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Interview of Evry Schatzman by Spencer Weart on 1979 August 21, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4858
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Education at Ecole normale supérieure, Paris; survival during German Occupation, and gathering of astronomers at Haute Provence Observatory; work in stellar evolution, white dwarfs, and stellar atmospheres; views on cosmology; personal relation to Communist Party. Postwar situation of French astronomy, difficulties of establishing astrophysical community, Institut d'Astrophysique, changing relationships in education, government, and funding mechanisms. Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES). Société Astronomique de France. Comments on a variety of institutional problems. Also prominently mentioned are: Pierre Raoul Aigrain, Daniel Barbier, Edmond H. Bauer, Emile Borel, Louis de Broglie, Chalonge, Paul Couderc, Courtes, Cruze, Danjon, Bernard Dreyfus, Jean Dufay, Esclangon, Charles Fehrenbach, Jacques Friedel, Jean Pierre Girard, André Lallemand, Henri Longchambon, Lwoff, Henri Mineur, Max Morand, Jean Claude Pecker, Pope Pius XII, Martin Schwarzschild, Lyman Spitzer, Bengt Georg Daniel Strömgren, Tudminen, Vichney, Edmund T. Whittaker, Lodewijk Woltjer, Fritz Zwicky; Bulletin Astronomique, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), Délégation Générale à la Recherche Scientifique et Technique, Ecole des hautes études (France), Ecole normale supérieure (France), European Southern Observatory, France Ministry of Education, Institut de Radio Astronomie Multimetrique, Institut Henri Poincaré, International Astronomical Union, Meudon Observatory, Observatoire de Haute Provence, Paris-Soir, Physics Today, Princeton University, Société Française de Physique, Sputnik (Spacecraft), Sud Aviation Co., and Université de Paris.
I’m interested in how an astronomical career starts, so tell me a little about your background. I know you were born in 1920, but I don’t know your father; according to QUI EST QUI he was a “chirurgien-dentiste.” Was there any early orientation toward science?
I think I was science oriented very early, at the age of ten, certainly. I had a chance of attending a school where physics was taught at the age of 11. That’s to simplify the question of the ages; I won’t get into details. I was absolutely fascinated first by chemistry, when I was 11. In fact, it is because it gave the feeling of getting deeper into an understanding of matter, because the atomic hypothesis was immediately the basis of description of the chemical properties, even if that meant only very nice colors in the school room.
— crystals and so forth?
Yes. Anyhow, when I was 13, I got an extremely good teacher who taught physics and mathematics. He carried on experiments in the school room on falling bodies, repeating the famous Galileo experiments, things like that. It’s certainly from that time that I decided to become a physicist and nothing else.
Was this the Collage Chaptal?
Yes. After that, I think everything was straight until I entered the Ecole Normale Suprieure.
Was this teacher a normalien?
Yes, but not from the Ecole Normale Suprieure; he was from the Ecole Normale Sup6rieure de Saint Cloud, which at that time was preparing teachers only for the first cycle, let’s say, not the primary school but the first cycle of the secondary school.
I see. How did it come about that you went to the Normale?
Oh, well, after the baccalaureate, which I passed at the age of about 17, everyone at that time who was successful at school would attend, not the university, but the special classes which were preparing you to pass the exams for the big schools. This was preparing two years. The first year of preparation, I didn’t have to think about which school I was going to prepare for. But when the second year came, at the end of the first semester, we had to make our choices. I hesitated a little bit. There was a good friend of mine who was six years older than myself, and had gone a couple of years before to the Ecole Polytechnique, who advised me in several circumstances. He told me, “Just prepare the Ecole Normale Suprieure, nothing else.” So I went to my professor of mathematics, who was well known as an extremely good professor of mathematics in these classes, and I said, “I am doing only the Ecole Normale Suprieure.” He was a bit worried, because he expected me to be one more on the list of those who were successful at the Ecole Polytechnique (exams).
Who was this?
George Milhaud. He was extremely fascinating and good. I have extremely good memories of that year.
Now, at this time you were still thinking of becoming a chemist?
No, I knew since the age of 14 that I was to become a physicist.
Because of this teacher, yes.
I think this was the start. I began very early to repeat experiments at home. I had my own room in the apartment, and sometimes it was transformed into some sort of mess by the experiments I carried on there.
Did you do amateur radio, that sort of thing?
No, not radio, but other things. For example, I repeated the interference experiments.
Oh, the double slit —
Double slit, or just a small envelope to lift one of two plates of glass (Fresnel mirrors), and wave propagation on the surface of water, diffraction by an aperture in two dimensions —
I see, you did all that.
I even tried to build a wind tunnel for turbulence, with an electric motor-driven fan. It was not very successful, I must say.
That’s a difficult thing to do.
I had no idea that in order for that to work, the tunnel has to be extremely long, so that you can track the air. My tunnel was about one meter long. Not long enough.
What did your family think of this choice of a scientific career?
I don’t know. My family appreciated that I was successful in school, but otherwise they didn’t make any pressure on my choice. And when I said I prepared the Ecole Normale Superieure they said, OK. After the end of the year, after I had been accepted at the Ecole Normale Superieure, my parents told me that they had visited George Milhaud during the year, to know what he was thinking of me. I must say that I was extremely flattered by what was awarded to me at the time. And when I got in the Ecole Normale Suprieure, we had to decide whether we were going to become physicists or mathematicians.
This was during your first year?
Well, you see, I passed the competitive exam in ‘39, just on the eve of the World War, and I would say, thank God that I succeeded that year. So, in the fall of ‘39, it was just the beginning of the ware At the Ecole Normale Suprieure were only those few people who were not the age to be drafted — and I was just a couple of months too young for being drafted. So I began the normal year at the Ecole, except that the professors at the Sorbonne were not quite the same. Many of them were busy with military purposes and so on. But anyhow, when we entered, we were asked whether we were to become physicists or mathematicians. This meant immediately deciding which exams we were going to take at the university. I decided to be a physicist. At that time the director of the laboratory of physics at the Ecole Normale Suprieure was trying to find, among the young students, some people to help to carry on the experiments, because all the research assistants were in the Army. So I happened to go to the lab, almost at the beginning of the year, to work in the building of a big spectrograph.
Who was this with?
The name of the professor was Eugene Bloch, who did lots of work for example in vibrations and spectroscopy. In fact, I went to Lyon during the war — he went to Lyon also, and I met him there. That was later. During that first year, I didn’t work very much. It was so terribly exciting to be in the laboratory that I spent all of my time in the laboratory. Just because of the exams at the university, finding them so much easier than the competitive exam for the Ecole Normale Suprieure, with that little work I could manage to get my degree. I left Paris on my bicycle, on June 10, 1940, went to Blois where I got a train to Bordeaux. I finally went to Montpellier, where I passed my exams at the end of July (physique generale, calcul differentiel et integral). And the next year I was again in Paris, in ‘40 - ‘41. Except for those people who were still in the Army in the southern part of France, or those who were in prison camp, the students of the Ecole Normale Suprieure were there. We were about 200. About half of them were scientists, the other half were people in the humanities. That year I had to take chemistry and mechanics, and I didn’t like chemistry. I can even say that I began to hate chemistry — at least in the way it was taught (and I think it is still mostly taught) in France. Well, I can still be very angry about that.
Differently from the physics education?
Yes. I would summarize it in the following way: in physics, you learn about the physical properties of the matter, and in chemistry, you learn recipes. And the amount of information you had to learn, which was I think perfectly useless, because after all, all these things are in the books. But nothing about the basic properties of matter, or very little. So I began really to hate that. I had no difficulty with math, but I was not much interested in mathematical theories and things like that, so really, physics was my field. But it is during that year that I really discovered theoretical physics, because I attended the course in probabilities and statistics, and the course in probabilities was given by Emile Borel. It was the last year he was giving his lectures.
That’s right, because he was —
He retired at the end of ‘41. So I was there for his last lectures.
He’s said to have been a very good teacher, yes.
He was wonderful. Very simple, going straight to the main points. At his last lecture all his younger colleagues were there, and it was terribly exciting to see all these professors sitting in the first row, listening to Emile Borel. Very exciting, you see. Emile Borel took the opportunity of that lecture to recall a very long argument with Zermelo: that concerns the story of the typing monkeys. The probability that they type a given poem is extremely small, so there is the argument: If we wait long enough, will the poem come or not? He described the argument very nicely. We also had to make a choice between statistics and statistical physics. I made the choice of statistical physics, and the course was given by Francis Perrin. That was also an extremely simple, good course. I’ve been using what I learned in the course of Francis Perrin for many years. We had also at that time a few lectures of Louis de Brogue himself.
By the way, I’m curious. Francis Perrin was at the Institut Henri Poincare —
Did he come to the Normale, or did you —?
No, no, at the Ecole Normale, we had to go to the university. We had extremely few lectures at the Ecole Normale itself. We had the laboratories, and we had a very few lectures. We’d just have to cross the street to go from the Ecole Normale to the Institut Poincare — it is not far, and even the Sorbonne at that time was only a few hundred meters’ walk.
That’s right. What do the normaliens do now?
The Ecole Normale is still at the same place. But the sciences are taught at the new buildings, on the Quai Saint-Bernal.
Right, so what do they do?
Oh, they go there.
And in fact, when I’ve been teaching myself, astrophysics, quite a few people from the Ecole Normale came there. Of course, even when I was teaching the graduate course in Mendon a few came. Coming back to that time, we had a few lectures of Louis de Broglie, and in some sense, it was extraordinarily fascinating to learn about the existence of this problem of quantum mechanics. But on the other hand, the kind of lecture which we had in quantum mechanics didn’t give us any ability to treat any particular problem in quantum mechanics.
It was just a few lectures?
It was just a few lectures. And this, I think, was a very surprising thing, for which I have not yet any good sociological explanation. How is it that the mathematicians managed to teach modern mathematics, whereas, in order to have the Planck constant in the courses of physics students of the university, you have to wait until 1967?
What about relativity?
Relativity was considered as a remote field of applied mathematics. You could take some relativity course, but this really was not in the courses. One heard about relativity, but everything I knew of relativity, I learned by myself. The real modern program of physics has been established in France in 1967.
