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Credit: Laurie Hatch
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Claire Max by David Zierler on August 4, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is an interview with Claire Max, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, and Director of University of California Observatories. Max recounts her childhood in Manhattan, and she describes the formative influence of her father’s work in science on her blossoming academic interests. She describes her undergraduate education at Radcliffe where she pursued a degree in astronomy, and the opportunities leading to her graduate degree at Princeton where she studied pulsars under the direction of Francis Perkins. Max discusses her postdoctoral research at Berkeley working with Allan Kaufman and her subsequent work at Livermore Lab on laser plasma interactions, and where she did formative work developing laser guide stars for adaptive optics in astronomy. She describes her entrée into the JASON advisory group, and what it was like as the first woman to become a JASON. Max explains her decision to join the faculty at Santa Cruz, the opportunities leading to her directorship of the Observatory, and her interest in leading research in extrasolar planets. She reflects on some of the budgetary and administrative challenges she has faced at the Observatory, and she discusses some of the characteristics that her most successful graduate students have shared over the years. At the end of the interview, Max discusses the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope site in Hawaii, she explains why promoting diversity in the field is personally important to her, and why future advances in galaxy merger research are so promising.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you come into this?
I’m a historian of science, and my PhD work was on a group of academic scientists who protested the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. So, I’ve been interviewing scientists since my graduate school days, and before joining the AIP I worked at the Department of State.
Cool. Very good.
Well, let’s do our official start now. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 4th, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Dr. Claire Max. Claire, thank you so much for joining me today.
You’re very welcome.
Alright, so to start, would you tell me, please, your title and your institutional affiliation.
I have two titles. One is Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the other is Director of the University of California Observatories.
So, you’re pretty busy?
I’m pretty busy. I’m getting real tired of back-to-back Zoom meetings.
Well, I’m hoping that at least for our call we can, I can, this can be really enjoyable for you and meaningful and I won’t contribute to Zoom fatigue. So, Claire, let’s start right at the beginning. Let’s start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
Yeah, so they—where they were born, you mean? Or—
Where they were born and where they met.
My mom was born in Manhattan, where I grew up. My dad was born in Baltimore. And he moved to Manhattan when they got married.
Where did they meet?
Ah! So, my dad was looking for someone to marry. He was a professor of physiology and biophysics and very methodical and logical and everything. So, he wrote letters to lots of people saying, “Do you know an intelligent young woman who”—blah, blah, blah—"who’s independent,” and this and that. They were both quite a bit ahead of their time, in case you didn’t already figure that out.
And, you know, so aunts and uncles and friends suggested people to him and he didn’t like any of them. He was particularly indignant that he took one of them out on a date to the opera and she fell asleep in the first movement and never woke up.
So that didn’t count. But then he got a suggestion of this woman in Manhattan who, at the time was involved in the League of Women Voters and had various leadership positions in other do-good organizations. Civic public-service organizations. And, so, he wrote her a letter which I actually have, you know, saying you are known to me. And they had a date, and they liked each other so they dated for a while and then they got married.
Claire, did you spend your whole childhood in Manhattan?
I did, yes.
Was your mother in science as well?
No. Her degree was in history and political science.
Did your father involve you in his career? Did you get a sense, even as a girl, what it might be like to work as a scientist?
Oh, yeah. So, he would take me into his lab, and I think, as a little girl, the last time I remember going to his lab, this was the physiology part, he had the heart of some poor little creature in a beaker. And as it pulsed it moved something or other that made a voltage. I don’t remember exactly what the creature was. And then there was a trace on a moving drum that shows the beats of the heart. And I thought, “This is disgusting! [Laughs] I certainly don’t want to do this.”
I was wondering who the creature was and all that. But anyway, he always encouraged me to ask questions and to think for myself. Particularly in the physical sciences. He wasn’t particularly a physical scientist but—when I would ask him questions about physics he usually had an answer which he wove into a story which was very interesting. Then the brilliant thing he did, was, when didn’t have an answer, he would say, “Claire, that is a wonderful question. You’re going to find out the answer to it when you take your high school physics class.” So, my whole, you know, elementary and junior high school was spent anticipating the physics class I was going to take in high school. And it worked. [Laughs]
Did you go to public or private schools?
I went to a private school.
What kind of private school?
Well, it was called the Ethical Culture School.
Now, did the Ethical Culture School have a strong math and science program?
And were you a standout student in high school in math and science?
When you started thinking about colleges did you think specifically in terms of physics even at that early point?
In terms of astronomy. And why? What was it about astronomy at that point that captured you?
Yeah. So, um, I remember all the stages of the story. When I went to my first summer camp when I was eight, the nature counselor had a little telescope that he put out at night and showed us the mountains on the moon. And my little 8-year-old brain took this leap and said, “Wow, you know, there are mountains on the moon, there are mountains on earth. I need to find out more about this, and how did they get there on the moon.” And, uh, ’cause I sort of already had the impression that erosion and stuff had a role on earth but there wasn’t any water on the moon, so, he really encouraged me. And he had me doing star projects at summer camp at night already. And the Girl Scouts had a star badge so I did the star badge in great detail. And then my mother had an elderly friend who gave me a real telescope. And that was, that was it. I mean, I was just completely taken.
So, I would—my parents had a cabin in the foothills of the Berkshires which was completely enclosed by trees but it was dark up there and so I would drag them out at night to take me to some field where we could look at the stars.
I’m sure that got old for them after a while. But I had one incident which I like telling about. We were supposed to drive home from the cabin to our apartment in Manhattan one evening and I hadn’t gotten to look at the stars all week because it had been raining. So, it cleared up right as I was leaving, as we were leaving the cabin, and I started insisting that we stop at some open area off of the Taconic State Parkway so I could take out my telescope and look at Jupiter because something or other was going on with Jupiter. And, so, finally I convinced my dad who was driving to pull over. There was no particular official pullout, he just pulled off onto the grass. We lugged my telescope up a hill and I was looking at Jupiter. And, of course, a highway patrolman came by—state police; New York state police. And they started giving my father a ticket. And he said, “No, wait. Let us show you why we pulled over here.” And I showed the state trooper Jupiter through the telescope. And he said, “I’ll be goddamned. That’s the strangest excuse I’ve ever heard but I’m not going to give you a ticket.”
[Laughs] That’s great.
So, I was pretty much of a fanatic, I think. So, when I came to college I didn’t really know if I wanted to be an astronomer. I knew I enjoyed astronomy but, you know, on this application form you have to say something about your career goals. And, so, I said I wanted to be an astronomer.
Now, when you got to college. Radcliffe and Harvard were still separate?
And, so, your education was an all-women’s education?
No, Radcliffe has always, had always contracted with Harvard College to do—to teach its kids. And we were all, we were integrated into the Harvard—Harvard Radcliffe was integrated classes.
Oh, so, your classes were with men?
And you declared the astronomy major right away?
I don’t think we were allowed to declare a major as a freshman, but I took the freshman seminar, and I took all the astronomy classes. And then I realized that I had to take a lot of physics. So, I took a lot of physics. And I really enjoyed the physics as well.
By the time you had graduated, how well self-defined were you in terms of the kind of science you wanted to pursue in graduate school?
Um, it got kinda complicated. So, my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, was interested in plasma physics. Astrophysical plasmas. And so I got interested, too. We would have these damnedest conversations about MHD and things like that in the process of going out on dates. [laughs] It was fun. And, so when I applied to grad school in addition to applying to the usual astronomy grad schools, I applied to Princeton Plasma Physics Lab to do astrophysical plasmas there. And I got in every place. I was kind of having a hard time choosing between Caltech and Princeton. But there were two reason I chose Princeton. The first one was that the letter that Caltech wrote to me with my acceptance to grad school, it was supposed to be a personal letter, the secretary who typed the envelope addressed it to Mr. Claire Ellen Max.
[Laughs] Because they couldn’t conceive of a woman getting that far in the application process?
