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Interview of Fred Whipple by David DeVorkin on 1977 April 29, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5403
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Family history and educational background; undergraduate degree from University of California Los Angeles (1924-1927); PhD from University of California Berkeley (1927-1931); orbit computing with A. O. Leuschner; thesis work at Lick Observatory with Donald Menzel; work at Harvard College Observatory (1931-1955); with Harlow Shapley, Donald Menzel, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury, Bart Bok, Leon Campbell, Cecelia Payne Gaposchkin; comets and meteors; radio astronomy; Super Schmidt meteor camera project (1948); Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (1955-1973); science fiction authors, especially Arthur C. Clarke; Moonwatch project, Armand and Grace Spitz; military and science funding; Multi-mirror telescope with A. B. Meinel; "icy comet" model.
Dr. Whipple, I know you were born in 1906 in Iowa?
But I don't know anything else about your family or your early life; who were your parents, what did they do?
My father was a farmer and my mother was a farmer's wife. They had very little formal education, high school. He was born in Missouri, she in Iowa. And they were ambitious, but felt that they hadn't had the opportunity they might have had, and wanted me to go on and be a "success".
You were in Iowa then until
About the age of 15.
And your father continued as farmer all his life?
No. We moved then to California, to Long Beach, and he got into the grocery business, and remained in that the rest of his active life. Almost all of it.
Let's talk a bit about your early education, then. This would have been in Iowa in a rural setting?
Yes, the typical one room schoolhouse, without a bell overhead. he teacher had one that she managed by hand. All the eight grades were there, but there were not that many because most of the time there were fewer than eight students in that school. So that one heard all classes in the usual way. In the 8th grad, I went to Emerson High School, which had 60 students altogether in high school, and I went 3-1/2 years there before we moved to California.
During your high school years previous to this, I'd be interested in the nature of your home life, and also what kinds of books you read, if you did read, and how you regard school at that time.
Well, my reading was from the Red Oak Library ten miles away and as a youngster, I don't remember what age, I read all the fairy tales, which was the start of science fiction. The Blue Books, the Yellow Books, you know, the whole works. They had all different colors for their fairy tale books. I'd borrow books from them, and then as I got along father, I read Edgar Allan Poe rather thoroughly, H.G. Wells and rather thoroughly, and some of the adventure stories. Sir Ryder Haggard, the author of SHE. I read him rather completely. My taste was to read one author rather completely.
Sir Ryder Haggard, yes, adventure stores in South Africa. SHE was his most famous book. That's all science fiction really, the stories, adventure science fiction. That was my reading always, when I could. Plus, of course, a reasonable amount of normal Tom Swift stories, that sort of thing, again sort of science fiction. Then as soon as science became available, Electrical Experimenter, I read all the science fiction stories there. I was an avid science fiction reader effectively starting with fairy tales and going on.
Do you recall how you might have been drawn to this kind of reading initially as a child?
Oh, I don't know. It's just that that was what amused me; with the choice of books I could find in the library, I read those.
So you did read widely until you found this particular choice?
No, fairy tales, you know, they were the first thing a child would come to, and I read them as thoroughly as I could, all the books that I could find available. Then when I was in 8th and 9th grade, they had the Harvard Books. The Five Foot Book Shelf I went through them rather completely. And later on, Poe, as say, and H.G.Wells and others.
Oh yes, I read quite a bit of Burroughs, yes. The Mars stories. And then also, Mark Twain, essentially all of Mark Twain. I was very specific. I would read essentially everything I could find of one author and read a very limited number of authors.
Did you talk about these thIngs with other people in your family?
No, it was all myself. There was nobody to talk to. The children I played with were not generally very able. You know, it was just a cross-section of the intelligence quota of the gene bank. There was very little to talk to them about. So I didn't talk about it at all, much.
What was the educational background of your mother and father?
As I say, high school. I think my mother taught for a year, in some secondary school. They had a very, very limited education. My father was an extremely bright guy, would have been an historian with a proper education. He had that sort of a memory, which I don't have. I have a very poor detail memory, but he had a very fine recall, very accurate. He would have been an historian, if he had had an opportunity to go into academic work.
His recollection was then mainly from experience?
Yes, which he utilized very effectively.
Was he a story teller?
No, he was quite taciturn. Very difficult to express himself. He couldn't express his emotions.
What's the background of your family, going back several generations. How long have you been in the United States?
Oh, the family goes back a long time. The Whipples arrived in the early 17th century. There's a Whipple house here in Ipswich. There were two brother came over. One went to New York, one moved here and then went down to Connecticut. I think that house is 1610 or 1620, when they came. I think I came from the New York branch. Nobody's ever traced them back. Then, my father's mother was Hill. I haven't traced back the Hills, but they're English, of course, again. And on my mother's side, I come from the Scotch-Irish. I don't know when they came over from Ireland, but they were Presbyterians in South Ireland, south of Dublin. The Scottish side was MacFarland and the Irish was Runneis. That's from the South of Ireland. It's all British Isles, and goes back quite a ways. I don't know when they came over. And they went West with that surge in the middle of the 19th century and settled out there.
How large a spread did your father have?
He always rented. He operated about half a section or more. A little more.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
My brother died when I was four. He was two. He died of scarlet fever, which was then diagnosed as German measles, but obviously was scarlet fever. I contracted it. My mother also. But we survived. My father didn't catch it. Two or three physical things happened when I was the age of four. There was that, and then I got polio, and that's probably why I was never a really good tennis player. The left leg is an inch and an eighth short. I was never quite strong enough to play really top notch tournament tennis. I was close to it. And then, another thing. They got so frightened with being in the country and all the troubles with appendicitis that they had a preventive appendectomy for all of us. For a number of years I had the gruesome sight in the medicine closet Or three bottles of formaldehyde -Daddy's appendix, Mommy's appendix and Baby's appendix. (Laughter)
Why were they kept?
God only knows. I don't know. You see, they did a preventive appendectomy in that normal situation. It worked. I've never had appendicitis.
It didn't grow back. What sort of preparation, do you think, looking back on your early life, you had for your scientific career?
They had, in those days, in those schools in Iowa, what corresponded to spelling bees, where you did arithmetic operations, additions, subtractions. Ciphering bees which were fairly frequent. It was a contest in -which you would compete, one by one, with the other students, until somebody came out on top. I almost always came out on top. I remember when I was in the 8th grade I cleaned up on all the 8th grade students. We were all in the same building, you know, there were 60 in this high school.
Finally one of the seniors beat me, but I cleaned up everybody else but one of the seniors, in high school, when I was in the 8th grade, at ciphering. But that was a natural ability I liked numbers and worked easily and remembered numbers and was always interested in scientific things. I remember, at the age of probably nine or ten, deducing that the reason a whip made a noise was because it's going so fast it created a vacuum back the tip, which I think is about true, for a real blacksnake type.
At least a partial vacuum certainly.
Yes. Well, it was going comparable to the velocity of sound. In any case, my father found that very boring. I couldn't get any interest out of anybody in my great theory of why a whip made a noise. I remember that.
How did you feel about that kind of activity? Because it doesn't seem as if you had much of a stimulus.
No, I didn't. I didn't have much. My creative activity went into building things with Mechano sets and Erector sets and simple chemistry sets and so forth in which I did quite a bit of things.... blowing glass with an alcohol flame is not really a very easy thing. I was always sloppy in mechanical sort of work, what you would call laboratory work, but I could always make things go. I could make any mechanical device carry out its normal functions. I could take an old Model T and take it apart, do all the mechanical work on it. But I was never craftsman. But I could always make things work. I always had a great interest in what made things work, always wanted to understand the principles involved in all the farm machinery and so forth, you know, what's going on in the machinery.
Yes, I was going to ask you about the machinery on the farm.
Yes, I learned strength of materials and the feeling for materials and what you could do on highly simple equipment. All I had was a bench, vise, hammers, saws, bits, chisels and the normal things. No lathe, no electrical equipment, no power equipment. But I worked with that and played with materials. Such as pounding off shot gen shells in a vise and so forth, all sorts of games of that sort just to find out what happened. I was always careful not to hurt myself. I always had a feeling for the strength of materials. I'm fundamentally an engineer at heart. I could have been a very good mechanical engineer, very good indeed, because I know what will work. If you design a piece of equipment, I can tell you whether it will work or not. Just feel it, from experience of materials and mechanical linkages and things like that. I got that from just working around with my father, watching the farm machinery, pounding things out. 'There was an anvil, too, and a vise.
That certainly is an interesting beginning for later discussing your inventions.
I have a basic principle, just as World War I was "won on the playing fields of Eton, " World War II was won by the Erector Co. and the Mechano Co. A.C. Gilbert and Mechano won World War II.. I don't think there's any question of it, with all these kids playing with these highly sophisticated toys. They were able to go out immediately into tehnical work at a relatively high level with very little training. That's not true in Germany, certainly in Eastern Europe. 'They haven't the slightest idea what to do with a screw driver.
Well, we'll certainly have to talk about that, your experiences during the war. Did you know about World War I?
Oh, was very conscious of it. The strongest impression of all, of course, was the huge excitement over the Big Bertha that could fire 50 miles. 50 miles is an enormous distance. I was very conscious of it, because it was 40 miles from Omaha to Council Bluffs, and a gun that could fire that distance was fantastic. 'hat was really exciting.
When you heard about Big Bertha, had you already been reading science fiction and thinking about space and Jules Verne's shot to the moon?
I never read much of Jules Verne, for some reason. don't know why I missed him. Maybe it wasn't available in the library but I didn't read much of him till later, I don think so. I was only ten years old then. I was a little young for the science fiction but d begun reading the fairy tales.
During your high school years, were you pretty sure you were going to college?
Yes, that was intended all the time. I was to be a "success".
This was your family's goal for you.
Yes. And I was relatively precocious, in the setting there. In the environment, you know, the local setting of people, relatively precocious, and they thought I would be a real success. When my younger brother died, that added to it.
So you think in some way that you were protected or kept away from normal farm work?
No, I wasn't, as a matter of fact, I was expected to do the chores, which I complained about and gout out of as much as I could, but there was a modicum that I couldn't escape.
Did these chores get you up before dawn?
No. They were rather generous with me on the sleeping end. But after school, as a side effort, I would trap what could be trapped there, which were mostly civet cats and skunks. Gophers were ten cents for the pair of feet, and occasionally a muskrat. I think I caught only one mink.
A wild mink?
Oh yes, they were all wild.
A question I would ask to lead into how you might have gotten interested in astronomy did you follow the stars at all?
No, I never knew anything about astronomy out there. I never can remember the constellations very well. When I go on a vacation, I check over a constellation chart and look at the sky and telescope to see where the planets are, so that people will think I'm an astronomer when I'm on a vacation. I can't remember things like that.
Did you have any formal religious instructicn when you were a child?
Oh God yes. had plenty of that. Sunday school. Absolutely religious every Sunday. We would dress up, go to church. We didn't have the Wednesday night praying very much, but my father was an elder in the church.
So this would pretty much imply how your family regarded religion.
Oh, they took it very seriously. T`ook me a long time to get out of that. You know, it's a strain, to break off from your early training. It took me a long time to get really completely clear of it.
What in your own life do you think stimulated you to break clear of it?
Oh, the irrationality of it. I tried to live a rational life and think clearly, The whole thing was full of inconsistencies and scientific absurdities, and you know, eventually one just had to give it up as nonsense.
When did you break away, do you think?
Oh, fundamentally I broke away when I went to college, but I was really through when I went to college. But because of the family ties and emotional things, I didn't really get clear until later. In the early twenties, then I broke with it finally, thoroughly and completely. I didn't want to make my parents unhappy. I never had very much in the way of discussion with them about it, because it's obviously something that bothered them, so we weren't talking much about it. So, through high school and through college, I kept on with the Christian Endeavor Society That's a sort of Presbyterian youth organization. I kept on with that through college, until left home completely. See, I went to Occidental for one semester, which is a Presbyterian college near Pasadena.
Yes, I know Occidental. I didn't realize it was Presbyterian.
Oh, it's al I very Presbyterian.
How did you come to go to California?
Oh, think it was my mother wanted to get away from the farm, and I guess probably she had in mind better opportunities for my father, advancement, you know, a more intellectual life. Not that they ever had any, but she thought it was worthwhile and I think that was one of the motivations. And I don't think she liked the farm. She wanted to get off the farm.
You went to Long Beach.
Long Beach, yes they stayed there until they died a few years ago.
And your father was a grocer.
Yes, he bought a grocery store. He sold out on the farm, got 20 thousand dollars or somethihg like that and bought a grocery store. Then he bought a second one soon afterwards and operated that for many many years.
How did your father happen to choose Long Beach?
Oh, that was where all the Iowans went. All people from Iowa went to Long Beach.
Well, that's interesting.
Oh, the days of Iowa Picnics — a large faction of the population of Long Beach was from Iowa. That was the place where Iowans went, and the thing to do. They liked the beach and the warmer weather, away from the rifiserable winters. Iowa winters are, I think, particularly miserable. They were for me, because they didn't seem to have discovered wool clothing, in that family. I don't know why not, with that background. My feet in winter were always full of chillblain. Do you know what a chillblain is?
No, I don't.
Well, it's from having your feet partially frozen, and the consequence is that the bones itch in your feet. It's very uncomfortable.
The bones themselves?
Yes. This is way deep inside and you can't get to it, You can scratch the outside. It is not so painful, it's just very annoying and uncomfortable. That's a chillblain. In any case, that was repeated every winter, because the temperature there would go down well below zero frequently. And with improper clothing, one's feet just froze, partially.
You went to Long Beach in January. Were you still in high school at that time?
I was in the middle of the Junior year, so I shifted over in my Junior year to high school in Long Beach, Polytechnic High School. Finished up the year and a half there.
Did you have any science at this time, or did you have any back in Iowa?
Oh, it was very very elementary. There was a physics course in Long Beach. Mathematics was easy and I took mathematics courses. I was always at a loss in chemistry. could never understand the logic of it. "You take this, you put that chemical in it, if it turns green, it's copper. Well, that didn't make any sense to me. There were lots of things that would turn green with copper. The logic of proof in chemistry was beyond me at that time in my life. I never could get anywhere.
What was your regard for science?
Oh, I had great respect for it. Edison was the smartest guy in the world, and then Einstein came along. Einstein was really the brightest. But from the point of view of a Midwestern average person, the brightest guy in the world was Edison.
That's very interesting. can appreciate that sort of feeling.
learned more about science later on, who was doing what and what it meant but at that time, one accepts the common wisdom of the group. A very exciting thing on that. Before I left Iowa, a friend of mine had a radio receiver, and I think that was one of the most exciting moments of my life; listening to -voices coming from hundreds or thousands of miles away over the radio. That was really exciting.
Did this friend of yours have anything to do with actually making the receiver' Did he know anything about radio?
I doubt if he understood the principles at all, but he got the parts and put them together and made it work. He died not too long afterwards.
Was he your age or older?
A little older. Not much. Two or three years older.
How did you feel, coming to a place like Los Angeles? I know from my father's recollections, there were still vast open areas between the Boyle Heights area where he lived and Long Beach. He used to go to Long Beach to swim all the time. But when you got there, coming from Iowa, how did you feel about it?
Oh, I felt it was an exciting change. I shifted into it carefully. I loved the ocean and swimming, and I never had learned to swim really till I got there, and the fishing, and just being near the ocean. I loved the ocean, still do. The fact that it was a large high school never deterred me very much. You know, one is put into this big maelstrom, but it was interested and exciting. That transition was not a traumatic one in any way. It was a profound change, but not traumatic, and I was rather glad to be there.
Did you ever travel up to Mt. Wilson at that time?
Yes, we used to hike up from Sierra Madre. The church group would go for the big deal, hiking up Mt. Wilson. My contact there was simply as a tourist until after I was in graduate school.
Do you recall meeting anyone?
No. I think it was still there. But we never stayed over. We would sleep out in sleeping bags if we were going to sleep out. Hike up there. It's 4000 feet from Sierra Madre up to the top.
You've already mentioned how you came to go to Occidental, because of the religious background. Were there any other considerations, or was that it?
That was it, because I had no idea what college was about, and my parents thought that was the thing to do. My best friend that I'd picked up in this year and a half in high school, Robert N. Richey, went to UCLA, and we played tennis together, built radio sets together. So I was at Occidental, he was at UCLA, and I realized very quickly that this was a very low level education I was getting there.
At Oxy, yeah. The mathematics course was a joke. I took trigonometry there, and there'd be an assignment for next Friday, and Friday would come of course, I would do it in about 20 minutes, it was a very childish simple assignment, and then all the class would scream that it was just too hard and that they needed another week, so it would be another week. I remember taking the final examination. It took me a half an hour to write out the three hour final examination with a 100 percent grade on it. It was trivial. So wanted to be with him and play tennis over there. Of course, that was a mistake in my tennis career, because I never could make the squad at UCLA. They were too good for me.
They were very competitive at that time?
Oh God yes. At Occidental I would have been on the team, because my room mate, who was not as good a player as I was, got on the team. So I would have been a team player if I'd stayed at Occidental. But I had the satisfaction of finding the No. I man in tennis at UCLA, who became No. I man for two years. I discovered him, in my math course. I got him to play. He'd also been at Occidental, oddly enough, and I'd heard about him. He had a great reputation. He'd taken a year off and then come back. When I discovered he'd been at Occidental, put two and two together — he must be that famous tennis player they'd talked about, as a freshman.
