in your family?
My father was I guess you’d say an agnostic, pretty close to an atheist. One definition of a Unitarian is one who believes in at most one God, but he rejected that definition on the grounds that it was too restrictive. He said you could believe in as many or as few gods as you wanted. [Laughter] My family was all agnostic. My mother’s family was Catholic, not her father but her mother had been brought up as a Catholic and when she married my grandfather, (that’s my mother’s mother), she gave up religion formally. Many of her family were still Catholics.
I see. But you were isolated from this.
Yes. So I was brought up heathen.
Okay, now tell me about the Army Air Corps. This would have been in 1945.
Yes. I took the usual barrage of exams for officer, you know, pilot, bombardier, navigator, and qualified for all of them, and just then the war was over and the schools were closed down. I became a weather observer. I got sent to Japan, which was very interesting. I was there six months, and was finally discharged after eighteen months of service. I was a sergeant when discharged.
Just let me ask you, because I ask everybody: what was your reaction when you heard about Hiroshima?
I don’t remember much. I was in basic training at the time. I remember they broke out lots of beer, but at the time I didn’t drink beer, a nutty kid. So it didn’t mean much to me. The war was over; I was happy about that. I had no moral thoughts about it at that time. A lot later, when I was in Japan, I saw Hiroshima, and it was kind of a mess to be sure. It wasn’t as thoroughly bombed as some places that had been bombed over and over again, like Nagoya, which was completely flattened except for a few buildings downtown. Of course Tokyo was badly bombed, and Yokohama. I’ve always had a general distaste for violence and war. But at that time we had been conditioned to thinking the Japanese were terrible people because, you know, they started this war and were so nasty and they tortured everybody. No one had a very clear picture that they were actually human beings. It was kind of an interesting experience to go to Japan and find that they had two legs and a head and were human beings and nice people. That was a very interesting experience.
I see. So then you did have some contact with them?
I’m interested that you went as a weather observer, because that’s already in a way of scientific sort of thing. Was that purely by chance through these tests?
Oh gosh. As soon as the flight schools were all closed down, then one had to rethink what he wanted to do in a hurry. And that was an option open to me, to go to weather school, so I did.
It sounded more interesting than some of the other…
Yes. I went to Chanute Field, Illinois, to weather school, and on finishing that I had the option of staying there and going to forecasting school. Then I would have had to become an officer and enlist for a longer period of time. At that time, the war was over, no one had any idea when we’d get out but we all thought that was the most important thing and it would probably be faster as enlisted man, or it could be. And also it was a chance to go overseas. So I elected not to go forecasting school, I think wisely.
I see. So then after a year and a half you were discharged?
Yes, as a sergeant. I came back to California, got a job temporarily working at a gasoline station, while I took the exams for Cal Tech, passed, and was admitted the following fall semester.
I see. You had to pass an entrance examination to get in?
Yes, they had their own entrance exams in those days. I think they were two different Saturdays. There were four tests if I remember, I’ve forgotten, chemistry, physics, mathematics and English maybe, but I’ve forgotten.
Very technical in general.
Generally technical, yes.
I think it would have been difficult because you’d been out of high school for so long. But I suppose other people had too.
I thought it was going to be and, I boned up a little bit, but it turned out I did okay. In fact I was in one of the honor sections, so I guess I was in the upper quarter at least.
Did you expect from an early age to go to college?
Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I expected to go to Cal Tech from an early age.
Why Cal Tech?
Well, Southern Californians, that’s all we ever heard about. In Van Nuys High School the place to go was Cal Tech, so I had my eyes set upon it. Now looking back on it, I’m glad I did, but I also realize how provincial I was, because there were other schools that were pretty good. Not quite as good.
Given your interest in astronomy --
It turned out to be quite gratuitous.
You must have known something about Palomar?
I was interested in astronomy, yes, all that time. The Palomar 200-inch actually was installed or put into operation while I was at Cal Tech.
But you must have read something?
I knew about it, of course. Oh, sure, I knew about it quite well. Something was in my mind that I was going to comment on but, oh, part-time jobs. To wind up that part-time job bit, while I was going to college I also got a job as a guide at Griffith Observatory.
We’ll get back to that.
You want to come back to that, okay. That was a very important job.
I certainly want to get back to that, but first let’s talk about Cal Tech. I have a number of questions about what it was like at Cal Tech at that time, but first of all, one question: how were you supported financially when you were at Cal Tech?
The GI bill. It was just enough to get me through. I forget what the allowances were, $600 a year I think we were given, or maybe $900. I remember, it was something like $90 or $100 a month subsistence, and tuition up to $600. Well, the Cal Tech tuition was $600 in those days, and the subsistence was just enough to pay my way at the student dormitories.
So you lived in a dormitory, you didn’t live at home.
Fleming House, to be exact.
When you went there, did you already intend to major in astronomy?
Yes. And of course, my freshman year there was no astronomy department, although they were planning to have one. It didn’t matter because all freshmen took the same courses anyway, or the same curriculum. By the time I was a sophomore the astronomy department had opened, and I changed major from physics to astronomy.
I see. What courses did you take, or what teachers there particularly impressed you?
What teachers impressed me at Cal Tech over the time I was there?
As an undergraduate.
As an undergraduate. My freshman physics was with a fellow named Foster Strong, and he was quite good as a freshman physics teacher, and I would say quite rigorous, and he made a positive impression he got me quite interested in mechanics and physics. The mathematics was taught largely by teaching assistants, and fortunately I had very good teachers, I think. I don’t remember any names. In humanities I was very impressed with some of the people. One person I liked extremely much was Alfred Stern, who was a philosopher, but he was teaching elementary languages at Cal Tech, both French and German; an extremely sweet guy. He had a tragic story in his own right which I won’t take time to go into -- he managed to get out of Germany (he was Jewish and had to get out) and it was kind of a harrowing story how he managed to get out. I think he joined the French Army and of course France fell, I think he fought in Africa and then went to Mexico. And all this time he had lost his standing as a professor, all his manuscripts were lost and so forth, so he effectively started from scratch again.
I see. Did you have contact with other people in the humanities when you were there?
Oh gosh. Alec Smith. I’ve forgotten some of their names, it’s been so long.
That’s not so important, because one can find the names.
Feynman came, actually, when I was a graduate student, so I never had a course from Feynman. But I had courses from a number of Nobel Prize people. Linus Pauling taught freshmen chemistry. I had a biology course as a sophomore. Everyone took certain so-called breadth requirements, both in humanities and in science fields out of your own. For example, everyone took a quarter course in astronomy, and a quarter course in biology, and so on. The biology course was taught by Max Delbruck, who later got a Nobel Prize, and the lab teacher was a fellow named George Beadle, who also later had a Nobel Prize. I recall Beadle as an extraordinarily sweet fellow, and he would come around to everybody doing the experiment and ask how they’re getting on and what could they see and so forth; a very nice guy. My mathematical physics as a junior was taught by Carl Anderson, who already had a Nobel Prize.
You certainly had a stellar group of people. Were they generally good teachers?
Generally they were very good. Delbruck was a disaster at teaching biology, but that was the first time he ever tried it.
In general did the course distress you? Were you really panting to keep up?
You see, I was already -- in fact most of the people were veterans then.
Some of them must have been older than you.
I think I was probably average. How do I answer? You see, I never knew any other university, and looking back I realize I worked a lot harder than people at UCLA work. At the same time, I didn’t study as hard as I should have. I could have done better, I think, had I studied more. And I worked part time while I was going to college, about half time at Griffith.
Some people when they leave high school and go into a place like Cal Tech experience a great shock.
No, that’s not true in my case. I had to do homework, which I didn’t have to do in high school, to be sure. But as I say, I didn’t work as hard as I really should have. Some courses were quite easy and some were quite obscure, or there were some obscure courses I had later on in my career at college, but by in large they weren’t too bad. I was trying to think of other teachers. Of course Jesse Greenstein I had as a senior the first time, getting into astronomers.
Tell me about your astronomy courses when you were an undergraduate.
The first one I took was given by J. J. Johnson. He and Zwicky were the two people at Cal Tech in astronomy. I don’t know whether Johnson taught anything else; he wasn’t a very good teacher. I think he was an assistant of Zwicky mostly. But he gave that sophomore course and it was the same course every year, everyone knew exactly what to expect. It must have turned people off astronomy. Luckily I was already involved.
Celestial mechanics and that sort of thing?
Yes, and I think four or five topics he’d cover, and he said the interesting things you could read in the book. So he talked about the subjects and they were very easy, I got 100% on everything. I think that was the first time it had happened but of course it was easy for me. Zwicky never gave courses. He was always in the catalog but when I was there he was never teaching formal courses any more. He was a strange guy. People knew better than to sign up with him. I only knew one person who even signed up for an independent study course with him, and that was Hugo Waiquist(?) I think. I think that all he did was some calculations or worked as an assistant for Zwicky. I knew Zwicky quite well, but mainly as a graduate student at Palomar, not as an undergraduate.
He would give courses and people would come and listen but not sign up?
No. He never gave any formal course at all. There were courses offered in the catalog, but no one ever took them, so he never gave them in my experience there.
Maybe that was the way he wanted it.
Oh I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I think he would have been happy to have some students but he was too strange a fellow for students to sign up with. What’s the word I’m trying to think of -- I’m not awake yet this morning, as you can tell.
Would you like some coffee?
I’d love some. [Short pause] Well, to continue. Alfred Joy gave a course that I took as a junior. That was a new course they were giving in general astronomy. I think there were only two or three students.
Is that so? You must have been one of the first undergraduates in fact.
Yes I was.
It was just at the right time.
I think I was the only undergraduate in my class, as a matter of fact.
I see. So you had some graduate students. Who were they?
As a matter of fact, I can’t recall, as a junior, who were the graduate students. There was also another undergraduate or two who weren’t in my class. One fellow was a year ahead of me who went into astronomy, I guess as a junior, when I went in as a sophomore.
Were any of your fellow students there who you know as colleagues now?
In a sense, but not undergraduates. Dale Vrabeck (?) never got his Ph.D. He was an undergraduate there. Al Hibbs was in my class, he’s a physicist but very interested in astronomy. He’s at J.P.L.
Yes. I knew Dale Vrabeck too, when I was in solar physics.
Oh, really? In fact I just talked to Dale a few days ago.
Oh, is that so. But that must have been quite some course, you and a couple of graduate students and Alfred Joy.
Yes. As I said, I think there were undergraduate students too, but not too many, three or four students. I think it varied slightly from quarter to quarter. The first graduate students that I remember were Alan Sandage, who came I think when I was a sophomore, and Helmut Abt. I think they were the two students the first year. Then when I was a junior, I think, “Chip” Arp came, or maybe he came when I was a senior, I don’t quite remember now. In fact it may have been that Sandage and Helmut came when I was a junior. Helmut was the first Ph.D. to finish, as I recall.
Tell me more about this course with Joy, or the other courses that you took as a junior and senior. Did you, in fact, find them very up-to-date and exciting?
It was nice to meet Joy. He wasn’t a very exciting teacher actually. He was experimenting. At that time Jesse Greenstein…
He hadn’t taught before at all, had he?
No, I don’t think so. Jesse Greenstein had just come as chairman of the department, and I don’t even remember that there was a second member of the staff when I was a sophomore. (Of course there was Zwicky.) Guido Munch came, I guess when I was a senior, and then much later [Donald] Osterbrock came. I was Osterbrock’s first Ph.D. student, in fact. But I don’t remember that any other faculty members were there. The arrangement was that Mount Wilson people would come down and give courses, and Joy, of course, was on the staff of what was then the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. And that was very nice, you got a chance to meet a lot of people, and some were very good and some weren’t. Joy was not a very exciting teacher but a very nice guy. Greenstein was much more exciting as a teacher -- terribly disorganized, but a much better teacher. He taught an astrophysics course which originally went two years. One year was stellar atmospheres and the second was stellar structure. But the second year, when I took it, Munch gave it. Anyway, I took Greenstein’s course in atmospheres as a senior. I remember we’d come into class and he’d already be there filling out the blackboard with tables, data and so forth, so we got into the habit of coming in a little early to start copying the data off the blackboard, because he’d never give you time to write it down when he’d be lecturing. But if he saw us there early he would just start lecturing early. And he had the uncanny knack of being able to lecture on one subject while copying tables on the blackboard on something else.
Did you have any practical astronomy, laboratory type astronomy courses?
There was a lab I had somewhere, I forget what it was.
Did you get a chance to look through a telescope somewhere?
I don’t remember much about it. I guess it was in conjunction with Joy’s course. I think he had a night lab and now that I think on it, I think he had one of the graduate students as a TA (Teaching Assistant). I don’t remember who it was right now.
Clearly nothing that made an impression.
Not overly, no. It wasn’t an imaginative course. It was an effort; I think we measured radial velocity and what else.
Did everything seem up-to-date in terms of the instruction?
Pretty much. It was very up-to-date eventually, when I was a graduate student, extraordinarily good. Of course it was a mecca of astronomy; people came from all over the world and they’d always give colloquia and sometimes courses, but then that was when I was a graduate student.
As an undergraduate did you go to any of these colloquies or whatever?
Oh yes, sure. I think they started roughly when I was a junior or senior, and one afternoon a week was set aside for colloquia. That was a very exciting time.
I see. Were you in with a very small number of other undergraduates and graduate students? I wondered, sometimes when there’s a small group like this you’ll form study groups or you’ll try to get special courses.
No, not too much. I remember Dale Vrabeck would be very helpful in courses I didn’t take time to study very well; I’d go and ask him what the lecturer was talking about. I guess that was as a graduate student.
Now, you said that during the same period, as an undergraduate, you were working at Griffith Observatory?
Yes, as a guide half-time. That turned out to be the best job of my life, I think. It was a marvelous place, and it still is. The late Dinsmore Alter was director, Cleminshaw was associate director, George Bunton was technician, and they were all great people, in different ways. Cleminshaw is still living, retired, and Bunton is now director of the planetarium at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. Many astronomers came through there as guides. Before my time was George Herbig, for example.
Is that so.
But the people who worked there at the same time I did, or after and before, included -- Chip Arp -- my memory goes blank sometimes.
That’s okay; we can fill it in later on.
John Russell at U.S.C. was a guide there. He was before my time. Paul Roques (of course he’s not a famous astronomer exactly, but he has done some papers in astronomy) and Tommy Cragg, who’s now a night assistant in Australia. But quite a few professional astronomers, including James Parker, Roland Carpenter, Ed Spiegel, and Art Cox. Art Cox, he was a contemporary of mine, in fact, he was a high school buddy. I almost forgot Art Cox. We went through high school together. Art did not go in the service. He had a cyst on his head that prevented him from wearing a military cap, so he was 4-F. So he started at Cal Tech ahead of me, and graduated when I was at the end of my freshman year at Cal Tech. He went to Indiana University for his Ph.D.
How does it happen that both of you are interested in astronomy?
It just happened, I guess. I forgot these details. When I was in high school I used to go every month to the Griffith Observatory, and Art Cox did too.
Was there a new show every month?
That’s right. So we’d make a pilgrimage up there each month; never missed a show. We rode our bicycles up. Yes, that’s right; Art and I were both interested in astronomy. As a matter of fact, we were very good science students, the only two in our class who were outstanding science students. Every high school has a lot of awards, the science award, and the math award. Art and I were sure that one of us would be given the science award. Obviously it would be one of us. So we went to the faculty member in charge of the award and said we thought it would be fair if we shared the award. So they gave it to Vernon Goldison. [Laughter]
They didn’t like these lippy young kids.
Funniest thing. I never heard of Vernon since then, but he was a nice fellow. He was president of the science club but he wasn’t a student in the same sense that we were.
I see. Very funny. What did you do as a guide at Griffith Observatory?
I must say that there are quite a few other people, whose names escape me at the moment, who are active astronomers, who were guides there. You’d give lectures on exhibits to the public.
Take a group around?
Take a group around, or just demonstrate exhibits. You’d assist during the planetarium shows.
This is good experience for learning to be a teacher.
It was terrific experience in learning to lecture. That was very, very valuable.
My feeling about taking people around a planetarium is that you have to field an infinite number of questions.
Yes. But also you’d give talks in the Hall of Science, I used to like that. I effectively learned to be a speaker there. Later as a graduate student I was a lecturer at Griffith also, mostly in the summers.
We’ll come back to that.
But in a way it was a very important job. I learned a heck of a lot. Also, you learned some astronomy. Even though you’d think it’s a very low level, in the process of shows you’d get interested in subjects and read about them, and things like spherical astronomy were extremely easy because of the planetarium experience. It would have been easy anyway I think, but that’s something hard for some people to visualize, spherical astronomy.
But particularly easy when it’s just a matter of pushing a button and you get a precession or whatever.
Yes. But also you learn to visualize very well. I’m good at that kind of visualizations so that would be easy for me anyway. But anyway it’s a very useful place to work, and a very good job.
What kind of a place was it -- did you get instruction, what was your contact with the people there, what kind of an institution was it?
Oh gosh. No formal instruction, no. It was just a very convivial atmosphere. Your schedule would be made up in such a way to accommodate people’s courses as best possible.
So that you’d be there several times a week or something like that.
Yes, about 20 hours a week, on weekends or evenings. They were only open in the evenings during the week in those days. I was active also going to the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts; I’ve been a season subscriber as long as I can remember, since getting out of the Army effectively. So every Thursday night during the season we’d go down to the Philharmonic concert. I arranged not to work at Griffith on Thursday nights.
I see. Did you help in putting together any shows at that time?
At that time, no, except to serve as what they called the guide who “techs” the show, who assists showing slides, running the music and that sort of thing. Later, as I say, I was a lecturer.
Tell me, at what point in your life did you decide that you would want to make your career in astronomy?
As I say, I think when I was eight years old.
You wanted to be an astronomer.
Yes. That was what I figured I wanted to be when I grew up. So I was.
When you were at Cal Tech as an undergraduate, or even in high school, what sort of life did you see yourself leading as a scientist?
I don’t remember too much what I envisioned. I took things one step at a time. And I knew the first step was to get the Ph.D. in astronomy, so that was what I was working toward. I guess I probably envisioned myself working at an observatory. I don’t think it occurred to me that I’d be at UCLA. That developed later.
You saw yourself as looking through a telescope rather than teaching?
Probably, although again I’m not sure at what point I began to realize what astronomers really did. The subject interested me, but I never had very good guidance as to what exactly a career in astronomy was like. You know the American Astronomical Society tries to give guidance of this sort nowadays. In those days that service didn’t exist; in fact I had never heard of the American Astronomical Society. It was just sheer luck that I did the right thing; nobody told me what to do.
I see. It wasn’t I suppose until you were a graduate student that you started to see what people actually did?
I suppose as a junior or so, but at what point it occurred to me that I would be more likely than not teaching, I don’t know. I guess around the junior or senior year or something like that.
When you were in high school and again as an undergraduate you already knew quite a lot about astronomy. Was there already some particular field of astronomy that began to attract you?
In high school no, just the whole thing. By the time I got into college, again it’s hard to say; probably galaxies, but probably not too definitely at that time.
You could with equal pleasure have studied the sun or…
At that point I could have, yes, I think so.
I see, so that developed a little later. Now I’m getting to the point where you were making your transition to graduate school. What sort of job prospects did you expect; did you have any reservations about that?
I don’t know. I wasn’t worried about it then. Of course those were the days when jobs were plentiful. They got more plentiful by the time I got my Ph.D. I thought it might be nice to work at Mount Wilson, but by the time I was a senior I didn’t think I would. I expected that would be unlikely.
But you would find a job somewhere.
I expected to find a job someplace, sure. It didn’t worry me; maybe it should have, but it didn’t.
What was your family’s attitude toward your choice of career?
Oh, it was fine with them. I imagine they all approved.
They didn’t influence me one way or other, but certainly they approved.
What else about your undergraduate years at Cal Tech?
Let’s see. I was in the drama club, even president one year.
That’s a lecturing experience too, in a way.
Yes, I guess it is. Every year we put on a play, one play. I also wrote the music column for the school newspaper, a weekly newspaper.
What was the name?
The California Tech; was it my junior or senior year, I’ve forgotten, when the guy that did the music reviews left and I became the music critic, as it were. I didn’t know anything about music criticism, but I did it anyway.
You already had some interest in music.
I had a lot of interest in music, and that kind of gradually grew. I began collecting records but I got especially interested in old singers, opera. I’m nuts on opera and have a large collection of some 3,000 78 RPM records from 1900. Certain singers I specialize in, one is Richard Tauber; I have most of his records. There are a few I’m still looking for, I may never find. I have all the Caruso except the expensive ones, about 8 or 10 I have to get.
Do you have them on tape?
I have them all on LP, but I don’t count that. That’s like photographing a stamp album.
There are lots of singers that I was very interested in. But anyway we jumped off the subject and we shouldn’t have.
I’m particularly interested in the kind of education you got in astronomy.
I did too much. From the point of view of being a very good student, I did too many things. I was too interested in things like working, and going to concerts, and the drama club. I was never interested in athletics; I hated PE, and managed to get out of it every chance I could. But I liked bowling. Actually I was on the Fleming House bowling team.
For a Cal Tech student you were pretty diverse. Or was it as true in those days as it was later?
People were much more diverse in those days. I think today the pressures are greater and kids work harder. Probably the courses are tougher today, although I don’t know that. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are.
But it wasn’t only you, there was a fairly relaxed atmosphere about it?
Oh sure. In fact, the president of Fleming House when I was a sophomore and he was a senior was Paul Saltzman, who is now academic vice-chancellor at San Diego. We called him the “Goon.” I had a meeting with him a couple of weeks ago on a film project I’m working on. He was a real card, a real character, still is.
Nowadays it does not have the character of what one thinks of as classic college days.
Let me tell you some of the things that went on at Cal Tech. It was wild times. A fellow named Lothrop Mittenthal, Bud Mittenthal, was there, he was a card. People invented a fictitious country they called Lausitz. They had an official sign, which is obscene, and therefore not repeatable, there was a flag, a national anthem -- that was played on the radio as a matter of fact by a guy named Hawthorne who had a disc jockey show and played the Lausitz national anthem. We had a dance once at which everybody had to dress like a Lausatian Sorb. No one knew exactly what a Lausatian Sorb looked like but we all dressed like one.
Everyone had their own idea.
Everyone had his own idea. There were all kinds of funny things, Cal Tech played football at the Rose Bowl, that was their home place, and there’d be barely enough people to make a team. This year they don’t have a team, they couldn’t field one. But that would be a big deal.
Six people showed up this year.
Oh they only need eleven people. Well, I think they had more like 20 the years I was there. I never liked to play but I always enjoyed going to the games, especially since we sat at the 50 yard line, and the half-time activities would be wild. We never won or almost never. But all kinds of wild antics would go on I remember Lothrop Mittenthal appearing in his old Rolls Royce open touring car, dressed up like the prime minister from Lausitz, and he very pompously got out of the car without any trousers on. And so forth, all kinds of wild stuff. Then there were the very famous erection rallies. I don’t know by who this is to be typed.
Tell me about the election rallies.
There would be a class officers’ election each year, and under the student houses were catacombs where we would all meet just before election time and for the final election rally, but it was called erection rally. There would be a stage rigged up, lots of beer, cigar smoke so heavy you couldn’t see very well. Each candidate would get up and tell a dirty story, the dirtier the better as far as his getting elected was concerned. Then there would be a skin show that they’d find some local prostitutes to give, this would be followed by eight millimeter pornographic movies (which in those days were very racy, nowadays they’re common). That sort of thing went on.