So it was very late. Right after the war, quite a few people of about my age realized how bad was the situation, and they organized various courses outside of the university. The most famous one is the one at the Ecole les Houches. It’s in the valley of Chamonix, and is the place where the summer school started in 1950. It was organized by Cecile de Witt, who is presently in Austin. She used to be Morette; her maiden name is Morette, which by the way is the name of a famous geographer in France.
Right. Did you take part in this summer school?
Not in its creation. I taught twice there, in 1959 (application of plasma physics to astrophysics) and in 1966 (accelerating mechanisms). Anyhow, my story has nothing to do with that. Just passing by, I mention the details of the way modern physics was introduced in France. It was not introduced at the university, but in other circles. I come back to my own history. At the end of ‘41, I got all the different degrees I needed to have. In the fall of ‘41, I had to prepare what they call the diplome d’etudes superieures. It was compulsory for physicists to carry laboratory work, which might consist of repeating an experiment which had been already done, or to carry on a new experiment. I had in mind an experiment to carry on with X-rays, to study the ionic structure of solutions of salts in water. I began to work in the fall of ‘41 on that project, getting my instruments. The only place where I could do it was at the Sorbonne, where there was a laboratory of crystallography (Mauguin, Wyart) with the proper X-ray instruments and sources. It was by that time that my father was arrested by the Germans, and later on he died in Auschwitz in ‘42. The arrest of my father decided what comes after, because I began to feel extremely unsafe in Paris at the time. I went to the south, Lyon.
Is that because you’re Jewish?
By the way, did you have any formal religious instruction?
Absolutely nothing. My father was an anti-clericalist, extremely militant.
I see. Was he a member of the Union Rationaliste?
He had been a member of the Union Rationaliste. If I am a member of the Union Rationalist, it is because my father was there.
So, I went to Lyon. It was undoubtedly more safe, at least no German troops were there. I tried to resume the work I’d been doing in Paris on diffraction of X-rays. The laboratory of Henri Longchambon, where I happened to be, turned out to be very poor in the materials situation. This was strange. Longchambon himself was an extremely agreeable person, but it seemed that he didn’t care very much about his lab. So I tried very hard for three months to resume the experiment which was already going on in Paris, and I couldn’t do it. I was beginning to be desperate. I wanted to have this degree by the end of the year. I was pitied by a physicist who was in charge of the course in physics in Lyon at the time. His name is Max Morand. Well , Max Morand turned out not to be the great hope he was when he was a young man, but at least I am very grateful for the way in which he assisted me during these months. He proposed to me a very simple subject, which could be carried out easily, and in three months I had not only carried out the experiment but written down the report and presented it to the university and got my degree.
Things began to be more difficult the next fall, because as a student of the Ecole Normale Superieure, I could get my fellowship as long as I was living in the school, in the place where the dormitories and so on were. But if I was leaving the school without any justification — and I had no argument which would be considered important by the Ministry of Education at the time, that is, I could not justify being away from Paris — my fellowship was interrupted. So, beginning in the fall of ‘42, I had to find a way of living. And going around in the laboratory, I discovered that in the laboratory of Longchambon himself, there were, as guests, people from a private laboratory working on tests of soils and bridges and roads and so on. They intended at that time to develop the first tests about the project of a bridge above the Rhone.
While this was planned for after the war, they were preparing the work, and they accepted me as a man who would carry out the experiments. Well, everything was moving extremely slowly at that time. But nevertheless, it made me a living, during the year ‘42-‘43. But by the (second) half of the academic year 1942-43, I began to be very worried about the service du travail obligatoire. Talking with other people whom I knew in the lab, I found that a good thing would be to hide in the Observatoire de Haute Provence. I first went to see the director of the Observatoire de Haute Provence, Jean Dufay, and asked him, “Well, would you accept me to live in the observatory, under a false name?” I still admire that he had answered “Yes” immediately. There was absolutely not the least hesitation in his answer. So from there on, the only thing I had to do was collect the identity cards and things like that, which took naturally some time. I married in June ‘43, and with my young wife, we went to the Observatoire de Haute Provence the 1st of July, 1943.
What was your wife’s profession?
She had no profession at that time. Later on she presented the Agregatin de Russe (1957). She is now teaching Russian at the University of Vincennes. It was after I came to the Observatory that I slowly took a turn toward astronomy. At that time, the Observatory had only one scientist present. That was Fehrenbach. And the reason he was there was that Fehrenbach is from Alsace, and he was somehow also hiding there.
Is your family Alsatian?
No. My mother’s family is essentially from Alsace, but my father was born in Rumania. And in fact, this is almost by accident, because when he was five years old, his family moved to Palestine. In fact, in 1882. When I was born my father was 43 years old, which is relatively old for a father. Anyhow, I said, “I am very glad that I can stay in the observatory. I am willing to be a night assistant. That is the way I would pay for the hospitality. But don’t expect me to become an astrophysicist.” (laughs) I was really looking toward coming back to physics. But nevertheless, in order to maintain some scientific activity, we took the opportunity — I mean Fehrenbach took the opportunity — of the presence of an extremely good physicist called Jean Daudin, after something like February ‘44. Jean Daudin has been well known for his work in cosmic ray physics. At the time he was there, I had quite a few discussions of physics with him, and also there was his wife, who is also a physicist. By the way, Jean Daudin died in ‘53. Then, at the time the situation became more difficult in Marseille, an astronomer from Marseille, Beloretski (who was mainly an astronomer of celestial mechanics) came to the observatory to be away from the dangers of Marseille. And at that time we had a seminar. There were just, as you can see, five scientists. It was a very small group, and in order to talk science from time to time, we had a seminar. I remember giving accounts of my readings at that time. Let me tell you that the whole library at that time in the observatory consisted of about five shelves of books.
I suppose you couldn’t get any foreign journals either, during that period?
No, at that time, there was the ZEITSCHRIFT FUR ASTROPHYSIK at the observatory, a German publication. We could get only photocopies of the journals published before 1940. It was during that year that I read, in an issue of SCIENCE ET VIE, a paper by Paul Couderc, who was well known for his popular books in astronomy. I read an article by Paul Couderc which was giving an account of the theory of Bethe, on the energy production in stars. It was absolutely fascinating. It was really the first time that I was reading an article which joined different fields of physics together.
Did you know a little nuclear physics already?
I knew enough to understand that. I knew enough quantum mechanics to understand the potential barrier effects and things like that. I would not have been able to calculate a cross section, but I could understand the results. I still am surprised about myself, that I got the instinct of seeing in that the real new way of astrophysics.
The stellar evolution.
The stellar evolution, the age of the stars, the reservoir of energy, and so on. There were, among the books at the observatory, three books which were the PROCEEDINGS of a colloquium held in Paris in 1938 on white dwarfs, novae and supernovae. These had been one of my favorite readings at that time.
You had already been reading them?
I had been reading these in Saint Michel, in the observatory. This was, as I said, the PROCEEDINGS of a colloquium in 1938. And there was also the seven volumes of the HANDBIJCH DU ASTROPHYSIK.
What about Eddington?
No. Eddington wasn’t there. I thought immediately about applying the results of Bethe to white dwarfs, and immediately found that a homogeneous white dwarf would explode, and began to work on the solution of the gravitational separation of the elements in the high gravitational field of white dwarfs. This turned out to be my thesis. All the main aspects were finished by the end of 1944.
I see. Was there anyone there who could —
— absolutely no one. As far as astrophysics is concerned, I am almost entirely an autodidact.
You must have learned it entirely from Chandrasekhar’s book.
Yes, I learned from Chandrasekhar and other books. And for example, I tried, without really knowing how to manage it, to deal with the nonisothermal case for gravitational separation. Well, it turned out that the effect is so large, that whatever approximation which you use, you find it.
You still find it.. Did you have calculating machines there?
Electrically driven machines. I did some calculation at that time. And when I came back in the fall of ‘44 to Paris, I had to prepare the agregation de physique. The agregation de physique meant not only a fantastic amount of reading in physics, but also a fantastic amount of reading in chemistry.
I didn’t realize that.
At that time. Now there is an agregation de physique with physics, and our agregation de physique chemistry, which means that in the first case, people have very little chemistry, in the other case, they have not much physics. But at that time it was only one program, which meant knowing all classical physics and all chemistry.
Agregation des sciences physiques? That kind of thing?
Yes, that’s the exact title. I remember how unpleasant it was for me to come back to chemistry, and even how unpleasant it was for me to come back to reading physics, when I still had to calculate my white dwarfs. It turned out that a very few weeks after the start of the academic year, in the fall of ‘44, it was announced that there will be no agregation, due to the fact that there were so many people in the army and so on. Well, I was not drafted, because in practice there were no arms and no uniforms. There were people who came with the (Normandy) landing, but extremely few people were drafted in France. So, seeing that the agregation was not in sight, I resumed my work on white dwarfs, on which I worked very hard. It was not until March, I think, that we learned that the committee of examination would be there.
That it would be held.
That it would be held. And in fact, in March or April, I had the written part of the exam, and then you had to wait until the oral part, which was in July. I must say that as far as the exam is concerned, my preparation was extremely poor. I can easily confess that if I got the title of agrege, it’s because I was considered as one of those people who had some difficulties during the war. Those who had the normal courses were not treated so gently. But anyhow, I was through the agregation by July, 1945, and could resume my work on white dwarfs, to prepare it for the doctoral degree. In September ‘45, I was drafted. But due to the fact that I had been hiding during the war, that I had one young kid, that my father had had died in the deportation, I left the army the very day I came in. So I really didn’t have to lose time, I would say, there. And in March ‘46, I presented my doctoral degree.
I see. All this time you were in effect at the Sorbonne?
No. Now I tell you, as far as my financial situation was concerned, when I came back in ‘44, I got back my fellowship, which in fact, considering the inflation, was a very small amount of money. My parents-in-law helped considerably in the way we survived during that time. My mother had found a job, and she has been working during five years after the war, so that we could manage. And immediately after the Ecole Normale Superieure I entered the CNRS (Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique).
Immediately you mean after your doctorate?
No. I entered the CNRS as charge de recherches in fall ‘45.
Now, this would have been in some laboratory?
I was attached to the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris. By the way, I can come back about the Institut d’Astrophysique, the way it was organized.
