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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Frank Bateson by Stephen Dick on 1985 May 16,
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 Sydney; interest in astronomy (Halley’s Comet, 1910); American astronomers; war years and science in New Zealand Navy; employment in Cook Islands, 1945-1959; manager of a trading concern; contract with Brad Wood, University of Pennsylvania; lecture tour to Canada and the United States (Harlow Shapley, Charles D. Shane), 1957; state of astronomy in New Zealand in the 1920s and now; establishment of Black Birch Observatory in New Zealand; interest in cooperative ventures with the United States; the Mt. John years, funding efforts; 1965 total solar eclipse in Cook Islands; comments on retirement, publications, UFO?s and extraterrestrial life; role in Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.
Dr Bateson, I thought before we descended into the details of your career, you could give me the broad outlines of what you have done over the past decades.
The simplest way is to start at the beginning. When I was a lad in Sydney, that is, six decades ago, I became interested in astronomy, and ultimately got interested in observing variable stars in particular, but also in observing anything that was visible in the sky. Fortunately, I was given a great deal of help by the people who were interested in astronomy at the Sydney Observatory at the time, and by people at the University of Sydney in the Physics Department, particularly Professor W.E. Cooke and his two assistants, Raynor and Raymond, and Walter Gale a famous amateur astronomer in Sydney at that time. That sort of laid the career that I was to follow. It was not possible in those days to take astronomy at the University level in New Zealand or Australia, there were no courses, and in any case with the economic conditions of the time I wouldn’t have been able to go to the university anyway. So I became an amateur astronomer.
What year was this?
This would be 1924. In 1927 I returned to New Zealand and by that time I had left school and finished at Scot’s College in Sydney. Then I formed the Variable Star Section of what was then the Astronomical Society of New Zealand (it didn’t carry the title ‘Royal’ at that stage). I have directed the variable star section ever since that’s almost 60 years now. During that time, somehow, I formed the very nebulous idea that someday -- I had no idea how -- I might have the opportunity of giving to the young people of New Zealand the opportunities that I lacked in having professional training in astronomy. This idea gradually grew. Over the years I collected data on New Zealand weather conditions in all the districts. I went on observing variable stars, and gradually got sore deeply involved in it. When I was last in the U.S. to receive the amateur award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I said how I owe a great debt to the American astronomers, particularly Harlow Shapley, who did so much to encourage me at that particular time, and so did Leon Campbell, who was then running the sister organization, the AAVSO. I continued to observe and publish the results and gradually built a band of similarly oriented people around me. Then the War came, and I joined the New Zealand Navy.
I had been a volunteer navigational instructor for the New Zealand Air Force before the War. I was called up, found to be unfit for overseas service; they said thank you very much, we don’t want you. I was then accountant in the Whangerei Harbor Board. The Navy, rather naturally, had no base there, so if they wanted to know shipping movements, who else would they ring but the Harbor Board. It fell to my lot to do that work. Eventually, I was working practically full tile for the Navy, and being paid by the Harbor Board. So they rang me up and asked if I would like to go into uniform, and I said yes, I had volunteered but nobody wanted me. And that’s how I got into the Navy. I’ve never been promoted so fast in my life. The first day I was ordinary seaman Bateson. Next day I was able seaman. The third day I was leading seaman. The fourth day I was petty officer. The fifth day I became chief petty officer in charge of the Navy Auxiliary Patrol. The following day I became chief petty officer and the last day I became Naval Officer in charge of Whangerei Naval District. That position I held throughout the war. After the War I had an offer of a position in the Cook Islands to manage a very large trading concern. I knew nothing of the Pacific Islands I knew nothing of Island trading, but we took the job. My wife, family, and myself went to Rarotonga when I was still on discharge leave in March, 1945. We spent 17 years in the Cook Islands, and also knew Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga very well. We ended up as not only managing director of a very large privately owned trading concern (the family that owned it lived in New Zealand and the business was up to me), but I also became the sole European elected member of the Legislative Assembly when we were teaching the Polynesians self-government, readying them for taking over their own territory.
During all this time I continued observing. I had purchased an 8-inch refractor, a Grubb built in 1882 by Grubb Parsons. It had formerly belonged to John Tebbutt of Windsor. It passed from him to others and I bought it from an estate. This was erected in Rarotonga on the grounds of my home and I did a tremendous amount of observing there. I also used to show the Polynesians objects from time to time, and I learned a tremendous amount about Polynesian navigation and customs, so much so that I was able to lecture at the Morrison Planetarium on this particular subject. I also later purchased, with a view toward its use in New Zealand, a 16-inch reflector from England. During the course of this time, various people seemed to appreciate the work I was doing, so they got me to write and then inserted a note in the International Astronomical Union circulars suggesting that anyone with a large telescope should lend it to me to aid my work. This was mainly done by Professor Hoffmeister of Germany, and the result was that Brad Wood wrote me from the University of Pennsylvania offering me an 18 inch refractor. I had to point out to Brad in a letter that an 18-inch refractor required a rather large dome. It wasn’t exactly what you kept in the back yard, but I thought it was a very good idea as a nucleus of a professional observatory in New Zealand.
This was a telescope that had been used at the University of Pennsylvania?
Yes. At that stage, he suggested coming to the states and talking it over. I had to reply that New Zealand was in one of its periodic economic doldrums, and that the government would only grant a sum of 400 pounds (as it was in those days) for a tour of the States, and I would not travel without my wife, and they would allow 100 pounds for her. Brad said, in effect, that’s alright, we’ll arrange a lecture tour for you. He took off for Australia and Professor Bennendike arranged the lecture tour. Notices were sent out and people wrote to me or to Bennendike, and eventually I think it was a nine month lecture tour of the States that was arranged. I took off in 1957 from the islands on extended leave. The tour, briefly, was to take me through Canada, from Vancouver to Ottawa, then through the States on the Eastern seaboard, down to Virginia, the Leander McCormick Observatory, back up through the Midwest to Yerkes and then across to California down to Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar, and then back to San Francisco from which we were to sail. At that stage I had grave doubts as to whether I had anything that would be of interest to the professional astronomers that I was supposed to talk to.
The people in Canada, particularly at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and again at the David Dunlap Observatory, were so kind and encouraging that I could tell them things that I thought they had long forgotten, but they never knew, and this gave me enough competence to tackle the more extensive tour of the States, where I lectured at many universities and observatories and to physics classes, public lectures, and so on. This was how we made our way through the States. Everywhere I discussed New Zealand in season and out of season. I tried to absorb all that I could. I looked at every instrument possible and discussed all the problems. Eventually, about half way through the tour I landed in Washington. I had a very enjoyable visit to the Naval Observatory, where I again discussed New Zealand and its problems. I also called on the National Science Foundation and told them about New Zealand and what it offered, why it was a good place to observe the southern sky from, and the fact that had political stability compared to most of the South American or South African countries.