Like one big fraternity.
Yes. And that went on until about a year or so after my graduation. I think it was started during the V12 time; when the V12 was at Cal Tech.
What is the V12?
It was a Navy Program. Cal Tech used it. It was over when the war was over so it never interfered with me. But I think that’s where many of these activities got going, and they became a tradition.
Because of the veterans and so forth.
Sure, and people were more mature I think than they are now but there was a lot of fun, a lot of activities; dances, of course, with other schools, and a lot of social life.
This is all very interesting, because this is quite different from the way I would have imagined Cal Tech in the late ‘40s. But about the astrophysics education: did you feel that it was particularly theoretically oriented, or observationally oriented, any feeling about that?
In graduate school, mainly?
No, still undergraduate.
Still undergraduate. It was fairly general as an undergraduate. It was more theoretical than observational, in the sense that Greenstein gave the senior course, but it was primarily fundamental. The main thing was the physics courses and math courses you took.
I see so really more astrophysics than fundamental astronomy.
Well, Joy’s course was supposed to be a general astronomy course, and it wasn’t theoretical. It was more or less observational, practical. But that wasn’t the highlight I don’t think, because he wasn’t outstanding.
Okay. Now, you graduated in 1951.
And you also married that year. I’m curious, what was your wife’s background?
My first wife, I’ve been remarried since. I met her when I was a freshman. She was at UCLA at that time, graduated I think maybe when I was a freshman or sophomore. She was my age, but I was in the service and she wasn’t, of course. She got teaching credentials as a graduate student. Her interests were music; she played the piano very well. She taught school then, she had to live. I think she wanted to be a concert pianist and probably was good enough, although maybe not mature enough, but just being good enough isn’t enough, you also have to be lucky. She studied with Guy Maier, whose dead now, a fairly well-known piano teacher. He was on the concert stage in a two-piano team, Maier and Paterson, or something like that. Anyway I knew her three years, I guess, and finally married at the time I graduated. We were married for twenty years in ‘52 and ‘54 respectively.
Now a question again that I ask everybody. How do you think the fact that you’re a scientist affected your marriage and your children?
It’s very complicated. My first marriage had real problems, I never realized what they were; gradually it dawned on me. Certainly my career didn’t help it, although I don’t know how much difference it would have made. On my third year as a graduate student I took the job as observer in the sky survey and was at Palomar approximately half the time during the next three years. My wife was terribly insecure, and with two small children and living alone -- she had no friends, and was afraid of people more or less despite her brilliant piano playing. In a sense I think the piano playing was not so much because she was all that interested in piano as that it gave her a crutch, it made it possible for her to feel accepted? Although she shouldn’t have worried; she was extremely bright and very pretty in those days.
But the fact that you were away so much…
My being away made it very difficult for her and for the marriage, and she was constantly complaining, griping and drinking. She is an alcoholic. Things just went downhill for twenty years and I kept thinking they’d get better. When I got my Ph.D. they’d be better. And then when I got a nice job -- well, I got a job at once, but very little pay. Well, when I get more money, when I get tenure you know, or get a nicer home -- but every step up as we got more and more affluent and things went better for us, she got worse. And eventually it occurred to me that we were all going downhill and it was terrible for the children, and so I left her after nineteen years. I took another year to get a divorce. And the boys stayed with me.
None of this in a way except for this initial thing now seems to be affected by the fact that you’re a scientist rather than an insurance agent.
No, the only possible relationship is that during those three years when I was away so much it was very hard for her. And looking back, I doubt very much if it would have been much different if I hadn’t been away. It certainly didn’t help our marriage, but I doubt very much if she could have had a happy or successful marriage.
What about your boys? Has the fact that you’re a scientist affected your boys?
Hard to say that, too. My younger boy is not interested at all in science or mathematics. He works for Tower Records. It’s a record chain in southern California. He’s interested in music in general, but particularly in rock, and has a number of friends in the business. The older son studied meteorology at UCLA, got a bachelor’s degree, was a good student, went on to graduate school but gradually lost interest in the theoretical aspects of meteorology. In his second year he dropped out, and he’s now working on computers, it’s an environmental firm and he’s doing advanced-type programming.
I see. So that is technical.
Yes, but he is definitely interested in science and he’s interested in astronomy, meteorology, and science in general. He’s very, very talented; he doesn’t know it, he’s shy, but he’s very talented, and with his hands too; a brilliant kid.
Okay. So then you went on to graduate school at Cal Tech.
Was that an automatic choice, or did you ever consider going anywhere else?
I applied to several places, and I was accepted everywhere I applied. I think Michigan, Harvard, Indiana I guess, and Cal Tech. But I wanted to go to Cal Tech, and was accepted there.
They knew you pretty well, I suppose.
Yes. I wasn’t all that great a student, my grades weren’t all that great, but spotty, very good in some courses, top of my class in some, and squeaked through in others. But anyway they took a chance on me and I made it all right.
I see. How were you supported when you were a graduate student?
The first year I still had some residual GI bill left, not only from the federal fund but also California State had $1,000 for veterans for education.
How was that? Did you get through Cal Tech faster than usual?
No. I had nearly five years of support, but I forgot exactly the rules in those days. I think the federal deal was a year plus a year of college for every year in the service. So eighteen months sounds like two and half years, you know. But you figure academic years are only nine months long. In other words if I had two and half years eligibility, this really means two and half times twelve months, while the academic year is something like eight and a half months. It worked out that the federal support got me nearly the four years of college. The California state thing got me nearly my first year of graduate school. I got an assistantship for my second year.
Just a second (Pause). You got a teaching assistantship?
No, a research assistantship. I did odd jobs for different people. I worked for Hubble one quarter.
Oh, is that so.
Yes. As sort of a file clerk, cataloguing plates, bringing up to date his plate file.
He had a plate file.
It was the observatory plate file, but he was sort of in charge of it.
I worked for Minkowski one quarter, measuring positions of planetary nebulae. I worked by the hour for Greenstein too, off and on I think during my first year. I did some hourly work for him measuring equivalent widths.
He had this big program.
He had that big program of abundances of population II stars.
So I worked for him part time on that. Then I worked a little bit for Bill Baum reducing photoelectric tracings that was my second year.
My goodness, you did everything.
I was just assigned to different people during the year, somebody different each quarter.
Was this on purpose or it just happened?
Oh, I think it was a matter of who needed some help. It was all good for me. I met different people and different things.
Did you get to know the people; did you get to know Hubble and Minkowski?
Oh, sure. I knew Minkowski extremely well, but that came mostly later.
What about Hubble?
Yes. All these people gave courses, too, at Cal Tech.
Yes, Hubble gave a course in galaxies. And Baade. I thought Hubble was a fine gentleman. You know, I’ve read reports, including a book called The Red Limit which you probably know. I’m reviewing it. The author, Timothy Ferris, describes Hubble as aloof and formal and stuffy.
Yes, that’s how he’s often described.
Yet I saw and knew him late in his life and I thought he was a very gracious, kindly person, a real gentleman. He seemed that way to me. He always seemed to have time to talk to students and night assistants. I suspect he may have mellowed in his old age.
Maybe he related, as some people do, differently to students and so forth than he did to his immediate colleagues.
I think it may have been that by that time he was quite senior and maybe, as I said, mellowed more. I found him very nice. The nice thing about my career was I met a lot of marvelous people in astronomy; of course, especially at Palomar when I was up there so much. Hubble didn’t observe up there -- by that time he had a heart problem -- I took quite a few plates for him.
We were starting to talk about the instruction there. What courses did you take, as a graduate student?
Well, there were a lot of physics courses we had to take. Some were required, some you had to choose from a list.
Were you required to take things like quantum mechanics and relativity?
I don’t remember that quantum mechanics was required; I took it. That was ill-advised. I should have taken courses in a different order. There was a graduate course in mathematical physics given by Robert Walker, which I should have taken first; I took it second. It was a terrifically good course, one of the best I ever had there. I think Feynman originated the course somewhere else, and I think Walker was using Feynman’s notes. It eventually resulted in a book by Walker and somebody else.
Had you, by the way, had some quantum mechanics and relativity as an undergraduate?
I don’t think so.
Not really, except in a senior survey course in modern physics. But anyway I took a quantum mechanics course, from Plesset (forget his first name) and it was somewhat lost on me at the time. I understood it much better afterward, but it was a level of abstraction above me at the time. I hadn’t taken the right courses first and never knew what he was talking about.
I have a feeling this is a common experience.
It was, and it wasn’t that the subject was so bad, and he was a very good careful teacher, but I just I didn’t know what he was talking about. Anyway the general level of the class -- I got along all right, I was average in the class, but that only meant that almost nobody really understood it very well.
You were taking these classes with essentially physics graduate students?
Yes, but that was no excuse. I had the same background. And some of the courses you know I did very well and some I just… Quantum mechanics was a bad one for me and, it’s just that I didn’t take the right courses first, that was the problem.
Were these mostly very small, four or five students?
No, in physics the classes were pretty big, thirty, forty, or fifty people maybe. I had a course in cosmic rays (Carl Anderson taught it) and that was good. I liked most of all courses in mechanics. Courses in those days were known by the name of the instructor very often. There was Leveret Davis, for example, and there was Smythe. I didn’t take William Smythe’s course. I managed to avoid it and I’m sorry I did. It had a reputation for being very hard, which it probably was.
It was a course in what?
E & M (electricity & magnetism). I should have taken it; it was a mistake, but I managed to avoid it. Davis also had a reputation of being a bad course, or a hard course, but I thought that it was very good.
In mechanics, classical mechanics. I remember learning the method of Kirov and Bogolyubov. I don’t remember what it is but I remember learning it. But mechanics was nice; I could get my teeth in it. Who gave optics? Bob King. Also spectroscopy and those courses were straight forward and good.
No, optics and spectroscopy would be strictly astronomical courses, or were they physics?
No, they were physics courses. And I had a course in relativity with H.P. Robertson. He didn’t give any exams so everyone did okay. Somebody asked him once, “Are you going to give an exam?” He said, “Certainly not, I’d have to grade it if I did.” I had a very good course in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics by (Paul) Epstein. It was the last year he gave it, a two-quarter sequence. And he was funny, he was already quite deaf, had a lot of funny stories about him. But nevertheless that was beautifully organized.
And were these more or less the sort of courses one would find at other universities, or were there any that seemed particularly --
People were the interesting thing, a stellar cast of instructors. But generally speaking, the courses are given other places. I think Cal Tech has generally been more rigorous than most schools, and the courses I think were generally better, more advanced.
Did you have to work pretty hard?
You were supposed to have to work pretty hard.
You didn’t have to work too hard.
I never did work too hard, but I should have worked harder than I did. I was just as busy as a graduate student as I was as an undergraduate, with jobs and so on. I felt when I left Cal Tech and went to UCLA, in comparing the level of the courses, I think the Cal Tech courses were definitely a lot more rigorous. Things have evolved and I suspect the UCLA courses now are more rigorous than or maybe comparable to what Cal Tech’s were then.
What about the astronomy courses?
Have we finished all the physics? I guess enough. Astronomy courses, let’s see. Guido Munch gave stellar structure, which I thought was very interesting. In fact, at that time I thought I wanted to go into that because it was such an interesting field.
You mean he gave such a good course.
Well, he was not a good teacher in the sense that he -- well, he was and he wasn’t. He was a good teacher but not easy to understand, he wasn’t a good lecturer, but still he was a good teacher.
That certainly would have been a good time to get into stellar structure.
It would have been.
But that would have meant doing a very different type of work.
Yes, things just didn’t work out that way, and I’m kind of glad they didn’t; it was more interesting the way they did.
Were you inclined towards theoretical work and numerical calculations and so on?
I had no idea at that time.
You didn’t know whether you would be more observational or...
No. In fact, during my second year I was thinking about possible topics for a thesis, and I actually did a paper on stellar structure. You may recall a long series of papers by Chandrasekhar and Munch on fluctuations of brightness of the Milky Way; I was looking into those and into a topic like that for a possible thesis at one time.
But I never did anything in it.
That sounds a little familiar, if you substitute clusters of galaxies for the Milky Way.
Yes. At that time, of course, there weren’t big computers available. The approach was really very similar to the kinds of things that Jerzy Neyman and Elizabeth Scott did later on with galaxies, or that (P.J.E.) Peebles has done much more recently with galaxies.
This we’ll get to, of course. Well, what other courses influenced you, your later work?
It’s hard to say what influenced me. The people I met influenced me. The biggest influence with me was the job at Palomar, I would say. But there was the astrophysics sequence I took one as a senior and one as a first year graduate student. And then there were lots of one quarter courses given by Mt. Wilson people and guests. Minkowski gave one, Hubble gave one, Baade gave one, and (Wm. A.) Baum gave one. There was one by Bill Miller which was very good; it was a laboratory course on photographic techniques and development, and how plates worked and so on. Baum’s, of course, was photometry. There was a course by Oort, as a visitor one year.
So you really got to see everybody.
Oh, absolutely. Not everybody but a lot of people. Swings gave a course, I guess my second year, I’ve forgotten, on molecular spectroscopy. I sat in on some of Feynman’s lectures as a graduate student, but he was giving courses I had already had. He of course, in my book, is one of the greatest lecturers living.
Now again, with the other students, did you get together, did you have any form of study groups or try to arrange particular courses that you wanted?
No. I guess as a graduate student I was much more of a loner although, most of the students were. There was a small group of graduate students. When I was a graduate student other students that I remember off-hand, are Dale Vrabeck, of course, Sandage, Abt and Arp, and then later Tom Gehrels came for a year. He was an office-mate of mine for a while. I’m trying to think what other students there were, you might know them as well as I do.
But the point is you didn’t have any formal way of getting together, you were scattered about. Was there one place where you all had offices?
Yes, we all had offices in Robinson Hall.
In the basement?
No, up on the second floor. We ate lunch together quite regularly, so it wasn’t that we were unsociable. One problem: I was married as a graduate student, and I was living in South L.A. Commuting was a long drive, a half hour or more I guess. And so I didn’t have any social life with the other students in the evenings to speak of, and my wife didn’t mix well socially, as I gradually learned.
So that was a little unfortunate.
But you did mix with the other graduate students there in the offices.
The next sort of main topic is your beginnings in research, but first, was there anything else?
The job at Palomar was a research assistantship.
Before we get into that, anything else about the instruction there?
Gosh, if you bring up names or it will occur to me later, there were great teachers and lousy teachers, I remember one person who taught an engineering course I took as a junior and he was just terrible, completely unprepared, I’ve even suppressed his name in my memory. But generally speaking there were great teachers too.
In particular in terms of your graduate education, who would you name as a great teacher?
It’s hard to say. Even as an undergraduate. I think I mentioned Pauling, who was a fantastic teacher. Bob Leighton, I’ve never had for a course except as a substitute, but he was a superb teacher. He was a student not very many years ahead of me actually.
As a graduate student, Greenstein’s
Oh, Osterbrock came in my second year, and I never had a formal course with him but I heard some of his lectures. He was, I would say, a great teacher, and he was my thesis adviser as it finally turned out. Minkowski was good -- he wasn’t great but he was good. Greenstein was inspirational but not organized very well.
I think that gives me a good picture. Now before we get into your work on the sky survey, I noticed a few other things. In the first place, you started your publishing career with several things in the Griffith Observer (1952-1953).
Populations of stars, “Astronomers Revise Astronomical Distances.”
Those were popular articles.
Okay, so perhaps your first real publication on your own would be this one on “A Model for the Internal Structure of the Sun.”
Yes, that’s where I proved that the sun had 115% hydrogen or something like that.
Tell me about that. Did it come from Guido Munch’s courses?
Yes, I guess he got me started on it, and Osterbrock came while I was still working on it and was very interested in it.
How did it come about?
It came about in the following way. Bondi had just made up some graphs of Emden’s equation, and published them. They were never used by anybody but me, as far as I know; it was a semi-graphical way of doing the numerical integration. This was before computers were around.
Shortly before computers.
Shortly before computers were available. Now, there had just been two competing models of the sun, by different people who got very different results.
Who were the two?
I’ve forgotten. Was one Epstein at Princeton? They’re both referenced in the paper. Anyhow Guido wanted me to try out this graphical thing, maybe I should do a model. So I talked to Willie Fowler and got the best, in those days, nuclear reaction rates, and went to work. I got a model, but I found it was impossible to get a model of the sun with a radiative envelope. It was necessary to have a convective envelope to make the model work. The only way you could have.
You mean that was a surprise for you at that point?
That was a surprise, and I thought it wasn’t working right. But you had to have a convective envelope going down at least to a couple of million degrees. Otherwise you’d have to have 115% hydrogen or something like that. There was just no possible fit. And Osterbrock came at that time, and he had just found the same thing with red dwarfs and published the papers about that same time. So he was very interested in that result. It turned out, I guess, to be right.
Yes, this was a genuine result. But at the time you were diffident about it, you weren’t sure that you had found anything?
Oh, by the time I finished it, sure, because Osterbrock had told me that was exactly what he found for dwarfs and it all made sense. So when I published it and it made sense.
You did this in effect as course work?
No, it was just a project.
I see. You just sort of went in.
I started before I got involved in the sky survey and finished it up during the first few months I was working on the sky survey. I remember sitting on cloudy nights at the 48” dome and numerically integrating.
By a hand calculator.
Hand calculator and these graphs.
I see. By the way when did you first start using digital computers?
The first use I ever made was for my thesis, at the very end of it. There were a few other little papers I did as a graduate student, but mostly observational. One interesting thing was an eclipse observation. There was an eclipse that would have been total at Palomar if the sun were up.
So it occurred to me (but the night assistant and I did it together) that we should be able to record a delay in the twilight, because the sun was eclipsed during the twilight, and we measured the sky brightness for about a week and sure enough on the day of the eclipse there was 20 minute delay in the beginning of twilight. Then I published some finding lists and a note on a comet that had an unusual tail.
These were observed with what?
The 48” Schmidt in most cases, I think.
These in a way came out of the sky survey?
They came out in a sense, although they were independent of it. The finding lists came out of the sky survey.
Well, maybe now we can start on the survey. Perhaps first I can ask you, through whom did you get this job on the sky survey?
I was approached, I guess, by Minkowski. Now the survey was set up by a committee of the observatory, I forgot who originally was on it, but the only active member was Minkowski.
I’m very interested in anything you may know about how the sky survey originated. Why they decided to use the 48” this way.
Oh, it was the logical instrument to use. It was decided on before the Schmidt was finished.
You don’t know what may have been involved?
I don’t know who thought it up, probably Hubble. I imagine Hubble was one of the instigators. But it was an observatory project and it got funding from the National Geographic Society, as you know.
Do you know how that came about?
No, I don’t. I was a student at that time, I guess Bowen probably approached them, and they decided to fund it. I know Bowen had to go back periodically to report to them -- or when he had to go back he’d stop in at least; I guess he had to go back anyway for the Carnegie Foundation.
I see. But at any rate, by the time you came there it was essentially Minkowski.
Minkowski was actually running it. I can’t say how it got funded in detail, I’m guessing that it was Hubble’s baby originally. But there was a committee set up and I used to know the membership but I don’t any more, probably Hubble, Bowen, Minkowski, and I don’t know who else. But Minkowski was the only active member, and in fact he was the one who was running the sky survey. But he wasn’t doing the direct picture taking. The observer on it was Al Wilson.
I wanted to ask you about him.
He began I guess in '48 or '49, late '49 I think. Bob Harrington, who is an engineer who helped design a lot of 48” auxiliary equipment, was a relief observer for Al Wilson. By the time I started in 1953 I think the survey was something like a third complete.
I see. So procedures had already been established.
Procedures had been ironed out, very largely through Harrington’s good work. Al Wilson was an extremely nice guy.
Tell me about Wilson because we haven’t heard very much about him.
He got his Ph.D. in mathematics but I guess Zwicky knew him, I don’t know how he happened to get the job but I guess he was available and they hired him. As I say, a very nice guy; I don’t know how efficient he was, but in any case he was offered the directorship of the Lowell Observatory and he left and became director of Lowell and I think was a failure there. I guess it was largely differences of opinion between him and the staff on how it should be run. I think he got quite a bit of federal funding for it but he had people working on projects they didn’t want to work on. He left Lowell and I don’t know where he went after that, he ended up at RAND (Corp.) eventually, he was at RAND for a long time, and then some other aerospace industry place. The last I heard, he was involved in some kind of teaching venture, but I can’t remember the details.
He was an easy person to work for?
A very nice guy. I never worked with him, he just broke me in. I just took his job when he left.
I see. You were working for Minkowski, then.
I was working for Minkowski. And then Harrington continued as a relief observer for me for a couple of years until we had it almost done. I’m a much faster worker, I guess, than Wilson, we really banged it out and we made good progress on it. I think they liked the job we did. At first I thought Minkowski was impossible, because he was so overbearing, he seemed autocratic and bullish. By the time I finished that I realized that he was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I really love that guy. He’s almost a second father to me. He was extremely nice and extremely fair, but he’d never pat you on the back, never tell you that, you were doing anything right. I learned he told other people good things about me. Baade once told me that Minkowski told Baade that if they’d hired me in the first place the survey would have been done by then or something like that. He never said anything nice to me personally, but you begin to realize that no matter how bullish he seemed to be he would never take any credit for things he didn’t do, for example. He always saw to it that all the credit was given where it was due. Just gradually, you know, you learn about people. A very, very genuine, good person.
Did you learn much from him either in astronomical things or --
Yes, gradually, a heck of a lot. Also planetary nebulae, he gave a course in planetary nebulae.
Oh, is that so, I was going to ask how you got interested in that.
Of course I got interested in doing work on them when we found so many of these low surface-brightness ones on the survey.
That partly came just from scanning the things and, “Oh look, there’s another one?”
Yes, but then you got interested in them, and Minkowski got me involved and got me to read some papers, I did a distance determination on them by a variation of the Schlovsky method.
Did you learn things from him in the…
In the practical way, mostly.
How to do research? Where did you learn how to do research?
How do you learn how to do research? Even writing papers -- he was very good at criticizing and getting you to be briefer and less wordy. But I guess he’d look at plates, you’d ask questions about things. You learn an awful lot by doing, and he would look at the plates, we’d discuss things on them, and so forth. It’s hard to put in specific words now; I don’t really remember the details.
When you were scanning the 48” plates he’d be coming in and looking at them too.
Not so much at the same time. As we took the plates we’d scan them quickly and make notes.
Or the day after, and that sort of thing?
Either that or, usually, the next afternoon, or as soon as possible thereafter. But then I went over them all carefully again when I did the cluster project. But we’d inspect the plates quickly for things like comets or anything obvious, we’d send them down to Cal Tech with the truck that brought observers back and forth, and Minkowski within a few days would go into the laboratory where the plates were filed and inspect them for quality and decide whether they were acceptable or not for the survey.
He would look at every plate.
He would look at them only for quality. He didn’t scan them; he looked them over hurriedly, but he didn’t systematically look at every part of the plate, no. He’d check the image quality and so on; check the corners, and any obvious defects. It was usually obvious when we looked at them whether they were good or not, so we never disagreed with him that I recall. Sometimes we would guess that he would probably reject the plate that he would take; usually they were acceptable.
I see, but he in fact looked at every plate.
He looked at every plate.
And if there something interesting on them you would talk about it.
Sure. I was thinking about things like -- I would mark an object, do you think this is a planetary, and we’d decide on the basis of symmetry. And if you didn’t see a central star how do you know, and so on, but we’d make a guess. Sometimes I think they turned out to be supernova shells, but it’s hard to know for sure.
