Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of George Field by Richard Hirsh on 1980 July 14,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Career of George B. Field, theoretical astrophysicist and administrator of astronomical research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Discussions of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Harvard Universities, interest in cosmological problems; possible detection of hot intergalactic matter in 1964; colleagues at University of California at Berkeley; views on popularizing science; reactions to Sputnik launch in 1957; funding of research from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); views on the manned space program; effects of Vietnam War on NASA and astronomical research; involvement with the Space Telescope; views of the Space Shuttle; extensive committee work for NASA; astronomical research under NASA; work at SAO; new programs at SAO, such as x-ray astronomy and the Multiple Mirror Telescope; service on the Jesse Greenstein and Allan Bromley survey committees of astronomy and physics; and his view of the universe. Also prominently mentioned are: Kinsey Anderson, Stuart C. Bowyer, Jim Bradley, Tony Calio, Riccardo Giacconi, Thomas Gold, Leo Goldberg, John Hagen, Noel Hinners, Fred Hoyle, Frank Martin, John Earl Naugle, Al Opp, Edward Mills Purcell, Martin Schwarzschild, Dennis William Sciama, Henry Smith, Sylvia Favior Smith, Lyman Spitzer, George Steiner, Frank Sulloway, Pat Thaddeus, James Van Allen, Fred Whipple; American Science and Engineering, Inc., Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Congregational Church, Harvard College Observatory, Harvard University Society of Junior Fellows, High Energy Astronomy Observatory, Lick Observatory, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) Astronomy Survey Committee, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) Greenstein Committee, National Science Foundation (U.S.), New York Times, Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, Princeton University Matterhorn Project, Project Apollo, Skylab, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Multiple Mirror Telescope, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Space Shuttle, United States Naval Ordnance Laboratory, United States Office of Management and Budget, United States Office of Naval Research, University of California at Berkeley, and Viking (Rocket).
We know you were born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1929, but we really don’t know very much about your family. Who were your parents? What did they do?
My father (Winthrop Brooks Field) and mother (Pauline Woodworth Field) were both graduates of Harvard, class of 1915 for my father, 1916 for my mother. At that time it was a Radcliffe degree, she received a cum laude. My father majored in mathematics and got a magna cum laude. He considered going on into teaching, but did not. Instead he became involved in estate management, by way strangely enough of first becoming a farmer. He was in a sense a kind of drop out in that period, back in 1917. He moved to New Hampshire. He farmed for something like ten years, and then he came back into the city and set up his farm management business which he continued until he died. My mother was, as I recall, a classics major at Radcliffe, and didn’t pursue it at all after she was married.
She brought up a family. I had an older sister, (Sarah Elizabeth Field Dammers) who died in 1979 and a brother (John Pierie Field) who is living in Chicago. The atmosphere around the family was quite intellectual. There was quite an interest in history, music, literature, and all of the family read voraciously. My mother was on the board of the local library (the William H. Hall Free Library of Edgewood, R.I.), and that proved to be important for me, because I was brought up to read, and I poked around in the shelves of the library. I very early discovered that this particular library had a pretty good collection in astronomy, and particularly the works of Eddington and Jeans, which I soaked up in my 6th, 7th, 8th grade period. I see you smiling. You probably had a similar experience with different authors later. In fact, I’m led to think that it is very important that there by materials available for bright kids who are interested in science. I have just spoken to an M.D. friend of mine whose 13 year old boy is extremely bright and interested in relativity, cosmology, particle physics and so on. His problem is getting books that are at the same time understandable but authoritative, and he’s had some difficulty in doing that. I decided early that I would be a scientist. I didn’t quite know what that meant, but it must have been in the 7th or 8th grade when I was already pretty committed. I was moving around between chemistry, mathematics, maybe physics. So when I went to MIT, I registered originally with the idea of being a chemical engineer, because my father had advised me that I could never make a living as a scientist, I’d better be an engineer. I quickly discovered that I didn’t like engineering and wanted to be a scientist, so I switched into physics at MIT and took a lot of math courses, and was very glad that I did. All that time I was interested in astronomy. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I was asked by the yearbook what I intended to do, and I answered “Theoretical Astrophysics.”
You really answered “theoretical astrophysics?”
In high school?
Yes, in high school I’d already decided that was to be my goal, but I was diverted from that goal by my father who said that was impractical. My understanding of the work of Einstein came from Eddington and Jeans, who had written these beautifully literate books on astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and the like. Roughly speaking, the analogy today would be Hoyle, Gamow, and perhaps Jastrow— literate writers who can convey the excitement of work in these fields.
You said your father discouraged you from going into astronomy specifically, but did he encourage you in science in general?
Yes. Very much so. I remember we would discuss mathematics together, and specifically, he had become fascinated with the concept of trisecting the angle. As you know, that was proven many years ago to be logically impossible within the framework of mathematics. Yet he somehow was convinced that it could be done, and worked a lot on this and tried to construct proofs and so on. He had tables of logarithm that he’d had in college and a slide rule that he introduced me to. So yes, he did encourage me, but he pointed out the difficulties in becoming a scientist. He probably wasn’t aware of the revolution in science that had occurred during the Second World War and how science had in fact become practical in many respects during World War II. I certainly learned that when I reached MIT in 1947. One experience I encountered was of trying to cut costs by living in an MIT dorm that was particularly cheap. It turned out to be a rehabilitated laboratory building that had been built for the Radiation Lab, so I was literally living in a laboratory. I had a pretty good understanding of the relationship between MIT and the war effort. My friends tended to be drawn from physics and mathematics— people interested in theory and in mathematics.
I took a large number of courses in mathematics. I could equally well have taken a degree in mathematics. Particularly I remember a course in mathematical analysis by Earl Coddington, who is no longer at MIT. It was a rigorous course that I found extremely appealing. So I’ve always been interested in mathematics. I would like to do more of it and haven’t in fact done as much as I would like. When I was finishing at MIT, 1951, the Korean War was on. I probably would have been drafted. Frankly, I had a big problem with that on moral grounds, and I more or less equally didn’t want to be killed. I decided finally to compromise. I’m not terribly proud of that but I agreed to work for the US government in Washington at a place called the US Naval Ordnance Laboratory. There I was involved in evaluating weapons systems, but with such an incompetent group that I’m pretty sure that it had no effect one way or the other on the outcome of the war or anything else. It’s not a very good excuse, but that was the situation. While there, the war cooled off, so I was able to formulate some plans about going to graduate school. In fact, the reason that I didn’t go to graduate school right away was that I wasn’t precisely sure which way I would go. Most of my friends continued in physics. They went to graduate school in physics and ended up doing particle physics or nuclear physics, and I was interested in astronomy but hadn’t been able to pursue that interest at MIT. And I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. Well, while in Washington I was able to pursue the thing much more, particularly by reading in the Library of Congress. I did a lot of reading in cosmology there.
And I took two courses with George Gamow at the George Washington University— one in thermodynamics, the other in nuclear physics—which were extremely stimulating, largely because he would lecture on other things that he was doing, particularly in molecular biology and cosmology. I found that very useful, very interesting. While I was in Washington that one year (which was ‘5l,’52), I made a study of the various graduate schools that might be appropriate. I decided on Princeton primarily— overwhelmingly, I would say—just on the basis of the reputation of the people. I was not particularly interested in what the program of study was, but who the people were and what their reputation was. Lyman Spitzer and Martin Schwarzschild appealed to me, particularly because what they were trying to do was to use modern physics to understand the formation, structure and evolution of stars, basically continuing the tradition of Eddington. I read some of their papers, learned about them, and was very impressed with them. I went to Princeton and enjoyed it tremendously. It was a very happy period in my life. I was there three years and took courses with some very great scientists like Robert Dicke, John Wheeler, and Eugene Wigner. I met Einstein a couple of times and took astronomy courses with Spitzer and Schwarzschild. In retrospect it wasn’t as challenging as it should have been.
It wasn’t a rigorous program of courses that one had to take there, and so I tended to skate by on my MIT training, which was unfortunate. I could have learned a lot more at Princeton then I actually did. But I did a certain amount in relativity and quantum mechanics, field theory, and so on. But what I really got involved in primarily was thinking about plasma physics. It was an odd situation there because Princeton at that time was probably the center of the world in plasma physics. There had been a rapid buildup of a capability in plasma physics, which, however, was classified. It was called Project Matterhorn at that time, and had stemmed from the concept in Lyman Spitzer’s mind that one could use the principles of magnetic confinement, particularly of the trapping of particles that had been described by Hannes Alfven under the term of cosmical magneto—hydrodynamics. The idea was to trap a plasma, heat it to a high temperature, and get a fusion reaction. Of course, at that time the equations were formulated in relatively simple terms, and people didn’t realize all the instabilities which could occur. And the history since they started that project has been of the attempt to control those instabilities; little by little they’ve been able to do that. At that time, I was only vaguely aware that Spitzer was doing anything like this. I was aware because he wasn’t teaching a course in that —— it was classified. But independently in my own reading I’d concluded that this was a very interesting area. I read particularly the works of David Bohm on plasma oscillations and also the works of some Russians who had been working in this area, particularly Ginzburg and Zhelezniakov.
I decided to work in that area myself, and did a theoretical thesis under Spitzer; the thesis was published in the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL. The problem that I set for myself was this: it was known at that time that there existed a mode of the plasma—electromagnetic field system which is called a plasma or longitudinal wave. It was also suspected that these waves could emit radiation into the surrounding environment, and in fact there seemed to be kinds of radiation coming from the sun that seemed to be based on plasma oscillations. The problem was: how does one go from a longitudinal mode, which is trapped in the plasma, to a completely transverse mode, which is electromagnetic radiation? I came up with two different ways that it could in principle happen, and I calculated the coupling coefficients between the two modes. Spitzer critiqued the thesis, but I think he didn’t understand too well what I was trying to do. However, there was nobody else on the faculty better prepared to understand it. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, in retrospect, to work on that particular problem. But I did, and the work was published, and it had some currency. It did in fact stimulate other work, but that’s the last work I ever did in that field. I never went back to it. Now, are we covering some of the items you’d like to cover?
Sure. You don’t mind if I backtrack just a little bit?
Why, with the background of your parents at Harvard, why did you go to MIT?
