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Interview of Harlow Shapley by Helen Wright and Charles Weiner on 1966 August 25, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4888-2
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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 Jacobus 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; classification for the Henry Draper Catalog; fund-raising activities; move of Harvard Southern Station from 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, Arequipa Observatory (Peru), Carthage Academy, Institute for the Study of Religion and the Age of Science, radio astronomy, Rockefeller Foundation, and Tonantzintla Observatory.
This is the second session of an interview with Dr. Harlow Shapley in his home at Sharon, New Hampshire; after an interruption of several months, Helen Wright and Charles Weiner are again asking the questions and joining in the discussion. I think that last time we left off we had covered the Mount Wilson period and your early personal life — your education leading to the Mount Wilson period — and we covered the transition from Mount Wilson to the Harvard Observatory. We talked in sketchy fashion of some of the developments at Harvard, and I think we agreed at the end of the interview to focus a little more closely on some of the developments during your career at Harvard, and then to continue on some of your work in the general intellectual community in later years. Before we get on to that, I think you mentioned you wanted to get back to a social community in the realm of entomology. You did discuss at one time earlier your correspondence with William H. Wheeler and your early work at Mount Wilson with the ants. There was something else though, that you wanted to tell us on that.
I assumed that you wanted me to talk on something else. I could hold forth for an hour on ant episodes “formicine episodes” I call them. I have given lectures at agricultural schools and elsewhere on social insects; not that I know much about them, but other people know less. I’d check, before I gave a lecture, to see if the audience was such that I should not venture. A number of episodes come to mind. One was that I picked up some ants at the foot of the pyramids in Egypt. I had left my vial at home so that I couldn’t pickle them in the proper way, but with me, and watching in wonderment, was the distinguished Detlev Bronk. He saw that I was distressed because I had no vodka with me — nothing to pickle ants in. He lent me his watch. We unscrewed the crystal and put one of the ants in underneath the crystal, and shut it up. The ant crawled over to five minutes of eleven and perished; so I had the beginnings of a menagerie with me.
Eventually that ant was lost at sea. The most difficult formicine trouble I had in Africa was when I picked up some ants at Lake Victoria right on the equator…That was a sort of sentimental place for an astronomer. You can see the North Pole star and at the same time the stars at the south Pole because you are exactly on the equator. I looked forward to that moment. We stopped there all right, but dimmit, it rained steadily the whole time I was there, so I didn’t get anything out of that. I did gather some equatorial ants. Again, I didn’t have my vial with me, so again I pickled them — this time in my tobacco pouch. I had a fairly good grade of tobacco, so I put some ants in with the nicotine, and they smothered promptly. I left them there. I was rather proud of that novelty, Later I got into a bridge game on the flight down to Natal. I was there to investigate our southern observatory. The carry over bridge fight was with some officers of the British Navy. They were pretty clever, One of them (my partner) was stupid enough, however to lean over and display his hand to our opponents, He was trying to see some elephants — he was hunting elephants by airplane from a mile or so above. They told us “You see them in flocks!” I did not see them. He did not see them, but he showed off his cards to our opposition in the plane, and we got very badly stuck. It annoyed me; wouldn’t it annoy you to have a good bridge game spoiled by this foul ambition of a British officer? So I hauled out my jimmy pipe and calmed my nervous anger with a solacing pipe. But I forgot what I had put in that particular tobacco pouch. Later I found that alas, alas, my ants had all been smoked away.
That was sad.
It was sad because I’d carried the ants so tar with me. We had other affairs that were amusing. One of them was when we got on a flight at the end of the Second World War bound for Moscow. The Russians gave a big farewell banquet, on lend-lease supplies, I suppose. There were 1100 of us to help celebrate the winning of the war. They gave a big banquet for us. The red chorus, and the dancing girls. The “government”, Stalin and all the big shots were present. And I sat happily, with the 15 Americans. You can get happy after a while, just seeing so many people drinking vodka. It makes you happy. And you know what happened? A wobbly ant crawled off the bowl of bananas they had put in front of me. It fell on the table and started toward Joe Stalin, I said: “That won’t do,” and I pulled out my vial. It had in it some stuff from Rexall Stores called alcohol. I tried to interest the opposite colonel – I suppose he was a colonel; he was some sort of officer of the Russian Army. We didn’t know each other’s languages, but we giggled. And anyway we were having a good time.
Then another ant came unsteadily along. There were two of them, and I said, “When they wake up in the Soviet heaven, they would certainly want to have nectar.” I poured out the alcohol onto a bun so as to get ready to put in the vodka. Then I got a little vial and tilled it with vodka. But the lady on my left wouldn’t speak to me. I made two or three passes but she wouldn’t come along at all. I think she was the wife of the Polish ambassador. Anyway, no luck with her. But the colonel was getting very interested, especially when I showed him vodka. Now ambrosia — a balanced diet. For the ants to have a proper diet when they got to heaven, I got two fish eggs and put them in. I was very proud of that. You know, you get proud easily late in life, I showed the vial around the table. The wench got a little interested, not much — the Polish woman. (I almost said “wench”, but she was a woman.) I showed it to the colonel and he was very happy about it, we showed it off later, I took it home — the two ants with the two fish eggs, sealed them up and showed them to various people who came to my office. So Shapley’s Kremlin table ants were rather notorious. I changed my office. Alas, why did I change my office? I don’t know just why. I suppose we grew up a little. And that little vial of ants disappeared. I looked for it a good deal, and eventually found one ant in one vial properly labeled as to place and time. I’ll swear this is one of the tragedies of my life.
There was now only one ant. What could have happened? Did it mean that one of the Red-chasers had caught up with me and was trying to confuse me or something? They couldn’t eat each other. The caviar had disappeared, but you’d disappear also in the 100-volt vodka. And so I took the mystery home, a sad mistake. I’ve made several mistakes, I’ll tell you of another one later. I took it home and showed it to the wife. I said, “Look what has happened. I did have two ants in the vial. It is still sealed, and there it is: one ant. It’s properly labeled, but one has disappeared. I can’t understand how it happens. I can explain the galaxies somewhat, but this is quite beyond me.” Whereupon Gretchen said, “I have a hypothesis if you want one to explain that situation of two and then one.” “Well, what is it?” I shouldn’t ask questions sticking my neck out like that, “but what is it?” “Well, my hypothesis is that people who go to vodka parties can’t count very well.” Anyway marvelous things do happen.
Especially late at night. You didn’t have any difficulty with customs when coming through, did you?
No, I probably carried my valuables in my pocket close to my heart.
Count one ant have eaten the other?
No, they were the same size, and ants don’t eat one another anyway. That wouldn’t work at all.
We have ants on the top of Mount Wilson, on Lake Victoria and in the Kremlin.
And in Egypt. That’s where I collected ants off a camel’s dung hill and took them along with me. That’s the one that I put in Bronk’s watch. That was in Cairo. We’ve covered that field perhaps enough. It goes on and on because it’s rather amusing to find an ancient civilization such as they had had 50 million years ago, whereas we’ve been around for only a few hundred thousand years; but they’ve had their civilization developed for so long; but any entomologist will tell you that the insects are far beyond us in development. They have less to lose. Well, perhaps we should leave the bugs alone.
Temporarily and perhaps go back to leaving Mount Wilson and coming to Harvard.
I think I told you at our last session that I was investigated rather thoroughly before they decided that both I and Mrs. Shapley were at proper social levels for Harvard. It was a nice transition. We were treated nicely. I was made a member of a number of the good dining clubs. Although I didn’t have anything to do with undergraduate students, I did meet with faculty a great deal. There were a lot of things that went on in building up HCO (Harvard College Observatory). I gave Lowell lectures, as a good many new people do. I did have the success of the novelty of subject matter — galaxies and variable stars. I kept the lecture hall full for all eight Lowell lectures. That, they said, is unusual. “How can you keep an audience coming back. What is the method,” I asked, at the end of one lecture, (you have to stop at nine o’clock exactly, and it is now within fourteen seconds of nine o’clock). So I concluded, “to all this I’ve been telling you? And I ask is this a world of chance or a world of choice?” I bowed and walked out exactly on the second. I didn’t go on and tell them whether it is a world of chance or a world of choice. In consequence, I had one of the most ridiculous pay-offs. I was later in Bombay, where there was a dinner for us visitors from abroad. This was at the end of the Second World war. I’d come in with the astronomer Royal, and we were being put up some way in a Bombay hostel, Across the table from me was a very blond lady, very blond. And with her, talking to her and whispering to her was a very dark-skinned Hindu. And they were looking at me and then talking and looking at me. Finally they told me who I was. I had to admit who I was. The Astronomer Royal was there, and I couldn’t get out of it. And I said, “But how would you know me?” The girl said, “I heard your lectures in Boston.” I identified it as one of the Lowell lectures. “I went to all of them,” she said, “And after one of the lectures was over, I went to the library and then walked home with a young friend. We are still walking together. Here we are. You raised that question, ‘Is this a world of chance or a world of choice?’ and then you didn’t tell us. We talked it over and decided it was a world of choice, and so we got married.”
Helen, you mentioned to me a question about the transition in research interests at Harvard.
Yes. The Harvard Observatory was rather a smallish one as the big ones go now, but at that time it was pretty far up on the list of observatories in size and weight. The work was largely photometry and spectra, Miss Cannon’s classification of the spectra. I helped finance the last two or three volumes of the Henry Draper catalogue. That was an enormous work that made Miss Cannon I suppose one of the leading women astronomers of all time. She was a wonderful person and was glad that I was interested in her classifications, we went on until we had classified more than 220,000 stars and got them published. My job was getting the money and encouraging the work, and her job was using her wonderful eyesight and her memory to go on in classifying the magnitudes and the colors and the positions of stars down to the ninth magnitude. It was one of Harvard’s major contributions, Annie J. Cannon’s work. She was an excellent worker, as I’ve suggested, and she had the advantage or disadvantage of having had Scarlet Fever as a child. Her hearing was pretty well lost. That took her out of the social life and put her into science. I feel rather grateful to that particular bug because Annie Cannon made a big contribution — there’s no question of it — over many years. Well, that kind of work they didn’t follow at Mount Wilson. There they worked more or less on individual stars1 At Harvard it was more an integration. And then there was a good deal of basic photometry done by the very able Miss Henrietta Leavitt.
Others at Harvard carried on a routine observation of the stars to discover variables and discover novae, and queer stars. It was not a very lively place. It was accurate, and its ambitions were proper, but it didn’t take a lot of brains or manpower. I got into the Harvard job at once and commenced doing various things like getting the parallaxes of stars by studying their spectra, and in analyzing the variable stars and especially in working on star clusters. At Mount Wilson I had already done quite a job on star clusters, getting their distances, and using their distribution as an indication of the size of our own Milky Way and its arrangement. In fact, it was before I came to Harvard…Before I came here I had already done the work on the location of man in the galactic system. Sometimes I thought that anything I did after that was anti-climactic because that was pretty dramatic, to be able to find out that you were 25,000 light years from the center, and that you were so inconsequential. There had already been work on some variables by Miss Leavitt before I came, but then we put our skills to it. Much needed to be done, money raising, for instance. I went out, saw some friends and made some new acquaintances. I took away some of their money and bought more girl hours for these jobs.
Where did the money come from?
Well, they said that people generally walked on the other side of the street when they saw me coming. We raised the money as gifts: From the Agassizes and the Weyerhausers, and miscellaneous people that could give us some money without hurt.
In making appeals to your friends for financial support, did you ask them to support a specific project or did you say that the observatory in general needed funds?
Both the specific projects and the continual drive to raise money for endowment for the whole works. So it was really both ways.
Was Alexander Agassiz chairman of the observatory then?
No, his son, George Agassiz. George Agassiz was the chairman of the observatory committee. He was the man who investigated me down in Washington to see whether I was respectable enough for Harvard.
Another question I had in mind here was the connection between the fund-raising and the lectures. Did you ever tie them in?
Yes; not in the college, but lecturing to the alumni or somebody connected to the Foundations. It wasn’t hard to raise money. It didn’t seem that way. In fact, Harvard discovered that I knew some of the tricks, and I was then put on a number of the drives f or Harvard. I think I remember $400,000 for physics; a job that I took downs and sold to somebody in New York. And there were two or three million (those were big items in those days) from the Rockefellers for the biology developments. I remember Mr. Walter Adams once telling me that raising money is a low form of art, and so he had me do it because I could fit into the begging scheme better than he with his dignity.
Do you remember what the operating budget was for research at the observatory in the early ‘30s or ‘20s?
The endowment was at first about a million; I got it up to two or three million before very long.
How much did this give you in operating funds — do you recall?
No. We were getting four or five percent. But there were always a number of special gifts that didn’t come in to the general endowment of the observatory. We introduced a number of things. Nobody had been given a doctor’s degree at Harvard before I came. The very first one I think was Cecilia Payne (Mrs.) Gaposchkin. And one of the first men was Frank Hogg of Canada. It was in the late ‘20s or middle ‘20s that we started having higher education in astronomy, we had open nights for the public, much more than we’d had before. So we succeeded in keeping ourselves on the man, and people liked it. I helped a little with lecturing in the University. Also I gave three lectures annually in Biology A. This turned out rather well because it was a part of the obvious duty we had of tying up our sciences.
So you started giving those lectures pretty early.
Yes, and pretty early I gave the Lowell lectures.
But the biology courses. You gave courses in the University, too.
Yes. Well, one I remember — and it was quoted a good deal by others — was a rather large class in biology A. It involved astronomy and geology, and botany and zoology, so it was covering the whole life problem. Astronomy came in because I was preparing for the biology that was coming later. That worked very satisfactorily, And 30 to 40 years later I developed it a good deal, that particular kind of tying up of the different sciences in a series of lectures. In fact, I’m going to do that within a month. I’m going to give a whole week of lectures at the University of California at San Diego. They asked me to give one lecture, please, and the rest of the time they asked me to “horse around” with the students. So I’ve got to learn how to “horse around.” But the point was I would have a session on entomology and on galaxies and maybe on celestial mechanics. On some of those things I don’t have to know much to keep ahead. And I give a lecture on poetry, astronomical scientific poetry.
You ought to do a book like this. This would be a very good book. This would be very valuable, for students especially who are not going on in science and who need a vision of the universe in all its aspects. There are books like this, but they’re rather dull, many of them, and I think you could make a very exciting book.
Well, it’s an exciting universe so I ought to do it. But then I think, Miss Wright, you ought to do that job.
But you have all this material. You’ve given all these lectures. All you’d have to do is adapt them.
When did the work on the Magellanic Clouds get rolling? You mentioned how you got into it, because of some of the work Annie Cannon was doing. When did it become one of the major projects?
Early in the ‘20s. I got there in 1920, ‘21, and Miss Leavitt was still there. She died unfortunately soon after. But she’d discovered a whole lot of variable stats in the Magellanic Clouds, and naturally I was interested in their periods and their relationships. I plunged into it with help, studying almost from the beginnings of my Harvard program this Magellanic Cloud challenge. It continued to be that way for many workers. At the present time they are building telescopes to go to the Southern Hemisphere mainly for Magellanic Cloud research. Why is it so important? It is a pair of galaxies, and they’re only about 150,000 light years away. In other words, they’re near at hand and from them you can get details. You can get down to the ordinary giant stars. And so the Magellanic Clouds are very important, because you can study them in detail and from their study learn a great deal about our own system. I did write a book n which two chapters were called “The Astronomical Tool Mouse:” that meant the Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds, what they could teach us.
I think it would be interesting if you would tell us what you mean when you say, “We started to work on it.” What did you do?
Well for example, we send instructions to our station in the Southern Hemisphere to get more plates and different kinds and different exposures of the Magellanic Clouds so that we’d have more material; so instead of having to work on just four or five plates of the sky patrol, which wouldn’t be enough to give you a light curve or a color curve of the stars, you would increase that to a hundred plates. Then you’re going to get accurate periods and light curves and find more variables. When I say we plunged into a task of that kind, it means we had got a lot more material to analyze. Also, we developed methods of analysis that we didn’t have before. That was true when we got to the study of more and more of the dust in space, the interstellar stuff, the gas and dust of space and that took us definitely into types of work we hadn’t done before, and gave us material for knowing our own Milky Way system.
What methods were introduced?
Photometric in general. The sizes of star images are a measure of their brightness, and so a good deal of our work was the simple estimating on photographic plates of the size of certain stat images compared with some standard images. That’s just an example of the type of work that we would carry on. And of course we had a great deal to do with positions of stars because we always had our mind and eyes open for dwarf stars. Dwarf stars will have measurable motions across the sky, and we detect them by comparing plates made year after year. That’s what we meant in general by plunging into these particular projects. We didn’t do too well because we didn’t have a big 200-inch telescope around.
When did you first go to the Southern Hemisphere? You mentioned this, but we haven’t really gotten the station established. When did you first start work there?
The Harvard southern station in Arequipa, Peru, was started about 1890 and was operated with only a few telescopes. Several operators like Mr. Campbell went down, and Dr. Solon I. Bailey went to be in charge of the two or three Peruvians that were helping us get Magellanic plates. The idea was that we would send the programs down to Peru (and later to South Africa when we moved the station in South Africa) when we got plates on programs that were sent down and forwarded. Very little analysis was done in the Southern Hemisphere until I’d been there 15 or 20 years. What we did was to get a careful observer, if we could find one, who would make observations according to the schedule. Then the analysis and the study would all be up in Cambridge. And we had to ship plates back and forth. I remember that was one of the considerable expenses. And during the Second World War we shipped plates back and forth, and they didn’t all get there. We had submarine troubles. But in general it was safely done and routinely done.