I see. I’m interested in the organization work. For example, you kept a card file of interesting objects.
How did that come about?
Wilson had started keeping a card file and I just continued it, L actually revised the format for the cards, I’ve still got them.
It must have been a tedious job overall, by the way.
Oh, no. It’s very exciting to look at the plates. I was the first person to ever see these plates.
They’re beautiful plates.
Of course there were lots of rejects. A lot of the fields had to be photographed several times to get a good pair of plates.
What was the main reason for that, by the way?
Oh gosh. You see, we took both blue and red plates, and they both had to be acceptable plates, they both had to be taken in immediate succession.
They had to be taken the same night.
One after the other, in immediate sequence. So if one was rejected they both were rejected. Sometimes we lost plates because of airplane trails but that was not too many. Nowadays you would lose them for satellites. On the UK survey in Australia, the satellite trails are so common that they don’t reject the plates for them anymore. Usually it would be plate defects, Eastman (Kodak) defects, flaws, uneven emulsion. Glove prints were common causes.
Glove prints? From the people who manufactured them?
Yes. As they loaded them in the boxes they were wearing gloves, and they had put their gloved hands on the emulsion and on the corners you’d see these “Eastman planetariums,” we called them. This went on for months, not every plate but every now and then, a large number of them. We finally figured out what they were, and told Eastman. They changed their techniques and we didn’t have that trouble anymore.
Did you have much contact with Eastman over these things?
I didn’t personally, but the observatory did. We would go through Bill Miller, who had all the personal contacts. The observatory paid a dollar a plate in the old days. I think they’re about fifty bucks a plate now. But the most common things were defects of various kinds, some of the times some of the defects had to be accepted; little ones, but the major ones we discarded. Sometimes the seeing would be bad. If there was a chance that you’d get a good plate we’d try, and if seeing got bad during the end of the exposure or if the blue plate had bad seeing then we lost the plates for field, but we’d always make a try at it. Generally speaking the seeing had to be two or better.
Now, that was the plates; were there any problems with the telescope itself?
Sometimes we had telescope problems, but rarely. Once in a while you’d misfocus. One thing that we learned happened was that at certain hour angles the focus would shift. It was just flexures in the tube. We solved that; we figured out by takings lots of focus plates how to change the focus for different zenith angles. Then we had trouble with field rotation at the corners, and that turned out to be a big problem with the plates of Northern fields with long exposures. What happened would be, effectively, the polar axis would shift due to flexures in the fork, so you’d get field rotation in the corners of the plates.
I see. The whole plate was rotated but you would notice it in the corners.
Yes, that’s right, only in the corners were the trails noticeable -- not very big trails, mind you, but still there. So we took a lot of trial exposures, polar alignment plates at various hour angles, and figures out how to compensate for the rotation by shooting at the appropriate hour angle. Those were the things we learned during the course of the program. But I think the biggest single cause of rejection was the Eastman defects.
I see. Did you have any relations with the National Geographical Society during this period?
Yes. They occasionally would send people out and we’d host them around. Windsor Booth was the News Bureau Chief, and I got to know him fairly well; I wrote a little article for the Geographic once about the survey.
Did you have any feeling about the original motivation for the sky survey? Later on you came to use it a lot for various kinds of surveys. When you first came into it did you see it as being useful that way?
It had already been underway, and was quite a famous survey before I came into it. So I knew full well the value of it.
In the same way as we would see it now?
Oh sure, no other telescope had ever gone anywhere near that faint; it was the best telescope in the world until the U.K. Schmidt was finished.
For that kind of thing.
In many ways, for anything. It went to 21st magnitude, which was almost as faint as the 100-inch went, and by that time the sky at Mt. Wilson was so bright, the 48-inch almost reached the depth of the 100-inch; only the 200-inch in those days could go fainter. And of course with a 6 degree field and on an exposure that for the blue plates would be a “light flash.” On the blue plates you’d have a ten- minute exposure, or less.
Did you see it also as being useful for surveys, counts, that sort of things?
Oh yes, indeed. Absolutely I think the uses were all obvious: for discovery, for survey, for statistical studies, for later comparison of variable stars and so forth.
I see. I guess the next subject would be your thesis, but first I’m curious, during this period you were also still taking courses at Cal Tech?
That was from my third year on and by that time I’d finished formal course work, so I didn’t take any further courses. Although when I wasn’t on the mountain, I would nevertheless sit in on courses given by guest lecturers, some people from Mt. Wilson but in particular foreign visitors, people of that sort.
Now, you say you were on Palomar half the time.
Roughly half the time, yes. A little more than half sometimes, the dark run. We could only work when the moon was down, but that didn’t mean half the time because you’d have some dark time over three quarters of the month. Generally I’d take about a week up there, then Bob Harrington would come for week and I’d go for a third week, and then I’d come down for a week. Toward the end I did the whole thing because we could cut down the observing run. The last year we had most of the sky covered and it was a matter of needing a few fields, catching up on the ones we couldn’t get before. By the way, let me just run back Minkowski. This is the famous story. There are many stories about him that are marvelous, but the famous one you ought to have in your archives. Dale Vrabeck told me this. He was at a party with Minkowski and Dale said he’d heard about the astronomer who had exposed a plate all night and then put it in the hypo first. Minkowski said, “It was three nights, and it was me.” But you probably know it.
I never heard that one.
It’s very good. And also, they would say -- he was strong, you know, and he was kind of accident-prone around the observatory -- so they would call it “Minkowski-proofing” the telescope before he’d come up. They had to get everything battened down. There are all kinds of stories about him falling off platforms and bumping into things, never hurting himself but periodically damaging something else. He always told these stories on himself. One time when he was looking at a plate -- it was an old plate, for some reason he was looking at an old plate for planetariums or something -- he happened to be comparing it with the BD chart and he found a bright sixth magnitude nova that everyone had missed, all the amateurs missed it. So he sent in a card to Harvard. It turned out to be Uranus. So we rejected the plate. We arranged not to have any planets on any of the plates. I don’t think we made any effort to avoid Pluto. We avoided the bright planets, and Uranus was bright enough that we rejected it. I don’t know whether Neptune is on any of the plates or not, it might be.
Is the scale such that one like Jupiter would show a disc?
It would just be burned out. There’d be a big black part of the plate. The reason for avoiding the planets was not to avoid confusion but because they hide so much.
Right, I understand. By the way, this was the first big telescope you had used, I suppose.
Yes, I guess it was.
What was it like? Do you remember?
The first telescope I used was the 12-inch at Griffith. I remember my first plate at the 48-inch. I took a trial plate under Al’s guidance of M51; I think I still have a print of it. It was a very nice telescope to use, very easy.
What was it like using one of those telescopes? Were you impressed?
I was impressed at the slickness of the operation. I don’t know, I suppose sometimes as you’re in the dome it occurs to you, here you are doing something no one’s ever done before, looking at an area of the sky that’s never been seen. It’s kind of a thrilling thing.
Did this move you to become an observer?
I don’t know about that, no.
I just want to ask you, this is the period when you’re beginning your real scientific work, starting on your thesis and so forth.
Before asking specifically about that, I wondered, when you were down at Cal Tech did you discuss your scientific work with other students, or were there people around the observatories that you talk with?
During the period you were working on your thesis.
I’m trying to remember. I was finishing up this sun paper the first year on the survey, sitting in on occasional classes and so forth for that year. I don’t remember when I actually started the thesis, I think probably about the second year of the sky survey. I guess it was during the first year I might have started looking at this Milky Way problem with Guido. I just read some of the papers; I hadn’t gotten very far long on it. During that time I was impressed with how many clusters of galaxies kept showing up. I thought this was an interesting thing, and I was keeping lists of them anyway, and it occurred to me; why not make a complete survey of the distribution of these rich clusters? So I organized that thing, probably about the end of the first year, and submitted a thesis proposal which got approved, and I did it.
I see. So this just came to you from looking at the plates?
Yes. It essentially developed from noticing that there were so many clusters.
I see. And how did you come to the conclusion to make a catalog, which after all is a very large project.
That was the first step to studying the distribution of them.
Did you have in mind from the beginning studying the distribution?
As I say, this idea developed during the end of the first year.
But first you had seen there were a lot of clusters and then the idea --?
Yes, we kept notes of everything new, clusters, planetariums, an unusual nebulosity and so forth, but the clusters of galaxies I thought were the most interesting. And at that time there were no extensive catalogs, and rather few clusters were known, actually, a few dozen. So it was clear that we were going to publish a list at least. It was clear that at least a finding list of all these new things had to be published.
You did a planetary nebulae finding list, in fact.
Yes, for example, and globular clusters, and so forth. But it became obvious also that this was a very useful way of probing the distribution of matter in the universe.
This you had in mind from the beginning?
Oh yes. That was in my thesis proposal.
Do you still have a copy of your thesis proposal?
I don’t think so. I might have it.
That would be interesting to see.
I might still have it. I wonder if I do. It’s nothing very profound. Of course the ideas evolve as you do it. I had the idea of setting up criteria that the clusters would have to meet, so I could make a statistical study of them; I did that at the onset.
I see, right from the beginning.
You were interested in clusters of clusters?
No, that was something that came out of it. I didn’t know that they existed, although people had speculated about it. During this time when I was out working on the survey, the Shane and Wirtahen counts were coming in. They had discussed, in one of the A. J.(Astronomical Journal) papers, two or three of the clouds, what they called large clouds, and that was the first indirect evidence of second-order clusters outside the local super-cluster. They didn’t call them that.
How did you hear about that, by the way?
It was published in the Astronomical Journal.
Is this, by the way, how you usually learned about things at that period?
No, usually I learned about them by people giving colloquia or coming through or talking -- or at Palomar, just talking.
But you regularly read the journals, also?
I read at them, yes. I don’t regularly read journals at all anymore, but of course, in those days the Ap. J. came out every two months and now it comes out “every morning,” doesn’t it.
It seems like that.
On the porch with the newspaper, the morning Ap. J. One of my high technical scientific projects that I meant to do was to do a very careful analysis of the Astrophysical Journal’s growth rate, where you take a count of the number of words per journal and so forth (it went into double column and increased page size), and actually plot it up as a function of time and calculate the time when the mass becomes infinite; it will be very soon, I’m sure.
We’re getting that way. Infinite never but larger than the mass of the earth.
Yes. It can be infinite in a finite time; it’s certainly faster than exponential. The human population will become infinite about 2,030 at the present rate.
At the present rate of increase of the rate, yes. I see. But anyway, you looked at the Ap. J.
And Ap. J., sure. I read the papers in my field. I read the papers that looked interesting. At that time I was interested in stellar evolution a lot too, so I read all those papers. But I never read all the papers on stellar atmospheres or Chandrasekhar’s papers of oscillations of an infinite plane-parallel medium or whatever, I didn’t read those things. But I certainly read a larger fraction than I do now. Anyhow, it was necessary to devise criteria so that you could select a homogeneous sample of clusters from this finding list when we were done.
First just one other question, you said that you also met a lot of people at Palomar.
Oh yes, that was a very important time of my life. You see, I spent a lot of time up there, and got to know a lot of people very well. Minkowski would be on the mountain a lot of the time, I’d meet him, and Baade.
What was the atmosphere up there?
Very interesting, especially at dinnertime. There would be myself, and the 200-inch observer, and sometimes the 18-inch observer, and usually that would be it. Once in a while there would be more people, but not usually.
There was one person there who sort of swept the floors and served dinner and that sort of thing?
Oh yes, there was Mrs. Ferian who was the cook. They had a little book, I guess that’s standard at all these places, a little book of what each observer likes and doesn’t like. They had their notions of what we didn’t like. But there was she and her husband, who worked up there as some kind of a mechanic, and she did the cooking. But she’d eat in the kitchen; the observers would eat in the dining room. And contrary to what Jay Pasachoff says in his book, there’s no seating chart at Palomar. There was a tradition like that at Mt. Wilson, and probably still is, where the 100-inch observer would sit at the head of the table and the 60-inch on his right and the solar observer on his left, etc. But it was never formalized like that at Palomar.
I see, so you would just sit down at the table.
Just sit down and eat, and talk, and if it was cloudy you’d talk longer. Paul Wildt would be the 18-inch observer often, or Howard Gates; they were looking for supernovae most of the time. They were photographing the whole sky also, the Northern sky, with the 18-inch, for Zwicky’s galaxy catalog. They’d take these schraffierkassette plates and then get approximate magnitudes. I got to know Zwicky very well, I always liked Zwicky, he was a lot of fun, but he would be an impossible person to take a course with. He was an egomaniac, to be sure. But he made a lot of contributions, a bright guy. If you could buy Zwicky for what we think he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth, you’d be a millionaire. But nevertheless that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was also a great man.
Worth buying in any case.
Oh yes. Hubble didn’t observe any more when I was there, but I got to know him anyway.
You must have had a lot of conversations with Zwicky about clusters of galaxies.
No, very little, and that was an interesting story. Zwicky was the galaxy man, but he would have been impossible to work with, and he had very strict notions about the way things were. For example, Zwicky committed himself rather early on, that there were no clusters of clusters, that the clusters are absolutely uniformly distributed and any apparent differences which later he had to admit were there, could be attributed to absorption.
This was just on the basis of the early plates?
It was on the basis of an unfortunate commitment he made early on. Originally, I think, he was thinking in terms of great symmetrical clusters of clusters, analogous to clusters, where you’d just see a big globular cluster made up of clusters of galaxies. They don’t exist; super-clusters are irregular, amorphous things. But he made the statement that they don’t exist, and then he went further and said the clusters were uniformly distributed. He made that statement very strongly, about the end of the time I was on the survey, about 1956.
I see. And then he was stuck with that.
He was stuck with that and he could never change.
Let me pause. We were talking about Zwicky, and you were going to tell me about Zwicky and Baade.
Let me backtrack just a moment before I forget. Thinking about colloquia at Cal Tech during my last two years as an undergraduate and graduate student -- that was really a remarkably exciting time, and all the big people would come there and give talks. I remember so well, Minkowski and Baade would always sit in the front, and commonly get into discussions among themselves while the speaker was speaking. They had kind of a similar way of talking at different speeds. Baade would go bip, bip, bip and Minkowski would go mmm, mmm, mmm. In fact the night assistants told me the best thing to do would be to made a tape recording of Minkowski in the cage of the 200-inch. I never did that, but I heard many descriptions. You’d hear coming over the loud speaker down at the control desk “oh my, what am I going to do now,” and so forth. But Baade would be very excitable and shouting and Minkowski would be mmm, mmm, and so on. Baade came to America first, and he got Minkowski out of Germany at just the right time. Minkowski was born in Alsace-Lorraine, I guess, and being Jewish he would have been in a bad way if he hadn’t gotten out. Minkowski became a citizen, Baade never did. Or maybe he did, I’m not clear on that, but he never gave up his German home so far as I know. He had property in Germany, I think. I don’t know for sure what the background is of the Zwicky-Baade feud, but according to Zwicky, Baade was a Nazi. Now Baade, I know, was not a Nazi; he was vehemently not a Nazi, but (as I understand it), his refusal to give up his property in Germany was behind it. But however it was, Baade was furious at Zwicky for having called him a Nazi. But long before I ever knew either of them, they never spoke to each other, and if they were both at dinner or at lunch at the same time at Palomar, say one was going down while the other was coming up, there would be stone silence between them; they’d just never address each other. They never had kind words for each other. Baade described Zwicky as an inveterate liar and gave all kinds of examples. Of course Zwicky was kind of a liar in his ways, a very egomaniac type person. There are a lot of good Zwicky stories I should put on this tape too. Paul Wildt, who is still living, (he’s only my age in fact), was at Palomar for quite a few years working for Zwicky, and Paul liked Fritz okay, but he still had some stories to tell on him. One time Paul was counting galaxies on a Schmidt plate, and he had a large chart in front of him on the table with cells on it. He would count through a coordinate glass in cells that corresponded to the ones on his chart. And he noticed as he counted that he tended to fatigue sometimes, and this could introduce a systematic error across the plate, so he would skip around and count squares at random and mark the numbers of galaxies in the appropriate square on his chart. But after doing this for a few hours he noticed that by chance he wasn’t very random, and he had an eight-legged figure on his chart like an octopus. He was mildly amused. Pretty soon Zwicky came up and stood behind him and watched him for quite a long time, and Paul was kind of annoyed with Zwicky standing there. Eventually Zwicky said, “Well, what methods are you using?” And Paul kind of exasperatedly said, “I’m using the Octopus method.” Zwicky replied, “A very good method, I’ve used it myself for twenty years.” [Laughter] I asked Zwicky once if he ever played an instrument. “No,” he said, “I have excelled in twenty-seven fields; I don’t have time to play instruments.” Well, he did a lot of good things, and you know, most of them are public record; like the Pestalozzi Foundation that he supported strongly, and the libraries overseas that were damaged during the war -- he made a large effort to collect journals for them and books and got them shipped over. So he was a humanitarian as well as an egomaniac, and of course did a lot of original science. I guess we were for a while talking about Zwicky’s commitment on the clustering of galaxies.
Yes, I think you had told me about that.
He had committed himself that there were no second-order clusters and the rest of his life he never admitted it. He also didn’t believe in the expanding universe or so he claimed.
How was that received around the observatory?
People didn’t take him seriously. From the time that I was on the scene, Zwicky was never taken seriously. In fact, I suspect the reason he was in astronomy was to get rid of him from physics. I suspect he was eased out of physics early on. He was a controversial character.
Of course he had a strong interest in astronomy anyway.
He did. The story I was told by Foster Strong, which probably is apocryphal, was that Zwicky and Millikan were having dinner one night, I guess at the Athenaeum [Caltech faculty club], and Zwicky was boasting that any competent person could make a name for himself in a new field in five years or whatever, and Millikan exasperatedly says, “All right, Zwicky, we’re going to open an astronomy department, and I’m going to put you in there and make you professor of astronomy, and let’s see you make a name for yourself in five years” or whatever the time was). That was the story told. But he was all alone in astronomy for many years, as I’m sure you know. There are many famous stories about Zwicky’s teaching when he taught in the physics department, of which I will only tell two which I happen to remember offhand. One story was that just after the invasion of Normandy, he was horrified at the way the Allies invaded. Before then, during a class he had a student at the board to work a problem, and the student said, “Can’t I use the second law of thermodynamics here?” Zwicky said, “No, only two people in the world understand the second law of thermodynamics, Einstein and me.” So then when the Normandy invasion came Zwicky was bemoaning to his class what a terrible blunder that was; “But what do you expect,” he says, “There’s only been two great generals in the history of the world.” Somebody in the back of the room shouted out, “Who’s the other one, Dr. Zwicky?” You probably know the story about how the faculty and graduate students enrolled a fictitious student in his class.
I think I did hear that one. But tell me for the record.
Very briefly. It’s written up in ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE, a few years ago, shortly after he died, so if you wanted the story for your files you could find it. I don’t remember the student’s name, but they entered a student in his class, fictitiously. They have the honor system there, so the instructor gives out the exams and leaves the room. Every time there was an exam given out, the students would carry the exam out to the teaching assistants and faculty members that were involved in this ruse, and they would of course do a perfect exam and get it back into the room in time. I guess it was half way through the quarter before he found out that he had been hoodwinked. He said, “Jesus, man, I finally get a good student and he was a fake” There’s a lot of stories about Zwicky. But at the time I knew him, I don’t think anybody at the observatory took him very seriously, scientifically. They knew he made important contributions, and that was fine, but they also knew that his boasts and stories about himself were largely exaggerated.
Did talking with him affect your work at all?
No. I guess I was going to tell you about my relation with him and my thesis. I decided to do a thesis on clusters of galaxies. I was not assigned to Zwicky, and that was a concern of mine. I talked to Jesse about it.
You were assigned to Minkowski?
No, to Osterbrock. Minkowski would have been a natural, but Osterbrock was actually on the faculty at Cal Tech and Minkowski was at Santa Barbara Street. I don’t think that necessarily mattered, because the Santa Barbara Street people all had faculty appointments. But anyway, I was assigned to Osterbrock, which was fine. Zwicky was quite bitter about that.
This was a decision of the department?
Yes. Zwicky never complained to me about it, but he did complain often to other people about how Abell wasn’t assigned to him. Munch told me once that he’d said, “The reason, Fritz, is that you’re unreasonable.” Zwicky went back to his office and pulled out great files of papers on clusters of galaxies and brought them back and said, “Is this unreasonable,” or something like that. But it would have been impossible for me to work independently with him. He would have completely dominated everything and told me exactly what to do; I couldn’t have gotten the results that I got, with him.
Yes, you came out with clusters of clusters.
I did, they just don’t exist according to him, and so that couldn’t have happened. And he and Baade had this big feud going. Of course they had collaborated, you know, early on, but there were jokes about things like Zwicky -- Baade stars, which of course don’t exist, just because of their feud.
Did you get into trouble with him when you began to come up with clusters of clusters?
No. You see, I guess by the time I came up with him, I no longer was observing at Palomar, my thesis was over, the job was over essentially. I saw him quite often subsequently, and scientifically we disagreed, but he was never personal. To my knowledge he has never been vindictive or anything of the sort to me as an individual. We’ve always gotten along, and I’ve always enjoyed him; I thought he was kind of fun, and, in retrospect, I not only like, but respect him.
Okay, now tell me about super-clusters. When did you start looking for them?
I never looked for them. As I cataloged the clusters, it became obvious that whenever you saw a cluster of galaxies, there would be other groups or clusters in the same general part of the sky at about the same distance.
Because you were cataloging them more or less from the plates?
Yes, you scanned the plates systematically and you’d just see them. It was obvious that you always found clusters more or less together.
When you found one on a plate, you’d take a close look at that plate and you might find another one?
No, you’d always look over a whole plate systematically. The first trick was to simply search the plate and mark on the cover glass everything that might possibly be a catalog able cluster that might come anywhere close to meeting my criteria. Then I would go back and make the counts of galaxies and estimates of magnitudes and so forth, which is all published. I marked many, many more than I cataloged; the whole point of course was to be sure that the criteria were such that I was essentially complete. By the way, I’m working on the clusters now in the Southern Hemisphere, for the U.K. Schmidt plates, and we’re finding the same thing there, of course, as you’d expect. It’s just completely obvious that there is a second-order clustering.
I see. So when you were originally interested in the distribution, maybe you were more interested in the global distribution?
Yes, at that time the idea was that clusters were markers that you could identify at large distances. Things like the local group you would lose much further away than the Virgo cluster; it would be lost in the noise in the background. But rich clusters stand out like sore thumbs, things like the Coma cluster.
So when you were interested in distribution of clusters, originally it was more the distance scale than anything else?
Not the distance scale, but the distribution of matter on a large scale.
When you say the distribution on the large scale, you weren’t thinking of super-clustering, you were thinking --
No, I wasn’t thinking of super-clustering when I first proposed it. As I looked at the plates it became clear that the distribution of clusters wasn’t uniform on the small scale.
So this was not even affected by the Shane-Wirtahen studies and so forth.
Those studies were published during the course of my work on the clusters.
And you had already noticed by that time?
By then it was already clear, in fact I had discussions with Shane before I finished the thesis about super-clusters, and he knew they existed as well. I said, “They have to exist;” it’s obvious; you see them all over, you know.
They had a similar project, in a sense.
Yes. They didn’t go as faint; they were counting individual galaxies and not cataloging clusters, but they had these large clouds which they remarked on -- I forget, maybe five of them.
Doesn’t this strike you as curious that these things hadn’t been noticed before?
