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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Charlotte Moore Sitterly by David DeVorkin on 1978 June 15, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4784
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Interview examines early life in Pennsylvannia; family background; schooling; college years at Swarthmore, 1916-1920; choice of major subjects; contact with J. A. Miller and choice of mathematics curriculum; move to Princeton and work with Henry Norris Russell; arrival at Princeton, 1920; recollections of Russell family; research on the position of the Moon and eclipsing binaries; work at Mount Wilson on the solar spectrum, 1925-1928; the origins of the Multiplet Table; return to Princeton; the organization of the Princeton Astronomy Department; Ph.D. thesis under A. O. Leuschner at University of California, Berkeley; early work on the solar spectrum, influence of A. Unsöld; line intensity work; collaboration with physicists; Russell's mode of research; work with William F. Meggers; molecular spectra; atomic spectra during World War II; move to National Bureau of Standards after World War II; Russell and R. Dugan; J. Q. Stewart; recollections of Russell and Princeton years; organization of work at NBS.
My own library was not very extensive until my husband supplemented it with his good books.
Yes, we’ll talk about that later. Dr. Sitterly, I know that you were born in 1898 in Ercildoun?
It is a Scotch name and we are rather proud of it, a little country village in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
And how far back does your family go in that town?
We were all born in Ercildoun and my parents taught in an academy there for years.
What did they teach?
They taught in the old style academy, which preceded the public school system. And then they became very much interested in public school work. They were both dedicated to public school education, and both of them taught school. They made up the teacher’s examinations when certificates were first being issued to qualify teachers. My parents worked in the educational system in Chester County for years. My father was Superintendent of Public Schools in Chester County.
What was his name?
George Winfield Moore.
And your mother’s name?
Elizabeth Walton Moore.
Were they college trained?
They were not college trained as such, but they were very well educated and they did a great deal towards placing teachers in the right schools in that area and picking the qualified teachers. They made up the examinations, they graded the papers, they determined the qualifications of the teachers, and then as Superintendent my father tried to place these teachers in the proper areas. It was all work concerned with the rural public school; a little old-fashioned country school where the three R’s were stressed, I assure you. I went to one of them.
Were you taught by your parents?
No, we were sent to the public schools, but our parents were very strict about having us learn grammar, spelling, arithmetic, etc. We were not allowed to use bad spelling in our home, grammar was very important and then we always had lots of games in our family. You see, we were out in the country and there were no entertainments such as T.V.; we had to provide our own entertainment. A group of children in that area had lots of games, and my parents stressed quite often educational games. We had a game of authors that we liked very, very much.
How did that work?
I forget the details but you had to know who wrote this, that or the other. If you guessed well you won the game. It was a card game with questions as to who wrote “Snowbound,” “The Children’s Hour,” etc.
As you got older what kind of books did you read? Did you start reading science books at a particular age?
Not too much. I didn’t specialize too much in science, but I always liked mathematics more than anything else. We read general books. My mother used to read books of general interest to us.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I had one brother and one sister who were considerably older, and a sister two years older than myself. The four of us grew up together but in the gap there were two more boys who had died in infancy. I never knew the two who died.
Did any of the others go into science?
My brother went into medicine, and my two sisters were teachers who taught in the public schools in Chester County for more than thirty years, each one of them. They went into the teaching profession due largely to the home influence, I believe. But my brother and I reacted against it.
When did you begin feeling this, or have this awareness that you wanted to do something else?
I think when I was in college, because we were not well off, financially. I had to do a lot of extra work to get through college. I used to do substitute teaching because it paid well. Substitute teaching and tutoring were the two fields in which a woman could get some money toward working her way through college; almost everything else favored the men. I taught every grade from first grade up to senior high school doing substitute work.
This is while you were at college?
Yes, while I was at Swarthmore. I was well paid for it but it was very hard on me physically. However, I did get a teacher’s certificate. So, when I graduated I was qualified to teach in the public schools, unlike many college graduates.
Let me ask you this. When were you first aware that you were going to go to college? Or was this always assumed?
It was always assumed whether there was any money or not. It was taken for granted.
How did you come to decide on Swarthmore?
I didn’t decide on Swarthmore. My parents decided it.
I see, do you know what made them think of that?
Yes, I know exactly. It was a college that had a Friend’s background and that was what they wanted.
Is that your background?
Okay. Well then you are at Swarthmore and I understand that you must have gone to Swarthmore in 1916, approximately?
Yes. I graduated in ‘20.
Were there any difficulties other than financial difficulties? Was there anything involving World War I that affected your college education?
Tremendous difficulties. I had a handicap in going to Swarthmore. It was, I thought, a pretty rigorous request on the part of my parents because I went there from Cotesville High School, which even though it was a very good high school, was still public. It was three miles from Ercildoun, the nearest city to Ercildoun. The high school faculty was one of the best. I still think we had better teaching there than I have had anywhere.
Did you have training in mathematics and science at Cotesville?
Yes. The teaching staff was excellent. They did not have much to work on with me in English but we had one of the best English teachers. The mathematics was good, the history was good, they had a very good faculty at Cotesville High School. It was an amazing faculty. When I look back on it, we had one of the best music directors in the whole country, Miss Smedley. She supervised the music in all the Cotesville school system, and she was really magnificent. I thought that this high school did more for me than almost any school I have attended or been associated with.
The mathematics, how far did it go, did it go to calculus?
No, algebra and geometry were required, and I liked both very much.
Was there any astronomy associated with that at all?
No. No astronomy, but physics was taught.
Was there anything about physics that you recall that was significant in your development?
A very good physics teacher, again, good solid teaching. They made us learn and we had respect for the teachers. I think that is a great point. When they wanted us to do things we felt that we should do them. We all felt that we had wonderful teachers. We were no bunch of angels; they had their problems with discipline too. Still basically they did a wonderful job.
Did you have laboratory studies in physics that included spectroscopy?
No spectroscopy, just plain general physics. I have never been well trained in laboratory work.
Let’s move on into Swarthmore.
Then I went to Swarthmore from Cotesville High School, which was a very good high school, but I was not prepared for college, because most of my classmates came from preparatory schools. There was a large gap between high school and freshman college. I didn’t know how to take notes and all of us who came from high schools were sort of floored because the people who came from these fine preparatory schools, — George School, Hill School, etc. — knew about dormitory life. They knew how to adjust and how to take notes. It was an easy step, with no transition problems. With me it was a difficult one.
Okay, we just had a short pause. You were talking about the difficulties in taking notes. Was there also a social stigma?
Very definitely a social stigma. It was not a place for an indigent student.
How many were not from the prep schools at Swarthmore?
I can’t tell you. They were in the minority. I had the feeling definitely that most of my classmates were very well off financially. As time went on I became a close associate of many of these students, but going in as a freshman without any training from a prep school I found freshman year a struggle. I can’t say I liked it.
What were your goals as an entering freshman? Did you have a particular discipline in mind?
I felt that college should give you a rounded education. I did not want to specialize, which caused me considerable trouble later on. But when I went to college I felt that channeling your interests early was very wrong and for some reason I was clamoring to take a variety of subjects and to get a feel for various disciplines. I did not want to specialize. This caused difficulties because my advisor did not pay too much attention to me. We each had a faculty advisor.
Who was yours?
Mine was a professor of philosophy and religion and I always dreaded having an advisor in that field because I knew I didn’t want to go into that field of study. I did not like the Bible course, but it was a required course. And so I stayed away from my advisor. He was very nice to me personally but I must say I avoided him and it was not the right thing to do. Nobody made me go to him. I had a junior advising me; we all had juniors to advise us. She was very good, but we slipped up on one thing, I didn’t pick my major soon enough and I got summoned to the Dean’s office one day.
You were still a freshman at this point?
I believe that this was the end of the sophomore year. I forget what the rule was. Because I was dabbling around taking various courses I got called into the Dean’s Office and he told me that I should know better than what I was doing. I had no major subject. “There is a piece of paper here that has to be signed by your major professor. And I want this by 5:00 this afternoon.” So I went to the registrar’s office and asked them to give me a summary of my credits, because you had to have so many credits in a subject or you couldn’t major in it. My credits were sufficient in French and in mathematics. I had to pick one of those two. When I went out of that registrar’s office who should come along but the head of the French Department and I knew her very well, Miss Isabell Bronk. She was an aunt of the famous Detlev Bronk. She said, “What is the matter, there’s something worrying you.” I said: “Yes, there is.” And I told her. “Oh,” she said, “you will major in French of course.” I said, “Now, that’s very kind but I want to go over and talk to the people in the math department before I decide. But it’s very nice of you to take me and you understand it has to be settled before 5 this afternoon or I can’t come back.” Fortunately, I found Dr. Miller, the head of the math department in his office.
This was John Miller?
John A. Miller.
And he was the head of math?
He was head of mathematics and astronomy.
I see, they were associated.
Yes, they had no astronomy department. And he was in his office when I went over during this crisis and I asked if I could speak to him. I asked him, “Are you willing to have me for a major?” I told him what my problem was and he laughed and took my piece of paper and signed it. And I turned it in. And then I had to go back and take all the missing required courses which didn’t fit into the hours for the advanced courses. I had a lot of trouble but I worked it out. And instead of taking physics and chemistry, which I was supposed to take and should have taken, I took genetics and I liked it, genetics and invertebrate zoology. I had plenty of science credits but in the wrong direction. My assortment of credits added up all right but they had a checkerboard arrangement.
When you started majoring in mathematics, was it in mathematics particularly or did you turn over into astronomy while you were at Swarthmore?
You couldn’t do too much. I took general astronomy. If I had decided a little earlier I might have gotten in on some observing by special arrangement, but the general astronomy was all I had under Dr. Miller. But I majored in mathematics.
What textbook did you use, do you recall?
Moulton had a number of books, this is his straight textbook on general astronomy?
Yes, general astronomy.
Good. Well, as you continued on then with your courses, how did you start thinking about your future, what you would be doing after graduation?
Well, I decided I didn’t want to teach. That may have been a mistake, but it was due to having so much of this educational work, I think, in our home all the time and it was interesting to teach, but also I did not enjoy the teaching that I did from first grade through high school. I succeeded at it, but I didn’t like it; it was too wearing.
How many hours a week did you actually tutor and teach while you were an undergraduate?
I can’t tell you. I had to squeeze it in between classes; it was very strenuous. That was always my problem. I never could make the grade because my schedule was too full. I had to commute. I had to go to Upper Darby, and places all around Swarthmore to do this substitute teaching.
I see. Were you thinking of graduate instruction at all as you came through Swarthmore?
I wanted to go to graduate school and I applied for one of their Leading Fellowships but I didn’t get it.
Leading Fellowships. A Lucrecia Mott fellowship was the one that you tried to get when you left Swarthmore but I didn’t get it. I really needed a job. And Dr. Miller is the one that sent me to Princeton.
How did that all come about? He was aware of the job?
He was aware of the fact that Dr. Russell was looking for somebody. And he wanted to know if I would take this job at Princeton with Dr. Russell.
Had you heard of Russell before that time?
I had heard of him. I did not know him. I thought it was a strange arrangement. I took the job without going up to Princeton to have an interview, but I should have done it, I think.
Why? What would have happened, do you think, if you had taken the interview?
