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Interview of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Owen Gingerich on 1968 March 5,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4620
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Student years at University of Cambridge, 1919-1923; move to Harvard University in 1923, and subsequent career. Comments on being a woman studying physics at Cambridge in the 1920s; influences of Ernest Rutherford, Arthur Eddington and Edward Milne on her career choice; some of her early research. Move to Harvard (inspired by lecture by Harlow Shapley). At Harvard, work (virtually alone) on stellar spectra; encouragement of Shapley and Annie J. Cannon. Publications on stellar atmospheres and variable stars; anecdotes about including E.C. Pickering, Henry N. Russell, Raymond S. Dugan and Alfred H. Joy. Discussion of youthful visit to William Bateson's experimental garden, comments on Bateson's family and other scientists (including George Phillips), nature of the British scientific community. Mentions some of her ancestors and careers of siblings. Also prominently mentioned are: Ralph Howard Fowler, and Donald Howard Menzel.
Well, I think one of the ideas is to have fun, and I would hope that I could get down on tape some things I have already heard you say about Eddington and about the time when you first came over. But I think I should ask some biographical questions. Am I correct that you started out as a biologist?
I went to college to study botany, yes… I changed over to physics after a year.
You had an interest in botany as a child?
Well, I was at a school where they didn’t teach physical science but they did teach botany. I certainly had an interest in science.
So you went to school in Cambridge, England, and
No, in London.
In London. And it was there that you heard Eddington?
No. I heard him in my first year in Cambridge. He gave a lecture on relativity right after he had returned from the expedition in Brazil at which the Einstein shift of light at the eclipse had been recorded for the first time… He had gone to Brazil, had taken the plates, then had measured them.
That was in 1919?
1921, I think, but that can be checked. I don’t remember now the date of the eclipse. The eclipse may have been in 1919, but the results were not completed until 1921, I fancy.
There is a very marvelous story about that, about Einstein getting the telegram about those results, which I’ll have to bring over to you. If I don’t quote it exactly, it loses its flavor. It was to the effect that Einstein was rather indifferent to the results because he had already decided that that’s how the universe had to be. Well, your undergraduate education then was in London?
In Cambridge. I went to Cambridge as an undergraduate.
All right. It’s because when I say “school,” you take that to mean secondary school.
And then you went to Cambridge. And there were special colleges for women there?
Yes, We attended the same lectures as the men, but we lived in, well, colleges are not the same thing as they are here. A college is more like a hall of residence here. There are twenty—odd men’s colleges in Cambridge.
But there is a tutorial scheme associated with the colleges themselves?
Well, there should have been, unfortunately didn’t have a tutor because there weren’t any women who were qualified to tutor in physics The men had tutors, and occasionally got some help from a man from a man’s college, but it was rather casual. I suffered from that, rather.
You were the only woman working in physics at that time? Or were there others suffering with you?
There was one other, but I think she dropped out was the only woman who sat through the second part of the studies, ought to explain that at Cambridge one took what is called a Part One of the Tripos in natural sciences in which one had to study three sciences. The ones I studied were physics, chemistry and botany. And then after two years you specialize in one science (that is called Part Two of the Tripos)——in physics.
And so you continued alone as far as the women were concerned?
And there had been women there in physics before you?
Yes. Not too many. There had been some.
You were probably the only woman at the lectures.
I was, indeed.
You were regarded as something of a curiosity, or you were ignored?
Well, was I think rather resented, know was resented by Rutherford because there was a rule that the women were not allowed to occupy the same rows of seats as the men, so I had to sit in the front row all by myself. And Rutherford always used to start his lectures very pointedly: “Ladies…and gentlemen.”
take it that he resented your taking up the entire row of seats that might have been occupied by men, or?
No. I don’t think he thought much of women in research.
Or did this cramp his lecturing style?
I don’t believe so. He was rather forthright. I became quite a close friend of his daughter, and she reported to me that he had said to her indignantly, “She isn’t interested in you, my dear; she’s just interested in me,” which made me so mad that I decided that I would not continue in physics but that I would turn to astronomy as soon as I could.
I see. So there were various factors besides Eddington’s relativity lecture that forced you into astronomy.
Well, I suppose so. Astronomy, of course, was not at all part of the physics course. Astronomy at Cambridge is part of the mathematics course, and though I went to all the lectures in astronomy--you could go to any lectures you wanted to go to; I could have gone to lectures in history or languages if I’d cared to...
And who was lecturing in astronomy?
Eddington, Smart, Stratton, and Milne. Eddington lectured on the determination of orbits, on the application of statistics to astronomy, and on relativity. Smart lectured on planetary and lunar theory, celestial mechanics. Stratton lectured on solar physics. Milne must have lectured on some aspect of stellar spectroscopy. I don’t remember much about Milne’s lectures actually. Perhaps he didn’t lecture; perhaps I just got to know him and learned from him by talking to him. Arid old Professor Newall, the professor of solar physics, started to give a course on solar physics, but only three students turned up for the first lecture, only two for the second, and Newall didn’t turn up for any more lectures. So that was the end of that.
Now just let me double check to make sure I’ve got something. So let me have some details of the occasion when you heard Eddington. This was a lecture in Cambridge. Was it a special lecture or...
It was a perfect lecture that was given at Trinity College, which was his college, when he had completed his results.
And I recall your telling me that you were so impressed with that lecture that you wrote it out.
That’s right. And it was the day after the lecture that I went to my director of studies and said I was going to change my studies from botany to physics.
But not yet to astronomy.
I couldn’t have. I couldn’t have at that point switched to mathematics.
