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Interview of S. Chandrasekhar by Kevin Krisciunas on 1987 October 6,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Reminiscences about Otto Struve while he was Director of Yerkes Observatory and chairman of the Astronomy Department at University of Chicago. Also, comments on the Nobel Prize, its affect on recipients; discussion of the value, beauty, and cultivation of science.
I'm here talking to Professor Chandrasekhar, first about his reminiscences about Otto Struve and then some questions about himself. You mentioned in your American Institute of Physics interview that it was at Kuiper's suggestion that Struve invited you to the University of Chicago. Had you met him before you came here to Chicago?
Yes, I did meet Struve before I joined the University of Chicago. Struve was on a visit to England during the summer of 1934. At that time I was a Fellow of Trinity and my room was on the third floor of Neville's Court. Struve had come to Cambridge to visit Eddington; and he had taken the occasion to call on me at my rooms in Trinity. I was not, in my rooms at that time; but he had left a note to that effect. In the note Struve expressed disappointment that he had missed me; but he left the address of the hotel in London where he was staying. I was so pleased that a person of Struve's distinction had called on me that I called him at his hotel in London and offered to visit him the following day if that was convenient to him. Struve welcomed the offer. When I met him at his hotel he asked me to stay for dinner, at which time I met Mrs. Struve. I do not recall any scientific discussion of substance. He did, however, express interest in my work on the theory of white dwarfs at. that time.
My impression of Struve at that time, which was later confirmed, was that Struve was always interested in the welfare of young scientists and that he felt the urge to make their acquaintance and perhaps encourage them in that way.
So when you came to Chicago, he already knew of you, and you mentioned that you knew of his work. Did he strike you as the same type of person once you got to Yerkes?
These are extremely difficult questions for me to answer. Not that my recollections of those days have faded — on the contrary, they are still very fresh in my mind — but rather that my attitude at that time to those whom I met in the West was very different from my attitude at a later time. And indeed, retrospectively I feel that I was too "innocent" and too naive to perceive reality as it was. As I have said to my close friends, my innocence was shattered during the early fifties. I need not go into the circumstances which changed my attitude. I should therefore express a warning that my recollections of those early years and the interpretations I placed on them at that time are not the same as I would now in retrospect.
Let me preface my remarks by describing the situation as I found it at. the end of my three-month visit to the United States during the winter of 1935-36. I think it was in March, 1936, that I had a letter from Struve inviting me to visit Yerkes; and informing me at the same time that he was thinking of offering me a faculty position at the University of Chicago and that I might think about that prospect in the meantime. (As I learnt later, Kuiper had first made that suggestion to Struve. At that time, Kuiper had already accepted the appointment as an Assistant Professor; and he was to join Yerkes later in the fall of 1936.) At Chicago, he had reserved a room for me at the International House. Struve drove me from the International House to Yerkes; and I was his house guest. I have distinct recollections of the extreme cordiality of Mary Struve and Otto Struve. During my visit to Yerkes I gave a colloquium on my then recent work on the theory of White Dwarfs. But my overwhelming impression was of the personal treatment accorded to me as the house guest of a famous director.
— you felt grateful to be so wanted, in other words.
No, I should not say that I felt that I was wanted. I was only grateful for the treatment that was accorded me. The distinction that I make here is an important one. Struve asked me, "Would you accept a position as a Research Associate at the University of Chicago tenable at the Yerkes Observatory?" He drove me back to Chicago and took me to see President Hutchins. At the meeting Hutchins, without much ado, directly offered me the position. Even in those days, for the president of a University to interview a candidate for the position of a research associate and to offer him that position is an extraordinary occurrence. But at that time it did not seem to me any more unnatural than to have been a house guest at the Struves!
Strüve kind of had Hutchins' right ear a lot of the time, though. They were pretty close for quite some time, weren't they?
I will return to your question presently; but let me continue the story of my appointment. On my return voyage to England on the Cunard liner Berengeria, I got a telegram from Hutchins offering me the position officially and asking for an early response. On my return to Cambridge I talked with some of my friends, Eddington and Fowler in particular. They recommended that I accept the Chicago offer and not the one from Harvard (at the Society of Fellows). And I sent a telegram to both Hutchins and Struve accepting the position.
There are some related facts that remain in my mind. After leaving Chicago and before embarking on the Berengeria, I visited Yale and Princeton. At both places, Schlesinger at Yale and Russell at Princeton had me as their house guest. I was again very impressed. But let me tell you my later interpretation of why I was treated with such extraordinary cordiality by Struve, Schlesinger, and Russell: they were all afraid that I would not be able to secure reservations at hotels.
That who wouldn't let you in?
Oh yes. Yes.
What I mean is, I am certain now that Struve, Schlesinger, and Russell, in inviting me to be their house guest, did so, in part, because they wanted to avoid unpleasantness. I should not draw conclusions retrospectively; nevertheless, I cannot avoid feeling that the prevention of unpleasantness must have been in their minds. In fact, when I was staying with Russell in Princeton, he strongly urged acceptance of the offer from Harvard rather than the one from Chicago with the warning, "You will find racial prejudice in Chicago; but in Harvard you will not find any. Therefore, accept the Harvard position."
Let's get back to Struve and things at Yerkes. Let me tell you a story that Franklin Roach told me. He said that when Struve became director on July 1st 1932.
I know that story. He's reported to have said, "From now on it is going to be different."
As I recall Roach saying it to me, he told it to me himself, he said that Struve's final line was, "Well, from now on you work for me." But maybe my recollection is — but he sounded like the type of fellow who wanted you to know that he was the boss.
Well, that part of Struve's conduct can be expanded. I shall refrain from it, but narrate one incident during Struve's directorship. He used to have all members of the faculty write annual reports; and then he would meet the entire faculty to discuss the reports On this particular occasion the faculty included Gerhard Herzberg, Gerard Kuiper, Jesse Greenstein, Morgan, Hiltner, Louis Henyey and others.
This is "elephantiasis of the brain?"
I don't quite understand exactly what he was saying.
What Struve meant was that the faculty suffered from elephantiasis of their egos and of their accomplishments.
You know, Tolstoy said once that man is a fraction for whom the numerator is what he really is, and the denominator is what he thinks he is. The bigger the denominator, the smaller the fraction, and if the denominator is equal to infinity, for whatever the value of the numerator, the fraction is equal to zero. This was pasted up in Russian on a door once. I copied it down, but I can't find it any place in Tolstoy.