Who was he?
We always called him Al Duff. I've got his name here. I ran into him, made contact, after 50 years. So the three of us, my friend and he and I and another man played a lot of tennis, my major interest in college.
have a few questions about your college career. How were you supported, both at Oxy and at UCLA?
My parents supported-me. The fees were exceedingly low.
Even at Oxy?
Yes. I doubt if they were anything much. So, it was only a matter of living, and unhappily had to come home and work on Saturdays for my father in the grocery store. So I didn't have much of a social life at college. I just lived there five days a week, came home the weekend, worked all day Saturday and missed most of the football games and wasn't much involved in the social life at either college.
So you lived on campus in both?
I lived somewhere, at Occidental in the dormitory, and rooms at UCLA near the campus on Vermont Avenue. UCLA was at Vermont Avenue in those days. Griffith Observatory was just up to the north.
It wasn' there at that time, though.
At UCLA you took math and I presume you took some science to start out.
Yes, I took some physics, and one chemistry course I had, and the necessary prerequisites for getting a degree. Frederick C. Xonard was the one who got me into astronomy took my first astronomy course in my Junior year. It rather aroused my interest in astronomy Well, by that time I'd realized that mathematics was too boring as a profession. couldn't tolerate living with mathematics for the rest of my life. It's an amusing game and a useful tool, but as a life goal I couldn't tolerate it. It was too boring.
So then I took this astronomy course with Leonard, and got quite interested in astronomy my junior year was rather good in mathematics, and he was interested in me, and of course he was a young man trying to develop talent. He went to considerable effort then to get me a fellowship at Berkeley. So I sort of drifted along with that. Astronomy was a good thing to do.
Well, let's not go as far as Berkeley just yet. I know that Frederick Leonard had one very strong interests in meteorite research.
Well, that hadn't surfaced too much at that time. I think he was starting it. His major interest at that time was the Meteor Society, though, wasn't it, that he started about that time. He started an astronomical society when he was in his teens, and he wanted to do it again, so he got into meteoretics.
I do recall, because I've seen some of his early correspondence, I believe with Campbell.
.... W.W. Campbell?
Yes, and that he was very interested in beginning a society in Los Angeles very early. In fact, I'm not sure but I believe he founded what is now the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. It might be very well the same group. Do you know anything about that?
I don't know what ever happened to the society he formed. He may well have formed two of them. He formed one earlier, somewhere in the Midwest I guess, when he was a teenager. I don't remember.
What was his education?
don't know either except his PhD was Lick.
Did he pretty much get you the fellowship?
Yes, he sold me to Berkeley. There were three of us he sent up there. He didn't accomplish very much in astronomy.
Who were the other two?
Robert S. Richardson. And then Elizabeth Sternberg who later married Mulders. They were a year ahead of me, and they both went to Berkeley the year before me. I went the next year, in 1927.
Do you think that some of your early interest in meteorites stem from Frederick Leonard?
I don't think so, particularly It came out of the comets, more. I don't believe that I was enough aware of his meteoritic interests to be affected by them. And I thought he was rather amateurish about it, as a matter of fact, didn't have any high respect for his meteoritic work.
Whom did Leonard talk to at Berkeley on your behalf ? And this was definitely at Berkeley, as opposed to Lick, I take it?
Yes, that was where the graduate school was. Well, that was A. 0. Euschner. He was a German orbit computer, really, he developed methods of orbit.
I'd like to ask you just one or two questions about your course at UCLA. Did Leonard use a text, to your recollection?
Yes, he used F.R. Moulton, and then, in another course, I've forgotten the text now. He gave a course he called astrophysics.
It would be interesting to know what he used for that.
Yes, I had that.
OK, maybe that name will surface. While you were with Leonard, did any particular type of astronomy or any particular events in astronomy particularly interest you?
Nothing too much, no. There wasn't anything too exciting happening at that time, and I was interested in mathematics so I rather naturally went into the orbit computing up there.
Yes. Leonard did get me into a section, in one of these courses to talk to students very much like the graduate section leaders, except that was at the undergraduate level, so I had a little experience in teaching, that way, with him.
So he basically gave just two courses.
No, he gave three, a practical astronomy course too; and used Hosmer's text.
Did you ever consider any alternatives to astronomy once you had started thinking at it.
Not very seriously, because I found that I really didn't care much for laboratory work, so I didn't want to go into physics. My parents, of course, would have liked to have seen me go into medicine, but I was too squeamish in those days. I never took a biology course. I'd have had difficulty with it. I don't have that sort of a memory for unrelated names of things. So it was quite clear that, because of the squeamishness about blood and all that in those days, I didn't want to go into medicine. I think I would have been very good in research medicine, as a research doctor. But I never wanted it then, and I just followed the line of least resistance. And I was getting very excited about astronomy then, what with Mt. Wilson being there, famous place, and having been around it, seen it superficially.
Did Leonard ever have any of the Mt. Wilson astronomers down, or did you go to Cal Tech?
No. The only extracurricular activity was visiting Richardson's observatory. He was a fairly wealthy family and he had his own little observatory. Five or six inch telescope, which was one of the treats of the advanced astronomy course rather than the general astronomy course.
Was that the first telescope that you'd ever used?
Yes. Oh, I'd had a little one as a boy. An ordinary terrestrial one about two feet long, inch and a quarter aperture or something.
Did you ask for that telescope?
Yes, I was very interested in the telescope then, and I took it apart and put it together, to find out how it was made. I did very little because what can you do with a telescope like that? I don't know that I ever looked at the stars with it. The aperture is so small you can't see much with a terrestrial telescope of a cheap type, because the aperture stops cut off so much light and the consequence is, when you're looking at night objects, you don't see anything because no light comes through.
I forgot to ask you, how did your parents react to your choice to go from Occidental to UCLA, and then to go into astronomy?
Well, I would say that I was the type of youngster, as I was in those days, that they knew it was futile to argue with. When I'd made up my mind to do something, I went ahead and did it and there wasn't any argument about it. I don't know that they were very happy with it. I know they weren't too enthusiastic about astronomy, but there was nothing they could do about it.
They continued to support you.
Yes. I lived then essentially entirely on fellowships up there, because it was some $600 a year, I think.
This is at Berkeley.
At Berkeley, I think I had a fellowship for $600, and I didn't spend much more than that, because that included my living quarters and food. They may have bought my books, but it cost them very little. Then I came back and worked at the grocery store in the summer time.
You had a teaching fellowship at Berkeley
A teaching fellowship, yes. Then I think later I got a Lick fellowship of $750. Well, actually I survived on that, on $600 a year, for the nine months. It seems astounding today, doesn't it? That was all right then.
By this time you were reading science fiction. Do you feel science fiction was an important influence on you?
Well, it was my escape mechanism. Yes, I think it was important.
Did you find other astronomers reading it?
Some. I'm certain that Richardson must have because he wrote quite a bit in later years.
I think he must have been reading it all the time. I d idn't have many people I talked with. I just read it for my own escape. Going through ASTOUNDING.- AMAZING STORIES what's his name?
His name may come. It's a familiar name. During your graduate years, first at Berkeley and then at Lick, you certainly took courses from Leuschner, but Crawford, S. Einarsson, W.F. Meyer were there?
Meyer taught astrophysics, so-called. I don't know whether I took a course with Einarsson or not. I don't believe I did. He was on the practical astronomy side. I'm a very good friend of his, I like him very much. I took a perturbation course with Crawford and Meyer taught astrophysics, trying to understand what he could out of Russell Dugan and Stewart. He didn't understand it too well.
You could tell?
Oh, sure. The good astrophysicist then of course was Donal Menzel.
He was on the teaching staff then?
He came down for one year from Lick. I think that was when I got my best astrophysics.
C.D. Shane did some teaching, didn't he?
Yes, he was there, I think it was on the mathematical side. And then there was R. Trumpler who taught for one year, and I took a course with him.
With all these influences and a lot of names, what are your recollections of your graduate education, in terms of the direction of your interests?
Oh, was amused to compute orbits, and Leuschner, with all his enthusiasm for it, got me into it, so very quickly I was in the orbit computing business, which stayed with until World War II, actually.
Then you certainly learned Leuschner's method
Did you know of the alternatives'
Pretty well, yes, and worked with Leland Cunningham and we developed methods. He developed them, Also, I just liked to compute and see the answers come out. It took me a while to get the hang of research.
This was the first time you'd seen research.
Yes, and the whole principle of it was essentially new to me and was not taught very well. I didn't really pick it up- very well. So at first I did not have confidence in my own work or confidence in my own thinking. Afterwards found myself catching up with other people and making discoveries that I had found in the literature before then got ahead of the game a little bit. So, the orbit computing was a very amusing way to spend the time, and it was exciting to see how the orbits came out, like the orbit of Pluto, for example. We computed the first orbit of Pluto. There was a range of solutions and one was essentially the final one. And Ernest Clare Bower and I worked on it.
I know there was something of a competitive spirit at Leuschner Observatory at that time. When the Harvard Announcement Cards would come in, everybody would rush to compute the orbit. Were you involved in that?
Oh yes, for any years, from 1927 till essentially World War H. I computed about 30 orbits. Of course, now you can put them on these little computing machines and do it in no time. But in those days, you know, it was a several hours feat. Crawford was one of the finest orbit computers. He used logs and liked to talk to somebody while he was doing it,
Talk to someone while he was doing it?
Yes. Interpolations, Additions, subtractions, logorithms, and so forth, and he liked to carry on a conversation while he was doing it. I don't know what part of his brain he was using for it. He was very fast and very accurate.
That's very interesting. What was the atmosphere like at Berkeley, not only for doing research, but your relationships with the faculty?
Oh, it was a very cosy, homey, "in-group' A finite number of students -one dozen maybe graduate students at the time, and everybody knew each other and we were close together. I guess I must have taken practical astronomy with Einarsson because I remember doing it. I'm not sure whether it was Leuschner or Shane or Einarsson, but it was using telescopes for accurate time determination. It was always rather fun to come out with a good time set.
Did you like the computation or the observing work?
Both of them. I rather enjoyed the observing. The equipment.
What was the community like at Berkeley at that time?
Well, this was a very serious group of graduate students. There was very little social life. I think the only social life was provided by Crawford and his wife, who was a very attractive woman. They provided some social life for the students, but otherwise there was essentially no social life connected with the observatory.
You took courses for your first two years pretty much, graduate work?
Yes. I think the first three years, I took courses. took three or four courses a year for the first three years. Then I went to Lick and wrote a thesis, wrote my thesis in one year.
That was your fourth year, 1931
What exactly was your thesis topic?
It was called "Spectrphotometric Study of the Cepheid Variables Eta Aquilae and Delta Cepheid".
Who was your advisor?
That was Menzel,
So he was at Lick during all this period.
Yes. But one year or one semester don't recall which, he was down at Berkeley I think it must have been a year, he came down to Berkeley.
How did you arrive at that particular topic with Menzel? Was he the most dynamic teacher?
Well, he represented the avant-garde in astronomy at that time, and the students were all very conscious of Leuschner and his self-centered interest in this method of his, a variation of the Laplace method and a very wonderful development of it. The brightest students had already discovered that some very important quantities that he developed wes actually a first derivative. But he added some other significance to it, but he wasn't much of a mathematician.
Did the idea of ?????? down the central observation of 3 and then iterating to the solution of the outer two, seems to be the basic difference in his technique.
Well, yes, fundamentally. He modified, very slightly modified the Laplacian method with differential corrections which he developed. But with modern machines, of course, you just go and let the machine try various variations and solve it that way. Nowadays you don't use those techniques, with differential corrections and all.
Sure. There seems to be a large turnover of junior staff, approximately during the years you were there. People like H. Jeffers and Woods and Gunther and other names I'm not too sure about.
Well, Hamilton Jeffers of course was at Lick Observatory all those years, and probably more. Gunther, yes, I don't remeber much about him.
So a lot of people came down from Lick just for a year.
Some of those, and then there were visitors at Berkeley who came through. Bobrovnikov came through as I remember, and then there was some woman who was there, who was with Bobrovnikov I can't think of her name now. At Lick, of course, there were Fellows of various types. Quite a few people would come there for reasons other than a PhD, work a year, stay at the dormitory with the people there
How did you find Lick Observatory? The atmosphere for research, the instruments?
Well, it was an odd place. R.G. Aitken was the director then, and he was a very stiff, formal, completely tight individual. Strict about little things, and that wasn't a very conducive atmosphere that he developed. G. Neugebauer was there, and he was a real friend of the graduate students at that time. And then of course Menzel provided, for me, the social atmosphere that made it tolerable.
It was a very isolated place, and the drive up and down by car on that terribly winding road always gave me a slight nausea, car sickness-, so that I didn't enjoy things down below. I found finally that a good drink when I hit the bottom of the road would clear my head up, but I didn't know about it at the time. It was Prohibition days, of course. Aitken was very strong for all the legal things, but there was a certain amount of alcohol to be had the mountain, but only for special occasions.
Like snow storms.
Yes. And parties. Special occasions.
Certainly the isolation at Lick is something which has affected its history,
Yes, until the roads were smoothed up so that it was an easy drive, it was really months of isolation. And we had no money, of cous e. Couldn't spend anything on a car.
Did you and Menzel have full freedom to choose your thesis topic, or did you have to go through Aitken?
Aitken couldn't care less, I think. don't know that he even put his stamp of approval on it. I imagine he did. But he was not a young man at that time. He was pretty well along and his only interest was in performing his duties and taking the status of directorship and observing double stars. That was his entire interest. So, except from the point of view of duty, why, he wasn't involved in anything.
Did you ever read or work out of Aitken's book?
No. I read enough to know what he's done and that's all.
Once you'd taken the course from Menzel, then, you probably decided to work with him.
Yes, that was it, and I used some new observing techniques on these Cepheids, - measuring colors, — interesting techniques of observing. As I told you, I've always been an engineer. I was always interested fundamentally from the engineering point of view, in trying to find out about the Cepheids. Well, it turned out that the theory at that time was sort of primitive, with regard to line profiles and colors and so forth, that you couldn't bring together what has been done since, namely, the temperature-radiation variation and the size of the Cepheid as it contracted and expanded, with the radial velocities, to make a consistent picture.
You were working on a modified pulsation hypothesis that included hot spots.
No, mostly straight pulsation theory, but it never fit. The data never fit very well with the line profiles, the theory of the line profiles, the theory of the motion and so forth,. And I don't remember any hot spots.
This is from your paper here. [Lick Obs. Bull. 16 (1931) pp. -23]. Do you want theory of that time, and I guess for fair reasons, and I didn'l want to pursue it any more, having gotten my degree.
That's a very interesting point,
If it had worked, I might have gone on in the field, but since it didn't work, I just lost interest in it.
You dropped that, and then dropped it for something that was considerably different. You went back to your original interests. So Menzel, in an interesting way, got you sidetracked.
I think that was true, but it was probably a good thing, because I did learn a lot about astrophysical things that I might not have learned so well otherwise. My mind didn't work very well in that area, and then I wasn't intere-ted in prrsulng it very much.
There's a lot of empirical work still there.
I was disgusted with it when the theory just failed to fit. What the hell ? I'm a mathematician, you see. I'd waked around with all these numbers, I'd made these good observations, the observations were good. I couldn't fit them together. From my point of view, I couldn't care less. I mean, it didn't work. There was something wrong. It was obviously very fundamentally wrong, and I don't know how they ever got it squared out, but eventually they did. I just lost interest in the field. I didn't, for one thing, have the idea of research and proving the theory. That type of theory didn't appeal to me. My mind doesn't work in those terms.
Did you have friendly arguments with Menzel about this?
Not very much, no. We never argued particularly.
But he certainly continued on in this area.
Oh, he made some fine contributions, I'm sure. Very fine indeed. He felt comfortable in the area, really doing research and developing the theory, where I wanted to apply it and find out something about the stars. And when I didn't find out about the stars, I was disgusted and abandoned the whole thing. I was interested in the stars and not in the theory.
I see. That a very important difference.
Well, that's the way my mind works. There are times when I'm interested in theory, but fundamentally, I'm an engineer at heart.
What are your feelings about a career in astronomy, especially as the Crash came, when you were a graduate student?
Oh, I ignored the whole thing. I never had any doubts about my ability to get along one way or another. I mean the good old pioneer philosophy, that anybody who was worth his salt went along and came out all right. So, I had no concern about the whole things. I knew what was going on, but I wasn't involved in any way. I knew nothing about stocks and bonds, thought it was too bad for everybody, but I had no doubts that I'd get along all right, although I admit it was very lean pickings through those years.
Did your father's business suffer considerably?
I think, quite a bit. But of course, he never had to support me after I got my PhD, and very little during graduate school, so it wasn't a problem.
We've given consideration to your Lick years. There were so many people there and so many influences, but it seems that your attention was pretty much directed to Menzel alone.
Scientifically, yes. I had very little scientific interaction with anybody on the mountain except him, and to some extent, J..H. Moore. Moore was more of a friendly guide and a kind person, who looked after students.
I heard that he was very friendly,
Oh, a sweet person.
Did they have colloquia on the mountain in those days?
Everybody went to Berkeley?
They didn't go. We didn't have colloquia
Well, as you were finishing up in 1931, how did you happen to go to Harvard?