I don’t know whether I would have taken the job.
Well, that’s a very important element, especially in a biographical history like this, because a tremendous amount of work might not have been done if you didn’t take that job.
It might have been done better by somebody else.
I don’t see any evidence of that. You’ve been working on this type of research for quite some time without serious competition.
Well, there wasn’t anybody else to give you an example for comparison, if you really look over the situation.
Well, how do you feel about actually taking the job now? I mean, do you feel if you hadn’t, what do you feel you would have done?
I would have gone into the teaching game. But I didn’t care for it, it was too hard on me coping with students all the time. I liked the actual teaching part of it — teaching these youngsters in all the grades — I found them very interesting, I liked the children, I got along, but I didn’t find it enjoyable. I was worn out from it.
So you took the position with Russell, as a computer, was it?
As a computer, a computer just out of college. I had no experience whatever.
So then on some particular day you arrived in Princeton.
When was that? In 1920?
It was the fall of 1920.
In September, at the beginning of the academic year?
Just before the academic year started.
What were your very first impressions then since you hadn’t any idea of what you were going to walk into?
Well, I felt that I was in over my depth too much. I felt that he should have had a better qualified person to do this. I was just out of college with no experience and his brain was too active for the average person to follow in some respects. Even scholastic people found him difficult to follow or to cope with, sometimes. And I felt sort of overpowered by him.
This was your first impression?
My first impression was that he was a very brilliant and quick thinker. I felt that he must think that I was the most ignorant person that ever showed up at his house. Because I was so inexperienced, having nothing but a mathematics major, right out of college, I felt that I didn’t know anything.
He certainly should have known this, of course, from the letters that Miller would have sent.
He knew it, yes. But I felt it very keenly.
When you arrived the first day, in Princeton, if you can recall, did you get there by train and then show up at his house?
Yes, I went to his house.
And what was the house like? What were your first impressions?
Oh, his house was beautiful. He had a Victorian house, nice, beautifully furnished, very, very attractive. I went into the study, and into the lovely, huge parlor, which even had windows with shutters that were closed every night; full length windows with beautiful full length drapes. They were crimson velvet drapes. It was old style Victorian, but very nice, and there was a Steinway grand piano, seldom used. Portraits of the relatives, seven generations, I believe, were hanging all around this huge parlor. I began to feel at home in that place.
Did you stay there for a while?
No, I stayed there sometimes in the summer, but I never lived with his family. I got very well acquainted with his study, that’s where I spent the most time.
Did you first meet him in the study?
Was it cluttered or neat or what?
It was typical of Dr. Russell. It wasn’t cluttered, no. Books, of course were in book cases to the ceiling; his library was wonderful. The study had a fireplace, and a great big round table in the middle, where we spent many, many hours.
But the way he would work?
Papers all over the place.
He did leave papers out, that sort of thing.
Yes, he did.
In other words it wasn’t completely pristine.
He needed somebody to look after him.
He definitely did.
Did his wife do this, organize the office?
She helped. She was a wonderful person. I did not think she was given enough credit at that Symposium as a matter of fact, because I don’t think he would have achieved what he did without her. She was at his elbow, waited on him, toted him back and forth, put up with him when he was late at every meal, etc. She was a wonderful companion, very devoted to him.
What were your first responsibilities? Were you working directly for Dr. Russell or for the department?
I did practically all of my work for Dr. Russell. There was a short period where I did start an eclipsing variable catalogue that was more for the department than it was for him. I started that catalogue beginning with the AN, the Astronomische Nachrichten, but I did not work on eclipsing variables very much, only very little indeed. I spent most of my time working for Dr. Russell and that was a full-time job for three people, it seemed.
Your first responsibilities, were you working on the position of the Moon?
Determining the position of the Moon by measuring photographic plates that had reseau squares on them.
You used the reseau technique?
We used the reseau technique and the awkward machine that he brought from Cambridge; it had x and y directions operated with weights hung on fishing cords.
Did he teach you how to use that machine?
Was he thorough or did he just show you the machine and leave?
He was nervous. I never wanted him to touch the machine when I got it focused and fixed ready to measure. He wasn’t too good with machinery. And when I got everything ready to measure I didn’t want him going there and fixing it for his eyes because then I would have to get all that gear back in place again and the fishing cords might break, etc. It was a very primitive arrangement, but you could do good measuring on it. I didn’t have too much trouble. You could tell how good your measures were from the residual of the least squares solution based on points measured around the Moon’s limb. And you always did the plates in pairs; they were a check on each other. You didn’t have to duplicate some processes in the reductions because of the pairs.
But how did he train you in the beginning to measure?
Well, he had some of those plates there, he put them in the machine, he told me what to do, and then he outlined the procedure, I don’t remember too many details except it all seemed very impossible for me.
This was a purely mechanical operation?
Yes. How do you feel about it?
It required a good deal of intelligence about how to handle the problem. You had to get so many points around the Moon’s edge; if you didn’t have enough points where the reseau would strike, you would have to measure a little scratch to get enough.
So that was your judgment to do that?
That’s different than measuring star positions.
You measured your star positions, also. You had to measure positions of the intersection of the reseau with the Moon’s limb, and to have enough of the points to get a good least squares solution.
So you had to understand what was required.
You had to understand a little bit about the raggedness of the Moon’s limb. I became familiar with it and then did them in pairs. That was a saving grace. But then the process itself was terribly involved.
Did you do reductions from the beginning?
I did all the reductions from the beginning with log tables and hand calculators. We had no machine desk calculator. And then, I needed to include corrections for refraction and do an interpolation and I didn’t know anything about interpolation. I remember working a long time trying to find out what he meant by this, how “very simple it was” and where he got these factors, etc. I think he did one roughly and told me the process and wrote it down very quickly. He always worked like lightning and you were supposed to follow him.
Was your contact with him a daily contact pretty much?
Well, yes, I guess so, for a while. Yes, he was there pretty often when I was first starting in.
Where was this, at the old observatory?
This was at the old observatory on Prospect Avenue.
Which was your office?
Mine was the old back room over the furnace where you breathed coal gas all the time.
You could smell the coal gas?
Was the measuring engine there too?
That’s where the measuring machine was.
Did it have windows?
Yes, it had windows. But the working conditions were pretty primitive, but they were in all the observatories in those days.
Did they worry about temperature compensation for the machine?
They worried about nothing like that, no. You just went there and worked, that was all.
So how were your first four years there? Did you take any courses and think about the future?
He did give me an opportunity to attend lectures, particularly nice ones that he gave to graduate students. He did that more and more as time went on. I did not attend many undergraduate lectures. I could not do that and carry my program. But I could take night lectures. He was very good about that.
Which lectures were these? What did he lecture on?
Mostly on astrophysics, and he was working then on his problem of abundances and stellar evolution; that was his prime interest.
Did you take notes on his lectures?
Yes. I do not know whether I have them or not.
Anything like this would be extremely valuable.
I doubt whether I have them but I might.
Do you recall his work on stellar evolution at that time?
I got into that pretty closely with the work on double stars. The double star catalogue of course was part of the problem of his work on stellar evolution, and making that catalogue from all the double star catalogues was my task; determined the motions in angle and distance of all these double stars.
You’ve done several catalogues with him, first with 1777 stars.
We always used the same basic catalogue but I brought it up to date and then I went out to Lick Observatory and added Dr. Aitken’s beautiful material.
Right and that was in the early ‘30’s.
All the measures were used to derive the final catalogue of dynamical parallaxes that was put into the book on the Masses of the Stars.
He was having trouble with his theory of the Main Sequence certainly even before Eddington’s book, and I’d be very interested in your recollections of his thinking about such things. Did he talk to you about this?
I heard him talk a good many times on that. I don’t want to be quoted on details, but I recall one time when he was thinking of an X-style interpretation of the HR diagram. And then I remember of course the care that we put into that diagram that I showed in the symposium — the HR Diagram from double stars alone. I remember distinctly that we thought that it was a pretty complete summary of observational material on double stars, to date.
Oh yes. There was never any question, I think that the observational material was real.
It was handled very intelligently by him because he knew all the exceptional stars. I had trouble with them. And I had some trouble, in making that catalogue, picking out optical pairs, etc. There were border-line cases that I could not decide. He would have to do it. He would have the perception to do that, I did not have the experience. I was grossly inexperienced with this whole thing.
But not for long. You were working on it quite intensely.
Oh yes we worked very hard.
Did he ever discuss directly with you his feelings about stellar evolution, why he was so interested in it?
Only generally. Everybody at the observatory had the feeling that he was interested in it, of course. He had a group of very good graduate students and we were all aware of it. In general though we would all have to discuss it in doing that book on THE MASSES OF THE STARS because we had to group the stars in all kinds of categories for the general summary.
Let’s keep in the ‘20’s for now if we can. Who were his graduate students and whom did you associate with at Princeton in the first few years in the early ‘20’s?
Donald Menzel, my husband, Bancroft Sitterly, and during my tenure there, there were Louis Green, Theodore Dunham, and Sidney Hacker, who did not go into astrophysics. There was, also, a very good student from the Bell Telephone Lab, whose name I do not recall; he went into Bell Telephone research.
So you met your husband in the early ‘20’s when he was there?
That is where I met him.
You knew him for quite a long time before you were married.
Okay, that answers one question, an important question. But how did you feel as you continued to work for Dr. Russell? There must have come a time when you decided to go to graduate school, because looking at your American Men and Women of Science sketch here it seems to show that between the years 1925 and 1928 you were out on the West Coast.
Between 1925 and 1928 I worked at Mt. Wilson on the solar spectrum with Dr. St. John and Mr. Babcock. We revised the Rowland Table at that time and I did the identification work for the most part.
Were you still working really for Dr. Russell at this time or what? How did you go out to Mt. Wilson?
The schedule at Princeton was very strenuous. Working for Dr. Russell was really a strenuous job and you had to be on your toes all the time and I think it was just too much for me.
And so did you approach him asking him for a leave?
Or did your health break down at all?
Yes, I was not in very good health and Mt. Wilson said they would like to do this revised Rowland Table. So it was arranged so that I could go out there and work.
Did you maintain contact with Dr. Russell at that time?
Oh yes, I was constantly in contact with him.
Do you have the letters? Did you save the letters?
What I had was in the Russell collection at Princeton. I may not have saved all of them, though. I don’t know which ones Margaret Edmondson saved. They would be in the Princeton file, too.
The three years then at Mt. Wilson, did you go there with the intention of returning to Princeton eventually?
Dr. Russell said so.
I see. So it was all specified that you would be there for three years.
There was no time limit, but we had to finish the work on the Rowland Table; that was very important. And of course I had all the advantage of having a wealth of spectroscopic material because I had been working on spectra at Princeton before I went there.
You did work on spectra before?
Oh yes. At Princeton, after extending series in CaII from observations by Saunders. We started with the calcium-strontium 2-barium paper by Russell and Saunders, involving the famous double-electron jump. I had to interpret all of that material.
That was 1924.
That was about 1923 and 1924.
So really in Princeton you were working on double stars, on the Moon’s position and on spectroscopy, all at the same time.
Yes, on the analyses of spectra and the masses of the stars, also astrophysics, also solar identifications. The lunar plates were finished first.
So this was all simultaneous.
Well, yes, sort of.