I can imagine that Struve had remembered his Tolstoy. But where did you get this story? Who told you that? Or do I say it in the AlP interview?
It's in the AlP interview. Yes.
Kuiper expressed himself once, saying that, perhaps in the most critical way I have heard anyone speak of him: Struve has the bad qualities of the German and of the Russian, and the good qualities of neither.
But that doesn't really get us to what made him tick. Right? Because it's just an anecdote; it's not detailed enough on any specific questions.
I'm not even sure that these anecdotes represent him.
So he was the boss at Yerkes, and you were there and Kuiper was there and Morgan was there before you. And tell me a bit about how it was organized. You had staff meetings. People had to take notes and pay attention in a certain way. Were they always on the same day?
I was outside the mainstream of the activities; and I was treated as an outsider. I did not feel so at that time; but that was what it was. (For example, during my entire years at Yerkes, I was not trusted with the key for the dome; or asked to participate in conducting visitors on Saturdays: all the others had to participate.)
I used to attend some of the faculty meetings, hear some of the things that were going on; but most of the discussions centered on observational matters: the assignment of time at the telescopes, et cetera. I believe that I was not asked to attend many of those meetings. I never knew (or for that matter cared) what was going on. As far as I was concerned, I was completely and totally left to myself; and I was allowed to do what I wanted. And those circumstances suited me best.
You mentioned in your AlP interview that you never had any problems dealing with Struve. In this History of McDonald Observatory, it's mentioned that one time, you and Strõmgren I believe changed offices, and you didn't ask permission to do so, and Struve had some comments about that.
Let me describe precisely what happened. There were two offices, one abutting on the circular wall of the dome, and another next to it. The first one had some book shelves with glass windows; I believe it used to be called the chemical kitchen. And the second one was a smaller office with no adequate shelves for books. Struve had assigned me the smaller of the two offices, while Strõmgren was assigned the larger one. At that time Strõmgren spent most of the week on the campus and visited Yerkes only for a day, or at most two days, during each week.
I had collected a moderately large library of books and journals already while I was in Cambridge; and I was anxious to have my books and periodicals clean without getting dusty. And so when my books arrived from Cambridge, I asked Strõmgren whether he would mind exchanging offices with me since he was spending only one day a week at Yerkes, and the office assigned to him would be more convenient for me to have my books. He agreed.
One evening — it must have been about a fortnight after my arrival at Yerkes — I was in the larger office arranging my books. Struve passed my office while I was arranging my books and was surprised at seeing me in that office. He asked me why I was there contrary to his assignment of offices. I explained to Struve exactly what I had told Strõmgren. Struve made no comments, and left. Next morning when I came to my office, I found that the nice desk and chairs which had been in that office had been removed and replaced by an old, dilapidated table with broken drawers, and chairs to match. What is retrospectively astonishing to me, is that while I noticed the change it did not affect me in any other way! I simply took it as though it was all very natural.
That is an example of Struve's way. It also illustrates the world in which I chose to live.
The amusing thing is that I continued with the same furniture until 1944, when I was elected to the Royal Society. I remember that the day after the news of the election came, Struve came to my office and asked me whether I would wish to change the furniture in my room to better ones. I simply said, "Why not?"
OK. Well, Struve's grandfather wrote a 100 page biography of his father, and I wanted to mention what the original Struve's schedule was like. He got up about 8 o'clock and had a cup of coffee. He sat at his desk and worked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then he had some lunch. Then he took a nap for an hour and a half, and he had some more coffee. H sat at his desk from 5 o'clock till 9 o'clock, then he had dinner, then he went back to his desk for another five hours, sohe worked 13 or 14 hours in the average day and did a tremendous amount of writing. I don't know when he did his observing, and I don't know when he had time to father 19 children, given his schedule, but it seems to me it was either part of the family tradition or the Germanic orientation that you worked first, then maybe if you have time you play. Is this a similar kind of level of intensity that Otto Struve had?
During the years I overlapped with Struve at Yerkes he was invariably the first to come to his office, probably between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning. And he worked steadily except for short breaks for lunch and dinner. After the war, during the late forties, an English astronomer, Archibald Brown, came to Chicago with an intention to work with me. (Brown later became a professor of mathematics in Australia and I essentially lost touch with him.) But he told me later that, on the day he arrived at Yerkes (in the evening), he was surprised to find lights in all the offices and that the Observatory was as active as during the daytime.
— was this an example that everyone followed?
More or less.
Either because they were really fired up, or they felt that it was somewhat expected?
No, it was just that it seemed to be natural to us. Kuiper always used to come back and work after dinner; and his schedule was not really very different from Struvets. And my schedule was not that different either.
When did Struve fit in his observing time? Did he give himself as much observing time at Yerkes as he wanted?
Oh yes. He used to observe regularly. He was very regular at it, and did more than his share.
Did he use the big refractor mostly?
Yes, Struve did work with the refractor. He certainly drove himself to the maximum. I believe that emotionally (I should certainly not be dogmatic here) astronomy and what happened in astronomy was closest to him. Struve's monthly articles continued in Sky and Telescope without intermission for many years, — is a manifestation of his interest. His articles dealt with the whole range of astronomy. It is fair to say that Struve's primary interest was astronomy. And as long as one was as motivated towards astronomy as he was, then one would have no problem with him.
I can imagine, especially today, being in a situation where people work very hard, and saying to my boss, "I haven't spent enough time with my wife and kids lately, you know; what I'm working on is important, but I've got to go home and see them." Did that kind of thing happen at Yerkes? People would mention they wanted to spend more time doing other things?
I never knew anybody close enough to make that remark.
In this history of McDonald Observatory, they mentioned that in doing — reducing spectrograms and stuff like that — Struve ruined his eye convergence, which ended up to be somewhat of a disconcerting physical feature. You know, if you had to write a three sentence description, one of the things you'd mention is that he had ruined his eyesight a bit.
I don't know that. It could be apocryphal. My impression always was that he was born with a very bad squint.
Oh, no, I didn't know that.