So, I decided this was an omen that I didn’t like.
And then Princeton would’ve been closer to where my future husband was because he was still a grad student at Harvard. So that worked out well. I was a grad student at Princeton and then after a couple years he came down as a postdoc at Princeton and we were able to be together.
So, what was your home department at Princeton?
And how connected was that with the Department of Physics?
It was a different department. There were three parts of that department. There was astrophysics, plasma physics and atomic physics. So, you know, plasma physics and atomic physics were sort of too applied, two classical for the physics department. So, they ended up in astrophysics.
Partly because of Lyman Spitzer who was the leader of that department. He was always deep into those fields.
And who became your graduate advisor?
A guy named Francis Perkins who was a plasma physicist.
And what was his research during your time there? What was he working on?
Controlled fusion. Magnetic fusion. But he was a very eclectic guy and he was delighted—my whole time in grad school I sort of threaded between astrophysics and plasma physics. And my thesis was on strong electromagnetic waves emitted by pulsars. So, it sort of tied everything—tried to tie everything together.
And did you develop that dissertation mostly on your own or your advisor gave you the problem to work on?
I think we discussed it, and he asked me what I was interested in. And I said—at that time pulsars were a recent phenomenon—“I’m interested in pulsars, I’m interested in plasma physics.” He came up with the idea that a spinning magnetic dipole could emit electromagnetic waves that were so strong that they accelerated the electrons to plus C, and then back to minus C, and then up to plus C again. People had calculated that for single particles but we were the first to do it self-consistently for plasmas.
And what were, you know, to the extent that graduate students, of course, are very focused on their own work. But to the extent you were thinking more broadly, what were some of the big questions that were being asked with regard to pulsars and plasma physics at the time? And how did you see your research contributing to those questions?
Well, I was interested in how pulsars interact with the surrounding interstellar medium. And, you know, there’s a cute idea that this was—that the thesis was based on, which we both came up with, which is that, if an electron is going at the speed of light, its mass is going to go up because it’s boosted by the relativistic gamma. So, in an oscillatory way, its mass will go up and then go down and then go up and then go down. And that effect, the relativistic mass increase, would let an electromagnetic wave propagate through a plasma to much higher densities than it would otherwise have, because it sort of looks like a heavier particle. So, a lot of what I did was wave propagation from the pulsar into the surrounding ionized gas. So that was the local interest but there was so much going on. Quasars had only recently been discovered, and Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler were writing their book at Princeton. So, I took general relativity from Misner. There was a lot of ferment in astrophysics, so I hung out, after the first year I moved my office to the astrophysics part, and worked for the guy named Russell Kulsrud who was a plasma astrophysicist as well as my thesis advisor. I worked with Jerry Ostriker. It was a very exciting time. Nobody really knew what these things were.
Right. Right. You got the sense that there was a lot of fundamental discovery that could be made in a short period of time.
Exactly. And was being made.
Why did you choose Berkeley for your postdoc?
So, when I was writing my thesis I was extremely focused on the writing. My husband had finished his postdoc and was looking for a faculty job. And he got a job offer from Berkeley. And he kept coming to me and saying, “Claire, I don’t know whether to accept this job or not. Will you come with me if I accept it?” And I said, “Don’t bother me, I’m writing my thesis.” [Laughs] I just could not get my head around this whole thing. So, finally he said, “Look, I have to tell them whether I’m coming or not, and if you don’t say no, I’m going to go—I’m going to accept the job at Berkeley.” And they agreed to postpone it a year, so that worked out. And, uh, I decided not to say no. So, it was sort of, I slunk into it backwards by not saying no to the idea of going to the West Coast. So, I got a plasma physics postdoc with a very good plasma physicist at Berkeley named Allan Kaufman.
Was this your first exposure to the West Coast? Had you been out to California before?
I had been with my parents on a summer vacation but everybody I knew in Manhattan viewed going to Berkeley as sort of falling off the edge of the world, you know.
It was so far away.
The Saul Steinberg New Yorker cartoon, right?
Yeah, and nobody really knew anybody who lived in California. [Laughs]
Claire, coming from Princeton, I wonder, culturally, what kind of impact did Berkeley have on you?
Oh, it was wonderful. I, you know, Princeton was quite formal.
And where I grew up in Manhattan, on Sundays you had to wear hats, and I wore white gloves to fancy parties. You had to behave in a certain way. And I got to California and I felt like, wow, this is a whole different thing. The first opera I went to at the San Francisco Opera there were people wearing jeans, and I thought, yes! This is where I want to be ’cause you could do your own thing and nobody really, nobody looked down on you at all. They didn’t even notice that you were wearing jeans. It was much more—much fewer specific expectations about how you were going to behave and how you were going to dress and how you were going to think. It was just after the Free Speech Movement so people were pretty open about things.
Were you looking to work with anyone in particular at Berkeley or were you looking either to continue on with your graduate research or take on new projects?
You know, I really didn’t know. I, uh, the group I was working with I mostly in my postdoc years wrote papers based on my thesis. But my advisor, Allan Kaufman, had three grad students doing the plasma physics side and I sort of co-advised the grad students. I sort of was the postdoc mentor which was an awful lot of fun. It gave me a hint that I’d really enjoy teaching. And I’m still in touch with one of them. One of them got shot. He was a physics professor, I think, at University of Iowa. I’m not quite sure exactly where. And he had a disgruntled grad student that came in and shot him. Came into his office and shot him. That was not good.
And I’ve lost track of the third one but it was a fun environment. I was less interested in the physics department at Berkeley than I was in the astronomy and astrophysics department.
But it was the physics department that you were affiliated with?
Why? Why not astronomy?
Well, I was doing plasma physics but I was doing plasma physics applied to astronomy.
So, it’s one of these things where I was trying to thread a path between the two fields.
How did the opportunity at Livermore come about?
I finished my postdoc, and I guess it was my thesis advisor who said, “There’s a brand, new plasma physics group being established at Livermore to think about laser plasma interactions. Because they were just building these big lasers. They weren’t too big at the time, but they were intense for the day. And, um, and he said, “It’s an exciting young group. They’re just getting started. It will be fun to get in on the bottom.” So, I went out there and visited them and they kind of made me a consultant for my second year so I could get to know them. And I got more and more interested in what they were doing and so I eventually applied for a job. Actually, they came to me and said, “Would you like a job?” It was really great. I really, I did largely laser plasma interactions for the first eight years there but I was doing astrophysics stuff on the side. And it was a very fun group of people. I think what I liked best about it was the plasma physics worked like you read about in school. You know, first you have a theory. You propose an experiment. And you test the theory and you go back to the experiment. And then you revise your theory and repeat. And, um, so I—there were several times when I would meet one of the experimentalists at lunch or, and one time on the way to the coffee machine. Literally on the way to the coffee machine. And he said, “What are you up to?” And I explained. And he said, “Oh, we can do an experiment to test that.” That was the first one. And, you know, within a few weeks I had the results. It was just shocking. And, uh, you can’t do that anymore because these lasers are so big they take years to prepare an experiment for. But it was a good time to be in that field.
Were you on the trajectory where you just kind of assumed that you were going to land in an academic department and that this was a real change of course or were you sort of open to anything at that point?
I think I figured out eventually I’d land in an academic department. I applied for a few jobs, I got some of them, and for various reasons John and I decided to stay put. There were a couple—two positions where we would both get jobs, but we decided to stay where we were. I can’t even remember why but I’m glad we did.
Now, in terms of the instrumentation and the boundaries of experimentation, what might you have been able to do at Livermore that you would not have been able to do in an academic faculty environment?
