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Interview of Jay Pasachoff by David DeVorkin on September 10 & 15, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Pasachoff discusses his childhood in New York City and his early interests in astronomy, telescopes and math. He recalls participating in a summer math program at Berkeley after his high school graduation, before he enrolled at Harvard as an undergrad. He recounts being invited to partake in observational research at Sacramento Peak Observatory, where he worked with Jacques Beckers and Bob Noyes. Pasachoff then explains his decision to continue at Harvard for his graduate studies, where Bob Noyes became his thesis advisor. He remembers finishing his PhD while also working at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, doing radio astronomy work. Pasachoff discusses the events that led to his postdoc at Caltech, and his subsequent move to Williams College. Throughout the interview, Pasachoff remembers many of the solar eclipses he has observed and his research surrounding them. He also discusses the many textbooks he has written over the years.
[BEGIN PART 1]
Well, this is an oral history interview with Jay Pasachoff, and the interviewer is David DeVorkin. This interview is by Zoom, and the date is September 10, 2021. I sent you a set of questions, but they’re notional, of course, and what we want to do is to the extent and the limit that satisfies you, record the important things that you feel in your life have led to your leading career in solar astronomy, popular astronomy, education, that sort of thing. And this interview is being done under the auspices of the American Institute of Physics. And as you know, it will be transcribed, and you’ll have a chance to edit it. But it won’t be edited, on our side at least, as a publishable document. It is meant as an archival document. Yes. Okay. So, let’s start with your early life. I know that you were born in July 1943, but I don’t know when. You could start out by telling us a little bit about your family and your background, who your parents were — what did they do, and your siblings.
Fine. I was born on July 1, 1943, in New York City, at Women’s Hospital on 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway. My father was a surgeon. My mother was a schoolteacher. My father was on maneuvers when I was born. He was given a leave to come home. He had volunteered at an advanced age to be in the medical corps, and when I was about 10 days old, my father went overseas and landed on Normandy as a Captain in the medical corps (came home as a Major eventually, I was told; I have his Bronze Star medal in one of my home offices, especially for a field operation he developed for trauma). He went through the Battle of the Bulge and one of the camps in Germany, and came home after a couple of years away. So, my mother proudly told me that she showed me his picture every night in saying goodnight, and then when he came back, when I was 2, I recognized him, which apparently was unusual among the babies at that time when long-gone fathers returned. We lived with my mother’s family in Manhattan. My mother was from the Traub family.
She was Anne Traub, and she married Samuel Pasachoff in 1941.
And then when my father came home, they traded their smaller apartment in Manhattan for a larger one in the Bronx on the Grand Concourse near a subway stop. My wife, Naomi, and I once went to a sociology lecture at Williams College, where somebody had done a lot of research and figured out that there were Jews who had moved up north to the Bronx along subway lines, and everything that she did for her hours of research, I could have told her in a five-minute interview, from the way we grew up. Anyway, I had a very happy childhood at 1235 Grand Concourse. My little sister, Nancy, was born the summer I was 7 (her birthday, my parents' anniversary, and her eventual wedding anniversary were all on the 4th of July, in 1950, 1941, and 1971, respectively). [New theory to me: my parents waited to have her until the third bedroom in our apartment was freed by the aging of my material grandmother, who had lived with us, and who died in 1951; my sister reports that my mother told her that they didn't want me to grow up as an only child.] I went to PS 114 near there in the Bronx, and I am still in touch with about 25 of my PS 114 classmates.
We have reunions every five years and are in touch even more often than that. The relationship resumed again for the 25th reunion [I was actually returning from a visit to the Very Large Array in New Mexico when I received a classmate's message about the event], and when we had that meeting and everybody reintroduced themselves, everybody said — or some people said, “Jay, you’re the only one who has followed through with your original intention.” So, I have testimony that I wanted to be an astronomer from that elementary-school age.
I had spent a lot of time at the Hayden Planetarium, and presumably my parents had taken me there as a young child. In high school, I went to the Bronx High School of Science (one of several New York City high schools with admission from a standardized exam), and during that period, I made a six-inch f/8 reflector— which was standard at the time — telescope mirror in the Optical Division of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, which was located — headed by the famous Dick Luce -- in the basement of the Hayden Planetarium. So, I used to go down on the subway to do that and walk around an oil barrel with my hands going back and forth to make this mirror. And then in high school, at the Bronx High School of Science in shop class, I made one year a mount with babbitted bearings, the poured stuff. And I made a tripod out of wood; I made the whole thing. So, I was never really a big observer. My family spent summers out at Lido Beach and then Long Beach on Long Island, which is adjacent. And so, I observed a few things. I might have even seen a solar eclipse that I haven’t recorded, but I found a photograph of an unlabeled solar eclipse from that period. But basically, I was just interested in the idea of astronomy. I was taken in by the books I read. Many people have cited — I’m not the only one — George Gamow’s 1… 2… 3… Infinity, and books by Fred Hoyle at that time. So, I was probably more interested in the theory than the actual observing at that time.
Also, my Harvard application began with an essay that started something like “I learned to read at the age of 3…”, so I was concentrated on intellectual matters. As it turned out, I spent first grade at PS 114 largely teaching another first-grader how to read, and at the end of the year I threatened to tear up the next book they gave me that didn’t have words. So they skipped me to third grade. When I was seven, I was on the radio Quiz Kids program (Dollar Savings Bank; Durwood Kirby, MC) that took me on Sunday mornings down to the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. It was weekly elimination, but in the third or fourth week my mother couldn’t come in the car with us and by the time she got there I had just not chosen to answer questions while we were on the air. My favorite answer for which I was given a lot of credit, I’m sure: names of people rhyming with “Olly,” and I had not only Dolley Madison but also Molly Pitcher—and I am sad to learn that this year the New Jersey Turnpike is renaming their rest stops, removing the one named for her.
Though I was placed in a non-tracked third-grade class at PS 114, I joined the IGC (Intellectually Gifted Children) district class there for classes 4-1, 5-6, and 6-7 (where they gave the classes high numbers so as not to beat out the "top" normally 6-1 class on that grade). I then went to Jordan L. Mott Junior High 22, on the other side of the Grand Concourse, for the normally "Special Progress" (SP) arrangement to do grades 7-8-9 in two years (7SP# and 9SP#). Which is how I wound up graduating from high school still at age 15. (I remember just where I was as I walked down the hill to school when I saw, I guess on a newspaper headline, that Albert Einstein had died.)
One side course in junior high was typing, which I loved--and I drummed my fingers on the back seat of the car and elsewhere to practice. Much later, when Naomi and I did the junior high Earth Science and Physical Science junior-high texts for Scott, Foresman, we recommended in our draft of some chapter end-matter that students learn to type. But the publisher thought that suggestion was frivolous or irrelevant--whereas it ultimately worked out that touch typing was a wonderful skill that helped students enter the computer age. [I also took Spanish (perhaps in case I wound up following my father’s medical profession after all in NYC), which turned out useful on numerous research observing and other trips to Mexico (1970 eclipse) and South America—including as I write this, soon to observe the December 4, 2021, total solar eclipse with access from Chile, not to mention the 2019 totality we observed from Chile.]
In any case, in 1957, I remember clearly coming home one day, presumably October 5, 1957, with my parents and seeing The New York Times headline on the newspaper on our doorstep (and my memory was close to the following actual headline: "Soviet Fires Earth Satellite Into Space; It Is Circling the Globe at 18,000 M.P.H.; Sphere Tracked in 4 Crossings Over U.S.," Link.) I joined the New York City Moonwatch team, which was put together by the Amateur Astronomers Association. So, I went down to our site on the 67th/69th/70th floor, near the top of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. I was 14 years old, so these days, I don’t know if people let their 14-year-olds go down on the subway at 3 a.m., but I did do that. And we saw an early satellite go overhead, high enough in the predawn to be illuminated by the Sun in the otherwise darkish sky. I don’t have any written record. For a Smithsonian TV program recently (though unaired eventually) I went in to the Harvard Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments to participate with Sara Schechner, who has an artifact at Harvard of an original Moonwatch telescope, the small telescope (through which we looked downward into a diagonal mirror) of the type that we set up in a picket line to see where the Sputnik satellite went by. People knew it was beeping radio signals, but they didn’t know exactly where it was in the sky at that time. And that is actually a technique that I participated in just a couple of years ago in South America, when NASA was trying to pinpoint Ultima Thule. Now it's called Arrokoth, the little object in the outer solar system that the New Horizons spacecraft went to after Pluto — and we were following predictions that it would go in front of a star. And NASA took about 50 of us to Mendoza, Argentina, in South America, and we had the equivalent of a picket fence with telescopes every five or six kilometers to see which of us, if any, would see a star occulted.
[For non-New Yorkers: the RCA Building is very visible--and views of and from the Observation Deck from which we of the New York City Moonwatch team observed Sputnik and, I think, Sputnik 2 (which carried the dog Laika a month later, also in 1957), and perhaps Sputnik 3 in spring 1958, are shown, at about 2 min into the 3 min YouTube video of Frank Sinatra and fellow sailors Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, singing "New York, New York," a song from the 1944 musical On the Town and, with "helluva town" changed to "wonderful town," from the 1949 MGM musical film of the same name. The music was written by Leonard Bernstein. The RCA building is also visible in tall silhouette at the opening of the NBC Nightly News each weeknight. Technically, the building has a new name, but let's ignore that.]
In any case, I continued going to the planetarium, I guess. I had very good instruction at the Bronx High School of Science. I was a College-level (calculus) senior-year math student, along with some of my friends, and seven of us friends went to Harvard. I was not first in the class, but I’m sure that my astronomy passion and my building a telescope, was what got me into Harvard at that time (along with my 800 in the SAT in math--and I was captain of the math team). And so, I did go up to Cambridge. I graduated from Bronx Science a few weeks before my 16th birthday, and then on the first of July, on my birthday, my 16th birthday, I took my first airplane flight ever with my parents and my little sister, Nancy, who was (and still is) 7 years younger.
We went out west; we flew to Denver, and my father had rented a car. We drove through the various, well, lands previously inhabited entirely by Indigenous people, and out to Los Angeles, and went to Disneyland, of course. But what might be a little unusual for a newly-16-year-old is that I visited the headquarters of the Mount Wilson Observatory at 813 Santa Barbara Street. It’s still the address there, and I now have a visiting appointment there, I’m proud to say. And the director at the time, Ira Bowen, came out and spoke to me, so that was really very nice of the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory to talk to a visiting high school student.
Yes. Okay, that sets the time. So, it was when you were a high school student and your parents — your family went on a cross-country trip.
Yes. I had just graduated, and I remember my father and I were sitting on the floor of our apartment in the Bronx, looking through a National Science Foundation brochure to see where the furthest summer program from the Bronx was. And we chose the one in Berkeley, California. So in August 1959, the month before I started Harvard, I was in the NSF math program at Berkeley. My parents dropped me off at the beginning of the month, and I spent the month with new friends in college there.
This was a summer program?
It was a summer program, a one-month math summer program.
Well, let’s go back aways, and let me get a few things to fill in. Your mother’s maiden name was Anne Traub?
Yes. Anne Traub. Yes. Born 1910; died 2007 at the age of 97.
And your father was Samuel?
Yes. He usually used the middle initial S. Born 1904; died 1983.
S. Okay. And you said he was a physician?
He was a surgeon. Yes. In the Bronx: office shared with his pediatrician brother at 910 Grand Concourse, plus Morrisania and Bronx Lebanon Hospitals, plus a title at Mt. Sinai, as I recall, for training nurses.
Okay. Did your mother have college training?
Yes. My mother was a math major at Hunter College, class of ’29. During my childhood, she taught school, fourth and fifth grades.
Okay. Did you have brothers and sisters?
In 1950, on the Fourth of July--the Fourth of July was also my parents’ wedding anniversary — my little sister Nancy was born.
Oh, boy. That’s quite an age difference. And what has she done with her life?
She went to Barnard, and got a master’s degree in computer science from the Courant Institute at NYU, and married a Ph.D. astronomer, Marc Kutner, with whom I wound up writing a book and some other things. And they moved to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, RPI, which is only three quarters of an hour from us. My parents retired to be not far from both of us (local for my sister and her husband and our two nephews and 35 miles for Naomi and me and kids), and my sister spent her academic career working for the RPI computer center. Now she lives in La Jolla.
Okay, great. Now, going back to the Bronx High School of Science and the fact that you got interested in astronomy at a very early age — what would you pinpoint as being the stimulus for your early interest? Was it a teacher? Was it a friend? A newspaper? Did you read magazines? What was it?
I really don’t have any specific idea. I identify the planetarium, but I don’t have any specific incident or object.
Were there any teachers that you recall who were particularly influential on your gaining interest in that?
Yes. I remember in junior high school being interested in learning that the Sun was powered by the carbon cycle, which we now know is not true, but it was a good thing to capture my interest in basic astrophysics. I mean, the Sun’s not hot enough in the center for the carbon cycle, I now know (and lectured with that fact to my Astronomy 101 class just last week). But I remember being very interested in my physics text; Dr. Abraham Baumel was my physics teacher at Bronx Science. And Dr. Alexander Dodes [pronounced do'-dees], was the AP college math teacher. We had an academic group of friends. I was the captain of the math team, so we actually had contests of some sort.
I understand that it’s not easy to get into the Bronx High School of Science. How did you get in?
There was an exam. There still is an exam, and I’ve seen the exam mentioned as recently as yesterday in The New York Times, because it’s controversial about the number of Black individuals who are admitted to the Bronx High School of Science and to the sister organization, Stuyvesant High School, these days. But the admission to the several specialized high schools in New York is still only by that exam.
Now, once I was in high school, we did take an SAT or practice SAT, and I remember being shocked and obviously pleased when my grades came back not only with a 717 in the English part of the SAT, but an 800 in mathematics.
So, it was really the 800 in mathematics that is the credential that got me the various things I had. I wound up pinning the highest score in the graduate record exam in mathematics too, when I was a senior at Harvard, so it’s always been the math that’s been my forte.
Okay. What would you say was the primary reason that you chose Harvard? Did you apply to other places? Because you said that at one point you wanted to get as far away from the Bronx as possible.
Well, I mentioned already that I was not first in the class. The first in the class was my friend Todd Gitlin, who was valedictorian. And one day, I was walking from the subway to — down the hill to the building of Bronx Science, and he said he wanted to go to Harvard, so I decided that I wanted to go to Harvard, too.
[Todd headed Tocsin (an activist group) at Harvard and is now professor of journalism at Columbia, where he, coincidentally, headed the Ph.D. committee of my son-in-law Tom Glaisyer, Eloise's husband. Just today as I edit this (December 16, 2021), I was on a group Zoom with Todd and a dozen other Harvard '63 classmates. The others from Science at Harvard with me were David Botstein (biologist); Albert Meyer (just retired as prof of computer science and math at MIT); Michael Engber (retired City College math professor); Matthew Rosenblatt (retired military mathematician; spent his career at Aberdeen Proving Ground); and Bob Fenichel (for a while an MIT math professor though he became a medical doctor). Disgracefully, the Radcliffe admissions then didn’t take the one female member of our friends’ group, Eileen Danies [now Yager], who went on to Brandeis—where we never saw her—and now a retired physician and med-school professor who moved to be near family to Denver, where Naomi and I do occasionally see her, given solar-related visits to Boulder, an hour-or-so away. [Old ties hold: our classmate Elinore Charlton, a retired architect who went to Wellesley (and we had one date at Science when I was 15 -- arguably my first date ever -- and one at Wellesley at 16) audited my Astronomy course on Zoom last semester.]
[laughs] Where did your father go, and your mother?
Well, my mother had been at Hunter College, class of ’29, a math major.
