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Interview of John Jefferies by Spencer Weart on 1977 July 29, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4693
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Topics discussed include: John Jefferies's family background and education in Western Australia, 1925-1942; undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia, 1942-1946 and graduate studies at University of Cambridge, 1947-1949; work at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, 1949-1956 and research with Ronald Giovanelli on radiation transfer and spectra; moving to the United States; Harvard University; Sacramento Peak Observatory; High Altitude Observatory; National Bureau of Standards; founding of Joint Institute for Laboratory Astronomy at Boulder, Colorado; Scientific work on Non-LTE (Local Thermo-dynamic Equilibrium) with Richard V. Thomas; work on calcium lines; book on spectral line formation; use of techniques for terrestrial plasmas; developling the astronomy program at University of Hawaii including the 88-inch telescope and work with Gerard Kuiper; formation of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corportation; NASA and United Kingsom infrared and extragalactic telescopes and programs; thoughts on various panels he served on including National Science Foundation Advisory Panel for Optical Astronomy, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Visiting Committee, and NASA Physical Sciences Committee.
We’re interested in how people become astronomers, and particularly how a boy from Kellerberrin, West Australia became an astronomer. I know that you were born there in 1925, but I don’t know anything else about your family. Who were your parents, what did they do?
That does go back a long, way. My father was a bank officer, in the National Bank of Australia, in Kellerberrin. This Bank had branches all over the country, and he was transferred from place to place, so although it is true I was born in Kellerberrin, I have zero recollection of it; we moved from there very soon after my birth to a place called Wagin, where my only brother was born. I was the firstborn.
Were there sisters also?
There was one sister born in our next town (it was called Lake Grace) but she died very soon after birth. We moved all around the country in Western Australia–little towns. The first that I have much recollection of is called Williams, where we stayed for a number of years before World War II. As far as any place, it was my home town. I went to grade school there and, at the age of 12, left for boarding school. It was characteristic for many kids in Western Australia, in the country; to go away to school—there was no high school there. Many kids went to private boarding schools in the city of Perth— my brother and I did.. We went to a school called Guilford Grammar School—a boarding school with something like a hundred students altogether.
Was this an English style boarding school?
Yes, right. It was split up into ‘Houses’. It was strongly oriented towards sports and the classics. I took Latin and Greek. In fact, the Headmaster insisted that I take Greek instead of chemistry, and I didn’t do any physics at all until I graduated from there. I didn’t do any physics at all until I went to the University, as a matter of fact.
Did you read a lot in your childhood? Were there any particular science books that you can remember that might have influenced you?
No, not particularly. I don’t recall what turned me on to science. I was very interested in mathematics I always had been, and was good at it. I was interested in languages, and did well in that at school too—French, Latin and Greek.
What was your mother’s background, by the way?
My mother’s name is Healy–of Irish origin. Back in the 1830s or 40s her grandparents came from. Ireland; I suspect they were shipped out from Ireland, as a lot of Irish discontented and poor people were, as convicts. Her father had been a quite successful manufacturer of soft drinks (soda pop) in a partnership in the State of Victoria, He was swindled by his partner and was left with nothing except a large family to feed, so he came out to Western Australia.
I’m not quite sure when, but around about the turn of the century. My mother was born in 1896. My father was also born in 1896; his parents also came over to Western Australia from New South Wales. I don’t know what it was about that time I know there was gold discovered in the early 190s in Western Australia, and I think the general economic boom that resulted from that probably attracted people to Western Australia.
Had your parents had any college education?
No. University education was very rare in their days.
Was there anything in your early home life that prepared you for a scientific career?
My father was very widely read and my mother was also. My father was a very able person. As a child he had been selected to go to a special State-funded. school reserved for unusually bright children. But he did not follow through— his family could not have afforded it. It was probably not even considered. He was always very interested in mathematics, and in my becoming a mathematician. My father drove me, as parents often do their first born. He had very high ambitions for me.
He used to give me special instruction after school. I can remember sitting in the Bank—we lived in a house that was attached to the bank building—and he used to take me there after dimer (or tea as we used to call it) and sit me down at a desk, and drum arithmetic into me. I was at the age of 10 or 11, and he’d just keep pounding away at mental arithmetic and different exercises in arithmetic. This was to prepare me for a State Government scholarship. Scholarship examinations were held State-wide in Western Australia every year for kids of the age of 12 or 13.
There were only 50 awarded each year in the State, and winning me of them was a significant step on the way to subsequent education, high school education, which was by no means common-place there. Children could leave school at the age of 14 in Western Australia, legally, and most of them did.
Would they have had the means to send you on to secondary school if you hadn’t won the scholarship?
Barely, but I’m sure they’d have sacrificed themselves to have done it. The scholarship made a great deal of difference. The private schools gave substantial (25%) remission offers to attract scholarship students while those who chose to go to a government-run high school in one of the larger centers (where the public high schools were located) would get financial assistance to cover room and board.
Do you mean public in the American sense?
Public in the American sense, that’s right, yes, it was publicly supported. I went to a school that was “public” in the British sense, a private school run by the Church of England. (We used the British terminology).
Did you have any formal religious instruction while you were growing up?
Yes, I was a relatively active member of the Church of England, an Episcopalian. I was strongly influenced by a very fine individual, Brian McDonald his name was. He was the parson, I suppose you’d call him, of the town of William. He used to give me instruction in English and Latin when I was 10 to 12. This was also in preparation for this scholarship examination. At least the English was; Latin was not. There were only two subjects, English and arithmetic, in the scholarship examination.
Anyway, I got a scholarship in 1937, much to my parent’s jubilation. My father was not given to praise particularly He was strongly critical of me when I made any mistakes; he used to shout, and as often as not I would finish up in tears after one of our evenings of instruction in the bank building, as I was preparing for these examinations in 1937. No one really gave much thought to my brother Phillip as a potential student. He was the second child and the expectations were not as high as for me.
He grew vegetables out in the back yard. He was interested in nature and agriculture and plants. And he was not regarded as being an academic, although in fact he finished up as Professor, and head of Organic Chemistry at the University of Western Australia, and is (with reason) very highly regarded internationally as a scholar.
If he finished up a professor, there must have been some impetus.
It was generated pretty much from within, in his case. I remember his first year at the private school; the first semester he finished half way down in the class, in the second semester he was second, and from then on he was at the top of his class–at which stage of course the expectations for him grew. This is kind of rambling, Spencer.
No, this is all quite to the point, because you’ve given me a picture I already have a picture as to why it is you’re sitting here rather than in a bank in Western Australia. (Laughter) Did you expect from early age that you would be going to college–this was expected of you?
I think probably my parents hoped for it. My father had ambitions for me to be a Rhodes scholar, as a matter of fact. I that’s what he was always pushing for. But I was never particularly talented at sports; I was not untalented, but I was not a great football or cricket player, and this was a very important facet of the makeup of these Rhodes scholars.
So at age 12 or 13 you then went to Perth to attend private school?
Yes. I went to school in Guildford as I mentioned, and I became rather restive there after the War got going in earnest–in 1940—and things were not going very well for our cause. I was very anxious to get into the war; I was only 16 in 1941 and unable to join up, although I did try on one or two occasions—but failed because of my youth. I was restive at school; it just didn’t seem to mean anything to me, the school experience, when there were such other things going on in the world.
I didn’t really feel that I was necessarily going to do anything beyond the end of school. I thought of myself as going into a bank or an insurance company or business of that kind. Going to the University was very unusual, and no one that I can recall in my parents’ acquaintance—don’t know any of them who went to the University, or even who had very much knowledge of it. Those who thought about it at all regarded the University with a good deal of suspicion as a place where questionable ideas were bandied around, and highly immoral activities went on.
Do you recall any feelings specifically about science, or specifically scientists?
Science was starting to boom at that stage, I do remember that. A Science comic engaged me in the late 1930's. There was. greater awareness, certainly on my part, and I think generally on the part of the community, of the things that science was doing to increase people’s standard of living. Generally more in terms of chemistry, I think, than physics. In term of new drugs—sulfa drugs were developed about that time, and the success of this kind of enterprise was making itself known. Obviously radio. Radar was a fact in 1941.
But in any case, at the end of 1940 I passed called a Statewide examination called a “Junior certificate" exam, which was kind of like a school certificate on the intermediate level, taken at age 15 or 16. Most of my classes mates left after the Junior. I decided that I just didn’t want anything more to do with school. I was at boarding school and I just quit. I said to my parents, "Look, I just don’t want any more of this, I want to go out and earn a living and work until I can join the Air Force." And so I applied for a position at the Commonwealth Bank, and got it, and started to work there in the middle of 1941. So basically, I dropped out at the start of high school. It didn’t take me very long to realize that was not at all what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I signed up to complete my high school courses at night school.
I spent two years going to night school, 1941-42, while working in the Commonwealth Bank, under pretty oppressive circumstances. We were very busy. Most of the men in the Bank had taken off for the war. This was after the Japanese got into the war, and Western Australian people were seriously threatened. In fact I can remember going down and digging trenches in a big park next to the river in Perth, because we had expected Japanese gliders to came at any moment. This was early 1942. I still managed to continue on in evening school, passed my courses (by the barest of margins) and by the end of that time I’d decided I wanted to go to the University. And I decided I wanted to be a scientist, and specifically I decided I wanted to be a physicist.
You had decided that sometime during the period when you were working at the bank?
Yes. It kind of crystallized in my mind.
What do you suppose influenced you to become this out of all the possible things?
I can’t remember. I think it was the fact that I liked mathematics. I may have felt that mathematics was not a field in which I was going to be able to make a living. I had done some applied mathematics, which was a separate course in the matriculation curriculum, and I liked that. There was some aspect of physics to that. I guess it was basically the possibility of working in a field that was fairly precise, quantifiable, in which mathematics could be applied and in which I would be able to use it.
Use in the sense of practical applications?
No. In which mathematics would be heavily involved in the work that I was doing.
I see. So you went there with the intention of becoming a physicist, so to speak.
I went to the University with the intention of becoming a physicist.
How were you supported while you were an undergraduate?
My father supported me, mainly, during the academic year. There was a Federal scholarship system, but I think it had a means test associated with it, and I don’t believe my father got much money, for that. There were no fees; the University of Western Australia was free. But he had to pay for my board at the college I attended and that was fairly expensive. During the summer I worked and that helped.
And what sort of instruction did you receive in physics in Western Australia? Was it up-to-date?
It was mixed. There was a very small faculty, four people I think. Two of them were recent graduates and enthusiastic and quite up-to-date. The head of department had ‘died’ in about 1905. He was interested in optics and some aspect of atomic physics; I don’t recall. He might have known the Bohr atom, but I don ‘ t think he’d gone much beyond that. There was another man who had a master’s degree in physics. He was a very patient, well-meaning, kindly person on whom practically all the nasty chores were loaded by the head of the department. He was interested in x-ray crystallography and he did same work in that. He was not a person who would inspire a young scientist; however.
So then did you primarily read physics and mathematics, or were there other things?
The structure was such that you took four courses in the first year, three the next, and two the third, for a (final) three year course. I did physics, chemistry, mathematics, and geology in my first year. These were a relatively common quartet. The second year I did physics, mathematics, and chemistry—chemistry was a big mistake, but that’s what I did. The third year I took physics and mathematics.
I see. So there was no formal training in astronomy?
No, none. We had some lectures by the head of the department, two or three lectures in astronomy, but they were nothing.
I see. And what about any contacts with philosophy, the humanities, anything like that?
No. Of course, we had a good grounding at school in English, history, foreign languages. But remember, again, this was 1943, 44,45— during the war, and the only reason I was at the University, the only reason any male students were at the University, was because we had manpower exemptions from the draft. We were judged to be serving in an area of significance to the nation or at least to its future.
I see. Then science would be more that way.
Yes. Science and engineering were the only areas that men could enroll in– and then only if they maintained good grades. There were many women (both in science and humanities) at the University, which numbered barely 1000 students at that time. There were very few (if any) men students in the humanities.
Okay, so then you graduated in 1946?
Yes, I got my first degree in 1946.
And then where did you stand? Were you expecting to go on to become a physicist?
Yes. In fact I took a job at the end of 1945. 1 accepted an appointment, with another guy who had graduated with me in physics, to go up to a place in the bush called Waterloo where the Carnegie Institution had one of their observatories.
What type of observatory?
A magnetic observatory actually. I accepted the job, and then another opportunity came up to be what they called a Graduate Assistant in the mathematics department. At this time there were hoards of ex-servicemen coming back fran the war, and many of them wanted to go to the University. There was a big change in character, I suppose, in the way in which people looked at education, and these servicemen had come back determined that they were going to make use of the opportunities offered by the government for them–just like the GI bill in the US. So they were all descending on the University, and the University was totally unable to cope with it in the framework of its preexisting staff and physical plant.
They had to expand their staff in some way or another, and one of the ways they did was by offering to new graduates these short-term, positions as student graduate assistants. We would take occasional lectures, we would be available to help people who were in trouble, we would grade papers for the regular staff members. This opportunity came up, and it seemed a whole lot more attractive to me than going up to Waterloo.
So I just backed out of the Carnegie position, which didn’t endear me to the guy in charge of it, reasonably enough, because he then had to go and find someone else to take my place at the last minute. Still it was well, I think, that I did that–it fundamentally affected my future. I then took an honors degree in physics, which involved spending one more year at the University doing some kind of a research project.
Because your were there you might as well go ahead?
Yes, because I was there I was able to do it; had I gone to Waterloo I wouldn’t have done it.
But you still were not picturing yourself as being a University professor or whatever?
I had, by this time, formed very definitely the intention of going to England, going away to get further training. I formulated that intention when I was an undergraduate but it was pretty vague.
I see. What sort of a job did you hope eventually to have–what sort of life did your expect to lead?
I am not really quite sure of that, Spencer. Certainly, teaching in a university was one of the possibilities that I had in mind. Working in an industrial laboratory had, at one stage, seemed a good idea, but I had not been able to find any evidence that the Australian industrial laboratories hired anyone to do anything other than process sampling, or a routine kind of analyses of chemicals.
What was your family’s attitude towards your career orientation?
My father was very much in favor of it. My mother wanted to be a doctor—she always had. This was a standard thing in Western Australia; many mothers wanted their sons to be doctors. She used to tell me I had nice long fingers and I ought to be a surgeon! But they were very supportive of me. And this school where I had been and which I had quit after this mid-level examination, they were unhappy with my leaving school to go to work in a bank. The Headmaster was furious. He wrote all sorts of letters to my father saying this was absurd. There was quite a correspondence, my father saying the world was tumbling about our ears, what was the point of continuing an education, and the Headmaster taking a longer view...
Alright. So you said you hoped to go to England.
I had the firm intention of going away, anyway; going to England mainly because I wanted to get further education or simply because I wanted to see the world. Western Australia was a very small community. I don’t know how many people–less than half a million I guess, in an area about a third of the continental United States– most of them in the relatively small town of Perth. It was quite small; you’d walk down the street and meet a dozen people that you knew. I wanted to get away from that. Anyway, I took this Graduate Assistant job in the Mathematics Department. The Professor of Mathematics, C.E. Weatherburn–who wrote a number of texts on vector analysis and Riemannian geometry and tensor calculus– he was very strongly supportive of me. He thought very highly of my mathematical ability, and had he encouraged me at the time, I’m sure I would have gone into mathematics. But I had the feeling, that was fairly widely shared at that time, that mathematics was not a very good way, or secure way, of ensuring a living in the future. There just weren’t many jobs.
I’m sure that was true.
Yes. There were two that I knew of (the University faculty) and there were a whole lot of teaching positions in schools, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. Having been to a boarding school, I knew what kind of a life boarding-school teachers lived. So I felt that physics was broader and had more opportunities, and so that was the direction that I was aiming in. I was in this honors course in physics, and I did apply at the end of 1946 for a Hackett studentship—named after a man who had made a lot of money in Western Australia and who had endowed the university in a number of ways. One was for traveling studentship that gave one– I still remember–600 pounds the first year and 400 pounds the second year–a two-year grant.
The one I got was awarded, as I heard, largely because of Weatherburn’s very strong statements on my behalf. It was a pretty fiercely competitive field. You had four of those studentship awarded in 1947—there were normally two awarded each year; there hadn’t been any of them since 1939, seven years, so that there was a backlog of people who were very anxious and who applied for these, being very interested in going overseas.
Were the studentship specifically for Cambridge?
No. One had to put together a particular plan of study, and mine involved going to Cambridge and doing an undergraduate degree. In fact, I had the intention of doing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and in physics—physics one year and mathematics the next—but. it didn’t work out that way. I wanted to do an undergraduate degree because I wasn’t satisfied that the kind of instruction I got in Western Australia really prepared me, basically, for physics. And I was right. I think it was the right thing to do.
So in fact you went to Cambridge and studied all the undergraduate…
Right. Part II Tripos as it’s called.
Part II, was that natural sciences?
Yes, natural sciences.
What was your education like at Cambridge? Was this in physics then?
Yes. It was just given with much more authority. Lectures were given by people who were working in those areas—people like Papered and Schonberg would teach you low-temperature physics and solid-state physics.
Were there professors who particularly influenced you?
I can’t really say that there were. The classes were quite big; the relationship of an undergraduate to his teachers was somewhat distant. We did have a tutorial system at Cambridge, and there was a young guy to whom I was assigned at St. John’s College, who did have some significant influence over me. But no, I didn’t really have— there was no very strong central figure there who influenced my thinking.
What about all these students? Were there any important seminars or general clubs or little clubs where scientific things were discussed?
No, not too much. One was fairly free to go to whatever courses me wished. There was no attendance taken, of course, and there was only one examination at the end of the year, and that was on the whole of the course. So you were free to attend lectures or not. I did attend some lectures outside the main stream of the undergraduate program.
But still in the physics and mathematics field?
Yes. In physics.
Not much mathematics at this point?
No, I had pretty well abandoned mathematics at that time.
You undoubtedly had some as part of the Physics courses.