No, because there was never a large-scale survey of that sort before. In fact, the first such survey was the Lick Astrographic one.
Because the earlier telescopes just had very narrow fields?
Yes. There were surveys with things like the old 4-inch Ross lenses, that sort of thing. The Franklin-Adams star charts went to 16th magnitude or so, not faint enough and not many galaxies. Actually, the super-clustering shows up on the Shane-Wirtahen distribution, but they didn’t recognize it because they didn’t have the facilities for large-scale statistical studies. They just noticed these few clouds that they remarked on.
What do you mean by facilities?
Okay. How about that, how does that come in?
I don’t think anyone had done computer analysis of distributions of clusters till quite a long time after I had finished my thesis. And then initially people were studying my clusters.
But during your work, you used a computer?
Yes, but just in the very last stages, I’ll tell you what I remember about it. After finishing the survey of clusters and studying their distribution and so forth, I had to make up a catalog, and also I wanted to calculate precession and galactic coordinates, and that was going to be a big job because there were 2700 clusters.
It’s a very straightforward thing, just the coordinate problem?
Yes, a spherical transformation in both cases. So I happened to be talking to Karl Heinz, who was visiting Cal Tech at the time, and he said, “George, why don’t you use the computer? Cal Tech has this brand new fancy equipment up there in Throop Hall.” What they had was the (IBM) 604 calculating punch, which could be programmed up to twenty steps by wiring a punch board. So I punched my cards for the cluster data first, and then I calculated precession constants with this calculating punch. It took some hours to run all the cards through and get precession for 2700 objects; that was fine. But galactic coordinates was a bigger job, and it would take several passes through. I guess I was talking about it to one of the engineers who was running the computer facilities, such as it was, and he said, “Look, Cal Tech is going to buy this tremendous new machine called the Datatron, there’s one up in Pasadena and we can use that late at night, why don’t we do your galactic coordinates up there?” I said, “Great.” So I met him at midnight, roughly, one Saturday night, and he helped me program it. I had made it out in a block diagram and he actually punched the program tape and debugged it, it took about an hour.
My goodness, that’s pretty quick.
It was a straightforward problem, you see. So then I sat down and ran my cards through the machine, and he left, and I locked it up when I quit. It took me about three and a half hours to do galactic coordinates for 2700 objects. I was just enthralled at the speed of that thing. Now you could do about as well with a HP [Hewlett-Packard] 65, and with a [IBM] 360-94 it’s just a matter of a few seconds to run that program through. But at the time it was miraculous; what would have been months of work for me, we did in three and a half hours. I remember going home elated at the modern equipment. So that was great, and that was my beginning of computing. I’ve never done a lot of computing, but I’ve used computers more or less for routine data reduction since then. Of course UCLA has very good computing facilities now, as I’m sure you know.
Who did you talk with during this period about super-clusters?
I didn’t talk to many people about it. Zwicky a little bit at dinner; his views were that they didn’t exist. In fact, other than having this strong impression that it was common from the way you could see the things on the plates, I hadn’t done anything about them until I got around, at the very end of my thesis work, to looking at the overall distribution. As you may recall, you see effects of galactic absorption. In fact it’s really almost a repeat of Hubble’s 1935, ‘36 survey of galaxies. Exactly the same results. Hubble found obvious evidence for absorption, and he found that the large-scale distribution of galaxies was isotropic and homogeneous, and on the small scale you get clustering.
Were you deliberately modeling yourself on Hubble?
No, I wasn’t. It came out that way. Of course, I was familiar with Hubble’s paper, but the obvious thing to look at first was absorption, and you could see the effects of absorption. Also the Milky Way just making clusters unrecognizable; I had to eliminate a portion of the sky at low latitudes. Then the large-scale distribution looked homogeneous and isotropic to the accuracy of the survey, but on a small scale there was clearly a clumpy distribution. I did simple—minded things, which was all I could do; at that time I didn’t have access to computers for statistical work but just that transformation.
Yes, but you could compare with a Poisson distribution and so on.
That’s what I did. I divided the sky into cells and looked at the frequency distribution of cells with so many members. This is all published.
Yes, I know about that.
There is no question that the effect was real; you could not account for it with absorption.
Did people generally accept this?
Let’s see. I remember giving a paper at the Berkley meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 1956.
That was your first announcement?
Yes, and I remember Greenstein was in the audience and afterwards said, “That was a good paper, and I wish Fritz were here.” That was the first mention I made of super-clustering. I didn’t feel people took it very seriously. They took the catalog seriously, shortly, it was used widely as a finding list, and it’s nice to see your name splattered about papers and stuff, but on the other hand nobody paid much attention to the existence of larger in homogeneities. I plugged away at it; I gave another paper in Santa Barbara on the subject and even published a list of fifteen or twenty rather obvious super-clusters. But a number of people have done statistical studies in the years following, like Bogard and Wagner, and Kiang, among others. They all agreed with me that the distribution of clusters was not random, not uniform. But it really wasn’t until Peebles’ work that people began talking about super-clusters in a positive way. A few people were believers, like de Vaucouleurs.
Do you feel your work has been similar to de Vaucouleurs’ work?
Oh, very, very different. He and I are very different kinds of people. He is a very hard-working, dedicated, single-minded person, and I just enjoy other things in life too much to devote every waking moment to astronomy. I don’t have that kind of memory either.
But in terms of the content?
No, I think we’re very different in our approach and the nature of our science. The only thing in common is that we both were interested in the large-scale distribution of matter.
I’m interested, what has been the difference in approach. That’s a way telling me about your approach.
Gerard, in my opinion, overworks data. He’ll go into enormous detail. He’s very good, he knows a lot. I think the revised catalogue of galaxies that he did with his wife and Harold Corwin is a superb job. But he has all these things he corrects for, and the corrections are probably useful in a statistical sense but we don’t really know them, we don’t know the numbers as well as is implied, I’m afraid, in the data. He has a strong feeling that the Hubble constant is closer to 100 and has done a lot of analysis that seems to give that result. I think it’s largely teleological; I think he wants the result subconsciously.
Why should he want a large Hubble constant?
I don’t know why he wants it, but he seems to be more or less committed to it. I think a lot of his papers are very weak. If you look in detail at what he’s done it’s just doing least squares fits on three points and so forth. In fact a lot of people kid about it, jokingly. You know the paper by S. Candlestick maker, of course.
No, I don’t.
Sure you do. You must have that in your tape for Chandrasekhar. A fellow whose name I have momentarily forgotten (Sykes is it?), a student of Chandra’s, wrote up a satire of a paper Chandra published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London I think it was, Volume 237, on page 486.
How do you remember that?
The reason I remember was Sykes, I think his name was, wrote this paper “On the Imperturbability of Elevator Operators, LVII,” by S. Candlestick maker.
The Roman numeral 57.
Yes. He arranged it to be for volume 237, page 486 of the Astrophysical Journal and sent it off. The story I heard was that he sent it to Chandra, who was then editor, and that Chandra with a straight face sent it to a referee, who passed it, and so Chandra accepted the paper jokingly. Some of the students chipped in and paid for having reprints made. Reprints exist which are volume 237, page 486, or maybe it’s 476, of the Astrophysical Journal. This is almost a word for word satire of a paper Chandra had written on the instability of something in this Royal Society publication. You just have to read it to appreciate the beauty of it, but you should have a copy in your file.
Do you have a copy you could send us?
I do, but faster than that, it was reprinted in, what is it, the Quarterly Journal of the RAS? Anyway, it’s the Royal Astronomical Society’s quarterly journal. It was about a year or so ago. After finding that, you then go to the library and copy the original, and compare them. It’s a riot.
Anyhow I was thinking that one should also have a paper by G. de Vaucouleurs, in which one derives the least squares fit to a single point. You fit a panafola to a point by least squares and so forth. I’m overstating it, but I disagree with Gerard about his pickiness. On the other hand, I will say he knows a lot, he’s got a marvelous memory and a good grasp of the subject.
In your own approach perhaps would be to take a lot more data and do less interpretation on it?
I’m much lazier. And I think I’m much more cautious about getting results from data. I like to think I’m more objective, but who knows.
Did you have disagreements with him, scientifically, on how to interpret super-clusters?
De Vaucouleurs, no. I think we agreed on that. Again, he was the first person, I think, to look at the Virgo region in some detail. He has these different clouds. Of course he thought he was really the first person since Holmberg’s very early paper in ‘29 to push the idea of a local super-cluster.
Did you know about this?
Oh yes, I knew about that; I was familiar with that. I didn’t know whether I believed, and I don’t to this day believe the rotation of it, the double sine curve and that sort of stuff. It could be right, but I’m not convinced. But the general idea of a large, more or less flattened system -- there is no question of that now.
I see. So in a way this helped get you ready for the idea of super-clusters of galaxies in general?
I guess the idea was obvious that, you know, it’s a possible thing to look for. And sure enough, I found it, and the scale of them was about the same, if you correct for the Hubble constant differences and so on, with Gerard’s super-cluster.
What about Osterbrock? He was your nominal thesis adviser.
Yes, he was my adviser. I think the world of Osterbrock. It turned out that he didn’t give me much advice on the subject, because it was very, very far removed from his field, so he was more of a nominal adviser. I gave him periodic reports on how I was doing, and he had a few suggestions from time to time, but not very much.
You were pretty much on your own.
I was on my own essentially, which was fine. It was straightforward and no profound theoretical stuff in it. It was very straightforward. So it turned out, I guess, he wasn’t needed too much. But I didn’t mean it that way.
It was a straightforward problem.
Well, let’s see. The next thing is your move to UCLA. First, anything more about working on your thesis?
You don’t want to talk about super-clusters for now.
We’ll get back to it. I’d sort of like to go back and forth between the scientific and the other things.
Okay. I guess I finished more rapidly than people thought I was going to. It took three years for a thesis, but I was working full time at the time. When I told Jesse that I was expecting to finish next summer that was in early ‘56 or maybe late ‘55 they were all sort of surprised. They didn’t think I was going to finish that soon, but I was sure I was. I was interested in looking around for jobs. I had an offer of a temporary job at Arizona, I recall. But I was especially interested in an opening I heard about at UCLA. It hadn’t occurred to Jesse that I’d be interested in it or that I’d be available. There was another student they thought would be available (I forgot who it was) and Greenstein had suggested him to Popper, who was then chairman at UCLA, and I asked if I could also be considered, and I wrote also to Dan Popper. Jesse was surprised I was interested, but he did tell Dan that I would be.
You were interested because it was in the area?
I guess I thought it would be a nice job. Yes, it was in the area, which was one thing. I don’t think that was paramount in my mind, but I thought UCLA was a place where I could have a chance to work at Mt. Wilson as a guest conveniently, and stay in touch with the astronomical community. But also, I kind of liked the scene at UCLA. It’s a nice campus, and I thought highly of Dan Popper. So I went over and interviewed for it. I expected I hadn’t a very good chance, but it turned out that the major other candidate removed himself -- he took some other job. So I was hired, and that was fine. I was hired as an acting instructor. The rank and structure isn’t used anymore (or hardly used, I think it’s in the books). But I hadn’t finished the Ph.D. when I was first hired. Actually I finished my dissertation in the summer, and took my exam in September, but the UCLA job began July 1. As soon as I passed my final oral exam I got a letter from the dean at Cal Tech, and they immediately changed my rank to instructor. For three months I was acting instructor at a salary of $4296, which I’m sure sounds high to the older people you’ve inter viewed.
I’m trying to think, I’m not too familiar with the rates.
It was 1956. All I can say was, it turned out that if that had been my only source of income, I was eligible for public housing in Los Angeles. Recently now I’ve plotted up my salary over the years, adjusting for inflation according to national statistical figures we got, and it turns out that my real salary rose quite substantially during the first few years at UCLA, but about ten years ago it leveled off and hasn’t changed since; despite promotions and raises, due to inflation my salary has been almost constant. The general salary scale has gone down continuously since ‘56, way down, it’s amazing.
Professors in general have fallen behind inflation.
Oh, yes. Way down. It’s kind of interesting how it works. But I went up fairly fast initially, so that was fine.
Tell me about the nature of the department. What did you find when you went to UCLA?
At that time it was an undergraduate department only. The faculty members consisted of Dan Popper, who I think is a terrific guy, very underrated. He is one of the world’s best astronomers. I’ve learned a lot from him, by the way.
A binary star man.
Yes, fundamental properties of stars. But he’s very, very careful, very thorough, and very honest. The most honest, straight-shooting person you’d ever know, and you can trust his data. He really is one of the very important people, because somebody has to do this dull work you know, getting masses and radii and luminosities and effective temperatures and bolometric corrections. There was Frederick C. Leonard, the old-timer who had started the department. He was meteoriticist; he should have been a librarian. He was a marvelous old guy, but not much of a scientist. I recall at lunch conversations, we’d always have an unabridged dictionary, because they were so interested in definitions of words and details. There would always be arguments about wha1s the meaning of this or that.
Between Leonard and somebody else.
Well, yes. Sam Herrick was there too. Herrick was a celestial mechanicer, and Sam’s view was that astrophysics was a passing fad. He prided himself that he never took a physics course. He was quite bright and quite good in his field.
All the physics he needed was one over R squared.
That’s all the physics he ever used. But he was very ingenious in developing certain perturbation techniques. Of course he fell behind the times too when the space program broke out, although even before then he gave courses in space navigation.
I wanted to ask you about that, but first let’s get the state of the department.
Okay. Those were the people. Now, Sam Herrick and Frederick Leonard were kind of like Baade and Zwicky; they did not like each other. They would speak to each other, but not very friendly. Frederick felt Sam was a schemer and get-a header type, which had some truth in it, and I guess Sam didn’t have much respect for Frederick because he was sort of a librarian type. Popper was above it all.
He was the chairman.
He was the chairman at that time, although quite clearly he knew full well the problems of both people.
Being a chairman of a department of three, or in this case four.
There were four. I replaced Paul Wiley,who was an engineer; he was actually only part-time in astronomy, and they got it made into a full-time position. I was really the only companion Dan had in modern astronomy.
I see. So the department didn’t have any particular research program or anything like that?
Not as a department. Of course, the individuals were all very active, Herrick in celestial mechanics, Frederick Leonard was editor of a meteoritical journal that he founded, and very prolific -- he wrote lots of papers that didn’t say much. And Popper has always been an active person in fundamental data. Anyway, Sam wanted a master’s program.
I wanted to ask you that, but first, before we set the department in motion, I’m just curious about the state upon your arrival there. What sort of working conditions did you have? Actually this we could talk about over a little larger period; what sorts of working conditions were there in the department when it was still small like that?
The department was housed in Royce Hall in several rooms, kind of a suite, but it was perfectly satisfactory. I had a large office; we had one phone with a long cord that we could take into different people’s offices. There was a new building under construction that we had the top floor of, or part of it at that time, and we knew that we were going to be moving within the next year or so, as we did.
I gather from what you said about the people that everybody more or less expected that you would be busy in research.
Oh yes, sure.
At that point in your career, about how much time would you say was spent on research, how much on teaching, administration?
Oh, gosh. I probably spent 25% of my time on research, although it’s hard to remember for sure. The first big thing I had to do, of course, was design new courses and learn the courses. Any new faculty member, the first thing he has to do was work up some courses.
There wasn’t one ready for you to step into?
Well, I’m sure there were. They weren’t new courses, but they were new to me.
Now you don’t just lecture from other people’s notes. I could never lecture from Frederick’s notes, because he taught the same course that he had himself, I believe, in 1925 or something, letter-perfect.
But it wasn’t that you were expected to suddenly start teaching astrophysics, which hadn’t been taught there before?
Well yes, it came to that. That’s why I mentioned that Sam wanted a master’s program, so I think in my second year there we did it, we offered it. Popper was concerned that we didn’t have anybody to teach graduate courses in anything but celestial mechanics, so he asked me when I first came if I would be willing or able to teach something in stellar structure say, and I said yes. I gave a course in stellar structure, and he gave a course in stellar atmospheres, so that we could give a more honest master’s degree.
So that took time. But also, I gave three courses my first quarter, and the one that takes the most time is the night observing course.
I redesigned it and made up entirely new experiments and gave what we now call Astronomy 10. Also I gave the general introductory course and eventually wrote a book for it. And then I gave a course that was called stellar astronomy, an undergraduate course, it was a second course for those who wanted more modern stuff. These courses took time to work up, and at the same time I wrote up my thesis for publication and got it off, I guess about that first year. It was published in ‘58, which means it must have been submitted in ‘57 or so.
Now I can ask you about how the department changed. Why don’t we talk about the changes in the department over a fairly long period, let’s say through the 60’s.
I’ll try to be brief about it. It’s a long history.
Yes. And the first thing, you arrived, and then ‘57 was Sputnik.
Yes. I recall being telephoned by the Los Angeles Times. They said they had just had a news announcement that the Russians have launched an artificial satellite; did I want to comment? They called the department and I happened to answer the phone. I had just read an elementary article by Cleminshaw which I had right in front of me, discussing such things as the critical angles of launch and speed and so forth, and I said gosh, considering the techniques involved, I really thought it was unlikely that they could have done that and suspected that it was a rumor. The next morning I saw the rumor crossing the pre-dawn sky.
Oh no, I got up to see it. Then we had a lot of fun with it. I took all the news stories literally and gave them to the classes and pointed out that it had to be a subterranean satellite and so forth, because they had the periods wrong for the distance from the earth, and stuff like that. But how the department developed: when I got there Dan and I, as I say, organized the modern part of the master1s program, but we wanted to get some more good astronomers.
What was the master’s program for anyway? Who would take a masters in astronomy?
In those days there were lots of jobs available. Remember, the space program was just starting. Sam had students in celestial mechanics that were going into industry, and in those days he was still up on it. I started to talk about him. He never really got modern after that, and in his later years he was quite old-fashioned and was still doing problems that should have been done, you know, back in the 20’s and earlier. So he was not a modern celestial mechanicer, but some of his students have become so. Like John Anderson, who has done very well at JPL. Anyway, he had students who could get jobs with master’s degrees, so it was a very good idea, I think, from his point of view. But, if they said astronomy, we wanted them to have some astronomy in them. We wanted to get a top astronomer into the department. There was also an urge to give a doctorate degree. At that time, as you know, there was a great need for astronomers in departments that were starting to expand all over the country. I’ve forgotten the details of how everything happened, but the university did agree to look at the department, to evaluate it, at Popper’s request. A prestigious committee was formed of people not in our department, several of them from other departments on our campus, some people from Lick, and Greenstein from Cal Tech was on it. This committee met and made some strong recommendations that we should have a faculty of, say six, and they recommended that Herrick be transferred to engineering.
Why did they recommend that?
Because they knew about the problems between Herrick and the rest of the department, and what his main interests were. And he was in fact transferred to engineering; he held a joint appointment with us but no longer taught any courses in astronomy.
How did he feel about that transfer?
I don’t know; he accepted it at least. It gave him a little more clout, in a way, because he now had a little group of his own in engineering, working in what he called astrodynamics.
Yes he was able to get grants and so forth, and students.
Oh yes, sure.
In a way it was a loss to the department.
No, not really. That was a recommendation, but also that, as I say, we built up to a department of six, was the recommendation at that time. At that time we were also looking for good people that we could attract, if we could get the positions. Well, the committee’s recommendation, of course, didn’t mean that would be a reality. Clark Kerr was then the president of the University. But by sheer chance we had the option of getting Lawrence Aller. He was at that time having a fight not a fight, but a small disagreement I guess -- with (Leo) Goldberg at Michigan. Goldberg’s interests were not on ground-based astronomy. (I guess they are now.) But anyway Aller was anxious to leave; he was on sabbatical when we contacted him, and he decided he would like to come to UCLA.
Why Aller? Was it that you were looking for a particular type of person?
Some good, modern astronomer.
It didn’t matter whether he was theoretical or observational or
I think the name, the person, came first and the field came second. He had to be in modern astronomy, preferably astrophysics, I mean preferably with expertise in theoretical astrophysics as well. And Lawrence certainly has background in stellar atmospheres. He’s written a book in it and can teach effectively. Anyway, Lawrence was interested in coming, so then we went to the president and fought the battle of getting another position and the okay to go ahead and offer a Ph.D. After much -- I won’t say argument, not really, debate, but just fighting with the administration, what’s the word I’m trying to use -- negotiation; eventually it was all approved on the condition we would never ask for a major telescope and never ask for more than six people. By the way, we have fourteen now and we’re currently negotiating for a ten-meter telescope in California, as you probably know.
No, tell me, what kind of telescope?
A ten meter optical telescope.
No, I didn’t know that.
It doesn’t exist, of course, at the moment, but we’re trying. We’re trying to get a grant currently from the administration just for a cost feasibility study. We feel that this could be done for a small fraction of what the space shuttle and space telescope cost.
But it won’t have the resolution.
Ah, but with ten meters we have more light-gathering power. You can do different things. We’re also making an active pitch to get a large space center in UCLA to work with the space telescope.
I see. I didn’t know about that.
Anyway, we have a terrific department currently.
Oh that’s a try, its pie in the sky, but you don’t get it if you don’t try. The point is that this was back in 1959 or 160 when the negotiations were being made.
Right. And “never” is not longer than ten years.
That’s right. It was under those conditions that we were allowed this great new appointment. Lawrence became a member of the Academy at the same time.
None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Sputnik?
Hard to say. Sputnik certainly caused the immediate rise in astronomy, but no, I think it was inevitable that someday we’re going to go into space; it’s inevitable that astronomy had to be an exciting new field. I don’t think Sputnik alone did it. It’s like, would we have mechanics if it hadn’t been for Newton? Somebody would have done it. The only legitimate question is, there would never have been a “Don Giovanni” if there hadn’t been a Mozart. Some people are unique because there impact, but scientists are never unique because there is always somebody else who will do the same job eventually, isn’t that right, unlike in art and music.
So you were picturing training people for becoming teachers in astronomy departments?
Yes, and becoming a part of the scene as it were.
Was there an idea of teaching people to be applied astronomers?
No, teaching people to be astronomers.
But no particular emphasis on celestial mechanics.
Oh no, no. At the same time that Lawrence came the new set-up was made; Sam Was transferred to engineering, and’ we had some other positions created. We got Ray Weyman, who only stayed one year because he was lured back to Arizona to essentially reshape that department, as you probably know; but that was the start anyway. Then we gradually added people, but the big quantum jumps came I would say in the last few years. In fact we had a department of six people, roughly, until very recently. We had made great efforts to attract the best. We had Rudolf Kippenhahn with us for a visit and tried very hard to get him and after a year he finally decided to stay in Germany, mainly for personal reasons.
So the department was fairly stable for a number of years.
For about ten years it was stable, although we had a number of illustrious guests and were trying very hard to get top people. Finally we made, I think, some big breakthroughs. We got Miroslav Plavec; it must now be five years ago. He came to this country on political exile from Czechoslovakia. He’s a prince of a guy, and very good. Recently we’ve gotten Roger Ulrich, Michael Jura, Jonathan Katz and Bruce Margon and the department also got a joint appointment with physics. I think our department is one of the best in the country at the moment. I’m serious about it. We’ve gotten some very good people now, and it’s getting to be a very exciting place.
I see. I hope we can get back to that. Over this ten year period or dozen year period when it was fairly, stable, I wanted to ask you what it was like. For one thing, how was your astronomy major set up, there was something like an astronomy-physics or astronomy-math major?