Yes, this is definitely one thing I want to ask you about. Usually when we get to this point in the interview, I ask, when you entered the Institut d’Astrophysique, what situation did you find there?
I’ll describe to that later on. I’ll just finish. Because after that, I was almost on the tracks, you see. But I still wanted to work in physics.
You still wanted to work in physics?
Yes. And I was in touch at that time with one of the professors of physics at the Sorbonne who has pushed very much for the introduction of modern physics. It was Edmond Bauer; probably you met his name already, he was very important. And he was an extremely nice man. I visited him very often and we talked to him about my work and so on.
How does it happen that you met him?
Oh, it was for the preparation of the agregation. You see, for the preparation of the agregation, we had to prepare lectures at a given level, either university level or secondary school level, on a given subject. We were advised a couple of weeks ahead that we had to prepare a lecture at such a level, such a subject. There were three professors who were judging the pedagogical quality of our lecture, and one of these was Edmond Bauer.
That’s how I met him. The two others were Kastler and Pauthenier, Kastler has also played a role —
Kastler I know. Pauthenier I don’t know.
I mentioned Pauthenier, and as far as I remember, he was a physicist who worked on power plants. His most original work was on the improvement of van de Graaf accelerators. Edmond Bauer insisted that I go abroad, telling me that the best way of learning new ways of working, different from the French ways, was to go abroad. He knew what was going on, where to go and what were the possibilities, and he suggested that I investigate going to Dublin, where at that time Heitler was. Cecile de Witt, whose name I mentioned already, Cecile Morette at that time, was in Dublin already, and I wrote to her to investigate about the possibilities, the amount of the fellowships and so on.
This would be assuming an orientation toward theoretical quantum mechanics.
Yes. Exactly. It was the direction Bauer was pushing me. I happened to mention that to Daniel Barbier, who was at that time at the Institute d’Astrophysique. Daniel Barbier, without me knowing about it, investigated about the possibility for me to go to Copenhagen to work with Bengt Stromgren. And by the time I knew enough about the possibility of going to Dublin, Barbier had organized an exchange with a Danish astronomer, for me to go to Copenhagen. But at that time, I was sufficiently involved in astrophysics that when he tells me, “What do you think about going to Copenhagen, instead of going to Dublin,” I said, “Yes.” So that was the end of the turn, you see. It was not yet 180 degrees, but after the suggestion of Barbier, this was a complete turn, and after that, there was no question.
It was a better place, too, I think…
Well, you never know. But it was after that, that I decided to become a complete astrophysicist. I had an extremely good time in Copenhagen. I stayed seven months, from April to October ‘47. When I came back, a letter from Lyman Spitzer came, inviting me to stay for one year in Princeton.
How did that come about?
That I learned many years later. This came about from a report which Rupert Wildt gave to Lyman Spitzer. Rupert Wildt was visiting quite often the Institut d’Astrophysique in France. He was a good friend of Chalonge. We talked together. As I said, I learned many years afterward that he was the one who suggested to Spitzer to invite me. Now, Princeton, with all its fame around, was naturally quite an attractive place. I stayed in Princeton from September ‘48 to June ‘49. I would say that, as far as the methodology of astrophysics is concerned, it was really with Spitzer that I learned it. Because what resulted from that stay is that if one wants to improve our understanding of the universe, one has first to improve our understanding of the physical processes which are operating in the celestial objects, so that, first, do some good physics, and then you can really apply that to the astrophysical problems. Try to find from the astrophysical problem which physics is relevant, then work hard on that physics; then you get the solution to the astrophysical problem. And this is not only the way I’ve tried to work myself, but is also the way I’ve tried later on to teach the other people to work.
This is a relatively new thing for France, is it not?
Well, now I come to the situation in France.
OK, before that, one brief question — in Princeton, did you also work with Schwarzschild?
Yes, I worked with Schwarzschild and with Spitzer, in succession, in fact. I worked with Schwarzschild mainly on an idea I had got at that time — it was the heating of the solar chromosphere. I developed entirely the shock wave theory of the heating, which didn’t exist before. And with Spitzer, I worked on problems of interstellar matter.
Tell me about the shock wave heating of the chromosphere. I know Schwarzschild was doing some things on that at the time, too.
I’ll tell you what was the situation. Ludwig Biermann in 1947 suggested that solar granulation could produce shock waves which could heat up the chromosphere. And Martin Schwarzschild investigated the power which was generated in the convective zone, considering a simplified model in which you have a sphere moving in a fluid, and from the classical papers of Lamb, you can estimate how much energy goes into the compression waves, and from that, the amount of energy which goes into the chromosphere. What I myself did was to describe the physics of the production of the shock waves and of the dissipation of the shock waves in the chromosphere, including a very important physical effect, which is the refraction of the acoustic waves in the heated region. This was done in Princeton.
This was a problem that Schwarzschild was already interested in, and you got from that route? Because it’s very different from what you had been doing before.
Yes, but Schwarzschild at that time was already doing something else. All that I did was to discuss the problem with him. And in fact, I would say that he hardly initiated the problem. I don’t remember how I got the idea. Perhaps, when discussing — I have myself been interested by shock waves for a long time —
Did you have your interest already at that time in convection in stars, or did that come about later?
Well, a little bit. When I was in Copenhagen I studied the outer layers of white dwarfs, and had to build model atmospheres which included convective zones. But it was only when I wrote my book on white dwarfs, ten years later, that I found the effect that you can have deep convective zones in white dwarfs, that is to say, with lower boundary at about one million degrees.
I see. Hopefully we’ll get back to that.
Now, the question of the situation of astrophysics in France. The people who were in charge of astronomy in France, most of them were not only non-astrophysicists, but were definitely against astrophysics. I don’t know if you heard the various stories which are told about that. But for example, Chalonge, who became astronome-adjoint quite early, couldn’t carry his work on hydrogen spectrum of stars at the Observatory. He had to go to the laboratory of Fabry, and he was the guest of Fabry from the end of the twenties to the time the Institut d’Astrophysique opened, that is, about ‘39.
Because it was regarded as being not astronomy?
Well, this is difficult to define. I think it was considered as not being astronomy, and perhaps, because the only basic astronomy was positional astronomy. Now, Mineur himself, who became astronome-adjoint in 1925 — that is already a long time ago — for his original attitude, for his interest in various fields of astrophysics, was badly considered by the observatories, and he has never been able to become astronome titulaire. They didn’t want him to be one rank higher. And I think that if they didn’t want him, it was because they feared what he would do in a position of having some power on the others.
In fact, if you consider the situation which, in 1944, was hardly different from what it was in 1938, I think I could give you the names of the astrophysicists in France, all of them. There were hardly ten. The most well known were Chalonge, Barbier, Dufay, Fehrenbach. Danjon was certainly one of the people — well, he worked on photometry. That was his general work. So though he was really a classical astronomer, he had interests in astrophysical problems. There were also the people of Meudon Observatory working on the physics of the sun, but working in very poor conditions. The astrophysicists, like Dufay and Danjon, began to investigate about a new observatory in France in the thirties. They began to go hunting out good places, carrying out lengthy photometric experiments, to find whether the sky was stationary, clear and so on. But it was only when the Front Populaire went into power in 1936 that the Caisse Nationale de la Recherches Scientifique was created, and Henri Mineur could obtain the foundation of the Institut d’Astrophysique. (pause)
OK, the lights are back on.
And to tell you a story, during the year I was in Haute Provence, there was an interview of Esclangon published in PARIS-SOIR. Well, the choice of PARIS-SOIR as a place for an interview was a bit surprising at that time. He claimed that the choice of the area for the Observatory was a very bad choice, and that the region of Sisteron would have been a much better choice. At that time, Chalonge was visiting Saint-Michel, and we talked together about that. He told me, “Well, you have to understand that Esclangon owns some ground in the area of Sisteron.” But you see, the position of Esclangon was very important. At that time, for example, Esclangon had accepted for the BULLETIN ASTRONOMIQUE (which was the journal of classical astronomy) a lengthy paper of a man called Prunier, against special and general relativity. He published the first half of the paper. And after the war, when Danjon was in charge of the Observatory, that man sent the second half of his paper for publishing in the BULLETIN ASTRONOMIQUE, and Danjon was very much worried, because what can he say? Esclangon had promised the publication. But it turned out that in between, Prunier had found the possibility of publishing the second half of his paper in a Swiss journal. So Danjon was relieved and could say, “Well, we publish only original papers.” But you see, this means that the spirit among these circles in power, in the late thirties, was still against relativity, against astrophysics. Let me tell you another story. The man who was responsible for my thesis at the university, Cruze, had worked before 1914 in astronomy, and he had the bad luck of recalculating the place of a solar eclipse in 1914, and found that the place of the eclipse was not the one which the director of the Paris Observatory had calculated. And this ruled out his career as an astronomer.
For goodness’ sakes.
He told me the story.
I wanted to ask you, you said PARIS SOIR was a little surprising. I’m not sure — PARIS SOIR was fairly popular, fairly rightist?
That’s not the point. PARIS SOIR was completely in the hands of the collaborators during the war, this was ‘43.
Oh, this was ‘43, that he published this?
Oh. Yes, I understand.
So, I think there are many other stories. I don’t know all of them.
But you give me the feeling.
I give you the feelings.
These were the stories people would tell you.
Yes. When I came back in ‘44, the Institut d’Astrophysique was not quite finished. They were working there, Chalonge, Barbier, and beginning to work there was Kourganoff. Kourganoff had obtained his doctoral degree a few years before. He had worked for his doctoral degree in celestial mechanics, but he worked after that with Chalonge on various problems of astrophysics. And in ‘46, Pecker joined the institute. He was the first person with whom I discussed astrophysics. In fact we shared the same office for many years. And in ‘46, before going to Copenhagen, Tudminen from Helsinki arrived at the Institute, who spent one year in France. When Tudminen arrived, the only common language I had with him was English, (which improved my English considerably), and he was really the first educated man in astrophysics with whom I talked.
The first one who was brought up as an astrophysicist?