Well, you know, it’s not so hard to take a laser and shoot it at a gas. But what Livermore had was extremely well-characterized and well-diagnosed experiments. So, you knew the initial conditions. You knew exactly what the laser was doing. You had measurements of the temperature of the plasma and the spectra of the plasma so you could tell what the excitations were. They got to—they have streak cameras so they could follow the motion of the plasma, and, you know, as time went on that got more and more sophisticated. We did an experiment on the magnetic fields that were induced into the plasma by the laser. Which were very big. And we had—we did, um, uh, Zeeman splitting to measure magnetic fields. It was really, it was really the way to do it.
And it sounds—
Even though it was early days things got more and more sophisticated.
It sounds like it was a real basic science kind of environment. That you could do what you wanted to do and it wasn’t related to any broader mission relating to national security or anything like that.
Well, that’s not quite true. I mean, I did—I wrote a theoretical paper on, uh, maybe with Chris McKee, on the scaling of, uh, analytically, the scaling of laser-driven implosions as you change the length of the laser. So, we wrote things that were relevant to what they now call direct drive laser fusion. Where you shine the laser right at the target.
You had a long tenure at Livermore. Did you move up in the ranks and have to contend with administrative duties that would’ve taken you away significantly from the research?
Uh, yes and no. So, I took some time off when we had our son. And, I don’t remember the exact sequence but when I came back they were just founding the Livermore branch of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. And that was the University of California-wide, multi-campus organization. And, at Livermore it focused on astrophysics, geophysics, and high-pressure physics. And, so, it was a way to sort of pull together the astronomers at Livermore ’cause there were a lot of them who were doing other things but they all loved astronomy and were doing it on the side. So, I was asked to interview for the job. And I said, “No, no, I’m having too much fun.” And they said, “Well, just come to the interview.” And I did and it sounded really interesting, and so I took the job.
How much geophysics did you need to know for this?
When I learned it, it was pretty fun. The lab had two kinds of geophysicists. One was people who were doing seismology to detect remote nuclear tests. Underground tests.
And they did seismology as well. You know, applied seismology or however you call that. And the other, there were geochemists and folks like that who were studying the geology of various sites that had been proposed for nuclear waste disposal underground. So, and the point of this IGPP institute was to connect people at the lab in these fields with people on the UC campuses in these fields. So, that was another fun thing. We dreamed up ways to incentivize both Livermore people and people at the campuses to get together and interact. We had little mini-grants for joint new projects, seed funding for joint new projects which was usually a grad student who spent time at both places. So, there was a sort of, I want to say, sociological or social engineering aspect, too, which is: how can we structure programs that will encourage people to get together in these three areas?
And that makes me wonder, Claire, to what extent were you integrated with the broader academic community in your field? Was Livermore a place where you were essentially operating in a world unto itself? Or were you collaborating with your academic colleagues? Going to conferences? Writing papers just as you would out of a university?
We were certainly going to conferences and there were lots and lots of university people at the conferences. And a lot of us wrote papers with academics. I can’t recall exactly how many I did. It was probably not so many ’cause it was the field that wasn’t yet firmly established in academia. But there were a series of conferences called the Anomalous Absorption Conferences and it must have gotten started when nobody understood how laser light got absorbed by plasmas but it kept that name forever after. [Laughs] They’re still going on. And—
Yeah, there were IAEA conferences. There were a lot of conferences that we went to. APS conferences.
What do you see as you most significant research achievements during your tenure at Livermore?
Ah, laser guide stars for astronomy, for adaptive optics in astronomy. I haven’t got there yet.
On my narrative. So, can I back up and pick up where we left off?
So, when I took over the IGPP I largely stopped doing laser plasma interactions and moved over into doing computational modeling of astrophysical plasmas. And, one of the things that, as I look back on my career, I’ve done different things every 8 or 10 years, forever. So, I spent about eight years running the IGPP and doing astrophysical plasmas in the computer. And I don’t think that the papers I wrote for that had huge impact. My earlier papers have lots of citations and the ones I did on computational astrophysical plasmas don’t, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The supercomputers weren’t quite up to answering the scale of questions that we were trying to ask. But it was fun. And then, in the early 1980s I was asked to join a consulting group called The JASONs which was founded after World War II when the Department of Defense realized that the advisors to the Manhattan Project were all retiring and the DOD needed, sort of, impartial advice from academics on whatever the new stuff was. When I joined—we met every summer in La Jolla for seven weeks so it was a real summer study. And we wrote real beefy technical reports.
Now, Claire, did you have a clearance by dint of working at Livermore already?
I did. But there was a DOD clearance. So, I had to get DOD clearances.
Right. And who was the contact—the entrée point for you to become involved with JASON?
Well, there were several Berkeley physics professors who were on JASON. I don’t know which one—so my thesis advisor and two other Berkeley physics advisors. So, I guess, when my name came up, you know, you need a few people who know you, not just the one carrying the flag.
Were there any other women as far as you knew who were involved?
No, I was the first woman.
You were the first.
Yeah. So, I got this phone call—you know, they ask you to join in the fall and your first summer study is in the following late June or July. So, I got this call from the program manager ’round about April. “Claire, I’ve got very important advice to give you about how you’re going to survive in the JASON.” That already set my teeth on edge a little bit.
He said, “You know, these guys are ferocious. They can tear you apart if you’re giving a talk. You know, they’ll just cut right to the chase and say, well, that equation is wrong. You know, you have to gird your loins and figure out how you’re going to withstand all this horrible treatment that you’re going to get. And it’s not just you. They treat all the speakers like that. But they’ll treat you worse because you’re the first woman and they won’t know what to do with you.” So, I thought, well that’s interesting. I’m thinking, well, at the time physics was kind of like that. Especially, maybe even especially at Livermore. You know, uh, somebody would come and give a colloquium and people would ask very direct questions and say they disagreed with you and it was all ok. It wasn’t ad hominem. They were just having a physics discussion in loud voices. [Laughs] But I didn’t really know what to think of it. So, you know, when I got there, people treated me fine. Not any different than we treated people at Livermore when they came to give talks. You know, we were critical when it needed to be, and not critical when we didn’t need to be. There were times when various senior JASONs would make it very clear that they didn’t think that someone’s briefing was worth much, but it was ok. And even those senior JASONs calmed down after a while.
Claire, were you contributing specifically from your academic expertise or more generally as a knowledgeable scientist with a successful tenure at Livermore?
It was a combination. I think, there’s usually, I don’t know, 5 to 10 to 15 study topics each summer. Each one for a different federal agency. Many are unclassified these days so we’ve done a couple of reports for the Bureau of the Census and the State Department and many for the Department of Energy on the unclassified side. And there are these classified ones—for a while I didn’t have the right clearances to do the most classified stuff so I tended to stay more on the unclassified side. But the reason I brought this up, is that my first year there, there had been a JASON report the summer before that proposed the idea of laser guide stars for adaptive optics. And, it had been—just the—the first paper suggesting that if you tuned a laser to the D2 line of a sodium atom, you could excite atoms in the thin layer of sodium about 90 kilometers up in the atmosphere. It’s a resonant transition and they shine brightly and it’s high enough that it acts sort of like a real star. [??] and laser guide stars, I don’t know, how you work these things.
Who were the customers for JASON? Who were the people that you had to—
I want to finish this story ’cause it gets personal.