Did Dr. Russell have other assistants and associates working with him in addition to you?
Not until later.
What were your impressions of Mt. Wilson and of W. S. Adams and other people that you worked with, Harold Babcock?
I enjoyed being out there and working with them. I felt that it was a very good opportunity. I got to know the people. But at that time there were not too many chances for any woman, no more chance there for a woman than there was at Princeton and I felt that I had more opportunity to get into general astrophysics with Dr. Russell than I did being channeled out there as a computer. There was little opportunity to broaden or advance.
And you were at 813 Santa Barbara Street rather than on the top of the mountain.
Yes. It was a wonderful association for me but I don’t think that women had any chance out there beyond being just routine computers. And I didn’t think that while I was called a computer that it was quite routine computing to work on spectrum analysis and double stars, or on the solar spectrum and astrophysics.
Because you were an assistant to Dr. Russell did they treat you any differently out there, than the others?
Well, I don’t know, they might have. They wanted me to do the identification work. That was a little bit more responsibility than some of their computers had.
You worked with A. S. King.
I worked with A. S. King, and Harold Babcock, but primarily with Dr. St. John whom I enjoyed. I thought he was delightful, and I valued the cooperation the others generously provided all during my stay.
He did a lot of spectroscopy with Adams later on.
Yes. I did not work directly with Dr. Adams. Of course he knew I was there but I worked with Dr. St. John practically the whole time.
During your stay at Santa Barbara Street at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, Dr. Russell would come out in the summers.
Every year he went out for a month as a research associate.
Did people look forward to his coming out? What was the attitude?
It was very stimulating to them. He always did a very worthwhile piece of research during his stay there. An example is his classical paper on the Composition of the Sun.
The 1929 paper.
That’s extremely important. He wrote that at Mt. Wilson?
I think he did. I too have that impression because I was doing all the multiplet work for the material that went into that paper, and I associate that with Mt. Wilson, but my memory is a little weak on these dates.
That’s okay because we can check against the papers themselves. The important thing is to get some idea of how he entered into doing various different problems. Did he direct your interests and your work to the multiplet studies?
Yes he did.
How did he do this?
Nobody could read his handwriting and I edited his manuscripts He did put out a list of “Ultimate and Penultimate lines of Astrophysical Interest” and I got into the multiplet field by editing all of this material and trying to make it intelligible. Half of my time was spent editing these manuscripts.
Did you discuss how to make them intelligible with him?
Oh yes. I was always a thorn in the flesh in a way, pointing out defects in his manuscripts. He took it very well but that was one of my contributions to him — editing his manuscripts. They were brilliant but his handwriting was terrible and the typist would have great trouble with them.
Did he ever try to discuss with you how he became aware and interested in the use of multiplets for line identification?
I don’t know that he discussed how or why, we just did it that way. We didn’t take too much time with the groundwork in back of this. He would always come in with a problem that was to be done immediately and this was it. He didn’t discuss his thinking on it. He just wanted all this material ready for him.
So he didn’t try to explain to you why something was important.
I was supposed to know that.
I see. Did you make an effort to find out?
I tried to, yes. I had to be very careful because I was supposed to know that. He expected pretty high standards. I would try never to ask him something that seemed like a stupid question, I bent over backwards to keep quiet because he was so brilliant.
Did other people help you out or did you go directly to texts and to the literature?
Mostly I worked my own way out.
That must have taken you much more time.
It was very difficult.
Did you have any time to yourself?
And you developed no research interests other than what you were doing?
I did the 1945 multiplet table, and I insisted on publishing it. There was opposition.
Yes. Well, I won’t say just opposition. He was never enthusiastic over it because I think he thought it would get out of date, He could not visualize a way to keep anything up to date such as a Multiplet Table. But I insisted on doing it, absolutely. And I finally got Princeton to pay for it. We had very limited funds, and the University was not generous. I thought the observatory was operated on a very frugal basis considering the type of work they did, hut that was the way it was in those days. All the time I was there we had penny pinching.
Was this Russell’s characteristic to do this?
The whole department was involved, I think. I think he might have gotten more from the University than he did but his interests were not so much in the line of administration. He needed somebody practical to take care of details. Dugan was the moving spirit.
Yes. Could you discuss or recall their relationship. Russell was the chairman but Dugan really ran the observatory?
That’s right, to a large extent.
How did that all work out?
Well, it just worked itself out because Dugan knew how to run things and Dr. Russell had so many interests that there was no conflict, as far as I know.
And this was a generally known fact?
A generally known and accepted fact. Those of us who looked after Dr. Russell understood it and didn’t question it. One had to pick up his papers and put them in order, etc. Nobody worried about details as long as somebody took care of them.
Did he always get along with Dugan. Were there any differences?
I never discussed this with any of them.
So there’s nothing that you saw?
Nothing that I had any dealings with. Dugan was the solid one who would make the final decision if one had to be made on a certain date and had not been attended to. But I think they discussed things together. I wasn’t in on that at all. I tried to avoid it in fact.
When you returned to Princeton in 1928 and continued then working as you were, you must at some point have gotten interested in graduate school because you got a degree from Berkeley in 1931.
That was because Dr. Russell took his family to Europe.
This was 1929?
‘29, for two years. That is what controlled those two years.
That allowed you to get your degree?
That allowed me to get away.
How did you do that? Did you apply to Berkeley? Did Dr. Russell have anything to do with it?
He knew I was doing it.
But did he write letters on your behalf and that sort of thing?
I suppose he did, I don’t remember much about it.
Why did you choose Berkeley, by the way, not Princeton itself?
Princeton wouldn’t have anything to do with women under any circumstances. I could get no credit there whatever. There was no way.
Berkeley was the only place?
They gave me a fellowship.
The money you were being paid by Princeton was enough to live on?
I lived on it.
So you had no other sources. Did you have to send any money home?
I always had financial problems.
Whom did you study with and work with at Berkeley? And what years were you there?
I was there in 1929 to 1931, and I worked with Dr. Leuschner.
And what was your thesis?
Dr. A. O. Leuschner directed the graduate work that I had to take during my year in residence and that was mostly orbit theory, some statistics under R. Trumpler, and advanced practical astronomy, some observing, etc. I was very inexperienced because I hadn’t had very much astronomy. I got my graduate credit during that year. The thesis was done mostly at Mt. Wilson on “The Atomic Lines in the Sunspot Spectrum” because Mt. Wilson offered me a gold mine of data for my thesis. And it was a gold mine because it was one of their pet subjects. Sunspots went back to George Ellery Hale in the early days and it was a very warm subject in the hearts of the people at Mt. Wilson.
Who gave this to you?
It was through Dr. Adams, and I suppose Dr. St. John. They offered me the original plates of the sunspot spectrum that were taken at Mt. Wilson with the big 150-foot tower telescope. And as far as I know that was the only existing set of plates of the sunspot spectrum, certainly with that dispersion, taken with the Zeeman equipment, the polarized equipment. And they let me have that and I selected for the thesis the study of the atomic lines, not molecular. There are thousands of molecular lines but there are a limited number of atomic lines. And what I tried to do was pick out the atomic lines, which you could do from the Zeeman effect, the way plates were taken. That was not too difficult. I selected only the atomic lines. I tried to estimate intensities of these lines on the same scale as the Rowland intensities. It was all arbitrary, but I tried to keep the intensity scale uniform. I couldn’t do anything quantitative because the sunspots were too complicated, you wouldn’t know what part of the spots were actually exposed, whether it was umbra or penumbra or what not, and also the set of photographs was not taken with one spot. These plates were taken with the spot that happened to be available at the time the photographs were made. So I didn’t attempt anything refined, I just tried to take the available plates and estimate the intensities on the Rowland scale. And of course the disc spectrum was either side of the spot spectrum on these same plates. So I had the Rowland intensities as a guide as I went along. Then I used the same procedure that Dr. Russell had used on the composition of the Sun, for the atomic lines in the sunspot spectrum. And I came up with a temperature around 4,000 degrees. That was more good fortune than anything else, but the system was all right. I thought it was a nice thesis and I enjoyed doing it.
Did you correspond with Dr. Russell about this?
He was abroad when I was doing this.
Then you didn’t discuss it at all with him, through letters or anything?
No, he was travelling. When he came back he helped me a bit. He got back before I released it for publication, and he looked over the formulas and a few things at the very end, but I did practically all of it myself at Mt. Wilson, by repeating the method Dr. Russell had devised for his paper on “The Composition of the Sun.” They let me stay at the observatory and work at Santa Barbara Street.
So you had a year of residency at Berkeley and then a year at Wilson?
He had come back then before you were finished, or just as you were finishing.
Just as I was finishing up.
Was it understood that you would be going back?
No, I made no agreement to go back to Princeton.
So what were your plans and ideas as you got closer to finishing the thesis?
Well, he wanted me to come, I weighed that matter very carefully, I don’t know whether it was right or wrong, but I went back.
You decided to go back in 1931, did he offer you an assistantship at that time?
A research assistantship. I became a Research Associate in 1936.
Yes. These are in the published record. I would like to know if we missed anything in the various papers you wrote in the ‘20’s on the winged lines in the solar spectrum.
That was one of my first introductions to the solar spectrum, and before I went to Mt. Wilson. Russell was always interested in solar identifications. The work on the Sun came along at the same time as we were doing some work on laboratory spectra, such as the study of calcium strontium and barium with Saunders, etc. I eased into spectroscopy and I eased into the solar work at the same time, more or less. I had done a good bit of solar work before I went to Mt. Wilson.
How did his thinking develop, especially in your paper in 1926 on the winged lines where the widening, you had concluded, was due to abundance effects. You were having problems with hydrogen abundances at that time, this seemed to be the first major paper at least that would lead to the calibration of the Rowland intensity scale, and then to the composition of the solar atmosphere and the revelations that came out of that. I know that in your research with him pretty much you followed up many of his ideas. Russell’s son has noted to me that you were sort of a stabilizing influence on Dr. Russell and that you organized and saw through what he initiated?
That is right.
Is that a fair assessment?
Yes. He needed somebody to stabilize him, he really did. He was always having a brilliant idea. I had very little time to plan or carry out original work. I think he didn’t like that very well but how you could follow him and keep him stabilized and do original work on the side was something I found pretty baffling.
Then in the late ‘20’s, which I know Dr. Spitzer indicated was probably the most active period in Russell’s life, you must have kept him on the straight and narrow path by following up all of these different lines of interest.
I had to, very particularly on the work on analyzing laboratory spectra, like the titanium problem. I made up all the line lists from the literature and we had to calculate all the wave numbers ourselves and then we did searching, as I described, by plotting the spectrum on millimeter paper and cutting the strips in the middle and then sliding to find out constant intervals. It was the Vernier idea. But it was his ingenuity that led him to do it that way. I did all the plotting and a lot of the shifting and hunted for energy levels. We worked on that for years.
When did he start becoming suspicious about the hydrogen abundance in the solar atmosphere? And did he discuss his suspicions with you?