I should be very cautious in what I say; but I do know for a fact that he had a very bad. squint. He tried to correct it by consulting an ophthalmologist but he never really succeeded. I do not know to what extent his eyesight obstructed his spectroscopic work. I never heard him complain and I do not recall anyone telling me that Struve's eyesight had been spoiled by his measuring plates.
How tall was he?
Oh, he was very tall. I mean, he was much taller than — he was probably 6 feet 5, 6 feet 4, something like that.
Oh, he really was? Really?
I believe Strõmgren was somewhat taller than he — I believe Strõmgren was 6'7" — Struve was probably 6'3" or 4". There is one photograph taken in 1949 on the occasion of a meeting of the publications committee of the American Astronomy Society of which he was the president at that time. The picture includes, in the first row, Struve, Kuiper, Brouwer, Mayall, Spitzer and Paul Merrill. And he's unquestionably the tallest of the group there.
So he must have weighed over 200 pounds. He could have been a football player.
He could have been.
What color hair did he have?
Blonde. It became grey, but when I first saw him, it was blonde.
When did it turn grey?
I don't remember too well. It must have been in the late forties.
He was born in 1897.
I remember Struve's fiftieth birthday. There was a meeting at Yerkes and Joel Stebbins from Washburn happened to be visiting Yerkes. Struve took a few of us along with Stebbins to lunch. I had told Stebbins that it was Struve's fiftieth birthday; and suggested that he should perhaps make some reference to it at lunch. Struve did not expect that anyone knew that it was his fiftieth birthday. He was both pleased and surprised at what Stebbins had said.
Can you describe his accent? His first language was Russian?
Or did they speak German as well?
Did you happen to see the NOVA program on Kistiakovsky? My recollection is that Struve and Kistiakovsky were both students at Karkov University. They were very similar in build, very similar in their pronunciation — rather clipped, and, I suppose, slightly more German than Russian.
How familiar are you with how Struve would think of new things to work on? For example, one quote I've heard, but I don't know who said it, was that if you take a look at five stars at random, one of them is going to be peculiar, but the more I learn about Struve, it doesn't sound like him. Apparently he could look at a spectrum of any star and find something peculiar about it and think that he might want to write a paper about that star.
My impression is that Struve knew the spectra of the different stars he had studied almost in a personal way. For example, at colloquia dealing with his work he used to show a whole sequence of slides pointing out features in each of them as he went on. And when referring to a feature in some later slide, he would contrast that same feature in another spectrum ten slides earlier.
So he had a mind that could remember a lot of visual detail.
Yes! I remember once Struve telling me, You seem to be attending my lecture very carefully. Did you find it interesting?" I told him that I was marvelling at his virtuosity and the way he could recognize the smallest detail of his spectra. I added that I was so engrossed in admiring his virtuosity that I did not follow the scientific details.
When did graduate work start building up at Yerkes?
The year I came to Chicago.
The first assignment I was given when I came to Yerkes was to prepare, together with Kuiper, a two-year graduate program.
And Struve left the organization of the graduate program up to you?
More or less.
So he didn't have a lot of input, he just said, "You guys take care of it."
Struve did not have a lot of input. For example, in this two-year graduate program that Kuiper and I had prepared, Struve was assigned two courses of lectures on stellar spectroscopy, one each year. I do not believe that he ever gave a complete course in any year. His frequent trips to McDonald prevented him from giving any sustained course.
How much time did he spend at Yerkes? A lot or half or. . ?
I can't be too sure, but I do know that his interruptions, going to Texas, were such that he never gave more than a third of the lectures he was supposed to give.
Who filled in for him?
Oh, they just didn't happen. H'm. I imagine he told his students to read all this, go read the journals, or.
More likely, he left them to examine or measure some plates.
Are you real familiar with things that he was working on back then? He was in a different realm of.
When I first came to Yerkes I knew that Struve had made contributions to determining the rotational velocities of stars; that he had identified the Stark broadening of hydrogen and helium lines in early stars; and that he had measured the radial velocities of 0 and B stars in connection with galactic rotations. His lectures on stellar spectroscopy included such material. Later, when Strõmgren joined the faculty (during his first period, 1937-38), Struve built the camera which identified the HI and HII regions and which led to Strõmgren's theory of these regions. Later during the war, he began his long and sustained collaboration with Pol Swings. Swings and I were good friends; and Swings used to keep me informed of what they were finding. After the war Struve became interested in contact binaries and in U-Gerninorum stars. These latter studies led him to what was at that time a somewhat unconventional approach to problems of stellar evolution. He summarized all his work in his Princeton Vanuxem Lectures.
You mentioned in your AlP interview that one of your guiding principles is finding things to work on and doing the best you can and being as rigorous as you can. How rigorous was Strüve in what he was up to? It's a different type of rigor, I imagine.
I never had time to think about these matters. The fact is, I have never been in general sympathy with the way astronomers do their work including Struve.
I do not wish to express an adverse opinion. I will only say that the way most astronomers seem to do their work is not my way; it is not to my taste. But why should it be? There is no absolutely right way of doing science. The richness of science largely arises from the different ways different scientists pursue science. But to say this is not to say that I share Struve's attitude. For example, in an article written in PASP, he concluded by saying that since astronomers of today benefitted from the observations of the astronomers of yesterday, it was the duty of the astronomers of today to leave a similar record of observations for the benefit of the astronomers of tomorrow. In this connection Struve made particular reference to Hertzsprung, who is supposed to have celebrated his millionth (?) setting in his program of measuring the light curves of variable stars. Struve gave other examples.
About what year was that paper?
It must have been in the late forties — probably 1947 or 48.
How do you do the best job at that?
I argued with Struve regarding his attitude. I asked him, "All scientists of today owe a great deal to Newton's Principia, and to the great volumes of Laplace and LaGrange. We are all indebted to them — How does one discharge one's duty to them?" Struve could not answer my question and, in fact, he got angry.
Krisciunas Do you have an answer to that?
The answer is, simply, don't raise to a principle the way you might have done science. As I said before, science grows by virtue of the efforts of all kinds of people with differing motives, abilities, and temperaments. Science would be poorer if all followed the same lines. In fact, I told Struve that for an observational astronomer to dictate to the astronomer of the future regarding what he should do and how he should repay his indebtedness to the past is not proper.
And to be making a list of, boy, if we only had the answers to these questions, I would be happy! You guys should work on it — making such a list is not what you would recommend.
