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This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Vera Rubin by David DeVorkin on 1995 September 21,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5920-1
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This interview is part of a small program to document the recent history of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). These interviews were used as background studies to help authors of chapters of the centennial history volume of the Society research and organize documentary materials. The volume to be published in 1999. This interview discusses Rubin's family background and years at Vassar; working at Naval Research Laboratory; influence of Richard Feynman on her studies at Cornell; teaching, observational work and spectroscopy at Georgetown; AAS meetings.
I know you were born in Philadelphia in July, 1928. Why don't we start by having you talk about your father and your mother, their backgrounds, origins, occupations.
My father was an electrical engineer. He had been born in Vilna and came to the United States as about a seven or eight year old. His father had worked in the leather business and preceded the family and went to Gloversville, New York, in about 1905. About a year later my grandmother followed. And the family moved to Gloversville. At the end of his life, which was when he was in his 90's, he spent weekends with us. And every weekend we taped some of his history. He had a wonderful, wonderful life in Gloversville.
There was a remarkable high school. Many of his close colleagues — high school classmates — became very prominent people. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was still in his junior year in high school. So he remained in Gloversville to finish his high school. Then he joined the family and entered the University of Pennsylvania where he got a degree in electrical engineering.
What was his name in Vilna, because your maiden name is Cooper.
His name was Kobchefski. And his first name was Pesach, which was translated as Philip. He was certainly probably the first person in his family to go to college.
Was it your grandparents who wanted to send the children to college? Was this something he wanted to do?
He was awfully smart. He was very talented mathematically, and I think there was never any question. My grandparents opened a store where they sold leather goods and ladies' gloves and things like that in West Philadelphia. He had two brothers, both of whom went into the leather business. They opened a leather tannery in Philadelphia. He was the oldest. The next brother was also very, very bright. He never went to college, but he had patents on leather tanning processes.
Was there any connection still with Gloversville, for the leather goods?
There was still some family back in Gloversville. There was an aunt in Gloversville. And as a very young child, I remember going back for summers, going to Lake George, going to Saratoga Springs. Even quite late in life, when we took a trip to New England, we stopped in Gloversville. My mother's maiden name was Applebaum. Her first name was Rose. Her mother had come from an apple orchard in Bessarabia to Philadelphia.
And that year I don't know, but it was before the turn of the century, and her mother was a remarkable, energetic person who would keep us enthralled as children by tales of her crossing the ocean essentially in steerage and not eating because the food wouldn't be kosher and so forth. She arrived in Philadelphia, and I think at about the age of sixteen and within a few years, had married someone who had also come from near where she had come from. He was a tailor. He hand sewed and finished things for John Wannemaker in Philadelphia.
Was there any connection with the Baron Hirsch movement?
I don't know. So, my mother went to William Penn High School in Philadelphia. My mother was born in l900, my father a couple of years before, and so she must have graduated about l9l8. And she sang.
She had a very beautiful singing voice, and she said that she was always embarrassed by being asked to sing, so she took vocal lessons with someone I know only as Bogette. Her name was Applebaum, and she had sat at high school next to Marion Anderson, who was also studying with Bogette. She took a job with the Bell Telephone Company, calculating mileage for private phone lines. And she met my father, who was an engineer working for Bell Telephone. But they apparently had also met through mutual friends. This was in the l920s.
Now, just to make sure, your father went to a high school in Gloversville.
Okay. And he came to Philadelphia for...
University of Pennsylvania?
So your father was the first to be college trained; I take it your mother was not?
She was not college trained. No one in her family, her generation, went to college.
You were born in July, l928. Do you know anything about the circumstances of your birth?
I was born in Temple University Hospital. And that is really about all I know.
There were no complications?
I don't know. I presume not. My mother said that she was able to watch the delivery in the reflector above the light over the delivery table. She founded it interesting but told the doctor afterward that perhaps it should be moved.
Were you the first child?
No, I was the second.
Could you tell me about your brothers or sisters?
I have one older sister. Her name is Ruth Cooper Burg. She has just retired as an administrative judge from the Court of Contract Appeals of the United State Department of Defense, I guess.
Here in town?
Here in town. She heard cases against the government, like Admiral Rickover and the submarine overruns, and so forth. If contractors had cases to bring against the U.S. government, she heard them.
Well, clearly, you are both college educated.
What about relatives, favorite relative, influential relatives?
The most influential people were, in fact, not relatives. But there was a high school friend of my mother's. When we moved to Washington when I was ten, she became my mother's closest friend. This woman, who has just recently died, had wanted to be an engineer, and the University of Pennsylvania would not admit her as an engineer. But she got a teaching degree, and she came to Washington to work at the Bureau of Standards. And she married a mathematician at the Bureau of Standards. And they were enormously close to our family.
What was her name?
Her name was Goldie Back, and she married Michael Goldberg in Washington. So her name was Goldie Goldberg, but she was often called Goldie Back.
Great name. Now she was at the National Bureau of Standards.
When we met her she no longer worked there.
During your first ten years in Philadelphia, I'd be interested to know what your impressions, recollections are of home life. What was it like?
It was very, very pleasant, although it was the Depression. And my father's recollections many years later were kind of nightmarish, that this had been a terrible part of his life. He left the Bell Telephone Company, and I'm not even sure when, mostly because he was bored. He didn't have enough to do. And when he went to tell his boss or some very high person, this person said to him that "that's the trouble with you Jewish boys." He told him that they were planning to set up a laboratory, which turned into Bell Labs, and they had planned to send my father there. But he was too impatient to wait. So he quit his job.
What was his job specifically?
He was an electrical engineer. I do not know what he did. Maybe if we listened to these tapes of his that we would even learn, but I don't know what he did.
Okay, I have to ask: are the tapes in good shape?
I tried copying them for children from tape recorder to tape recorder and didn't get a good copy. But they are in good shape. So I don't know what he did. And then the Depression came along. I was born in '28; probably by '32 or '33 he was out of work, and he tried going into the laundry supply business with a brother-in-law. I remember we used to go out into the country in the summertime on the weekends in his laundry supply truck. He built us a doll house, which could be a museum piece. From about '33 to '35, he was relatively unemployed and had lots of time.
He got plans for a colonial mansion from Good Housekeeping or something. And it has lights; at one point it had a radio that played. It has been played with by children, grandchildren, really a beautiful thing. That's what he did with himself during the Depression. Ultimately, when my parents were married, they bought a house in Mount Airy, and when I was about four or five, they just shut the door and walked out because they could not afford to keep up the payments.
Mount Airy is a suburb, a beautiful suburb of Philadelphia. And we moved in with my grandparents in West Philadelphia, my father's parents who had this store. I never realized until the end of my father's life what a traumatic experience that had all been for him. So we lived with my grandparents till early '38, and by then the job situation was better. My mother worked at times in the store.
And my father worked, I think, probably a little bit at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and then was offered a job in central Pennsylvania in a town called Selinsgrove near Sunbury, in charge of construction of a state hospital or some state facility, and he took that. We spent six months there, and then he was offered a job at the Department of Agriculture in Washington. He applied for civil service. The Depression was just about over, and jobs were available.
So your recollection of home life was ...
...incredibly pleasant. Everything about it was pleasant. My parents were enormously in love, and they really had a wonderful life. My father was devoted to my sister and me. And my mother was, too. We had piano lessons. We must have walked to our lessons for what seemed like an hour; it may have been quite far away. I mean, I learned much later in life that this was some free community center. None of this mattered, you know. The walk to the lesson was an event. My mother had a baby grand piano, an engagement gift from my father. And so there was always a piano in the house. She stopped singing when she got married. I don't mean she stopped singing completely, but she stopped singing publicly at all.
What kind of singing was it?
Some of it was opera; some of it was in shows. The Bell Telephone Company put on a very major show every year in Atlantic City. And they would go and rehearse, spend time there, they being the people in the shows.
Did she sing for you, for your sister?
Oh yes, sure. She sang around the house. But I think it was never considered that she would work after she was married. I mean, I think I know that it was never considered.
Did she sing in temple? Did you go to temple?
Yes, we went to temple, and she sang in temple all the time. Until the end of her life, she sang in choirs. Yes.
Did she have any interest in cantorial?
No, I think not. Probably in her generation at her synagogues, women would not be cantors.
In Philadelphia before the age of ten, were you ever taken to the Franklin Institute?
Yes. Now you have reminded me of a few things. At a very, very early age I was taken to the Morse School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where there must have been an accelerator, a little Van de Graaff, or something. We held hands, and our hair stood on end, and blue sparks came out. I remember that with great enthusiasm. I was very young. Later, around the time we left, I did sort of fall in love with the Franklin Institute. I remember two things.
They had these cones that you put sand in, and they were suspended on chains from the ceiling, and they made lissajous figures that got smaller and smaller. I could have spent a day in front of those. And then they had a very large kaleidoscope that you actually walked into. It had mirrors on all sides and lights coming in. I think I am remembering this correctly. And I got very interested in kaleidoscopes and about that time I made a kaleidoscope out of my mother's icing squeezer.
It's a round cylinder, like an aluminum cylinder, that you fill with icing and you squeeze the thing down. And it had a screw-on front for the different kind of design. So I screwed on some wax paper with little pieces of things in the front, and I cut three pieces of glass, and I made a kaleidoscope.
It had a shiny interior?
No, I used the glass as reflectors.
Oh, the glass was inside.
I cut three little pieces that I could just put in.
Now this was before age ten.
Must have been about ten.
I have no idea. We rented this house in Selinsgrove from a professor who was on leave for the year, I think at the University of Chicago. He was a professor at Susquehanna University in the town. And in the attic there was a set of the Book of Knowledge or the Wonder Book or something. We had really not had things like that in the house. We lived with my grandparents from the time I was about six on, and the house was not arranged really for children, and there weren't children's books.