I can’t tell you. That goes back to Unsold’s work. He wanted a starting point for work on the calibration of the Rowland intensity scale. He had to have some absolute values to start with. I think it was Unsold who set him on the right track with that. I think you’ll find that in the paper on the “Composition of the Sun.” He did not discuss that with me particularly, and I was so buried in details all the time, it was hard to see the forest through the trees. Well, it was difficult because I had to furnish him with all the multiplet material of all the spectra in order to do that work on the Composition of the Sun. And he was the one who stressed the key note of the whole thing, namely, the hydrogen abundance. I think hydrogen abundance had been noted independently by Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin.
That’s very possible. Certainly there was something wrong with it. You indicated in your paper in l926 that there was a problem with hydrogen abundances and that they certainly didn’t fit the characteristics.
It’s very hard for me to remember those details. I remember the importance of the problem, I remember the tremendous amount of work that was involved in keeping him supplied with this multiplet material so that he could go on with the calculations of abundances. I was working on solar identifications and on multiplets, hundreds and hundreds of multiplets.
In 1926, certainly. So you had been exposed to it quite early and you were already well aware of it by the time you wrote your paper in 1928 on the “Role Played by Excitation Potentials in the Revision of the Rowland Table.” Well, in 1928 was your paper on the Calibration of the Rowland Scale with intensities for solar lines with Russell?
That was based on the revised identifications in the Rowland table for which I furnished so much material; all the multiplet material based on my own revised identifications. You could not use any blended lines, for instance, etc. That was a big job, although it looks rather small in print.
In searching for blends did you need Russell’s expertise in being able to tell what a blend was?
I did most of that. I got a feel for it. He was not there. I did that at Mt. Wilson.
You also worked with physicists such as Meggers and Shenstone? Was this later?
Yes, I did not work with Meggers closely at this time, but I had met Dr. Meggers. I did not work with Shenstone very much; only when I needed to have him take ultraviolet spectrograms, for our work on spectrum analysis.
What about with J. Stewart and with any of the other people?
I didn’t work closely with Stewart, and I worked very little with Dugan. It really was a 24 hour job to work with Dr. Russell. I couldn’t do the impossible.
Well, you later on did work with other people and continued working with Babcock and St. John at Mt. Wilson. But all of these studies were pretty much associated with Russell’s interests. Is that correct?
He had stimulated the work that was being done.
So what was the organization of research — Russell would get an idea that a particular element had to be done?
Yes, come in and tell me I had to hunt up everything on to Ti I that was in the literature and make a line list for him; he was going to analyze the spectrum.
Then how did he bring in people from Mt. Wilson?
My line list was not complete and we needed Zeeman material. That came from A. S. King in the early days as I recall. And I believe that Babcock helped us with some of it. It is advantageous to have Zeeman data when you are trying to analyze complex spectrum, and it was those g values that I think were furnished by Meggers and by the Mt. Wilson people. As I recall, first from the Mt. Wilson people.
Did you work enough with them or in association with them so you could tell what their relationship was with Russell, Meggers and Shenstone and the others? Could you sort of recall how they worked together?
At Princeton Dr. Russell had many, many conferences with the physics people. At that time Condon was there a good bit, and he and Condon and Shenstone and various people were always getting together and talking. I remember many days when Condon was in our office and talked for hours. I knew Condon before he became director of the Bureau. He and I arrived at the Bureau the same day.
November 1, 1945. Everyone said he brought me to the Bureau but he did not. He had nothing to do with it. I met him out front and he said “hello, you here?” I said “yes, you here too?” That was our greeting. But Dr. Russell collaborated with them all the time. He was always talking to people from different departments.
How was their relationship though, would Russell do all the talking, or would there be good give and take, would Russell listen to them a lot, or what?
I guess Condon would talk to him more than the others, but he would talk a good bit. You never knew him?
He would just talk for hours and hours. And he would pick up remarks from people and then his mind would begin to work and center on what that might lead to. He was very receptive to little remarks on things.
Well, that’s a very interesting thing. I’m trying to create images of how Russell spent his days in research.
His brains always drove him. His brain never seemed to get tired. And he always had a wonderful ability to get an overall view of a problem rather than to start from the smallest to the largest. He could always picture the problem as a whole. Some things couldn’t be explained but he would always have a good picture of a problem in his mind, a general problem. That is one reason why he was interested in stellar evolution. He was interested in the big problem and then he went right in to see where the observations were needed to work out a pattern for stellar evolution. So eclipsing variables, double stars, parallaxes, were various approaches that he used in his thinking on this larger problem. And the same was true with the work on the composition of the sun. He realized that you had to have good analyses of the spectra in the laboratory in order to do the proper identification work in solar and other stellar spectra. That was very typical of him. That’s why he wanted to analyze the first spectrum of titanium. That’s why he helped Meggers with vandium. I mentioned how many spectra he worked on but that was always foremost in his mind — laboratory analysis. He collaborated with everybody who worked on analyses.
The interesting thing is that his interests in that sort of work coincides with your coming to Princeton because before that time he had been solely doing stellar work. He had partially organized the lunar-position work with, I guess, with E. W. Brown, or Schlesinger, and then with Pickering at Harvard. But other than that it was his stellar evolution and his studies in that regard prior to 1920. But then he really began in spectroscopy after 1920.
That was partly because of the development of the quantum theory. Don’t give me credit for it. The quantum theory came along and stimulated him at this point. He never could have done it, I will say, unless he had had somebody at his elbow to provide him with all these line lists while he was working on analysis.
Well, a lot of things happened right in that year, I mean, Saha’s papers came out.
Saha’s papers, yes; the ionization theory came out.
There’s one other element though, that does probably involve you. I’m looking at you as part of the whole project. In that year or year approximately in 1920 he was asked to become director of Harvard, and he refused preferring to stay at Princeton but as a result he was able to gain more support for the department. Do you know anything about this?
I never went into that at all. I know that he turned down offers, he got offers everywhere but his heart was in Princeton.
What I think of is that while I know that he gained back the observatory residence for Dugan in that year as part of the reason for staying, the mathematics department had had it up to that time. But then it’s also possible that the position that brought you there on was another element in his staying. Do you know anything about that?
I think you are overrating that. He was just thinking so fast he knew that somebody would have to provide him with material and that’s why he wanted me to get all this material together for him. It was a superhuman job, he couldn’t do all the thinking, carry all the big programs at the same time, and collect the material. I had to spend a large part of my life putting things in order and providing him with the material that he needed. And it meant a great deal of research work in libraries and getting acquainted with different fields of astrophysics and the workers in all these fields.
Who ran the library at the observatory during this period, in the ‘20’s?
No one person had the responsibility for buying books and making sure everything was proper on the shelf?
Well, I suppose you’d say Dugan. Maybe Stewart took responsibility for buying books but the library wasn’t very big and nobody paid much attention to it but it was a good library.
Is that the library you mainly used, or did you need other library facilities?
I used that one largely but, also, I used the main library.
Was it Firestone?
Firestone wasn’t built at the time. I used the old one, and the one down at Fine Hall. I used to know where all the volumes were located.
Did you, since we are talking about your organizing what Russell would start, I know that the “Russell, Dugan and Stewart” volumes in astronomy had been somewhat in preparation by 1912 or 1913. Did you have anything to do with bringing that into print in the ‘20’s?
Only on the fringe. Stewart worked a lot on that, so did Dugan, and I think I worked on the HR diagram that is in that book. I remember making a plot of it. My contribution again was collating his material. I didn’t have to do too much on that book. But the background material was there based on what all of us had done. That was very important, and I spent many hours discussing with Russell a revision of that book, but it never happened.
In the ‘40’s?
Because it was revised in the ‘30’s once.
I remember going over the book and pointing out what I thought were the worst defects in it, and talking to him about it for hours and hours, but nothing ever came of it. He was going down at that time, physically.
He was in his 70’s already. I know that from Dr. Russell’s correspondence that his chapter on stellar evolution was actually a new contribution in that book in 1926. Were you involved at all with getting that into shape, because it looks like it was a hasty effort to get the thing written and get it out.
I can’t remember too much about it except making diagrams. It was a long time ago, and I didn’t have full responsibility for that book. It was the wealth of material we had at hand that was used in it, but I didn’t take responsibility for that book except for the HR diagram. I think I got that ready. Dunham helped him a lot with that book. He would know more about that than I would.
I’ve talked to him somewhat about it, but getting the diagram is interesting. It was basically a qualitative diagram, wasn’t it, Showing the “X” that you were talking about, and then he must have made a sketch and you would refine it?
I think I plotted all the data.
He had actual data?
Oh yes. There was one diagram there with stars on it as I recall. I think I collected the material and made that HR diagram, plotted it for him. I think you will find one in the book.
You had worked on a number of things during this period. In 1930 you came out with a paper on the photographic determinations of the position of the Moon. Now this was work with Russell?
That was my first assignment at Princeton. The results were published in 1926.
Well, let’s find out how things were at Princeton when you got back in the early ‘30’s. Did you have any other offers other than from Russell?
Well, again I had this problem of whether to teach or not.
You had a Ph.D. so you could have taught at a college. Were there any particular colleges that were interested in having you come and teach?
I could have accepted other positions if I had wanted to. I was getting old and didn’t particularly want to teach.
Well, at that time you were about my age. [laughter] So you went back and worked with Dr. Russell, this time as a research assistant and then as a research associate. Did you have any choice at that time in what types of research that you would engage in, or any more of a collegial association?
It was a little better, yes.
How did things change?
I had had more experience. I knew a. little bit better how to manage Dr. Russell, when he came with his colossal jobs. He never came with small ones; they were always rather of staggering proportion, like preparing a line list of Ti#I so he could do the analysis; getting all the lines that were published in the literature and the like. All were enormous assignments.
Did he realize they were this big?
Yes, he realized it. I think he underestimated the amount of effort required to make a decent list, and he was always in a hurry to get the lists.
Now, in being able to deal with him, or let’s say manage him, as you mentioned, a little better, did this mean that you were able to show him just what a large amount of work this was?
He always objected to my insisting on having things correct.
What do you mean?
Well, I was sort of a tiger when it came to having things accurate and not just rushing through with them with bad handwriting and getting them out any old way at all. He never liked this, hut I thought it was very necessary.
You mean he was not concerned with numerical accuracy?
He was concerned with it but he thought I overstressed it, always. We were always a little bit at odds about that, he thought what I was doing was entirely unnecessary. But I would never give him a list that I wouldn’t stand in back of.
But he was working on a quantitative problem?
Yes, he was working on a quantitative problem and I learned early in the game never to give him anything that I would not stand back of. And in order to do that it was necessary to be very strict and have a lot of self-discipline about what I gave him. And we never did quite agree on that because he was always ready to do something in a hurry. He was thinking far beyond the present status of the data or the necessity of having the right kind of stuff in proper form for him to use. He was always checking the overall view, which was good, in a way. We were a pretty good team, as a matter of fact, because of this. But it was a constant worry to him and to me, because I refused to give him something and have him come back and tell me it was wrong.
Did that ever happen?
It happened occasionally, but he was always very nice about it. Yes, I made some rather had mistakes sometimes. If they were numerical he was always very nice about it; he said the point was not to make the same mistake twice. That he would not tolerate under any circumstances. He was very nice, if you made a slip or something like that, but if you did it repeatedly that would really upset him.
Did you ever experience that, did you ever do anything wrong twice?
I tried not to. I really tried not to.
Were there any people that Russell got frustrated with because they weren’t as accurate, amongst his students or colleagues?