An interesting question. I don’t really remember. I remember applying to schools of technology, particularly Carnegie Tech, Rensselaer and MIT. I guess it was because I wanted a good engineering school, and Harvard at that time did not have an engineering school that was very prominent. In retrospect I don’t know whether it would have been better to go to one of these other schools. MIT at that time was very heavily concentrated in science and technology. There was relatively little course work in other fields. As I recall, we’d have one course in each semester which would relate to social sciences or humanities. That’s unfortunate because I really missed the education in that area. But at the same time, it was a bloody rigorous thing and you learned the stuff pretty well. That was a plus for me, because it forced me to really concentrate that way. My brother went to Harvard (1947) and my son (Christopher Lyman Field) is a graduate of Harvard (1980), and even my grandfather on my father’s side had been a Harvard student, so my involvement with Harvard goes back some. My grandfather, James B. Field, was an MD who graduated from Harvard in 1880 and from the Harvard Medical School in 1884.
So you came to Harvard Smithsonian so that you could get back into the fold of the family?
Not at all. Now I could talk to you rather frankly. Let’s get through graduate school and then look at that, because it does come up rather quickly. I first came to Harvard when I finished graduate school and did this thesis in 1955. That was a relatively good time for science. The opportunities were good, I would say. The most interesting opportunity that came to my attention was one that Spitzer had suggested, namely, to become a Junior Fellow in Society of Fellows at Harvard. I had never heard of them before but it sounded interesting, because it was a three year post—doctoral stint, with complete freedom to do whatever research you wished— no teaching duties— and a reasonable income, plus what seemed to be the rather nice idea of getting together for dinner and lunch with the other members of the Society. I accepted that appointment when it was offered to me, particularly because of Ed Purcell who was working in the physics department on related topics in astronomy, (particularly interstellar medium), in which I had become quite interested. So I did it, not because it was Harvard but just because it seemed like a very interesting opportunity. In fact, my opinion of Harvard was and is that it is inferior in this field, and one reason I came here specifically was because I saw it as inferior.
Yes, I’ve liked—or at least until recently I’ve liked— the idea of trying to take on a challenge of improving a place, and I think I did that successfully at Berkeley. But it’s questionable whether I’ve been successful here at Harvard, frankly. There’s a certain inertia in the system that— between you and me, now, very confidentially— seems to frustrate attempts to bring it up to par. I mean, Harvard has no excuse for being anything else but number 1 in astronomy, period, given the intellectual resources and the very large budget assigned to astrophysics. It is not number 1. It is still number 3 or 4.
Can I go back again and ask then why, after MIT, you went to Princeton? You say now looking back the program was not superior. It could have been more rigorous and so on. Why then did you go to Princeton?
I thought it was superior. The people were superior, and I learned a tremendous amount from Spitzer and Schwarzschild, both about specifics of astronomy, but also, the way to do science. I found them enormously stimulating people. It was just that it was a bit too easy for me. They didn’t force me to do a lot of work that I could have done, and I think in retrospect, I could have done a lot more in physics. I could have made a much more rigorous study of general relativity than I did. I flopped around in it and educated myself, but I’m not really well trained in relativity. This reflected their personalities that they would much rather talk about interesting current problems than to crack the whip over their students and make them do some dirty work in these fields. While in graduate school I had a couple of other ideas other than my thesis. The ones that I remember were related to radio astronomy. Radio astronomy was coming along in those days having virtually just started in the United States. There was a conference in Washington, DC in 1953 I believe, which would have been the second year that I was at Princeton. I became very interested in radio astronomy as a result of that conference. I went to the conference and had discussions with a variety of people. This stimulated me to apply for a position in the summer of ‘53 in Washington at a place called the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.
It could as well have been called the Department of Personal Magnetism, because the director, Merle Tuve, was really an extremely fine scientist— just the most inspiring guy, a physicist who had become involved with ionospheric studies and through that in radio astronomy. He built up a radio astronomy effort at D.T.N. focused on the 21—cm line of interstellar hydrogen. Spitzer recommended me for a summer position there, and I learned a lot from Tuve and his sidekick, Howard Tately, and got interested in other aspects of radio astronomy. Anyway, as a result of that, I decided to do my thesis in theoretical radio astronomy, and I also thought of a couple of other things. One of them was a theory for radiation by interstellar dust. I worked it out in a few pages and it seemed interesting I took it to Spitzer and he suggested that I forget about it because it wasn’t very convincing. But it’s interesting that another guy who is now a well—known radio astronomer wrote a thesis which incorporated this particular idea.
Can you tell me about him?
His name is Bill Erikson, and he’s now at University of Maryland. At that time he had been studying for the PhD at the University of Minnesota, and he accidentally had the same idea and worked it out. The other idea that I had was in connection with the 21 cm emission and absorption by the neutral hydrogen in interstellar space, The emission had been predicted in, I think, 1948 by Van de Hulst. Actually, it was even earlier, during the war, but it didn’t become widely known until after the war, and then a number of groups started working on it. It was first successfully detected, if I remember right, in 1951, more or less simultaneously by three different groups, of which Ewen and Purcell at Harvard was one. And so when it came time to decide where to go, I was very interested in the fact that Purcell was here and that there was a radio astronomy project at Harvard, and I wanted to get involved in that.
But going back to my graduate school days, I had applied the general ideas of astrophysics to argue that if there is a 21—cm emission line, there also must be an absorption line. If you view the cold interstellar hydrogen in front of a relatively hot source, just as in any astronomical situation, you ought to be able to see an absorption line. I worked that out theoretically. At the conference in Washington, one group that was well represented was that at the Naval Research Laboratory, headed by John Hagen at that time. He later became known as head of Project Vanguard. I talked with John Hagen about my idea at this meeting because N.R.L. had the equipment to do the experiment. I suggested that I do the experiment at NRIJ. He said, “Why don’t you write me a letter and request time on our telescope?” I did that and I spelled out what the experiment would be. He never replied to the letter, but roughly a year later, I learned that quite accidentally the NRIJ group had observed the predicted effect, without realizing what it was. They didn’t know how to interpret it. Ed Lilly (now a professor at Harvard) who was a member of the group at NRL at the time, told me that they flopped around trying to understand the effect, until Hagen remembered that he had received a letter from me on the subject. He pulled this letter out, and there it was all explained. They used my letter to interpret it, and I was not asked to be a co—author. They simply said in the paper that the possibility of observing the effect had been discussed with George Field. I was just a graduate student. I didn’t count.
So you really were given very little credit for that.
Right. I think the radio astronomers at the time learned that there was this guy Field who had predicted this thing, but that’s about it. Anyway, I realized the power of this method. In particular I became fascinated with the idea of applied cosmology —— and in particular, of observing intergalactic matter. The possibility that there was a substantial amount of intergalactic matter had been discussed earlier briefly, as I recall, by Whitford, who was at the Lick Observatory. He had made an optical search for it, but had not come up with anything. That got me to thinking about it. I thought, if the material were largely hydrogen, then one might be able to search for it with the 21—cm absorption technique, so I worked out the mathematics of that, and it turned out that if there were a significant amount of hydrogen (in the sense of being a certain fraction of the cosmological density) one could observe it relatively easily if it were cold. It had to be cold because it had to be neutral, and on top of that, the excitation temperature had to be low to give a measurable absorption.
I worked all that out, and I also considered how to go about looking for it. The American Astronomical Society happened to meet in Princeton the year that I finished there, in 1955. It happened that Dave Heeschen, who was at that time I think just finishing his PhD thesis here at Harvard under Bart Bok in the radio astronomy group, was at the meeting, and I discussed with him the possibility of looking for this effect. He was very helpful and advised me how it could be done. So that was one of the projects I had in mind when I came here. There were two aspects of it. One was to refine the calculations of it, and the other was to get going with the observations using the Agassiz Station radio telescope. I did both, and that was the way I spent those two years- by primarily working on those projects. I published a series of papers that came out of that. I should point out that I damn near demolished the telescope by leaving a copy of the Nautical Almanac on the switch that overrides the limit switches per motion in house angle. The motors drove the dish too far over, and were about to grind it apart against the foundation when another switch was miraculously activated by the vibrations. So much for my observational technique.
This was as a Harvard Fellow?
Right, a Junior Fellow, as it was called. Purcell, it turned out, was very helpful. We wrote a joint paper on the problem of exciting the 21—cm line. We had a very nice time together. And I met a number of very fine people in the Society of Fellows with whom I have remained friends since then. I enjoyed that whole thing very much.
Who were these people?
Well, I would say Frank Pipkinin the physics department here was particularly close. He is now Professor of Physics. Tai Wu stayed on in the Department of Applied Science. A fellow named Roy Glauber, who’s now a Professor of Physics, was here. Others included, a fellow named Bill Hardy, who went on to IBM, Marvin Minsky, who is in the math department at MIT, and a number of people outside of science, particularly Marshall Cohen, who is a philosopher, who’s now at Columbia I believe. John Hollander, a poet, and Donald Hall, a poet. We just had wonderful discussion which were very stimulating.
And not just on science.
No, many of the discussions were not on science, but the relationship between the scientific world view and the humanistic world view. That interest has stuck with me. I am a strong supporter of the Society of Fellows with the freedom that’s involved and the stimulation. I think it’s really great. The history of it is interesting. I think if you look into the history of the Society of Fellows, you find that the Junior Fellows have been relatively successful in what they’ve gone on to do. Whether that is because of their experience in the Society of Fellows, or whether just because they had been so highly selected to get into the Society of Fellows. I don’t know. For example, I have just now read that Politzer has just been promoted to full professor at Cal Tech; he finished as a Junior Fellow only a few years ago. I think it has at least the psychological effect of confirming your own creativity, inspiring you to go on. It’s positive in that sense.
Were there any engineers in that crowd?
That’s a good question. Virtually none, I believe. They were in the fields that Harvard tended to pursue, namely science, humanities, social sciences, but not engineers per se. Or if they were identifiable as engineers they’d be very high level engineers, Tai Wu, for example, now works within the Division of Applied Sciences and does scattering theory, but from a very mathematical point of view. He’s an applied mathematician basically.
I wonder about your engineering friends, because at MIT you say you were at one time pursuing a career in chemical engineering.
And I’m wondering, what turned you away from the engineers and got you back on the path of theoretical science?
At that time, at least chemical engineering was more cookbook. It concerned the processes that had been developed, and you were to learn these processes. They were successful, and it was not useful to inquire very deeply into why these particular processes worked. It was more a question of experience —— of using hand books and this sort of thing. It totally turned me off. The intellectual depth didn’t seem to be great at all. Now, engineering is much more sophisticated, and it has become in many ways more scientific, I think, and so I might feel differently now than I did then about it. Also, I remember having had an unfortunate encounter with a laboratory. There was an electrical engineering laboratory at NIT in which we were supposed to learn to make electrical measurements. It was just rote kind of thing: put instrument A to apparatus B, and push button C, and note the results, D. This kind of thing. It was totally lacking in depth.
