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Interview of Harlow Shapley by Charles Weiner and Helen Wright on 1966 June 8, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4888-1
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Childhood on Missouri farm, early education and interest in science. Enters University of Missouri, 1907; B.A., 1910, M.A., 1911; influence of Oliver Kellogg, Eli Haines, Frederick Seares. To Princeton University, 1911-1914; first doctoral student of Henry Norris Russell; close relationship with Russell, impressions of him as teacher, co-worker, and friend; works on orbits of eclipsing binaries and Cepheid variable star theory; Russell’s experiments with darkening at the limb; Shapley’s research methods, requirements for doctorate in astronomy, 1910; Robert W. Wood, R. S. Dugan, O. W. Richardson, and Annie J. Cannon. Ph.D. on theory of eclipsing binaries, 1913; also works on the velocity of ants in relation to environmental temperature. To Mt. Wilson Observatory (Frederick Seares, Milton Humason, Ferdinand Ellerman, Hale, Walter S. Adams); continues work on globular clusters, eclipsing binaries, pulsation theory; 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes; the personalities and work of J. C. Kapetyn and Adriaan van Maanen; Shapley-Curtis debate on the scale of the universe, 1920. Director of Harvard Observatory, 1921-1951; detailed discussion of reorganization of observatory from research to teaching institution (Harvard University); work on Magellanic Clouds (Henrietta Leavitt, Cannon), early 1920s; his graduate students (Leo Goldberg); photometric and spectra classification for the Henry Draper Catalog; fund-raising activities; move of Harvard Southern Station from to Peru to South Africa; social and intellectual life of the Observatory. Discussion of Shapley’s cultural and philanthropic activities (rescue of European scholars, rebuilding of European observatories and libraries, formation of UNESCO). Discussion of his political activities; the Condon Affair; conflicts with the Rankin and McCarthy committees. Active participation in scientific and scholarly organizations: President of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1939-1944; founding of journals, Daedalus and American Scientist; Sigma Xi society; President of American Association for the Advancement of Science; Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology (Hudson Hoagland, Gregory Pincus); National Science Fund, and National Science Foundation. Reflects on changes in state of astronomy through the years, international relations, funding, and his own career. Also prominently mentioned are: American Astronomical Society, Ants, Arequipa Observatory (Peru), Carthage Academy, Institute for the Study of Religion and the Age of Science, radio astronomy, Rockefeller Foundation, and Tonantzintla Observatory.
Suppose we start from the beginning or as far back as you can take us with recollections of your very early childhood, your parents and grandparents…
Not very much comes to mind except I did have the advantage of a twin brother. He was stronger than I, but I could run faster so that in general I did not lose the fights. We didn’t have many of them. On the farm where we lived there were cattle of all sorts. We learned about mules. We had experiences with them. I remember a team of wild mules running away with me. I was attached to them somehow, and was dragged. My father ran alongside, pulled out a jackknife and cut the straps releasing me; and he still had a team. No, I cannot recall much. I don’t want to enlarge small episodes. I do remember that the inspiration for the twins, and maybe for their younger brother, John Shapley, was my older sister. She always had an idea that it would be good if the boys could go to college. Well, we were trying to get educated. We went to the nearby one-room schoolhouse — we didn’t have anything better. One year the teacher was our sister; she flattered me once by saying that I was the best student she had ever had. But she was grossly prejudiced, of course; the competition was practically zero. We had country teachers who really did not know what they were talking about. We didn’t do much reading at home. I don’t remember many books in the house. So I think we got along pretty well with just self-learning. My mother read to us from Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome) — very funny and inspiring.
How much training had your sister had?
She had gone to a normal school (Teachers College) and later to the University of Missouri; and she finally got both of the twins briefly to the normal school. I wasn’t there very long — a few weeks. Back to the boyhood operations. I suppose ours was a pretty average place. There was not much excitement at home, except when our Uncle Lloyd came home from Madeira and Guam. He became the governor of Guam. He brought guns into the family in a good way. I mean we had carefully monitored dangerous weapons. I don’t know how we managed to survive with so many guns around the place — a Krag-Jorgeson, I remember, and three shotguns and some small rifles. We would shoot at a tree a foot thick. The bullet would go all the way through. It was explained that it would go right through a Japanese also.
How old were you at this time?
You mentioned that you didn’t remember books around the house. How about magazines? Any subscriptions?
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat was our reading matter. There were some books, but they were school books. There was a nearby Sunday school that our mother had got us to go to a time or two, and that house had some pious books.
What kind of a Sunday school was that — what denomination?
I think Presbyterian, although my mother was a hardshell Baptist. She was a Baptist because her father was a Baptist.
She wasn’t a fundamentalist?
No. In fact, our father also was without religion; the whole family has been without formal religion, and has got along pretty well that way. I think from the very first we were skeptical about the claims of religion and what religion would do for you. It wasn’t pushed down our throats. Our mother would have liked to have the boys go to Sunday school, but that was more to show off the twins, I think, than to “get religion.”
How far from town did you live?
Well, we were about five miles from a little village called Nashville, Missouri. It’s still on the road map, and they claim me, and want credit for having educated me. But we didn’t go to a Nashville school. My father taught there once. One time a neighbor woman went crazy — you could tell the difference; she threatened to murder her invalid husband. Lots of excitement. My father put me on a running pony, gave me a vigorous whip, and told me to ride “hell bent for leather” for the doctor in Nashville. “Tell him to come prepared to restrain.” That poor pony! I got my promised plate of ice cream. Nashville was just where the store was. I remember riding horses to Nashville. Of course we were natural horse riders. But Nashville didn’t mean much to us. A town about eight miles away was Jasper, which still has the post office for that immediate region. (Fifteen miles northeast is Lamar, Missouri; there Harry S. Truman was born. They admit it.)
Is that a very large town?
Three thousand, maybe. That is large in some respects. At the age of ten the family bundled up and went by train to grandfather’s at Hamilton, New York. Quite a long trip. I remember a number of episodes on that trip, and how fearful I was that we’d get lost, or lose our mother. That’s what worried me. We might lose her at one of those stations where she got out to check the tickets. We lived for one whole year near Hamilton, New York, in a lovely stone house that’s still there and now is a historical monument. They have it labeled as a place where the Stowells (that was my mother’s name) had lived. In our youth we knew that there was something wrong with the Stowell family. They were hush-hush, especially about an ugly old building over the back hill — not in sight of the stone house. They never explained well what that was for. Some would say that Uncle Joe lived there. Well, it turned out many years later that this was one of the stations of the underground railway. Our grandfather (my mother’s father) was a rabid abolitionist. He associated with well-known names in smuggling Negroes from the South up to Canada, and that old house was one of the stopovers. That human smuggling was, of course, long over before we came.
Why was this a source of embarrassment?
Because it was illegal to ship Negroes, and he was breaking the law; not that anybody bothered us very much. The Negroes would travel at night. They didn’t tell us boys what the real truth was. But our sister told us many years later, but still kept it rather hush. It wasn’t very respectable to do a thing of that kind. But grandfather was a man of firm convictions and an abolitionist with a capital “A”. We heard about it finally and now we’re proud to say the house has been marked by the historical society of New York State as a place where Horace Stowell ran a Negro smuggling business. Perhaps I inherited something when I fought the McCarthys in the l920s, and brought Jews et al. to America in the Hitler days of 1930 to 1950. Always been a bit obstreperous!
Did your mother still have brothers or sisters in Hamilton that year?
Why did you go back that year?
To get away from Missouri! It isn’t quite that. I don’t know why. I never thought to ask them. The information came down that we were going to go and so we got on a train. It was very exciting for ten-year-olds. We went all the way by train. It took two or three days. I suppose there was some mercantile reason for our going. I know that my father came after we had been there for a while — came with two or three carloads of horses. It made quite an impression. The boys, you know, the twins, would show off. We’d ride standing up on some of these horses, especially if people in the Sunday School were watching. After we got out of sight we resumed our seats. In other words, we were show-offs.
That lasted a year?
We went to a country school in New York. That school is now labeled “Shapley School.” There’s also a building in Barton County, Missouri, that’s called the Shapley School, but it’s practically dead — it is a quarter of a mile from the home place. The one in the middle of New York State is very sturdy, and I think it’s going to be kept, maybe, as a monument, if we behave ourselves properly! Our grandfather Stowell is buried nearby on the edge of the Colgate University campus.
Did you notice any difference in that year of schooling? Any problems from having been schooled up until that time in Missouri?
Yes, there was a small difference, but it was one I’m afraid the twins have overemphasized. We did stunts — like riding horses fancy ways. I don’t believe we had an especially good school teacher. I remember she spanked me once. I didn’t think that was justified.
What had you done?
The other fellow was guilty. I wasn’t guilty. He had done it. We didn’t have very much of a wild life in New York State and so were glad to go back to the guns and the hunting — to hunt rabbits and hunt squirrels. We weren’t very good shots, any of us, but at least we went through the form of being wild west hunters. There’s a good deal of play acting in me, it seems. My father didn’t do much farming; he was a hay dealer and hay producer. As we had rather large meadows and barns, we had nice prairie fires; and we could futiley hunt for mythical prairie chickens.
He was a leader of the community, wasn’t he?
Yes, in a sense, he was a bit of a leader. My grandfather Shapley was also politically minded, and my father — that is, Willis Shapley — was a paragon of virtue — not meaning that very seriously. He insisted that honesty was a very good policy: I don’t know that we had a chance to be criminals and have the fun that crime can bring, or is said to bring. We had ourselves to play with and we had the younger brother. My father complimented me only once in my life, as far as I can remember. He complimented me by saying that I was better on a hay .wagon than anybody he’d ever hired. Grandfather Shapley ran for State Senator — always got beat. Republicans had no chance in that area.
I am curious as to how the Latin or the Geometry tied into the hay wagon.
Yes, that’s a rather unusual place to learn it. And I learned my Greek out in Montana in similar circumstances — what little Greek I’ve now forgotten.
Was this part of your schooling?
This was part of my schooling — to get admission to the University of Missouri. As described later, I had to pass exams or get certain high grades. To get those marks, I had to flatter the teachers (and they were glad to be flattered). And so the time came when I went to the State University in Columbia, a couple hundred miles away, and from then on I didn’t get stopped. I went first to Pittsburg, Kansas, to a school of commerce or something of that kind; after a few months, I had that finished off, and I became a newspaper reporter — a crime reporter in a tough town nearby, namely, Chanute, Kansas, an oil town; and I went on to Joplin, Missouri. The Joplin Times was a miserable little paper; I was the police reporter for a while. But the reason I was there earning money was because I suddenly got the ambition to do what my sister wanted the boys to do — namely, try going to a college. She herself was the mistress of a one-room schoolhouse then in Montana and she knew her way about. She was one of the reasons why we went into college work.
Also I was led to admire very much the young boys home for Christmas holidays, from the colleges of Kansas. There was one college in Ottawa, Kansas, that a boy told me about. He said, “If you want to come and join us; if you want to go to college up there where we are …” He was a sophomore, or something like that. I noticed that he and his like had more success, shall we say, with the young girls than did those that did not get educated and put on a little glamor. I don’t really know how much that influenced me. Very little I suspect. Girls scared me. I was barely aware of the facts. So I went to Joplin, went to the Times, and decided “I’m going to get educated.” Then came an episode that has been written about quite a bit: Harlow Shapley and his younger brother, John Shapley, decided they should first get some high school “learning.” “We’d better go to elementary school and see if we can get through.” John Shapley was fairly bright and I was very industrious; we had an ambitious mother. I haven’t mentioned her often, but she had an ambition that the boys should amount to something;” “get somewhere, go to school.” Once when the family seemed about to strike a little oil richness, (it petered out pretty soon) my mother’s main hope was that it would pan out well and — “then the boys could go to college.” I remember that pathetic hope on her part, for it turned out that she was still around applauding when we’d been to many colleges and earned many college degrees. How to start? It wasn’t especially embarrassing, but we had to do something vigorous. So we went down to elegant Carthage, Missouri High School, about 20 miles from where we lived, and asked if we could join the high school — the second term.
How old were you at this time?
I was about 17 or 18.
Excuse me, let me just backtrack for a minute. As a reporter, did you live away from home?
And then the desire to go to high school, and this episode we’re about to get into, occurred after you had been a reporter for a while?
Yes. I’d been a reporter, and saw that the future might be not journalism. I had had a vague idea that I might succeed eventually and own a newspaper and be another William Allen White, the great journalist of Kansas. John Shapley and I went to Carthage High School and asked to be admitted to the class that was then starting — and they turned us down. I’m probably the only astronomer that was turned out of high school; but they said, “No, you aren’t qualified.” I was brave in those days. I got timid later, I suppose. But I was brave. I said, “What about this Carthage Collegiate Academy?” And so we went down the street about three blocks to the Carthage Collegiate Institute, a Presbyterian outfit, and they were quite willing to take the little money we could afford; and so we became not only students, but I graduated from there. I went one semester beginning about February and then dropped out to work and earn some more money; and then I went back to Carthage for another semester. That was my high school education, all I got those two semesters. I took numerous examinations.
What did you do when you earned some money between semesters?
Well, I worked on the farm to some extent, but also I worked on the Joplin Times.
Your job as a reporter implies that you had an ability to write and to handle the language. Yet you were doing this without a high school education?
Well, had you done much reading on your own before that?
No, not much.
Where did this feeling for writing come from?
I think partly the inspiration came from the sister, because she, I know, was ambitious to write herself. Lloyd Shapley, the gunner, the naval man I’ve already mentioned, was a sort of inspiration — not too much because of his work with the Navy, and we were non-militaristic. But I’ll go back to my Carthage story. We went to the Carthage Academy, and after these two semesters I was graduated. I was the valedictorian of my class! There were three of us in the class! My essay, which I ran onto one time since, was on the romantic values in Elizabethan poetry, or something like that. It was pretentious! But it helped get me into the University of Missouri all right. Between semesters Horace Shapley and I went off on a cheap excursion to New Orleans and had quite a lot of experiences, e.g., two mild train wrecks and a fire; but that had no particular bearing on anything either of us have done since.
That was quite expensive. How did you pay for it?
The railroad paid us to be quiet about the wrecks — you know what I mean. That was one source of funds for tuition. I don’t know how I got the other. Anyway I went to the University. Horace did not go; he went West. I got admitted and I went with a couple of hundred dollars to the great University of Missouri at Columbia, and there things went swimmingly. Pretty soon I found my field. I had supposed that I was going to be a journalist. That had been my goal and my plan, and I worked toward doing it during the summer — studied a bit towards it, not much — and got up to Columbia and found that their much vaunted school of journalism was not going to be open that year. It is now a rather famous School of Journalism at Columbia — still famous, at the University of Missouri; but they put off its opening for one year. Walter Williams was the boss, the Dean, I was all dressed up for a university education, and nowhere to go. “I’ll show them,” must have been the way I felt about it. I know I was intolerable, even for me. And I looked in the catalog, and I got worse humiliated. The very first course they offered was a-r-c-h-e-o-logy, and I couldn’t pronounce it! I knew roughly what it was about. I turned over a page and saw a-s-t-r-o-n-o-m-y; I could pronounce that — and here I am! I went seriously into astronomy. After one year Mr. Seares, the professor, put me in charge of the freshman class. I was a sophomore already. I gave the freshman course that second year. A pretty good teacher was Seares. I think that according to pedagogic standards, you’d call him a good teacher. He was a very prim sort of person and very neat. He suspected that I might have some qualifications. Pretty soon I was a real member of the department; I took three years to get through the University, working my way.
Was there anybody else in the astronomy department then?
Eli S. Haynes was an assistant; and then Seares went away to Mt. Wilson, and Haynes was in charge. I was second to him. Then I got my A.B. degree in 1910.
Were there any other students in the department or were you the only major? Concentrating?
Others? No, not in the department. I was more or less alone, as I remember it. There was a considerable freshman class of 40 or 50. I still remember my first meeting with that class of 40 or 50. I walked in and was confronted by a lot of these giggly sorority girls. They had a lot of fun teasing me. I asked them to write their names on slips of paper. I handed out the slips of paper, but my hands just rattled. I was scared to death. The next time I had a student pass the papers around. That was the last time I was frightened in my life.
How long had a degree program in astronomy been offered at the University of Missouri at the time?
I’d say about eight or ten years. Seares had been there most of the time.
Had you heard of Seares in any way before you came?
No. But he was the man who was teaching astronomy. Another man who was then on the staff at Missouri University and who had a lot of influence on what I could do and did do, was Professor Oliver I Kellogg, a mathematician. He thought he saw in me some spark of mathematical ability, or something. He was wrong, but he backed me up when I took various courses in mathematics. I practically flunked the first semester in physics. I didn’t like it very much. I skipped the first year physics. I had jumped and took the second year, and it was pretty rough on me. After the first hour exam they sent for me and suggested I drop out. That of course annoyed me. In the first place, I showed that they didn’t know how to read my exam paper, and second that I wasn’t wrong in one answer. So then I pitched in, “I wasn’t going to be thrown out in that way.” The end result was that two years later I graduated with “high honors” — so labeled — in mathematics and physics — the only one in my class of 400.
What mathematics had you had before you went to college?
Where did you get it, in the high school?
This private tutoring from your sister accounts, then, for your writing interests and abilities, and for your preparation to go into more advanced work when you got to college.
Yes. My newspaper experience in Chanute, Kansas, helped. I could write pretty well, and that ability stayed with me for quite a long time. I could write faster and rather accurately. Later I seemed to lose that skill.
Do you remember any other science or mathematics courses in elementary or high school?
Oh, yes. A man named Fairchild taught us Henry V it was one of the most beautiful presentations to a bunch of half-awake students I ever saw. Another one that stood out was a French teacher, who gave me a double A, or A+, or whatever was tops and beyond. Then I couldn’t make any mistakes in my French. Now I can. I’ve learned that since. I had a grandmother who lived with us and spoke French a little. But as to teachers of mathematics, there was Oliver Kellogg, Louis Silverman, Earl Hedrick and others, who were rather distinguished. Another teacher that stood out was in classics: Dean Jones. This leads into an episode almost worth recording. I had learned Latin rather quickly on the hay wagon and I was able to write Latin verse correctly, and that’s something of a stunt. I don’t know if it’s a qualification for anything in the future, probably not, but anyway I was good enough as a senior so that when about 15 years later they were hanging an honorary degree on me, the man that had to stand up and put the hood on me was this Dean Jones who whispered during the ceremony, “Shapley, I think you should have gone on with your Latin.” Then he draped a degree in science on me. He thought the science honor didn’t amount to much.
But you hadn’t any teachers before you went to college who had much influence upon you except your sister? And you hadn’t had any science at all?
No. Must have been something wrong!
You had the algebra and geometry from your sister?
Yes; and from a playboy cousin who explained that plane geometry is nonsense.
No course in the old-time natural science or natural philosophy? Even in Elementary School?
You didn’t learn about plants or birds…
We didn’t learn much of anything. I turned over rocks and saw some little crawling things called ants. Since then I’ve written technical papers on the subject; anyway, we didn’t learn much, but we were pretty good at tracking a possum at midnight, and roasting him over an open fire. We did things like that. We thus learned some ordinary natural history.
Did you ever get interested in the stars at all before you went to college?
Well, my father was managing a hay ranch somewhere and the boys were helping a bit — not much. I don’t know quite where it was in my career, but I know about the date of it. My father told us that according to the paper, the Globe-Democrat, there was going to be a shower of shooting stars on a certain night and they were going to come after midnight, and “why don’t you stay up and see them?” He himself wasn’t going to stay up, but anyway he gave us encouragement. And so we got down on our backs on a beautiful August night to wait for the first ones to come — and we went soundly to sleep, both of us, and never saw the 1899 Perseids. That was the first contact of that kind — no eclipse, nothing.
There were comets in the early 1880s but you didn’t see them or know much about them?