Yes. I talked also with Stromgren, but I had the bad luck of arriving late in Copenhagen, in April, and Stromgren was leaving Copenhagen for the United States in June, so I benefited from Stromgren only for 2½ months. So, you see, there were extremely few astrophysicists in France. Jean Dufay was more a spectroscopist than an astrophysicist, and he was more interested in the spectrum of the night sky, and perhaps comets, but not much about other objects. But he had as a co-worker in Lyon, Mlle Bloch, who was an extremely good spectroscopist. This was the generation of the people who were more interested in obtaining spectra than in understanding the meaning of their spectra.
Right, that’s another type of astrophysicist.
It is a type which is receding in numbers presently, but used to be in the majority. The real change began about at that time, because another pressure came from Yves Rocard, who started radio astronomy. Yves Rocard had been in contact with the people of England who had started the use of radar sets to detect radio waves, and he noticed immediately that this was important for the future. He recruited Jean—Louis Steinberg and Blum, Denisse Blum, who is probably the most prominent one, to work in radio astronomy. And a group of radio astronomy developed, on one side, completely independently from the observatory at the beginning.
What was their institution?
The last institution was the Ecole Normale Suprieure. It was only later on in the fifties, that the station of Nancy joined the Observatory. On my side, after I came back from the United States, I was appointed by Danjon for teaching astrophysics at the Sorbonne, and finally got my position as a professor of the university in ‘54. But from ‘49 to ‘54, I was just giving the lectures at the university. But I immediately decided that those people who would come to me to become astrophysicists, I would do my best to help them. So on my side, I pushed as much as possible to recruit new people, and to train them in a different way — the way, I would say, I’d learned from abroad, because otherwise I learned things by myself.
What sort of working conditions did you have in the Institut d‘Astrophysique?
Well, there was a reasonably good library, which improved quite fast. I shared an office with Pecker for many years, until finally I got one to myself, due to the fact that the building was finished. But it was not finished until 1949 or ‘50, so I didn’t get my own office for several years.
Were there any pressures to do any particular kind of work?
No. As far as I’m concerned, there was never any pressure on myself to do any special kind of work. And myself, as much as I’ve been able to do so, I have never put any pressure on anyone to do any special work. I have rather tried to see with the people the kind of work they would like better to do. I am quite convinced that a person does good work only if it is a work he or she likes. That he or she has to be motivated for that work. And if you want to give people a completely planified subject, you are likely to have them become disgusted with the matter. Well, this doesn’t work always, but most of the time, it has worked.
Let me ask you, were there seminars that people attended regularly? How would the people in the Institut d’Astrophysique, or for that matter, the astronomers, the astrophysicists in France in general, how would people exchange ideas?
Well, I noticed the importance of the seminars in Princeton. When I came back, I said, “We must have a seminar.” And this has worked at the Institut d’Astrophysique since 1949, with ups and downs. Sometimes going well, sometimes going badly. I must say that it has always been difficult to bring the people to attend seminars. Essentially, the people who were working with me, most all of them were attending the seminars. Later on when the group became larger, the proportion decreased a little bit. But the people who were in the Institut d’Astrophysique and were not in our group practically didn’t attend the seminars. Seeing the expansion of astrophysics, which in fact lasted until 1969, I tried very much to obtain a new building where there would be more room. Finally we got a new building in Meudon, which opened in ‘71. So before moving to Nice, I had been in Meudon for about seven years. The building which was built had a large lecture room, which can accommodate more than 100 people, and this is a normal lecture room for the general seminar at Meudon.
How did you get this building? Did you apply through the CNRS?
No. As far as the channels were concerned, I applied through the channel of the university. This was supposed to meet the needs of the university for graduate studies in astrophysics. The principle was accepted at the Ministry of Education in 1964, and from there on it was only red tape. There were perhaps some details which came from the fact that it was in Meudon, not another place, and Meudon, is a protected site; the authority which has to deal with the building was not the right one and had to be changed from one office to another office. And then there were other questions. Well, it was the university that accepted it, and finally it was built, in the frame of the university needs. In fact, I am quite convinced, almost ten years after this has taken place, that it was a terrific mistake building that in Meudon. It should have been built in Orsay. For at least two reasons, if not three. The first one is that as it was a new site, there would not have been this problem of the changing of authority from one office to another, and then the building would have been built earlier. Next, we would have been more close to the physicists. There’s an extremely good group of physicists in Orsay.
Nuclear physics, plasma physics, atomic physics, particle physics. And then you have a third advantage: we would have avoided this terribly large concentration of astronomers in just one place.
And you see that as being not so helpful, to have them all in one place?
I don’t think it’s helpful. After all, as far as contacts with other astronomers are concerned, we can have these contacts as well anyhow, because things are of common interest. I must say that when I was in Meudon, I had no more contacts with people of the galaxies or of the sun than if they had been a hundred kilometers from me.
I see. You only have contacts when there is a special seminar or meeting or whatever?
Yes, when they have a special subject. But the fact of having to cross the lawn to go from one building to another — it was sometimes too far away. So I think we missed the advantage of being closer to the physicists.
Right. Another question: how would you usually learn about new developments? Has this changed with time? Would you usually learn of them from talking or from journals, whatever?
You mean, myself? or generally speaking?
Particularly yourself, your own experience, but also generally.
My own experience is that I have used various ways of being informed. Having to teach, I first have to learn a lot in various subjects. To that purpose, I read a large amount of literature, and it paved the way of my contribution to various fields. Next I have attended in past years a very large number of various symposia and colloquia. I certainly have learned a lot from that. Now, in immediate connection with that come the discussions with people. When I meet people whom I have not met for some time, there’s usually, “Do you know about such and such thing is happening, what’s your feeling?” and so on, and I do the same myself. Then, there is the normal reading of fast publications like NATURE, for example, and there is also reading in journals like the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN or PHYSICS TODAY. PHYSICS TODAY as far as I’m concerned is a very nice journal, because I can learn what’s going on in physics in a very simple and fast way. The seminars are a good way of getting the information, especially when you have foreign visitors who tell you what they are doing in their country. I think there is no unique way. Now, when I am working on a special subject, I always used, in a more or less systematic way, the abstract journals, like the ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS ABSTRACTS published by Springer-Verlay or the PHYSICS ABSTRACTS published by the British; that’s the only way of finding the sources.
What about preprints?
I’m getting an incredible number of preprints, many more than I can read. This comes more or less at random. In other words, I am on some mailing lists, and I am not on some other mailing lists. I am flooded for example with papers of the Maryland research center on X-rays, and also from Goddard Spaceflight Center on X-rays. But my interest in X-rays is limited to the possibility of explaining the solar X-rays. I have a problem about housing this flood.
Some of them are helpful?
I am receiving the well-known orange preprints from Cal Tech, and the people who are working at Cal Tech are much closer to my own interests, so that is much more helpful. And there are some people, when they write a paper, they send me a preprint, either for advice, or because I am quoted in the references. Sometimes I learn things because my neighbor in the office has got a preprint which I haven’t got, and tells about it and so on. I must say that the situation is very difficult to handle, as you know, because the number of words published every year is at least ten times larger than what it was in the fifties. When I see the thickness of the ApJ in 1950, and the thickness of the ApJ now — plus all the other journals —
— our way of approaching these things is different now from what it was in the fifties.
Well, I certainly use my experience to read faster. That is to say, to decide whether a paper is worth being looked at, or not. But I feel desperate about the fact that a large number of papers which are not wrong, are also not useful. The famous “publish or perish” does terrible harm to scientific activity.
You have the same feature in France?
Well, not as much. But you see, we cannot miss the international literature. Not as much, because people have positions which are more stable, so we are not so much in need of publishing. Well, they have to publish, otherwise they get into trouble. But not as bad as in the United States.
I see. But it comes spilling over.
It’s spilling over.
You see, for example, here (at the IAU meeting) I have attended quite a few scientific sessions, and there was a great difficulty of making a choice between the fields where I think I might be useful, and which I know already, and the fields which I don’t know, and where I have to listen.
That you want to learn about.
To learn about. Now, the point is that I’ve attended so many things during the last years that the amount of new things I learn here is relatively small, so I get more by talking with the people than by attending the scientific sessions.
I understand. OK, let’s go back now. In terms of your scientific work, we left you when you came back from the United States, so let’s talk a bit about that. I’m not so much interested in what people would learn from going back and reading your articles so much as in the motivation behind it, the things that one doesn’t write down in an article. You were working mainly on evolution at that time, and star formation —
Yes. When I came back from the States — well, I hardly remember all the details.
I don’t want all the details, just a general —
Roughly speaking, in the fifties, I certainly worked in the field of internal structure. In the late fifties, I wrote the book on white dwarfs, which has started quite a few papers on the same subject. But I worked also on interstellar matter and stability problems of. And then, I wrote also on the problem of solar flares, and mass loss, and exchange of angular momentum and acceleration of cosmic rays in shock waves, magneto hydrodynamics, application of plasma physics to astrophysics. I launched in France the group who have been working since on the mean field dynamo. This is the kind of thing. Certainly, a great preference for problems of internal structure.
I’m particularly interested in the work on white dwarfs and evolution in general, particularly, as you mentioned, the discovery of the deep convective zone and so forth. I wonder if you could tell me, just to take an example of a piece of work, if you could tell me how that came about?
Well, you see, I had been interested already in Princeton about the special aspects of the gravitational separation. It was an improvement on my former work on the same subject. Going across that I found that the mu barrier would change the boundary conditions for the existence of the convective zone. This was where I started to investigate more thoroughly the situation in the white dwarf atmospheres. And during the writing of my book on white dwarfs, I wanted to investigate more systematically the behavior of the convective zone, just because it was the continuation downwards of the atmosphere, and because it was relevant to the problem of element sorting. Because the gravitational separation would naturally be different, if the bottom of the convective zone is close to the degenerate region. So I found, by simply calculating the models, that there might exist a deep convective zone. It’s always very strange for me that I have found in my scientific activity quite a few results which are simply the logical results of going as far as possible with the basic —
No, with the basic physical assumptions. Calculation is only a way of expressing the physical assumptions. But you have a physical by sound assumption, and then you explore that completely. Then you find a result which seems to be reliable. And it has been always very strange for me to see how sometimes simple things are accepted with great difficulty by the scientific community. For example, this point of accelerating cosmic rays by shock waves, (In fact, it includes both a shock wave and stochestic behavior; you can’t do it just by shock.) This was a paper which I wrote in ‘61, which was published in ‘62, and it is only in, 1977 that people again became interested in the subject. And if you read the papers, they seem to be embarrassed about quoting my old paper, as if it was too disturbing to think that someone else had got the idea 15 years earlier. But when the paper was published, it was exactly like “heating the air” — purely no response. And there was so little response that I finally wondered whether after all the idea was wrong.