Well, three things really happened. One, while I was a graduate student, they wanted an assistant down at Mt. Wilson Palomar, and they chose between Richardson and me. Richardson was a much more staid, reliable type of individual. I was a pretty -fresh sort of a kid, you know, outspoken. Corrosive I think is perhaps the word? Abrasive? They didn't think I was really quite the type for the assistantship, so that's why I never went to Mt. Wilson. It could have been. They could have chosen me instead of Richardson, but they chose Richardson.
Was this W.S. Adams making the decision?
I presume it was. I knew Adams very vaguely, and Seth B. Nicholson, knew best. "I'd gone down to visit sometimes, and had been up on the mountain with the astronomers while I was a graduate student so I knew them a little bit. knew Hubble some.
What about N.U. Mayall? He seemed to move back and forth between Berkeley and Mt. Wilson.
Yes, he and I were contemporaries there, and knew each other and played tennis. He was a pretty good tennis player. He got into astronomy because he was color blind. He wanted to be a geologist, and I heard his description, of the final examination in his geology course, a three hour identification of minerals, and he worked for six hours. They let him work for six hours, and he failed miserably because he couldn't see the colors. We were always close frends, and never really on a competitive basis very much.
What about the competition between observatories, between Wilson and Lick? Did you have any feelings for that?
No, there wasn't any particular competition. Each one respected what the other was doing, and worked on different things. Lick was in the Campbell tradition, and the others were heavily interested in radial velocities, double stars, you see. Mt. Wilson was going on to other things, galaxies, which they never got to at Lick.
Mayall seems to be the one person that did move back and forth there.
Yes, and he got Lick into things of common interest. As a graduate student, I always felt that Mt. Wilson was the great observatory, Lick was a very good one. There of course was Yerkes. There was, think, more of a competitive feeling between Lick and Yerkes than there was between Lick and Mt. Wilson if you want to think of it in those terms. Mt, Wilson had the great 100 inch, you see. That put them in a special category.
Had you ever met Hale or Campbell?
I never did meet Hale. At one time I could have met him in Pasadena, but he was rather ill, and I just thought it was an imposition. So I never met him. I knew Campbell moderately well.
He was already president of the university,
Yes. And I lived in his house when my wife was up on the mountain some months.
Is that the large house down by the Crossley?
Yes, down by the Crossley. He was a character, that guy, He had cultivated these huge eyebrows that stuck out over his eyes like a front porch. And he'd say, "Whipple, if you would cultivate them you could have big eyebrows too. thought it was it was the funniest thing in the world.
What was his secret?
He cultivated them. I just think he probably put the equivalent of hair spray on them, whatever it was in those days, some sort of a grease, I suppose, to make them stick out, and combed them and massaged them, I imagine to have them sticking out. It was the funniest thing.
Did you meet him on the mountain?
Yes, and in Berkeley some. Only a few times. But he knew me, I knew him.
Did you ever see him in action scientifically?
No. He wasn't active scientifically.
Well, we can move on to Harvard.
I was explaining why I came to Harvard. I had an alternative in the Spring there, as I was finishing up my thesis. I remember contemplating the great interview excitement. I could have stayed on at Lick as an observer w hich probably would have led me on into a more important position there. Or I could come with Shapley to Harvard. And I made a decision then that I would rather be in the big puddle, be a small frog in the big puddle, then a big frog in the little puddle. And that was my old Iowa sort of situation. I wanted to be with the best, and I considered them the best.
Harvard. And whether I could make a go of it and get to the top was less important than being in the best group. I never had any pressure to move, internal pressure to move from Harvard, all these years, even to retire, I had no internal pressure to move. It's one of the greatest centers in the world, with all these fine minds around you. Make a local telephone call, in any field, you can find somebody, if he isn't the top dog in the field, he works with the top people, and knows the answers. That's why I wanted to be here. I'm happy here.
It's good feeling. Did Shapley bring you directly?
Did you talk to him personally?
He came out and visited in the winter there. He was impressed, I guess. Menzel probably gave me a good report, and my grades had all been good in all my classes in graduate school. He thought I was an up and coming young man who would add to the luster of the local firmament. Then he brought Menzel back a year later.
Was Menzel aware of this possibility at that time?
I don't know. Possibly he was.
You came as an instructor?
I think I came as an observer. I doubt if I was an instructor, even. I was connected with the observatory, not with the department, for the first year. Then I became an instructor. I don't think I taught any the first year. was put in charge of the observing program. E.S. King, who's done so much observing astronomy here, photography and techniques, died just days before I arrived, and I literally walked into a dead man's shoes — his office, his desk. have alot of his equipment around here — still used. After his death, his widow was very interested in me. [Dr. Whipple displays items which belonged to King - personal effects].
These were his glasses?
Sherlock Holmes type, made of fine glass. This is one of his that I used for inspecting plates, and I found six comets with that thing. Now what happened to my little hand lens? It was a ten power magnifying glass I used for closer inspection. I used for closer inspection. I used those all the years. And other things too. They're of sentimental value. This was his, and I always use this for the Harvard Amusement Cards - a hole punch. So, I simply stepped in and took over where he left off, in photography and observing. Then, not long after, in teaching practical astronomy and photography, and I gave a very advanced course for those days in photography, and the we built the Agassiz Station, called the Oak Ridge Station now. I was in charge of observing there for about five years starting in 1932.
So that was just as you came.
I guess the plans must have been fairly complete when I came, built during the course of the year.
Were you in charge of the move from campus.
Well, in certain respects, on the equipment side. Moving all the telescopes, and setting up telescopes. I developed improvements on King's method of aligning telescopes. There were a lot of telescopes. So I developed quick methods, faster than his, for measurements. I use measurements on the plates instead of estimates. So I could align a half a dozen telescopes in a couple of hours. I did it frequently, because it was interesting that we had four of these patrol cameras. I don't know if you've seen them out there, have you been out there?
Yes, I've been here.
You've seen the four of them in a row? I don't know if they're still in there.
On the platform?
On the platform. Interesting thing was that in the course of the first year or two, that whole thing tilted over about several minutes of arc, in the course of a year, and settled down to stay that way. So I had to keep aligning those cameras from time to time, when the whole thing was shifted.
They were all pretty much automatic, and so they need good alignment, even with that small scale?
Oh yes. You have to have them accurate. You have to have your polar axis as accurate as the image that's ten microns. Or you won't get good images.
So King had been responsible for the photograph patrols and you took over that responsibility.
Yes. He was responsible for all the telescopes, for keeping them up, keeping track of them, inspecting the plates for quality. Because Harvard has the principle of the routine observers, you see, who did most of the observing. Somebody had to inspect them and keep them in line. That was my job. And since he died just as I came; that immediately put me into that spot.
Did you learn of his own attitudes about moving the observatory from here? Did he have any feelings about the move? It seems to be an unfortunate coincidence that he died just as the move took place.
King? I don't know. I never met him, and I just don't know. He was retiring, I think.
Well, Shapley certainly was the director was there both a chairman's and a director's position at that point?
At that time, the department was quite separate from the observatory down on Jarvis St. A hugh crackerbox, square box building the Department of Astronomy. It is now the graduate school dormitory. The chairman of the department was — my God, I can't remember his name. But they were quite separate, and Shapley then eventually brought the department up here, and abandoned the Jarvis St. thing some time in the thirties. I can 't remember exactly when.
When you came, B. Bok was here? Leon Campbell was here?
And Ceelia Payne Gaposchkin. She was here, and Menzel a year later.
What was the atmosphere like here? How would you contrast it to Lick, to Berkeley, and to today?
Well, at the observatory, everything was Shapley-centered completely. He controlled everything with an iron hand, and also controlled the social life. It was very social a very nice social life. Martha Betz Shapley was a brilliant woman. But everything was centered around Shapley, and galaxies. We had a group of girls who we would pay a pittance. He invented the term "Kelly girl hour". Measure of astronomical research. Shapley went along with it and went overboard with the idea of having these girls and paying them a pittance to do research.
How did the girls react to this?
Well, they weren't happy with it, but it was never corrected till after Shapley retired. The salaries around here were at an unbelievably low level.
Most of these women, were they also students at Radcliffe?
Well, no, they were professional astronomers. don't think any of them had PhDs at that time. They were professional women who worked for Shapley looking at the galaxy plates. And doing all the dog work.
This didn't include Annie Cannon?
No. Annie Cannon was still here then. She wasn't in that category. And Miss Maury was still alive. don't know when she disappeared from the staff, but quite a bit earlier. Yes, Annie Cannon was here for a number of years while I was here.
Antonia Maury, if I recollect from history had pretty much a mind of her own and she was here and gone several times.
She was responsible for a lot of the thinking on the thing. I mean, she was a scientist. Annie Cannon was a remarkable woman, in the sense of knowing and remembering these spectra. She was like Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin in that fantastic mind and memorizing and recognizing the spectra. She did a beautiful job observationally on the Draper catalogue. A superb job. Nobody ever questioned it. But as a scientist, she hadn't contributed as much as Miss Maury. I think everybody agreed that she was more interested in looking into the physics of the thing and trying to understand the uses of them. Miss Maury was, in many respects, more of a scientist, as I understood it, than Cannon.
But Miss Cannon was remarkable in terms of being such a fine observer, looking at the plates. And the students would have fun, you know, they'd pick a star and ask her to classify it, and then check it and find it was right on the button. She knew exactly what she classified. There was no question about it. They'd be quite amazed, at times, to pick out one that was a little bit off, you know, and take it over to Miss Cannon, and say, "What class is this?" She'd come out right on the button with the Henry Draper Catalogue.
Who used to do that sort of thing?
Oh, the graduate students around. I don't remember specifically.'I know it happened more than once.
Did you ever talk with Antonia Maury? I'm very interested in her.
No, I never did. I knew her and spoke to her, but never had any scientific talks with her.
I had the impression that she was a bit bitter about the feeling that no one really believed her and c subclassifications.
Yes. I think she was. And the two men were obviously chauvinist. mean, both Pickering and Shapley obviously were unkind to women. She always was unhappy about it. And there was always an unhappy undercurrent.
Did Miss Payne, at that time, Cecelia Payne Gaposchkin suffer at all from this kind of an attitude?
Oh, I think she did, but it wasn't quite clear. Her relationship with Shapley was extremely complex. It represented the father-husband-lover sort of thing in her unconscious but I probably shouldn't go into that.
You understand that this is an important kind of material. And if you feel it has anything to do with the progress of scientific research here at Harvard, it can be put on tape and then sealed.
Well, in any case, that chauvinistic attitude it did affect all of the work here. And also that Shapley was a penny pincher, and has a lot of reputations that are not properly based. I mean, he was always considered a great fundraiser. Hell, he never raised money. He got the money for the Agassiz Station out of the big Harvard fundraising program that occurred just before I arrived. He was always supposed to be the great teacher. Well, he never taught a course until after he retired.
Really? I didn't realize that. Bok did a lot of a teaching.
Bok did a lot of teaching. I did a lot of teaching. Menzel did a lot of teaching. And Cecelia, a little bit. But the three of us carried the major load of the teaching.
That's interesting. I never would have realized that. He seemed to be a very public person.
Well, he had a charisma in public lectures that was fantastic.
Oh, the public lecture, yes.
Fantastic . And so all the amateurs and everybody who passed through astronomy, but who were not deep in the undercurrent of it, thought he was really a god .
In the midst of the thirties, you did some work on the colors of external galaxies.
At first look at that, I didn't realize you were looking just at the Coma Cluster ["Colors and Spectra of External Galaxies" Harvard Circular #404, pp. -2'.
I'm still bitter about it because at the end of the paper, I'd written a rather short account in which I showed how you could use the spectra of stars and the spectra of galaxies with integral equations to determine the distribution of the stellar populations in the galaxies, the spectra. I'd written that up, you see. And both Shapley and Bok said it was too theoretical, and cut it out, and I never did keep a copy of it.
Well, the implication is there, because you noted that galaxies were redder than stars of the same corresponding spectral type.
And I thought, when I read it, I wondered if you had any idea what could have caused this, and obviously you were thinking about populations
Yes, was. That was before Baade's two populations, or not long before.
Oh, that was ten years before.
Yes, I guess it was yes. Well, in any case, it wasn't all completely original. Baade had gone into it somewhat at that time. But the real point about it that's important is that I did want to go into the study of galaxies, but Shapley didn't want any local competition. He never did develop any high level students for it. I mean, Seyfert was his famous student, but Seyfert was at best a second rate astronomer. He was not a top notch student. But he did go ahead and do some very useful things. Undoubtedly a fine name for studying the galaxies , with bright lines. But he was the best student that Shapley ever got, you see. The good students sent to Menzel.
How did that happen in a department where Shapley had control?
Well, because Shapley didn't really want good people competing with him, so he was happy to have the good students go to somebody else. Menzel got Leo Goldberg, Jesse Greenstein. There's quite a list of those, that went with him. Bok got all the students who had to struggle for their degrees. He could always turn them on to another star counting job and they could get a PhD degree safely, with assurance, so he had all of them. I never had very many students. I had those who happened to have special interests in something that I was working on, which was not very many.
Well, you worked with Cecelia Payne Gapeschkin.
Yes, till just before the war, particularly on the Nova Herculis rHarvard College Bulletin
Right, so in many ways, you were still doing stellar astrophysics.
Yes, I was. And we discovered the reddening effect, which we at the time believed was due to dust around the novae, the novae had such a big dip where the color was proportional to the dip. We discovered that. We didn't make any great issue of it, but I think people recognize today that we did find it. We were the first ones, I believe, to realize that dust formed around the darned thing.
That's a significant observation here, in your own interest, with material that you would call "dust."
I seemed to always be getting into dust and the small things.
Well, about this particular paper in 1936, where you had a theory of ejection for the Nova Herculis, your findings seem to support the idea that the amount of matter ejected was greater than the atmospheric mass of the star. And in that same paper, you indicated that you had talked to Chandrasekhar about such things, and he was well into his white dwarf work at that time, and I know that he spent a year or two here
Well, he had already done that white dwarf work before.
But it was still very much conjecture.
Yes. His white dwarf stuff, yes. I don't think I ever fitted that together, but I'm interested to see that I had realized, there was more mass lost than the atmosphere. I certainly believed it. I believed that something very fundamental was happening in the star. Of course, I was then a little surprised later on to realize what a superficial loss it is, in the ordinary novae. And I had really thought it was more. At that time, I think my opinion was that it was a more intrinsic loss than merely the amount that they recognize today. But a lot more than the atmosphere.
Do you recall discussions with Chandrasekhar?
No, I don't think I did.
It might have been Mrs. Gaposchkin.
I always like to look at the future. have profound science fiction attitude towards it.
Yes. I certainly would like to talk to you about the science fiction, but not just yet. I'd love to get into it though eventually. This same paper on ejection, I think it was pretty well surmised by that time, at least for Novae, that the resultant was a white dwarf type object, with an expanding atmosphere.
I guess so. I don't know that I really believed it thoroughly, but it seemed possible, yes. It got very faint, you see.
Yes. Did you follow the interest in such objects at all from the standpoint of where they really did stand in the theory of stellar evolution? Were you interested in such theories at the time?
I wasn't too involved in it. I didn't go very far with that, no. I hadn't put the pieces together on that, myself. I was interested in the phenomena. On the supernovae, I was interested in one thing. I just noticed a paper recently, that I said back in the earlier paper there, that supernovae were distributed where the mass is, in galaxies. And people thought that was ridiculous at the time, because I'd recognized how much mass was out in the galaxies and that supernovae were very much in where the mass was. And I just saw a recent paper in which they said that proved it pretty well. At that time, that met with quite a bit of ridicule.
Astronomers were prone to actually ridicule?
Well, ridicule isn't a good word for it. But they didn't think much of a smart idea.
Well, along this same idea, you continued to be interested in supernovae and stellar collisions in 1939.
Yes, and unfortunately wrote a paper on collisions every time I involved collisions in my papers, I regretted it. That's one thing I don't get into any more. I've done my last on that.
I know it's a recurrent theme in astronomy
Yes, and I should have been smarter and kept out of it. didn't.
Did you incur any grief over that?
Not really. A blow to my pride to realize that I'd talked too seriously about it.
You actually only brought it up as something to consider.
brought it up. I didn't really believe it, think.
Did Shapley or Bok?
No, I don't think so. don't think anybody took it too seriously.
Well, about this time, we move to your meteor work. I'm not too sure of the date.
Oh, that goes back to E. Opik, you see, when he was here, 1932, and had the Harvard Meteor Expedition to Arizona. He aroused my interest there because of the orbital aspects, and his firm beliefs. You read my paper about the incentive of a novel idea. [Incentive of a bold hypothesis: hyperbolic meteors and comets", In Education in and History of Modern astronomy (N.Y. Acad. Sci. 198 (1972) R. Berendzen ed. pp. 219-224)]. This was in two volumes. I think the beginning has a summary paper. It tells that whole story, about his conviction that there were hyperbolic meteors.
This was in your appreciation of Opik in Irish AJ.? [Int. Astron. Journ. Special Issue 10 (1972) pp. 71-76].
No, but I wrote it up there too. I wrote for Berendzen. In any case, I'd gotten intrigued with hyperbolic meteors, you see, and the orbital thing was very exciting. How do we get a hold of any interstellar material, you see? Anything beyond the solar system? This was exciting to me. And so, I went along with his idea, and in fact, I never published it, but along about 1933 (1 threw the papers away a few years ago) I calculated the radiants of meteors that might belong to the star Sirius. You see, he had come up with this idea that J. Oort got so much credit for, of the great comet cloud, you see.