Incidentally, I was in Washington at the time Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited with President Eisenhower, and I had the pleasure of watching the parade from outside the White House. We decided later we would join the queue going in to shake President Eisenhower’s hand on his birthday, but when we found that the queue snaked around about six blocks we gave it up. We went on our way, and I must say that, practically without exception, American astronomers gave me every encouragement, every possible advice and help, a fact that I have never forgotten. People who were particularly eminent like Harlow Shapley, with whom I had a lot of correspondence, got me to substitute for himself in delivering an after dinner speech in Amherst and gave me a lot of help. And so it was throughout the country. When I got to Palomar, they said we’ll arrange a trip for you to Palomar. I said I don’t want to see Palomar, I said I can learn more by talking to you people here. They were so taken aback, I think, that during my stay there I went to bed every night with my head just throbbing, because I had spent the morning with Edison Petit, the afternoon with Alfred Joy, and I couldn’t absorb another fact if they tried to cram it into my head.
Again, it was a marvelous experience. I returned to San Francisco, where Donald Shane, who had been away when we were at the Lick Observatory (where I was given observing time), drove up from the far South (he had been in Arizona, I think) particularly to give Doris and I our farewell dinner at Frisco. That lasted over four hours, and established, as I did with many American astronomers, a lifetime friendship. I came back to Rarotonga, where I sat down and used my accounting ability to write various proposals as to the establishment of a professional observatory in New Zealand. These were all costed out. I sent them to people like Donald Shane, Van Biesebroek, Jack Heard at David Dunlap, and so on. When I got back their comments, I typed the final form and sent it off to Pennsylvania, who took it as it was written and sent it off to the National Science Foundation. The NSF then gave a grant to Pennsylvania for site testing in New Zealand on the condition that I took charge. At that time I had a very lucrative position in the islands. I practically could write my own salary, dictate my own terms, and was considered an eminent citizen being the European member, which entitled me to a Gold pass, free travel in New Zealand, and a seat on the floor in Parliament as a guest when I came to New Zealand. It was tempting to stay; I would have been much better off if I had, but I took the opportunity of living my dreams.
So I resigned, much to the disappointment of my employers, who had expected me to stay for life, and I came back to New Zealand on leave at first in 1959. I did some of the survey then, and in January 1960 I left the islands on one of the Matson ships bound for Auckland. The farewell to me from the islands was absolutely tremendous. When I boarded the Matson liner, I was able to give a lei to every passenger and crew member aboard that ship at their Polynesian dance that night. I think I can claim to be very well regarded in the Pacific islands. Coming to New Zealand we had our home, which we had originally purchased in Tauranga purely as a holiday home, because I used to come up for about five months every couple of years, three months holiday and two months business. One gets very tired living out of suitcases, and we wanted someplace where we could rest our heads a little bit and also a place for our family of two girls when they were on holiday from school or college. So that’s how we had a home in Taraunga, never contemplating we would live here.
Before we go on with what I take is a new period in your career, could I ask some questions about what you have said so far? Going all the way back to Sydney, how did your association begin there. Were you a student?
No, I was a lad at the Scot’s College in Sydney.
Were you born in Sydney?
No, I was born in Wellington, New Zealand. I lived there with my mother (my father died when I was 2 years old). We left for Sydney because the home was burnt. My father was a typical New Zealand settler of those days, the upper class English gentleman who had come to New Zealand. He had a very prominent business position in Wellington, was a founder of the Wellington Racing Club and the Heretaunga Golf Club. He had a very large estate at Trentham. We had a 14 room house with servants and all that, a hangover from England, and a golfer’s cottage, fifty acres of grounds, tennis courts, golf course and so on. Unfortunately this was burned to the ground, and the doctor suggested my mother might benefit by a spell in Australia, and that’s how we went to Australia, because my brother, who was a very well known historian, was living in Sydney. Because I was a reader, I got Sir Robert Ball’s book on Lives of Great Astronomers from the Sydney library. I read this and was interested in what they had done. So I borrowed the few other books the Sydney Library had on astronomy. Having read those I went up to the Sydney Observatory on one of their public nights and after a couple of visits got up the courage to ask whether they had any books on astronomy. They said you can get those at Sydney library. I said, yes, I’ve read those, and they must have asked me some questions and being satisfied that I had read them, they lent me some books. And they gave me a small hand held telescope, about two inch aperture. I erected an observatory out of packing cases in the back yard of where we lived in Sydney, and I examined every star, drew all the constellations, and that’s what started me off.
So your first instrument was one lent to you by the Sydney Observatory.
And who were the people there who influenced you?
Professor Cooke, who was director of the Sydney Observatory, his two chief assistants, Mr. Raymond and Mr. Raynor, Walter Gale who was a very prominent amateur astronomer and who was the discoverer of several comets. The latter had his large observatory, he was a retired bank manager with a lot of money. Father Piggott of the Riverview Observatory, later succeeded by Dan O’Connell. Professor Van Wilier, who was head of the Physics Department at Sydney. They were the people who encouraged me. And a chap named Richardson, who was then the director of the BAA Variable Star Section.
What was your next instrument after the two inch?
The next instrument was the historic one over there. When I returned to New Zealand in 1927 I bought that for 19 guineas. It’s a 3 inch refractor on an alt-azimuth stand. I suppose I’ve only kept it for sentiment. Purchased it in Wellington.
How long did you use that one?
I used it from 1927 to just before the outbreak of war, twelve or thirteen years. After that it was occasionally used, but its really just an historical property.
After that what was the next instrument?
The eight inch Grubb refractor.
I take it, then, that you had no formal education in astronomy?
None at all, I’M purely self-taught.
I suppose the state of astronomy at that time was very primitive. Were there any observatories at all in New Zealand then?
Yes, there was the Wellington City Observatory, which consisted of the 9 inch refractor, which had belonged to Father Kennedy of Green Meadows, a Jesuit seminary in Hawkes Bay. The Wellington City Council had purchased this and erected it in the Botanic Gardens at Kelburn overlooking the city of Wellington in a sliding roof shed. There was also the Dominion Observatory, which was run by Dr. C.E. Adams. He was the government seismologist. His main responsibility was to keep track of earthquakes, run the tire service. If he had time left over and wanted to do astronomy, he could. If he didn’t, nobody worried. It wasn’t really part of his job. It wasn’t an astronomical observatory as we think of it. The Wellington City telescope used to be open for public evenings once a week manned by volunteer amateurs like myself. Those that ultimately were considered by Dr. Adams to use the telescope could use it for their own programs on the other nights and in return would give the public lectures and attend to the public on the public night. I used the 9 inch quite frequently at that stage. There were one or two amateur observatories in New Zealand, one at Wanganui manned purely by amateurs. There had been a number of very distinguished amateur astronomers. John Grigg, for instance, the discoverer of three comets; comet Grigg, comet Grigg Hellish, and Grigg Skellerup. He was also one of the first to take a photograph of comet Halley in 1910. I’m actually working on his history at the present time. I’ve just gotten the family history from a member of the family, his great-great grandson. There was also Westland, who discovered a comet or two. There was Professor Bickerton at the University of Canterbury, a rather eccentric Professor of chemistry, who had the partial impact theory, which was taken up by Charlie Gifford, a maths master at Wellington College, a man who spent most of his time publicizing astronomy. But there was no professional astronomy.