No, we didn’t hear about them. There was the great comet of 1882. Well, it might have been talked about. I wasn’t around yet. The break I got was that Seares picked me out and set me to work that first year in the University. Until then, and for quite a while after that, I thought I was going into classics, because I found classics, especially Lucretius, very fascinating. I could read; it more or less freely. Lucretius was a great scientist. De rerum Natura was the greatest scientific poetry ever written. In fact, while I was still in college I wrote an article on Lucretius and published it. That was my first published science paper.
Where was this published?
In Popular Astronomy, a magazine in Northfield, Minnesota or somewhere like that. In fact, I think they published one on meteors at the same time, or about the same time, and one on Lucretius. I sent them another one on a little heavier mathematicals and they turned it down. That ended my early career!
When did you first use a telescope?
They had at Missouri University a seven and a half inch telescope with a Clark lens, and that I used and made observations of variable stars for Seares and for Haynes — not many. But we did make some observations. We had a very bad photometer. I would dig up its name, and swear at it, even now, if I knew the words. I don’t know how you swear at photometers. But anyway they had a stellar photometer, and I used it.
May I backtrack on one thing, your entrance into the astronomy course because of the catalogue’s alphabetical arrangement? You were a pretty serious-minded young man. You had made up your mind to get an education, and it was quite a switch from journalism into some other field. The prospects for a degree in astronomy weren’t particularly promising, so it seems strange to me that you went into this without any prior experience or great interest in astronomy. Were there other factors that you can recall that led you to select that field at the time? You see, what I’m getting at: I think there’s more involved here.
Well, the situation I found when I got to the University — and I’m quite sure it was a genuine finding — was that all these fields of learning were exciting. I came just that close to accepting a classics’ scholarship that would have given me a change to be a classicist. To be able to work in an ancient language that had great names like Cicero — that was something. There was a general excitement in the subject. But though perhaps I couldn’t have gotten excited about physics, I certainly could have about classics generally, and Latin especially. I could write fairly well in the quick way you had to on a newspaper. You’d come in and write your story down quickly, and it had to be right. The first three sentences have to tell the whole story. That formula is followed even in these times. That rule is where my speed came from. Otherwise I didn’t amount to much in the University. I was fairly good at tennis until I banged my elbow, and never got over it — on the tennis net post. I don’t know whether I would have made the team or not, but anyway it was interesting then and remains interesting to me. I follow the tennis of others now.
But the interest in astronomy, then, was that all fields were exciting and you felt this would be equally exciting.
You found mathematics exciting, too.
Yes — differential equations especially. I apparently did something brand—new in Fourier’s series and Kellogg thought, “You’re a marked man,” and he was going to have it published some time — but he never did, and I didn’t want him to because I didn’t understand what I’d done very well. But anyway mathematics had a kind of excitement. And, as I say, Shakespeare’s King Henry V was gorgeous. At the present time, I read it with a thrill, more than any other play except Hamlet. It seems, now that you have called it to my attention, that I did have a wide curiosity, but I didn’t have much in natural history. The biology of the barn yard is a thing that naturally affects all boys of 12. To me it was sort of revolting. But we could ride ponies like the dickens and be bucked off of a horse.
What about friends in college? Did you have anyone you were friendly with who was also pursuing the same general field of study — someone you could discuss your mathematics or astronomy with?
My close friends were journalists — two or three. Claude Brown has gone on and become rather distinguished in the American Legion politics.
Did you take any journalism in the University?
No, I never went back to it.
It’s surprising that you didn’t.
I had a rather surprising opportunity. After I had been two years at the University, the editor of the Chanute, Kansas, Daily Sun came over to Missouri and offered me a one-third interest free in the Daily Sun if I would come back and be the managing editor. It was a rather nice offer. And I was brave enough or foolish enough to say, “No, I want to stay here.” He said, “All right. You’re going to grow up and sit around in fat chairs and eat bon-bons. You don’t want to take the rough and tumble of a police reporter anymore.” I tried to tell him of astronomy, but I didn’t have any luck. So Editor Fred Cone got on the first train and went home. But he was offering me definitely a third interest in not much — I mean those country dailies are “not so hot.” So I shouldn’t say I had much regret. In fact, pretty soon I learned how dishonest journalism can be. You don’t expose the scandals of the best advertiser easily. You cover the faults of the sinners. One of my jobs in the journalism field was to expose if possible a mathematical horse. Here was a circus that was taking money from us yokels so that we could see a horse that could solve equations. My boss sent me to see this sideshow. I guess he gave me a quarter that got me in. He couldn’t afford much better than that. This boss of the Joplin Times said, “Go and see if you can find out what this racket is, and tell me what it is. I think he is a crook. You may see it and then we’ll talk to their advertising agent and maybe they’ll change their minds and advertise in the Times.” So I went out. Here I was 16 or 17 and moral, you might say. I went out and stood around, and solved the problem. You wouldn’t want to hear how I did that.
Yes, I think it would be of interest.
I came back and wrote up the story; and the advertising agent decided that they could advertise in the Times, and then we suppressed my article.
What was the story?
It was a stupid looking horse; a bunch of bums were around it. On a signal from one in the audience, the horse would start to paw, or on a signal from the master, would paw indefinitely. He would stop when the bum’s hand slapped his leg. If the horse saw a man make one particular kind of motion, he stopped pawing. And so that was all there was to it. The signal came with the horse pawing… I remember my downfall; “How much is two and two?” He pawed four times and we were amazed. The audience couldn’t do much better than that. “How much is four and one?” “Correct.” “Three and three?” “Six, correct.” Then I got smart and asked, “What’s the square root of five?” They gave me the bum’s rush. They told me, “Get out of here, boy. This is for men.” The square root of five threw that horse and of course threw his chief. You had to use mathematics at the right level. That experience got me interested and I’ve had many operations with psychics since. All of them are frauds. Yes, the circus decided to advertise in the Times.
What about the social life in college days? It was a co-ed institution. Did you partake in campus social activities?
Not very much. After the first year my chum and I boarded in a dormitory where after the evening meal we all went upstairs and danced for a while. That was a sort of social affair, but it was mostly for men dancing with men. I’m afraid we studied rather seriously. The summer schools were livelier and you had more fun. I went to summer school and got some of my extra credits that way. And then somewhere — not too far along, maybe about my third year — I met up with a brunette and never got loose, or wanted to.
And her name was Martha Betz.
Yes, that was her name. The story I’ve heard — it must be true because I’ve heard my own self tell it — was that while I was at Princeton and was studying hard, by golly, on the orbits of double stars, I was going to write a doctoral thesis on binaries. At Bryn Mawr there was this little brunette. “Listen,” I said, “if you want to get any more letters from me — I’m a busy man — you’ve got to speak my language or write my language.” She already had more languages than I did. “What language is this?” I wrote something down, maybe something sentimental. She looked at it a bit and went home and learned shorthand. We have corresponded in the Gregg system ever since. She learned her shorthand quickly from me. All our writing to each other in letters, which are very frequent, is in Gregg shorthand. (I once wrote to Mr. Gregg himself in his shorthand, and he replied in longhand!)
What course was she taking? Were you in any classes with her? How did you meet her in the first place?
In the first place I met her in mathematics classes. She sat in the first row and knew all the answers. She was a clever lady in those days. She took five courses and got the top mark in all five.
What was her field?
Philosophy and German literature and things of that kind. Then eventually, as you know, it became astronomy; and she’s published half a dozen — maybe a dozen — papers in astronomy.
When did she graduate at the university?
Oh, I don’t know; about the time I did. It depends on what you call graduate. It was about 1912.
Your graduation was 1910.
Yes, the A.B. Well, I think she graduated the next year.
Did she go to summer school, too?
And where did she come from?
Kansas City, Missouri.
I have a question on the astronomy curriculum, in general. You had some mathematics and you had some physics. I’d like an idea of what the entire curriculum consisted of — what the requirements were for graduation, if you remember, and what the emphasis was within the curriculum? What things did Professor Seares emphasize as most important?
I think every Professor there thought his work was the most important, but we weren’t so rigid as we became in later times as to the nature of credits. There was pretty much of a free distribution. You took the courses, as I remember it, that you wanted. I wanted to take a second course in astronomy, and that was all I got.
Did you have spherical astronomy?
A bit of spherical — practical astronomy we called it. We went out with the instruments and measured the altitude of the sun.
You had a meridian instrument, too, I suppose?
There was an old meridian instrument and we put in a part of our time trying to correct it. That’s the way we got some of our education — finding the faults in the equipment. There was small equipment, but it was a complete observatory — the Laws Observatory of the University of Missouri. Laws was once the president.
Did you determine time for the college, too?
Oh, no, they wouldn’t trust us with that much. I don’t remember if they paid any attention to time.
Did you use a textbook in the course?
Yes, we used a textbook in practical astronomy that Seares had put together himself, and one in general astronomy — just for the moment I don’t remember which text we used.
This was a published work by Seares?
It was a published work. But there was a good deal of private discussion in our education — sort of sitting around and fighting it out — with Seares. Seares was a man of precision, as you’ll probably remember.
I know he was editor of the Mount Wilson publications for a long time and was very demanding about everybody’s measurements.
Yes, I think that was his biggest contribution — what he did in editing the Mount Wilson astronomical papers.
Horace Babcock has to write Seares’ biography for the National Academy. He’s been anxious to get some more information about Seares. He says there’s not too much available.
Well, we were never very close, Seares and I.
He was a hard person to be close to.
How did he encourage you?
He encouraged me occasionally by saying, “That’s well done.” That’s about the most we’d ever get out of him.
I understand that when he was observing he’d be very much business and very difficult to get along with but when he came away, he was quite friendly; but if he was intent on something, he was so precise that he was often difficult.
You said he encouraged you by saying, “That’s good,” and so forth. Did he ever discuss the possibility of your going on in graduate work?
He nominated me for the fourth year for a master’s degree. He backed that, but I can’t remember his taking me very seriously. Whereas a person like Kellogg, the mathematician, and Belden in folklore…
That’s another subject we didn’t mention before…
Well, I came from the Ozark country and the Ozark country is full of tall tales, and we knew them. There was a time when I knew more tall stories than probably anybody I’ve ever met, but I’m sure there have been better ones. But that Ozark country, just east of where we lived, the rough country, was where the hillbillies came from, and in Arkansas. We also had a farm in Arkansas, so we had some contacts. And folklore was one of the things that we knew about.
It’s surprising you didn’t go into mathematics.
There wasn’t much offered in other fields and mathematics had a rather distinguished staff.
Why did you prefer astronomy even though you weren’t encouraged so much? Of course you were majoring in it but you were taking as much mathematics as you could…
Do you want the truth? Well, the truth is Kellogg heard that the Thaw fellowship at Princeton was open and, “Let’s take a try for it,” said he. By that time Seares had gone to Mount Wilson. So we took a try at it. If we had had a fellowship to shoot at, just for financial reasons I might have gone on with mathematics, although I didn’t have any good instinct for mathematics. Some of our family has had. Mrs. Shapley is a good instinctive mathematician, or was. She now claims she doesn’t know how to add. I went to Princeton because of fiscal circumstances. I dropped journalism because of the failure to open that school. And I went to Princeton because the fellowship was open. And in getting that, I got some people to say some nice things. Russell for example, was amazed after a bit that I could do what I could do.
Had you ever met him before you went there?
Did you have to go and see him or anything?
No, it was handed out by mail. Seares of course knew about it. There was no competition — that was the real point.
Did Seares recommend you even though he had left?
What he could do, and did do, was say, “Kellogg is a good mathematician and Kellogg thinks this is good business,” and so he could recommend it. Kellogg had been at Missouri. Russell was tremendously enthusiastic about having a graduate student. In the first place, he had very few students ever. And he was enthusiastic about having a student who could go along with him on an analysis of eclipsing binaries. He put in print somewhere, “I had this struggle with darkening at the limb of an eclipsing binary. All these observations had to be worked over; it looked hopeless, and then the good Lord send me Harlow Shapley.”
How long were you at the University, in total time?
And in that time you earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s?
And you taught the last year, too?
I taught both years, I think — all of my last three years. I taught elementary stuff.
Was that timing normal or a little bit accelerated, because of your summer work?
It was accelerated because I took summer work. Then also they had a scheme at Missouri, as they also now have elsewhere, that the amount of credit units depends on your standing in the class. The plan is not too good: It kept me from knowing anything about chemistry, for instance. I’d used up early all credits I needed to graduate. The plan slowed one up, exposed him to fewer fields.
Did you have chemistry?
I had it a few weeks in one summer school. I got the top mark in it and thought I knew chemistry. I dropped it then and didn’t study chemistry anymore. I have kicked myself ever since because chemistry is what I want to know. I even think of studying it at the present time. I have got chemically wise in a way, but not what I should have had. It is another thing I was cheated out of just because I was too darned bright that summer.
Your mathematics went through differential equations — is that right? You had calculus at the University and you went through differential equations.
Yes, and then into function theory.
At the University. I see. Two other questions: Did you ever work on a student newspaper?
No, and I was a little surprised as time went on that they didn’t get me, a hardened journalist like myself!
Yes, and then your friend was a journalist. Didn’t he work on a newspaper, too? Did he work on the college paper?
Why didn’t you?
Oh, I was too deep in science. And also I kept worrying about the dishonesty of advertisers.
Of course this wouldn’t affect working on a campus newspaper where the advertisers didn’t play a serious role. You mentioned that you taught a large class of about 40, but in your graduating class there were only three people in the astronomy curriculum.
No, the class of three where I was valedictorian was a high school class.
Then I’m completely in error. But the question is this: Astronomy evidently was taught to non—astronomy majors at the University?
Yes. Astronomy was one of the snap courses in the University.
Was it an elective?
For liberal arts majors?
Yes. But they didn’t press it, as I remember.
A one-semester course?
I don’t know now.
That’s easy to check in the catalogue. I think we’re back now on the way to Princeton with the fellowship. What was your reaction and your family’s reaction when you received the fellowship to Princeton?
Oh, they were very proud. My sister lived far in the west by that time: (she got married eventually out there). My father would naturally be quiet. He wouldn’t say anything. He was one of those kinds. He wouldn’t say anything one way or the other. But secretly we knew that he was proud and we found that even he boasted a little. My mother of course thought that we were on our way to the Presidency of the United States — something like that. She was ambitious. She had been unhappy because her ambitions seemed too difficult to realize; but she did not die until both John and I had made a lot of academic fuss and three college presidencies had been pointed my way.
What happened to your twin brother at this time as far as his education was concerned?
He went to the Warrensburg State Normal for just a bit, and didn’t go anymore. You know how old he is: He has for the past two or three years been taking extension courses in the University of Missouri. He went to the west and stayed. He did various things and gradually bought up the rest of us, as far as the farms go. That was his ambition — to do as his “dad” had done. Our grandfather Shapley had a lot of land given to him as part of the pay for his fighting in the Civil War. He was a colonel when he finished. From New York State he came to a country of the northern tier of the counties of Illinois, but he wasn’t there very long. In Missouri, quite a lot of land was handed out, and he got it one way or another. He was “land poor.”
They say all that land was devastated during the Civil War.
Were you conscious of the Civil War?
No. Of course our paternal grandfather had fought in the war. He played with the grandsons a bit, but he died when we were still quite young — about eight or ten.
How much land was involved on the farms…?
I don’t know really — about a square mile at the place where Shapleys are now. Incidentally, I should finish that my twin brother, Horace Shapley, has now bought up all the land that was in the original holding, almost all of it, and is living on rents. (That’s a good job if you can get it.) But he’s also a rather prominent citizen of the community at the present time. He lives alone in the house where 100 years ago, the family lived, but he associates with the neighbors a great deal. He’s a churchman, among other things; and to my surprise, but he is! He goes to Sunday schools and argues philosophically with the preachers. And he’s sort of a Santa Claus to the community. He goes to see neighbors almost every day. And now lives a rather righteous life; and he hasn’t always! He has had the misfortune of marital difficulties. That is, both of his wives have died rather tragically; but then women do die. The last one had a great influence on him and does post mortem; at the present time. When I was out there not long ago, Horace drove me to Lamar, Missouri (where Truman was born, incidentally, and where some of our family is buried.) He stopped on the way without saying anything to me, went into a graveyard and left a little bunch of wildflowers on a grave. The devotion of a man at 75, showing that sort of sentiment, was at least interesting. I would not have thought of doing it, and I’m not sure I would want to. But here was a payoff to a person who apparently was devoted to him, but had to die through hemorrhages to show it. That’s probably enough about Horace except to say that he is a pretty good citizen — untutored partly, but now getting a college education at 80 years of age. He drives 30 miles to his classes and gets good marks in the courses, which are generally in the social sciences.
Now, you had taken us to Princeton when you received the fellowship. When did you receive the news that you had been awarded the fellowship, how much money was involved, what were the conditions of the fellowship, and when did you leave Missouri to go to Princeton?
I went to Princeton after a summer school visit to my mother and sister in Kalispel, Montana. I had been informed, perhaps at the beginning of summer, that I had the fellowship, and I began spending it immediately. The fellowship was $1,000; that was pretty good in those days — the biggest in the University.
There was no tuition involved. I mean you didn’t have to pay tuition in addition to the fellowship?
No, and I think I got a room in the observatory free, or for very little. So it amounted to something nice, a person could get along with and even travel back home once. I was there (Princeton) about three years. And then, as I was approaching the finish, getting my doctor’s degree, I wrote to Mr. Seares at Mount Wilson and asked him if he knew anything about a job. He said, “We’ll fix that all right. I think we can.” And pretty soon he made a date for me to meet the great Mr. Hale, who was the founder of almost everything astronomical, as you know from Miss Wright’s charming book. That was a remarkable meeting. I went from Princeton to New York in time to stay overnight restfully and astronomically I went to the opera. One of the plays was Pagliacci and another was called Versiegelt. The next morning I had breakfast with him and Seares, who was on his way to Europe, and with George Ellery Hale. Mr. Hale talked this way and that. He asked me what I had been doing the night before and I told him about the opera. He was very much interested and made good critical remarks. One or two I’ve checked since as not too correct, but he showed much interest, and we talked at length. “Well, I must be going,” he said. Not one word had been said about astronomy or about my going to Mount Wilson, or anything. He had met me, and we’d chatted about something neither of us knew well. Then he went away. Well, I was bowled over. I didn’t know what that meant. Did my table manners slip up on me? (Once a gun was given to me by an uncle for my good table manners!) I said to Seares, “I don’t quite understand this.” We went down to Battery Park. I was still confused. I said, “I just don’t understand. Have I done something wrong?” “Oh, no, no, don’t worry about that,” Seares said. I think Seares sadistically enjoyed it a little. He later explained to me that Mr. Hale knew that I would know astronomy, would know perhaps more astronomy than he, and that I had had the Princeton touch, and seemed to be a decent guy and that’s all he wanted to know. He didn’t want to know anything about orbits of eclipsing stars, of which I was loaded to the brim — and he just walked out on me. Well, of course a letter came pretty soon; “Please come to Mount Wilson.” In other words, Seares got me into Mount Wilson, but after two years Hale’s health had gone and we were on our own, as far as research goes.
In the meantime you’d been to Europe. You were in Europe when your father died in 1913?
What were you doing in Europe?
Traveling, studying, the way my son, Alan, whom you’ll meet tonight, does. He’s been to Europe a dozen times probably, and he’s just full of contacts!
Did you go to observatories?
Oh, yes, I went to observatories; I went to an astronomical meeting also. And also I carried a botany book with me, and when, walking, I’d come to a new town, I’d identify its plants and write them down. This is a guide to Europe as seen by an amateur botanist. It was pleasant. The European flora is a good deal like that in this part of the country, not like that I’d been used to in the Western mountains.
This was after completion of your work at Princeton and before the doctoral dissertation?
You’re too fast for me.
We skipped the whole Princeton period really. You got into Mount Wilson and you were obviously qualified; and you qualified by doing the work at Princeton. Let’s try to find out what happened at Princeton.