Yes, sure. Right. There was mathematics associated with that. I got involved in a few things in a kind of peripheral way. I recall particularly a course that Dirac gave. I was terribly impressed with this, the clarity that he had in expressing his ideas, the economy with which he was able to express them. I remember coming in late and he had some thing written down on the board. You could just go from the top of the board and look down, all in a logical sequence. I was impressed with that. But again, I didn’t have very much to do with him, I was one of a faceless crowd as far as he was concerned.
At the time you graduated, you were essentially a trained Cambridge physicist, whatever that would mean.
That’s right. In no sense a distinguished product.
I’m not quite sure what the system was like; this was just after the war, and it must have been a bit disoriented there also. You sat for the Tripos and you appeared in a ranked list of names, that sort of thing?
That’s right. Not at all anywhere near the top of the list. I remember some of the people who were—a couple of them were in the same tutorial class as I was–Magnus, Magnusson from Iceland; there was also a Pakistani, Abdus Salam.
Abdus Salam, is that so.
Abdus Salam and I were in the same tutorial group at St. John’s College—we both also belonged to the Cambridge University Rifle Association. Shooting at targets.
You did have some contact with some of those other young fellows.
By the way, 1949 was also the time when you were married; was this about the time you graduated?
I got married in September of 1949. It was after I came back from England.
I want to ask you about coming back, and also what was your wife’s background, education, how you met, and so forth.
Okay. We met one dark night on a street corner during World War II in Western Australia. A friend of mine at the University was going out with the woman who is now my wife, Chairman Candy. She had a dear friend from the Netherlands East Indies, as they then were, who had of course been cut off from her parents—her parents were in a prison camp in Java. This girl was looked after by my wife’s family as a kind of a daughter, I guess, during the war. Chairman would not go out without this girl, and so my friend invited me along and I met her as third wheel on a date.
Did she have a college education?
She was substantially younger than I—she was still going to high school—actually 3 years younger than I.
Tell me about coming back to Australia—you were a research officer at CSIRO in Sydney, I believe.
How did you get that job and what was it? *Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
I’ll tell you how I became an astronomer, Spencer.
Alright. Was that at that point?
Somewhat before. Although I got the Hackett scholarship, I also at the same time had applied for a CSIRO (CSIR it then was) studentship. These were given out also to young aspiring scientists, and I was awarded one of those. But I couldn’t hold both it and the Hackett. The CSIR awards were worth 600 pounds every year for two years, so I took the Hackett one for one year and the CSIRO one for the second year. But taking that obliged me to sign an undertaking that I would go back and work for CSIRO, if they wanted me to do so, for up to three years after I had graduated. People who were on the CSIRO studentship were scattered around the world—mostly in England—but they were regarded as a sort of pool of future talent on which the Federal Government [of Australia] could draw for scientific work.
I was one who was uncommitted to any particular line because, unlike most of the others, I was not doing a Ph.D. and I was just a physicist, free to spring in any direction. One day in about April or May of 1949, towards the end of my time in Cambridge—I had finished my exams and was just waiting to pack up—I was sitting in my room and a visitor came in. He introduced himself as from Australia. So I thought he was an Australian who had come through wanting to know the ropes of the place; such people came through frequently. I was going to tell him where the best beer was served and the best meals, and he said, “No, no that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to offer you a job.” His name was Giovanelli. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. As it happened, I had just a few days before, in the library at St. John’s College, been looking at a new journal called the Australian Journal of Scientific Research, and there as Part One: Physics. In the first and second issue there were three papers by Giovanelli, called “Hydrogen Atmospheres in the Absence of Thermodynamic Equilibrium.”
This struck me as a very curious topic because I hadn’t really thought about things being other than in thermodynamic equilibrium. But in any case, I had picked it up and thumbed through it, and was quite surprised to find him a couple of days later in my room. He’d been, in fact, also visiting Fred Hoyle who was a Fellow of St. John’s College. Giovanelli had been doing some work on electrodynamics, theories of flares and similar active phenomena in the sun’s atmosphere. He and Hoyle had a shared interest in this, and they discussed this extensively at Cambridge. In fact, Hoyle wrote a book “Recent Researchers in Solar Physics” back in 1949, and in the preface to that , he mentions his indebtedness to Giovanelli.
How did Giovanelli come across you?
Well, I was on this list of people–he was working for CSIRO in the Division of Physics in Sydney. I think he interviewed a few others; I’m not sure. But anyway we spent the morning talking about this, and he said, Would you like to come and work in Sydney","Would you like to work in this branch of theoretical astrophysics, solar physics? And I said, "Sure. It seems like an interesting thing."
And that’s how you got started in this.
A week after that, I got a letter from a friend who was working in CSIRO down in Melbourne, working on defects in solids. He wanted me to go and work for them. Had Giovanelli not come in the week before, I almost certainly would have gone to work for him because I enjoyed that guy.
So there was no special interest in the sun or the stars—it was simply as it happened—
Yes, I was a physicist; Giovanelli was a physicist and he had applied his physical background particularly to the sun.
I notice you have stayed in this field ever since.
Yes, pretty much. I went to work for CSIRO in Sydney, went back to Australia, got married.. came over to New South Wales within a few days of getting married. We didn’t have any money. I went to Sydney, and worked in that area for a while. Very tentatively at first, I must say.
What was it like at CSIRO in Sydney? What sort of a group was it? There was a building and offices—
It was a building on the University of Sydney campus, put up by the Federal Government. It housed at that time the CSIR—it changed its name from. CSIR to CSIRO in 1949; I’ll refer to it as CSIRO—Division of Physics and the Division of Radio Physics which, of course, at that stage was just carving out an immensely significant role for itself in the whole development of this new area.
Were people aware, by the way, even at that time how significant what they were doing was?
I think that they were.
By people, I mean the other people around—you, Giovanelli, and so forth. JEFFERIES. Yes, we knew. We felt that it was a very important field being opened up. We had very close contact with them of course because we were in the same building. Radio Physics occupied half of the building and we, the National Standards Laboratory, occupied the other half. The National Standards Laboratory was made up of three divisions: the Division of Physics, the Division of Metrology, and the Division of Electro-technology.
I see. So in Australia you had something to do with the national standards.
And they didn’t mind that; even if you were under the National Standards Laboratory it was considered perfectly proper for Giovanelli to do this?
Yes. Giovanelli was a physicist, and a superb physicist. He was the person who really taught me physics.
He was teaching at the University?
No; it was through direct contact with him. Not so much teaching me the details of formulae and details of the developments of different areas of physics, but he taught me how to think like a physicist, and that was something I had never been exposed to before. It was a tremendous influence.
What sort of a person was he? How was he regarded by people?
He was highly regarded as a scientist and an internationally recognized solar physicist. He was in charge of the Light Section in the Division of Physics, the Section devoted to photometry and optical measurements.
So he spent part of his time on that?
Yes. That was the rationale, I guess, for his going into solar physics. Much of the development associated with solar physics had to do with optics and development of birefringent filters and corona graphs and special optical systems.
I am curious–it’s rather interesting that he was in a sense hired to do photometry, and yet here he’s working on something that doesn’t have a great deal to do with it–this never caused any problems?
No. It was always built in to the CSIRO philosophy, well, the National Standards Laboratory if you had active research workers involved in it than you would if you tried to create a group of people whose sole responsibility was to measure the lux or the lumen or this sort of thing.
I see. So you never had what we would consider a formal graduate education?
No, never. That was a source of some difficulty to me for a time. I had a lot of difficulty learning how to do research. I had to discover it on my own. Giovanelli was an excellent physicist and could show you by his example, and could illuminate a subject by the example of his insight. He was just exceptionally influential in my own development. But he was not a person who would make detailed suggestions as to what you ought to do, and so I floundered around a good deal, for a good long time. He told me that he would like to see the work that he had done in hydrogen excitation extended in certain ways. He was unhappy with some of the assumptions he had made; he wanted these eliminated.
So I started to work on, those, on eliminating his shortcomings, and I did not really get into stride at all. For a couple of years I would work around something, make calculations, get some idea. But I was not confident enough of my own background, and rightly so; I didn’t have any background to feel that I was able to charge ahead with it. So I spent a lot of time reading, a lot of time trying to get some background in solar physics, which I knew nothing about, and more generally in astronomy, because I figured there was a great application possible to the understanding of stellar atmospheres through the application of the techniques that we were developing at that time. This is the basis of the theory of the subject that later came to be referred to as no-LTE [non-Local Thermodynamic Equilibrium].
Were you aware of the general literature on, these kinds of things also?
Well, there was not too much. There was only the work that [Richard] Thomas was doing, Thomas and his students, [Grant] Athay particularly. There was some work in Japan–Miyarmoto–was doing some work there.
I see. So then all this came out finally around 1954 in a series of papers, some with Giovanelli.
Yes. You see I started in ‘49; I didn’t publish anything until 1953.
And that’s about the time lag that one would expect if you were going to graduate school, for instance.
Yes, I suppose so. But I felt very, very keenly about this; I was very disturbed that I was being paid, it seemed to me, a large sum of money—as a matter of fact it wasn’t and we could barely make ends meet but I was concerned that the people who were paying me might not be getting anything back.
I do remember many occasions standing in the morning in front of the mirror in the bathroom, looking at myself and asking myself the question, “What are you going to do today to justify the salary that is being paid?" Although I can look back on it now and think it reasonable and not, as you say, unexpected that one would take a length of time to develop something, still it wasn’t satisfactory in any sense to me at the time. I felt that I should have done a whole lot more. And I had these things inside me, and I wanted to work on them and wanted to write, but I was just very timid in my approach.
I see. You did finally come up with this research program, beginning to study things. One can begin to see the outlines of the kind of program that’s been followed through since, taking a few levels of a line and studying it and so forth. I particularly noticed your 1954 papers with Giovanelli where you conclude the gas is either opaque or highly transparent; you don’t have to worry about interlocking with other lines.This was something that you then used as a basic assumption for a lot of your other work.
Yes, right. Optically thin and optically thick cases.
Exactly. Was this the time when you simply said "transparent or opaque?
Then the one on the helium lines where you find that the temperature of the lower chromosphere was a little over 104 K. in retrospect, it looks like you were almost—I don’t know; did you have in mind the sort of long, hard program that you were in fact embarked on—this really long program of getting it all sorted out?
Yes, with sidetracks of course. I was also at the same time involved in radiation transfer—applied mathematics basically—working on two-dimensional transfer in a very crude and simple way which came to a full stop after the first paper. I didn’t know where to go from there. Some work with Giovanelli on radiation transfer in other than plane parallel geometry-cylindrical geometry, spherical geometry. I also worked with Giovanelli on birefringent filters, which was influential in its day. We were putting together a one-eight Angstrom filter for use in solar observations.
Did you do any instrumental work yourself?
I tried once—I wasn’t very good at it though. At one time during this 4-year period, ‘49 to ‘53, when things were a little arid from my point of view, I suggested to Giovanelli that I might do something different. See if that would be more profitable. He put me onto designing same kind of a photometer—he called it a Teal Photometer. It was invented by some guy up in Canada who, I gathered, developed it and published a paper and promptly forgot about it. As far as he was concerned, he buried it, but its soul went marching on with me. It wasn’t a very good idea. In fact it was intended as a photometer which would have a filter in it that reflected quite closely the visibility function for the human eye. You would put the photometer in front of a light source and what you got behind was what the eye would experience.
This was useful for the photometric part of the work rather than for solar physics.
Oh. yes. It was really part of the development of the effort of the Laboratory.
You would turn your hand to that from, time to time also.
Were there other people in Giovanelli’s group?
There was W. H. Steel who still remains there. He wrote a book recently on interferometry. He is a very well respected scientist in that area.
Was there much contact about CSIRO—were there seminars, journal clubs?
Oh yes. There were colloquia and journal clubs in the Radio Physics Division. It was full of activity; people were discovering new things all the time, and people like [J. G.] Bolton and [G. J.] Stanley and [B. Y. ] Mills and [W. N.] Christiansen and [J. L.] Pawsey and Paul Wild—a whole galaxy of people.
I see. How did you feel towards this group? Did you want to join it?
I had some connection with them, in a number of ways. I was a member of the Radio Physics Cricket Club so I got to know them all pretty well in that way. I did talk to them to some extent, Paul Wild probably more than anyone, because Paul was interested in solar radio astronomy. He was discovering the solar radio bursts at that time. It was a very invigorating climate over there. Less so in the Division of physics, because I was pretty much by myself with Giovanelli as far as this work was concerned. We thought it was going to be of consequence in the astrophysical sciences.
Was this thing that you were engaged on in the early 50's—did you feel this had general implications for all stellar atmospheres?
Yes, I’m sure we did. I don’t think I really realized how much difficulty was going to be associated with solving the full problem; perhaps I did. The full problem of the excitation of a gas when you have to solve all the radiative transfer equations. I did recognize the need for a very large quantity of atomic data, the atomic cross-sections and the f-values.
Even in the 50s.
Oh yes. It was obvious that that was going to be necessary. Also, I was somewhat interested in the possibilities for spectroscopic diagnostics of terrestrial gases. I didn’t do much about it, but there was a guy in the Electro-technology Division– I forgot his name– he was involved in gases, trying to determine densities in gas discharges, and it seemed to me that an application of the kind of calculations we were making might lead somewhere in that direction.
Did you have any contact with people outside of Australia who were also interested in these problems?
Not too much. I had a little bit of contact with same people who were interested in collision cross-sections—some of Massey’s people—a guy by the name of Mohr who wrote a book with Massey. I had some contact with the Japanese.
Contact by letters?
Yes. Exchange of publications.
What sort of journals would you read, by the way?
At that time?
The Australian Journal of Scientific Research, The Astrophysical Journal, Monthly Notices [of the Royal Astronomical Society]. Monthly Notices was very influential; we being a British country at that time. I remember being very happy that I was ultimately able to publish in the Monthly Notices; I thought that was a real landmark. In fact, the Australian Journal of Physics, as it became after a few issues of the Australian Journal of Scientific Research, was a CSIRO publication, and CSIRO wanted their people to publish in it. You had to publish in it unless you had a very good reason for publishing outside. Those were the main journals. I used to read the Japanese publication, Publication of the National Astronomical Society of Japan, and all the usual astronomical journals. Annales D’ Astrophysique, Zeitschrift für Astrophysik.
The next thing I have here is your move to this country. But first, is there anything else you should say about the CSIRO period?
I suppose there are all sorts of things. The main thing, I suppose–as I’ve already said– is the tremendous influence of Giovanelli on my way of thinking about physics. There were some other people who came to work there– Ralph Loughhead, particularly, who came to work 2 years after I began there and who was given the responsibility for producing the photo heliograph to get high spatial resolution on the sun.
So between that and the radio burst work on the sun and so forth, you must have picked up, just by what was going on, quite a lot about the sun.
Oh, yes. And reading in the journals. I was working, also, on some applications of this theory to prominence and to flares. At the time that I left CSIRO to go to the U.S. I had a paper on flares in press in Monthly Notices. That and a couple of others before had been entirely my own ideas; I had not relied on Giovanelli at that time. I had developed confidence and struck something in the nature of a vein that could be explored, could be followed through. It was in fact fairly rich as it turned out.
I see. Using this with the techniques that you had developed for normal atmospheres.
Yes. Using that really very basic theoretical technique and basic theoretical calculations of the excitation of hydrogen and helium gases. They were certainly limited in their sophistication, but they were sufficiently accurate I guess for me to be able to apply that theory to a specific model of a flat slab and try to interpret, correspondingly, the radiation from a prominence in terms of a model of that kind. And then I tried to determine something about the physical characteristics of flares, using information on the hydrogen and helium emission as observed.
This is while you were back at CSIRO.
Yes. That was the direction I was going: on the one hand trying to improve the quality of the calculations of the excitation of a gas, to understand better how to couple in the radiation transfer with the calculation of the equilibrium distribution of the atom among the levels; on the other hand, the application of that to specific problem of the sun.
There was some interest already in something that had something to do with stellar atmospheres, as well?
Yes; I hadn’t, as far as I know, applied it to any stellar atmospheres. There wasn’t anyone around who knew anything about stellar atmospheres.
That’s true, isn’t it, the place was very largely solar?
Yes. The stellar work was going on down in Canberra, but we didn’t travel around very much. In fact, hardly at all.
So at this time you still had not had much contact with what we would call your standard, Model A astronomer.
No, not at all.
Really none, because all the people in radio physics were physicists, or engineers.
Okay. Let’s get to the United States. There are three things we could follow: one is your own personal thing– how you went from place to place; secondly, the character of these places; and the third is the scientific research. I want to do each of those in turn. [Short break] (Tape 2, Side 2)
Well, let me ask you first about your moves. You went to Harvard College Observatory in ‘56; in ‘57 to the High Altitude Observatory [of the University of Colorado]; and sometime in ‘58 to Sac Peak [Sacramento Peak Observatory, New Mexico], and then back to CSIRO. So how did all these moves come about?
In the first place, basically, going over to America was something that was set up by Giovanelli– between Giovanelli and [Richard N.] Thomas, who had been in contact with one another. I had had some correspondence with Thomas too. We were both working on the same kind of problem, namely trying to understand the solar chromosphere. I was interested in traveling to the U.S. and spending some time there, and CSIRO was quite generous in the way it would encourage its people to move around the world.
All this time, you were employed by CSIRO.
Oh yes, right. I got permission to take leave without pay, but they, in fact, awarded me half pay. So I had leave with half pay, and that allowed me, in combination with a few other things, to go over to the U.S. I was going to Harvard; I had been offered a position by [Donald ] Menzel, who was formally the person empowered to offer these research assistantship. His first offer was $3600 for one year and I had to pay my own fare frorn Australia to Boston.
And your family’s too.
And my family’s, and that would have used up the $3600. So I wrote back and said I would do anything I could to come, but $3600 was just really too little. So in the end it was increased to $5500 1 think. CSIRO, as I said, was paying half of my salary.
The Australian salary was pretty small?
Oh yes, it sure was– a couple thousand dollars a year or something like that. I got a little bit more that way. As it turned out, my wife’s aunt– some aristocratic aunt that she had in England– had died a couple of years before and had left Chairman some money, and we used that also. Putting all this together, we were able to get to the U.S. She was just as excited about going to the U.S. as I was.
Did you have children by that time?