That was 1950?
Yes but it was 1932 or 193 1, for Opik. And I was very aware of that and very conscious of it, and I feel I've been right, you see. There was so much of that material. We could be going through meteors associated with the star Sirius. And therefore I computed the radiants for them, but I couldn't find any meteors that fitted. There aren't any.. But it was my start in meteor studies, to compute'those radiants — Meteors that might belong to the star Sirius, because we knew the space distance, the space velocity, you see, and proper motion, vector motion. So you compute what the meteor radiants would be as a function of the time of the year.
If I understand you correctly, then, he had sort of a comet cloud idea, and said that each star system had its own comet cloud?
And you could calculate given space velocities whose comet cloud you were presently going through?
That's very interesting.
Well, he had that whole idea for meteors. He showed in 1931 or 1932 that such a cloud was relatively statistically stable against stellar passages, as long as the star didn't come close to the sun. And I went with that, and the whole meteor business. This was my incentive to start the two-camera photographic studies, you see. There were all these meteors in the Harvard collection. And once they had two stations, then it was possible to do this triangulation photographically.
There was a campus station, and the Agassiz station?
Well yes they had it for-many years, you see. Up until after the war. A 26 mile base line. The thing that triggered it was the development of the small synchronous motor, where you could put a little synchronous motor in front of the camera shutter. That was what triggered that program, because we could do it simply then. We had very good timekeeping. The cycles were kept very well, by the power company, You had a very accurate timing device.
Was there ever any attempt to keep the shutters in phase between the two observatories?
No. That was too complicated for those years.
I know that this was not an original technique. As you mentioned yourself in your papers, Elkin's work.
Elkin did it, but he had made the mistake of using too small a base line, his method was sound enough. Then the other mistake, in his old age, he lost his mind a bit, was that he broke up all the plates. We were never able to go back and get his plates. I could have used a lot of his plates, with techniques that I'd developed in the late thirties, and used them effectively. But they didn't exist any more. So his work was lost. H.A. Newton did this very fine work on the perturbations of comets coming in and the parabolic orbits.
The reason I brought it up is, I found a lot of photographic plates, very early, and he was sort of a contemporary of Elkin but earlier than Elkin by about half a generation or so.
He wrote in the 1980's. Elkin was in the early teens.
If we were ever able to sort out that box, would you be interested in the plates?
No, they wouldn't have had any value today, if they were meteors. We have much better meteoritic data today.
Well, you used these synchronous motors. Were there other technological innovations that really made this?
No, just that one. That was enough to do it, because having the two stations with the controlled cameras, located a very convenient distance apart, 25 miles is just excellent for that.
Did you take the regular patrol cameras and turn them over to this meteor work, or did you design something new?
No, all we did was to synchronize the positions on the sky It didn't make much difference which direction they were pointing just so it was systematic and covered the sky. So what we did was just turn them in, whatever it was, 20 degrees or so.
Were they still used for the regular Harvard patrol?
Yes, they were just the normal cameras. It didn't affect the patrol program in any way, except for choosing the regions, so that at the same time, with the proper declination and proper hour-angle, to overlap at 100 kilometers, that's all. It didn't change the program in any way.
Did you have to convince Shapley of this?
No, he was very much for meteors, oddly enough. Yes, well, he'd gotten tangled up in the thing. He wrote a paper which he much regretted afterwards, based upon the Opik concept, that there are comets around stars, producing the 4200 absorption band in many spectra. It arose from, I guess cyanogen. Well, unfortunately it turned out, you see, that that band was an absorption band in the glass of the big refractors. (Laughter)
I didn't know that. Well, at the time, J.A. Pierce was here, who was interested in radio work and was studying radio echoes of meteors, understand; and also Peter Millman, spectra of meteors.
Now, did Shapley organize all of this, or did you organize it?
Millman had started before I got much involved in it with Shapley. It was rather Shapley. Shapley encouraged Fletcher Watson who wrote several good papers. That was all under Shapley's encouragement. In fact, Shapley was quite interested in meteors. It's interesting - - Williard J. Fisher was here. Willard J. Fisher did some nice things. He was an amateur. So Shapely had gotten people interested in this field and I think that's why Opik came over, or perhaps why he brought Opik over. And they got this Arizona meteor expedition There, you see, Opik was one of the most original minds in astronomy, but when Opik came to observations, he always goofed.
Yeah. He had one eye and it didn't work too well. And he got involved in it. He used the rocking mirror technique.
Yes, I recall your mentioning that.
And it was his observations that led him to the hyperbolic meteors observed in that program which as an incorrect deduction. He never forgave me until the fifties for tearing down the hyperbolic meteor theory. (Laughter). He finally wrote a very nice paper in the late fifties about my work and admitted he was wrong. But up until that time, he never forgave me. Finally he did when he was completely convinced.
I am very interested in Opik. I remember some papers in 1919-1920 where he was talking about stellar models that were far less mixed, in fact, they were unmixed and stratified, which of course became the general idea. And it seems as though Opik, in a number of different areas, was very far ahead of his time and didn't get credit.
That's right. As I say, I consider him the most original mind in astronomy, in that respect, in that 50 year period.
But his reaction to you makes me wonder, what is the state of his mind today? I know he is very old.
I haven't seen him for a while, but I think he's still doing fine. But I had to write one paper I hated to about his comet groups. Perhaps you've seen that recently? [Icarus. In Press (1976)].
Only a reference.
I sent it to him with great apologies. I said I was very sorry about it, but Id wasted an awful lot of time on his comet groups, and trying to understand them in terms of physical processes and celestial mechanics, and it hadn't worked. Finally I looked at it from the statistical point of view, and it was very clear that they don't exist. Well, by that time he had softened. He wasn't angry about it. But I thought it was a shame because he worked awfully hard on that thing. So did I.
I hoped to be able to talk to him.
I hope you can because he has so many interesting sidelines to his life. He was very much involved, I think, in the Underground, World War I and so on.
He was at Tartu and I know that things didn't go right there, of course. He seemed to know about, or implied he knew about the Underground things in World War 11.
I don't know whether he did or not. He always implied that he had all sorts of information — which he may well have had.
I hope to make a first contact with him by this summer.
I think you ought to if you can possibly get him, because I consider him the most original mind in astronomy, practically even up to today. Not that he was always so right, but he was absolutely original, and way ahead of his time in some things, and nutty as a fruitcake in some others.
That makes him very interesting.
Getting back to the meteor work directly in the late thirties, did you have contact with J.A. Pierce?
Yes, very close contact. knew him very well. Jack Pierce, yes. And I wanted to get radio astronomy to Harvard. You saw the radio astronomy paper that Jesse Greenstein and I wrote in 1937.
I have that.
In any case, I was very much interested in radio meteor work, and in fact, I'd had some contact with J.S. Hey in England because I was in radar counter measures during the war. I was extremely excited about radio astronomy. But then when I saw, after World War II, all the surplus radar equipment and electronics equipment on the market and all the physicists who had been in it turning into radio astronomy, it was not a field for me, because I always wanted to be in a sort of a ground-breaking field, away from the crowd. And the crowd was obviously descending on radio astronomy.
So that's why I didn't get into it after the war. But I was deeply involved in it with Pierce in 1946, in November. The GiocabiniZimmer comet meteors came in November that year and that was the greatest radio meteor shower that had been known so far, in the sense that there were so many meteors, they produced an ionosphere down to the E-layer. At night. Above the E-layer at night. The bottom of it was a little below the E-layer. It produced an ionosphere, and that's the only time it's happened to my knowledge. I was out observing them, in fact, with Jack Pierce at that time So I was very much involved. I was a catalyst in the field, getting people interested in meteors and doing things that I didn't want to do or didn't have the competence to do.
I was trying to get Pierce to go more deeply into radio meteor astronomy, but he just was interested in doing navigational work. What was the name of that process? It was still being used, for measuring positions at sea by radio measures. He was interested in that, and I couldn't get him to switch over to radio meteors. I figured by that time other people were coming on, Neumann and others, Lovell — they were getting into it then and so I got out of that, at that time.
Why is it that most other astronomers who were interested in meteor work did not seem to be as interested in the use of radio techniques in the thirties?
Oh, in the thirties you didn't have radio techniques that were very good. You didn't have them until you got the radar, after the war. It wouldn't have been a very profitable thing in those days. And the astronomers weren't interested because they didn't know how to get the techniques, that's all. That's true for radio astronomy generally. I wanted to go into it but it was just too big a step to go into that different field. $50 from Shapley and bought an acorn set after the Greenstein paper. It sat on my desk for many years. I got that from Harvard. I was thinking of putting a diamond antenna on a 61 inch dome, which is rather flat, you see, putting a wire underneath a screen and then a diamond antenna, and I could circulate the dome, and then look for radio sources, around. I never did it.
Would you say your interest there was, more than most, because of your interest in engineering?
I think so, yes. It was something that ought to be done, and I didn't feel like doing it. I didn't want to get into it. I might have gone into it with Pierce then but I didn't at that time. The whole thing was that I didn't want to get involved in that technique. I hadn't gotten to the idea of administering programs and managing them. There was no money to come in. You couldn't go to anybody in Washington and say, "Give me $30,000 to do this." There wasn't any money.
Even though you were doing meteor orbits by that time, was there any interest from the direction of the government in terms of applying these techniques to ballistics?
Not until after the war.
Your 1937 paper with Greenstein, you came to a very interesting conclusion. You felt that the failure of the interstellar radio disturbance to follow black body radiation laws might be looked for in instrumental problems.
I'd forgotten about that.
Did this indicate possibly a lack of confidence in the radio techniques?
No, we were certain that they were measuring real noise. We didn't have any doubt about it. Other people may have, but we didn't. I mean, they had too many observations done with their big rotating antenna, in different directions of the sky. We couldn't see anything wrong.
This was K. Jansky?
Did you consider non-thermal sources?
No, we didn't know how to consider them. I think we weren't very smart in that. We should have. And didn't. Didn't consider them very seriously.
How did you feel after van de Hulst's work?
All right. Glad to see somebody in the field, that was my reaction, my feeling. Mostly, I wanted to point out that the field existed, and so they recognized it. I've always been interested, all my life, in the borderline sciences like Charles Fort who wrote books around the turn of the century, early in the century, with all these mad observations in it. He was very anti- establishment science and collected all these bizarre observations from all possible sources, a whole mish-mash of them.
And I read that very carefully, you see, looking for the wheat among the chaff. I always have, because I've always respected peoples their observations. It's a question of their interpretation, like the UFO's. So I thought he was probably right about the ran of frogs and the rain of fishes. Typhoons can pick them up out of the ocean and drop them on people. And one that was very clear cut was that ball lightning was real. And think he was the first, you , to collect the data maybe he (definitely Charles Fort) was, I don't know, the first I saw at least. It was quite clear that all these people were observing the same phenomenon and I don't know that it's been explained yet or not.
That's a very interesting problem.
That's why I was interested in radio astronomy. Nobody in astronomy paid any attention to Jansky's work and I thought it was extremely important. So I was perfectly happy to write a nonsense paper, just to get it into the literature, to try to get people interested, so they'd do something about it.
I wouldn't exactly call it a nonsense paper.
Well, it didn't come out with the right answer. I don't think it was a very smart paper. We could have done a lot better, if we'd thought harder. But the point was that I wanted to see the field recognized in astronomy, so people would get into it, in the same way I did the radio and other types of radio astronomy when radar came along.
This is jumping ahead a bit, but even with that sort of prodding, it seems as though the United States lagged behind England primarily and the Netherlands, in the development of radio astronomy.
Do you have any specific ideas of why this was so?
Well, yes. Established astronomy had these big [optical] instruments here, and they weren't interested in getting into it. It's not the thing they're working in and they're not too excited about jumping into some other field. And the techniques were not ones that they knew about and had control of, and the theory of it was not their forte so there just wasn't any particular pressure. That's why I always tried to push for those things that I thought ought to be done, even if . didn't want to do them myself. But I didn't want to do it, and not many in astronomy did here, either. It was mostly done by electronics people after the war, with surplus equipment,
Did you talk with Grote Reber at all?
Well, I knew him, got to know him quite well, read his paper and encouraged him and encouraged people to support him.
Well, we're leading up to your war work, and before we get exactly to that, I'd like to know how the atmosphere for research and general attitudes toward astronomy, and relation of astronomy with physics at Harvard, changed through the thirties, here, if it did change significantly. With Menzel coming in.
Well, I think Menzel had more contact with the physicists than anybody else. But there really wasn't an enormous contact. More with the mathematicians than with the physicists. In the observatory. I don't think there was very much. We knew the elder Birkhoff. Birkhoff got into astronomical things. So you see, Birkhoff, because of his theories, would be sort of connected with the observatory But of course it couldn't be a very close connection because there were no mathematicians at Birkhoff s level up here. But it was a general friendly attitude. But each one was going his own way, mostly, and there wasn't a lot of overlap. I think Menzel got a lot more into it than anybody else, particularly at MIT and those people in atomics physics.
Shapley, I imagine, brought Menzel here.
From the way you've been speaking, it seems like Shapley was still running things very strongly all through the thirties.
Oh, he was running things through the forties. Until he retired in 1952, he was always running things in his own way completely.
What happened in 1947?
Well, probably they got the Harvard College Observatory Council going that year.
But he didn't retire. He was still acting director until Menzel in 1952.
Yes. You were chairman in 1949?
The chairmanship was another matter. I don't remember when I was chairman. guess it's written down somewhere.
You must have had some personal impressions of Eddinton's personality?
Yes, he was a very quiet, dignified gentleman, a little bit of a sense of humor. I didn't actually see him. They were put up at the Radcliffe dormitory. Somebody saw him holding little pink panties gingerly (laughter).
Did you talk about the comet work at all?
Not much about astronomy, no. I was so new I wasn't really doing anything much. Just comet orbits and there wasn't much to be said about them. Possibly we talked about the Pluto orbit. I don't know.
The first paper on Pluto you did back at Lick seems simply to call it "the Lowell Observatory object." Did you have any question that it might be anything but a planet?
No, I don't think there was. It was a question of formally naming it. Well, at that time, a lot of us independently came to the name "Pluto" as a sort of a joke because Pluto water in those days was highly advertised as a purgative. We thought it was a funny joke to call it Pluto. And we thought it was rather inevitable, because the PL, you see, would be Percival Lowell. I was not at all surprised that that was the final name, because of PL.
We left off before lunch preparing to talk about your war years and how you got involved in Project Window.
Oh yes. Well, I was very unhappy about the war itself. In 1942, I got a letter from J. Robert Oppenheimer, asking me to come out to his ranch in New Mexico and head up the computing in his project. Well, I did know what the project was, because the scientific community had quite a bit of information flow. It was just very carefully censored. All really very responsible people. So I knew what the project was, but I didn't want to be tied up in New Mexico, so I went with the Harvard group here called the Radio Research Laboratory, working on radar countermeasures. And of course being an astronomer at heart, they put me into the Chaff business, and I was chief of Chaff, or Window, as the British called it.
It was rather satisfying, because one could be involved in a project from the theoretical side, through the experimental, to get production techniques made, selling it to the Army Air Force, going to the manufacturers to get them into production and going overseas and getting involved in the tactical use of it. So I was able to be in all aspects of the project, from beginning to end. We developed this technique of making strips [Dr. Whipple shows the small machine designed to make Chaff].
For the original machine, I didn't actually design it. I would have the next day but they had an inventor around who got it a few hours before. But this is the original for S band. The width of the fall, that was on paper in those days, would be the length you wanted for your half-wave dipole, 45 o the wavelength. And you have a lawnmower, you see, like this with alternate dull and sharp blades. The dull blades knock the thing over, you see, and the sharp blade cuts it off. It gives you an L-beam. So we developed that technique.
Could you leave that out? I'd like to take a picture of it.
I'll give this to the Smithsonian someday but I haven't gotten around to it.
What is this particular element called, for identification?
I always called it a lawn mower. This is a late model, of course, without the paper on it. They've got a three ounce package to cover t hree different lengths of band and the equivalent of a B-17 or B-24.
You were interested in making aircraft?
The idea was to make the signal of this comparable to the radar signal of the aircraft. And with rather crude, you might call it software, in those days, it would mess up the accuracy of an aircraft ground control gunnery, ground control aircraft. The aircraft could follow fairly well, but the ground control, with the search lights could not. You'd break the continuity of the smooth first derivative of their motion. And then they can't lay the guns so well. Even with a single plane dropping the stuff.
Did you do any of the experimental work involved with this?
Oh yes. I was in the field mostly. At Eglin Field in Florida. We used Field 9 which is the one that Jimmy Doolittle used for practice before he went on the aircraft carrier. We used that field. The idea of it, of course, was to make it as narrow as possible, to cut down weight. But when you get it too narrow then it tends to do what we call "bird nest" and not spread out so the dipoles weren't free and tangled in large bunches. And we tested out that we got the most efficient, if your bird nesting was 30 percent, but you cut down the weight by half, why, you gained by making it half as wide, you see. Then we'd get the optimum on that by dropping it out of airplanes.
Did you have to know the frequency of the radar?