My father went to City College, class of ’24, and then went on to Bellevue, which is now part of the NYU medical-school system.
So, they both had the free education in New York that was available at that time.
So anyway, I did apply to college from the Bronx High School of Science at the time. We were allowed three applications to college. The advisors would only write recommendations to three places. They didn’t want to be overwhelmed.
So, I told them that I was going to apply — oh, and then my mother’s sister (the former Mary Traub) had married a professor at Cornell — Milton Konvitz, so that was my introduction to the rural American countryside [and we are in close touch with the cousin from Ithaca: Josef Konvitz, retired head of urban affairs of the OECD and living with his wife, Isa, for 30 years in Paris, where we love to visit; I even got the Janssen Prize from the Société Astronomique de France a few years ago.]. Of course, we used to go for a week or two in the winter and a week or two in the summer to Cornell. I used to have a t-shirt that said “Cornell, 19??” So anyway, we were allowed three college applications. And so, I was going to apply to Harvard, Cornell, and somewhere else. I forget where. Maybe Columbia. I’m not sure. And Bronx Science wanted us all to apply to a city college, which I declined to do. I was determined to go to one of those other places. And they called my father in, because I didn’t have a safety school. But anyway, then I told them I changed my mind and I was going to apply to Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. So then, they had a bigger fit about my three applications. But in any case, I did have interviews. I remember going to the Harvard Club and meeting the famous F.A.O. Schwarz himself (of toy-store, toy-brand fame), the interviewer.
And on the committee and I remember going down to Princeton and had a Nassau Hall admissions-department interview, and after my interview, to my dismay, my father asked to see the interviewer, which I thought was not the right thing. And apparently, he asked the interviewer, “Tell me. Do you really take Jews at Princeton?”
And he was told, “Yes, Jay should go ahead and apply.” So, I ultimately did get into Princeton and was called on the phone by the New York interviewer. His name was not F.A.O. Schwarz, and I don’t remember what his name was. But I was so pleased that I decided to go to Princeton, and that lasted a day and a half or so, until I got an invitation from Harvard in the mail, and I followed through with my hope to go to Harvard.
And what was it about Harvard that attracted you?
I don’t know. General prestige? I had gone up the year before. I had a cousin in the law school I stayed with. My friend Steve Strom, from Bronx Science, who sat in the seat in front of me in math junior year, had gone a year early to Harvard, and I had — in fact, I corresponded with him just last week -- visited him and his then girlfriend on my high-school-senior-fall inspection trip to Harvard (my parents, sister, and I had been there the summer before). What attracted me to Harvard? Just things that I knew (or thought I knew).
Was there anything about the astronomy programs that attracted you? Had you looked up and seen what kind of astronomy was being done at Harvard and Princeton?
Well, I don’t remember specifically looking up the Harvard astronomy program, but once I was admitted, there was a brand-new program that year called the freshman seminar program. Harvard in general was notorious, apparently, for lack of contact between the senior faculty and the students. But they started this program that I applied for. So, I applied for the astronomy seminar, the astronomy freshman seminar, which was 12 of us first-years meeting with the director of the observatory, Professor Donald Menzel, who as you know very well, David, was a leading astronomer in general, but also in particular, someone who had studied the Sun and studied solar eclipses. So, I went up to Harvard in September of 1959, and we met at least weekly with a group of a dozen people, which include several other people with whom I’m still in touch: John Leibacher, who is one of the heads of the Solar Observatory and the journal Solar Physics, Ken Janes, and Don Goldsmith. Nan Evans was the daughter of the director of the Sacramento Peak Observatory, where I finally did my thesis work.
[See my article, 2002, "Menzel and Eclipses," for the Donald H. Menzel Centennial Symposium, Donald H. Menzel: Scientist, Education, Builder, in Journal for the History of Astronomy, 33(2), No. 111, 139-156. DOI: 10.1177/002182860203300205 Bibcode: 2002JHA....33..139P. From the third footnote: Menzel's Freshman Seminar, Fall 1959: Four who became astronomers: Ken Janes, Professor and former Chair, Boston U.; John Leibacher, fmr. Director, National Solar Observatory; Don Goldsmith, fmr. professor, astronomy author; Jay Pasachoff, Professor and Obs. Dir., Williams College, and, during 1969-70, Donald H. Menzel Research Fellow in the Harvard College Observatory, a position funded in honor of D.H.M. for a five-year term by his friend Edwin Land of the Polaroid Corporation. Other members: Nan (Evans) Krien, daughter of Jack Evans, director of the Sacramento Peak Observatory; John Fryer, Washington, DC; Richard Goodman, professor of mathematics, U. Miami; Tony Rossmann, lawyer, San Francisco; Margaret (Horton) Weiler, Bradford, NH; K. Paul Smith, Aloha, OR; Aquila Chase, Santa Barbara, CA; Jeff Hill, Washington, DC, lawyer, Office of Management and Budget. I discovered at the time of the 50th anniversary, when I sent around email, that Margaret had overslept and missed the flight. The circumstances of the currently scheduled December 4, 2021, flight near Antarctica will give similar views of the corona straight out the window.]
Anyway, the dozen of us met for an hour or two— especially on Wednesday afternoons in the basement of Building A of the Harvard Observatory, where Professor Menzel showed us solar movies, which, of course, were 16-millimeter black-and-white movies at the time, animations of solar motions. And I would fall asleep. I mean, I still fall asleep when I’m watching too much television, or maybe any. But we were in a darkened, warm room in the basement of the observatory, seeing these black-and-white movies, and I would fall asleep. I don’t know which story to tell first. Let me go ahead with the falling asleep. In about November, Professor Menzel was home sick; I think he had thrown his back out. I was called to the house (32 Hubbard Park near Cambridge's Brattle Street; I heard that Harlow Shapley himself in the 1930s had provided the $5000 or so to allow the Menzels to buy the house and accept the Harvard professorial offer, moving from Lick), and I didn’t know what consequence there would be for my falling asleep in the great man’s class every Wednesday afternoon. And of course, I was a freshman, so I was up at midnight or 2 a.m. also. But in fact, what he said was, “Jay, I see we’ve not been holding your interest enough. I’m going to set up a research project for you with one of the staff.” And he arranged for me to work with Hector Ingrao…
…a technical person with whom I did a paper. I did observations with some Tektronix equipment. And ultimately, the first paper published under my name is “The Responsivity Profile of Photomultipliers," in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
…from measurements I made that year with Hector Ingrao.
That was in Review of Scientific Instruments.
Review of Scientific Instruments. Yes. Yes, a real paper in a real scientific journal.
Right. But I was curious about that and was going to ask you about that. Something you said before that was really very interesting, and that was the senior Harvard faculty did not have much contact with the students. When did you realize that? Did you feel it, or was that just something that was told to you?
I think that was just something told to me. I certainly didn’t feel it, because I, in fact, had direct contact with one of the most senior members of the faculty, so I had no complaints at all.
But that was because Menzel had decided to create that seminar.
Yes. Now, that’s right. Menzel put you in contact with Hector Ingrao, who has — at that time, he was not a senior faculty member, but he was doing a lot of instrumentation.
And was that something that was of particular interest to you?
Well, I enjoyed working with the instrumentation, and I still enjoy working with the instrumentation. When we finish our talk today, I’m going over to our Science Shop here at Williams College and to meet there one of the senior students to pick up some instrumentation that with the shop machinist they’ve adapted for our eclipse expedition for the December 4, 2021, eclipse over Antarctica. (addendum: My observations of the 2021 total eclipse, my 36th total and 74th overall solar eclipse, were successful from 41,000 feet near Antarctica.)
That’s really great.
So, I do have a little theme of some instrumentation work through my career.
That’s very nice. Now, being at Harvard, clearly this seminar, if you call it that — the freshman seminar — how did that stimulate your interests?
Well, not only did I enjoy the discussions and enjoy the interaction with both my peers and Professor Menzel, but it just so happened that there was a total eclipse of the Sun a couple of weeks after the semester began in 1959. So, in early October 1959, there was a total eclipse of the Sun that began, more or less, over Marblehead, Massachusetts. And Boston was going to be in totality. Only decades later did I find out that the eclipse actually was centered over North Africa, but we were just at the beginning of the path.
And Professor Menzel borrowed, I was told, a Northeast Airlines DC-3. So, you don’t borrow airplanes anymore, and there aren’t DC-3s, and there isn’t Northeast Airlines. But he took his class of a dozen of us, his friend Edwin Land, the head of Polaroid, and maybe one or two other people. And we flew up to see that eclipse of the Sun. I thought it was a dozen of us in the freshman seminar. Though, at the 50th reunion when I checked with everybody, one of the girls had overslept, so there were only 11 of us on the plane.
Where did you fly to?
We flew just up off the coast over the Atlantic. It was just off the coast of Marblehead, just north of Boston. And it was raining in Boston on the ground below.
Ah. So, you could see it above the clouds. You saw it from the airplane.
We saw it from the airplane, low on the horizon. And that is similar to the way I just saw the most recent solar eclipse, which was an annular eclipse over southern Canada. On June 10, 2021, for the first time after this COVID-related lockdown, my first airplane flight in over a year, I joined the Sky & Telescope flight out of Minneapolis to see the eclipse at about 3 or 4 degrees above the northern horizon. We got a good view of the annular eclipse. I have a paper about it in press now, in Astronomy Magazine. (Pasachoff, Jay M., 2021, "Flying into June's Ring of Fire Eclipse," June 10, 2021, annular-eclipse images, Astronomy Magazine, 51, 5 (November), pp. 44-47.
And that eclipse then continued over Greenland and the North Pole and into Siberia. And we would have gone to northern Canada or Greenland if we’d been allowed to travel. But anyway, this worked very well.
And we similarly have reservations for not only me, but also a couple of students and some colleagues on a flight out of Punta Arenas, near the southern point of Chile, to fly due east on December 4 and similarly see the total eclipse of the Sun only a few degrees above the horizon as the path starts, before it goes over Antarctica.
So, how influential would you say is that first flight in the DC-3 on your subsequent life mission — lifelong mission to observe solar eclipses.
Well, I trace all that interest back to then. I’ve now seen 73 eclipses of the Sun, and that was the first, so I think we can extrapolate fairly that that was very influential.
Did Menzel have any instruments on the plane that you could use, or was it all visual?
I don’t remember any instruments. We have a few photographs out the window — very few, even — so I don’t think there were any instruments on the plane there. I did work with Menzel in 1968 at an eclipse that was going to go over Siberia, and we had some instruments together. I was a senior graduate student at the time, and he had arranged, I guess, a National Academy of Science visit to Russia. But then the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and all the exchanges were cancelled and so was my trip to Russia with Menzel and the instruments — for the eclipse. So, we sent a telescope, a special telescope with a polarizer, to Professor Alexi Nikolskii in Russia, and we got back some data that we studied.
Boy, that’s something.
I didn’t go to that eclipse in particular.
Yes. Let’s go back to your training at Harvard. Now, how was the difference in atmosphere between the Bronx High School of Science and entering Harvard? How did you feel? Did stay in a dorm? You must have been in one of the colleges. Right?
Well, the freshmen lived in the Harvard Yard.
Just last weekend, in one of the alumni mailings, I saw a picture of students in front of Stoughton Hall, the 1812 building in which I lived on the third floor. I was a roommate with an old friend of mine from Bronx Science, David Botstein, a distinguished biologist now. And it was really something to come from the Bronx and be in the mix of people at Harvard, including people who had been to prep schools, and to live in this 1812 building. My room had, at one time, been inhabited by Nathaniel Bowditch, still famous for his 1802 book the Practical Navigator. We had a picture of him up, so that scientific heritage (and picture) was inherited with the room. And I have long said that the sophistication of some of the kids who had gone to various other schools, prep schools especially, put them ahead of us in writing or some other things. But it took us only a semester or so to catch up.
Did you perceive any kind of elitism, or was there any kind of discrimination among your fellow students?
Maybe I felt something that I wasn’t an elite at the time, but I am not aware of any overt effects at that time. Now, it just so happens that at the moment, I’m my class secretary for the Harvard Class of ’63. And in the newsletter, I’ve written about a book that one of my classmates, Kent Garrett, wrote, called The Last Negroes at Harvard. Because as it turns out, there were 18 — at that time, they came in as 18 negroes, but they left as 18 blacks (now Blacks). And it’s an excellent book that I recommend to everybody. And we are now having a weekly seminar, a weekly Zoom seminar on various aspects of life and on a wide range of topics with distinguished outside speakers.
So, you didn’t feel any resistance of being a second-class student, or anything like that at Harvard?
No, I did not.
I guess I knew there was such a thing as Final Clubs and that I wasn’t ever going to be in one, but that was not a big deal.
Oh, okay. Good. Now, what about your classes? What about your professors? Looks like you were in touch with Menzel from the beginning.
But who else did you take courses from, in physics and so on?
Well, so I enrolled in physics. I had a physics course with R. V. Pound, and he always seemed particularly distracted. He was not my best professor for learning physics, but I subsequently learned that that was exactly the semester that he and his graduate student Glen Rebka were in the adjacent tower in the Jefferson Physics Lab doing their Mössbauer effect experiment.
So, I can understand in hindsight that his freshmen were not his first priority at that time.
So, I mean, I was going to ask you if you had any experience with the, [laughs] you might say, fallout from that experiment. Did people talk about tests of general relativity?
No. No, I don’t remember any specific discussion at that time. I was involved with most of the seven of us from Bronx Science; maybe six of us had taken advanced math and skipped a couple of years of calculus and were involved in a complex-variables junior course. And so, I remember that in, I believe it was November, in 1959, I was in Sever Hall at Harvard on the third floor in a math class, and President-elect Kennedy was going to come to University Hall. And I was smart enough to realize that I should sit in the back of the classroom and go outside when Kennedy appeared. So, I’m glad to say that I got to see the visit of John Kennedy to Harvard, wearing his top hat and coat, because he was an Overseer, and they all wore their regalia to dress for that Overseers-meeting day, in 1959. (He said to the waiting crowd, including me, and I heard him say, "I've come to see President Pusey about your grades." And as he turned to go in the door, he turned back, showing what a great politician he was, and he added, "I'll look out for your interests.")
But anyway, basically we did the complex variables course. I remember the name of David Witter, though I’m not sure I can tell you whether he was the professor or the author of the textbook, or maybe both. And I had a course from Professor George Mackey. So anyway, I took math and the astronomy seminar and a physics course, and then I was very struck with my humanities course — Rogers Albritton's Humanities 5, as it was, where we read some of the great works from antiquity. And I was impressed to be at Harvard learning about Aristotle and Kant and so — very struck by that. That's why one goes to university! Maybe that colored my interest in being at a College like Williams much later on.
Did any of that experience make you think that you might want to move your career in another direction?
No, I was happy being what I was: a mathematician, I guess I considered myself, but with a broader set of interests and reading.
And yes — in fact, similarly, sophomore year, I had a course on Renaissance literature with a young professor [probably then still a lecturer], Judy Kates, who I was in contact with just a couple of months ago. And we remember how shocked I was at the age of 17 at the dirty books that we were reading, like the Decameron, of Boccaccio. And so, when we started the lockdown for Covid, my wife and I reread stories from the Boccaccio that she borrowed from the Williams College Library.
Oh, sure. [laughs]
So anyway — and not to mention, the Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Oh. Yes, yes. Wonderful.
So, I was still very pleased to be getting a broader education, even if I was going to professionally be a mathematician.
So, your professional goal was as a mathematician.
Well, I always figured astronomy was a hobby. And after all, I’d started as a hobbyist and then made a telescope as a hobbyist. So, when it came time in April or May — it was probably April — of that time, at Harvard, you enrolled in your major at the end of the first year.