Yes, we had one– we had two as a matter of fact at that time. It didn’t come out in what I was saying earlier, but all along since I had been in Australia, since 1951 in fact, I had really been hankering to travel again. I had applied, in fact, along the way for several jobs which would have taken me abroad, one of them to Canada and two of them to the UK. So I had rather restless inclinations; I wanted to travel, so did Chairman, and this gave us the perfect opportunity to go over to see the U.S. I had previously been a very bitter critic of the U.S.– an uninformed one, but nevertheless a critic– and I don’t quite know what would induce me to accept the possibility of going to the U.S. But anyway, obviously I’m glad I did.
A critic in the political sense, or cultural?
Probably from both points of view. It seemed to be a crass society and one that was politically naive. It was the time of John Foster Dulles and brinkmanship. Also I suppose I shared to some extent a feeling that Britain was the natural country to–I shouldn’t say lead the western world, but–
Guide it– perhaps, yes. That was obviously born out of my childhood in Western Australia and the background of the pre-war world wide situation where Britain had been tremendously influential.
Okay. Now to get back to these moves. You were deliberately out to do a tour, so after a year of Harvard you went to High Altitude Observatory?
The position was only a year long. My leave was originally only for a year but was extended to two years from CSIRO. I really never did quite know what happened as a matter of fact, Spencer, but Thomas and Menzel did not see eye to eye.
That was the very time that all that was happening at Harvard?
Yes. Something happened there and Thomas left. Whether he was just denied tenure or whether he was just kicked out, I really don’t know. Anyway, he did leave and went over to Boulder, to the Bureau of Standards, as a consultant to the Director of Boulder Labs. I had gone to the U.S. to work with Thomas, at Harvard, which I did. But I was also to go down to Sac Peak after 6 months and work at the Harvard program at Sac Peak— Harvard maintained a program down there.
I was going to spend 6 months there, and then come back to Harvard and continue on in the second year if that were approved by CSIRO. That was the scenario. It didn’t work out that way because Thomas left in the meantime and, although I probably could have gone back to Harvard, there was less back there to attract me. The group that Thomas had around that time had either gone down to Sac Peak (Jack Zirker) or gone over to Boulder.(Pottasch); John Waddell was another one who had gone over to Boulder.
So then it was fairly logical for you to be offered a place at High Altitude Observatory?
Yes. Walter Roberts offered me a position there after the year-long Harvard position ran out. It was the High Altitude Observatory– actually on their payroll. That was in 1957, and that was all just terribly exciting to me, the whole thing: having all these people who were interested in the same sort of subject as you were.
I want to get back to that stuff after we straighten out where you went.
I went to Sac Peak after 6 months at Harvard and stayed 6 months at Sac Peak.
That was on a separate position or that was still Harvard?
That was the Harvard position. Then I left that and joined HAO for a year, went up to Boulder, spent a year there and hated it– so did Chairman –as a place to live. But it was a very invigorating place to work, with all those people around.
So you’re one of the 25 percent of the people who hate Boulder instead of loving it?
Yes, I guess so–are there as many as that?
There’s a certain percentage who hate it and a larger percentage who love it. People from a green climate find Boulder distressing. But Western Australia is pretty brown isn’t it?
it’s pretty brown, yes.
Well, then after HAO, you still went back to Sac Peak?
We went back to Sac Peak, yes. I had written to Giovanelli and asked him a third year of leave from CSIRO and he had very reluctantly given it to me, without any half pay this time, which was reasonable enough. I went back to a position which was supported by a contractor outfit in Alamogordo set up specifically to receive contracts and hire people to Sac Peak. It was a device, I guess for escaping some of the limitations of direct employment through the Federal Government.
And then you went back finally to CSIRO.
Yes, then I went back, to CSIRO– about August 1959. The idea then was to make up my mind whether I wanted to stay in Australia or whether I wanted to come back to the U.S.
You were attracted.
Yes I thought I was obligated to go back to Australia anyway because they’d given me all this leave– that was specific reason I went back. Probably I knew that I was going back to the U.S. even at the time.
What was it that attracted you to the United States?
All the excitement, I suppose.
There was just much more going on.
Yes. More excitement– and more opportunity in term of daily living, I suppose. There seemed to be more things that one could do in the U.S. This immense country where one could travel around readily. In 7 years at the CSIRO, I had traveled from Sydney down to Melbourne once.
I came to the U.S., and I went to Boston, from Boston drove all the way down to New Mexico, flew over to Russia partway through this period, traveled all over the place. The opportunities for research support were so abundant at that stage, particularly after the Sputnik. There was nothing that was denied, it seemed.
That did come just in the middle.
And you were at the right places– you were at Sac Peak and HAO and so forth.
Right. The week before Sputnik went up, I well remember Walter Roberts coming into my office and saying, “Well, what would happen if we had to cut your salary off? would you be able to live?” He was going around to every person in HAO asking this question, because HAO ran on what Walter Roberts could get from philanthropists and a little bit from the Federal Government. It just wasn’t very much money, and he looked as though he was going to run out of money.
And the week after?
The week after Sputnik went up, we were digging ourselves out of this avalanche of money that suddenly descended.
Did that start immediately?
Very, very soon afterwards.
From the Federal Government?
Yes, from the Federal Government.
I hadn’t realized it was that immediate.
Time may have collapsed the interval, but I know I didn’t worry any more about having to go on half pay.
I see. So, in fact, you did find a job back in the United States and came back to Boulder Labs.
Yes. Sac Peak wanted me to go back there and so did Boulder, and I had to make up my mind as to whether to go back to Sac Peak or Boulder. And really, I guess, my wife just did not care for the idea of living in Sac Peak.
On the mountaintop.
Okay. Now let’s go back to get the next thing, which is comparing these different places. It was Harvard, Boulder, then Sac Peak. Can you describe what each place was like at the time?
Harvard was my first exposure to the U.S. I came there under unfortunate circumstances personally, because a daughter had died on the way over from Australia–died in the U.S. about 3 days after we arrived. Fortunately, we had some friends to help us at this awful time. As a matter of fact, the friend in New Jersey whom we went to stay with on our arrival was the girl whom I had this double date and so met my wife. Anyway, we went to Harvard and established ourselves there though the courtesy of people like Dave Layzer and Max Krook. We saw as good deal of Bart and Priscilla Bok, who were on their way out of Australia at that time after the great battle for succession at Harvard College Observatory had been fought out.
That was already over by then?
Yes. Who else? There’s a guy at Harvard who’s writing books, popular books in astronomy– he I knew very well– Chuck Whitney. And the Thomas’s of course, and others.
I’m curious how it impressed you– the contrast to or comparison with CSIRO as a place to do scientific work.
It was terribly exciting. We would have meetings frequently; there would always be something going on, something new coming up, with the arguments going on. Thomas and Krook and Waddell and Whitney and I would sit down and talk about something in a casual way, and people would drift in, and the whole thing would generate into a vigorous, exciting discussion of some specific scientific problem like how are you going to solve a transfer equation, or what is the character of the redistribution function for scattering, or how are we going to get the atomic data that we need, and what role is laboratory physics going to play in all this, and what about the stellar atmospheres and the ultraviolet, and what should we be doing to try and get that sort of information.
How much contact was there between these people and the stellar people?
Of course there weren’t many strictly stellar people there; Layzer was probably the closest, and he was working to some degree in cosmology, and to a large extent in atomic physics, and was also involved in magneto-hydrodynamics.
Was there much interest in cosmology?
Not too much. There was a radio astronomy effort that was going on, that was started under Bok.
Was there much contact with the radio astronomy people?
Not a great deal, no. This group that I mentioned, with one or two others, a couple of undergraduates, and a couple of graduate students– Jack Zirker was there for a while, Stuart Pottasch was there; there was just a whole bunch of people who were clustered around Dick Thomas at that time.
Did you spend all your time on research or did you have any administrative duties?
No, none at all. I was 100% research.
So most of your career up to that time had been essentially doing research.
Yes. I had almost zero administrative responsibilities at CSIRO. [Short Pause]
Onwards to HAO and Sac Peak, how was the atmosphere there?
Sac Peak was new and floundering to a large extent in those days. The instrumentation was not working very well; there were extensive plans for it, but nothing had really been fully brought to completion. The corona graph was rather poorly designed and it was their major instrument. But I was ecstatic at having the possibility of getting some spectra of solar objects; that I had never been able to do in Sydney.
We’d had observing equipment in Sydney, but it was relatively broadband filter equipment. It gave you photographs, which were very interesting to Giovanelli, but I was interested in spectroscopy and wanted to get to the spectra so I could get my own data, so I could apply some of these techniques to those data. So, with Frank Orrall when I got there, I very soon started a cooperative program of observation of prominence, which seemed to be a relatively simple type of object to look at and, possibly, to model and perhaps to interpret.
Were you in fact doing observations?
Yes, Frank and I did them together.
I see. One of the questions I wanted to ask was whether there was any sort of a division of labor– you were both working on that?
That’s right, yes. We both used to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and go down to the big dome and crank dawn the corona graph lens, making sure that we turned it, just 13 turns and not 14, because otherwise it would crack the lens!
I see. So this was the first time that your really got into all that sort of thing.
Yes. I had done practically nothing before that in the way of observations–very little.
What was the social atmosphere at Sac Peak?
Very warm; very friendly and cordial. There are people there I met at that time who always remained close friends.
This was in contrast to Harvard?
No. I found people at Harvard very sympathetic and cordial also. I had no problems there.
All these difficulties had not particularly affected that?
They treated them in a very mature way–the Boks and the Menzels in particular. I remember going to dinner with the Menzels and Boks just a few days before the Boks left. They asked us along because I suppose maybe we were buffers between them, but it was all handled in a very sophisticated fashion.
The staff had not been left split?
Were there animosities?
Well, I suppose there were, but I was somewhat out of it of course.
Nothing that would be very obvious .
No. It was clear that there had been a battle and it was clear that there had been some strong feelings generated, but I wasn’t able to see that it had left an indelible mark on things.
I see. Now what about HAO?
HAO was housed in TB-8, an old temporary wooden building left over from World War II on the campus. It was housed there by the grace of the University of Colorado. Anyway it was sitting on the grounds of the University and housed in this building– very small, very crowded. There were about half a dozen scientists there—Zirin, Warwick, Newkirk, Athay, Tandberg-Hanssen.
And Walt Roberts spending most of his time out of town trying to raise money. It was very vital; everyone there worked hard and interacted very well professionally. I personally was not ever as close to any of those people as I was to people at Sac Peak, and that was largely the source of our unhappiness in Boulder—the standoffish character of the people.
Did that reflect Walter Roberts’ personality?
Not Walter, no. Walter was not at all that way.
In these places, did you notice any difference– it’s hard to describe something of this character– but for example, in the extent to which people would combine on one scientific program for the group or would go their own way– or any differences in the way they worked as scientists? Institutional differences?
Yes, I think so. Sac Peak, as I said, was new, feeling its way, richly endowed with, money but not with any well-formed program. I came in there with some rather specific ideas of what I wanted to do, and I did stir up, I think, some action with Frank and with Henry and Elske Smith and with Jack Zirker. All of those people published papers, either with me or directly because I got there. I think I did have some influence– at least I was told by Jack Evans I helped start the place off in a certain direction, giving them, I suppose, some confidence in their ability to do some research. It was very easy there to interact with people. Everyone was very anxious to get started on scientific programs; they didn’t really have too much of their own going. Most of them were very new graduates.
Dick Dunn didn’t even have his Ph.D. at that time. That made it a good atmosphere for generating competent programs. HAO– I really don’t know what it was about HAO. People there tended to work more by themselves, more as individual scientists. They seemed to lack a certain program identity, I suppose. I don’t know quite how to describe it. They were all very loyal toward HAO, defensive of HAO. I guess they represented a number of different areas; they didn’t overlap as much as they did at Sac Peak, and so you tended to find individuals working in specific areas. It’s true Zirin and Warwick worked together to some extent. Grant Athay worked mainly by himself. Stuart Pottasch was then a graduate student and I worked a good deal with Stuart.
Now to get back to Harvard and specifically to scientific work. The main program there that you were involved in was this set of papers on the source function in a non-equilibrium atmosphere that you did partly with Thomas. You had been working on this beforehand of course, and I suppose when Thomas brought you there he had in mind something like this?
Yes, I guess so.
This was a program of his as well?
Oh certainly, yes. What happened there, Spencer, was that I got to Harvard with a rather clear idea of what I wanted to do. [Short Break]
Thomas had written a paper, the first of that series of papers in fact, on the source function in a non-equilibrium, atmosphere, and he and I had some discussions about that. I was quite sure, in one sense, that he and Athay had been totally wrong in the way they had approached the calculation of the two-level atom problem, the solution of the transfer equation. It turned out that they were wrong and, in another respect, I was wrong. We got together and we formulated the two-level atom problem in terms of an Eddington approximation to the transfer equation, and complete redistribution. That involves a solution for the monochromatic intensity in an integro-differential equation, and there’s a question how you go about solving that. Well, I had been familiar, I guess, with the work of Chandrasekhar on a solution of a not dissimilar problem.
From. his books?
Yes—morphologically similar; it’s a different physical problem. And I tried the same technique, replacing the integral by a sum and solving it in that way. This was just developing as I left Harvard to, go down to Sac Peak. I wrote a long letter to Dick [Thomas] describing what had been done and wrote a paper about it, and Dick came down and we massaged the paper and put it together.
And this was your first paper together with Thomas?
Yes, right. That and the subsequent two or three papers were natural consequences of the development of this method for solving the equation.
I was interested in the next paper, where you really got into the H and K lines. I wondered how you happened to pick up with Calcium II, which proved to be such a useful thing to look at, out of all the lines you could have considered.
Well, I’m really not quite sure: I think that what we did was to put an atmospheric structure that represented the chromosphere into our model and calculated the emergent radiation from such a gas, and found that you got an absorption line and a self-reversal emission feature.
That was the interesting thing, to get self-reversal just because of the temperature gradient.
Yes, at least for that kind of line.
Was this a pleasant surprise to you?
Yes, really. It was at one time so natural and yet so very reassuring, in a sense—almost as though physics really did have something to say about the Universe: you could see it right there. It was clear that what we were doing was right although no one else in the world believed it. Or almost no-one else. Yet I was absolutely convinced, viscerally, right deep down, that this was the right way to approach this problem.
Because the self-reversal had come out?
No. If the self-reversal had not come out, there would have been something terribly wrong with nature; the stars wouldn’t have been behaving the way that physics told them they ought to! I was convinced that the physics was right.
I see. Even before that.
Yes. And everything that we did subsequent to that and have done since has just reinforced that belief.
Tell me, was there any particular point, a very concentrated period, when you really thought your were getting through to that point where your were getting the physics right?
I think that was probably about 1957 or’58 down in that period when I was at Harvard, Sac Peak, up in Boulder, and then back at Sac Peak.
All through this period, increasing conviction.
You mentioned that the reception by others was not totally enthusiastic. Did you feel at the time that what you were doing was unorthodox?
We knew that it was unorthodox. It was not accepted by the Establishment, as represented by people like Jesse Greenstein and Unsöld and the classical school who adopted Local Thermodynamic Equilibrium.
How did you know this was not accepted by these people?
Oh, they told us so.
You would meet these people? Where did you meet Greenstein and Unsöld?
Well, not Jesse so much– more his students I guess, people like Bob Kraft, George Wallerstein, and various products of the West Coast school and the German School.
Where did you meet these people?
At meetings— the AAS meetings. I’d get up and give a paper and be greeted with disbelief, even derision.
Was it essentially the LTE vs. non-LTE?
That’s right. There were also believers in Boulder of course–it was called the “Boulder school”– that was really the way non-LTE was categorized at that stage.
Did the other people at Boulder more or less go along?
Oh, they knew what was going on.
And at Sac Peak?
At Sac Peak too, yes. Sac Peak less critically, because they really weren’t theorists down there. People at Boulder had a better physical grasp; people like Stuart Pottasch, for example, a student— a very capable student— and Grant Athay, Hal Zirin to some extent.
I notice that in the paper with Thomas, Paper V, in 1960 where you talk about the H and K lines and the Wilson-Bappu effect, you refer to papers by Goldberg, Hoyle, Wilson, de Jager, Schatzman, which is quite a list of notables, and you say, "These treatments neglect completely the physics entering the specification of the line source function and its effects on line formation. Such an approach seems to us most superficial." Was this the sort of remark you were also being exchanged at—
Yes. I guess so. [ Laughter ]
And contrary-wise about your papers?
Oh yes, sure. Except that there were more of them and they were more influential.
How did you feel about all that? Did you feel that you were being attacked by these people?
No, I felt that we were so obviously right that it was just a matter of explaining, calmly and rationally and clearly, what it was that we were doing. That was all that was necessary, and then they would became instant converts. And in a sense, that probably was right. Because the language in which this work was being presented to the scientific community was obscure and strange. Thomas was just a lousy author, although people begged and pleaded with me to get him to change his mode of expression.
His scientific mode of expression?
Yes. The very unclear language, the almost shorthand way of writing that he had. I couldn’t do anything. I did a few things, but very little, to change the papers that he and I collaborated on. He wrote them.
He did the writing?
Yes. He would sit down at the typewriter and write them. By the time I got it, it was just too hard to change it and he fiercely resisted any attempt. It was the same with his work with Grant Athay— Athay couldn’t do anything about controlling Dick’s style either, and I don’t know of anyone who would have been able to. It was a pity and remains a pity, because Thomas had and still has same good ideas.
Do you feel that outside of Boulder and Sac Peak there were other groups supporting your or that gradually came around?
Yes. Leo Goldberg always had an open mind, and although we felt that he was largely aligned with the bad guys because of the work that he and Aller and Muller did on solar abundances, we felt that nevertheless he was willing to listen. And he was. Lawrence Aller would have listened too, but he and Dick just didn’t seem to get on at all.
How much of this controversy took place in the journals, that is in what we as historians would go back and read, and how much of it took place in the corridors at AAS meetings, or when a visiting person came through?
Not too much in journals from our point of view. You get some comments.
When it came to the point of converting somebody or convincing somebody, did it take place face-to-face?