Yes, this cover about 10 percent of the frequency band, so we had three lengths in these packages, cover about 30 percent, about the range that they could adjust to.
You were told this by the military.
Yes. All you needed was a receiver from an aircraft to see what bands they were working on.
We you actually working with the military?
I was in uniform without any insignia, as a technical observer, I went overseas, with the Mediterranean and the British, UK area. I went to see the generals, officers in charge, and worked with them on how to use the stuff.
I wasn't aware this interest that Oppenheimer had in you.
Well, I was in computing so much, and he wanted somebody to head up his computing. It would have changed my life a lot if I'd gone down there with him. I'd have been deep in the computing game then. But instead, I thought that I'd be tied up at his ranch with the war going on, and I wanted to be free roving around. I think actually, I wouldn't have been much more tied down than I was here. But I did do an awful lot of traveling, which was somewhat of a satisfaction for me, unhappy with the war situation.
Well, your unhappiness was directed how?
Well, in the sense that there was a war at all. And at Hitler, of course, the atrocities, the dangers to the free world and so on and so forth.
But there was no particular element?
No, I wasn't a pacifist in the rigid sense. I just thought that war was terribly wasteful, by itself, for humanity. You waste energy, you waste people's lives, and put all this effort into blowing up things. You know, it's a wasteful process. It bothers my Scotch nature immensely. It's a waste, no question, of resources and brains. I always hate to see brains wasted.
What about astronomy during the war period?
Oh no, I didn't do anything much. I think the only people who did very much were the Europeans who had black skies with the blackout, and there was quite a bit done then, in cities where they couldn't have done much otherwise.
Where they still able to observe. In the Netherlands they weren' allowed to use their telescopes.
No, guess not, that's right.
Did you have any contact with Europeans while you were over in the Mediterranean?
Not really. I was obviously with the military. No, I didn't have much. A little bit in England but that's all.
Did this experience get you involved at all administratively with the government?
Yes, I think that's what built me up to being willing to take grants and contracts and to understand how the wide world operated with a better understanding of that. - Consequently I got into administrative things to push projects that I thought ought to be done.
What were some of the first projects that you were pushing?
Well, was into meteors - the Super Schmidt Meteor Camera which was the first big one I got into.
That was right after the war, wasn't it?
Yes. It was around 1948 or so.
How did you actually involve yourself with the Super-Schmidt? Did James Baker have a design?
No, what happened was that was dissatisfied with the number of meteors we could get with these little cameras and I wanted a special camera made for it And the Naval Research people were interested in the re-entry and the ballistic aspects of it, and they funded us for money to run the program. And then, having decided to get the money, the question was, what was the most effective type of telescope? So I went to Jim Baker and he got this fantastic Super Schmidt. You've seen it. You know what it is?
12 inch aperture, eight inch focal length and 5 degree field.
Did he work out all the computations?
Did you have anything to do with the action itself?
In principle but not directly We had to make the film with an optical surface, an eight inch radius of curvature and about eight inch aperture. We developed this technique of molding film. This is what made 25 or more years ago. [Picture of film].
Was your film concave or convex?
It was convex. That's the idea, we had to develop techniques for developing and handling the film, drying and measuring and so forth. We finally ended up rephotographing it in a way designed to flatten this out so that we could measure in a plane. The British later on, Linfoot, developed the same thing. He never really admitted it was the same, but it was. But they went along with this idea, and used curved spherical surface glass and then put the emulsions on each time, which meant they couldn't store them.
he had to produce an optical surface every time?
Pretty good surface, yes. So they had just a few of those. This worked beautifully.
how was it actually manufactured?
We could take ordinary plain film, put it in a mold that we designed, and you had to heat it up just about to the boiling point of water for a few seconds to mold it.
That's lovely. Did your ability to work in this way have anything to do with the fact that earlier, Metcalf astrographs have all had a curve field?
Oh possibly. But nobody would ever used this technique before. As far as I know, since. I don't know. Things I get involved in that seem to be left. Nobody else ever does them any more but they work perfectly well. People don't quite believe that you can do this.
Yes. I'm very surprised. I've never seen the original. I've only seen the pictures in books and you wouldn't know that they were convex, curved like that.
That one is still the same shape as it was 25 years ago.
How many people were involved in actually producing the Super Schmidts?
Yes, well, they were made by Perkin-Elmer. I guess they must hve farmed out the mountings they did the optics. Then we had to use a spherical bowl because actually, the camera is inside a spherical shell. You have to take the camera apart to load it. They were roughly two inches thick, about so big. Big salad bowls. And to Get the Right Glass, We Had to Go to the Bureau of Standard's Optical Division Which Was Still Operating and They Used a Special Furnance and Made the Molds, Molded the Glass for It.
Were there problems with astigmatism and strain?
No, I'd say it was a problem of getting good people to mold the glass, that's all.
Were you given carte-blanch by the government?
I wouldn't say that. We ran up, I think, eight times the original budget but they kept going along with us. In the long run it was highly successful. Whereas we'd get one meteor every 40 hours or something, we brought it down to one meteor every five or ten minutes of exposure time.
What were the original limiting magnitudes you worked with?
I don't remember exactly what they were but I would think with these little cameras, you had to have a practically zero magnitude object to see it. First magnitude maybe. It depends on the speed. The Super Schmidts would go down to close to 5th magnitude, possibly.
You and Dr. Liller considered in 1954 using this Super Schmidts for taking spectra but it didn't every really work out did it?
Not very well. We got a few of them but it wasn't really successful. You need an objective prism over the entire objective which was quite large at the time, you see. We did use replica gratings some. I tried to get those into astronomy and I never was very successful with it. I probably am the only living person who's ever seen the spectrum of a meteor with his naked eye, visually. Visually through a grating one time.
Was that at Oak Ridge?
No, I was down in New Mexico at one of our stations. I just was holding it up it was during a shower. I could only see a couple of lines. I think it was quite certain that it was a sodium line D-line.
Your original project, out in Arizona with Opik —
Well, that was his and Shapley's. I wasn' involved in that,
Did you go out there with them?
No, wasn't involved in any way with that except as a casual bystander. Shapley and he had that whole thing going on their own. It was around for quite a long time. Opik with his analysis of hyperbolic orbits. They weren't right.
How do you think Harvard astronomy changed after World War II, particularly because of World War II, then with Shapley getting older? How did things change?
Well, Shapley had run out. He'd never had ideas of his own anyway. And he'd run out of work and the telescopes and the plates that he had and so forth were not up to the new standards. And at Lick, they'd gotten these very fine cameras, Shane and Company So that was just the end of an era, that's all. So something had to change, and nothing much was changing after the war. I began to get into projects and Menzel was getting into some, the solar work. And it was a pretty decadent observatory. It became decreasingly important on an international scale as time went on, from 1940 to 1950. So that by the early fifties, it was way down in the international ratings compared to what it had been. It had been near the top in the twenties, maybe in the thirties. It was just slowly going down because it was deteriorating.
How did you feel about that?
Oh. I didn't care too much as long as I got my projects going. But then, you see, I was interested in space travel and so forth. I first realized that we were going down into space, that we really were, in 1944, early in the war when I'd heard, you know, highly classified information, about advanced rockets. I was in England when the first buzz bombs came over, before the V- 2's. I realized that we were definitely going to go into space because these rockets were clearly powerful enough to get us out of the gravitational field. So I knew then that this was coming. In 1946 I got a call to consult a bit with the then very young Rand corporation, when it was Douglas Aircraft, and invented the meteor bumper and calculated the meteor hazard to space vehicles, which I over estimated by quite a large factor.
You over estimated the danger?
Yes, by quite a factor. But I did invent the meteor bumper which is now used on all of the deep space probes. I never have gotten any credit for that.
This was basically a second skin?
I built it on the outside. You could put a second skin of about a tenth of the thickness and therefore weight of the major skin, and by so doing, reduce the hazard by about a factor of ten. With a 10 percent increase, you got a factor of 10 gain in punching power.
Why do you think you over estimated the danger?
I over estimated the masses. It was very difficult to find the masses. Theories were not very good. My basic theory was used and still is by the radio people, although I've never gotten any credit for it. The basic theory of the meteor process. At the time I was working on it, in the late thirties, there were a number of theories of meteors, and I went over the whole field, and put together, mainly from Hoppe, a theory which I found fitted the observations, you see. There were other theories that didn't fit. My questions are still used, in that field, for the basics, though they've been improved a lot, quite a bit. But it's very difficult to get the masses and densities of meteors and I'd over estimated it at that time.
What was the "dust ball". Was that a name for comets,
Well, that was Opik's name for what we discovered, as we went on studying the meteors. Just one of those things that became more and more evident, that we were dealing with extremely fragile bodies. And I think the real payoff was the low densities at least. That shower I mentioned in 1946, the Giaconi-Zinner Comet shower in which those slow meteors were about 20 kilometers high in the atmosphere. And they just had to be extremely low density. Those densities were less than a hundredth on the order of a hundredth of water. Extremely fragile.
And then we studied the photographs more — three of us were involved, Luigi Jacchia, Richard E. McCrosky and myself. McCrosky was one of the first ones to go to New Mexico on the meteor project. He an Harlan J. Smith had been in World War H together, in the Pacific, and came back sort of war weary, and were glad to get into this sort of a project, before they finished their AB's. They were too restless to settle back into pure academe.
They wanted to do some work first.
And so they worked. They were the ones who were the power houses back of that project, you know, in setting up the operating the stations. And then they both got PhDs. McCrosky stayed with me, still is here. Harlan Smith went on to be director in Texas.
Smith is doing radio work in Texas. Did he start that here?
No, I don't think so but he may have gotten inspired to do it here because I was always talking radio and I never did much with it. I don't know exactly how but he got into it. In any case, as time went along, we began to realize that these things were extremely fragile. They were breaking up all the time. You could see the trails. If forced us to realize that we were dealing with these very fragile things. The dust ball name was Opik's invention but the idea developed out of our observers' program. Jachim. and McCrosky probably should get the most credit for it. I was deeply involved in it all the time. It's just one of those things that grew on you. Before you realized it, you just had to think of something to fit the observations.
This grew over a period of years then.
Yes. But if you assume that they're dense bodies, you see, with a small deceleration in the atmosphere, you come out with larger masses.
If you assume that their density is more like four-tenths, sort of an average value, 4/10 of water in your meteoritic components, then you get lower masses.
I'm interested if this affected your thinking, in the development of the comet models, in 1949.
Well, I've written that up. Maybe it did but I don't know that it did, actually—
The comet theory — I've written that up for this NATURE article. The point was that, knowing about the meteoritic masses, and reading the literature carefully, Wurm's work, it became very evident that the amount of mass being lost by comets, time after time, was enormous. had, around 1940, come to the realization that Enke's Comet had been around for thousands of years based upon the meteors it had distributed all over the system. So that I knew that it had been there and had been coming back and had been getting rid of its gas, and the question is, with the old "gravel-bank" model, how we are you going to pick up enough gas? Because if you de-gas an object, you can't do that very many times and get any gas the next time.
The old idea is that these are gravitationally stable objects?
Yes, that it was a cluster or gravel bank and that you lost the absorbed gases by heating. You can't do that. You've got to pick them up somewhere. And then, I had done this work on the Zodiacal light using the polarization and calculated an upper limit to the amount of material, as gas, in the electrons actually, in the interplanetary medium. You've perhaps seen that paper? [An Upper Limit to the Electron Density near the Earth's Orbit." Apt. 109 (1949) p. 380.] We came out with a thousand as an upper limit to the number of electrons per cubic centimeter at the earth's distance.
Well, if you put a gravel bank out in that sort of an environment, you can't collect enough gas to do you any good. So the only thing was, the gas had to be intrinsic in the comet. And that was so obvious to me that I didn't think it was worth publishing. It was such an obvious thing, anybody should see. And I think that actually Paul Swings at least did. But the thing that gave me a scientific grasp of the problem was, I was worrying about meteor drag, or ablation, and the realization that there was gas coming off on the front side and that should make a correction to the drag coefficient. And when I realized that, in the middle of what I suddenly got the idea: "my God, this is what's happening to comets!" That was actually the way it happened.
Did you see the similarity before or were you working purely from the rational?
Purely rational but while I was thinking about the meteor coming through the atmosphere, and that this was a force due to the ablating material, suddenly I realized, my God this is what's happening on comets; there's a force, due to the ejection of this gas, the sublimation, and the thing is rotating, and it can be a force with a component normal to the radius vector. If it's rotating in the forward sense, you've got an acceleration and if it's rotating the reverse sense you've got a drag. I had been aware of the observations. I believed the non- gravitational effects. My knowledge of orbits gave me a judgment on that. I believed that those were good determinations and that in three or four cases, Wolff s comet worked the other way from Enke's. Enke's had been well established, well over a hundred years. Enke's went back to 1835 1 seem to remember. So it was quite clear that there were forces on the nuclei and this was the force. So then I was able to put it into theoretical form and check out that it made sense in terms of the sizes of the nuclei and the forces they were getting and changes in orbit. That's why I published the model and then went on from there.
[Handed the reprint from NATURE]. I believe that in the bibliography you sent me, this was in press. [NATURE 263 (1976) pp. 15-19.
Well, a comet being an ice ball is strictly obvious. What does one do about it, you see? Well, this gave me something to do about it so I published that series of three papers. The third one was delayed a bit because I was working on the theory of interplanetary medium. But that concept, you see, is pretty well accepted now, that the comets do produce dust and the small bodies in the inner solar system and we do have a quasi-equilibrium between the contributions of comets and losses. It turned out that the Poynting-Robertson effect is less important than the collisions. That I was able to establish in 1957, 1 think it was, at the Hawaiian Conference. And in 1954, whenever I published the other paper, I thought it was more a Poynting-Robertson effect and sputtering but those turned out to be less important than direct collision.
That's interesting. The papers that you pointed to in your bibliography that were of significance, the ones that were checked, seem to be in some cases the ones where you had done a lot of orbit computation directly. Do you consider this the most significant activity, insofar as being able to establish the similarity between swarm orbits and cometary orbits?
Oh, I don't know. I think the computations were just that I like numbers and everything in science depends upon the numbers, and by doing that sort of calculation, I had this sense of magnitude and significance of the observations and of the numbers. That's a complete thing. My wife's always impressed about my knowledge of orders of magnitude and things. I'll always guess on anything, and used to guess very closely on things that I really shouldn't know much about, but particularly dimensions and lengths.
You have an intuitive feeling for numbers?
No, I just have judgment, in looking, that's all. It's an observational thing. And from experience. I worked intuitively yes, but intuition comes from the computer inside my brain, where all this information is that's forgotten about, but still there.
Did you feel your model that was developed in these three papers, based upon enke's Comet, had implications for the history of the solar system? I mean, Oort's swork came out just a year after your first paper. [A Comet Model Paper I: Apt. III (1950) p. 375; II 113 (1951) p. 464; III 121 p. 750 (1955)].
At the same time. Oort's work, you see, to me, hadn't added anything particularly, except a rather good proof of what I considered Opik had demonstrated long ago, except Opik didn't bother to draw the right conclusions. But the existence of the comet cloud, and the stability of it, Opik had shown 20 years before. So I wasn't so impressed with Oort's work except for a very nice mathematical treatment of the effect of passing stars, and the fact that Opik had come out with the correct conclusion, that passing stars systematically increase the perihelion distance of the comets, which is absolutely true. And he just failed. I don't know how he ever missed on that one, or how I ever missed on that.
The next step, that the random deviations from the systematic effect would bring in new comets. Well, I think I really intuitively knew that, at the time. I wasn't at the moment, at the time. Since then I've been more impressed but at the time, I was not so impressed with Oort's work because I thought Opik had already established the cometary cloud and the stars to bring them in. But I should have gone into it and anticipated Oort by a decade. I've always kicked myself actually that I hadn't because I just assumed that his was the case and it was well known. Hah! It was obvious because of Opik's work.
There was another element in the paper that I find interesting, and that was that you referenced Rupert Wildt's identification of methane and ammonia in the spectrum of comets and then you came up with the icy conglomerate theory.
Well, I'd been watching the theories and the most I knew about abundances of elements was that next to hydrogen and helium, there was carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and those are the things you saw in comets. And, the stable forms of them, of course, are water, ammonia and methane. That was all. That's just from background facts I knew. I probably referenced that just to give a reference.
Of course we haven't proved that ammonia and methane are present in comets yet. They may not be, I don't know what's there, what form the CH and the NH where they come from.
Were you thinking of comets as tracers of the early solar system at that time?
Well, about the Opik Cloud, yes, because of the fact that they had to get out there somehow and they were solar system objects, our solar system objects, and therefore they were Important too. I didn't understand how they got there and I'm not sure I know yet, but they are very fundamental because they are solar system objects.
Did you ever lend any credence to the various theories that popped up from time to time about the local origins of comets?
Oh, they're nonsense. Velikowsky you mean? The model of having them blown out of Saturn, out of Jupiter?
Yeah, he still talks about it now. Obvious nonsense. No, there are no local sources. There couldn't be any local source for that type of object. The other thing I realized very clearly then was, you see, that in a solar system, you have the terrestrial planets and the asteroids made out of stuff that had to be in the environment at more or less room temperature so that none of these ices formed, but if you went out farther in the system, you should therefore have the same sort of thing form into ices, freeze. You'll find in the first paper there that I go into that. It game me a feeling that it was very sound, from the point of view of the evolution of the solar system which I've worried a lot about. All it was was a part of the system where it was colder. So that instead of just freezing out the earthy things, it froze out the ices too. It's that simple, that fundamental. That's part of it. And that's what made sense to me at the time, you see, that this was the natural situation. No, the Velikowsky Theory is obvious nonsense.