What does the partial impact theory refer to?
It relates to the formation of stars, and also the formation of lunar mountains. It’s discarded these days, but was in great vogue at that time. There was no professional astronomy whatsoever, no teaching of astronomy whatsoever. This is the reason for the ambition that I formed.
Did Halley’s comet in 1910 have any effect on astronomy in New Zealand?
There was an abortive attempt to form an astronomical society in Auckland at that time. I don’t think it had much effect, except that people looked at it, of course, much the same as they did the world over. I don’t think a lot of them had gotten out of the awe stage at that time.
Do you have any memories of Halley?
No, I was too small. I was born in 1909, so I was only one year old. So I could hardly remember Halley’s comet. But I give a lot of lectures -- at the University of Waikato in particular in their continuing education program at Gisborne, Rotorua, Taupo, Tauranga, Hamilton, and so on -- I have found many people who can give very vivid accounts of Halley’s comet in 1910. They are quite elderly now, but it must have made a tremendous impact on them. Their memories are very vivid of having been taken outside, usually by their parents, to gaze at this.
I hope to do the same for my two next year.
When I came back to New Zealand, my wife and I did the survey of New Zealand. I knew the districts to go to. My wife said “I’ll do the driving if you do the climbing.” I started in the district in which I lived, the Bay of Plenty, looking at all likely spots. Then I went to Poverty Bay and Hawkes Bay, which were the only districts worth considering in the North Island. After having investigated on-the-spot various places, I would arrange, either with local people like engineers or local amateur astronomers to keep a record of the cloud over any likely peak, and send this to me at regular intervals. We then moved on to the South Island. I had already the previous year been to Blenheim and found that there was quite an interest in assisting anything there. I went up Black Birch, then I moved over to Nelson and investigated mountains in the Nelson province. From there I went down to South Canterbury, including Mt. John and then into central Otago. From central Otago I went down to Dunedin because there was a Professor Mark at the University of Otago who had established a number of self-recording weather stations along some of the central Otago ranges, and of course I wanted to get his results. The Meteorological Service was very helpful to me; they gave me whatever records they had, which in essence were none. We discussed likely places, but they couldn’t improve on what I had found. When this preliminary survey was completed, I then settled down on Black Birch in a hut which was 18 by 10 feet. The only water supply was in a 200 gallon galvanized iron tank. The locals did everything possible; they erected a temporary shelter, or a sliding roof shelter, not temporary, to house the small instruments I was using for site testing. These cane on loan from the U.S. Naval Observatory and I understand were the ones they had used themselves when testing in the southern part of the States.
Were these 5-inch Clark refractors?
We still have some of those back in Washington. Those were the 5-inch refractors used for the Transit of Venus expeditions, one of them to New Zealand back in 1874.
They were also used, I was told, for the testing before you erected your station in Arizona, and that’s why we had them.
How did you pick Black Birch to start with?
When I started the preliminary survey, I had already selected from my knowledge all the likely mountain peaks in the districts in which I considered there was a reasonable chance of finding a reasonable site.
How did you do that?
I had to reason from my long collection of weather data. I had to reason from conditions on the lower country, because there were no records of weather from the high country. My reason for selecting Black Birch as a starting point was very simple. As I told you, I spent 17 years in the tropics, during which I had never had a winter, nor had my wife. I was fairly certain that any site of value would be in the South Island. I didn’t want to miss anything and that’s why I started in the North looking at all the likely peaks. Black Birch happened to be the most northern of the likely sites, and therefore in my reasoning, would at least be the warmest. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. A1so I was influenced by the fact that the Carter Observatory -- which had been formed just before the War from the old Wellington City Observatory and under a bequest which had been left in the 1880s for an astronomical observatory in or near Wellington -- had to send a party across to Blenheim some years earlier. There had been site testing done for Yale Observatory when they were going to put a telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
Is that the one that eventually ended up in El Leoncito, Argentina?
Yes. This had fallen down on parochial grounds; all the districts had started to fight as to which should have it. And Yale said “to hell with you, we’ll go somewhere else”. I had these records. I had the records of Dr. Gow, who had done some site testing in central and North Otago; of Alan Crust, who had gone to the Meteorological Office. He was an amateur astronomer who on his rounds had done quite a lot of site testing for a few nights only in the South Island. I had all those; I had every record that had ever been made. The records established by Mr. Begg from Dunedin, who had also tested a few sites. These were fragmentary but were at least of use, and Blenheim people had expressed an interest in helping. They were keen to get anything for their district and this too influenced me in going there. The arrangements we made were that we established very good relationships with the people of Blenheim, and particularly Frank Smith, who unfortunately I think has now passed on. Frank undertook to run a landrover service up the mountain once a week bringing mail and supplies, I think largely influenced by the fact that he wanted to make certain Doris and I were alright. Doris came and settled down with me to make certain that I would look after myself. The local people erected this shelter that I mentioned earlier for the testing telescope -- purely voluntary. I wasn’t long on the mountain before I realized there would be difficulty getting from the living hut to the observing site, so I had erected a line of snow poles with road reflectors on them, because when a sudden fog comes down, by the time you shut up it cars be very difficult to get back. I had to remember that apart from when my wife Doris was with me, I was alone. If I had a mishap I had to get out of it myself. Nobody would know about it until a week or fortnight later, so I had to take every precaution.
Was the road there at that time?
No. There was no road, there was no power. There was a track which really had been used by the Marlborough Catchment Board. It was a rough track. In fact, most people couldn’t take it in the landrover -- the turns were particularly tight. You must realize that at this stage the National Science Foundation had given the grant. I didn’t know this till later, but they had given it on political grounds, not on scientific grounds. They were frightened that some politician would suddenly say to them “you’ve tested in South Africa, you’ve tested in South America, you’ve tested in Australia, why haven’t you tested in this little country which is so friendly with America, called New Zealand?” They gave the grant for one year. This was enough to pay very limited expenses, and also to pay a salary to me at about one twentieth of what I had been receiving in the islands. So I settled down on Black Birch, and for a year I only cane down from the mountain on one occasion. I worked all night, no matter what the weather was. I started the meteorological observations I had established with the aid of the Meteorological Service of New Zealand -- a Meteorological station there. I would read the recorders at 9 am and every three hours thereafter, and right through the night, no matter what the conditions were, whether a blizzard or anything else. If it was fine or partly fine, I would observe, and you have seen the details in the report that I did. I would still read the weather instruments every three hours during the night. I must have been crazy, but never mind.
The records were such that Pennsylvania put in an additional application for a grant. The National Science Foundation gave a bigger grant at that stage, which enabled me to employ assistants. I advertised throughout New Zealand for young men willing to share the rigors of the Antarctica, without going there, and calling for those who were interested in a challenge to adventure. I received I don’t know how many hundreds of applications throughout the country. Eventually I sorted these down and I was fortunate in getting a team of the finest young men you could find anywhere. Nothing daunted them. I also had the advantage that sore amateur astronomers would volunteer their services to help during the school holidays or when they had holidays from work. So with this I was able then to have a look at other sites.