I was at liberty to go on in one of the three sciences I was already studying, but to go into mathematics would have been quite impossible.
You had heard Eddington speak before?
Never. I’d never even heard of him, so far as I know.
That’s interesting. But he must have had something of a reputation by that time.
I suppose he had, but you must remember that was a first-year student. I hadn’t had much contact with physical science, except of course I knew about Rutherford. In fact, I had intended specifically to go into paleobotany, and the chief professor of botany at that time was Seward who was probably the leading paleobotanist of England. And I saw him, heard his lectures, and talked to him and found him so unspeakably dull and uninspiring that paleobotany died on the vine as far as I was concerned.
Had you collected fossils or something when you were young?
No. I had read some books on paleobotany and had been very much impressed with the subject, and thought it would be a very exciting subject to study. But found the people who taught botany at Cambridge rather uninspiring, remember going to another course of lectures in which we were studying the small vegetation that lives in ponds and finding some quite interesting desmids among the material that was given to me to examine and asking the demonstrator what they were. I had a book on desmids and studied them already but I could not place this particular species. He looked at me scornfully and said, “Oh, they don’t come into your course.” That kind of thing does not inspire one to go forward.
Your switching from botany to physics didn’t necessarily mean, then, that you heard Eddington any further as part of your regular course of studies. But then you started auditing courses in astronomy, or what?
Of course there’s no such thing as auditing courses. You listen to what lectures you like, and there’s a comprehensive examination at the end of two years, and another at the end of three or four, and between them nobody cares whether you’re studying or not. A particular course or lecturer makes no attempt to find out whether you’re taking anything in,
It’s hard for us to grasp this, even though we’ve been told often. This is the difference between the systems.
Final examinations are conducted by, I think, four examiners, two of whom come from outside and two from inside the university. At the time when I took my final examinations, Sir William Bragg was one of the external examiners; the other was Horton. And they could ask anything in physics, anything at all.
Was this an oral exam, or...
Both. Oral and written, and also practical work. I remember I was given a piece of glass tubing and a rubber tube and told to determine the viscosity of air. We had, as far as I remember, no further assistance. There may also have been a flask, there probably was, which one could heat in order to force the air through the meniscus of the tube.
I see. So you did that. That was part of the chemistry.
No, That was the physics, the final examination in physics.
The other outside examiner was Horton?
Horton. I don’t remember much about Horton. I don’t think I ever heard of him again.
And your inside examiners?
Alexander Wood. I forget who the other one was. Oh, yes, I do remember, Henry Thirkel. I recollect one of the students who was taking the examination at the same time as myself said the quantum theory and the new studies of the atom are so important, there’s no point in studying anything else. And you can get through by simply knowing that subject thoroughly. He did pretty well, actually. But we were exposed to all kinds of classical physics as well.
By that time guess Bohr had gone back to Copenhagen.
Bohr was not at Cambridge, although I did hear him lecture, He came to Cambridge to lecture, and don’t think he ever learned to speak clearly, so for many years wondered what “soup groups” were.
All right. I‘m still wondering.
Soup groups of atoms are sub—groups, of course.
He gave what must have been the most epoch—making lecture on the marrying of atomic structure on the periodic table. But the soup groups threw me, so I really didn’t get as much out of it as I might have done at the time. Later, with a little reading, it became clear.
Well, when you had your exam in physics, did you feel that you were asked a substantial amount about what would be called the new physics, or was the emphasis on classical things?
It was both, and one didn’t have to answer all the questions. There were, I suppose, twenty questions. I think it was left to you how many you answered. I imagine six or eight would be adequate. Or perhaps six or eight thorough answers and sketches for the rest. The examinations are very lengthy; they take all day for several days. Quite a test of physical endurance.
And this is then followed by the oral exam, after they have looked at your papers, or...?
No. The oral exam and the practical exam are part of it. The practical exam, as I recall, occupies a whole day, during which you eat a segregated lunch where you can’t talk to anybody else.
I’ve seen that happen here, too. So anything you heard from the astronomers during that time was just sort of extra for you and didn’t have any direct bearing on your exams.
Well, I remember making a good deal of use of it in answering a question on the determination of temperature, talking about the energy curves of stars, and Milne was beginning at that time to do spectrophotometry, and remember dilating a good deal on the spectrophotometry that he had taught me.
I see. Very good. Now, do I understand that you took this exam at the end of the two years or is this your one that came at...
At the end of four years.
And then this qualified you for a B.A. at Cambridge. Gaposchkin. That’s right. It was only the title of a B.A, at that time. Women were not entitled to the privileges of the university. That came later.
What does that mean?
It meant that you were granted a certificate saying that you had fulfilled the requirements that would, if you had been a man, entitled you to a B.A., that you had passed the examinations and had attained a certain level in them, and if you had been a man, therefore you would have got a B.A.
I see. When they later changed the rules, did they do it retroactively?
Yes, You were supposed, after two years, to proceed to get an M.A., but forgot. And at the time when I applied for the Doctor of Science degree, for which you had to submit at least ten years of published research, when I said that I was coming to receive the Doctor of Science, they said it was impossible; I’d never got my M.A., and they’d never heard of anyone getting a D.Sc. without an M.A.
I noticed that you managed to get them both in the same year.
And so they gave me an M.A, by proxy the week before. I don’t know whether that was an absolute requirement, but it turned out they felt it was necessary.
I guess you’re aware that they always confer an M.A. on any teacher at Harvard who doesn’t have a Harvard degree.
Yes, I have one. I was one of the few female alumnae of Harvard, I expect there are more now.
But your doctorate from Radcliffe didn’t count.