What about van Flandern's recent ideas about the explosion of an object in the asteroid belt?
Sheer nonsense. Oh yes, crazy. He talks about seven million years ago? Why, you can't tell where any comet was seven million years ago. Any comet. Let alone congeries of them. No, nobody knows exactly the extent to which there may be some groupings, which I presume are probably produced by perturbations. I would in fact expect that there would be a certain amount of grouping of comets in the Oort cloud due to the previous situation where perturbations have happened. I don't believe that the distribution of the incoming comets is completely random. It's very much fouled up by the selectional factors. If you look at the thing, in fact, I've plotted it on here, not the best orbits, but I played around with it a lot.
That White Globe that you have.
Yes. You'll find that they're not randomly distributed. But to try to put it into a context of distribution in space, would be very hard. The thing that I was working on here, in fact, spent a lot of time on it, that a single passing star, you see, will disturb comets along near a line, and those comets can be coming in over a considerable period of time, but. they all have their lines of apsides somewhere near a great circle.
And I spent a lot of time looking for great circles because B. Marsden has gotten better comet orbits with great circles around. I think I had six on there but when I computed the probability, the deviation is of the order of a degree or two. If you look at what would happen with a passing star out there, and how far do the apsides lie from the line of stellar passage, you'd expect a random deviation of a degree or two.
And as a consequence, I lined these things up and computed the probabilities. The deviations are bout right, but the probability is about 60 percentile level or something, the reality of the great circles found and it's not a significant number at all.
60 percentile is not significant.
No, not in probability. Or maybe it's even smaller than that. I've forgotten. calculated it. It's quite clear that I was not dealing with anything physical, of strong physical significance.
Looking for these preferential directions?
Yes. I played with that a lot and I shall continue to as Marsden gets better and better orbits for the new comets. And something may come out of that, but it will be related. There are some theories. Maybe some of them will be right. Somebody else had had a theory about the effect of the galactic center on these orbits.
I'm not familiar with that.
I don't know. I have a memory of hearing something in the last year or two but I don't think the data are very good yet and I'm waiting for Marsden's compilation of the very best orbits. I think he calculates orbits better than anybody.
He was off base a bit. He shouldn't have made that announcement.
We don't have to talk about that. I'm more interested in spending much of the remaining time, at least, talking about some of your institutional work.
When I saw that we were going to go into space, I became quite interested. And then when they began to talk seriously about the IGY satellite program, I realized from the Super Schmidts work with the meteors that I could photograph them and get good geodesy from satellites.
So you saw the value yourself. You weren't approached by the government?
No. It was entirely my idea. So I worked up a proposal. By that time I'd had enough experience with them so I could put big enough numbers in and make them sound plausible. See, what I'd been up against before was that, if you put in a realistic program cost estimate, it would cost too much and nobody would support it. So what you have to do is lie about it and then ask for money later on, and that was the entire system, way into the sixties.
Well, by this time I knew how to play with the original data so that it looked fairly plausible and get enough money so that I could do the job. So I figured I could do this for 3.4 million dollars and that was too much I thought at that time and probably correctly, for Harvard to swallow in terms of government contracts, letting me put up this project under the aegis of Harvard. Well, at that time, Leonard Carmichael of the Smithsonian was trying to find a director to revitalize this quite moribund Astrophysical Observatory. That was a wonderful program in 1906 when S.P. Langley started it.
C.G. Abbott, of course, was simply an engineer and not too bright. He'd never done anything to improve it though he could make it good operationally. So it was absolutely moribund then. He got talking to Don Menzel and Menzel sold him on the idea. He couldn't find anybody else to come to Washington. He couldn't even get a third rate astronomer to run the thing for him. Menzel sold, him on the idea to bring the thing to Cambridge. And then I don't know whether I volunteered or what not but what I had in mind, or why I took the job of the directorship was that so that I could then operate this photographic satellite observing program under the aegis of the Smithsonian, rather than Harvard. That's why I went along with that. And that's how it worked out.
What kinds of stipulations or restrictions did Harvard make?
Oh, they were pretty gentlemanly about it. Remember, at that time the Harvard College Observatory was a sinking ship as far as the scientific reputation in the world was concerned. I mean its prestige had been going down continuously for a long time and there'd been no new life, no new real vitality brought into it. We'd added some people, but it wasn't far from the four of us who used to do it — Menzel, Bok, Cecelia and myself So Harvard was worried about the strength of Harvard Observatory and glad to see some life brought in one way or another. And that's why they went along with the gentleman's agreement and set it up. So that got me started in the Smithsonian which I started with seven people and a budget of $50,000 a year in 1955. When I turned over the reins in 1973, there were 307 people on the staff and a basic Congressional budget of three million a year. That's in 18 years.
That's quite a growth. Did this may any contribution to your becoming a special consultant to the House of Representatives?
That's my satellite work basically, that attracted their attention and that program. But you see, I'd been trying to sell the space thing, and you're probably familia r with those books of W. von Braun and C. Bonestell. Have you seen those 1951 COLLIDERS articles? I was part of the team that tried to get these two volumes (from Colliers) going. One is White and Benson ["Meteoritic Phenomena and Meteorites" in the PHYSICS & MEDICINE OF THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE (1952) U. New Mex. Press pp. 137-170. was involved with them
didn't realize there had been a whole list of people involved. That's quite interesting.
Another thing I had a hand in 1952 was here at that meeting: Physics and Medicine of the Upper Atmosphere. You see, von Braun, being a German, a Nazi, was not really favored very much by the powers that be, so he wasn't really invited to this space program, which it was. And these people, Benson and White and Major Campbell, I think, were pushing for the satellites. So, it was a most interesting evening, I'll never forget, down in San Antonio, at this meeting. Von Braun was there.
What meeting was this?
1951. Von Braun was there and of course he was pushed into the background because of the prejudice against Germans. And Joseph Kaplan was much with me on the thing.
Did you know Kaplan from UCLA?
Oh yes, we worked very closely together on the whole IGY, and before that. He was interested in the upper atmosphere and I was interested in the upper atmosphere, you see.
Did you know Kaplan when you were a student?
No, not as a student.
What happened was that we had a drink, dinner, a long evening at the table with Corneius Ryan. He was a complete skeptic on the whole thing. He was an editor or writer for Colliers. I think he was on the editorial staff. He sat down with the three of us, completely skeptical about going into space. Absolutely a non-believer. And by the time we worked on him, as I say, over drinks, over dinner, and by way into the night, sitting at the table in the hotel in San Antonio, we sold him. Literally.
What arguments did you use?
Well, all the obvious arguments, but mainly that it was possible, you see. He hadn'l thought so. He thought it was just science fiction dreaming.
Was t here any element of "if we didn't do it, somebody else would do it first?"
Oh, I don't think that was a factor. It was the drama of it, the mystique of it, you know, that attracted his attention, because he was an imaginative guy. He just hadn't believed it when he came to this meeting to cover the story. But when we got through with him, he did. So he went back to Colliers then and sold them on a series of articles written by us and we had several meetings. You see the pictures of them in there.
And these are the books that came out of it.
These are the books that came out of the Colliers articles. So ve been involved in it from the earliest times. I made my first contribution in 1946, the meteors bumper and that's reproduced in these two volumes. [See Across the Space Frontier C. Ryan ed. (1952); see Colliers Oct. 25, 1952 pp. 38-48; March 25, p. 32].
I'm just wondering, knowing that you're interested in science fiction and all, he George Pal movies really began about that time, 1949-50-51. Destination Moon was one of them.
I don't remember that movie.
Well, they had a scene that was held in the Southwest some place, that sounded reminiscent of the meeting that you were talking about.
Well, maybe somebody told them about it. I don't know. I didn't know about it. But this was 1951. I wasn't involved anyhow. I don't know, maybe von Braun was. Everybody, you know, always contacted von Braun. I was a member of the Rocket Panel in 1946 also, you see, one of the early members with James von Allen and homer Newall and a lot of the names that became famous in the space age. Working with them. So I was involved in it as much as I could get into it.
It seems like an interesting coincidence, though, that this meeting was held at that time, these colliers books that I see came out and either Colliers or Life or Look at about the same time had these big UFO spreads.
Oh yes, well, that was going on too. That started in 1947 I think.
Yes, but I do remember seeing them when I was just barely old enough to appreciate it and that must have been the early fifties. They must have come out again then.
Well, it continued on rather continuously for a long time.
Do any of these things have any connection?
No, except public interest and the fact that with space in the offing, people got excited about it, whereas they couldn't have been sold on it so well, you know, a couple of decades before. It would have seemed too fantastic. Now it became in the realm of possibility, in terms of the general public side.
This period is quite interesting for many reasons. J.A. Hynek worked with you, during this period, didn't he?
Yes. I brought him in, because I had great difficulty in getting good people to work with me on this, because they didn't have any confidence in the whole project, or the outcome or anything else, you know. It was amazing that I was able to sell it to the National Academy — the IGY thing.
Well, the IGY was quite a bit later
Not later than Hynek. Hynek came in after we were planning for the IGY
Oh, in the planning stages.
'he planning had started long before. It was in 1955 you see, that they got the idea of adding a satellite to the IGY program and sold it to Eisenhower.
Was space really a dirty word in the government at that time?
don't know how the government felt about it but the general public didn't have any confidence in it. I suppose those UFO's helped to arouse interest and make the public feel that there might be something there when they wouldn't have thought so much before. I image it served a good purpose in terms of our objective — space travel.
What was the reaction of the scientific community to these various UFO flaps that started in 1947?
It was all recognized by the scientific community that they were talking nonsense in terms of their interpretation. Nobody in the scientific community took them seriously except maybe Hynek and this guy McDonald. And I don't know what was wrong with him, how he got into it. But Hynek, of course, got trapped in it. All the publicity of the thing attracted him so much, and he didn't have any way of getting publicity after he got through with the satellite tracking program. He had national publicity at that time and he couldn't keep it up and had to do something. mean, after you've been exposed to this sort of thing —
I am looking at the front of Life Magazine, October 2 1 st, 1957. Hynek's on top of a large earth globe. That's you on the left.
And what could he do for an encore? His only encore was to get back into the UFO business. I'm sorry but that's the psychological fact.
You feel that was the element?
Sure. He knows better. You can always rationalize that it just might possibly be true. But you know damn well that anybody who's gone to the effort of coming light years away in space is always going to be energy limits one way or another, they're not going to be doing these crazy things that the UFO's do. Furthermore, they were talking about green fireballs, as though there were something unusual about that. That was my first connection, I mean, serious contemplation of the UFO thing, and that was obviously nonsense, because there have been green fireballs forever. Some of them are green. There's nothing unusual about it.
You mean meteoric fireballs?
Yes, Real ones. That was a big part of the early UFO stuff in 1947. I went to the trouble of collecting a lot of data. The Hydrographic Office had a publication in which they had observations made by seafaring people all over the world and I went back over that for a number of years and there were lots of green fireballs. There's nothing new about it.
Did you ever talk extensively with Hynek about his reasons for going in?
No. I know Hynek so well, and we're good friends, and I like the guy. No, I wouldn't talk with him, because what's the point of it? Here's a guy who has got to get his kicks one way or another and that's the way he gets them. I know him so well. No, I wouldn't talk to him about it, except to kid him a little bid.
Then he's well aware of what he was doing?
Well, it's this business of kidding yourself a little bit, rationalization and so forth. To keep in the swim of things. You pin him down, you see as a scientist and he'll admit it and he'll say all the right words. But you get him out in front of an audience or newspaper reporters, that sort of an audience, and then he will say these other things.
I personally don't know what to think about it.
Well, I don't either. All I can say is that he, like all the rest of us, is human, that's all.
Getting back very much to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, you've already given me some insight into your funding philosophy; did you always ask for far less than you knew you needed?
No, I learned by that. No, after that, I began to ask for everything that the market would support.
I'm interested primarily in the growth of governmental support in science.
Well, it was the halcyon period in that because of the excitement of the space program and going to the moon and so forth, of course the thing got out of hand. We got too much support int he sixties.
You feel you did?
Yes. It was overdone. There was more money put into it than should have been. Then the cycle went down and now for a while there's been less money put in than there should be. But it's going back up I think to an even keel now with the National Science Foundation, to where we ought to be an think maybe the thing will stabilize at a reasonable level.
What was the effect of too much money?
Well, it drew too many people into science and related engineering areas and there was a glut on the market. That's the only bad part of it. I think some of the money was not used as effectively as it might have been. But the real waste, of course, in terms of science, was the manned program, which scientifically can't be justified on a dollar basis. But I maintain it should be justified on the basic principle that the goal of putting man on the moon is to put man on the moon. I think that attitude is perfectly sound. Whenever a culture gets to the point where it can do something new and great, it should do it. If it doesn't do it, it retrogrades. That's my principle. If it's one of the things we could do and we can do, then we should establish space stations, not for science, but for the development of the human race.
Who do you think is the most perceptive of the science fiction writers who carry this kind of philosophy?
Well, by far the best predictor was Arthur C. Clarke. His predictions are right on the button. He had the best vision of any of us. He was serious about it and he thought clearly. If you read his stuff, you'll find that in the fortes, he first came up with communications satellites and so forth. Arthur C. Clarke was by far the most accurate.
Did you have contact with him?
I have had over the years. I haven't seen him now for a couple of years or so. I just read his book about hunting for treasure, the scuba diving.
There are those similarities in your life and his life because he's an avid scuba diving fan.
Yes, so is von Braun. He says that he introduced von Braun to scuba diving, which may be true.
That's an interesting idea.
I picked up bottles in the Caribbean. It's nice to have one around, you know. Of science fiction writers. Arthur C. Clarke was definitely way ahead of all of us in visualizing it accurately. I had most of the ideas pretty well in mind; what would happen, but he was more precise and he wrote it down well.
Did you ever entertain any ideas to write fiction?
I've tried a time or two. I don't write easily enough. Isaac Asimov is a very good friend of mine. The way he can write, you know. You have to really be a really talented storyteller and be able to put it down the first time so it's readable. You can't write science fiction for profit. It used to be half a cent a word you know.
You couldn't life on that. What do you think is the future of science fiction now that we're in space?
Oh I suppose it goes on the same. It took a big turn, I've found, unhappy, in recent years. I don't read much of it any more. They've sort of worn out all the themes. They've turned to social problems more and with the hippy generation and the revolution of the 1960s, there's a lot of it that I find unreadable. I just don't care for it all. Even Heinlein.
Personally, I'm very disappointed in Heinlein's later work.
Yes, because he's gone along with this tendency. So there are not very many writers who wrote what I consider straight science fiction, which is fiction based upon scientific circumstances swith the assumption that you can do something else, and then follow through to see what comes out of it with a good story. That's good science fiction, to me H.G. Wells, Jules Verne an so forth.
Certainly H.G. Wells had those feelings of the sole inventor.
Yes, he was very worried about the social problems, and he never finished off his stories very well.
Yes, interesting combination. What about Larry Niven? He's one of the most modern. He seems to keep a little science in there.
I don't think I know his stuff. As I say, there are so many writers, I can't remember all of them.
They seem to be moving off into fantasy.
Well, some of the fantasy I can with but only mildly. I've never subscribed to Fantasy for example. I've cut out Astounding Stories and the Science Fiction Book of the Month Club in the last year because so much of the stuff I don' want to read.
Arthur Clarke's most recent work, Rendezvous with Rama and some of those basic ideas, do you see there as a continuation of his ability to predict?
I haven't read that one. The last one read was one about his treasure hunt and the ship, very good account. I don't know. The only thing I've seen of his recently is the television aids predicting three dimensional television for conferences and so forth, which of course will come, there's no doubt about it.
Sure. But I'm thinking more of the Gerald K. O'Neill ideas about colonization of space.
Yes. Well O'Neill of course realized that his first blush at it was full of holes, because the thing that he was going to put up there was an absolute trap for human life. He was making such a small vehicle that he had the absolutely ideal way of killing people with cosmic rays. And he ought to have known better. It's a little bit like Hynek, you know, there's a little bit of dishonesty, I think, in it. But I think, practically speaking, that the first colony has to be on the moon, for the realistic reason that you can go underground and get away from the cosmic rays. For any serious colonization, just don't see an alternative, because I don't see them building a big enough vehicle in the beginning that will protect people. If you don't have something like a few inches to a meter or so of earthy material between you and the cosmic rays, you get the maximum from the secondaries as well as the cosmic rays.
From the secondary collisions?
Yes. There's nothing more dangerous than to put a man out there with ten inches of steel between him and the outside. It's better to have nothing. The secondaries are strong enough and much more numerous than the primaries. There are so many more of them. In my first paper here — where are those reprints? I'll show you. This goes way back to the thirties, measurements involving Bowen. I studied the ionization as a function of depth in grams per square centimeter based upon the Bowen measurements. [See Figure I "The Constitution of Cometary Nuclei" (1976) IAU transactions (In Press) - Grenoble meeting, August 1976].
His is Figure I in which paper again?