First I had to train the young men who had been engaged. They knew nothing about astronomy except one, Howard Nightingale, who was Australian three or four years older than the others, who averaged about 18 to 20 years of age. He had astronomical knowledge, but the others had none at all. I had to teach them how to read the weather instruments and everything, and I would do the testing, except for Howard. And I went off and investigated Nelson. I arranged with the Nelson people to erect a living hut on Mt. Malita. Eventually I was able to send Howard Nightingale across there to do the testing. Somewhere about this stage -- without looking up my diaries I can’t note a definite date -- but at the beginning of this second phase, I explained to the people of Blenheim who had been helping me that one would have to have a permanent station on Black Birch against which to measure any other site. It was no use my leaving Black Birch and going off to Mt. Malita or somewhere, because I’d never know how they compared. Frank Smith and the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club arranged to have a meeting in the Borough Council Chambers in Blenheim, to which came the general public, the representatives of all the local bodies -- the Marborough Catchment Board, the Power Board, the Awatere County Council, and so on -- throughout the area.
I addressed them and was very careful to state that I could make no promises whatsoever, that we wanted to establish a permanent station during the period of testing on Black Birch. For this purpose we needed better living conditions than the 18 by 10 foot hut in which there was an old wooden stove whose smoke usually came inside, not out. The ice formed on the inside of the hut. And one day I had to dig my way out during a blizzard because it was completely blocked. I explained that these conditions were not good enough, and particularly now as I had assistants. We wanted the road, we wanted power, and I said I could not promise them anything. The result of that meeting was that they volunteered to put the road up. The farming community would send me a message to say that this week they were not using their tractor and hired hand, and would come along with so many drums of diesel to do what we liked with. When I saw where the surveyors (who were giving their services for nothing) were going to put the road, I said to my very distinguished friend with me at the time, Admiral Collins from Australia, “they’ll never put a road there”. But they did. And this was entirely voluntary. The power line was elected entirely voluntarily. Every weekend there would be gangs of 60 or 70 people aged between 16 and 65 came out to the mountain to dig the power pole holes. I helped too. I know how hard it was -- some we had to blast, we couldn’t dig them. The people from the power Board gave their services for nothing to string the lines. And that’s how power and roads first case to the mountain. It was a wonderful community effort, and it proved what I had stated in the States, that if New Zealanders took to a project would take their coats off and do something about it. We Maintained Black Birch, then, until the end of the testing period, and used this to compare the measurements from the other sites. At this stage I could leave it. I went down, as I said, to Nelson, to Mt. John, and on to central Otago. For central Otago I had instructions from Brad Wood that unless the site we could find there was markedly better than any other site, we had better forget because it was very obvious that the logistic problems in central Otago would cost a lot more money than they would in any other place.
What kinds of logistic problems?
The distance a road would have to be made, the remoteness of any selected site. I’d always contended that ultimately if you established an observatory, married men and families would be involved, and you had to think in terms of schools, you’ve got to think in terms of medical facilities, access during winter. I had had one experience on a mountain in central Otago. I had been considered to be lost -- we weren’t, we were only stuck in a creek -- and I knew that many of these mountains were inaccessible in the winter, except by helicopter if the weather cleared. Accidents can happen. You’ve always got to think how you can get a person out of a situation. After all, I knew at that stage I was responsible for the lives of the young men working under me, and I realized that in any established observatory, these problems would be more important. For that reason the cost in central Otago would be much higher, and that was the reason for Brad Wood’s directive. He also asked me if I could interest a University in New Zealand in joining a cooperative venture. I was of course familiar with what interest the various universities in New Zealand had in astronomy. I had been associated with a Professor in Auckland in Physics who had quite an interest in astronomy -- had students in astronomy. Wellington had no interest -- that’s the University of Victoria.
Canterbury had an interest inasmuch as Cliff Elliot and Colin Keay and those working under them were doing radar observations of meteors and had a general observational interest. Otago had a vague interest, but problems arose that if you were going to cross university boundaries you were bound to strike the usual New Zealand parochial bickering. I selected Canterbury and a meeting was arranged with the vice chancellor, who was Dr. Pownall. Because of the difficulty of synchronizing his movements and mine, it was arranged that this meeting was held at the Christchurch airport. He was accompanied by Professor Elliott and the registrar Mr. Turbott. I was alone and put the proposition to them, and they said, yes, they would commit the university, they were interested, on the condition that they would give us all moral support and no financial assistance whatsoever. I reported this back to Brad. When he came out on a subsequent visit we went to Christchurch and this was sealed then with the university in a formal agreement and on the same basis. At that stage no site had been found.
Was that about 1962?
Yes, he came out about 1962. He made two or three visits. He came out not long after I had received the first tentative inquiry from the U.S. Naval Observatory as to whether there was any likely site. I think Brad actually brought this letter out to New Zealand.
There was interest by the Naval Observatory that early?
Who was that from?
I couldn’t say, I’d have to look it up in my diary. The upshot of all this was that in, I think Christmas 1962 I had advice that the grant would run out the following year. The University of Pennsylvania wanted to know what I would recommend, what the prospects were, whether there was a site I considered good enough. I retired from the site testing, leaving it to the boys who used to report to me in Christchurch. We took a flat in Christchurch, and I spent I think about eight weeks writing up all the records, comparing them, deciding what was what. The result was the preliminary report on the site testing of New Zealand that you’ve seen in the astronomical series of the University of Pennsylvania, which incidentally they didn’t have the money to print, so I had to type the whole damn thing. I recommended Mt. John -- You’ll see the reasons in that report. Black Birch would be my own personal preference -- always was -- because of the marvelous response of the district. Not that the other districts didn’t respond, but they weren’t quite as forthcoming as the people of Blenheim or Marlborough. Finally, I recommended Mt. John, and both universities agreed with this. Then we held a press conference in Lake Tekapo, I think about June 30, 1963, where the official announcements of all the universities were made, and of course all the reporters flocked down to see me and ask silly questions. When the hullabaloo was over, both universities said in effect, we’d like you to build the Observatory. We have no money. Pennsylvania said we can send you the 18 inch refractor, we can send you the Cook astrograph, and we’ll continue to pay you a salary, which as I’ve said was about 20 times less than I was drawing in the Islands, and “please build an observatory”.
On Mt. John?
On Mt. John -- they had accepted the recommendations. They had also sent out Professor Protheroe. Brad and I had fallen out a bit inasmuch as I was also chairman of the National Committee for Astronomy in New Zealand, which I had been largely responsible for starting. In the course of this I had written a report, which was approved of course by all members of the committee, but I had largely written it, in which I said that New Zealand would have to contribute in a major way to any professional observatory and the teaching of astronomy. We couldn’t rely on the generosity of America. Brad unfortunately took great exception to this, I don’t know why. At any rate Protheroe came out from Pennsylvania -- largely he was a hit man. He contended that we shouldn’t hang on to Black Birch. I had always contended that Black Birch would be used, and we should keep it.