Well, I met very soon after I got there Professor Russell; and it was one of the strange meetings. He’s a very shy man, very shy, and here he had to meet this graduate student that Missourians spoke well of. He and I and Robert Williams Wood of Johns Hopkins, the famous Robert Wood, went over that first day to the 23-inch telescope to look at something. Russell asked me to come and go with him. He treated me rough; high hat — oh, so high hat. “Mr. Shapley, perhaps you would open the door for us?” He’d say. Mr. Shapley did open the door. He expected — I don’t know what. He was embarrassed. Here was somebody he wasn’t used to. He thought I would kowtow to him, which I suppose I did to some extent; he intimated that I was, after all, a wild Missourian and you shouldn’t expect much. He was a high-class Long Island clergyman’s son, but that attitude lasted just a little. In a few days I came around with an orbit solved by a method he had used. That wakened him all right, and pretty soon we were the chummiest of creatures you ever knew. Students were much interested when Shapley, the Missourian, and Russell, swinging a cane, would stroll across the campus. If students got in the way, Russell would just brush them off with that cane. We got along well and we learned a great deal. In fact, I finally discovered that I had passed muster with Russell because, he told me — what do you think? — where you could find the Fringed Gentian north of town. To have him reveal that secret was quite exciting. I knew I had arrived.
How much a difference of age was there between you?
Eight years. We remained intimate friends, talking over our troubles together and mostly talking about scientific things, all the way, up to the last, to the time when I stood bare of head in his front yard as they brought his body home from the hospital. It was a moment. We stayed by each other. He had probably been offered the directorship of the Harvard Observatory before they ever heard of me, and he had said, “I knew I couldn’t manage such an observatory.” And he said, “No.” He stayed with Princeton.
So you established this very fine and lasting relationship with him. What was the work like under him? Did you take formal courses?
Practically no formal course at all. I went to Princeton lectures, and I eavesdropped on paleontology with “Bill Geology Scott,” because it is such a fascinating subject. When I come back in another incarnation I intend to be a paleontologist.
Not an entomologist?
Oh, no. I want to be something big like those cretaceons beasts that have now disappeared. If you are taking orders — of course I may not come back, just my luck, or if I do come back I may then be the spotted heifer of Bangalore, or something of that kind. Anyway, paleo — it is a subject that appeals to me, so I went to Bill Geology Scott’s lectures, some of them, and I went to one course in mathematics. Do you know what I mostly did those three years? “Orbits of Eclipsing Binaries,” or maybe it was two years — working on the binary business. But the study went beyond thesis size. It was a pretty noble piece of work if you judge by how long it had taken us to break it down. Now we’ve got better theories. For a little while Russell and I worked together at darkening at the limb, and the difficult things that he could do so rapidly with his mathematics. I just despaired of keeping up with him.
How did you get interested in the problem of eclipsing binaries?
He had written a paper on the subject. And some new observations had come out; also the 23-inch at Princeton was found suitable for doing the photometric work. And I worked night and day, happily, with slide-rules and math tables. Which reminds me that the other day one of these visiting bright-eyed lovely people who want to flatter, asked: “Is it true Dr. Shapley, is what they say true — that you measured the size of the universe with a 12-inch slide rule?” “No,” I said, “That is a damn lie! I used a ten—inch.” (What an awful gag!)
How about physics courses? Did you ever get them at Princeton?
No, I don’t believe I did, but I got a good many of them at Missouri after my first disaster. I have told you about the time they called me up and asked if I would want to drop out. My hour exam was a flop, they said. Trouble was in part they could not read my shorthand or longhand. It made me mad. I buckled down and graduated with honors in mathematics and physics — the only such “honors” in my class of 400! (They had in part misunderstood my paper.)
Did you take optics there then?
I took optics with O.M. Stewart. And I took physiology. That wasn’t so very relevant, but it has always been fascinating to me. That’s why I worked on ants — because of the physiology of it.
Who else besides Russell was in the department at Princeton?
Raymond Smith Dugan was the other astronomer. He was very good. He was slow, however, compared to the scintillating Russell.
Russell had the most fantastic memory of anybody, didn’t he?
Yes, I suppose some of the geniuses, e.g., the music people must also be very good in memory. I went to one astronomy course given by Russell, which was a sitting-around-the-table-type. As formal courses I think I must have taken one in mathematics and one is philosophy, but I didn’t consider very meritorious what I learned at Princeton except in the tools of variable star work, and association with Russell. He would come over to my desk, glance at the calculations and then walk up and down the room with enthusiasm and excitement. “You know, it worked out O.K., and, by golly, this particular formula works!”
You mentioned colloquia. Do you remember the topics discussed?
Yes, O. W. Richardson, who went back, I think, to England, talked about photo-electricity. He and Karl Compton worked together.
What was the reaction to Richardson?
Very few people knew him. He was a quiet person. And I knew him only because I pushed myself on him trying to find out what Karl Compton was up to and see if I could learn from it.
I’m just trying to think if he had won the Nobel prize at that time when he was at Princeton.
Did he win a Nobel Prize?
Yes, his papers are now at the University of Texas.
You don’t remember what his thesis was?
On the same subject — photo-electricity. This was in 1911, and I think he won the prize around then.
I think it would be much later when he got the prize. Yes, 1928.
I think the work was done in that period; so he would have been in on those colloquia discussing the work in progress.
He had a genius for finding the errors in Karl Compton’s work, just pointing to the equations. “Have you checked that this really is a sigma square?” He was a quick-minded person but not a very attractive personality, or maybe he didn’t want to cater to me.
What about Robert W. Wood?
He was at Johns Hopkins then.
He was at Princeton on a visit?
He was on a visit. He came up to see Russell? Did you have any student associates? Yes. Dugan I’ve already mentioned, who was an associate professor, and who naturally was overshadowed by Russell and knew that he was; but he was a faithful routine observer of stars and also interested in the wild flowers of the community. He taught me about them. Then I went on and did a lot of botanical playing around to the extent that I now have identified 121 flowers on my farm. Most botanists haven’t! But of course it didn’t mean anything except joy in doing it and learning about such. Dugan died in the course of time after a short illness. I went down from Harvard to the funeral. The director of an observatory is expected to do things like that. But before I went to the house where the funeral was being held, I went out along the Lake Carnegie shores and picked a handful of wild flowers of different kinds and brought them up and put them on the coffin. It made a tremendous impression. I didn’t know it would; but it was just a sentimental sort of recognition of our past together.
At Princeton were there any formal examinations for doctoral candidates?
Just one examination with Russell, Dugan, and a Dean McGee, or two. They quizzed me deeply. The thesis had been accepted by them as okay, although it took me about three years more to get it printed. It came out finally as a book that dominated the field for quite a while. I also took the oral examination. There were four of us examinees. I did miserably. I went in to the exam cocky, so sure that they would ask the promised easy questions, and the rascals didn’t. It was a mean oral examination. I don’t remember what the questions were. At least a dozen stars I could have talked about intimately. But Dugan asked, “How would you adjust a photographic telescope?” I shall never forget my failure on that. But they gave me the degree anyway — a magna cum, I think. “You give me the degree and I will do these 20 additional orbits, and the thesis will be better. It will be a Princeton Contribution (number three) and something you won’t be ashamed of.” So I traded for the degree. The exam as recounted by Dugan sounds somewhat different — but in any tongue it smelled!
How many other students received their degree at that time?
I think I was the first doctoral degree under Russell.
When did Russell go to Princeton?
About 1905. That had been the home of the family.
When did he become director of the observatory?
In about 1910.
How about qualifying examinations? You mentioned the final oral and the defense of the thesis, but were there earlier examinations?
You didn’t have to take any language exams or anything like that?
No course requirements.
No. Very loose management.
Just the satisfactory completion of research.
Yes and the okay of Russell and Dugan and the deans. If they okayed it, I would be through. I couldn’t have then passed the examinations I’ve since given many times to Harvard students. I mean ours were toughies. You had to know something about all astronomy. But at Princeton the thesis was the thing, and mine was rather outstanding. It was printed as Princeton Contribution number three, published about two years after I left Princeton. It was on the orbits of many eclipsing binaries and more or less settled that problem for a good many years. It was long before Z. Kopal and Russell introduced new techniques and methods. At Princeton, there was also John Quincy Stewart, who was a student younger than I. He had one brilliant idea that wasn’t fully recognized. He became unhappy about it and didn’t do so well. He felt that he had been robbed by all of us, so he went on into social physics! He’s retired now.
Social physics. Yes, that’s what I thought, too!
Can you explain it?
No, I don’t know what it means, but that was the title of his work and he got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for his study of social physics. It was, I believe, something about the distribution of populations. Even Russell couldn’t understand it.
What about the work? How much of your time did you put in on observing, and how much time on calculating, and how much on kibitzing, and perhaps theorizing and reading?
Reading, a good deal, partly because Russell seemed to read everything.
Had you learned German by this time? Did you just pick it up as you went along?
No, I took one brief course in German at the University of Missouri. It was difficult so I married a German! We talked German to the kids that you see wandering around — to all of them for the first few years of their lives! And then they went to the universities and flunked it. That can happen!
So you did some reading in the literature.
I did some reading, yes, but I would say two-thirds of my time was on the research project when I was at Princeton.
How would you break that time down as far as observation and calculating were concerned?
Two-thirds on calculations, I mean the mathematical part.
You didn’t do much observing then.
Maybe less than a third on observing with a telescope. The climate wouldn’t permit anything better. (Did you have another category? I’ve already got up to a hundred percent!)
Yes, it was discussing the work with Russell and perhaps with the other students — did you put much time into that? Did you have much opportunity for discussion?
No, I didn’t have much time for computations. Russell and I would talk over everything that I did. I showed it all to him. I gave a colloquium or two in the physics department; there I sprung some new ideas. It bothered Russell that I would come out with some ideas that he hadn’t known about. I got criticized kindly for that.
What were the new ideas?
I’m afraid I can’t recall it fully. It had to do with getting the distances of eclipsing binaries from studies of their colors and spectra. It was an early forerunner of the Cepheid theories. In another study that I did on the iron spectrum, I worked with Charlotte Moore (Now Mrs. Bancroft Sitterly). It was the early work on the iron spectrum, on the multiplets in the array of lines. I had the advantage of slide-rules and calculating machines, and took the problem to Mount Wilson with me. I took to Mount Wilson three things, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I’ll just mention them. One was the discovering or noticing, you might say, of certain regularities in the spectrum of iron. The data had been published. With it I did something or other. Another was the eclipsing business. That was the main thesis. The other was the Cepheid variable star theory. I still think that maybe I stole that Cepheid idea from Russell. When I accused him of letting me steal it, he didn’t know anything about it. There’s a certain kind of star, as you know, called the Cepheid variable star, and soon after I went to Mount Wilson I published a paper, Mount Wilson Contribution 92, I think it is, which showed that the Cepheid variable stars were single stars and not doubles. I hatched what we called the pulsation hypothesis of Cepheid variation. And that pulsation hypothesis is still alive. It’s still what we use. It’s been enlarged in some ways. But anyway, it was a good hunch. I thought, after I’d published it that maybe I’d taken the theory from Russell. He and I talked about it. I claimed that I took it from him and I was going to write an apology if he agreed. It seemed a little preposterous that a professor would have a student who would snitch away his good ideas. But Russell said he’d never heard of it; and anyway he was doubtful that the theory was right. But it was right. It stands up okay — it is, in fact, basic in astrophysics.
I think this Cepheid work opens a whole new area which perhaps we can go into later. Yesterday we got to Professor Shapley’s Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton, and then we backtracked a bit, and were discussing some of the circumstances of the research leading up to the final dissertation. We decided we would fill in some of the background details that we left out in our earlier discussion. But before we do that I think perhaps it would be appropriate to pick up some of the points you mentioned when we weren’t on tape — further recollections of your early days in Missouri, your work as a reporter in crime reporting and some of your personal involvements in rescue attempts and the beginning, also, of your interest in music and poetry.
There’s music all through the family, a good deal of it, but I am quite dumb musically except for arranging parties. We used to have chamber music in our house. I would help assemble the operators. One of the chamber musicians that came to our house on two occasions was Albert Einstein. He and I talked also about other things than music, of course. He was a first class amateur violinist. I may enlarge on Einstein as a house guest later in this account. Early episodes are always inevitable around a farm or in a small town. For instance, there was one time when I pulled a playmate out of deep water when he was going down for the traditional fatal third time (which is a fraud, I think). But anyway I did have a little experience in the puddles and the waters and the ponds. Later I won a swimming race and damned near perished from exhaustion.
Was this is a pond or a river?
In a mine-pit — both of them were. There was a creek on our Missouri farm and there was a nice little river, the Chenango, on our New York place where we visited the grandfather. Yes, we had a number of experiences, as one always does around ponds where you’re swimming and diving and getting hurt and having all sorts of excitement. That was just typical farm life. I don’t believe there’s anything outstanding about it. We had chums from the neighborhood, and we would go to see them, and go off on a swimming expedition or horse-riding. It was not an unhappy childhood, although at the time we did not know that it was happy. One catches on to that with age. One thing I haven’t mentioned. We were all full of romance, you might say — of mythology. My twin brother and I would get together and spin yarns. He would be the audience and I would be the voice. He would develop imaginary episodes; we’d call it “talking a story”. I thought it was unusual, and we were rather ashamed of it. Later I found it isn’t uncommon at all for a pair of brothers to get together and spin romance about this and that. These were heroic talks, more like a Paul Bunyan tale than romance from a feminine standpoint.
What sort of episodes, for example? Would you tell it in the first person as something you had done?
Yes, things we had done.
Did you rescue fair damsels?
No, we had nothing to do with fair damsels until I’d been in college quite a long while.
I thought maybe they entered these stories.
The stories weren’t that type. They were heroic stories — fighting the bulls, shooting bears, and all those imaginary things; or doing something to surprise the father, (or the mother who was never much surprised at anything.) There was one episode that had quite a lot of effect in the imaginary life we lived, and I think it might have been useful. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think “talking stories” made it easier for me to write rapidly when later for a brief time I was a newspaper reporter. If I should talk to the twin about it now he might not even remember it. As I said yesterday, I could run faster than he could (even though he was stronger) so I generally escaped him when I needed to.
Did you do any building of boats or anything like this.
No, we weren’t good fisherman; we weren’t good hunts-men. We shot game; we had plenty of guns, but we didn’t do anything clever with them. Boats? No, we didn’t have any imposing river around. They were mostly creeks.
I was wondering why later on you became so interested in ants and flowers and all these things and yet as a child you didn’t have an interest.
I was flower-sensitive, but it was partly because of the applause that my sister and mother gave my efforts; my interest wasn’t deep. I remember later turning over rocks to see if the ants had guests with them. They do sometimes. I remember doing that type of exploration. And of course the wild fruit and nuts were a lot of fun.
But yet, in our discussion yesterday, you said that you had not developed a deep interest in natural history in that earlier stage, differentiating your daily activities in the rural environment from a real interest in natural history.
Or a deep interest, or a moving interest, or a technical interest. I didn’t have them. I didn’t know there were elementary books on botany. Ours was a very casual interest. If I said I was interested in natural history, it meant that I liked to walk in the woods, as I do at the present time. Now I have children and grandchildren, but never have I got them very keen on going out on my trails. I now certainly like the woods and the trails; but that’s not uncommon. A lot of people have the urge. This is glacier country and this New Hampshire region is richer in botanical excitement than was a southwest Missouri farm.
Probably in flowers, too.
Well, there were some peculiar ones that we don’t have here. I never studied them much except, as I told you, I traveled as a lonesome student in Germany and Africa; everywhere I went I carried a botanical key with me. I went to some strange places and much enjoyed the flora. I had one unhappy accident in those travels, not accidental but calamitous. I came into Paris from the South for the first time. I had already gone around to the North — to Sweden, Holland, Germany, Belgium, etc. I came into Paris where a telegram awaited me saying that my father had been killed by lightning. That soured me on Paris so keenly that I’ve never wanted to go back. I wandered the streets for a while in considerable shock. My mother’s death and my sister’s death didn’t affect me the same way; but this shock happened on my father’s account for whom we had a lot of respect but not a lot of close association. But there it was and I wandered the Parisian streets in blind mourning.
You were by yourself or your brother was there with you?
We had parted company in Italy. He went on with his archaeology and things of that kind and I came up to Paris by way of a Barcelona bull fight.
That fills in some of the background that we mentioned. Is there anything else?
We were talking about music a little bit. Did your sister play the piano?
No, my mother was a pretty good organist until she quit. My father had no talent of that kind, but Gretchen’s family had plenty of music — being German? She’s quit the piano now. But the boys: Alan, a cellist of some merit; has played in orchestras — chamber music mostly. And Willis is a flutist, but he’s given it up now; he’s too busy running the government. And Carl has in the barn several thousands of dollars — he says it is — of recordings that he’s collected over the years. Now all out of date because they’re not “long playing.” But he knows more about music than any of us by a long shot and knows the values of musicology. In fact, he teaches it at his school. Mildred was a violinist, and Lloyd plays the piano. So we made noises at home sometimes, some of it pretty good, but some of it not good at all.
How about instruments in the home in Missouri?
None except the organ. There was practically no “culture” around. That’s why it was easy for us to be a little outstanding in our neighborhood. The competition was so slight. But we did know about poetry because that you had in books, and that you could recite, and that you could milk a cow and recite and keep the rhythm going.
What kind of poetry did you recite to the cows?
Oh, Tennyson I suppose. We had a book of poems by a man named Willis. I think Willis Shapley was so named because somebody in the family liked that book, Nathaniel Willis. That’s one of the few books around our place. Of course, by sixteen, we had scattered pretty much. My first serious prose reading was Tolstoy, rather than the poets. From the very beginning we discounted Longfellow as a poet. He was a writer of jingles. But of course we didn’t know enough to judge correctly a thing like that. I shouldn’t even mention it because cheap poetry is one of our defects. Upstairs here at Sharon are now two or three shelves of poetry. I’ve given a lecture on poetry, more than once. It’s a light-hearted lecture — “Science and Poetry,” starting with Job and coming up through Lucretius and Dante and Tennyson to the modern humorists like David McCord and Morris Bishop. There are some wonderful things in that interval of time. In the past ten, fifteen, twenty years I’ve never perpetrated any poetry. I have repaired a few things that needed repair. As where Tennyson in “Maud” refers to a “sad astrology”; he meant astronomy. Why he did that, I haven’t got the answer. But some other errors I do have answers for. In fact, I am going to write an article one of these days about science and poetry, with a special reference to “Maud.” Tennyson was a very deep and brilliant thinker. I like to play with him.
How about Milton?
Milton’s tedious. And also I had to study him in some school. That always queers a poet.
When did you read history?
When I was at Chanute, Kansas, as a reporter; I was 17 or 18.
Did you come across it in the library?
I think I took some of my few pennies and bought one or two books — sent away for them. You had to send to Chicago! I was fascinated with Dostoevsky. Again I wonder if I wasn’t just showing off by reading such things. But of course they were readable. Even now if I had time I’d spend lots of it just enjoying myself, indulging myself beneath the bough with those twenty books of poetry.
Do you still like the Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?
Not much beyond that. Let’s see, what else would I have read? The Russian science, of course — I followed that. You had to. We all have to if we want to keep up.
Was there any public or private library in your Missouri background other than at the University?
None whatever. Chanute, Kansas, had one of those Carnegie libraries and I think that’s the nearest public library. There probably was one in Pittsburg. It was a town of 15,000. There may have been one, but it never crossed my path in any way — only the one in Chanute, Kansas.
You didn’t have much opportunity for random browsing.
That’s right: That’s why I think this “talking stories,” as we called it, played such a considerable part over a number of years in our lives. We couldn’t get John Shapley, the realist, our younger brother, involved in these stories very much; but Horace ate ‘em up and enjoyed the imagination that went with them. I have found that Hudson Hoagland “told” such fanciful stories to his sister. “I was so ashamed, but now that you confess, I admit that I ‘talked’ also.” He’d gone through a good deal of the same pattern.