I wonder about your dissertation. It was on plasma oscillations, right? Again, you said that you were working somewhat with Spitzer, but he did not really tell you all that he was doing. It intrigues me to learn how you got into that topic seeing that your advisor was not really pushing you into it. I know that lots of other people have been handed topics by their advisors. That does not seem to be case here.
No. In fact, if anything, I think if he had tried to give me a topic, I would have declined. I wanted to do my own thing. So I just read widely and came out with this general area that I wanted to work in. At that time I was pretty much of a self—motivated type, and I think I tended to be that way—not particularly caring what other people were doing, but just following my own instincts as to what was interesting. And at the present time I am following that principle in developing a new project in the area of magneto hydrodynamics of the sun and stars particularly. Dynamo theory is a fairly well established theory, but I have some ideas that are related to the generation and destruction of magnetic fields which seem not to have been studied by others. I do this just out of my own intellectual curiosity. That’s where I come from on these things. So Spitzer did not say, “No, don’t do this,” but he didn’t encourage me a hell of a lot either. I must say he did discourage me in the area of emission by grams where this other guy got a PhD out of it.
Have you talked to Spitzer since, and asked him why he discouraged you?
No, I did not. In fact the thought of doing that is unpleasant to me, because I consider myself a close personal friend. I think I still to some extent look up to him as a father figure. Therefore it would be difficult for me to do that. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good idea. So anyway, I enjoyed my years at Harvard very much. Normally I would have continued for three years in this general area. In the meantime, however, I had met a girl (Sylvia Fauior Smith) at Princeton, and thought about getting married. I did get married the second year I was at Harvard (1956—57). The income was not very great on the fellowship here, and in 1957 we got a call from Spitzer saying that they needed an assistant professor in the department at Princeton. He asked, “Would I be interested?” That seemed like quite a fairly rapid advancement for me at the time to get an assistant professorship with virtual assurance of tenure if I did well after two years of post—doc. Because it was a first rate institution, it seemed like an opportunity I shouldn’t miss. In retrospect, I’m not sure that it was such a great idea, because I think I was being productive here. And I also wonder about the advisability of going back to the place where I took the PhD, because it does set up a psychological situation which is perhaps not as good. Anyway, I did accept his offer.
You talk about income. What was your family situation? How were you able to go through school? How did you pay bills? Was your family supporting you?
At MIT it was a mixture of family support, scholarship, and working. I worked every summer. I can’t give you the exact breakdown; I guess maybe it was roughly thirds. My family did the best it could, but my father was not very well off. When I went to graduate school, the government has become involved in supporting graduate students, and in particular NSF fellowships were available. I remember I had a research assistantship with Van Wijk— an assistant professor— the first time around, then I got an NSF fellowship. From then on it was pretty clear sailing, with support by outside. I never called on my parents to support me during graduate school.
Let me just ask you a couple of other questions. For example, how did it affect you to change your status from being a grad student to this rather good position of professor at Princeton?
I would say that the changes were not very substantial, because both the institutions involved were relatively benign. That is, they were very encouraging of research. There was not a great deal of teaching involved at Princeton as an assistant professor. The staff was large enough and the number of students small enough so that this was not a problem. So in effect, it was largely research oriented all the way through, and I didn’t experience a major change. I might say one thing about coming back to Harvard. Because it may relate to institutional considerations here that are significant. My perception of Harvard when I came here was rather vague. There were two people who were visible to me at the time. One of them was Bart Bok, who had started a radio astronomy project to study the 21—cm line from interstellar hydrogen. The other was Purcell, who was well known as a brilliant physicist. Purcell, by the way, was involved in the Society of Fellows. That’s how that happened. So when I came here, I naturally came to the observatory and was given an office, and immediately got into contact with Bok and with Heeschen whom I’d known as a graduate student, and I set up plans for working with the radio telescope. But what about the rest of the observatory? When I came here, it was already in the process of growing as a. result of the postwar expansion of astronomy into new areas. Donald Menzel, who was then the director, had built up a group working on solar physics. I went into his office, having just arrived as a young post—doc, and assumed that he would be interested in what I wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in my work at all, but only in his own projects, which were completely different. Well, I signed up with Bok’s team and tried to work within that framework, and did not become involved in some of the other activities of the observatory because of the impression that Donald Menzel had made upon me. I was much involved in the physics department at that time, with Purcell particularly, but also Roy Glauber and some of the other people I mentioned.
After you left Princeton, you essentially gave up your plasma oscillation work?
Why was that, because you came some place else where there were different opportunities?
Yes. You see, I’d been developing these other ideas as a graduate student, and they turned out to be more interesting to me because they had the application to cosmology. The study of intergalactic matter relates to cosmology. But it’s an interesting point that the plasma oscillation work was relevant to solar physics, which was in fact Menzel’s field. I don’t remember doing so, but I must have explained this to him. But instead of encouraging me to work in solar physics, and thus be engaged in his field, he tried to convince me to work for him as a consultant on ionospheric problems. That was unfortunate.
I remember reading your paper on the plasma oscillations and your application of the theory to detect condensations in the sun’s atmosphere.
And you say you presented this to Menzel, and he was not encouraging at all?
Well, I must admit, I cannot remember the conversation, but that was the effect on me.
So that was a major factor in your switching your research interests?
No. Let me put it this way. When I came here, I had three things in mind: my thesis work, which was primarily of solar importance; this project that I had put forward that ultimately was the basis for this other guy’s thesis— this radiation mechanism, which is a purely theoretical thing; and finally, the work on intergalactic absorption. I decided to focus on the latter, and I can’t be very specific why, except that the opportunities there seemed to be greater. The people in that area—Bok and Heeschen and Purcell— were more encouraging.
Can you tell me of the origins of your interest in cosmology?
I think it probably goes back to basic philosophical questions that appeal to many people which concern, in the broadest terms, the nature of the physical world. And to pursue that, one has to understand the overall structure of the universe. I saw that my training and interests could fit in this particular way, namely in the radio observations of intergalactic matter. It has been speculated—that the bulk of the matter in the universe could be intergalactic. That issue is still not completely resolved. It keeps coming back. The latest wrinkle is, that it may very well be intergalactic, but not in the form of ordinary matter, but massive neutrinos.
Did you have any religious background or training that affected the way you thought or got into research in cosmology?
That’s a very interesting question. I would off hand say, no, but let me think about it. I was brought up in the Christian tradition—in a Christian church, the Congregational Church. Over the years I’ve had more or less interest in Christianity. At the moment it isn’t very high. But at that time I was quite interested in it and did have certain beliefs. I tend to think that such beliefs were disjoint with my scientific interests. In other words, it was just purely my interest in a scientific problem. “What can we learn about the universe?” I was thinking. And it never occurred to me for a moment that the Biblical story had anything to do with cosmology except in a poetic way. So, I don’t think so.
Did you ever read science fiction when you were young?
Oddly, no. I’ve never been interested in science fiction.
Why do you think that’s so. I find the same thing. People say, “Oh, you’re a scientist and historian of science. You must love Star Wars and all this science fiction.” I’m not at all interested, and that surprises people. I don’t know whether I can articulate why. Maybe you can give me good reasons.
Well, certainly science itself is very interesting and exciting, and it provides ample stimulation. What science fiction I have read tends to be some of the better stuff such as by Fred Hoyle. He’s written a couple of things. I have read Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury. Some of the classics of science fiction have been interesting. But as a steady routine, no. Many of my classmates at MIT did read science fiction, and I know people who are interested, but it doesn’t interest me very much. When I do have time to read, it tends to be in other areas such as fiction or history.
Did you ever think about extraterrestrial life when you were young?
No. That came along quite a bit later. I learned about the possibilities of contacting extraterrestrial life and always thought that it was a very interesting exciting possibility. But I didn’t come across it till fairly late. I remember reading—or becoming interested at the time in—the Cocconi and Morrison paper. And then when I was at Berkeley teaching a course in which I emphasized this kind of thing, I assigned the book by Shklovsky and Sagan as one of the readings, because I thought it was very interesting. But that was quite late.
You told me a little bit about the origins of your interest in cosmology. How have your views changed with time?
Not a heck of a lot, I guess. In other words, I’m most interested in those theories that have the greatest logical foundation and which have the greatest contact with observation. I should mention that while I was at Princeton, Fred Hoyle visited for a whole term or something like that. He gave a series of lectures on steady state cosmology. I remember then encountering for the first time the cosmological principle and realizing that, although it is called a “Principle”, it is only a postulate. The word “principle” was very misleading to me. I think it still is to people today. They don’t understand that cosmology is largely, if not entirely, an empirical subject that we know very little about, and there are no principles. You can produce simple models by postulating symmetry principles that may or may not be applicable. That’s about all you can say. So anyway, I’ve always thought that the steady state theory is extremely interesting because it contains a rigorous symmetry principle—the perfect cosmological principle—which should be investigated. And it makes very specific predictions. I have great admiration for Fred Hoyle in developing the theory.
I lost some of that admiration when, after the predictions of steady state were demonstrated to be false by radio source counts, he modified the theory to explain the new results. It seemed to me to be far less persuasive to pursue it from that point of view. I was interested in the Big Bang theory because it also has a symmetry imposed on it— namely the cosmological principle— as a class of theory that needs to be tested. I was very fascinated with the tests that can be made of Big Bang theory, and I think that if not all of the tests have in fact been passed at this time. But my attitude is, simply, that this means the Big Bang theory is a viable candidate, but it does not prove that the Big Bang theory is correct. In fact, I have grave doubts about the truth of the Big Bang theory. There are serious problems with it stemming from the fact that it embraces a singularity in the equations; physical reality is ascribed to a mathematical solution which has a singularity. Normally we don’t admit such a solution as reasonable within the physical world, and yet we have accepted it in the Big Bang theory. I very strongly suspect that the Big Bang theory is not an adequate description of reality.
So you think that there’s still a lot of work to do before you would be convinced that the Big Bang theory is acceptable.
When you were describing both Steady State and Big Bang theories, you talked almost in the third person. You never said, “I like this” or “I like that.” Did you have any predisposition toward one theory or the other early on?