What do you mean by that?
Well, we had the right to use it at that stage, the buildings there, and why just go away and leave it? You can mothball things and they can become very important. At any rate he decided to dispose of it, and he’s been proved wrong, which is satisfactory to me, but that’s by the way. Having gotten the approval of the University to build the Observatory -- and as I’ve said, nobody had any money to do anything with -- the question became, how do I get money to build an observatory? This was where my Island experience proved invaluable, because having been the European politician in the Islands, I knew my way around politically, and as I said, when I came to New Zealand, I was entitled to a seat on the floor of the House as a distinguished visitor. I went up to Wellington. The University of Canterbury would not sign a grant application. I had contended that the only way to raise this money was to get it from our lottery funds -- the Golden Kiwi. At that stage Universities would not draw any money from the lottery, they considered this indecent. I didn’t. So I got the McKenzie County council to support this -- the application was signed by the McKenzie County Council and myself.
This was an application to …?
The Golden Kiwi for funds to build the Observatory.
The Golden Kiwi is run by the Government?
Well, yes. I went to the University grants Committee. The head was then Professor Lewellyn, who had been the vice chancellor at the University of Canterbury before Dr. Pownall took that position, and Lewellyn moved to the grants committee. He arranged that I should see the various ministers. I saw the Minister of Science and got a very favorable reception. He said, well, really I think this is a matter that comes under the jurisdiction of my colleague, the Minister of Education.
Do you remember the name of the Minister of Science at that time?
No. I’d have to look in my records. At any rate, I then saw the Minister of Education. I should explain that I had a very good friend, Alan Dick, who was the local member of Parliament for the district in which Mt. John is situated. He was taking me around. The Minister of Education also gave me a very favorable hearing, and said yes, it deserved a lot of support, but this is a matter for his colleague, the Minister of Lands. So I saw the Minister of Lands, and I also got a favorable reception. And he said, yes, this deserves some thought, but I think that’s for my colleague, the Minister of Science. So we were getting nowhere fast. So I went back to the grants committee with Alan Dick. With the knowledge I had of politics, I realized that if the Ministers could be got off the hook, we could get their support wholeheartedly. So I suggested to Lewellyn that the best way would be if he and Alan Dick could arrange for me to meet the three Ministers together, I would suggest that if they supported an application to the Golden Kiwi, this would settle the matter, realizing that the politicians then had no responsibility, they only had to put their signature on it.
So Alan Dick arranged this meeting, Lewellyn was present as advisor to the Minister -- he was on the other side, if you understand, officially. And they read the paper. You’ve got 5 minutes to put your story across, try not to take any longer, he told me. And I simply put it to them. Would they support this application? They all agreed, because as I said it got them off the hook, they didn’t have to think of any money from their own particular budget. So we went back then with Lewellyn. And his secretary said to me “You’re too good a salesman to turn down”. Lewellyn said, we’ve got to get the University of Canterbury to sign this application for the Golden Kiwi. I said, well I’ve asked, and I can’t get them to sign it. He got on the phone while I was beside him. Pownall was away at the time overseas, so he spoke to the acting vice chancellor I think it was Prof. Packer. And he told him he had to sign this application, and if he did so the money would be forthcoming, he was fairly certain of that. And I spent a week in Wellington doing this, then I went back to Mt. John and it wasn’t long before I got a ring from Canterbury, would I come up and see them? When I got there; they said we’re going to sign this, want do you want us to say. I said, just put your signature there, we’ll take mine off. They signed it. They did make one or two minor alterations. It was submitted to Wellington. The Golden Kiwi gave a grant; I think from memory it was the largest grant they had given at that stage -- I’ve forgotten the figure -- I think it worked out at about 30,000 pounds, but it could have been more, I’d have to check that. The University of Canterbury then said OK, you got the grant, you build the observatory. I must say they were very good in that way.
The application had been entirely written by you?
Yes. The grant was forthcoming, and I set about building the observatory, and that’s how it came into being. The point about that is that in building things you have to put your neck out at times. It’s very awkward to work with one University so many tens of thousands of miles away not knowing the conditions in the country, and another one that is really pleased to be associated with it, but didn’t want to get involved at that stage. And so naturally I did some things that possibly weren’t the wisest, but eventually it got the observatory built, which was the main thing. Pennsylvania then arranged to send two students, usually PhD students, out to Mt. John each year to get observational data for their PhD thesis. This was made possible because of the 16 inch reflector which I had bought years before for the purpose of using it in New Zealand at a professional observatory.
What happened to the 18 inch refractor?
The 18 inch was sent out, and there were no funds to erect this huge building, and it’s still sitting in the packing cases at the top of Mt. John at this very moment. The astrograph we erected, and Donald Shane came out to start the similar program to the Lick program of galaxies. We engaged Alan Thomas, a young New Zealander, as a photographer, and he was to take the plates. Donald Shane trained him to do this, and that was the start of the Canterbury Sky Atlas. After a few years Canterbury got interested, mainly as a result of these reports written when I was chairman of the National Committee for Astronomy in New Zealand, where we recommended to the Government that the teaching of astronomy should be based at the undergraduate level at one university only in New Zealand, the University of Canterbury. These reports had the advantage that they were made to the Royal Society of New Zealand. This entitled them to be laid on the Table at the House. In other words, you couldn’t hush them up, whereas reports from the Royal Astronomical Society could go in the convenient pigeonhole and nobody would take any notice. Again, this was the advantage of political knowledge. So that really wrapped up the observatory.
So the grant that you succeeded in getting was only for the actual building?
I could do what I liked with it. It paid for the telephone line to come up, the electric power, put in the road (although that was mainly by the MacKenzie County Council with volunteer labor). A certain amount of diesel oil had to be paid to put up the buildings.
But it couldn’t maintain the observatory, or a staff?
How many staff were there at the beginning?
Only me. I was able to keep one assistant for a time, and that was Pennsylvania’s total commitment, plus a small amount for postage, etc. But of course when we got this second grant from the National Science Foundation after the first year I was also able to purchase our own land rover, which was a great advantage, because as I pointed out, you couldn’t rely on a friend to take you from Black Birch to Mt. John or Mt. Malita or central Otago. And so out of that grant I was able to get a land rover. Up to then I had been entirely dependent on transport purely by the kindness of Frank Smith.
So the University of Pennsylvania never really considered Black Birch as a site, is that true?
No. They visited it, but when I put in the report and made the recommendation that Mt. John was preferable, that was it, they accepted it.
But you said you wanted to hold on to Black Birch.