Yes, but it didn’t take place with Dick. I think that [Jean-Claude] Pecker might have done; I might. have done, but not really frequently. I think it gradually grew, probably as much as anything out of the new students that were trained by Thomas, to a degree by me, and by Athay particularly. Those people going out and trying to understand, especially, the chromosphere, the ultraviolet spectrum of the sun.
So these people would learn the techniques and would go out and apply them.
Yes, and the shortcomings of the LTE approach became very clear. And also the successes of the LTE approach too, because for all the non-LTE work that has been. going on, all the fuss that we made about it, it really hasn’t made very much difference to abundance determinations for example.
In the stellar atmospheres?
Do you feel that it has had much effect so far on stellar atmosphere work in general? JEFFERIES; Yes, I think it has done. I think it has allowed us a better understanding, certainly a better understanding of the hot stars in the work that Mihalas has done.
Was there a dividing line, a barrier that had to be crossed in taking it from, the solar atmosphere to stellar atmospheres? Did the techniques spread first in solar atmospheres and then have difficulty in being transferred?
No, I think the only real application that has been made in the stellar atmospheres, other than the hot stars, has been some applications for the H and K Lines. I don’t really think it’s been fully applied yet.
So as a matter of fact, there is still a barrier.
Well, it has not been applied too much to the solar case either, as a matter of fact. It’s being applied; I think it’s of greatest influence in the UV, in the interpretation of the strong UV lines of hydrogen and helium, and all the other singly and doubly ionized lines.
Do you think it’s an approach whose time is yet to come?
Oh yes, sure. It’s right, you see. It’s an extremely complicated thing to apply. We were working in terms of two-level atom and that was one of the things that people were criticizing us for. And that’s right, too. It is an inadequate description.
It’s a question of whose approximations are the worst approximations.
Yes. But there was no physics behind the assumption of LTE. It was a blind assumption. There was physics in the calculations that we were doing. We were going back a step below LTE to calculate what the excitation of the gas was. It might have been and, in certain cases is, intensely important to take account of the departures fran local thermodynamic equilibrium. But in many cases it isn’t particularly important – the departures are not large– and what we were trying to do was to approach it from a basic point of view and trying to find where it was important and where it wasn’t.
I understand. To what extent have you used computers while you’ve been working on these things? At what point?
John Waddell and I worked quite closely for a period of about a year or so on that whole problem. We tried to solve the integral equation of transfer, back in 1957, using computers at the Bureau of Standards in Boulder where he was at that time . And also computers down at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The first computer we used was the old IBM 650, which had a mechanical drum that was the core storage. This drum used to clank around and the machine was terribly slow but, as far as we were concerned, it was enormously powerful. It was a significant step up from the slide rule and the hand calculator.
So you were trying to build it from the beginning.
We developed our sub-routines there. We were again trying to solve the two-level atom problem, getting away from the approximations that we had used earlier on. But we had no idea of the difficulties that faced us. It was almost 10 years after that before a really satisfactory solution was obtained to this two-level atom.
Do you feel that the computer played a very important role?
Oh, enormously, yes. It made it possible. It was just too complicated to do it by hand. Well, it made possible the calculation of line profiles and source functions for specific cases. It didn’t necessarily, by itself, open up great insights into what was going on. I think that some of the important physical concepts in radiation transfer, concepts such as the thermalization length or the coupling between different source functions; these are basic concepts without an understanding of which you have a lot of difficulty understanding the computer results— the computer didn’t allow those syntheses to be made, really. They were made before that. But the computer has allowed one to make calculations reliably for specific cases.
One thing I wanted to ask also was about your book Spectral Line Formation. How did it come about then that you wrote. This is much later, of course; it was published in ‘68. *(Blaisdell, 1968)
Yes, right. Well I’d always intended to write that, from the time I came back in 1960 to the U.S. to work in the Bureau of Standards. I wanted to write it because I was wholly dissatisfied with the publications that Thomas and I had put out. I felt that it was just a matter of explaining what the whole thing was all about, and people would read it, understand it, recognize it, and see that it was the right way of going about things. Now, if its application led to other approximations that could be made, like LTE, then fine; but what I was trying to do was to explain the physical basis of it, and really the necessity of viewing the excitation of a gas from this more basic standpoint of calculating level population at ab initio. I had wanted to write the book, but things were advancing so rapidly, there were so many things really needing to be done, that i basically did nothing about it until I got over here [to Hawaii].
I see. Then you managed to find some time to do that.
Yes, I did.
Okay. Now we’re almost up to Hawaii. But not quite: I still want to ask you about your going back to NBS Boulder and then the founding of JILA. Tell me about that.
Okay. When I went back to Australia, I was under heavy pressure from Thomas in the form of a letter every week or few days.
Do you have the letters still by the way?
I probably do.
Don’t throw out these old letters. They’re of interest to historians. I don’t have to see them now.
[These letters were] urging me to cane back to the Bureau. I’d get a letter occasionally from Jack Evans urging me to go back to Sac Peak. I made up my mind, I guess, about the end of 1959. [Brief conversation with Plasch about files.] So he was pressuring me to go back there, and it really didn’t take too much pressure for me. My chief problem was how to tell Giovanelli after they’d given me 3 years’ leave that I was going to return to the U.S.
More or less for good.
For good, yes. Well, in the end I had to face up to that. I told him and he was very unhappy about it. I can understand because in the meantime similar sorts of things have happened to me. But I did decide, anyway, to go back– because of all the excitement, because the opportunities were there; because of all the other people working in the field; there seemed just so much more that one could accomplish in the U.S. than in Australia. Anyway, I liked living in the U.S. and so did Chairman. We liked the country, we liked the people, we liked the possibility of being able to travel, we liked the desert, we liked the mountains. Just everything about our experience had been good.
Your experience in Boulder hadn’t been that bad?
No. We were a 1ittle reluctant, a little concerned about it, but decided that this time– we rationalized it and figured that we’d been living too far out of town. We were going to be involved with a different group of people this time than the others. And if we were going to be there, we were willing to go out and embrace the community and join in it, not just camp out for a year, which we’d done the previous time.
Okay, so then you went back with a two-year title of Consultant to the Director in Astrophysics, that I think you mentioned Thomas had already had.
Yes, Thomas had that title, and I was another one.
What did this involve, and what did you tell the Director?
I didn’t consult with him very frequently, I must say.
Okay, who was the Director?
Brown, Fred Brown, I think his name was.
What was this job, why was there a spot for an astrophysicist at the National Bureau of Standards?
I don’t know. There were a few such positions. There were about half a dozen Consultants to the Director—two of them in astrophysics and one in computing and various other areas. These were for oddballs who couldn’t be fitted into the regular structure, I guess. I still really don’t know why it was in the interest of the Bureau of Standards to have a program in astrophysics of this kind.
They never asked you to deal with any specific problems?
I gave a paper once on standardization. It was about temperature measurements and standardization.
Because you were there you felt you should do a little in that area?
Yes. Well, there was an international conference on measuring temperatures, and they asked me to give a paper on temperatures in the sun’s atmosphere.
But that was about the closest I got to it. You’ve been in the Boulder labs have you?
They’re terrible buildings, look like submarines, narrow, dark, gray, cement corridors with pipe running along the wall.
And a large number of people running about?
Yes. All sorts of people running around.
It’s one of my interests, and we’ll talk about it when we get to Hawaii, why people support astronomy and what they hope to get from it.
In the first place, yes.
But in this case, you don’t really know.
I have no idea, no idea at all. Dick Thomas I suppose persuaded the Bureau of Standards that they needed to support some astrophysics.
Including specifically him. And this seemed to be a place for me. I could have come back and worked at HAO, but I didn’t want to work at HAO. I damn nearly went to work for HAO though, because I came back to the Bureau of Standards and they made me swear a loyalty oath. I had all sorts of trouble with that. I refused to do it, and they took it up to the Secretary of Commerce.
What did he say?
He said no, you’ve got to swear it (it was a Presidential mandate evidently). So, in the end, I did, although with explicit reservations, which I wasn’t supposed to do. It was supposed to be with no reservations, open or implied.
Right. I suppose the main thing on that period would be the founding of the Joint Institute.
JILA– yes, that was pretty exciting too.
You mentioned that from the beginning you noticed a need for f-values and so forth.
How did it come about that it was created?
Well, Dick Thomas had first contacts with people back in Washington.
Okay, let’s just finish up the Joint Institute and go to lunch. Dick had contacts in Washington, you say.
Yes. Dick knew a number of people back there in the Bureau. I don’t know where he met them. He had a lot of contact with Lew Branscomb, who had been working on H-minus. I guess that Lew and Dick had made contact when that work was going on. Branscomb was involved also with Pagel, they knew each other, and Kick and Pagel had considerable interaction. So, in this way, Thomas and Branscomb became involved, and Branscomb became convinced through talking with Thomas, and me to a lesser extent, of the urgent need for spectroscopic diagnostics of stellar plasmas, as well as laboratory plasmas; the need for atomic data–collision cross-sections, ionization cross-sections, f-values.
In terms of urgent need for the progress of astronomy?
Yes, right. For diagnosing stellar atmospheres, or for diagnosing laboratory plasmas too. There was a good deal of interest at that time in developing spectroscopic diagnostics of laboratory plasmas, largely because of the fusion programs.
I had wondered, and was going to ask, to what extent that motive–
Well, we didn’t get too involved in that.
But in terms of the reasons for JIIA’s existence.
It certainly did play a part.
What about the value in analyzing other plasmas that come to mind– thermonuclear explosions for example?
That did come into it later on. That was part of the basic support on which the atomic physics scientists at JILA relied.
After it was founded?
Yes. We had a big ARPA contract. Later that died and was replaced, I guess, by an NSF contract, but that was well after I left.
But this wasn’t brought forth during the period that you were arguing your support for the creation of JIIA?
No, that wasn’t. Our basic argument was that if you want to understand the spectroscopic radiation from a star– from the sun or a star– you’ve got to approach it from a non-LTE point of view. And in order to do that, you have to know what the atomic interaction cross-sections are. They can be calculated theoretically or measured in the lab. But this is going to be such a feature of the future, it seems such an important application of atomic physics. Which at that time was kind of dying–in limbo if you like–to a large degree. Atomic physics is going to be so important in this work that it is desirable to set up a laboratory in which the atomic physicists who can provide data to the astrophysicists can join together, and the astrophysicists can make suggestions for other experiments, and some of the experiments that the atomic physicists make can influence astrophysical observations. This symbiosis between the two seems to be a natural one. It was that really that provided the rationale.
Now, there’s another type of symbiosis and that’s the symbiosis between the Bureau and the University. What sort of contacts were made and arguments presented on the University’s side?
The initiative was wholly within the Bureau of Standards group–Thomas and me, on the one hand in Boulder; Branscomb, Smith, Bender, and others–Geltman in the Bureau in Washington. They were the atomic physics group, we were the astrophysics group. And we were more or less given, or at least Branscoub was given, by the Director of the Bureau at that time, carte blanche to find a place, wherever you want to in the country where they would accommodate you. We looked at various places; we looked, in particular, at Tucson. Tucson was the place where Dick wanted to go and I wanted to go. A whole group of us went down to Tucson and traveled around. We talked to the Kitt Peak people and we drew what amounted to a giant yawn at Kitt Peak. We went to Steward Observatory and they were much more interested. We went to the Physics Department and they were tremendously enthusiastic.
No, at Tucson. We had to have physics contacts as well as astronomy contacts. The astronomy people there were polite; the physicists were enthusiastic. We were enthusiastic about going there as astronomers. We were looking around at houses and all the implications of living in this community. There were some astronomers who were very warm and enthusiastic towards it– Ray Weyman for one. But the physicists decided that the Physics Department was too new at that time to form a good basis for this endeavor. Furthermore neither Kitt Peak, , nor the University administration at Tucson really took the ball and ran away with it. So we went and talked to Boulder, aware of the shortcomings of Boulder as far as astronomy was concerned because of the fragmentation. But we went to see the President of the University—-a guy by the name of Quigg Newton at that time—-and he just spent about 5 minutes talking to Branscomb and was an instant convert, grabbed it.
Why should he be such a convert? He knew nothing whatsoever about this.
No. He just recognized it. No doubt, he had spoken to others previously; no doubt, he had spoken to Roberts and others and got an assessment of the people who were involved and an assessment of the program and its likely impact.
Did he get others to support this thing also?
Yes, he must have. That’s an assumption on my part but, in any case, Quigg Newton took the idea and really ran with it and solved all the problems of space, where to go, and how to supply the necessary University of Colorado support, how many positions he would supply.
Okay. Anything else about JIIA before we go to lunch? Afterward we’ll get down to Hawaii.
Just that that was another exciting venture to be involved in, and I was involved in it, very heavily involved in it. It wasn’t an easy birth in Boulder at all. There was antagonism.
Because of these different groups?
Yes. The High Altitude Observatory was very angry about being left out of this whole deal. I guess there’s correspondence around somewhere between Firor and possibly Roberts, and certainly Athay, that would attest to their unhappiness.
The Department of Physics welcomed it?
The Department of Physics—by and large, they welcomed it. They weren’t too enthusiastic about astronomy I guess. They identified astronomy with [rocket] nose cones. They used to refer to the departmental members [of JIIA ] some of them—as consisting of physicists and those who worried about nose cones and things. It was a snide comment. One of their faculty was heavily engaged in solar rocket astronomy and was not greatly respected by the high energy physicists.
There was a division then in fact.
Yes. There were the pure physicists and those who muddled around with technology and firing rockets. But they were happy enough, I think, to be associated with the atomic physics group anyway, which was and is a first-class group of people.
Maybe I should, ask you this one question about this division of faculty in Boulder between the HAO and the Department of Physics and Astrophysics.
That was a real can of worms. Do you have any specific questions?
I don’t know. Is there anything clear and simple that can be said about it?
Not really. It was divided before JILA ever went there. It was divided between those who wanted to see the High Altitude Observatory broaden in the direction of more or less conventional astronomy, on the one hand, and those who felt that the High Altitude Observatory should be dedicating itself to studies of particles and fields and the sun as the source of such influences.
In the sense of the solar-terrestrial relationship?
That’s correct. More than that—solar-terrestrial, solar-interplanetary, and the study of the actual things on the sun, flares, active regions, that give rise to perturbations in the interplanetary medium. That was vigorously argued by Jim Warwick, and it was reflected in the change in the name of the Department that was associated with the University—kind of a captive of the High Altitude Observatory—Department of Astrophysics, but Astro-Geophysics won out in the end.
I see. And that’s symbolic in a sense.
Yes. And the Astro-Geo aspect of it cast it in the direction of solar-terrestrial relations.
Could you tell me a little more about this split: How it developed over time? Who were the main people on each side, and how much their personalities affected it? Whether there was any external influence on it, for example from the University or funding agencies? Tell me, in all this, were there any arguments to the effect that if one understood better the plasma on the sun, this would lead to a better understanding of laboratory plasmas, thermonuclear plasmas and so forth?
It was something that was brought up from time to time but…
Trotted out for visiting people and so forth?
Yes. There was an effort that I made, at one stage, with a guy from the Bureau of Standards whose name I’ve forgotten now. In 1961 I went to give a paper at a meeting, at the Bureau of Standards, of people associated with the Bureau who were involved with spectroscopic diagnostics. I gave this paper and, afterwards, arranged with some person who was interested in helium discharges to come out and spend some time in Boulder learning about the non-LTE techniques. He came but he didn’t learn anything—he wasn’t terribly bright I guess. It didn’t really work.
(cont.) It was always there, Spencer. It was always understood that this kind of approach is the way in which the spectroscopic diagnostics is to be pursued. We had some discussions, too, with people like McWhirter from Britain, who came to spend some time at JILA; he was a Visiting Fellow there for a while. Mike Seaton was interested in some of these things. [LUNCH BREAK]
One question occurred to me as we were talking [at 1unch] You mentioned that your wife is in real estate now.
And I also noticed that in one paper, your wife gave help to analyze results.
I just wondered what relationship has your wife had to your astronomical career.
Well, I guess you can answer that on various levels. She has been prepared, willingly, to move around the world from Australia, to leave her native Western Australia to go to Sydney, come back to Boulder, to think that she had settled in Boulder— in fact, to have found herself a very good job as a computer programmer in Boulder; she has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Western Australia—to believe herself to be securely rooted in Boulder, enjoying her life there very much, and to be uprooted and dragged over to Hawaii on what must have seemed to her to be pretty much of a wild goose chase and a very foolish enterprise altogether. It didn’t turn out to be that way and she’s happy now, but…
Anything specifically about the fact that you’re an astronomer, scientist, do you think has affected your marriage?
No, I really don’t think so. We don’t talk much about astronomy or physics. She knows, of course, many astronomers who’ve visited us, but I don’t think that the fact that I’m an astronomer had any particular impact on us. I’m a physicist really, because I don’t really think about myself as an astronomer.
Do you think of yourself as a physicist or…
With the emphases on physics?
I think so, yes. I get teased about it around here a good deal. Dale Cruikshank teases me, and others.
In what respect?
Well his background, I guess, is in geology and I am always carrying on at the astronomers around here that people who have been trained in astronomy have to adopt an approach based on physics to understand the observations. I think they all fully accept this and, in fact, work on that basis. But I hammer a little bit hard on them I guess sometimes. The view is prevalent among the staff that I regard anyone who is a physicist as being somewhat better than someone who has been trained in astronomy.
This is a view that seem to be more and more widespread now.
Well, as you know, many of the people who are astronomers are actually physicists.
Oh yes, sure.
Which was not true at all twenty years ago. Okay. Well let’s get on to this wild goose chase. In 1964, you suddenly appeared as a staff member of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and a professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. How did they get you to come here? Why did they want you to come? And Frank Orrall and Zirker.
Well, I really shouldn’t call it a wild goose chase, I suppose a search for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece would be better. Anyway, what happened was something like this. In the early 60s, the University of Hawaii decided that they would like to move ahead and they had a sympathetic state administration. It was also a sympathetic climate—it was soon after Statehood, I guess that made for a sympathetic climate in Washington and the National Science Foundation. At least it resulted in the University getting something like $3 million [from NSF] in response to a proposal which they put forward for the creation of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics.