No. I never have. I’ve always regarded it as an empirical subject. My view of science is the classic one; in an area of ignorance, you put forward hypotheses that seem plausible and test them, and continue to do so until you’ve refined your knowledge. I’ve never held with those who regard it as “preferable” to have a Steady State theory, or in the area of Big Bang theory, to have a closed or an open model, because I can see no reason of a scientific nature for choosing one over the other. The reasons seem to be esthetic. And I don’t think esthetics enters at this level. It enters at the level of the choice of hypotheses that can be put forward, but it does not enter into the verification process.
It’s interesting that you went into astronomy, a field in which verification is often very difficult, because you can’t get your hands on the things that you’re studying.
Yes. I think I was driven into astronomy because the questions fascinated me. I thought they were important in some sense. They involved the overall structure of space and time. We now understand that particle physics is important in the same sense, because it relates to the symmetry properties of space. So, I regard both of these fields as important and interesting. There is a psychological factor that I never understood very much, and this might be of interest to you as an historian of science. And that has to do with why some people become astronomers and others become particle physicists. I was very interested in physics as a method and in mathematics as a method of approaching reality. It seemed rigorous and appealing in that sense.
But when it came to deciding whether to study particles or stars, it was clearly something else operating within my psyche which was of a more intuitive, psychological nature, rather than purely logical. I was uncomfortable studying particles for some reason. It did not appeal to me. It still doesn’t appeal to me that much. I think equations are beautiful. I’m very turned on when I see recent proposals in particle physics that impose certain symmetry groups on the Lagrangian, thereby simplifying and unifying the theories of particle physics. But the actual study of particles themselves does not intrigue me, whereas the study of galaxies, stars and cosmos does intrigue me for some reason. Now, I don’t know much about the psychology of why people do things in this way. There’s a fellow named Frank Sulloway who has written a book on Freud which, was kind of an offshoot of his interest in the history of science. As part of pursuing these interests, he was led to look into the psychological characteristics of astronomers, physicists, chemists, biologists and so on.
And if I remember correctly what he told me— this was a couple of years ago— he was surprised to find that astronomers differ from all other physical scientists in certain psychological characteristics. Specifically, they differ in their birth order. If you’re interested you might want to check with him. He is now at the Institute for Advanced Study, I believe. He was a Junior Fellow at Harvard, as I was. He made this study, and he found that physical scientists— namely physicists, chemists, mathematicians—tend to be first born, and it apparently is a well established fact that there is a correlation between birth order and personality characteristics. First borns tend to be more aggressive whereas later borns tend to be— more passive. Astronomers tend to be later born and presumably, more passive. I myself was the third in my family. So that’s a curious thing that has intrigued me. I must say that as I go along in my career, I have found a very distinctive difference between physicists and astronomers, in terms of their PhD degree. More than half of the people at the observatory here, or in general in American astronomy today, have physics PhDs, and they are distinctive in their approach, being completely different from astronomers in just this way. I’ve never asked them what their birth order was. It would be interesting to look at.
They tend to be more aggressive. The astronomers tend to be more passive. I was somewhere in between. I am very interested in physics, but when it comes to studying particle physics versus cosmology, I end up being on the cosmological side. There is this correlation. The particle physicist in a sense is dominating his subject. His particles are small and manageable, whereas the astronomer is in some sense immersed in his subject, in the womb of the universe, if you will. And so it does somehow relate to whether you are dominating your subject or being dominated by it. Anyway, I’ve never had a chance to follow up on these thoughts, but I suspect they do relate to the psychological background of people and why they choose the field they do. I was very aware of that when I was a student at MIT. I made definite choice, namely that I was going to go into astronomy and hopefully cosmology as against particle physics.
Do you think astronomy offers greater intellectual latitude? You’re not as constrained by physical tests.
I think that is a true statement, because as you say it’s harder to test theories in astronomy. I don’t think that’s why I went into it, but maybe so. It’s more speculative, more free, in that sense.
Let me ask about your reaction to the discovery of the 3 degree background radiation. Were you still at Princeton at the time when the announcement was made?
Actually, as it happens, I have just been correcting a proof on a statement that I wrote up for a symposium at the Smithsonian last year. The statement went back into my history at that time, and I did get involved in this work. I was actually at Princeton up until 1965. The discovery, as I recall, was first published in ‘65, just as I was making the transition to Berkeley. But in that year approximately before I left Princeton I was aware of what they were trying to do. Stupidly I did not connect it with some work that I had done. I had, in fact, almost come up with the notion that there had to be such radiation before it was discovered.
Tell me about that.
Yes. The background was this: as part of the discussion of the excitation of hydrogen atoms in intergalactic space, I thought about various mechanisms that could excite them, and one of them of course is radiation. In the case of neutral hydrogen, I had wondered whether one should make a measurement of the background radiation at 21 centimeters. I was just looking at it purely empirically and unaware of any discussion of the Big Bang radiation. I certainly didn’t realize that. But that was back in ‘56. I had discussed it with one of the engineers here to see if one could possibly do it, and the answer came back “It would be very difficult.” As a result, I did not pursue it. Later, I remember discussing it with Arno Penzias whom I had gotten to know because he wrote his thesis on intergalactic hydrogen. He was interested in these matters, and we discussed it at that time. But again, I didn’t follow it up. A third opportunity arose when I was thinking about interstellar molecules.
The CN, yes, but why was I led to think of these interstellar molecules? I’m not sure. But in any event, this would have been in the ‘62 or ‘63 period. I had become intrigued with a statement in Herzberg’s book, Diatomic Molecules. He refers to an astronomical measurement made by McKeller in which he showed that interstellar CN is in fact rotationally excited, and he states that this is not understood. So I simply wrote out the equations describing the rotational execution of CN, as I had earlier for neutral hydrogen. I realized at once that there were two missing parameters. First, the dipole moment that couples the CN molecule to the radiation field at the resonant frequency of 2.6 millimeters, And secondly, what is the energy density of the radiation background at that frequency? I searched the literature and found that the dipole moment wasn’t known. Therefore you couldn’t really make the calculation. I was also aware that collisions could not account for the observed excitation, because unless the dipole moment were extremely small, you would expect the rotations to be coupled more to the radiation field than to collisions. Anyway, I wrote this out in a manuscript, but I couldn’t draw any firm conclusions. I went to Spitzer and showed him the manuscript to see what he thought of it, and he said, “Well, George, it’s not very conclusive. I suggest that you put it in the drawer,” which I did. That was in ‘62,’63, somewhere along in there. I was puzzled by the thing and did not understand it. Shortly after I got to Berkeley, someone called from the East Coast and said, “Have you heard about the discovery?” And the minute I heard I said, “Aha, that’s got to be it.” Then I developed the CN argument.
This was, for the record, the “Radiation Temperature of Space at 2.6 millimeters and the excitation of interstellar CN,” 1966. So one of your reactions when you heard about the discovery was “Aha, this makes sense of something I was studying before.”
Yes. That’s right. There were two other amusing things about it, which in retrospect were quite fantastic coincidences. One was that I remember having talked to a graduate student who was in the next office. This was only a few months after I arrived in Berkeley and he had mentioned that he was working on the interstellar spectrum of CN. That was point 1. Point 2 was that I remember I had been checking galley proof on an article that I had written for the ANNUAL REVIEWS OF ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS. In order to do that properly, the ANNUAL REVIEWS had sent me galley proofs, marked up, for a previous article that had been written the previous year. The article was totally irrelevant to my field, but it was sent just as an example of the way you mark up galley proofs. This article happened to contain within it in hidden form the only known estimate of the dipole moment of CN. I had literally thrown this into the wastebasket and not giving it any more thought, when all of this suddenly came clear to me. As I remember, it was within the space of a few hours. I went next door and got a new estimate of the rotational temperature from this graduate student, and then literally fished out of the wastebasket this estimate of the dipole moment. And so within the space of hours, the whole thing became clear. It was just pure coincidence.
Was this graduate student John Hitchcock?
John Hitchcock, yes.
That was who you wrote that paper with?
Has your explanation stood the test of 14 years time?
Yes. And I should say that others became interested at the same time, and to greater or lesser extent realized the same thing. Nick Wolfe, who was at that time (I think) associated with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, also made the connection and suggested to Pat Thaddeus who was also there that this was the explanation of the CN problem Pat went out and made a lot of measurements, and he deserves the credit for really nailing this down. There are some dozen stars now where this effect has been seen and they all gave the same answer as required by the hypothesis that it’s basically radiation excitation.
What’s the importance of finding the CN gas?
The CN itself has importance for molecular chemistry in the interstellar medium, something which is now pretty well settled by virtue of a hypothesis originally put forward by Klemperer and his student, Herbst here at Harvard, and more or less simultaneously by Dalgarno here at CPA. The hypothesis suggests that the chemistry of interstellar gas clouds depends upon what are called ion—molecule exchange reactions. And there’s a whole area of research that’s grown up around it, which is very interesting in its own right. And CN I believe fits in there in a natural way. But my interest was simply the excitation problem, and what it had to do with cosmology. The reason that it’s important is that at the time, the rotational transition was the shortest wavelength at which one could test the temperature of the background radiation. Therefore it is at a wavelength where you would expect the intensity of the radiation field to be bending over, in accordance with the Planck law. At longer wavelengths, you’re really in the Rayleigh—Jeans part. But somewhere in the millimeter range, the curve begins to bend over, and there was a factor of 3 difference between a simple extrapolation of the Rayleigh—Jeans law and the expected curve due to Planck law, and the CN gave that factor of 3. In other words, it was possible to demonstrate it was Planckian and not Rayleigh—Jeans curve, and that was the reason for interest in that particular thing. I guess my zero order response was: it explains something I’ve been wondering about. Then I realized that one could actually get a radiation temperature out of it. And then, at a somewhat higher order of sophistication, you could see that it actually proved it was a Planckian rather than Rayleigh—Jeans curve.
Let me go back to about 1959, when you were at Princeton. You wrote a paper on ways that you hoped you could determine the density of intergalactic matter. You told me that the intergalactic matter had been of interest to you for a long time. What stimulated you then to write this paper on the possible means of detecting that matter?
As I recall that paper that you’re referring to was primarily a paper on the attempt to detect the radiation from intergalactic neutral hydrogen atoms. But as I worked on that problem, I realized that the material could very well be ionized. So I was interested in what methods could be used to detect ionized material, and I suggested a few of them in that paper. I profited from discussions with Dennis Sciama, a cosmologist who happened to share an office with me at Harvard at the time. I think he was the first one who pointed out to me that the material was very likely to be ionized, and I agreed that that was so, once I worked it out. This investigation then took off in the direction of X—ray astronomy.