It wasn’t that people objected to it, it was just that they paid no attention?
They paid absolutely no attention, just as if it had not existed.
I see. Do you suppose it makes any difference that it was published in French?
It was published in English. It was published in the ANNALES D’ASTROPHYSIQUE, the French journal, it1s true, but it was published in English. And I gave also a full course in Varenna in 1962 on the problem, including all the details about this stochastic acceleration of cosmic rays in shock fronts. About 70 people heard that lecture, but nevertheless —
By the way, at what point did you start to use digital computers, if you have?
I have practically never used a digital computer. When we began to have digital computers in France, I found myself too lazy to learn programming. And later on, I always found subjects which could be solved with very little numerical computation. When I had a real numerical problem to solve, then I asked some other people to carry the programming for me. I had during the last 10 or 15 years two or three problems which could be solved only with a computer — doing it by hand would have been too much. I have discovered, with the appearance of the HP 67,  that in my range of interest, there are quite a few problems which can be solved with an HP 67. With the advantage that I can do it at home.
And you can understand the programming language.
OK. But when I have met a problem which needs very important programming — the only way of doing it for me has been to ask someone who has experience with such programming, and to work in cooperation with him.
I see, give him that problem. Going back again to the fifties, of course this was a very exciting period to be working on structures of stars and model stars and so forth, it all began to come out. Did you see it as contributing to more general problems, the origin of the elements and that sort of thing? Or did you see your work as being mainly simply concerned with finding out what stars are like?
Oh no. Because, in that time, we were quite well aware of the thermodynamics of high temperatures, and the ways in which atoms might be built. In fact, one of the papers I wrote on white dwarfs needed an estimate of cross sections which I finally found in the paper of Alpher, Bethe and Gamow on nucleogenesis in the expanding universe. They were reviewing quite a few nuclear reaction rates, with estimates of cross sections; 1 needed the 3He - 3He cross section, which was estimated there long before it was measured. So I was aware of that kind of literature, and certainly knew that there were problems about the initial composition of the universe, for example.
By the way, tell me about that. One thing I ask everyone is how their views have changed over the years, towards Big Bang. When you first began your astronomical career, that was just at the time that Steady State was coming out. I wondered what your reactions to that was and how your views have changed over time?
Well, my first reading in cosmology was a book of Paul Couderc, whose name I mentioned already, which was called L’UNIVERSE EN EXPANSION, The Expanding Universe. And at that time, I was a bit worried about the possibility that that kind of model would be inspired by a Creationist attitude, so I was interested in all the arguments against the expansion. Those which seemed to me at the time the most relevant were those of Fritz Zwicky. And Zwicky was also a familiar of the Institut d’Astrophysique.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
He came very often to the Institut. I saw him quite often in the old times. In fact, he was working on the help to war-stricken libraries. And in the frame of this help, the Institut d’Astrophysique got old issues of PHYSICAL REVIEW, ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL and so on. I knew directly from Zwicky his objections against the expansion, his dimensionless analysis of quantities, the question of the angular size of clusters and all that. When I wrote a book which was published by Albin Michel in 1958, which is called ORIGINE ET EVOLUTION DES MONDES, later on translated into English with the same title (it was Mrs. Pagel who did the translation) when I wrote the book, I took a skeptical attitude with respect to the Big Bang, trying to develop as fairly as possible the arguments against, which were not really arguments but theories.
Did you tend to prefer those, or you simply wished to —?
Well, in the book, I just tried to present them.
But I mean personally?
Well, personally, you see, I was not quite convinced by the arguments. I was not quite convinced because the physics seems to be extremely weak. On the other hand, I was certainly disturbed by the Big Bang by itself.
I see, and when the Pope came out for it?
Well, it was not so much the Pope. That was ‘51. It seemed rather funny, in fact. The story says that probably the speech of the Pope has been written by Whittaker.
Yes. Who was a member of the Academie des Sciences Pontificales. The speech of the Pope seemed funny in the sense that I did not see why he wanted to mix science with faith, essentially. No, it’s not so much the Pope, but let’s say, roughly speaking, from the political Left, there was some pressure to consider that the expansion was more or less related to the idea of Creation. Though all the facts were in favor of the Big Bang, I certainly had some trouble in fitting that into my general philosophy. In fact, when I started, one of my very first papers, published in 1946, was a paper in which I showed that if you want to interpret correctly the distance for the determination of the Hubble’s Constant with calibration of magnitude and so on, you have to include stellar evolution effects for correction to the absolute magnitude of galaxies.
I see — which only recently become very obvious —
I wrote about that in 1946.
How have your views changed with time towards the Big Bang?
My views changed definitely with the discovery of the 3 degree the background radiation. I have heard I don’t know how many theories about the explanation of the 3 degree background. All these were such ad hoc theories. You need to know so little about radiation theory, to see how these theories were ad hoc theories. It was so much simpler to think that at the time matter became transparent, radiation just has been there and has remained since. So as I said, I had been silent between ‘58 and ‘65, but since ‘65, I have definitely been thinking that there is a Big Bang.
I understand. By the way, what about the question of open versus closed universe? How do you stand on that?
This has never worried me, really. I have no fear of infinity, and I would somehow prefer an infinite universe to a closed universe, but so there’s no real justification for that. And after all, my belief is that cosmological problems nowadays are first observational problems and not theoretical problems.
Do you feel there is important observational progress made on this particular question?
There will be with the Space Telescope.
I see. You don’t feel that the question is very far along.
I think that within a very few years now, we certainly shall have completely new results about the deep universe, and this would solve — what certainly not all the problems, probably it would raise more problems than one can imagine. Nevertheless, we probably will get the acceleration term, and know more about, whether the universe is isotropic or not isotropic, and we will probably get the answer to the so-called ageing of the photons, which in fact is a theory which I don’t believe at all. Well, I think all these questions will be solved.
The nature of the quasars?
That will take a longer time. But we may possibly get it, not with the deep survey, but with higher resolution in the photographic range, or in the radio range — I think resolving power is the key to the understanding of the quasars. You see, this has been one of the main worries, not right at the beginning but very soon, that we have a tendency to oversimplify, a priori, things. And when you see some emission somewhere with strange behavior, the natural attitude is to say that everything comes from the same region, whether it is physically compatible or not. And then that’s terrible, because you see highly excited lines and low excitation lines, everything mixed together. People cannot accept that these emissions come from different regions, which may be linked together, but are different. That seems so simple, to accept the possibility of several regions, and it seems to be the last type of physics to which people come. I have met that kind of difficulty several times — stellar spectrum well, long lists of cases, in which the oversimplification leads to non-understanding. I think as far as the quasars are concerned, well, OK, we have difficulties, but let’s wait until we have seen the different regions, which have different processes. If we resolve that, we probably can solve the problem.
Now, why don’t we go back to a remark you made earlier. You were mentioning the political left and so on. I wanted to ask a few questions about that, going back again — Someone told me once that at the end of World War II, about a quarter of the students in the Ecole Normale were Communist. Of course in this period the Communist Party was very strong.
This move toward the Communist Party has been even more strong than that. Well, you say one quarter? It’s about the order of magnitude. I know one of my friends who has been the secretary of the Communist cell at the Ecole Normale in the early fifties, and there were 60 members, which is about one-fourth. I don’t think now there is more than six, perhaps less. The wind has turned. But it’s certainly true that in the wake of the Liberation and the military successes of the Soviet Union, the move towards the Communist Party has been extremely strong, and perhaps especially among the intellectuals. The wave in the opposite way starts in ‘56, after Hungary. This has been continuing ever since, with great speed. Now, we certainly have people who still get in, but you have also people who still get out.
How has this affected you?
I have been in the Communist Party myself. In fact, I was recruited, if I can say so, or was asked whether I would like to join, in ‘42, after I learned about the deportation of my father. This gave me at that time the feeling of some sort of revenge against the Nazis.
Right, this was a common thing in the Resistance.
Yes. And after that, my doubts have been increasing for many years, but I have had so many good friends there that it seemed to me difficult to decide, “I want to quit.”
I understand. It’s very difficult… “la famille.”
Not “the family” in the restricted sense, but friends.
Yes, I understand. I mean, the Party as —
— as a family. It was very strange to discover, year after year, that my own friends have been going through the same troubles, the same way, the same process, the same questions. The questioning has come very fast.
I should mention that I recently finished a book which is partly about (Frederic) Joliot, and so discusses some of these things. Did you encounter him?
I encountered Joliot. He was very straight about that. He told me once that it was for emotional and affective reasons that he has joined the party, and he didn’t think really of anything else.
But as he died in, what was it, ‘58, I don’t know what would have been his attitude eventually.
I’m particularly interested of course in the history of astronomy, so I’m curious as to what affect your Communist Party membership, or maybe I should just say your contacts with your Communist friends and so forth, may have had on things like your statements concerning Steady State and this sort of thing?
About the Steady State, certainly, I felt horrified by the philosophy which was behind — and it seems to me that it was projecting on the sky a terrestrial philosophy, and not a way of understanding really what was going on in the sky. So in philosophical terms, it did not seem to me to be a materialistic attitude — in the philosophical sense of the world “materialist.” Some sort of idealism — I don’t know how to call that. But on the other hand, as the basic physics was particle physics, and I didn’t know much in particle physics, I didn’t want to enter the field. All that I could say, and I’ve said it, was that I was extremely skeptical about that. Now, depending on the journals where I published ideas, I either got more philosophical in expressing what I thought were the philosophical sources of the Steady State theory — or just stating that, as we didn’t know the kind of particles created, what was the basic physics, that everything’s to be ad hoc, we have to choose ad hoc parameters and so on, there was no reason to believe that rather than something else.
I wonder, did you have any contacts with Soviet Union physicists or astronomers during this period, to know what their reaction was? I know very little about what was happening in the Soviet Union at that time.
The relationships with the people in the Soviet Union have been always extremely difficult. I knew a few astronomers of the Soviet Union, whom I met first at an IAU meeting (1948, in Zurich), and next during the few trips I made to the Soviet Union, but I think I never really discussed these questions with any of them.