In what year was the station transferred to South Africa?
In 1927, I believe. It took us about a year to get it moved.
And you went to Africa before this to determine…?
Somebody did. The first decision of a good station was found by Professor Solon Bailey, who was the second in charge at Harvard, and went down way back in 1904. When I became director, he did a very noble thing. He said, “I should get off the grounds now. How about sending me down to South America to get observations straighten things out? Then I would not be in the way.” That was a very kind remark because one of the hardest things that a new director has to do is to get along with those who are no longer doing what they had done. So Bailey was a wonderful gentleman. I still remember his coming and making the proposition that he go down and that he would be quite willing to go. This was after I’d been announced as the director. He was there a year or so and then he came back, and somebody else went down. After a while we transferred to South Africa, but Bailey was then gone.
What was the basis of the decision to go to South Africa?
You embarrass me slightly. One is that we expected to get better atmospheric conditions for observations. Another is that we thought we could get money out of Peru better than we could out of South Africa and we needed money for new telescopes.
You mean the other way around, don’t you?
That’s right, money out of South Africa better tan out of Peru, because in Peru we met up with a difficult type of government where we had to work on a sort of a bribery system. Also we thought we’d have better weather conditions. But it turned out that conditions were very little better. One of the reasons why we changed was that it was a good argument to the Rockefeller Foundation that we needed a big telescope for a new site and this new ambition. There are now a half dozen telescopes down there and have been practically ever since.
You gave us the results of the thinking regarding the need to switch to South Africa. Do you recall how this came about? Was it through a series of discussions with the people that you knew? Where did the idea originate? How did it evolve? Who did you have to convince internally and externally?
I had only to convince me I think. The point was that we had good reports on what the atmospheric conditions are in various places. We knew we had to go to a considerable altitude — say, five, six thousand feet — and we had to be in the Southern part of the picture because that’s where the bright stars are that we wanted to study especially. Of course we had that in Peru. Then also we had reports from meteorological explorations and Bailey’s early reports. Then when we did send down equipment, we stopped near Bloemfontein, South Africa tentatively, with the expectation of moving on. But the station has remained there through all the time since l927. For many years, it is about the best astronomical site in the world — better than any in this Northern Hemisphere. That’s because it’s a dry hemisphere and has rather high altitude, So out early choice was pretty good, but still not the best. I think that they will be able to find in northern Chile places where conditions are better, and one of the reasons for not accepting Chile is that the living conditions are bad. That’s one of the things we have to look out for or should look out for.
They’re not so isolated in South Africa as they would be in Chile.
In Chile they’ll be pretty well isolated. But we have airplanes now that will negate some of that. And then also we’re heroes. We’ll suffer, we’ll be happy to go in the interest of the bright, wonderful study of stars. We tried out north Chile twice, two different seasons, before we moved over to South Africa. We got beautiful results. Miss Cannon said some of the plates were the best she’d ever seen for classifying spectra. It was a very steady sky, but it was isolated, and we had to hunt brave people to go down and stick it out. But some will do it well.
Getting back to my question, were there discussions of this move at the observatory? Were there discussions with the administration at Harvard?
The administration at Harvard was told what our decisions had been, we didn’t ask them because they didn’t have a special competence of that sort. We talked it over at the observatory because I was always talking with staff members.
Who were your cohorts there?
Among the staff members, number one when I went there and for a good many years afterwards was Professor Solon I. Bailey, who had been at the observatory for many years. He was a specialist in some stellar work, nothing terribly surprising, and I don’t believe I remember any large contribution that he made. His largest contribution so far as I am concerned came when I was a student at Princeton and came up to Harvard. I called on him, and he was very polite. He said, “You’re going out to Mount Wilson I understand. Why don’t you look into the matter of these?” and he brought out some places with globular clusters on them. He said, “I think they’re worthy of study,” and I said, “Yes, I think they are.” And within a month or two after I got to Mount Wilson, Shapley and the globular clusters became synonyms. He’d pointed out that there was a rich field to get into, and he also had discovered a lot of variable stars in these globular clusters. He had a special interest. That was Bailey. In charge of photographing routines was Dr. E. S. King, a good faithful workman. The business of the observatory was under the charge of Mr. Willard Garrish, whose main job was keeping me from spending money too fast. And there was Mr. Leon Campbell. I mentioned Miss Cannon and Miss Leavitt as women astronomers. There were a number of others there, but these were the conspicuous, ones with scientific training. Leon Campbell was one of the important men at the observatory and was very sympathetic for all of the next 30 years because he was our contact with the amateurs. He was not a well-trained person. He went to high school but nothing beyond, but he was a devoted manager of the affairs of the variable star observers. He was in charge of them over a considerable interval of time, about 30 years.
When was the AAVSO founded?
I wish I could remember those dates. Would it be 1911? I stayed with it. At the present time it’s a thriving amateur scientific society that does really good work besides absorbing the energies of amateurs.
Did you get money for that, too?
We got special gifts from amateurs. We didn’t spend a great deal of money, but we had annual meetings at the observatory. Many a person remembers Mrs. Shapley entertaining on the observatory lawns the amateurs and their friends. It was really a serious contribution that the Harvard Observatory made to astronomy, building up the American Association for Variable Star Observers and allied operations. I think that was a very worthy enterprise. There are many other observatories that fear the loss of prestige if they deal with amateurs. So we had some difficulty, but we set the pace, and finally Yale had a meeting. Others went along with the Harvard Observatory in encouraging these amateurs. It was part of the educational scheme rather than the scientific scheme.
Did you feel right from the start that there was a dual role for the director of the observatory? By dual role I mean something more than directing your research and administering the observatory?
I think we recognized that the Harvard Observatory had very little contact with the University until I’d been there two or three years. We had no students, we did no teaching, and the one man that did elementary teaching at the University didn’t associate himself with the observatory. They arranged that the college seniors one night a year, in the spring, could line up and file by and take ten seconds looking through the telescope at Jupiter or something of that kind. That was the connection they had all that time since 1843. But that isn’t too bad because Harvard in its biology, botany and zoology was always interested in research, dominantly in research. It was not a teaching institution. That was true of a good deal of Harvard University, then and even now. A great deal of it was not involved in instruction but in the production of knowledge. That’s the way it stayed. But the fact that I was called to Harvard shows that the method had failed because they could find no Harvard graduate to take over the observatory. Mr. Lowell, the president of Harvard, deplored the fact that astronomy had been managed under Pickering in such a way that they were not able to find a successor among their own graduates. They had to go out and get a Missourian in fresh from California.
Not many places gave Ph.D.’s at that time in astronomy.
Not many. There were four or five.
The University of California.
California and Yerkes and Princeton and Michigan — just a few. Now that’s a thing to boast about. In the interval of about 1930 to 1945 one-third of all the doctoral degrees given in astronomy were from the Harvard Observatory. We rather dominated. But our students have now grown up. If you were to get a pamphlet of the American Astronomical Society and note its officers, you’d find that Harvard still dominates. Something like a fourth of all the officers of the Astronomical Society are doctors from Harvard.
How did this change from the old no-teaching policy? How did the connection with the University take place? You mentioned that it took place a few years after you came there.
No, it was going from the beginning. From way back in its early history the observatory was not involved in teaching.
That’s what I mean, but you did indicate that after you were there several years, closer ties with the University were developed. In what way and how did this come about? Was this a conscious effort?
Oh, it was a deliberate, conscious effort among those of the staff to offer a degree. It was about 1925 I think that the Harvard catalogue would indicate that you could get a degree in Astronomy at Harvard. Then it grew up rapidly, and we had a good many graduate students because there weren’t any elsewhere.
Harlow Shapley discusses Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
How did this first student, for example, Cecilia Gaposchkin, happen to come? Did you meet her in England, and then she thought that she would like to come and work with you?
Yes, I don’t know when it was, but early ‘20s, I was in England and gave a lecture at the astronomical society and to the amateur society — the British Association they call it. And at the British Association where I lectured, probably on galaxies or stellar revolution or something, there was a tall young woman of 25 or so who just drank it in. She told me afterward, “I went back to Cambridge from London and told Professor Eddington that I want to study with Harlow Shapley.” She made that deliberation public and he, or somebody, let us know. A fellowship was provided, and Cecilia Payne (that was her name then, now Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin) came over, incited by the one lecture that I gave. Well, the way I talked and you would talk at that time was a good deal different from now. There could be quite a lot of thrill in the fact that this globular cluster is not just here next door but is 150 million million miles away. Anyway it was dazzle talk, I’m afraid, and for a great many years Mrs. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin has been number one woman astronomer. In fact, she’s been at the Smithsonian Institution since July 1st and is working on the Magellanic Clouds. She’s about to retire now. She and her husband are hot on the Magellanic Clouds at the present time and doing a tremendous study. The observatory is providing her with help. She has lectured over the country, wrote books, and did much research. She was an intellectual “whiz kid.”
She’d be a good subject for this series of biographies. It would be good to have a woman like her. She writes so well.
She can write beautifully; she can lecture beautifully and at times, she can’t lecture so well. I caught myself there because, after all you can’t be inhuman all the time. She’s married and has two great sons and one lovely daughter. She’s one of the two or three leading woman astronomers of the world and has been for the last 30 years.
Let me ask about this period when the people in the astronomy department got together and decided that they wanted to give doctoral degrees and they wanted to build up the program here. This was about the mid ‘20s you said. Were there parallel developments in the other science departments at that time in Harvard?
I’m afraid I don’t know. It was a time of “boom” in science anyway. Saunders and Lyman were in physics; they couldn’t touch the modern physics, but they were lively. They could collaborate with us; we would collaborate with them. But I don’t think there was anything sensational about it.
Did you know any of the people in physics at that time at Harvard?
Oh, yes. We knew the scientists pretty well. And I, on account of being touched biologically, knew the biologists very well, botanists and all. They were able men, and nationally renowned. I don’t think the observatory staff knew them so well until Bart Bok came to Harvard in the early ‘30s. He was in close contact with the Harvard faculty.
I think at that time in physics there were Bridgman and Percy. Van Vleck was there as a student.
Well, Bridgman was beyond the student stage, wasn’t he?
Bridgman of course Van Vleck’s professor, and Kemble was there.
Kemble and G, W. Pierce.
Slater was there a beautiful lecturer.
Was Joan C. Slater at Harvard?
Yes, he was at Harvard. Then didn’t he go to Tech later? Yes.
I just wanted to establish the period of this. Some historical studies are beginning to show that the ‘20s were a period of great change in the whole American academic scene or intellectual scene. And I was just wondering if you thought this movement in the Harvard College Observatory towards granting graduate degrees and building up more of a program there was reflected elsewhere. You’ve answered it I think.
Yes, it was a part of it. We may be talking further about the ‘30s. But there was quite a liveliness and excitement at the Harvard Observatory. You might say in reaching for things, doing things, and knowing what was going on elsewhere. You see, it was a time of the relativity people. Jeans and Eddington were operating at the time. We had our solar eclipse.
Did Eddington stay longer that time? He came out for the solar eclipse and then he came to Harvard afterwards. Did he stay and lecture?
No, he lectured very little and we talked. I tried to get him to give a lecture and he said, “I’ve given that lecture once, so I won’t do it anymore. I have nothing new to add.” It sort of annoyed me, but he was right. So many of us — I won’t mention any names — give the same lecture over and over.
Was this the period where American students in astronomy would go to Europe for training just as the ones in physics did?
No, they did not. They do a little more now, I think, even than then. Some go to Russia, and they still go to Holland. But the decline, if I may say so, of astronomy with the death of Eddington and Jeans in England, was rather conspicuous. There were just too few people involved.
Einstein and so forth. Those were the good days; but I think there are great days now, from what I understand — in physics; especially.
Do you have any questions on the ‘20s that you want to ask on the establishment of the southern stations? If not, I’d like to get on with the period of the ‘30s.
You can go on and then we can come back if we want to.
I’d just like to follow the thread of your thought here on the ‘30s. By that time you had established a graduate program, you mentioned your first student. When did you really begin to have a group of students? For example, how many did you have, say, in the late ‘20s?
Well, of graduate students, a dozen.
You had that many at that time.
Yes, but some were part-time assistants. It was just along about 1930 — a little before and then afterwards, that there was a high point (I hope that they have kept it high now) in the career of Harvard Observatory’s influence and in its training of people and in its job of life. It was a time of a great deal of social collaboration among us. At the time, you remember, we used the director’s residence (our house) for musical operations and plays. I was the best doggoned desk tennis player in the whole bunch, because, as they pointed out, “He’s the director. He looks this way but he’s playing that way.” We had pleasures of that kind on the lawns. It was a pretty jolly time. Then we were building up the Oak Ridge station.
When did you start on Oak Ridge Station?
I wish you’d tell me. I just don’t have that in mind. When did we start on it? About 1932 because the Astronomer Royal, Dyson, came over to dedicate the 61-inch telescope and plant a cornerstone for the future to work on. That was 1932, and that was the time of the solar eclipse in New England.
What were these changes? Did you have a larger number of students than you had in the late ‘20s?
No, we kept it down, purposely, and we did so in the ‘40s. There the war helped.
Were the students supported in the ‘20s and in the ‘30s by fellowships?
Yes, fellowships and assistantships. Hardly anybody ever paid his own way.
What was the source of the funds for the fellowships?
Assistantships in the department of physics where they’d need somebody astronomical that could help them with their big courses. That came more later in the ‘40s but that was a source of funds, university funds. Some, though, would be definite fellowships with names, like the Agassiz fellowship. I think I’ve indicated about the right number of students.
Was there any particular major source of funds for research — any foundation or government source during that period?
Well, we lived largely on our own endowments which was over a million.
It must have gone down during the Depression. Did you have any trouble there?
Our people went into the war business.
I can’t remember any serious difficulty, but we weren’t such a big operation.
Astronomers have never received high salaries.
No, and I think I was able to convince my colleagues that we shouldn’t work for money. We should work for the glory of the contribution. We were building a western station, too, at Climax, Colorado, and that was pretty important to us. And from South Africa, plates were coming up.
Did your graduate students go to South Africa?
Very little. We sent only two or three down there until the station was turned over to be an international telescope — two or three at a time. No, we didn’t send them down. We got along with awful little money, it seems to me.
You mentioned that the relativity discussions had a stimulating effect. How did this take place?
It was a time when the relativity principles and tests were standing high. But we ourselves at the Harvard Observatory were not involved in relativity except an occasional lecture by somebody. None of us was especially competent in that field or interested in that field. So relativity touched us hardly at all.
But you were discussing it evidently, and this was some excitement.
Well, we would have to lecture about it, you know. But we didn’t contribute. We didn’t help much. And if we had to do it over, I don’t think I would change. I’d leave that to the mathematicians, because after all there’s been a long uphill fight in science to get the relativity theory easy to comprehend and easy to enjoy or use; Even now, in the last year or two, there have been some diehards who raise the question as to whether the relativity tests were genuine or good. But they were genuine, of course. Along about 1930 the American Astronomical Society had a meeting at the Harvard Observatory and the observatory put on the “Pinafore” show. There were enough of us and considerable talent enough around the place so that we could in the big house where we lived do things theatrical.
We’re resuming on August 26th after an interlude of about 15 hours. We were talking at the end of our last session, when we broke for tea, about the production of “Pinafore” at the Harvard Observatory. It was when the Astronomical Society met there in 1930. I thought perhaps we could talk a bit more about that and then talk about other activities, social and intellectual, at the Harvard Observatory during that period.
The interval being after 1925 and the next 15 or 20 years. “Pinafore –- A Parody” was quite a stunt for us to carry through. Many people considered that it was the highlight in the performances at Harvard Observatory. We happened to have some very competent musicians on the staff, and we had some fairly good voices. I was naturally the director and the producer, but I had very good cooperation in the music and in the drama part of it. We did it so well for the American Astronomical Society that the local astronomers asked us to repeat it for the Bond Astronomical Club, which is a bunch of amateurs that meets at HCO. At that repeat, we did it a good deal better, we think. Of course it was a tour de force, the whole thing, but it was fun, and it tied the observatory together as nothing else has ever done.
Were these parodies on the Pinafore lyrics or did you produce the “Pinafore?”
Upton, an astronomer at Brown University, was at the Harvard Observatory back in the ‘80s or ‘70s and it was then that “The Pinafore” parodies came out and swept over the whole country. Many parodies were made of it, and this was one by Upton, astronomer at Brown, who put on in the observatory jests and jokes and more catchy tunes and phrases. All of it jazzed up.
Has this been recorded anywhere?
Yes various writers have reproduced some of those particular songs. I saw a copy just a day or two ago with halt a dozen of the most absurd songs. So it’s all right as far as being “in the literature” is concerned.
But no voice recording of this was made?