My remarks should not be construed as implying that a scientist has no obligation to science gua science. I have referred to this matter of a scientist's obligation to science in a lecture on the pursuit of science that I gave in threej India three ago. When I say obligations, I do not mean obligations to one's students, one's colleagues, or one's community. But obligations to science as science. It is not an easy concept.
For example, you cannot be naive enough to say "I must pay my indebtedness to the Principia; therefore I must do something like the Principia." It is absurd if not ridiculous for any normal person to suppose that he can, undertake writing something like the Principia. Nevertheless, what is one's obligation? Already in the forties I thought that Struve's approach to the problem was intolerant and egocentric. I am not criticizing him: I am only criticizing what he said when he prescribed the duty of others.
I'm glad to hear you say that. It gives me some justification when I question the way people in a higher position than I am are saying the way things ought to be done, and I've thought, well, you know, maybe they're not right.
People carry it very far.
Yes, they do.
Holton and others who write about Einstin's attitude to physics as something to emulate: I would say that Einstein's attitude to physics is probably the worst example anybody can follow, because nobody can be an Einstein. What was good for Einstein is most probably not good for anybody else.
Have you heard of this book? Arp just published it. This showed up in the mail the other day.
Yes, I know, that's why I've been trying to finish it before I came to talk to you. He presents a lot of very interesting evidence.
Does he say about my refusal…
. . yes, he hasn't mentioned you yet, but he says that, for example, "I wrote a paper with these people. Here is the evidence. And the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL held it up for publication for a year and three months." Given time-scales today, that's not really holding it up. It just takes a while to come out. But there's some interesting pictures in...
I did publish as a supplement an atlas of Arp's. On the other hand, in my judgement he was quite unable to distinguish between a theoretical idea and a private intuitive notion. Whenever he sent me a paper I used to delete all his ‘theoretical interpretations' and write to him that only the observational parts of his paper could be published and that there was no place in the Astrophysical Journal for his ‘theory.'
OK, let's get back a little bit to Struve. If he was running off to Texas often, and missing a lot of his lectures, it sounds like he wasn't at Yerkes often, or would have dinner parties or social events very often.
Struve rarely participated in social functions and social gatherings, particularly after the war. But even after the war, he used to take me out to lunch not infrequently. So far as I know, I was the only member of the faculty to whom he accorded that courtesy.
You would go to his house for lunch?
No! He used to take me out to lunch. Before the war, he did on occasion ask my wife and myself to his home for a Sundai tea. After the war Mrs. Struve became very unsociable—I think it is not unfair to say that she became a recluse.
When did they get married?
I believe they must have been married in the early thirties. No, I'm sorry, they should have been married in the twenties, because I believe she was with him in Europe when he was on a Guggenheim at Cambridge in the late twenties — 1928?
So she was born in Europe.
No, I am fairly certain Mary Struve hailed from Michigan. I am equally certain that she was married before her marriage to Struve and had been divorced. Struve was her second husband.
OK. Who were Struve's friends? People outside of astronomy? Anybody you remember?
I know that Bobrovkikoff was one of his friends. He used to like Bobrovnikoff. And…
He's still alive, you know. He lives in a retirement home in Berkeley. He's about 92 now.
Bobrovnikoff may be able to throw some fresh light on Struve during the early years. But I do not know how good his memory is.
He's pretty feeble, from what Osterbrock says.
A person whom Struve admired most was Henry Norris Russell. He also admired Eddington and Milne. (Struve told me that Milne was awarded Bruce Medal on his nomination.) I believe that Struve considered Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin as a friend. Cecilia's biography (which I just read the other day), is very well written and self-effacing. She mentions that Struve was one of her best friends.
Indeed; Struve was one of the few of his generation who appreciated Cecilia's early work on stellar atmospheres and stellar spectroscopy. Cecilia mentions this fact in her autobiography. Struve comes out very well in her account. In Cecilia's book there is a picture which is wrongly attributed the by her daughter: she mis-identifies it as the one taken at the 1939 Conference on White Dwarfs and Novae in Paris. I wrote to Mrs. Haramundanis pointing out her error and sending her a copy of the original photograph. In this photograph Cecilia is standing on one side of Russell with Serge Gaposhkin on the other, in the front row. The photograph also includes Eddington and Walter Baade. In Katharine's book, besides Struve, Baade is included as one of Cecilia's best friends.
I recall Struve telling me at the time, when he was the Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the National Academy of Sciences, that Cecilia was one of the candidates up for election; that she was only one vote short in the preliminary ballot; and that he tried his best to get somebody to change his vote (at that time there were no women members of the NAS!); but that he was unable to persuade anyone to do so. It is to the everlasting shame of the astronomers of that period that they never elected Cecilia to the NAS. In any event, Struve was not one of the chauvinists of the thirties; he was generous to Cecilia Payne: indeed, his sensitiveness to Cecilia's contributions was one of a pattern: he was always sensitive to those whom he considered to be devoted to astronomy. That was probably Struve's best characteristic. He never allowed personal differences, as for example with Kuiper, to interfere with his scientific judgement. In fact it was Struve who nominated Kuiper for membership in the National Academy.
You might say Struve was responsible for making the University of Chicago astronomy faculty into a real powerhouse, a real brain trust.
Yes, Struve certainly created a department at the University when there was none. But Struve, unlike others, was not an "empire builder." As I said, Struve was sensitive to those who did research with integrity and motivation; and he had those qualities abundantly himself. But Struve was not always right in his judgement, I can give examples in which he was wrong — but not in cases that were clear cut. It is not difficult for anyone to appreciate that Kuiper, during the thirties and forties, was one of the most discerning of astronomers. Struve accepted that fact in spite of his personal disagreements and personality conflicts with him.
Isn't it true, though, that by the late forties, Struve was kind of uncomfortable that he was no longer THE big fish in the pond, so to speak — that you and Kuiper and Stromgren and Morgan now were well known in their own regard, and even without Struve, you all would continue to do recognizable things?
Others have said that; but I am not sure that is the right interpretation. Struve's great heroes of the past were Hale and William Huggins. Struve explicitly modelled his life on Hale. As you know, Hale ceased to be an active astronomer after 1916. For example, when he built the 100-inch telescope, he principally had Hubble in mind. And Struve, in the same way, felt that he could cease being an administrator but still receive the same loyalty and devotion from his colleagues in the way that Hale had from his. And that, I am afraid, was not accorded to him.