When I got there, there was an astronomy-physics curriculum. The reason for that was there was a major in astronomy, but Popper didn’t feel that the major was a very good one. In those days the requirements of the college were such that you had to have a certain number of courses to comprise a major and the people were taking, he thought, entirely too much astronomy and not enough physics and mathematics. So he innovated a program in astronomy-physics, a joint curriculum, which is what the astronomy major should have been. We administered that program, in fact I chaired this committee that administered it, and that was what we steered all our best students through. Until we went on the quarter system, and at that point there was an opportunity to, get the university to change the old requirements. The academic senate can always change the rules, and we just got them all revamped in an intelligent way, and now our major is astronomy, the appropriate one. So the present astronomy major and the old astronomy-physics were essentially the same thing. They were mostly a physics curriculum but with an astronomy specialty.
Our students take the same core courses the physics majors take.
What do you do about, getting your students observing time?
Of course undergraduate students don’t usually have it. Graduate students go to a number of places. They go to Lick; we have an observatory of our own at Ojai, a small 24-inch telescope where you can try out equipment and do a little observing, Kitt Peak, of course, is available, occasionally students have gone with faculty members to Mt Wilson But the bulk of the work is done either at Lick or Kitt Peak, I’d say mostly Lick.
Now, has there been a regular seminar that people have attended?
Oh yes, some.
Was that already in existence when you went there?
No. But we started that about the time we got Lawrence.
I see. When Aller came in he must have made a pretty big impact.
He was a big quantum jump, yes. That was the, beginning of our graduate department of course, and then we got graduate students.
What was his impact, would you say?
Well, he’s a ball of fire. He’s sloppy but he’s a ball of fire. For several years there he had more papers cited in the. ASTROPHYSICAL ABSTRACTS (in those days it was the JANRESBERICE-IT) than any other living astronomer.
Is that so, I never knew that. Abell Very, very prolific, a tremendous worker, just a ball of fire As I say, he tends to be sloppy, and I think in recent years he has been less original than in the old days But you know he shouldn’t be criticized as much as one tends to. He also learns new tricks; he goes to Australia and works in radio astronomy, for example. Weart In terms of the graduate students and teaching and so forth?
He is as I say, very energetic, has lots of students. I think some of the graduate students: have objected to some of his courses from time to time on the grounds that they do too much busy work and so forth, but nothing is perfect. On the whole I think his impact has been very important to us.
What about grant-raising around the department? Has there been any feeling people should go and get grants?
Oh yes there’s always pressure to go and get grants.
And it’ sort of up to each individual?
It’s up to each individual to get his grant. There have not been departmental grants. Lawrence was very good at getting grants, especially in the halcyon days in the late 60’s or middle 60’s. He was very effective. Actually, we had a faculty member, Ed Upton, for a long time, and Ed was very bright very innovative, but he has a problem, he just can’t complete anything. It’s something psychologically wrong. He finally lost his position; you couldn’t count on him to finish things. I hope these things are confidential.
Yes, you have complete control over the tape.
It’s not anything very secret you know.
Anything you say you can cross out in the transcript later or you can restrict it till after your death or anything you like. It’s all under your control.
Anyway, Ed had problems. It’s too bad, because he’s an awfully bright guy and has very original ideas, but to get him to actually finish a paper is like pulling teeth. And he writes well. Lawrence got him a big grant which faltered and was pilfered by all kinds of people. Anyway, there’s always the pressure to get grants. They’re harder to get now.
Nevertheless, people are getting them.
In general, where and how did the staff exchange ideas about research?
In the old days you just talked at lunchtime.
You’d all go lunch together.
Yes; we still do.
The whole department?
Pretty nearly. It’s no requirement; everyone just tends to knock on the doors and all go off to the faculty center to have lunch. It’s getting harder to find a table big enough anymore. Usually one or two people aren’t there; I’m not there today, for example.
Right. So this would be a good place --
That’s where most of the talking goes on. But also we have departmental meetings and that kind of stuff too. But I think the biggest single thing is lunch.
Has there been much after hours socializing?
In the past less so because of the diversity of ages. And in my own case I had this unfortunate first marriage; my wife was not sociable. My present wife, who, I’ve been with six years, now, is very marvelous that way. We give parties; when I was chairman we had departmental parties periodically for graduate students and staff. And now we have more staff members of common ages, there’s more social intercourse between people.
I see. Has there been much discussion of subjects outside of astronomy like biology, politics, and philosophy?
Oh yes, politics continually. Lawrence is marvelous at politics. He has the most marvelous terms for people; like (President L.B.) Johnson he called blood finger. I forget what he called Dicky (Nixon). Lawrence is quite liberal politically, but not a populist or extremist either. He just has colorful ways of himself.
Tell me; during the busy 60’s were there differences of opinion politically in the department?
No, we were in pretty good harmony. I think everyone in the department was a democrat; no one liked Nixon. We were also, pretty conservative on the student issues during the big 60’s. Most of us thought it was a bunch of crap, which it was.
I see. The department was more or less homogenous.
Yes. We kept our grade point averages about the same while the grades: inflated elsewhere and insisted oh meeting our classes rather than picketing the administration, and so forth. All of us were against the Vietnam War obviously, but were not going off half-cocked. Many of us were active in the academic senate. I was chairman for a year (1972-1973). The whole UCLA faculty by the way, contrary to what you see in the press, 90 or 95 percent of the faculty was like us in their feeling about not going off half-cocked. Everyone agreed that you should reassess yourself and that when the students have gripes maybe they have some good ideas, you look at them; but just because something is wrong here and there doesn’t mean that the right way to have a course is to have the students come and sit around and talk and discover the wheel all over again. There was a certain amount of stupid stuff that was done, and some people for a week didn’t meet classes and there were some very bad courses introduced (not in the sciences, though). So the faculty as a whole…
Not in the astronomy department.
No, no, but university-wide. So the faculty as a whole got disturbed about this, we formed a committee to bring strength to the university, to counteract this nonsense, as we thought it was, and got members of our committee elected to all the senate offices We think we restored order, as it were. Anyway, the department talks, yes, I would say the conversations run the gamut. There’re not very many people interested in records as I am. I can’t discuss record collecting with many people in the department, except occasionally.
Has there been much discussion of things like general philosophy of astronomy, cosmology or broader cosmological things.
Oh sure. All the time, that sort of thing gets discussed.
Has this increased or --
It’s always been common, but the more people you have the more interesting the discussions go.
How would you compare all these things with your experience while you were at Cal Tech? What were the similarities and differences?
We are a very cohesive department now, I think, in the sense that people have common interests; there’s none of the divisiveness that existed at Cal Tech, and still does. There’s a lot of jealousy there, and a lot of scrambling.
Now, you’re talking about Cal Tech, or Mt. Wilson-Palomar, or between the two?
The whole outfit. You know, Sandage is a recluse, doesn’t talk to people much. Baade and Minkowski didn’t like Zwicky and Zwicky didn’t like a lot of people. There was competition over credit for quasars; there were stories that you had to go to Russia to hear what your colleague across the hall was doing, and so forth. These problems exist in places. I’m sure even today there’s too much of that problem at Cal Tech. We have nothing like that; everyone is very open and gets along very well. In that sense it’s much better at UCLA.
Why the difference, do you suppose?
I’m not sure. I think Cal Tech certainly has more super stars, but also personalities just differ, you know, and people get suspicious of each other. Despite that, Cal Tech is a very exciting place. I have to say always, I think, since I was there, at least as a graduate student, despite all the problems that may exist -- and there were all sorts of problems -- an enormously large number of people were doing very exciting astronomy You have the people in physics, several groups, (Willy Fowler’s group for example, very much involved .You have Leighton doing other things I don’t have to tell you Christy, and of course Kip Thorne’s group, and then the geophysics people who are involved in planetary astronomy, and (Peter) Goldreich. It’s very exciting. I don’t think we are in that class.
That’s not your department’s problem, its UCLA’s problem.
But on the other hand, our group is getting there. I think if you look at just the astronomy faculty at Cal Tech and just the astronomy faculty at UCLA, I don’t think we take second seating anymore. I think we’re better than Berkeley, I’m sure we are. The only places I think are in the running right now are Princeton and Cal Tech. Cal Tech because of the large number of people involved, and the instrumentation.
I think we’re better than Arizona is now.
One question I wanted to ask, does anybody regularly check papers from the department before they’re submitted for publication?
No, only from students. Students have to be checked by their advisor, but that’s for obvious reasons, Now it has happened -- once it happened with a student, a graduate student sent a paper to the Ap.J. on his own; a first year student., he didn’t realize. It was kind of embarrassing because it was a crank kind of paper.
It was rejected.
Oh sure, but politely. Chandra called up, and we were shocked. We said, “Just send it back and we’ll talk to him.” We’d always look at the students’ papers first, but otherwise there’s no censorship.
Pre-referring we call it.
That’s right. We don’t have that, except on a voluntary basis... Usually someone will show his paper to someone. I usually give mine to Dan Popper; he’s done the same with me. That’s just for help, or maybe it can be said more clearly or whatever.
Well, let’s see. There’s two ways we could go from here. We can go back to your scientific work or we can go to your writing and teaching. Maybe it’s more logical to go on with the writing and teaching?
You want to wind up on things; I don’t know what you want to do next. You want to go back to clusters?
Why don’t we wind up your work in the department, in teaching and so forth?
Okay, and then go back to the big issues?
Yes. So first, EXPLORATION OF THE UNIVERSE.
When I started teaching I didn’t think there was a very good textbook. We were using Baker. It was a good book you know, but it was old-fashioned and it was dull and Baker was already an old man; he was still revising every year, but he was an old man... The book just didn’t have the flavor that we thought it should have. So I decided I’d like to write one. Book men are always coming to your door, and so in immediately I was signed up by the first publisher that came along: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. It was flattering to be signed up. I had just barely begun to write a book. I have no regrets; they’ve been very good to me. I think people have criticized Holt; there are problems with them, but I think on the whole they’re a good publisher.
I never heard of a publisher that wasn’t criticized by someone.
Sure. But my relationship with them has been very cordial and they’ve done well for me; and. I think I’ve done well for them, until Pasachoff came along. But anyway, I’ll get him next year. So I wrote the book purely out of altruistic means. I thought we needed a better book.
Out of your own teaching?
Yes. It was still fresh.
When did you start writing it? You went there in ‘56.
It took me three years the first time. I did it always on my own time.
Did you start as soon as you got there?
No. The first book was (started) about 1961 or ‘62. I’d been there five years or six years, something like that. Let’s see, it took three years to write it and about a year to get it through the mill or most of a year. So I may have started around ‘60. Yes, I could tell you it was; I was fairly far along already in ‘60, because that was the first time I worked in summer science program.
We’ll get back to that too.
So that was right. That was a labor of love.
Tell me, what did you have in mind in writing it, in terms of the way you did it?
I wanted, first of all, to explain astronomy better, make it more interesting, because it was so dull, in Baker’s book, and so terse and short I wanted to explain things I had the planetarium experience and I’d heard Cleminshaw explain things so beautifully, I thought, why can’t we bring this to books? I had encouragement from several people too, to write one. I had written popular articles before, too, as you know so I wanted to do a better exposition and make it more interesting, and also more modern. So the first edition had a lot of innovations, it was quite a different book from any other one that was in existence. Some books came out after I started, for example, McLaughlin’s. It’s lucky I started because McLaughlin was actually pretty good. I don’t think it’s as good as mine, but it went a long way toward what I wanted.
You were in print beforehand?
No, he was in print first, but I was already committed and was writing when that came out, which is good because I might not have otherwise.
“He’s done it, I don’t have to.”
You said you were encouraged; does this mean by people around the department, or others also?
Yes, mostly around the department. Paul Wiley in particular, who I replaced, he and Dan Popper and Paul Routly all read the first script and helped me a great deal with suggestions. So that was the start of it, and the book was quite successful, as you know.
Yes. Why do you think it’s been so successful? You must have thought about this.
I think it was, I tried to do a better job of writing and explaining, and more fully rather than a terse statement I tried to really explain something, like what’s aberration. The failings the books had recently which had been competing best, until Jay (Pasachoff)’s: they have been shorter you know, the junior colleges think mine is too long for students to read, they want a short book. That’s why I came out with a brief edition (1969, 1973), but even my brief edition is longer than most people’s books. But they’re not clearer because they’re shorter I don’t think they are. I think they’re not as good, and I think many of them are full of errors and so forth. I had a lot of things that were new in that first book, that hadn’t been done, and I was the first person to use color illustrations.
Yes. That’s another thing; do you think that was important?
Sure it was important.
Why did you use color Illustrations?
I wanted to make the best book I could. I thought, why don’t we use some of this beautiful new color? I put in a Messier catalog, which no one had done, and lots of tabular data in the back and a complete glossary. All the books that came out subsequently were imitators, which are flattering but of course, it also…
Cuts into the sales…
Cuts into the sales. Some of the books copied outright; many people have just traced my line drawings.
You really should have invented some small error in the last decimal point of one of your tables so that you could see how many people copied.
I don’t have to, I know who copied. They’re not errors; in all the tables, you get your data from different sources. You can tell when they’re opted or not. Some of them just took tear sheets and had them set in type. But the funniest thing is line drawings. I do a thing like a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram; in my first edition I just took a pencil and put little dots where the main sequence was. They weren’t plotted points, they were just dots, and I’ve seen the same exact dots.
People used the same dots?
Dot for dot. (Laughter). Anyway, that was a successful book, and I was encouraged to do a second edition and at the same time to come out with a brief edition. At that time Holt had a new division called Special Projects, and they gave this the special treatment. I forget the guy’s name who signed me up for the next edition and the brief book, but he was subsequently canned because he signed a lot of people up and gave them too much. In my case it was fine; they didn’t mind because it made money for them, and for a while it, was the best seller of the books.
You say now you’re working on a new book on a different plan, to keep up with the advances.
Yes, and I think my book is still traditional.
The new one?
The view one will be less traditional. On the Other hand, the ones that have been innovative since mine, or tried to be, do things like start with stars or galaxies.
You start at the other end.
… and the trouble with that is that people don’t really know what they’re reading, don’t fully appreciate it, I think. Especial1y things like gravitational theory, which I think is fundamental. Anything like a force or a law of nature, it seems to me you have to start -- how to say it?
You’re starting your book with the physics in a certain sense?
Yes, but I’m also trying to show where these things come from. How did man discover the law of gravitation and its role, rather than just saying you can calculate the masses of double stars from studying their motions? It doesn’t tell anything. So I wanted to tell the story if I could. I tried to. You’ve written a lot yourself, you know.
I’ve written some popularization. Not a lot.
I’ve got some of your books. HOW TO BUILD A SUN; it’s a beautiful book. There’s another one on optics.
That’s right. I wrote both of them.
Well they’re great.
How was the success of this series of textbooks changed your lift?
It’s helped a little bit money-wise, although not as much as you might think. I obviously don’t live on my salary. On the average I’ve made almost as much from the book as my salary. One year we did extremely well; the first year the second edition came out with the brief edition (I was on sabbatical that year in Germany) it made us I think the better part of 100 grand one year in gross royalties.
Was this before or after the income averaging (tax rule)?
Before. And I didn’t know in any better, so didn’t get any help with income tax and I paid $65,000 income tax. I never saved anything, which I don’t regret, with inflation the way it is. (I’ve never done anything like that since, by the way, it was the one year – ’69 or ’70, those were old dollars.)
So it has affected your standard of living but not your style, so to speak?
No, no way; I’m sure that’s right. You know, obviously the fact we’re building a house we can’t afford is helped by the assumption there will be some book royalties. But mainly what it’s done, well, I took my mother to Europe on that, when she was living, on our sabbatical, we bought a new car that year, and so on. We just haven’t been saving money.
What about in terms of the popular knowledge of your textbook -- you must always be running into colleagues who are using it for their courses.
Used it, not any more.
Well okay, you used to.
I see that black book all the time (pointing to shelf)
You keep pointing to Pasachoff’s books; clearly I shouldn’t have had it on my shelf.
I think it’s the number one right now.
Is that so? It’s the most recent one, of course.
We’ll try to take care of him. But now he’s coming out with two more next year. “What’s better than a Pasachoff?” Says the ad: “Simple, three Pasachoff’s.” My only answer is, “What’s better than three Pasachoff’s? Simple, one Abell.”
Well, Jay can use the money right now too.
At least he has some original things in his book, no need to copy.
At one time your text was very widely used; I wondered whether this affected your professional life in any way.
I don’t think so.
You didn’t really hear much back about it, you just knew that people were using it?
I didn’t hear any complaints personally. I suppose there are always people who resent you for being successful.
Those people we don’t worry about.
I don’t know about them. No one has ever complained to me, I never had any complaints.
You don’t feel that you’re known in the community more as a textbook author than as a professional researcher?
That’s another question. I’m probably more widely known as a textbook author, yes.
To the persons whose opinion you care about?
Well, it depends on how you mean that. Obviously I’m more successful at the textbook, relative to other authors, than I have been in research.
Since your book has been so outstanding. Abell The book has been more outstanding, I guess, than my research has been in that sense that’s certainly true. That’s a value judgment I would agree with.
I see. It doesn’t bother you a bit?
Well, I don’t know. If I had it to do over would I spend a little more time -- I think I can do much more, I have so much unfinished stuff that I ought to get out but I get distracted, and I think I always will be. The books have been a small part of my time. I’m involved in so many things and I guess I don’t regret it. I feel these things are worth doing, and the research will get done by somebody, and I’ll do what I can, and I enjoy doing what I’m doing.
It’s true as you say, a very good textbook might not be written, especially in those times, by somebody else.
And lots of other things I’m involved in, like the summer science program for example, or the film series I’m doing now and so on. One thing that really took a lot of my time was being department chairman for seven years. Weart:’ Yes, I wanted to ask about that.
That put in a lot more than the book or any other activity. I guess I didn’t enjoy that very much.
I want to get back to that also.
With the book now, no doubt you taught an Astronomy I course or whatever it’s called.
Were you interested in building up this course, making it a more attractive course and so on?
Did you put a lot of effort into that?
Oh sure. We now have some 3,000 students a year taking our elementary astronomy. It’s a one quarter course.
Our goal is to get every student in the university taking it, on the grounds that it’s the best and only science that many of them will ever take. I must say, now, that my book isn’t used this year at all by any instructor.
Instructors have their choice.
Oh sure. I would use mine, and I hope they’ll use it again next year, but they’re all experimenting with other things right now. That’s all right, or it’s not all right, but it’s… The reason for building up the students isn’t to sell books (not that I knock it).
What do you think it is that attracts students to take a basic course in astronomy?
It’s a terribly exciting area. People are very much interested in astronomy. Also, if they have to take a science course, and most places they have to take some science, it’s the most interesting science, and usually is given non-mathematically. We make a point not to include mathematics in ours, although it’s still quantitative in the sense that there are basic physical laws to learn. You know, the average person who takes a course in astronomy, the rest of his or her life is never going to calculate the sidereal period of a planet from a synodic period, or what he will weigh on Jupiter or what the mass of a double star is, etc. But you’d like him to have an appreciation that there are precise laws of nature, and something about what nature is like, and also the difference between nonsense and science.
No, this is what you want to teach them, but what do they come wanting to get, do you suppose?
It’s highly variable. Obviously, the largest number come because, well gee; it’s the lesser of the evils of the science courses. Those are the biggest challenge and many times you find, “Gosh, I really enjoyed the course at the end;” then you feel good. Some you never reach. You know some resent you all the way, but that’s the minority. Most people do enjoy it, and I think even the hardest of them, the ones that you think are most negative to the course, even most of them really are kind of interested with very few exceptions. And some just eat it up, some just love it.
Have you noticed students’ attitudes toward astronomy change since you began to teach twenty years ago?
I think that the last few years there’s been far more interest than I’ve ever seen before.
You mean even than the post-Sputnik years.
Yes, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me. I guess astronomy is getting terribly exciting, you know, cosmology is revolutionizing, and all of the relativistic astrophysics excites their fancies a lot.
They’ve heard about it.
Sure, and of course they’re interested in life in the universe. A third of them believe in astrology; maybe some of them think they’re going to learn more astrology.
I see. You know about these from the questions they ask?
And talking to them. Also, I’m very interested in pseudoscience and especially astrology.
Have you spoken out at all about astrology?
Oh, continually. My next book will have quite a bit about it. You don’t know that? I’ve been very active on astrology.
I heard something about it; you’ve been on TV and things like that?
Oh, many times.
And in the newspapers.
Yes, I’ve written a number of articles for teachers’ magazines and elsewhere. There exists almost no -- I have to use the word anti-astrology, but putting-it-in-perspective-astrology -- there’s almost nothing in English. There’s a little book by a fellow at Hayden [Planetarium] which isn’t very good. But the most famous anti-astrology stuff was the Humanist statement, which is Bok’s.
That had a lot of feedback, and as a consequence I’ve been on a lot more television programs since.
I see. It’s a good subject; people come back to you for it.
Oh yes. I was, just did a little filming for an NBC show a few days ago, in fact. A terrible show, it’s pro-astrology, but they wanted a thirty second to one minute response from a scientist to give the show balance; one of Leonard Nimoy’s shows. It’s a terrible program I’m told. But the particular producer that got me didn’t believe in astrology, and was going to give me more time, he thought, than a minute. I’m expecting to hear momentarily a phone call and get him to play the tape for me and get my comment.
Why have you been interested particularly in astrology?
I guess it started because someone was looking for someone to debate Sidney Omarr. He’s a famous astrologer. I know Sidney very well now and I’ve been on many programs with him. I don’t think he believes in astrology either, but of course he has never admitted that to me. But then I got curious about, what is this stuff, so I began reading about it and I did my own horoscope and so forth.
This was after they asked you?
Well, after the first time, but subsequently I’ve done a lot more study and I can talk much more intelligently about it now and answer some of their nonsense. I think it bothers me that a third of the people in the country believe in it.
Is this a figure from some.
Yes. It’s my polls and polls of lots of people around the country that I know. Even among college students it’s about a third, not in science obviously. And about 90% are open-minded about it if you ask them; only about 10% will reject it as obvious nonsense. The same people of course believe Von Danikan’s stuff, even larger numbers, and talking plants, Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot and on and on. I guess I feel the people are very thirsty for interesting information and knowledge, especially about themselves, and they don’t know that astrology is hokum.
Do you feel that this has been a growing thing or more or less constant?
I think it’s growing, and I think one reason it’s growing is there’s more interest in the universe and also interest in ourselves. But also science is becoming less accessible; as it gets more and more specialized it’s harder to understand the language. As you know, I can’t understand my colleagues in other fields, sometimes even other fields of astronomy, so how can I expect the public to know what I’m talking about? I guess we really owe it to the public to spend more time trying to tell them not only about our own science, but to attempt to help them evaluate what the difference is between pseudoscience and science.
So there are two aspects, one is explaining, in your case astronomy, and the other is…
I’d like to turn them on to astronomy and to turn them off to nonsense. I’d like to help them find the difference. One thing that is hurting is this popular notion that there is a scientific establishment, and that the scientists are narrow and unimaginative and conservative. And you know, anyone who looks at science, especially astronomy in the last ten years, (sees) that nothing could be more dynamic and changing and innovative. And astrology is the same as it’s been practiced for 2,000 years.
That’s right. You started out by writing popular articles for the Griffith Observer. How did that come about?
I was a guide there. I just thought it was fun to write some articles, so I asked if I could, and they said, “Sure, try it,” so I did. And then later I felt that they needed articles on some fields, I thought there was a need at the time I did the series of two on stellar evolution and the stuff on interstellar material and the distance scale, just for public education. I never got paid for them of course.
And now you say you’re involved in a BBC-Open University film series.