No. But we did other things around the observatory that weren’t quite down the line of deduction or induction, or making measures and discussing measures — the typical way that we do things in astronomy. There were variations on that. For instance, we had the Full Moonitic Club, we called it, that met on call in our house and for that, about 15 of the graduate students were brought together, mostly men and there we did some rather funny tricks. One was that you would take at random a statement from some text, like Russell, Dugan and Stewart, some statement about Venus, and say, “That was written 30 years ago. What do we think about that now? What shall we do to interpret the Venus show (or whatever it is) better than we do now? Let us improve this text.” It was a good deal of fun. It was hard to get some students smoked out. I remember one of the men, who’s now rather important in astronomy — he’s a member of the council of the American Astronomical Society — I couldn’t get him to come through at all. He was shy or something, or he was stupid. But others talked too much. It was pretty good — The Moonitics Club — so called because when the moon is full and the sky is light you can’t make good photographs, and so during the two or three nights around the full of the moon you don’t make astrophotographs. You play around and make frame theories. I was encouraged to try group thinking. Lyman Bryson of New York (Columbia University) wondered if it would be possible to get a group of good thinkers together and have them think in a new pattern, different from what we had before. It was not to be just an accumulation of these men’s thoughts but some entirely new thought may come out of it. And so I tried it on the Full Moonitics. Nothing significant came out, but at least it was an attempt to see what you could do.
When did this start?
That was in the late ‘40s.
It was already in the ‘40s. I see. Do you remember the key participants? I know it varied over time, but who were the main people who would constitute the nucleus of this group?
Dave Lazzer and Jack Evens, now the head man at Sacramento Peak, and Harlan Smith, who’s the director of the observatory in Texas (The MacDonald observatory) — he was a good one, cooperative — and two or three girl students. They didn’t help very much. Some of the boys wouldn’t speak out. They seemed frightened.
Were any minutes or any notes taken or any summaries prepared of these meetings?
From one meeting to the next only.
There’s a collection of notebooks which he says is the notebook for Full Moonitics, so perhaps you wrote down ideas or something.
I’m very happy that’s preserved.
But that operation didn’t last more than two or three years. More important than that were the “Hollow Square” Sessions in the observatory library. A lot of people know the Harvard Observatory through the Hollow Square operations. That was where we would all get together, the staff and graduate students, also those who knew answers and knew how to ask questions — a big square with the middle empty. The advantage of that over a colloquium was that by the rules you had to change the subject every ten minutes. That rule would keep people from talking too long. The Hollow Squares went on year after year in the ‘30s and the ‘40s.
Were there different topics selected for each meeting?
Generally three or four topics would pop up; and if a person had just gotten some measure of a variable star somewhere, he’d show it around. It was a very informal exhibit. We kept it very lively, and also I think moderately humorous. We would josh colleagues and josh ourselves. We would try things. A lot of ideas came out of the Hollow Squares — ideas that were better even than the colloquia. Because at the colloquia every week or two we’d have a formal presentation where one man would get up and harangue the whole group. At the Hollow Squares nobody talked indefinitely. The Hollow Squares were about the best group operation that we had. And generally some rather good announcements of discoveries or developments first came out in the Hollow Square discussions. Of course I would have a scout go around and see what was about to burst loose, something we could talk about. So it was not all spontaneous. I might send a note to somebody, like Dr. Bert Bok, “We must have your view of the spectroscopic parallaxes, and I’m going to ask about it at the Hollow Squares, and he would be loaded.
And sometimes you had visiting astronomers come to these.
Oh, yes, the visiting astronomers came to the Hollow Squares. That helped a good deal, especially if they were the kind that you could rib a little.
Did the graduate students feel that they could join in this ribbing of you or of others?
They were a little hesitant about ribbing me because nearly always there was some comeback. The graduate students — a lot of them — took part. It was rather a good time in the ‘30s.
How many would participate on the average?
And about how often would you hold this?
Every two weeks, No, not quite that often, It would depend a good deal on the break of the news and the break of the work, In fact, after I had left, the succession asked me to come back to the observatory and run Hollow Square for them. When I retired as director of the observatory, there was a good deal of concern as to whether the Hollow Squares would go on. I was naturally not going to beam hand. I wanted to leave it for the next administration. And so they tried out the Hollow Square and it just flopped. I think there was not enough life in it or something. They flied to make a variation on it by having a hollow circle and triangle, but it didn’t work very well.
During the period when you had them regularly, were you the ring master?
You would run the program. And how long would it last about?
And were any proceedings or any records kept?
Not systematically, we would have been embarrassed to keep records because we wanted it all informal. Individuals would go off with some notes, I hope. The Hollow Square has been tried out elsewhere. I think I’ve said all I need to say about the Hollow Squares except that it was a part of the scientific life of HCO and was always informal.
This was part of your whole plan for teamwork in the observatory. It was different in certain other observatories.
I think there was more teamwork at Harvard.
And a chance for interchanges of ideas.
When you speak of teamwork, how do you regard your own style of work in that period? Did you enjoy working more as part of the team and directing the team, or did you feel that there was a need for solo work as well?
Well, of course, there was a lot of solo work in addition to group operation, and I can’t say that we were continuous and careful because we had a war on our hands. Early in the ‘30s, I worked a good deal on refugee rescue. And so there were times when I would be a little scarce around the observatory, especially if there were some committee meetings in New York to raise money to rescue people from Hitler’s grasp. You probably have run onto some indications of the 20 committees I worked with. Therefore, there wasn’t always a good continuity of me. When we got into the Second World War, there was a good deal of activity around the observatory. We had special meetings when the refugees would come up to the observatory. To be sure, the FBI watched all of it, but we didn’t care. We didn’t worry too much about that. And I think we were wise in not worrying too much. If a person escaped from an Eastern country he might be tinged with communism, we knew. We had a good deal of difficulty with escapees of that kind, but it was a part of my show, and it id off. You’ve run on to some indications of it in what we’ve said, especially when the big Christmas parties came, In addition, though, we had non-Christmas parties in the house — dances and joys of that kind. Around Christmas time, we’d have the annual Christmas celebration, and to that we would invite the refugees. They were German and Jewish and Polish people who were so fond of Christmas ceremonies. It was a happy epoch in their lives to come to the observatory for the Christmas parties — so they claimed. I mean people like Conrad, Bruch and Petschek — distinguished people that were thrown out, and some of them in a very cruel way. But I worked on getting funds and committee operations, trying to rescue, dells we succeeded. One time I counted that there were more than a hundred rescues that went through my office.
You didn’t have too much time for your own astronomical work then?
I didn’t. But curiously enough, I was just furious about it. I said, “I’m not going to quit” So I went right on with astronomy and published steadily during the war. I had the advantage of having funds to pay for assistants. Sometimes I’d have as many as half a dozen people working directly on my variable stars or some phase of astronomical work. I didn’t suffer very badly in that way in shortage of help.
While we are on the refugee question — when did this start? You said early 30s and then continued during the war.
I don’t know…
The mid ‘30s probably.
I think the mid ‘30s.
Now, how was this done? It was a question of locating people that needed to be rescued and then arranging through one means or another to help them when they arrived — helping place them somewhere and seeing they had a minor job? Was that it?
were they all in the sciences or were they from various fields?
No, they were various.
But they were in the academic community.
Oh, yes — all academic: Historians and political scientists and statisticians. One of the leading workers in mathematical logic in the world at the present time was a person whom I was trying to help for two or three years (he and his wife) to get out of Poland. A curious thing happened: We got him out of Poland, and the Rockefellers put up the money to get him well located somewhere, which we did because he was so famous. It wasn’t too hard to locate him. It happened to be in Berkeley. The man never acknowledged my help after I’d got him out and settled. He never wrote to me. It was strange. Some people that answered said, “Well, that is what X always does. He doesn’t answer letters unless they fiscally concern him.” But we got a nice wife and two children out of it. We got the money, as I say, and got him a job, but then nothing more was heard from him until very recently. I met up with him, and he apologized for not writing to me. In some way he didn’t want to feel under obligation, or I don’t know — it was curious. That happened with three different Polish scholars. They didn’t acknowledge after 40 years that they were under any obligation. We didn’t want them to. We were glad not to have them as Americans, but because we were doing this as a good for humanity. But the Germans and the Austrians that we rescued were not at all bitter. Only one of the Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Russians — there were some Russians in it, too — that I remember that was rather bitter. He said, “I feel rather obliged to murder somebody if I could.” But most of them not. They were just kindly disposed. It was the choice of God that this is the way it is. But that’s been found elsewhere, but to us it was amazing. They were so good about it. I could of course name a number of the refugees, but gradually we used op the money that we’d stored in the bank to pay for them. But they died off one after another over the years, and so in about the 15 years that we were running that sort of a bureau there was only one or two left, and both of them had sons that could then take on the job for their parents.
When did this peter out?
About the middle ‘50s.
As late as that, that the fund petered out?
The fund petered out. It got down to where there were only two or three refugees that we had to pay. We had kept them going. We gave them enough so that they could live.
Was there an official name to this fund?
It changed its name two or three times, but a Mrs. Staudinger in New York, who has been recently honored for her work, was the manager of that fund. I think Refugee Scholars was the name — something like that. There were other committees, too, which sort of tied things up. People at the observatory with very little exception had nothing to do with this operation. I mean they were scientists. They were working in the war jobs, many in the optical factory. I counted once and I think there were then eleven different types of activities that the Harvard Observatory staff were taking part in as the war deepened: James G. Baker with his optical job was very important; the South African staff; some of them went to the front and did gun fighting in Ethiopia (of all places) but anyway they were part of the operations.
They dispersed to do this.
It wasn’t done at the observatory. We just kept track of them and saw to it that the jobs were kept open so that they could come back to their work if they wanted to.
What happened at the observatory?
We went right on with our routine researches, and only some part of us went away: the optical people went over to Brookline where they built a plant. There was no special attention, but we kept open so that when they got through fighting, they could come back and find work.
What about the OSRD? Was there a tie-in?
Very little tie-in of anybody at the observatory with OSRD. Mr. Conant was liaison operator, and I was a bit involved. Two or three of my committee jobs involved OSRD, but it was very light — that part. There were other ways of war working that were better.
I guess Harvard’s big project was the underwater sound laboratory that they built for OSRD and that Ted Hunt set up.
That’s right. Is it proper to mention Mrs. Shapley and drop a name?
For four years she was an operator in code-busting and in making firing tables. This was done at MIT for Navy and Air Force. She ran the HCO also. I remember her coming home (nite shift) and being dog-tired and complaining that she had to leave an 8-inch shell up four miles over the weekend. That’s the kind of a way we could help out. There is after all some celestial mechanics in shooting, as we now know very well. The astronomers pioneered in that.
I know some observatories during the war had a role in training people for navigation. Jason Nassau did this at the Warner-Swazey Observatory where he was teaching classes in navigation for the Navy. Was there any involvement of this sort?
Of course, there was Dr. Bok. We got out a paperback called “Astronomy From Shipboard.” It was designed to pep up the traveler to the battle fronts.
I’m going to drop a local name. Miss Frances Wright especially was interested in that kind of work. In fact, Frances Wright and Bart Bok wrote a book on “Navigation” in HCO. There was some teaching of the aviators at the Harvard Observatory.
And then you mentioned Helen Wright.
No, I was in California.
Well, I knew Helen Wright.
There was another question before we get into this question that you had that was a rather technical one, Helen.
Well, let’s stay on this refugee for a minute. This isn’t the refugees so much; but after the war you helped with the libraries in Europe, the observatory libraries, like Uulkova and Warsaw and so forth, where the libraries were destroyed. You helped to re-establish them.
My biggest job in that field was for Poland. Have we talked about Polish things in general, my activity there?
After the war and during the war there were various needs in Poland, such as keeping Poland friendly and keeping their courage up in spite of the way the war was going. The armies of Germany went across Poland, and the Army of Russia went across, and they just tore it all to pieces. Some horrible things happened. But they kept pro-ally, the Poles did, and one of the jobs of keeping them pro-ally was of course our sympathetic operations. Charles Smiley at Brown University and I did a job on restoring the libraries of the Polish observatories and the Polish universities, and three or four different libraries were restored. They’d been destroyed. We replaced them by writing to the universities of America, the leading ones, where they had big libraries. We asked, “Please send us your duplicates.” We had them sent to New York. We raised some money for freight. I was in Poland a year ago, and they recognized our work. In fact, they had shelves labeled, “books from American universities.” Then another interesting operation with Poland was fellowships. We got some good scholars over. One of the three leading astronomers was a fellow who was brought over during the wartime just to be further educated and to be saved for the future. The most interesting thing we did was after the First World War: I told you of that — how T.H. Banachiewicz came to us in Rome and said, “You have a lot of telescopes at Harvard. We have nothing anymore. The wars have ruined us.” This was about 1922. And so we took the matter under consideration
. I went home and got hold of an eight-inch photographic telescope that had been out in Arizona. It had been used to bait a trap so that a Mr. Stewart would give them an observatory, we brought it back, fixed it up, and sent it over to Poland. It was an instrument that had been used for some of Miss Cannon’s work on spectra. We were thanked by the Polish government. And then three years later the time of the “loan” had expired, and the Poles renewed it. Again we got the thanks from the Polish parliament for sending this material to them. And then we heard from them no more. It was a Harvard telescope that was given to them for research south of Krakow, and it’s done various good things, like discovering comets. So that was the gift of 1922. That’s when it started.
Banachiewicz, the leading Polish astronomer at that time, had greeted us in Rome. We were there for a meeting. I shouldn’t tell the rest of this. Here came this same very handsome fellow with a black moustache, and a request. What had happened was that we had a Second World War and we had another destruction of telescopes. And again we mustered our strength (about 1943) and sent Poland another eight-inch telescope. It has gone to the place where Copernicus did his work at Torun in North Poland. That instrument is also in good activity, working on spectra. It is a telescope that has been used for most of Miss Cannon’s great classification of stellar spectra. She’d finished that you see, and we dressed up the telescope and sent it over. A Polish woman astronomer, one of the leading women astronomers of Europe, has the use of that particular telescope. It was sent over as a gift from the Harvard Observatory.
We had only two of them, so we can’t have any more world wars because we are fresh out of those eight-inch telescopes. Anyway there were other things to do in Poland. Along with the president of Vassar College, I sponsored the celebration of the Fourth Century of Copernicus’s Death in ‘43. That was a big binge. We filled Carnegie Hall. The President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, sent a message. In fact, I helped write the message that he sent to me. And the Polish Ambassador in grandeur from Washington came up. We filled Carnegie Hall to the rafters and had a big time. And then we decided that since we were celebrating a revolutionary — namely, Copernicus — we had modern revolutionaries worthy of salute, and so we built up the idea and it worked off beautifully because everybody wanted to cooperate. It was for Poland, after all, and we were sentimental. So we selected about half a dozen American revolutionaries to honor, including Albert Einstein, T.H. Morgan, the geneticist; and Sikorsky, the helicopter man — he certainly was a revolutionary; and Henry Ford was a revolutionary. There were two or three others. We got them to New York and gave them diplomas on the stage. The great harpsichordist lady was there, Wanda Landowska. She was difficult to manage. And I had to manage that meeting. She felt that after we’d let her take one more bow or one encore, she could do some Polish national music. I had to get up and push that lady down. She still doesn’t understand why she couldn’t go on with what was coming to her. As I say, Einstein was there. He was a revolutionary of highest order. That was one of the few times he came out of Princeton. Have I told you about it?
I had decided, as the manager, that we’d let two of the neo-revolutionaries make brief speeches and one would be Einstein. The other might be Walt Disney, who couldn’t be there. Deems Taylor took his place. When I called on Einstein and motioned that that was the time for him to come to the podium to make some remarks, the president of Vassar, Mr. McCracken, got confused about it. He pushed Einstein back into his chair. There was a sort of a struggle going on. I was trying to introduce this revolutionary, and McCracken was trying to prevent Einstein from rising. He didn’t know what he was doing. All was confused. Finally, Einstein got up and made a speech. His speech was in broken English, and it had been pretty badly broken, his English had. He pointed out that in a way it was not inappropriate for him to appear here “because Copernicus was the great leader of scientists and that man was our teacher.” — some sort of a connection. His was a modest talk in pigeon English and the people just roared. Carnegie Hall rattled with applause. And on the front row were some of my friends from the Century Club. I remember them especially. Why had they come? I’d got them tickets so they could come, and they applauded wildly.
Well, they were of course good Republicans and careful club men, and that they would applaud this relativity man and his doings was a little surprising. That night I asked about it and was told: “Well, I think the reason we applauded was that we’d always insisted that we couldn’t understand a damn word of this relativity nonsense. “We just couldn’t understand it. And here we heard relativity himself talking about it and we still couldn’t understand it. So we were right. We can’t understand it.” The logic was rather curious, but anyway they came and applauded. Well, those were the kind of things we did for Poland, and that took up time. There were a few others, and one of them is still alive; “heifers for Poland.” It seems that the Brethren, or some religious cult in America, were wanting to do noble things, and they sent over heifers to Poland, one a year for a number of years. The last I heard, it is still going on. They send along one of their young men to show them how to handle heifers. After the war they were short of cattle, and it was to reinstate not only their telescopes but their herds that we were interested. Naturally when I went over about two years ago to the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the University of Krakow they were glad to see me because we had had a good many contacts, you sees in the ants and academic life.
How about Pulkova? Did you do something in reestablishing that observatory?
I did just as the war ended. I don’t remember that we did much at Pulkova besides astronomy. That is now the biggest observatory, there is a staff now of about 500, I think.
And one of the oldest existing ones.