In the crime reporting — was there anything special about that, any experiences? I know you told us that it generally soured you on journalism because of the dishonesty and the influence of advertisers on the publishers.
I naturally had “episodes” — since Chanute was a rough oil mining town; I had the various experiences that a reporter would have, especially if he were agile and got around. I remember two or three little affairs. One was on election night. There were a lot of drunken oil men on the streets. I set about to protect the office, thinking they’d start things there. A policeman came along and we had what we called a duel; they shot each other and one of them died. I handled that (age sixteen). It was sort of dramatic for those times, before we had wars where lots of horrible things happened. Another time we were having a political scramble, and my newspaper took one view and another newspaper took another view, and so we got off a good deal of strong language. The worst politician pushed me out of his office and went on talking to others inside. I sat down outside his office and wrote down in shorthand all that was being said. (I had learned shorthand at Chanute.) We just printed verbatim his rough statements four letter words and all. Consequently he wanted to murder me and blow up everybody. It was rather spectacular. For we did the proper thing — made and printed a picture of my shorthand. Anybody who knew my kind of shorthand could read it. Of course, there was no guarantee that we hadn’t forged it all. It was a rather live bit of country journalism for those times. Our man won! We had other little episodes like that. In Joplin it was worse. Joplin was a lead-zinc town and there were many tough characters, usually hanging around the police headquarters. I saw some strange things, some funny things, but we are accustomed to such things now. My newspaper life was not very long or exciting, less than two years — and it was not very dramatic. It was a long ways from William Allen White’s type of rural philosophy.
How about your politics at that time? What were your politics? Your family was Republican or Democrat? When did you become a Democrat?
The family was Republican. There’s a grandmother of mine now turning in her grave because the twins were maybe going to vote Democratic. As soon as we could get a chance, we voted. We were told that all Democrats chewed tobacco. I don’t know why. So when the twins were so high, they were taught to say, “Hurray for (whoever it was who ran against Grover Cleveland).” Even now I wonder about Democrats and tobacco; we weren’t tobacco spittin’ people.
Let me ask one question as a bridge here. You mentioned that when you saw Hale in connection with going out to Mount Wilson at the end of your Princeton career, you had visited the opera on the previous night. I wondered when this interest in opera started.
Of course we didn’t have much access to it in Missouri, but at Princeton the graduate students were struggling to “get culture” or information or something of that kind. A trip from Princeton of 50 miles to New York and the opera was a thing that we indulged in a bit — not much because it cost too much money. After the opera we’d go home and talk about it. The Princeton graduate school, under pretty good leadership, encouraged students to take advantage of New York City and the culture there. We went to hear symphonies, and some of the chamber orchestras came to Princeton. It was a rather natural operation for a person living in that vicinity. I remember even now in some detail some of the music and some of the singers that came to Princeton. But I had one horrible experience. A string quartet was playing beautifully a Brahms piece! I was in the gallery. I got to thinking dreamily of the past at the University of Missouri and specifically of a time when Eli Haynes came into the observatory office and absent—mindedly went through his routine. But instead of putting his hat down on the typewriter and using the spittoon, he did it the other way around. He spit on his typewriter, and it was such a comical thing that while this soft Brahms music was gliding on, I suddenly remembered how Haynes eyes bugged out. I burst out, “Ha, Ha, Ha!” Then I nearly died of humiliation. It was the sort of episode one can’t forget. No, I think we didn’t do anything special in a music way at Princeton.
Later, when there were a lot of kids around the Cambridge house, they all went through enough music to know what it is; and some, like Alan, use it in chamber music performance. And Lloyd, also. Lloyd is pretty good on the piano. He was in the second World War, in China, the only one of the four boys who got into uniform. He was a crypto-analyst, a code breaker. (So was his mother.) He didn’t get to fly over Japan. His eyes weren’t good enough to do more than ground work and going along in a bomber. He stayed back in Cheng Tu or some Chinese city, and gave a concert based in Debussy. He didn’t have any music along. He had to do it all from memory. That was quite a credit, for a solder boy, to give for the personnel in the displaced Chinese colleges that sort of a concert. The reason was that he and a boy from Oberlin, I believe, had broken the weather codes of both the Japanese and the Russians. The Russians were more important, although they were our allies! Of course, these soldiers couldn’t report at the time what they were doing. Later when Lloyd was discharged he got a decoration for his work in carrying on the breaking of the weather codes. It was rather an interesting episode. But none of us brag about it, especially Lloyd who is now a Princeton PhD.
Getting back to Princeton, to your research on the eclipsing binaries — your dissertation was completed in 1912 and printed in the Astrophysical Journal in 1913, and you received your degree in 1914.
Yes, and I stayed on one more year. My thesis is a quarto book; the so—called thesis is a little abstract of a quarto volume.
Yes, it says, “a summary” here.
And it was after I had been in Mount Wilson a year before I got it all printed.
That was Princeton Publication #3. And you mention here in the Astrophysical Journal in 1913, “the full work and detailed discussion is to appear as a publication of the Princeton University Observatory.” And that didn’t come out until a year later.
In this 1913 summary you mention in your first footnote some earlier papers on this same subject. One is by Russell on “The Determination of the Orbital Elements of Eclipsing Variable Stars.” There are a few others by Russell, then some by you and Russell on darkening at the limb for eclipsing variables, and then one by you on “Elements of the Eclipsing Variables.” Now, these were evidently your first scientific papers. You published the thing on Lucretius beforehand. But were these papers, referred to here, your first technical astronomical papers?
With the exception of a little note or two that was published in Astronomische Nachrichten about the time I left Missouri to go to Princeton. There were some little short notes, but this is the first essential thing — the first research, in fact. I’d done some observing with a bad photometer. But at Princeton we had a bigger telescope and I did quite a bit of observing and made an analysis of the published material from all over the world. That was carried through as a thesis — yes.
What was your first reaction when you had your first scientific paper published?
Oh, I strutted around probably. I “accidentally” would leave it where somebody would run onto it. It was obvious from the first that I had got hold of a sort of a gold mine when I went into eclipsing variable stars. The field hadn’t been worked up very much, and Russell and I had new methods of analyzing. Russell had started it. As I mentioned yesterday, he said that “God sent him Harlow Shapley.” Perhaps that was so I would do all the good dirty work with calculating machines, such little ones as we had then. Now we push buttons, you know. We use a different technique. But it was a sort of a thrill, and I was pretty confident that if they gave me a chance at Mount Wilson I could do something significant. And they gave me a chance. To be sure, for quite a while I worked part time on Seares’ photometry, a type of operation that wasn’t of very good quality because the instrumentation was bad.
And the plates were not sensitive.
No, they were not so sensitive. But most of these were visual observations. When I got to Mount Wilson I spread out a little into all variables. The desire, almost from the first, was to get distances. Isaac Newton and others had looked into the sky, but they couldn’t say where in space a certain star is, how far out. Newton made some guesses about Sirius, but in general he didn’t know. But the last column in the big table of my orbital work makes a guess at what the distances are for eclipsing binaries. It was guess work in a way because we didn’t have much material; but it did show us one thing that bowled us over — Russell and me and maybe Dugan — and that was that the distances were pretty darned big. We knew that you could go out to Sirius, eight light years away, and we might with a lot of work get out to 50 light years with some security, but not much. With this new work on binaries came my first attempt to find out where we are in the universe.
You mentioned that your work with Russell was a question of introducing new methods, and that subsequently at Mount Wilson these methods were found to be good. Now, what’s different about the methods that you used from the ones traditionally used and how come you introduced these new methods? How did they evolve?
There are several answers. One is: there weren’t traditional methods. There had been no eclipsing star workers except for one or two gamblers who had tried out something or other — nothing until the Russell-Shapley business came along. That was all a fresh and new attack. A man named Alexander Roberts in South Africa had made a start. Two or three other people had tried to get the orbits of binaries from light curves. What you have in an eclipse is a star that seems to be pretty steady, but then it will dip down in its light, and then come back. That’s the eclipse. From the shape of that light curve, as we call it, we could deduce a lot of things: one is we’d get the orbital period. And we could get the inclination of the orbit. We’d get all sorts of things. It’s written up in one of these many papers of mine. Aristotle had only the light of a star to deal with, and its position, but I give a list of 30 different things that we now get out of studying the double stars with a spectroscope and an accurate photometer. The Greeks were very much handicapped by not having all this material. I wish they had had it. We’d be further along now. I don’t know what Plato would do with some of our modern machines. Make us look foolish, I suppose.
And when had Russell started on this — just a couple of years before?
Yes, just a couple of years before, and only on one or two easy stars, and not using a very good method. But anyway it was an attempt to show that we could solve those light curves. And the main reason we worked on eclipsing binaries was because we could get for them their mean densities. It was a nice trick. It was nice arithmetic — enjoyable. And I would sit there and work nearly all night with observations, trying to improve them, and use them.
How would you characterize your feelings? Did you feel this was a sort of a puzzle? It was challenging; it was fun — I was wondering in what sense you wanted to know the solution?
We were curious to know what would come, and the fact that the sun was only this big, and here I was dealing with stars 100 that were this big, enormous in relative size, gave me a thrill. And the sun has a density of about five, and here were stars with a density of a millionth — just great big gas bags. So it just made us wonder about the stars. I think one of the three reasons I got a kick out of it was to please Russell. It’s strange on thinking it over how happy I was when he’d come in and I’d say, “Here I’ve laid out another corpse for you to look at.” He’d just go over to the plot and zzzz, you know, and walk up and down and more zzzzz; he was so excited about it. Those were the happy days for him — and for me.
What about your own conception, at the time, of what the universe was about? You were working, certainly, on one aspect of it, but did you have any notion, any concept, of what kind of universe we lived in or what the galaxy was like?
No, we didn’t, and I did very little good thinking on the subject. But a little later I did two diagrams that bowled me over — one on the center of the Milky Way and the other on the distance of NGC 7006. The first revised the size of the Universe; the second pointed out its center.
Were you interested in history at all at that time in the development of ideas?
Oh, yes, I read widely and more and more widely when I got to Mount Wilson — practically anything on astronomy that was published in a language I could handle at all. I would summarize or read just to see what people were doing. There was a lot of attraction in that reading program.
You would need a thorough acquaintance with the literature in order to do the work.
Oh, yes, I knew the easy literature. Then it got away too much and too hard.
Because you would have had to know everyone’s program in order to proceed.
Did you meet Miss Leavitt at that time?
No, I met her first when I went to Harvard as director. She was dying of cancer, but we didn’t mention it. She was one of the most important women that ever touched astronomy, but she was an invalid, and was deaf and had a lot of other handicaps, among them stomach cancer. But she got some work done for about a year. She was there after I came to Harvard.
You said that you brought certain things from Princeton with you — ideas and problems to work on — and most of them related to distances generally: e.g., the globular clusters, and the Cepheid variables, and the eclipsing binaries. I don’t want at this time to discuss the Mount Wilson end of it, but rather the Princeton end of it. How did these things have their origins in Princeton? Some of these things you’ve already told us.
I was a graduate student at Princeton looking toward the future. I wandered around a little bit. I went to a meeting in Pittsburgh of the American Astronomical Society, and I went up to Harvard, stopping along the way like a student visiting places, I stopped at Yale, stopped at Brown University where they offered me a job, which I didn’t take. I think they knew I wouldn’t take it, but at least they went through the form because here was Russell’s student and he hasn’t any job yet. And when I got to Harvard three things affected the future a good deal, three things happened. One was that I had dinner with the famous and jolly Miss Annie J. Cannon. She was a josher in a way, and charming. “Young man,” she said, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to be the director of the Harvard Observatory.” Then she laughed about it. She remembered it ten years later, when I was director. I asked her how she managed it and again she laughed. That was one — Annie J. Cannon. Another involved Mr. Pickering, E.C. Pickering, the director, the most famous astronomer except possible for Hale at that time. He turned to me and said, “Anything in the observatory that you want, especially these observations that Wendell made before he died, just help yourself to them.” He invited me home to dinner with him and sat in those tall chairs. I was terri1ily impressed with the great man he was.
Impressive looking, too.
Impressive looking in a large way. He was a widower already at that time. He had flute music and he would set it up on the stand and just look at it, just read it. That was the Pickering contact.
This was 1912 or so?
Yes, and I went upstairs by the dome to call on Bailey. Later he was acting director in the interim between E.C. Pickering and Shapley. He was very pious and kind, a wonderful sort of man, but so New England, it just made you ache. He said, “I’ve been wanting you to come up here; I’ve been wanting to ask you to do something. We hear you’re going to Mount Wilson. When you get there, why don’t you use their big telescope to make measures of stars in globular clusters?” I hadn’t known anything about this plan, it was programmatic, it was interobservatory. Excellent and here we are.
So you took that idea with you. You were still finishing your own variable star research.
Oh, yes, I carried that along and worked on it for about a year. In fact, I tried to make eclipsing star light curves fit some of the other observations. It didn’t work very well, I kept on trying until I had downed the old theory that some Cepheids are double stars.
What, if any, reaction did you have to the publications on eclipsing binaries, published during the Princeton period? Did this begin to make a reputation for you? Other than that you were Russell’s toy student, which was enough of a reputation.
It was acknowledged that I was getting somewhere with eclipsing stars. I’d say it made a considerable impression.
You didn’t give a paper at any of these meetings?
Oh, yes, I did. I read some papers at the meeting in Pittsburgh, and I published a good deal, several papers, on stars — some of which Russell felt it was well to separate out because of the different technology involved. By the time I got to Mount Wilson I had published a dozen papers, and one or two were rather significant. Some of them were small. And curiously enough — I know you shouldn’t believe it — there weren’t many duds. There were hardly any that I would say now I shouldn’t have done. The Cepheid variable star analysis came out within a year after I had gone to Mount Wilson. It was a “tremendous” sort of paper — laborious. Have you ever seen Mount Wilson Contr. 92? It’s more than half footnotes. It was also a bibliography; and it was of interest that I could have so much to say and say it concretely. It was a proposal that these Cepheid variable stars are pulsing stars — single stars that were throbbing, vibrating. To get that far, I had to drop the idea that the Cepheid variable star is a double star.
You received a PhD in astronomy in Princeton in 1913 and then you went to Europe. You went to Mount Wilson in 1914.
I went to Mount Wilson after I’d been in Europe.
But you had received your degree at Princeton before you went to Europe?
What was the purpose of your trip?
Culture or education or knowledge or curiosity about Europe. I had already had a good deal of correspondence with Europeans about variable stars. I would say curiosity was a motive. My younger brother went with me. We parted company after a while because he wanted to climb up and look closely at decorations in a church in Ravenna, or somewhere — all such things. I said, “They are all right, but I just can’t take it,” and he couldn’t take me. I wanted to see science objects. So we parted company happily and have been happy ever since. (That was not my twin brother. He has never been abroad.)
Had you seen Einar Hertzsprung yet, or had he been in this country, or did you meet him then?
Yes, I met Hertzsprung at that time; I went all around Europe for some months and then went to a meeting of the Astronomische Gesellshaft in Bonn. This young Dane had an alert mind then. He has yet. One of the best astronomers Europe has produced. He did most of his work at Potsdam and later at Leiden. He had the brightest ideas, but never grew up with them all. I met Karl Schwarzschild the father of our Princeton astronomer in Potsdam, a man who is so much like George E. Hale in his genial personality that I would frequently confuse them.
Did you have letters of introduction? Was this necessary?
No, we didn’t have any of that?
How did they know that you were coming? Did you write in advance?
No, I just went. I hadn’t published the big papers; so I was just an obscure traveler — nothing special about me. I did go to some of the observatories.
Did you pay your own way?
Where did you get the money from?
Oh, I don’t remember. Did I get it honestly? I hope so. I think my father sent me $200.00, or both of us together got $200; and then I had saved from my munificent fellowship — the $1000 a year. We went steerage, and lived cheaply, as students would do and should. I got as far east as Hungary, as far north as Sweden, as far south as Algiers. I kept going; and kept my little botany book with me.
You left in April and returned when?
I was abroad about five months; my brother stayed, studied, and got his doctor’s degree at Vienna and then came back to various jobs in America. He’s now a retired lecturer at Howard University.
He was at the Catholic University of America, wasn’t he?
He was at the Catholic University. Then went to Baghdad for three years and now he’s lecturing part time at Howard University — retired. He’s a linguist — an archaeologist, in the history of art, and things of that kind — a considerable scholar.
Who else do you recall meeting in Europe?
Did you go to England, too?
Yes, I went to England and Ireland.
Did you meet any English astronomers?
Yes, I went to a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. So I met almost everybody, but they didn’t know that I’d met them! I have been to so many places later that I am a little confused as to when what happened. I didn’t get into Russia until after the Second World War. There was then not much Russian astronomy. Now they’re near the top in the world. The Pulkowa Observatory is the biggest on the planet.
At the time of your European trip had you made the arrangements for going to Mount Wilson?
You had the Mount Wilson job in mind; and you took the European trip as a sort of graduation present?
That’s right. I took thesis material with me. I always do that now. When on the way west from Princeton I stopped in Kansas City for a private affair, and took on this lady. She was at Bryn Mawr and went home ahead of me for clothes and such. I went to Kansas City on the way west to Mount Wilson (and the munificent salary of $90 a month).
Where was she during this period?
At the University of Missouri and Kansas City and Bryn Mawr.
And you corresponded regularly.
She was at Bryn Mawr and used to come a-visiting to Princeton.
Yes, she came over to Princeton during the time when I was there.
At this time, when you were going to Mount Wilson, how did you feel? Did you feel that you had found your place as a professional astronomer? In other words, were you developing a sense of maturity, a taste, an ability to judge what was good in someone’s work, including your own? When did this come about?
Working on eclipsing stars for two or three years I grew in maturity rather rapidly, I then knew I could do things other people couldn’t do, and therefore I was useful.
I guess Russell’s approval of your work was an important factor then. You felt you had made it and you were able to hold your own in the field. This was a result of the general work, but when did you first feel it at Princeton? Was there a particular paper or a particular point?
I would say when Russell and I joined in this paper on darkening at the limb for eclipsing binaries, and I worked out some of it independently of him, I felt then that maybe I was on my way. That’s the nearest answer. During the Princeton days it seemed to me that I had a future in astronomy — in fact, a rather easy one, and maybe if things turned out all right, it could even be sort of brilliant, because after I got to Mount Wilson I just poured out scientific papers one after the other. And they were accepted. (It was long after that, when I was at Mount Wilson and had published three or four of these papers, that the Astrophysical Journal declined to publish one of them. I’d forgotten about this episode, but William W. Morgan of Yerkes said, “Now you are made! You have to be turned down!” The paper was privately printed.)
Who was the editor at that time?
Edwin B. Frost. He didn’t understand the problem, and I was going too fast, had too many papers. But Seares stood by me very nicely. I was then away from eclipsing stars.
How about people at Mount Wilson? How do you think they felt about this?
Acting Director Walter S. Adams thought I was too precocious.
But he was conservative by nature.
Yes, he thought I was a bit too rapid, but Seares said, “All right, if you think it is all right, we’ll go ahead on that basis.” I mean he was collaborative — Seares was. It was more than that — he was amused, although he was a cool fellow. When I went to his office with a paper entitled, “On the Thermokinetics of Dolichoderine Ants,” he pushed it away and said, “You’re the master there.” He wouldn’t read my papers on ants. He knew that he couldn’t understand its details, wouldn’t care to, and so it didn’t mean much to him. He may have thought that I was doing a stunt. In a way I was doing a stunt. But, gosh, it was delightful. I was excited about ants. They taught us things. I wish I knew what Hale thought. Probably very favorable.
I was going over my notes that I took with Milton Humason and in one of your articles you said you first observed these ants in Pasadena.
That is not right. I first observed them on the mountain. And these ants, running in the dust, actually made trails. First on the mountain, then Pasadena.
He said you also used to go down fishing on West Fork, and that you would go looking for ants while he went fishing.