Yes, there’s that, and I’m collaborating in a book on pseudo-science, a multi-author book. I’m involved in this BBC program now; it’s a series of TV films on understanding space and time. You know what the Open University is?
Their course will be junior level course, which will be mathematical, but the TV programs will be non-mathematical and they’ll be more of enrichment for their students. But for our people we hope they’ll be enjoyable, as individual programs, just by the general public. Although there are sixteen films in the series, we’re making a subset of thirteen of them for our own broadcast purposes, and ours have to have four more minutes than theirs. Anyway it’s quite an opportunity. Each program is co-hosted by one person from UC (University of California) and one person from the Open University. We’re filming a lot of it on location. We’ll be going to Florence and Venice next spring, for example, to do the stuff on Galileo at the Florence Museum. We’ll drop some things from the Tower of Pisa. One of my Open University colleagues will walk out of Sagredo’s House in Venice. I did a sequence last month from the Northumberland telescope, where Neptune was first observed. Next spring, after Venice, I’ll test the apple and moon hypothesis at Wools Thorpe, and Newton’s study and so forth.
I see. Tell me, all this takes a lot of your time clearly…
I’m on release time this year to work on the films, and also to work on a book that goes with the films. I’m doing another book on understanding space and time, a textbook for a television course that UC --
No, it’s UC. Open University is writing their own book, theirs is for science majors; mine is a popular level book for public education, university extension, liberal arts students and all that; thirteen chapters to go with thirteen programs.
How do your colleagues feel in general about giving you this time?
They approached me, I didn’t approach them. The university was approached by BBC; the university administration decided they wanted to go into this cooperative arrangement and looked around for someone to do it, and they twisted my arm at great length. I was quite against getting involved.
What about your scientific colleagues? How do they feel about you spending all this time on popularization, fighting astrology and so on?
It’s hard to say. Most of them who know me, I think, don’t care. I think they’re all for the popularization; I think that’s become respectable now in science.
It didn’t use to be?
No, it didn’t use to be. But now the AAS (American Astronomical Society) for example is very strongly committed toward popularization. I’m sure that there are people who have no use for it.
At an earlier point did you encounter resistance -- when you say it didn’t use to be?
I don’t think too much, no. I never felt bothered.
You have noticed a change.
I’ve noticed a change in the attitude of colleagues. I think before they didn’t care if I wanted to popularize it, but they just couldn’t be bothered. But now I think even the young people’s attitudes should be, “Gosh, I think that’s terribly important.”
This is since when?
Maybe since jobs became hard to get. Maybe that’s about the time, but maybe before too. After all, the public pays our salary.
I was just going to ask, do you feel that there’s a connection between popularization and fund-raising?
To a certain extent there is a connection, but I think also people really mean it. I think the reason why so many young people were against popularization in the past was that it was unfashionable because, gee, the real thing is to go out and do research and it was unfashionable to be teaching even. I think as soon as people like Martin Schwarzschild say, “we’ve got to do more popularization and public lectures,” and Bart Bok and others, I think the young people realized it is important. And I think they’re absolutely right.
In your own mind have you felt that popularization was important because it would increase public support for astronomy?
I think that’s important but also, I just feel a mission. I like to explain things to people, and build up enthusiasm.
Tell me, why do you think people support astronomy; whether its government grants or the university or whatever?
Why do people support astronomy?
Yes. Why do they give money to look through telescopes?
Well, that which comes through taxes is done because you’ve convinced the legislators.
Well, they’re people too.
Sure. I think you work harder on them to convince them that this is necessary for the survival of the country.
Have you by the way ever had contact with legislators about things?
No. I’m not the least interested in fund-raising or that sort of thing. I wouldn’t mind talking to Washington on astronomy, but I’ve no interest whatsoever in trying to talk people out of ten million dollars for a telescope.
So you’ve never raised money.
No, I just hate it, with a vengeance. That’s the part I liked least about being chairman. I didn’t have to raise money, but that kind of administration, even writing a research proposal, I hate doing -- that whole scene. But that’s another subject. Why do people give money? A lot of people are interested and want to support it anyway; that’s a small minority. Most of the public wouldn’t spend tax money for anything, except maybe police protection. That’s because they don’t think it through. But then if they go to a popular talk on astronomy and get enthused, then they think, Gee, I’d rather have my tax money, a tiny fraction of one cent I spend per year on astronomy, that’s more important to them than maybe a lot of other things that they spend money on. By the way even now I’m doing research. I’ve been doing a project with Paul Routly on clusters of galaxies, for example. So I’m on release time from teaching but I’m not on release time from research.
And you do in fact have the time?
Yes, I’m very much involved. I’m working on the Southern survey of clusters I mentioned earlier. I’m still very active in that.
We’re just about to get back to the clusters. But first, you keep mentioning about your being chairman and I did want to ask you about that. First, how did it happen that you became that, did they have a rotating chair for a while?
It still is rotating. It’s an onerous task nobody wants.
But you were rotated in there for quite a while.
I was rotated in when Lawrence left, it was my turn. Popper refused to be again. He was very good at it. I was the next person in line. Now, luckily, we have a lot of people coming in, so I don’t think I’ll have to be chairman again. I hope not. Plavec followed me; I was on seven years because there was just no one to take my place, and finally when Plavec came we wanted him to chairman and he refused for a long time. Finally he agreed. I put off sabbatical for another year to help him into it. So I picked up three years eligibility on my next sabbatical already. He was chairman two years and just gave it up. Now Roger Ulrich is chairman. Roger’s doing a very good job.
He’s young actually.
He’s not so young anymore; we’re all getting older. He’s doing a very good job, but I don’t know how long he’ll keep it because, you know, it just takes so long when you’re filling out reports on how many thumbtacks you’ve saved, three times a year.
Is this because of the university, or because of government grants?
It’s mostly the university, the government grants don’t cost the chairman any time. That’s the individual researcher. It’s the administration. The figure that is hard to come by is the administrator-student ratio. The faculty-student ratios have gone down, but administrator student ratios have gone way up. What happens is, somebody asks for a report, so you have to hire an administrator to make the request for the report and then to read it when it comes in, and after it’s read this new administrator has nothing to do, so he has to think of some more reports he wants, and so on. It’s just tremendously out of hand; you spend an awful lot of time with bureaucracy in general. And it’s very unpleasant.
It really sounds quite unpleasant. Did you have much control over the direction of the department?
No, it’s very democratic; you have no control whatsoever.
I see. So all you have to do is...
The chairman is what Lawrence calls “the departmental office boy.”
I see. You get to fill out all the paperwork and so forth.
That’s right. There are certain tasks which are necessary, and you appreciate it, but it’s still an awful lot of work. For example, getting a person a promotion, a raise even but especially a promotion. It means writing lots of letters to colleagues and collating them and so forth, and then your own letter has to be written. It’s a better part of a week’s work, getting just a single promotion dossier together.
When it comes to the question of who’s to be hired or whatever, that decision is made by the department?
In the department the chairman is responsible for all the work, but the department makes the decision. Obviously the chairman has considerable influence, but no more really than any other senior member of the department. Or junior member for that matter; we all vote.
So this is by voting in the department.
Yes. In a small department it’s more of a discussion than a vote, a consensus. Yes, who gets promoted and so forth, those are all departmental matters.
Has there been any general feeling in the department about the direction you wanted to go? You mentioned getting a very large new telescope, building it up and so on.
We’ve in general been in agreement. There was a strong feeling early on, especially by Lawrence that we should push instrumental development, and we pushed it very hard. We had only one person who was capable of working on it, which was Harland Epps. But now that’s changed a lot. We have a lot of people now who are good, and it’s been paying off.
I see. How do you do instrumental development?
The department has a mini-computer, and they’re working on a two-dimensional scanner. It’s about ready to go, I guess.
What has been your reaction and the department’s reaction to arguments that departments ought to cut back on the number of graduate students because of employment problems?
We have actually cut back on our enrollment, not so much out of choice as just that there are fewer applicants lately. All departments are finding the same thing.
Trying to maintain the same standards.
We kept up our standards, or actually raised them I’d say. We were pickier, although we’ll take anyone who meets our present standards. We’d like to get more good students. Our feeling is that we should cut down on the number of astronomy graduates nationwide, but of course the best departments aren’t the ones that should cut down. What you do is somehow discourage new departments. And also change the attitude: there really isn’t a shortage of jobs in astronomy to the extent that it’s advertised. Astronomy got a very bad reputation because it was made public that astronomers aren’t getting jobs -- but they’re getting jobs more easily than physicists do. Indeed, I think there’s so much interest that many departments in physics are hiring astronomers now, without any intention of having a program. All of our graduates are getting jobs. They aren’t getting jobs necessarily in Ph.D. granting institutions in astronomy, but you don’t expect that. That’s never been the case in any discipline outside of a growing one. When, you’re developing to fill the demand, and then of course immediately everyone’s hiring astronomers to train astronomers.
There was a period when this was happening.
Sure, but it’s got to be temporary. On the steady-state, obviously, on the average each person turns out one Ph.D. in his career.
That’s my favorite line, that’s right.
But on the other hand, there are jobs in other places, planetariums, junior colleges, community colleges, and industry and government laboratories. I think astronomers are having a far easier time than physicists and philosophers and historians.
I could tell you stories about historians.
With the possible expectation of engineering or medicine, I can’t think of any profession where it’s much easier to get jobs. No place is easy to get jobs in a tight market.
So it has changed somewhat, the destinations, but you haven’t felt a real crunch?
We’ve been able to place people. We’re always looking for the top students. I guess our main goal is several things: to do astronomy, to train a small number of elite students, and to spread the message, the good word, to as many liberal arts people as we can.
I see. And you feel that you still have room to expand your department, in fact.
We have expanded it. Currently there’s something like fifteen or sixteen heads. Some of them are temporary; one’s actually replacing Ulrich, who’s on sabbatical, and one’s replacing me, who’s on released time. But if you include half-time people there’s about fourteen at the moment.
And when did this expansion occur?
The last few years.
Why in the last few years?
We got a good dean.
But why did he support astronomy?
Because this is where the action is in science, and he knows it. He realized that we had the germ of a really good place. Ulrich is damn good I think. And Holland Ford is doing very exciting things now. We had the chance to get Jonathan Katz and Bruce Margon at the same time; we had one opening, so we talked him into hiring both. And they’ve both been so good, you know. We expected miracles of Katz, but also Bruce has been a ball of fire.
Tell me about this dean, I’m interested.
Who has talked to him, how does he recognize that astronomy is the field rather than others?
I think all aware physicists are aware of where the new science is coming from?
And he’s a physicist.
I see. So it’s almost his own initiative as much as the department.
He’s tried to build on strength. I think he felt that here is a place where we had some very good strength, but we were fragmented in the sense that we were a little department. There’s also a group of people in space science, in a separate department; that’s been reorganized. Some of them are with us now and some of them are with geological sciences.
Space science was in engineering?
No, it was an independent department temporarily. It was formed fairly recently in order to make Gordon McDonald happy, and as soon as he got the department going, Gordon McDonald left. The department kind of faltered, but it had some very good people in it. Anyway, there’s been some reorganization; we’ve picked up a couple of people half-time that were assigned to them1and some of their people were shuffled to other departments where they’re all happier. It’s made a stronger group for us, plus getting Katz and Margon, and good visitors coming through.
This is almost a doubling of the size of your department in a few years.
Yes, it is.
The dean can’t do that by himself.
No. Some of these positions were ones that we picked up, as I say, by reorganization, but we got two new positions at the same time, a couple of years ago. As a matter of fact, when Dave Saxon was our dean many years ago, (it seems like many years ago). When Dave Saxon was dean he got us a lot more space in the building, a greatly increased budget, and several positions for faculty members. We immediately filled them with temporary people while going after the best we could find. That was the time I was trying to get Kippenhahn.
I see. But you didn’t let go of the position while you were looking.
We didn’t let go of the position. Then when Ronald Reagan was elected (governor) and the budget was cut back, all of us lost positions, and those that weren’t filled with permanent appointments were taken away. So in part we have been reimbursed for some of the positions that we lost in the Reagan years. All these things have helped. Anyhow, the department is currently very strong and going great guns, and I’m optimistic.
Before we get back to your scientific work -- anything else about the department?
Let’s see, now. I don’t think I have any comments really about that. We’ve talked a bit about pseudo-science; that’s just a hobby with me but I spend minimal amount of time on it. I’ve given some experimental courses, for example, for freshmen, and also an experimental university extension lecture series on pseudo-science.
Oh, tell me about that.
I’ve had various faculty members giving talks on things that they were expert at. It was quite successful; when I was on sabbatical Ed Krupp took it over and has done very well with it.
I wanted to ask you particularly about this Ojai summer school.
Oh yes, that’s another thing I want to mention to you. Let me think if there are any loose ends. All this talk about popularization and so on, it’s a small part of my time that’s involved really.
I ask you the questions because I’m curious about them.
I think I do a lot of public speaking and all that, but it’s 10% (of my time) maybe or something like that, at most, if you put all that stuff together, even books. I don’t write books on university time anyway. The summer science program is another teaching innovation that I was involved in. It began in 1959. It was the idea of the headmaster of the Thatcher School, Newton K. Chase. He felt that here is an opportunity to attempt to identify bright high school seniors, give them a special enrichment program for six or seven weeks during the summer, a touch of what college would be, give them a bit of a head start and motivate them into something like research. So they organized a program in which Foster Strong was the first director. He was the fellow I talked about, whom I had for freshman physics at Cal Tech. His number two man was Paul Routly, whom I’m sure you know, who was then at Pomona College. Everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong; it was terribly organized, a complete chaos, and enormously successful.
The students were so good.
And they liked Routly especially. He’s terrific at that program. Foster unfortunately was out of his element; he didn’t know astronomy and it was mainly an astronomy program. So Paul got me involved the second year when Foster dropped out, and Paul and I ran it under Paul’s tutelage for three years until Paul went to Princeton to take over as executive officer for the AAS. Then I ran it with several people at different times, Bob Brownlee one year, Harlan Epps for a number of years. I kept it up until ‘67 when, mainly because of my marital problems, I gave it up, because we lived up there in the summer. I’m doing it again the last couple of years; my present wife likes it up there.
So it’s still going on.
Still going on. Originally it was a program for 26 high school boys who hadn’t started their senior year yet. Now, of course, it’s nationwide, and it’s for boys and girls. We’ve had, the last few years, about eight girls and the rest boys, but that’s just the level of the applicants.
Where does the funding come from?
The funding is half NSF and half of it has been from local industry.
We’re still getting grants from industry, although it’s harder and harder to get industrial grants. We’re still struggling along with them.
Which industries and why?
Well, actually foundations, mostly. The Helms Foundation and the Robert Lloyd Foundation were the biggest givers at first. Lockheed, Hughes Aircraft, Bendix -- I’ve forgotten, but quite a list of people have either donated money or equipment to us in various years.
Were you involved in any of this fund-raising?
No, I’m not a fund raiser. There is an executive committee which was involved in the getting the funds, made up of industrialists in part, and Maarten Schmidt is on it. I’m on the committee too, but not as a fund-raiser. We live up there (Ojai) for six weeks with these bright kids, (who decide to go to such places as Cal Tech generally, in fact a large fraction of them end up there). We give them a daytime course six days a week in physics, mathematics, and astronomy, carrying them as far as we can really. We take them through differential equations at least, and then bits of E & M, little bits of cosmology, stellar evolution and so forth; just as much modern astronomy as we can, but at the same time a fairly good background in mechanics and mathematics. Then they have a number of projects they work on, but the central theme is, they take three photographs of a minor planet with a telescope up there, develop them, measure them, and calculate the orbit. So what they do is learn enough mathematics to do this problem, and it’s something you can learn in a six week period, a bright high school kid can learn to do that. A lot of aspects of this experience are very valuable. But just living up there with other bright kids -- it’s a boarding school; the school is closed in the summer so we have the facilities, a big pool, lots of hiking, faculty-student ball games, and the kind of thing that just makes it a very enjoyable living experience.
Has there been any follow-up on these students to see if they become astronomers?
Yes. The idea wasn’t to train astronomers, of course, but to give them a little advance motivation, and also to help some of them find out if they want a scientific career. Always there are a few that realize they don’t, when they get through the program, which I think is very useful. It may save them quite a bit of heartache later. But we’ve had quite a few Ph.D.’s; a lot of the students from the early years have got Ph.D.s and several of them I know have gotten PhD’s in astronomy from UCLA. Including Mike Dworetsky, Dennis Elliott, John Mottmann who was a TA there, not a student actually. Ed Krupp who’s now director of the Griffith Observatory. Several people have faculty positions now that were former students of that program.
So it really does work out.
Oh yes. It’s a highly successful program.
Okay, anything else about teaching?
Well, you know about all these committees and so on, but that’s not really interesting. Again, I’m not a very good committeeman; I serve on them but I don’t really think all the committees were very effective except in organizing. I think the one good program still operative is the Visiting Professors Program.
Of the AAS.
Yes. I think that’s a good program. It started with the AAS Committee on Education in Astronomy, and had NSF support for a long time, but now it’s self-supported by two grants, the Shapley Grant, and for several years now it’s also had a grant from the interest from the V.N. Slipher Fund. That was money given to the National Academy for astronomical education, and the committee to administer those funds the last few years saw fit to turn most of it over to Hank Gurin for the AAS program. I think that’s the best use of it, that’s a very good choice.
Okay, let’s go on then. One more question: you were a guest investigator at Mt. Wilson and Palomar since 1957, and I wonder how that works out, how were you treated as a guest investigator?
They’re always been very generous to me. I haven’t been up there for quite a few years now, but I’ve gotten a lot of time; I’ve worked with the 100-inch, had a large amount of time with the 100-inch over the years, and of course the 48-inch Schmidt. My first major program after the cluster study was more cluster study, to study individual clusters and especially the “luminosity functions.” I did all the work to get the plates at Palomar, and then I used the 100-inch largely for getting photoelectric standards in the cluster fields.
Did you ever try for 200-inch time?
No, I never needed it and never tried for it. I’ve also worked at Lick.
I was wondering why did you go to Palomar rather than Lick?
Early on I needed the Schmidt. Then the 100-inch had a UBV photometer for years. Lick doesn’t have a UBV photometer right now; you can’t do UBV photometry at Lick. They’ve had it in the past, but it hasn’t been used for years. So there just doesn’t exist a working photometer at the moment.
I see. As a UC astronomer you would normally be expected more to use Lick?
Well, we have a sort of right to time at Lick; if I applied for time I’m almost guaranteed to get some, under present arrangements.
Because you come ahead of outside people?
Yes, we have priority over outside people. There’s a new policy now that new people hired don’t necessarily have Lick time guaranteed, but the old ones, kind of by the way the rules got written, do. This could all change.
By the way, do you have any say, or have you ever had any say, in who gets Lick time?
I haven’t been on the committee. There is a committee of a person from each campus that allocates the time. Technically the director allocates, but the committee recommends, and in fact the committee decides. I haven’t (been on it); I was chairman for so long I appointed other people to those committees. It could happen sometime; I hope not.
And at Mt. Wilson it was simply a matter of what you sent in, a letter proposal?
Yes, right. And they were very generous to me, I felt, over the years. I have no complaints.
Okay, now tell me about this program of finding the distribution of light in galaxies.
Again, the technical things were published. You don’t need those.
Yes, but I’m curious as to how you become aware of the problem.
While working on the cluster project as a thesis, one of the biggest questions was the distances to the clusters. What I used for a distance indicator on my thesis was the apparent magnitude of the tenth brightest galaxy. As you know, Sandage uses the first brightest.
Or the third brightest.
Well, these crazy things that are being done are all wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong with Sandage -— though I shouldn’t put it that way. He found that if you simply make a graph of the brightest galaxy on the Hubble plot diagram, you get a small scatter, three tenths of a magnitude. So he says it’s a good distance indicator. Well it is, statistically, but unfortunately there are biases, as you know; there are CD clusters. Now he believes in CD galaxies; for years he didn’t. So now he says all right, you have to take the mean of the first three, or you have to look for the Bautz-Morgan class and make a correction, or whatever. But even so, if you have a larger sample of galaxies one should worry about whether the brightest galaxy is a stable statistic, that’s independent of richness for example. And certainly it’s not.
We’re talking about within the context of the 1960’s, what was known then.
Yes, but the debate is still going on. Sandage still uses the brightest members for a distance criterion. I felt we ought to look at the luminosity function and see if there is some feature that might be useful.
Now, that’s the luminosity function of the cluster.
Of the galaxies in the clusters.
Right. I think when you started; you were simply looking at the distribution of light within a galaxy.
I did a lot of that too.
That was parallel to it.
That was parallel to it, and actually fundamental to it, because how to you measure the magnitude of a galaxy, what does it mean? I devised a method with [Dimitri] Mihalas of extra focal photographic photometry.
I see. So this was in service of the program of getting the luminosity.
In that case it was. You had to get a magnitude somehow, so our technique is to take photographs out of focus. You can’t tell a thing from one extra focal photograph but I take a series of different amounts out of focus. And then you have to have photoelectric magnitudes of stars in the same field. You compare a star image to the galaxy images to estimate magnitudes for the galaxies. Well, they look brighter and brighter as you go further out of focus, getting more light from the outside. But if you know the light distribution in a galaxy you can fit these extra focal measures to a model and get the magnitude of a model galaxy, a galaxy with a specified light distribution whose extra focal images would be the same as the ones you’ve measured.
When did you become aware that it was sort of a problem, that you couldn’t just take the brightness of the galaxy?
I guess as a graduate student, maybe even before. I read about schraffierkassette a long time ago. I did something like that even in my thesis in a crude way. I used several extra focal plates, but I didn’t have a very good model in those days, I just had crude magnitudes. Anyway, we developed this method, which we think is objective; it has large statistical errors but we think it’s free of systematic errors that depend on distance. So I did a lot of photometry, actually, at the 100-inch, measuring the light distribution in ordinary galaxies to convince myself that the formula we finally adopted was a reasonable one, which we think it is. It wasn’t primarily to study the light distribution extremely far out; that’s a very difficult problem, it’s another topic. It was just to calibrate this particular technique we were using. The first cluster I did was the Coma cluster. One of my feelings, as you know, Spencer, is that I get so many things going at once; I sometimes neglect to get things published when I should. And the Coma cluster photometry I did back when Dimitri Mihalas was an undergraduate -- as a summer job he was doing some of the measurements for me. And I published the paper last spring. Of course I’ve done a lot since then, you know, I keep adding to it. What we found was that in the Coma cluster there is actually a preliminary maximum at the bright end of the differential luminosity function. If you look at the distribution of galaxies at various magnitudes, as you go fainter you go through a little peak, and it comes down again and then rises again.
So because it starts rising you know it’s a real thing.
Yes. But it isn’t always there in the clusters.
You found this already?
Well, the luminosity function which we finally adopted for the Coma cluster -- my present technique is to look at the integral luminosity function and to plot the log of the number of galaxies brighter than magnitude M against M, drawing a smooth curve through that distribution of points. It has a kind of kink in it, and at that point I define a magnitude I call M* (M star). It’s now been used by other people as well; Schechter has adopted M*. A lot of people have done the same thing since.
Yes. In fact you were already reporting this in the early ‘60’s.
Yes, fortunately I reported it.
Were you looking for this thing?
I was hoping there would be some feature.
Some feature to use as a distance indicator.
Distance indicator. And what I now find is that every cluster I’ve looked at, including field galaxies, shows the same general form for the luminosity function.