That was a substantial sum; it paid the whole lot, the whole cost of setting up the Institute of Geophysics. This was very unusual. In fact, it may have been unique, because normally NSF wanted some matching funds from the parent institution. In this case, they didn’t. As I understand it, they accepted with the promise, I suppose, on the part of the University that they were going to go vigorously into this area of research. They built the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics building, which in the face of severe competition probably takes the prize for being the ugliest building on the University of Hawaii campus.
In any case, it was built. It’s poorly designed too—it leaks and it’s a terrible building—I feel sorry for the people who have to work in it, but still, that’s incidental. They also built, and conceived as part of the Institute of Geophysics, a program in solar physics. They built a solar observatory over on Maui, on Haleakala.
Was this conceived from the beginning to be part of…
Yes. In point of fact, during the IGY , there had been a program over here that Walter Steiger had run. Even before that, Walter Steiger had, with a student, run a site testing program on Haleakala. He had used one of Jack Evans’, sky photometers up there, taking daily measurements over an extended period of time, and had reached a conclusion, which was documented in an that article, in the PASP, (Pub. of Astron. Soc. Pacific) In 1958, that Haleakala was distinctly superior to any other site for solar coronal observation—to any other sites that had been opened up so far.
This was the case both in terms of the clearness and brightness of the sky, the very low brightness of the sky, and the frequency with which low sky brightness had been recorded. So he advanced the idea of there being a corona graph station on Haleakala. This had been taken up by Frank Roach back at the Bureau of Standards. Frank still retains an association with the Institute for Astronomy and lives here as a matter of fact. Frank put up a night-sky photometer on Haleakala because he had been interested in the night sky for a long while.
He ran that for a while, and that demonstrated further the quality of the site. And in these terms there was Steiger’s interest and the general interest in having a solar station out here in the middle of the Pacific to fill the longitude gap between the West Coast and Japan. The concept emerged of building a solar observatory on Maui and that was done. In fact, it was dedicated in the beginning of 1964, and I was present at the dedication— so were Jack Zirker and Frank Orrall.
Now didn’t the University of Michigan and ARPA also have something to do, with that or was that a different facility?
Yes. That’s a Department of Defense facility.
That’s a separate one, established however at the same time.
More or less at the same time, yes.
Simply because of the longitude gap in that case?
No, I think in that case— I don’t really know, but I think that the Russian missile range, for testing their intercontinental ballistic missiles, has its end point around about here somewhere, and I think it was set up to look at the infrared signature of incoming missile fragments.
I see. That was quite independent of the University.
Oh yes. It had nothing to do with the University that I know of. It was established before I came.
So the Institute of Geophysics built this observatory on Maui and they were looking around, and had been looking around for some time actually, for someone to come over and run a program in solar physics.
So they started the observatory before they had anyone here who was particularly interested in solar physics?
Yes. Walt Steiger was interested in solar physics in a way but— his main interest was in the air glow and his contribution to solar physic had mainly been running a synoptic program during the IGY and subsequently. But it was obviously a superb site; it was obvious that something could be done here, given the appropriate staff, and it was likely that the staff could be attracted. So they build the observatory on that basis, felt that they could attract someone. About that time, Dick Hansen was working at JILA as the administrative officer. And he had been at HAO and I had known him very well. He stayed only for one year at JILA, then quit to come out here to set up, on behalf of the High Altitude Observatory, a K-coronameter in this Haleakala observatory— the Mees Solar Observatory as it came to be known, after C.E.K. Mees.
Well, I was on a trip around the world at the end of 1963 and had visited Washington and Paris— I was of course based in Boulder at the time. I had gone to Western Australia to see my mother and brother; my father had died earlier. Then I went over to Sydney for a meeting, and on the way back to Boulder, I stopped in Honolulu and went over to Maui to talk to Dick, because Dick had advised me to go over there. In fact, that was on the day that Kennedy died. Dick met me at the airport and I had the royal treatment. He hung a lei around my neck and I went up the mountain and looked at the observatory and at the site. He was telling me what a marvelous place it was and they needed someone to come out here, and wouldn’t I like to come out and do something. I had zero interest in coming to Hawaii. I had just been promoted at the Bureau of Standards to one of these super grades, GS16, and life was pretty good. We had a house and my wife had a good job. Why would I want to move?
I was perfectly happy and, anyway, I wasn’t really an observer, I was more a theoretician. But he kept on hammering away at me and he said, “Go back to Honolulu anyway and talk to them there and meet those people there.” So I came back here and with Walt Steiger to introduce me. I talked to George Woollard who was the Director of the HIG , and to Bcb Hiatt, who was the Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University at that time and probably the single most influential person in the University. I talked to these people, and they told me what a great promise there was and how they would like to have me come here, and I said there is no way you could pay me enough to come out here. The cost of living is 25 percent more and I’m earning a lot of money working for the Federal Government, and I’m just not interested.
So I went back to Boulder and talked about it with my wife in a casual sort of way, but the old wanderlust was coming back. I had been there about as long as I had stayed characteristically anywhere—four years. That was sort of the mean length of time that I had spent in any particular place before. And I talked more about it and it seemed as though it might be quite appealing. I talked to Jack [Zirker] and Frank [Orrall]. Jack, at that time, was tired of living at Sac Peak and he wanted to leave. He was going to leave anyway.
Because of the isolation at Sac Peak?
Yes. He had young kids and had to send then to school, and I think his wife was getting a little restive living there. I don’t know about that. In any case, he was definitely going to leave. So there was a possibility that he might come. And then Frank—I don’t know whether you know Frank very well—I guess you do.
Maybe I should mention now that I do know these people and I was a student of yours here, but I really know nothing about any of these things that went on. I have a picture of Frank in my mind but as to what his personality may have had to do with his coming here, I haven’t the foggiest.
Well, Frank is, I think, of all the people I have known who have difficulty making decisions— and I’ve known a lot— Frank stands out at the top of the heap. He has a great deal of difficulty making a decision. In the end, he decided he would come out here for one year. Not that I particularly twisted his arm, but he seemed to think it was kind of fun. So the three of us,— gradually the idea formed that the three of us would come out here.
For a year?
For a year; I took a year of leave without pay. Jack had left Sac Peak anyway and was going somewhere and this was as good a place as any; and Frank came out for a year. Marie McCabe was the other me. Marie had been working in Sydney and I had seen her a year or two before — the year before, in fact, when I was going around the world. I had invited her to come over to Boulder to do some work on eclipse data that we got in 1962 down in New Guinea. She was going to come anyway but instead of going to Boulder she came here. So the four of us came together. So we had a group that was, for a year anyway, able to do something and that was viable in a year’s time frame.
I see. The University had this large sum of money for the Institute of Geophysics so they didn’t mind having four people at one blow?
Well, they didn’t; they only hired two of us. To cover our costs I went around and I asked NASA— I was a real babe in the woods as far as Federal Government money was concerned. I hadn’t really had to worry about getting money from the Federal Government; the Bureau of Standards supplied things, and although the Air Force had insisted on giving me a contract one, in 1963, I really didn’t want it and I didn’t seek any renewal of it, although they insisted on renewing it too.
They just came into your office?
Yes, they did. Almost literally they came and said, “We’ve got to have this work done.” It was the Air Force Special Weapons Center down in Albuquerque— Kirkland Air Force Base.
What did they want you to do?
Can you tell me what you were doing?
Yes, it was just the same work that I would be doing anyway. They insisted on giving me this money so I hired a post-doc and I hired a computer programmer and off we went.
Why did they want to do that?
They were interested in explosions— atmospheric explosions.
I see; so they needed the information.
Yes, they just needed to maintain an expertise, I suppose, in the community. I didn’t do anything for them; I didn’t make any calculations for them or anything like that. I just went on doing what I would normally be doing.
So that was your experience in getting government funds.
Yes; that was my first experience with getting government funds. I knew that there was a National Science Foundation out there and I knew that there was a NASA, but I was working for the Federal Government. and I wasn’t in a position to go and ask them for money nor did I need to. So I called Henry Smith— I had known him very well at Sac Peak, and he was at this time the Program Manager for Solar Physics in NASA— and asked him, “What do you do in these circumstances?” Well, Henry was very excited about this possibility and he came out to Boulder and I spoke to him. He told me what I ought to do and roughly how much money would be reasonable to ask for and how to put a program, together and the proposal, together.
So he helped you to write the proposal so to speak.
You hadn’t written a proposal up to that time?
I put something together for this Air Force thing; I don’t recall it being particularly a proposal. I suppose they asked me for some statement of what I would do.
I see. But it was not such a big thing as this.
No. I hadn’t written a proposal to any Federal Government agency before.
I see. So you learned from the best possible source—the Program Manager.
Right. We went ahead with the planning, then, on the basis of Henry’s semi-guarantee of support, which of course came through, we came out here. I accepted a job at the University of Hawaii; Frank accepted a job at the University of Hawaii; Jack came out on a contract, on the NASA Grant; and so did Marie. So the four of us landed here in the beginning of September, 1964.
Okay. Now I’m not sure how to carry on this story because there are so many strands. I think that perhaps we should talk first about the Institute and the development of the 88-inch, and then come back and pick up things like the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and some of the others.
Okay, so let’s do that. In my notes here, I see that the solar physics program started in 1964 and by 1968 your staff had increased to 90 people. Meanwhile— even before you came here, Kuiper had been here, to the Haleakala ARPA facility.
Okay. [Interruption: Plasch gives copy of sheet on funding]
The total for the past ten years was $14 million.
Some of that must have been funding for the 88-inch telescope.
It’s 1965 here. No doubt much of that was spent in the last few years. Anyway it was a lot… So tell me about it. I’m not sure. Is it two separate stories— the 88-inch and the development of the Institute here, or are they woven together?
They are interwoven. I can tell you about the way the 88-inch came into being.
Would you rather do that first or first tell me about how the Institute grew in terms of the size of the staff and spreading into stellar work.
The 88-inch really controlled that.
Okay. Well tell me about the 88-inch then and how it came about. When you came here, you had in mind simply to have a solar physics program?
We came here with nothing— no intention other than to build a solar physics program, if that. At least we were hoping to start a solar physics program off. It was unquestionably unrealistic to even think in terms of doing anything significant in a year, so I suppose we must have had a plan based on the assumption of staying here if things worked out satisfactorily. I suppose I did; I know for a fact that for the first six months I had no intention of staying in Hawaii whatsoever. I was certainly going back to Boulder at the end of the year. But halfway through the year something occurred to make me change my mind. Marie decided to stay because the position back in Sydney which she would go back to was unsatisfactory: Jack, as I said, had already left Sac Peak and he was able to stay; and Frank, in the end, after a great deal of agonizing, decided that he would stay also. So this program kind of continued on for the next year.
And it was still in your mind to do solar physics?
Only solar physics. By that time, things had happened that make it clear that the scope of the program was going to expand. But in the first few months, our only intention— and for the first year or so, our primary emphasis was on the solar program over on Haleakala.
Okay. So then tell me how the 88-inch came along.
Toward the end of 1963, I think it was, Kuiper came over here. I’ve read various versions of this and I’m not sure which one is correct.
Just tell me if you know anything from first hand; otherwise we’ll leave it to the written material.
Well, I don’t know whether there is any written material on this, but in any case, I do know that Kuiper put up a site-testing dome on, Mauna Kea. Kuiper told me once that he had come out to look at the Hawaiian Islands, with NASA’s blessings— support, or encouragement— to determine whether there was a suitable site for planetary astronomy out here— solar system astronomy. With the justification that the planetary exploration programs needed ground-based support, and this was a good place to get it from, provided the conditions on the ground were suitable.
Do you know how he happened to think of Hawaii?
Well, its low latitude, and the conditions were likely to be good. In any case, the ARPA exploration, I guess, had been carried out at that time and there were things happening on Haleakala. It was probably for those reasons that he came out here. He looked at Haleakala and he was pleased with what he saw there, in his seeing tests. But he felt that he would like also to look at Mauna Kea. it was inaccessible to motor transportation, but I guess they got up there somehow or another, he and Alika Herring This was a guy who worked for Kuiper as an assistant. They carried out some preliminary tests and found that the conditions, as far as they could see, were excellent—better than on Haleakala.
Also it was a virgin summit, whereas there were a whole lot of other installations on Haleakala and there’s not very much more space on Haleakala. So Kuiper came back here and persuaded the Governor to spring loose something on the order of $25,000 or $50,000 to bulldoze a very crude road from Hale Pohaku to the summit, to the top of a cinder cone called Puu Poliahu. And on that cone in early 1964, Kuiper put up a little dome— a University of Arizona dome— and in that, he mounted a little telescope— a 10- or 12-inch telescope, something like that— and used it to make seeing tests. Sometimes, doing the observations himself and sometimes having Alika Herring do them. He concluded as a result of those tests that Mauna Kea was, in his word, perhaps the best site in the world for ground-based astronomy. He was very, very enthusiastic about it.
Did he tell you this at the time?
He told me that several times; I wasn’t here at that time, but he told me later on.
After you’d already come here?
Yes. But that had nothing to do with my coming here, nothing at all. I didn’t even know about it. Anyway, this was all going on in parallel to my discussions about coming over here and I knew nothing about NASA’s interest, Kuiper’s interest, or anyone’s interest in anything other than solar physics over here. So I came here and soon afterwards met Kuiper on a visit. He was talking to George Woollard, the Director of the Institute of Geophysics, and George called me down and we three sat down and talked about it. Kuiper was conveying the message that NASA was interested in building a telescope over here, and would the University of Hawaii be interested in participating with the University of Arizona in some way?
Kuiper had already made arrangements with the University of Arizona and NASA to build such a thing?
Well, I don’t know how far his arrangements had gone or what precisely he had concluded with NASA, but he was certainly speaking for the University of Arizona.
Did he already have in mind something of the size of an 88-inch.
Yes, or an 84-inch, something like that.
For planetary work?
For planetary work, yes. Somewhere around the end of 1964, not long after I came, relatively soon after the first meeting of this kind with Kuiper— I don’t know when but I’m sure it’s in the files somewhere— we started to get information, either directly or indirectly, that Harvard was interested in bidding for this NASA telescope that was going to be put up. Don Menzel, specifically, was the person who was discussing this.
Harvard had no optical observatory of any consequence and it seemed to them to be a good opportunity, presented by NASA’s being willing to fund an observatory, particularly if the State of Hawaii was to pick up much of the cost of putting up roads and power and that kind of thing. We had no direct interaction with Harvard, and really nothing much with Arizona either except these visits with Kuiper— nothing formal. So the University of Hawaii was in a position of hearing from these two outside groups that they had designs on a mountain which, I suppose, could reasonably have been regarded as under Hawaii’s jurisdiction, and yet no one was talking to the University of Hawaii.
I suppose it could have been because the University of Hawaii didn’t have an astronomy department to speak of.
Yes, that’s right. But we were still, in any of these scenarios, going to be involved, because we were the ones who were supposed to handle the garbage, I suppose— put up the roads and build power lines, and do all those other things. And then one of these other outfits would come over and use the observatory. At least that’s the way it seemed to me, but I may be overstating the case; I’m not really sure that anyone ever articulated the actual thoughts that were in people’s minds. Not at that stage anyway; not until later when we had a meeting at NASA about this.
This meeting at NASA, which was held December 1964, was called by the University of Hawaii because we wanted to know what the hell Menzel had in mind, and what these other people had in mind, both for themelves and for us and for our mountain. So Bob Hiatt, George Woollard, and I went back to NASA Headquarters and met with Don Menzel, and Bill Brunk, Homer Newall, ????? Liddell and Oran Hicks from NASA. Kuiper was unable to attend— the meeting had been called on short notice. We basically asked the question; is NASA, in fact, interested in building a telescope in Hawaii? And if so, what are the relative roles of all these players that have appeared on the scene so far? And it transpired that they were indeed interested in building a telescope; they did have something like $3 million set aside.
That NASA had already set aside.
Yes. They had expectations that the State would contribute something on the order of $2 to $4 million to build roads, power, that kind of thing. That was not based on anything except generally a hope. I think, as much as anything, our visit crystallized some rather loose planning that NASA had had in mind at that time. The question remained, who was going to do this thing? Clearly, Harvard and Arizona were the two contenders, and NASA was in somewhat of an awkward situation; perhaps they didn’t really want to choose Harvard because the place had been “discovered” by Arizona; perhaps they didn’t want to choose Arizona— I forget, for some other reason—perhaps because they already had too much—I don’t know.
Did Menzel also have in mind the planetary facilities specifically?
I don’t think Menzel was too much interested in planetary work, but I’m sure he was prepared to do it. I think they were both interested in cooperating with the University of Hawaii—as I recall, certainly in Menzel’s case, but I’m sure it was the case with Kuiper too. They were interested in the University of Hawaii building up an astronomical program in other areas than solar physics, to use this large telescope. But the scenario was always one in which the University of Hawaii would be the junior partner and either Arizona or Harvard would control the facility. I know that because I asked Menzel point-blank at the meeting: Would Harvard be the controlling body? Would they have the primary, basic responsibility? Would he be the Principal Investigator?
And the answer was, Yes, as far as the telescope was concerned, and, Yes, as far as the program was concerned. We, I guess, were going to put up the building. Well, I came back from that meeting, came back to Hawaii via Sac Peak, called in, and talked to Dick Dunn and Jack Evans. Dick was in the throes of designing his big vacuum tower [solar telescope]. I spoke to the two of them, because I knew them well—indeed, just a short time before that, I had spent 3 weeks out in Tahiti with Dick Dunn on a vacation. I explained to Dunn and Evans the position that I was in, where it seemed more or less that the University of Hawaii as the custodian of the real estate was going to have to choose between these two partners. And it was not a very comfortable situation that I found myself in, because I was going to lose, whatever I did. And Dick said, “Why don’t you do it yourself?”
Sounds like Dick Dunn.
Yes. This was an outrageous suggestion as far as I was concerned, until I talked to Dick about it a little more. That a theoretical solar physicist should have the temerity to apply to the Federal Government for millions of dollars to build an 88-inch astronomical telescope. I did think about it more, however, and the more I thought about it, the more attractive it seemed. Dick persuaded me that it was not all that much of a great deal.