So, Will Happer and Gordon MacDonald and various others—sorry [phone rings]—
So, adaptive optics measures the turbulence in the atmosphere 1,000 times a second, or many hundred times a second and then changes the shape of a so-called deformable mirror so as to cancel out the aberrations, the optical aberrations, due to turbulence in the atmosphere. And when you use a bright star, a fairly bright star to do these measurements, you need a fair amount of light because the exposure time for each measurement of the turbulence is very short. Because the turbulence changes fast and you need a snapshot of it. So, if you looked at an arbitrary place in the sky for your favorite galaxy, the likelihood is that there would not be a bright enough star near it. And if you look up at the sky at night it’s mostly black, right? So that continues to be true even at stellar magnitudes fainter than your eye can see. So, this study for the Department of Defense that Will Happer and Gordon MacDonald had done the year before was to help the Department of Defense to image satellites. It was the era of Star Wars, and the Russians were launching a satellite per day. We didn’t know what most of them were. So, one thread was: it would be good if we could look at them in a clear image from the ground. And the other was Reagan’s schemes to shoot down satellites with lasers. So, if you shine a laser up to shoot down the satellite you also have to correct it with adaptive optics ’cause otherwise the beam will spread into a very wide beam by the time it gets to the satellite just ’cause of the turbulence as well. So, they suggested this sodium method for making a laser guide star and once you made a spot about meter across at 90-kilometers altitude in the sodium layer, you could use that as a fake star. You could also move the laser along in the sky to follow ahead of a satellite in the low-Earth orbits so you could actually point to the place where the satellite will get to once the—once you’re taking an image of it. So that’s called the point-ahead problem. So, we wrote a follow-up report the following year, my first year as a JASON, in which I said, “Well, look, you know, it’s hard to do this point-ahead stuff with low-Earth orbit satellites that are zooming around but stars and galaxies are pretty well sitting there; they’re not moving very fast. Wouldn’t it be much easier to put a laser guide star with adaptive optics onto a big telescope? So, I wrote a chapter in that report proposing that we’d put a laser guide star adaptive optics system on the Keck telescope which at the time was called the 10-meter telescope; TMT. I even had a little sketch of where it should be and that’s exactly where it is now. So, I got interested in adaptive optics as part of this—at that point, very classified report because it was part of Star Wars. And, um, in the ’80s, the rest of the ’80s, while I was running the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics, it was still classified. But I was still following along whether anyone else had come up with this. And, you know, there are a couple of experiments using store-bought dye lasers that were tuned to the D-2 line of sodium but not really, not anywhere near good enough to do astronomy with. And then in the late ’80s both I and my—the strongest laser guide star group in the Air Force led by a guy named Bob Fugate—we were independently, I through JASON and Bob through the Air Force, pressuring the people who decided on classifying and declassifying things to declassify this whole thing. Because the Europeans were coming along fast doing it anyway, they didn’t need any classified information – just basic atomic physics. And we succeeded. So, in the early ’90s there was an APS meeting where a session was devoted to the people who had been doing the classified work telling about everything they had done. It was organized by Charlie Townes [Nobel Prize winner for the invention of the laser]. It was crammed to the gills. You couldn’t even get standing room in that room. And I remember it because there was one astronomer who had been trying to do this on his own in a small observatory, and when he heard that everything that he had been trying to do had already been done by the DOD he was really distraught. He said, “I’ve been wasting the last 10 years. This is awful that you didn’t at least warn me that you were doing it already.” I really felt back for him. But anyway, so this was all declassified. And then, um, in the meantime I had learned all about adaptive optics and we were writing classified things for the military on adaptive optics. So, shortly after the APS meeting, I was at lunch at Livermore at the central cafeteria with a colleague of mine who is a laser engineer, Herb Friedman. We were just sitting out on the patio talking and the topic turned to: how come nobody’s actually built a big enough laser with high enough power to do this sodium laser guide star thing for astronomy. And we talked about the lasers and the sodium physics and by the end of lunch we had decided if nobody else is doing it we’ll do it. Livermore knows about lasers. Surely we’ll figure out a way to get the whole thing to work. So, we did. We built the laser guide star at Livermore using an existing laser that was a dye laser so it was tunable. It had been built for isotope separation for civilian nuclear power. And we re-tuned it to the sodium D2 line, and there was an underground pipe that it was going through to get to the isotope separation lab and we just put a turning mirror and turned it up out of a manhole pointing straight up. We showed that we could measure the wave front of the turbulence, quickly, from that laser. That was quite a story, too. It was sort of, an anecdotal high point of my career, because it was a kilowatt laser. So, you could see it from everywhere. So we had to notify all the local press and the radio stations, and the California Highway Patrol that we were going to do this because the Highway Patrol didn’t want people careening all around the nearby freeway saying, “Oh, my God, you know, what is that yellow thing going up in the sky?” And, so, every time we were going to fire the laser, we would wind up each night warning everyone we were going to do it, and it was in the local papers, so there wouldn’t be a flap. We had to do an early form of environmental impact statement. It was called a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” And the lab really knew how to do this stuff so they were extremely helpful. And they were a little worried that it might cause negative publicity so they sent me to a class called How to Meet the Media and Survive.
And that class has served me well over the years. So, to make a long story short, we made these measurements and the California Highway Patrol eventually started just posting a highway patrolman right at the site with us with a local police radio so he would warn everybody when we were about to shoot the laser right then. Because we didn’t shoot it all night long. And, so, one night he was listening to his radio and the highway patrol up in Pleasanton, which was like 10 miles away said, “Oh, no, there’s this lady again.” And he said, “What lady?” And it turned out in Pleasanton there was a lady who every time she saw this laser in the distance she would call all the local police and highway patrol and say that there is a UFO poised right over Livermore and it’s sucking up the nuclear secrets through this yellow line, laser line.
So, everybody in all the local police forces and the highway patrol knew this lady, hence the comment, “Oh, no, there’s this lady again.” But, I thought, “We’ve really made it if we’re getting UFO calls.”
Anyway, that worked so we put one of these laser guide star AO systems at Lick Observatory near San Jose, and now all the 8 to 0-meter telescopes around the world, which is the largest we’ve got today, have these laser guide star adaptive optics systems on them. The Hobby Eberly telescope in Texas doesn’t have adaptive optics, but that’s because they don’t do imaging at all, they do spectroscopy, and you don’t need it that much for spectroscopy although it helps. So, I feel like, while many, many, many, many people were involved in actually building these systems and integrating with the telescope, I feel like I was the one who kickstarted it. And we ran for 10 years, a—after I—let’s see, at the end of the ’90s, in 1999 we were given a—we applied for and were given an NSF Science and Technology Center for Adaptive Optics for 10 years; 5 years plus 5 years. And I was the deputy director and then the director of that, and played a big role in writing the proposal. And through that 10-year effort we got, you know, adaptive optics from being a, sort of, well-that’s-nice curiosity on medium-size telescopes to doing something with a major contribution to all the astronomy that gets done on the biggest telescopes we have today, which are 8 to 10 meters. So, we brought all of the 8-to-10-meter-telescope people into the Center. It was good. It was very exciting and there were—the thing that got us the Center from the NSF was because I had found out through a friend that there was a lab at the University of Rochester that was trying to use adaptive optics to image the living human retina.
So, you know, when you takes those drops at the ophthalmologist so that the ophthalmologist can look into your eyes clearly, it opens up your pupil, and in principle since the pupil diameter is bigger by the diffraction limit you ought to get lambda over d benefit from having a bigger pupil, you should be able to see more clearly. But instead what happens is when you open up your pupil it uncovers parts of your eye at the edge of where the pupil is where the optics in your eye aren’t so good. And, so you actually get more aberrations when you dilate the pupil than when you don’t. And if you use adaptive optics you can dilate the pupil and correct those aberrations and individually image cells in the retina so they can image rods, cones, ganglion cells, the nerve fiber layer, everything. So that was a lot of fun, too, ’cause we had a group of people who were vision scientists and medical people who wanted to be able to diagnose disease by looking at the retina. And that was a big part of our Center, as well. I think that’s probably the only reason why the Center got funded was ’cause it was this oddball combination of astronomers and vision people. But it turned out that the vision people, they were, they’d see the night sky and they were intrigued by the astronomy. And the astronomers, well we all have eyes and we were all interested in how the vision stuff worked. And it was a really fun interaction.
And, Claire, just to orient ourselves into the chronology here, what years are we talking about now?
The center was ’99 to 2010, I guess. We got a no-cost extension.
And what other duties are you involved in at this point at the lab?
I left Livermore in roughly 2000 to go full-time as a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to be involved with the Center for Adaptive Optics there. So, Livermore was a partner in the Center but I thought I could be more centrally involved if I was at the headquarters.