Were you hoping to find more matter than had been found by other means?
Why was that?
Just because it would have been a fascinating new branch of astronomy with cosmological implications.
What were the implications?
First of all, the study concerned mass density of the universe. It would provide a lower bound on the amount of matter in the universe, which would be interesting cosmologically. If we had been extremely fortunate, we would have found matter which would have sufficed to close the universe. It’s not that I want the universe to be closed, but I consider that an exciting problem. And it would have been very relevant to that problem. Secondly, we don’t really understand very well how galaxies formed, and it’s always appeared to me to be very interesting that galaxies occupy only one—millionth of the volume of the universe. Yet the space between them seems to be utterly empty. Is that really true? I frankly doubt that it’s really true. I think there must be intergalactic matter of some sort, I’ve always felt that was an interesting problem in its own right, if for no reason than it would tell you something perhaps about the way galaxies formed, just the way interstellar medium tells you about how stars formed. It would provide the source of matter in that respect.
And as you know, my entry into research on ionized gas was with the paper with Dick Henry, where we picked up on an idea that Gould and Burbidge had had regarding the emission of X—rays by this material. We showed that even in a standard Big Bang cosmology, one ought to be able to see the X—rays if there was a significant amount of hot intergalactic matter. I’m pretty sure it was Dick who pointed out that it’s unlikely the material would be smoothly distributed. So we decided that we must include in our calculations the possibility that it was clumped. Our paper does discuss, among other things, the possibility that intergalactic matter is to be found in clusters of galaxies. Later that was found to be true, namely that there is intergalactic gas in clusters of galaxies and it’s quite a substantial amount, roughly equal in total amount to that in the galaxies. What has so far eluded very definitive observations is whether there is also smoothly distributed gas. There is one line of evidence that argues yes, and another line of evidence that argues no. It’s simply undecided at this time.
You said this study of intergalactic matter got you into X—ray astronomy. Did you think that X—ray astronomy experiments made in 1964, only two years after the first source was discovered, were reliable enough to use for such work?
Well, as I recall, we used the experimental data from X—ray astronomy as an upper limit. We did not accept as definitive the first step in this field, I think at that time, there’d been only one, possibly two numbers published, one by NRL and possibly others by A, S and E. I’d have to go and look at the paper again to see what data we used, but I seem to recall that there was quite a disagreement between the data on the intensity of background. OK, here is the paper. There were three relevant observations. One of them was from NRL, which gave two upper limits. Then, the A, S and E group got a positive result, and then another NRL group got another positive result, so, let’s see, what do we say? “We have adopted the latter result in view of the indication that the result of Giacconi et al. was apparently based on an overestimation of their detector efficiency. It is the positive results of Giacconi et al. which led Hoyle to consider positive cosmological implications.” In all honesty, we were simply reading the papers carefully and reporting as best we could what we thought was being said, but we had no expertise in that field, nor did we contact the people involved, as I recall. We didn’t talk to them. I may have talked to Friedman at that time but I didn’t know Giacconi.
I remember that in this and other papers, you were fairly guarded with your conclusions. You didn’t want to say “Yes, there was intergalactic matter of sufficient density to close the universe.”
I’ve always been very cautious on these matters, because I think it is a tricky field, and there are always different ways to explain these data. So we need additional data constantly. Yes, I would characterize myself as fairly cautious.
And yet Richard Henry must have felt differently than you, because I remember seeing in TIME MAGAZINE a picture of him saying “The universe is closed” or something like that. Now, TIME MAGAZINE reporters might have gotten a bit over excited, but was he as cautious as you?
No, I don’t think he was, really. Let’s see, what do we say?
I’m afraid I don’t have the subsequent papers. I know there was a big debate between Bowyer, who was at Berkeley, and the NRL people.
That’s true. I must admit I don’t remember much of the substance of that. Bowyer had started out at NRL, and he had done an experiment there which he had not analyzed completely. But when he brought the data to Berkeley, we did analyze it, as I recall. That’s where the data came from. I’d be interested in what we said in that NATURE paper? We have to go back and find it. I can ask my secretary to try and pull it out.
I analyzed the debate in my thesis. I think there was a problem with whether there was a latitude effect or not.
Yes. I remember. We discovered the latitude effect and gave it an interpretation, and there was a discrepancy between the expected latitude effect and what we actually saw. I tried to argue, and I think I’m guilty of wishful thinking here, that this could be understood in terms of the cloudy structure of the interstellar medium. I think later authors have demonstrated a flaw with that argument. But again, I used that to argue that the radiation was extragalactic, and therefore provided constraints on an intergalactic medium. But I don’t believe I argued that it demonstrated the existence of an intergalactic medium, and I still would not argue that way. In fact, in a recent paper written with Perrenod in ‘77, I looked at more recent data. Our paper was phrased in terms of constraints, without committing ourselves as to whether this really is the proper interpretation.
Between you and me, I think that those who have argued on the basis of the Einstein results that the X—ray background is due to quasars may be as guilty as someone who has argued that the background was due to intergalactic gas, because there are at least as many problems with that interpretation. One problem is the spectrum, and the fact is that the spectrum of the X—ray background as determined by HEAO-A has a distinctive break in it at about 30 keV which is very difficult to explain, in my opinion, unless the individual discrete source spectra all had breaks in them. There’s no physical reason that we know of why they would all have breaks at approximately the same energy. So this is an unresolved question. On the one hand, there seems to be enough energy in the few kil volt range from the quasars to explain the background. On the other hand, it’s hard to explain the break in those terms. If you look at the intergalactic matter interpretation, you can explain the spectrum all right, but the total amount of energy involved is hard to explain. In fact, you run into real problems in doing that. So, I don’t know what the explanation is going to turn out to be.
Since we’re talking about some of your work at Berkeley, can I ask you why you went from Princeton to Berkeley?
Sure. Well, it happened this way. I had been at Princeton since ‘57 and was on sabbatical. I went to Cal Tech for just one quarter. I taught at Cal Tech from early ‘64 to the summer of ‘64. While I was there, somebody—I guess it was Cudaback in the radio astronomy group— decided I might like to spend the summer at Berkeley, and we decided to do that. It was a pleasant place to be, and I didn’t have to go back to Princeton that summer. I liked it very much, and apparently the people there liked me. It ended up that they were looking for somebody, and they offered me a position. That offer came through in the fall of ‘64 during the time when the Free Speech movement was big. Mario Savio was doing this thing in Sproul Plaza. At the time, we were trying to make up our minds whether to accept this position.
The comparison as it presented itself to me and my then wife was between Berkeley on the one hand and Princeton. At that time, Princeton was safe. I had a tenured position, associate professor, at that time, although I didn’t have a full professorship. But I figured I would get one. Berkeley, however, was something of an unknown quantity. It certainly didn’t rank with Princeton as an astronomical institution. On the other hand, it seemed to us that Berkeley was very exciting, and Princeton was a bit stodgy. I always had been struck with that aspect of it. Princeton was a kind of conservative, ingrown type of place, not specifically in astronomy but generally across the board. A lot of the people on the faculty had been trained at Princeton, and it was a small town atmosphere. Also, I must say that one factor in my consideration was that my wife and I had become involved in church work there. It was a church of unusual composition. It was primarily made up of black people, and we enjoyed that, but we’d gotten more and more involved to the point that we were doing nothing else but church work. They needed a lot of help, and the offer was a convenient excuse to get out of Princeton, frankly.
So everything conspired to say “Let’s take a fling and just go there.” I discovered one thing about the American academic situation when I made that move. When the news got out that I was going to Berkeley, I got many job offers from all over the country, offers of jobs which I’d not heard of before that. Actually there were 11 different job offers from various places. Why they had not come in before that is mystifying. They apparently figured that I was at a good place and wouldn’t think of leaving there. When they saw that I was thinking of going to a place that ranked number 5 or something like that, well, then, maybe I should go to a place number 3 or 4 or whatever. So anyway, we’d made up our minds to go to Berkeley, and it was very interesting while we were there.
Why did you decide then to leave Berkeley a few years later?
Oh, no, it was a long time. I was there from ‘65 to ‘72, seven years.
You first became chairman of the department?
Actually not. I was chairman there only the next to last year that I was there. As I recall, I was chairman from 1970 to 1971. I stayed on during 71—72 but that was with the understanding that I was leaving in July 1972. I had already decided to leave, and I didn’t wish to be chairman during that last year. People recognized that would be bad, so instead somebody else was chairman. When I went to Berkeley it was understood that I would be a professor. I was not going to be chairman, and I was not in fact chairman for the first five years that I was there. But at the same time, I had the best of all worlds because there were a number of decisions that had to be made. New positions had to be filled—the department was still growing there— and the department gave me very strong input on the new people. I essentially recruited many of the young people that ended up going there.
So I enjoyed that aspect of it, but without doing the administrative work. So when I came here to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory actually I had only one year as chairman of a small department. So the real question is, why did I first agree to be director of an observatory? Secondly, why a big observatory at that, and even bigger than has traditionally been suggested? I don’t know. I mean, it’s crazy. Perhaps it was a mistake. My personal life enters at this point. Somewhere during the Berkeley period, I became very dissatisfied with my married life. I was in some sense, looking for a way out, although I guess I didn’t realize it at the time, I ended up getting divorced. I left home in 1976 and got divorced, though the divorce became final in ‘78. But during that whole period, there was a lot of personal turmoil, which, I think stemmed from immaturity on my part, which I hope I’ve overcome somewhat. I know that I’ve improved a lot in that area since then. But my wife also is immature, and we had in effect set up a contract which was not very realistic. When we got married, we were expecting too much from the marriage, and somehow I think that my desire to make a change from Berkeley was related to that. I was very unhappy, generally speaking. I was looking for some kind of way out at that time, not within the framework of the marriage, but something else.
Did she stay in Berkeley?
No, She came along. And the move and new activities did give the marriage a new lease on life for a while, but it turned out not to be very closely related to our marriage. Our marriage was a different problem. But there was a mixture of reasons. I think, first, I missed certain things about the East. I’d been brought up in the East. Specifically I enjoyed the rainfall and changes in the weather. The imminence of rain, which also stimulated the proliferation of growing things, is not the case in Berkeley. Anything there is grown by artificial watering. Turn off the water and everything dies. That bothered me. It was a basic philosophical and psychological thing. And I enjoyed very much coming here in the summer. So that was one aspect. Another one was the challenge—the thought that here was the Harvard Observatory which as I’ve spoken of earlier, was a third or fourth rate institution. It seemed to me that it should be possible to make it first rate, and I asked myself whether I could do that.