Including all field galaxies?
Now, if you throw in spirals it shouldn’t work; obviously spirals similar luminosity function to the clusters. But as far as clusters where you have some knowledge of the distance from radial velocity, if you simply superpose the luminosity functions it seems to be an excellent distance indicator just by superposing them, literally. So by superposing the functions of different clusters I can compare them all to the Coma cluster and thereby define an M* for any cluster, and I find this is very tightly correlated with distance. I thought this would be a good way to get distances, and I still think it’s the best.
It must have been very exciting when you first…
The problem of course is that for very remote clusters it’s hard to get down to M*, it’s about two magnitudes or three magnitudes below the brightest galaxy. That’s a problem. But at least out to redshifts of 0.2, I think it’s feasible, and it still hasn’t been done properly and it’s really something I should follow through on, but I’ve been busy. Now lots of people have done it since; Gus Oemler did a lot of work as you know, I think you were at Cal Tech when he was, weren’t you?
Yes, but I’m not familiar with what he was doing.
He found the same form for the luminosity functions. And Paul Schechter invented a mathematical formula that approximates it pretty well, and his formula has been rather widely used, but really it’s effectively the same as my function for the Coma cluster. I resist analytic formulae because all they are interpolation formulae. Unfortunately theoreticians use them to attempt to do models of galaxy formation and so on, and I think that’s a mistake.
Now, from the start in a way this was a program to measure Hubble’s constant?
No, it was to get relative distances. It never by itself was intended to get absolute distances. However…
You did come out with a value in ‘68, with a value of 47 plus or minus 10%.
Yes. That however was comparing the Virgo cluster luminosity function to the more remote clusters. The point was, the Virgo cluster being in the local super-cluster, you couldn’t be sure that its’ velocity is characteristic of the expansion. But if you took the central region of ellipticals around M87, the luminosity function looks the same and you can fit it to the others. Now I got that figure of 47 by using Sandage’s modulus to M87 from the globular clusters. I don’t know it that’s right; I suspect if it’s wrong it’s wrong in being too low a modulus, so I suspect the Hubble constant could even be less.
I see. Have you had a lot of discussions with Sandage about these programs?
Every time I see him we discuss it somewhat, but unfortunately we haven’t been in communication very much. We get along well enough, but I don’t get over there very much and he doesn’t ever leave. So I haven’t seen him very much. We keep saying we ought to talk more. I’ve talked to (Gustav) Tammann actually more than Sandage. Gustav says that Sandage is really quite adamant. You know, Sandage is really very stubborn.
In terms of how one should measure the distance to clusters.
Yes. I think he has one mistake he makes, and that is Sandage plots up data on the diagram, and if they fit a nice Gaussian curve he believes that they’re unbiased. And I think by the same token I could argue that there is only one kind of tree in the U.S. I bet if you took all trees in the country and plotted them up, you’d find that you could fit them to a nice Gaussian curve. But you know there are different kinds of trees, some are taller than others, but if you mix everything together you might still fortuitously get a Gaussian curve. (Before we part, I have to tell you about some or our students, or some of my students I guess, what I think they’ve done that’s significant). I thought the luminosity function was an important thing to do, and it was obviously right because everyone’s getting the same answer. I think this is still the best way to get relative distances. Even the term M* has been picked up and used.
I wanted to ask you what you thought about the current status of this program, and particularly the role of evolution of galaxies.
That’s got to be an important effect. Probably not at Z’s lower use of 0.2, but of course at large distances it has to be important.
I see, but it doesn’t affect this particular program.
I think negligibly. There’s a problem: I would like to get the Hubble diagram, and you know, maybe evolution, isn’t negligible at Z=0.2 I would like, to choose ideally, between models, or eliminate models -- I don’t believe any model is necessarily right. I would like to eliminate models by using the luminosity functions to plot the Rubble diagram out as far as we can. But then I’m afraid before the models get different, you do have worry about evolutionary effects. I’ve got some thoughts about how that might be handled. I don’t know whether I want to carry it through.
Tell me, I’m curious.
I think the way we’re going to get evolution done is from number-magnitude counts. So I had a student work on that, George Rainey, and it turned out that another student, of de Vaucouleurs, was doing the same thing at the same time, and they both got theses the same year. De Vaucouleurs’ student was George Stanley Brown. George Rainey had a different approach, though, from Brown’s. He chose three different regions of the sky, using 48-inch Schmidt plates that I took, and did photometry of all galaxies in a square degree of each of these three regions, so he had a complete apparent luminosity -- numbers counts. Brown did counts for three different magnitude limits on plates of different exposures and had a much smaller sample. But their results are in exact agreement, so that’s encouraging. Now a student at Berkeley, Kamed Kron, in fact Jerry Kron’s son, is doing a similar problem to much fainter limits, but it’s hard to tie his data in with ours because we run out at 19-1/2 magnitudes (photo visual) and he’s just beginning to start there and is going fainter, on four-meter plates.
This sounds like this has something to do with the desire for a ten meter telescope.
No, that was independent of me, but that would be nice too. But even to exploit the four-meter telescope would be worthwhile. What Rainey found was very exciting. The first important thing is that the usual Friedmann models predict almost identical number-magnitude counts to 20th magnitude. You can’t distinguish between models from magnitude counts. But you can tell other things, and the most important thing he’s found is extreme isotropy in different directions. The curves lie right smack on top of each other. And then I did a paper which w1l be out in the .J. on the 15th of this month, with John Mottmann, where I also did some field galaxy counts, and they lie eight on top of Rainey’s counts too. So the isotropy is very high, Rainey can rule out in homogeneities of sizes, say, 300 mega parsecs, on the basis of his counts -- they would show up, and they don’t. That is to say if the universe had a hierarchical structure out to 300 mega parsecs, if everything were in super-duper-clusters, say. If there were clusters of clusters of clusters of size that large, and everything were in those larger in homogeneities you would see it in his counts; but they’re not.
I see. This is an argument against clusters of very high orders.
That’s right. I think the largest is 100 mega parsecs maybe.
I see. I wanted to ask you about that too.
We’ll come to that. Anyway, that’s one thing: he rules out very large anisotropies and very large scale hierarchies of clustering. He’s just on the border of detecting evolution as predicted by Beatrice Tinsley. You have to go fainter, and I think the next step is to do something like Kron is doing; I think it ought to be done by somebody else too.
Now wait a minute, there are two things that are mixed up, as Beatrice points out, evolution and then there’s q0.
Yes, but the thing is the models are very insensitive to q0 ont to 20th magnitude.
I see, because of what you’re finding is precisely an evolution effect, because you’re looking at the distribution of galaxies.
That’s right. You assume a q0 of, say 0 or a half, it doesn’t matter, or even one, you can’t tell the difference.
This particular curve depends much more on evolution than anything else.
That’s right. So I think if we can go to 22nd magnitude we can pin down what the evolution is like, enough to correct the Hubble diagram. It will take a little doing, but I think it’s possible.
It might take your ten-meter telescope or the space telescope, maybe.
I think we can do it with a four-meter right now. In fact, I had in mind doing it at Edinburgh with Harvey McGillavry. Now it turns out Kron is doing it, but we still may go ahead and do it. They have a nice machine at Edinburgh called Cosmos that automatically identifies galaxies and measures magnitudes and so forth. I think we can put plates in the Cosmos. We wanted to do it for each galactic pole and tie down the evolution that way. Then I think you could go back and interpret the Hubble diagram in terms of luminosity functions, in principle, and I think that’s worth pushing.
I see. Well, what about higher order clustering in the first place? Do you feel that there exists any resistance now, anywhere, to the idea of s?
Right now there sure doesn’t, that I know of. We had a nice meeting at Tallinn where everyone just takes them for granted, keeps talking about super-clusters. Let’s talk about super-clusters. I felt vindicated on that, as well as the luminosity function. Because if you recall, there was a paper by Peebles and Yu a few years ago in which they looked at my cluster distribution and decided there were no second order clusters.
No super-clusters at all. At that time that was the way their paper was interpreted. What they really said in their paper was that if there were, they would only have on the average maybe two Abell clusters per super-cluster. Well, that happens to be the right answer. On the average there are about two. Then Peebles redid the thing later on with Hauser and others, and as he put it, he is now a “true blue believer.” Of course Peebles now thinks there’s a hierarchy of clustering.
Yes, I wanted to ask about that also.
If you’ve seen the last Scientific American, there’s an article about it. I doubt very much if it’s a complete hierarchy in the sense that he described it in that model, where he has the two points each two points making four and so on.
Right, It becomes a very large number of orders.
I don’t think it’s that simple. One reason is, you have these very rich clusters like Coma where there is no evidence of any sub-clustering. You must occasionally get doubles formed but they’d be unstable and you’d lose them again. On the other hand, you have things like the local group, which has two sub-clusters in it. So I think the model may have partial “correctitude,” if that’s a word. But I don’t look at the universe as made up quite that simply. You do certainly have large stable clusters, and you have lots of groups like the local group that are probably stable. Whether or not I agree with Peebles in detail on that, I think the general conclusions he’s now arriving at are very good, and everyone certainly accepts the general notion of large in homogeneities up to scales which, with a Hubble constant of 50, would be 50 to 100 mega parsecs.
But none beyond that.
Now I think we can rule out larger scales. Peebles finds that correlations disappear by then. The numbers get small too, but I think we can rule them out very strongly on the basis of Rainey’s stuff, and on still larger ones from the distribution of faint radio sources. And perhaps as well from the microwave background. If you had a hierarchy, of course you should see lumps in the background.
Now we’re getting to the point where you can see large scale isotropies in the microwave background.
Well, we have seen large scale anisotropy.
You can see the motion of the galaxy.
Evidently so. No small-scale anisotropy has yet been detected, but it must be there.
Now, would you agree that this has something to say about the amount of mass in the universe or the closeness of the universe?
It probably does, although it’s hard to interpret it. I’m not sure of the usual interpretations. It leads to equivocal value of q0, and I think the interpretation is dangerous. Nobody really knows yet how to make galaxies or clusters -- did clusters come first or galaxies, for example.
Since we don’t know how one makes a galaxy.
We do know from these synthetic calculational models like Aarseth’s if you start with a universe with a Poisson or a binomial distribution of finished galaxies, even though it’s expanding, because it’s random and not uniform you get clustering. In fact you get super-clustering on about the right scale. So one could understand the observations if you started with galaxies and let them cluster. But I doubt if that’s the way the universe happened; I suspect the clusters came first.
I see. Do you feel that this general program of looking at the distribution of clusters and so forth is likely to lead to strong constraints on q0?
The existence of super-clusters alone -- doesn’t that suggest a constraint on q0? The fact that these large in homogeneities exist makes a low q0, doesn’t it.
Can’t be very high.
Can’t be very high. I don’t think that’s the best way to get q0, because unfortunately the results are model-dependent.
So it’s not necessarily the way you would choose to go after q0?
No, I think the mean density is one way to go after q0.
This brings us to the missing mass problem. I wanted to ask you a bit about that.
I don’t want to lose the super-clusters either.
Okay, finish with the super-clusters, and then we’ll talk about that.
There’s something else we’ve done recently that I think is cogent to record for posterity, in case I don’t get around to publishing everything. (Laughter) One approach is the statistical stuff; I like to think I started it and Peebles is just sort of finishing it, with a lot of people in between. Another approach which I now think has to be done thoroughly is to look at super-clusters individually. Now we knew about the local super-cluster, de Vaucouleurs and others have looked at it, and I had a student (Steven Eastmond) recently work on a portion of the local super-cluster in the Virgo region. He found that there really are a lot of clusters, and they’re expanding with the universe. In fact, much of our recent observing at Lick was to get radial velocities for a lot of galaxies in the Virgo region.
This is the Virgo super-cluster?
Yes. The super-cluster to which we belong is evidently expanding, and to the precision of our observations, which is say 20%, as fast as the universe. So that means that clusters are stable, but not s. The super-clusters are not gravitationally balanced. Unless of course q0 is more than a half, in which case they’re bound in a broad sense, and so is the whole universe. We have only very weak evidence about others; in a little paper by Herb Rood, which you may or may not have noticed, he finds that groups of Abell clusters seem to be expanding, if he sticks to the nearest distances where we have complete redshift data. But one thing I found at Tallinn was that there is a lot of study of others going on, three others. Nothing is yet published, but Einasto has been looking very hard at the Perseus cluster. And of course I knew about Tifft and Gregory and Rood and Chineharini (?) looking at the Coma super-cluster, which includes some other cataloged clusters and a lot of stuff in between. Then the Hercules super-cluster. So, those three are all being studied, although not much is published. And the interesting thing is they’re all flat.
What do you mean, flat?
They all are flat like pancakes.
Oh, they’re squashed.
Squashed. Why are they squashed?
I suppose they’re rotating.
I don’t think so. The periods would be enormously long compared to the age of the universe. There is the so-called pancake model.
Of course if there are no more than three clusters in a super-cluster then it doesn’t mean a lot.
Pardon me, that’s not right. Looking at super-clusters is like looking at cities of a population one million. You would only be slightly aware of population clumping if you looked at cities of a million or more. You notice that Philadelphia and New York seem to be in a super-cluster, but Chicago wouldn’t be and Los Angeles would just be by itself. But on the other hand, if you look at towns down to ten thousand, now you see always when you have a city you have towns all around it, you have a super-cluster. And it’s only rarely that you come to have several great clusters in the same super-cluster. In the Hercules complex there are four or five Abell clusters in that complex, but thousands of groups.
I see. It’s because your Abell clusters are really the very large cities, the cities of a million.
So in a way there’s more to be learned, and now people are looking at smaller clusters.
Maybe you led people astray by your choice of things.
I try to make that clear all the time; so has de Vaucouleurs, that’s one thing he has been right about. But of course people don’t read the fine print. I’m working on the Southern clusters now, as you know, trying to complete the catalog, and I have a colleague who’s at Edinburgh, Harold Corwin. He’s a very fine chap and very meticulous. He and I together are cataloging as completely as we can the Southern clusters. He’s an older chap but he’s getting his Ph.D. late in life at Edinburgh, and for a thesis he’s working on one good super-cluster. He’s going to very thoroughly investigate it as completely as he can, and do luminosity functions for all the galaxies in the whole thing, velocities where he can get them and so on, really bang it out. We wanted a fairly good distance where you can see it all on one or two plates.
So again, your main concern here is in a way, as it always has been; the large-scale distribution of mass in the universe?
Why are you interested in that?
That’s an interesting question.
Of all the possible things you could have done.
I just got going on it, and it happened to be an interesting subject. Now that brings us to missing mass. I’m not sure there’s any missing mass.
But first: when did you first become aware of this problem?
I wasn’t the inventor of the missing mass, as you know. But I was at that conference in Santa Barbara that was called by Jerzy Neyman and Elizabeth Scott, and all. That was shortly after the Ambartsumian argument that there was missing mass. I think he was probably the first one to call attention to it, so probably about that time I began thinking about it; before then I hadn’t paid much attention. My thought at the outset was that one should look very carefully at the observations before assuming you have missing mass. And the better you look at them, and the more completely you study a cluster, the less the problem seems to be a severe one. I’m not sure it even exists, but it may exist.
In this 1961 paper, you conclude by saying that one must look for other effects -- not super-clustering, because you were eliminating super-clustering as a possible cause, that is, the superposition of ones behind them.
No, I suggest that motions of galaxies in super-clusters, superimposed on clusters in those super-clusters, may lead to a derivation of spuriously high masses.
But you say that doesn1t cause the problem. You go on and say, maybe it’s dark intergalactic, matter, a grossly incorrect distance scale, or expansion of the clusters, and so forth. You were being cagey. I wonder what in fact you thought at the time, and how your views have changed over the years?
No, it was Zwicky who was arguing that dark matter might lead to the impression of super-clustering. I believe I showed this interpretation to be incorrect. But as regards the missing mass, I think I was thinking one should check all possibilities before assuming we have new physics. Maybe there’s new physics; that would be very exciting.
Would missing mass require new physics?
If super-clusters are stable and permanent objects, possibly yes.
I see. Was this the sort of thing some people were claiming?
Oh, I think occasionally people do. If you assume that Newton’s gravitational theory -- or relativistic theory, the same thing really on that scale -- is right, then you get the right mass from the velocity dispersion, don’t you. And then if you just don’t see that mass there, maybe the inverse square law isn’t right. You don’t have to use the viral theorem; just give a cluster negative energy. (the difference is only a factor of two.)
And this was something that you never particularly liked.
No, I just felt it was never a closed book. I think people were getting mass discrepancies of a factor of a 100 -- well, it’s nowhere near that. They’re getting mass/light ratios of 1,000 sometimes. If you use poor groups you get spuriously large large mass/light ratios because you’re looking at superposed objects that aren’t dynamically bound. Again, if you just take the rich clusters for which you have lots of radial velocity data, in no case is the mass/light ratio higher than 200. It can be less, it can be 100. Well, that’s high, but on the other hand it’s consistent with, say, the massive halo model (which may be wrong). It’s probably consistent with binary galaxy statistics. It is not consistent with either the line widths you get from individual galaxies, or rotation curves. But the rotation curves can be explained if you have massive halos. I’m not sure how good the data are on the line widths, but anyway they also only apply to velocities in the bright cores.
I see. So there isn’t that much mass missing, and it might easily turn up.
Look, it a mass/light ratio for elliptical galaxies, say the giant ones that dominate the light, if they could be as high as 50, say, and in individual cases they get up that high, then the mass/light discrepancy is only a factor of three or four at most. Now you have some intergalactic gas that you know about now, through the x-rays, and that could give you half the missing mass right there. So you might barely squeeze it out. But I’m not sure how. I don’t say there isn’t a problem, but I think one should be cautious about assuming that you have a big discrepancy; you might explain it away. Now, what if you don’t? What does this imply? The clusters are permanent objects. If you give them negative energy and you can’t find that mass, then that means Newton’s laws can’t be right, and that would be very exciting. But you really need very good data.
Now if the mass is there, on the other hand, probably it implies that the universe is closed.
No. If we use those high masses you get for clusters, and count up the number of rich clusters, we can estimate the mass of the universe out to a z of 0.2 contained in rich clusters. Now by several independent estimates we find about 10% of all galaxies are in rich clusters. The rich clusters are only a tiny fraction of all clusters; about 10% of the mass is in them. That gives you an estimate of the total mass in the universe, and it’s short of closing the universe by a factor of 20 to 50. That includes this “missing mass.”
Do you tend to think that the universe is open?
I like to not have opinions on that. I don’t even have an opinion that there was a big bang. Except that we do have pretty good indirect evidence the universe evolved from a hot gas. Mind you, I think it’s a good model, but I’d never take models very seriously. Remember back when the Greeks were putting things in circles and epicycles because circles were nice, they were extrapolating their known physics or geometry to the ultimate limit, but we know more now. Maybe we’re naive to think that the Friedmann models with zero cosmological constant and general relativity and so forth are all exactly right. On the other hand, if you keep a humble perspective, that this is just playing games and having fun, then I think the evidence leads us toward an open universe -- at the moment.
Towards an open universe and towards a big bang?
At least an evolution from a hot, dense state. We do see the microwave background that seems to be an awfully good case.
That says a very hot, dense state.
Well, that’s just 3,000 degrees. Now if you want to go back to ten billion Kelvins and talk about the standard model, the big bang, all of Fowler and who else, I’ve forgotten, Hoyle and somebody else, that’s extrapolating a long way, back. And maybe it’s right.
So you don’t feel it’s well-established in the sense that many other theories would be?
No, but that doesn’t mean to say I think it’s wrong.
I understand. Have your feelings about this changed very much over time?
Not much. I guess in one sense: philosophically I was attracted to the steady-state theory, because it’s philosophically easier to envision an infinite universe, infinitely old, than one with such a singularity. On the other hand, I have to admit that the observations don’t look very favorable to a steady-state universe.
I see, but you found it more aesthetically appealing.
Aesthetically appealing -- that’s nothing to do with scientifically appealing.
No, but it’s interesting. What about open versus closed, odd you find one of those philosophically appealing?
No. The closed would make a lot of people happier, because you can have it as old as you want if you let it oscillate.
I see. Would that make you happier?
No. I’m perfectly happy not knowing the answer.
I see. How do you know it makes people happier? Do people talk about these things?
Sure. I think most people believe their belief theories. I think Sandage really believes it when he says the search for two numbers, H and q0 -- I think he really believes in his heart that he’s on the verge of discovering the secrets of the universe. And I think most people want very much to have something concrete to hang their hats on and believe in, which is why people are religious. Where did the universe come from? Well, it’s much easier to say, God made it”, than it is to say, “I don’t know.” But that bothers me a whole lot more than even a singularity; I mean, where did God come from?
I see. What about your colleagues at UCLA, do they discuss these things?
Yes, we have to some extent, some more than others. I think for the most part, I don’t know about the new young people, I’ve been away on sabbatical, but over the last ten years I think most people are pretty much like I am. I suppose we influence each other.
Would they prefer a closed universe?
Oh, prefer, I don’t know about that. I don’t think anyone has any great desires one way or the other. But I think on their view of how firmly do we know things, and does it bother me -- well, people’s religious views I think are pretty much the same. I think we’re all agnostic or atheistic or whatever you want to call it. If you define an atheist as one who denies the existence of a god, then we’re agnostic. But ones who just don’t have any particular religious belief. You know the book THE FIRST THREE MINUTES, surely.
I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard of it.
It’s very good, and it’s also appropriately tentative. Weinberg opens up the book with a little anecdote which I thought was very much to the point. He said, according to one religion, in the beginning -- I forgot the detail, I think it was a camel and a mule, or a dog or something -- there were two animals and they made everything. But then somebody asked, what did the camel eat? Oh, there was some grass it seems, as well, and so on, and it gets more and more complicated. He points out that it isn’t that he wants to belittle religion; it’s just that he doesn’t find these explanations particularly satisfying. I think it’s all good clean fun; you play the game because it’s fun to play it, but you don’t take it over-seriously.
Now your main work has been in, I wouldn’t say cosmology, but in a field that.
It’s observational cosmology.
Yes, aimed at cosmology. Do you think that your colleagues regard it as the same way as other subfields of astronomy?
Do I think my colleagues regard what I’m doing, or cosmology?
Observational cosmology, let’s say.
Oh, I think they regard it as a very exciting part of astronomy.
No more special than any other field of astronomy. Of course, there’s something special about cosmology itself, in the sense that you’re dealing with a unique thing, namely the universe. If your field is stellar structure you have many stars, but you only have one universe. That’s only a detail; you only have one Moon and one Earth too, so if your field is the Earth or the Moon you’re still dealing with a unique thing. Or the Sun; you study the stars but you don’t study them the same way you study the Sun.
So the thing about cosmology is just that it’s been a very exciting field in recent years.
I think it has always captured the imagination of man. The grandest questions you can ask are about the origins and evolutions of the universe, isn’t that right. So I think in that sense it’s always been a terribly exciting thing to dabble in. I try to discourage young people who say, “I want to be an astronomer and study cosmology” because there’s not much you can do any more. I mean from a theoretical point of view, let’s face it, until we have new physics or unless we have new physics, the theoretical models have been ground out. I think the next step is to get some observations to see if we can tie it into existing theory. Though there’s always a place for the genius and the Kip Thornes.
Theorists can always do something in black holes and that sort of theory.
To a point. But even the black holes —- I would discourage people, at this stage, from hanging their hat too much on “I’m going to work on black holes when I grow up.” Black holes are something that I think are probably a passing fad. I think they may well exist, but all these Penrose diagrams and naked singularities, it’s all good clean fun, but -- you know there’s a school at Cambridge right now that’s trying to explain everything with black holes.