And Kuiper certainly wasn't the type of—apparently he got an ulcer trying to be the Director of Yerkes while Struve was still there, because he didn't really have free rein as director.
Well, part of that may be attributed to Kuiper's personality and temperament. During 1950, when I was the acting chairman of the department while Struve was still at Yerkes, I had no conflicts with him. I want to make one thing clear: In my personal judgement, Struve was not jealous of the reputations of his colleagues; but he felt that he was owed deference from them of an old-fashioned kind. That feeling was not reciprocated by most of his colleagues; and that is what contributed to his frustrated state of mind.
How much did you see him after he left Yerkes?
I did correspond with Struve for about a year, and less frequently in later years. But my correspondence with him, through the Journal office, continued through the rest of his life.
In spite of the fact that Struve and I were scientists in different molds, we always maintained a warm personal regard for each other. In many ways it was characteristic of him that one of the first things he did when he became President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific was to give me the Bruce Medal. When I visited him at Berkeley in March, 1953, on the occasion of the Bruce award, he accorded me both friendship and cordiality.
So that's counter to the notion that he was irritated in 1946 or 47, given that you became a Distinguished Service Professor shortly after he did. Was he irritated with that or not?
Let me put it this way.
I phrased this question badly.
The question already prejudges the issue. Was he irritated or not? My answer either way would be prejudicial.
Let me rephrase the question.
Let me state the facts. You may not know how Struve became a distinguished service professor at Chicago. The way his appointment came about was the following: After the war Hutchins had invited a great number of distinguished men to the University as members of the faculty. Marshall Stone, as a distin'guished service professor in mathematics (without any consultations with the members of the mathematics department); Enrico Fermi as a distinguished service professor in physics; Harold Urey as a distinguished service professor in chemistry; and Gustav Rosby as a distinguished service professor in meteorology. But Hutchins overlooked Struve; and I sensed that Struve felt disappointed.
Discerning this disappointment, I asked for an appointment with Hutchins; and I told him, "You have appointed all these people as distinguished service professors. All the appointments you have made are well merited. But why haven't you thought of appointing Struve to a distinguished service professorship?"
That's very interesting.
And Hutchins said to me, "I can kick myself for not thinking of it. I'm ashamed that I never thought of it. Thank you, Chandra, for telling me." That was the end of the meeting. And Struve had been made a distinguished service professor before a month had elapsed.
OK, so that's an independent set of events to — I believe you were, after Russell retired — you were offered a job there, and so they wanted to keep you here, and that's what happened, and so it was just the way events unfolded, OK? So it's entirely within Struve's relationship to you to give you the Bruce Medal because you're a friend and colleague and he thought you deserved it.
And I don't think Struve was upset in any way with my becoming a distinguished service professor. But he thought that Kuiper and Morgan would be upset.
I do not know to what extent Struve's appreciation of my scientific efforts was based on a real understanding of my work. In his book on astronomy with Vaéta Zebergs, he confuses what has sometimes been called the ChandrasekharSchoenberg limit with my limit for white dwarfs. The fact is that Struve always had an admiration (perhaps even an inferiority complex) with respect to the British astronomers: Eddington, Jeans, R.H. Fowler, and E.A. Mime. And he considered me as a part of the British tradition.
Also, I believe that my election to the Royal Society in 1944 meant more to Struve than what it would normally have meant to any American scientist. And so the fact that Hutchins made me a distinguished service professor did not bother Struve a bit. In fact, he was responsible for my nomination to the Russell lectureship — the third after Russell and Adams.
Also, and this is a fact (I am sure not known) that he told me that he had nominated me as his successor to be the president of the American Astronomical Society; and that the Council had vetoed his suggestion. Perhaps I should not mention all that, but I am concerned with the prevalent misunderstanding that Struve and I did not continue with the warmest personal relations during the later years at Yerkes or after his departure to Berkeley and elsewhere.
So you didn't correspond with him that much after he left Yerkes?
No. As I have already said, I did correspond with him during the first year or two after he joined the Berkeley depatment; and after that through the Journal office. I do remember that when the Astrophysical Journal had expanded to 1,000 pages per volume — its maximum during Struve's and Morgan's editorships had reached 600 pages per volume — Struve wrote a warm letter congratulating me on the way I was editing the Journal.
At a later time, I wrote to Struve asking him if he would not write to me some of his reminiscences concerning the Astrophysical Journal during the period of his editorship and send them to me. I thought that his recollections and reminiscences would be useful for the historical record. His response was pathetic, perhaps illustrating the state of his mind at that time. Struve wrote how he was in fact the editor of the Journal from 1932 onwards; and that even though his name appeared on the masthead beginning only in 1937, he really had been the editor since 1932; and that he had kept Frost's name on the masthead solely for the purpose of not offending him.
Moreover, he thought that it was unfair that when the general index for Volumes 76 to 100 of the Journal was published (soon after I became the managing editor), in the list of managing editors, I had recorded Struve's editorship as starting with volume 82. And so when I wrote the brief obituary notice for Struve (Ap. J. 139 (1964), p. 423), I had the caption under his photograph read ‘Managing Editor, Astrophysical Journal 1932-1947.' After this note had been published, I had a letter from Mary Struve saying that "It was the best that could have been written about Otto", and that he would have appreciated what I wrote.
In my book I quote a friend of mine as saying that the appropriately put-together astronomical library, if you don't have a lot of money, contains two copies of the Ap. J. and no other technical journals whatsoever. So you might want SKY AND TELESCOPE.
Struve died in 1963, and from what I've read so far, in his last couple of years he seemed to be kind of lost. He went to Greenbank and apparently didn't — some people say he didn't — do a very good job there, that he was the wrong man for the job at the time.
I've heard it said that Struve's directorship at Greenbank was a failure. You must know that when he returned to Berkeley he did not want to mix with other people, would not move to the new "Campbell Building" (?), and continued to stay in that small hut.
How is it that you know, after he died, that his gold medals were melted down and his astronomical effects were somewhat dispersed? Is this people mentioning, "Oh, you must know," or…?