There were my father's college books, I remember, and my uncles were certainly very literate, and there were things around, but not really for children. And I know that I spent time reading these books. I learned how to press flowers in sand in these children's books, and I did that. I may have learned how to make kaleidoscopes in that. And I must have known the kaleidoscope from the Franklin Institute. I really adored the Franklin Institute.
Now by the time you would have gone there and remembered it, I think the Fels Planetarium would have been there.
Yes. After we moved to Washington, we had a little old car and since we were very family oriented — my mother and father both had sisters and brothers and we had cousins in Philadelphia — we went back to Philadelphia a lot, maybe once every two months and for all the holidays. And so, I may be confused as to when I did what, but certainly probably from the time I was ten to thirteen or fourteen I went to the Planetarium a lot.
A dozen years ago, half a dozen years ago, when I gave a talk at the Planetarium, I resurrected from an enormous postcard collection which my sister and I had, which I still have, a postcard of the moon which I wrote to my sister saying I was sitting in the Fels Planetarium waiting for the show to start, and they were playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." I really grew up wishing I had been George Gershwin. So I copied the front and the back of this postcard and used it to start my lecture with. So yes, I went to the Fels Planetarium.
Maybe we should talk about your schooling. I am looking for influences. You must have started your schooling in Philadelphia. Was there anything about it that is remarkable?
There was nothing about it that was remarkable. In fact, I really only remember one episode, or maybe that was remarkable. No, I didn't write well; I was left handed. I remember that. And teachers were always giving me this lined paper to practice, and it was never neat enough. And then in the third grade I had a horrible, horrible teacher who insisted I write with my right hand. And she also required that we get a Philadelphia newspaper, I don't remember which one, each night and bring something in, a newspaper which she named. And my parents refused to buy that newspaper. I have no idea; it may have been financial. It was not presented to me in that way. We got a newspaper, and it wasn't that newspaper. And they weren't going to buy that newspaper. And I had to go tell this teacher that my parents would not buy that newspaper. And that's about the only episode I remember from my first four or five years in school.
Do you remember how the teacher reacted?
Nope. I remember worrying. I remember my feelings. It is my recollection that there was no problem. It ended there. She either said okay, or she said if they wouldn't, whatever.
But this was traumatic for you?
Yes, it was very traumatic for me. In Philadelphia at that time we sat at desks that were attached to the floor, and we sat with our hands folded and really thought teachers were next to God. What the teacher said, you did. And you didn't tell a teacher that you weren't going to do something.
But your parents didn't intervene for you. This was your responsibility.
No, that's right.
Would you say this is the way they brought you up?
That is correct. They insisted we do some things for ourself, even if we didn't like to do them.
You had a sister who was two years ahead of you.
Could you characterize the relationship between the two of you and how she may have been influential in your upbringing.
Well, I would say, certainly in retrospect, we were very, very close, and we still are. We are very close friends. I think at the time I must have thought she was an ogre. I mean, most of my recollections were of fighting with her over who was going to go up stairs to do something. I remember continual hassles about "You go get it. It's yours." You know, it was at that level. We were less than two and one-half years apart, but we really had rather separate lives. We had our own friends.
When your father made the colonial mansion, how did you and your sister divide it up, or did you?
We played with it together. It had a front and a back, and they both came off. And so there was plenty of room. We had this postcard collection, which all our friends and neighbors knew about. We did argue about who would get it when we got married. What we didn't realize, of course, is that no one would care by the time we got married. I have it in my house because it's the biggest house. I think she has no idea I even have it. I think my whole family relation was probably better than most families. But I didn't know it at the time. I thought all families were like my family.
Did you role play when you played with that doll house?
I don't think we played with the doll house a lot. I don't know why. My kids and my grandchildren do play with it. When they come to the house, that is what they want to do. I can't remember. I'll have to ask her some of these questions. She may remember more than I do.
There is a note in a biography of you in the Phoenix Gazette, November 4, l993, saying when you were ten years old, you would hang out the window and look at the stars.
Probably eleven is closer to the truth. We moved to Washington in the fall of '38. In the fall of '39 we moved into a house at 5l7 Tuckerman Street, N.W. in Washington, Fifth and Tuckerman, right down the street from Coolidge High. It had three bedrooms, a little row house, so my sister and I could each have had a bedroom. But we turned the middle room into a den. We were decorating, and so we put a studio couch in, and we painted the walls. That meant she and I had to sleep in the tiny little back bedroom. And we shared a double bed. And we would draw imaginary lines down the center that neither of us was allowed to cross. Because I did grow up thinking that she always had first choice at everything, I got the inside which was the least desirable. And this was like a little windowed porch, so there were nothing but windows along the side of the bed. This faced north, and I started watching the stars.
Would you mark your origins of interest [in astronomy] to that?
So there was nothing in school or reading?
No, not at all.
Well, then what was it that fascinated you about the stars?
What fascinated me was that if I opened my eyes during the night, they had all rotated around the pole. And I found that inconceivable. I just was captured. And then, of course, I learned that during the seasons they changed. And then it became partly a game, I think. I would see meteors. Its inconceivable; this is in Washington, D.C. Because my sister was in the room, I could not put a light on, although she was not always [in the room] because if we were angry with each other, we separated. But I knew my parents would object if I put the lights on. So during active meteor times I would stay up all night, and I would memorize where each meteor had gone so that in the morning I could draw a map.
What possessed you to do such a thing?
I don't have the vaguest idea. I just found it fascinating.
When you could see a vista of lights in the distance, was it captivating to you?
So a city's lights were not interesting.
No, not at all. This would have been about l939, and there were several very impressive auroral displays. And there was also an alignment of planets which I did not know enough to realize was not terribly unusual. There must have been an alignment of five planets. I started taking books out of the library. My sister and I spent a fair amount of time with these friends of my parents who really led a very academic, interesting life. They would drive us into Virginia. They had a convertible, and we would look at the stars. This was Goldie, and they were the first people to name constellations for me. But I wasn't even really interested in the constellations. I was interested in the motions [of the stars].
Did this lead to your interest in the Fels Planetarium?
Probably, probably this did.
Were you the one who would ask to go to the Fels?
Yes. I would go back to Philadelphia, so this was really from age eleven to fourteen or so. And I would visit a cousin that I was very close to, and we would go ourselves. That was an event; we would go on a trolley car, and we would have our quarters. That is what we would choose to do.
So, just to be sure, there is not an influence here for science generally?
That's probably true.
Thinking in terms of the coil, or the Van de Graaff, or your father's background?
No, it certainly was mostly astronomical, but there were other things in science that I liked very much. I liked mathematics. I remember a car trip back to Philadelphia some time during this time when I silently in the car got curious, by looking at license tags, about combinations. And I think it's an honest statement that by the time we got to Philadelphia four hours later, I had taught myself combinatorics. It's the first thing I think I can remember really sort of learning myself.
I just figured out how if you took numbers and if you took alphabets, how many combinations you could make. As children we had always played number games. My father was always giving us number games. When we would travel in the car, we would always be doing [number games].
He would maybe say the first four numbers and then would say what's the next number?
No. It was like "2 + 2 – l x 3."
Now this was work you were doing in your head. Do you see a relationship with your ability to be able to memorize where the meteors were?
Oh, I don't know.
Was it a game, or was it something else?
You mean the combinatorics? It was partly a game. I found it very interesting. I built a telescope that my father helped me build; I bought a two-inch lens or a three-inch lens from Edmunds, and I got a heavy cardboard tube that linoleum came in. I went to downtown Washington and picked up this free tube and brought it home on the bus. That I remember. It made my schooling in junior and high school more interesting. When I had to write English papers, term papers, I wrote on reflecting telescopes or refracting telescopes. In some sense, it was almost a crutch in that it just gave me something to put my brain to. It may have been that I was just bored.
Like your father.
Perhaps, yes. This was just something that was enormously pleasant.
When you moved down here and your horizons may have broadened just as you were growing older, how did you gain access to books, to magazines?
I went to the library.
And was it a public library?
A public library near where we lived.
Do you remember the magazines or the journals that you would start reading?
I read books. I read Sir James Jeans.
I read James Jeans. I found a bound volume on astronomy, which I still have, for $.25 in the five-and-ten-cent store near where we lived at Fifth and Tuckerman. And I made an index for that book because it infuriated me so that I couldn't find anything I wanted to know in it because there was no index. It was some kind of World of Knowledge book or something that was on some discount counter.
What about Scientific American? Did you read that?
I think not. I read Ladies Home Journal diligently. I waited for the start of each month so the Ladies Home Journal would come out. I cooked; I sewed.
Let's talk about hobbies, sports, your chores of the family, and that sort of thing.
Well, I took piano lessons, and I was supposed to practice. I did the dishes or dried the dishes. There was a perennial fight with my sister over who washed and who dried. I roller skated, but sports were not a big part of my life. They weren't a big part of anybody's life, really, in those days. I made my own clothes, or many of them.
Is this something your mother did?
Yes, my mother sewed, cooked, knitted, did all of these fancy things. She tatted all kinds of fancy things throughout her life.
Was she your teacher in this?
Yes, the only problem was that she was right-handed, and I was left-handed. I don't iron ever, but when I did, I never knew whether to iron with my right hand or my left hand. And even knitting, which I do and have done a lot of, I knit right handed. The things that I had to be taught I did right handed. I sang in school glee clubs. I edited the graduating class yearbook.
Let's talk about schooling. Your middle school and junior high school period, where did you go?
I was in the fifth grade when we came to Washington. We lived for one year closer to the center of town, and I went to *Stars in Their Courses Around Us the H.D. Cooke School, which was heaven-sent after the Philadelphia schools. It really was a phenomenal place, a public school. But there were movable chairs.
This seems like an important thing for you!
Well, it was. It meant that we could form into groups to do "this" and groups to do "that." We studied South America. We made an enormous relief map, and we electrified it and put little lights in places and strings up to the board behind it and identified things. I had never done anything like that in school. I just sat at a desk and listened to a teacher. It was just phenomenal; I just loved every minute of it. And I think about that time I decided I was going to be a kindergarten teacher because I liked all the cutting and the pasting and the "making"—really loved, loved doing those things.