Yes, I wanted to hold on because I could see that astronomy in New Zealand was going to develop. Maybe I was dreaming, but I didn’t think so, therefore there would be other people wanting sites, like the Carter Observatory, as it turned out. Murray Lewis, the Director of Carter, used my report, came over here and had discussions with me and decided to move the telescope. It was a sensible move -- Wellington is useless for an observatory. I pointed out to him the objections to Black Birch that I had, the same as I did to Dr. Hughes when we had a talk in Auckland. He said he didn’t mind if it took ten years, and I said in that case, that’s on your head. Paralleling this, I was also the chairman of the National Committee for Astronomy. We persuaded the Royal Society of New Zealand to join the IAU. I had been a member of Commission 27 (Variable Stars) of the IAU many years before, but New Zealand did not adhere to it. In 1964 the meeting at Hamburg was the first time that New Zealand adhered to the IAU. The Royal Society had agreed that I should be the first official representative from New Zealand to the IAU. I think the grant would have paid my fare from Wellington to the U.S., not to Hamburg. Pennsylvania paid some, and I earned some by lecturing in the States. What actually happened was, there was a total eclipse of the Sun visible only from two islands in the Pacific, one in the French Society group, and the other an island called Manuae in the Cook group.
I happened to know Manuae like you would know your own house, very intimately, because during my time in the Cook Islands I had managed this island as a copra plantation as part of our business. I visited it many times. I used to visit it twice a year to lay out the work for the next six months. It was two islands separated by a lagoon. As I’ve often written in my various papers, it was everything that Hollywood has taught people a tropical island should be, except there were no women. The government had asked me to brief the various people who wanted to come to the South Pacific. There was a lot of political trouble at this time, inasmuch as the New Zealand government, first of all, was concerned. They were having a referendum in the Cook Islands as to what type of government they wanted. Did they want to be part of New Zealand, did they want to be completely independent, did they want New Zealand to look after defense and foreign affairs and keep supplying them with money? So they didn’t want outside influence. The first problem arose when the Japanese academy had written to the Royal Society in England and to me to see if anything could be done. They were trying to observe solar eclipses right around the 11 year cycle. They had applied to go to Manuae and had been turned down. They had previously sent an expedition to Pokapoka, also in the Cook group, about three years earlier. I went up to Wellington when I got this letter to see the politicians. They said we’re not going to allow anybody. I said you can’t do this. This is science, it’s international, and these events are unique, and you have to allow properly qualified scientists to come and make their observations.
Why would they not want to let them?
They had a number of unfortunate experiences in previous years, particularly one involving a New Zealand astronomer and astronomers from England had almost come to blows on a tropical island. As a result the government had visions that astronomers would create some international incident. The upshot of all this was that eventually they listened to me. They decided they would allow a Commonwealth expedition -- people from the British Commonwealth. I said this was not good enough, you have to allow other countries to come. And they said we’ll allow them to send someone along with the Commonwealth team. I said you can’t do that, they want to come on their own. In the Meantime the Commonwealth organization had come into being. I was elected the leader of it. We had meetings of the various departments in Wellington. Finally I brought this up again. And they said we can’t do it. And I said, OK, I want to see the Prime Minister. I said if I do not have an answer by this afternoon, I want an appointment with the Prime Minister, who was also Minister of Foreign Affairs. That was Keith Holyoke, whom I happened to know. So I arranged this, and by 2 o’clock the answer came back from the Prime Minister, that yes, they would allow national expeditions. So the Minister authorized me to brief foreign governments during my trip to Hamburg on what they should do in the Cook Islands, what they were expected to do, what they couldn’t do, and so on. I went to Boulder and they gathered up everybody on that side of the States. I addressed them there. They had the eclipse room already built there. I then went to Pennsylvania and they gathered everybody up on the Eastern Seaboard, including the State Department, and I addressed them there and answered all their questions. Then in the company of Brad Doris and I sailed on the America across to Hamburg.
So this was your second trip to the States, after the 1957 trip?
How long were you in the States this time?
Two months, en route to Hamburg, maybe six weeks. At Hamburg it had been arranged that I should address the IAU eclipse subcommittee. When I got there, this meeting was arranged and I went and addressed the eclipse subcommittee. I explained what the government wanted, what they had to do. Then they decided to call a second meeting when I got there. They said they wanted me to lead this, so I put on the board the points I wanted to bring out. The subcommittee in its wisdom, or lack thereof, decided I should be the overall leader of all the expeditions to Manuae. I explained to them that this may be so, but my government would never believe this -- they had better get the General Secretary to put this in official language and send it through diplomatic channels, which they did. During the meeting I also got a cable asking me to go back to the States, as the State Department wanted a further consultation. At that stage we had intended to come back to New Zealand via the East, but I suppose there are things you do for your country we put our country first and our personal desires last. So we flew back to New York. I had offered to go down to Washington, but they decided to send everybody up, with the result that a meeting was held at the New Zealand Consulate in New York. I answered all the questions again, and this was the basis on which all the various U.S. expeditions came to Manuae.
What year was that?
All of these arrangements were made in 1964 for the 1965 eclipse. I then came to Wellington, saw the government, said what I was going to do. I immediately flew back to Rarotonga, and then took the boat across to Manuae. I made all the arrangements on behalf of everybody, committed all the various national expeditions to the financial arrangements. I allocated the sites they would occupy. I should mention that the Americans couldn’t make up their minds as to what area they wanted. So I put them at one end of the line. I put the various English expeditions and the Japanese and New Zealand along the line. I put the Russians at the other end. Then I thought, well I’m not going to have anybody complaining that I built a Berlin Wall at Manuae. So when I arranged the living quarters I put the Russians and the Americans next door to one another. After making these arrangements I came back. In 1965 the New Zealand government put the HMNZS Endeavour, a survey ship, at our disposal. I went to Auckland and supervised the loaning of all the equipment and the stores for the Commonwealth expedition. I then went down to the Islands on this ship.
The government was still very frightened that they were going to have an international incident on their hands at this remote tropical island. So it was arranged that I should have a Naval wireless operator on shore with me, who would maintain schedules regularly throughout the day with the ship, which was due to visit the Society group on a courtesy visit and also some other islands. So when this international incident occurred I could call up all six marines on board to settle it. Professor Blackwell from the University of Oxford, who had been on 17 eclipse expeditions, said he had never seen one more harmonious than the one at Manuae. I think I can claim that the reason for this is that every morning I would go around to all the various sites and see if anybody wanted anything. If someone had something broken I would borrow it or get it made from one of the other expeditions. Everybody worked in absolute harmony. This can be shown that we brought out a newspaper on the island. The editor was an Englishman, the printer was a Polynesian, the cartoonist was a Russian, and everybody on the island contributed. The New Zealand government has also rather amusingly arranged that during the middle of this expedition -- we were on the island for a month -- the warship would return, and the commanding officer, resplendent in his best uniform, and myself, would then pay an official call on all the various expeditions. This was duly done. We entertained the commanding officer at lunch after I had taken him around to these other sites. We had a very wonderful cocktail party on board his ship later. And not to be outdone, the Russians then decided they would have a cocktail party on board their ship. I was the only one who had to remember I had to go to shore. The others all could stay on the ship. And this gave rise to a very amusing incident.