Did you think initially that you would be able to maintain a joint affiliation?
I did. So, Jerry Nelson was the first director of the Center. He was a faculty member at Santa Cruz. I spent a couple years trying to split my time, but as you know, it’s pretty hard to do that. And I found myself spending more and more effort on the l laser guide star work and the Center for Adaptive Optics. So, I just switched completely.
Now, did you have another appointment within a traditional faculty when you first arrived at Santa Cruz?
Yes. Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
To what extent did you try to integrate both your professor duties and your directorship of the Center?
Completely. I mean, I originated a graduate course in adaptive optics early on, and one of the good things about the Center is, in order to keep everybody together at all these different institutions we used an early version of Zoom. A dedicated Polycom hardware system, and every part of the Center had a Polycom. So, we could hold informal seminars and so the grad students could work together across institutions. And, so, I decided, “Well, I’m gonna try teaching my grad course by Polycom.” So, I had about a dozen-ish people in the local conference room, and then I broadcast it out by Polycom to many different sites. So I’ve been doing that since the early 2000s, I guess, every other year, including this year. It’s been a lot of fun. I think some interesting fraction of the active people in astronomical adaptive optics, and even some of them in vision science adaptive optics, have gotten there through taking my course. So, that’s also very gratifying. It’s the only grad course in the field that’s a full graduate course I think even worldwide. There are various short courses, but—the field needed something like that because if you’re an engineer that’s just gotten hired by an observatory to work on adaptive optics, you did not study adaptive optics in electrical engineering school, trust me.
So, we had people from the observatories taking the class, grad students in astronomy, grad students in physics, grad students in vision science. It was a lot of fun. And I also taught undergraduates. Every other year, I taught undergraduates.
How well developed was the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Santa Cruz by the time you joined?
It’s been going strong since after World War II, roughly. Lick Observatory was founded in 1888. And astronomers lived on the mountain top because you couldn’t go up and back by horse and buggy on a regular basis very fast. And the grad students lived on the mountain top. And, uh, Clark Kerr, who was the president of the University of California after World War II decided, “Well, okay, we now have cars and we want to get the grad students down on the university campus.” So somebody in the Office of the President, probably him, decided that this new University of California campus at Santa Cruz needed something to boost it into the big leagues and so they decided that the headquarters of Lick Observatory would be at Santa Cruz. And ever since then there’s been a very strong Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, continuing to this date. You know, they do these decadal surveys and we’re always among the top departments in the country.
And besides, Claire, the observatory, I’m curious how UC Santa Cruz has situated itself among so many nearby powerhouses in physics and astronomy and astrophysics?
I can’t speak too much to physics except that there’s a Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP). So, there’s a big particle physics group, and they were deeply involved in the Atlas Project at CERN and so forth. They also have been doing gamma ray satellites, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope, so, they have one of the big gamma ray experiments that’s still flying.
Claire, in what ways did the transition to UC Santa Cruz…in what ways did you see this as an opportunity for new science and it what ways did you see coming over to Santa Cruz as an opportunity to pursue new science? And what opportunities were there for you to continue with some of the fundamental work you had done at Livermore?
Well, it was—hmmm. I mean, both, really. Uh, the national labs are interesting. They need people who do basic science because that’s the platform on which the understanding of, in Livermore’s case, laser fusion really rests. But it’s not easy at Livermore to build an entire career in basic research. You know, I was a—and a number of people, a number of really, really, really good people have had excellent early and middle career, uh, experiences at Livermore and then left because they felt like, uh, there wasn’t a way for them to “only” do outstanding basic research. So, I think, you know, even if this Center for Adaptive Optics hadn’t happened, I probably would have migrated away after another few years anyway.
In terms of the research, you were just ready to move on?
Yeah. I, you know, I was already doing astronomical observations with adaptive optics at Lick Observatory and I don’t know that I would have been so centrally involved in the adaptive optics had I stayed at Livermore. I was involved in the late ’90s in the adaptive optics at Keck which turned out to be a huge success, but I don’t know how involved I would have stayed. I probably would have stayed involved at another institution provided it wasn’t UC or Caltech or Hawaii. Um, I’m being a little incoherent here. Rephrase the question. I’m not sure I’m actually—
No, no. I think that exactly answers it. What had been some of the major accomplishments for you personally and the Center in general, with regard to adaptive optics?
Well, um, the first thing is getting the laser guide star to actually work to its design limit. So, most of these laser guide stars certainly at Lick and Keck, you know, you install them and they work pretty well. But it took several years in both cases to really understand how to make them work super-duper well. So, that’s one thing. And, then the Center also—a lot of Center members were astrophysicists who were the first really productive users of adaptive optics at Lick and Keck. And working together, getting them to work together to realize how to, you know, how to actually utilize this technology for a big variety of different astronomical applications that had different requirements including being able to image extrasolar planets near their host stars and a big variety of different topics. So, even when we got started at the Center for Adaptive Optics in the early 2000s people were already starting to think about the next generation of extremely large telescopes, and, 20, 30, 40 meters in diameter. And when we got started it wasn’t at all clear—I can say it was clear—there was not a computer algorithm for taking the measurements of the turbulent wavefront from either a natural star or a laser guide star and making them fast enough into a series of instructions to send to a deformable mirror which would correct the distortions. It was—there are so many degrees of freedom in the adaptive optics system that you needed for a 30-meter telescope that you couldn’t do the major conversions on the fly. So one of the things that the Center encouraged was a lot of people thinking about how to change the algorithm so that you could really do this practically on a 20- or 30- or 40-meter telescope and that was a big success as well. What else? When we got started in the Center there were two adaptive optics systems in vision science labs, one in Germany and one at the University of Rochester. And by the time we finished up there were, I don’t know, a dozen all over the world. And now there are many more than that, and you’re starting to see vision science adaptive optics at major university medical centers. So, UCSF has—UC San Francisco has one in the ophthalmology department as do the University of Texas at Austin. No, yeah. University of Houston has one. Lots of academic medical centers have them. So I feel like we’ve launched two fields really. I mean, we got the laser guide stars working on the big telescopes, we figured out how to do it on the next big giant telescopes, and we got laser—sorry, not lasers—adaptive optics working for eye research out of the initial one or two labs into a big variety of academic institutions and medical institutions.
Claire, when you talk about it takes a while for the instrumentation to get it where you want it to be so that it’s really good, what are some of the feedback mechanisms that you’re relying on to make those determinations?
Well, part of it has to do with working on the laser so that you can make the laser spot smaller. Another is realizing that the optical aberrations that you measure with the laser guide star aren’t quite what they would have been if you were measuring it from a bright natural star at the same position, and, so, there’s a separate little low bandwidth sensor, sometimes they call it truth sensor, that measures the difference in the aberrations between the star and the laser and corrects for that. The laser because it goes both up and down through the atmosphere, isn’t able to measure what’s called tip tilt from an astrophysical object, which is just the wandering on the side of the astrophysical object due to turbulence in the atmosphere, so, the object in the sky only goes through the atmosphere once in the downward direction. The laser goes up and down so you can’t use it to measure the same image wander. And, so, people have invented several different kinds of systems to measure tip tilt on the side and feed it into the algorithm, and we’ve gone through several generations of that, so that’s working much better now. Uh, wave front sensors have improved a lot since we got started.
Now, to what extent was the Center of Adaptive Optics doing research that was not being done anywhere else in the world? And would it be the case that researchers from all over would, sort of, flock to the Center because of its unique status in research?