So, you really had to have a lot of courses to a major (about half the 32 total undergraduate courses), plus these "Gen Ed" humanities and social science courses. So, I should also mention the name of Stanley Hoffmann, from whom I took the social science course on, in particular, the history of France and French politics. And Rogers Albritton was the professor of Hum 5. So, I really was very affected by the general education that I got as an undergraduate at Harvard.
Anyway, there came the time in, I suppose, April when we went down to sign for majors. I guess I had probably been doing my measurements of the responsivity of photomultipliers at the Observatory. And I went down to Memorial Hall to register, and I went to register as a math major, as I had always intended to do. And then I returned to the Observatory, and I ran into Professor Menzel. He said, “Where have you been?” I said, “I went down to register for the major.” And he said, “I hope you’re majoring in astronomy.” And even at the age of 16, I was smart enough to know that if a senior member of the Harvard faculty cared enough about me to express such an interest, I should pay attention. I actually turned around and then went back down to Memorial Hall, and I changed my major from mathematics to astronomy, right then.
I claim the shortest math major in Harvard history: one hour. And I’ve been a dedicated astronomer ever since.
Ever since. Let me ask then, if you weren’t an astronomy major, when you first came in as a freshman, how did you end up taking Menzel’s freshman course?
I don’t know. There were applications, I assume. I must have written an essay. I have no recollection of what I did.
Clearly, if he had access to my application to Harvard, there was all kinds of astronomy background in it, but probably there was some special application. But I don’t have a copy of it — of any paperwork from then. Presumably, I expressed a choice of topic.
Okay. And so, it was during your freshman year that you worked with Hector Ingrao.
And where was his laboratory?
Somewhere in Building B, as I remember, at the Harvard Observatory. It was not a very elaborate laboratory.
Yes. So, you had to walk up the street, up Concord, was it, to get to the observatory?
Well, yes. We usually went up Garden Street, but yes.
Garden Street. Right.
Garden and Concord split, yes. And I mean, I did have a bicycle. I probably rode my bicycle most of the time, but I’m not sure.
Oh, okay. Good.
Nowadays, now that they have Harvard boys, or male students, up at the Radcliffe Yard, which is right across from the observatory, Harvard runs a bus there.
But at that time, it was only the Radcliffe girls who were up there, so they were on their own to get down to the Harvard Yard for classes.
Right. Okay. So now, we have you signing up as an astronomy major, and I’m just curious. Moving into your sophomore and junior years, how much contact did you have with the astronomy department and the people also were from the Smithsonian at that time?
Well, first of all, in sophomore year, I was assigned a tutor, an undergraduate tutor (the routine name for Harvard undergraduates of the academic advisor, sometimes with some directed reading), and so I’m very grateful to David Layzer, who was my advisor then and tutor for not only the next three years, but I’m sure he put me into Harvard graduate school too, because I never applied anywhere else. So, the fix must have been in. And he was of a theoretical mind. And he introduced me to his friend Hermann Bondi, and also on another occasion with Tommy Gold--not that I am an adherent to their idea of the Steady-State Universe.
And I did a lot of reading and did research with him. I’m honored that I was actually one of the signers, just this week, one of six signers to the Memorial Minute that Jim Moran, one of the current professors, did for David Layzer, who died in his 90s a year or so ago. [Starting in sophomore year, I had close contact with my "tutor," David Layzer, and I continued working with him through my second year in graduate school. In fact, I recently contributed to his Memorial Minute that Prof. Jim Moran prepared for the Harvard Faculty Meeting, to be read in November 2021 (in a week or so, as I write this), making sure that Layzer's interest in undergraduate education was mentioned. See Memorial Minutes] [Later: Harvard informed me that I was not eligible to be a signer, but at least I was a contributor and I had a special invitation to listen to the presentation.]
And Naomi and I’ve still been in touch with Jean Layzer, David's widow. But even when I was a sophomore, David and Jean lived just on Madison Street, a half block from the observatory, and David played in a string quartet some evenings, and I was invited over, so I had both social interaction with the Layzers and then this professional interaction. And I know I took a course of his that was very information-theory dominated.
Oh, boy. Did you play an instrument? Did you have any musical interests?
I had taken years of piano lessons, but I did not continue that at college.
Oh, okay. So, you didn’t play with them.
No. But I just enjoyed the classical music, and I sure enjoyed being around the people.
Did your work with Hector Ingrao change your ideas of what it is you wanted to do in astronomy?
Probably not. I just went on with more courses. In particular, I was taking the physics sequence. I thought I might be a theoretical physicist. I took advanced theoretical nuclear physics with Sidney Coleman. So, I was doing practical astronomy, but I was also in the theoretical physics track.
I was later friends with Shelly Glashow (and encouraged my daughter Eloise '95 to take his nonmathematical course to learn about quarks and other aspects of modern physics; it wound up being too historical for our liking, but she did work on editing for him; my more mathematical daughter, Deborah '97, didn't take any physics at Harvard, though she used her math in an advanced economics course and for her MIT Sloan MBA).
So, at that time now, by the time you were a sophomore and you’d already had experience of doing actual research.
By 1966, you were publishing observations of solar chromospheric spicules, with Jacques Beckers and Robert Noyes.
Yes. Beckers just died a few months ago.
And Bob Noyes is emeritus. He’s still living not far from Harvard, and I have been in occasional touch, certainly before Jacques died, with both of them. But as an undergraduate and for two years later, basically, as I told you, I was working with David Layzer.
And in particular, we worked on Hartree-Fock equations and some quantum mechanical calculations. And somehow, I was sitting with him one day in, I guess, 1965, as a young graduate student. And I thought I would go on to do theoretical quantum mechanics with him — the applications to atomic processes in the stars. And then this new, young professor who had just come from Caltech, Bob Noyes, came in and somehow, he asked me if I wanted to go observing with him that summer to the Sacramento Peak Observatory, which is in New Mexico. And I don’t really know why he invited me, but it may be that he asked around, who knew something about solar work and was interested in the Sun? And I’d done this stuff with Menzel. I didn’t yet here mention that in 1963, there had been an eclipse—crossing the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, and Jim Pollack and I had taken some of Menzel’s equipment up and observed from the bank of the St. Lawrence River, near Gentilly. I remember when we came back to the United States in our car, we were given a hard time by customs about why did we have this telescope and weird-looking stuff in cases in the trunk? And finally, they saw that it all said “Property of the United States Air Force,” and they just let us through. It was Menzel’s telescope. But anyway, so I had shown some interest in solar physics, and maybe Bob had asked around and learned that, which I know NASA has recently renamed “Heliophysics.”
I obviously accepted to go to Sacramento Peak, and in June 1965, I flew out. I remember flying by myself, because I remember that the worst flight I’ve ever been on in terms of air sickness was from Denver to Alamogordo in Frontier Airlines. But anyway, we were resident on the mountain, and Bob was invited by a staff member there, Jacques Beckers, who of course was a very distinguished astronomer in his own right and went on to head at least one other observatory and was in charge of laying out where to build stuff. In any case, that’s where I really learned how to observe. It was my responsibility to run the actual telescopes. This was before Dick Dunn, who was there on the staff, was able to build the big solar tower. That’s the vacuum tower that’s there now…
At Sac Peak?
Jacques Beckers, Bob Noyes, and I used the spectrograph in what was called the “Big Dome.” We had a huge Littrow spectrograph in which I made these observations of the spectra of spicules at high resolution. And I learned a lot of observing tricks. For example, this was not something I invented: it was something that Jacques and Bob arranged. But by using overlapping spectral orders, we were able to simultaneously observe the calcium H and K lines, the helium D3 line, and H-alpha, and also at two different heights using a beam splitter — two different heights simultaneously, in the spectrum of the edge of the Sun. And so, we made all those observations. They obviously — it was the staff then, Horst Mauter, as I recall, was in charge of the film — developed the 70-millimeter film. And then it was my job eventually, back at Harvard I guess, to measure the spectra —we had photographic spectra. I became an expert on using the microdensitometer at the Observatory. And that was what became my thesis.
So, I enjoyed that, and I learned a lot about observing. That was the first professional telescope I got to use. I think — and now, I’m in a psychological frame of mind with the following personal observation — but I was Bob Noyes’s first graduate student, and he was this young professor, so he kept asking me to do more and more until he was satisfied with my thesis--and I wound up adding a Part II with the Smithsonian scientist Eugene Avrett. And I know you want to eventually discuss the difference between Harvard and the Smithsonian.
I think Bob may have had mainly a Smithsonian appointment, but I’m not sure. (There were several people, as I understand it, with Harvard-professor titles but with their salaries and job security from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory). At that time, we didn’t pay attention to that. I know that once I needed some money for a summer job, I was assigned to work with Dick McCrosky, who I know was at Smithsonian.
And that was out of my particular research field. But anyway, I came back, and I made these observations. I had an NSF fellowship, incidentally — a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. All of that goes back to my math skills, I guess, and getting the high grade in math on the graduate record exam. [My last year, I had a NY State graduate fellowship since the NSF said my 5-year-old Grad Rec perfect score had expired, and I didn't want to take that exam again.]
We’re now talking mid-’60s. You’ve graduated in 1963, and you are now a graduate student at Harvard.
Yes. Okay, yes. That makes sense.
And so, as I mentioned briefly, I never applied anywhere else. And so obviously, some combination of David Layzer and other professors had wanted to accept me in the Harvard graduate school.
Which is not the way graduate students get into graduate schools these days.
[laughs] Right. But how did the relationship with your family and your friends continue during this time? How close were you to your family?
Oh, I was always close with my family. They would come up to visit, or I would go back down to the Bronx to visit. Yes, we’ve always been close.
And they remained economically stable, and there were never any problems with money? Let’s say, your tuition or anything like that?
[Zoom session freezes]
No, my father was a doctor, and my mother was a schoolteacher; they were never short of money. We had a three-bedroom apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. In fact, when I was accepted at Harvard College originally in 1959, in the mail I got a certificate that I was awarded a "John Harvard Honorary Scholarship"--in other words, honor but no money.
Okay. Well, how did you decide on your Ph.D. thesis?
Well, the thesis actually has two parts. The first part was that I was invited by Bob Noyes to join him and Jacques Beckers at Sacramento Peak, so I made those observations and worked for a couple of years on reducing the 70-millimeter film, some of which I still have. And then my psychological explanation now, that I was Bob Noyes’s first graduate student, and he wanted to make damn sure that when he presented me for my Ph.D. final oral defense, that it would be as good as it could possibly be. So, in any case, he kept asking me for more stuff, and I kept doing a little more and doing a little more. And finally, I started working with Gene Avrett, who was another Smithsonian scientist who might have also had a Harvard appointment. He was doing theoretical work on the spectrum of the Sun especially. So, I wound up doing some theoretical work related to the kinds of objects that were part of the detailed solar surface images in the calcium K-line that I was working on with — in the spectrum. Incidentally, many decades later, maybe 40 years later, I discovered that Fraunhofer — because I now have an interest in rare books — Fraunhofer labeled the spectrum from A to I, where the letter I was the end. And so, there was no K. And I got into that a little bit when there was a spacecraft that was observing the magnesium equivalent lines, which they were calling “little H” and “little K,” which I thought was a lousy notation. I was pushing for more letters (maybe p and q). But anyway, one of my Williams College students, Terry Suer, who now has her own Ph.D. (just finished a Harvard Geosciences postdoc working with high-pressure diamond-anvil research; just starting as a postdoc at U. Rochester), was working in the Caltech library on spring break, and I set her to looking through a whole lot of books to find out who first used the label “K.” And it turned out to be somebody named Mansard from 1879, a French astronomer from whom we can trace back the use of the term K-line. Other than that, it had been a second dark line near H on Fraunhofer’s original 1914 spectrum. There was just a little blank instead of a letter above the unlabeled half of this obvious doublet. So, we gave a paper at the historical astronomy division, where you probably were, of the American Astronomical Society in Washington. And the night before my talk, my wife, Naomi, and I were with our daughter Eloise, who was then a law clerk for Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court.
And I mentioned I was going to talk about the K-line the next day, and she said, “Oh, we’ve got a case about the K-line.” So, it turns out that there is a Japanese company, with some long Japanese name, that they abbreviate as “K-line,” and you can actually see their trucks going back on the highway. So, we had taken pictures of this — the K-line truck going back and forth. But my daughter Eloise gave me a copy of the Supreme Court brief that was stamped at the front, that it was going to be about the K-line. And then when I gave my talk the next day, there was a full house, and everybody laughed, of course, when I pointed out that this was an important enough matter that it had reached the Supreme Court. And I gave the paper, and I wound up fairly directly as head of the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS.
[laughs] That’s pretty good. Now, during this time, you also did a very interesting paper for the Physical Review, “Proof of a Conjecture by Moszkowski for the Variances of Spectral-Line Distributions.”
Yes. And so, this was the theoretical work I had done with David Layzer. It was one of the kinds of things that I was doing in quantum mechanics with him, and it was really very gratifying to be able to go through some long, complicated proof and wind up with a Q.E.D. I made sure to have a Q.E.D. in there, because I really had proved it. So, that was the pinnacle of my work with David Layzer. But at that time, I was already moving on to the solar observational research.
Right. And so, between observation and theory, was there any tension in your mind, if you wanted to concentrate on one or the other, or both, or somehow combine them?
I didn’t make that distinction clearly at that time. And I think when we left off in the Zoom, I was just about to start work with Gene Avrett, the Smithsonian scientist. And I worked with him on some K-line practical observations of the theory. I was not an extreme theorist. But I wound up doing a whole paper with him, a long paper. And when I finally wrote it up — if you look at my Ph.D. thesis, it goes a couple of hundred pages, and then it says “Part 2,” and it goes another couple of hundred pages with the part I did with Gene Avrett. And when Bob Noyes saw what I had written up in great detail, he said, “Oh, I didn’t realize there was this much there.” So, my theory now is that you get a Ph.D. when you have psychologically convinced your advisor that you’ve accomplished enough. And I didn’t put a lot of effort into that convincing, but I’m very pleased with my work, both with Bob Noyes and with Gene Avrett.
What is your memory of your thesis defense? Was it public?
Not a whole lot — no, it was not public. Juri Toomre came in from MIT as an outside observer. I don’t remember much about it.
And I take it you passed with flying colors?
Well, I was worried up until the end. I mean, I had this history of being put off for a long time. But finally, there was a deadline that I had to meet. That was the deadline for ordering a red silk robe from the Harvard Coop (which was basically a Harvard Square store). So, I made clear to Bob Noyes that I needed his approval.
Well, what was delaying you?
He had to sign off that I had finished my thesis.
Oh, I see. And why was he slow about that?
Well, my theory is he just wanted to be sure that I’d present well, because I was his first student. But it’s also probably true that I wasn’t writing it up quickly enough or early enough and hadn’t presented him with enough written work. I don’t really know at this stage. But I do remember that I had shared an office at one point in Building D with Jack Tech, I think his name was, who among other things was fluent in Russian and translated some Russian things. My second language for my Ph.D. exam had been Russian (I took a conversational Russian course one summer since I know I needed a second language), so I worked hard in translating the abstract of my thesis, and we were going to put it in a Smithsonian publication series, which starts with an abstract. So, I worked to translate the abstract into Russian. And I remember sitting at a table in Building A.
Again, that same basement room where Menzel had projected the movies, but at that point, we had three or four typists on identical IBM Selectric typewriters with identical balls, typing the final version of my thesis to get it in by the deadline.
So, it may be that I should have started months earlier, convincing Bob Noyes that it was all ready.
Did Harvard support these typists, or did you have to bring them in, or what?
I doubt that I paid, so I assume that Bob somehow worked it out. I just don’t know.
Okay. So, it was a real tight schedule there to get your robe and get graduated.