The people I was talking to here seemed to think I could. In retrospect, I don’t think I did. We’re more or less where we started. But it was an interesting challenge to see if I could. Third, there was this problem of my marriage. I think if I had been able to resolve my marriage problems, I might have been happier staying at Berkeley and continuing scientific work, because it is turning out to be a good department and very active. Right now I have an insatiable hunger to get back to scientific work. I really want very much to do so. I’ve been planning to step down as director in a definite time, which has been announced, in 1983. And people are already working on the question of what the arrangement will be after I leave. The explicit reason I would leave is because I’ve had it with administration. I think I’ve done what I can in this area, and I really want to do teaching and research.
I’d like to get back to that a little later.
Sure. Get into some of the other things first.
Let me just ask your opinion of two people at Berkeley— Kinsey Anderson and Stuart Bowyer. Both were involved in space research; and I’ve met Bowyer on a couple of occasions.
Sure. Kinsey is a competent person, though not very imaginative. In my opinion, he simply wasn’t very stimulating. In my opinion Bowyer is a much more engaging personality because of his desire to reach beyond where he at the present time, and his desire to start new programs new research ideas, and new techniques. And I think he’s been very successful in that given the fact that he is laboring with some disadvantages, one of them being his own Personality. He’s his own worst enemy, you could say, and yet, if you look at his publication record, I think he’s made a tremendous number of diverse contributions to astronomy. He is very underrated. I think he has, among other things, contributed a whole cadre of people to the field who are good, and some of them absolutely outstanding. Bruce Margon is one of them, and so I would have to rate Bowyer very high in terms of his contributions to American astronomy, but I think he is not appreciated. What I sensed in Stu was a really creative spirit. He was not extremely intelligent in the intellectual sense, but he had his eye on the ball, he moved where the action was, and he was a very energetic and aggressive in pursuing that. Terrific.
You mentioned his personality. He is a bit Unconventional?
He isn’t worried terribly about what people think of him. That’s my impression.
Let me ask you a couple of questions before we talk about space research. How do you feel about popularizing astronomy? Have you done much popularizing? Have you written many popular articles?
Nope. I probably could have done more. I enjoy it. I think it’s extremely important. I admire those who do it. I think I could probably write some reasonably good articles. I’m not particularly good at it, but I do enjoy giving popular talks of one sort or another, and I do a certain amount of that. There is an Alumni College here where alumni attend classes here. It is a kind of popularization, and I arranged one which came off very well. The people were very interested, but I think we are not doing anywhere near enough in this area.
Why do you think it’s important?
That’s a damn good question. I don’t think it’s important specifically because of the reason that is normally given, namely, these are the people who support the research. I can’t explain it. It has to do with process of communication as a very basic goal in human life. And it’s a very important social function. Somehow, I groove on people who learn something new and get a big kick out of it. In other words, I get psychological kicks out of that. And it’s just a turn on to address a group of interested laymen who then thank you for it. I guess that’s it. It’s more just personal gratification than anything else. It obviously has these other spinoffs and I don’t understand why scientists don’t do more of it.
What do you think about scientists who are on the fringes of disciplines or subdisciplines and make contributions? These people could be called marginal scientists—not because they’re marginally good— but because they’re marginal to a discipline. Do you think these people make major contributions in the fields where they really don’t belong?
I’m not sure what type of person you’re talking about. Are you talking about Fred Hoyle, for instance, who works in the area of biology and talks about the origin of life on earth, through panspermia—an area where he is not particularly qualified— is that the kind of thing you mean?
Yes. How do you feel about that?
Well, I don’t think he has been particularly successful so far. Although he is a brilliant person, he doesn’t seem to take the care to associate with individuals who are equally qualified in related fields. In other words, if he took this matter really seriously, he would either put more effort into learning the field of genetics or molecular biology, or, if he couldn’t do that, he should collaborate with somebody who is an expert. Instead, what he has done is either write articles out of his own head, so to speak, or work with other people who are more or less doing the same thing and do not have a background in the field. The result is, that the product is fairly low quality and not very believable. In general, I have a bias in favor of people crossing fields and doing something where appropriate, Physicists have made enormous contributions to astronomy. In fact, you can argue that all of the interesting new discoveries have been made by physicists. So that would be an example.
In the observational or experimental areas, that’s right, but even in the theoretical area. One thinks of Bethe, who discovered the carbon cycle, or of Einstein doing the basic theory behind gravity.
You could almost be considered as a marginal scientist. You have dipped your hand into a number of different disciplines, such as radio astronomy, X—ray astronomy, and so on.
Yes, that’s true. In fact, it has been with mixed success in the sense that it has stimulated some new work. But in other cases, I don’t think I dipped deep enough to have a very big effect. A case in point would be this solar problem that I spoke of. I didn’t work hard enough on that to have very much effect on the field. If you could criticize my career, that would be one criticism you would make, namely that I didn’t stick with these fields long enough or deep enough.
But how about in X—ray astronomy? There you brought to bear some data that existed on a very important problem. You suggested directions for further research that were picked up.
True. I think I did have an effect there. I’ve written an article recently which goes into the whole question of this dichotomy which we’re now faced with, namely, between the two kinds of observations— of quasars on the one hand and the background on the other. I’ve tried to delineate some of the theoretical problems that exist. I’m not going to publish that article, primarily because I don’t have time. I think if I were able to devote more time to it, I would try to develop this article to the point that I would be proud of it. As it stands now, I’m unable to do that, unfortunately. I’m now at the point where I’m spending so much time on administration that I can’t really do a good scientific job. But I haven’t spent so much time in administration that I don’t still recognize what a good scientific job is. So I will not publish something that is not adequate.
Do you think there is some correlation between aging and creativity in a scientist?
In my experience, no. Some of the most creative people I’ve known are in their forties, fifties, and sixties even. One thinks of Ed Purcell, who keeps coming up with totally new ideas. Hoyle is also extremely creative at his age. Spitzer too apparently shows no sign of slowing down. He’s approaching 70 or else he’s already 70, and indeed he’s generating new ideas and new programs at a constant rate. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious correlation as far as I can see. There are those who seem to be the bright young men and women, but they run out of ideas or burn out relatively quickly. But that maybe sort of a thirties, forties phenomenon. But no, I haven’t seen any direct evidence of that kind. It may be true. I just don’t understand it nor have I seen it.
Are you concerned with the fact that the discipline of astronomy might be getting older as fewer new young people enter the field?
Yes. I am concerned about that.
What do you think the impact of this trend will be?
I think that even though the older people may continue to be active, they tend to be active in the same areas in which they started. New fields would not be developed therefore, unless you have new people coming in. That’s very unfortunate, and I think we have to think of ways to deal with it.
I know I’m jumping around a bit and hope you don’t mind.
Not at all.
In your bibliography that you sent me, you checked off your textbook, COSMIC EVOLUTION, l978, as an important item. I want to know why you thought that was such an important contribution? I have my own theory but I’d like to hear it from you.
Yes, sure. The book was an attempt to do something new in the teaching of astronomy. I don’t think it was totally successful, judging by the sales of the book.
Sales were not good?
Sales were not good at all. Basically, what we were attempting to do was to describe the astronomical universe in its entirety, and then to develop a single unifying thesis to explain the universe in its entirety. That thesis is based on the Big Bang cosmology and the further development of it as the expansion proceeds. To me, at least, that seemed to offer the opportunity of unifying not only all of astronomy in a nice way, but geology, biology and so on. We tried to put these fields into some kind of a universal perspective. Admittedly, how the universe really did develop is only a guess at this time, but the Big Bang cosmology seems to be consistent with everything we know at the present time. So it isn’t premature to suggest that line of thought. But as I say, no one has picked up on it.
I noticed the chapter on Human Evolution and Creationism. Who wrote that section on Creation?
It couldn’t have been me, because I don’t even know what the word means.
Oh, it’s God’s creation of the universe, that explanation for—
Yes, that must have been Verschuur’s contribution because I don’t think that was in the original manuscript that I submitted.
How about the chapter on extraterrestrial life?
Part of the chapter was written by Ponnamperuma, who is an expert on that area, and part was written by Verschuur, particularly the technical side of contacting extraterrestrial life. Virtually all the rest of the book was written by me, with just minor modifications from the others. Verschuur did go through the whole manuscript, however, and tried to bring it to a level that could be understood by a college freshman. Even that didn’t seem to be successful. The problem with the book is, it’s too difficult. In general I agree with everything that was said in it, but I did not write every word of the book.
I thought it was quite unusual and interesting to see chapters on extraterrestrial life and human evolution in an astronomy textbook.
Yes. Well, as you know, most astronomy texts are now moving in this direction, and people realize that this is a valid subject to discuss. But I think that perhaps it is premature. I always seem to be getting into areas that are not exactly the problem of the moment. I don’t think through the coupling between my ideas and the rest of the scientific community. The fact is that there are very few people teaching elementary astronomy that would care to get into these areas, so they shy away from the book because they don’t understand these areas very well. There is a guy here who is prepared to and who does a very fine job, and that’s Eric Chaisson.
To start talking about space, let me ask you when you started thinking about space travel— not necessarily space science but space travel?
Sure. I’ve never been interested in space travel, strangely enough, except as a means of doing science. So I guess it goes along with my lack of interest in science fiction.
In the thirties, of course, there was Buck Rogers and all that science fiction, but you were quite young.
Sure, I read Buck Rogers, but not with a great deal of interest. It seemed like fairy tales.
So when did you really start getting an interest in space for scientific purposes?
I think it was at Princeton. Lyman Spitzer had a great interest in the subject, and he convinced me that astronomy in space would be the way to go in the future. I remember discussing space travel with him in 1952 or ‘53, when I was a graduate student there. Spitzer himself is interested in space travel and wanted personally to go into space. At that time he said that he would drop everything if he could go into space himself. I remember thinking that space travel didn’t appeal to me that much.
What kind of space measurements did he want to make?
Ultraviolet. He succeeded in getting a rocket program at Princeton and sending up rockets to study ultraviolet radiation from the stars. He then got the Copernicus satellite, which is still operating. I believe, after being launched in 1973. That work didn’t turn me on, actually, but what did was the notion of a very large space telescope, which I think he first proposed in a Rand Report in 1946 or perhaps earlier. Because of the large collecting areas and the lack of difficulties with seeing a space telescope would give extremely precise images, and therefore, one could observe very faint stars. It would be an enormous step forward on what we’d been able to do on the ground. That did excite me from the beginning and so I got involved in the planning and design for the Space Telescope. I also remember being interested in space results as a result of the discovery of the Van Allen Belts.