The way I learned about the dispersal of Struve's astronomical and related material was the following: When I learned of Struve's death, I phoned someone at Berkeley: perhaps it was Louis Henyey — asking him when a memorial service would be held for Struve. I naturally assumed that a memorial service would be held, and I had called to volunteer myself as a speaker at the memorial, representing the University of Chicago at the service. I was astronished to learn that Mrs. Struve had vetoed the idea of a memorial service. Some years later, when I was in Berkeley on some other occasion (it must have been in the late sixties), someone told me - - perhaps it was Louis Henyey again — that all of Struve's effects had been dispersed and further, that his gold medals had been melted down.
Some years later, Naomi Greenstein told us (when my wife and I visited the Greensteins in Pasadena) that at one time when she was in Berkeley, she had tried to call on Mrs. Struve; but that no one would answer the bell. She therefore left a note to say that she would like to have Mrs. Struve call her (at the hotel?); and Mrs. Struve did call her; and that they talked on the telephone for a very long time. So as far as I know Naomi Greenstein was probably the last person who had talked extensively to Mary Struve.
She's no longer alive, is she?
Oh no, she died. She is supposed to have committed suicide. You didn't know that?
No, I didn't know that. When was that?
I think you should ask Naomi Greenstein. It was certainly in the late sixties. What I do know is that the neighbors found that the doors to Mrs. Struve's house — she was living there by herself after Otto's death — were locked and no one could see anyone leaving or entering the house. Apparently the neighbors called the police, who broke into the house and found that Mrs. Struve had died some days earlier.
Wow. Was that recent, soon after Otto Struve died?
After two or three years.
Two or three years?
It might have been four or five years, because Naomi Greenstein did talk to Mary Struve after Struve's death. I'm sure, 1 know that — in fact, she told me that.
Was Otto Struve a religious person at all? Did he ever quote the Bible or…?
Or go to church on Easter or…?
Of course, he knew I was an atheist, and he never brought up the subject with me.
Was he buried in California, do you know?
I believe he was cremated.
Well, let's turn to something a bit cheerier than that. What do you see as Struve's legacy? To what extent did he pay a debt to science? What did he leave us as a good example?
The "legacy" which any normal individual leaves is mostly anonymous. A scientific legacy as conventionally defined and attributed to a person, exists only with respect to the greatest names: Newton…
. . . Saha, Einstein maybe. (Pictures on Chandra's wall)
Well, certainly Einstein. Perhaps in this century only a half a dozen names — Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Fermi, and a few others of that rank—will remain. The contributiqns of others of less stature will get integrated into the commonplaces of science—and this sometimes happens even with the greatest of discoveries. Take, for example, the nuclear model of the atom. During the period 1910-1930 it used to be referred to, correctly, as the Rutherford-Bohr model. But no one uses that description today: it has become a commonplace of science.
The Bohr theory of the atom, they still call it that.
Charidrasekhar: But it is the Bohr frequency condition, that has survived. And the Rutherford law of scattering has also survived. But …
Fermi-Dirac statistics, I think some names will stick for a while. Chandrasekhar's limit. Thatts even in a couple of songs I know.
I think that the survival of names which get attached to some concept or phenomena is in some sense unfair. In the Notes and Records of the Royal Society for 1973 — Freeman Dyson quotes from this article in a public lecture of his—I recall a conversation in which Eddington, Rutherford, and two or three others participated during the Christmas holidays of 1933 at Trinity College, Cambridge. One of the participants was Sir Maurice Amos, a retired chief justice of the Egyptian court. Amos asked Rutherford, "I do not see why Einstein is accorded a greateiE public acclaim than you. After all, you invented the nuclear model of the atom; and that model provides the basis for allphysical science today and it is even more universal in its applications than Newton's laws of gravitation. Whereas Einstein's predictions refer to such minute departures from the Newtonian theory that I do not see what all the fuss is about." Rutherford, in response, turned to Eddington and said, "You are responsible for Einstein's fame." Why is Einstein more famous than Rutherford? Who can say?
You asked me about Struve's legacy. Everybody talks about HI and Hil regions: they call them the Stramgren spheres; but the discovery that stimulated Strtõmgren was Struve's. Only very fe astronomers know that. And that is the way contributions to science become anonymous. As another example, take the matter of the abundance of hydrogen. The person who completely resolved the problem was Rupert Wildt. Hardly anyone knows his name now.
I know his name. He died in 1976.
I was recently at a meeting in Washington concerned with the history of some recent advances in Astrophysics. There was a discussion about the abundance of hydrogen. The name of Henry Norris Russell was mentioned; but not of Cecilia Gaposchkin, who preceded Russell, nor of Rupert Wildt, who followed with his complete resolution of the problem. I have talked to some of my colleagues at Chicago who presently give courses on stellar atmospheres. And I have on occasion questioned them about the negative hydrogen ion and Wildt's role in the recognition of the high abundance of hydrogen. The response has almost always been a blank.
I mention these facts not as a criticism but as how discoveries in science become anonymous. And Struve has become anonymous.
Well, he was very prolific. He ranks right up there near the top, as far as how much work he produced is concerned.
The telescope at McDonald is now called the Struve telescope. But what Struve did for astronomy is ever so much greater; and he's now to be known through a telescope having been named after him. That illustrates the unfairness in the way names get attached to things.
A personal note: you mentioned the white dwarf limit. I am often asked "Aren't you pleased?" My response often is, "Should I be pleased, when something I did as a young man of twenty is selected?" Am I to assume that my scientific efforts of the following fifty-five years have been in vain? I simply do not believe that having a name perpetuated by having something called by that name is a measure of that person's contributions."
Struve's contributions to astrophysics and astronomy are many and varied: the recognition of the Stark effect in stellar atmospheres; the role of turbulence; stellar rotation; the exchange of matter among close binaries; the discovery of HI-HII regions; all of them bearing on our present understanding of astronomy. Struve's work, particularly on the exchange of matter in close binaries, plays an important role in our current ideas relating to stellar evolution, particularly the formation of pulsars; and in many other regions. The influence of Struve's work has not disappeared. It is not forgotten. It has simply become a part of everyone's knowledge. I would only say that the word 'legacy' is not the right word to describe the effect of a person's contribution to science.