I was also authorized by the Government to act as their medical officer, their customs agent, their general factotum. As the ships arrived, I would go out to the ships in my canoe, clamber on board, and arrange these things. I have a lot of amusing stories about this; two may interest you. One was when the Russian ship arrived. I had been a bit worried. They were the ones who had not sent the money for what I had committed them to. They brought it all in brand new New Zealand notes. They gave me a wonderful reception on board when I went to clear the ship, after the formalities. I did have a Cook Islands Customs officer who had been given instructions to do precisely what I told him. This was the first time I had a Customs officer where I wanted him. He kept asking for the ship’s papers. I said, never mind, I’ll get them. When I eventually got them they were completely in Russian. With a deadpan face I handed them to him and said, there are your papers, do what you like with them. They gave me this party and in trying to make conversation there was the head of the expedition, Professor Petelin, the head of the Russian astronomical part, Professor Cneschev, and his wife. Also the Captain, of course. And the bloke, I didn’t know what he was called, but I eventually found out he was the Commisar, he had all the say, Alexander Povskiy. And the wife of Professor Cneschev after the first two toasts, one to the queen, one in reply to the Russians, refused any drink. I said to her, in our country you would be called a chicken. And from that day to this she is known as “chicken”. But when this other celebration was on, I was the one who had to get to shore. Without hesitation the Madam turned to me and said “you are a chicken too”. That was typical of the spirit we had built up.
I think I have only one claim to fame, and that is that I have said no to the Russians, and had them say “yes sir”, and accept it without question. After the expedition was over, there was a party given by the Polynesians. Before this the Russians wanted to show a film. And I scratched my head and thought well, the scientists won’t be taken in by any propaganda. The Polynesians will probably enjoy it, but they won’t understand it, so OK. It turned out to be a fascinating film. It was the life of their most famous ballerina. It certainly got me hooked on ballet. It was shown on a perfect tropical night, against a white wall in the open with the young moon gleaming on the palm trees, a gentle rustling of the trees, occasional cloud passing by, a perfect scene. Unfortunately, measles had broken out on some of the other islands, and this made it imperative there should be no contact between our warship which had visited the islands and the other members of the expedition. A number of the English party were to return by air because they could not be carried on the New Zealand warship, and I was making a visit to Rarotonga at the request of our Government, as a liaison officer with the Russian expedition, who were to make an official call on Rarotonga to thank the Cook Islands Government for allowing them to come. The Russians wanted to return to Manuae, and I said “No, you’re not coming back here when I’m not here”. And they said “Yes, sir”. That’s it, and that’s a bit of my claim to fame. The expedition was a great success. Unfortunately a huge black cloud came over at the wrong moment. Radio people got good results, the optical people didn’t. But it was a wonderful example of international cooperation in astronomy. There was no hitch whatsoever from the word go.
Have you been involved in other solar eclipse expeditions?
No, I’m not a solar man. I had originally said that I would only give this mountain life ten years. I actually gave it nine. I built the observatory at Mt. John, got it operational. We had in November i968 a terrific snowstorm. I was away attending the annual conference of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, which was held at Whakatane that year. I got a message from the technician who was the only other staff member at that time saying that there was six feet of snow, there was no power or anything, and that he had gone home to Ashburton. When I got back to the mountain the snow was still there, it was over the top of the windows of the living quarters. A few days later we got a terrific rainfall and everything went down the mountain. The road was completely washed out. There were large ruts and you couldn’t even get a landrover through them. I got in touch with Canterbury and said what are we going to do about it. They said they had no money for road repairs. So I gathered up everybody on the site, Americans and students. We went down and shoveled until we filled up the ruts. I got the McKenzie County Council to send their grader up gratis, and we repaired the road. It was probably a little much for me. I went to see the doctor, and he said if you get off the mountain) everything will be fine.
You were actually living there.
Yes. And he said if you stay there, that’s fine too, and we’ll carry you off. A nod’s as good as a wink, and so I resigned and left the mountain just before the 31st of October, 1969. I had given it nine years, and that was my 60th birthday. By that time I had the satisfaction that it was a going concern, the teaching of astronomy had commenced in New Zealand as I had visualized. There were some bright students, and my work was done. I came back to Tauranga, and have spent the rest of my life working in my field of variable stars, coordinating visual observations throughout the Southern Hemisphere, encouraging photoelectric work, helping people, and I generally seem to get busier every day.
What is your view of the present state of New Zealand astronomy? Are you happy with its progress?
Yes. Canterbury has made good progress. There are PhD students in other universities. Canterbury has turned out some very fine students at the PhD level, and also MSc. level. I would naturally like to see sore money put into astronomy. I’ve always said that there is a limit to the size of the instrument you can put up in New Zealand. A one meter telescope is about that limit. During my time at Mt. John Horace Babcock from Carnegie/Mt. Wilson came out. I’ve known him for many years. He had been testing in Australia, and he came across to test for the 100 inch for the Southern Hemisphere, the Carnegie instrument now in Chile. I told him that New Zealand did not justify an instrument of that size. The reason for this is that we are a long narrow country. Our weather is very changeable. The Maori name of Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” is very correct. We have a limited number of fine nights. We have a very limited number of photometric nights. We do have advantages, as Professor Bok always used to say when he visited me “There are the Magellan Clouds way up there”. You can’t get them better anywhere.
That’s one of the first things I noticed when I arrived.
You’ve got to be honest, and my advice has always been, no, we’re not the place for a large observatory. We have a reasonable amount of good sky, we have the advantage of the southern latitude, we have a friendly fairly stable country, despite all you hear about the All Blacks (rugby team) at the moment, stable politically. You have a country that’s democratic, similar to the States in many ways, even if we have assimilated some of the worst features of the States, as well as some of the best. But it’s not the place for a large observatory. The progress that has been made is very satisfactory. The progress that’s been made in my own field, where I must say that so many people regard me despite my lack of training, as a professional rather than an amateur, and I don’t mind what they call me -- we do work that is useful and important, perhaps in a minor way. I think New Zealand has made, and will continue to make, quite a contribution to international astronomy. I think we are going to see a great influx of people coming to see Comet Halley next year, which will help in focusing politician’s ideas on astronomy, which may help the budgetary position. But essentially, New Zealand is the real home of the amateur astronomer. If you stop to think, amateur astronomers throughout the ages have made one of the biggest contributions to astronomy as a group. There is a book being written now on which I have helped considerably -- it’s being produced in the States -- on the history of amateur astronomy, and I think you will find it particularly interesting.
Who is the author?
Tom Williams at Texas. It’s surprising how many New Zealanders have figured in amateur astronomy over the years.
Do you consider yourself a professional or amateur, or does it matter?
It doesn’t matter. You can call me what you like. I’m really an amateur. When I was at the workshop at Santa Cruz the last time I was in the States -- I’ve made now seven or eight visits to the States -- in giving me this award they said they didn’t know whether to call me a professional or an amateur. Just leave it at that. I’m quite a modest person. It’s difficult when you are asked to talk about yourself to say things, but I feel I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve lived my dreams. I’ve contributed something to astronomy, and that’s it.
You must be gratified by the status of Black Birch now also.