That’s right. I saw the Slave Makers! Polyergus!
And that later on when you were back at Harvard he used to send you ants in alcohol.
Yes, there are many many ant stories. There are 3500 kinds known. But this is an interview with an astronomer!
So where do you think you first made these observations of ants — on the mountains or in Pasadena?
Actually, I observed Liometopum piculatum on the mountain. They ran in a path. They were trail runners. In fact, I used them years later when I made the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. The title of that paper was “On Running in Trails.” Maybe you ran onto such a paper? It was done as a lecture in the enormous convention hail. “Running in Trails,” that’s what graduated were likely to do unless they took care. These graduates would be running in trails, doing just what their ancestors did, doing the same things; they wouldn’t venture out to the side. They would act just like my dolichoderine ants.
Where did you first see these? On the mountain?
On the mountain. I could give you the exact spot where I saw them; they kept the trail. It was along a concrete wall. They ran from some Quercus dumosa — that’s an oak — up one end of the building we called “the shop,” and down the other side, along a wall — a concrete wall. I’d been climbing down into the canyon underneath the engineering building; it was a hard climb getting back up. I was at that time collecting different kinds of shrubs. I rested when I got to the top; and while resting I saw a stream of ants going along the wall — some were going one way and some another. I hadn’t touched ants at all at that time, that had been just a couple of years after I got to Mount Wilson. I noticed that when the ants went into the shade of the manzanita bushes, they slowed down — as I would, too. It was cool and nice, and I thought they slowed down for comfort. But when they got into the shade, they’d slow up and take it easy for a while. I got to thinking about that and I wondered, so I got a thermometer and I got a barometer, a stop watch, and a hydrometer and all those “ometers” and set up a sort of little observing station while I was resting and getting ready for another night with the globular clusters. I didn’t sleep well. I followed these ants in the dark and pretty soon I found it was just lots of fun to see them. Whether or not they were loaded, they went at just about the same speed. I set up a speed trap for everything you can measure. To run 30 centimeters it took so many seconds.
Did you have a stop watch?
Oh, yes, I had a stop watch and I timed them. I made a record and that is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy — a good deal of it is. That ant was one of a particular kind — Liometopum Apiculatum, the trail runner.
How large were these ants?
A little under middle-size. I don’t know what you think “middle” is. There’s a minimum and there are larger ones. These were medium-sized, and thousands of them.
Were they black ants?
Brownish black. I went back there thirty years later. They are running that same trail along the same concrete wall, in spite of the fact that the assistant engineer goes along with a blow torch occasionally and wipes them out. I don’t know why he does. We didn’t speak to each other after that. I got other species. Then I took the same genus, but I couldn’t find Tapinova sessile, a well-known low-slung ant that didn’t go very fast. I just didn’t see him anywhere (I should say her), and so I wrote to Wheeler at Harvard and said, “You say that we should find Tapinova sessile in all this part of California. And I’ve looked and I don’t find them. I just wonder if I’ve got it wrongly identified.” He wrote back and said, “Just be patient, they’re there.” And sure enough, they were there. I couldn’t find them, but they found me, thousands of them. They crawled into our house, a stream of Tapinova sessile. They went through the den and into the kitchen sink where they got moisture. I had my experiment running, right there in front of me. The wife was involved a bit; she didn’t hold with ants quite as much as I did. But anyway I got the desired points on my curve of speed against temperature — for it wasn’t the barometer; it wasn’t the hydrometer; it wasn’t anything but air temperature. And so I got the temperature-speed for ants of one kind all the way down to the edge of the snow bank, and all the way up to about a hundred degrees. After that 100 degree F, I just couldn’t get them to run. I wanted very much to complete that curve. The reason I can talk about it now with special interest is that the same work has later been done elsewhere — in Germany and Holland. At Yale they have used moving picture techniques on the ants; but I wanted to get the speed as they got hotter and hotter. When it got to be about a hundred, there wasn’t any more volunteers running, and I couldn’t get any more points on my curves. But I got them. One of the streams of Tapinova sessile ran through my den in going to and from the kitchen sink. They gave me a hunch: so I stripped completely, put up the furnace, got the temperature up to about 103 degrees, or something like that in the den, and some of the ants quit, they couldn’t take it; so I got my desired points. One of the most interesting points I have gathered in my scientific career is the speed at which one particular kind of ant will run with a rising temperature. I thought we might go to the velocity of light. But no! We couldn’t see them after about 101 degree F, but they went on; and so there’s one point on the curve of the speed of ants that I treasure because it shows that when the temperature get there something happens. Maybe the metabolism goes sour. I have now five species of ants for which I have temperature curves. I had it with sufficient accuracy for these that were on the cement wall on Mount Wilson so that with observing half a dozen of them going through my speed trap, I could tell the temperature within one degree. I did it.
How low a temperature did you take them down to?
Down to freezing.
Did they walk around in the snow?
No, they didn’t — along the edge of the snow bank — where the temperature got down to around 35 degree F.
Mount Wilson provided unique conditions. It gave you the leisure in the daytime to do this and the availability of the hundred degree temperature range, or about 70 degrees, all within your immediate environment.
It was very nicely arranged by that one who arranges things. I finally got that speed curve and others and published the analysis.
I looked for this paper a little bit, and didn’t find it.
It was published in the National Academy of Sciences Proceedings along about 1920.
What did your colleagues think about the ant-running?
Oh, “Shapley’s funny.” No, they were interested, especially Seth Nicholson. But I kept it mostly to myself. They knew that I carried on that way. I found several other curious things about ants; one even more curious then this speed relation. It was a throwback. The ants that you see around here — I saw one in the kitchen this morning — are females. It’s only the queen and the male that carry on the sex business. When you see ants running around and bringing in food, it’s just part of their economy. They’re pretty decent to their people at home. I followed these things, and read almost everything written on ants.
Did they have ant books at Mount Wilson which you read, or was this all just observational work?
Well, I classified a few of them and did taxonomic studies. I think I know the first and second names — the genus and the species — of about 30 kinds of ants. I haven’t checked up lately, but I saw yesterday three kinds on your table.
Yes, there’s one kind, and I’m not sure that I had its speed before, but I could get it. I could set up a “speed trap.” Of course, somebody was clever to point out that “Shapley can get the temperature within one degree.” That is one way to get the temperature. You don’t really need a thermometer. But it is easier. When Humason was around, he always liked to call attention to Shapley’s thermometer ants.
That’s what Humason was talking about. He remembered it so vividly. That’s the reason he thought they actually wore a hole in the concrete. They walked back and forth so much.
The point is they do wear a hole if there’s dust around. They make a sort of a path in the dust.
Yes, but not actually in the concrete.
No, no, they were not that good.
We are at Mount Wilson. It would be good to start from the beginning there and talk about your arriving with your new bride, your reaction to the place, how you got settled, who was there, where you lived, and when you started work. That’s a big package I’ve just offered you.
I began work the day I arrived.
How did you get up the mountain?
I arrived. They didn’t know I was bringing a wife with me. They didn’t disapprove of it. They at once told me what my job would be: to help Seares with observations on the colors and magnitudes of stars. It made sense what he was doing but it didn’t turn out too happily, and I don’t think he thought it was too good. But he worked hard, and I did. They told me that as soon as I got on how to do it, I would have some access to the 60-inch. So the job I was doing was working for Seares for quite a while — for a year. But I could mix in globular clusters and variables with it, and some Cepheid variable stuff. I was well received. I was the first of a group of five or six, like Hubble and Sanford, that came to Mt. Wilson at that time or a little later.
What time was this? Let’s pin it down as far as the month.
In July, 1914, was it?
When was your wedding?
The 15th of April, on the way out to California.
You went by train?
We went by train. It was a long trip, but I had some nice observations with me, so we worked on the orbits of eclipsing binaries on the honeymoon.
Your wife helped you.
Yes, and she was pretty quick at it, so we enjoyed ourselves for a couple of days. One of our jobs was finding a place to live in Pasadena. We found one near the observatory on Villa Street, about a block and a half from the observatory office and shops.
This is not on the mountain.
No. I was to go up the mountain once a month, for three or four days. That sort of arrangement persisted for quite a long while. Other observers had the 60-inch telescope at other times. During the light of the moon, of course, Adams and Joy and the spectroscopists had the telescope. During the dark of the moon, I had access to it. After a while, Humason came and they assigned him — I don’t know how it was done — to work with me on galaxies. (They called them nebulae at that time.)
He said you started with him working on Nova Aquilae.
He’s probably right.
And that you put his name on a paper that was published in PASP, and this was before he was actually a part of the staff.
You know who Humason is — the fellow who was the caretaker on the mountain. Nicholson and I taught him arithmetic and calculus.
He said you really pushed him and really encouraged him.
Oh, we did push because he had something; that is, he had faith and stability. To be sure, he thought that he could be a water diviner and find water on the mountain. We had to shake that out of him.
Humason said that Dr. Charles St. John was the one who did believe in water witching. St. John, he said, was twirling his mustache all the time he was twirling the twig. Funny! People get funny at high altitudes.
When I first went up, there were solar astronomers on Mt. Wilson. St. John went up for water searching and sunspots.
Who was there when you got there?
There was Charles St. John, Ferdinand Ellerman, Walter Adams (who came with Hale from Yerkes), Arthur King, and George W. Ritchey, who was there. He was for optical work. That was practically all.
Joy didn’t come until a little later?
Joy came later.
Was Hale there on the premises?
Hale was there but not often. He was already ill.
He had a breakdown in 1913, yes. Perhaps he wasn’t there when you arrived.
I don’t think he came around, but after a while…
… he went to Washington, of course.
Yes, I went to see him early for a reason that I am too embarrassed to tell you. I thought I wasn’t getting as much pay as I ought to get. Well, it was an oversight, so I got upped from $90 to $135 a month. It was only a maladjustment. I like to point out to the many people I’ve employed: “When I was your size they paid me $90 and I was already internationally famous!”
That was quite an increase — from $90 to $135.
Yes. The salary was only $90 because they expected I would be living free on the mountain. They didn’t know about the wife. Hale didn’t like my approach and I didn’t like it. On further thought: Why did I have to tell him? But nobody else was going to look after me and I wanted three meals a day. They played fair with me after that — very fair. When I was called finally to Harvard, after an interval of some years, I was the highest paid astronomer in America. It was just about twice what the Astronomer Royal was paid. (Astronomers came cheap in those days!)
What was your first reaction upon seeing the 60—inch? Of course you’d never seen it before.
No, but I knew about it. I knew the design. It was wonderful that one could have such machinery. But it was always for me very hard work. I “suffered” quite a bit those long, cold nights.
You didn’t really enjoy observing too much?
I did enjoy it, especially the novelty. And when Pease and I commenced working with the hundred-inch — that was experimental — and that I liked all right. I suppose that in the daytime I ran around with the ants in the bushes and didn’t sleep as much as I ought. I know that for three or four years it was rather tough going. But it was tough going for the others, too. Scientific research is laborious, and especially if it is done in the night hours and you go through the whole night.
They take it easier now. They break the nights sometimes, but in those early days everybody worked through the night. And also it’s warmer now. They have electrically insulated suits, which makes a big difference. It must have been pretty cold there at night.
Well, we were a rugged lot in those days. We would go up the mountain, a nine-mile hike, sometimes pushing a burro, sometimes not. The new road had not been put in. Adams was the acting director in Mr. Hale’s illness, and he could take on anything. He was a tough one. He was our best tennis player, and he was the best billiard shooter, and best mountaineer.
And he wouldn’t require anything unless he himself could do it well.
Yes, very well. He held us down — not very openly — but he’d let it get around that some person didn’t seem to observe so well when the night really was cold. Adams was not a slave-driver; he was an operator — an inspirer, in a way.
He drove himself and he expected others to do the same thing.
That’s right. He wasn’t a good loser in anything; but being so good he didn’t have to lose — not often. I wrote his obituary for the academy, and I noted the fact that Adams could do so much well. He could be a leader in all ways. When he played tennis — I’ve forgotten who was his partner — he would get so annoyed at himself that his opponents had to lose.
You mentioned observing, and of course the observing time was only three or four nights of the month.
On account of the clouds, yes.
I just wanted to get a breakdown of the schedule. Then the rest of your time you’d be working…
Reducing the observations is one thing we’d be doing — I mean analyzing what we had got. Another thing would be trying to discover variable stars in clusters — that kind of business. And occasionally a manuscript would be sent to me across the hail by Seares, he thinking perhaps that I might edit it. I worked on those manuscripts a bit. I was known to have been once a newspaper writer, and so they thought I could do similar things with science. I could, moderately well. Seares was a good one though on editing — excellent.
What about visitors at the observatory other than the resident staff?
The famous Albert Michelson from Cleveland — you know about him. He was there for some time measuring the velocity of light between two mountain tops. J. C. Kapteyn was the most persistent visitor in those early days.
He came in July of the year that you came, and I wondered whether he was on the mountain then when you were, because he stayed on the mountain most of the time, didn’t he?
Yes. In fact, I took my first measures of the distance of globular clusters to Kapteyn and said, “The method that I’ve been telling you about — the method of getting the distances of objects with these variable stars in Messier 13, I have this sort of result. I’d like to have you see it.” Well, there’s no doubt in the world but that I’d hit the jackpot, but Kapteyn was attacking the same problem in a very different way, as a part of proper motion studies, and it was eight years after I announced my center of the Milky Way before Kapteyn half-way accepted it. He was of the older school.
He was so wrapped up in the way he was doing it, I suppose, that he couldn’t accept anything else.
And Van Maanen went along with Kapteyn, but nobody else. Seares of course was a conservative judge of everything. And Kapteyn didn’t want to break down his other methods. His own methods were good but very rough — using proper motions to get the distance of remote stars. When I took the result to him he suggested that I’d better check my observations again. In other words, he wouldn’t accept it. But he was kind about it, because I was a nice young man and he was a nice old man. The cottage up there (on Mount Wilson) is the Kapteyn cottage — I suppose it’s still called the Kapteyn cottage. He was one of the most famous European astronomers. It was an honor to have met him. Others came as visitors. One was Robert Williams Wood, the physicist from Johns Hopkins…
That seemed to be your second meeting with him — once at Princeton when you were first there.
That’s right — when we looked for sulphur deposits on the moon.
When did Russell start coming out as an associate?
It was a little later. In fact, it was pointed out that if I would take that Harvard job, it would release funds and they could get Russell. That was rather an interesting situation. They got him to come anyway.
He only came for short periods of time. He never came to stay for a year.
Of course he went to Flagstaff and Lick, too. He was the judge of astronomy for all of us for quite an interval of time, and he was very useful when he’d come around.
He probably had the greatest grasp of astronomical problems of anybody in the world. He used to go to meetings where he could talk on any topic.
On any topic except two or three. He didn’t work on the structure of the Milky Way, even in later years when Bart Bok was deep in it. Bok got nothing from Russell who just didn’t turn his mind that way. He wouldn’t work on long period variable stars in spite of the amateurs’ interest. And he was baffled that Miss Cannon and I and some others knew the names and numbers of quite a lot of them; he didn’t like to have us go past him. But everything else he did do, as far as I remember — he was the universal judge of all problems.
Let us now try to talk about the development of your own research at Mount Wilson. I think we’ve covered a bit of the general environment and the background of your life there. There’s a lot more to add and I hope we’ll get back to it. But now, maybe it’s good to follow this thread of your own research there, other than your ant research. What was the first problem you worked on?
Now, let’s see, how would I take hold of that? Almost from the first I commenced worrying about the distances of Cepheid variables after I got to Mount Wilson. Some of these Cepheid variables are in the globular clusters, and that also made them interesting to me because it seemed to tie up the distances we could get with eclipsing binaries and the distances from these Cepheid stars. And so already, in 1914 — I believe — I did that paper on the Cepheid theory. I got into Cepheids rather early and I stayed with them during those early years at Mount Wilson, say, before we crashed through on the distances and structure, I was working on Cepheid variable stars. I measured light curves and advanced the pulsation theory. I did a great deal of reading of German contributions that bore on vibrations in a mass of gas.
Who else had done work on it?
Eggen was one. J. C. Duncan was another. (See footnotes in Loud and Mt. Wilson Contr. No. 72). Some went at it from the standpoint of physics and gas dynamics. I was working on the Cepheid variables, but especially discovering new ones. Solon I. Bailey had found quite a lot in clusters and I got a lot more of them and found some of the important long period Cepheids. They of course had the greater magnitudes, and so pretty soon I had some raw material that seemed to indicate big distances. I’d say almost from the beginning of my Mt. Wilson days I was working on the contribution from Cepheid variables to our understanding of what they are and what their sizes are. And then, as I have described in print, I got to a place where I had all the globular cluster distances I could find by this method and the usual trigonometric methods. I plotted the clusters and looked at what I had; I found that globular clusters are mostly in the southern Milky Way and that some were bright and some were faint. Those that had Cepheid variables could be compared with those that didn’t have Cepheid variables. Finally, I hit upon the period—luminosity relation that had been fore-shadowed by Miss Leavitt.
Her paper was published in 1912, wasn’t it?
Yes, and dealt with just 25 stars. It didn’t deal with their distances at all. And so I went after the distances, and that was helped by the work of E. Hertzsprung.
Did you discuss that with him when you were in Germany?
Not as a student, no. I was scared of him.
Of course you were a recent graduate when you met him, but you were still in a student frame of mind.
Yes. He was a scintillating sort of a person and a humorous person. He married Kapteyn’s daughter, a little internal romance. I was their first house guest.
You had of course kept up with this work of the Germans, so you were aware of this work as well as Henrietta Leavitt’s work.
Yes. In those days I read everything about variables. There wasn’t so much to read as now.
This is a side issue. What was the major astronomical journal of that time, the prestige journal?
Yes, started by Hale. There was Popular Astronomy, and there was a poorer journal called Astronomical Journal and abroad there was Monthly Notice of the Royal Astronomical Society. But Astrophysical Journal was the best one.
I mean on a world-wide basis. The European Astronomer would regard it as the most important?
Oh yes, I think so for astrophysics.
Hale started out by making an international board of editors…
That’s very interesting. The Physical Review didn’t go down that path but was started in about the same period; and it was only in the l93Os when it began to take a leading role.
Was the Philosophical Magazine important?
No, I don’t think astronomers published there, but in Nature there were occasional letters to the editor. I had several papers in Nature.
And Monthly Notices.
And Monthly Notices for the British. We didn’t publish much in there from America. We were ahead of them.
I’m sorry I interrupted you on this other issue. Over how long a period of time did you work on the distance relationships before you felt you had it?
Three or four years. After I had been at Mount Wilson a year or so I was pretty deep in Cepheids and published the first paper on that pulsation hypothesis; and then following it through and getting the distances of the clusters and their arrangements in space — I had that pretty well done by 1918. 1917 is perhaps when I had the very first paper, and then a number of papers came along, backing it up or extending it.
This is the series known as the “Studies of Magnitudes in Star Clusters” — I, II?
There was one in 1916 on “The Absorption of Light in Space.”
That was wrong. That was one of my blunders.
Well, tell us about it. Why was it a blunder?
I had the misfortune of finding some blue stars in the center of the Milky Way, in the northern Milky Way. On that too-flimsy basis, I assumed that there was no absorption in space, or very little, I associated with Adrian Van Maanen who had gotten some evidence. It seemed that at least there wasn’t much absorption of light in space. I call that my blunder because I faithfully went along with my friend, Van Maanen. He was wrong on the proper motions of galaxies, that is, on their cross motions. Therefore I was off-beat for a while, whereas Curtis and Hubble and some others discredited the Van Maanen measures and questioned his results. I stood by Van Maanen. That was the blunder — if you call it that way. I mean that I followed a false trail for a while. Now I’ve been complimented more than once on the fact that when I found it was false, I switched immediately to the truth. I was the leading supporter of Hubble and Curtis after we got onto what was what — namely, that there’s enough absorption of light in space to dim down my clusters. They were not as far away as my observations had indicated.