Yes, I know.
And we don’t know yet that a single black hole exists. Maybe.
You’ll withhold judgment on that.
Sure. Maybe there are lots of black holes, but it may be possible to understand quasars, for example, without invoking black holes. Just because it’s a model that might explain some of the phenomena, it doesn’t mean it’s a unique model.
By the way, in this field of observational cosmology, how do you usually learn nowadays about new developments in the field?
I guess mostly from reading the journals and going to meetings. You hear about things in meetings a year in advance. IAU meetings are good places to go to, and symposia. I try to go to most of them on that general subject. Usually once a year or so there’s a symposium where people in the area are present, and you kind of hear the rumors. I heard for example about this anisotropy over a year ago in Paris, before it was known much about.
Oh, that’s right; they had a galaxy conference there.
Yes, on the Hubble constant. This conference in Tallinn last September was an awfully good conference. But also, you read the journals. The dangerous thing is that people like Smoot and Muller published their anisotropy in the Phys. Rev. Letters.
You can’t read all the Phys. Rev. Letters.
I never read the Phys. Rev. Letters. The only reason I happened to have that is because I talked to Gorenstein on the phone and asked where it was being published, and he told me. He said he’s send me a reprint but it would be out next week. So I said great, where. And he said the Phys. Rev. Letters, October 3rd or whatever and I said, “Oh my God, I’ll have to send the secretary over and get a xerox for me” which we did.
I see. You’ve already told me about the journals, that you can’t read them regularly any more.
I try. I’ll tell you what I subscribe to. My office gets fuller and fuller; I read a tiny fraction of them. A & A, ASP, Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal, Monthly Notices, I guess that’s it. Of course Mercury comes, and Sky and Telescope. What I try to do is look through the index in each journal that comes out, and there are two classes of articles, one that is very important and I want to read it. Usually I’ve heard of it, if it’s that important, before.
You mean anywhere in astronomy, so to speak.
Yes, the word kind of gets around, or you get preprints. A lot of stuff comes from preprints you get sent. So anyway, I try to read those right away. And then there are the articles that are very interesting and I really want to read them, so I put a paperclip in the journal. I stack them up. Then it comes time to have them bound; I take all the paperclips out and send them to the binder. (Laughter)
Sometimes you read them.
Yes, but seldom. It’s shameful. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Astrophysical Journal, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to departmentalize I mean it’s obvious, I can’t go on another ten years subscribing and piling them up the way I am now. I’ve got two bookcases full of them, or one and a half.
I know the problem; as you can see I’ve run out of space here. Next month is okay, but I don’t know where I’m going to put the month after that. I’ve some questions to catch up. Have you served on any grant review boards, or committees that have influenced the way funds are given for research?
No, I don’t think so. I was on the search committee for Director of Lick Observatory once. That didn’t have much to do with funds.
Was that a significant committee?
It was significant to the Lick Observatory, but that was all. Charlie Townes was chairman of it. I’ve done a lot of committees. I was on the Board of Directors for the ASP (Astronomical Society of The Pacific) a number of years.
Yes, in fact you were president of it.
Yes, I was president for two years (1968-70).
I’m interested in that, in fact I should have asked you already. ASP has changed a bit.
Yes, we changed that.
That was partly your influence.
Yes, it was Helmut Abt’s and my influence to be exact. I’ll tell you the story. When I was on that Board of Directors -- Helmut was president and I was on it -- we were the only two active astronomers, I think. There was the representative of the amateurs, George Perkins, there was Stella Einerssen(?) who ran the thing; well, John Hall was on it, but he was not very active; there were several lay people in San Francisco, very old people, nice guys, but who hadn’t been active in anything in years, including fund-raising. Meanwhile the society had a lot of money, a lot of holdings, and they were just increasing.
This was due to endowment?
Endowment, and gifts that had been given the society. The money had been invested very conservatively, but still it was increasing. And the society was doing almost nothing. Einerssen was a fine old gentleman, but he was almost ninety, and he was running the society the way it had run very successfully in the ‘20’s. He didn’t realize that this was the ‘60’s. I think when Dan (Popper) was on the board once; he got them to have a mail ballot for elections. That was a start. But still there was only one candidate for each position, and they always got elected. They were chosen by the nominating committee. I forget how it was -- I think it turned out that Einerssen told the nominating committee who they should nominate.
And they didn’t mind.
I keep forgetting details. Maybe the actual Board of Directors was not chosen in those days by mail ballot, or maybe it was, but there was also a meeting of the society, an open meeting; it’s in the by-laws. Anybody could come, but nobody ever did come except one or two people that regularly came, amateurs that just showed up for the annual business meeting. And that was where people were elected to the Board, or at least officers were elected. My mind is vague. Anyway, I remember when the meeting was stacked; we got a lot of members to come that never came to the meeting before.
I see. You called up everybody?
That’s right. That was the showdown. Helmut at that time was president. I’m trying to remember the details. Oh, I know what it was. It was time for the election of a new board member and a name was raised that had been nominated by the nominating committee. And then Helmut said, are there any nominations from the floor? And Einerssen said, “Hey, wait a minute, we never have nominations from the floor.” “But it’s not against the by-laws to have nominations from the floor,” Helmut said, to which Einerssen asked, “But don’t you have confidence in your nominating committee?” And Helmut said, “Well, I’ll tell you, I didn’t know this name that they had nominated, so I called up the chairman of the nominating committee, and he said he didn’t know him either, that was the name that Dr. Einerssen suggested.”
He said this in a public meeting?
Yes. And Einerssen mumbled something; I don’t know if he fully appreciated what Helmut had said. There was a nomination from the floor, that had been prearranged, and the guy of course was elected. That was the beginning of the change. We all appreciated Einerssen as a grand old guy; even his wife knew, however, that he was senile -- not really senile either, but you know, that he was living in the past, and things had to change. Everyone appreciated him but it was just time; I guess what Helmut and I were saying after was, we hope when we’re that age somebody politely tells us, you know, to butt out when it’s time. But anyway the power was wrested away from Einerssen at that meeting. Subsequently we formed a goals committee. I guess I was president next, and I appointed a goals committee, Helmut being the chairman of it. What could we do to do more for astronomy? We had a number of suggestions: hire an executive officer, have an active membership drive, have two journals.
Bring in a second journal.
Effectively to upgrade the leaflets into the second popular journal. To make something that would come regularly for lay people, for there was nothing for the lay people except the leaflets. And they were fine. But that was an old approach.
An old style, yes.
Sure and also to upgrade the regular journal to a higher quality scientific journal. We did all those things. We got McNamara for editor, who I think has done a very good job with it. The older people wanted Louis Berman as editor; he had just retired and was available, and Louis was a real nice guy, you know, but he wouldn’t be a strong editor. Anyway, I think everything worked out well. Also, we had recommended raising the dues -- increase the membership and raise the dues. The latter was never done, or not enough. And they really had to be. You had to charge, you know, the going rates; it should have been self-sufficient. We wanted to live off the income from the society and from the investments. We didn’t want to eat into the principal. Well, they did all these programs except raise the dues, and of course the stock market tumbled at the same time. They were eating into the principal, and so the society thought it was in financial difficulty. That was after our time, entirely. I don’t know if they’ve ever really gotten off the dime yet. They’ve cut back a bit on Rick Reese’s staff; he had a membership campaign all organized and they made him discontinue that. I think that was a mistake. But I think they’re going to have to get more membership, and I think it should be easy. Many young people aren’t members; I bet you’re not.
No. But for one thing I get the publications free.
I think the society needs to get the young astronomers in. The dues are very cheap; they needn’t be that cheap, but they don’t have to be very expensive.
The society is also becoming quite oriented towards not just young astronomers, but popular things in general.
That was our direction. There were two things we wanted to do: to push public education as far as we could and do something for the lay people, but at the same time to upgrade the scientific, and separate the two.
And this was not just you, but you and Abt and other people?
It was mainly Helmut and I, but we had a committee of several people. George Perkins was on it, and that may have been it, I forget, maybe one more person. If you recall, the publications use to have things like personal notes and stuff in it. And it was interesting but it didn’t mean much to the lay people, and the things that were in the journal that were for lay people, the professionals thought were kind of junky things.
So you needed a separation.
We wanted to make it both, and I think that part was successful. I think Mercury does a good job, but they just haven’t gotten enough membership yet. Rick has been very aggressive in getting radio programs going, as you know, and newspaper articles.
And this is sort of in his brief to do this?
Yes, that’s his assignment. He was actually the second one we had another, I think he was a good find. The original fellow was Leon Salanave, who’s a nice chap but not nearly as effective.
Okay. I have some other, standard questions. Have you ever thought of changing your research to some other specialty or even to another field entirely?
I’ve done other things. I’ve worked on planetary nebulae, and I’ve done little papers now and then.
I mean completely leaving and go into other.
No. I haven’t finished yet, that’s my trouble. When I finish I’ll go into something else.
Did you ever think of going into applied research or did you ever have any job offers from industry or anything like that?
No. I’m not interested in that. I’ve done a little consulting but I’m not interested.
No, optics mostly, optical design or surveillance.
Oh, I didn’t know you were interested in optical design.
Well, not very much, but somewhat. Especially during the early space program, I worked for STL summers.
Space Technology Laboratories. They were the grandfather or father of the Aerospace Corporation.
I see. Any contacts with the military?
As a matter of fact, yes, but very indirectly. In some consulting I was doing, there were some military people involved at one time. Again it was surveillance, optical surveillance of spacecraft and that sort of thing. Methods of detection, what could you detect observationally and so forth.
It’s not quite an operations research kind of thing?
No. Actually, as far as optical design, the only actual optical design I did was for Collins Radio once. They had some kind of a film sound recording device that wasn’t meeting specifications, and I redesigned the optical system.
This thing you were doing with the military sounds like what people say, that a scientist or astronomer is good for these things because he can tell you, what facts mean.
Yes, it was that sort of thing, what could you see with a big telescope, and what kind of telescope would it take to observe missiles on the way to the Moon or Mars or whatever.
What period was this, by the way?
Early to middle ‘60’s. I was also observing our spacecraft with the 48-inch Schmidt for JPL. We observed the Agena rocket on the way to the Moon once, or was it Venus, I’ve forgotten.
Were you taking photographs of it?
Yes, after the launch we’d dash up and photograph it for them. We didn’t see very many things.
Did you have a contract with them and all that.
It was just a consulting contract.
Any other contacts with the space program?
I worked a little bit for Douglas, a little for JPL and STL, what was then STL. STL split off from Ramo-Woolridge. I haven’t done much of that for a long time.
You haven’t been connected with the politics of the space telescope or any of that?
No, I haven’t been; quite unlike Goldberg and Greenstein, I’ve never been involved in things like that.
You’ve been able to keep clear.
No one ever involved me. But it’s not my field really; I’m not a good politician.
Let’s see. Well, you married again 1972, what was your second wife’s background?
My second wife, Phyllis. When I divorced my wife I began looking up old friends -- many of them had called up and I never got the messages and things of that sort. One of my friends I looked up, he and his wife were splitting up. I never had met her, except (she didn’t remember) once, long before he had married her, more than twenty years ago, when he was dating her. Anyway, they were splitting up, and I spent some time trying to help them reconcile, and finally they both told me to butt out, so I married her. She went to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art; she’s a painter. Not much professionally, she tries, she sells things occasionally. She’s very good. She didn’t ever get a degree. She went, I think, three and a half years or something, to the PMSA. She’s a very bright girl, by the way. Doesn’t know it, but she’s very brilliant. We work crossword puzzles together, and we follow the Dodgers.
You mentioned briefly something of your outside interests, music and literature and so on. Are there any other things you do outside of your professional work?
Oh gosh, I don’t know, probably. It’s hard to name real hobbies that take much time. The record collecting is the major thing. I go to concerts and operas, I love opera. I like mountains and trips and things, but I haven’t had much time for those. I’ve done an awful lot of travelling lately, but professionally. I take Phyl along when I can.
That reminds me by the way, I wanted to ask you about your year at the Max-Planck-Institute. I don’t know much about the contemporary scene in Germany.
That was ten years ago now.
That’s what I mean, for a historian that’s contemporary.
I see. I thought history began then. The Max-Planck Institute in Munch is one of many Max-Planck institutes in Germany. That was the one that Heisenberg was the head of. (I met Heisenberg, but he subsequently died.) Ludwig Biermann was the head of the astrophysics division, and I was in his group. I was there primarily because I liked Munich and wanted a place to hang my hat, effectively, and I was trying mainly to catch up on my research. I had done a lot of observations and hadn’t had a chance to really put things together and I got some papers published, got the planetary nebulae paper done.
Yes, I noticed that several papers came out from that period.
Yes. I finished both the planetary nebulae papers, the last two I did there.
This was essentially work that you had started before.
In that case, yes. I’ve done a lot of observations subsequently; I observed the nuclei at Mt. Wilson photo-electrically, subsequent to the survey. Also I wrote the paper in Sandage’s GALAXIES AND THE UNIVERSE volume. It’s kind of amusing, I wrote that chapter eleven years ago.
No doubt at that time you felt that was something that was overdue.
It was overdue. I was two or three months late with the manuscript, and I submitted a letter to Alan with apologies, and he wrote back that it was okay, there were a few others that hadn’t come yet. And it’s finally out (recently).
But I’m particularly curious how you would contrast the scene in terms of the ways astronomers interacted, the social scene.
It was a live-wire place. They didn’t have any observing astronomers. They had another American guest there at the time, George Simon, who was an observer on the Sun. You know George. But there wasn’t much scientific collaboration with anybody on my part. I was sort of doing my thing. I socialized a lot with John Hazlehurst who was there at the time; he’s a semi-observer, British. He was also a guest.
Did you notice any things different about the way they organized themselves, or their work?
They were an awfully good bunch. All very nice people, Kippenhahn was there, he had actually just left for Gottingen; I gave talks at Gottingen and also Heidelberg. The library was run beautifully, it was very efficiently run, a group of bright people, nice people. The city is marvelous, a wonderful place to live for a year, I think. I like Munch a lot.
In other words, it was more or less like being in a good American institute?
Yes, except they all talk funny -- mostly English around me. The workmen and so on talk funny, some kind of a funny language they speak. But for example, I’ll contrast that with Edinburgh, where I spent my last year. Edinburgh had a lot of galaxy astronomers, and scientifically it was a very exciting place to be. The plates were absolutely marvelous that they were taking with the UK Schmidt in Australia. Vincent Reddish designed the Southern Hemisphere Schmidt, as you probably know. It was essentially the Palomar Schmidt, but he redesigned it and beefed it up where it needed beefing up and so on and the things works just beautifully. All those flexure problems we had at Palomar are eliminated in their telescope. The quality of the plates is superb, and they’ve done a beautiful job of organizing it. But on the other hand, socially it was a dull place. Edinburgh is kind of a bleak place to me. They think it’s cold; it’s much warmer than Munich, is, but socially Munich is warm and Edinburgh is kind of reserved.
It’s kind of a question whether people keep their doors open, that sort of a thing?
It’s always all last names, you know; I call them by their first names and they call me by my first name, but to each other they’re all last names. People have been colleagues for twenty years and never in each other’s houses and that sort of thing. Everyone was very nice, they couldn’t be pouter or nicer people or more charming, but they’re just very reserved. Even in the city I thought is old-fashioned. Munich is now very high-priced, but it’s now I think much advanced on us in standard of living and quality of life in the city and so on. Edinburgh isn’t.
All these things in a way get reflected in the astronomical life.
Well, you have to live. You live in a rented house or apartment. Edinburgh is a trial of minor frustrations. How do you get your laundry done -- you can’t pick anywhere, and you have to use the Laundromat, you see.
I’ve lived in Britain, and I understand.
You know the problems, okay.
Their standard of living is somewhere comparable with Italy’s.
Yes, but in Italy people have more fun. The BBC people I’m working with are very American in their attitudes. Mind you, I enjoyed Edinburgh, it’s a beautiful city, and in fact I’m going back a number of times this year. Every time I go to Britain I go to Edinburgh and work a little on the cluster program. But it’s not a place I’d want to live. It’s not just the salaries being low -- they are lower, but you can see why there’re lower. Their productivity is low, the British productivity is lower.
I see. We’re about winding up now.
Got through all your questions?
Through the end of the pack. One last one that I always ask. You’ve already told me, in fact. You don’t have any religious affiliations now.
I just wonder, before I leave, what things of relevance that we haven’t discussed. I don’t know. It’s more interesting to you what I know about other astronomers, I’m sure, because I’m not as famous as most of the people you’re interviewing will be.
Your particular viewpoint is very interesting, and I’m interested in your own career.
On the other hand, I’m trying to think what philosophical impact would I make that’s relevant, or any commentaries. There’s a lot of questions, social questions, I don’t know whether we want to go into. How do I feel about censorship for example?
What do you mean by censorship?
I’m very liberal in some ways and conservative in others.
Now are you talking about censorship in the sense of something in scientific papers?
No, socially. What’s wrong with the world and society? But that’s not very
Well, there is one question you can tell me that sometimes I ask people. If you consider our society as a whole, do you think it’s moving towards or away from what you’d like it to be?
That reminds me of what was bugging me. I thought something was left unsaid, and it has been; I’ll have to say it. I think there are aspects of society moving in the right direction, but as a whole society is tumbling to its doom. I predict a generation, maybe, for our civilization. I don’t think man will necessarily wipe himself off the earth, although he might, but the absolute lack of concern or plan- fling for the inevitable problems that beset us, all brought about ultimately by overpopulation and overuse of resources. The population of the world doubles in 37 years currently. People look at the U.S. and say our birth rates have dropped, isn’t that good. Yes, that’s good, but it doesn’t help much when our next-door neighbors are doubling in twenty years, as they are. Indeed the population of the U.S., if you include illegal immigrants, is probably doubling in less than 37 years. This brings all the other problems along with it, such as the supply of natural resources, pollution, and crime in the streets, and all the ills that are talked about. I read an outlandish article in the Times (The Late Times; the thing you have here is called the Hudson River Daily). A few weeks ago a USC economist was arguing there is no oil crisis, it’s all imaginary, there’s a least a 100 year supply left -- at the present usage. Which I thought was an appalling thing. First of all the usage isn’t staying constant, it’s increasing much more rapidly than the population. But how appalling to think that we have a whole century left. What if we did?
Even if it were true.
Which it isn’t. But what if we did?
Then we’ll use it up and then let them worry about it a hundred years from now.
Yes, and that’s the kind of lack of care. There was a population conference was it in Bucharest or Sofia, a U.N. conference, and the result of it was a U.N. resolution that the problem isn’t overpopulation but distribution of wealth. If this is the official attitude of nations, what hope is there for us?
Do you feel your work in astronomy has any relation to this?
No, except in a peripheral way. I try in my public lectures sometimes to end up about our beautiful earth, you know, and that it’s all we’ve got. We’re never going to leave the earth, as a race. It’s one thing to talk about space travel; there’s never a planet you want to live on -- you might want to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. But even if you wanted to you couldn’t; there’s no possibility that you could increase the population at the present rate and solve it by sending people into space. I don’t have to give you all these arguments.
No, I understand.
They’re all in my book.
But you give these arguments to people.
I do when I have the opportunities to. If I’m asked to give lectures, for example, on life in the universe, I like that because then I can spend a little time discussing at the end the longevity of civilizations, and why I think we may only have a generation left. Look at the problem (President) Carter is having just getting a tax on gas-consuming automobiles, and the tremendous resistance to means which far, one far too little in the way of conservation. On the other hand, we have tremendous pressures that the third world wants to use the same resources we’re using at the same rate. There’s no way that one can do that. There’s plenty for everybody if there was fewer of us but there’s too many of us. We all can’t have the standard of living to which we have become accustomed in the world; at most I guess a tenth of the people now living can have that kind of standard of living.
So in a way, this gives you an additional impetus for your popular writing. You like your next book because you have a chance to put some of this in it.
I don’t know that that’s a primary motive, but it’s a thing that bothers me about our attitudes. We seem terribly concerned about rather stupid things, like whether or not “Deep Throat” should be shown on campus, which never hurts anybody, but what is hurting everybody is our plundering of our resources. One of which is space, I mean land, living space (Outer) space too, for that matter. I’m not competent to say whether aerosols are bad for the ozone layer, but some chemists say that they are and it seems to me that if experts who are competent are concerned that it may be a problem, the intelligent attitude would be to cease using aerosols until you see if it’s safe. But the American way is to keep using them until we know it1s going to kill us, so then we’ll stop using them.
Until something disastrous happens. Well, I agree with you. Perhaps this would be a good time to stop.
Okay, you didn’t have a last question.
I think you answered it pretty fully.
Maybe I could ask you, though in a way you did answer it. You mentioned that you consider yourself an agnostic. You don’t have any religious affiliations now.
But do you have any strong philosophical convictions, would you say, other than agnosticism.
I would be very happy to find Jesus or whatever. I can’t believe in things I can’t believe in.
Aside from religion -- you know, here you’ve been studying the universe for quite a while; what do you think about the universe?
Most scientists, I think, have a kind of religious belief that nature is not capricious but obeys a certain laws. And everything we learn seems to strengthen that religious hope. It’s more of a religion than it is a scientific belief. It’s a faith. I suppose I think that’s a beautiful thing about nature; that it’s the way it is and not otherwise. There are so many little things that are shockingly lucky. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I can’t imagine that you exist, you know, I can’t conceive of the world without me. How could it have been here when I wasn’t here to supervise it? (Laughter) And I’m sure everybody thinks exactly the same way. This must be something we don’t know. So I just can’t believe that it really is as simple, or maybe as complex, as it appears. But I don’t think that because I don’t know the answer, Moses did either. And just to invent a man with a beard who somehow made it all is incongruous. But if you look at all the little things like the resonance level in carbon that allows the triple-alpha process to work -- otherwise we wouldn’t be here, if our present views are right about the origins of things. How did DNA ever work? On and on, you know, so many improbabilities that seem to have strung together somehow.
So the feeling is that the universe is law like and that more over this law has something to do with human life.
Oh, I don’t know about that. If you ask me my intellectual opinion, I guess I think that human beings are incidental. But on the other hand, they’re not incidental to me personally.
ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL 121 (1955) 430.
WITH C.E. Kearns, PASP 66 (1954): 233.
Note in proof: Neyman, Scott and their associates did use a computer to analyze the distribution of galaxies observed by Shane and Wirtanen on the Lick Astrographic Survey; they concluded that the distribution is compatible with the assumption that all galaxies are in clusters.
ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL SUPPLEMENT Ser. No, vol. III (1958): 211-288
 Also reprinted in R.L. Weber, comp., A RANDOM WALK IN SCIENCE (London: Institute of Physics, 1973).
Died September 1978.
EXPLORATION OF THE UNIVERSE (see below)
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964, 19692,19753
R.H. Baker, ASTRONOMY
CONTEMPORARY ASTRONOMY (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1977).
This did not come off, due to a demonstration of ceramics workers, who had protested losing their jobs in a plant closure by occupying the Tower Of Pisa/ We substituted a NASA film clip of Astronaut David Scott dropping a Hammer and Feather on the moon.
ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL 218 (1977): 53
E.J. Groth et al., “The Clustering of Galaxies,” vol. 237 (Nov. 1977): 76.
ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL 66 (1961): 607-613
By Steven Weinberg (N.Y.: Basic, 1977).
Astronomy & Astrophysics; Publications of the Astronomical Society of The Pacific.