And for a few years, certainly when we arrived in Washington, I had kind of cutting and pasting hobbies. My husband has heard endlessly about a cigar box. One summer, I used a punch to make little colored circles from a pack of colored paper. We really didn't have a lot of toys around, but I always liked colored papers, and I had a punch. I made little circles, and I pasted them in designs completely covering the box, and I decorated it like a oriental box with these little colored papers from the punch and then shellacked the box. My belief is that it was gorgeous. I don't have any idea where it is. But I did things like that.
Did the box have a purpose?
No, the important part was making it.
Is that the same with the meteor trail observations?
Yes, and a little bit with the telescope. I tried with the telescope to take pictures. But even for the Moon, things moved. Either the telescope moved or the Moon moved.
Do you have a photograph of the telescope?
When I was hanging out of the window, I also took time exposures to show the star trails, which I read about somewhere. My parents were enormously supportive, unbelievably supportive. I mean, I could not have built a telescope by myself. But it really was my project, but anything I needed my father would manage to help me do.
Did he have a shop at home?
No, he really didn't. But in Tacoma Park there was a little woodworking shop, and we would have little pieces of wood cut for us there. He had a jig saw and a few things, but not really much. It was really minimal. Probably around age fourteen or fifteen I started going to the D.C. Amateur Astronomer Club, which met once a month, and my father would go with me. He didn't think it was proper for a young girl to go alone. I heard Harlow Shapley; I heard Donald Menzel. It was the first time I ever met these people. I have no idea whether I was a legitimate member. Sometimes it met at Science Service, and once or twice it met at the Baird Auditorium.
And most often it just met in people's houses. And so the point of these photographs is that I must have taken them downtown like to a Ritz Camera type place, wherever you took film. But I know it wasn't near us. And my mother went to pick them up, and the man told her they hadn't printed them because all they had on them were lines. Even though she really never got very close to what I was doing, she didn't care if I did it, I would not have even thought she would know what it was I wanted, said she got all excited and told the man that's just what we were looking for and to please print the film. My mother died in her 80s, and my father, after a few years, returned to Washington and lived downtown at the Thomas House. They had lived in Florida, and he was told when he moved in that there was a lady astronomer whose name was Mrs. Greuter and who had written thirty books, and he told me about her. And I said I had never heard of her.
In fact, she was known to me as Helen Wright, the name she wrote under. And she was told that there was a man called Mr. Cooper who was moving in whose daughter was an astronomer, and she said, "I never heard of an astronomer with a name of Cooper." So it took them a while to meet each other. He had very few things. He had a tiny little apartment. But when he died, I found some pictures, and these star trails were among them.
He saved them.
He saved them.
So your parents were very supportive.
They were enormously supportive, although he really tried to talk me into becoming a mathematician. He thought astronomy was too impractical. He really did. And I've told this to several people, and he even saw this in print during his lifetime. And he would laugh because it made him a "baddie," sort of, that he said that I should not be an astronomer, I should be a mathematician. But he really did say, you know, you'll never make a living as an astronomer. Why don't you do something more practical like mathematics.
The Phoenix Gazette gave the impression that your parents really didn't want you to lean out that window.
Oh, to be an astronomer?
Well, to look at the stars and stay up late.
Well, my mother did on occasion tell me to get some sleep, but I didn't do this every night. Of course, I got enough sleep. But I did it when it was interesting.
Did you find good school teachers here in town, and do you remember names or particular classes?
I had a wonderful, wonderful math teacher at Coolidge High School. His name was Lee D. Gilbert. I had several very good math teachers, one at Paul Junior High School, and then at Coolidge. I didn't have good science teachers for several reasons. Part of it was my fault. My sister, who had been two, two and a half years ahead of me, was very smart and had done very well, and all the science teachers had liked her.
I was her sister, and she had done so well. And I really was terribly independent, and that just made me want to have nothing to do with these teachers or their expectations. And so I sort of did all right in biology, did all right in chemistry, then got to the physics teacher. I must have gotten B's; maybe I even got an A. I tell you, this is really Freudian. The physics class was a big macho boys' club. I think it was one of the worst misfits of my life. The physics labs were a nightmare.
In what way?
Well, I don't know. I think Mr. Himes must have really made it that way. I was just an outsider the entire time. I was reasonably independent, and I had lots of friends. I wanted to learn mechanical drawing, and that was on the boys' wing of the school, you know, where you had all the shops and the gym and everything. And I don't think I even knew if girls were even allowed to do it. And you sat two-by-two at drafting tables, and I talked a girlfriend into doing this, and we went and took mechanical drawing. So I could survive in those environments, but the physics was just, I just remember it as being unpleasant. I think one of the reasons it was unpleasant was that this man never talked to me enough to know that I was interested in astronomy.
There was just no way for me to communicate with him. I needed a scholarship to go to college, and I applied to only three places, and one of them was Vassar because I knew about Maria Mitchell. And our friends, Goldie and Mike, had recently been to a math society meeting there, which impressed me no end, I mean, the fact that they would go to that college. The day that I was notified that I got a scholarship, my mother walked to the high school to bring the letter to me. We lived just four or five houses from the door of the high school. I walked around the halls, and I met Mr. Himes, and I told him I had a scholarship to Vassar, which is probably the first thing I had ever said to him outside of a classroom. And he said, "As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay".
That's not too positive.
What do you think it is? You know, my daughter would come back when she was in school, and she said, "Dad, I can't get to the computers. The boys hog the computers."
Yes, it's funny. I don't remember. Twenty years ago I walked over to Wilson High School twice and taught an astronomy course for a term. And I taught it in the physics teacher's room. And I used the labs, and so now when I think of a physics lab, that's the lab that comes to mind. I do remember the classroom; I even remember where I sat; I remember the first day. But after that it becomes a blur. What I remember about the first day was a discussion he had about what a scientist is. And the example he gave was, every time you sit on the sofa, the light goes out, and you finally get curious, and you look to see if the plug is coming out, and so forth. Then that's science.
Then he brought into the discussion Marie Curie, who of course I had already read about and I guess idolized. I had taken French, and I had actually read her daughter's biography of her in a French class. This is what I meant by getting through high school by always tying things into the science or to astronomy. And I don't even really remember, he must have said things along the line that, "If she hadn't discovered radium, someone else would have". Well, of course, that is a correct statement. And I don't think I even knew enough to be a great feminist. I think I thought that some things were not fair.
I grew up with a very strong sense of fairness, that things ought to be fair. And it wasn't fair that the boys could learn mechanical drawing, and the girls couldn't. And somehow I had the feeling that he wasn't being fair. I mean, now I would say, you know, why did he use her as the example. But at the time it just irritated me, so I think I got off on the wrong foot.
With him. And I think it became kind of a battle of wills. I wouldn't take the physics book home, and I wouldn't read it. I just wasn't going to do things. It really became a personality thing. But my sister, who was interested in science and actually believed she wanted to be a doctor but ended up as a lawyer, got along with all these people beautifully. And I knew that. But that was partly why I didn't, I think, but I also think I thought she was just being too good.
She was just working too hard to get along with these people, and I just wasn't going to do that. There was some of that kind of attitude: doing what they said. If they told you to take the book home, she took the book home and read it. And I was just going to be more independent than she had been. Maybe independence is the word. I just wasn't going to do what they said to do just so I would be good.
Was this strong feeling in all your courses?
No, it was mostly physics, mostly the sciences. The other courses I think I didn't care about so I either don't remember, or it just didn't even matter to me at the time.
Did you continue independent reading throughout school?
Was religion an important part of your life during this time?
Probably, by most standards it would have been. We belonged to a synagogue. My mother taught and played the piano and sang.
Now this was one here in town?
This was here in town; this was B'Nai Israel when it was at l4th and Emerson. My sister and I were both confirmed there. And religion was a very family thing. We celebrated all the holidays at home. It was more family than synagogue.
Did you experience any anti-semitism yourself in school?
Probably not. But in high school there was a very active sorority/fraternity system and very religiously segregated. Probably all the boys I dated were Jewish. My sister joined a sorority; I would not. I was enormously independent. And I realized it at the time. I just enjoyed doing things that other people didn't seem to, like reading. I guess it came from the family. At times I've even wondered about how I really had the independence to do the things I did.
No, not really. I just really felt that I was different. I consider myself a very honest person, rarely, rarely, tell lies. But occasionally a boy would ask me out on a date, and I would tell him that I was busy or I couldn't go. There were very nice boys who I would go out with other times on occasion. But I would just rather be home reading or do something else. And I knew that my girlfriends didn't behave this way.
If they were asked, they would go?
If they were asked, they would go.
This is for dances, movies.
Yes, go to the movies. My parents might have a different recollection. They would probably say that I went out. But I do remember occasionally thinking, you know, I don't really want to do that. I want to sit home and read or do something else.
Did you have a reputation among your peers? The telescope, did that give you some sort of a reputation.
Not very much, not really. My friends and the boys that I did date were pretty smart boys. Now that I think about it, they were awfully smart. There were some awfully smart boys around.
Did they know that you had made this telescope or were photographing star trails.
No, no, probably not.
So this is not something you took to school.
Did you hide it?
I don't know, I don't think so. I do remember that all my English term papers were involved with astronomy. We were required, living in the District, to do an English term paper probably in our senior year. We had to go to the Library of Congress. This is no longer permitted. You had to do your research in the Library of Congress, and I did something on early ideas of cosmology or something. So people must have known that I was interested in astronomy. I don't think about this very often, but certainly the last time I thought about this twenty years ago, I did vaguely wonder what the teachers' thoughts were reading these papers.
I have a recollection in my junior high school where I wanted to get another astronomy term paper that my teacher prevented me from doing it, saying no, you should do something else.
You know, a smart teacher would have done that to me. Yeah, that's what I meant. I did them all this way. But I was enthusiastic and enjoyed it. But in a way a smart teacher would have told me that I'd done enough, to go do something.