So you got one of those M.A.’s. That’s interesting. Then the normal course of studies for a man would be to continue going on for an M.A. immediately, by attending more lectures?
No, you don’t have to do anything. Just two years expire, you pay down some money, and then you get the M.A.
You have not had to do some research in the meantime?
Nothing. Nothing whatever, no. I don’t know why, but there it is.
Well, that’s very curious. But they wouldn’t have given you an M.A. because you were a female.
Well, they’d only have given me the title of an M.A.
I see. They would have allowed you to pay the money for that.
For many years Trinity College in Dublin bestowed degrees on women who had the title of the degree at Cambridge, if you paid for it. And quite a lot of people, for example, who wanted to go into teaching felt it was of value to have a real degree, not just the title of a degree.
I see. You couldn’t write B.A. after your name because you hadn’t really got it?
You could say “tit. B.A.,” I think. But I know that a good many people who taught me, women who had taught me in secondary school, who had been to Cambridge, had a degree from T.C.D., that is, Trinity College, Dublin. And it was considered of value to have that. You didn’t have to do anything at Dublin except pay.
Well, you took your examinations, then, in what year?
1923, I think it must have been.
That would come out right.
Yes. I went to Cambridge in 1919. Some people finished, of course, in three years, but I decided I would take four, partly because I had switched over to another science in which I didn’t have as much preparation. I was fortunate to have a full scholarship all the time. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible.
Then after you finished your degree, what happened?
I came to Harvard with a, what did they call it, a research studentship.
All right. Then let’s backtrack just a little bit because you have told me in times past more things about speaking with and hearing Eddington, so I gather that though you were never formally a student of his because of the program you were in, you were hearing him or talking with him...
When I became disenchanted with Rutherford, I went to Eddington and asked him if he would give me some research to do. And first he handed over to me some plates which had been taken of a galactic cluster, Messier 36, and said that I could use the observatory’s measuring machines to determine the proper motions. And I sat down and did this in all my spare time, probably neglecting the physics on this account. And I asked advice of Smart as to what to do next when I’d made the measures, and he said, “Well, you reduce them by least squares.” I didn’t know anything about reducing things by least squares, and so I went to the British Museum and asked for the works of Gauss and sat down and thrashed through all that Gauss had written about least squares, and...
In Latin, of course?
No, they were in German, in enormous, fat volumes, probably the original edition. Probably I am the only surviving student that went all the way back to Gauss to learn how to do least squares. Then I brought back the results to Eddington and handed them to him. He said, “Very nice. We’ll publish this.” And he sent it to the Royal Astronomical Society. And that was the first paper I ever published when I was still an undergraduate.
This I saw in a paper on your bibliography list.
Then I was looking for more worlds to conquer and Eddington said he would give me some stellar interiors to compute and he gave me a problem of integrating a stellar structure. It would be polytrope, starting at the center with an adopted temperature and density and working out to the outside by successive zones--I forget now what steps were taken, but they were small steps, but a very lengthy calculation, all done by hand.
Had he done an example before or was this the first time?
No, I think he had done some of them. This was the time when he was getting interested in stellar structure, but of course before he had published the “Internal Constitution of the Stars.” He pointed out that the temperature and density should arrive at zero in the same zone; then you knew that you had finished the star. If they didn’t, then you knew that you had made the wrong assumption in the middle and you had to make another assumption and start again, so it took forever. And it was rather laborious doing it by hand with a table of logarithms. I happened to meet a neighbor, a Mrs. Western, whose husband was the secretary of the London Mathematical Society. He had an arithmometer--I think that is what it was--an enormous calculating machine that really took very heavy work to make all the dials rotate. You set up what you wanted and then you turned a handle with main force and everything went grinding around and the result came out. So he allowed me to come in during the vacations and use his machine and I won’t say I completed the stellar model, because I didn’t, but I went on working on the stellar model with it. However, I had a bright idea in the course of the calculations, I decided this was a rather uninteresting spherical star and that what I would do would be to put in a term for rotation which I did and of course it made things pretty difficult. It made g vary. I forget now how the equations ran but I know the star was distorted of course. It was no longer spherical. I struggled with this for a long time and finally I took it back to Eddington who by this time was no longer interested in the problem. think I had worked on it for something like a year and he laughed and said, 9 have been trying for years to figure out what effect rotation would have on the distribution of radiation and, in particular, temperature over a vast surface, So he was not surprised that I bogged down as a consequence of putting in this refinement.
When you mentioned arithmometer...
think that is what it was, it had about nine dials in front and a handle at the side that you turned with great force, Perhaps I am using the wrong name was it a comptometer?
No, a comptometer was a keyboard instrument and the kind that has dials that you set would have been an arithmometer, but I am not sure about the handle at the end.
I know it was very hard physical work to operate it. I remember that.
It was not a direct multiply machine, you had to keep turning the handle for each cycle, guess you are right, that would be an arithmometer.
It looked pretty ancient.
Well, it was a machine invented around 1820.
Dr. Western was interested in the theory of numbers and I expect this might have been an ideal instrument for doing that kind of work. It was not really ideal, but then there was nothing that was really ideal I suppose for integrating stellar models at the time. It is amusing now to see how stellar models are whipped through the computing machines. I remember at least attempting to do one the hard way.
Also the theory of numbers is quite interesting on the computing machine too. If you take the American Mathematical Games section this month…
Oh, yes, I saw that.
It tells about finding these perfect numbers and also the familiar numbers, the friendly numbers, or something.
Yes, I was reading that. The friendly numbers were new to me. I knew about the perfect numbers.
Well, the search is for those of course are really made possible by the calculating machines. When you said you came back to Eddington after about a year on this research, this means that he had more or less sent you off with this project. You didn’t really...