It’s pretty old — founded more or less by Struve the first.
When was it — l9th century?
Yes, or late 18th. So it’s not old compared to others, such as the Royal Observatory.
The wife of Mikhailov, who’s the director of the Pulkova observatory, has been a personal friend of mine for 30 years. We were pen pals beck in the ‘30s, And she’s now an astronomer; but also she is the leading lady of Russian astronomy.
Helen had a couple of questions of a more technical nature about the work at Harvard. After that we would like to pick up this thread again and talk about other things.
Naturally you think of work I may have done in other countries in the course of being a wandering scientist. I have done some things — a bit in Russia as intimated above and in England and especially in India. I’ve had quite a lot of experience on my three trips to India. I knew Pandit Nehru personally. I think I’ve told you about this. But maybe of more interest, if not of significance, was my relationship with the Pulkova Observatory in Russia. It came about in an odd way, and I rather claim credit for having affected in a mild way Russian astronomy in the past few decades. It started out this way: I was sitting at my round table thinking over my sins or whatever I was doing. I opened a letter that had come from Russia. It was in a school girlish type of writing, obviously from a youngster. And that youngster said in this particular letter that “my teacher saw your name in the paper and said I should write to you and then you write to me so that I can learn my English better.” After six months I caught up on my correspondence enough. Here was a letter from a girl. Her name was Zdenka Kadla. I think it’s of Czech origin, the name. I answered the letter and in a few months came another letter from Zdenka Kadla.
In other words, we became pen pals, as you call them. And among other things, she asked me to say what I thought of the world, and that Russia was a great country. She liked it because they had their elections in a few days and “everybody will vote for the governmental candidates.” It was so harmonious — everybody. Well, I suspected then and later found out, that she was sarcastic. She was telling me what a hell of a country hers is. But anyway the correspondence went back and forth. We must have exchanged half a dozen letters by 1941. In one of the last ones she said, “You tell me what you study in your school and I will tell of mine,” and she went on to talk about the education in Russia. Her address was east of Moscow. So I wrote her about what I do in my schools. In other words, I described the Harvard Observatory and its research programs. I wrote of Miss Cannon and Mrs. Gaposchkin and the staff. I wrote quite a bit, and I did it for a curious reason. War was getting ready to bust loose and traffic was very risky. I was in South Africa at our observatory, and we couldn’t fly back as we had going down.
So what did we do but take a boat, and it took two or three weeks to come up the west coast, and we crossed the equator. Well, being of a nonsensical nature, when we crossed the equator, I thought, “This is a sort of a unique place,” and so I wrote to my friends — I had two or three even then — that “I’m about to cross the equator and I’ll see how the other half looks.” I got out my little black address book and among the addresses I found Zdenka Kadla of Omsk or wherever it was. So I wrote her. I wrote her about my school. And I described astronomy at Harvard. I got home all right, and you all started a war. We won the war with the help of the Russians, and I was sent over by Harvard and others to Russia. I flew over. We had a lot of episodes, one after the other, getting there and getting home. We arrived at the Moscow airport, and here was this crowd, movie cameras ready to shoot you — you’d think it was Ellis Island almost. A great mob of people was around and here came the sixteen of us scientists from the Western Hemisphere. And they wouldn’t let the first person that dashed off the plane land. They said, “We must have the leader.” We had fought against this Fuhrer business, and then they insisted on having the leader. Well, I had to go down because I had seized control of our particular delegation and I was the leader.
That means that you’d make speeches when you land and you’d do this salute and that if somebody was ill on the plane, you’d mop up after him. That’s what being the leader is. Well, anyway, that was my job. And so he said — the man who came there –- “Dr. Shapley, I am,” and he named himself, a person who had been at Columbia University. He said, “I’m the Vice President of the Academy. We’d like to have you tell us what you think of the Russian people” — that old razz, you know. Well, I hadn’t had time. I’d just got off the plane. We’d flown up from Baku. But so I got out and boldly talked and said something or other, just a few sentences and backed off and up stepped this man, this Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and put in something in Russian. He may have said what I should have said. Well, that of course went out. They sent it on all the lines of the Russian radio so that a lot of people would know about it. And did I know that they would? A half hour later we got to our hotel that they put us up near Red Square. We’d been there just a little while, and they’d moved us around and had some difficulty in getting located. Anyway they found out I was the Fuhrer, and so I had a room with a bath in it. The bath was there, but it was a newish hotel.
It was a horrible time to be in Russia at the end of the war. Practically all had lost members of their families to violent death. And so it was a saddish sort of place. But I was in my bathroom trying to find out which faucets would work and which didn’t. (None of them worked, so that was democratic enough.) I was flitting around. I was stripped to the waist and I was going to take a little wash-up — I thought I would — when bang, bang, bang went the door. Somebody was knocking at my door. “Oh, gosh,” I thought, “the G.P.U. or whatever they call them. Somebody has come. They’ve got onto me already.” We’d been warned there might be all sorts of difficulty. There weren’t any, but then we wanted to believe it was going to be horrible. So I said, “Come in.” No answer. And I said louder, “Here I am,” and I spoke in what few languages I could get, inviting that person to come in. Well, I was in the bathroom but dressed below the waist. I went out and opened the door and there was a tallish, handsome young woman. I was bowled over, you know. I thought, “This is one of those traps we hear about.” “Yes?” I said. “What is it?” And in pretty good English, very good English, in fact, she said, “I’m Zdenka. Here is your letter,” she said holding out the letter. It was the letter I’d written on the equator coming up from Capetown, about five years before. “Here’s your letter.” I said, “I didn’t post my letter.” I was still more confused. “Well, what are you doing here? You’re not Zdenka Kadla because she’s at Omsk a thousand miles to the east.” “No, I’m here.” “Well, what do you do here?” “I’m in the university,” she said. “I heard you on the radio. I heard that you were coming and so I got on my bicycle,” she lived in Moscow, “and came in immediately to make contact with my pen pal.” Well, we got out and I transacted all the business in the hall where the people at the office could see me. I said, “All right,” and I asked further about Zdenka Kadla. “Well, what are you doing here?” “I’m studying in the university,” she said for something that corresponded to a higher degree. She was about 22 or 4.
After she had talked me into believing it, she showed me what studies she had been doing — higher mathematics, you know; tremendous — and I said, “Well, let me introduce you to the people at the desk.” So we went down to the desk. She’d gone past them apparently, and I told them, “She speaks English.” “Does she speak good English?” they asked. I said, “Yes, very good English.” “Well, then we will ask her to be the pilot for the Americans who are here on this delegation.” And so she walked right into it. I asked her, “Well, now, Miss Kadla, just what are you doing at the university?” “I’m studying astronomy,” she said. You see, another life that I had distorted. And the reason she had studied astronomy was because I had described it coming up from South Africa. Well, she took us around. She made a good hit with us. And Mikhailov, the leading astronomer of Russia at that time — he was the head of the geodetic work rather than the astronomy — he was glad that Zdenka could take care of some of us. I invited her to a cocktail party that was given by Harriman’s house. We had a party there, and I invited Zdenka Kadla to go with us or got her an invitation to go. She met champagne for the first time in her life and said she liked it. Somehow that annoyed me because people in Russia at that time shouldn’t like champagne. But anyway that was Zdenka Kadla, and she showed us around the museums. They wouldn’t let her go up to Leningrad at that time, but she could do other things, and she was very useful. She was there at the very last. The last day, though, she had to go off with Mikhailov and a dozen other astronomers to see an eclipse. But anyway we left sentiment to each other — goodbye and thank you and so forth, and we might renew our conversation in our pen pal business. And that was the finish of the story except about two years later or three or four we all went to the International Astronomical Union meeting in Switzerland. I had telegraphed to the Russians: They had to come if they wanted to keep their membership on committees. I wasn’t an officer, but I could act. They came, but they came as usual a day late, as they did for quite a number of years.
Why was that, do you know?
Getting the red tape through or something of that kind. It didn’t have much meaning. It was eight that came to that particular meeting in Switzerland. The next time they came in fours, the next time in twos, and now they come in ones. They gradually got onto the fact that there’s no great risk in astronomers getting together. And many other societies now work together very satisfactorily. Anyway here’s the finish of the story, and it is an interesting one. We went to Zurich or somewhere in Switzerland, and here were, a day late, the eight Russians. I knew several of them, having been in Russia, “Hello, Pocanagov,” I said. “Hello, Kukarkin, happy to see you, glad you could come. And here is good old Mikhailov.” He’s the big shot, you know. “Yes,” said he, “I am here, Dr. Shapley. I’m glad to see you here. I’ve brought you a gift,” taking out a bottle of cognac, “from Zdenka.” “Well, isn’t that nice? Zdenka remembers me. That’s wonderful! Will you thank Zdenka?” “Yes,” he said, “I will thank Zdenka — that is, thank Mrs. Mikhailov.”
That was the first you knew that they were married.
Yes that’s the first we knew about it. He is the director of the Pulkova Observatory, and she was the hostess at our meeting when we went over another time to Russia. She knows her astronomy pretty well, though she’s mainly the administrator of the social end of 500 Russian astronomers. All that came from writing letters on the equator.
It’s hard to get from that story to others. It’s so nice in itself.
I’ll get from there to India.
You mentioned Pandit Nehru.
I have been in Russia three or four times — stayed a week in Yalta.
You didn’t go to that earlier eclipse in 1936 or ‘7, was it? Quite a lot of astronomers went.
I didn’t go to Tashkent. It wasn’t an IAU meeting.
No, this was an eclipse.
Yes, an eclipse. No, I don’t go to eclipses much. I was in India giving lectures two or three times, and from the first I had met Pandit Nehru, who was interested in science. He was the president of what corresponds to the AAAS in America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The corresponding operation in India is called the Science Congress. The night I was elected the president of the AAAS I flew the ocean on my way to India, and there Pandit Nehru was the president of their society — not a scientist, you see, but a politician; but he knows his science somewhat, too. And so that threw us together. That’s the way I first met him. Later he came to see me in America, and a number of things happened. Of course many other people have had a lot of experiences with Nehru. I don’t think we need say much about that except that he was especially interested the last two or three times I was in India to see him in the birth control problem — naturally — and also in a number of other problems. I lectured in Calcutta. In New Delhi I gave a course for a few weeks of lectures to the astronomers. They have some pretty good young astronomers, mostly mathematical.
Their equipment is almost zero, and they aren’t accustomed to using instruments. They have no big telescopes. But they’re just about to get them. That’s what we’ve been hearing for quite a while. The Australians sent them a radio telescope up to Delhi. That was a good international gesture. They were going to get a bigger one themselves in New Delhi. I came about four or five years after they’d sent it, and at New Delhi they hadn’t unpacked it yet. There was nobody in India who was interested in carrying on that kind of research. To me that was sort of shocking. But it does happen. It happened after the First World War. We had a lot of beautiful German machinery, German optics, sent to Italy as one of the penalties of posing the war. They never unpacked them. Sad. But they had other things to do. Anyway the Indian experiences were rather useful because I could help. The Russian, I don’t know if we were helpful except diplomatically. We’d had some scientific confabs after the First World War. In ‘25 we went to Pulkova, which is the big observatory at Leningrad, and went out ten or 15 kilometers to the site on Pulkova hill where the observatory had been. It had been knocked all to pieces, but they’d saved the big lenses and kept their manuscripts, which were buried somewhere. And so as the Germans came up Gut of Germany into Russia trying to capture Pulkova (which they didn’t get), they fought and died and ended the war right around that astronomical observatory… And when we were there in ‘45, after that war business was over, why they took us to show the remnants so that we could do things about helping if we wanted to. But they were rather proud and they could help themselves pretty well.
So we weren’t much involved except collaboratively. We knew that we couldn’t expect them to get along as fast as we can in astronomical development. But a man named Maksutov showed me a new kind of lens, a double-meniscus kind of thing. They were using it to spot planes and all. It had a special adaptation for amateur astronomers and for others, and somewhere — I think it’s in Detroit — they have a Maksutov Society names for this Russian astronomer who did this particular lens. It’s used a good deal. If you read the literature, sometimes you see a telescope that folds up, a very fancy one — I’ve forgotten its name; it’s in all our journals — and that has a Maksutov lens. Well, he had that to contribute. That’s one of the good things they contributed, and they had manpower to contribute.
Do they have many amateurs?
Not so many, no. In fact, we rather consider they’re all amateurs compared with the American operations. But they have other lenses coming and other big telescopes coming. They’re number two, I’d say in the standing in astronomy. We’re number one, I’ll modestly point out.
On international contacts with scientists, it was near the end of the war when you became involved with the formation of UNESCO, wasn’t it?
Is that a good point to discuss now?
Of course it’s not astronomy: it’s an international operation. I’ve always been rather involved in international operations. Toward the end of the war the diplomats were meeting in San Francisco, you may remember? They had had a meeting at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington to plan how the world could be put together when the fighting stopped. Out in San Francisco they were getting together to write the United Nations Charter. I was not directly involved in that business. But I was in the scientific end of it. A New Yorker, James Marshall, from the Board of Education, came to me and said, “Would you go along with me and others in trying to get the people in the west, in San Francisco, to put education in as a part of the charter of the world we’re going to restore.” In the preliminaries the word “education” had been left out. We should take care that education be strongly imbedded in the plans for the future.
Anyway this gentleman from New York came and asked if I would go along with him and some others, just a few, to try to get Congress to say, “We are in favor of education in the United Nations Charter.” And I went along. I said, “I can’t go along. I can’t afford those things.” He said, “Well, I’ll get a treasurer who can afford it.” The visitor who came to me was James Marshall, who had been the president of the Board of Education of New York City schools and of the schools of higher education. He was an altruist, very interested, a lawyer, and a man who knew about how things happened in Washington. He wanted me to come and be president and Jim Marshall would be the vice president and we would get another vice president. Jim Marshall I think was Jewish and would represent the Jews, and we would get somebody to represent the Catholics, and I would represent the pagans or Protestants or whatever you’d say. But anyway we’d be the three people who would do the business, but we’d get about 15 or 20 names to go along with us. And it was easy for me and for Marshall especially, and he spent all of his time on this for a while, to pick out people who would go along with us. And so the head of the farmers’ organization and the engineering this and this and this — about a dozen national leaders — went along as members of this: special committee for getting education into the United Nations. We worked on it for about two years. We would write letters and we would try to convince Congressmen.
We tried to convince the State Department — that was the main blacking — to let us see it we couldn’t announce that that is the program that we want to get through and get some opinion on it. In other words, public relations in a big way. I think they ghost wrote some of my stuff — I’m not sure, either that or I wasn’t very wise when I wrote it. But anyway we published articles on the possibility and why we should do this. But the State Department wouldn’t let us come out with it and actually produce a bill to put through Congress. That’s what we would have to do to get this done. We wanted to have a simple, harmless sort of a resolution passed by both branches of Congress unanimously saying that “we believe that education should be an important factor.” Well, Jim Marshall is writing the history of this at the present time. Now, excited by this, I’m going today or tomorrow to check up and see how he’s getting along with the whole history of that operation. It is fantastic in some ways — what you have to do to get a resolution through Congress.
Why was the State Department involved?
The State Department initiates international affairs. They felt that we were just internationalists acting prematurely. The House couldn’t touch it if the State Department was against us because the State Department thought it was arranging for the continuity of civilization.
Was the strategy to get the Congress to authorize our delegates to support this new organization in order to raise the question of including the educational program in it?
But the UN was established.
The UN was getting established. We went to the United Nations to see various people, to influence people, our Congressmen and people of that kind to get people working on it. We’d had a very harmless sort resolution we had made, and we followed a rather well-known, I believe, custom of writing out the resolution that you wanted put through, taking it to your favorable Congressman, but have some errors in it, or at least one. We had just one, something that a Congressman would put his finger on and say, “No not that.” “Oh, all right, sir,” and he’d cross it off. Then it becomes Mr. Mundt’s bill. Mundt is the man who did actually come to our aid. Well, we had what we call a leg girl, a young woman who was the liaison between the State Department and the Marshall-Shapley operation and Congress. She was very good at it. She was experienced in propaganda. Ours was a propaganda operation on the Hill. They held us back and wouldn’t let us come out in the open, but we worked on our wordage. It looked pretty good because we knew that if you talked individually to people, they’d be for it. But can you get a thing to go through Congress so you can say this is a unanimous voice in Congress on this matter? That’s what we wanted to do. It was quite an operation.
Finally, when the delegates were meeting in San Francisco, the State Department or some clerk in the State Department was authorized to say, “Well, if that Marshall-Shapley bunch wants to do something, I don’t think it will harm.” They didn’t quite say, “Go ahead and do it,” but somebody said it wouldn’t hurt. That was the signal to us to plunge ahead, and we plunged ahead. It was rather amusing how it worked. We had to find out the friendly sort of Congressman or Congresswoman. In the Senate, we had to get somebody sympathetic. And to put a resolution through without a dissenting vote, you have to have a good representation in the Senate. You want to have one Republican and one Democrat — just get a pair, so it would be, say, the Taft-Fulbright bill. And you’d have to have one liberal and one conservative, one Northerner, one Southerner, and a balance in there. You’d have about five different things and balance them against each other so as to carry it through. So you know who we found as most susceptible and useful. It was Taft of Ohio, Fulbright of Arkansas. And so the Senate had it, and they were ready to put through this thing. It looked harmless. By that time it had been worked over. They were about to do it, whereupon somebody stopped them and said, “No, we should wait until Mundt’s bill comes out of Congress. He should have it first because he had the first idea.” We got Mundt of South Dakota to bear the burden for the House. So we held them up a bit. Meanwhile, we had the hearings in the Houses and we got it through there unanimously. They went along. They had nothing to lose because they’re not responsible. The Senate would be. It was turned over to the Senate. We went to one of those drowsy sort of sessions.