From what I've gathered, though, talking to other people who knew him or reading things about him, his legacy seems to be as a fellow who worked really hard, in fact perhaps too hard, so that he got angry now and then, and other people felt maybe they had to—we've already talked about some of that. I'm not making very good sense. One last question I thought of about Struve. Somebody told me once that the way he used to write so much is that he used to bring somebody to take dictation while he was observing, you know, with the stars trailing across the slit, so he'd have five minutes till it got to the other end and he had to flip a little lever, so he'd dictate to somebody so that he could keep writing faster than just observing.
That story must have originated at McDonald. I cannot confirm it since the only occasion I was at McDonald was at its dedication in 1939. However, during the five years I was an associate editor of the Astrophysical Journal during the time Struve was managing editor, I saw many manuscripts of his written in long hand and subsequently typed by his secretary, Alice Johnson. Also, during the war years when he was collaborating with Swings, I have seen drafts of many of their joint papers in Struve's handwriting. I also know that while he was measuring plates, he used to have one of his secretaries record the measurements while he was doing them.
On the other hand, with regard to his having dictated while at the telescope, it could be an exaggeration. Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. When I was a student in India, in my final college years I used to bicycle every morning to attend a German class between 7 and 8 o'clock; and while I was riding, I used to have a German grammar—book on hand, glancing at it periodically, to memorize the various declinations. That was during 1928-1929. Some ten years later, when I returned to India, the story was being told that as a student I was so absorbed in science that I used to read scientific books while bicycling to college -a total exaggeration with some element of truth. The story about Struve could be an exaggeration of that kind.
Here's another question. When you have a seminar, I think you can tell a lot about a person by what kind of questions they ask the speaker. What was he like listening to an— other speaker?
He very rarely asked questions.
He very rarely asked questions?
He did ask questions if some matter explicitly relating to his own work was under consideration. I remember one occasion when Anne Underhill gave a colloquium on Stark effect in stellar spectra soon after her arrival at Yerkes as a graduate student. She was a Canadian; had been a student of Helen Hogg (or Vibert Douglas?) at Toronto. And I believe that she had written some papers critical of some of Struve's findings. At the colloquium, she repeated her criticisms. At the end, Struve was merciless in the way he reacted to her criticisms. Anne Underhill was practically in tears.
On another occasion, after the war I gave a colloquium on stellar associations based upon some papers by Ambartsumian that he had sent me through a friend in England. (I believe the occasion was when Ambartsumian was in England in connection with the meeting of the 1946 Royal Society Newton Tercentenary Celebrations. My friend, Professor K.S. Krishnan, was also at that meeting; and Ambartsumian sent his papers through Krishnan.) I am fairly certain that my colloquium on stellar associations was the first that had been given anywhere on them, since Ainbartsumian had written his papers during the war and they were not available in the west. In any event, I started the colloquium with some remarks relating to focal lengths of telescopes, their resolving power, etc. I must have made some very obvious and elementary mistakes in that context. Struve and Kuiper had no difficulty in demolishing what I had said. Anyhow, the test of my talk on Ambartsumian's ideas on stellar associations was treated equally critically — not only by Struve, but also by Kuiper and Morgan. Ironically, all of them who criticized me were later to be great promoters of Ambartsumian's ideas.
How much time have we got?
Well, I have arranged to go to lunch today at the Club at 12 o'clock.
OK. Let me put a different tape in here, and I'd like to talk about you for a while, OK?
I do not know if there is very much to say about myself since apparently you have read the transcript of the tape that is at the AlP.
Oh, but it's ten years old.
Nothing much has happened since.
Oh, you wrote a very long book, three copies of which are sitting at the bookstore here. And you've won a Nobel Prize. Has that been an inconvenience? Dick Feynman says it's complicated his life tremendously, because people only want to know who he is because he has that. But we all knew who you were before you won that, and when you did, we all thought, well, it's about the time that astronomers were getting some—I would consider you in with the astronomers that are getting more recognition than they were.
I know that many people have written about how having received the Nobel prize has affected them. I can only say that: It hasn't made any difference to me. It has not affected me: I never expected it.
You must have done something with the prize money.
I really do not know if 95,000 dollars is that much money. The annual interest that on can obtain from it adds to the amount one receives from TIAA and CREF. It doesn't make that much difference.
I have that too.
I don't see that money-wise it is —
But it didn't change your life in any major way? My father works at Argonne National Lab, and he said that for a while they were trying to get you to give a talk out there.
And he said you were too busy.
No, as a rule I decline most invitations for colloquia and seminars unless I feel that a special circumstance requires a positive response. Since you have persisted in asking me how the Nobel prize has affected me, let me read my response at an occasion arranged by the Museum of Science and Industry. I thought a good deal as to what I should say on that occasion. They have, in the Museum of Science and Industry, a "Nobel Hall," in which they have paintings of all Americans who have received the Nobel prize. While an occasion such as that one at the Museum of Science and Industry, may be personally very gratifying.
"I must confess to some misgivings as to the appropriateness of selecting for special honor those who have received recognition of a particular kind by one's contemporaries. I am perhaps overly sensitive to this issue, since I've always remembered what a close friend of earlier years, Professor Edward Arthur Mime, once reminded me; and parenthetically may I note that Arthur Mime is one of the great pioneers of modern theoretical astrophysics. On an occasion now more than fifty years ago, Milne reminded me that posterity in time will give us all our true measure, and assign to each of us our due and humble places, and that in the end, it is the judgement of posterity that really matters. And he further added, ‘He really succeeds who perseveres according to his likes unaffected by fortune, good or bad. It is well to remember that there is in general no correlation between the judgement of posterity and the judgement of contemporaries.' I hope you will forgive me if I allow myself a personal reflection. During the seventies, I experienced two major heart episodes. Suppose one of them had proved fatal, as it well might have? Then there would have been no cause for celebration. But I hope that the judgement of pos terity, of my efforts in science, would not have been diminished on that account. Conversely, I hope that it would not be enhanced on account of a doctor's skills."
Now, that about states my views. I think whether it affects your life or not depends upon your own personal attitude. I never thought that the recognition that one receives in one's lifetime is a measure of what one is. So I don't think…
In a couple of your articles, you mentioned at the very end that you're fond of an ancient maxim, that "The simple is the seal of the true." To what extent do you consider some of the things you've been working on as true, and/or simple?