To build a telescope?
Yes. He was really viewing the problem from his own point of view, I think; for him, it wasn I t a big deal. He’s very well able to do that. But it was a fairly impressive undertaking as it turned out. Anyway, I thought about it more and more, and I was younger and more foolish and more enthusiastic, I suppose, in those days. But, in any case, I came back to the University and talked about it to the University administration. It seemed to be a fairly good idea to them too, so we called Homer Newall at NASA and said, Would NASA be receptive to the possibility of the University of Hawaii submitting a proposal for this?
When you say you talked to the University administration, do you mean the President of the University?
Well, it was Hiatt actually— the Vice President of Academic Affairs. He pretty much ran the University on a day-to-day basis. Not that the President was ineffective; he was very effective, but he was involved very much with the Board of Regents, the Legislature, the Governor, and with large policy matters, and left the running of the University to Hiatt. That was in another age, when if Hiatt said something was going to happen, it happened; if he said it wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t happen; and there was no nonsense from Faculty, governance, or unions, or anything like that.
Times have changed.
Yes. So NASA bought this idea. The University had already persuaded the State Government to ante up the money that was going to be necessary to put up the road and all those other things. The Governor of the State [John Burns] was warmly enthusiastic, behind it— it was wholly in keeping with his plan that was evolving at that time for making Hawaii into some kind of technological center in the Pacific, with emphasis in certain areas for which the University was particularly well placed— mainly in terms of its environment. For example, oceanography, which has been an enduring topic of discussion since then.
Geophysics, Asian Studies.
Yes, right. Actually, oceanography has been something of a disappointment. And astronomy became one of these areas. So the State made a definite decision to go in that direction and make a commitment to it. All along they had made a commitment, in offering a position to me in the first place and in deciding to go ahead with the Institute of Geophysics before that.
In offering you a position and at the Institute, they had large funds from NSF.
To build it.
I see; but they were willing to carry you on their own funds.
Oh yes. I came on a State-funded position.
And Frank and Jack also.
Frank did, but Jack didn’t.
Okay. At any rate, they were willing to provide a number of—
Yes, they provided two positions.
As time passed, though, and as negotiations developed, they were willing to open up further positions?
Oh yes. We have 33 ½ State-funded positions now, covering all sorts of people. To cut a long story short, we wrote a proposal, massaged it in conjunction with the NASA office, submitted it, and it was accepted. on July 1, 1965, it was officially announced that the University of Hawaii was awarded this $3 million contract to build a telescope.
And at the same time, the State had to put up its funds. Did you have much personal contact, or how was contact made with the Governor or with whoever really gave the State’s money?
I didn’t have any involvement personally with that. It was decided in parallel with the preparation of the basic proposal.
So it was between Hiatt and someone frm the Governor’s Office?
It would have been between Tom Hamilton, I imagine, and Hiatt, and someone from the Governor’s Office. Hamilton was the President. [Inaudible comment by Plasch.] Yes, I was on vacation at the time. I had been frantically busy and finally we (my family +2) went over to Maui and spent 2 weeks over July 4th on the beach. There wasn’t a soul there except an old Japanese fisherman who carne down and sat on the rocks and fished a few hours every day. That was almost the only sign of life. There’s a huge condominium on this place now. On July 1 I got called to the public telephone to answer a telephone call from Honolulu from some newspaper saying the contract had been awarded.
Now, about the building of the telescope itself. There’s been a fair amount written about the problem and so forth, I ‘m not sure how much of that we need to go over–about the construction problems, the altitude, falling behind schedule, and so forth. I’m more interested in what may have been going on behind the scenes during this process of building the highest large telescope in the world. Were there difficulties that developed?
Well, yes. There were a number of things that I certainly wouldn’t have done the same way in retrospect, but I was lucky in finding an engineer who had some knowledge of telescopes fairly early on in the piece, and that was very important.
Hans Boesgaard , right , yes.
And Charlie Jones was the telescope designer. He has fallen substantially from grace in the astronomical community as a designer. He had a run-in with Kitt Peak, but I have not found any evidence in the 88-inch telescope that he was unsatisfactory as a designer.
Did you play any role yourself in the design?
Dick Dunn and I, in fact, yes. We figured out the basic concept of it. We were talking about what sort of a telescope you build at a low latitude.
He came over here?
No, we talked about it during that earlier visit to Sac Peak and then I went back a couple of months later and we talked about it a bit more to finalize the concept. It was a bent, or offset fork concept. It has certain advantages; I’m not sure I remember all the advantages.
I’ve seen pictures of it.
And that was followed through, and I think it has been pretty successful. It requires a very large counterweight which is not always a good thing, but I think it’s pretty satisfactory as a basic design. We had a lot of trouble with a couple of areas. The most trouble we’ve had with the telescope has not been with the mechanical system– although we have had some trouble, particularly with the declination gear–but the primary trouble we had was with the control system.
Yes. In fact I remember seeing the programmer working on the IBM 1800 back in the building near campus. This was one of the very first computer-controlled telescopes.
I think it might have been the first, at least among the astronomical telescopes– there may have been some Defense Department instruments that were computer-controlled.
I wanted to ask you where the impetus came from to make a computer-controlled telescope.
Bill Siniton was a strong advocate. I don’t think that we really though of anything else. It probably came out of my predisposition to integrate the telescope with a computer. Which, in turn, was borne out of my experience in solar observatories–seeing the kind of thing that people like Dunn and Dennison did down at Sac Peak, and that had been done over at our own observatory on Maui. Also up at the High Altitude Observatory. Solar physicists seemed to be a lot more adventurous, I suppose, and imaginative in term of instrumentation, electronic control, electronic data acquisition system.
Do you think that many innovations have come frm the direction of solar physics?
I would suspect so, Spencer, yes. I can’t really say very definitely so, but I think there have been at Kitt Peak, for example– I think that the solar instrumentation has to some degree driven some aspects of the nighttime instrumentation.
Were the problems of deve1oping this control system primarily simply because it was one of the first times?
I don’t think we had the kind of electronics engineering capability in-house that we really needed. I don’t think we watched it closely enough. The company that took responsibility for delivering it did a very poor job.
I see. I was curious also about building the telescope. It was built by Boller and Chivens. This is what one would expect, I suppose, but was there ever any choice as to who would build it?
Yes, we could have upped the bid. There were two bids: Boller and Chivens and I think the company that built the Kitt Peak telescope.
In general, when you go out for these telescopes—most of your telescopes have been built by Boller and Chivens— is it simply because they are the best or are they practically the only people around?
They were at one stage; they had relatively little competition in the big telescopes early on, but I think they have a lot more now. The 88-inch was built by Boller and Chivens and the two 24inch telescopes we have there were also built by Boller and Chivens; but the other telescopes on the mountain, none of them was built by Boller and Chivens.
Was there competition then, you would say?
Yes, the other one was built in France, and one of them was built in England because they are foreign telescopes. The third one is the NASA telescope the infrared telescope—and that is being built by Aeronutronic Ford. A company that used to be called Philco Ford; it is called Aeronutronic Ford now, I think, unless it has changed its name again. Boller and Chivens bid for that telescope, but they were too high.
Do you feel there is enough competition among the telescope builders? Are there any particular problems there in getting a big telescope built?
No, I don’t think there’s any particular problem.
I notice, by the way, that you also had a million dollars from NSF— how did that come about? Was it a separate proposal?
Yes. I put in a proposal to NSF for support. Not so much specifically for the observatory. My proposal was $1 million in cash to contribute towards the cost of certain buildings, both here on the campus and over on the mountain. They actually gave us $1 million specifically towards the observatory building. Since the State had already contributed all the money that was needed for that, that floated $1 million off the top, so to speak, and that State money became available to put up a campus building for us.
I see. Now, during this period you were also building up the staff here. You said you started with two positions, and now you have 33. How did that take place? Were you simply working through the University administration?
Yes, the annual budgets.
Was the University expanding as a whole during this period?
Yes— I had more than 33 a few years ago— I had 36 positions. It grew, and then I lost three of them in a freeze. I was never able to fill them in fact. The Legislature would award the positions and I would go in for four, and five, and seven every year, and over a period of five years I managed to get them. The legislature was very sympathetic and the Governor allowed me to fill the positions, approved the expenditure of the funds.
Did you deal with the Legislature directly and testify and so forth?
What sort of arguments did you use? What sort of encounters did you have with these legislators?
They were always, had been and remain, very enthusiastic, very supportive. Individuals of course.
There are certain people who are particular supporters, I suppose.
Yes, right. They see astronomy as having a potential to contribute significantly to the economy of the Big Island, to the economy of the State.
By pulling in funds from outside.
Right. From foreign countries and the Federal Government. Providing some employment, and providing a program of high quality within the University that will be a credit to the University They see the money that they have spent in supporting this program as having returned something to the State. It’s been a good investment from their point of view. That has not been the case, by any means, in most of the other programs that have been supported— the oceanography program for example has not been that way. It may be, and I hope it will be, but it hasn’t been so far, in spite of its promise.
Are there any of these people who have supported astronomy because it is astronomy, who might not for example have supported oceanography under the same circumstances?
No, they would have supported oceanography certainly as much. The oceanographers have generally been more vocal, have promised more, and have been better organized, I suppose, in the way in which they present their case to the Legislature and the State and the people, than we have been. And of course, potentially, they ought to have a whole lot more to offer. There is potentially an enormous amount of money and resources that could be put into oceanography— fish farming, or nodule mining, or whatever.
Have the Governors had a special position in all this?
Yes. Burns was the first one, who started the whole thing off, and Ariyoshi, have both been warm and supportive of the program. I have always had only the best of cooperation from them.
For these same reasons?
Yes, it’s because they have discerned that the program— although it will never replace sugar obviously— they see it as adding a facet to the total image of the State, and giving an opportunity to a few people in the State. And serving perhaps also as a focus for attracting some other enterprises with a similar technological or research character; high quality programs in energy.
But nothing specific to astronomy as astronomy.
No, it’s not because they are fascinated by the stars or the destiny of mankind or anything like that.
I understand. Have you ever tried to raise any money locally, philanthropic money, that sort of thing?
No, I haven’t. I have asked a couple of people in the past for support of a different kind. Most notably I asked the owner of the Parker Ranch on the Big Island, Richard Smart, for land on which to build some accommodations for our programs. This was a long while ago over in Waimea.
You were saying a little bit about raising funds for the Institute.
Yes, I did mention that Mr. Smart offered us some land a long while ago in the past, and that, in fact, has recently been reactivated in something else that is very exciting and is just coming up.
In terms of your locating the buildings?
Now shall we talk about the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope?
It began, as I understand it, when you went on sabbatical leave—
Where do you get all this information? Is it information that I gave you?
Some of it is from your annual reports. This particular item is in your annual report. It says you lectured on spectral line profile analysis at the Collége de France [In 1970 ]. I would suspect that Dick Thoms had something to do with that, or would it have been Pecker? Waimea, a town on the Big Island, is Kona side, also know as Kamuela
Thomas wasn’t there yet, right.
Thomas was still over in Boulder. Yes, that’s true. I went over there in the hope of completing some work that I began with Pecker years and years and years ago. I didn’t finish it, but I did do something with some of his other people; it was quite interesting.
While you were there, you apparently heard something about the French telescope.
Yes, I had known about this, but I bumped into Roger Cayrel, an old friend, and talked to him. a bit about his site testing program; talked to him a bit about Mauna Kea. Also on sabbatical leave at the same time there was Graham Odgers from Canada, who was a person I’d known many, many years ago. In fact he was a fellow student at Cambridge; we were both in the same College and we used to go rowing together, of all things. He was a Ph.D. student in astronomy there.
The Canadians of course had started to build a telescope— the Queen Elizabeth II telescope— up someplace in the Canadian Rockies. For reasons that I don’t know very much about, their project was stopped. I think Odgers was fairly heavily involved in that project. They had a kind of commitment, I suppose, on the part of the Government— or a recognition on the part of the Government— that Canadian astronomers needed something in the way of a telescope. And they were looking in a sort of a way for cooperation with other groups and possibly other sites.
Were you aware of this already in 1970 when you were in Paris?
Yes I’d spoken with Graham. He came out to the dedication of the 88-inch telescope in June 1970. While he was there he said that he thought Mauna Kea was a great site, and that he would love to see the Canadian telescope built there. So I said, “Why don’t you go ahead and build it there?” Then we took up that discussion later on in France, and I suggested then that maybe the Canadians and the French might like to get together and build a common telescope on Mauna Kea. At least the French ought to come out and look at Mauna Kea. They were looking at Baja California and also the Canaries at that tine. Indeed, I left Paris with Roger Cayrel after my period there during the sabbatical year. He invited me to go with him to the Canaries and to go up and see some of the sites where the French thought they might put their telescope.
I went up there and conditions were similar to those at Haleakala— the latitude is similar. It’s a little lower than Haleakala and it was very cloudy when we were there; we were on the tops of clouds. The tradewind inversion in the tropics is between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, and you really need to be a bit above that to be sure of being away from the effects of the immediate tops of the clouds. So I came back to Honolulu after my sabbatical leave thinking that nothing much was going to happen about it. Then at the end of 1971 I got this telegram from the French saying that they were coming out for a week or two to look at Mauna Kea as a possible site for the telescope. They looked, and Uiey looked at some records of Planetary Patrol photographs that had been taken at Mauna Kea and that were stored down at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. These photographs, and the visual impressions that they had had, were the basis for the French selecting Mauna Kea as the site for their telescope.
I see. Apparently on this visit they also talked with Governor Burns.
Was it on. that visit— it probably was. They spoke to Governor Burns on a couple of occasions.
Anyway, you said he provided support for all these things.
Oh yes. He was very enthusiastic about it all. Yes, it must have been that time, at the end of 1971. Because I remember quite clearly sitting in my office on Christmas Eve, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon; the place was deserted, absolutely deserted. The telephone call came through, I picked it up, and it was Governor Burns. And I thought I had earned all sorts of brownie points for still being on the job at that time on Christmas Eve! It was his office actually, and he wanted to know what the names of these (French) people were. So it must have been on that occasion that they visited him. None of them spoke English terribly well, and I was not much in the way of a translator or an interpreter so it was a little stiff as an interaction. But it was warm on everyone’s part.
I see. It wasn’t a matter of getting business transacted.
No. It was just a matter of their visiting to assure themselves that the Governor of the State, in fact, was enthusiastic about this, as I had said that he was. They also met the University officials at the same time the University administration people. So that went well, and then the next year we spent trying to find support for the telescope. This was only the French, remember, who had decided to come.
They were trying to find support—
Trying to find someone to go with the French; trying to persuade the U.S. Government.
Did you approach the U.S. Government, or did the French, or both, jointly?
We did it jointly. We went to see NSF and we went to the President’s Science Advisor, Ed David. That was just before the Office of Science and Technology was eliminated— 1972, I guess.
You must have seen the NASA people also.
We spoke to the NASA people and we spoke to the NSF people. The NSF people were very skittish. They were terribly frightened that they were going to have all their money taken away from them.
Because it was an international thing?
I don’t know. I think it was just that it frightened them— the scope of it scared them.
They already had a national observatory.
Yes, right. They can be a little conservative in their thinking. NASA was not interested and essentially, told us so. So there was nowhere for us to go.
Was it difficult for the French to keep their funding going during this period?
They didn’t seem to have too much trouble.
It had already been promised to them before?
Yes, right; plugged into a 5-year plan. Anyway, the State of Hawaii, obviously, was in no position to go half or take some share in this project, and the Federal Government was not interested. So it was then a question of trying to get someone else interested or go it alone. I’m not really sure what happened to involve the Canadians; I wasn’t a party to those discussions.
That was between. France—
Between. France and Canada. But anyway, by early 1973 it had certainly been decided that the Canadians and the French would get together. In the winter of 1973, February I think, they came out here— the Canadians and the French, four of each of them— and met in the office of the President of the University for two days. We hammered out a Memorandum of Understanding under which the University would provide certain things, mainly in the way of an infrastructure; Canada and France would pay the cost of the telescope and building. And that after we entered the operational phase, we would pay 15 percent of the operating costs and the Canadians and the French would pay the rest, split evenly. And the observing time would be split into the same proportion as the contribution to the operating costs.
I see. And each party gets to decide how to spend its share of observing time?
And how is it determined whether it’s dark time or bright time?
Well, it’s divided up in the same proportion. So that was basically the start of the project. Then we had all sorts of international negotiations, endless meetings of the Board of Directors, and we formed a Corporation— the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation. That is the Corporation that owns the assets, is building the telescope and will run it.
I see. You do not have much to do with building the telescope?
No, not too much. I’m a member of the Board of Directors. There are two members from Hawaii, four from France, four from Canada. So I’m closely involved in it as a Board member, and I’m responsible for what’s, going on.
Okay, now the next question. We haven’t talked about some of the other ones— the infrared and so forth; we only talked about the optical ones, the 88-inch and the 3.6meter. So you have a certain amount of area and a certain amount of nights. How have you been dividing up nights for the 88-inch and how do you propose to divide up your 15%— what’s the mechanism?
Well, the mechanism we adopt for the 88-inch is that every quarter we schedule the telescope. We request observers around the Institute to submit an application for time. There is a Scheduling Committee of about five people who meet, having previously reviewed the applications. A tentative allocation of time is made on the basis of the reviews— some people are cut back, same people are awarded the [full] amount of time, and some are cut out altogether— but that doesn’t happen very often.
And will it be the same for the 3.6-meter?
Yes. I suspect the same Committee will schedule all that.
Will you give any of your time to visitors?
Oh yes , we do already.
On the 88-inch?
Yes. About 15% of our time is given to visitors.
I see. And it would be about the same?
I don’t know what we’ll do with the 15% time on the 3.6meter. There is likely to be less sympathy for giving any of that time away, on the part of the staff, but we’ll see. I am predisposed to give some of the time away, but 15% isn’t very much anyway and if you give 15% of that away, that’s only a couple of nights a year.
Right. Does your optical astronomy program have any general orientation or is it simply the interests of the individual staff members?
Well, it reflects the interests of the individual staff members.
When you’re seeking a person to bring here, for example, or judging things to apply for funds for, is there any general program in astronomy?