This I never discussed with him. He always liked people who were brilliant and would think brilliantly and take an overall view of things. And the more I worked with him, the more I had to cope with this overall view. I thought it was the right idea, but to carry out his idea meant just the opposite: to get the material that was required, and good material properly assembled.
You said that the situation changed somewhat when you returned to Princeton with your own degree and with much more experience. How did it change? How much more receptive to the need for accurate data did he become and do you think he became more receptive?
I don’t know that he ever became more receptive, it was a difference in philosophy between him and me but I learned enough about his makeup to know better than to relax on this vigilance. If you relaxed you’d be in a terrible situation. If he got wrong material and used it for his brilliant research, this would be pretty tragic. I tried to see that that didn’t happen.
What kind of atmosphere was it like to work and be at Princeton?
Very strenuous, when he was there.
Was this just for you, or for anyone?
Well, I think it was wearing for everyone, but I think I got an overdose of it because I worked closely with him for such long hours. It was strenuous. His thinking was very brilliant but it could be kind of staggering at times, as much as you admired his ability. The average person couldn’t think as fast as he could. I think that is true. I’ve heard people at Mt. Wilson say that. I’m not the only one who felt that way. Even brilliant and experienced people with all kinds of honors would find that it was a little bit hard to keep up with him sometimes.
I already asked you about Meggers, in 1932 you worked directly with Meggers on ytterbium in the Sun. Did Meggers ever talk about this, about how it was to work with Russell?
Meggers was always very generous with Dr. Russell. He respected him. Meggers had one quality that is very hard to find today. Meggers was a good observer. He had a spectrograph at his disposal in his Section at the Bureau. Dr. Russell never bothered about making observations. He was not a good experimental worker at all. He didn’t like to do experimental work and Meggers would prepare line lists of atomic spectra based on his own observations. Now those were homogeneous lists. They were very much better than the ones I prepared from the literature. Meggers, for instance, started to work on V #I from his own line lists. He carried the analysis fairly well along, but it was a laborious task. He provided Russell with this line list and asked him to go on and complete the analysis. That was a very generous thing for Meggers to do, but it resulted in much more research on spectrum analysis than you would get if you took the more common attitude: “I did all this observing, I’m not going to let anybody have my observations.”
So he was very generous.
He was and he trusted Dr. Russell, and Dr. Russell’s brilliance was such that he could take a spectrum and go on and finish the analysis and do a very good job. That collaboration was really wonderful over the years. Meggers did the same thing for me.
He let me have his own observations of V #II — the first offer I ever got from anybody. It was not the only one, but it was the first chance I ever had to finish an analysis for myself. He offered me V #II, he had offered V #I to Dr. Russell.
When was that?
In the late ‘30’s, and I was so pleased. I had a wonderful time with that spectrum.
This was the time when you brought Dr. Russell in as an assistant at the Bureau?
No that was later. I took Dr. Russell down to the Bureau to assist me. [laughter]
Okay, we’ll talk about that in a moment.
That was after his retirement.
Didn’t Russell also have data from MIT — from friends at MIT?
Yes. But Meggers had more data from MIT, I think, than Russell did. Dr. Russell’s contact with MIT was chiefly when we were working on Fe I and used their Zeeman data with the help of Dorothy Weeks.
He kept on working with Saunders though, later on, didn’t he?
No, that ended around 1925.
What about David Webster, he was at MIT.
Oh, that’s a way, way back. He and Dave Webster were flying airplanes somewhere around the time of World War I.
Navigation and that sort of thing.
I don’t know much about it. That was early and it didn’t continue during my time.
Okay, to continue on then through the late ‘30’s, in 1934 Russell worked on “Molecules in the Sun and Stars” and at the same time you and Harold Babcock and Russell continued work on sulfur in the sun. You did this with Babcock. I’d be interested to know whether these types of papers that Russell worked on, getting into molecular spectra, were followed by you in any degree.
Yes, Herbert Broida and I at the National Bureau of Standards (he just died recently from an accident) revised the molecular identifications for the second revision of the Rowland Table which I did at the Bureau.
Finally you were able to get married and then what happened?
I think it upset Dr. Russell considerably. He was terribly surprised.
I don’t know why.
Was he afraid that he might be losing his best associate?
Yes, he didn’t want to lose me. He was very much upset over it.
Did he try to discourage it?
No, I wouldn’t say that, but he wanted me to continue. I continued part time with him, I continued to give a little bit. I didn’t want to walk out and leave all the stuff unpublished that we spent so many years on, so I collaborated with him. And then the war came and that interfered with everything.
Could we talk about your husband’s career a bit, and then talk about the war?
My husband was the real astronomer in the family and he loved to teach; that was his one ambition.
During what years, where did he go to school?
He studied under Dr. Russell at Princeton.
As an undergraduate?
As an undergraduate and as a graduate, interrupted by war service.
In World War I.
Yes. He worked at Aberdeen in World War I on ballistics.
And where was your husband in the late ‘30’s.
He was at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, for years.
And you maintained contact all this time?
And after your marriage where did he work?
During the War he worked at the radiation lab at MIT, on Loran.
Oh, he worked on Loran.
At that time it was top secret. He worked under Jack Pierce but he was appointed by Wheeler Loomis.
What were his specific duties on the Loran? What was his part in the development?
He never discussed it because it was top secret. He knew the astronomical basis of it, the navigation etc., he was an experienced astronomer and had done a lot of observing.
What was your work in the war? You went to the NBS?
I didn’t go to the National Bureau of Standards until the end of the war. During the war I was working on the spectrum of Fe I.
That was at Princeton?
It was a big job, and the defense people for some reason or other wanted that work continued, so I just carried on the way I was going before. I lived in Cambridge and commuted to Princeton quite often. But I worked on atomic spectra all during the war because they felt this was terribly needed, all the work on atomic structure was needed.
It did fit in, but indirectly.
Were you aware at the time why it was important?
I wasn’t allowed to know, but I was aware of it.
So you were but you didn’t talk about it.
I had a suspicion. I wasn’t actually told, I had a suspicion.
And your husband, Bancroft Sitterly, didn’t talk about this?
He never discussed things like this. And at Cambridge, since there was such a collection of scientists, nobody ever mentioned anybody’s name or whom you met on the street or anything.
You mean you’d talk to people and you didn’t know who they were.
You’d know who they were but you’d never go around telling anybody that you’d seen so and so. There was an aggregate of scientists in Cambridge such as I’ve never known in my life, during the war. Lots of them came there.
How many astronomers did you see?
Oh, I don’t know, lots of them.
Do you recall any particular one that you saw that you talked to that made an impression on you at that time?
Colonel Stratton came there one day, Saha came, Winston Churchill came.
This is the astronomer Stratton, who was a colonel during the war?
Do you know what his duties were as a colonel?
Never asked him, I wouldn’t dare.
Okay. And you saw Churchill.
What were the types of things that astronomers did during the war, I’m certainly aware of navigation and optics, your participation seems to be a bit different in continuing on in atomic spectra and that was more applicable directly.
That was more applicable directly but they did all kinds of things.
Were you in contact with Dr. Russell during the war to any great degree, still?
Yes. I was in Cambridge but I saw him every time I went to Princeton, practically.
He was on the advisory committee to Aberdeen if I understand correctly.
I don’t know, I don’t remember this.
But he was also very outspoken in becoming involved in the war. What are your recollections of this?
I stayed out of that completely. I know he was but Atkinson can tell you all about this. Also I did not go down to Aberdeen. They would have liked to have me go there, but I stayed with my atomic spectra.
They wanted you to go down there.
I see, that’s quite interesting. Was staying out of all of this have anything to do with your background in the Quakers and Friends?
No. I had enough on my hands.
Yes and that was certainly important enough work for the war effort. Through quite a few papers starting back in the ‘20’s with the dynamical parallaxes work and moving into the ‘30’s with a series of papers you did on comparing spectroscopic parallaxes and trigonometric parallaxes and calibrating one against the other and getting pretty good agreement, you mentioned before that much of this work in Russell’s mind was toward developing better data for stellar evolution and things like this. How did you feel about the generation of this work? Did you agree with his views?
I realized the importance of it but I was again buried with the details. Those details are summarized in the book of the Masses of the Stars. Those summaries don’t indicate to any degree the tremendous amount of work that went into grouping of all those stars by spectral type, deciding which class they were all in, etc., there was a tremendous amount of background work that went into that.
Did you have to look directly at spectra in order to make classifications?
I didn’t look at the spectra but I looked at the catalogues and I looked at all the data on the cards: the masses, ΔM and magnitudes, and all of the details you know about a star, etc. And I calculated all of those dynamical parallaxes. I was sort of buried in the details to get this material for Dr. Russell. It is all summarized by groups but I, again, could hardly get out from under the burden. He was doing the overall thinking but he had to have all this material collated for him.
Was it the same thing with this kind of data where he had a different philosophy than you in terms of the degree of accuracy of it. Would he have been happy with less accurate data or what?
He’d have been happier if I did it a little bit more carelessly than I did, but I had to keep everything in order. The point was, if you let any of it get out of hand you’d spend the rest of your life trying to find out what was missing or where you got it from and so forth. I tried to keep the whole thing in order, rigidly, a little bit too rigidly for him.
But yet, it was absolutely essential to do that.
I felt that it was essential or I wouldn’t have insisted on it. And he got what he wanted out of it in the long run.
You worked with Russell then directly until 1945. Now during all of these years, now this was 25 years of direct association, give or take a few years in between, how did your relationships with his family progress? You must have seen his family a lot.
Oh yes. I feel as if I’m part of the family. That is why it seemed like “old home week” at that symposium. I knew all of them as children and he had a lovely family. I’ve always been devoted to them. I thought a great deal of Mrs. Russell and I’m very devoted to the children, all of them. I knew them very intimately.
Could you give me a background feeling for the nature of the Russell family home life?
I think you’d better get that from Margaret Edmondson.
We’ve talked with her quite a bit, but I’m interested in perspective from your point of view.
I know that he always wanted them to be very well educated. There was always a very highly intellectual atmosphere. They were very much interested in nature studies — they had to know the names of the various flowers in the woods when they went out on their afternoon expeditions. Henry [Russell’s son] developed this very great interest in watching birds, learning bird calls and so forth. They were interested in learning about what they saw in nature. This is inherent in their training, in their home life. Always an intellectual atmosphere; nothing superficial about it.
Was Elizabeth at home during all of this period?
She was at home off and on. She was in Colorado Springs a good little bit on account of her health. She had miserable health. But she was delightful.
She had multiple sclerosis?
No, she didn’t have that. She was inherently delicate and she was born with some difficulties. She was a very, very bright, attractive girl and a keen thinker. I always liked Elizabeth.
What kind of difficulties did she have?
She had some difficulty with her speech, and she was very delicate. I never knew anybody who could pick up respiratory ailments or anything else as quickly and as easily as she did. She was frequently ill; very delicate indeed. But she was a warm attractive person. I liked Elizabeth very much. I liked all the children, I really did. I feel devoted to them, I feel like one of them.
Did you see them around the observatory much?
Some, yes, they used to come around the observatory, but I saw them more frequently at home. I was always going down to his study, I was sort of a fixture there.
Was a large fraction of the research done there in the study?