He was rather unapproachable. He was very shy, very silent, not an easy man to talk to and I regarded him with considerable reverence. The professor appeared at his lectures when he gave them and then disappeared. He didn’t have an office or anything where you could go and see him, so you had to go to one of his lectures and ask whether you might see him and he would say, “yes, come up to the Observatory and I’ll see you tomorrow” or something. It was rather a business. I was, and still am, very shy. It could have been easier I suppose if I had gone around and asked him more often. He had done this as a sort of a kindness. I wasn’t a student of his.
I gather that you didn’t feel that he had antipathy toward women researchers the way Rutherford did.
Oh, no, there were several women working at the Observatory. There was one who came from Denmark I think. I have never seen her again. And then there was Dr. Douglas who is at Queens College in Ontario, or was; I think she has retired now. She had also been disenchanted with Rutherford, or vice versa, I am not quite sure which and so had then gone to the Observatory.
Yes, I was just looking at her biography of Eddington and saw illustrated a dinner menu card for the British Association Meeting in Canada in 1925 and I saw you were one of the signers.
Oh, yes, I was there. That’s right.
Eddington must have been over for something. Thus you must have met him on a fair number of other occasions.
I saw him there, but only briefly. Again I was too shy to do much except say, “Thank you for coming to listen to my paper,” which he did, which was very nice of him.
Why don’t you tell me about the occasion when you first met or heard Shapley? This also involved Eddington, did it not?
No, not at all. I got to know Comrie who was at that time working for a Ph.D. in Cambridge. He was afterwards head of the Nautical Almanac Office and he was a very remarkable man--a very brilliant man of great courage. He had been a chemist and then he had been in the war and lost a leg and also lost his hearing. In spite of having lost his leg he was still an avid tennis player, a very active man, and since I used to haunt the Observatory on the public nights, I suppose I met him there. There was a little observatory at Newnam College where I was which hadn’t been used for years and years. It was full of marks and rust and corruption and so on and I decided to get it in order--clean it up and I asked Comrie’s advice and he was very kind and helpful and came several times, told me what to do and how to clean out this and that, how to oil the clock and get it to run, which I did.
I remember establishing an observer’s book in the observatory and writing very large in the beginning, “Whatever you do with this telescope, be sure to write it down in detail in the book and date your entry.” I don’t know what has happened to it now. It would be interesting to find out. I started to observe variable stars visually with that telescope. Comrie made me a present of Miss Furness’s book on variable stars and I made my first acquaintance there with star charts, attempting to identify variable stars in the sky. Comrie realized I was interested in astronomy and so he invited me—-he was an Australian-he invited me to go to London to hear Shapley lecture. I had never heard of Shapley at that time, but it was Comrie who said he would take me to the lecture that Shapley gave at the British Astronomical Association.
It was a very inspiring lecture as Shapley’s lectures always are. I was completely fascinated because for the first time I had a vision of the way in which astronomy conducts observations, had seen the plates at Cambridge but they were-somehow they didn’t seem alive-measuring proper motions seemed rather a deadly sort of thing. I did it in order to learn the techniques, but Shapley talked as I remember about the variable stars and Magellanic Clouds and the fact that he believed they were galaxies and perhaps the Large Cloud was a spiral. I remember his saying that, After his lecture walked up to him and said that “I would like to come to work under you,” and he said cheerfully, “All right, come along.” And I think he probably forgot all about it, because when I wrote to him and said that had got the money and was coming, he didn’t seem to remember me.
That was in 1923?
Yes, And meanwhile Comrie had got his Ph.D. suppose and had been appointed at Swarthmore. When I arrived he met the boat and showed me New York before he put me on the other boat”-in those days one took a boat to come to Boston.
That is news to me also. But I remember your indicating some thing like the fact that Eddington had introduced Shapley at that occasion. That is why I associated the two.
Yes, he did, had nothing to do with that, don’t know whether he even knew that was there. Yes, he introduced Shapley, and said the Director of the Cambridge Observatory would like to congratulate the new Director of the other Cambridge observatory, because Shapley had just then been appointed. I fancy that the record of the whole of this could be found in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association of that date--I don’t remember when it would be. It must have been during the term because I know that I went from Cambridge to London for the occasion and returned, should think it might have been in May, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find the reference in the Journal.
When you came here then you had no particular research plan in mind?
None whatever. Well, that isn’t quite true. As I said, I had got to know Milne and had also got to know R. H. Fowler because he had married, or was just going to marry, I forget which, Rutherford’s daughter who, as I said, was a friend of mine. Fowler and Mime were at that time getting together with their epoch making codification, as you might call it, of the Saha Theory and when told Mime that I was coming to Harvard, he said that he thought it would be extremely useful to get as much observational material as possible, to examine the Saha Theory, which after all was rather general in its terms. And so, although I hadn’t told Shapley so before I came, and I think he wanted me to get into standard photometry as he always had, I told him that I wanted to study stellar spectra and he said, “All right, go ahead. There are the plate stacks.” So I was left just to sink or swim. There wasn’t anybody to help because it was a subject nobody knew about. Miss Cannon was classifying spectra, but Miss Cannon didn’t think about what the spectrum meant particularly.
Let me back track just momentarily to get some of your impressions about Mime, gather you would think he was much more approach able than Eddington?