I wasn’t there, I wish I had been. Marshall was on the job. The clerk read off the bill about this education. We had the protection in there that no country could control the education of another one. It was just a dozen lines or so, this resolution. It was going through apparently, and all looked well when up comes a patriot on the floor. I think it was Hickenlooper or someone who acted like Hickenlooper anyway, “wait, wait,” he said. And then he went through the usual routine of our mothers and our flag and international entangling alliances. Marshall — I think he may have stretched it a little bit — stopped with his hands still up and said, “Is this the matter that the Senator from Ohio was talking to me about in the cloak room?” “Yes,” they said. “Oh, all right,” he said. The resolution went through without opposition.
Turn it on and off.
And so it did go through. We at once got MacLeish on the telephone across the country — that was unusual in ‘45. We told Archie MacLeish, who was there as Assistant Secretary of State, about this success, read it off to him, and said, “Now we’ve done this. Put it through the U.N.” Well, that was the birth of UNESCO.
Yes. Can you answer a few specifics? What was the name of the Marshall-Shapley group? Was there an official name to this committee involving the scientists and the educators?
I don’t remember that there was, we didn’t make much issue of it. Incidentally, it was Monsignor Ryan or somebody who represented the Catholics as another vice-president, who died during the course of these operations, and the president of Hunter College, who is a Catholic, took his place. And so I was president and James Marshall the vice president; he did the work mostly and raised most of the money. There wasn’t a lot needed. Monsignor Ryan represented the Catholics, Marshall the Jews, and I the Pagans. We had good representation all the way through; didn’t impose on anybody. It was a simple sort of affair, and we knew from the first that the thing to do was to get our Congressmen to come through; and eventually they did. “Came through” unanimously.
But nobody else was particularly involved except you two.
And a treasurer whose name I’ve forgotten but whose hard cash we shall always remember.
But you had a committee. If you had an office as president, then it implied that there was a title. You must have called it Committee for Education in the United Nations — something on that order. It was “International Office for Education.” Another question is: what was the date of passage of this resolution?
The year was ‘45.
It coincided with the organizing conference. It coincided with the meeting going on in San Francisco.
That’s right. That was ’45.
But it took how long from the time you first got the idea until the time the resolution was passed?
About two years.
It was during the war then.
Yes. Of course we knew we’d won the war or were going to win it, and people were thinking about the future. There were several screwy things about it. For instance, for that meeting in San Francisco, the people in the State Department (whom we deplore so often and so rightly) were encouraged to invite people to come along to San Francisco as advisers. There were official delegates from the State Department and the President’s office, and then these advisers. The advisers were to be in number about 100. Not one single scientist or engineer was among those asked to run this San Francisco business. Somebody said, “Let the scientists win the wars for us. Let them be the technical know-hows, and we will fix up the politics.” It was essentially as crude as that. Very annoying. The annoying part of it was that the scientists and their organizations had not prepared themselves to fight and to have lobbies, and to carry on. They just weren’t good at it. Think of 50,000 chemists in the country and not one represented in a meeting of that importance.
About the time of the San Francisco conference was the time when the atomic sciences groups, the Federation of American Scientists and other groups, were being organized to have an effective political voice in the uses of peacetime atomic energy. So there was a general movement.
Yes. But at the same time we had to scrap against the Parnell Thomases and such people, The Condon affair came along, and the Oppenheimer affair (that was a little later). So, to be sure, the scientists were awakening, but also they were awakening the opposition. I think I am still on the advisory council of the Federation of American Scientists, but I haven’t been busy on it in the last several years because we have done there what we set out to do — namely: get scientists into government bureaus.
You were in on the founding of that?
Yes. Alan Shapley was also a leader in the Federation. (He is the number two son.) He isn’t a member of it anymore. He says, “We did what we set out to do.” But be in the beginning worked on it a great deal, took a lot of time. Thwarted his scientific research.
Getting back to UNESCO, once the efforts to help interest the United Nations in educational activities took place, then what role — if any — did you play in the subsequent work?
As soon as the resolution got through Congress we had the decision to make as to what name the organization should have. On the west Coast — especially Archibald MacLeish — wanted to call it UNECO. They argued that putting “science” in the name would make it too long. “We don’t need it so long. And anyway United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, with ‘cultural’ in the name will take in all your sciences and your engineers.” I blew up. I telephoned across the country from Joe Davidson’s laboratory-museum in New York, and told them “We’ve got to have science represented in the title of the operation.” We’ve got to have science represented in the name.” I bluffed, “I am going to get action from my scientists’ groups.” I think I was AAAS president at the time, “and we’re going to have an international organization in science. We’re experienced. We’ve had dozens and dozens of international operations and have bad good relations with the Germans.” “But,” said Archie MacLeish, “people won’t stand for such a long name.” “Well,” I said, “you try it out. Go out on Telegraph Hill or wherever you are and ask the first person you see, ‘Is chemical engineering an art or a culture?’ ‘No, it’s a science,’” he’ll say. “I shall try,” he said, “to put it through,” and have the short name UNESCO instead of UNECO. UNECO is a kind of cookie, and UNESCO is almost a Romanian musician instead of a cookie. Within a few weeks, I was one of a group of Americans that went over to London to write the charter of UNESCO. It took only two or three weeks. The sessions were beautifully managed by MacLeish. I didn’t think a poet and librarian could do it as well; he handled it very nicely. He did the right things rightly, and we wrote the charter.
Who were the other Americans?
Well, Bill Benton, who became Senator later, was one at them; and the Dean of Women at a North Carolina College. I just don’t seem to remember the others. I’ve had too many committees to sort them out correctly and easily. Then the State Department said, “Now we must have a charter for this operation.” I was chosen as one of a dozen to go to London; there was some difficulty about a passport for me because I was a “dangerous character.” But my selection went through because a woman from Sweden, Mrs. Myrdal, so willed it. Mrs. Myrdal had some office in the United Nations and she asked that Mr. Shapley be sent by our State Department. Jim Marshall might have been more satisfactory, but he is of the wrong political color. They didn’t appoint him to represent us, but he went anyway. He was a very useful person, excellent. We wrote our charter in fine language. It starts out, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” — a beautiful phrase. Poet MacLeish was given full credit for it, but actually Minister Atlee started it by saying, “Wars begin in the minds of men.” It is a lovely sort of preface. We spelled out the role of what UNESCO could do and how it should be done. I was more or less the official scientist on the job.
Were there any other scientists?
Arthur Compton was there for part of the conference, but he had to go back and run his universities; I took over where he left off. I didn’t have any time to waste either. I did not think I had. But London was rather important also. We did a lot of good things. We set up the various bureaus and we Sacked a number of international operations; and UNESCO has since been pretty much of a success, but it has had to compete unfortunately with some of the other specialized agencies of the United Nations like ILO and FAO and WMO — organizations of that sorts which made it difficult for us at times — jealousies interfered.
Did you decide to establish, headquarters at Paris at that meeting?
Yes. There were a good many activities carried on with success, and we finally got out a report — a big, thick dust-catching volume. We cannot make UNESCO very successful because there are too many nations involved. Too many of them do not want to pay the bills. The arid zone business — I think it did a pretty good job. The geographical health business was moderately good. The weather business, WMO, World Meteorological Organization — I helped a bit in the organization because of my contact with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But there is a lot of it that does not get done. So I do not think that any of us are very proud — we who had something to do with the beginning of UNESCO. But we shall know better when Marshall’s book comes out. It ought to be coming along pretty soon.
Is he still in New York?
He is in New York on West 54th Street, I believe.
what has he done in the years since?
Well, he’s a lawyer. He has practiced law somewhat and his wife writes novels, and his son is a big shot. I never thought of asking him what he is doing now, but I think he is writing on UNESCO very carefully.
This is the history of the formation of UNESCO?
Yes, I don’t know what the title is. I’ve seen him once or twice since those days, and we’ve always been in a hurry. I’m going to New York Sunday and maybe I’ll have some time and will call him up and ask him how things are going.
Between planes you mean. This work in UNESCO was a sort of follow-through of the talk in Cleveland during the war, “The Reason for Fighting.” It seems that we should talk about that a bit. The talk you gave was reprinted all over the world, and the contents of it are very well known. I think we are concerned here with the motivation for it, how you came to write this address, and the circumstances of the presentation and the follow-up.
You are referring to the origin and influence of “The Reason for Fighting.” It was a lecture I gave, not very willingly because I was so tired and so busy. I was representing Phi Beta Kappa in a meeting of scientists in Cleveland — the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was supposed to give a talk that would be something such as William James might have done long ago. He got out a lecture and an argument on much the same theme, I called it “A Substitute for War.” His talk was part of my inspiration. As you say, it has been repeated many times. In the first few months it was reprinted in both the Atlantic Monthly and the American Scholar; also the American Scientist — they all reprinted it. It appeared in several anthologies. I don’t know whether it has had much effect or not. You now hear it referred to occasionally. I once thought that I should write an article on its anniversary. I would call it the “Anniversary of ‘Reason for Fighting.’”
Would that be the 25th anniversary?
Something like that. I have not done it, I have had other things to do.
Wasn’t it delivered in ’42? We will check it.
An interesting thing about that essay — is that when I delivered it I got no applause whatever. I think it is one of the best things I have done, but only two girls in the audience said it was good, and they had both been on my staff.
Was there a feeling at this time that in fact there was a good chance for a better world after the war and that the scientific community and the intellectual community should play a part in it? This is what the address reflected. What else do you remember about that war period? You talked about the refugee work and the work that the people at Harvard were doing and how they were scattered. Was there anything else connected with the war and its impact on astronomy that you think is significant to mention?
One of our best contributions was navigation and things of that kind that Donald Menzel and Bart Bok and Frances Wright and others worked on. And the optical work that was done by James G. Baker and a considerable crew. Our designing of new lenses for new war work was rather notable. Some Harvard Observatory lenses, so labeled, were shot dawn in Germany. A lot of people in America knew about our work. I don’t remember anything outstanding, but undoubtedly there would be.
In the retention of American Scientists, were you in on the founding of that?
Yes, I suppose I was. It had two or three names before it got to be the Federation of the American Scientists, as it is now. And I think if you look you will find that I am still on the board. It isn’t nearly as essential now as it was. It was pretty bad at the time that they were throwing out the director of the Bureau of Standards (the Condon affair). He finally landed on his feet. He was pursued by the red hunters so unjustly because he was not very much of a vigorous political person at all.
His wife was Czechoslovakian. Was that the only reason?
That was used against him a little bit. But mainly they were after him on other grounds. Condon had difficulty. He was thrown out in one place and another and he finally gave up and sent a telegram to me. I guess it’s all right to quote. He said, “They have finally broken my courage.” He’d have a job offered as the head of the department of physics and then the trustees would come in. He’d been brutalized by that time. His wife says she hasn’t yet met a Communist, and she would like to have one produced to see what they look like. She is a Czech. But I don’t think that that had much to do with it. They were after any person that probably had voted for Henry Wallace, or something of that kind. It was a very irrational type of operation. And it was recognized as such by many. I got a request from London for help, and I was getting tuned up to see Mr. Pusey, the president of Harvard and the department of physics at Harvard and say “I’ll get the money from somebody if you will give Condon a job; it would do a good deal to straighten things out.” Then I got a telegram from Condon saying, “All of the trustees of Washington University have unanimously elected me to the chair of physics at Washington University, St. Louis. Thank you very much for your efforts.” I don’t know how embarrassing it would be to Condon to know that — not very much. You might say some friends of the family came to the rescue.
This was in the late ‘40s?
It must have been ’46. The Condon affair came after the war.
I think it was a good deal later than that.
I’m dating it because you mentioned Wallace and that was ‘48, the Wallace campaign.
Did I talk to you about Wallace? He died, you know, very recently. Probably the last letter he got was one I wrote telling him all the news about friends we had known in times past. His wife wrote to me after his death and said it was God-like to think of cheering up Henry when he was passing out in the way he was. He lived near Ridgefield, Conn., and the reason I’d gotten into contact with him just now, his last year, was because my son’s school, Carl Shapley’s school, is just about fifteen or twenty miles from where Wallace lived and died. There are many nice things to say about Wallace and about the things that he represented, and the courage that he gave to people — but that’s politics and not science; maybe here you have something scientific to bring in?
We could also talk about this because there is no artificial separation in your life between these things. We have already talked about some of your interests in politics and some of the reactions to this interest. You mentioned the Parnell Thames affair. I think we should cover this as a part of history. It is a very significant part of it.
Well, Parnell Thomas, incidentally, was a character. Of course we finally got him in jail, and he passed out of the political scene. The people who worked in Wall Street and lived across the river would go on voting for this name because they thought it was amusing. What was his actual name?
J. Parnell Thomas.
No, Feeny, or something. His was some good Irish name. He was pretty effective, but we caught up with him finally and pickled that racket. At the same time Jim Curley in Boston was making merry with Kirtley Mather, Professor of Geology at Harvard, and Harlow Shapley, and a few others, because they had decided that the best thing they could do (to get re-elected) was to get more antagonisms going. Curley was mayor of Boston and Congressman at the same time, and he was also soon in jail. He was a man with abilities, skill.
This is Curley?
James Curley, yes. They would says down in Washington, that “Politics in Boston is either straight or Curly.” I knew Wallace over a few years because of his work in the Department of Agriculture, and his other scientific operations. He was the type of person who might not have been (a lot of us said this same thing) very astute politically, but as a scientist and a human being he was an uncommonly remarkable man. His father before him had built up a fortune out in Iowa with the American Farmer publications. I heard not long ago that that fortune was lost once and Henry Wallace came back to Iowa and restored it. I met him on several occasions because he was scientifically as well as politically involved. I don’t know that it is worth recounting much of those occasions except the actual break. In ‘48, was it? The Progressive party was having its convention in Philadelphia. They wanted me to come to it, but that was obviously just to use my name rather than for any official service I could do. I was not there officially. But it turned out that I did stop in Philadelphia on my way back from somewhere in the South at the time that the convention was going on. In platform making they had got to the place where they should disclaim fascisms and other isms. They did not do it. I pulled out. Wallace didn’t. He stayed in and lost three or four million votes. In fact, he did not get quite a million. Before the convention for a while the statistics showed that he had five million coming.
You mean because of the platform that emerged?
Yes, Wallace accepted a platform that did not spank the Communists; he should have spanked the Communists at that moment. The Communists controlled the convention. I was in the Wallace apartment in Philadelphia on my way back from where I had been. I was sympathetic with the Wallaces. I think Mrs. Wallace said, “We understand that you part company with us now. We are awfully sorry. We are glad that you have been loyal, but we understand.” They made no fuss about it at all, and they knew I couldn’t go along with them.
And did you break with them?
You didn’t support the progressive party then?
I may have as an individual, personally, but I didn’t in any effective way. In fact, when the election came I was in Boulder, Colorado and I made special effort that my vote would be recorded. I was pro-Wallace at that time -– pro-Wallace but anti-party.
Earlier, what were the circumstances leading up to your run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee when Thomas was chairman? Rankin was first and then Thomas. What were the things that led up to that? And it might be good to recount the actual confrontation because it was in the newspapers. I have looked it up in the New York Times: some of the clippings and I’ll show you some of that later on.
Do you have the one from the New York Sun?
Let’s sees I have it copied out by hand.
The New York Sun commenting on the Waldorf affair?
No, these are from the Times. These are in ’46 — one of them November 4, 1946, where it says, “Dr. Harlow Shapley charged tonight that his subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee was ‘an obvious political maneuver’ to discredit the work at all independent voters.” And then another headline in November ‘46, “Rankin clashed with Dr. Shapley.”
That was spectacular.
“Un-American Committee man charges contempt. Scientist alleges Gestapo hearing.” Tell us about the story in the Sun. That’s interesting.
The Sun case out very much for me and against the other New York papers in their earlier editions. Before the later editions they saw that I was to be the goat, the one to be challenged; they just changed hats between editions, from being Shapley the great man to Shapley the heel. That was done in the New York Sun.
At the time of these bearings?
At the time of the Waldorf operation. Meetings of NCASP (National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions) …the meeting of March ‘49 when we had a big meeting in New York city, several big meetings, in fact; and the Russians came over — the Russian musicians and the poets, we had quite a party. We called it the Waldorf operation. There was picketing at the hotel. It worked up to a very disgraceful affair from the standpoint of the newspapers. You must have some record of the Waldorf affair.
That is a good deal later than this.
That was later. Was the Arts, Sciences and Professions sponsoring that?
The National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, that was the name of it.
I was thinking of the earlier affair with the Un-American Activities Committee in 1946.
It ran into 1947.
This is where you had the business with Rankin where he ripped the statement out of your hand.
Yes, I thought that the Rankin affair was after the Waldorf business. All right you have it dated.
It was right after that, in ‘47, that you were elected president of AAAS.