Yes. The original telescope, the 88-inch telescope, came out of the NASA Planetary Office. It has been understood that they would help us— and they have helped us— with the operating costs of that telescope to the extent that we use a significant fraction of the time for research in planetary and solar system astronomy. And that has been a significant thrust of the work here.
Trying in with solar physics?
Well, it’s not too much tied with the solar part. The people share the same building to a large extent. They interact with each other at lunchtime and they go to each other’s colloquia, and there have been cases of interaction at a scientific level between planetary and solar people. Planetary people have used solar instrumentation on occasion. But there is not enough of that to represent any significant program of interaction.
Has the stellar work had any particular orientation or deliberate orientation?
The stellar atmospheres effort is represented by three people: Walter Bonsack, Ann Boesgaard, and Sidney Wolff. They have all been here for a long while, nearly 10 years. One of them more than 10 years and the other two nearly 10 years. So that program hasn’t increased in size and won’t increase in size, I suspect. I think that we might add one person to it, but it’s about the right size for a scientific staff actually.
And they’ll continue to use the 88-inch and have a certain part of the other telescope’s time. What else are you going to use the 3.6 meter time for?
Well, we’ll certainly use it for spectroscopy; we’ll use some of it for infrared work too. We’ll have an infrared upper end which we in fact are building; we’re building an infrared chopping secondary [mirror]. We will very likely be building infrared instrumentation for it also. That’s not completely settled, but there’s a good chance we will. So I’m sure some of that time will be spent for that purpose. There will be a powerful Coudé spectrograph, and I suspect that Sidney, Ann, and Walter Bonsack will want to use the telescope for that purpose. People like Brent Tully and Alan Stockton will certainly want to use it for dark-sky observations, for extra-galactic work.
I notice that Stockton has already been doing some work along those lines, but until quite recently nobody else was doing extra-galactic work.
No. Tully has joined the staff fairly recently— Brent Tully.
I see. Did you bring him in specifically because you were going to have dark time on a large telescope?
No. We really needed to have additional work, additional strength in extra-galactic work. It was a conscious decision to increase the strength there.
That would have been true independent of the telescope.
Yes. I guess he knew this was going to happen— he certainly knew it was going to happen when he came. He had spent a year or two over at Marseilles, in fact, with the group over there, and was closely involved with the French astronomers,
Let’s see— is there more on that or should we go on to the infrared observatories?
You can go on with the infrared if you like.
Okay. There’s two. It I s all quite recent so maybe we shouldn’t say too much about it. There’s the United Kingdom one and the NASA infrared telescope, both at the same time. Was that pure coincidence?
There was no planning between the two of them. Indeed, it has been sometimes a source of embarrassment here, and to the NASA people I guess, and to some extent, probably, to the British, that there are two of them at the same place at the same time. The natural question is asked, Why two? Why don’t you build one and share it?
It I s too late for that now.
It’s a little late for that now, and I assume that the needs of the British astronomical community and the needs of the U.S. astronomical community to do infrared observations are sufficient to merit two telescopes.
They’re big enough as they are.
Yes, pretty big telescopes.
Did this work out the same way? People came through to look at the site and decide this was the place, and the University kicked in a share?
Yes. We suspected for a long while— we had known for a long while— that it’s a good place to do infrared astronomy. And not surprisingly; it’s high, the overlying atmosphere is correspondingly less; it also does happen to be very dry.
Have you or the State done anything to promote this? To go out to sell it to people, so to speak?
Oh yes, sure. I have, anyway. I don’t think the State necessarily has, except by giving me some resources that allowed me to go and do that.
Paying your travel to meetings?
Well, yes. Setting up an Institute for Astronomy; giving me the positions that I need, positions specifically for infrared astronomers; and giving me an operating budget that allowed me to allow those people to go ahead and do some infrared observations that established the quality of the site. NASA’s infrared telescope has a long and convoluted history. I am going to cut through most of that, unless you have specific questions about it.
It started way back at a meeting at JPL in 1969 and nothing much happened for a while. Ultimately, Jim Westphal received the responsibility for building, designing, and installing, at a number of sites around the country— and some outside the country— devices that were supposed to measure the sky noise in the infrared. He did this, installed them, and made measurements. (Then the data were reduced.) These showed as far as I was concerned— as far as most people were concerned— that Mauna Kea was the best site. There are some people who claim that it showed that White Mountain is a better site than Mauna Kea.
White Mountain? Where is that?
In California somewhere near the Owens Valley. But, in point of fact, there were only fragmentary data from White Mountain. One could make the argument, at least, that the only time you got data there was when the conditions were good— and so it was somewhat biased. The protagonists of White Mountain claimed that this was not so; that it was a good sample and you could prove that White Mountain was better than Mauna Kea. And then, of course, when the decision was made that Mauna Kea was the best site, suddenly some influential members of the infrared community decided that Westphal’s instrument wasn’t measuring the thing that was supposed to be measured anyway, and the whole thing was all a waste of time.
Was this because some people simply wanted to have it nearer to home?
Yes, I suspect so. It was like tossing pennies until ultimately you win— three out of five, or then five out of seven, and so on. This is getting down into the level of gossip now, really.
No, it’s interesting for me to know how these things work; this is the type of thing that we try to have evidence on. Because these factors do enter into it. By the way, have you had trouble with attracting people to come to Hawaii because of the same reservations you initially had— it seems far away.
Oh, we did have at one stage. We did certainly up to 1970 or 1971. We had a lot of trouble getting people to come over here and got a lot of people, generally, who were new. It was very hard to get anyone who was established to move. In those days, as you probably remember, it was fairly easy to find a job. Since then it has become a lot harder. It gets tougher to find people: unfortunately, our standards have increased at the same rate, so it’s still just about as hard to get people we want to come over here as it was.
Hard to find someone you consider really first-rate.
Yes. Because they usually have several other offers. In fact, this guy that I’ve just been talking to.
Just to finish the NASA story. So then you again made a proposal?
Well, then we put together another proposal. I’ve forgotten exactly what happened. I know I started to lose patience with the whole thing at about that time. But we did put together another proposal in 1973. That proposal addressed a number of points, including the site qualities, the accessibility, the general support available for the facility, what the University would contribute, what the University would expect, and so on. A number of groups were invited to submit similar proposals, and they did. That proposal was presented to a panel consisting of Jesse Greenstein, Ed Nye, and a few other people in September 1973. I presented ours. This was, I suppose, intended to purify the selection process.
To keep it so that it wasn’t simply the NASA Program Officer you mean?
That’s right. Working in collusion with the University of Hawaii or any other group.
Tell me, to what extent did you work in collusion with the NASA Program Officer?
In this respect? Not at all. We certainly worked closely with him— Bill Brunk— we always have. But in this particular situation the instrument which made the test was designed, built, and operated purely out of Caltech, by Jim Westphal. I didn’t have any idea what the results were, and he went to great lengths to make sure no-one else did either. None of the people who were looking at the charts knew where the charts came from. So there was no possibility of skulduggery.
No, I didn’t mean that. I’m simply curious about the way people work with these NASA Program Officers.
Well, you establish a relationship with them, you talk to them frequently, and...
There’s always some little thing in the budget to be ironed out, I suppose. Well, I think that’s enough of the NASA story? PLASCH: Don’t you think you ought to mention the fact that the State didn’t want to accept the NASA telescope; once you fought like hell to get them to come here, then you had to fight to make sure the State wanted it?
There was that, yes. That’s the question of the antagonism that developed towards the astronomical facility.
By the environmentalists?
Environmentalist— you. probably have that on your list somewhere.
I thought you would have. You seem to have a pretty thorough study of the whole thing.
You sent me quite a lot of articles, clippings from your files. We’ll get back to this. What about the British? Is there any novelty to the British.
Not too much. I don’t know quite how they came to settle on Mauna Kea. I wasn’t a part of their discussions. I did attend a couple of meetings in London. They had sent out a site survey team earlier on to look into Mauna Kea as a site for their proposed Northern Hemisphere Observatory, which was an immense project.
The Isaac Newton Telescope?
Well, the Isaac Newton Telescope was about the third largest in the whole [ plan ]. They had a huge scale, a 200-inch telescope and a 150-inch telescope and a 100inch telescope. It was an immense project. I guess it’s still alive as a project, but it’s not going to go to Mauna Kea— it’s going to the Canaries. Anyway, in that connection, I think they decided that Mauna Kea was a good site for infrared astronomy. I’m sure they were influenced by the results of the tests that Westphal made, and the decision by NASA.
I see. So they came a little later actually. Someone always has to be first to sign a contract, and in this case it was NASA?
Yes, NASA’s decision to come to Mauna Kea was delayed because of all this fuss that I mentioned about the Westphal survey being called into question. The British, however, didn’t put too much faith in the questions that were being asked (the U.S. infighting), and they were able to make a decision more quickly. And so the decisions of the two groups were more or less contemporaneous, I think. Certainly they prepared all their land use applications to the State simultaneously.
Okay. Let’s talk now about the problems with the conservationists, the skiers— why there is not an all-weather road and power line to the top of the mountain, and all that sort of thing.
Okay. I’ll try to keep calm.
Okay. Now we were going to get to the question of why shouldn’t the domes be painted black, and related issues.
That’s a whole tangled web again. An endless story.
When did you first start to encounter these objections? Was it with the infrared telescopes or even before that?
There were some rumblings in connection with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, and more particularly in connection with the request to put up their construction camp. That was April of 1974, 1 think. There were rumblings in that direction from a certain Mrs. Mae Mull who has been kind of a bête noire in this whole scene. She opposed the granting of a permit to build these construction support buildings. I’m not quite sure why, but I think essentially on the basis that proper public hearings hadn’t been held and appropriate permits had not been received. In any case, things were happening too fast and she was worried about it. She wanted to see a plan developed for the whole mountain. * The island of Hawaii, where Mauna Kea rests.
I think it was not an altogether incomprehensible opposition; things were happening fast and it looked as though many more things would be happening. Some of the people on the Big Island were concerned that the whole thing had got out of hand and the University of Hawaii was going to take over the top of the mountain, push all the skiers off and push all the hunters off, and essentially develop, in the worst sense, the side of the mountain. The Big Island is a rural community and there are a lot of people there who are not very sophisticated, as you know. They are nervous about changes in lifestyles, and they see those following on the development of the program of astronomy as just about as far removed from their daily pursuits as they possibly can be. And they do not trust the University, State, or Federal government worth a damn.
They feel— and in some cases I’ve had this said to me— that they are going to lose all access to the mountain because of these programs. The Federal government is going to come in and it’s going to slowly move down the mountain, taking more and more of the mountain over as more and more programs go up there, and no-one will be able to get there. It is very hard to fight a fear of this kind— a. formless, baseless concern— except through the same kind of backwoods interaction, at a grassroots level.
Like holding open house?
Yes. But more particularly having members of the community who, through their experience— who either through working there or through having cousins and brothers who have worked there, know what goes on, know the benefits that these people derive from having jobs there— are able to circulate the information back to the community. Unfortunately, however, there aren’t many people working at the Observatory.
There aren’t very many jobs there.
There aren’t many jobs there, and many of the jobs that are there are at a level of skill that is really not represented on the Big Island. Because the people who have that level of skill and who are presently unemployed are few; people with that level of skill would have moved away, either here in Honolulu or to the mainland.
Is this one impetus for moving all the buildings down to the Big Island?
Where did you hear that one?
You said you had the Parker Ranch giving land to put up something or other.
Yes, but that was a discussion a long time ago. But there is something in that connection just coming up now that is interesting, and probably would be interesting to note, or later on to close the discussion on; I’ll get back to it a little later. As far as the environmentalists are concerned, there were two groups– the Audubon Society, represented by Mrs. Mull, and the hunters, represented by a guy called Al Pacheco— who have been most virulent in their attacks on astronomy.
But they have received support from the current County administration. In fact, the current County administration has been antagonistic, explicitly so, to me. They oppose any further telescopes on the mountain for the single reason, as far as I can see, that the Mayor doesn’t like to look up the mountain— on those occasions when he can see the top of the mountain from Hilo— and see little white dots on top of the mountain. The rest— the employment, the stimulation to the economy, the additional aspect to the Big Island that is caused by the presence there of this kind of endeavor, the international significance that is attached to it, the international attention that is drawn to the Big Island— none of these things seem to be of the slightest concern to him. Indeed, on one occasion when we spoke to him in the presence of the Canadian Minister of Space, he expressed himself by saying he didn’t want any more of these things on the top of the mountain.
That is in total and complete contrast to the previous mayor, Shinuchi Kimura, who is imaginative and a fine, dedicated person. So that support at the County level, I think has added a great deal— I know it’s added a great deal— of credibility to the people such as the Audubon Society and the "hunters" in their opposition to the observatories. Their opposition is being shown in a number of ways, but mainly at public hearings and public meetings called in connection with the formulation of a Master Plan for Mauna Kea. The Master Plan has now been completed and it is, I think, an unacceptable document; it just will have to be changed, as far as I can tell.
The observatory needs are not taken care of at all?
Well, there are all sorts of things that are said in it that I can’t see how we or the State or the University can live with. For example, it tells the Department of Transportation, which has no part in the whole formulation in the Master Plan— not a party to it— the Board of Land and Natural Resources has told the Department of Transportation that the Department of Transportation has to maintain the roads on the side of the mountain. What the hell is the Department of Transportation going to say to getting that kind of thing laid on it? It tells the University of Hawaii that we have to be responsible for putting up ski runs on top of the mountain and taking them down when the snow goes away.
It’s asinine. And then it says that we are to generate electric power on the site. Alternatively, we can run power lines underground— which costs about $7 million to do and is totally out of the question. And that, coming from a group of people who call themselves environmentalists— they would have you build and operate at 12,700 feet on the side of Mauna Kea a 1-1½ megawatt power station, as opposed to running power lines up the side of the mountain. There’s a place where we could run it where you wouldn’t be able to see it— you wouldn’t notice it from the road. And in any case, the power lines would be three strands or something of that type, and not in any sense the kind of jumble that you have with crisscrossing power and telephone and cable TV lines that one sees in downtown Hilo.
I gather that this has been a gathering thing; every year it’s been a little worse?
I suspect now that having delivered themselves of this Master Plan, they may conclude that their work has been done, and perhaps go away and worry someone else. PIASCH: It is revised annually.
It is revised annually, so now we’re going to put our efforts into trying to revise the stupid thing.
Okay. Maybe it’s appropriate now to shift to another question. It’s quite a unique problem with you, although I suppose it’s the kind of problem which will ultimately be facing a lot of observatories.
Oh, I’m sure if California wants to build anything on Junipera Serra, they’ll get into hellish fights. If they wanted to put something up on White Mountain, build a road up there, I’m sure there would be hell to pay too. But our problem was simply not pushing things. I didn’t get things through soon enough.
Before it all began—
I had it all laid out. But instead of accepting an access road up the southern side of the mountain where our present access road runs, I wanted to go up the western side of the mountain, and so did Governor Burns. But all the Hilo Politicians wanted to go up the southern side of the mountain, so we lost about three years, I’d say, hassling about which side of the mountain this road would go on. We had the money to put a power-line up there, but we waited to find out which way the road was going before we decided where the power-line was going, so we delayed that. I could have built mid-level facilities if I had been prepared to accept the abominable architect that the State in its wisdom had selected to design these mid-level facilities. But I spent three years fighting against the State system to get rid of this architect. We ultimately won and got a good architect but, in the meantime, a moratorium. was laid down on any new construction on the mountain pending the completion of the Master Plan.
I imagine in general you’re operating more under civil service facility than most observatories— you’re not quite a university, and not quite a national facility which has a different kind of a structure.
They’ve had as big problem with national facilities; the NASA Infrared Telescope has had problems.
Because they’re inside a bureaucracy?
I wanted to jump to a completely different thing. Quite briefly, I’m always interested in sources of support; I notice on this list it’s mostly NASA and NSF. I notice also an Air Force thing down here. I have it that you were supported by the Defense Department Project Themis, for work on infrared studies of magnetic stars. I want to ask about that.
Yes. Do you know anything about Project Themis?
What do I know about Project Themis?
Well, I don’t know that it operates anymore. We don’t have any support under it anymore— haven’t had for years.
I’ve run across the name before but I can’t —
It was a project that was set up by the Defense Department around 1966-67. It was intended to provide money to universities that were “blossomable”, shall we say — they hadn’t yet blossomed — or programs in developing universities (if you’d like to put it that way) which showed some promise of being able to contribute something that in same way was related to the mission of the Department of Defense. It didn’t have to be in any sense directly relevant. And in our case, it wasn’t.
Their aim was simply to keep an infrastructure going?
I guess that was basically what it was. But I was prepared to believe that it was an altruistic program on the part of the Department of Defense. I was probably naive but, in any case, that’s the spirit that I approached them in. So, I got this notification, in some devious way. It was through the Oceanography Department, I think; it wasn’t sent to me.
Was it a circular letter or something?
Yes, an Opportunity to Propose– a week or two before the proposal was due. I remember the whole thing quite clearly. We had a meeting, sat down and said, “These are the areas that we would like to propose in, and this is about how much it’s going to cost." We parceled them all out, each person having responsibility for writing something, and then I had to write the poetry, tie the whole thing together. I clearly remember sitting down at my desk in my house in Pacific Heights with a bottle of scotch. I sat down about 8 o’clock at night and I finished writing about 4 o’clock in the morning. During that period I didn’t by any means drink the whole bottle of scotch, but it kept me awake and kept me alert rather than making me drowsy. I wrote all this poetry– the words just came pouring out, and I knew when I wrote it that it really sounded good. I sent it in, and we got it. Really quite to my surprise, because I thought that astronomy was not really the sort of thing they were looking for– they preferred oceanography or electronics or something like that. We built out of that a polarimeter for the Mees Observatory; we did some work on magnetic stars; we did some work on infrared instrumentation and infrared astronomy.
This was all done, so to speak, by mail? You never had a chance to talk to them and find out what they thought about funding this sort of thing?
They didn’t come out and…oh yes, they did. A woman called Jean Streeter– Jean was in the Office of Naval Research; she was the astronomy person in ONR. She came out on several occasions to see how work was going, and went up the mountain. She was the program manager, I guess.