Yes, he was more nearly my own age. He was very excited always about what he was doing, often difficult to follow, quite critical of other people. It was about that time that he wrote his, to me, famous review of H. H. Plaskett’s first paper, in which he really was pretty critical of Plaskett and it hurt Plaskett very much indeed, I believe. And so when he reviewed my book, he wrote to me and said, “I hope the criticism won’t hurt your feelings.” I remember writing back to him and saying, “No, certainly, not.” I should be grateful for just criticism and criticism that regarded as unjust, I would just disregard.
take it that the Graduate School of Astronomy back here was just becoming organized around that time. You didn’t come specifically as a graduate student?
ft wasn’t organized. I don’t think there ever had been a student in astronomy. Pickering hadn’t had any students. I don’t know whether Pickering ever did, any teaching; doubt it, Stetson was the man who taught the elementary course in astronomy but he didn’t have any graduate students certainly. He published some things on sun spots, but I don’t think he did very much research.
And Robert Wheeler Wilson?
He wasn’t here any more.
Then he must have been doing the undergraduate teaching.
Perhaps before then. I never saw him. He must have been dead by then.
I gather he didn’t get along with Pickering too well and so the teaching part and the research part went their separate ways.
I don’t think Pickering wanted to be bothered with teaching. He wanted to get ahead with the cataloging and stuff that he was doing. I remember Miss Maury, saying to me, rather sadly, “I always wanted to learn calculus but Professor Pickering didn’t wish it.”
She could have gone down and taken some classes.
She was at Vassar. I don’t know why she didn’t do mathematics there. But, that is what she said. I think Pickering hired people to do a specific job and didn’t want them wasting their time doing anything else.
When you came, Miss Maury was still here, and Miss Cannon of course?
She was here off and on. Miss Maury wasn’t working here, but she used to come. Miss Cannon was working on getting the Henry Draper catalog ready for publication which was a vast job with all the manuscripts which was all real manuscripts--it was handwritten--and all the proof reading. She kept a whole team of people working on that. The Henry Draper catalog must have cost a pretty penny to put out, all being set in type.
When you got interested then in looking at spectra observationally in order to apply the ionization equation to them, there was nobody to talk to about it?
No. I used to talk to Shapley but he didn’t know much about the subject. It wasn’t his kind of subject.
But he recognized its usefulness?
Oh, yes. He was very encouraging and very kind, helpful and he was always interested in what everyone was doing and thinking. But I remember his saying to me after some months, “Why don’t you get some little thing together and publish it?” And said, “I don’t want to do that, should regard that as a confession of failure, I want to get this whole thing together.” What really inspired me was the announcement which heard before I left Cambridge on the subject of the Adams Prize for the following year--the subject was the study of matter at high temperatures. The person who told me this remarked that this of course is aimed at R. H. Fowler, because they want to get R. H. Fowler to write up his stuff. And I said to myself, “I will write a paper on the observational study of matter at high temperatures,” which words you will find on the title page of “Stellar Atmospheres” and that is the reason why it was there. I didn’t expect to get the Adams Prize, very much doubt whether a woman would be eligible. But said to myself, “At least I am going to make a contribution to the subject as good and as valuable as the theoretical paper somebody is going to write and get the prize with,” So was pretty ambitious, It seems funny now.
Go ahead with the circumstances of this. Did Fowler get the prize?
I rather think so. I think his statistical mechanics, would it be his Kinetic theory of gases or something--one of those big books, fancy won the Adams Prize essay.
The Adams Prize was given how often?
I don’t remember. Once in two years? One could find that out easily enough. The subject is always specified. guess it was Milne who told me that. It is usually aimed at some person who is known to have an important contribution and perhaps he needs a little encouragement to finish up and publish. Anyhow, imagine the Adams Prize is always expected to be in mathematical form--the Adams Prize essay. It would be interesting to look up the people who have got it and what they got it for, but imagine they are always mathematical.
I can only remember one: Maxwell.
Oh, yes, that’s right, of course that was mathematical. That was probably laid down, so Maxwell could write up his stuff. What do you suppose it inspired him to do?
I’ll ask Allen Cooke because he has looked at that somewhat.
The history of the Adams prize would be fun. I was always on the ear about being a woman and therefore excluded from things.
And therefore the Prize gave you that incentive to…
Did you feel when you came to Harvard that the exclusion of women was as severe?
No, coming to Harvard was intoxicating. It was partly the climate. I had never been in a climate like that before. The New England climate in the fall, well, I found it physically intoxicating. I had never felt like that before. Cambridge has an awful climate. When you go to Cambridge, you — at least I — used to resign myself to feeling like a vegetable and aching from head to foot all the time I was there because it is so damp and so cold.
And places are not centrally heated.
Well, not then but maybe now. I was always in a wretchedly rheumatic and creaky condition. And feeling really rather stupid and somehow the climate of New England and the intellectual climate of the Observatory, I suppose, with Shapley and Luyten who had just come and who was great fun to talk to, though of course he wasn’t interested in astrophysics; he was interested in statistics. The whole thing was pretty intoxicating. Also being free, for the first time, to do astronomy just as much as I wanted when I never had been before was intoxicating because even though I had done these little bits of research at Cambridge and there had always been lectures to go to and things to study and one had to keep up with one’s studies, and lights had to go out at 11 in the college; no lights on after that, you were permitted a candle, but who can work by a candle? For a bit, I almost worked night and day without stopping, it was marvelous. And the Radcliffe building where I lived didn’t even mind if I was out all night working. They didn’t seem to care. I probably explained where I was and what I was doing, and that was that.
Miss Cannon, I suppose, was quite aware that you were up to something with the spectra, because...
Yes, she was but she didn’t interfere; she was very nice about it. In fact Shapley said to me several times, “You don’t realize how nice Miss Cannon is being, because she could throw a monkey wrench into your work if she wanted to and she isn’t.”