And then the McCarthy affair came later after the Waldorf business.
Yes. Joe Martin was House leader, wasn’t he? And Joe Martin was to be re-elected; but a Unitarian lady, Mrs. Martha Sharp, opposed him. It was supposed to be completely silly to oppose anybody who wants to upset Joe Martin. But here she came, and she was making a good deal of headway. She didn’t have much money for the campaign; I remember calling up her house one time and a little girl, about six years old, answered: “Martha Sharp for President.” She was cute, anyway. I was of course pro-Martha Sharp. At that time I was connected with the Arts, Sciences and Professions. It was a straight operation. It was not even called Communist. I was then associated with the NCASP. They got money for various campaigns. One source was against this Joe Martin. The NCASP sent money to Martha Sharp to help her in her campaign for Congress. Of course she got beaten and did not get very far; the politicians were very rough with her. She got beat because Joe Martin appealed to John Rankin, his chum in Congress, to help him because “they are making quite a fuss about me, about the succession; can’t you get your hounds after them?” Whereupon, deliberately, Joe Rankin had one or two of his man come up to look into the situation in this Massachusetts district. Well, Joe Martin heard about it, and he naturally got his men to work on the business of smearing Martha Sharp. She’s a wonderful lady but not too good as a politician. She had worked a good deal abroad for Unitarian relief.
She ran on what ticket?
They robbed Mrs. Sharp’s office, looted it, these agents for the politicians. Among other things that they got hold of was a letter that I had written to Martha Sharp. I wrote a letter to her, a virtuous letter. It was to the effect that: “If you want us to help you, you certainly should be willing to state where the money comes from.” For political reasons she did not want to admit it came from us but still she needed the money. Well, they got hold of this letter, and there was my name. That was the main thing they wanted. They had a name. I had been useful in one way — by having a name known to scoundrels. That was all they needed. So they came out at the proper time to get into the newspapers: “Shapley protects the Communists” and something of that kind in the full page scare heads. Whereupon, as a part of the machinery, one or two of Rankin’s agents came to see me. They wanted to do this and that. They came to my office and I said, “I won’t talk to you without a lawyer because I don’t trust you.” They said, “Well, anything you say here we’ll trust.” Well, I knew that man. He was a thug. And so Zachariah Chaffee, Harvard Law School, a liberal, came, Cambridge to Washington, to represent me in an interview so he could ask any question. And he asked very leading questions, but we felt we were rather successful in confronting these agents of the “red” hunters. But no, they went back and pretty soon came a subpoena for me to come. “Well,” I said, “I won’t go unless I can have the assurance that I can have a lawyer there.” They said, “You won’t need a lawyer,” or something of that kind. “It’s just a matter of investigating and finding out about this letter.”
Anyway I thought I had it pretty definitely fixed that I’d have a lawyer there, and so it was. But what happened was that Zach Chaffee got ill and couldn’t go, but he sent instead the man who is president of Washington University at the present time, Dr. Tom Eliot. Tom Eliot had been in Congress and in Congress he had had a scrap with Rankin so they knew each other. Tom said he would go down instead of Zach Chaffee. That is the only time I ever had a lawyer. And so, sure enough, when the time came he and I boarded the train and went down with the understanding that I would appear with a lawyer. It was one of these Star Chamber affairs, with only one committee man there. There were two or three of his sleuths, his thugs, or whatever you call them, but no other Congressmen. Well, we protested, but we went into the hearing. In the ante-room were a lot of newspapermen with flash guns poised, and there were one or two other people including Tom Eliot.
Finally Rankin came in. When Rankin found out who Tom was he shouted “You get out of here.” And I protested, I said, “But I have been given a promise I could have my lawyer.” “You could have had that lawyer; you mentioned him, but here you bring this lawyer. Zach Chaffee, yes.” They had a way out, you see. Zach Chaffee, ill, couldn’t come. I said “Well, I cannot go on without him.” Some way or another, they maneuvered Torn Eliot into the anteroom and they started the questioning of me alone. I asked my secretary that I brought with me, a little blond, if she got something — a record, and that perked up Rankin again. “Who is that woman?” I said, “She is here with me. We are keeping a record.” “You don’t need to do that. We’ll give you a record of anything you ought to know.” I said, “It would be what I ought to know from your viewpoint, sir…” He said, “Throw her out.” And out she went, this little blond girl, scared to death, of course, because this mart seemed such a ruffian. I said, “Very well, if she can’t be here, I’ll be my own recorder.” I write shorthand, as you may know. And so I just started to write down a statement.
I was putting in shorthand all that we would say. Gosh, that made him mad. He just came crawling over the intervening table and grabbed my note out of my hand. And I just rose, you know, in my great dignity and said, “That ends this hearing. I have been assaulted.” I got Tom Eliot to come in and I told him what had happened, and he too said, “That was a case of assault.” Well, that didn’t bother Rankin. He said, “You are going to be cited for contempt of Congress.” I get compliments. You know I fish for them sometimes. Here was one! I came out into the anteroom — flash, flash, flash: the newspaper people were there. And out also came Congressman Rankin. He came out, pointed his scornful finger at me and shouted, “This man has shown more contempt for our committee than anybody who ever appeared before it.” Was not that fine!
That is in the newspaper report of the time.
Whether or not they reported it, I said that was the greatest compliment I had ever had. It was flattery, you know, to be held in contempt of that committee. The Democratic party tried to get Rankin to withdraw and not go on with this contempt charge because they saw it would be an uphill fight. But finally, it got squelched. The Southern newspapers jumped onto Rankin brilliantly. One said, “If jittery John wants to get headlines, have him crawl to the top of the Washington Monument and jump off. He’ll get headlines.” That was from Jackson, Mississippi, I think. And Richmond newspapers also went after him. The Southern press was noble in that case. It was rater tough on me. I had lunch with James B. Conant, President of Harvard. He does not understand Congressmen. He didn’t fire me! And you know what happened. I went home and found that the students — 1200 of them — got out a manifesto for Mr. Shapley; we had a meeting to celebrate, Bok took a noble part in the enterprise. To have 1200 Harvard students signing a paper indicating that they thought Dr. Shapley had done a good deed for humanity was something. When later Rankin ran for the Senate he came in number five. He did lose some prestige, we think.
He (Rankin) stayed on the committee, didn’t he?
I think so. I think they could not get him off the committee. You know, that man Rankin has done some good things. He and I believe Taft, put TVA through. I think he and Taft, North and South, helped in that. That is the only thing I have heard to his credit.
Also the American Association of scientific workers joined in condemning the committee for their treatment of you at that time. That is recorded in the New York Times.
Oh, I was quite a martyr. It was embarrassing — I came home on the night train from Washington the next day to find the meeting already set up. I think it was reinforced with 1200 signatures.
“Members of the Harvard Liberal Union presented Dr. Harlow Shapley a pledge carrying 1200 signatures to back up his ‘courageous stand against the action of the committee.’” The Harvard undergraduate population was about 5300 at the time. I have just read from the New York Times from November 18th on the incident when you walked out of Rankin’s committee.
He had intended to cite me for contempt of Congress. It evidently fell through. I heard nothing further of it. The Democratic Committee could not get Rankin to apologize. He’s stubborn, but in some ways all right.
It was shortly after that time that you were elected president of the AAAS wasn’t it?
I don’t have those dates.
We’re resuming now after a luncheon break. During the break you reminded yourself that there were some other things that could be said re Henry Wallace and your impression of him and your relationships with him.
I had some political relationship with him, scientific relations more. I remember the first time I met Wallace. We were both broadcasting on the birthday of Science Service, of which I was at that time president. S. J. Conklin was there and Watson Davis and others, and Henry Wallace. We stood around and talked quite a while before we could come on the air on a Saturday afternoon. And during the course of that discussion, I happened to mention that next week I was going to Mexico on a job of helping build up science in Mexico. Six times I’ve been on that job, “Oh, you’re going down there. Do you speak Spanish?” asked Mr. Wallace. I said, “No, I’m not that kind. I’m not as good as you are speaking so many languages you can go to any country.” He said, “Well, I’ll teach you how you can learn Spanish easily.” “How is that, Mr. Wallace?” He said, “We sing it. We sing the popular songs. You come out to my house. Come out tonight,” he said, and bring Mrs. Shapley.” We went out to his apartment. His wife was at a meeting of some sort. I believe he at that time was Secretary of Agriculture. We had a nice little dinner in his apartment. He got out some Spanish records and sang along in what I call his “whisky tenor.” He asked me then to come out another time. He said, “I’d like to have you tell my deputy secretary that there’s nothing to astrology, that it’s just nonsense, and he shouldn’t talk about planting things down in Mexico or Central America in the light of the moon. That it’s just nonsense. I want you to bug him if you will.” Sure enough, at dinner time, Wallace maneuvered the conversation so that pretty soon I was listening to water divining, astrology, etc. Apparently I did all right, for that man quieted about planting potatoes in the light of the moon.
This was Wallace’s deputy secretary?
Yes, his second man, his second-in-charge, so it was important not to have him publicly foolish. Many people though that Wallace was an astrology and a visionary in all sorts of ways. But I know he was hard-boiled, and had built up at least two considerable fortunes. But he did not present himself very well, so it has been usual for us to say he would be much better as a college professor because he knew so much and was so widely interested. Mr. Wallace had the Shapleys out to dinner near the time of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The man who succeeded Roosevelt was a fellow named Truman; yes, and by a narrow margin it was not Wallace. We regretted very much that it was not Wallace because Mrs. Wallace is such a very attractive personality. Later of course, Wallace ran for the presidency on the Progressive party ticket. Once I was presiding at a big rally in Madison Square Garden in New York. There were thousands of people there, including famous Russians. Wallace was on the program. I introduced him and some of the comedians of the radio.
We had an enormous group from Hollywood, and we raised a good deal of money for the general campaign. I have had some experience in presiding at the Madison Square type of meeting. I saw Wallace there, and we had dinner together. Then I didn’t see him much for a while except at the meetings of the American Philosophical Society of which he was a member. Since the time of Thomas Jefferson or maybe Woodrow Wilson, no politician has been in that sacred institution, but as an agriculturist and a hybrid corn man, Wallace was elected on his merits as a scientist to the Philosophical Society, which elects only a few each year. He comes to some of the meetings. Often at the dinners of the A.P.S. I sit with him and talk corn and politics. Mrs. Wallace comes also. They enjoy it very much, because he had been left behind in the political scramble, and, you might also say, in the social scramble. But to come here in his own rights and be a member of the American Philosophical Society audience seemed to appeal to him a great deal.
This was after the 1948 campaign.
Yes, in the ‘50s. But in the last few years Wallace has not gone often to these meetings. He gave a technical paper at the American Philosophical Society on genetics on the basis of his knowledge in genetical operations. And he was fair, too. I mean he gave full credit to the Princeton professor who was a pioneer in hybrid corn. But, alas, less than a year ago I learned from his house in Westchester County that he was not very well. So I dropped him a note, wishing him well, and could he come over and see Carl Shapley’s school? I was doing a little public relations. He wrote back that he wasn’t well, but he expected to be well very soon and then he’d be so happy to have me over to his place. The answer to that letter indicated that he was on the way out. Then I wrote him a long letter and told him where were the various friends of ancient times. That probably was the last letter he received. Very soon after that he died. A loss of a really great American. But he should have been cast as a scientist, or a professional lecturer, rather than as a statesman. He was a sport, too. He missed the Vice-Presidency nomination that Truman got. And immediately offered his services, to do whatever he could in a political way.
Did you have an opportunity to talk with him after his defeat in the 1948 Presidential campaign? He really retired from public life after that time.
At the time of his running for the Presidency on the Progressive party ticket, I was in Philadelphia. He had a suite — an apartment there. I visited with him and Mrs. Wallace and one or two friends, including that character from the West Coast — Bridges, you remember? I was with Wallace at the time when the convention was voting against Wallace. It amounted to that. They insisted that he endorse the extreme Left. He would do it. I wouldn’t do it. He knew it was fatal. You probably remember that the Communists climbed aboard the bandwagon and manipulated the vote for the so-called Vermont resolution. Wallace knew that that was the end of our working together. Of course it wasn’t very much. Mrs. Wallace explained to me later: “We understand you can’t go along with us any more, Dr. Shapley, but we do appreciate what you’ve done and we think well of you.” It was very nice; he through her was accepting the complete defeat of his operation. He thought that it was the intelligent and moral thing to do, to go along with the Communist group. Since then I didn’t meet him often except in the meetings of the American Philosophical Society where we talked science, hybridization, and so forth.
Were you aware of the important role that he played in the New Deal period as Secretary of Agriculture? Recent studies have shown that he played an important part in the development of science in the federal government and that he was the champion of increased use of science in various government bureaus. This was something that I hadn’t realized before.
I don’t doubt it. I don’t know what you’re specifically referring to.
Well, in using scientific techniques and bringing scientists in on advisory positions and developing closer ties and using the nation’s scientific resources in a more effective way, these were essentially what he was doing.
I went to see him another time when he was Secretary of Agriculture. I went to see if he could use influence to get released from the Air Force one genius scientific youth that we needed for a very definite reason — the study of multiple ovulation of cattle. He explained to me that he couldn’t do it because of the political set-up. It couldn’t be done. Our conference was an interesting session. I want into his office, and there waiting were two United States Senators. I recognized one of them by his looks and later identified the other one. They were important United States Senators waiting to see the Vice-President. The secretary had a list of the people who were to come in. Quite out of order I was ushered into his office. That rather startled me; I don’t like to have special favors, so I protested a bit. The office girl said, “No, he wants you to come now.” I went in and there he was, tired, worked to death. Did he want to talk to me about my job or about agriculture or ovulation or about the government? No, he wanted details about certain researches that were going on in science. I bid him something about the ionization in cool stars, or something of that kind. But he was doodling while I was talking to him, so I stopped; and then he would ask me to go on. I was a little bit offended that he’d go on doodling and writing things down. He called attention to something on his desk, and I stepped over to see what he was doodling. I saw “Fe2O5.” He was writing down the chemical formulae I was talking about. He was putting them in English. The reason he wanted me there and put me ahead of senators was to get a chance to save his soul from politics. So I stayed with him quite a while. I felt both exhilarated and embarrassed by his knowing these chemical symbols. There are many a geneticist and many a Senator who doesn’t know that Fe means iron and Ag means silver. He was a great man with an unhappy life at its terminus. I understand that he was getting along pretty well on hybridizing chickens. He got to where he could breed the ugliest chicken you ever saw, but the goal realized was that you get more return per ounce of feed.
And then in 1950 or shortly thereafter was the confrontation with McCarthy.
Well, I didn’t have a confrontation if that means face to face. McCarthy went after me just two or three times. Once was in his famous speech in Reno where I was named as one of half a dozen who were Communists in the State Department. It was extraordinary. The Associated Press crashed through. Sometimes they do nice things. They woke me up in the middle of the night in New York City at the Harvard Club and said, “McCarthy has just made the following mendacious statement,” and they read off just what he had said. I took a double turn on that one and then said, “I have heard this statement by Senator McCarthy to the Associated Press and I have only to say that the Senator succeeded in telling seven lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity.” And that squelched McCarthy. He kept off of me from then on… until Mr. Conant wanted to go over to Germany to be ambassador, or whatever it was, and McCarthy asked Mr. Conant why he didn’t fire Harlow Shapley. And Mr. Conant said, “That isn’t the way we do things.”
There’s a newspaper story in the Times — I think it was February, 1950. It quotes you saying in reaction to McCarthy’s allegations that they were untrue and vague and you asserted “that you were as far from being a communist as possible” and that you found McCarthy’s “irresponsible charges tiresome and I’d like him to get more specific.” Then it goes on, “The astronomer said he had ‘an ace up my sleeve’ if the Senator did become specific in his accusations. He then added that ‘If it comes to a fight, I shall speak out strongly and fearlessly.’ He did not elaborate on the ace he professed to holds” and so forth. And it went on to explain your connection with the State Department. I’m curious to know what was the ace up your sleeve. Or was this just a bluff?
I don’t know. It sounds like a bluff. I don’t remember what that referred to, there was a good deal of tumbling around.
You mentioned earlier when you talked about your meeting with Wallace that you were there to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Science Service. Weren’t you in on the establishment of Science Service or involved at least in the earlier days of it? This goes back, of course, but I’d like it to.
Back in about 1920, Mr. George Ellery Hale and E. W. Scripps had a meeting at Oceanside, California, or somewhere near to talk over the possibility of better reporting of science. Mr. Hale took me along with him because he knew I knew some journalism by experience and also that I could help keep a record. Professor Ritter was in the party. It was a meeting that was typical for Scripps. He is a wild man and a great man. It depends on your point of view. He wanted for this meeting to talk over the possibility of reporting science better in the newspapers and he wanted to give a good deal of money for it. Well, Mr. Scripps enjoyed himself, I could see that — by just telling Mr. Ritter what a nincompoop he was. He just enjoyed abusing the man right there. I’ve known of one or two others who would work that way. But it was embarrassing both to Mr. Hale and to me. We did succeed in outlining how we would go about setting up a science reporting business. Ritter was to be nominal head, but after he’d got it going, Watson Davis, a student of engineering and reporting, got into the game and became the manager (after a while).