When did Van Maanen come to Mount Wilson and when did you first see him?
Soon after I went there — within two or three years. He at once was a friend of Mr. Hale.
That was a curious thing. I never understood that.
Well, he was aggressive and he was sociable. He could go to a dinner, such as we were at last night, and soon have the whole table laughing. He was a social success. This was Van Maanen. He measured galaxies, and stellar parallaxes, and the sun’s magnetic field by way of the Zeeman effect. He worked for Hale and was soon getting the rotation of galaxies and things of that kind, and it looks as though he got the answers he wanted, or that seemed to be best. I don’t know that he ever corrected himself, but others have corrected him. He was a charming person, a bachelor; he and I were pals of a sort — I don’t know why, because I wasn’t “society” and he was. I suppose he and I got together because he was rather an alert-minded person and I liked his nonsense. We’d talk over problems. But I think we’ve given him plenty of credit now. He was wrong in his measures on the solar work, too, I believe.
I can understand the Seares-Hale relationship a little better than the Van Maanen relationship because they were different, and I think Hale would soon see through, shall we say, some of the extrapolations of Van Maanen.
Did Rubble dislike Van Maanen from the time he arrived?
I think Van Maanen was liked all right until he became a sort of playboy.
But from the time Hubble arrived in 1919, did he dislike Van Maanen? He sort of scorned him, did he?
Yes, you’re using the proper words, I think — yes. Rubble didn’t like people. He just didn’t like people. Re didn’t associate with them, didn’t care to work with them, clear to the finish. I remember once somebody referred a paper I had written to Rubble to pass judgment on it. It was a good paper; it was correct; I mean I knew what I was talking about at that time. It was written for some journal like Scientific American. They sent it to Rubble, who just wrote across it “of no consequence.” And the people who got that report and told me of it thought it was the funniest thing, because there it was, in type, Shapley — “of no consequence.”
Was it published?
Oh, yes, I think so.
Would he talk with you? Did you discuss things with him at all?
We didn’t talk very much. You see, he was a Rhodes scholar and he didn’t live it down. He spoke with an Oxford accent. He was born in Missouri not far from where I was born, and probably knew the Missourian tongue. But he spoke Oxford. He’d use phrases like “to come a cropper,” that kind of a phrase. The ladies that he associated with enjoyed very much that accent, that Oxford touch. “Bah Jove!” he’d say. And there were a number of other phrases. He was quite picturesque, but this is not a story about him, so cancel all that’s been said for the last five minutes.
I’d like to include it in the tape if it’s all right with you.
About Hubble and Van Maanen? Oh, I think that’s rather nasty to dig up those jealousies.
But it affects history somewhat. (break) Let me start on Seares.
When I came to Mr. Wilson there one of the jobs they put me on was not only being an assistant to Seares on his photometry but also to help with editorial things and do some things directly for Mr. Hale. That was about 1918; he was still operating.
Yes but he was in Washington. He came back in November, 1917, for the hundred-inch, but then he went back to Washington again, and he was delayed in Washington.
Did you know that Hale gave me a check to pay my expenses for the “great debate?”
No, we want to know more about that. How did that come to be? That’s the reason it was called the William Ellery Hale lecture?
I believe it was.
This came out of the special fund that was set up when his father died. There had been those four lectures earlier by Rutherford and by Campbell on evolution. Hale of course was very interested in the idea of evolution. Did he have anything to do with proposing that the debate should take place at the Academy?
I suppose he did. But anyway the invitation came with a request that I go and fight this out with Heber D. Curtis. I just stood around a little bit until Mr. Hale said “I’m giving you a check to cover your expenses for the travel.” It was something like $250. I would have gone anyway because we’d already resigned ourselves to poverty.
That’s a full story. And before we go into it, I’d like to backtrack a bit. You commented about a German, wondering why you didn’t work on galaxies. That was off the tape. I’d like to include it.
Well, people have sometimes wondered why I did not do galaxies when I had the tools all ready and the methods worked out. The work that Hubble did on them later was very largely using the Shapley methods. He didn’t acknowledge my priority, but there are people like that. He used the same methods even to using the five brightest stars — using them as a criterion of distance. I don’t know what we were going to say about this. It isn’t important, the priority.
That the galaxy work was assigned.
Rubble came in 1919 and he had done his doctoral thesis at Yerkes on the clusters of “nebulae.” In other words, his thesis had been in that field, and so it was logical when he came to Mount Wilson that he would go on with galaxies. Seares pointed out to me that Rubble could then do for spiral galaxies what I had been doing for clusters, and so it was not very unexpected that he would be given some sort of a galaxy job. Nicholson had something of his own; Roscoe Sanford had something; Joy had something. Rubble’s thesis having been on galaxies, it was just natural that he would use my methods. But he used Shapley methods without credit, unfortunately. He went on and made himself very famous and properly so, as a main student of galaxies. In fact, in my book on galaxies is a picture of Rubble, and I simply say that he is the leading student of galaxies. I didn’t go on with galaxies. I never regretted it especially. But that was the situation when Becker of Hamburg wrote me up, describing my work in some way or other and then said, “The thing that bothers us and we don’t understand is why Shapley just quit.” Well, I didn’t quit. I worked like the dickens. But I was using the tools that appropriately were permitted me. Hubble, by the way, was an excellent observer, better than I. He was patient. Later, I got into galaxy statistics.
This implies something about the organization of research at Mount Wilson, the concept of a research team with specific assignments.
That’s true. That is, Seares was editor, and photometry was his field — other people didn’t work with the standard photometry. Adams and Joy — and maybe they had somebody else — were the spectroscopists. Kohlschutter was in Germany —— he went off to fight the wars, and he and Adams did a fine job using the spectra of the stars as a criterion of distance. It got a big hand at the time and it was very good, but it’s now been so extended that one hardly knows that there once was the work of Adams and Kohlschutter on getting the distances of stars from studying the spectra. It was pretty neat job for some spectral classes. Nicholson was on the sun and almost always worked on the sun. He did go off on planet orbits because it had been in his thesis in studying the satellites of Jupiter a bit. I worked with him as a “friend.” And we found, by golly, an object which I think turned out later to be one of the many moons of Jupiter. We found it when we were working on Jovian satellites. I let him use some of my nights with the 60-inch telescope. Nobody else was interested in Jupiter, but Nicholson was a Jupiter type of astronomer. We found this object: Now a rule of astronomy is that if you find a new asteroid or a comet or something of that kind, you do a study of it — you go on. So we had found what we called “a doggoned asteroid or something,” and we must now get the orbit. It was the only orbit of that kind I ever computed. Nicholson and I came through, and the thing, sure enough, was an asteroid. It was not a satellite of Jupiter. We had to calculate it through. We did so and got an orbit, and published it. Now it is also one of the rules to name the beast, because asteroids must have names or numbers. And so we flipped a penny to see who would get a chance to name it, and by gosh, I won the toss. It was all in fun. We had a good time. Well, my first thought was that I’d name it for Friend Wife, buying some “credit” at home. But Martha was already in the sky as the name of another asteroid. There are hundreds of them. “How about the mother-in-law, Louise?” But Louise already was in the sky. “Very well, we shall wait,” and sure enough the oncoming infant was female and promptly was named Mildred.
In all of this did you get together for colloquia and discussions?
Very little. With Mr. Hale I think it would have been different, but I’d been at Mt. Wilson three or four years before we had a colloquium of any kind at the observatory. In fact, I had left Mt. Wilson before they started to have an occasional colloquium. Just one — maybe twice — during all the seven years I was there did the staff get together to discuss a problem. It just wasn’t the way the observatory was set up, and it bothered me a bit because I like colloquia, but I’m afraid, possibly for the wrong reason. I just wanted to show a wide interest and therefore it was a vanity on my part. But I would have liked to have them. We had one meeting and it was a great success, but we didn’t have any more in all that time. Then quite a little later they commenced having colloquia which they tied up with the colloquia at Cal Tech.
Did you have any discussions in the monastery, in the mountain, or with people…?
We’d just visit with each other a little. We kept away from other fields remarkably well. It was rather surprising. But at the same time I think it may be the same elsewhere now.
Did you keep up with other fields of science? Were you aware of developments in physics?
That was the time when I was reading the literature so fully that I knew pretty well what was going on. Nicholson was pretty good with the literature, but in general we were so busy with our observations that we didn’t have a chance for speculations.
Was it the pressure of the instruments themselves, that is, the availability of instruments that just had to be used because they were the best in the world?
Yes, that appealed to us. We wouldn’t let a good night go by without feeling pretty bad about it.
Was there a feeling of pressure to get in every bit of time possible?
Yes. Our goal was to do something that we hadn’t done before, to be leaders in scientific research and live up to Hale’s dream of this being a research institution. We did no teaching, we did no lecturing In those days. Twice we went to Hale’s house; once was when W.W. Campbell came. Oh that man, Campbell! — he believed in killing Germans wherever they were. “My hand isn’t going to be clean until I’ve used it some way to kill Germans.” I mean he was a really passionate person in this hero type of murder.
This was during the war.
Campbell of the Lick Observatory. He had a son in the war. He too was quite a blood-letter, but many people were. St. John was a pretty rough one. Adams was, too, but Hale was not. In my few contacts I don’t remember anything like that on his part. Hale was judicious. He took it quietly. The younger ones, like Van Maanen and Shapley and Paul Merrill were pretty well suspect because they thought there might be another side to this fight. That was before we actually got into the First World War.
Did you do any war work during the war at the observatory?
A little bit was done by King and Harold D. Babcock, gratings and so forth — but very little. Mr. Hale asked me personally not to enlist, as I was about to do in spite of having two or three kids and exemptions. Hale said, “You want to be available for optical work that may come on to Washington.”
Optical work in connection with the war, you mean.
Yes, but I was in the process of enlisting in the heavy artillery when the Kaiser said “Uncle.” Adams had oked my enlisting.
Was this work with the National Research Council, too?
Yes, that kind of thing — making better cameras, you know. But we didn’t do a great deal.
How about Ritchey? At that time he set up his own shop. He was making optics for the government for the war, but he was also making things on the side and selling them. This was something that made Adams very mad.
I’d forgotten that.
But how, in general, did you like Ritchey?
I liked him pretty well, but I like everybody — nearly everybody I can think of.
Humason, who likes people pretty well, said that in the early days on the mountain, when he was in charge of the mule team, Hale and everybody were always very nice to him, but Ritchey was not!
Well, Ritchey I knew in Paris later, when he set up that shop in the Paris observatory. I felt sorry for him because he was so difficult. Your book, Miss Wright, shows that he was difficult.
Of course I was giving the opinion of Adams who had a very difficult time with him; Hale tolerated him.
And Ellerman didn’t get along with him.
And of course he was so opposed to the hundred—inch. This was also a very difficult matter.
How did you react to the idea of the hundred—inch? You were aware of the plans for it from the start, I guess.
Yes, from the start. You see, Pease and I were the first users of the hundred-inch. It was a long time after our preliminary using of it that it was in really good shape and then it became a really powerful tool.
You didn’t go up the mountain that first night when they observed, when Hale came back from Washington on November 1st, 1917. Alfred Noyes, the poet, was there too.
(I write this exactly 50 years later –- 1967-1917.) Yes, I knew he was there writing his bad poetry! But also that was a time when Van Maanen was close to Seares and to Noyes; the others stood back.
But in that period, then summarizing, you worked as a research team, each one on your own assigned research topic.
Pretty well on our own. For instance, I helped Nicholson a bit with his orbits, but I had nothing to do with the solar work. I didn’t understand it, I guess. And so it’s true we were working on our assigned themes with not too much overlapping.
Well, then, let’s take up your own assigned theme where you left off. We talked about some of the early papers and then we started talking about the debate in 1920. What happened? What led up to it? I’m assuming that the debate followed naturally from everything that you were doing. Could you take us along that path?
My series of papers — “Colors and Magnitudes in Star Clusters” — grew during those years. One paper after another, and a few incidental discoveries and reports. That’s what I was doing until I left Mount Wilson.
And how did this whole debate come about? Evidently, the public presentation was the high point of a whole series of things that were going on.
Well, at the Lick Observatory, one of the best observers and talkers about the universe was Heber D. Curtis. He’s a very conservative person. He started out in his life as a classicist, I believe. That appealed to me all right, but it didn’t help much when he got to talking about where the clusters are. Curtis was skeptical about the Mount Wilson work. It was not jealousy. But he was just doubtful as to whether the spirals were going down the right groove. That included Van Maanen’s work to some extent and especially mine on clusters. This led rather naturally and cleanly to my new methods of measuring big distances, and therefore to my new views on the size of the universe, and how it’s put together. Well, publicly or otherwise — I’ve forgotten which — Curtis said, “You’re all wrong. This is a wild business.” If you look at his papers at the time, you will wonder how he got that way, because the evidence is so much against his conservative conclusion. At the same time he was right on some points and especially on one thing, namely, as to where the spirals fitted into the sidereal scheme. There was a paper or two of mine, and may be two of his that were plenty antagonistic. I mean he had his views, and I published my data on the arrangement of the universe. Somebody — I have a hunch it was Seares — said, “Why don’t we argue it out publicly?” I think Seares believed that what I was doing was right; and he took it up with Hale, and Hale of course was managing Academy affairs, so it was pretty natural to anybody with a quick mind like Hale to say, “Well, let’s fight it out. Let’s see what it is all about. This is sensational if Shapley is right…” I think he wanted to have people help make up his mind because Hale really was deeply interested in these things although the sun was his major concern.
Did you ever see Curtis during this interim before the debate?
Maybe once. Yes, I knew him. We had talked together a bit, but not very much.
Where did you see him?
I went up to the Lick Observatory and to Mount Hamilton. I don’t think he came down to Mount Wilson. But anyway Curtis was pretty positive about what he said, and I felt my observations were positive in what they said, and so pretty soon came an invitation by way of Hale to fight it out in public and see what was what. I accepted of course. I had no choice. And Mr. Hale gave me a check for $250 to pay for my trip. Perhaps he felt a little guilty, having gotten me into it. Rather early in my time at Mount Wilson — in the first year or so — Hale called me into his office and said, “You know everybody around here and know them well. We appreciate what you do. Would you just continue to keep your eyes open for people who are in need? Perhaps I could help a little, but quietly, without their knowing it.” He was very generous. I don’t know whether Humason yet knows that. One of his first papers was paid for by a secret gift. I think that was the only one I dug up for him.
Humason said at first Mr. Hale was opposed to appointing him on the staff because he thought he hadn’t the training. Then later on Hale said, “I was wrong.”
He was one of the best observers we ever had. And the credit goes to Nicholson for teaching him. I may have excited him some and said, “Hooray, go to it,” but I was too selfish. I did my own work. But Nicholson would sit down and tell him what cosine meant, things of that kind. And Humason finally got a doctor’s degree from Lund, Sweden. That was lovely. That was another nice thing the Swedes did, something that we couldn’t do in this country. We couldn’t give an honorary degree to a man who hadn’t finished high school. But now he is Dr. Milton Humason.
What did most of the people at Mount Wilson feel about this? Were they skeptical, too? Did any of them share Curtis’s views?
I don’t remember that they did.
They really accepted what you were saying, did they?
I think they did because, after all, Seares would edit paper after paper that kept flowing along every month or so, and he never stopped the flow.
You mentioned that Hale had given you the money. That’s where we got off. Now, you accepted and then Curtis accepted. Did you have any discussion with him about the feasibility of doing this, and then, later, about exchanging statements before the actual debate? The Proceedings mention that written statements were prepared by both men and exchanged before the meeting.
What happened is that we went, by train, of course, Southern Pacific, and found we were both on the same train. When Curtis made his charming presentation to the Academy, he said, “Although we came on the same train and talked about this and that” — I think I collected some ants where the train stopped — “there’s no collusion.” He said, “We haven’t discussed this. We haven’t argued it. So it’s fresh.” But you said we exchanged papers, and I suppose we did.
But anyway there was no verbal exchange.
No verbal at all. In fact, when the train broke down in Alabama, we had an hour or so together. We walked up and down and talked about flowers and classical things. He’s a classicist. It was quite pleasant. But we kept away from the controversial subject.
Struve wrote that statements were prepared by both men and exchanged before the meeting. Perhaps he was thinking of the exchange of papers after the meeting prior to publication.
Yes, I think he was. That’s more logical, too. Given before doesn’t sound right.
You both knew each other’s views so you wouldn’t have to exchange papers.
That is right. Let me say one thing. Beginning about eight or ten years ago, we commenced hearing about the “Great Debate,” but before that for nearly 30 years I hadn’t heard it mentioned in any way. To have it come up suddenly as an issue, and something effective — I just took it for granted. We’d had it. He was right partly, and I was right partly. I was busy about other things. And so this “Great Debate” that takes two chapters of Struve’s history and is in any number of other publications. I just didn’t know much about it!
Who was the first one to bring it up again do you think?
I wonder who it was. Maybe it was Helen Wright.
Alan Sandage wrote about it in the Hubble Atlas, of course.
I don’t know who dug it up.
But that was more recent.
I’m surprised by the whole business and puzzled as to when it was brought up again and why.
It’s interesting. Let’s find out a bit about the debate itself. What about the circumstances? You and Curtis were on the train.
And when we got to Washington, various things happened to me. I was examined by George Agassiz and Theodore Lyman to see if I would be a decent guy to be the director of the Harvard Observatory. That was one of the by-products of the trip. They took me for an automobile ride, I remember, to my club or to wherever I was going. Those were big shots from Harvard that make “the lookover.” Another big shot, who wasn’t so big, Prof. J. C. Duncan of Wellesley College — was asked to examine the female of the family and see if she would fit into the Harvard community. They take pains about things of that kind. And so Duncan interviewed her and talked with her and made a report and she got the job!
Did you have any inkling about the Harvard job before you went east? Had Hale mentioned this to you or anything?
No, Hale didn’t.
Because I have that letter, you know, that he wrote to President Lowell. I think I mentioned it in my book. It was a very nice letter, I thought.
It was effective. Hale was skillful, and he knew all the right moves. After we had our “debate,” I went on to Harvard and got acquainted with them a bit. I saw Joel Metcalfe who was on the visiting committee. I indirectly let them know that I would not be adverse to being considered for the directorship. I asked Russell what he thought. “Oh, no, no,” he said, “you wouldn’t want to do that. You couldn’t do that.” He was disturbed very much, Russell was, that I was considering it seriously; and so was William Pickering, who wrote a letter that was sent to me by somebody saying, “I didn’t think Shapley would be so foolish as to give up his astronomical career just to be director of that observatory.” That was one view of it. Well, it annoyed me so much that I since have taken pains to do some scientific work in spite of being the director of the Harvard Observatory. In fact, I did as much scientific work as anybody, I think, for the 20 years after I went to Harvard. I mean papers and contributions and things of that kind. But anyway that was the view some friends took. Russell had been offered the directorship indirectly, but no one expected him to accept. They knew he wanted to stay at Princeton and also his health wasn’t too good.
How about the business of his being supposedly offered a job at Mount Wilson? Of course he went out annually as a research associate, but you said also that one reason you thought you were offered the job at Harvard was that they wanted to make room for Russell at Mount Wilson. That was mere gossip?
Was Russell involved? He wrote me that I shouldn’t — then that I should. He was excited. Later he decided I should by all means, and moved heaven and earth to let Harvard know… And you know how I got the job? This isn’t wholly true, but I’ll tell it as if it were. I had been playing around with these little crawlers, you know — there’s a flow of energy this-a-way and that-a-way. Both the stars and the ants are energetic operators, so I have some sort of excuse to play around with them. But I had to get some of my ants identified. Out there that was not easy. Ant students are scarce. So I bottled a sample of ants and set up an exchange with the man who had written a volume on ants — William Morton Wheeler, philosopher, biologist and the leading myrmecologist — (that is, the top ant man of the planet). I had done something already for Wheeler who had fiddled around with ants for half a century. He heard that Harvard was looking for an astronomer whom they could appoint as observatory director. He went to see Mr. A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard, and said, “I don’t know how this person is in astronomy. I am not pretending to know whether his astronomy is any good. But he is very good in myrmecology. I think you ought to hire him.”