The Saha equation had just been proposed by Saha, around 1921?
Yes, I didn’t know the Saha paper until Milne was all excited and told me about it. He showed it to me. But it isn’t in a very usable form and the Fowler-Milne paper is. So Milne told me owing to Bohr’s encouragement and inspiration that Fowler and Milne had gone on and developed this and written it up. I never talked to Bohr about it but apparently they did. It must have been a very fruitful collaboration between the two.
Where had Saha been when he first put it out?
In India, I think.
It came out in an English publication though.
It was where the Royal Society was.
I think so.
I didn’t meet Saha until many years later. He may have been in Cambridge, but if so, I didn’t know it. I remember one interesting thing about Saha, nothing to do with science. He said to me, it was the reading of Charles Reed, “The Cloister and the Hearth” that had changed his life. He had believed that the right way to live was as a celibate and after he read “The Cloister and the Hearth” his mind was changed, and he said, “That is the time I decided to marry.” This is a very interesting reaction of an Indian to a book...well, it’s an interesting book but it seems rather of a past age to me, ft doesn’t seem like a book that would change one’s life.
It’s a book I don’t know.
It’s a novel that describes the life of a young priest who falls in love with a girl and they have a baby who turns out later to be Erasmus. It is supposed to be an historical novel, true historical account of the parents of Erasmus, how the father always suffers because he is a priest and feels he has to keep away from--I forget the name of the girl-- and he goes on a long journey, he goes to Rome, You probably would find it an interesting book. It’s very long-winded. It’s a meticulous account of life in that day, starting in Holland.
Who was the author?
Charles Reed. You probably haven’t read any books Charles Reed wrote.
I don’t think so.
He was a very successful novelist and dramatist of probably about 100 years ago.
You met Saha when he came over here to Harvard?
That was during the ‘30s?
Yes, I haven’t very much recollection of him. I suppose we talked about current scientific problems. The Charles Reed reference was the thing that made the greatest impression on me.
Well, it comes through in your book on stellar atmospheres that it is plainly the Milne and Fowler work on which you are basing everything...
And it came as something of a surprise to me because in the modern way of looking at it, it is the Saha equation and one somehow feels it has sprung full-blown like Venus from the brow of Minerva, or is it the other way around?
Minerva from the brow of Zeus.
Yes, all right. And I gather in those early days it was nothing like the tidy form that we...
Certainly not. In fact in the Fowler-Milne paper it’s in rather a ponderous form.
So I saw in your book, in looking at it. Well, this is a very remarkable book considering that you were working it out without any direct feedback with Mime or Fowler. Did you correspond with them at all?
I don’t think so. Certainly not with Fowler. I might have corresponded with Milne, but I don’t believe I even did that.
And then when you had the book ready to be presented it occurred to somebody that maybe this was a thesis?
Well, Shapley said, “Why don’t you get a doctor’s degree?” I said, “I don’t want a doctor’s degree. I have a degree from Cambridge. That is the highest degree in the world. I don’t want any ether.” He-- well, I don’t know, perhaps he stuck his neck out in getting me admitted as a student and wanted me to get a degree anyway. He persuaded me and I did.
I see. So this came more or less about the time the book was formulated?
I wish you would tell me something of the reaction the people had to your book.
I think they were pleased with it.
Yes, but I mean specific people who were working in that field. When Milne made his review, was he critical?
I forget what he said now. I think he was probably critical of some things, but in general it was accepted. Eddington’s review was one that amused me. What was it he said? “The basic idea is not so wild as might at first appear.” And then he explained why it wasn’t.
You once indicated to me that he had put that in an appendix or at the end of one of his books.
Oh, yes. It’s probably in the “Internal Constitution of the Stars.” Yes, it’s not a review at all, is it? That’s right, it is a book that he refers to as giving material bearing on certain things. At least he referred to it. I think he was pleased with it. He didn’t tell me so, but I think he told Shapley so. Pleased that I was able to go back to England after two years with a book published.
But that was just for a trip back, or...
Just for a trip. By that time Shapley had offered me a Job, which I had accepted.
I was looking at the book and I came to one passage which I would put down as the “clouded crystal ball department” and that was of course the statements about the hydrogen and helium abundance. Can you recall anything about the discussions of that in that period?
The only thing I remember is saying to Eddington that I was surprised to find how large a proportion of the material of the universe is hydrogen and he smiled and said, “Well, that is on the stars, but you don’t know that it is in the stars.”
I suppose that the reason that people were astonished was that terrestrial abundances were not like that.
Yes, that is true. But that is the way it came out. It qualitatively was not so far from what we are forced to suppose today.
You have given a list in which silicon is at the top and down at the end of the list is hydrogen and helium in parentheses with the comment that while it appears that hydrogen and helium are very abundant, this must be a mistake of some kind.
Oh, did I say that? Well, pretty soon I convinced myself that it wasn’t. I would have said that I always thought that it was so. But it certainly didn’t take me very long to be convinced that it was.
I gather that lots of people were in fact becoming convinced around the same time, between 1925 and 1930 about the role of hydrogen. I have seen it sometimes attributed to D. H. Menzel and sometimes to Russell.
More likely Russell, I should think.
Did you meet Russell sometime along there when you were...
He used to come to Harvard for a whirl-wind visit every so often, but he mostly talked, he didn’t listen; he wasn’t a good listener. So what one had to do was pick up as much as possible from what he said.
Because his interests would surely have been closer to yours than anyone?
Did you get any reaction from Russell about the book?
I think he was enthusiastic about it. I forget exactly what he said but I know I received the impression that he thought after that book my career as an astronomer would be established.