It must have stopped for a while then because Watson Davis didn’t actually go in until 1931, and all this was in 1920. This was apparently brought up (I have Hale’s notes) at an Academy meeting in April of 1920, and then it was July 10th, 1920, when you went down to Miramar, which was near La Jolla, and Hale wrote to his brother about it afterwards. He said, “we have been gone for a couple of days this week taking Mrs. John D. Hooker, her daughter, and Miss Alicia Mosgrove [she’s the old lady I was talking about] with us, as I had to go to a meeting of the Science News Service at Miramar,” which is Scripps’ place, not far from La Jolla. “The meeting turned out very well, by the way. The scientific members of the board will consist of three nominees each of the National Academy, the Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They will select five others, four of which will be representatives of journalism, including Scripps and Hoover may be the fifth. E. E. Slosson, literary editor of the Independent, the chemist that took his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and has done much popular writing, has been asked to come up to be considered as editor. Permanent headquarters will be selected by the full board.” And then in August Slosson came out to stay with Hale. He said, “Slosson spent the night with me and I agree that he ought to have some part in Science News Service. Very keen in scientific matters, as I learned from the rapid way in which he caught on to our work here writes, by the way, that he has a very promising lead in the popular science journal, which he would like to have Slosson edit.” In those years, Hale was trying to get a popular journal of science started.
Yes. Slosson was involved in this, wasn’t he?
Yes, he became the first editor.
He became the first one. Was he succeeded by Watson Davis then?
I think so, yes. Watson Davis didn’t come in until 1931, which was 11 years after this, you see.
Well, Kellogg was in there somehow, too.
Was he head of the Science Service?
He was on the board.
Yes. Well, anyway, there was a start of Science Service. Ritter became the head of it, and I became an executive officer about that same time.
Right at the beginning, yes.
It succeeded because of this Scripps gift. It influenced the other journals — the New York Times and the Tribune and the World. They pretty soon had science editors because this operation had pointed the way. So it was a pretty successful enterprise. I’m still on the executive committee; have been for 30-odd years.
What was the motivation of the original founders? I know the purpose was to have better science reporting, but what motivated you to want this and what did you think it would accomplish?
Well, maybe one is because Mr. Hale asked me to come along. That was the influence. I would do whatever he would suggest because he was recognized as a wise person. Also, I longed a little bit for my career as a journalist way back in ‘10.
Did you see Slosson when you came out? You probably did in August.
well, I don’t remember Slosson being at this meeting.
No he wasn’t at that one, but he came out soon afterwards in August.
I don’t remember what I did about it. I probably wrote letters, or I probably summarized what we said. I remember I wrote in shorthand some notes on the operation. I was glad to be invited. For it was the obvious thing to do. Of courses I had been encouraging the writing of science. I thought Watson Davis was earlier, but it was ’31.
That’s when Davis became editor. He may have been in it in some other capacity. I don’t know.
But by bringing science news to the public did you feel that…There could be several motivations for this. One could be that the public would then understand science and the need to support it. Another is that they could help guide its application. Another is that it would attract more people into the ranks of science.
Here was some of all those involved, undoubtedly.
There was an awful lot of poor reporting in astronomy. It was such a sensational subject that Mr. Hale especially was pretty fed up with some of the reporters who wrote startling headlines. He felt pretty strongly about this.
The New York Times had a good deal to do with us and science because they used the service that we provided. But you’d get hold of some of the Hearst papers and sometimes the Scripps-Howard papers — they could be wild enough.
This is still true, is it?
Yes, it’s still true. That’s the way it runs.
Was this a nonprofit type of organization?
Yes, it was nonprofit, and it wasn’t hard to make it nonprofit. We had to work hard to get papers to take the telegraphic service. I say “we” because I worked pretty close to it until this last two or three years. Watson Davis retired a year or so ago and we have a new man, E. G. Sherburn, Jr. as the head of Science Service. I sat on the committee for the selection. Science Service has now a group of about 50 people working for it, on 1719 N Street in Washington. I think we now have a very good man at the head and a good many experienced writers on the staff. We hope to get more money to give better salaries because we’ve found over the years that we could train writers pretty well in Science Service, and then industry would snatch them up. That was good, too, but it made it difficult to manage the operation. Some of the writers have been 10, 20, 30 years with Science Service.
Did Mr. Scripps give money in the beginning?
He set aside some large sum, $600,000, I believe, so we had a basic endowment return of $30,000 a year. We live on that. And for the rest: Our Service was sold. Then we did various profitable things, like the Science Talent Search. The Science Talent Search was more or less invented by a man named Edward Pendray of Westinghouse, meeting with Watson Davis and me in New York City. There we went into the possibility of having a science talent search for finding talented students the country over. The Westinghouse people put up money to pay for it, and we got some other help.
Westinghouse came into it later?
Pendray was from Westinghouse. They have their own educational foundation. We find, not a lot of geniuses, but much talent. Forty a year we get and take them on trips. Westinghouse helps pay for the additional expense there, and we get money sometimes from other places. We have dug, as I say, a whole lot of science talent. But I don’t think Einstein could have made it because we don’t have a submerged genius category. But nearly all of our winners go on as doctors of science and places of that kind. We’ve made very few mistakes apparently. We work hard. There are about four or five days of examinations about the first of March every year. We have probably the most outstanding scientific dinner in Washington, more than the Carnegie Institution and more than the various kinds of societies. We have 600 people at the annual dinner. The big people like Vannever Bush and Alan Waterman are speakers. The president of Science Service until just last year was Leonard Carmichael, the head of the Smithsonian, and then he became vice president for research of the National Geographic Society.
I had, of course, long been president. Among the other things that Science Service has done was the translation of American texts into Spanish for use in Latin America. We did that under the inspiration of the State Department. Perhaps the most important thing that Science Service had helped us do was the creation of the science fairs. There were a few fairs around, but it got constructively organized only when we took it over; now these are thousands of science fairs, held over the country — first on a local basis in the grade schools, and then in the high schools. We further got the cooperation of people that were skillful in building up exhibits. Now there is a national fair as well as localized ones. We have nationally famous scientists to judge the big exhibits. We have each year perhaps a thousand exhibits — too many to begin with; we had to cut them down by selection, by going step by step until we get the best. And those tops are often students that are whizzes — not in science talent necessarily but in observational sciences, such as you could exhibit at a fair.
Mildred’s daughter, June, my granddaughter, was a runner-up for tops in Los Angeles when she was in high school. Another time she also placed, but didn’t win anything since I was on the board! I don’t think there’s much in the idea that fairs diminish the interest in other parts of scholarship. The brightest boys and girls aren’t all scientifically touched; some are archeologically touched or historically touched, or demographically touched in some way. There’s a great deal of width in the study at the science fairs. I have heard no criticism of this sort and I’ve been associated rather closely with the fairs all these years. A good friend of mine says “You scientific people are sapping off the top brains and leaving us with the numbskulls.” I asked him if they had tried the talent search experiment. He said, “No, but we don’t have any Westinghouse around with $30,000 a year to help us put this show on the road.” I told him I would do it for half that price if they wanted me to; but nothing came of it. That was the only blow-up where they criticized our operations. Well, the very first Fair that more or less started the movement was at Providence, Rhode Island, where the parochial schools, the private schools and the public schools — all of them were invited to get in on the operation. The main newspaper of the city carried the expenses. It wasn’t very much, a few hundred dollars was all. 1100 exhibits showed up. Its success amazed everybody. It was the very first attempt. It was really more or less the beginning. It was school against school that got into this contest.
For instance, at the first one I looked at all exhibits; nearly always there was a mother or an Uncle Joe or Aunt Emma or somebody there swelling with pride because their boy had this exhibit about synthesizing silk or something. So the fairs were for the community, and that’s the way it’s remained — a community operation. I long ago learned that “Science is picking off the bright ones. Are we going to do anything about it?” Keppel then continued, “We in the Carnegie would like to do something about the use of those who are not gadget people necessarily but have some other high qualities and need encouragement.” His complaint was that science is just too attractive. And I think it may be getting more so in the space age from the letters I keep receiving. No, I don’t believe we did any damage of that sort. Another operation we carry along is “Things of Science.” About ten or 12 months of the year we get out the “Things of Science” to show how you can do this and that. It goes to the schools and is used a good deal. We would get industry to provide 10,000 samples. There were a lot of things we couldn’t use because it was too expensive to get the samples or to get the materials to work with. But anyway, I think the “Things of Science” has been successful. We’ve been going over this job just now — the six or eight operations that Science Service does a year.
The “Things of Science” is one that we shall keep. In fact, we’ll probably keep all of them, but temporarily we’re looking over the possibility of dropping some because we have too many operations going. We won’t drop the Science Talent Search because that seems to be a Washington social affair. People like to have it in Washington. They get a free meal, a good banquet, at the expense of Westinghouse. I was early elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was at that time largely a Boston and Massachusetts affair. I have remained active in it, but not excitedly so, for a number of years. It seemed that it should have a wider spread. And with Hudson Hoagland of Worcester as secretary and I as president, we tried to put some life into the American Academy. In the Academy there were good noble people there, but they got up slap-dash types of programs which didn’t amount to so much. So we started out and almost got an Academy quarterly started at that time. Then one thing and another, like a war, came along and we didn’t do much on it. It was then only about six years ago that Daedalus was really born, and we had a good quarterly magazine. It was a result of Hudson Hoagland and me working to see if we could make the American Academy of Arts and Sciences a viable thing, and we did in many ways.
For instance, we had (and do even now) for nine months of the year, lively monthly meetings of the American Academy. The American Philosophical Society had just two. But the American Academy, close to MIT and close to Harvard and B.U. and others, has the manpower and the interest to have nine lively sessions. A number of noble people have been working on that, and I should not try to take too much credit. One of the presidents was Edwin Land, our neighbor up the hill here, an industrialist. He was the president for two or three years. There are some officers from Tech, some from Harvard, some from the humanities. But in general we have found this interesting thing: that you put on a program that was in the humanities and the science people would come and the humanities people would come, more or less; but if you put on one in science, the humanities people didn’t come. They didn’t show up. The science frightened them away or maybe they had better judgment. But anyway this is rather an interesting thing: that the scientists will go out to either kind of meeting and the humanists won’t.
What years were you president of the Academy?
Early ‘40s, wasn’t it? We had very special meetings and very special exhibits. It was you might say, a very lively operation compared to what it had been before. But now we do, as you know, quite remarkable things in the way of special studies of disarmament, and teaching, and genius. We get money for the Academy from the various publishing houses and from the various foundations when we need it. And so it’s quite a business, which was named for that mushroom I showed you, that fungus, has become a very important quarterly.
How did the name originate?
Well, we were looking for names that would represent a tie-up of the sciences and arts. We had a quarterly already in operation just called “The quarterly of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” but we thought we might go further than that. And, as I say, we sort of resurrected the Hoagland-Shapley thoughts of the ‘30s. I argued we should have a snappy name. That’s the way you do with journals. You don’t want to say “The Academy’s Proceedings for 1956,” or some such. A lot of names liked “Minerva.” But those names were already assigned to the satellites in the sky and the asteroids. We had used up these names. So I looked around a bit and found this name was not used. And Daedalus would be a very appropriate name because Daedalus and Icarus were aviators for one thing, experimenters. There was a suggestion from botany because one of the main ferns out here is a fungus on the trees called Daedalus. There were several other reasons. It would cover engineering and pure science and applied science and mythology, and so I proposed at a meeting, “How about trying this? You probably wouldn’t want to do this of course because you wouldn’t know whether to say Deedelus, Dedelus or Dadelus.” But it would imply all those properties. Well, the president at that time was a classicist at Harvard, and he thought mine was quite an ingenious idea. So pretty soon we shifted, and several were talking for it. Finally the treasurer of the Academy, from MIT, made a motion. He said, “Let’s call it that unless we find some reason not to.” And so we just sort of bulled it through. It came about on account of the fact that Daedalus touches the mushroom, touches engineering, touches everything. It’s been accepted, and now there are about 100,000 copies in circulation.
Many recent issues have been issued as hardback books.
Nearly every quarterly issue has become a hardback. A wide variety of publishers have taken a shot at it.
Along with the work in the Academy, you’ve done work with Sigma Xi and the American Philosophical Society.
Well, in Sigma Xi I’ve been rather active because I was chairman of the first chapter at Harvard, and twice the national chairman rather late on that research society. We started the American Scientist. I think I was probably president at that time. We started the national lectures. We now have several annual lecturers that travel over the country. We publish the papers in the American Scientist. Not very exciting, some of them, because they’re too technical in general.
My degree is in metallurgy and then in history of science.
I see. Anyway that’s what that enterprise was. At the present time, gosh, one of the most active Boy Scout things I do is chairing the committee that makes grants in aid of scientific research. We have three meetings a year. I’ve been chairman for about 20 years of this grants-in-aid committee. We distribute about $150,000 a year for grants in aid. How mostly, not in the sciences because they can get bigger money from the National Science Foundation, but travel expenses for professors in the humanities and in biographies and things of that kind. They generally ask for twice as much as we can afford to give, but we also know how to pare them down, we know when an application is stuffed. In a few days I’ll receive here about a hundred applications for grants in aid. There are about ten of us on the committee. And we are the hard-boiled oldtimers. I’m also a member of the grants-in-aid committee of the American Academy. They have some funds. But I’m getting off that. Others can follow its special rules.
And the American Philosophical Society.
It has five meetings a year and distributes about $200,000 a year in grants, a little more than that. Sigma Xi has only about one-fourth as much money to distribute, and that is nearly all to graduate students in science, equipment, and travel.
Now that the American Academy has broadened its base, in a way it is like the American Philosophical Society, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s like it, but they aren’t so rich by a long shot. The Philosophical Society is the richest scholarly society in the world. Even the Royal Academy doesn’t have as much money. It comes up to something like $15 million endowment. It has come partly through Johnson, the Master’s voice man, and from Richard Penrose. That’s where $4 or $5 million came from; and then we’ve had good investors. We have to watch it or the tax collector will come and get us. So far they don’t worry us; we can be tax-free only so long as we are wholly charitable. We have some good Wall Street people looking after the investments.
There’s something, though, that is different, and that is the AAAS.
We haven’t been talking about the AAAS.
I know. We haven’t really mentioned it. And you were elected president I think in ‘47. This was just after you had been open to public attack by the Rankin committee. I’m curious to know what the circumstances were concerning your election, what the reaction was to it, and what happened during your term of office as president.
I was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science immediately succeeding President Conant. We lived within a few blocks of each other so that I think it was a bit of miscarriage that I should have been elected then. But anyway I was and part of the reason I was elected was because many people wanted to show the McCarthys that we don’t pay any attention to them when it comes to a thing of this kind. So I think my troubles with Rankin and that type of political hack was an asset in the Association. I don’t remember in the heavy correspondence that there were more than one or two letters that said, “Don’t you want to resign or some such inquiry. I think that’s the way we looked at it, the same way Harvard would with respect to a professor under attack by the red hunters. Harvard would go out of the way to say, “We don’t elect to act the way you want us to act. We’re talking about science.” And so there was no trouble, I would say. After my to-do with Rankin, 1200 Harvard students signed a manifesto approving the operations of Mr. Shapley. And coming from Harvard students that’s something tremendous, because they are naturally conservative and they are wealthy on the average. Maybe some of them signed blindly.
There was another amusing matter. John Ciardi, the poet, one of the editors of the Saturday Review and I were attacked by a man in Baltimore named Ober. He wouldn’t give any money to the Harvard Law School, which was soliciting money, until they fired Shapley and Ciardi. It turned out, on investigation, that he’d never heard either of us speak. He was getting headlines. He wrote a letter to Mr. Conant, who turned it over to Grenville Clark, the senior member of the Harvard Corporation that owns and runs Harvard, and asked him to answer it. Grenville Clark, who lives about eight miles right through that window over there in Dublin, N.H. wrote quite a famous statement on what academic freedom meant. I found out finally what I was worth, maybe. Maybe it was inflated. Sounds rather funny nowadays. “Mr. Ober,” he said in this letter that was published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, “if you had offered us $5 million for the discharge of Mr. Shapley, you wouldn’t lose any money,” or something of that kind: “we wouldn’t pay any attention to it.” So I decided that I was worth $5 million to Harvard.
This letter was published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin?
Yes. He made a rather famous analysis of what academic freedom means and what is political freedom. He was a very famous lawyer. In fact, Grenville Clark was the man who invented the Plattsburg officer training, and he’s the man who wrote the draft law for the Second World War, and he’s now the leader in the United World Federalists. He and his wife have funds so they could pay a lot of bills. Just a year and a half ago in Dublin, Massachusetts, 52 people selected by Grenville Clark (and one or two others) came together to see what we could do about the present situation in the world, not necessarily to stop the world war but getting ourselves rational. Now we’ve had a second meeting of that same group, the Dublin group. It’s going to be widely distributed, and if I have time this winter, I’m going to help in selecting the tight people to get this statement. It’s already made a considerable impression, but 52 is small against 170 million, so we don’t fool ourselves that we are making any big impression. We are working. I’m not working with it as much as I should, but Hudson Hoagland, my noble collaborator at the Worcester Foundation was called up to Dublin by Mr. Clark just a week ago to see if he wouldn’t become a member of the executive committee or take some important part in it.
When did you first come in contact with him?