It’s very difficult to learn what was happening.
The only thing I can tell is that publications on general relativity and Big Bang were only resumed after ‘56, after Khrushchev, and I remember meeting a very well known man who writes popular books in the Soviet Union, Lwoff, and he was attending the IAU meeting of ‘58. He’s a man who speaks French very well, and he told me, “Oh, at last we can publish things about general relativity and Big Bang. That’s all I can say, all I have to say.” Now, a couple of years later I met Zeldovich, who has been publishing lots of papers on the subject…but I know very little about the career of Zeldovich except that he has worked with Sakharov on the H-bomb. May I add just one word, that these ideological pressures about which you asked me has been much greater in the field of physics than in the field of astronomy, and has pushed quite a few people to discuss in great detail the question of quantum mechanics, Bohr versus Einstein, and so on.
In the fifties?
In the 1950’s, and I’ve been interviewed presently by one of the co-workers of Pierre Bourdieu on the subject. So if you are interested about these aspects of the so-called ideological fight in physics, perhaps you could have communication of the record of that interview. It’s a student of Bourdieu, a sociologist of Paris, I don’t remember her name.
That would be interesting.
One of their people is carrying on a complete investigation about the ideological fights in the fifties.
Very good, OK, another question I wanted to ask was, what effect did the launching of Sputnik have in France? It had a very great influence of course in the United States. I wonder if —
It started a great interest in space research. In fact, it certainly started the creation of the CNES, the Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales. And at first, immediately after ‘57, I have personally pushed the creation of a Departement Spatial at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris, by putting together people of all fields which were concerned, from geophysics to astronomy, including mechanics — that part of mechanics which is related with flight, ballistics, shock waves and so on. But the interests, not the scientific interest but the local interests, were so great that it was impossible to unify that, and it failed. It was almost immediately after that that the Scientific Committee of the Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales was established, and this started the whole process. As far as I know, the first task of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales has been to establish the principle on which it was working — that they wouldn’t have their own laboratories; the laboratories would be established by the Centre Nationale de la Recherch Scientifique. The only thing that CNES would do would be to support those laboratories which they had specially chosen for support for large space experiments. There are a few laboratories which actually are supported by CNES — two laboratories in Meudon, Infra-red and Radio-astronomie Spatiale, the Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale in Marseilles, the two laboratories of Blamont and Bonnet. There are five laboratories. The budget which is provided by the CNES is much larger by far than the budget which is given by the CNRS. The CNRS pays the salaries of the permanent scientists and pays the general expenses of the laboratory, but all the details about preparing the space experiments, building the instruments and so on, are paid for by CNES.
CNES is independent of CNRS?
The CNRS depends on the Ministry of the University; The CNES depends on the Prime Minister.
I see. It must have been difficult to get a new organization like that set up.
No, it is much more difficult in France to change the structure of an existing organization, than to create a new one. And in fact, it is much more in the spirit of the French to create new organizations rather than to improve old ones. I noticed that many years ago, when I looked at the history of the scientific institutions in France in order to understand how scientific research has appeared, developed and changed. I noticed that each time the need of some new development of scientific research happened, a new institution was created. The first scientific institution created after 1794 was L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes, which was created in the 1860’s in face of a university which was not very forward with scientific results. But you had the same process about 400 years earlier, at the time when the university was turned to the Scholastic problem, and it was impossible to teach the atomic hypothesis at the Sorbonne University, and the King created the College de France, against the university, as a place of free thinking.
Yes, that’s right.
So this procedure has been going on and on and on; the CNRS itself was created in ‘45 because it seemed too difficult to develop research at the university, and the Commissariat l’Energie Atomique was created because it seemed to difficult to carry out the work on atomic piles except with a new organization, and so on. The Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales was quite in the spirit of that.
I see, so indeed this is an accepted process. It’s not that the people in the CNRS would say, well, that should come under us?
No. In fact, it is true that the administrative structure of the CNRS was not fitted, at that time, to permit a large organism with very large budget lines. There certainly had been at the beginning some hesitation about the tactics to follow, concerning the way the subventions were distributed. In fact, we got into lots of trouble with two aspects of the activity of CNES. (This seems to be a bit aside from the scientific activity, but nevertheless it’s quite important.) CNES had hired lots of technicians under contracts, and finally these technicians discovered that these contracts had to be renewed periodically, and they could be ejected, thrown away, at any time. They began to have their unions asking for a more stable situation. They went on strike, that was in ‘68, I think, the fall of ‘68 — much after the ‘68 events — in order to obtain this more stable situation. It was quite clear that it was necessary to solve the problem. And little by little, they have got positions at the CNRS, and now, in principle, the CNES doesn’t hire anyone by contract. This is finished. The other aspect concerns the question of the fellowships. About 20 years ago, the CNES began to create a set of 20 fellowships a year, to last about four years, for people who were working in the field of space research, experimental or theoretical. In the beginning these 20 fellowships were given quite easily. But it didn’t take many years to discover that when you have some people who have worked four years in research, they want to stay there. After all, the kind of recruiting we had was such that we made hardly any mistakes, perhaps one in 20.
You had a large choice?
Well, we had a large choice. We knew the students, sometimes because they had worked already in the laboratory, and from the exams and so on. And the competition was so hard that there was no difficulty in choosing the best people. But it didn’t take many years to discover that these people, after four years, wanted to stay in the field, and it was necessary to provide them with position. And the difficulty which was linked to that has led to the idea of decreasing the number of fellowships, and they have disappeared now entirely. I think there is one fellowship.
This was, as you say, partly connected with the overall leveling off in 1969 or ‘70 or whatever — there was a general leveling off?
Yes. But as far as the fellowships distributed by the CNES are concerned, the leveling off started before that. Because it was clear already before that, that this was creating great difficulties, at the exit of that (fellowship) period.
And of course it became much sharper when the —
Sure, after that it became much sharper. So they have decreased it. But you see, these two problems of hiring people on contract and having these fellowships are of the same nature. These are two aspects of the CNES activity.
It reminds me of another question. It’s always seemed peculiar to me that this leveling off took place at the same time in France, for example, as it did in the United States and Great Britain and I think even in Russia.
— yes, definitely so.
Do you have any idea why this happened at the same time?
I have no personal real understanding of the problem. I read once an editorial in PHYSICS TODAY about the problem, which seems to me to contain the basic ideas about that. It states that the people who were in charge of the power, the political people, at the end of the war had noticed the contribution of science to the war effort. They were quite convinced that it was useful to invest in fundamental research, that anyhow some benefits would come out for the power of the state, whether it be technical, military, or technical-military, or whatever it can be. I think this was quite the same all over the world, that people had watched the atom bomb and the penicillin, and all of the things you can think of, in the field of physics especially. And they were convinced that to invest in these things would bring back something. And the argument of the editor of PHYSICS TODAY — that was fall of ‘69, if I remember correctly — the comment of the editor was that due to the appearance of a new generation in the elected bodies in government, there began to appear people who had not had that kind of experience, and they were judging more about the facts of today.
Today, they didn’t see that research in particle physics or whatever it is was bringing any advantage at the level of applications. That nothing can be invested at the level of production derived from these fields, and so they began to lose interest in the support of expensive research which had no application. And in fact, this theory about the investment in fundamental research for the purpose of applications — this question was raised in France in ‘69, first through the speeches of the Minister of Scientific Research who was in charge at that time, Gallet. And also by a series of three papers published in LE MONDE in the summer of ‘69, if I remember correctly, by Vichney. The argument of Vichney was: our scientific and technical knowledge in ‘69 is quite sufficient to solve the problems we face, and we don’t have any more to invest in directions which don’t bring fame, glory, I might say which don’t bring money, and are terribly expensive. So that we stay where we are. In practice we cannot really stay where we are, because these investments are good for industry, they advance industry, and we cannot throw away so many thousand people and all that. But we shall try to change the situation.
We still have the same policy in France. And it seems to me that this sociological explanation is more or less reliable. Certainly, there is a great part of the people in the media who are much more interested in knowing what kind of application there is to your field, than to discuss the question of the discoveries themselves. This is increased by the fact that science, especially the theory, is shown as if behind a window. That is to say, as in the street, you have in the windows of the shops beautiful things, but you cannot touch them. And in the same way, you can say that behind the screen you have beautiful things, more or less magic, but you cannot touch them; and you have to understand, it is much too difficult for you to understand what’s going on there.
Now, you have made some efforts to do some popularizing.
How did your colleagues regard that, by the way?
It varies very much. There are quite a few people who are quite interested in the popularization of science. There are quite a few people who just hate having to spend some time with that. To give you an example in a related field, a recent one — we had in France, after Un Geller, this wonderful man called Jean Pierre Girard who was supposed to bend bars of steel and aluminum just by thinking hard at them, or taking them lightly in the fingers. Well, it was obviously a trick. We didn’t know exactly which one. And the strange thing is that Girard was so certain that he could cheat the scientists that he was provocative, asking the scientists to test him. One of my friends from Grenoble, Bernard Dreyfus, finally accepted to challenge Girard. And as he is the director of the department of fundamental research at the Centre d’Etudes Nucleaires de Grenoble (CENG), where he has quite a few possibilities, he accepted to challenge Girard, and established a procedure for an experiment — which failed, naturally. But at the time he was preparing the experiment, he asked quite a few colleagues and even the physicists from the Academy of Sciences to give him a hand. “After all,” he said, “it is our duty to prove to the population that that man is a crook.” And quite a few of these people said, “I’m not interested. I don’t want to touch that. That’s not our business. I have something else better to do,” and so on. This is the same spirit of despising the popularization of science.
The same attitude toward the public?
The same attitude toward the public. As far as I’m concerned, I consider that the present situation about science from the point of view of the political people is closely related to that. How would the political people get interested if this has no electoral relevance? It has no electoral relevance because the people are not interested, and I believe the people are not interested because the scientists don’t try to arouse their interest.
I appreciate that very much. It’s one reason I’m in history of science, actually, because it’s a good way to make science more interesting.
More interesting, yes.
Now, I want to turn to another question. I’m not sure how much you were involved in the European Southern Observatory?