Had he known what you were working about before the book came out?
Probably he had, I don’t remember. He had been away. He had been on the West Coast a long time, so he wasn’t here very much, but he may have been for brief visits.
He would have come up primarily to see Shapley?
Undoubtedly, yes. I recollect him in those days as an alarming man who talked so fast that you couldn’t follow him.
I have heard this opinion about him very recently, someplace else saw it.
Well, Menzel speaks of him with affection. I have never… I mean he was a man you could admire, but I can’t see that he was a man that you could possibly like. However, Menzel who of course studied under him at Princeton insisted that he liked him very much.
You felt that he was so saturated with astronomy that he was unable to talk about other things?
Well, he was selfish, he was conceited, he was overbearing.
I think Shapley commented that he was a very peculiar fellow, just recently when was talking to him.
As I say, you could admire him but I never could like him. He sort of gave me the creeps.
Just because of his attitude about things, you wouldn’t have described him as pompous?
No, not pompous. As say, selfish, overbearing, opinionated and…Well, one of the things that was alarming was the enormous amount of power he wielded. Fortunately for me, he backed me, but if he hadn’t… if he hadn’t backed a person that would be the end of him,
How could he have this much power with that particular base. In the Astronomical Society or...?
Well, he talked to people and they believed what he said. Actually, he was not a particularly original person. He was extremely well informed and his knowledge was extremely well organized. I have always thought that his most important contribution was his line analysis of spectra, particularly the Titanium II spectrum. I regard him as a snapper of unconsidered trifles.
He kept on good terms with Shapley?
Oh, yes. Shapley was his star product. He was very proud of Shapley.
I gather that helped form a power combine there.
It certainly did. But I don’t believe most people realize what an important contribution to that combine was made by Dugan who was a first class scientist and a quiet and unselfish man.
You know Dugan had been out in Beirut?
Oh, I forgot that. Beirut is a place where some of the best people have been. Look at Joy, for example.
That’s right, Joy would have stayed there excepting for the first World War.
I didn’t know that. He liked it there.
Yes, he had bought land in the Begaa Valley and was planning to build another observatory away from the lights but he got evacuated in the First World War and just never came back. That is what sent him out to Mt. Wilson.
Joy and Dugan have something in common, perhaps it is something confirmed by Beirut.
I was told by a very old man there who could remember Joy and Dugan very well that he told Dugan that he would never make out there-- it was still the Syrian-Protestant College--because Dugan insisted on smoking which was against the rules. Dugan left and went up to Heidelberg to help discover the asteroids. It says in “Russell, Dugan and Stewart” that asteroids have been named after daughters and universities and pet dogs and even a favorite dessert, and the favorite dessert is apparently baklava. That was a name Dugan gave to commemorate his story in the Middle East.
That is the name that Dugan gave. Well, he was a great man and insufficiently appreciated man, as Joy is, though I think Joy is more appreciated.
Joy has always seemed like a very kindly man when I have met him.
One of the kindest people on the face of the earth. One of the best scientists.
Then you put out the second installment of your monograph, that is to say “The Stars of High Luminosity” which was in some respects the first book revisited but quite different in structure. Did you think of that as another sort of landmark or was that just amongst the papers which...
No, it was a book which Shapley suggested I write and it went against the grain from the first. I never enjoyed writing it. I have never thought it was a very good book, though Morgan, who I think is a valued critic, seems to attach some value to it. The only good part about it I think is the chapter on variable stars, which really first put variable stars on the map for me.
I sensed that when looked at it.
Suddenly they seemed to make sense. Before then they had been a scattered subject, simply observed without anyone tying them together.
At the same time that you did that you were working very hard with Shapley on “The Star Clusters” book. Is this…
Well, I didn’t work with him. He just asked me to work as an assistant helping get it together, and draw the diagrams, get together the tables and stuff like that. It was in no sense a collaboration. He wanted the book written, was ready to work at it.
It is a nice book in a way for historical purposes and a nice year for it to have come out in 1930 because it is a pre-general absorption book and if it had been written a year or two later that particular stage in the development wouldn’t really have been recorded so definitely.
I think he was mistaken about a lot of things but it wasn’t my business to do any thinking in connection with the subject, only to get it together.
That appeared, think, also in 1930 just about the same time. I don’t remember if it was the 2nd or the 1ith or 5th Harvard Monograph.
Well, there was Bailey’s “History of the Observatory.”
That was the 2nd?
Somewhere around there, which I helped to edit. That was a heartbreaking book to edit. Bailey succeeded in making it so fearfully dull and yet he had a lot of interesting information. But when he started to write it down he became stilted.
I find it a rather disappointing book. I have been using it in writing up some material about the Bonds.
It’s got everything in it, but…
But in this particular instance about the Bonds, you can find practically nothing that isn’t already in the memoir by Holden.
Which he probably transcribed. He was conscientious but uninspired.
hope that the book that is now in the works [Menzel, Jones, Boyd) will be much better; I’m sure it will be much more interesting. They are being very thorough in going through the correspondence and old records, We should digress now and I should ask you who William Bateson was?
He was a student of genetics. He had a big experimental breeding garden--plant breeding--at Wimbledon, near London. And he was a proponent of the Mendelian theory of heredity and he did an enormous amount of work in cross-breeding and selective breeding in order to study the laws of heredity. His son, Gregory, was at the Museum of Natural History for a time. I don’t know whether he is still there. He is, or was, the husband of Margaret Mead. I am not sure that Margaret Mead hasn’t had more than one husband.
No, I don’t think she has married anyone since then. I know her daughter, Cathy Bateson.