Yes. And then the next stage was to provide two copies in spring binders at a certain location. And so, I took this typist stuff that had been worked on so carefully late at night and overnight, and I went down to the stationery store, Bob Slate Stationers in Harvard Square, and I said, “I’d like to buy two spring binders.” And they laughed at me. They said, “We’ve been sold out of spring binders for weeks.” So, I called my sister, who you remember is seven years younger.
And this was 1969. So, I was 25, and so she was 18. She was an undergraduate at Barnard. So, I sent her out on Broadway in New York to buy a couple of spring binders for me. And then our father drove her to LaGuardia, and she gave the package with the two spring binders to a random person on the line to take the air shuttle to Boston.
This is obviously pre-9/11 — of which the anniversary is tomorrow, as you and I are talking.
And so, somebody took those spring binders to Boston, and she telephoned me, and I went out to Logan Airport in Boston, and I met the plane, and I got my spring binders. And I turned in my thesis to meet the deadline.
That’s brilliant. That’s a great story.
One of the other things that I did right away was I mailed a copy — this shows the psychology of the time — I mailed a copy to a colleague in Australia, so that if there had been a worldwide conflagration, a copy of my thesis was likely to survive down in Australia.
What do you mean by a conflagration?
A world war. Nuclear.
Oh, so that was a very major concern for you.
Yes. It could be — not only that, it was a concern about Vietnam, and would I have to go to Vietnam? And so, this was all going on at the end of my thesis. But the thesis got in. I had the robe. I finally chose the elaborate robe, the red silk one, and I now wear it every year for Convocation at Williams College, and sometimes graduation. So, I’ve worn it close to a hundred times. And if you divide, whatever, $300 by a hundred, probably only costing me $3 a time. And in fact, tomorrow here at Williams College, we have Convocation, and I can wear the robe.
Ah, boy. Yes.
Academically, on the phdtree.org available through the web, I see that through Bob Noyes and Gene Avrett I have a very distinguished academic lineage, back through Avrett even to Eddington and his supervisor Ralph Fowler (Rutherford's son-in-law and advisor of three Nobelists), and through Noyes to Leighton, Michelson, Millikan, and Sommerfeld, among others:
But anyway, now that you remind me of Vietnam — so, the rule of that time was: you could have an exemption for graduate school, for student studies, for six years. And I was sharing an apartment with Ben Zuckerman, who was for many years a UCLA astronomy professor, now emeritus. And he worried about the fact that we were both going to be finishing six years of graduate school before our 26th birthdays if in school — if in fact the Harvard graduation was early in June. And so, he actually was active about it and went looking for jobs. And he found two jobs: one at the University of Maryland as an assistant professor, which he took. He was a radio astronomer. And the other, at the Radio Astronomy Branch of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, which is on Hanscom Field in Lincoln, a half-hour west of Harvard. And he passed on to me the opportunity to go and meet the head of the radio astronomy branch, Jules Aarons, the distinguished radio astronomer who was doing highly calibrated solar radio astronomy.
Though Ben was on the radio astronomy side, I was on the solar side, and I did get that job, and I started working that summer at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. So, in fact, I was finishing my Ph.D. while I was at Air Force Cambridge; I wrote part of the Ph.D. about the K-line overlapping at that time. And I remember going to get a parking pass, and the young man behind the counter said, “What are you, GS-3?” And I said, “No, I’m GS-13.” [Those are standard levels for Federal jobs; GS-3 is low-level, "high-school diploma or equivalent," and GS-13 is professional level] And he nearly fell over. But anyway, so I commuted out to Lincoln, Massachusetts, to the AFCRL every day for that final year of graduate school. I had a new apartment mate because Ben left to go to Maryland. Bob Kurucz, who actually does a lot of theoretical work on the solar spectrum. What Jules Aarons had set up was a set of very carefully calibrated radio telescopes in different sizes so that the beam was exactly covering the Sun at whatever wavelength was being observed, and that was set up at Sagamore Hill near Ipswich in Massachusetts. I went there occasionally. And sitting there was a 150-foot radio telescope. So I asked, “Can I use this radio telescope?” And they, well, said: sure. You know? What do you want to do? So I went back to my Harvard friends and through Ben Zuckerman to the professor at the time — Ed Lilley was the professor of radio astronomy — and I borrowed a 21-channel spectrometer from them, and I worked with colleagues there, including Ben. And we made some observations of various things in the sky.
One of the things I was observing was a newly discovered pulsar. And it turns out that I was interested in the solar corona, so I was observing a pulsar that was going behind the solar corona to measure the electron density that was delaying the pulses as a function of frequency. And then we got a telephone call from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. They had discovered a pulsar in the Crab Nebula pulsing its radio-waves 30 times a second, while we were using pulsars with periods of about once a second or so. So anyway, I remember right away moving the telescope over to the Crab Nebula, and then I had to raise the chart paper to the maximum speed. I remember the pen was glowing red hot, because it was all going so fast, and we found the beats from the Crab Nebula. So, I’m actually on an IAU announcement card confirming the period of the Crab Nebula pulsar, which I admit is hundreds of times easier than discovering it in the first place. But I’m still pleased at that. (Pasachoff, J. M., 1968, "NP 0532," confirming the period of the pulsar in the Crab Nebula, International Astronomical Union Circular 2114, 1968 Nov. 25.) And then I had the techniques of long-wavelength radio astronomy that turned out to be useful when I went to Caltech the next year.
Now, you worked with John Castelli?
Yes, on “Radio Spectra and Related Observations of a Solar Active Region.” Was this the work that you’re talking about now?
Well, not the pulsar work, but I worked with John Castelli, who was on the staff for the long-term, and a younger fellow, Don Guidice (pronounced guy'dace), during that year, in doing the solar radio astronomy.
And I was able to stay in touch with the people there for a long time.
Yup. At about this time, it looks like you started getting active in the journal Solar Physics, providing abstracts of papers from other journals.
What was that activity? How did you get involved in that?
I don’t remember how I got involved in that. The opportunity came. Maybe I volunteered. I must have volunteered, but I don’t remember anything specific except it was a steady thing that I did for a few years.
Yes, that’s about right. Did you have any other issues about the Selective Service and your status?
Well, I was an employee of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, and so early on in that year, I was in touch with my draft board in the Bronx, and I remember very distinctly the letter that I got from Colonel Flinders of Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. And on the top of the paper, it said, “United States Air Force” and a seal, and “Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory,” and on the bottom it said, “Aerospace superiority through research.” Colonel Flinders asked for my extended draft deferment. I said, “I think that’s going to work.” And it did.
And that continued when you went to Caltech?
Well then, I was over 26, and they weren’t drafting people over 26 at that point.
Oh, yes. Right. Right. Right.
So anyway, I started doing radio astronomy. At that time, people were discovering interstellar molecules, and my friend Ben Zuckerman was working with Dave Buhl and Lew Snyder, so I worked with them in trying to identify some interstellar molecules. And I had the access to this big, new radio telescope.
Right. Was that Haystack?
Sagamore Hill. Entirely different. Haystack is an array dome and much shorter wavelengths. We had a joint observing run at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Yes. That’s right. Were you aware at all of the efforts that the Smithsonian was making at that time — ’69, ’70 — to build a huge radio telescope that was part of the Northeast Radio Observatory consortium?
No, I didn’t know about that.
Okay, because Ed Lilley was involved, and others were very much involved. It never happened, but it was sort of Fred Whipple’s last hurrah as chairman.
Well, there was another attempt; the name Sugar Grove comes to mind.
There were some big radio telescopes that also didn’t get built. And I heard at one time that out here at Williams College, we have Mount Hope Farm (a former Rockefeller-family estate) five miles down the road in a valley. And I heard that that was one of the sites being considered, but that never happened either. [My wife and I, as city people, were careful to consider houses to rent and eventually buy that were on town water and sewer and cable-tv, given that many people rented with no over-the-air tv capability and so had no Sesame Street for the kids.]
Wow. Yes, that was a lot earlier. The Smithsonian effort was finally overtaken by the Very Large Array.
Now, let's turn to how you chose Caltech as your postdoctoral appointment?
First of all, there was an eclipse of the Sun on the 7th of March, 1970, in Oaxaca.
And Menzel invited me to work with him on it. And I understand the money came from Edwin [known as “Din”] Land, but I was appointed the Menzel Research Fellow in the Harvard College Observatory for the year 1969-1970. And we put a lot of time that year into preparing for the eclipse. Among other things, my instrumentational skills were nurtured by working alongside Jim Baker who, of course, is one of the all-time best instrumentationalists, and supervised the Baker-Nunn and various optics. And he designed for Menzel — and I guess Menzel and me — a Schmidt camera with a spectrograph to observe the wide-field solar corona. I remember going out with him to the company that was making it and tweaking things. I remember setting it up in that infamous basement room where I’d fallen asleep, and learning how to finger-tighten adjustments from Jim Baker, which was a wonderful skill to have. And then we took it to Mexico for the eclipse in 1970. Menzel had a grant from National Geographic at that time, and we had a joint article in National Geographic magazine just a few months later, in the August 1970 issue. (Menzel, Donald H., and Jay M. Pasachoff, "Solar Eclipse: Nature's Super Spectacular," National Geographic, August 1970, 222-233.)
How did he choose Oaxaca? Because of course, the eclipse path went right through Nantucket, which was really quite close to you.
I assume it was higher in the sky and had better cloudiness statistics. And I assume the weather in March is better in Mexico. And we’re now looking at the April weather for 2024 for the eclipse of the Sun that’s going to hit the Pacific coast at Mazatlán, where the weather statistics are that it’s clear 95, or higher, per cent of the time [Menzel was big on editing and insisted on "per cent" as two words], as opposed to northern Vermont, where weather is iffy in April. So, I’m prepared again to go to Mexico for the 2024 eclipse. So, I assume that Menzel chose the 1970 site, but it would have been chosen for the weather statistics. [My latest book, published August 2021, is the Peterson Field Guide to Weather, as co-author to Jay Anderson, who does the eclipse cloudiness statistics and meteorology; I brought him into the project after I offered a dozen years ago to update Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's then out-of-date Peterson Field Guide to the Atmosphere, and the surviving original author, John Day, died.]
Yes. I only ask that because that was an important eclipse for me, and this sort of is a segue back to more biographical questions for you. I met my future wife at the March 7, 1970, solar eclipse in Nantucket.
Well, lucky you.
Yup. The “Yale eclipse expedition,” we called it. And that’s where we started talking.
I met my future wife, Naomi, a week or two before the 1973 Christmas annular eclipse (with a comet near perihelion) in South America. So, I invited her to go along with me and a couple of other people, but she thought that was too soon to push that relationship, so she didn’t come to that. [Though we did get married about three months later and had our first baby 11 months after that.]
Ah, but that does raise the personal side. Here you are: you’re moving through Harvard. You’re about to go on a postdoc to Caltech. You’ve worked at Hanscom Field. You’ve been doing some terrific stuff. What about your personal life? What was happening to you personally, and how did you meet Naomi?
Well, I was certainly dating people when I was at Caltech. I mean, I should mention that the solar physicist Harold Zirin, Hal Zirin, came through Cambridge, and I had been working on fine structure in the chromosphere, and he had built this Big Bear Solar Observatory to do fine structure. So, he invited me to come to Caltech as a postdoc, which I accepted. I had applied to be a Miller fellow at Berkeley, and the next week in fact, I was offered the Miller fellowship, which arguably might have been better in that it was independent, but I had accepted the Caltech position, which of course was great by itself. So, I did go to Caltech for two years on that fellowship. But I was dating people. In fact, one time when I was in Caltech, the graduate students would sometimes go on The Dating Game on TV, and so I actually did win a round of The Dating Game. The prize offered for having won was an overnight trip with some starlet to San Francisco. And she actually didn’t particularly want to go, or at least not with me. So, I was able to take my then-girlfriend to…
Oh, that’s amazing.
…San Francisco, with a very fancy dinner there.
How did you meet Naomi?
Well, so I came to Williams College in 1972 after the two years at Caltech. Technically I started July 1. Practically, I had come a few months early to choose four students to go with me to the eclipse in Prince Edward Island that summer. So anyway, I was dating the young assistant professors at Williams, largely. And in particular, my second year there, one of them was assistant professor of psychology. And there was a visiting psychologist from Harvard who was giving a colloquium, and she and I were invited to a dinner for him and his wife afterward at somebody’s house. And when I came in the room, the speaker said, “Oh, Jay Pasachoff. I’ve always wanted to meet you,” because he’d been two years behind me at the Bronx High School of Science. And in any case, the wife went home and wrote Naomi that “I found the perfect guy for you. The only problem is, he’s dating somebody, but they don’t get along at all, so don’t worry, that’ll break up.”
Where was Naomi?
So, Naomi was just finishing her Ph.D. at Brandeis in English literature. So a month later or so, when I had indeed broken up with my girlfriend at Williams, I constructed a false excuse that I had to come into the Harvard Observatory, and I arranged to meet Naomi at her house in Somerville. And we’ve been together ever since. So, 47 years or so for our marriage. And that was a very good thing to do. And in fact, the people who introduced us were very nervous. “Are you sure you want to get married so soon?” Because we were married just a few months later. But these people who introduced us— we actually saw them just last weekend here. They stopped by.
What was her maiden name?
Her maiden name was Schwartz. Naomi Schwartz. And she had started at Barnard and then graduated from Radcliffe in the class of ’68. So, she’s four years younger than I am, five years behind in graduation year. We were married in 1974, and we had our older child, Eloise, in 1975, and our younger daughter Deborah in 1977. I was ready to get married and needed the right person. And fortunately, I found her.
Now, you were already a professor at Williams. Was there any question about what she would do at Williams? Would she be involved as well?
Yes, there was. Of course, I was an assistant professor with very little influence, and the obvious thing would be for her to work in the English department. But they were busy hiring each other’s spouses with no room for an astronomy spouse. So, Naomi actually taught at Skidmore College, which is 55 miles away, part-time for a couple of years, as well as at Berkshire Community College, about 25 miles away. And then the next year, there was a position that came available at RPI, which was only 35 miles away, though it was daily (and over a windy mountain roads), and she did that for a year. She was told that if the person who was on medical leave didn’t come back, for whatever reason — died, or retired — she could have the position. But then at the end of the year, the communications half of the joint communications English department at RPI took, or stole, that position. So then she taught off and on, some part-time things at Williams, but then in 1979, I was asked by World Book to write the Astronomy entry. At that time, I had already written my textbook, which we can talk about later.
And I gave her the textbook and said, “Why don’t you try writing this entry?” And she did. Then I remember in particular, in 1979, there was a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Montreal. At that time, we had applied to be authors of some junior high school science text for Scott, Foresman. So, she really then made a career, really, as a writer of first textbooks, and then biographies. The Scott, Foresman junior-high Earth Science and Physical Science books sold a million copies a year for a while (for which we got a very small percentage), and we did some elementary-school texts for them, too. I also did a couple of stand-alone junior-high textbooks for Prentice-Hall.
Right. And certainly you’ve done a lot of collaboration with her over the years.
But well, most of the books are hers alone. And some always say that I did this — the science, but she really learned the science and did her biographies. Marie Curie, for example.
Right. Right. Yes.
So, we were on sabbatical in 1993 or so, and she had already written some of these textbooks. And Owen Gingerich was just appointed editor of a series called “Portraits in Science” for Oxford University Press. He invited Naomi to do a biography in that series. That really started her off on the biographies, and after going through a few possibilities, like Margaret Meade, who was going to be controversial, she chose Marie Curie. And she’s actually been quite a Marie Curie expert and, in fact, has done the History of Science website for the American Institute of Physics, which she updated just last year, with some new stuff about Marie Curie. And then Owen had her do another one on Alexander Graham Bell, but the series wasn’t supposed to be written by one person, so she moved on to other biographies after that. But we’re very grateful to Owen for starting her off on that. (She also wrote a series on Basic Judaism for Young People and a couple of Judaism-related books, making use of her NYC religious-school background, given that she was already expert in writing textbooks.)