Just curious, you didn't have that?
No, no one ever stopped me.
So in a way you went all the way through school using every vehicle you could to explore astronomy. Did you ever go to the Naval Observatory? Was it possible then?
I did not go. I don't know whether it was possible.
As you were going through junior high and high school, certainly it was the war. Your father was working for the Department of Agriculture.
Shortly thereafter for the Navy, probably by '40, '4l, he was working in some research branch of the Navy in the Bureau of Yards and Docks.
Do you have any idea what he was doing for the Navy?
No. It was in a research capacity.
Did he stay then here during the war?
Yes, he stayed here the whole time.
Did it affect your life in any way that you can remember that we should talk about?
I'm sure it affected our lives. I mean, of course it did. My sister's friends were all leaving. I must have been fifteen or sixteen, and she was seventeen or eighteen, and all her white male friends were joining the service. I worked in General Hershey's office for the Selective Service Saturdays and summers and school holidays just to earn money, something like $3 or $5 a day.
They would even take you at age fourteen or fifteen. I don't even remember. It was a job I detested; I filed. They were the most horrible hours of my life. I would watch the clock. It was not interesting. My mother, who knew how much I detested it, said it was good for me so I'd see what it was like to do something I didn't like. It was close to unbearable.
What did it teach you?
That I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. I remember, I would take a bus with my father to go downtown during the summers. And I remember the day the newspaper had the story of the dropping of the atom bomb. That's probably the most dramatic recollection I have of the whole war period. I was seventeen.
By then you were graduating or about to graduate?
I had already graduated; I graduated.
Let's talk about how you planned to go to college. You can walk me through talking with your parents, making decisions. You said that Vassar was a place that you became aware of because of Goldie. Did you have other options?
Well, I knew I wanted to study astronomy. My sister had gone to George Washington University. Some of my cousins, ultimately all of my cousins, went to college. But it was still a fairly new thing in our family. I had not known anybody that went away to college. I really wanted to study astronomy, and I didn't know of any place I could do it nearby. I didn't like physics after this physics experience. I had a lot of fun; looking into colleges was fun for me. I went to the library, and I read things.
I ultimately applied to Vassar, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania, all of whom taught astronomy. I considered Radcliffe and did not apply because they had some strange words about scholarships which turned me off. I think they must not have been given on the basis of need or something. In retrospect I don't even really quite remember. But I came close to applying and then decided that the chances of getting a scholarship were so slim at Radcliffe.
How did you go about looking for scholarships?
I don't know.
What was the scholarship you actually got to Vassar?
It was a Washington, D.C. alumni scholarship. They gave scholarships to someone from Washington to go to Vassar.
So it was a Vassar scholarship.
Yes. I was offered a scholarship from Vassar. I was accepted at Penn, and I was turned down by Swarthmore. I had an interview from Swarthmore with a woman in the Hay Adams Hotel. I believed for many years that she was Dean Guilderslieve, who became the Dean at Hunter or Barnard or somewhere. Ten years ago I looked into this and learned that she had never been to Swarthmore. So I have the wrong name, but I believe it was a very eminent woman. The interview was a total disaster, absolute disaster. And I knew it at the time. She never took me seriously.
She never took my astronomy interests seriously. I never got in touch with the astronomy department. I just filed an application. I was also interested in painting. This is my cutting and pasting legacy. I had done a fair amount of painting, and I must have told her among my hobbies. And she asked me if I had ever considered a career in which I painted pictures of astronomical scenes. And that line became a joke in our family for twenty years. And it probably still is among our kids.
If you want to say something funny you say, have you ever considered a career in which you paint astronomical scenes? I thought a lot about it later. I didn't have the nerve to just sort of interrupt and say, you know, this isn't going right. I just walked in and walked out and was not surprised that I didn't get in.
Did you talk with anyone from Vassar or a representative from Vassar?
I talked to Miss Madeira who founded the Madeira School which was a private high school. So she was probably the president of the local alumni association of Vassar, but she probably had been all her life. She was a very dominant figure. There was, in fact, a social gathering of about five girls and their mothers at her school. And I presume we were all either the applicants or the finalists or maybe we all got scholarships. I don't know.
Was it a full scholarship?
No, tuition and board when I entered was $l,200, and it was an alumni scholarship. TAPE 2, SIDE l
You were recollecting why the physics went so badly.
I think it was an enormous clash of personalities between my physics teacher and me, and I guess probably all of it was related to being female. But I don't even think I understood that at the time. I just felt like an outsider.
Did other girls feel the same way? Did you talk to anyone, your friends?
No one except my sister. No, it was far from the most important thing in my career, in my high school senior class. Mr. Lee D. Gilbert was the name of the math teacher. He was a remarkable man. He really was the best teacher I met in my entire career. The first geometry test he gave us, he asked us to prove something that we didn't yet know enough to prove. And he sort of walked up and down the aisles, watching what you did. I took geometry and probably college algebra, a couple courses under him. He was just phenomenal.
So you had a school that had college-level math courses available.
There was a course called college algebra which was sort of a pre-calculus, that's all. Compared to what kids in high school do now, it was pretty primitive.
What made him remarkable?
I guess because he made us think; he really made us think. On our feet. He would call you to the blackboard, and he would say we had to talk as if people were blind and draw as if they couldn't hear or something. He was really great. I remember some of these things. In his algebra class he would say, "Always put off to tomorrow what you don't have to do today because tomorrow you may not have to do it." That had to do with multiplying factors.
"The cube root of 3 is l.732l because George Washington was born in l732 and there was one of him." How's that for l945, 50 years ago?
Yes. He was remarkable. He was gray haired, and I thought it was very old. He was not young. And he was just so enthusiastic about the mathematics. He really did make us think. That is probably the best thinking I ever did in school.
Do you feel you were well prepared for college?
Yes. In some ways I was, and in some ways I wasn't.
Now before we go there, now one final question. You mentioned that you went to amateur astronomical society meetings in Washington, and you heard Shapley speak, you heard Menzel speak. Were these your first contacts with astronomers?
Yes, certainly, my only contact.
So up to this time there was no contact at the Fels.
No, not at all.
So let's take you to Vassar. By going to Vassar, did this put any kind of burden on your family.
Well, let's see, the Washington, D.C. group paid little more than half. I had a sister in college here, too. She had lots of scholarships for George Washington. Vassar also paid a couple hundred dollars. There were kinds of additional grants, and then probably by my second term I got a job assisting in the astronomy department. So I earned some money. We really had very little money. My kids all went to college. I have a granddaughter who just started college.
I think it is a fair statement that in my first year at Vassar I must have eaten off campus three times. I mean, I didn't do things that cost money. Occasionally my father would send me a dollar in a letter. Yes, a dollar. I just didn't live in a cash world. There was food, and there was schooling, and I earned a little bit of money. But I did buy a commuting railroad ticket to New York. Many of my college friends lived in New York so we would go in for a weekend or something.
You weren't too far from Gloversville. Was there any kind of draw there?
No, there was no car. It's a complicated way to go.
Was there close family there anymore.
What were your courses like in your freshman year, if you can remember anything unusual? Did Vassar have a set of courses you had to take?
No. There were distribution requirements. I went through in three years. This was the end of the war.
That's what I needed to know. So you matriculated in September of l945?
That answers what you did in the summer of '45. You said you worked here for the Selective Service.
That's right. That's what I did in the summer of l945.
That was Selective Service. So then you went to Vassar in September of l945.
They had a three-year program during the war. And my class was actually divided, ultimately. Our class was unable to reach a decision as to whether we should go through in three years or four years, a unanimous decision. We were offered the option.
So the class made the decision?
The class made the decision. But we split into two because some of us wanted to go through in three years, and some of us didn't.
You elected three years?
I elected three years. It was a nice program. You went September lst to Christmas. And then you want January to April. And then there was a May/June two-month course that you got a few points for. And you did something intensively. It was really very nice.
What was your first year like?
It was great. I loved it. I really loved it.
You never wanted to just get on the train and come home?
Never, never. It was such a wonderful environment. I took math, astronomy, English, and French.
You took astronomy as a freshman?
Oh yes! I took astronomy every year.
Now the person who was there was Maud Makemson. She was, I guess, the astronomy teacher.
Yes, someone else showed up for a while, probably the next year. Makemson taught the freshman class which met Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, three times a week. But then she taught an additional hour for a fourth credit if you wanted it, once a week on the history of astronomy. And that was inspiring. She was remarkable. The regular course, we used Skilling and Richardson. It was a fairly technical course. And we had little telescopes.
Were they commercial?
Yes. There were pictures of Maria Mitchell on the side of the observatory with those telescopes. Going to it (1995) I find a front of a Porter drawing of 200-inch telescope.
The Vassar Telescope was still there.
Was this your first chance to really use telescopes as part of laboratories?
Sure. I have my freshman notebook, but I must tell you in the condition of honesty that some of it I did, and some of it I didn't do. For the classroom experiences through the telescope, we had black paper, and we drew the Orion Nebula; we drew Saturn. They were great. We had to draw the horizon, and every week we were supposed to put where the Sun set, and I was very non-diligent. Before it was due, I would put a few Suns in because I would know how they should have crept along the horizon. I would be careful to do the first one and the last one. The only advantage of that is when I became a teaching assistant, then I could understand what the students were probably doing anyway. It was really a very classical course by all modern standards. We started with the celestial sphere and equatorial systems and galactic systems and all that.
So you went straight through Skilling and Richardson.
We went straight through Skilling and Richardson. And then the next year we went straight through Russell, Dugan, and Stewart.
So you went Russell, Dugan, and Stewart as a sophomore. I'm curious about the black paper. You actually drew on black paper?
And that was standard?
Yes. I don't think I would remember it, but when I discovered the book up in the attic, I saw them there.
Well, an important thing is that you've kept your freshman notes. Do you have all your class notes?