I see. It was a very straightforward thing– she came out to see how everybody was doing and went back.
What about your relations with the ARPA Telescope on Haleakala, and also the Air Force Mauna Kea facilities? At one point, the University began to use some of these facilities?
The original intention, as far as the ARPA facility was concerned when it was being contracted by the University of Michigan, was that the University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan would, indeed, be involved in using the telescope for astronomical observations. The University of Michigan was kind of eased out of the situation, or bowed out of its own accord, and then ARPA went in with a couple of private contractors– Lockheed and AVCO I think. We have never had any interaction of any consequence with them.
I see. So it’s simply a coincidence– the mountains were here.
Yes. As far as the Air Force Telescope on Mauna Kea is concerned, that was indeed an Air Force telescope. It was supplied to us by the U.S. Air Force, but title to it is now ours. It was never really much used for Air Force [programs]; only on a couple of occasions by an Air Force program at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories.
They just built it as a research telescope?
24 inches is I suppose a rather small research telescope.
Well, it’s used for solar system objects. I think what they were doing was looking for infrared sources, and then they were going to look and make individual detailed studies of these sources through the 24-inch telescope.
I see. The next question I have are about some of these panels you’ve been on. First, what more is there to say, do you suppose, about–
Oh, what’s the future? I haven’t mentioned anything about a National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s millimeter-wave facility– 25meter aperture telescope– they’re hoping to put up on Mauna Kea. The Austrians also have hopes of building a telescope up there. I haven’t said much about the problems that we yet face in trying to provide adequate access, adequate accommodation on the side of the mountain, adequate power.
One of the things that has happened, just in the past few weeks, as a matter of fact: a decision has been made by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation that their permanent headquarters are going to be on the Big Island and not here. The British, correspondingly, are going to go there also. The location for this has been decided by the Corporation as the town of Waimea. There is some land in the town of Waimea that Richard Smart has offered under very generous and favorable conditions, to someone– to the University of Hawaii or to some tax-free corporate entity.
How do you feel about this? Is it a move you’ve encouraged?
Very much so for those people, but I don’t mean that we will pick ourselves up from here and move over there in any sense. We do have some people on the Big Island; obviously, we have an operating staff over there. And we will have some space built in association with this center for astrophysics in Waimea.
Why do you encourage their locating over there rather than here?
That wasn’t my decision. I did encourage them to locate here, but they decided that they would locate over on the Big Island close to the telescopes. Having made that decision, now it looks as though that may be a more viable decision, because the number of groups evidently will cluster around in one place. Particularly if the National Radio Astronomy Observatory goes there. These will be groups of scientists, engineers, technicians, and administrative people. [Pause]
One of the things I wanted to ask you about– I don’t know whether you have a lot to say about this or not– is the NSF Advisory Panel for Optical Astronomy in 1967-68.
That was a long while ago. I don’t remember too much about the activity of the panel, except that I just have a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the way in which the panel operated. I think that the astronomy panel has changed substantially since then, but it seemed to me that we were just a group of people who sat around a table endorsing decisions, considering proposals that were almost trivial in size– $10,000 or $20,000 proposals– whether they were going to be supported or not. I thought it was pretty much a waste of time. We had very little impact and very little opportunity to impact the policy of the program.
Was the program officer primarily the one who was setting the policy then?
I suppose, to the extent that any policy was being set. I think the astronomy section of the National Science Foundation simply has not done a very good job, as far as I can tell.
Has it changed over the years?
I don’t have too much to do with it really, so I’m not quite sure. But it seem to me that they just plain missed the boat somewhere along the line in the mid-60s. The needs of the discipline did not seem to be reflected in any program that was developed. As far as I can see, they fell gruesomely behind– dismally behind– in their ability to support astronomy.
But this was not the NSF’s doing?
No, I’m not blaming NSF– I’m blaming the astronomy program in NSF. I don’t think they fought hard enough for their program. At least if they did, it was very unsuccessful. I don’t think they fully recognized what the needs of astronomy were, or tried to insist within the NSF.
This was a period when the NSF budget as a whole was being frozen or cut back.
That may very well be, but it is still my strong impression– and I haven’t made any study of this at all– it is my impression from talking to them and talking to other people who have been supported by NSF, that the NSF astronomy program office just simply did not react to the developing needs of astronomy in that period. The national program in astronomy was burgeoning at that time; people were coming from all over the place to get into astronomy; endless physicists entering the field; many more demands being made; and for good reason, many more important. things were being discovered about the universe. But it just seemed the only thing we got from NSF when we called them and asked for money, when it was worth-while putting in a proposal, was, "Oh, money is very short and it’s getting tighter and tighter and tighter every year." Which of course it was, but…
There was no sense of direction.
And there was no sense of direction that I could discern. I guess it has improved somewhat since then, but I don’t have too much to do with NSF.
We talked about NSF; what about your relationship with NASA?
The main panel I served on there was the Physical Sciences Committee, for a couple of years.
That was also in the mid-60s, was it?
No, that was in 74-75. Oh, I served on odds and ends of NASA panels, a summer study and a few other things of this kind.
What do you think about their program and the way they’ve run it?
I think NASA has had a very good program. With some inadequacies and poor management, but I think on the whole they’ve had major and ambitious programs that have been successful, and that’s awfully hard to do.
Is there something different about the way they’re organized from the way NSF is organized?
Yes; of course they are a mission-oriented agency and they have things that they are supposed to do– whether it’s an Apollo program or building a Shuttle or flying a spacecraft out to Mars.
Do you think all that would distract them from astronomy– ground-based astronomy.
Ground-based astronomy is a pretty small part of their program. Obviously it’s a very, very important one to us; it’s run out of their Supporting Research and Technology Program, which has also been slipping.
NASA’s general funding, of course, has been in trouble.
Yes. But it’s a pity that SR&T should slip, because that’s the thing that is the bread and butter for most of the university programs. It doesn’t build the spacecraft and it doesn’t build very expensive instruments– which are built by industry or JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Pasadena]– but it is the program that keeps planetary scientists like those here alive.
It provides them with new instruments to put on the telescopes?
Yes. It provides salaries for many of them; it provides money to keep the telescopes in operation; it provides money for new instrumentation; it pays for some machinists; it pays for support generally of this University program. For example, Brunk gives us half a million dollars a year or close to it– mostly for operating the 88-inch telescope, and a significant amount for operating a research program in planetary astronomy here. The budget for that is made up of the usual things– salary, travel, supplies. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to hire the support staff that we need to make the program go. We wouldn’t be able to keep the telescope going, so we wouldn’t be able to get the data on which, to a very large extent, are based the studies that provide the impetus for the proposals for new flight programs. So that’s the way it goes.
Okay. Next, the Greenstein Committee, or the Optical Facilities Panel of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Astronomy Survey Committee. What was your view of that? What was your view of these events?
I didn’t have too much to do with that either, Spencer. I was a member of one of the panels and I wasn’t a member of the steering group. I think, on the whole, that the Greenstein Report was a well-conceived and well-thought-out document.
Did you play any role in these decisions as to which optical facilities to recommend?
We did prioritize some of the optical facilities, yes.
And what was involved in that?
You mean in the process of reaching the decision?
How does one reach a decision?
Oh, about 15-20 of us sat around the table and argued about the advantages of this kind of facility; what this kind of thing would do and what that kind of thing would do. We reached some sort of consensus in the end as to which was the most important in term of its likely impact on our understanding of the structure and nature of the universe, which is the most important for progress of astronomy.
Did that keep coming back– the question of what the final scientific results would be?
Oh yes; that is the basis.
Was there a very strong emphasis on cosmology as opposed to spectroscopic studies and that sort of thing?
It’s a long while ago and frankly I’ve forgotten. But I’m sure that the capability of looking at objects, of making the absolute best use you can of the photons that come in to you, was foremost in everyone’s mind. So from that point of view underlying it would have been the desire, I would guess, to be able to look at very faint objects– extra-galactic objects.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about– and I’m not sure what this involves– you were on the Visiting Committee of from 1972-75. Was that Kitt Peak in fact?
Yes, Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo.
Did you get a view of the exciting events at Kitt Peak?
Yes, this was quite soon after Leo Goldberg came in. We saw Leo’s impact.
Can you tell me what that was?
From the point of view of a relatively casual visitor who would go from time to time, and who knew the previous director and also knew Leo quite well: Nick Mayall was a nice guy, and he was just pretty much out of place as the director of a large observatory of that kind– in this day and age. He was just not sufficiently assertive. I think he was brought up in an old school– Lick Observatory and that kind of thing, where you come into a settled environment, work away, and don’t worry about getting funds every year. The University gives you money and you look for staff to come on; occasionally one retires and you replace them with some bright young person. Not that’s the way that Lick Observatory would be now, but I’m sure that all university observatories were that way for a long time pre-war. Quiet havens of contemplation, I suppose. At least, that’s my view of it.
That is certainly what people have been telling us in the interviews. Certainly in terms of the assured funding and the stable structure and so forth; and the director being the Director.
Yes, that’s right. [Giving] instructions– very much a Director. That is of course no longer the way things are. Everyone nowadays has to have his finger in the pie. And getting money from the Federal Government is something that you have to work at; it just doesn’t happen to you. I don’t think that Nick was quite the person to handle that job. He also had some guy as an administrative officer who was a problem to him whom he wasn’t able to get rid of and who, in some sense ran the place.
So when Goldberg arrived– he’s quite a different personality.
Very different. Leo took charge and he brought, naturally, an entirely new viewpoint, being a different person– but also a different experience, I suppose. Leo had been through the mill with Federal funding at Harvard and had fought for funds from NASA, and went into Kitt Peak from that background. He did a great deal there to reorganize and straighten up the place, attract some good new people, and I guess he got rid of some whom he thought were not so good. He was definitely a new broorn. I guess he got somewhat disenchanted with it over the past couple of years.
You haven’t been there during the last two years.
No. There’s been some sort of a power struggle, I guess, between Leo and Gil Lee who had been appointed to the new position of President.
Were there problems, when you were on the Visiting Committee, over the question of selection between the staff on the mountain and visiting observers?
No, the question didn’t come up too much. We were worried about the ability of the 4-meter telescopes to meet the needs of the community. We were worried that they were going to be completed and there wasn’t going to be any instrumentation available for them. That was one of the major points of concern, I remember, when I was on the Visiting Committee. But as for morale, as for staff and programs composition, we were very much encouraged, as I remember, by what Leo had done. we were somewhat nervous, as I indicated, about the direction of the engineering effort at Kitt Peak. But any group of that kind has to be worried about something, and you worry about it at same level.
That’s exactly what I was curious about– your concerns at that time. By the way, speaking of instrumentation, have you ever had serious worries here about having instruments and nothing to put on the end of them?
Having telescopes and no instrumentation?
Oh yes; sure.
Do you find that it’s easier to get money for the telescopes than for the instrumentation?
Yes, it has been for us. We have had enough instrumentation, but we have not had Support for new instrumentation from the National Science Foundation. We have had some from NASA, but not from NSF. Part of this also, and part of my reaction towards NSF, is borne of the interactions between NASA and NSF concerning the 88-inch telescope.
What were the interactions?
NSF felt– and it’s true– that they had nothing rnuch to do with the decision to locate an 88-inch telescope out here in Hawaii. They didn’t have much to do with the size of the telescope, its location, the institution that should receive it. The general reaction was to kind of just shrug the whole thing off and say to NASA "It’s none of our responsibility; you built it, you worry about it." So every time that we would go in there and try to get operating support, they would bring this up. Also, we didn’t have anyone on the staff who was well recognized as being able to construct instrumentation, and that was another real, substantive factor that they brought up against us. It’s not the case anymore, and I expect that we’ll be better off in the future– we’ve already shown signs in that direction.
I’m at the end of my pack, but I have a few general questions. You’ve never done much in the way of popularizing science; you haven’t written popular articles or whatever. Are you concerned with the public’s attitude toward astronomy– astronomy as astronomy?
The public in the State or the public in general?
Well, either one.
As far as the State is concerned, I’m certainly concerned about it. I am not, myself, trying to do something personally about it, because I don’t think I’m a terribly good person to do that. But I have taken some steps to try to encourage other people on the staff here to do something about it. For example, I have encouraged the teaching faculty of the Department Of Physics and Astronomy to go out and try to increase the undergraduate enrollment in astronomy as a science unit for non-science majors. I can’t take any credit for what’s happened, but the enrollment has, in fact, increased substantially and I’m very pleased at that. I think we should be concerned to develop an educated public in astronomy, on a cultural level, in these islands. Particularly because the islands are going to be more and more involved as the site for astronomical discoveries in the future.
By the way, about what proportion of the people in this Institute– not including the people on the Big Island, but the people in the Institute here– are involved in teaching or are members of the Department? Are all the members of the Department who are astronomers located here?
In about what proportion is it?
They share appointments. All of them who teach share an appointment between the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Institute in various proportions– half and half, or one-quarter Department, three-quarter Institute. The number of people involved in teaching is about seven or something like that. More than that do, in fact, give courses, from time to time But those who are formally associated with the Department, in terms of their actually getting some pay from the Department, are about seven in number.
In terms of full-time equivalents, then, it’s a quite a small proportion.
Oh yes, right– three people.
Of all the people that you have here.
Yes. We have something like 25 scientists working on the staff.
What is the attitude in general that you take around the Institute towards teaching or any kind of popularization?
Some of the staff numbers are very active in popularization. They play significant roles in the amateur astronomers group; they give lectures out at the Bishop Museum Planetarium; they participate in open houses, occasionally, over on the Big Island; they go to schools and talk to kids. We don’t do as much as we should, I think. I certainly don’t do as much as I should, either by myself or to encourage others to do it.
Do you think that the public’s attitude, here in the islands or in general, has changed with time? The attitude toward the science of astronomy?
Yes, I guess it has. I think they are certainly more aware of the science of astronomy than they were 10 years ago– for better or worse. In some cases, they are more aware of it because they perceive the facilities as being some kind of a desecration of the mountain or intruding on their way of life. But that’s a relatively small fraction of the people. You find most people have heard about things that are going on Mauna Kea, and they don’t have much idea. But there surely must be a very significant number of them who do know what’s going on, because we’ve had about 100 a month go up to the top of Mauna Kea during open houses for about five or six months a year. We’ve been doing that for about four years now, so there’s a significant number of people. There would be a lot more if...
It’s a long trip up.
Yes, it is.
John, could you tell me what are the main ways you have spent your time outside of working hours all during your career– interests outside of astrophysics?
Oh, I had various interests at various times. When I was over in Boulder and I was a working scientist, I used to do some drawing and some painting. I haven’t done painting for a long while, but I do occasionally do a bit of drawing– not very successfully; I don’t keep it up. I read a good deal. I’m currently, and have been I should say for about 7 or 8 years now, interested in trying to trace out my own ancestry– it keeps me amused from time to time.
It must be difficult to do it.
From Honolulu, yes. I Ill try to stay for a week, or a few days at least, in London. when I’m going through Europe. I’m on my way to a sabbatical this time. I plan to spend a week there traveling up to Cambridgeshire and looking around to see if I can find any people from this particular family that dates back to the 1820s or so. I play tennis a great deal. I spend most of my weekends playing tennis– not terribly successfully, but I play at it. PIASCH: That’s not true.
I’m no champion, but I enjoy it.
The trouble with all these sports is that you’re always better than somebody but there’s always somebody that you’re worse than.
That’s about it. I fiddle around the garden a bit, but I can’t in any sense be called a gardener.
Have you any religious affiliation?
Any strong convictions?
Not religious ones.
Well, what’s your feeling about the stars and the universe that you’re devoting yourself to? JEFFERIES; I wish I could get closer to it as a matter of fact, Spencer. My problem is that I simply am not spending a great amount of time at it. I have to derive what scientific satisfaction I can vicariously through the successes of other people– particularly, as far as I’m concerned, the work that goes on in solar, and to a lesser degree stellar, spectroscopy. I have a young person now who is vigorous and enthusiastic, working on rocket spectra that we obtained in ‘74 and ‘76. I try to see as much of him as I can. I listen to him, make suggestions, hear what he’s done. I’m very excited in what he has done, but I’m not doing it myself.
Well, I suppose building large telescopes could be considered scientific work also, but you don’t get the same type of satisfaction from it.
A different kind of satisfaction. I feel it ought to be more satisfying than it is, to do. Perhaps the sheer difficulty of doing anything.
The inertia —
The inertia of the system, and the growing inertia of the system. PLASCH: You have to be very tenacious to stick with it.
In the case of Mauna Kea, there are so many things that have to be done and so many people who can say no, and correspondingly, so many different actions that have to be taken before anything can happen. It really tends to get extremely frustrating.
Well, you certainly have made a great deal happen.
It’s all the things that haven’t happened and that have yet to happen that loom large in my mind. True, there's a lot of stuff going on out there, but I'm aware of all the other things that have to be done, and how very difficult it's going to be to do some of those; how extremely difficult it’s going to be to get a decent road up the side of the mountain. I don’t know when we’re ever going to do that.
To get further observatories located there?
No, to get a road paved.
Do you plan to continue to work to put further observatories up there?
I know there are others that can go up there without in any way impacting on the quality of the site, or significantly influencing even the appearance of the top of the mountain from sea level (which is a factor that concerns some people and doesn’t, in any sense, concern others). Some people have said to me– I don’t know whether they were trying to make me feel nice– that they look at the top of the mountain and they take pride in seeing those observatories up the mountain.
Why don't we close on this hopeful note?
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
 AUSTR. J. PHYS. 7 , 570 (1954) (with R. G. Giovanelli)
Ibid, 8, 335 (1955).
See Monthly Notices R.A.S. 115, 617 and 116, 629 (1959), 117, 493 (1957).
ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL 127, 667(1958); 129, 401(1059); 131, 695, 132, 767, 775.
ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL 131, 695.
Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, Boulder, CO.
Advance Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense.
Association of universities for Research in Astronomy.
International Geophysical Year, 1957.
Waimea, a town on the Big Island, is Kona side, also know as Kamuela.
The island of Hawaii, where Mauna Kea rests.