Let me ask about Owen. Did you have any contact with him when you were a student? Ever take his courses?
Yes to contact; no to courses. There was this quiet researcher doing stellar atmospheres research, and so I knew him in that context. There was a kind of solar group around Menzel, and Barbara Welther was in Owen’s circle. I don’t remember exactly where Owen’s office is. I have a mental image of it being on the top floor of Building A, above where that classroom was, but I’m not really sure. So, I knew him a little bit, but it was only when we were both interested in the history of astronomy and books, and he had been invited to the Copernicus symposium and came back and became prominent for his Copernicus expertise that I got more involved with him.
When I started lecturing at Williams, I started recording my lectures. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but after a year or so, a salesman for Saunders College Publishing came by, and I told them about this. And he arranged then, with his dynamic boss, the editor John Vondeling at Saunders College Publishing in Philadelphia, for me to be signed to do an astronomy textbook. And it turned out —
It started with your taped lectures?
Yes. And it turned out the taped lectures were useless for the textbook. They were too informal. They weren’t straightforward enough. So, I wound up doing the textbook itself from scratch on a typewriter — incidentally again on an IBM Selectric typewriter, though I’m a good typist myself (a skill I picked up in typing class in junior-high). And those books were being worked on in 1976-1977. I think the first copyright is 1977.
Yes. Contemporary Astronomy was 1977. And then in 1979, you did Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe.
Well, there was a leading book by Jastrow and Thompson at the time, and most of the books had the solar system first, and the idea was teachers normally talk about the solar system first. My basic idea was to get into what I consider to be more exciting things like black holes and pulsars first. So, Contemporary Astronomy started, well, with fewer orientation chapters, not as much as some other books, but then went into a collapsed star — stars and collapsed stars and then had the solar system after that. But the books were selling so well that the publisher was agreeable to having another series starting out with — as the title described, Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe, and starting out with the solar system before going into stars.
Yes. Now, I know that these books — they went through many, many, many editions and sold extremely well. But your textbook certainly came up as the one to replace George Abell, I think, was what people said.
I was honored by that. I had the pleasure of meeting George in a few places, including at an annular eclipse in the west coast of Australia north of Perth. And I was honored to be mentioned in the same category. George was very kind when I met him--though I had been nervous--but he said nice things about the quality of my books and I was very pleased. His books set the very high standard, but they did begin with a lot of chapters of introductory material including phases-of-the-Moon and a lot of such details. And so, my idea was to get into the modern astronomy earlier. (Much later on, I got into a debate with Phil Sadler, with papers back and forth in The Physics Teacher -- and someone once supplying boxing gloves for each of us when we were on stage together at a meeting, presumably the AAPT [American Association of Physics Teachers] -- about how much attention to be given to teaching about phases and seasons vs. contemporary things like pulsars.)
Understood. Yes. I was Abell’s student, undergraduate student, when he wrote that textbook. And I was one of the guinea pigs.
Well, lucky you.
Yes, it was quite an experience in the early ‘60s. Okay. We are now at a point where I would like to know how you characterize your postdoc at Caltech and how you got to Williams after Caltech. We haven’t really covered that.
Well, I did go out to California. There was a little bit of a pipeline. My Harvard-grad-school friend Deane Peterson had been a Carnegie fellow and had an apartment in South Pasadena that I was able to move into when he moved on. And I was able to start this very interesting two years with Hal Zirin (and my new friends and colleagues there, especially Peter Foukal, Spencer Weart, Arvind Bhatnagar, and Katsuo Tanaka, the latter two no longer with us). But as you can guess from other things we’ve talked about, my interests are always broader, or too broad. So, I did technically have the appointment at the Hale Observatories, which was Mount Wilson and Palomar. So, I made sure to apply for Mount Wilson time on the 100-inch, and then Palomar time on the 200-inch. And so, I was observing spectra with what are called Kodak “D” plates, with the yellow sensitivity; nobody had these observations before of stars with chromospheres. I had started working with Olin Wilson, who was a pioneer at the Mount Wilson Observatory, studying stellar chromospheres. So, I did all that observing and then went — I forget every how often (at least monthly)— to Big Bear Solar Observatory and stayed over in the headquarters' accommodations there, so I had a lot of interesting things to do during those couple of years.
Yes, you were the sole author on a paper about the calibration of the Wilson–Bappu effect on the Sun.
Did Wilson suggest that, or was that something you did spontaneously?
I’m sure I went to Wilson, but I don’t remember any details at that time. He was very senior at that time. I probably generated the idea.
Yes, he was a very, very nice guy. There’s another paper I wanted to ask you about. It takes us way back to 1970, and I just wanted to ask you about it. It’s a very different thing. When you were at Harvard, or just leaving Harvard, you wrote an essay in Nature on the belief in the supernatural among Harvard and West African university students.
That’s a very interesting question. How did I get into that? I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in the skeptics kind of thing. I’m a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry now. I read Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science years ago and really in high school — I teach a course occasionally in that also. And somehow, the idea came to do that survey. I had seen something published about the African students, and I thought we could do a comparison at Harvard. And I think I brought my sister and her then-boyfriend into the paper at the time.
And how was that received?
I don’t remember any special reception.
Okay. So, it didn’t lead to anything after that.
It was just about at that time that there was a lot of interest in the astronomy education area, or maybe that happened a lot later, but it was a question of: what did Harvard undergraduates believe in, in terms of astronomy? Like, what caused the seasons, etc.
Yes. So, I had a big debate with Phil Sadler at Harvard, whose "Private Universe" CD-movie showed Harvard students in caps and gowns at graduation flailing when asked what causes the phases of the Moon. Phil and I had a series of papers back and forth in The Physics Teacher. My claim was that too much time was spent on phases and seasons. The movie A Private Universe was brilliant, showing the Harvard students in their robes, not understanding phases.
But did we really want to take two weeks at the beginning of a semester to try to make them understand phases, or did we want to teach them about black holes? And so, I debated with Phil Sadler. [laughs] (See Link)
And once we were on stage at a meeting, and the maître d', the organizer, produced boxing gloves for us, when he called us up to the stage. So again, I’ve been a champion for the newest and most interesting modern research, in my writing and in my teaching.
[laughs] Well, that’s what directed my interest to this, because this happened a lot earlier than your — you know, the Private Universe stuff. But I was wondering if there was any connection.
Probably not. Just this general interest, and it all goes back to the book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
We’re past 4:00.
Can we resume another day?
Absolutely. But one final thing to cap this.
Okay, because I have a few minutes, but in fact, I’m going to meet a student in the shop about the equipment for the eclipse, in a few minutes.
You wrote a paper or an essay in 1971 in Nature on “six years for a Ph.D.”
That got me into some trouble, that paper.
So, maybe we could talk about that next time?
Okay. I’ll just say briefly, I was a nonresident tutor, as it’s called, at Harvard in Kirkland House while I was a graduate student. And it’s that relation I had had with students, I think that prompted Alex Dalgarno, when he was chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, to recommend me to Williams College for the position.
But in any case, to answer this immediate question, as a nonresident tutor, it was just kind of fun with the students. I didn’t put in a lot of time. I wasn’t resident. I was living with Ben Zuckerman in an apartment on Oxford Street. But at Commencement, we tutors would march up with the students, and I would join other tutors and even real faculty on the stage in what’s called the Tercentenary Theater, where the Harvard commencement is, outdoors in the Harvard Yard. And so, we would sit there for an hour or two with nothing special to do, except we were given a book with the [laughs] years and subjects of the Ph.D. theses, and the undergraduate years, of all the people getting Ph.D.’s. And so one year, I did statistics on [laughs] people who had gotten their degrees and how long it had taken. I just had that. And then it just happened that a few months later, we graduate students were called in on the carpet, so to speak, to the classroom in Building A of the Harvard Observatory and told we were taking too long to get our Ph.D.’s. So, I went back to my office and pulled out these statistics that said, “Look, you know, we’re not really taking too long. We’re just about kind of on the average. And I think there were a couple of faculty members who didn’t like to be shown up.
Who was complaining?
Well, I don’t know exactly.
But that was kind of fun, that I just had the data.
Yes. I mean, by then, Leo Goldberg was the director.
Yes. I was always very friendly with Leo Goldberg. I dated his daughter, in fact, at one point.
[laughs] Oh, wow. Okay. Well, okay. That finishes it for today. I will now download this. And then we could set up another session.
I think I’d rather have the other session first.
Okay. So, you’re thinking next week, or the week after?
Yes, whatever suits you.
[END PART 1]
[BEGIN PART 2]
This is the second session for the oral history interview with Jay Pasachoff. The date is September 15, 2021, and the interviewer is David DeVorkin. This is a virtual interview. So, you are now at Caltech, and you’re working with a number of people and getting into radio astronomy?
Well, we finished my Harvard one-year postdoc with the eclipse of 1970. And then, of course, that year I accepted Hal Zirin’s invitation to go to Caltech……where he had recently opened the Big Bear Solar Observatory.
And some of his research had been a high-resolution of the solar chromosphere, including these chromospheric spicules on which I had done my thesis. So, that was a perfect fit. Now, that being said, the week after I accepted Hal’s invitation, I was offered a Miller fellowship at Berkeley, and that would have been an independent fellowship, which I could have worked on whatever I wanted to. But (A), I did want to work on the fine structure of the solar chromosphere, and (B), I had accepted the invitation from Hal Zirin.
So, I went to Caltech. I took over an apartment that Deane Peterson had vacated, a colleague who had been a Carnegie Fellow. So, there was some steady traffic between Harvard and Pasadena at that time. The Carnegie Fellowship was not part of Caltech, but rather set up at the Mount Wilson offices at Santa Barbara Street. And then there were a few things that I was working on that I then tried to broaden, because I was a fellow of the Hale Observatories (the Mount Wilson Observatory is on Mt. Wilson but the Palomar Observatory is on Palomar Mountain--there is no such place as Mt. Palomar), and that gave me the possibility of observing with a 100-inch telescope and with the 200-inch telescope. Now, I had never used a big telescope before, so the idea of using a big astronomical telescope was very exciting to me. I started to work with a graduate student there, Elliot Lepler. And the two of us went up for my first observing run with the 100-inch, of which we were observing with D-plates, which were the helium-line and sodium-line sensitive (longer wavelengths than the blue sensitivity of traditional photographic plates) — yellow-sensitive photographic plates to look at stellar chromospheres, a project that I started discussing with Olin Wilson.
Right. Okay, so this was your first, you might say, introduction to stellar astronomy?
Were you thinking about your career, or just reaching out, trying new things?
No, I was just having fun. I was not planning a career. I’m now looking back 50 years, and you’re asking about it, but I certainly was not looking forward 50 years at the time. So anyway, Elliot ultimately became a doctor. He didn’t finish his Ph.D. at Caltech, and we’ve seen him over the years — Elliot and I went up early in the day to be ready for the 100-inch telescope time, and so I thought we’d go over to one of the solar towers, and I’d show him around. And we got into the tower. I forget who the person in charge was at the time. But in any case, we were given authorization to go down to see the actual spectrograph, which is in a deep pit many stories down. So, we went there, and we went ’round and ’round on the spiral staircase, and when we got to the bottom, I felt a sharp pain in my knee. And you know what an electric box is in your house, where there’s a flange for the fuses, and it’s usually against the wall, so the flange is against the wall, with the things buried at some depth. But here, the box was just stuck on the wall as you went down, with the flange a couple of inches out. And I cut my knee open to the bone…
…on the sharp edge of the box. And I wound up being taken down to the hospital in Pasadena. So, I missed my first observing run. Elliot did the run by himself. I limped around for months.
But anyway, I did pursue and persist, and eventually I had other observing runs at the 100-inch, and then I eventually got some observing time similarly with D-plates and the Coudé Spectrograph at the 200-inch, which of course was tremendously exciting for an enthusiast like me. And I did those observing runs, and in fact, I still — probably illegally — have some of the 200-inch plates on a shelf in my office here at Williams College. But I still put them to good use, showing them to some students just a few weeks ago, to show the size of the image of the negative emission spectra — the negative lines and the emission from the iron wavelength core and all kinds of things that they don’t know about these days.
Right. You were also branching out into radio observations.
Well, remember that in my last year of graduate school, I had worked at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory and gotten permission to use the big radio telescope. Jules Aarons was the solar astronomer in charge of the branch, but he was able to give me leave to work on this other project. (He turned out to have also been a major photographer from his post-WWII time in Europe and he had exhibitions, one of which Naomi and I attended decades later, and we even went to his funeral.) I worked with John Castelli ( Radio Spectra and Related Observations of a Solar Active Region in July 1968). Link )
…and Don Guidice, who were on the staff there, and we observed some spectral lines together with Ed Lilley. My apartment-mate had been Ben Zuckerman, now a professor emeritus at UCLA, and he was working with Dave Buhl, Pat Palmer, and Lew Snyder, and they had discovered some important interstellar molecules, starting with formaldehyde. So, we did a search with them for deuterated molecules.
I’m thinking about how you continued it at Caltech. Were you looking at all of these different options for your career, or just as you said, having fun?
No, just having fun. So when I got to Caltech — and remember, there was a year in between. I guess I had done the eclipse in between, and I know in December 1969, I went to a meeting (AAS131) of the American Astronomical Society in New York. I was the first author on a paper with deuterated molecules. And my co-authors sat in the front row making faces at me, trying to break me up while I was giving the paper, which of course, was a very grown-up thing to do. But anyway, I went to Caltech, and I spoke to Willie Fowler, as he was universally known — Professor William A. Fowler, who was important in nucleosynthesis research. He had run the nuclear physics program at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Lab (link to interview with Fowler). I had known him a little bit and known his daughter, Martha (now Martha Schoenemann, with whom Naomi and I are still in touch), who had been a Radcliffe student back in Cambridge. And in any case, Willie asked me, when he somehow learned that I had these radio astronomy techniques: could I distinguish between the interstellar deuterium ratio — deuterium to ordinary hydrogen — from the Earth’s oceans, from the ratio in the Earth’s oceans?
And so, I looked into that, and there were, of course, radio telescopes at Caltech which were in the Owens Valley. And the principal assistant professor running those, I involved, and also a co-author of my age group, Diego Cesarsky, who with his wife, Catherine, had been at Harvard with me. They had come a couple of years later. And so, with assistant professor Al Moffet — who really knew what he was doing—Diego and I figured out how to work with the long-wavelength 40-meter-diameter radio telescope at the Owens Valley. We started looking for interstellar deuterium. It turns out that there is a spin-flip line at 92 centimeters. It’s the analogue of the 21-centimeter line. But the 92-centimeters is four times or more longer, so everything is a little more diffuse. The field of view is broader. There’s a lot more noise that comes in, but we did go to the Owens Valley very regularly. I will take a moment to pause to say that most unfortunately, Diego died a couple of months ago. I’m in touch with Catherine, most recently yesterday, about a memorial that she is arranging for him next week in Paris, though I’m not going to go to Paris for it. Had we not had COVID in the world, maybe I would have gone to Paris for the memorial. [Catherine ran a memorial program online recently. She was director general of the European Southern Observatory (1999–2007). In 2017, she became Chairman of the Board of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project and can potentially connect me with the new site director given that I can potentially visit the Western Australia remote site in 2023 en route to the total solar eclipse in Exmouth, at the extreme northwest point of Australia.]