“American Men of Science” got put away. I think Gregory Bateson should be in that. There were three sons: John, Martin and Gregory. Martin committed suicide as a consequence of a love affair when I was at Cambridge. He was about my age. I don’t know what happened to John and Gregory was the youngest and followed in his father’s footsteps and became a biologist.
You know that George Phillips, the astronomer, also died of his own hand as the result of a love affair, thereby giving this enormous endowment to the Observatory. [Mrs. Gaposchkin was George Phillips Professor of Astronomy.]
I didn’t know that. Shapley told me that the portrait of him was painted after his death from his corpse.
I went down and looked at the portraits and found there wasn’t any of George Phillips Bond.
No, the other man is Alvan Clark. I finally focused on the legend. Maybe he isn’t there. William Bateson was a very militant atheist and a very bitter man, I fancy. Knowing that I was interested in biology, they invited me when I was still a school girl to go down and see the experimental garden. I remarked to him what I thought then, and still think, that doing research must be the most wonderful thing in the world and he snapped at me that it wasn’t wonderful at all, it was tedious, disheartening, annoying and anyhow you didn’t need an experimental garden to do research. You could do research sitting in a train looking at other people with you or walking down the street, looking at the people and so forth. He was a bear. He almost reduced me to tears, but it was a very interesting experience.
And this made a considerable impression on you but obviously didn’t change your mind about doing research.
Heavens, no. Not even about botany, perhaps about plant breeding but not about botany. After all I meant to be a paleobotanist and you can’t do plant breeding as a paleobotanist.
When I was doing the Bond research, it was interesting to me to discover that, for example, William Cranch Bond’s mother--no, his aunt--was in the Peabody lineage here. The famous Peabodys were therefore all related to the Bonds. Similarly, George Phillips Bond married Asaph Hall’s cousin and so there was all this kind of linkage by intermarriage. I gather that this is a sort of thing that must have characterized a great deal of Britain. From your scientific forebears, I gather that somehow everybody knew everybody else.
Oh, I think they did, A person living here doesn’t realize how small Britain is, how everybody, even if they don’t live in London, gravitates to London all the time. So that if you go to any gathering of people interested in a particular subject within a year or two you certainly meet everybody.
I wish you would outline for me again how the relationship goes between Lyell and these other people in your family tree.
Well, all these people are related to the second wife of my great grandfather, from whose first wife I am descended, so I am not exactly related to any of them.
I see. They’re step aunts and step cousins.
Yes, something like that, Leonard Homer, about whom you know, whose memoirs you found in the library, was the father of six daughters. Now, let me see. One of them married Sir Charles Lyell, one of them married Captain Lyell, one of them married Sir Charles Bumberry, one of them married G. H. Pertz, who was my great-grandfather, and the other two didn’t marry.
Your great-grandfather spelled his name?
Pertz. By his second marriage he had three daughters, one of whom died in childhood, the other two were my great aunts whom I knew very well. They lived in Cambridge and they knew everybody. One was a painter and the other a botanist; perhaps that is why I got interested in botany. And it was she who introduced me to Bateson, for example, and to Professor Barton (?) at Cambridge. I also made some other scientific acquaintances on my own by going to the Museum of Natural History in London and bothering the head of the herbarium there with choice specimens of rose hybrids and things that I wasn’t able to identify, and he was very kind about it.
There was never any question that you would want to go on to school at Cambridge or was this partly because of your interest?
You mean that I would go anywhere to college but Cambridge?
No, I wouldn’t have considered it. I don’t know why I wouldn’t. I always wanted to go to Cambridge.
Your father had been at…
At Oxford, and he was an historian. And even in those days I would have known better than to try to study science at Oxford.
Yes, I understand that. Gaspochkin: Now, my brother went to Oxford. Then he also was in the classical side. He wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge under any circumstances. My sister, on the other hand, went to London University because she wanted to be an architect and I don’t think anyone in their senses would go to Oxford or Cambridge to train themselves to be an architect.
And she became an architect?
A very successful one.
Your brother and sister are still living?
No, my brother died a great many years ago, but my sister is living in England. She married another architect and they both work: she largely at architectural drawing; he, well, he does research in the history of building.
Of which there can be a great deal more in England than in the U. S.
Yes, he takes it street by street, he and a lot of other people, and house by house and tries to find out when the house was built, and what alterations have been made, in it and what there is in it and if possible who built it and who contributed, various features if it is a house of any interest.
I see, does he work for some...
It is a government project, I think, called the Survey of London; I think it is a government project. It comes out volume by volume, something they wish they had done before the war--but now after the war it is like locking the stable after the horse has gone. They decided at least they are going to make records of everything that is still there. A lot of it I suppose is just for the specialists. I don’t know very much about architectural history except the great periods. My sister and her husband have lived in a succession of houses that are interesting for historical reasons, not necessarily very ancient historical reasons. They have a good period, maybe Jacobean; I don’t think they would be interested in an early Victorian house, but a Georgian house, some Georgian houses are very beautiful and very fine tradition in their structure.
This pretty much covers the things that I planned to ask ‘immediately unless you want to think back and recall things that are interesting or anecdotal about any of the other figures that you would have met or seen in Cambridge when you were in school there, particularly the scientists.
My mind seems to be a blank at the moment. I cannot think of anything especially interesting. Why don’t you try another time if you think of some more questions to ask?
O.K. I’ll have this transcribed. If we think of more questions and maybe after awhile we’ll try putting some more of it down. I’ll get you a copy of the transcription of it in a few weeks and then you can strike out anything you feel is particularly irrelevant, misspelled and so on.
I don’t think any of it is actionable anyway. Thank you for doing me the honor.