I have not personally been involved in ESO. (short break; interruption)
ESO — is there anything you could tell me about it in general? Were you pretty much aware of what was going on at the time, or is this something that you’re not too personally involved in?
I haven’t been involved in ESO. I only heard because at the time it started, I was seeing Danjon quite often, and during the conversation he was telling me what was going on. So I knew from the beginning, in the early fifties, that there was a big project of a European observatory in a Southern country, and that the political situation in South Africa didn’t seem to be sound or safe enough to put an observatory there, and that finally South America seemed to be better. I heard that it has been quite difficult with the different ministries of foreign relations which had to conclude the agreements — to have them understand the problem and how it should be dealt with and how much money should go there, and so on. It took many many years before the agreement was obtained. What I can say, for the sake of history, is sort of a complaint about the way it has been working, at least as far as France is concerned. Because the committee which has been established for ESO has worked without any contact with the astronomical community.
Just by itself?
Just by itself, deciding by itself. Well, in connection with the other astronomers from the other countries, but without touch with the French scientific community. We heard from time to time that something was going on, and finally we learned that it was possible for admissions into Chile and things like that. And advertisements about positions and so on. But the question of the policy which has to be followed was not touched, was not discussed. Everything was coming from the top. Things changed a little bit in 1975. Because Blaauw, who had been the president of ESO, resigned (probably after ten years or something like that) and was replaced, after many discussions, by Lou Woltjer. And Woltjer put one condition about being the director of ESO. That was to have with him a scientific staff. Blaauw had been conducting ESO from the seat of the administration near Hamburg, and going from there to Holland where he had his work; Woltjer wanted to stay in that place where ESO was to be established, and wished to have with him a trained staff. This meant either recruiting more people, or changing the general composition of the staff, having less technicians and more scientists.
By the end of ‘75, there was a worry among other country members that France would not pay its contribution if the total number of positions was not reduced to a certain amount. For myself it’s the only time I got involved in ESO, because I carried the message from Stromgren, who was one of the advisors of ESO, and from Woltjer himself in Geneva, to my French colleagues who were in charge, that is, Denisse and Delhaye. I said, that is the problem that has been raised, and I think it has to be taken seriously. In front of the danger of having ESO without a director, finally, not only did France accept a transaction between the lower and upper limits, but there was, for the first time, a meeting of the astronomers of the Paris area to discuss the question of ESO — the policy, how things were going on, and what people wished and so on. It was a first time that people could express also their criticism about the way that ESO was being operated.
I see, this was a public meeting.
It was a public meeting, and it was the first concerning ESO in 15 years. In fact, I think this reflects very much one of the present defects of French administration, which is a great tendency to operate secretly. As if they were fearing public opinion. But there is also a question of generation. For example, the following story. We have an administration called INAG, the Institut Nationale d’Astronomie et de Geophysique — in fact, this is not an institute. This is an administration which had been set up for the purpose of dealing with the large expenses of the new large scientific projects, like the Canadian-French- Hawaiian Telescope, the CFH telescope, all the large radio astronomy projects like the one in connection with the Germans, IRAM — (Institut de Radio Astronomie Multimetrique). Anyhow, the new director of INAG, which is Michel Petit, is younger than myself and so is really the new generation. And he wanted to know what the French people wished about the new space research project. There was a large meeting June 79 with INAG and CNES about the new space projects in astrophysics which were coming in France, or half of them to be supported by France. There was a three day discussion, a very thorough discussion, out of which Michel Petit drew conclusions about what projects really have to be put first in line and what second and third. That was a great change. After all, that was the first time since INAG exists that these things were discussed.
Things are becoming definitely more democratic, then?
Yes. Not that finally INAG won’t have to take the decision. There was no question of votes on the decision —
Yes, I understand.
— but at least the people could express their views, and this seems to me a good turn. I hope it will continue.
I see. Tell me something about relations between students and professors. Has that changed very much since the days when you were a student?
Yes. I would say that at the time I was a student, relations were very formal. The professors were never familiar (intimate) in any way. Even if they had the greatest esteem for you, and this happened for me, they would always deal with you in a very formal manner, and a little bit deal with you as with a child. Even when I began in the profession, I would say that the relations had not changed so much. It is true that I had myself disliked very much that kind of distance, especially after I had been in the States, where I saw that everyone has the door of his office open all the day, so one can drop in as needed. I practiced the same thing, which was quite a surprise at the Institut d’Astrophysique, to see a door constantly open, where the other people were all behind closed doors. But as far as students were concerned, naturally, at the undergraduate level there were many students, or perhaps not so many, but anyhow astronomy was not a major subject for them. They could ask questions at the end of the lectures, but really I didn’t feel and I think they didn’t feel it necessary to have more contacts. It was only at the graduate level that I kept the door open at least for many years. I say, for many years, because in the later years I began to be so much overflooded by a variety of tasks that I began to close my door just to have some peace.
This was due to change in the advance of your career, rather than a change in the general way things are done.
Yes. I remember that one of the students who came to carry out a research with me, a girl (I think she came probably in ‘62 or ‘61, I can’t remember), knew I was at the Institut d’Astrophysique, and she got the number on my door, and she came up to the third floor, she climbed the stairs up there, found the door open, entered, and asked me, “Est-ce que je peut voir M. Schatzman?” I said, “That’s myself.” She was terribly surprised that it was so easy. She probably expected some barrier and so on. I must say that perhaps I have been in these years more accessible than many other people. The great turn, naturally, was the student revolution of ‘68.
Has that really made a difference?
It makes a difference, and the relationships are, generally speaking, much more familiar. For example my younger colleagues who were assistants in ‘68 and who spent at that time several weeks day and night discussing with the students, still consider students as being equal to themselves. This has considerably changed the relationships. Now, I must say that as far as I’m concerned, from what has been told to me (because I have not noticed it myself) I am frightful for the students. Because I think fast, and immediately raise questions which they hardly understand, and they are frightened of being judged. Even those with whom I have the most friendly relations — except after many years when they know me more personally, but then they are colleagues, not students — they are still a bit frightened by me.
I see. Funny, you don’t seem that way to me at all.
Well, you ought to ask one of my former students. They will tell you.
Have you noticed any changes specifically in astronomy students? Do people study astronomy now for the same reasons, with the same expectations that they would have done 30 years ago?
I would say definitely no. You see, formerly, the astronomy degree could be used for mathematicians, who intended to prepare the “agregation de mathematiques.” So there was a group of people who were meeting astronomy for the first time through an exam which was meant to be of some administrative use with regard to a career in mathematics. And so these people had a better formation (education) in mathematics than in physics, and they were discovering sometimes a new field which was fascinating for them, and they would like to remain in the field.
Some of them were recruited?
Some of them had been recruited. They were quite good students. But they had to learn physics. Many of these people turned out to be very good astronomers.
Was this traditional? This has been since a long time ago?
I’ll tell you the span of time it was like that. It was certainly like than until the late fifties. But the fact of having only a late formation in physics makes them very much dependent with respect to those people who have a formation in physics. If they are not working in mathematics, naturally, you can expect these people more to obtain good observational results than to interpret them, because interpretation is possible only with a good deal of physics, and sometimes they don’t feel secure, in the sense that they don’t feel they have enough physics to carry very far the explanation. So they prefer to obtain good observational results, and good morphological descriptions and classifications, and to set up the correlations between existing theory and observation and so on rather than to clear up things. Things changed when the new curriculum was established in 1967, essentially, and now we have coming into astrophysics mainly people who have come through physics, and who know quite a lot in basic physics, quantum mechanics, statistics and so on, and some unclear physics too. Well, recruiting has dropped very much in that time. But in the long run the new recruiting can change appreciably the way in which astrophysics is run in our country.
Much more physical intuition?
Much more physical intuition, much more interest in finding what are the physical processes which take place in the celestial objects, and so on. From the point of view of the ratio of people with the old formation and the new one, naturally the situation is changing slowly. People will finish by retiring. But you know, I mentioned in the beginning, people like Mlle Bloch from Lyons — she was the kind of person who was terribly excited just about seeing a new spectral line in the spectrum of an object. But she didn’t care about the reason why it was there. What was fascinating was that there was a new spectral line — not a new element, naturally, but a new spectral line. I have a theory about that. This emphasis on the observational or experimental aspects of things, compared to the interpretation, also penetrated physics. When I was in Lyon, I remember Eugene Bloch, whom I mentioned before, to whom I said, “Oh, I’m absolutely fascinated by theory.” And he looked at me and said, “If you are not Louis de Broglie or Max Born, it is impossible to do theoretical work. Do experiments.”
I see. That was his own career, actually.
Well, he’d been involved in some theoretical kind of problem in spectroscopy — but he didn’t trust me, that I might be successful in theoretical work.
Do you think that this attitude -— because this is a very old attitude in France, the idea of sticking very close to observation —
— yes —
Do you think this has been changing?
I think it has changed, very much.
Because of the changed educational circumstances?
I think this is due to the change of educational circumstances. I think people are more aware than they used to be about the impact of theory on the development of physics and astronomy. Sometimes they would say, “I am not sufficiently gifted to do theoretical work, “but they would not deny the interest of theoretical work — whereas in the older generation, it was not the same. I remember quite well an argument I had with Andre Lallemand. It was in 1970, about one year before the new lab I mentioned was established in Meudon. I had an argument with Lallemand about the kind of work t theoreticians were carrying on, and he told me, “Oh, you theoreticians, you are not working on problems which are connected in any manner to the observations.” Well, I was a bit surprised, because it hasn’t been my personal attitude.
Not in theory that you have done, certainly.
No. And so I said to Lallemand, “It doesn’t seem to apply to my case.” And he said, “Well, you are different — but the others.” That reminded me of all these stories from the time of the Occupation, about the people who were saying, “Oh, the Jews are so bad, and they are so and so and so — And then you said, “But I am a Jew” and they would say, “Well, but you are different from the others.” (laughter)
Right. Same attitude.
The same attitude if you are a theorist, in fact. Nowadays, if I take for example people like Fehrenbach, for example, or Courtes, who are quite good experimentalists, they don’t trust theoreticians very much. Sometimes they wouldn’t dare to say it, because after all, when you reach a certain international level, it’s difficult to say that. But on the other hand, they are able to appeal to a theoretician to help them in understanding a problem. Otherwise they don’t trust that, generally speaking, as in their existence.