So, one of the things that the Center did along the lines we were just talking about in improving the new adaptive optics systems that were already installed is we hired postdocs and we sent them to the Keck Observatory. They were sort of joint postdocs. And those two or three people over several years contributed a lot to making the whole thing useful astrophysically both from an operational point of view and having there be much less overhead, much more high efficiency on the sky, having the algorithms work better, having the interface work better. And, you know, that would have happened much slower if we hadn’t had the Center, I think, because the observatories are trying to run telescopes and the regular instruments. They didn’t have a lot of energy to do this sort of thing. We didn’t have that many resident astronomers, you know, visiting for long periods of time. But we ran a fall retreat, a spring retreat, and a summer school which got people coming from all over the world to share stories about what was happening. A colleague of mine has this saying: What’s the difference between a workshop and a conference? And the answer is: In a workshop you tell them what really happened.
And the same thing was true for our retreats. We would have little topical meetings within the retreat. It was the 20 people in the world who were the most interested in topic X, and they would really get into the nitty gritty and say, “Yeah, I tried but that didn’t work. What do you think about this? Have you tried this?” It pulled together the world community in a really good way.
That’s really interesting. Now, I know you stepped down as director in 2014. Have you kept up with what the Center has been doing in recent years?
Well, it still exists, and it exists because we earn a little money from the fall retreat. We usually run one retreat a year: the fall retreat and the summer school. So, we charge admission and they’re self-supporting by now. Another thing that has happened is we established early in the 2000s a Laboratory for Adaptive Optics at Santa Cruz which Don Gavel ran for quite a while and now there’s a new director, Phil Hinz from the University of Arizona. So that lab with the fall retreat and the summer school are doing very well. That’s sort of the new nucleus of what the Center for Adaptive Optics became, if you will.
Now, is this to say that the NSF is no longer supporting the Center?
They’re no longer supporting it as a Center, but they are supporting individual research topics within the area of adaptive optics.
Now, did you—
As are several foundations.
Oh, who are some of the most significant foundations supporting the Center?
They’re not supporting the Center. They’re supporting individual researchers within the Center, so, I think the Heising Simons Foundation, right now, is the one that’s the most.
But that changes with time.
Now, did you step down to assume the directorship of UC Observatories?
Um, let me think about that. Um, there was a period of several years when I wasn’t the director of anything. [Laughs]
And then in late 2014 or early 2015, I was asked to be the interim director of UC Observatories, and then in 2015 I guess the real director.
Did you see this as a lateral move or was this a step up both in terms of responsibilities and stature?
It was a step up in many dimensions. I mean, it certainly has more stature. The Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, and the future 30-meter telescope which is all the ones my organization is involved with particularly in providing quality observing for UC people. You know, known around the world. I’m not so sure how well known the Center for Adaptive Optics was outside of those fields. But the big area where it was a step up is in responsibilities because we have 70 or 80 direct employees, staff members. We have these big physical plants at Lick Observatory to take care of. There are 27-ish people who live on the mountain who are telescope operators and telescope technicians and the public programs people. I’m responsible for all of them, in a sense. So, it’s a $13 million dollar a year-ish organization. About half from the University of California Office of the President, and half from everyplace else. So, it’s a much bigger proposition.
Claire, coming into this position, from an administrative or a budgetary perspective, what were some of the challenges you saw right off the bat?
Lick Observatory in particular had been in a really bad way. The Office of the President of UC, to whom we are part because we are a Multi-campus Research Unit that serves astronomers at 9 out of the 10 UC campuses, went through a period where they thought that Lick Observatory should be closed. So, the previous two directors had been fighting that battle to try and not close Lick Observatory. But it was very acrimonious and, uh, the budget was cut, and, uh, there were very hard feelings on all sides. And, they—particularly my predecessor, Sandy Faber, made huge progress in not getting Lick Observatory closed. She got the community involved. She got congresspeople involved. Not that they involved the Congress but they had influence. She got the county government involved. And eventually the Office of the President stepped back and said, “Okay, you know, we’re going to keep you open after all.” So, I stepped in right where that wound was starting to heal. And there was a new person at the Office of the President responsible for UC observatories as a Multi-campus Research Unit, and she and I worked really hard at having a good working relationship and trying to be upfront about solving whatever problems were left. Actually, I said I wouldn’t take the job unless she gave us a budget increase, which she did. And, so, we’ve been healing ever since, in a sense.
So, you didn’t feel, Claire, that you had to make the case at that point on an existential level to keep the observatory going? That argument had already been settled?
It had already been settled but it was kind of teetering. Teeter-tottering, or whatever. It was—it didn’t have both feet firmly on the ground yet. The morale was still bad. We were afraid that key staff members would leave. So a lot of what I had to do when I took over is make it clear that we’re here to stay and that I was there to support the staff, and we were going to keep replacing salaried faculty who had been—had partial loads in the observatories as they retired. I think we’re there, but it’s taken five years.
That’s interesting. So, what from a scientific perspective, when you’re in this rebuilding mode and the long-term viability is by no means assured, what scientific opportunities did you see as you had leeway to a fresh approach to things and to demonstrate the observatory’s ongoing relevance to larger astronomical research questions?
Well, one is extrasolar planets. So, there are several ways to detect if there are planets around other stars, and one of them is spectroscopically to look for the Doppler shifts in the host star light caused by the planets going around it. And, so Lick Observatory was painfully commissioning a new telescope called the Automated Planet Finder, which was initially co-funded by UC Berkeley and the Navy, pork barrel appropriations, and it was just coming on line. When I took over, it was still not quite working right but it got working well in my first couple years, as I recall correctly. I may not have the specifics exactly right. And it’s been churning out data on extrasolar planets ever since. And we’re still working on improving it, but it became one of the several mainstay telescopes at Lick. Extrasolar planets is also a big deal at the Keck Observatory. There are several new instruments that are coming online and some of them that have come online already taking advantage of adaptive optics. There are planned extrasolar planet instruments at the 30-meter telescope although those plans are still kind of disorganized in my opinion. So, they need to pull together better. But I think extrasolar planets has been a big draw since I came to Santa Cruz.
Claire, how much collaboration, you know, either on a day-to-day or an annual from a strategic perspective, how much collaboration is there between the observatory and NASA?
Well, there’s—NASA is a co-owner of the Keck Observatory. So, from that point of view, the NASA representative and I both serve on the board, the CARA Board which is the Keck Observatory Board. And NASA has representations on the Science Steering Committee at Keck, so through Keck we interact with NASA. Not so much through Lick. Okay. So, there’s one thing I wanted to say about Livermore. So, I’d like to backtrack a bit if that’s okay?
I said that it’s hard for them to support somebody who is “just doing” outstanding basic science for your whole career. I think that’s still true. But they have a flexibility and a nimbleness that universities just don’t have. For example, through their internal R&D program I was able to build—to do this first test of the laser guide star at Livermore for several million dollars. And they were happy to do it. They thought it was a great demonstration of what the laboratory could do. And then they also paid for the continuation—installing the first laser guide star at Lick with adaptive optics. They have been really tickled to be involved in this kind of frontier basic research, especially, you know, where it involves instruments of technology. And they’ve done the same for other fields, I think. They built one of the Axion experiments. They supported work on the EBIT experiment to do atomic physics. So, when I first came to them and said to them that I want to do this sodium laser guide star they didn’t laugh me out of the room. They took it seriously and said, “Okay, it’s a risky thing but we think if it pays off it will be alright.” So, they are very good at doing stuff like that. And they can make a decision vastly faster than the National Science Foundation can do. And in my case, it’s actually doing the right experiment, and then building the laser for Lick, they were able to spend the kind of money that the NSF at the time was unwilling to devote to laser guide stars. There were a couple of groups who were working on adaptive optics and laser guide stars with NSF funds. But they didn’t meet critical mass. So, I think they are playing a very important role, and continue to in basic research. But from the people point of view it’s a little more difficult, I think.
In what way, Claire?
You have to have sponsorship from a program. And when I first came to the lab the DOE weapons program had a carveout that was used for basic research and astrophysics. So, we did, early on, I did research that was funded or could have been funded by that program, but that ended. And now, I believe, I may be out of date, I hope I’m not out of date, that you have to be associated with a program that’s bringing in external money. Those are usually quite applied. So, you can survive for a while on these internal R&D funds, but they frown on somebody building an entire career just using that kind of funding. It’s kind of a shame.