Let me ask: what was your role? I mean, you’re working in teams now. What did you add to each of these teams?
Well, possibly very little. I provided the spark, you might say.
Well, the spark, or were you the theory side, or were you learning observational techniques, or a little of all of it?
Well, a little of all of it. And I certainly participated in the observations and data reduction, but it was really my project that I involved Al and Diego to work on.
So, it was a long observing run at the telescope at the Owens Valley. The data were coming down in punch cards, so there were a lot of punch cards, and there was some interference, so we threw out the cards that had the interference on them, so we’d have only a signal. And we observed for at least a whole summer, for three months or so. And we had a paper in the Astrophysical Journal with a three-sigma result— which we didn’t call a detection. We were suspicious at three sigma. So, that is actually the observation that would have made my professional career, had we been able to confirm that. But we did give that result at the Sixth Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, and there was an ApJ paper, and then after I came to Williams, I went back the next summer with a student or two, and we observed another three months, though we did not improve the result. The result went away.
The paper that you wrote with Cesarsky and Moffet was titled “Possible Detection.”
Well, we were accurate.
And it turned out not to be accurate. I did write a Scientific American article with Willie Fowler or really, I wrote it, and got his permission to put his name on it.
He once said, “That was the best article I never ever wrote.” [Direct quote authenticated by Naomi, who reports that she was listening.]
Oh, that’s marvelous. Did he say that to you, or in print somewhere?
No, just to me, and Naomi, I think. He was a wonderful person. So, in any case, in that year, I produced some work on the fine structure of the chromosphere, and I did the radio astronomy work. And then I was sitting in my office at Caltech, and I got a handwritten letter, I remember, from Alexander Dalgarno, who was the chairman of the — to use the word that we don’t use anymore — the chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard. He was not somebody I had worked with particularly.
He’s an aeronomist. [That subspecialty is listed along with astrophysical specialties for him at this link]
Well, and I remember when he came from Ireland, he was kind of a latecomer. I was already ensconced in the Harvard Observatory. I remember these newcomers came in: Bill Liller, Leo Goldberg, eventually Alex Dalgarno. (Alex may even have usurped the parking place right outside Building A where Donald Menzel had parked his old Mercedes for years.) And in any case, I had written an article for Astronomy magazine — actually Volume 1, Number 1 — on the Sun, which I actually cited this year when I did a series of three articles for Astronomy magazine on the most recent solar eclipses. And one of those biographical squibs, I had them put something like, “Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College, has seen 73 solar eclipses starting with his freshman year of college. He is Chair of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Eclipses, and has been writing about the Sun for Astronomy Magazine since volume 1 number 1. He is the author of the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets. www.solarcorona.com.” [Menzel had started that Peterson Field Guide, and after he died, I took it over: the second edition as Menzel and Pasachoff; the third edition as Pasachoff and Menzel; and the current fourth edition under my own name, so far with 17 printings.] Anyway — I had been a Harvard undergraduate, so I knew about the Harvard Houses, and I was able to get an appointment as a non-resident tutor at a different House [Kirkland] from my undergraduate House [Quincy], so I had no real connection there. But I liked to go down for lunch and interaction.
Oh, what was that about lunch?
I liked to go down for the weekly lunch of the tutors and meet people from different fields. And then there had been an [art] contest for filling in some outlined space in the paneling behind the dining hall serving tables. I went and bought a canvas, six feet wide. I had it cut to fit exactly two and a half feet high, the exact size and shape of the wainscoating, and I had always wanted, from my growing up in New York, admiring the color-field paintings at the Museum of Modern Art — I always wanted to do an all-blue painting. So then, I bought some oil point, in the one color, and a thin brush, and painted in the basement of Kirkland House where there were some easels. I finished that painting, which I saw most recently in my garage here in Williamstown yesterday, although it is now torn in various places. And I chickened out at the very end. I put a yellow dot somewhere. It couldn’t be all blue. But in any case, I did not win. However, a year or two later, when I was at Caltech, my involvement with undergraduates at Kirkland House and my Astronomy Magazine popular article things may have been what led Alex Dalgarno to think of me, because I was two years out. And so, he had two years of graduate students to think about getting jobs for. And I sort of always thought it was pretty random, and maybe this was the cause. But I read in his obituary a couple of years ago that he prided himself in particular on careful placement of the graduates. So, I’m sure he did put more thought to recommending me to Williams College than I had assumed for many years. I’m very grateful to him. Anyway, I got a handwritten letter from Alex Dalgarno in the end of September one year, 1971, saying there was a job at Williams College, and could he put my name forward for it? Of course, there’s only one answer to that, and I responded, “Of course.” Fortunately, it turned out that I was going back to New York. I had kind of missed the leaves and the fall season, and I had arranged to go back on Columbus Day weekend to see my parents and sister, Nancy. And I wrote Williams not only that I was glad to apply, but also that I would be in New York the next weekend.
So, exactly what might have happened from that comment did happen. When I got to New York, I got a telephone call from one of the Williams professors, David Park, a distinguished professor of physics — of quantum mechanics —saying they weren’t organized for the faculty search, but since I was in New York, why didn’t I come up? Could I come up on Sunday? And of course I could, so I went up on Sunday. And with that theme, on Monday they kept saying, “Well, we’re not organized, but since you’re here, why don’t you talk to —” and I wound up talking to the lone astronomer, Ted Mehlin, and all the physics faculty. And, “Well, we’re not organized, but we have this Committee on Appointments and Promotions, and they’ll be glad to see you this afternoon.” So I went over there, and the president of Williams College, who was named Jack Sawyer, said, “Tell me. Have you ever seen snow?” Clearly, he was not prepared on my file, because I answered that I had been, in fact, 11 years at Harvard. But then he asked a little bit more about Harvard, and heard that I had been a nonresident tutor at Kirkland House, and he asked whether a certain person, Arthur Smithies (a professor of economics) was still the Master there, and I answered yes. And he said, “Oh, he was my Ph.D. thesis advisor. I’ll call him.” So, it turns out that he called the Master of Kirkland House, who apparently responded (at least in part), “Oh, yes. Jay got along with the students and fit right in. And there was an art contest, and he even did a painting for the dining hall in the student contest.” So, I owe my job at Williams College (in which I am now teaching for the 50th year), I guess, to my doing a color field painting in the basement of Kirkland House.
Do you have an image of that painting?
I could supply you an image of the painting. If I’d known how important it would be to me, I would have taken more care with it, but I put it on a moving truck to go to California, and then eventually put it on a moving truck to go back. And so, it is torn in various places.
But you kept it.
Oh, yes. It’s standing up in my garage. I saw it there yesterday. I was wondering yesterday if I could cut off the top half and remount it. That could really — I could really hang it. So anyway, yes. So eventually a few months later, I got a call from the Dean of the Faculty, Dudley Bahlman, at Williams College, who offered me the position, which I was glad to accept. But he offered me a few hundred dollars for moving, and I spontaneously laughed at that, because I had accumulated so many books and papers and files that that was nowhere near enough. And I didn’t know that I was bargaining at that point. Anyway, they raised the moving allowance, and unfortunately, my predecessor at Williams, Ted Mehlin, had a heart attack and died around Christmas time. So I offered, in fact, to come six months early. But they said, “Well, this is all in progress. We’ll get through the year and just come July 1 as planned.” And so, I did my last year at Caltech, and I worked especially with Peter Foukal. And another postdoc there, Spencer Weart — whom you know very well since he was long-time head of the AIP's Center for the History of Physics – had overlapped with me at the beginning of my Caltech appointment before he went on for a second Ph.D. in the history of science. And I’m in touch with Spencer, most recently a week or two ago, on "nuclear fear," the title of one of his books. And we both think that more nuclear power would be good for the power grid, and he’s really the expert on that. But anyway, I did the last year at Caltech. A young Japanese astronomer named Katsuo Tanaka came, and he was very active and lively. And with his wife, Chisako, we went to Japanese restaurants, which were rare at the time, in LA and in Pasadena, and we had a good time, all of us, as postdocs at Caltech. Most unfortunately, when Katsuo went back to Japan a year or so after I did, they didn’t have all the infrastructure that we have in the United States for testing things. So, he was actually physically testing an X-ray satellite, as I understand it — a Japanese X-ray satellite that he was working on, and some interlock had disappeared, and he was irradiated in the X-ray chamber.
And he came down, about ten years later, with a very unstable leukemia, and he died young. So, that was a sad story. He was the next generation, I was told, of Japanese solar astronomy. We’re still in touch with Chisako and the daughters (Kaoru and Sanaye), and most recently, Naomi and I came through Tokyo on the way back from the 2019 annular eclipse in India, and we were able to have lunch at our hotel with Chisako Tanaka and one of the daughters and Eijiro Hiei, who was a leading chromospheric Japanese astronomer, my predecessor as Chair of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Solar Eclipses. I'm glad that I still have all these friends and connections from the postdoctoral years.
One more unfortunate event was that a couple of weeks before I was to leave Big Bear/Caltech (I was already on the Williams Faculty technically), I went away for the weekend with my then girlfriend. And it was then that the biggest set of solar flares in years went off--and Katsuo observed them wonderfully with imaging and spectroscopy at Big Bear. His work on those flares is even mentioned in his obituary (by Hal Zirin: Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society; vol. 23, no. 4, p. 1494-1495 Bibliographic Code: 1991BAAS...23.1494Z). But I missed them!
I’m going to mention one more name in that period — the resident observer was Arvind Bhatnagar, and he was resident at Big Bear with his wife, Chitra, and was really in charge of revising the equipment and making some observations. So, we worked together too, and I saw them in India since. One of the daughters is in Washington, D.C., and we see her from time to time there.
Okay. Now, you’re going from research institutions, very strong ones, to a teaching job, essentially. Did you talk to them about what the fraction of time you would be doing teaching, and if it was still possible to do research?
Well, there you’re showing your own prejudice against colleges like Williams College, in which we are supposed to be good teachers, but we’re also supposed to do good research. And every once in a while, I see some statistics in a presentation that Williams has had more NSF grants than other so-called undergraduate institutions. And just yesterday, somebody wrote me that Williams College was number one again on the U.S. News and World Report —
That’s fine, but did you know it at the time? In other words, you’re making a major career decision.
Yes. Well, I knew they were doing good research, the people on the faculty. I knew some with good reputations, such as Professor Park, and I knew that the research projects were important. And the main thing is to work with the students.
To work with students. Yes.
Yes. So, the research is very much encouraged, and to work on research with students.
Now, where did the desire to work with students come from? Had you always had this feeling that you wanted to teach, or was this something new?
Well, in some sense, it goes back to my being a nonresident tutor at Kirkland House. So, this was not a thought-through thing. It just seemed like a good thing to do.
It was something you enjoyed?
Yes. So for example, my job at Williams College was to begin technically on July 1 of 1972, but on July 10, there was to be a total eclipse of the Sun visible from Prince Edward Island, on which I was going to work with Menzel again. And so, I actually went on the preceding spring break to Williams and selected four undergraduates to come and work with me that summer on Prince Edward Island. (Dan Stinebring, a pulsar astronomer now retired from Oberlin; Fred Harris, then a senior; Don Cooke, who was director of the Fels planetarium at the Franklin Institute and who then went into non-profit high-level supervision; and Rob Duisberg, another senior. 1972 Williams College Solar Eclipse Expedition) So, I began working with the fine undergraduates at Williams College even before I started officially there. And then we organized the big eclipse in Africa in 1973. We had NSF support, and we had National Geographic support. [Dan Stinebring, a pulsar astronomer now retired from Oberlin; Stu Vogel, a professor at U Maryland; Don Cooke, who was director of the Fels planetarium at the Franklin Institute and who then went into non-profit high-level positions; and Rob Duisberg.) I sent Don Cooke with Menzel to Mauritania and took Dan Stinebring, Stu Vogel, and Dan Muzyka (who got an astronomy degree later but who became a Business School dean) with me to Kenya. See a brief video of the eclipse and images from the site with the students ]
I see. That’s very interesting. So, how did you make the move, physically?
Physically? In a moving truck, for all my belongings. And I had a car by that time, and I think I already had my license plate, “PULSAR,” in a California plate, and I drove it cross-country--or maybe I flew and had my car transported. If I did, that was the only time that I drove across country — well, aside from the time I drove back from New Mexico after I was doing my thesis results.
And I came into Williamstown, and as I arrived in Williamstown, I went by the high school, and somebody was hitchhiking, so I picked up a high school student. And I was looking over at him as we drove a mile ahead, and I got a speeding ticket for going more than 35 miles an hour!
[laughs] So, that was your first experience in Williamstown.
Yes, that was my arrival at Williamstown as a professor.
Ah, very good. You had this freedom to be able to attend and take your students to eclipses, so was there a time when you decided that you’d made the right choice? Or was there any point where you started wondering — well, you may not have made the right choice?
Well, I’m very big on the independence of astronomy, and that astronomy is separate from physics, so I did have a separate astronomy department. It was a department with one faculty member, and I was the director of the observatory. And I did like the history. I knew I was only the fifth director since the Hopkins Observatory at Williams was founded by Professor Hopkins in 1836. So, that looked like a position with some longevity. And in fact, I got some teaching credit as the chair of the department, so I always taught just one course in the fall and — well, one introductory course in the fall, one introductory course in the spring, and one seminar usually in the spring, whereas other people in other departments had heavier teaching loads. But I had the extra time available to work with students on research projects.
Okay. Did you establish the astronomy department, or was it already established?
The astronomy department was established by Professor Albert Hopkins in 1836. I can refer you to an article that I did write in the Journal for the History and Heritage of Astronomy…which, again, superseded an article that my predecessor, Professor Mehlin, had written in the Journal for the History of Astronomy. (1998, "Williams College's Hopkins Observatory: The Oldest Extant Observatory in the United States," Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 1 (1), 61-78. 1998JAHH....1...61P)
When the Hopkins Observatory was built by Prof. Hopkins and his students in 1836-8 (we no longer ask our students to do building construction), the lower floor was given a domed ceiling. I assume they pasted stars on it, a primitive planetarium. In 1963, before I came to Williams, a Spitz A3P planetarium was installed, and was in use for decades. But by the 1990s, it was a 40-year-old piece of scientific apparatus, out of date. After years of requesting budgets, the then president of Williams, Morty Schapiro, allocated almost half a million dollars for a new planetarium. (I later saw that it came from a Faculty Development Fund he could control.) I discussed the then current types of planetaria with various planetarium people around the country, including those at the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, where I arguably got my astronomical beginning admiring their Zeiss opto-mechanical planetarium--that is, with actual points being projected on the dome. They then had a digital planetarium--which gave the "blobby" summary for star images--and I wanted a Zeiss! If they were going to buy me a Zeiss after decades past my youth, why not!
So the Zeiss (a ZKP3/B, now upgraded to ZKP3/C) was arranged, for about $400,000 including a 10-year service contract with routine service every other year. It was installed in 2005, with a plaque including my name on its base. We are now into the second 10-year service contract, with a Zeiss technician from Jena, Germany, visiting here last month as I write, in October. I'm still so pleased with it, and with its pinpoint star images.
We used perhaps 10% of the money to get a digital projector for a horizontal semi hemisphere in one of the two wings of the Observatory, from a small company called AnsibleTech, from which the technical person is now in Williamstown fitting a second generation with a new 4K projector (pending new Williams College funds). The Ansible's screen (based on software from the main digital planetarium company, Evans & Sutherland, for which he used to work) can zoom around the solar system, out through the 2dF galaxy catalogue, and out to the background radiation! Though the capacity of the side room is only about a dozen, compared with 35 for the main dome, it is a wonderful capability.