We should stop fairly soon. I want to shift to one other thing, and that’s the question of astronomical societies, especially the IAU, but for example, in France, there’s some sort of a French Astronomical Society.
Well, this is an interesting question. Until 1978 there were only amateur societies, the most well-known being the Societe Astronomique de France. There was no professional association of astronomers. I have been for three years in the presidency of the French physical society, the Societe Francaise de Physique — I have been vice president in ‘76, president in ‘77, and vice president in ‘78. It was an extremely interesting experience, about the way an old society works (it is 105 years old now), the kind of work which can be done, the results which can be achieved, and so on. I had always been convinced that a professional society of astronomers in France was absolutely needed. But after that stage with the French physical society, I was even more convinced. From then on I have pushed about creating a professional association of astronomers in France. And this exists now since fall ‘78. We are going to have our first general assembly next fall.
We have to fight against an old spirit, that things are due from the state. For example, I became president of the Commi4 Nationale Francaise d’Astronomie in ‘77, two years ago. The Commite Nationale had tried several times to establish small journals to inform people about what was going on in the field of stellar astrophysics or galactic astrophysics or solar physics and so on. They have failed, one after the other. But I was quite convinced that these informations had to be carried by some means. I pushed very much, and finally we have established a journal which is distributed free to the French astronomers, which includes reports on projects and summaries of papers to come. Or not to come, by the way — this is much like the summaries which are printed by the AAS (American Astronomical Society) which are these 10 or 15 line abstracts which sometimes are followed by a paper and sometimes are not. Plus editorials about policies, information and so on. More or less similar to the QUARTERLY JOURNAL (of the Royal Astronomical Society) but also with an aspect of the AAS BULLETIN, trying to find something adapted to the situation. And this journal is published three times a year, and has met some success. But up to now it has been paid for by the Nice Observatory. And the point now is to shift to a situation where the journal will become the journal of the professional association, and then people, in order to receive the journal, will have to pay. The question is, whether they will pay or will not pay. And when people are used, for many many years, of having a very strong and good benefactor, which is the state, they turn with difficulty to a collectively supported organization.
I see. All of their journal subscriptions, for example?
Very few people have journal subscriptions.
They get their journals from the observatory library?
The library, yes. But on the other hand, I felt recently, upon understanding these things more closely, that it is quite good to have the state-supported organization, like the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique or whatever you can think of, or whatever committee has to be established, to distribute the money and so on. But on the other hand, the scientific problems are not union problems. Union are concerned with problems of the people. But scientific problems have to be dealt with on another level. And we didn’t have any place where we could collectively discuss problems of scientific policy, for example. So I think that to have an association is absolutely necessary. After all, the community can be in conflict on scientific projects with the state, and there should be a place to say that.
Yes, outside the state apparatus.
— outside the state organization. I must say that to a person from an Anglo-Saxon education, this probably seems obvious.
Well, it’s so for most of the other scientific groups in France.
Yes. But for astronomy, it was different.
Why? Because it was so concentrated in Paris?
No, I think there was another reason. I think the reason was that astronomy has been, for a long time, such a small group of people, that everything was dealt with in personal relations. There is also the fact that astronomy was organized in France by Le Verrico, and that the spirit was to put all the power in those hands of the directors of the observatories. On the other hand… Just think that in 1938, from the PROCEEDINGS of the IAU, you will find that the total membership of the IAU among French people was 60. We are now more than 400. Among these 60, you had perhaps 10 people who were people from geodesic work, and then, you had about 40 who were from meridian circle astronomy, map of the sky astronomy, time service, something like that. And then about ten astrophysicists, perhaps not even ten. And then in between, a handful of amateurs, who were well known for good work. But nevertheless, there was Madame Camille Flammarion among these people, and she was quite famous as being the widow of Camille Flammarion and directing the Societe Astronomique de France for many years, but I cannot consider her a scientist.
And now, of course, you have so many people that it cannot be done on such a personal level.
Sure. So if you consider that, you see that it was quite easy for astronomy proper to deal with the problems in a personal way. There were no large projects, except for the future, and even if there were, they were really the projects of just a few people. Now, when you have projects you interest hundreds of people, and you cannot do it in the same way. But on the other hand, I looked at the MONTHLY NOTICES to see when the Royal Astronomical Society was established, and it was established in 1827. So when we started to think about our society, we were 150 years late compared to the British.
I understand. Let’s see, I’ve practically run out of questions. You haven’t been involved in any military or industrial work?
Personally? I have been in touch, not with military work, but with industrial work. I have been approached, on one occasion, but this was not astronomical. It was more as a plasma physicist. I have been approached about helping in determining the temperature in a plasma torch. I worked with a small laboratory which was created by Sud Aviation. I must say that this was a very bad experience, because in fact, I discovered after about one year or a year and a half, that that laboratory was a facade. Just a front to show off probably to the council of administration of the industry. Because in practice, they didn’t spend money and didn’t spend time to have the investigations properly carried out. So when I discovered that the engineer who was in charge was spending about three days out of 100 on the project, and there was there for the project a full-time technician who didn’t know a word of physics, I said, well, forget about me, this is not my work. At one time, for about three years, I was hired as an advisor by the CSF, a big electronics company because they were planning a variety of investigations on magnetohydrodynamics, with eventually the possibility of solving one of the problems of getting energy from the hot plasma, something of that sort. I was visiting them for two or three years. There the situation was very friendly, the laboratory was quite good, very good people investigating and doing some progress. But the laboratory was supported by government contracts, and then suddenly the government contracts disappeared, and I disappeared also.
Have you ever been involved in fund-raising, from the government or from other places? You described to me about having this building made, but other cases?
That’s the only case where I have been involved in fund-raising. Generally speaking, most of us don’t know the procedure. The only place where the procedure is quite well established is the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. There we know the procedures and we know the information about proceeding and so on.
You get a regular funding for your —
Yes; but as far as the other possibilities are concerned, generally speaking, we don’t know so well how to proceed. I have used once the possibilities offered by the Delegation Generale a la Recherche Scientifique et Technique. The problem there is a bit difficult, because you have to fit into their frame of projects. Sometimes it’s just a question of wording; sometimes it’s more difficult. I have found ultimately that to get involved with the DGRST means so many forms to fill, that it is hardly worth the time you spend on that. On the other hand, I have been involved once in NATO funding for a school, but then that worked very easily with no problem.
Tell me, what is your impression, why in general does astronomy get supported, both in terms of students coming up to take it, and government or whatever? Why do you suppose that people support astronomy?
Well, I don’t know really why. If you consider that astronomy is part of physics, or in general the purpose of investigating the physical world, then you could easily put astronomy at the same level as particle physics. Then you can begin to raise to yourself the question, why is it that these branches of physics are being supported? No, my feeling is that if it were not for the fact that there is a general envelope for research, among which the scientists themselves decide how to share the pie, astronomy wouldn’t be supported — and neither would high energy physics. At the level of governmental institutions, I would think that they are not quite sure what is the balance of power. In other words, suppose that the government could decide to cut the funds for astronomy — what would be the reactions of the media, for example? Would the radio, the TV, the newspapers keep silent, or say something? Would the people go on strike, and perhaps set fire to the Ministry of Education or whatever you can think of? So, it’s not that I’m carrying a torch, you see, but what I think is that they really don’t know exactly, at what level the opposition would come. And they don’t do it because they don’t know. Otherwise, I don’t think that from the point of view of sheer interest, they have an interest. And in fact, if you ask me — this will be part of this lengthy recording — last year in August, almost one year (ago), one of our colleagues, Jacques Friedel, who has been elected at the Academy of Sciences just two years ago, became the head of the advising committee of the DGRST. That committee is supposed to advise the government on scientific policy. Friedel expressed the view that the situation in the present government was that there was a man at the Ministry of Industry called Giraud who is extremely experienced in scientific organization, and Giraud really wants to see that our present technical and scientific knowledge is used for the benefit of production, industry, power, communication, whatever you can think of — all practical things. In face of him there is Pierre Aigrain, who is a well known physicist, and whose interest for fundamental research is, I think, quite certain. But Pierre Aigrain is also convinced that probably not all the people who are in fundamental research are good enough to stay there, and they would be better to go into industry — which perhaps is not a good view, because after all industry also needs good people. Anyhow, Friedel said that Aigrain, in front of Giraud, has not enough weight to defend fundamental research; that the balance between the men who represent a certain large class of people who are interested in getting benefits from our scientific and technical knowledge — in front of that, Aigrain is not able to promote a real, sound scientific policy. This was what Friedel said. And if you look at the recent decisions which have been taken, it certainly shows that these views of Friedel are correct.
That’s quite a widespread problem. Well, we must stop quite soon. Can you look back and see if there’s anything in your career that we may have missed, an important part that we should have talked about?
Well, looking back to past years, I don’t think I’ve made much mistakes about the people who have been hired because I advised to hire them or because I hired them myself, but while I have not made much mistakes with the people, I think that on the point of view of the general attitude concerning the policy of astronomy in France, I have made a number of mistakes. In the sense that I might have been able, if I had wanted to do so, to have more influence on the policy which has been followed during the last 20 years. I have always waited for the people to call me, and I didn’t think it was my job to fight, or to go hunting or all that.
I see, to go knock on somebody’s door.
Yes. And I believe that quite a few people in fact had expected me to go knock on the doors. I know, among the younger people, those who are let’s say 35 now, there are quite a few who say, “You should have made more for us.”
Of course, considering the changes that have taken place, it’s not clear what difference it would have made.
I think you are very kind to tell me that. I’m not quite sure if it would actually have been possible to have done something more.
OK, why don’t we stop now? I’ll have this transcribed and sent to you for correction of names, etc., and at that point you’ll have the opportunity to say whether we can make it open to scholars.
Now, if you are interested, I have given an interview which covers about 80 typed pages on similar questions, but where it gets into other details than those I gave you here.
I’d be very happy to see that.
This has fortunately been typed, and the problem is to have it retyped, because it had to be corrected, but perhaps if it can be retyped, I could send it to you.
Or even if not, we’d be very happy to have a Xerox copy for our files.
planifie — according to preset plan.
JOURNAL DE ASTRONOMIE FRANCAIS.