"The Constitution of Cometary Nuclei." And here you have depths of a hundred grams per square centimeter and you see, as you go up, you get a peak at about 50 grams, 40 or 50 grams of matter. Back of that, you get more ionization than you get from cosmic rays directly If you're going to protect yourself in space, by a few orders of magnitude, you want to reduce it by 90 percent, you'll have to go to about 200 grams per square centimeter. That's two fee of iron. You need two feet of iron or the equivalent of protection if you're going to cut down the cosmic rays very much. Anything less than that and you're worse off. Well, if it's much less than that, you're worse off than if you're in open space. This is O'Neill's trap.
With only two or three people, you know, they put them in the middle of the fuel tank or something, but you're not going to do that for a colony. You've got to go under the moon, and later on under Mars. Eventually, when you can build a ship of the skin thicknesses of the order of two meters of water or you divide that by eight, a foot of steel. Until you've got a protection something like that, you can' survive out there. You've got to have that to have a safe colony. So, you can let them go out a little bit, get them some lead BVD's if you want to, but you're not going to have a colony, until you can put that sort of protection around.
O'Neill's work had cover stories in about every popular scientific journal and science magazine.
I talked with him, early in the game, and he knew about this. But he was just riding along with the tide.
Well, if what you say has to be accounted for from an engineering standpoint, I don't see how they could possibly put out something that big with that thick a shell.
They can eventually. But it's way in the future, when you can put huge quantities of material in space. In the meantime, if people are going to live there, and survive decently, you go to the moon. It's the only sensible thing to do. You can stay up there for a couple of weeks without too much trouble, but you know you can't leave somebody out a year in a spaceship. Too, many cosmic rays. It isn't so bad down inside the ionosphere except that if you've got the magnetosphere at the right height, then you're somewhat better off. But of course, if you're not at the right height, you're worse off, you're at the magnetosphere, with high energy stuff coming in.
Isn't this approximately where the Skylab people are?
I haven't checked into it to know exactly where the best place is. All this is based upon the practicalities of energy and so forth, They have to be high enough to go above this Atlantic anomaly, which is where most of the stuff comes in.
I don't know anything about it.
I haven't looked into it because I'm not involved in trying to design anything of any sort.
You've been in a number of advisory capacities to governmental organizations that do science funding and science research in some cases for quite some time. How do you see the priorities for science versus military?
The military, of course, was very much science-oriented, after the war, and supported science in this country, until the mid-fifties. And then came the Mansfield Amendment that knocked them out. The amendment knocked the military out of any research that wasn't specifically and clearly along the line of their mission.
That was in the mid-fifties?
No, I think it was in the sixties. And that knocked the military out of supporting general science. At the same time, the National Science Foundation was coming up so that we have a situation now in which the military is supporting less basic science than they should be, less than they should for their own good. The National Science Foundation is coming up to a reasonable level in supporting science generally.
Would you prefer to see the military continue in their support?
I would have preferred to see the military continue supporting more general basic research then they are today. I feel that they lose by it, and it doesn't give the scientist and the inventor enough alternative groups who are making the decision. In other words, if you go to the National Science Foundation, you're going to be judge by your peers in your field. And if you're a little bit out of base, out of line there a little bit, a little bit too far ahead, you know, if you're just not quite right in the groove, you're not going to get supported. Now, the military is willing to go a little further out of line because of the potentials that it may have for them. And as a consequence, I think there's some money wasted this way, but I think there's less chance of holding back on really good research that should have been supported, if you have more places to go.
What kind of research has suffered?
Oh, I wouldn't want to be specific on that. I've not thought about it enough.
Well, how do you see present funding? You said that the support of the NSF now is coming up to reasonable levels.
Do you see them continuing at this level or.
I see them growing slowly. Probably not much more than inflation. But I think they're getting close to a level that makes sense if NASA is continually supported and its budget isn't decreased. Now, NASA should increase with inflation. And then I think that the whole thing would be brought into good balance, if the military would come into a modest amount of basic research that is not directly, specifically definable as in the line of their mission, because they will do some things that NSF and NASA won't support.
They will take greater gambles, on things that might be of enormous importance, but the scientists don't see it. He doesn't want to have his name back of things where you spend $ 100,000 or $500,000 or something on that project. He doesn't want it to have it come back to him and say, "Look, what sort of a dope were you for didn't work out." Well, the military can afford more gambles of that sort, and some of them are going to pay off.
We didn't actually finish talking about how the department changed after Shapley retired.
With the Smithsonian coming in, and the solar projects, the observatory got into it and then we began to increase our activity and bring in more people. It was a slow process to build back prestige and I had great difficulty in getting high level people to come in. I knew lots of people I wanted, some of whom they've gotten after my directorship.
Why did you have this difficulty?
Well, because people didn't believe in the project.
I see. Were they worried about possible military interference?
No, simply because it was off their beaten track. Also because it was satellite geodesy and satellite tracking and there are not many people in astronomy really interested in that. It's very difficult to bring in good people.
The optical tracking method which you developed, you used both professionals and amateurs after Sputnik?
Yes but amateurs before Sputnik.
Yes. That was the big thing because we had that net going, the Moonwatch net going, before Sputnik and they were out there observing as soon as Sputnik went up. We had quite a few groups trained at that time. No, the amateurs came through magnificently on that and they would still be in it. I think there are over 100 groups still going when NASA cut off support of the thing.
Why did they cut off support?
Money. It was only $30,000 a year, but we needed that for the headquarters. If amateurs are going to be involved in a thing like that, they've got to have a feedback. You've got to give them a publication, and stuff, to keep their interest up, and make them feel that they're getting some satisfaction, some emotional reward for their effort. So you need a central bureau, and you need someone to write some letters and you need to have a little publication once in a while and you want to publish their results so that they see them and see their names in print. That wall all we were doing at that time.
Is this idea based somewhat upon Leon Campbell's work with the American Association of Variable Star Observers [AAVSO]?
That was what made me believe it would work against enormous opposition in the middle fifties, 1955.
Where did the opposition come from?
Well, Naval Research Laboratory; Tousey, for example, had a project in which they were going to hire people to do it. They didn't believe that the amateurs could do a good job. And I'd watched the AAVSO and I'd seen the magnificent work that the amateurs were doing, observing these variable stars, and it was really beautiful work. And I knew that, with the excitement of the space program, there would be a lot of people who'd like to do it. And they got enormous satisfaction out of it, and they did a beautiful job. As the years went by they got better and better.
They were making observations good to a fraction of a second and a minute of arc at the later stages, quite a lot of them were. But we couldn't keep it going and I think it's a shame. I think it's awfully good for science to have an opportunity for amateurs to get into it in that way where they're really contributing, and because of their friends, their relatives, children so forth were watching the think.
I think it's good for science, and I think it/'s very economical, you know, cost efficient. A cost efficient method of spending government money — $30,000 a year. They cut it off finally. I think that was after I was director any how. SO I wasn't involved.
The Naval test station had a large Moonwatch installation.
— I know. I've been out there. Inyokern and China Lake.
That's right. They had those elbow telescopes with five inch lenses.
Beautiful, yes. And good timing devices. A lot of them, you know, have really good timing devices, tapes and good clocks.
Who did the basic organizational work?
Well, it was under my direction but it was done by Armand Spitz.
That's right because I thought that Grace Schultz Spitz was involved in that.
Yes, she was involved. Both of them worked on it. But it was Armand Spitz I got into it, and he was eager to do it, and did a beautiful job.
You know him then personally?
Oh yes, I got him into it. He ran things for a long time. I've known him for a long time. A shame he had to die, I thought, very prematurely, in his sixties.
She was younger than he.
Yes. But he was not an old man.
Was he always down in the Delaware area?
I brought him up here and he was here for a long time. But in the earliest days, he worked from there. He did a lot of lecturing. We supported him to go around the country. He got money from other sources too for his lecturing.
What did the astrononical community think about this?
Oh, they were pretty cool about the whole thing. I mean cool in the sense of not being interested and sort of disapproving of al the publicity. They didn't like that sort of thing. It annoys astronomers very much. [Laughter]
But the basic idea had proven itself.
I don't think the amateurs minded. But the professionals are really very snooty about amateurs. They really are. Three out of four of them will have nothing whatsoever to do with amateurs. They feel that the amateurs are sort of a low level type. I never thought that. I respected their interest and their willingness to work hard.
Do you keep in touch with the amateur organizations?
Not much, no, I don't keep in touch with them. SKY & TELESCOPE is their center of attention.
We've already talked about the re-entry problems that you studied. Had you ever done any of these studies directly, with the goal of producing manned space flight capability?
The people who got into that in the military never seemed to be much interested in our efforts. They started on their own with wind tunnel effects and wanted to do it their way. So there was never much feedback from our work into the actual massive re-entry program, the manned space program. They liked to do it themselves. On the meteor end, there was very good interchange. They got interested in meteors. But not on the re-entry problems. That was so highly classified for one thing. They just didn't seem to want any advice from others who had been working on the same thing for decades. Rather odd.
Did you say this is usually the case, working with them?
Apt to be. The military mind, the organizational mind. They set an objective, they put somebody in charge. That somebody's got the job of getting it going. He goes around, I don't know where he gets the people, I don't think they like to go to the people who've been working in the field or near the field. They like to start from scratch and have an unprejudiced start.
You'd expect that of someone who was really trying to discover something new, a scientist.
The military mind works that way. The organizational mind works that way, like General Motors. I think any big organization works that way.
That's quite fascinating.
And it's sort of surprising too. I was surprised. I was never asked to be a consultant on any of the actual re-entry things although I was on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Air Force.
What were your main impressions once you had all these advisory position. Did you find it somewhat futile?
My attitude on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Air Force was to keep them doing basic science that would lead to things that were important to them. It was always putting out brush fires. Eventually they did cut out one by one the organizations that were strong and good. I think the Air Force Cambridge Research Center has been mostly emasculated.
Mostly by legislation, but also by policy. They're so highly specialized they don't get the outside scientists into their work very much and I think this is where the military loses. I made every effort there was to try to keep them carrying on their upper atmospheric research. It was important.
Was there a policy to get out of government-supported institutions and get more government or military support into universities?
Well, there attitude to get out of the universities, into the military, so that they had it under their own control, you see. The whole power structure concept. If you're spending money for something, you want to control it. And having the Mansfield Amendment fitted hand in glove into the organization power-minded mind, and it was so easy to fall into it and get out of the universities. And they were always a little uneasy with the university people because their wanting to keep the things open and not have classified projects, and so forth. So this fitted into the power structure's bureaucratic mind as the perfect solution so they just started moving out of pure science. In fact, they're moving out of Sacrement Peak Observatory now, and handing things over one by one to the National Science Foundation. Project the military ought to supporting, I think.
That's quite a serious move.
Yes, I think so. In the early days, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was a lively organization. I think the scientists had some input. After a while, it became more and more stylized, and finally became a single big meeting in a year with people reading papers and so forth. I don't think it's very much affected their policy.
Did you find that most of your value in these various advisory positions was to act as consultant for individual Representatives and Senators that had questions?
No, they didn't have questions.
Who did you actually deal with in the government?
Well, formally it was with the committee, by presenting things that you can find in the Congressional Record. And mostly then with their staff. Now and then, would have direct questions asked, but not very often, I don't think many people did. They didn't want to know too much. It became finally just a cover, to give them the prestige of the names of the people on the Advisory Committee. And they really didn't want anything from us. It was just a show.
They didn't have scientifically trained people on their staffs who could appreciate your advice?
They did in the early stages. Then they lost interest in it as time went on. I think the staffs deteriorated scientifically in time, too. The thrust of their interest changed.
It looks like a lot of your representation started, well, some of it started with the Kennedy Administration with you as special consultant.
What year have you got there?
Your special consultancy was 1960-73,
The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, when was that?
1953 to 1963.
That's the study of the upper atmosphere. That was connected with the upper atmosphere when we were contemplating going into space.
That was more communications, wasn't it?
I guess that was their major interest but they were also interested in the upper atmosphere.
I want now to ask you just a few general questions. There certainly has been a shift in character and size and scope and nature of astronomy, and also attitudes in science. I'd like to know what, in your opinion, have been the most significant changes and trends in the scientific community since you've been involved?
Well, I think it's been the growth of big science. The big change in my lifetime is from the individual scientist, who occasionally has an assistant or two and has graduate students around, to the team operations, with the big things. It's big science, is the change. And very much more money put into it. I mean, that's the real change in science.
How about after the big money was taken away. Do you see Bok's directive to the various graduate departments, as chairman of AAS, as a positive move in trying to cut back on graduate education?
Well, yes, I think that, in the sciences, we were geared up to train more graduate students than there was a market for. So, we just cut back, and have cut ba ck here at the observatory. I mean, we have far fewer graduate students than we could really support easily, in terms of scientific advice and monitorship and so forth.
It can be done.
Yes. We could handle three or four times as many with no impact at all on the operation. Instead of four or five PhDs a year, we could have 10 or 15. We just don't do it, because of the policy. There's not that many jobs.
I guess it's quite a difficulty when they don't have any place to go.
Yes. You have good men and there are not good places where they can use their training and talent to best advantage. I mean, this is a self-defeating operation.
Do you see the pruning process pretty much as a healthy process?
What's happened in astronomy is very interesting. The young people going into astronomy today are, on the average, far more competent than they were in my day. We're getting the cream of the scientific crop. Now, you see, in the thirties, twenties, physics had big doors opening up and you got your best minds going into physics. Well, today, physics has gotten to the state where there's solid state, and there are only a few centers which can do high energy physics. So how many places are there for them to go? So they go into astronomy, astrophysics. We get far better brains in astrophysics today than we had 30 or 40 years ago.
That seems to be changing the nature of the science too.
think, all for the better. I mean, these are just brillant students. They're much smarter than am. And they're certainly much smarter than most of my colleagues in the past. A lot of dopey people went in astronomy. I won't say what happened to them, but they went out and got some good teaching jobs, but they weren't competent. These are bright, bright people now. It's very good for the science. So we're really getting the cream of the crop now,
What about the change in instrumentation?
This is tremendous, unbelievable changes. You can take our 60-inch that I got going at Mount Hopkins. Now, with modem instruments, you can do better with that instrument than you could with the 200-inch in 1950.
You think astronomy has grown in this direction in proportion to its size, relative to physics and other physical sciences, chemistry, biology? Or do you think that astronomy has eapt forward more?
I think it's leapt forward more. Although, in some areas, in the bio area, cell structure and DNA and genetics and so forth and genetic engineering, their progress is comparable to ours. But I would say that the physicists just haven't made the progress that we've been making in the last 20 years.
Could this be because their revolution is slightly older?
I don't know. Maybe the subject's running out. I find it difficult to believe, but maybe their subject is running out and we haven't reached the peak of discovery in astronomy yet. I don't know. Now, there's a paper in which they thought they had a fractional charge. A quark with a third of an electron charge.
Now, if they can begin to find these things, there will be a big progress in physics. And, of course, the areas of greatest excitement now are, to me, both in physics and astronomy, namely, gravity waves — which may be the most significant new discovery to really upset all physics and astronomy when somebody actually measures some gravity waves. At the moment, I think that the theories of general relativity are in a bad way, and have to be modernized, maybe revolutionized and that this is physics and astronomy. And I think out of this, we may begin to understand what we're dealing with - the so called black holes - and that maybe these gravity waves are the major energy transfer mechanism, in quasars and all these black holes places.
You don't think that Weber's observation are real?
Oh no, he wasn't measuring anything. I don't know what he was measuring, but it wasn't gravity waves. They're quadripole and he can't measure quadripole, for one thing. I don't know much about it, but my friends who know about it have no confidence in it whatsoever. And nobody's been able to duplicate him, you know, and don't think they haven't been trhying. Europeans, with much better equipment. No, he wasn't measuring anything that had to do with gravity waves.
So, as I see it, astronomy has leapt forward because the technology has developed so much. Now you can use image tube techniques with a sensitivity and all the resolving power of the photographic plate. You can subtract out the background sky light and we're down to practically full quantum efficiency. We are near the I imit of what you can do, with so many quanta coming in. I mean technology has enabled astronomy to leap ahead, and the observations have become very exciting. We've just got an extremely exciting era. We're right in the middle of one.
It certainly seems exciting.
Oh yes. The gravity wave thing, I believe will be the one that really rocks the world back on its heels next.
How do you think that is going to come about?
I'm not sure. I don't know enough about it to have any sound opinion. I have friends workin on it.
Will it be an observational breakthrough?
Yes. Observatrional plus theory. I think that the observational will have to depend upon some theory, and then of course, the observation will feed back to give you a good general relativity theory, with all the higher order terms right, which they certainly don't know what they are today. And the space programs can give you higher order terms, when people get around to doing the right experiments, which they haven't done yet.
Will these be possible with the Space Telescope?
No. The Space Telescope opens up an entirely different field. It mah bear on this, but the Space Telescpe is another huge step forward, of course, of another four or five magnitudes.
How do you see the cutback in the aperture from three meters to 2.4?
Not very serious.
I've heard some people say that in fact, it's an improvement, as far as the direct ability and the stability.
In terms of the mechanics of the vehicle, I've heard that that is true. I think it probably is. The mechanics of the vehicle. Of course you can build much bigger ones. On the ground, we've got a big experiment, with the MMT, the Multi-Mirror Telescope.
Were you involved with the MMT?
Yes, Why hell, started it!
I had the impression Ray Weymann and a few others did.