Well, no, I don't even know that they are notes. We have a very large attic. But most of my early stuff I really don't have. I have a folder that says "Vassar," and that was my application to Vassar. And it doesn't have anything in it that I did. It just has what the college sent me. I had to write a letter as to why I wanted to go, and I had to do this, and I had to do that. My answers were not interesting to me. The interesting things were the pieces of paper from the college that I filed.
Now your essays, would they be at Vassar?
I presume so.
Usually colleges keep that. Were there entrance exams to Vassar?
College boards. Had to take the college board exams.
Do you recall how you did?
I don't think we were told. They were great secrets in those years. We had a counselor at Coolidge, who was worse than the physics teacher, and I went and told her I had gotten a scholarship at Vassar. I don't think I had even done it through the school. I'm not even sure that the school knew. And her comment wasn't quite as bad as, "As long as you stay away from physics." But her comment to me was something like, "With your French scores," or something like that. [laughter]
Sounds like a really supportive school.
She was surprised.
Did you think about how different it was at Vassar? I take it, it was a much more supportive atmosphere.
Yes. It was enormous. You were among a group of young women, all of whom wanted to learn. The point in being there was to learn, and there were remarkable teachers at that time.
Did you talk among yourselves with your friends about their experiences? Did you find women having the same kind of sea change?
Well, I don't know if it was that much of a change. I don't really know that we talked about backgrounds. But I had friends who were history majors and art majors, English majors. They really had inspiring teachers. We talked about how much we were enjoying what we were doing.
Did you declare for astronomy, and when did that happen?
Oh, it must have been at the start.
Were there others who were also declared for astronomy?
No. There were a couple in physics.
Do you remember who your physics teacher was?
Monica Healea. She only recently died because I saw an obituary of her. I think she spent her summers at Harvard. She was an experimental physicist. And then there was a younger woman in the department, whose name I just cannot remember. There were a couple of very, very good math teachers.
Do you remember any of their names?
The one I knew best is Winifred Asprey. But she was not the head of the department. There was a little lady who had studied in Rome under Peano, and she made us learn the Peano notation, Miss Mary Evelyn Wells. It was like a mathematics shorthand. It may be what you now see when you open a math journal. She was the chair and really the dominant person in the department. I remember Miss Asprey because she was quite young, and I've seen her through the years. She is now retired, but on occasion when I go back to Vassar, I see her.
So you were the only one who declared for astronomy. Did you discuss this with Maud Makemson, or did she have to accept you as a major? How did that work?
I don't remember. I don't think it was even that formal. I don't think it even really mattered. It probably mattered at the senior level when I had to write a senior thesis, so it mattered then. But I think at the early level it just didn't matter.
Were you consciously thinking of becoming an astronomer as a freshman?
Oh, of course!
Were you thinking of it as a high school student?
Do you remember when you made the decision?
Oh, I think very early. As soon as I got interested in astronomy, I just decided that's what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Was that all the way back to the point where you were looking up?
Very close to that time.
Did you ever think back and wonder what it was, because it wasn't "astronomy" that was fascinating to you? I mean, this was a profession.
No, that's right; I didn't know a single astronomer. I realized this. It was the wonder of it all. It really was. It was just thinking that here were all these things that I didn't know about, and how could you possibly live on this Earth and not want to study these things? I mean, it doesn't make sense because I didn't look at bugs and wonder how you could live here and not study bugs. But for some reason or other, I didn't know what a star was. When I first started, it was just all mysterious. It may have been partly the mystery of it. I mean, how can you be here with these things around and not know about them.
But yet you were the only one. I take it you had no friends who were compatriots.
No, that's right.
When you joined the Astronomy Club here in Washington?
I didn't know a soul. I walked in and listened to the lecturer. I must have talked to a couple of people, but they were not young women.
There were other children?
No, I don't think there were.
And they paid no attention to you, I would guess.
I don't remember.
Certainly we are looking for things that you would remember, significant instances. Well, then it was more Maud Makemson who was your first real contact.
In the l930s from what I found, she worked in different areas of celestial mechanics and binary stars. And she published minor planet orbits, some of the time with her students.
Yes, we each had to calculate a minor planet orbit. That was my third year.
But was there what you would call now a research atmosphere?
No, not at all. She was doing research then into Mayan hieroglyphics. She has published several books which I have. She got into battles with—is it Thompson, someone with a name like that, who had a different interpretation of the Codex. And I actually thought that was a very peculiar thing to do. So she has several books out on that. And then after I graduated and during the early year of satellites, she published at least a book or two on orbit theory. I had a very strange relation with her. This may get out of sequence, but it's probably worth saying.
My freshman year things were grand. I took my courses, I assisted, I kept the clocks going. Then I think it must have been the start of my second year that she must have been on sabbatical and someone by the name of Singer, a Mrs. Singer, came in and taught. Who she was I do not have the vaguest idea. But I think the first term course must have been called stellar astronomy, and that was sort of the galaxy.
That was the stellar book of Russell, Dugan, and Stewart It was all right. I was learning. I can't remember whether she came back the second term of that year or whether she was gone the whole second year. And then when she returned, I was a senior. And I had met Bob [Rubin] that summer, and in fact by the fall  we were engaged by Thanksgiving. And I was graduating actually in May. I didn't even go the third [summer] term. And I had a very difficult year with her, my senior year.
With Maud Makemson?
Yes, I probably wasn't serious enough for her. I mean, after being very, very serious, I think she thought I was going to go off and get married and that was the end of the astronomy.
That was my first question.
And things were incredibly difficult, almost to the point of tears. I was the only senior. Even though I was the only astronomy major, in the other classes there had always been some physics students or something. But in my senior year, I did two things with her. One was this orbit theory course in which I had to derive an orbit. My recollection is there were other girls around. And that was kind of fun. She would give us, oh, sets of observations which were unidentified, and we wou
ld find an orbit ultimately and try and see if we could match it up with something. And that went well. And then I also did a course that was related to celestial mechanics, a math course. And I was the only student, and it was terrible. Well, I learned from that course as you should never be or never teach a single student. It just didn't work. If I hadn't done the homework, I would have to derive things, and I would get to the blackboard, and I wouldn't do it right.
This was a one-person recitation.
Yes, that's exactly right. And I was seeing Bob, who was coming up on weekends, and I wasn't doing enough. It was very, very, very, very difficult. And then I had to write a senior thesis which wasn't great. But I had picked a topic, we can talk about that later, and it was just going to astrophysical journals and learning things. And it was a messy thing. But the classroom experience was terrible, was just terrible.
That's such a pity.
Yes, it is a pity, but there is a happy ending because we became very good friends later. I had to take the senior exam, and that was very serious. We had done tough stuff. I remember she gave me an ephemeris, and most of the problems were dynamical astronomy. You know, "It's 5:00 at night, and you are at latitude plus 40 degrees, and you see something. What is it?" It was that kind of exam.
I love those things.
So here I am sitting in this classroom all by myself with an ephemeris and doing them. And things worked pretty well. And she would sort of walk in and look. And then there was some horribly long problem, and I just couldn't get myself out of it. I point to this as the low point of our relationship.
And she came over and saw my troubles. And then it turned out she had made a mistake in setting up the problem. Either the latitude was wrong or the right ascension was wrong. I've forgotten what you were given and what you had to find. That was pretty bad. I think we both knew that things were in bad shape. And then I graduated.
When did she find that she made the mistake?
Right then and there. When I told her. I don't even remember the details. I don't think I've ever thought about this since that day. But I told her, you know, there was just no object. I think it was looking for an object which was supposed to be Jupiter or something. And either she had given me the zenith distance instead of the altitude, you know, the number did not make sense.
So we sort of ended the exam then. My recollection is she just called it the end of the exam, and I graduated, and my parents of course came up. Even they knew that there was a problem. But then I went to graduate school, and she came to Washington once or twice and stayed with us. And then we lived in La Jolla for the '63-64 year. And she even came down to visit us. We became very good friends, truly good friends.
Did she ever say what it was that created the tension?
No, we never talked about it.
Do you have speculation?
Well, I think most of it had to do with my planning to get married. I didn't know much about her. She had a son, and I presumed that she had divorced someone. And I probably wasn't doing as much as I would have done if Bob had not been in the picture. I came there awfully single-mindedly to be an astronomer. And I think she thought that I was giving up on the astronomy.
Oh, she said things to me that she should not have. And I don't think I ever said anything. Whenever I wouldn't be able to do something, she would say I hadn't been working hard enough, and I should work harder, and I wasn't doing the things that were expected of me. It was very, very difficult.
Yeah, that is difficult. Well, we have more to talk about after your Vassar years we shouldn't get away from. But that is very important. We know now that you were pretty much able to tailor your curriculum as you saw fit.
Yes, very much. When you asked if I had left high school well prepared, what came to mind was French. I had taken four years of D.C. public high school French, which was adequate. But I got to Vassar, where there were students who had lived in France, and four years was the most you could do in D.C. So I was put in the most advanced French class, and that was probably the hardest course I've ever had in my life. I should have flunked it. I spent all my hours working on French. The exams were in French. I remember we had to write an essay on Louis XIV for a final French exam, and I said, Louis XIV was called the "Sun King." But that much I know now.
I couldn't write much else. And it was very individualized teaching. I don't think I flunked. I don't think I ever got worse than a C, but it was terrible. I remember the professor saying to me, "Is this all you know about Louis the whatever?" I remember thinking, "Yes, it is. It really is." So that was tough. And the astronomy and the math and even the English was all right. I don't think I wrote a single term English paper on astronomy. I had outgrown that.
Now you had your astronomy outlet.
That's right, that's right.
I'm interested in the summer, and the important thing is that you worked at the Naval Research Laboratory.
That's right. But there is something equally important. What was important was that when I came home at Easter, I got a job for the summer at the Naval Observatory. I went to the Naval Observatory. I was offered a job. All the papers were signed. I was shown where I would be sitting. I was shown what I would be doing. And then somehow, sometime between then and the summer, I got a letter telling me there was no job. I know nothing more than that.