That statement is a description of scientific truths. But that does not mean that it necessarily applies to my work. The quotation you attribute to me is in the Ryerson lecture I gave here at the University in 1975. I believe that that statement was made in the context of Kerr's discovery of his solution. I say that my recognition of the significance of the discovery by Kerr of his solution was the most shattering experience of my life; and, the fact that the search for the beautiful in the abstract should have an exact replica in nature is an example of how "the simple is the seal of the true." It is a description of the fundamental truths of science.
Now, having said that, let me say that one can look at beauty in science in a whole variety of ways. If you ask a great painter, or a great sculptor, he will probably say he strives for the beautiful. But what about those who are not Michaelange1os or Raphaels? Can't they strive for beauty? The point here is, every painter, every sculptor tries to have some creation of his which he can call his own, which gives him a certain pleasure and that pleasure need not be one which will be assessed in the way in which it appeals to him. It is one's own perception.
Or to put it another way, you may want to climb a mountain. You don't climb the Everest; your sights are not so ambitious. But when you do reach the top of the mountain, you see the valley below; and that gives you a sense of contentment. Well, one can perceive science that way. My own effort in science is to create a pattern for myself which appeals to me. And I can go further and say that to achieve a pattern is much more difficult than to write a paper.
In my book on black holes to which you have referred, in the epilogue, I refer to beauty in science. Now, it is a very much more difficult matter to ask yourself the following question. Let us take a concrete example. General relativity is a beautiful theory. How do you utilize your sensitiveness to that beauty to create something which will enhance your understanding of that theory? In order to understand general relativity, you have to know differential geometry. Knowing differential geometry, you can cultivate general relativity. How does your knowledge that the theory is beautiful enable you to cultivate it? That's a very much more difficult question. And I've tried to answer that in a lecture I gave in Hamburg, Germany last year, in honor of Karl Schwarzschild. I'll give you a reprint of that.
It all comes down to your motivation. You ask me, what is one's legacy in science? A more relevant question one might ask is: what did the cultivation of science mean to that person? Does one measure it by the honors one receives? Is it meaningful because one has made an important discovery? What is it that gives substance and meaning to a life devoted to scientific endeavor? It is not easy to answer these questions.
I always give one example, as to the nature of scientific sensibility. A description I can give of my feelings is this: I do not mean it as a general rule. I remember that when I was a student in Cambridge, I spent a vacation in the moors in Perthshire in Scotland: I had a bicycle on which I used to go around the whole region, and I remember once going up the top of a hill—it was raining—and as I came down from the top of the hill, I suddenly saw the valley below in sunshine, and there was a perfectly circular rainbow — and a double rainbow at that. You can ask, was that a discovery of mine? Rainbows have been known for centuries. But to me the recollection of that impression is still meaningful. What is one's legacy to science? How is one to know? It becomes anonymous. And few of us, very few of us, probably none of us, can hope to have a part in the future of science the way people like Newton and Galileo have had. Then is it worthless to do science? What is it one wants to gain?
I can't help it. You can't help it either, right?
Well, I am not sure. Does a painter have to paint?
Yes. Most of them do.
But what is it they are trying to paint? What is it they are trying to achieve? It must be more than painting one's house.
Trying to give their lives some meaning by creating something. I think.
I don't want to say that you just...
. . otherwise life is only material objects.
That is making a value out of it.
Well, that's my own perspective.
You can ask of the value that you have derived from your efforts: what is the value to me that I witnessed a rainbow?
You still think it's beautiful, years later.
Yes. So that, you see, it is not in terms of an absolute value. It is in terms of purely personal values.
And there is no external reference for the value of that experience. There is no act of creation involved in that. You witness something. I don't see why your value judgement should be involved in a motivation. I don't see why.
Well, we all evolve preferences for things we like to do and things we don't want to do. Riding a bike outside, you get some sunshine, you see a rainbow; you have to be in the right place to see it. It's better than getting rained on and getting cold, for example.
Well, I agree with the content of your English sentence. But that doesn't provide the right nuance for me.
Let me ask you a different question. You mentioned earlier that you think a lot of astronomers go about it the wrong way. Here's kind of an open-ended question. Do you think that astronomy is more of a qualitative or a quantitative activity? Where else can you see an equation that has "approximately greater than"? That's pretty mind boggling to people who aren't astronomers, and you see that in the Ap.J. all the time.
Well, to take an example, which is probably not at all a fair one: in the 19th century, people went to Africa or Australia and discovered many kinds of new animals. They obviously added to our knowledge. Astronomy can be pursued in that way. It appeals to one's wonderment. But is science just wonderment? I was in VLA the other day, and they showed me some incredible things in nature. Well, we understand none of them: at least so I was told. They conclude that they must make more observations. That is almost always how an astronomer concludes after his findings.
We need bigger telescopes.
So we can see more?
I've got them here somewhere. One of the things that motivates me is to try to demonstrate that you don't need onehundred-million dollars to do some new science. Here is some infra-red array images of Comet Halley, OK, and it was very faint then, just a little blob that's moving up to the left, OK. Here's a picture when it was pretty close to earth. It's the same image processing system. This was done on a six-inch telescope.
Icko Iben once told me that whenever he got a new result he wanted a bigger computer to go further. I told him that it was fortunate that the constraints were of an external kind, not constraints derived from his personal limitations.
[On the way to lunch Chandrasekhar mentioned that he thought the two greatest astronomers of the twentieth century were Karl Schwarzschild and Jan Oort.]
17-18 May, 1977.
Evans, David S. and Mulholland, J. Derral, Big and Bright: a History of the McDonald Observatory, University Texas press, 1986.
Struve, Otto Wilhelm, Erinnering an den Vater (Karlsruhe, 1896).
First letters of Struve to Frost in 1921 are in German.
Arp, Holton, Ouasars, redshifts, and controversies (W.H. Freeman, 1987).
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an Autobiography and Other Recollections, ed. Katharine Haramundanis (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
See 17-18 May 1977 interview, pg. 112.
Astronomical Centers of the World, (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Chandrasekhar AIP interview, 17-18 May 1977, pg. 114-5.
Struve used a dictating machine in writing his book Stellar Evolution during an abserving session in 1948-49.
Teacher's Insurance and Annuity Association/College Retirement Equities Fund.
Very Large Array, Socorro, New Mexico.