Ray Weymann's been involved but it was started by the two of us. A.B. Meinel and myself. Meinel is at Optical Sciences Center in Tucson. We'd been working on this over the years. Didn't you ever see our gamma ray telescope with the 250 mirrors? I mean, I've been working on this when I was at the Smithsonian and before, trying to visualize some method. So I had my staff working on it here, and then, one day, Meinel called up. I didn't call him, and said that we could get these light weight mirrors from the Air Force. And so we immediately went to work on it. It was my project.
You see, this is where the published record has to be supplemented because there was nothing about that phone call in what I've read about the MMT.
I just wanted to see the thing go. I was in charge of the design of that and ultimately responsible as director. I was able to make the final decisions on all the basic parts of that instrument, except in the details of the active optics which is being handled by the group down in Tucson.
Right. How's that working out now?
Beautifully. The only trouble with it was that we had expected Tucson to share somewhat comparably the cost of the thing, and we thought that, with the active optics program, which there were doing so beautifully, that the National Science Foundation or somebody would give modest support. Well, what happened was that NSF paints black anybody associated with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory because we've gotten so big they consider us a federal agency and they don't want to give us any financing. So they wouldn't give, until the last month or two out of six years, the University of Arizona people a cent for developing active optics.
I didn't know that.
Well, the consequence was that without their funding, we had to depend entirely on our funding, which was sizeable but seven million dollars altogether is quite a bit, and they were able to get together maybe a million and a half or something, plus the mirrors. This delayed it about two years, and probably cost us another half million because we had the Philco-Ford people build the basic mounting structure with two very able guys running it and they built that eight-foot ring. We're using a rolling bearing at the bottom instead of an oil bearing. Eight feet to three ten-thousandths of an inch.
An eight foot bearing. And they got the Italians to make the thing. Well, the trouble was with all these delays, these guys got out of Philco-Ford and founded their own company. So Philco-Ford didn't have their competence and that has gone to cost overruns and the delays which cost a hell of a lot. This basic concept was mine, and I take credit for the MMT because with Meinel, who just got into the optics and got out, then plus the Tucson people on the active optics, they've done a beautiful job. Weymann was the head of the department of astronomy and director of the observatory at the University of Arizona.
That's how his name got involved in it?
Yes. He's worked hard enough on it, from the administrative point of view But it was Meinel and I who started the thing and I started it with Smithsonian funds. Mount Hopkin, was my idea too. I'll give you an example of my engineering ability. This is an amusing bit of bragging, but we were talking with the Philco-Ford people about the optical support structure, you see, which is nothing like a tube. And they had this new terrific material, 200,000 pounds per square inch strength, you know, ten times steel and all that, and they had a tube of it about the size of my finger.
So I played around with it a little bit. I said, "Do you mind if I break this?" "Sure. Go ahead, break it. fine." They had overstuffed chairs with a hard metal piece across up here you see. I know how to use my body, so I put my whole weight, and broke the damn thing into three pieces. You know, this unbelievably strong stuff! Well, that cut them out of putting that in, as a basic material in the structure. I guess they used it in lots of places, but I didn't want to have it around the telescope — somebody drops a monkey wrench and breaks half of the support system.
You mean, it's very brittle?
Brittle. Hard carbon compound.
How vibrationally damped will very brittle stuff be also?
I think it will be all right in that respect. The damping process would have been all right. It was the question of actual physical breakage. But I don't know how good it was on compressional strength. I still think, pretty good, but of course, it's brittle. You can't use a brittle thing. I could tell it was brittle by feeling it. And I figured I could break it, and I did, by God. [Laughter] Now, that's what I mean by engineering intuition. The strength of materials that I learned on the farm, playing around with a vise and hammer and tin cans.
What did you eventually decide to use for the material?
I think it's steel. I'm not sure. I don't know what was finally done because I've been out of it for four years now,
Isn't pretty much the geometric design just as important as the materials that go into it, like the series truss?
Yes. At that time, we had it all studied very thoroughly by this company in Boston here.
Which company was that?
I don't remember. As I say, I've been out, and I've blocked on my -memories of all this for a long time, because, you know, when you turn over administration to somebody else, the only way you survive is to get out of it and I've just gotten out of it all.
I can appreciate that.
But all the basic decisions, like the building, that was my planning. We are using an altozimuth mounting and the building turns with it which reduces the whole size and you have all the rooms in the building always the same juxtaposition to the telescope so you can move equipment in and out, just as though it were a fixed physics laboratory.
That's very interesting.
Now, that's an innovation in astronomy. I was responsible for the decision that led to that and all these decisions, I made finally. Of course, I had awfully good help on it, I don't take the credit for details. But the judgment as to what we should do always went the way I wanted it.
Well, then first saw the MMT design, I think it was in Sky Telescope. It certainly was a radical departure.
Well, now the problem is, you see, how are you going to make the really big groundbased telescope? You have the MMT's design, and pretty soon we'll see what its good and bad characteristics are. Then you have the multi-niiffor/multi-telescope possibility of piping al the light into a comon center from a number of telescopes.
Yes, this is what seems to be the coming idea, based upon your design.
Well, no, there are three basic methods, you see, whereby you can build a huge telescope. The MMT is one [TAPE 5, SIDE 2] We've been over this ground a lot. One is the multi-mirror telescope in which you put a number of mirrors onto one frame and guide them all together and bring the images together by active optics. The other is a number of modest sized telescopes to bring the light all together. That's being tried now.
Would this be Coude type arrangements?
Yes. And then the third is the Areceibo concept of a lot of mirror on a sphere and then in the center somewhere, you have a device to bring light to a focus. Now, that one has to be made very carefully, with hexagonal mirrors that are touching, you can satisfy the infrared people, but it does have its disadvantage. For infrared you keep using a different part of the mirror all the time. And that is very very bad because infrared people are working down to 10' of the sky background and you can't play around with your optical path.
You're using different parts of the mirror on the Areceibo designs?
Yes, because the diurnal motion across moves it, you see.
But I rather think — and that's why I'm impressed with ours — when we can get the mirrors, this costs only about half or less than half what a telescope with a monolithic dish of that size would cost — in fact, much less than half
There's also a question as to whether a dish that size could be made.
Now ours is 76 inches — but now, if you're going to go to a 500 inch, the situation might change. Now, the people at Kitt Peak are worrying about this, and of course, when you go to multi-miffors, there's a thickness to diameter ratio, which is more or less constant, if you are going to hold a good figure. And of course, the smaller the mirrors, the thinner they are, and therefore the less weight you have and the cost in proportion to the weight in these big things is important. So they're talking about one meter, small ones. But then you have to balance against them — I haven't looked at the numbers — the cost of your active optics, and the imperfections that come in from lots of little mirrors. So I don't know where the optimum is going to come.
But I image that the multi-mirror telescopes will probably use mirrors not larger than our 72 inch And my guess is that the best method will turn out to be the concept of putting them onto one frame. I've been pushing for the big telescope for a long time and it was the only way I could get the money out of Congress, you see, to build a big telescope, because they'd never have supported a big telescope of conventional design.
So the only way I could get the money to build this was to say, "Look, here's something for the future, and it doesn't cost too much, it's much less actually than the four-meter dishes that have been built. It's only about seven million dollars, even with all the overruns and this big building." And I could sell that. So I did. I couldn't have sold a conventional telescope. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory wouldn't have anything bigger than a 60.
Whom did you sell it to primarily?
Well, the Congressional committees.
The committees. You dealt with them by committee, not personally.
Yes, with the committee. Well, with awfully good help, in terms of the people at the Smithsonian. Jim Bradley who's retired now, knew the Hill up and down. There's the guy who really put the finishing touches on the final growth of the Smithsonian Observatory. I mean, he just knows the Hill like nobody. He was the guy who put the right touches on the right people. He's essentially the administrative officer of the Smithsonian. He was the assistant director in charge of management.
What's his background?
I don't know if he really had any engineering. He got started with the Department of the Interior. He was in it a long time. I don't remember all the things he did.
But he moved from that direction rather than from science.
Yes. Not from science, not an engineer, but a good sense and he does know people.
That's very desirable. Would you call him a modem day George Ellery Hale?
No. Hale was a scientist. No, he was just a superb operator on the Hill, as they call it.
Was he involved at all with the establishment of the Smithsonian Astrophysical?
No, he came in later. The man who was before him was a sad sack, and caused me unbelievable pain and trouble. In fact, cut me out of four years of retirement pay.
Who was that?
His name was Keddy. An S.O.B. of the first order.
How are the administrative arrangements between Smithsonian Astrophysical and Smithsonian going on now?
Oh we were a model for the administration, after I got this thing going well because the whole institution was so backward in those days that it was sad. This man didn't believe in telephones. In fact, Harvard had to pay some of their telephone bills in the early days, because Keddy thought that telephones were a waste of money, and we should come down and talk to him. And if you compare the cost of a telephone call and a trip to Washington——. That was a sad, sad situation.
We had a lot of innovation administratively much to my surprise because I never considered myself an administrator, never was a good administrator, never liked it. I just did it because I wanted to get this satellite tracking program going. But it turned out that I knew how to deal with this sort of thing because I'm just so lazy on administration that I believe in getting the professionals do it, I would never turn a hand in that area if I could find somebody else who knew what he was doing to do the job for me. And not many administrators would have worked that way.
I mean, they may want to be administrators, but they're not psychologically willing to turn over the direct power and activity. The principles are so well known, so obvious and so simple, that everybody must know the principles, but so many people don't use them. The simple thing is that when you delegate responsibility, at the same time you delegate authority. As simple as that. That's all there is to it.
And I always did that, and with that combination, these guys knew it was their job and how it came out was going to reflect on their credit, and they worked themselves to the bone for it. And I found people who would do things that were just way above their ability, when they were given both responsibility and authority. And that's the basic principle.
You have to select your people carefully too.
Yes. Well, one makes a lot of mistakes in that. It's very hard. Also, you have to put them in the right spot. Also you have to recognize that through a little observation — there are certain things that some people can't do. There's a job with a certain number of things to be done and here's a guy who just can't do certain things. Well, you find somebody else to do that and let him do the things he can do. You've got to use some judgment and observation, as to what he's doing. You have to keep tabs on him. But the principle is — some people just can't do things that they ought to be able to do. And you've got to recognize it when it shows up and not try to force them into an area where they're not effective.
How did you recognize these things? Was it different in each case of did you have a method?
It was entirely different in each case. It was the individual man, what can he do?
Well, I found as a whole, in my era, that they're all very practical guys. In World War II, they got into all sorts of jobs, and they performed magnificently.
Everything from degaussing to decoding the atomic bomb
Yes, and radar countermeasures, all those things. So, while astronomers today I think are brighter than we were, I'm not sure they're quite as practical. Maybe they are. A lot of them are.
Did you have a feeling that younger astronomers today are less what you would call classical astronomers and more akin to physics?
Yes. They're more akin to physics. And physics is more important to us today. And then of course, there's this big area of computing which is entirely different. The type of computing mind we had then is a different type. If you're going to do good software, that is not the same as doing good computing in the old days. These are not the same people. An awful lot of people have this peculiar competence. You need a lot of them around. But yes, I think they're more akin to physicists of the twenties than they are to astronomers of the twenties, in their attitudes. It's more opportunistic and less devoted to long programs and collecting data and then seeing what you do with it afterwards.
Can you make any value judgments on this kind of a change?
Oh, I think it's greatly for the good of the science, yes. Astronomy is better off.
Do you think the era of long range data collecting is over?
No, but I think that now, we do it more mechanically than in the old days. It's automated. Space probes are completely automated, remote control and so forth. 7hat's the tendency, which is now much more practical. It wasn't practical at all in the twenties. Now it is practical to do all this. So your data collection will be more. But I would say that it's going to be quite a while yet at least before you do your basic work with automation and remote control. But they way it's going with the big telescopes now, I don't think that there'll be many more telescopes built in which the man sits out in the open and does everything. He does it with remote control, down in a nice warm room where he's comfortable and can do a better job.
Your photoelectric shutters that you had, looking for the bright fireballs so that you could take spectra of it, was one of the first automated telescopes.
Yes. That's hard to do with the night sky.
Yes, especially in the city area with the headlights.
In the city area, but anywhere that there are headlights.
Did you every get anything on those Super Schmidts that you couldn't interpret?
You mean a UFO type of thing?
No, I don't think so. I don't know of anything that was a real image. You've got scattered light images of various types around that you learn to ignore very soon, because they're repetitive and so forth. No, there are no mysterious things going on.
No structured images?
No. Right in the middle of this UFO period, we have these observing stations in New Mexico, right there where it's happening. They didn't see these things. There was only one crazy guy who tried to make publicity for himself, who argued that we were covering up data. I've forgotten who it was. It was a guy, one of our people, went over to the big telescope at the University of Texas and shot at it with a gun.
Anyway, it was one of our people that sort of went berserk. But the fact was that the sound people down there were out observing every night, at the time all these great things were happening down there, and they didn't see it.
That's sort of a crucial point.
You were seeing things, out in the city, you know, like lights reflected off of wires, that was one of the big things. And there may be some hoaxes. There are always a few hoaxes around. All sorts of atmospheric phenomena. And at White Plains Proving Grounds, they were sending up things they didn't want to talk about.
When you look back over everything you've done, one of the longest vitae I've ever seen, what do you feel will be your most lasting contribution?
He had not?
I don't think he knew. And I knew it all the time, you see, and I just assumed it was generally known.
Did he acknowledge Opik's work?
In a footnote you'll find in the original paper when somebody told him about it.
He made a note. That's good.
Could I ask you about your personal life? You've had two marriages.
What were the circumstances?
Well, my first wife and I were interested in tennis at UCLA and mathematics. She was a mathematician. We met in a mathematics course. Eventually we drifted apart and got divorced in 1934 or 1935.
That was after you moved here.
Was it the change of scenery that did it?
No. It was a complicated situation. As you always find in your personal relationships. She eventually committed suicide in the late forties.
Were you in contact with her at all?
No. Hadn't been since 1935. got married again immediately after the war to someone I met here in Cambridge. She's a psychologist.
She has an interesting first name. Is she French?
No. It was her grandmother's name. I don't know how the grandmother got the Babette name. An aunt maybe. I think the aunt was named for somebody else. They're not French. Actually Jewish. We have two daughters.
With your first marriage, was there any effect upon your career at Harvard?
No, I don't think the divorce affected things any, Astronomers have always been pretty immune to that, being affected. And I think scientists generally think that your work is one thing and your private life is something else. They really separate it. That's been true all this century.
But at Harvard in the thirties, of course there were some very strong personalities here and I'm interested very much in Shapley's activities prior to World War II and of course, here was a personality that went way beyond science.
How did the interpersonal relationships affect science here?
Well, I think adversely. I think it's fair to say that Shapley's principle was "divide and rule," and his whole process was to try to keep the four of us apart. The key people in the observatory for a decade there were Bok, Mensel, Cecelia Gaposchkin and myself. I don't know how much of it was intentional, how much was intuitive, but the whole idea was to keep us as much at swords' points as he could.
Did that have anything to do with Mrs. Gaposchkin's changing from stellar atmospheres to variable star work?
It may have, I don't know.
Of course that's what Sergei did professionally.
I don't think that brought her into it. She was in variable stars all the time anyhow.
But she changed from doing a lot of theoretical work, just to pretty much the observational side.
My impression is that was lartgely a matter of the opportunity of the p;late stacks and all those marvelous records. I rather think that that was the treasure trove that led her into the field, and Sergei of course first came here because of that. I mean, it was an incentive for him. But those plate stacks, you see, just had these remarkable records.
There was a period of time when people where throwing some of the plates out. Do you know anything about that?
No never the good plates. There was a period of time in which we cleaned out a lot of the junk, and reduced the volume and so forth, but you'll find if you study those plates, that about half of them are extremely inferior. By the time I was here, about a third of them, maybe a quarter, were very inferior plates taken when clouds came over five minutes after the exposure started and so on.
This business of preserving and cluttering up your records and your stacks with plates that are actually poor, if you're down two or three magnitudes from the limit, and you are comparing with other plates, you're not going to get anything out of them. It would be rare that you'd have a star of any importance. And, also, you'd be looking through the clouds., You wouldn't get the proper spectral distribution. It's going to be an erroneous magnitude. It won't give you the right answer.
And your positions will be way off.
Well, they aren't much good for positions. They were entirely for photometry. But the point is that those inferior plates are valueless and so a lot of them were thrown away. But I wouldn't call it throwing away plates. It was just getting rid of the junk. A lot of the junk. I'd say we should have gotten rid of another 10 or 20 percent if we'd been at all thorough about it. We were still conservative in trying to save the ones that might be useful. And only throwing away the ones that we were sure weren't worth a damn.
Vasilevskis used to say that a bad plate is worse than none at all,
It can be, that's true.
It leads you to wrong ideas.
Yes, because if you change the spectral distribution of a blue star coming in, you get a wrong magnitude and that leads you to wrong conclusions.
Yes. People worried about that with quasar variabilities. I remember that. Well, I think we've covered in this session about four hours I guess, we've covered quite a bit of territory. Is there something you have any urge to include that I've left out?
No. You'll probably pick it up again some day
Ok. So I thank you very much for this.
Well, I hope you can get something useful from it. I don't know what good that is, but if you're sure that there's some useful purpose, I guess it's not a waste of time.
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Thank you very much.