I wouldn’t say a large fraction, but when we got too much material down there and he wanted something or we had to get something finished, often I would work down there. I ought to tell you a story that everybody laughs about, regarding that study. I always used hard pencils and the reason is that I never could keep a soft pencil because Dr. Russell liked soft pencils. If I used the soft pencils I would never have one. He had a habit of thinking so fast that he would come and grab a pencil and then he would start thinking, or somebody would talk to him and that pencil would go into his pocket and he would grab another one, so I could never keep a soft pencil. I always had a lot of pencils around for him. But as time went on the pencils got to be fewer and fewer in number, so the next time I went to his study at home, I would look around and gather up his pocketful of pencils and take them back and put them in the observatory. We shuffled pencils around. I don’t know why that seems so funny but lots of people were amused at it.
That happened through the ‘20’s and ‘30’s?
All the time, he was always putting pencils in his pocket and when he got home to his study he unloaded his pocket on the round table. I never opened a new box, I just went down and got the supply. [laughter]
What about paper. He used foolscap paper, was that legal size paper that was yellow?
Often, it was. He liked the pads, any kind that he could grab.
Did he think better with a pencil and paper in his hand or did it make any difference?
The reason he wrote so badly was that he would think faster than he could write. But if he had a pad that would serve.
I’ve gone through his correspondence collection and I’ve noticed that he saved a lot of his outgoing correspondence rough drafts that would be either rewritten or retyped, did you have anything to do with the organization in saving of all that material?
It would be his secretary.
Henrietta Young at that time?
I didn’t bother about that, I had my hands full.
Did you, did any of your work overlap with his secretary.
Not too much except for the editing of his manuscripts. I finally persuaded him to get me an assistant, when his demands got beyond all reason, and I got Mrs. Murray.
When was this?
Isabel D. Murray. I got her out of high school and had her for years. She was my right hand man.
And when was that approximately.
Oh, it was a way back, must have been in the late ‘30’s. She typed the 1945 Multiplet Table and other Tables that were photographed for publication.
I can probably pick that up from the observatory records.
She was my only assistant and I needed two or three. She was just perfect. When I came to the Bureau and had to take on the big program that Condon wanted, he said, “You carry it and I’ll see that you get the money you need; you get your own help,” which was a big order. And I kept Isabel.
Well, how did you come to make this change after being at Princeton for 25 years?
There was no future there for me.
Why was that?
A younger group was taking over.
You mean in ‘45 it was pretty evident that Dr. Russell was going to retire?
Oh yes, he was practically through.
Did you talk to him about where you could go.
No. I didn’t try to get a job, I was with Banny and I wasn’t looking for a job at all, but I knew that I was not going to stay at Princeton. Russell wanted Dr. Atkinson to succeed him.
Yes. But I had no desire to stay after Dr. Russell left.
Did you learn this directly from Dr. Russell in talking to him that he wanted Atkinson.
Well, I haven’t seen any correspondence on that, I’ve seen correspondence with Chandrasekhar as a possibility and then with Spitzer finally. But what happened, why wasn’t Atkinson the successor?
Dr. Atkinson decided to take a job at Greenwich.
So it was Atkinson’s decision?
Yes. But it didn’t make any difference in my decision at all, because I was not going to stay. Dr. Russell was failing very noticeably at this time.
He had a coronary sometime in the ‘40’s.
Yes. He was failing and I didn’t want to go on.
So you were offered a job by Condon.
I was offered a job by Meggers, not Condon.
I see. Condon came at the same time, that’s right.
Meggers was the one that wanted me after the war. We were in Cambridge during the war in 1945 when all this happened. I was not going back to Princeton, but it was Meggers who wanted me to come to Washington, and Condon and I arrived at the Bureau on the same day, November 1, 1945.
Let me ask you a few things about this time. Around 1941, 1943 you wrote a few general review papers for Sky arid Telescope, first for THE SKY on Princeton University Observatory and then in ‘43 for SKY AND TELESCOPE on “Elements in the Sun.” Now in the 1941 paper for THE SKY you talked a great deal about what was being done at Princeton University Observatory and you mentioned that Dugan paid more attention than others did to producing complete light curves. Was he one of the first to produce complete light curves to get every part of a light curve or was this something that he was just more methodical about.
Well, his own business was observing. And he ran the big program on eclipsing variables. Having the big observing program, naturally, he would observe the star so he could cover the light curve. Observing was one of his specialties and Dr. Russell did not like observing, so there was a division of labor there and Dugan produced these beautiful light curves. He was a very meticulous worker, very careful.
Did he work with Russell in deciding which stars were important to observe?
I didn’t get into that aspect of it very much. I suppose they did, but Dugan would have known on his own which ones to select. They did work together on the limb darkening effect, I think. But I was not in on that very much. Dugan did a great deal for the graduate students. He really picked up the pieces, he was wonderful with the graduate students.
Well, there were other faculty there, too. J. Q. Stewart has been mentioned and then Newton Pierce was there.
Could you talk about them for awhile.
Newton was very good with his students too. Newton would have been a very good successor to Dugan, he was a very practical, useful person to have around, with a good level head, and he did a lot of observing. He wanted to go into photometry with that telescope. He was just in his prime when he was taken. He was very promising, indeed.
When did he pass away?
My guess is that it was in the ‘50’s, but I can’t recall, it was right in his prime.
So in a way he would have been a successor to Dugan.
In a way, he was a liaison at least, and a very able person, doing a lot of work on observing.
Did he have any administrative duties at all to your knowledge?
I think he helped Dugan a great deal, as Dr. Russell was failing in health. I know he did, in fact.
Did Newton Pierce have any particular association with Russell that you were aware of.
Oh yes, he got his degree there.
And then he stayed there?
He stayed, yes, which indicated how well they thought of him.
Did he work originally for Dugan?
Mostly for Dugan I think.
What about Stewart then.
He did a lot of the teaching; he handled the teaching course on general astronomy. He worked, also, on the textbooks by Russell, Dugan and Stewart.
How did he get along with Russell? I know that there were some differences.
There were some differences of opinion. I never went into it.
So you don’t know any of the specifics.
They were of very different types altogether.
I always felt that Stewart had a great deal of ability and that he could have been encouraged to do a great deal more than he did. I always respected John Stewart. I admired him and he was a good thinker. But it was very hard at Princeton, for instance, to do too much in face of such a brilliant, dominating spirit as Russell had. He knew everything all the time on every subject. I never talked to John Stewart about it, but I felt that maybe he was as baffled as I was at times.
Is Stewart head of the graduate students, Ph.D. graduate students?
He always helped with the graduate work, I think.
But in his research, no one really followed it up.
He got into social physics, which was a pity, because he had the ability to do very good original research work.
Did Russell ever talk about Stewart going into social physics?
Not to me. I never discussed it with him.
Do you know what his feelings were on it, though, did other people?
I doubt if he would have thought too much of it because he was practical regarding physics research. It would not be in line with his general thinking, I think. He and Professor Stewart had entirely different styles of thinking.
I know that Dugan had a certain number of graduate students who went on. I know that Frank Bradshaw Wood was one of his students directly.
And John Merrill.
And Merrill was, and I guess Stewart was not. So the two people who really did have research graduate students would have been...
Russell and Dugan had most of them.
What was the general atmosphere amongst the graduates, did you have any contact with them, the graduate students in the ‘30’s. Spitzer was there too for several years.
Yes, Spitzer was there. Of course they wanted to be in that department because it was so distinguished. And I think they were always proud they were in that department. I think that came out very clearly at the symposium, that they were there and it was a privilege to be there, and it was. They had an excellent opportunity with Dr. Russell and his brilliant expositions, his brilliant overall knowledge and his encyclopedic attitude toward everything. He knew almost any subject you could mention. He would talk intelligently on it, and it was a privilege to associate with a person like that. My husband thought that his lectures were beyond anything anybody could ever expect. He always felt that it was an opportunity of a lifetime to be there, and he was bright enough to follow the lectures. That was what was required. I think they were a little overpowering to some of the students. Dugan was a very thorough worker and followed along with a sort of filling in and a background of very solid thinking in more detail. So the balance was extremely good. John Stewart was very well educated. He could discuss almost any subject, but not with the brilliance of Dr. Russell. None of us could cope with that. The Observatory faculty was really a very broad minded, well educated group, which had a healthy influence on the students. My husband will never forget it, he thought that opportunity was such that no student could get anything that would equal it. He was very enthusiastic over it.
From the symposium, and from other places I recall many interesting anecdotal memories about Russell in colloquia sitting in a chair, waking up when it was over. How often did that sort of thing actually happen?
Often. He would go to sleep when he was working with me but he would wake up and know just where he had left off. He pushed himself so hard, he was tired all the time.
I remember a particular occasion when there was an informal little seminar on eclipsing variables. I don’t know why r was invited because I didn’t do the eclipsing variable work in any detail. This went on for about half a day. And various people came and there was one speaker who had a theory. He spoke at great length on his theory and then he said:”Now, my theory seems to me to be all right, but it doesn’t work, so I have to do more on it.” And I will never forget Dr. Russell. He was very courteous, and very nice, but he got up and used the equation that the speaker had put on the board. He didn’t touch it, but he said: “Now, your theory accounts for this, and this,” and he went on to the various terms of the equation and then commented: “Unless I am wrong, you made no mention of this term and that is the dominant one.” Now that is the impression I got. The details may be wrong, I didn’t know the equation, but I felt that this is typical of his thinking and the speaker didn’t realize that he was leaving out the most important term, but he was formulating a theory.
When was this?
A long time ago. I don’t remember much about it except the equation. I remember the way Dr. Russell handled it and how much impressed I was. I was always impressed with his thinking approach, even though I couldn’t follow most of it.
Was it in the ‘30’s or the ‘20’s?
I don’t know. It was a long time ago, perhaps the 30’s.
And you don’t remember who the lecturer was.
Banny was there, I know. But he was not the one speaking. It was very informal, there were undergraduate students and graduate students there, and some outsiders. It was just a nice little informal thing. I remember it very distinctly and how typical I thought it was.
Do you remember Z. Kopal coming at all.
I think Kopal had been there.
But this was not Kopal.
I wouldn’t say.
Did Ed Carpenter ever talk about binaries there?
I don’t think so. I knew Ed but I don’t remember that he visited us.
Did you go to AAS meetings with Russell?
And what was his usual role in the meetings?
Dominating. He would always have questions, leading questions. He was an outstanding figure at the AAS meetings. In fact when he wasn’t there people noticed it. He was always asking questions about papers, he felt that people should do this.
Did he continue to talk about papers and specifics between the sessions and at night?
He undoubtedly did, on most occasions.
You didn’t follow him completely during those times.
What were the AAS meetings like?
They were like family affairs; we enjoyed them, we knew people. You would go in and feel as if you belonged and you knew about everybody. It was more like a close gathering of people with a common interest. You didn’t have the overpowering effect of these great big meetings with simultaneous sessions. You could see people and talk to them. I think they were much nicer then than they are now. Much nicer, because they were smaller. I remember when the radio astronomers came in I felt it very keenly at the meetings. I thought this is not like it used to be. And that was only a small group compared to what they have now.
This would have been the ‘50’s now. How did Dr. Russell relate to the rest of the astronomers, was he friendly with everyone?