Claire, have you been able in your capacity as director of the observatories, how much have you been able on a day-to-day basis operate in a scientific capacity?
Largely by working through my students and former students. So, I have an observing run coming up next week. I and two of my—one of my former students and their former postdoc at a different UC campus are all working together remotely from our laptops at home. [Laughs] Usually we would assemble in person at a Remote Observing Room on a UC campus. Instead we’ll each be sitting in our pajamas and observing remotely from our houses because of COVID.
And just to get a sense of the different hats that you wear, is it safe to assume that any graduate student you take on is going to do work, either previously within the environs of the Center for Adaptive Optics, or, more recently, at the observatories? Or, will you take on graduate students that don’t necessarily have an affiliation but they’re just with the department?
All the graduate students are with the department. We think it’s not a good idea to carve them up too early.
Who have been some of your most successful graduate students over your tenure at Santa Cruz?
I’d rather not mention names, but there are several who are in faculty jobs, and a few of my best grad students are now data scientists in Silicon Valley over the hill.
I can rephrase the question. What have been some of the shared characteristics that your most successful graduate students have had?
I’m not sure I could say any one thing. Some of them have been super-duper astronomers who were wise and willing to listen to advice on how to use adaptive optics to do the astronomy they need to do. And some were really good with real-time software and did research on how to improve the wave front control software for adaptive optics systems. One of them finished her Masters with me and decided that research wasn’t her thing. So, it was a very good Master’s project, by the way. So she left and became a big wig at Apple over the hill. I don’t think there’s any one category.
Have you had the opportunity to do any undergraduate teaching?
Oh, yeah. I taught an undergraduate course every other year in between when I teach my adaptive optics course. So, I only teach one course a year.
What is that course?
It’s Planets and Planetary Systems. So, it’s not intro material. It’s for people who want to go into more depth. And when it was first started it was about our solar system. But now it’s about other solar systems as well as our own. And, it’s a huge amount of fun to teach because the old approach to teaching a solar system course was planet by planet. You start at Mercury and you ended up teaching them one by one. And the current way to teach it is that geological and geophysical properties are related across all the planets. And it’s much more interesting and much more fun. Venus, early on, had plate tectonics. Mars early on seemed to have had plate tectonics. There are strange things that happened to Mercury, et cetera, and likewise for the planetary atmospheres. The classes try and—the text books try and do unifying things about the energy sources, atmospheric science, and plate tectonics for example. So, I find it very stimulating to teach.
I got into it because I was doing adaptive optics research on Neptune and Uranus early on. So, they thought, “Oh, she’s the best one.” So, I ended up teaching that class.
[Laughs] Claire, particularly for students who might not pursue a career in astronomy, or ever really think about it again, what are some of the major takeaways that you want to emphasize to them about what they should understand about astronomy or our solar system?
Well, the first thing that’s a major takeaway is understanding scientific methods. I think that’s super important to get. So, when you make a statement that such-and-such is true, you have to be ready to say because why. Not why do we think this is true; what experiments, what observations. And if that was all that they’d learn in my class I’d be delighted. So, that’s the first thing. I guess the second thing is the issue of unifying physical principles across our solar system. And that while you can view each planet as its own little world without reference to the other ones, it’s much more powerful to think more globally about what drives plate tectonics, what drives global circulation, collisional histories which affected all, most of the planets. Stuff like that, so, the general principles.
Relatedly, I know you serve as Liaison for Education and Public Outreach for Lick. In what ways have you been able to interface with the broader public about your work at the observatories?
Of course, this has all been thrown in the trash by COVID-19, but there are several kinds of public programs that we run at Lick largely during the summer when the weather is guaranteed to be good. So, we have Music of the Spheres where there’s a music group that gives a concert and then we do an astronomy lecture and we do observing with various ones of our telescopes with the public. And then there’s Evening with the Stars, a series of two astronomy lectures and interactive activities. We started a new outreach program called La Noche de las Estrellas aimed at Spanish-speaking high school students from the local high schools. We work with their teachers to prepare ahead of time. They invite their parents along, so the parents are at the entire program which is all in Spanish. And that’s been a huge success and I’m very inspired to do more of this.
You see it as an opportunity, perhaps, to encourage under-represented groups to pursue careers in science?
For sure. Yes. For sure. From Lick Observatory, in an outgrowth of the Center for Adaptive Optics, is a series of workforce development programs in Hawaii. So, one of them is called The Akamai Workforce Initiative and this is all with my colleague Lisa Hunter at Santa Cruz. She made the observation early on that if you want to include more native Hawaiians and under-represented groups in astronomy either as a profession or working on the staff of observatories, you don’t necessarily have to worry about the whole pipeline because many, many more students from under-represented groups enter college or junior college saying they want to major in a science than actually graduate in a science. And, so, this internship program, workforce development program, is aimed at working with students who enter either community college or a four-year college from under-represented groups saying that they want to major in science and making sure, or helping them to stay in science and get motivated about some particular field of science, and become an advocate for science. And it’s been a terrific success. I think that the numbers I remember, which are little bit out of date now, are—they did a study comparing the outcomes down the line of the students who participated in the Akamai program and what they went on to do versus ones who had been accepted but not had actually attended the Akamai program. It’s not exactly a control group because they might have had some reason not to accept the internship. But the best we could do. If you look at the group that did not come to the Akamai Workforce Initiative Program somewhere between 10 and 20% of them, years later, are still on a science trajectory, meaning they’re still majoring in science in college or they’ve gone on to science grad school or they’ve gotten a science or technology job. So, 10 or 20 percent. And the number for the students who do attend is 82%. So, it’s absolutely striking that this kind of well-thought through program can have a big influence in increasing the workforce in STEM fields. And, yes, some of them go into engineering and work in observatories. Some of them go on into astrophysics and other fields of science.
That’s really exciting to hear. Are there any students—again, you don’t have name names, but are there any students whose trajectory you’ve taken particular pleasure in watching? Where they had opportunities that you’ve provided that they might not have had otherwise?
Not right off. But the ones who are in grad school that I know about, and to some extent, keep in touch with. But I don’t want to name names.
Claire, I wonder if you have any insight that you’d like to share about some of the controversies in Hawaii about building a new telescope possibly on sacred ground? Where do you situate yourself in those kinds of discussions? And what do you see as the most productive way forward that squares the circle between advancing the science and being culturally sensitive?
It’s really tough. There are a lot of local people in Hawaii who are either stronly in favor of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or moderately in favor, or neutral. There is a smaller group of people who are vehemently opposed to it and who feel that the definition of sacred mountain means that none of the mountain at all should be used by anybody except Hawaiian practitioners. There are other interpretations of sacred mountains which there are parts of mountains which are sacred, uh, but not the entire real estate have to be reserved for a particular group. So that’s part one. Part two is that in the early days of observatories on Mauna Kea, to some extent astronomers brought this onto themselves when the University of Hawaii put an observatory up there. It was a completely different era when the white faculty members looked down on the brown-skinned native Hawaiians. There’s no doubt about it. I can tell stories out the wazoo on that, what they said to me in the early days about the native Hawaiians, and it was not good. And for a long time, there were no native Hawaiians on the staff at the observatories. And in addition, the early astronomers on Mauna Kea weren’t very good stewards of the summit so when they built a new telescope, they would leave the wooden concrete forms, you know, for the concrete pour. After they poured, they just put the wood down on the summit and the wind blew them all over the place. And in some cases, they’re accused of having bulldozed native shrines and I have no reason not to believe that. They may or they may have. So, there is a lot of fully justified anger at the way the astronomers treated the summit in the past. What’s so ironic to me about this is that the 30-meter telescope started out from the beginning resolved not to do that. And, they met with these Hawaiian elders. They had regular meetings with communities all over the Big Islands. They established personal ties with local groups, worked with them. And they had funded—they had helped to fund this outreach program that I was talking about, the Akamai Workforce Program. They had funded a K-12 initiative because they wanted more Hawaiians to go into the STEM fields. So, it’s so ironic because compared to the previous observatories, by that standard they’ve done a much better job. But, um—
The 30-meter telescope is paying for past sins, it sounds like.