This is the summer of '46.
The war was over.
Who knows. And so we were living in Southwest Washington.
Oh, you had moved.
My parents moved right after I entered college. Our house was sold. We had been renting it during the war, and they couldn't afford to buy the house. So they moved into an apartment development known as Trenton Terrace. Do you know about Trenton Terrace?
There was a long article just written on it in the Washington, D.C. Historical Society magazine. It was a hotbed of radicals. It was built by the Gerber family. A local, very liberal, rich family. And one of their daughters or niece was a close friend of mine. And that's how my parents got an apartment there. Because in Washington there was no housing during the war. And Bob's parents were working in government but living in Baltimore where they had lived before. There was no housing in Washington so all through the war they commuted. And then they moved in because they were vaguely related to these people who built it.
Did you know your future husband?
It was our parents who met in this apartment development, and one said, "I have a son at Cornell," and the other one said, "I have a daughter at Vassar." And so they introduced us. So here I was at Vassar with no job, and I really needed the money. And we were not too far from the Naval Research Lab. That's where this apartment development was.
Oh, it's across the river.
Yes, it was across the river. And my father found me the job by just calling around. My sister had worked there, also, because we lived in this apartment development. She was just finishing in George Washington, and she worked in the library at NRL. So before I had come home, he had found me this job at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Well, tell me about it.
I worked there three summers. The first summer was different from the other two. The second two I worked in Richard Tousey's optical lab. That is more interesting. The first summer I was in some psychological testing group, which was incredibly great fun. They were studying quick responses to emergency situations. And so they had a little machine that had a slot, and you watched the slot and a line, and a paper moved and you could see the line through the slot. And a vertical line moved.
You saw this line going by, and then suddenly it would jump, and then it would go somewhere else. And you had to put a pencil on it, and when it moved over, you had to move your pencil over. And so you had a tape, and it had their line and the tested person's line. So I mostly measured the tapes and got gradients and angles and how fast and how far you overshot, depending on how fast you went. One axis was time as the paper rolled by. But I also was a subject lots of time.
So you were both a subject and an analyst?
Yes. And that's all I remember doing. There really may have been other things, but that test, that little game, captured my fancy. So I think it was really mostly that.
That's fascinating. Did you get to know anything about the Naval Research Lab when you were there the first summer? Can you separate out your memories that way?
I think not much. A lot of it was still highly classified. But I must have learned that there was some astronomy-like work going on. So I went there in '47, and I can't even tell you now how I did that. I must have done that myself. As I said, my parents were really very helpful; they would help when I needed help. But I don't know whether that first summer I learned, I must have learned of Tousey's work then.
It was a highly publicized project.
I really must have learned of it.
It was in the newspapers and all sorts of things. Let's not do the summer of '47 just yet. You are coming back for the second year of your Vassar work, and this is with a substitute professor, Ms. Singer.
I remember it as Mrs. Singer. I don't think I even knew then who she was. She just appeared.
As you went through Russell, Dugan, and Stewart, did you start identifying parts of astronomy that you liked, that you thought maybe you would actually do? I'm trying to get an idea when the idea of doing research came up in your awareness.
Well, probably the second year with Mrs. Makemson gone, I felt pretty free to do whatever I wanted in a way I hadn't when she was around. The l5-inch telescope was there, and you could look through it. There was a 5-inch telescope in a little shed, and there was a spectroheliograph, also. And I tried to get the spectroheliograph going.
I don't remember much about the spectroheliograph at all except it came into the side of the building, it was old, everything seemed to be falling apart, and I could not get it going. But the 5-inch telescope was usable, and I talked one of my friends into helping me. So we would go out in the evening and take photographs, take plates, develop them. I mean just sort of really play with this 5-inch telescope.
So this had a camera with glass plates?
What kind of telescope is that? Is it a refractor?
It must have been a refractor. I remember the glass plates as being big, but I may be confused because I did similar things at Georgetown. I may be confused, but they weren't little.
Could it have been an astrograph, like a short refractor with a wide view?
Could have been.
What was the purpose of the photographs?
I don't know. I think to just pretend I was an astronomer. If Mrs. Makemson had been around, I would have had to ask her. She was a slightly formidable person, and I always felt slightly incompetent around her, truly. And so with her not there and this Mrs. Singer, who seemed to be nobody from nowhere, I just sort of felt like I could play. The darkroom was not really in good shape, but I found chemicals, and I found plates, and I just sort of made myself at home.
Was Vassar the kind of place where students went off and did what they wanted just as you were doing?
Yes, I think so. Sure. I'm sure if I had asked her, she probably would have been delighted, and I probably would have accomplished much more. But it didn't seem like a very easy thing to do.
I mean, nothing seemed to be in repair. Sounds like you had to revive it.
That's right. And I also have the feeling that I didn't really want to do these things in a formal way. I didn't want to set up a course where every Monday night I had to go photograph stars. I mean, that would have been harder to do for me. And I think had I asked for something from her that would have been the kind of response.
Were you aware then that that's what astronomers did?
Plan observing programs?
Yes, I think so. I knew that. I knew they did it from mountain observatories.
Were these guest lecturers, as you recall, visitors, astronomers?
No. There were phenomenal guest lectures. I remember phenomenal guest lecturers, but they weren't astronomers; they were poets and artists. Admiral Hopper had a Vassar connection. Oh, and Philip Franck came. My closest friend, ultimately, on the Vassar faculty, was a professor of philosophy whose name you probably know, Louis Feuer. He's written a book on Einstein. He was a strange man, very intellectual, taught philosophy of science. I satisfied all my history requirements by taking philosophy courses. I graduated from Vassar in l948, and in l994 I gave the Jansky lecture at Charlottesville. And I walked in a little early to set up slides and things and someone said, "Vera," and I looked at him and said, "Mr. Feuer." I had not seen him since l948. “What the Matter in the Universe?”
Was he there?
He has been at the University for 20 or 25 years. He went to Berkeley. He had political trouble at Vassar and essentially was kicked out, after I had left, and went to Berkeley. While I was there he married a student, a class a year or two or three above me. And she had now died, I think. He told me they had children. I've really forgotten. How my brain recognized him, I don't even know.
Well, I guess it was the way he looked. So getting back to my second year, I talked myself into the second year of physics, which wasn't a good thing to do in retrospect. I was going through in three years, and so the second year I didn't want to take first-year physics.
You had not taken physics the first year?
No, I hadn't taken it. I had this language requirement and this English requirement. And so I took a second year physics course which must have been thermodynamics one term. My physics background has always been, what's a polite word, "strange." I told them about this wonderful high school physics I had so I could start with the second year. But I think they really knew what I knew and that is I was only going to have another year. And I wanted to get some more advanced physics. That actually went quite well. I'm sure there were large gaps in my physics, but it was a nice experimental course. There were lots of optical benches and things, and we did a Millikan oil drop experiment. That worked quite well. And there were a few physics majors, and it was sort of fun to have people to do this with. I enjoyed the physics.
Do you think you enjoyed the lab part of the physics?
Yeah, I did enjoy the lab part of the physics.
Were there things about physics that you did not enjoy?
I didn't find thermodynamics fascinating, all these gradients. I don't say this very often, but I don't think I like physics.
Did you relate it to the stars at all?
I guess I did contemporary physics. I mean, that's why I found the Millikan stuff interesting. Certainly I enjoyed contemporary physics and classical dynamics, of course. I actually took the toughest classical dynamics course in the math department. The toughest one I took was a math rather than a physics course. And I loved optics. I really did.
I see a lot of connections here. What about electrical—electricity and magnetism?
Didn't do much of that. Well, I probably did. But I don't remember it.
No connection with your dad or anything like that?
No, apparently not.
Vassar must have been very different than your high school, and it was probably different than your entire life?
Yes, it was, it was.
You were in with people who were probably in a largely different socioeconomic class?
Well, a lot of them, but a lot of them not. There were lots of girls with scholarships.
So there was no personal stigma to being a scholarship student.
No, none at all.
You made some very good friends while you were there.
I made some very good friends.
Would you identify some of them?
Yes, by name?
Yes, oh yes.
Okay. Probably my closest friend now is Molly Schuchat. She and I met in the fifth grade when I moved to Washington, and then we met at Calvin Coolidge High School, and then we met at Vassar. And we sort of had our ups and downs.
I mean, at times we weren't friends in the fifth grade sense. She is now an anthropologist, and she does all kinds of interesting things, and Monday night I went to a reading of her most recent play. She is an interesting person. I have another friend who lives on Long Island, and her name is Florence Walden, which is the name she took when she divorced her husband.
So that isn't her maiden name or anything?
No. I made a very close friend whose name I'd rather not give you, although I could, who was enormously wealthy. It is a name you would recognize. We really became very good friends the first year, and I visited her home and her parents. They had many homes besides this one. And I visited several.
Although I still see her and I think we really could be very close friends, that friendship fell apart because of the money thing. I just couldn't go into New York as often as she wanted to or go shopping. I just couldn't live the kind of life she just lived without thinking about. She is a remarkable person. She has founded a school in New England, a pre-school kind of kindergarten, which is quite famous. And she picks students for that by lot because too many apply. She's an interesting person.
The school is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was money where the difference mattered. I did get introduced to a way of life where she had her own maid. I was asked before I went to sleep what newspaper I wanted at my door the next morning. The Sunday Times was delivered to each door. In the house. They had four daughters. They had a New York house; they had an Adirondack lodge; they had this Westchester house.
And you went to all of them?
I didn't get to the lodge. I went to the New York house. I got to the Westchester house. I didn't play tennis; I didn't swim. But she was a very interesting person.
What about politics? Did you have any politics coming out of high school and coming to Vassar?
Oh, sure. I was an ardent Democrat, and Mrs. Roosevelt lived up the road. And on one of our first weekends, Molly, Flo, and I and at least one other person got on our bikes, and we biked up to Valkill, and we knocked on the door and asked if we could see Eleanor Roosevelt.