Everybody knew him; more and more as everybody consulted him. He was in demand all the time for advice. I think he was certainly very well known by everybody and an awful lot of people were after him morning, noon and night. He was really critical in appraising papers.
Did he need a lot of attention, do you think? Or did he try to get away from people?
No. He loved to talk.
So he was always available.
Mostly, unless he thought it was a crank.
Did you ever see him have to deal with a crank?
Not in my experience. I know he was aware of some of the things he thought were just crank material.
Do you recall any of these?
No, I don’t recall, but I do know that at the time anybody on the council had to be sure that the papers were acceptable and not crank material. I remember that from being on the council, later. They knew who would present queer papers. Those papers were pretty well supervised in those days.
As a member of council then, he would be involved in determining which papers were correct?
Well, I think he would know anyway from the literature and he was very keen when he read papers about appraising them, maybe not as to whether they were done by cranks but as to their worth. He could look at a paper in one second and tell you whether it was a worthwhile one or not.
I know that he did a lot of refereeing.
He did a great deal of refereeing.
Were you involved at all in keeping the papers straight for him?
Not that I remember.
Did he ever talk about any particular frustrations or particular delights when a paper would come through or was he pretty personal about it?
I knew generally how he felt about various workers.
Who were his most admired workers.
I guess Harlow Shapley.
He really did admire Shapley’s work?
How about others, other than Shapley.
He thought Ted Dunham was really marvelous. Those were the two. I was very closely associated with Dunham. He had great respect for Cecilia, and of course all the directors of observatories all over the country. He knew them all personally, the top people. He traveled in the upper echelon.
When visitors came to Princeton, especially distinguished visitors such as Eddington, Jeans, people, like that, and when Einstein first came, did Russell have contact with Einstein?
He probably did, we all did. We saw Einstein. He came to seminars. Yes. I’m sure Dr. Russell did. I don’t know of any particular ones, but Einstein was so bothered by photographers and by people trying to make portraits of him that he came to Princeton to get away from it. He had no peace in Pasadena. There was too much popularizing of him as the “Great Einstein.” And so when he came to Princeton a great effort was made to let him be free on the campus and not immortalize him in any way. An effort was made to let him be free, and not to bother him, so he was just a well known figure there and he used to come to seminars. You wouldn’t single him out or bother him in any way. I’m sure Dr. Russell saw him.
Were you ever together with Russell when he hosted distinguished visitors, such as Eddington or Jeans, when they came?
He used to have some of them come to the observatory but I remember more distinctly his trips abroad to see all these people.
What were they like?
We used to have to get his lectures ready for him, when he received medals, etc. It was quite a job to get him off.
What did you have to do to get him off, usually?
Well, I usually had to see that his drawings were all right and the slides were correct and so forth, and get him well organized for his trips, with his material in hand.
So you knew ahead of time everything that had to be done, and his wife had to organize the other side, or did he do any of it himself?
That was up to them. They had their own way of traveling.
They did a reasonable amount of traveling?
They did an enormous amount of traveling.
When Russell was away during all those summers in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s and ‘40’s as a research associate at Mt. Wilson, he went pretty much every summer, didn’t he?
No, in summer he always went to his summer place. He usually used to go to Mt. Wilson a month every year, during the academic term.
So as a Carnegie Research Associate he just went for a certain amount of time?
A month a year as I recall, every year.
I see, so just a month away wasn’t that much time away. I guess they were in Cape Cod or somewhere?
They had a rented home at Clark’s Island near Plymouth.
Did Russell continue working during these periods away?
Oh yes, he always had some with him.
Would you get letters back from him?
How were these letters sent up, asking for data?
Yes, anything at all that he wanted; it could be anything.
So he really worked year around.
Usually sending me proofs to be corrected.
I know that his research associate ship stopped around 1950 or a little before then.
And this was a rather shock to the other research person, Joel Stebbins. How did Russell take it?
I don’t think he was too happy about it.
Was there ever a reason given?
I don’t know. I never understood it. I don’t think anybody did. It was kind of a sudden blow. But again when these difficulties arrived I tried to stay out of them all. I bent over backwards to stay out of them.
Did he ever try to involve you in them?
So he was pretty much on his own. Let’s talk now about the Bureau of Standards. After you left for the Bureau of Standards, I know that you maintained contact with Russell and continued working on gadolinium and other rare earths and elements like that. What was your association with him while you worked at the National Bureau of Standards?
I had not anticipated it, but shortly after I came to the Bureau of Standards, Condon decided that he wanted a complete project done on atomic energy levels. Everybody has a mistaken notion that he brought me there to do it. He didn’t. I was there already, working for Dr. Meggers. When I went to see Dr. Meggers to interview him about the job, I asked him specifically whether I would have to give up work on the solar spectrum if I accepted his offer. I said I wasn’t going to give up my solar work. I told you I wasn’t too anxious to take a job. Dr. Meggers said “No, spectroscopy is what is required.” That was his answer. He said you don’t have to give it up. I was working on the infrared solar spectrum with Babcock at Mt. Wilson. I wanted to finish that and I was tremendously interested in the XUV solar spectrum although I thought I would never get to see it. But it happened in 1946, they got the XUV spectrum and our dream had come true.
That’s where all the ultimate lines were.
That is where a lot of them were, and I never will forget how thrilled I was when I found out that that experiment succeeded. I was so thrilled that I believe I actually called Dr. Tousey whom I didn’t know, and told him how enthusiastic I was over it.
That was the rocket experiment.
In 1946, the first rocket XUV solar spectrum. Anyway, whether I called him or not, this was a beginning of a near era, one that I was tremendously interested in. So I put out Ultraviolet Multiplet Tables and I had dreams in my mind. These dreams were all directed towards astrophysics and Dr. Meggers didn’t object. And so all through the years, on the side, despite a very heavy program, I kept in touch with the people at the Naval Research Laboratory on XUV spectra and I am still working part time on them with Dr. Tousey.
One of Spitzer’s first interests in fact even while he was still at Yale before he came as Russell’s replacement was to do rocket astronomy, and I’m just wondering did this, was this interest partly stimulated by knowing that this was a very important problem at Princeton?
It could have been because Dr. Russell was always interested in solar research. He started me in on it. And I remember at Princeton one day long ago, a bunch of us got to talking about what the ultraviolet solar spectrum would be like. It was always our dream, but at that time we thought we’d never live to see such a thing because nobody could build a spectrograph that would be stable enough.
For the atmosphere?
Yes, for rocket flight. But I remember on this particular day we sat there and predicted what that ultraviolet solar spectrum was going to look like and we all put in the things that we were most interested in after we got magnesium and silicon taken care of, and, of course, Lymanα. And I remember I put sulfur in as one of my pets.
Who sat around the table?
I don’t know who were there. There were Dr. Russell and myself, and I know we were having a field day because we built up this solar spectrum, just verbally. Nothing was written down but we had a lot of fun guessing.
Did he often do things like this?
Yes, he liked to think ahead, hut we all thought this was hopeless; we could probably never see this beautiful spectrum. We didn’t get to the high ionization lines on that occasion. We limited ourselves to fairly low ionization limits.
Did he talk specifically about the use of rockets to get around the atmosphere?
No. He didn’t.
He was just saying if it could be done.
“If it could be done;” but that was nice. Anyway, Meggers let me go on with solar work on my own, but I had to do it on the side because the AEL program was so heavy.
The Atomic Energy Levels Program was my full time work.
How was the research organized at the National Bureau of Standards when you got there?
Dr. Meggers was working on his own individual spectra as I told you, vanadium for example, and he was always observing the spectrum and analyzing it himself. He did everything long hand and in a hard way. We didn’t have much help and he wouldn’t accept help because he never would trust anybody to be accurate. He was like me. I was like him. I wanted things right or not at all.
You brought Isabel Murray with you?
I succeeded in getting Isabel to help me. I had to cover the whole periodic table and all the literature on every spectrum. Dr. Meggers had started his reference catalogue on atomic spectra and I brought our catalogue from Princeton and combined it with his, so it was pretty well up to date. In addition, you had to keep up with the literature, and Condon wanted this done very rapidly. It was quite a big assignment.
He wanted it done rapidly too, but they must have been more interested in accuracy too there, weren’t they?
Well, I was. I would never yield on that. Nobody could ever make me yield on it under any circumstances. So that was just a stubborn streak of mine and I think it has paid off.
What kind of computational facilities did they have when you arrived and how did they change?
I made every bit of the copy long hand. We had no machines and no Xerox machines, no IBM machines, nothing. I made the press copy long hand, had no duplicate of it and the GPO never lost a sheet.
Things certainly changed there, I mean the operation got a lot bigger.
At this time, no. We had no Xerox machines and the typing of the data was too difficult. I had no typist, it was difficult to handle that kind of data. I went down to the GPO and they told me if I wrote every sheet clearly in black ink, they would set up the type from it. They did a marvelous job. The text was typed, but the tables were never typed.
I can understand that. But there certainly must have been a time when you started getting desk calculators and more typewriters.
We had desk calculators and the typewriters got better and better but you had to fix the keyboard. I had special keyboard figures put on the typewriter. The multiplet tables were typed with this special keyboard but the energy level tables were not.
How did the National Bureau of Standards in the division you were working in, expand. How did Meggers expand the area, in what direction did he want to go?
He didn’t expand too much. We operated on a very old style basis. I got a secretary, finally, and I had Mrs. Murray. I tried to get all the qualified people that I could to help me collect material and do spectrum analysis on spectra that were not well known. So I went around and got retired people on contract. They were the best help you could get. They were not paid very much, but they went on with their work and you knew you could depend on everything they did. So I got pretty good help that way and it worked out. I did a great deal of it myself. They don’t do it that way now; it is all mechanized. After I left, the machines came in and that was a different set up. But when the machines were just coming, I was too old to change techniques. I had to go on the old way.
Let’s talk then about some of the advisory work that you did in the ‘50’s. In ‘51 and ‘52 you supervised the collection of data for atomic spectra and this was for the Committee on Line Spectra of the Elements. This was in the National Academy of Sciences.
That’s right. That was the background for the AEL Program.
So that was part of it.
It was part of it. I got their advice all the way along.
Was this through the National Research Council?
Yes. I had served on that committee and I knew all the people so I got advice from all the top spectroscopists in the country and I went to see many of them. I showed them the layout, and the plans for that book resulted from those interviews. I didn’t make it up myself. I made up the basic one and took it around and got this committee to help me. Dr. Bowen at Mt. Wilson was one of the best people I ever consulted. He was wonderful. He advised me a great deal about the AEL and about the multiplet tables; where not to cut them and what to put him. He said, “You have to look to the future when the ultraviolet lines are shifted out to the infrared.” Be sure to put in ultraviolet intersystem combinations, they’re going to be very important in the future.
When the ultraviolet is shifted to the infrared?
In the quasars.
Yes, but he wasn’t aware of those things at those times.
He was aware of what might happen. He kept telling me to be sure that when you make up the ultraviolet multiplet tables, put in all these leading transitions. If they won’t let you publish the whole thing put in all the leading ones, and he was very strict on that and I appreciated this advice from Dr. Bowen.
This was in the early ‘50’s.