Now, about the debate. You got to Washington.
It was the spring meeting of the Academy, their annual meeting, April 26th, 1920.
Hale sent me a banquet ticket. I sat at a table with some noted ‘people. One was Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins, the student of alcohol effects. Another one was W.J.V. Osterhout of Harvard botany. We talked and gossiped. And then came the speech-making. The Academy gave prizes and medals of one kind and another. It was just horrible. Some noble human antiques from out of the government bureaus had worked on hookworm. That was their specialty, their lives. In fact, they had conquered hookworm. They weren’t exciting as speakers. They didn’t know how to make a talk. One would get up and talk for a while about “Johnson the Scientist,” “Johnson as Operator,” “Johnson the Man” — that was the kind of phrases they would use. And then another would get up and do much the same. Ye Gawds’, I groaned. Over at the head table there was a visitor from Europe named Albert Einstein. He was sitting there with a beaming face, reflecting his wonderful personality. Alongside him was somebody from the Belgian embassy who was there to receive, on behalf of P. Zeeman, a price, medal, or something of that kind. And here drooled on the hookwork specialists; here was the Johnson-the-man man, and so it went on. To me it was embarrassing, to others also, but Einstein, smiling, leaned over to the Belgian and whispered something. The Belgian turned away quickly to hide his big smile or guffaw. “What did Einstein say,” we asked the Belgian afterwards. “I just have got a new theory of eternity.” That was one of Einstein’s many epigrams. At my table was Raymond Pearl. He got hold of the menu card, wrote a note on it, and handed it across to Osterhout. I peeked. The note said: “Jesus H. Christ!” Then Osterhout in reply scribbled a note and returned it to Pearl. Again I peeked, as I was supposed to do. The message stands: “Jesus H. Christ, and the H. stands for hookworm!”
Very good. That was the evening before.
On the evening after the debate. I’m not sure. We had the so-called debate which I had forgotten for nearly 20 years. I’d never thought that there actually was a debate.
Was the word “debate” used then in any sense?
No, I believe not. It was a symposium, or something like that, and there was a paper by Curtis and a paper by me, and a rebuttal. I think that was all the picture. I don’t think it was often called a debate. You haven’t run onto the word “debate,” have you?
It was a matter of an evening given to presenting two views.
There were two papers on the program, then.
Two papers and a rebuttal paper. I didn’t do a very good job; I wasn’t skillful. Now I’d know how to dodge things a little better. Curtis did a moderately good job. His science was wrong, but his delivery was pretty good. He’s a classicist.
This was before the whole Academy, was it?
Yes, the whole Academy. It was their evening lecture.
About how many people were present — do you know?
I’d say two or three hundred, not as big as now.
Was Michelson still president at this time?
I don’t know. That of course could be looked up.
And who was the chairman of this session?
I don’t remember that either. You see, this is to me a vague sort of thing that didn’t happen, shouldn’t have happened…
It was published by the National Research Council, which is also a little curious, perhaps.
That’s the hand of Hale again, I guess.
Because it was a long paper. It shouldn’t come out in the annual proceedings.
Anyway it was a pleasant meeting, and our subject matter was the Scale of the Universe. That’s what I was prepared to talk about and did talk about, and I think won the “debate.” I was right and Curtis was wrong on the scale of the universe. It is a big universe, and he had it as a small thing. I could go into details, but it is in the records here and there as to what we said and thought. Curtis won as to the spirals.
How many astronomers were there? Was Russell there, for example?
No, I don’t think Russell was there.
Campbell probably was. Very few of them went to the Academy in those days. Hale hadn’t yet got them inspired to Academy attendance.
It wasn’t really a very relevant audience, was it?
In summary, I won the “debate” from the standpoint of the assigned subject matter. But from the very beginning Curtis picked on another subject: are the spiral galaxies inside our system or outside? He said they are outside systems. I said, “I don’t know what they are, but according to certain evidences they are not outside.” But that wasn’t the assigned subject. Curtis having set up this straw man and talking about galaxies, won. And I was wrong because I was banking on Van Maanen’s measures. Van Maanen had shown that if you got large proper motions you’ll be dealing with things that are near at hand. Having set up that picture, he won it. He was right and I was wrong in my implication, not so much in any statement that I made, but in the indication that spirals must be inside and not outside our system. So it was a double win. But it has been misrepresented a good deal. The nearest to correctness is the Statement by Struve and Zabergs. They have it practically the way I’ve told it here.
How about Sandage in his introduction to the Rubble Atlas? He discusses this.
I don’t remember. Did he get it straight or not?
It seemed to me that he did.
Yes, but a good many others have not. They wonder why Shapley made this blunder. The point is that the reason he made that blunder is that Van Maanen was his friend and he believed in friends!
In the presentation of the papers, was he first, or were you first? How did this go? Was there a cross discussion?
As I remember it — this is vague — I read my paper and he presented a paper, probably not reading much, because he was an articulate person and wasn’t scared. Then I replied, and then he replied. I replied on the basis of what he had said —— why what he said was wrong. And he came to his famous phrase, as I remember it: “There are some observations that are not worth a damn, and others that are not worth a damn. In my opinion, two damns are no better than one damn” — something like that — He got his laugh.
And then there was this rebuttal. Any questions from the floor?
I don’t remember any. It seems to me that the strongest comment I can make — and I’m making it now — is how little I remember, although it was vital in my career. What was the date of the debate?
April 26, 1920.
Yes, and Harvard was hovering…
Struve wrote one of his articles for Sky and Telescope and I think he also wrote an article before the book was published.
I think he did. But things went on. There was no lack of prestige for everybody but I didn’t realize that we had had a great debate.
Was there any further discussion of this between you and Curtis?
I think not. You’ve never run onto anything, have you? Curtis yielded pretty soon. He yielded pretty soon on the scale of the universe, and I yielded on the spiral galaxies.
Would you say that perhaps you were talking about two different things, in a sense?
So it really wasn’t a debate. There were two papers on a related subject. But how different was the published account? Of course this is a difficult question. I’m not asking you to make a textual analysis, but you gave a talk from a paper, and then you had some extemporaneous comments. How different was this from the publication as it finally appeared?
Somewhat different, but not much different. I’m just thinking back: When the paper was finally published, there probably was a yielding on my part.
By that time did you realize that Van Maanen’s measurements were wrong?
No, I didn’t for a while. Knut Ludmark came over from Sweden to go through the measuring of the rotations of the galaxies and he couldn’t verify it. But he was a gentleman; he didn’t want to publish about it. And moreover, I got skeptical, too, just on the evidence of the measures. We all went on and did lots of other nice things.
We’re resuming our recording session after a break of approximately two hours for lunch, and we’re picking up the conversation at the point of Dr. Shapley’s contacts with people from Harvard when he was being looked over for the Harvard directorship. What was the specific point that we were going to go into?
Dr. Shapley was going to tell us of an interesting point in relation to this.
There were two or three interesting points. Naturally in changing the directorship of the biggest observatories…
And it was a long time that Pickering had been there.
He had been there some forty years. I was very busy at Mount Wilson at that time. We lived on North Michigan Avenue. I went thoughtfully home for lunch, just after I heard that Pickering had died. I said, “Should I, or should I not? Should I curb my ambition.” I stood at the corner of two streets — I could name them — and I pondered whether I should give up a research career. Finally I said to myself, “All right, I’ll take a shot at it.” It was a deliberate choice.
It’s not very easy to find good directors any time.
So you knew this even before it came up? So when you met these people in Washington you were not surprised.
No, they had probably written they were coming and wanted to see me, and it turned out that thanks to some very skillful boys on the football team, Harvard had won the Eastern title and that made the alumni of the West very excited. The alumni of the West were being solicited for gifts. The amount was rather large for those days — not for now. They had raised the question: Should they send the football team out West as a part of the public relations? The faculty said, “No,” whereupon the corporation said, “Yes,” and they sent them out with the teams. They sent one who was called the “provost” or something of that kind — a rare sort of office in Harvard. He went along with the football team and his mission was to look me over. They sent me some free tickets, and Mrs. Shapley and I watched the game.
Was this in Pasadena?
Yes, at the Rose Bowl. As luck would have it, Harvard won. Nobody expected them to win because they were gentleman, not football brutes; but they won — I think it was 10 to 7. So back East they decided they could take a gamble also on me. Harvard never sent another team to the West Coast I believe. It annoyed some of the faculty what the corporation did. But the agent said, “We’ve got to raise money and one of the ways to raise money is to play against Oregon.” (I think the team was Oregon). Afterwards Agassiz talked about how they selected a man to be director of the observatory. They checked in with the football captain to see what he thought.
“It was through the football captain and your wife that you got the job.” Well yes, maybe! Possibly other factors?
Here’s a good place to mention a personal friend of mine and a very important factor in the Harvard Observatory over the 40 years I was there. He was George Russell Agassiz of the famous Agassiz family.
Was he the son of Alexander?
The son of Alexander and grandson of Louis, and a Harvard alumnus of weight and also of cash. He paid a good many bills for us — not the big ones because he gave his big money to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Once they did certain unpleasant operations at the museum he came to me and said, “How can we change the will?” I said, “You’ll feel better about it in a few days,” which he did.
He supported you.
More so than the astronomers. He knew enough astronomy. He wrote a book on Mars, and he was a special friend of Percival Lowell. He believed that there were canals on Mars and things of that kind. But his main thought, and a good one — it sounded as though Hale had said “Shapley, don’t do research that other people want you to do. Do what you want to do. Your one job is to do what you want to do.” He brought that up many times, but I did also what other people wanted me to do. It turned out that way.
We were talking about the globular clusters and the variable stars in the clusters and the period-luminosity relation, and the discovery of a way to measure great distances, instead of a mere hundred light years, which we can do with some success now. The technique was in a way revolutionary because it opened a part up of the universe which wasn’t opened before.
Did you see it as such? Did you feel it as such at the time, as a revolutionary development? Did you consider other alternatives?
When I talk on cosmic evolution, or something of that kind, the galaxy always comes in. We now know how to measure the distances — part is more or less empty of globular clusters. And why was that? Because that is the “home of the globular clusters.” The cluster of clusters is off in the Sagittarius region. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives unless you just said that the measures were bad or crooked, except the globular cluster distribution didn’t want changes. That was the whole story. What we had finally when we got the picture captions made was about a hundred globular clusters. Some of my distances were wrong, but a lot of them right, and we had then you might say a three-dimensional picture of the universe, of our part of the universe. Of course this was dealing with our own galaxy. We were off center. It’s a rather nice idea being off center, because it means that man isn’t such a big chicken. He is incidental. He is peripheral to use my phrase. He’s on the perimeter of this operation. And you can’t put him anywhere else very well, especially since we had a lot of wheel-shaped galaxies that were like this one of ours. So it looked as though we had support from the heavens themselves for the idea that here in Sgr is where the center is. Well, at first I made one of my blunders. Just to keep myself and my enthusiastic friends humble enough, I point out that I can make as big a boner as most anybody — for instance, believing Van Maanen, and not realizing there’s light absorption in space. But the one I could report — and it must be true; I’ve heard myself tell many times — was a minor experience I had which goes practically this way: I was stopped in Harvard Square, by a man whose name we’ll keep out of it, who said, “Listen, Shapley, it is your turn to entertain the Examiner Club.” Well, the Examiner Club was founded way back in the middle of the last century, and it has had monthly meetings since: it is towns people and gown, and it has pretty distinguished membership associated with it and now it was my turn. I was president of it, incidentally, for a long time. We had good meetings where we talked about this and that. We had also very good food at the Parker House in Boston. And here was my turn, he said. I said, “Oh, no, no, not so soon as that, John. I don’t know anything. Things have gone wrong with my research. “I don’t care about that,” he said, “it’s your turn to talk to us; just give me a title,” and he had his pencil and paper ready. He was secretary. He said, “I’ll let them know what you’re going to talk about, or avoid, whatever it is.” “Well,” I said, “since I have to do it, I might speak on the scientific blunders I have made.” “Oh, no,” said John, “It is just a one-hour program.”
You talk of the work on globular clusters and the revolutionary implications of it which you pursued and published. And you talked of “we.” Now, was this a solo effort or were there others involved with you in a discussion of this? You indicated that there wasn’t too much discussion, but this was a big thing.
The discussion mostly was with Gretchen and maybe one or two assistants. You see, it took a tremendous lot of measures. I introduced the term “girl hours,” and it would take a lot of girl hours to solve some of the problems. In fact, one job took several kilo-girl hours to get it through. So I should say that I had help on a lot of the details. But I don’t think I had much help in the hunching.
This was at Mount Wilson?
Both places. But not many girl hours at Mount Wilson. Very few. I had one full time girl assistant as I got along, but there were very few at Mount Wilson whereas Harvard was just swarming with these assistants. That’s why we got somewhere, got it done. And elsewhere people had assistants. But I was at the observatory at Mount Wilson for many years when nobody was expected to have assistants.
You had another question, I think, Helen, relating to the Mount Wilson period.
He just said that his version of the galactic system was the most important thing and the Cepheids were next.
After we saw that we were peripheral, it occurred to me that that had philosophical implications; but I didn’t follow it very much. I just noticed it. Then later to me it’s one of the most important things or thoughts that I’ve had: finding the peripheral position of the solar system with its planets had a bearing on how the universe was put together, very definitely. I mean if we had been in the center, it would look sort of natural. We’d say, “Naturally we’re in the center because we’re God’s children” but here was an indication that we were perhaps incidental, peripheral. We didn’t amount to so much. We were incidental. There were a billion stars. About that time, with the help of Seares to some extent and others, we came to the conclusion that there must be a hundred thousand million stars in this one galaxy of ours, off on one side, a single sun, with a bunch of planets. That was a shocker. But most of the clergy adopted it all right: “What is, is,” you know, and they had some very funny phrases. But it was a rearrangement of man. We had the geocentric, we had the heliocentric. Now here was one called the galactocentric universe. In the geocentric, Earth was the center. Then the Copernican view came along. The sun was the center. It isn’t quite as clean as that, but it’s about that. Then here comes the overthrow, in a way, of the Copernican theory. Isn’t that something like it?
Sure, the change not only of the central point but of the dimensions of the system — the two coupled together by gravity.
And so I wrote a paper that has been published many times, in many places, called “The Fourth Adjustment.” We were adjusted first to these other centers, and then the fourth adjustment was when life became a factor in the whole business. And so the third adjustment, which has been published so much in anthologies. We reach out our hand and life comes into it, but incidental. Think of the happy hunting grounds, there are millions. Or as I like to point out here: Suppose that only one star in a billion has planets that could have metabolism, operating — life, we’ll say — only one in a billion, still that would leave a hundred thousand million that has had life; there are so many stars. Three things I pointed out in those days that seemed to make it necessary to have a fourth adjustment. One was that we had discovered the tremendous number of stars in the universe — more than ten to the 20th power, one with 20 zeroes after it. That was one of the things that made us realize that we might have to look more seriously at this the size of the universe. Another one was the knowledge of how planetary systems can be formed. We got that pretty well accepted — namely, from a shrinking mass of gas and twirling planets. And the second of the three, the number of stars, the shrinking origin of planets from stars; and the third was the knowledge that life is an automatic and natural phenomenon in cosmic evolution, that there’s no trick in the origin of life. There was a time when life was for miracles and Genesis, and for the supernatural, but miracles and the supernatural are no longer needed, insists Mr. Shapley, in accounting for the origin and development of life. It’ rather significant. But let me get in a caveat — whatever that is. If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have done it in all this time.
But you pushed it a good deal faster than it would have been done otherwise. When do you think you first realized it?
The realization and then the subsequent development of it?
The implications of your eccentric solar system?
On implications you go on a little further than I went. In implications you go on to the bearing on philosophy and on religion and so forth.
You get that before the implications.
I mean the possibility of the fourth…
The fourth dimension. I think we have demonstrated the third dimension all right.
But then did it occur at the time you were doing the work, or was it a while before you realized the implications? You say you realized the revolutionary impact of it, but…?
Before we go that far, when was it that he first realized that this was the case in your work at Mount Wilson? We have to go back a little further.
I think in the contribution that we had around here of my papers it will show that in 1917 I indicated the distance to the center of the Milky Way.
You realized it therefore probably a year or so before perhaps.
Yes, but I was stupid enough that I didn’t realize the philosophic implications or the implications for the meaning of man in the universe. That was a little slow in its development and moreover, I couldn’t try that out on hardly anybody and convince them. I didn’t even convince myself too well whether there would be some way out.
When was it, though, that you began to get that implication?
About 1918 or ‘17.
In other words, the paper itself was ‘16 or ‘17.
There’s a paper that gives the distance to the center of the Milky Way. After that, we had to convince ourselves that by spiral galaxies we’re talking about the same thing, because there are spheroidal galaxies and irregular galaxies. Distances had to be estimated, thousands of girl hours had to be provided.
What were the papers in 1917?
What are the fifth, sixth and seventh papers?
The fifth is “Further Evidence of the Absence of Scattering of Light in Space.”
Yes, that was too bad.
Here we are: “The Relation of Blue Stars and Variables to Galactic Planes.” Here is “A Method of the Determination of Relative Distances of Globular Clusters.”
That was in 1918, I think.
One paper we copied, which is the one you used in your source book —— that’s 1917. Wasn’t it? But that’s the Cepheid one.
There was a paper of mine published in this last volume “The View From a Distant Star,” which a lot of people spend money on: “Moments of Discovery,” it’s called.
Yes, you talk about ants.
Ants is one. Another discovery was the center.
All of this was at Mount Wilson. Then you went to Washington for the National Academy of Sciences meeting where you met Curtis for the symposium. That was in April, 1920, when you were in further contact with the Harvard people. Now, you went to Europe some time that year, because you were in Hamburg in 1920.
I kept going to Europe from then on. The first time I went to Europe was when I was a student. John Shapley and I went. I traveled everywhere and got back to Paris and the revelation — the tragedy — in Paris — of my father’s death. That was all done in that year, which was 1913. And then I commenced on at series of papers. I had two or three series going at the same time.
That was your second time in 1920.
Did I go in 1920? In 1922 I went with Russell and Mrs. Shapley and Mrs. Russell into the Mediterranean and ended up at Rome at an international union meeting, the first one after the war. That was in 1922. I don’t remember going over before that (except in 1913).
I have some reference to it. Anyway, when did you first meet Walter Baade?
He came to Mount Wilson when I was there.
Did you meet him in Europe at some time?
No, I once thought I did. But it was Trumpler I met in Europe. Baade was a student, a young student; he may have seen me, but he’s much younger. In America he was the alert man. He had a lot of influence on Mount Wilson and some of it quite properly recognized. You get the implication of that remark of mine?
Where are we now? Are there any other questions you have on Mount Wilson?
No, I think that will do for Mount Wilson.
So as I understand it, sometime in 1920 negotiations were completed for going to Harvard and you went there in 1921 — April.
I went with the title of “observer.” They had never had such a title before, but they didn’t quite want to call me “director.” But the understanding was fairly clear, because the aforementioned Mr. Hale had written a letter to A. Lawrence Lowell that had this phrase in it or very close to this: “If Dr. Shapley is the able man that we think he is, then you don’t want to offer him a subservient position, but the directorship of the observatory.” Mr. Hale said that, and somebody told me, it was one of the assistants of Mr. Lowell that he turned it over: “Okay. That does it.” He had complete faith in Hale, and Hale wrote such skillful letters: “If he is the man we think he is, then give him the real job.” And so I went with some understanding that I was there for the real job, but for technical reasons they held out the title for a few months.
There was something about a year at one point, just trying you out for a year.
Yes, but something happened. They made that six months later.
What were your feelings on making this very tough decision?