I am very pleased to see the Naval Observatory there. I still think that America owes me a trip under a grant. Actually I should have had one when I retired. The U.S. Embassy, which I’d worked with very closely because I always took the view that since the money I was being paid was U.S. money, it was my job to give then an outline of the progress that had been made. And I was told that they would put up a grant. This was scotched by Professor Kooch of the University of Pennsylvania because of this fallout I’d had with Brad Wood, which was unfortunate, but these things happen -- that’s life. But I still think that the States do owe me that trip. I doubt whether anybody realizes just how mad Doris and I must have been to do what we did for the sake of astronomy.
I didn’t realize that both of you had lived on Black Birch.
Oh, yes. She used to come up and stay. At first she made certain that I would get a hot meal. She would come back from time to time. The locals had said that it might snow occasionally, but it would soon melt. Well, we hadn’t been there three days when the water tank froze and no amount of bashing would ever free it. She did all her cooking with melted snow. She gathered the snow and melted it on a wood stove and of course she felt the cold very much. We had a lot of amusing experiences there with the keas, and so on.
They come back to visit us every once in a while. I took a whole roll of film of them just a few weeks ago of the keas.
They are very friendly. We had a little clothes line outside -- we would wash our clothes in a basin and hang them out and bring them in like boards. The keas got fascinated with this. They sort of swung on it, then they pecked at it, and finally chewed it to pieces. We got wire the next time. They tore the cover off the land rover and that sort of thing. It was all part of life.
Can I ask you about your publications. I know you have done a lot of publications during your lifetime. When did those begin and where did they appear?
The first observations were published in Sydney in about 1924 -- these were variable star observations. The first cycle style circulars that I produced of observations would be somewhere in the early 1930s, say 1930. In 1944, just toward the end of the war, I published the first memoir of the variable star section. The forward was written by Dan O’Connel, who became director of the Vatican Observatory and was then director of Riverview Observatory in Sydney. From then gradually the publications grew. I published a paper in the 1930s in Monthly Notices, a short one. There have been a number of articles in Sky and Telescope. I started the more formal publications of the Variable Star Section, to replace the circulars, in 1973. Before that I issued a manual for variable star observers, which has now gone through four editions, the last edition being 1983, and the first in 1929 or 1930. I published a long monogram in the New Zealand Science journal, in the Monthly Notices, and so on.
You have done quite a bit of popular writing also. I take it that you believe in the need to popularize the subject.
I’ve always been very strong on public relations and popularizing astronomy. I write monthly articles for three New Zealand newspapers, the Christchurch Press, the Rotorua Daily Post, and the Bay of Plenty Times. I lecture a lot for the University of Waikato in their Continuing Education at all levels. I try to keep public lectures down these days because the demand for my work in the variable star field is so tremendous that I just can’t keep up with it all. But Rotary clubs and Lions clubs and all these always want lectures.
The public always seem to have a fascination in UFOs. Do you believe in them?
You show me one, and I’ll believe it.
That’s what I always say too.
I don’t think there are such things. 96 % of the sightings you can explain as natural phenomena. There are a few that I’ve personally heard of that I cannot explain. It may just be something beyond my ken or insufficient details. I’ve had people draw perfect flying saucers that they claim to have seen. Not any here, but overseas.
Do you have an opinion on the recent Kaikoura sightings?
That was simply the typical effect that you probably have noticed from Black Birch, the large number of mirages that are visible from Black Birch. This was no doubt the Japanese fishing fleet out at sea, with an inversion layer and the lights. Naturally they will bob around, on the sea naturally they do.
Do you have an opinion on the possibility of life on other planets?
There is no life on other planets in the solar system. There is undoubtedly life elsewhere in the universe.
Why do you say undoubtedly?
I think that anybody who is egotistical enough to think that the Earth is the only place on which life has developed, wants their head read.
You must have a vast correspondence over the years. Have you saved all of that?
Yes, I’m a bit of a hoarder, I’m afraid. In my last annual report I think I said about 3500 letters passed out of here last year. This ranges from detailed data on observations to simple questions from the public or students seeking advice and so on.
Those would be very valuable for anyone wanting to do a history of New Zealand astronomy. What do you plan to do with those?
I’m supposed to be writing a history of New Zealand astronomy, but I never get very far. Everybody wants me to write at least the history of the last five or six decades. I have spent a lot of time on the history of John Grigg, which I’m just about to put into form. I’ve collected a lot of material on him, and if everything takes me as long as that, this history will never get written. It is a hope that I will be able to write it from the material that I have.
In any case I would like to encourage you to make sure those are preserved for future historians, if you don’t get around to it yourself.
Actually, all the accumulated letters are being left to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, which is our national library. All my diaries and things like that. I have written a book on the islands, it still has to be revised. I’ve had an interesting and fascinating life. I’m a great believer in trying to help young people, because I’ve never forgotten the help that I received when I was young, and the help I’ve always received from the States.
Have you done any work on the 1874 Transit of Venus expeditions here in New Zealand? Are there source materials for that? I’ve seen in the Otago newspapers at the time there is some information.
Yes, and there is some information at the Naval Observatory in Washington. There is information at various libraries, including I think the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It’s a matter of considerable research to get all that material. On John Grigg, I’ve got something like 14 pages of extracts from newspapers. That takes a lot of research. You have to go through a lot of papers, there is no index, and limited time.
It’s interesting that the history of New Zealand is so closely tied to the history of astronomy. After all, that’s the reason Captain Cook was down here, for the transit of Venus.
Yes, I have quite a bit on Captain Cook’s visit and the attempts to put up memorials there.
One last question. Your association with the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand -- how has that developed over the years -- were you one of the founders?
No, it existed as the Astronomical Society of New Zealand when I joined in 1927. Ivan Thomsen, Ronald Mcintosh were there. I said I was going to start a variable star section, and Ivan started a solar section and Ronald a meteor section. Ivan didn’t do such, he had an unfortunate time after the war as director of Carter -- he had no money and he didn’t have enough punch to go and seek it really. He did observe the Sun, but when I was on the Board of Carter, we never could get any results from him. Ronald did excellent work -- that has all been published and has become a standard reference for the Meteor showers of the Southern Hemisphere. I used to observe meteors -- the first two prizes I ever got were for meteor observations (from the Donovan Trust of New South Wales). Later it became the Royal Astronomical Society, and I just continued as director of the variable star section. I’ve been president and vice president and on the Council. I retired -- my last Council meeting was in Christchurch last year. I feel younger people should do this sort of work now. The Royal Astronomical Society has done quite a lot of good work. The conferences are worth attending. The publication Southern Stars would be much better if they had the money to publish in larger print. I don’t think these reduced print publications have the appeal that larger publications have. It has a source of funds inasmuch as it administers the Kingdom-Tomlison bequest, which has helped a lot of astronomers throughout the years. It has yet to get to the stage of having a paid staff, and that’s what it wants. Any successful astronomical society must have a paid, even if part time secretary, or treasurer, instead of being dependent on volunteers.