It was a long time ago. It was very interesting. I had done most of it anyway, but he really supported me so that if I were to run out of money because they didn’t want to pay for such extensive tables, I knew where not to cut them. That was the point.
That’s very interesting, and it certainly proved to be very important.
It’s true. I had very good advice. I never would handle this program as a lone wolf. I went around and pooled all the comments and then made up the tables as sort of an average. It is not ideal but I think the system worked pretty well.
Was it through this contact with the National Research Council that you became the AAS representative to the National Academy of Sciences?
Oh, I don’t know, they picked various people.
What were your duties as the representative?
I can’t think that there were any differences than being a member of the committee, my duties went on the same.
You certainly continued to be a member of the committee on line spectra well through the ‘60’s.
Yes. I had the support of the Council and at that time we had a very able group of people on that committee. And then we gathered up the international ones and I had always had the personal contact with the spectroscopists abroad. And they have been wonderful: Edlen at Lund, Garton at Imperial College in Madrid; and a group under Catalan and then from the astrophysical point of view, the ones in Kiel and, of course, for solar and astrophysical work, Minnaert at Utrecht.
There’s a period of time in the war when material and information from Catalan wasn’t available.
We incorporated his data on Fe I in our Monograph. It worried me a little to do that but he sent us this material during the war, and we tried to give him due credit for it.
Catalan was a neutral?
During the war, the Civil War in Madrid.
The Spanish Civil War.
He took a neutral attitude and he managed, with some difficulty, to get this little list of all of his terms of iron on a piece of paper which he sent to us, and we incorporated it in the monograph. And we tried to get our line list to him, I don’t remember whether it got there or not, I can’t remember back that far.
Well, we’ve covered quite a bit of ground. It is 12:30 now, I’d like to ask you just to sum up things, thinking ahead to the work I’m doing on Henry Norris Russell, what kind of advice would you give me for treating the biography of a man like that?
It is a little hard to do that at short notice. I’d have to think a little bit, he was such a well informed and broad-minded person. I think you can’t help but emphasize his influence on astrophysics by his inherent ability to see problems keenly and thoroughly. I was always impressed with that, with every subject I dealt with, and we handled a good many subjects through the years. It was like that example I gave of the mistake in the results of those photographic plates. I never in my life could have, in ten minutes, thought back and figured that an error in time would have affected all of the computations in every step of that development in the direction that would give that kind of a residual. That is brilliant thinking. Now, I wasn’t brilliant at all and I was a novice but still for anybody to carry in his mind every step of the reduction of those photographic plates impressed me. He had worked out the method and, of course, he knew it, but it was a long and intricate procedure.
This was in your comments for the IAU Symposium?
Yes, in the symposium. And he didn’t take very many minutes to figure out that an error in recording time would give the results that I got. Now this was my first inkling of how very brilliant his thinking must have been. I was simply astounded that anybody could do that. But that happened over and over again with his work on stellar evolution. He grasped the importance of looking at the observations from every point of view, the eclipsing variables, the double stars, the other stars, parallaxes, proper motions, magnitudes, spectral types; whatever phase of it you wanted to look at in astrophysics. He would have that all in his mind and collated it as to how he could get this material in order and tie it in with theories of stellar evolution.
Did he continue to do that even in the ‘30’s?
Oh yes, he did that right along. He was doing it very actively in the ‘30’s because that is when we did that book on the masses.
Right. Exactly. Did he ever talk about the problem of the energy sources of the Sun and Stars, he never really attacked that directly, though.
He attacked the problem of the angular momentum in his book on The Solar System and Its Origin. He went into that very carefully.
He never did any nuclear physics or something like this. I’m wondering if he ever talked to you about as to why.
I can’t remember the nuclear physics. That came in a later phase.
Well, I know that he was in contact with people who were doing this, but I was wondering why he never took on the burden himself.
He must have known what was going on during the war.
Yes, but this would be pre-war with Bethe’s work in ‘38. Okay. Were there parts of astronomy that he wasn’t interested in?
I have yet to find one.
He worked in just about every possible branch of stellar astronomy, but he didn’t do much in galactic research.
Not too much, but he had at his fingertips knowledge that you could never acquire easily. Anybody could stop him and ask him about the albedo of a planet and he’d know right off; or ask him something about refraction, he’d know the answer to that; or something about an index of refraction, he’d know right off; and details like that. And you could go to limb darkening of eclipsing variables, reflection effects, he’d know all about that. This is unusual because most people know about the details only in their own fields, but he could do it, I have seen him come in the observatory and people would be waiting to see him because they were having trouble with this, that and the other thing. He could answer any question and go on to the next one. You could stop him at the end of the hail and ask him about a configuration in iron and he’d know. “Oh yes, probably you’re not dealing with the right configuration, try this, that or the other.” He’d have these series in his mind. He was amazing. That, I think, is the characteristic that I think of most, he was so well versed in everything.
Yes. People have talked about his tremendous memory.
He had a tremendous memory and he remembered correctly. I don’t remember but one slip in his memory in all the time I worked for him. Just one. There was one.
What was that?
Well, it was a reference that he must have had wrong because nobody ever found it. It only happened once in all the time I worked with him.
Was this later on in the period, or early?
I think it was in the ‘30’s, when we were working on “The Masses of the Stars.” He was never wrong. I couldn’t believe that this was wrong but we never did find it. It happened only once in my whole experience with him.
That would be something you’d remember quite definitely.
Because when he told you a reference he was right. He would either tell you the author, or the subject, or the year and probably the periodical where it happened. He’d give you enough clues that you could find it and he was right, I would say, 100% of the time.
Except for once.
Well, in this one case, I don’t know whether I misunderstood him or what, but we never did find one reference that he wanted.
Did you ask him again for the reference?
I don’t know. I hesitated about asking him.
Because he was always right.
But when he gave you a reference and it wasn’t there?
We did without it. He knew that.
Oh, I see. That’s interesting.
He was always right on it.
Was he pretty much held in awe by people?
I think so, somewhat, yes.
How do you think he felt about it? Did he want to be more personal with people or was he content?
I think he’d like to be personal with people and I think in his way he was sometimes tart with people. I don’t think I am the only one that felt that you really ought to be well educated to talk to him. I never was well enough educated to speak his language and I think that others felt that he was a little bit overpowering in his thinking. But Banny just loved to talk to him for hours on end. He just ate it up. I liked it for a while but then it would wear me down after a while and I’d give up.
When you came down to the National Bureau of Standards, what did your husband do during that time, did he teach?
He worked for a little while at the Naval Observatory. Then he ran the Physics Department at The American University for a while and then he became a member of the Physics Department. There was no opportunity for astronomy except for a survey course. So he taught physics students that didn’t want to do any mathematics.
I know the kind. In 1945 you were on the committee to solicit funds for an establishment of lectureship in honor of Russell. How did that come about?
I wasn’t on that committee as I recall. I never did anything on it.
That was probably an error then in Science because they indicated that you were on that committee.
If I was on it I never did anything for it.
Okay. I just wanted to ask you that.
Shapley was the moving spirit in that.
That makes sense. Okay.
And I remember when the committee was formed but I never did anything on that committee.
In your own life, of course, you’ve gotten quite a few honorary awards, gold medals, and you’ve got the William Meggers Award, Optical Society of America 1972, and the gold medal of 1960. What, in your own mind, looking back over your career, has been the most satisfying thing that you’ve ever done yourself, your own research or research that you’ve done?
I think that the greatest reward of it all comes in the privilege I’ve had in associating with very able research people. My contacts are what stand out in my mind. For instance, the group from Sweden, who have collaborated with me for years, and the association with those people is a privilege of a lifetime. The same thing with the group in Madrid. The same thing with Minnaert. I’ve had wonderful contacts and wonderful collaboration from people at home and abroad, and associating with Meggers and Kiess here and the association with all the astronomers at Mt. Wilson. I think it is the associations I value above anything else.
Were all of these associations quite a bit different than your association with Russell?
I guess they resulted from it, probably. He trained me. They were all very different.
But they, then, regarded you differently than he did possibly, much more as a colleague?
That is certainly true. I came along later. There is a time element involved. When I was making these associations with all of these spectroscopists abroad, Dr. Russell had retired and I was responsible for this big program. And they accepted me. Because of this time element you can’t put them all in parallel.
You certainly did work with Meggers and a few others.
I wasn’t a stranger to them. I worked with them a long time and made many trips to Washington, D.C. to collaborate with them.
But still that doesn’t exactly answer the question: What do you feel though, as far as research is concerned, was the most significant thing that you’ve done?
Not nearly as much as I ought to have done. Oh, I don’t know. I think the 1945 Multiplet Table probably. It has had the most impact. All of the multiplet tables, and now my present series, I think, probably have had the most lasting influence on astrophysics and that has been my predominating interest. I have done those tables for the astronomers more than for the physicists. My greatest pleasure over the years has come from the research on the solar spectra. I am still deeply interested in the identification of solar lines as to their chemical origin.
How has the reaction in astronomy been to your work?
Wonderful. They’re very grateful to me. I think they appreciate the Multiplet Tables.
They’ve certainly been used.
Yes, I still receive requests, they’re still in demand.
You might be interested to know we do a Science Citation Index study of papers and of books and publications of people that we talk to. And we couldn’t finish yours, it was too big! [laughter]
Well, everybody wants things handed to them on a silver platter and that’s really what I’m trying to do. The platter isn’t silver but I’m trying.
Your platter is spectra of all the elements.
Spectra of all the elements.
Well, is there anything that I’ve left out?
I can’t think of anything, I think you’ve got too much in.
Oh no. No, I think this has been a very nice session, and I thank you very much for it and you’ll be seeing the transcript of this edited by myself in a number of months, it won’t be too soon because I’ll be away for most of the summer. But at that point if there’s anything that you’d be able to add to the material I’d be very grateful, if you could.
I don’t think I have much to add. I think you’ve covered me more thoroughly than I deserve.
I hope that I’ve gotten the major points.
Well, I think you have. It’s mixed up, but it is there, I think.
Thank you very much.
IAU Symposium #80 (November 1977)
AJ 39 (1929) pp. 165-207
AJ 39 (1929) pp. 165-207
THE MASSES OF THE STARS (U. Chicago, 1940).
Evolutionary paths on HR Diagram.
H.N. Russell and F.A. Saunders (1925), Astroph. J. 61, 38-69.
A Multiplet Table of Astrophysical Interest Revised (PR. OBS. CONTR. 20 pt. I, pt. II, 1945).
ApJ 63 (1926) pp. 1-12.
Based upon remarks made at IAU Symposium #80.
H.N. Russell, "On the Composition of the Sun's Atomosphere," ApJ 70 (1929) p. 11.
ApJ 63 (1926) pp. 1-12.
PASP 40 (1928) p. 271 (ABSTR.).
ApJ 68 (1928) p. 1-8.
Russell, Dugan and Stewart, ASTRONOMY II (Ginn, 1927) p. 724, Fig. 250.
W/H.P. Broida, "Molecules in the Solar Spectrum" Mem. Soc. R. Sc. Liege (4) 18 (1957) p. 217-30.
SKY 5 #12 (1941) pp. 3-5.
SKY AND TELESCOPE 2 (1943) pp. 3-6.
THE SOLAR SYSTEM AND ITS ORIGIN (MacMillan, 1935).