And were they?
Who did she live with then, someone whose name was known at the time, came to the door, invited us in, told us she wasn't there. I presume she wasn't, and we said thank you and turned around and biked back.
You felt empowered; you could do this.
It never occurred to us not to.
Did you have a purpose in meeting her?
No, no. If she had been there, we would have dropped dead, I guess. I guess we thought we would talk to her. If you ask me what we thought we would talk about, I mean, we had nothing planned. I'm sure there were students at the school who really discussed things with her. There were some very serious-minded political types, and I think she was approachable. But I think you had better know what you wanted to say, and we had no such plans.
I remember growing up listening to my grandmother and my mother and my aunt, and they would talk of Eleanor Roosevelt as if she was a personal friend.
Yes. Some months ago my husband went up in the attic and brought me back down a three-foot cube box or carton because I had to find a letter for Harvard which we might get to later. And we did find it. I didn't believe it; I found a letter from the White House saying, "Mrs. Roosevelt is delighted that your cousin is coming to visit you in Washington." I clearly had written a letter saying my cousin is coming and could we come and see her. And here is this letter, I guess a form letter. Malvina Thompson, I think, wrote back: "Mrs. Roosevelt is happy that your cousin is coming to visit you and regrets that she is unable to...."
Now this is after you graduated?
No, no. This is at age twelve years old, thirteen years old. Oh no, I mean, this was a child's letter asking to bring her cousin to come visit.
That's wonderful, but that's the feeling I think I had, as a very personal sort of thing, very, very personal.
And it hurts me when I look at Hillary Clinton.
Because I think there are many things she could do that she is not doing because of political reasons. I think the whole political system has just done her in. That's really what I mean. What she would like to be doing and what her feelings would really dictate and what help she really could be are just not now permitted by the political system. That's a tragedy. It's just a tragedy.
Yes. Did you have any kind of a political agenda at that time, women's rights, whatever?
No, none whatsoever. I read kiddie books and later books about Maria Mitchell, who had been the professor at Vassar in l865. Toward the end of her life, she got very active in the women's movement. And I could never understand how she could do that. I actively remember thinking, how could you leave astronomy to do that? It seemed to me impossible, incredible. I've thought recently that I did not understand when I was younger. Of course, at Vassar it would not have really been possible. I see these discussions now of single sex schools. My father thought it was terrible; the social situation he thought was awful.
Yes, my going into New York. I mean, there was really no social life on campus. There were dances and things, and you had to invite boys. And it was tedious. They were generally weekends, and it could be someone you really weren't interested in spending a weekend with. It was a complicated social situation. And while I was there and even probably some years afterwards, he said he would never send a daughter to a girls' college again. He didn't have any other children.
Was that because of your experience or just a feeling?
I think it was the feeling that the social scene was too artificial. If you were there on a weekend, you were sort of a wallflower at some level. And while it was lovely to be there lots of weekends in getting lots of work done, there were also times when you'd like to be away and there may have been no mechanism. It was a complicated social situation. It was also, I think, a sign of the times because certainly ten years later colleges were talking about going co-ed. When the student body got richer, then they all left on the weekends, and the colleges knew they had a problem.
So the demographics changed after you were there; it got richer?
Well, people traveled more, somehow or other. They had cars, or enough people had cars. When I was there, I don't think a quarter of the student body was gone any weekend. I have no idea, but it may have been a very small fraction.
Yet it was a place where women could be encouraged to enjoy learning.
And they were.
It wasn't that there were boys in the lab, and you couldn't get your hands on equipment.
That's correct. But it still was an era when people expected to get married as soon as they left college. That's what you did. I don't know if you were supposed to be actively looking for a husband, but it was sort of anticipated that is the way things would go.
Well, eventually it turned out that way for you.
Yes it did, and for most of my friends. That's what we did.
Let's talk about the second summer and the NRL. Now you're not sure how you got that job, but it was in Richard Tousey's laboratory?
Yes. Oh, it was just great. It was incredibly great fun. I was given the job after the fact because they had their spectra. The entrance aperture was a spherical bead, and my first chore was to study the optics of this bead.
That's interesting. Now we are talking the summer of l947.
You know, they had a summer student to deal with: they had to look for something for me to do. So they gave me the bead and an optical bench, and I passed light through and studied the distortions. It may be that it was even helpful in re-reducing the spectra, but I don't know that. If, for example, you look at what HST [Hubble Space Telescope] is doing in deconvolving images, they had a very strange point spread function, and someone had to determine what it was. And I did a lot of other optical things.
F.S. Johnson who was still there at the time had done a lot of calibration on the beads in the spring of l946. Now what he was calculating was not anything like a point spread function. All he was doing was figuring out what exposure times were used. So you were doing something quite different.
And somehow or another I was also involved with a Fresnel lens.
Yes, I'm not surprised.
I made a Fresnel lens this big, about 18" in diameter, by drawing rings and blackening them out. I don't remember what I was doing that for. Much of the summer I did optics. In fact, I think I am going to mix the two summers up. But I do remember starting with the bead. I remember one other thing. I wrecked a rock salt lens by leaving it out of its dehumidified case over the weekend or something. I came in, and it was in pieces. Now I remember that!
But that would have been for the infrared.
Well, probably. I think the job sort of evolved to doing lots of lens-type work. Obviously they saw that I could do something with their lenses. And there were also a few other things. Again, it could have been the next year. I went up on the roof and was measuring polarization of the sky at different angles and different times of the day.
And several times, more than once, maybe four or five times a summer, we went down to a place on the tip of Wallops, probably, where there was a Naval station, and we did something there. Now the only thing I remember there was I was told to use the Admiral's bathroom because there were no ladies' rooms. But the Admiral had his own private toilet. Isn't this ridiculous? I do not know what I did there. That may have been involved in the polarization, also. I don't know.
That's in tune with one of the many things Tousey was doing.
Okay, yes. So I was just doing things. But it was interesting. It was always interesting stuff. Even at the time, I think I understood that it wasn't imperative for any science then and there that they know the optical properties of the bead. But that's what they had used so they were going to let me learn it, or they were going to learn it through me.
It was just at that time when he was switching from beads to slits, and it's possible that were still trying to get some science out of the beads' spectra.
So that was the summer of l947, and I got two points for college credit for that job. I had to write a report which was all about the solar spectrum, and that's how I got rid of my third term my third year.
I see. Those were the points.
Those are the points. You needed l20 credits to graduate.
What contact did you have with Tousey?
Who did you have contact with?
I can't remember, but it was not he.
That sounds familiar.
He was Tousey's optics man.
Is he still around?
He passed away about six years ago.
Yes. That's probably who it was. That sounds very familiar.
He would do Tousey's bread boarding and all of that. F. S. Johnson would do more of the data reductions.
No, I don't think it was. That doesn't sound familiar. I certainly wrote a term paper essentially for Vassar on that
I'm not sure whether Bill Baum might have been around.
He was. It was only many years later that we knew this. But I met him and may have by then sort of known that here was this person. I remember one or two interactions, but very vaguely. We were not working in the same room or lab so it was rare. I guess he was a graduate student then?
He was a grad student at Caltech.
Oh yes, and that I think I knew.
Give me a sense of the flavor of the place just over the time that you were there, the best you can.
Well, it's hard to do. It's so long ago. It was pleasant; it was fun; it was a little mysterious because it was a naval base, which again was strange for me. Parts of it were secure. I remember the cafeteria, which was fun. It was just pleasant. I took a bus from near our corner that went down what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard or something. I remember the name of the street.
There was military there.
It was. You couldn't go into other buildings, I think even the library. I mean, you could look up books and part of the holdings were restricted. That was a strange summer for a personal reason because I had met Bob at the start of the summer, and he was living where I was. In the same apartment development. He had a summer job at the University of Maryland, and he took public transportation from Southwest Washington to the University of Maryland in College Park, about 12 miles. After a while he started meeting me where I got off the bus, probably at some great personal sacrifice. It was hard to get there.
NRL was interesting, too.
Yes, I enjoyed it. In l948 I was married in June, and I was supposed to start the first of July, and I called them and asked if I could come a week later, and they said no. And I said, "Oh, I wish I could because I am getting married." And they said, "Oh, okay, you can come a week later."
Was that Tousey you talked to?
No, probably not. And that summer was not as interesting. I believe I was still in Tousey's group, but I wasn't doing optics. Maybe it was a detection system or something. I got in involved in FM radio. I know that because I had to learn even what FM was as opposed to AM. And I think at the time I went to the library; I read books. I don't know whether I was supposed to do something. I remember this learning process. I can't now remember why.
Was it possibly telemetry related?
It must have been telemetry related.
Tousey was, of course, a photographic man through and through. But there were people working for him in his groups at various times, like Watanabe and others, who did play around with some photoelectric detectors.
Yes, that's what it was. Yes, that sounds familiar. Maybe I did this at the same time I was doing optics because I really can't separate the optics. That was all right, but it wasn't fun. I didn't know enough. I always felt like I didn't know what I was doing.
That's very important to know. It would be understandable that you are sitting in a military lab, you are doing a small piece of probably a large project, and they don't necessarily tell you either.
That's correct, that's correct. I never really knew what I was supposed to be doing, or doing, or whether it was what they wanted. But I was probably doing optics, also.
So you were talking about the FM radio, and you weren't quite sure what you were doing.
That's right. That was more a job than just playing with these optical components had been.
Did you have any interest in a future career at NRL?
No, probably not.
Let's talk about your courtship established. When did you realize it was going to be a serious thing?
Well, there is a very amusing story about my meeting Bob, which perhaps I should tell you. As I told you, the two mothers had met and said they had children at college. So my mother invited their family, there were two boys, to come when I got back from college. I had actually come back and went away for the Fourth of July weekend with our friends, Goldie and Mike Goldberg and their two children. We went to a houseboat on the Chesapeake Bay with some friends. And so I got back.