Responsibility was I think a leading thought. I felt responsible. I mean, here was an observatory that was a bit run down and didn’t have a very brilliant staff. It had the famous Annie Cannon and the careful King, who was a photometrist of sorts, and Bailey; but it didn’t have anybody like those at Mount Wilson at that time. Anyway it didn’t seem that way, and therefore there was a chance to build it up. So almost at once it commenced to grow. George Agassiz helped, and I raised money elsewhere when it was necessary. For a good many years I think it was tops. It is a pretty good place but we have hard competition with our own products.
I suppose in his last years Pickering hadn’t done so very much.
Just carried on the routine.
His good work was done in the 19th century probably.
The place was vacant for about two years after his death before I took over. Bailey would have been the logical person to put in for the interim, just for a little courtesy, but they didn’t do it that way.
Did you have any misgivings about leaving Mount Wilson? You had been there seven years. You already told us of your feelings about going to Harvard. But it’s possible you had ambivalent feelings. Did you have any regrets about leaving Mount Wilson at that time?
No, practically none.
You felt you were ready to leave.
Yes, and then also my pals like Nicholson and Paul W. Merrill felt that I’d finally arrived. I’d been making a lot of noise, and doing things. Now here the Harvard Observatory makes a salute. So I didn’t have any misgivings. They expected me to make good. And I did partly. I could do it better now (1968) if you’d let me do it over, but you haven’t been delegated with those powers have you? You may be undoing me rather than doing me. We’ve talked ourselves out, haven’t we?
No. we’ve got a long way to go.
Oh, no. How do you feel?
I feel fine, but I would like to make pointed remarks.
I wanted to ask a pointed question now about your family. By this time how many children are included?
In 1921 three brats went with Mrs. Shapley to Kansas City and waited there while I went on and got the house prepared. After a few weeks she came on with the three kids: Mildred, Willis and Alan. There were problems for their music and their schooling and all of that kind of thing, so Mrs. Shapley kept pretty busy that April and ever since.
They were all born in…
Pasadena. And Lloyd and Carl were born at the Cambridge Hospital.
Then they joined you later in Cambridge. Again, this is a similar question to the one we asked before about your arrival at Mount Wilson. What was your first reaction on arriving at Harvard and getting settled into this new and yet undefined position?
I wasn’t terrorized by the Harvard shift at all. I had managed for Seares a meeting of the ASP. He had turned to me and said, “You’re in charge of this,” and so I had a chance to test myself and I found that I could administer, and people seemed to respect the way I did it. That made it easier to go to Harvard. Also, I had been called up to give one of those famous lectures at San Francisco for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and tell about my work, and that also helped me. So the result was that, except for the two early oppositions, by Curtis, I had no terrors at all of Harvard or anybody connected with it. One I gave a colloquium, they hadn’t heard me talk at all before, so I put on an act. I’m afraid it was a bit too good. Maybe you don’t know what I mean. They thought, well Mr. Shapley is clever and he’s showing off. I just had that feeling because Julian Cooledge, who they thought might be the director of the observatory (that’s another episode — a good one, too) wrote me a letter after he got home that first night: “This was very good but you didn’t need to be funny.” And the president, the great Charles William Eliot heard me for the first time and soon after that at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where I talked and rather “wowed” the audience, he said, because it was so much absurdity about man and the universe, that makes a person laugh just to think about it. I’m saying that rather seriously. The universe is so good and so big and has so much to it, you don’t have to jazz it. Anyway, when the lecture was over, the great, mighty and wonderful Charles William Eliot came up and thanked me: “You’re a very young man,” he said, “and you have a grand subject. But you don’t need to emphasize it.” And I took that as being properly spanked, which I was. The point was that he was amazed that that’s the way the universe was put together. He sent for me because he was dying to have me talk on what I thought the way the university was going. In fact, he came to our house just a week or two before he died. He came on some dinner occasion. But Lawrence Lowell wasn’t that kind of a person. He was a man that didn’t have much respect for science, but did respect scientists, so I could get nearly anything I wanted from him because I was a scientist who talked and who had some respect for government or history. I didn’t know why it was, because in general Harvard had a low ebb from 1900 to 1920. Two or three men influenced the president all right, some good, some not.
How long was Lowell president after you came to Harvard?
I don’t remember, but I think it was something like 15 years.
When you arrived, you were faced with two new responsibilities that you hadn’t had before. One was financial; the other administrative, and now I’ve thought of a third, and that is the need to be a public spokesman, and possibly a fourth, to be an educator. I don’t know how much responsibility you had in the educational programs.
Very little because we had very few students… We taught elementary astronomy but not very much of that. Pretty soon Cecilia Payne showed up, she is of the genius type. She got the first doctor’s degree — I think the first we gave — and Frank Hogg the second. That was in the middle ‘20s or a little later. So we didn’t have very much of a student problem and I wasn’t involved in education except in a very indirect way. I didn’t teach the elementary astronomy. There were others who could do it and did it, and did it better, like Bart Bok.
They didn’t arrive quite so early.
No, they came towards the end of the 20s. And the other thing you asked…
We talked of education; we talked of public speaking.
I had some responsibility for that early because I was money raising, not nearly as much as later.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, I did. I enjoyed it. Why? Are you going to ask that question.
Because I was pretty good at it.
Did you enjoy the audience response particularly?
Yes. The point is I could tell people great things. It was joyous to me to bring new knowledge on a grand scale to people who wanted to listen; so I had many invitations to speak. And what was the other one?
The financial responsibility and the budget?
Yes, there was the budgetary responsibility and the appointment of staff.
And administration, and keeping the staff happy and organized.
So there were four or five different major jobs. But raising the money and increasing the staff, including the getting of graduate students were important ones.
Of course you were sort of growing into this job with these new responsibilities, in addition to pursuing a very exciting research. How did you work it out and balance it?
Six hours a night for sleep. That is all I require, even now. I inherited industry from my mother and my grandfather Stowell was a tremendous worker. That must be the reason for my activity. I had some good ideas now and then but most of my success has come from slavery, a rather joyous brand of slavery. I had some good slaves with me like Miss Cecilia Payne and Frank Hogg and then Donald Menzel was appointed and Fred Whipple — both very excellent men. Then we made changes in instruments, (stations) got many more telescopes, and established new stations.
The equipment must have been in pretty bad shape when you arrived?
It was in a rather bad way. We built it up, and we got new telescopes — a 60-inch for South America. Adding to the equipment was pretty important.
And you were building up the Southern station.
Yes, we were moving stations around. Menzel was deep in solar work and was very good at it. He came in the early ‘30s and could help a good deal from an astrophysical standpoint — more than you might expect. Whipple came a little later, and he was excellent, with his critical mind. And so we grew up and remained growing for a good long time. Did you ever see my gossip sheets? (I think that’s what we called these jolly reports; one or two go with this.)
I wrote them every month or so for two or three or four years or more. A little description of what’s going on. It was humorous stuff and fun to do. Also, it gave the inside story of developments: Among other things, there was the founding of the Sacramento Peak Observatory. That was mostly Menzel’s and John Evans’ work. The University of Colorado didn’t have a very strong department — practically no astronomy, and very poor physics. And Walter Roberts and Menzel and I waded in on it and pretty soon we had a real observatory that was jointly owned by the University of Colorado and us, Sacramento Peak and Climax. Later we dropped out of it, and it became wholly Colorado.
When was this?
In the ‘30s and into the war years also.
You came to Harvard in 1921. If we had to put things into periods of history that are pretty similar, would you characterize the period of ‘21 to about the outbreak of the war as a unit in terms of your career? Did it represent a certain consistent thread of activities? Or would you put a terminal point at an earlier date?
This I can say: The top year was about 1932. Several things happened. I was offered three university presidencies, and I was decorated by Harvard. A considerable — no this I don’t want in here, so I’ll leave it out. Also I had foreign honors and I traveled abroad. We had some very good students going. It seemed to me to be the year when most everything happened. Wonder what I did afterward, you will find 1930 to 1935 very full, especially the work we did on the Clouds of Magellan.
Why did you decide to turn down the presidencies?
Would you like to be the president of a college?
No, but I’m not you.
What colleges were they. I think this is good to hear.
One doesn’t tell that, does he?
Oh, I think so.
No! You can get a presidency without anybody knowing about it. You just don’t talk. I mean for the record — I wouldn’t mind telling you personally. But for the record I don’t think it’s fair to the one who took the jobs to say that they were second choices, or anything like that.
Well, this is some time ago.
One was a big university in New York and one was out in the Midwest, also a very important one; and two colleges in the Midwest thought that I could mess things up for them. My own alma mater of course thought that I might be a good successor at the University of Missouri. There are reasons why I shouldn’t go and take one of those jobs. With the Harvard Observatory you can have all the headaches you want just from dealing with its problems. I was being elected to societies then, too. Maybe I was the president of the Triple-A S.
No, the Triple-A S was later, ‘47.
‘47! The American Academy was the late ‘30s, wasn’t it?
Through the early ‘40s, through ‘44.
And you had the IAU meeting in 1932.
That was part of the 1932 picture — the IAU meeting. And there were episodes connected with that. An eclipse came to us. So ‘32 seems to stand out because when I really got hold of it, so many things were going on.
But the period from 1921 to your retirement in ‘53 at the observatory is a 32-year period. When did you feel that you really got things going the way you wanted as director of the observatory? How long did it take after 1921 before you felt that you had things under control?
Oh, almost at once I thought I had all under control, thanks largely to one special gentleman, namely Solon Bailey, who got out of the way and arranged that I would take over smoothly. It was remarkable how good he was about it. He said, “I would like to suggest that perhaps it would help you if I would go away, say, to the observatory station in Peru.” I said “Sure.” That was just what I wanted, to have him go away. And of course he managed it well. He was not in the way with respect to decisions. He had been acting director for two years and for 20 or 30 years he had been on the staff. He and his son Irving were two men who were members of the National Academy of Sciences from the same family — father and son. That’s happened once since then.
Do you have any specific questions on this early Harvard period? There’ll be others that we’ll want to get into.
When did you start on Magellanic Clouds? How soon after you came to Harvard did you start more work on the Clouds?
Roughly but not very rapidly with Miss Leavitt, because she had worked in that field.
She was no longer in condition to work very much.
No, and she died fairly soon. One of the few nice things I did — I called on her on her death bed; thus it made life so much different, her friends said, that the director came to see her. Of course she was in a bad way, but anyway that was a happy move. I’ve done it two or three times — I’ve been decent! Another episode in ‘32, besides eclipses and honors and things of that kind — was when Adelaide Ames died in an accident. She was to be in charge of the IAU operations. She was getting rested for that, and then in a canoe accident she died. She was a very able person and a very sympathetic person. She knew I had troubles, and didn’t worry me. That was Adelaide Ames, one of our top assistants at that time.
How soon did your graduate students come…? Was your first graduate student then Frank Hogg? And then you soon got many others.
Yes, they kept coming. We saw the list yesterday of how many came. That amazed me even. I knew we had been busy, but I didn’t know that later we had a sort of a control of American astronomy. That was due much to Bok.
It was your inspiration also as a director.
Well, I hired him, yes. And I helped get him a nice wife, who’s still very important. She is going to do a big job out in Tucson. Oh, yes, she’s full of ability.
I guess they’re glad to be back, too, are they?
This tradition of students going to Harvard — where else could they have gone, as far as graduate studies were concerned?
Well, they could do what I did — go to Princeton. There was Russell. And Berkeley, California. There were one or two from Yerkes, but that was not then so good.
If they wanted to come to Harvard would they have in mind a specific problem? Were you known, and the observatory generally, for being interested in certain things? Did they feel that if they came to Harvard they would be working in a certain direction?
We covered almost all fields in the early ‘30s, and that’s when the students commenced flooding in — the graduate students — and a number of foreigners. I had gotten into the habit of going abroad and in consequence there were a number of foreign visitors. You would go to Harvard naturally to study. Warren Weaver in those days… You know who Warren Weaver is.
Yes. We’ve got some of his notebooks, by the way — the notebooks his students made of his lectures at the University of Wisconsin.
Is that right? Well, he said one time to a group in New York — I happened to be with him and he said, “You know, at the Foundation (that was the Rockefeller Foundation,) we call Harvard the broken English observatory because there are so many foreigners there.” I have a picture around somewhere with 14 people on it. They are from 14 different institutions and all of them doing graduate work in Harvard or having done it. It’s quite a famous picture emphasizing the internationalism of astronomy. I am rather proud of that.
That was from 14 foreign institutions?
Dutch, Russian, Turk, Belgian, Mexican, British, Finnish, Czechs, Italian, German, Japanese, Canadian and Irish. Of course, there was a lot of fun in that. They enjoyed themselves and each other. Until Leo Goldberg came along I could beat all of them at ping—pong; but he learned some more and so I sent him away!
When did he come along, by the way, as a student?
I don’t remember the dates but I suppose mid ‘40s. Incidentally, his promotion pleased me much.
His degree was surprisingly late. I was looking him up just the other day.
He was an undergraduate in Harvard. He had skill in writing, you know — won a prize in writing English. We had a little difficulty, maybe because of his name, in finding a place after he graduated and got his degree. He was cheerful about it.
I have some questions here, on the scientific work. For example, the continuation of classification of stellar spectra and cataloguing of external galaxies.
Well, of course that was done by Annie Cannon, when she finished the Henry Draper catalogue. We talked it over and decided we’d do an extension, so the HDE was born. It was started as an extension of spectra of faint stars. She did perhaps 50,000 spectra in addition to the 220,000 she’d done in the major work.
And these are the ones that are the most important in studies of stellar distribution.
They’re important in almost all ways. Now if you are working on astronomy you may see HDE 4634624. That’ll be Miss Cannon’s number. She had a phenomenal memory. I remember that when I went to her office the first time I asked her, “What are you doing about a star that has spectrum A onetime and then E another, and something else another time? — a changing spectrum?” And she said, “They’re a terrible nuisance, and how can we classify things if they’re not going to stay put?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to see S.W. Andromodee.” That was a faint spectrum that I had a hunch about. She called to her assistant of that time: “Will you get B plate?” and she gave a five—figure number —— just sang it out. The girl went and got the plate because S. W. Andromodee was on that plate!
She knew it! She was good at numbers. So the spectrum catalog business was her doings, and my job was getting the money to publish the volumes; and that money came from nice friends, mostly her own.
You mentioned a paper before we started yesterday, the paper that Bridgman commented o on the velocity of light. Could you tell us something about it? Let’s try to identify it more specifically now.
It was published in 1923 by the Academy.
What was the title of it?
“On the Relative Velocity of Blue and Yellow Light.”
After I got the globular clusters going, I realized that you could go 40,000 light years away to a globular star cluster, find variables in it, and when it would come to a maximum, that would be a signal and some hours later there would be another signal. So I had my signals working and I had my distance determined. By using those two, in a very simple sort of a way I came to the conclusion that the yellow light and the blue light had the same speed within one minute in 24 billion. That was a pretty accurate determination. Some said no other determination had been made that accurately, with that small error, except possibly in biochemistry where one little millionth of a drop would stain the whole business. That came up later — that there might be a competitor for this measure. But the thing that I mentioned to you was that I reported on this to a shop club of the Harvard faculty, I thought it was pretty good, but Percy Bridgman, the great physicist, was there; and he shrugged his shoulders. He said, “Well, we knew they’d go at the same speed, so why did you mention it?” And I didn’t have an easy answer except to call him a “heel” or something. But he was right in a way. From what we knew of the theory, the speeds out in the vacuum of interstellar space would be the same. I simply showed that there’d be no error at all up to that particular accuracy. It was a shot in physics.
Did you talk to Michelson about this?
I didn’t push it at all. I mean it was a result that, as Pete Bridgman said, was fairly obvious.
It wasn’t a continuing investigation…
No, I probably did it in a week with the help of some girls.
What else would you consider one of the major research projects at Harvard? How about the Magellanic clouds and globular clusters, and the determination of the distribution of galaxies in metagalactic space?
I was in the thick of those, and they were worthwhile enterprises. You know the answers. Of course the main one was that we found that the center of the Milky Way is way off Sagittarius and that we are peripheral. Gradually we got ding-donged until now when it’s got the ministry, the preachers, worried a bit. They’d like to have our measures wrong, and then we could return to miracles.
You received letters from them on this score?
Yes — that is, conversations with them. They invited us to come and talk in their churches. You probably have a note of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science? Again, I was president for a while and managed it, and I shall again this year probably at the end of July go to Star Island…
You go for about a week or something…?
A week — yes, about a week. The President of it now is Sanborn Brown, physicist of MIT — you know him — he’s a real man. His father an astronomer, is known to me.
He was at Dartmouth…
Yes, a Dartmouth family; but he’s spent his life largely at Beirut as his father Rufus D. Brown did before him.
When did your involvement with the Institute on the Study of Religion in an Age of Science begin?
That was about 15 years ago. We had the technical papers published in the book that you have referred to. It was based on some of the lectures at Dartmouth and by big shots, too, who helped in the lectures, because it turns out, to the surprise of Ralph Burhoe, who was the father of this operation, that if you invite a good physicist there — he comes — to hear him talk about religion and what the meaning of it is. And so we touched a sensitive part in man’s thinking about things by the Institute of Religion in an Age of Science. And now there’s a magazine the first number has just come out; it’s probably in this chaos here. It is called a fancy Greek name. Zygon. You’ll hear of it more because I think it will succeed.
Is this put out by your Institute?
Yes, really put out by our Institute for Religion in the Age of Science and the Meadville operation at the University of Chicago. They’re involved with it and help with it. I want to get away from doing too much on it because I think they depend too much on a few of us. (We want to see how they can run it, you see, without our coming to the rescue.) I think it’s going to work all right. And it’s a notable thing to do, but I’m not so very good at it because I don’t know the language of metaphysics properly or theology. I can worry people about what I don’t know, but…
As far as that book that you published or edited: Science Ponders Religion.
That’s the name of the book, Science Ponders Religion, yes.
Some of the language is difficult to understand at first.
Yes, well, there are some good essays and there are a number in the second book, where religion ponders science. This companion book, some of the essays were good. But they were done by a minister, and he didn’t have very good material. Religion is in a bad way. You had some other points?
I wanted to pick out for next time many of these non-extracurricular activities, for they never have been extracurricular with you: they’ve been consistent with everything that you have done. The American Academy, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sigma XI, and so forth. I just wanted to know if we could take some more time on the research work at Harvard. If not, maybe it would be a good time to stop so that we could bone up on some of the papers written at Harvard to see what specific questions we might ask. I think we don’t have specific enough questions to ask about that period, and I think unless there’s something general you want to say on that, that we might want to stop right now.
What I’d like to ask is: What are the subjects that we might take up and report on and boast about?
We’ve covered 20 years of research at Harvard in a few sentences only, so there might be a lot more. We could go down the list of the papers. Yes.
But you wouldn’t want summaries of the technical papers… No.
If they are already in print, there’s no need for it. But if these represent a logical piece of work perhaps you can give us some of the background to it, for example, why it was undertaken and what some of the circumstances were. This can help the historian make some sense out of the published papers when he’s trying to piece them together. But I don’t know if we’re ready for that.
Well, I’ll have the transcript. You know, on the Magellanic clouds, for example, and the cosmography…
Yes, but the things I talk about in the Magellanic Clouds are: How one of them extends toward the other, whether they are seen edgewise, and the large number of variable stars, the strange distribution of the variables, and the probable fate of the clouds. It’s going into the hands of the Gaposchkins, and they’re going to devote the rest of their lives to studying the Magellanic Clouds. But I’ve said most about it in these few sentences, except that they are irregular galaxies. They are not very far away. We can also study them in detail to know more about our own system. And that’s almost a time for the period — maybe not just a semi-colon. There’s no great story about them except the romance of their discovery or re-discovery by Magellans historian Pigafetta when they were circumnavigating. (Now, galaxies, of course, the classification of galaxies and the part I played in that, are not so very significant… I’m afraid I’m a little bit on the negative…)
Let’s stop and look at the papers a little bit; this is a job we’d like to do.