Past sins of the earlier observatories, yeah—Keck has done a reasonable job, in the recent past, in community outreach. I’d say a good job. But there’s a subset of native Hawaiians who want to go back to the old days, some of whom feel fiercely that it’s entirely a sacred mountain, and, they have said that there’s no way they’re going to compromise. We don’t need another telescope on the mountain and that they’ll lay themselves down and be run over by bulldozers to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope. I respect their deep feelings but I don’t know how you ever reach a compromise.
So, Claire, given these challenges, I wonder if you could explain from an astronomy perspective or maybe a meteorological perspective, why is it so crucial for this telescope to be sited on Hawaii? Aren’t there other places in the world where these challenges are not present and it just makes more sense to pursue those sites?
Yeah, so, the alternative site for the Thirty Meter Telescope is in the Canary Islands, and they’ve been actively pursuing a new design of the foundation and they’ve gone through all the environmental impact stuff for being on the Canary Islands, and they could decide tomorrow, more or less, to go to La Palma in the Canary Islands which is a very good site. I would say it’s outstanding from a few different points of view. Some of the types of adaptive optics would work just as well at La Palma as at Mauna Kea. Some of it would actually, I think, work better at La Palma.
And all things being—
Yeah, go ahead.
I was going to say, all things being equal what would you like to see—how would you like to see all of this play out? Let me finish…So, the La Palma site is lower than Mauna Kea, so there is more water vapor above it. And, water vapor starts to absorb light at wavelengths longer than two microns. And, so, the higher you are, the less water vapor there is above your telescope. And, so, Mauna Kea is quite good for the mid infrared when there are two atmospheric windows that astronomers use. One is three to five microns wavelength and the other is eight to twelve microns. And, uh, there are periods of time, brief periods of time at La Palma where the water vapor is low, although it’s not as low as at Mauna Kea. But there are many more times when you just can’t do an infrared observation at wavelengths much longer than 2 microns. So, you have to be ready to jump on it, you know, at a moment’s notice when the precipitable water vapor is low. And it’s a field that’s about to see a real renaissance at these wavelengths. So some people really feel kind of heartbroken at the thought of going to La Palma instead of Mauna Kea. They would go and they would get their observations, but they wouldn’t be as good. And they wouldn’t be as frequent, and they’d be more chopped up in time.
And your sense is that there’s not really an argument or a way forward that’s going to convince them otherwise.
Well, there—so, many more native Hawaiians are in favor of the 30-meter telescope being on Mauna Kea now than there were a few years ago. And, partly that’s because of the economic impact ’cause COVID-19 has made it more clear that Hawaii’s dependence on tourism leaves it very vulnerable. And, also, the tourist industry doesn’t pay very well. Jobs at the observatories are great opportunities for young people, and for the students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who are getting engineering degrees that really want to go back to the island and work. And for the businesses that are supported by the people who work at the observatories. So, the economic argument in favor of putting the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is very powerful.Yeah, you know how it is if you’re really passionate about something and it’s not a question of facts one way or another, it’s a question of “this is my religion and you can’t step on it,” I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do.
Claire, for the last part of our conversation, I just want to bring the state of research up to the current day and then, see where you think it’s headed. So, first what’s the state of laser guide stars and their relevance for ongoing studies of galaxy mergers and galactic nuclei?
I think it’s going strong. We’ve been doing “surveys” of colliding galaxies, and we’re happy when we have 20 galaxies in our survey. Whereas the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (which doesn’t use adaptive optics) has millions of galaxies and maybe a couple thousand of the kind that we’re studying. So, there’s a strong incentive with adaptive optics to build up samples of 100, 200, or 300 of whatever type of astronomical object you’re looking for. That’s getting easier and the observatories are working hard on figuring out what takes so long when you switch from one target to another with the laser so they can cut down the time, cut down the slack time in between targets. So, for example we would like to be able to do adaptive optics, laser guide star observations with 200 targets instead of 20. It would be more rich, and meaningful I think.
And what are you most excited about in terms of how this research might contribute to larger fundamental questions about the universe?
Well, there are very lively controversies about what is the role of central black holes, supermassive black holes in these galaxies in changing the evolution of the galaxy. And what is the role of galaxy mergers in feeding central black holes. So, two different but related questions. And, the consensus as I’ve been reading about it is that when you look at the early universe, it seems that really young galaxies already have big black holes in them, and are able to clear out a significant fraction of the interstellar gas by the winds driven by a black hole. If that weren’t the case, then galaxies today would have many more stars in them than they have now. So, part of the motivation been: let’s see what we can say in detail about the physics of how black holes do or do not get fed by galaxy mergers and whether the two black holes that are coming to the merger two galaxies will eventually merge together and make a bigger one. And the other thing we’re interested in is in these galaxy mergers, let’s look at the physics of the outflows that are coming from the nucleus. Because everybody says, yeah, the only possible source of energy that’s big enough to get rid of all the interstellar medium in the young galaxies has to be a black hole. So, let’s look at the nuclear issues and see what kind of outflows the black holes are driving and how those nuclear outflows relate to the very, very large scale outflows that are seen in the outer reaches of the galaxy by different observational methods. And that second topic is hard. The first topic, we’re making progress on it. The second topic of how the nuclear outflows relate to or do they drive the very large-scale outflows, it’s harder to get an observational view on it. And, so, we’re thinking through different ways to observe it. We’ll be observing in a couple weeks at Keck is to use what’s called integral field spectrometry which is when you basically take a picture and get a spectrum at each pixel in the picture. So, we’re trying optical wavelength integral field spectrometry, not adaptive optics, to try and see what the larger scale outflow looks like in quite a bit of physical detail. And, then, the way back to the measurements we’ve already done on the nuclear outflows. It’s trying to gather pieces of that puzzle isn’t so easy. I think we have a way to stitch together the large scale and small scale outflows to get the whole picture of what’s going on.
Well, Claire, going off that theme, for my last question, building on that, both in an administrative capacity as you continue to be director of the observatories, and as an active scholar in the field, what are the areas of research and service to the profession that you are most concentrated on, you know, in the next few years or even the longer term from that?
Ah! Well, I was asked by the Office of the President of UC whether I’d be interested in continuing through a second five years in this directorship. Of course, they’d have to do a review and everything, but—I said I’d do it only for one more year. And then I’m going to resign from this position then and do something else. So, I’ve given myself one year in which to work within the observatory to run a strategic planning process where the goal is to have ready for the incoming director a year from now a series of strategic actions or directions that he or she may want to take the observatory in, with having done homework of how much does it cost and where they stand on the excitement of the field, and the general larger landscape, and so forth. I’ve been trying to do planning for UC observatories for a couple years now, and for various real reasons, including COVID-19 it didn’t get launched. But now that we have this goal of having it ready for the interim director in a year, the people on my advisory committee that are working with it have been quite enthusiastic about doing this. And, so, on a scale of one year, I’m really looking forward to digging into the future directions that the observatory might go in. Including far off possibilities and not so far off ones.
Well, Claire, it’s been so fun talking with you. I’m so glad we connected. It’s been very interesting to hear how your career has progressed and it’s quite valuable, particularly, to hear your perspectives, you know, spending so much time in a national laboratory environment, and talking about the value and the importance of basic research there, and then transferring some of those experiences to some of the more—the fundamental and important research you’ve been doing over the past 15 years. So, I really appreciate our time together, and I know that there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to gain a lot of value from this ultimate transcript. So, I really thank you for spending this time with me.
It was a lot of fun. Thank you!