I thought that that was very exciting, and I did some work on planetary physics, in particular the radiation belts of Jupiter. In the course of that work, I read quite a lot of the literature on space physics and space plasmas. I’ve always been interested in that aspect of it, as a tool for exploring the space around the earth and in the solar system. I was quite interested. But it’s interesting. I don’t get particularly excited about the concept of space flight per se. In fact, I find the display of spacecraft in the Air and Space Museum in Washington very dull. I am interested in the early types of airplanes and the way people dealt with the very difficult problem of maintaining heavier—than—air devices in flight. But it seemed to me that once a spacecraft is orbited, it is a rather dull affair, because space is so benign. Nothing happens. The satellite is just coasting. Strange. I don’t relate to that, but I do relate to looking down on the earth and seeing the earth beneath. I don’t care about being at zero G and pissing in a bag and eating oatmeal.
At Princeton were you involved in any of those rocket experiments?
No, I was not. Ultraviolet astronomy for some reason did not seem exciting. The reason was that the predicted results were just a reasonable extrapolation of what we already knew from optical astronomy. That relates to something else: I’m not that interested in stars, actually. I couldn’t care less about individual stars, such as RD 146238, which is a well known something or other. Very bizarre stuff turns me on tremendously, however, like the Crab Nebula. I even wrote a book on the Crab Nebula, only to find that a very similar book, a popular book, was written almost simultaneous by Simon Milton. Mine is almost word for word what Simon wrote on the Crab Nebula. I’m very interested in bizarre things like the Crab Nebula and the way everything fits together—coincidences and unpredicted discoveries. But the sun and other stars like the sun seen dull to me. I seem to have a hang-up in the area of stellar physics. Maybe it relates to the fact that Martin Schwarzschild was in charge of that activity at Princeton and I failed to become involved in his work. Lyman was in charge of everything else such as interstellar matter, hydrodynamics of stellar collisions, plasma physics. etc. These were more high flying activities.
So during the fifties you remained with your theoretical work and did not do experimental work with rockets.
Do you recall what your reaction was in 1957 when Sputnik’s launch was announced?
Politically and scientifically, I was excited that this conception of artificial satellites which you could write down on paper, actually works. I had a discussion with George Steiner, who was a literary critic. He happened to live on the same street that I did at Princeton, and later moved to England, I believe. He asked me shortly after Sputnik how I could be out washing my car, when Sputnik was overhead? We had an interesting discussion. I can’t remember exactly what point of view I took. But I ended up consulting for the NEW YORK TIMES— explaining orbital mechanics. I wrote a letter to the TIMES because I felt that it was very important for the US space program to be declassified and be in the open, even though it was anticipated that some of our spacecraft might blow up on the launch pad. If you recall, there was a period when there was a call for classifying our program so that we wouldn’t be embarrassed. You’re asking interesting questions and I don’t think my answers are particularly rational. They don’t all fit together very well. I’ve told you that being in orbit myself doesn’t appeal to me, but demonstrating orbital mechanics is tremendously exciting.
Were you disappointed that the first satellite was not an American one?
Why was that? Weren’t you “patriotic” in those days? You told me about the fact that you didn’t want to go to Korea.
I’ve never been patriotic, in a simple way. My attitudes are confused in this area. Getting back to “Why wasn’t the first satellite American?” In a way, I was disappointed. I thought, “What’s wrong with us?” I was frustrated. Why couldn’t we demonstrate the same ability the Soviets had? Was there something fundamentally wrong with our system of engineering and management that we couldn’t get our act together? But it wasn’t America as a whole. It was more, “What’s wrong with us, the scientific— engineering fraternity which I’d grown up with?” We were responsible for these things; “why had we not done it?” I thought of it in these terms rather than “Why hadn’t the US done it?”
Did the Sputnik launch say something to you about the way Russian scientists and engineers were trained— whether they were trained better than we were, whether they had a better atmosphere in which to work or better support from their government?
No. I was not well informed in those areas, so I didn’t know what to think on those points. I did know that we could have done it, and we didn’t. I was angry that we hadn’t. I was hopeful that we would.
What was your reaction then to for example the first Vanguard non-launch— the one that was supposed to go up and which was televised, but which exploded on the launch pad? How about that and the subsequent glorious failures?
“For Christ sake!” That was my reaction. Why don’t we get our act together? Because I knew the level of technical competence at MIT and Princeton, and I couldn’t understand where these excellent technologists were. What was the mismatch? Where were my friends? They could have done it. It was frustrating.
Did you think that there was something wrong with the politicians? You said when you were at the Naval Ordnance Lab, you were dealing with a bunch of people you didn’t think were terribly competent. Did you think those old colleagues of yours must be running the rocket program?
Yes, in a way. As it turned out, it was John Hagen who was running the Vanguard program, and he didn’t have any experience in this area. It wasn’t that specific. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I can’t remember in detail what my feelings were at that point.
Did the Sputnik launch get you to think more about taking advantage of space for scientific research?
Yes. Sure. It was only three or four months before we finally got something off the ground. Didn’t the very first Explorer discover the van Allen Belt?
Well, the Geiger counters just died, it appeared. The reason for this was that just too much radiation was swamping the Geiger counters, when the satellite went through the Belt.
But they didn’t realize it then.
It took a little while, sure. The second one really verified van Allen’s thesis.
No, I don’t think I made a very great leap of the imagination at the time of the first Sputnik. But certainly when van Allen announced his results, it was clear that this was a means of scientific exploration. As I said earlier, I did try to make use of those results. In fact I wrote a paper which appeared in JGR, roughly that time called “The Sources of Radiation from Jupiter at Decimeter Wavelengths.” It was based on the concept of van Allen Belts, which had been discovered in ‘58. So I quickly took advantage of it. But it wasn’t particularly relevant that it had been discovered by spacecraft. It was just that it had been discovered, and it was a totally new phenomenon that I found very intriguing.
Did you do any direct experiments using space probes?
You’ve taken advantage of data that comes from satellites, haven’t you?
Yes. I did when the data appeared to be significant for my own work. The cases in question were Jupiter, where I was using the van Allen radiation—X—ray astronomy, and later the ultraviolet data from Copernicus. I wrote a couple of papers on the results of Copernicus also. Two or three different discoveries of Copernicus led to published results. We were talking earlier about the difference between stellar and other areas of physics. You got me thinking why I was not interested in stars. I don’t know. There are strong psychological biases in what I do, and I don’t understand where they come from, but I am not as interested in stars. Recently there was a discovery with the Einstein satellite that many classes of stars are X—ray sources. I found that discovery very stimulating. In fact, the talk at the IAU meeting in 1979 on this subject by Giuseppi Vaiana who is a staff member here, turned me on tremendously. It had the result of pushing me further in the direction of my own research on that subject. My interest is not because these facts were discovered with space vehicles. It arises because the discoveries were totally unexpected results which can be explained only by interesting new physics. That’s what excited me.
So that’s what I seem to look for—an unexpected result. I long ago drew the general conclusion that astronomy with ground-based telescopes had given us a very specialized view of the universe. Radio astronomy, on the other hand, gave us a new view and unexpected results. I immediately became interested in that. Space astronomy interests me for the same reason. It offered the opportunity of looking in the ultraviolet X—rays, infrared, and gamma rays. Earlier I said I wasn’t at first interested in the ultraviolet results on stars, but I became interested in the ultraviolet results on the interstellar medium, and that’s because of my bias against stars. I was also interested in the X—ray and infrared results. All of those things appealed to me because they are yielding up qualitatively new information. So I quickly concluded that space astronomy offers the opportunity for revealing new information and therefore it should be pushed as much as possible. I tried to do that at Berkeley, here also I tried to push it.
How did you push it at Berkeley?
I recruited Stu Bowyer.
OK, that’s certainly something. Did you have any contact with the military or other funding agencies back before Sputnik, such as the Office of Naval Research or the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics?
No, none of them. I grew up in a period when NSF was supporting astronomy, and I got funded at Berkeley for theoretical research by NSF. I recognized that NASA was an appropriate place to go for space astronomy, and I’d never needed to go to any of the military organizations. Now, prior to NSF, ONR had supported astronomy, but during my period I didn’t go to ONR. Besides, I had a bias against the military.
Going back to the Naval Ordnance days or the Korean War?
No, actually before that. Maybe I can explain my attitudes. When I was in high school, which would have been between 1944 and 1947, my brother was in the service. He didn’t get into action because he was inducted just at the end of the war. He and I had a lot of discussions about the military and about use of force and violence in human affairs, and I read a number of books on non—violence at the time, including some by Tolstoy. His work in this area is not generally known, but he wrote a couple of important books on the use of non—violence, I became more or less a convert to this way of looking at things, partly for religious reasons but partly just because I had an instinctive feeling that violence was extremely counter—productive. I believed that human problems had to be resolved by non-violent methods.
And I thought that he had stumbled on to something very important, which he had drawn from the Christian tradition from the literal interpretation of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount— that you should turn the other cheek and not fight back. But other thinkers also pursued these ideas; I found them very appealing. I became associated with the Quakers while I was at MIT. I refused to take Reserve Officers Training at MIT, which was required (or thought to be required) of all students at MIT, because it was part of its charter from the US government. MIT is a land—grant college and it had to have ROTC. I refused to participate and they didn’t at first know what to do with me because I was apparently the first one who ever refused to do it.
Ten years before your time.
Yes. And so the university cooked up a scheme for me to do it alternative service. I took a course in international relations, which turned out with a professor politics. I recall he happened to be a Quaker, so the whole thing worked out very nicely. But I was always backing away from the military, except for this engagement with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, for which I explanation except I didn’t want to kill anybody, and I didn’t want to be killed myself. At that time, short of going to jail, my work for the laboratory seemed to be the only way to get out of the military. So I did it. I feel rather ashamed of it, frankly. I probably should have announced my intention to go to jail during the Korean War. But anyway I’ve always been opposed to the military. When I came here, somebody appeared at the door of this office on my first day, and said, “I’m here to take your fingerprints.” It turned out to be the SAO security officer, and in SAO then had a classified library, and the Director of SAO therefore had to have top secret clearance. My response was, “No, I do not want to have a security clearance. I will not give you my fingerprints. Go and tell whoever sent you that we’re going to get rid of the classified library also.” We did, so now SAO has no classified material.