So, I feel a big responsibility for the history and heritage of astronomy at Williams College--and maybe that helped lead into my later interest in rare books. Prof. Hopkins got Trustees' authorization in 1832 to go to England in 1834. We still have three items that he brought back then--a Troughton & Simms Meridian Transit (now on a wall in our west wing), a Molyneaux and Cope "Regulator" (which turned out to be a grandfather clock with a mercury jar at the end of the pendulum, so the mercury could expand to compensate for the pendulum's length expanding with temperature, providing the regulated timekeeping of 1834, and a Troughton & Simms meter rule (and metrology was big at the time: see, for example). They are all on display in our Mehlin Museum of Astronomy, designed in the wings of our Old Hopkins Observatory by the architecture son of my predecessor, soon after I arrived in 1972 (and Naomi and I were in touch with the widow for years.) An 1876 Repsold Meridian Transit is the largest and most impressive piece of apparatus now on display; it had been in a temporary supplemental 19th-century observatory building across town, now no longer standing.
So, I am a planetarium director, too (of the Milham Planetarium and the Mehlin Museum of Astronomy). Decades later, when the Hayden in New York put in its new digital projector, I reviewed the new building and criticized the show in Science Magazine for the all-too-brief time allotted to the sky projector—and I was then invited to be on the committee for the successful renovation of the exhibits at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, on which I served for a few years.
Yes. So, now, as of 1972 at Williams, you are set upon a career. Did you feel that way, that you were starting a career there?
Well, there was still some problem with some of the physicists. So, my claim is that astronomy is a discipline, and we use whatever physics or geology or chemistry or biology that we need to do our astronomy, whereas the physicists tend to look down on astronomy. And I think they wanted to glom onto my enrollments in Astronomy 101, which actually ballooned to 200 the second year I was there. And one of the physicists in particular was, I thought, antagonistic. So in fact — and I even skipped the total solar eclipse in Australia in 1976, because I was up for tenure, which I didn’t officially have, on the grounds that that was not a good fall to be away. (That was the last total solar eclipse I missed until the COVID-sequestration for the December 2020 eclipse, when Williams College wouldn't let me officially travel or use even my grant funds, and MIT wouldn't let my colleague Mike Person travel for our mutual "coronal oscillation experiment.") And in any case, I had negotiated a year of credit for having been a postdoc for three years in coming up for tenure in astronomy, and I knew I had this one antagonist.
I was called in to the Dean of Faculty, and the dean said, “Well, Jay, we can’t promote you. We know we have an agreement. You have to decide now, but I have to tell you that if we were to decide now, it would be negative. But if you take another year, we can do it for another year, mostly.” So, of course, I accepted another year, and the dean said, “And we’d like to combine the physics and the astronomy department. Do you agree to that?” And I said, “Of course you know that I don’t. I’m very strongly opposed to that.” And he said, “Well, in that case, I should tell you that we did it already.” So in any case, I stayed another year. Obviously, I was given tenure. Eventually, I had more visiting from the senior faculty and more documents, et cetera, and it took me a few years to wrestle free for the astronomy department from the physics department, but we did get it separated again after three or four years.
So it was worth it to you to fight, to stay at Williams.
And during this time, by the mid ’70s, of course, you’re doing a lot of educational publications. You’re really beginning to develop textbooks and write papers on education. This was a direct result of your being at Williams, or an expression of deeper interest?
No, I think an expression of deeper interest. It’s more that Williams turned out to be a good place for me to be than that they wanted anything specific. They didn’t want anything specific of me. I just tend to get involved in organizations and have some often-minor roles in the organization. So, I got involved in some education-related things, such as the Commission on Education of the International Astronomical Union. And I worked my way up in there, especially with John Percy, who was ahead of me, and I wound up as the head of that IAU Commission, for example. And I’m very proud of a couple of education-related prizes that I have gotten. Eventually, the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society, the big one, of course, and then a big prize in France and a prize from the American Institute of Physics from the physics teachers, I guess…
…a lectureship there. [2017 Richtmyer Memorial Lecture Award, American Association of Physics Teachers] And then in 2019, the Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. And that gala they had in San Francisco happened to be the same weekend as the transit of Mercury that I had arranged to observe from Big Bear. So, my wife and I were able to go to San Francisco and have a nice dinner there with friends and colleagues, and especially with Andy Fraknoi, whom I’d known a long time. But then we flew right away to southern California and drove to Big Bear, where I had a student and colleagues already in position there, and we observed the transit of Mercury of November 11, 2019, which is the last transit of Mercury we’ll have till 2032.
Did you have a purpose to observe the transit of Mercury, other than simply an experience?
Yes. Well, I started earlier on in 2004, when there was a transit of Venus, and I think I learned about it from a colleague, John Seiradakis, at one of those education meetings that we wound up at. We were having dinner in La Plaka, and there was a transit of Venus coming up that could be observed from Greece. So, I took four students to Greece for that transit and got involved in the history. And as you probably know, it was Edmond Halley who, in 1715, wrote about the idea that you could find the distance to the Sun from the Earth by measuring the time of transits of Venus. But for full accuracy, it turns out that he needed to make the measurement of the time of Venus entering or leaving the Sun to about a second of time — and it turns out that there was something called the “black drop effect”….
…that’s known through history, that actually blurred that time out to about a minute. So, the ability to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun — which, of course, was a very important thing to do in the 18th and 19th century — was dependent on this black drop effect. And I started working especially with Glenn Schneider from the University of Arizona, and we made careful measurements with our new equipment of the transit of Venus. And well, just jumping ahead, we had a good group of students and colleagues at Haleakala for the 2012 transit of Venus. So in any case, we have some historical/scientific published papers (including historical ones with Bill Sheehan) analyzing the black drop effect and showing how it’s involved as an optical effect. In fact, it was not the 18th-century discovery of the atmosphere of Venus as had been advanced, and in fact, as one still sees that stated incorrectly in various textbooks.
When you go on these expeditions for transits and for eclipses, you always bring in the fact that you took students with you. How did you see this as a teaching experience? Was this something you consciously did?
Well, I don’t really know how to answer that. I’m just used to taking students with me whenever I can.
But while you were there, what was their role?
Oh, yes, they were participating. Obviously, they had learned the history while we were doing this, but they also helped run the equipment, and they prepared in advance by studying what we were going to do and helping with the equipment, just as I have two students ready to go with me to Chile for the flight near Antarctica for the total solar eclipse that’s coming up on December 4.
The reason I bring this up is because you had a few papers on the Piaget method and others, looking into, you might say, the theory of improving methods of teaching and getting concepts across. Was this real-life kind of experience part of that effort for you to search out the best ways to get students involved and excited?
No, I think that’s giving me more credit than I deserve for being philosophical about involving students. I was just involving students because I enjoyed teaching them about what was going on and seeing how they responded to the learning. So now that you mention Piaget, those were just peripheral.
They were peripheral? Okay. I’m looking at the wide range of things that you contributed writings to. I mean, you read every book there was. You did tons of book reviews. You reviewed the current journals. This is just an enormous amount of work, and you taught on top of that. You organized the expeditions. This is tremendous output.
Well, I’m glad that I impressed somebody as prestigious as you. Thank you.
Yes, but how did you do it? What was the rest of your life like — your life with Naomi?
Oh, no, we certainly had an interesting life here in Williamstown. Naomi did her variety of books and teaching and other intellectual works. I met her just when she was defending her Ph.D. in English literature at Brandeis, following her Radcliffe A.B., her Columbia M.A., her employment on textbooks at Houghton Mifflin and drafting a psychology textbook with a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so she did a variety of teaching and eventually writing on her own. We had two daughters: the first, the year after we were married (apparently conceived in Australia during our two-plus month belated honeymoon], and the second, two years later. So, we certainly had a family (now with five grandchildren). Also, one of my physics predecessors who chaired the physics department, with whom I had a bit of a rivalry of course, though he was more senior, Stuart Crampton, was an excellent researcher. We had a lot of good researchers in the science departments. And he would take a sabbatical — well, half a sabbatical — after every three years (instead of a full sabbatical after each six years) and then link that with a half-year leave of absence, usually supported by some NSF grant. So, he had the practice of going away to do research every fourth year. And I was able to adopt that tradition, so my family — Naomi and Eloise and Deborah and I — would go away on sabbatical or associated leave every fourth year, so in one sense, you could say we were not limited to Williamstown and had a couple of sabbaticals first at the University of Hawaii, where I was working especially with Don Landman on some details of the solar atmosphere.
And I continued that relationship with the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. One year, I taught an Astronomy 101 equivalent course. I forget the exact number of the course, but basically, it was a research sabbatical, and I had a couple of sabbaticals at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And then one year — well, one semester —we went to Paris to l'Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, where I had worked as a student with Evry Schatzman and Jean-Claude Pecker of l'Observatoire de Paris à Meudon (later General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union) arranged by David Layzer, and we lived in Paris. (Schatzman and Pecker had published in 1959 a wonderful Astrophysique Générale book, in French, still a wide red presence on one of my bookshelves.) [We have just inherited, thanks to the former IAU-Gen-Sec Thierry Montmerle, two of Jean-Claude's oil paintings done during his retirement (he died in 2020, and Naomi and I had a wonderful lunch with him and his then 90-year-old solar-astronomer girlfriend at a café near the College de France on rue des Écoles when he was also in his 90s), though they are on hold for us at my cousin's house in Paris pending our next visit there, when we would bring them home.] And our two daughters went to the equivalent of about junior high school at that time--at the École Active Bilingue, more recently also the alma mater of the current American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.
And then John Bahcall, whom you knew very well, invited me to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he was in charge of the 1990 decadal report for the National Academy of Sciences, and I was to help him a bit with the education aspects of that. So, Naomi and I went gladly to Princeton for the year, and we had one daughter in John Witherspoon Middle School, and one daughter in Princeton High School in that year. And another visitor that year working on the project was Chas Beichman from Caltech, head of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute there. Chas and Susie have been among our friends since then.
I had these techniques of looking at the Sun, and I had some good equipment for looking at the Sun, and a scientist named Jim Ionson had a new research paper about a new method of heating the solar corona, which as you know is millions of degrees, but you also perhaps know that the question of how it got to be a million degrees is unsolved — or, another way I like to say it is, it’s been solved, and there are currently 17 different papers solving it in 17 different ways. There are people working on the heating of the solar corona theoretically and observationally, and I set up to have some apparatus to observe the solar corona — to observe loops at the edge of the Sun and the solar corona at high cadence — sub-second cadence, a few hertz, because Ionson’s idea was that the heating could be surface Alfvén waves, which would have a much shorter period than the body Alfvén waves that would take tens of seconds. So, we set up that apparatus, and we’ve been working on related experiments ever since. We have narrow-band filters in the so-called coronal green line and coronal red line from 13-times-ionized iron and 9-times-ionized iron, which have to be close to a million degrees or more to be present. So, I was working on that.
Then I worked with one of my graduate school colleagues from our Harvard years, Jim Elliot, who as a Cornell professor had discovered the rings of Neptune and went on to make further studies of what we call occultations. And when he moved to MIT, we realized that I had apparatus for observing the solar corona that was similar to his apparatus for observing occultations of stars by objects in the outer solar system. And so, we agreed to team up, and we made some observations together. So, for example, there was an occultation that I attempted to observe in 1983 with my apparatus from the Bosscha Observatory in Bandung, with its historic 24" refractor. The week after setting up the Indonesia observations, we had used the same apparatus with a filter at a significant coronal wavelength for an eclipse of the Sun, from the other end of Java. Jim himself was probably in Hawaii. So in any case, we had a bunch of joint papers. And then in around 2002, there was a big occultation of Pluto, to be observed from Hawaii, and Jim had arranged half a dozen telescopes on Mauna Kea, and I was assigned the 2.2-meter telescope with my eclipse equipment without the filters, and he had other people on the other telescopes. And we had very successful observations. I’d been working with a senior colleague at Williams College then, Bryce Babcock, who was our staff physicist. He didn’t have a professorial appointment. He did teach some electronics and other courses, but he worked with me for a number of years on equipment aspects of our expeditions. And we got very successful observations from Hawaii, and the whole set of things was very successful.
So at that point, Jim and I merged our groups to a certain extent and applied to NASA for a set of equipment of frame-transfer CCDs (a special type of CCD with essentially no dead time in readout)— with three of the new fancier cameras for MIT and three for Williams College. We called those “POETS,” which stands for “Portable Occultation Eclipse and Transit System.” And obviously, we were using it for occultations from his point of view, but we used it for eclipses from my point of view, and we observed the transit of Venus.
So we actually still have that apparatus. We’re just phasing it out now in favor of some new CMOS devices for eclipses. But I’ve been integrated with the MIT group, which in particular involved Mike Person. Unfortunately, Jim died too young, and so Mike is the person in place at MIT, but we’ve done various occultations together. Amanda Sickafoose was in that group, and she went off to South Africa.
In building POETS, how would you describe your role in the design of this fascinating combination instrument?
Supervisory. And there’s one more Amanda who’s crucial to the MIT team, Amanda Bosh who was at MIT and is now out at the Lowell Observatory. So, that’s the group I’ve been working with. And then that technique led me to be included in an expedition from Southwest Research Institute, SwRI, to Mendoza, Argentina, to try to pinpoint the position of what was then called Ultima Thule, the object out beyond Pluto, so as to direct the New Horizons spacecraft. As you may know, the object has been given the official name of Arrokoth now.
But I was one of a team of about 60 people who went to South America, and we were given equipment by NASA though SwRI (Southwest Research Institute, from their astronomy section that is based in Boulder). They had bought — I forget exactly how many — half a dozen particular setups of CCDs with telescopes on mounts. The requisite number was at six or so white pickup trucks that they had reserved, each with its open carrying capacity filled with the whole equipment setup. And I arranged to have with me and my team my student Muzhou Lu, from the class of ’13 at Williams College, who had graduated and gone on to get an aerospace engineering degree at Boulder (summering twice on Antarctica as part of his degree: deployed for two summer seasons at McMurdo 2015-16 and 17-18 for 2 and 5 months, respectively.) and is now a flight engineer at SpaceX. So, he and I went out from the hotel in our little white truck, with me driving stick-shift. The first night, we went to a public park and just practiced. Everybody did, in the same place. But then we were sent out in the field, and basically made a picket fence that was 50 miles or something long. And every half a dozen kilometers, there would be one of these telescope setups. And I said at one point, “Don’t tell me we’re just going to go by the side of the road!” But essentially, that’s what it was, just have a north-south picket fence. Muzhou and I actually found an vineyard that we were able to go to with our equipment with a couple of other people. And everything worked; all the stations got clear weather. And half a dozen of the stations detected — well actually, it was just off the edge for the first of the pair of expeditions, and then I didn’t go back the next year. (It was just at the end of the semester or something, or the beginning of the semester or something.) And then they did pinpoint it, and as you know, the spacecraft, as a result, went very close and got beautiful observations of what we now call Arrokoth.
So, that’s kind of an enlargement. So, the kind of theme you’re talking about: how did I get from studying the solar chromosphere at an eclipse to measuring an object in the solar system out beyond Pluto?
With my solar-system interest, I was very pleased to have an asteroid named after me, 5100 Pasachoff. (Asteroid: (5100) Pasachoff · named 1993 by E. Bowell, discoverer (1985 GW) · semimajor axis: 2.46973814 A.U. · eccentricity: 0.1351385 · inclination: 7.73827°) It is safely in the asteroid belt, not about to hit the Earth. And for Naomi's 60th birthday, January 27, 2007, I was able to get the same discoverer to name an asteroid after her, too: (68109) Naomi Pasachoff. (From Wikipedia: "68109 Naomipasachoff, is a background asteroid from the inner regions of the asteroid belt, approximately 3.5 kilometers in diameter. It was discovered on December 17, 2000, by astronomers of the LONEOS program at the Anderson Mesa Station near Flagstaff, Arizona, in the United States. The asteroid was named after American biographer and research associate, Naomi Pasachoff.")