Hudson Hoagland was a graduate student when I came to Harvard from California, and a very live one. He and I had something to do with a number of graduate students in biology. I don’t know how I got involved in it, but anyway I was interested. Maybe it was through the study of ants. But anyway I was conspicuous enough that a small group of instructors at Harvard who were looking into the Marjorie mediumship asked if I wouldn’t come as an expert scientist to observe these goings on, where you sit in the dim light with soft music going and ectoplasm terminals would go out from the medium and wander around, ring bells and whistle and do all that wonderful stuff. I went to a seance. It was in his house in Cambridge. So my Hudson Hoagland contact was psychotherapy of a sort — just tomfoolery. But we enjoyed it, and he wrote it up recently. Marjorie said we were all crooks, thieves and liars — disreputable! There were a lot of episodes. It would take a whole day to tell of all the funny things that go on with those who like me, reaching into the unknown, hoping that we are going to grasp something that’s new and different. That’s what we were doing — reaching. And we thought maybe the psychology of mediumship would do something like clairvoyance. And so I went on with him. A few years later Hudson Hoagland and Gregory Pincus, his colleague, came to my office and asked if I would be the president of a new Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. I said yes, happily.
We were talking about Hudson Hoagland, but we didn’t say anything about the Worcester Foundation.
Well, Hudson Hoagland and Gregory Pincus came to my office and asked me if I would go along with them if they cut loose from Clark University and set up an independent research organization. They knew where they could get a house, a large house that a wholesale plumber was not using in Shrewsbury, which is more or less a suburb of Worcester, Mass. I said I would go along with them because I was interested in the type of work that they were doing. We started. One of the main reasons they wanted me was that they thought I could get some money for them, which I did. We organized. The people of Worcester were sold on this particular argument namely, you give money to the Girl Scouts and you give money for the wonderful concerts and you give money for scientific displays — I mean museums — why not for research and creative business? Why not study hormones? Well, they didn’t exactly know what hormones were. I didn’t very well myself. But they came through with the cash. Our ambition was to have half a dozen research scientists there and some assistants and a budget of $15,000 a year. That meant something ambitious in those days. So we started out. My job partly was meeting with groups and getting gifts or encouraging gifts, with a local rabbi we did a pretty good job. Pretty soon we found we had real money and we kept getting more money. We got grants from the Navy and from the National Science Foundation, from cancer research and we specialized very largely in steroid chemistry. A number of noble things have come out of that work. Now their budget is something like $3,000,000 a year, and they have 150 scientists. It has mushroomed up. I’ve been associated with it all the time, in the last ten years or more I’ve been on the executive committee. At the same time I had to work on the successor for Science Service, too.
All in the past months. One thing we didn’t touch on is the National Science Fund. Were you involved in that?
Yes, I not only participated in it, I was it more or less. The National Science Fund was an attempt to get big industry and the labor unions and everybody of that kind to contribute to a great national fund for research in the sciences. It was under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. We didn’t get it quite off the ground before the National Science Foundation was being presented, and I was also in the thick of that. The National Science Fund became quiet, slowed, died. It was at a formal meeting of the Cosmos Club that it was buried. I didn’t have that job to worry about anymore. I was glad.
Is this different from the one in the ‘30s?
It wasn’t really in the ‘30s very much. It was mostly in the late ‘20s or early ‘20s into the late ‘20s, and then it died.
Was it not called the National Science Fund?
It started out as the National Science Endowment and then it became the National Science Fund. Hale made Hoover chairman of it, but he actually didn’t do any work.
But now this one that you’re referring to is different.
But it was very close to the other one in conception — in other words, involving industry and labor unions.
They didn’t try to get labor unions. They tried to get industry.
I just wanted to establish the difference. And then the National Science Foundation came about. Well, this legislation for the National Science Foundation kicked around for many years.
For a few years. I was rather in the thick of that as probably your records show.
That was separate from the Academy because the Academy is not a government organization and only is supposed to be an adviser to the government. I suppose they thought the National Science Foundation should be entirely separate from the Academy.
It was built up as a government organization. It had many troubles getting founded. It had to go through Congress. Conant and Kirtley Mather and I, at a Boston meeting of the AAAS, were appointed as a committee to look out for the possibility of government money for scientific research. That was our job. So one of the first things we did was to get the various societies to endorse the operation. We got something like 75 different organizations to go along endorsing the advisability of government giving money for research in science. I remember that they were going to make me president of the Foundation. But there was a reason why I should not be, so they made me vice-president. The President was Day, president of Cornell. Day accepted it but went off to the Maine coast somewhere and had an attack of some kind. Illness got him and so that put me in charge as vice-president. I worked on it rather vigorously. We got a bill written; it had to be revised. We had Congressmen; some of them were very willing and eager to work, but we fought over minor details.
A good many worried that social sciences would get in. We could hide them in. Our survey of the 75 or so societies showed in the questionnaire that they were in favor of money going to the social sciences as well as to the natural sciences. That gesture came from the natural scientists themselves; they said, “We want the social sciences to go along.” Well, we had the bill partly through Congress, and then it was killed. We tried it again with some changes, and that was killed. It was vetoed. And then finally we did get it through. We asked for about $15 million to start with and settled for $2 or $3 million. It is now up to billions! An enormous sum is being spent for scientific research. At first we were getting our noses under the tent, along with the camel. It was indeed interesting. I was very active in it for a time and then it got so I didn’t need to be. It was carried through and we weren’t vetoed the second or third time; we didn’t offend Congress, and they were in favor of it. A man who played a big part in it, not always in the open either, was Vannevar Bush. He and I had a session on what kind of person should we have direct this affair. I knew what he thought, and so I decided to think the same thing. I said that a fellow named Allan Waterman, who was the head of OSRD, the naval research laboratory, would be good. He agreed, so here was one time that Vannevar Bush and I were in agreement: We both thought that Waterman, with the experience he had had in other organizations would be good in this. And so it was. Waterman has been director all these years until retirement about three years ago.
He was at the Carnegie meeting in Washington the other day, where I saw Willis, at the Carnegie annual reception.
And he looked well?
He looked quite well.
He had a health break that people didn’t know about. But he retired and carried through, and they now have a successor who’s a man that most of us don’t know.
Leland Haworth. In the little remaining time that we have I have some concluding questions. But before that, I think there’s one aspect of your work we should touch on. It’s been hinted at but really neglected. That is your writing: the fact that you’ve had a tremendous literary output of essays and collected essays and books other than the technical, scientific papers.
I have to admit that; not that they were elegant in any way, but I did write some.
Did you get satisfaction from this?
I always think mine are pretty poorly done, with one or two exceptions. I haven’t written anything that I would want to pass on if I were an instructor in English at Harvard University. I don’t think I was good enough. But outstanding of the writing I’ve done was an essay we have referred to called “The Reason for Fighting.” That was a speech for the Sigma Xi and Phi Beta Kappa and Atlantic Monthly, and it’s been much published all over the planet. It was just a substitute for fighting the real enemies. Of course the real enemies I was fighting were disease, poverty, hate, ignorance and all those things.
And premature senility.
Those were separately published in journals here and there and finally I put a good deal of thought into a little book called “Of Stars and Men.” And that has been published in eight languages now and has been made into a movie. You were talking about that just the other day. A deluxe edition has been produced and a movie got out. It was not too well done. When I had a chance on a second revision, I changed some phrases around. I believe it went over because I was dealing with what other people were thinking. A voice of some authority was saying those things. That’s why it seemed to be so successful, but it’s a little odd to think that it was published in Hindi and Polish and various other strange languages. There was no German edition, but Spanish and Italian and Russian. The Hindi copy went to Pandit Nehru, and he wrote me a little note while he was traveling, going from one place to another, saying that he liked it. I don’t know whether he “cracked” the book or not, but anyway he made that nice little statement.
Do you labor much over your writings? Does it come easy for you?
Do you have to revise over and over again?
It used to come easy because as a newspaper reporter I had to write fast. It was imperative. But as I’ve grown older, I write poorer and poorer, it seems to me, and I have to go over things a good many times. That’s because I don’t have good self-discipline. I’d force myself to write excellently from the first. This “Of Stars and Men” was a small book. Later I did one called “A View from a Distant Star,” a book title chosen by the head of Basic Books. That was done, as they say, well. A lot of them were printed, not like some of these things you’re talking about.
“A treasury of Science.”
Oh, yea, that was one.
Simon & Shuster did an anthology and they used your introduction from “The Treasury of Science” as part of their selection.
Well, anyway, the answer is I don’t write easily. Occasionally I do. I’m writing now a review of a biography of Mr. Hale.
Who was the author of that, by the way?
I’d like to get some of your general impressions now that we’ve covered a lot of the details. We’ve gone from one aspect of your career to another. We haven’t always been chronological, but we’ve managed to bring you to recent years. I’d like to hear your reflections on the changes in the state of astronomy from the time of your early entry into it and your Mount Wilson days to the present date. And I’m thinking here of the subject matter that astronomers are concerned with and the field itself, the types of people in it and the ways that it’d organized and its general place in the society. That’s a broad question.
That’s broad enough. Back in 1900 there were great astronomers like E. C. Pickering, Simon Newcomb and W. W. Campbell. They were pretty good at astronomy in their day. None of those men I’ve just mentioned could now pass elementary astronomy in Harvard University, or almost anywhere. The science has gone far beyond them and away from them; different techniques are involved. It’s just a different picture, in the same way the science of the present times on account of the invasion of space science, has made my astronomy of the 1920’s pretty old-fashioned, and it embarrasses me. Well, I do know something about it. I can talk fast and so I can get away with being ignorant. In other words, astronomy has changed so rapidly that we have a different front to face on. For instance, the Astrophysical Journal will now be almost wholly mathematical and astrophysics written by authors who are completely unknown to me. We’ve been forced with the advance of technology and especially of space science to use a bigger and wider brush.
And now all the radio people are coming in, too.
Yes. Radio astronomy is one of the big things that has come in, and, in fact, there must be more than $100 million a year spent on building the big telescopes of radio astronomy. There’s much need. It started rather mildly first with amateur astronomers and then with physicists getting into it. Finally the professional astronomers caught on and the field ran away with us.
And of course there’s the fact that you can get money for radio adventures. Astronomy used to be one of the most penniless fields in the world.
Right. A great advantage is that you can get money for scientific research now in larger chunks than you could in an earlier time. I used to boast about how much money I’d raised for Harvard. It was up in a few million dollars, obtained in one way or another for the observatory, biology, physics and so forth. Now when they talk about Harvard having an endowment of $1 billion, it shows that we were small potatoes. The ridiculous part is that in the same journal, almost the same article, where the billion-dollar endowment of Harvard is discussed, there are application blanks for more money of any size! One adventure that we didn’t mention is my Mexican operations. I’ve been five or six times in Mexico, beginning in 1932 when I went for my “health” or something. I studied the ants of Mexico and I went to the pelota games, and became fascinated with the country. Then beginning in Pearl Harbor times, I got interested in Mexico directly because an amateur astronomer was the diplomatic secretary in Washington. He wanted us to build astronomy in Mexico where they had traditions and climate and nothing else.
Pretty soon the Harvard Observatory was organizing the astronomers of the U.S.A. to get ready for a trip to Mexico. We were to go and build a new telescope. Harvard would do most of the building. We had at that time quite a staff that could help. All was going well; I was traveling out in the West, I remember, and Pearl Harbor occurred. I thought, “That ends it. By golly, we won’t have any more of this worry of building telescopes for Mexico.” But I was run to earth by that amateur Mexican astronomer, the secretary in Washington. He reported: “By all means we must go on with the astronomy and with the big plan you have for an observatory, and a dedication. By all means we must do it. We’ll provide the funds.” And they did provide the funds, and we organized the astronomers. About 30 of us went down and had a gay party for a week or two. We dedicated an observatory. Three of the telescopes were Harvard instruments that had been sent down on loan. We never got them back, but we got them to build others — and we started astronomy in Mexico under a good climate and pretty good auspices personnel-wise. We had trained some of the men sent down to work and carry on observations.
After I took down the 30 or 40 American astronomers for that original dedication, the war was going on. But Avila Gamacho, the President, said “This is the best time in the world to emphasize the solidarity of the Western Hemisphere.” Here were astronomers playing a part in politics that they hadn’t known they could do before. It was a marvelous thing in a lot of ways. I can get angry or I can get joyous or amused about it. One thing that disturbed me was that when we assembled for the dedication of this beautiful observatory on a beautiful site, at Tonanzintla, east of the two great volcanoes, the natives came, the Indians came, and the diplomatic corps came over to Tonanzintla from Mexico City, all came overall –- all except one diplomatic corps, and that was the U.S.A. It was a very embarrassing thing, but the U.S. ambassador had his instructions. The Americans sat around on the outside and looked on at the colorful event, and maybe made some notes about what was going on. It was embarrassing. But it was just one of those things. Our State Department seems to be very clever in making boo boos. We went down to Mexico the next year, when I took the physicists, and the third year, the mathematicians. By that time collaboration got to be sort of a habit, and since we’ve had pretty good connections — America and Mexico — in mathematics and in physics. This week the American Physical Society is meeting in Mexico.
Through what institutions in Mexico have these connections been developed?
Through the central government. I was of course decorated with top notch honors — quite unnecessary.
No, but I mean at particular universities.
Well, the National University in Mexico City is a governmental operation.
There was a national observatory in Mexico City earlier but they needed something modern, hence Tonanzintla.
And we’ve done other things like personnel training and it has worked out very nicely. Mexico is a charming place to go to for astronomy. Two times out of three, if you take the proper medication, you don’t get the national malady.
Let me ask a final question, and I’m sorry that it will have to be final. The answer can be a very long one. That is just to reflect a bit on your total career. After we’ve covered so many aspects of it you might have some second thoughts about things that you would have liked to do that you didn’t do — areas that you had to leave unexplored. Or perhaps there are things that you would have approached in somewhat different way than you have in the past. The second is what you would consider the most important achievement in your entire career.
Of astronomical operations?
Yes and the extra-astronomical operations as well. You can treat them both separately if you’d like.
Well, the last one symbolically would be represented when Pandit Nehru, visiting Harvard, asked Mr. Conant to let him go to the observatory to see Mr. Shapley. That was a highlight in my operations of an international sort. On the other question: what I would have liked to have done — I’d like to have been educated in chemistry. It was a mistake of mine that I did not get more education in chemistry and less in Latin, although I’ve enjoyed the Latin. And I would like to have been better trained in mathematical astronomy than I was. I was too busy in research. I think I’ve made various mistakes in getting educated. And I have not got very well educated yet. What’s the most important? Well, of the non-astronomical part, I’ve collaborated in producing a rather admirable family. In the scientific way, I suppose my number one contribution — I’ve said this a few times, and it’s sort of embarrassing to do it again — is locating the center of our galaxy some 25,000 or more light years from the sun. In other words, the “overthrow” of the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus. I suppose that is my real top contribution. The Copernican theory is dead and has been dead ever since I made my plots of the distribution of clusters and developed the pulsating theory of the Cepheid Variables. Several others helped in the “overthrow.” Wouldn’t you say that? Or can you think of some other venture I’ve done? We could formerly measure a distance of only a hundred light years with much certainty, but then the Cepheid Variable type of study was developed, and we could measure a million. Going from a hundred to a million gives us a view of the universe and a grasp of the cosmos to be considerably more than a little. But, as with so many other discoveries, I realize that if I hadn’t done it, probably some other discoverer would have come along, and now reap the credit. It was a matter of time and space. That happens so often in science. Suppose that Anderson at Cal Tech hadn’t done his proton work when he did; somebody else would have done it. In fact one worker now claims he would have done it in four weeks or less. Discovery was just that close.
The positron identification?
Yes. That’s the way it is with a good deal I have done. Somebody else would have come along and reaped the credit. But one interesting thing is that of the many fields I’ve worked in, a lot of them yielded results that have been right! I haven’t made so many mistakes — a few blunders, but not many, which leads me to a final story. I told this just last Saturday at the boat club in Dublin. I told them that “yes, I’ve made blunders.” I got the direction to the center of the galaxy correctly, within one degree — just spotted it from the distribution of giant variables and globular star clusters. That was pretty good, and it hasn’t been changed much. There have been four other methods for getting the direction to the center of our galaxy, and they were all within a degree or so of my value. So I hit that nail on the head all right. But I didn’t hit the nail at all on the measure of distance. The direction, yes, but the distance, no. I first guessed the distance was 50,000 light years, and I whittled that down to 25 and then back to 30. We are still working on the distance to the center of our wheel-shaped galaxy. I thought I had good evidence for my value, but I overlooked something I shouldn’t have overlooked. I ignored space absorption, I had evidence that the distance was about so far, but that turned out to be an error and I was depressed. I was going down the street in Harvard Square the other day — in fact a year or so ago — and there was Dean Stearns of Tufts. He stopped me. He said in effect, “it’s your turn to entertain the Examiner Club. Your paper is to be given next Monday.” “Oh, no,” I said, “things aren’t going well. I have nothing to contribute. I don’t know anything. Why do you say it is my turn?” “Because it is your turn, and all you have to do now is give me the title of what you’re going to talk about and I will send out the notices. That will give you time to do some thinking.” “All right. I shall do it. And the title of my talk will be ‘The Scientific Blunders I have made.’” “Oh, no, the Dean said, “Not that; it’s only a half-hour program.”