I can fairly well assume that the next two questions I ask you will have a negative response, namely, did you have anything to do with the Jason Group, the classified think tank group at Stanford?
Is it at Stanford? I didn’t realize that.
I thought it was.
It’s kind of a free floating thing, and it has been at various places. I think they meet at La Jolla in the summer. No, I’ve known a lot of the people who have been involved, I was invited to join and refused to do so.
How about the VISTA project in summer 1950, dealing with reconnaissance of nuclear weapons?
It wouldn’t have been summer of ‘50 because it sounds a little early for that sort of stuff. Anyway, no. I was unaware of that program.
I can almost guess your response then to this question concerning the civilian nature of NASA. Can you tell me how you felt about the development of the US space program and the question of whether it should be a civilian or military organization?
Yes. It should be open and civilian. I wrote a letter to the NEW YORK TINES along these lines.
In ’57, ‘58?
It must have been early ‘58 or late ‘57. There was a lot of discussion at that time as to whether our space programs should be open or closed, and I argued for its being open. I find security classification anathema, and in that I apparently agree with Edward Teller, who is one of the other proponents of opening up everything. I have a gut feeling that it’s terribly wrong. I think a tremendous amount of poor quality work masquerades under security classification. Another aspect is that if each country really knew everything that each other countries were doing, then there would be no surprises. The most dangerous situation now is surprises. If a country gets caught off guard it may overreact with dangerous consequences.
Besides that letter to the TIMES, did you do anything else to advocate the civilian space program?
I don’t think so. But at that time I would have had very little influence. I was just a first year assistant professor at Princeton, so nobody cared what I thought. I was uncomfortable, frankly, with the fact that Project Matterhorn at Princeton was classified. Afterward, when I found what was going on, I didn’t see why it had to be classified. I was again inconsistent, because I did work one summer there, as a means of making ends meet, so I had to get security clearance. It would be interesting to know how the US government looks at me at the moment. I think they probably have a little concern for me, because I have gotten the usual security clearances and maintained them.
How did you first deal with NASA?
I think the first encounter with NASA was through a totally different group. I got a telephone call in the spring of 1964, from a NASA official named Urner Liddell, who asked whether I would be available for serving on an advisory committee called the Planetalogy Subcommittee of Space Science Advisory Committee of NASA. It seemed off base for me, because I didn’t know much about planetalogy. It was primarily lunar exploration that they were talking about. But I was interested in the membership of the committee, which included Harold Urey and Harry Hess. It intrigued me what those guys were doing. So I agreed to serve on it, and that got me involved. I was very interested in the work of that committee. I apparently had something to contribute from an astronomy or physics perspective, and that then started my life on NASA advisory committees.
What was the committee like?
It had very competent scientists who were pretty controversial and contentious. There were fairly large stakes involved at that time because they were designing Apollo. I found it very interesting to put my two bits in and try to float my ideas in this rather heady atmosphere. They seemed to float fairly well, at times, and that intrigued me. So it was part of the growing impression I had that somehow my ideas about space science policy were not irrelevant. They were of some use to somebody.
Do you recall any instances in which the board accepted one of your recommendations?
I can’t remember very much specifics from that period.
How about the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory? Did you have anything to do with that?
Spitzer did, didn’t he? Or the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory did?
Sure. There was a series of threes— OAO 1 was built by the University of Wisconsin and SAO. OAO 2 as I recall went into the drink.
Not quite. The first OAO had the Wisconsin experiment on it, and it was supposed to have the SAC experiment on it, but the SAC experiment got delayed, and they put on an X—ray astronomy experiment. When they launched it and tried to turn it on, it blew up, essentially.
Oh yes. Wasn’t that the one that lost the battery?
OK, then OAO 2 was the Smithsonian— then another Wisconsin experiment?
I’m not sure about that.
Because there was a successful Wisconsin experiment. It must have been on OAO 2. In fact it was more successful than the SAO experiment. Yes, I read about that with great interest, and use those general ideas in my thinking at the time. It was not, in my opinion, a very powerful instrument, so that one couldn’t draw far—reaching conclusions from it or anything like that.
What instruments were on it?
It was an ultraviolet photometry experiment, which generated broad band spectra of stars down to something like 1500 angstroms. Because I was interested primarily in interstellar things, it didn’t seem to have much relevance for me. However, they followed up on a discovery that had been made earlier by rocket experiments— the so—called 2200 angstrom bump in the interstellar extinction, which to this day has still not been explained. That particular experiment was interesting to me. I wrote about it at one point: “The Effects of Absorption Spectra of Ices on the Ultraviolet Extinction by Interstellar Grains.” I think that must have been stimulated by some of these early rocket and maybe even OAO results in the ultraviolet. Again it was interstellar medium that I was thinking about. It was relevant to the broad band extinction problem. If somebody walked into the office right now and said, “What should I work on?” I would say, “Find out what the 2200 angstrom bump is. It’s very important.”
In the sixties did most of your work with NASA have to do with serving on panels?
Were you making proposals to NASA for getting grants to do your work?
I don’t think I ever did, oddly enough, I never put those two together.
You mean you never made a proposal to NASA?
No. To this day I’ve never gotten anything from NASA.
You spent most of your time with NASA working on these different panels?
Why don’t you tell me about a couple of them, for example the Astronomy Missions Board, which you served on from ‘68 to ‘70?
What was that like? Who were some of the members?
Well, Leo Goldberg was the chairman, and the members tended to be people with experience in space astronomy. Art Code was a member and Martin Schwarzschild from Princeton. Herb Friedman must have been on it. For some reason I don’t have a favorable impression of that activity, beyond the one meeting at Kitt Peak Observatory. We were assessing the priority of various missions that could be flown in the space astronomy program, and solar physics was near the bottom of the list. There was broad agreement among people, even including the solar physicists, that although important, it wasn’t as important as some other fields. It struck me as healthy that a group of scientists could prioritize. I can’t remember what the other fields were. I think they may have included X—ray astronomy.
High energy astrophysics in general?
That was rated high. And I certainly concurred with that. I don’t remember having much impact on the board, but I felt that that was a significant step forward for American astronomy, because I thought that solar physics, while important, was being overemphasized. But for some reason I don’t have a very positive image of the workings of that committee, perhaps because I don’t think I had the stripes that were necessary to make my views known in that particular group. Some of these other guys had far more experience than I did.
How did you feel about the manned space program back 1960 or so? I see a smile on your face...
Well, I have to laugh because it’s just a circus. I guess I’ve always felt that. I couldn’t personally identify with these antics. Short of Apollo, I mean. Apollo did appeal to my sense of exploration. It was tremendously exciting as the man stepped down on the moon, but only because it had not been done before. Now, wait a minute, I guess the key point is that space itself is extremely boring because all space is like all other space. It’s when you start sending a man to a location, like the moon or Mars, that it gets interesting. But simply sending him into space is of no interest to me. I regarded the manned space program up to Apollo as a series of necessary steps to go to the moon, and that was fine. Unfortunately, man gets in the way when doing astronomy, and he should be kept out of the observing cage, so to speak. It is folly to introduce man into astronomical observations from space. Man should be on the ground, using telemetry. I seem to recall a meeting in Washington— of the Space Panel of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee. I was on that, and there was an argument involving Tommy Gold about the validity of putting men into space to do space astronomy.
Tommy was very much opened to it, and I agreed with him. The same things could have been done for far less money without man. In fact, Tommy Gold made a very important suggestion at that meeting. His point was that robotics and artificial intelligence would have been the perfect application of our computer technology. We could develop totally new beings called telefactors, to substitute for human beings which could go into dangerous situations on the earth as well as in space and do very important things under direct control of human beings on the earth, We now realize that his technology is important in cleaning up nuclear accidents. I think even now NASA does not realize what a tremendous opportunity is missed there. In a recent study we pushed the idea again, and now NASA is realizing what it should have done and is trying to do it now, but 10 years later than it should have. My feeling is, science first. Adventure is great, but to me it wasn’t adventuresome to send a man into earth orbit to do astronomy, as in Skylab.
So you weren’t concerned about the politics of space exploration? Kennedy needed someone up in space to beat the Russians to the moon. You weren’t concerned about that?
I did realize that there were political considerations beyond the purely scientific ones, and that on the whole, the decision had a certain profound wisdom to it, because it got us to do something that we may not have done any other way.
—to go to the moon?
Yes, or to get a major space program going that would be competitive with the Russians or anybody else who came along. I thought that was very important. I’ve had somewhat conflicting perspectives. My own personal view is that the man is not necessary in earth orbital operations. It was personally very exciting, however, to see man on the moon. I’m not sure whether I would have voted to do that, except for the additional consideration that it would appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans, and therefore it make something possible that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. In other words, it wasn’t a simple ABC kind of situation. Again, I was relatively young. I don’t think anybody cared what I thought about the decision to go to the moon— I do remember that Martin Schwarzschild was involved in that decision. I perceive him as one of the key people who served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee or the Space Science Board that looked at this in the period before Kennedy made the decision. And I remember his arguing very strongly at Princeton that it was the right decision to send man to the moon. There was a lot of debate back and forth at Princeton at that time. I remember being skeptical about it.
”Radiation by Plasma Oscillations,” Astrophysical Journal 124 (1956): 555.
H. C. Van de Hulst.
G. B. Field and E. M. Purcell, “Influence of Collisions Upon Population of Hyperfine States in Hydrogen,” Astrophysical Journal 124 (1956): 542.
George B. Field and Richard C. Henry, “Free-Free Emission by Intergalactic Hydrogen,” Astrophysical Journal 140 (1964): 1002-12.
The Naval Research Laboratory groups, headed by Herbert Friedman, The American Science and Engineering, Inc., group, headed by Riccardo Giacconi.
G. B. Field and R. C. Henry, “Free-Free Emission by Intergalactic Hydrogen,” Astrophysical Journal 140 (1964): 1002-12.
C. Stuart Bowyer
G. B. Field and S. C. Perronod, “Constraints on a Dense Hot Intergalactic Medium,” Astrophysical Journal 205 (1977): 765.
Einstein is the name given to the second High Energy Astronomy Observatory
This is the first HEAO satellite
G. B. Field, G. L. Verschuur and C. Ponnamperuma, Cosmic Evolution: An Introduction to Astronomy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1978.
Journal of Geophysical Research 64 (1959): 1169.
with R. B. Partridge and H. Sobel in J. M. Greenberg and T. P. Roark, eds Interstellar Grains, (Washington DC, NASA, 1967): p. 207 NASA publications SP-140.