You have so many different areas that you’re working in, plus all your work in education. How do you organize it? How do you keep it together?
I don’t, in particular.
[laughs] Tell me about that.
Well, obviously I’ve been very involved in my textbook since 1977, a series of books. And I try to keep them up to date, so I try to keep up in a whole variety of topics. (At a certain point, the publisher encouraged me to get a younger collaborator--and I discovered (in a clipping on the refrigerator of a Hawaii friend's house) that Alex Filippenko of Berkeley had gotten a best-teacher award. It turned out that Alex was already using my textbook, and only because of that did he agree to collaborate. We are now on the fifth edition of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium (since we started around 2001, though now copyright laws keep us from amending the title). And I find reading journals and reading Astronomy magazine and Sky & Telescope are good for keeping up. And of course, I get a lot of web NASA bulletins. But I was surprised.
Fairly recently, I was thinking of the solar system, and I realized that while I’ve worked on transits of Mercury; a lot about transits of Venus; nothing about Mars, I think. But then on Jupiter, after the transit of Venus in 2012, Glenn Schneider and I were looking for what else — whenever else or wherever else there might be a transit of Venus. And it turns out that if we were standing on Jupiter, there would have been a transit of Venus a couple of months later, in September 2012. So, we got a full day of Hubble time to observe Jupiter and image it over and over again in two colors to see if we could detect a dimming of a hundredth of a percent…
…of Jupiter from a transit of Venus. So, as it turns out, we had a whole couple of rotations over 20 hours of Jupiter, so there was an overall variation of around 3 percent, and we could not pick out the hundredth of a percent out of 3 percent. Then a few months later, there was a transit of Venus if you could observe it from Saturn, and we were not physically at Saturn, but the Cassini spacecraft was. And we were able to work with some Cassini scientists. And one of the Cassini instruments could look at the Sun, so we do have observations of the Sun during the transit of Venus as seen from Saturn. And we think — and we haven’t published this yet — but we think that we did detect in the most sensitive infrared channel that bit of transit. Well, and then I worked on the occultations of Uranus and Neptune and Pluto and beyond Pluto. Below, I'll talk about my extensive historical and art-historical work on comets (plus a little photography, too, most recently for Comet NEOWISE last summer). So, for a solar astronomer, I wound up doing more in the solar system than I would have expected.
Yes. Well, you have very, very broad interests. You had one short letter to the editor about yoga. Do you remember that one?
No, I don’t remember that one.
Okay. It was “Body temperature changes during the practice of g Tum-mo yoga,” letter to the editor of Nature, criticizing — you criticized a study and a test procedure that somebody else performed on — noting the body temperature changes in different yoga exercises. So, you don’t remember that?
I don’t remember that one at all. Send me the reference. I’ll look it up.
I got involved in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m one of the editors of Skeptical Inquirer. A Fellow of the Society of Skeptical Inquiry So, I’m big on science, and not so big on things that I don’t think are scientific.
You’ve written many, many fascinating letters to the editor about a broad range of topics. One of the ones that caught my eye is as recent as 2017, where the title of your letter to the editor in Physics Today was, “LIGO backstory delights and displeases.” And there, you’re basically saying that the displeasure was that they basically had their answers but held them back for a long time. You were on sabbatical at Caltech at that time, and what you noticed — what you noticed was that as we left — and I’m quoting you — “As we left, after the dazzling announcement of the chirp, with music in our ears, they gave out coffee cups and bumper stickers, each with the data already emblazoned on it.” Then you said, “I should have hung out in the print shop days before.”
Yes. I still have that coffee cup. [Naomi says "three, in fact”.]
Yes. What are you trying to say there?
Oh, that was just for amusement, I guess. Another amusing thing that just came up with one of my students yesterday: last spring, we got a big LEGO set for the Astronomy Tower at Hogwarts, it has thousands of pieces. So, I gave it to one of my students, Tafara Makaza, and he and another student were in my tutorial yesterday, and I asked if they finished it. And they had just finished it. And I had a letter in Sky & Telescope a couple of years ago in which I noticed in one of the astronomy books that Harry Potter and Hermione Granger had observed Orion in June from the Astronomy Tower, which one assumes is somewhere in northern England or Scotland. So, I wrote to Sky & Telescope that there seemed to be something wrong with observing Orion in June from Scotland. So, now that I found an error in the astronomy, I hope there were no errors in the description of the magic.
[laughs] So basically, you have a good time doing all of this.
Yes, I was very pleased when a couple of years ago, The New York Times invited their most prolific letter-writers who had had a few dozen letters in The New York Times over the years, and we had a session with about 50 or so of us at their headquarters in New York one evening.
And what was that session? What took place?
Oh, it was just people who like writing letters to the editor of the Times about a variety of topics. And many of them also had a goal of getting an Op-Ed, so I was quiet. I didn’t mention that I had had a couple of Op-Eds — one for the transit of Venus, for example. There's a resulting YouTube video.
Fascinating. We don’t have too much more time, but I want to get an overall view of your feeling about your career thus far. You’re engaged in all of these different activities. How would you characterize your role in 21st-century astronomy?
Well, it’s been my pleasure to know a number of the great astronomers of the last century and of this century and to learn about the history and to follow a lot of astronomy as a science as it’s developed in the period of my career. So, I’ve been having fun, and I’m still having fun, so that’s why I’m still teaching and doing research. I’ve just been starting my 50th year of teaching at Williams College, and when we finish this, in 23 minutes, I have a couple of the tutorial students coming over for my heliophysics tutorial.
Ah. And what are your tutorials like, just to sum it up? Do they prepare little papers and then you critique them, or do you ask questions during the tutorials?
Well, we had a couple yesterday, and one person in each prepared a three-quarters of an hour PowerPoint. And the second person is supposed to be equally prepared, and the second person and I critiqued the stuff — the PowerPoint as it was being delivered. And I was able to give little mini-lectures on a variety of topics that were relevant. Some of my solar colleagues (Peter Foukal and Kevin Reardon of the National Solar Observatory, primarily) were able to join in by Zoom, providing even more expertise for the students.
Do you think that’s the most effective way of teaching? Oh, what level were these students?
These are juniors and senior astrophysics majors.
Oh, they’re majors.
Yes, so we have had a couple hundred astrophysics majors since I came to Williams College 50 years ago, and I’m very pleased and proud and glad to be in touch with a number of them. I did mention to you one person who was not at Williams College who I was glad to be involved in, and that’s Stephanie Wilson, the astronaut. And some years ago, about 40 years ago it turns out — because I think she’s 53 now — she was a junior high school girl in Pittsfield, which is 20 minutes south of here, and was assigned to interview somebody. So, she interviewed me, and apparently she liked what I told her I was doing in astronomy. And she went on, and she went to Harvard and got an engineering degree and became an astronaut. She went to space three times in the space shuttle, and she invited Naomi and me to her launches in her family group. In fact, she was, I think, the second female Black astronaut. And I had a Black astrophysics major, the first Black astrophysics major at Williams, Amy Steele, one year whom we brought down to the launch also. Amy is now a postdoc at McGill.
Stephanie was the second Black female NASA astronaut. We were pleased to be in her family group at Cape Canaveral. And then for the eclipse in 2017, she came with us to our observing site in Salem, Oregon, and then she joined my family group and observed with my family over the edge of the platform where the scientific observations were being made. And then I was very pleased to see a couple of months ago that she is one of the 18 astronauts being considered for the Artemis mission to the Moon — nine men and nine women. And needless to say, I am rooting for Stephanie Wilson to be the first woman on the Moon.
For sure. That would be an amazing legacy. What do you feel is your most significant legacy in your career?
That’s nothing that I’ve thought about. I’m in touch with some number of these alumni, going back even to my first year, 50 years ago, and I’m just glad to have all these alumni who I worked with and may be interested in some astronomical topics. And that’s been a great pleasure.
So you feel that it really was your teaching and your mentoring that is your primary legacy in astronomy?
Well, you have to do teaching broadly. I’m proud of the textbook.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and since Halley’s comet came by in 1985-6, I’ve worked on studies of comets and art and other astronomical art together with an art historian, Professor Roberta J.M. Olson. (My late art-historian colleague at Williams, the late Sam Edgerton, invited Roberta to speak about comets at Williams when Halley came by; she had noticed during an undergraduate lecture she gave at Wheaton College that Giotto around 1300 had drawn a comet for the Star of Bethlehem in the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, and published that conclusion as part of an article in Scientific American, which led to the Smithsonian having her curate a show on comets in art. (Halley had an apparition in 1301.) I realized that the first two thirds of our lectures were similar; then her last third was art-history and mine was scientific.
Roberta and I started a series of research projects about comets in art, starting with the comets shown in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493--one of which was purported to be the first image of Halley's Comet, but we realized that the author had only a half-dozen woodcuts of comets and turned them every which way to assign different dates. So they weren't authentic views of comets. Then we learned that the Exemplars for the Nuremberg Chronicle, the layout sketches, had recently been located in the national library in Nuremberg after having been lost since they were hidden during World War II. We were able to get a pair of Travel to Collection Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to go to Nuremberg to check them out. (They were disappointingly sparse.)
Then we applied to the Getty Foundation for twin grants to study comet history and images at the national observatory's collection in Scotland and elsewhere. So I was even a Getty Fellow, rare for a scientist. We did a wonderful joint book on comets in British Art, published by Cambridge University Press, with some additional funds from the Gresham professor (an educational position in England) to publish color plates.
After publishing many articles together and attending several of the INSAP series ("The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena") of meetings, Roberta and I have a new book out about astronomically related art called Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe. (Reaktion Books, London; distributed in the US by U. Chicago Press) So, that’s been a whole other side of my research. And it’s all just been fun, and I hope I can continue having fun, even if you and I take the year 2021 in this weird COVID year to have a conversation about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. (I've just arranged for an asteroid to be named after her, Robertajmolson, with its discoverer.)
What about the future, then? What have you not done yet that you would like to do?
Well, there’s an eclipse of the Sun that goes through New York and Boston (and even Williamstown) on May 1, 2079.
Oh, yes. Oh, 2079?
2079, yes. (Today's undergraduates should be able to see it.)
So, I know that date. But more realistically, probably — well, not only this year’s eclipse, but the eclipse of 2024 whose totality path goes across Mexico (where the cloudiness statistics are most favorable) and the United States. [The Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson compiles cloudiness statistics and weather discussions for eclipses of the Sun, and after I had volunteered to update the Peterson Field Guide to the Atmosphere, I brought him in when the surviving original author, John Day, had died. That new book, now the Peterson Field Guide to Weather, was published in August (2021).
I am the IAU liaison to the Task Force of the American Astronomical Society for the 2023 annular and 2024 total eclipses. And I’m busy. There’s a lot of email traffic the last few days on some details on the observing for Antarctica for the eclipse that’s coming up this December 4. So, there’s lots to do.
[laughs] Oh, absolutely.
I have some websites that I hope Williams College will keep up indefinitely, including not only the "Unbound" Williams' Archives' location for my book collection description but also http://totalsolareclipse.org for the 73+ solar eclipse expeditions I have been on; and http://solarcorona.com for my books and some articles, with pages also for Naomi's publications. Of course, our grandchildren will be very interested in this interview--one hopes, someday:
Eloise Pasachoff, m. Tom Glaisyer, August 10, 2003; Sam: November 23, 2008, 7th grade 2021-22; Jessica: April 19, 2012, 4th grade 2021-22; Deborah Pasachoff, m. Ian Kezsbom, August 24, 2008; Lily: August 27, 2010, 6th grade 2021-22; Jacob: July 8, 2012, 4rd grade 2021-22; Xander: February 27, 2016, kindergarten, 2021-22
What are your views at this time about the future of astronomy in this world that we live in?
Well, I’m certainly glad that astronomy has such a good name. You’re familiar with the old joke: when somebody sits next to you on an airplane and you want to talk to that person, when they ask what you are, you say you’re an astronomer. And if you don’t want to talk to them, you say you’re an astrophysicist.
[laughs] Oh, really?
So, I’m glad that astronomy has a good name, and I do try to spread it and write articles and talk to people and give talks. So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, and it’s fun to keep up.
But you’re most definitely an astrophysicist, aren’t you?
Yes. That too. In addition, I had run a session for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), of which I am a Fellow and was possibly even head of the astronomy division that year. And I called this planetary scientist an astronomer (who had been the head of a small Mars spacecraft, Sojourner). He said, “I’m not an astronomer.” So, I actually went back and used my computer to make a certificate declaring him an honorary astronomer! People have their specialties.
And I guess I’ve been more of a generalist.
Yes, and I appreciate your self-image of that, because certainly, I would say you were an amazingly active and broad-based generalist. Can you say that you’re interested in everything, astronomically?
That’s probably true, yes.
And I’m glad that that has included the history of science, the history of astronomy, that you’ve been so important for.
Oh, that’s very nice. Okay, is there anything that I’ve missed or that we’ve not had a chance to review that you feel you would like to have as part of your oral history legacy?
When I first got a royalty check from Contemporary Astronomy, copyright 1977, in 1978 I went to my rare-book librarian at Williams College (I had heard that our Chapin Library was the fifth-best rare book library in the US; while at Harvard, I had been too scared to ever go into the Houghton Library there), and said "How would I get a book by someone like Galileo." The librarian, then called by his last name of Archer, said that he didn't have acquisition funds but that Mr. Chapin back in the 1920s had purchased books from a certain company in New York City. I telephoned there with the same query, and got the response, "We have a book by Galileo here; why don't you come down to see it." So, Naomi and I went to New York, and we purchased a first edition in excellent condition of Galileo's Dialogo of 1632. (It is a "Honeyman copy"; that was a known collection of the highest quality, even with fancy leather boxes for the books.) That started my continuing interest in first editions.
I decided I would try to collect books by the astronomers whose work I discuss in my textbooks--which means Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and so on. And I have done that. After a couple of years, I told Owen Gingerich that it was time for me to get a Copernicus (first edition: 1543), and he looked around the world to find what was available. I finally bought the one that had been in Germany; it arrived in a plain envelope in the mail! (I'm sorry I didn't buy the second available one, from Japan, at the same time.) Anyway, my collection (shared with Naomi, of course) has grown substantially, with Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius and sunspot books; several Kepler books including the two with his three laws of orbits and the Rudolphine Tables of 1627; Newton's Principia Mathematica from 1687, and more. At a certain time, the books, for safety, moved into a safe at the Chapin Library, considered "on deposit." And the current Chapin Librarian, Wayne Hammond, who came as Archer's second more than 40 years ago, and I taught a rare-books seminar at least three times. The over-a-dozen (I could never keep to the posted limit) students were largely non-astronomy students.
Wayne has described the books in an online posting, especially after the 60th-birthday-of-mine exhibition we had some years ago at the Chapin. In his retirement, he proposes to write up my collection as a book--probably with the Chapin collection interspersed, as it is in the online version. His basic summary is here.
Well, maybe I’ll think of some things later, but for the moment, I’m quite content with these talks that you and I have had over the last few days, plus a few things added later, and I’m pleased and honored that you took the time to work with me about this.
Well, thanks. That’s very kind. When it’s transcribed and I edit it, I may well have questions in there that I will ask you to look at, and then when you go through it, if you have any additional thoughts that you would like to add, by all means, you can put them in. It’ll be a Word document.
Sure. And I’m glad that my record for the AIP will interact and intersect with so many of the other scientists who I’ve mentioned for whom they already have oral histories.
That’s right. So, thanks so much, Jay. I guess it’s time to ring off now. I’ll stop the recording.
Thank you very much, David. So long.