My father was still working. He would get up early, get to the end of the bus stop enroute to work, and save a seat for his friend who lived in the apartment downstairs who had a bad foot or something; he couldn't walk easily. And so my father would get to the bus stop early at the end of the line and save a seat. And one morning when he got there, ultimately there was only one empty seat, and a different man got on, and this other man said he wanted to sit there, and my father said he couldn't, and they had some words, and my father ultimately told him he was saving it for his sick friend.
My father ultimately gave the seat to a woman. So the night that Bob and his family were coming over there was a knock on the door, and my father went and answered the door and invited the Rubin family into our apartment and then went and said to my mother, "That's the man I had the fight with on the bus." I learned that evening, of course, that Bob went to Cornell. You asked me earlier if there had been any invited lecturers in astronomy, and I said no. But my second year at Vassar there was a physics student group—some kind of a Yale, Harvard, Vassar group—and they had a seminar once a year, and it met at Vassar my second year there. And a young man by the name of Richard Feynman came for the few days. As an aside, let me say that on a different occasion a young man named Leonard Bernstein came to Vassar, also.
He conducted the Vassar orchestra. And, of course, we all fell in love with them both; but for me, Feynman was already a very romantic figure. We knew his wife had died; he must have been 24 or 22, whatever, at the time. And some of the students actually knew him well just from the kind of circles they moved in. I think I never said a word to him the whole weekend. But when I met Bob, this young physics student from Cornell, I asked him if he knew Richard Feynman. And he said he had studied under him. So that immediately made Bob a very attractive figure.
I was really interested in him from the start. And so we had the summer in Washington, and then we went our separate ways. I went back to my last year at Vassar, and he had a confused career because of the war. He had been sent through the V-l2 program by the Navy. He had been sent to Cornell; he had started at Hopkins; he had started in chemical engineering because he could get a scholarship at Hopkins, or in chemistry, I think. And then the Navy V-l2 must have sent him into chemical engineering. So at the end of the war, he was sort of getting himself back into a normal chemistry/physics curriculum.
He was doing graduate work even though he hadn't yet gotten an undergraduate degree, and things like that were being sorted out. I think I must have decided pretty early, just like the astronomy, pretty early, that this was someone I'd be happy to spend the rest of my life with. So we went back to college. Neither of us had a car; we didn't live that way. He would devise schemes. Cornell to Vassar is not terribly far but also is not easy. So he would generally find someone that was driving there or part-way there or something. So he showed up a lot of times. And then probably by November we wrote a letter to both sets of parents telling them we would like to get married, and we felt they couldn't complain because they had introduced us.
We planned to be married at the end of the next summer. The stories are so long and complicated. I had applied to Harvard for graduate school. We did talk about doing something other than my going to Cornell, but Bob's academic career was a little confused, as were most men's at that time. It seemed simpler for him to stay where he was.
For graduate work?
Yes. He was already into his graduate work. And so I wrote to Donald Menzel, who I did not know, telling him that I wished to withdraw my application for graduate school and a scholarship, that I was going to married and going to Cornell. I got back from him a very formal letter sort of acknowledging this, and then at the bottom he had hand written a note to the effect that, "That's the trouble with you women.
Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married." And about a year or two ago when I spoke at Harvard in the astronomy department, Owen Gingerich introduced me by showing this picture from the l953 University of Michigan summer school. And that got me reminiscing so when I started my lecture, I mentioned this letter from Menzel, and that prompted Irwin Shapiro in the audience to ask me if I could find the letter. And I said, "No, you find it in your files."
And then there was five weeks of faxing. It wasn't in Menzel's files; it wasn't in Shapley's files. I told them to go look in the graduate school. Ultimately, as I said, this was at the start of my lecture, "We live in a big old house, and there is all this junk in the attic, and the letter might be in the attic, but I couldn't possibly find it." Ultimately, Irvin faxed me saying, "Well, it's time for you to go look in your attic." And that's why Bob brought this box down, and there was the letter with the ink pretty faded.
Oh, that's great!
So I sent it off. I joined Bob at Cornell.
That was the process of your making the decision for graduate school.
Did Maude Makemson play a role at all in this?
Probably not. The relationship between me and Mrs. Makemson was difficult at the time. And that may have bothered her, too.
Yes, because at that time, as crazy as Harvard astronomy was, there was a big difference between Harvard and Cornell.
That's right; that's correct.
To be quite frank, there wasn't much going on at Cornell.
No, approximately nothing.
Now did you realize that this was a professional sacrifice for you?
I don't know. I really don't know. I can't remember that I thought it was. I was really very much in love with Bob. Marrying him probably was equally important, probably not more. Becoming an astronomer was always enormously important to me, unbelievably important. And I did know what Harvard was. Of course I did. You know, I read journals by then. I knew what I was getting into. On the other hand, I guess I've just always been enormously optimistic. It probably was a different time. It didn't seem to me that I was wrecking my chances to be an astronomer by going to Cornell.
Yet it was a question of opportunity. The kind of astronomy you would be studying, was that important to you yet?
No, well I don't know. I think I knew what I was giving up; I think I really did. I met Menzel. Menzel came to Cornell while I was there. I'm jumping ahead. The Cornell astronomy department was in a shed behind the physics building, a wooden shed, just a linear thing with two little offices and a blob at each end—one was the lab and one was physics. And I remember Menzel coming into my office and sitting down and talking to me, and he said, "There are compensations about coming to Cornell." He meant my life, my personal life. Like the Swarthmore woman's paintings, "there are compensations." This became a way to sort of understand this.
First, I'm impressed that Menzel remembered.
He was certainly a very busy person and had many irons in the fire and had many students. What do you think it was that helped him remember you?
Well, maybe the circumstance of someone saying she wasn't coming to Harvard because she was going to Cornell was enough to make him remember when he came to Cornell. What I find stranger now, mentioning it right now, is why he even came into this building, into the astronomy building.
It was behind physics. What you must say in all honesty for Cornell was that its physics was very strong. I studied physics under P. Morrison and H. Bethe and R. Feynman. I may have been giving up astronomy, but it was Morrison who gave a colloquium in the physics department when W. Baade resolved the center of the Andromeda Galaxy.
But you didn't know that those people were there, did you?
Well, I knew Feynman was. Of course I did, because of Bob. What I probably didn't know was how bad R. William Shaw was and whether I knew that Martha Stahr Carpenter was even there. I just probably didn't. No, but I could make the same comment for going to Vassar. I had no idea who taught at Vassar.
But undergraduate and graduate school are very different, and I'm assuming that you had read Maria Mitchell and the legacy.
Yes, that's correct.
And, in fact, Catherine Gordon you may not have known at the time.
I probably didn't, but I do know now.
You know now that women did go through Vassar and became professional astronomers. But Cornell is another issue. I mean, there was Shaw, Boothroyd.
I never saw Boothroyd. I never saw the man.
Before the war there was Robley Williams, but he left, too. I think he went to Berkeley after the war.
Did you know Shaw?
No. I had a brush with this when I studied Robely Williams. Williams moved into biomedical fields after the war. I don't know if you know him or his reputation?
No, I don't.
Did you know anything about the radio astronomy work that was beginning to be done in the Physics Department?
Was there anything about the application to Cornell that we should record?
Not a thing.
It was pro forma?
I don't even remember.
You must have applied.
Yes, I must have applied.
Any question of support?
I was offered a teaching assistanceship which paid my tuition.
What I have here are the records from the AJ for the Fuertes Observatory.
Oh, okay, it never occurred to me, and I'm listed in it?
It never occurred to me to even look.
First of all, tell me a little bit about Martha Stahr. She just joined the staff a year before you got there.
Let me start out by telling you about Shaw.
I'll get that off my chest. The day I walked into the department he told me to go find something else to study. They didn't need astronomers. He was the most despicable person I've ever come in contact with in my life. He was a Naval navigator or something, and he believed that everybody in the world was really bad. I mean, if a student asked to have an exam changed because a parent died, no matter what the problem, he would accuse them of lying.
It wasn't gender specific?
No, not at all, not at all. So my first job was assisting him in the elementary astronomy course, which conflicted with first year graduate physics. I could not take classical dynamics because it conflicted with when I had to be showing slides and things. So Feynman talked me into taking quantum electrodynamics instead of classical dynamics from him. With my two years of college physics, which hadn't been so great, I started at Cornell with quantum electrodynamics.
This sounds like pretty shaky ground. So Shaw's word was law. I mean, you couldn't negotiate?
On principle, he wouldn't do anything for anyone because they were just trying to take advantage of him. I mean, no matter what you asked, the answer would be "no." So I had to assist in the afternoon classes, the labs, every afternoon. And if the nights were clear, I had to walk to the observatory. And then Friday night was an open house. So Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I was occupied that way.
I think by the spring of my first year, my parents were coming. And I asked him once if I could not show up on that Friday night cause my parents were coming, and he sat me down and told me how everything I was doing was not good enough, and I wasn't spending enough time, and I got the students out of the lab too soon, and he said "no" I had to be there.
Not too pleasant.
No. I read in Margaret Rossiter's book on women in science that in l948 or l949 Cornell had one woman assistant professor. And I presume that's Martha Carpenter, Martha Stahr at that time. She was there when I came, and I didn't know who to expect. I enjoyed her very much. I took a course in astrochemistry under Shaw, which wasn't bad. It was really spectral analysis and stuff like that, really pretty fun. I had *Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, Johns Hopkins University Press 1982 to write a term paper, and I wrote about the uncertainty on the orbits of the planets. I wrote a paper attempting to prove that you could never know the orbits accurately enough to extrapolate them back.
I just sort of studied what little uncertainties would grow into, something very close to chaos now. And that was not bad. Now, she had come from Berkeley, and what she knew was also celestial mechanics. She had a PhD. from Leuschuer Observatory. So I took courses from her. My first year I think we just worked through Smart's Spherical Astronomy, equation by equation. Not unlike the kinds of things I had done at Vassar. I learned galaxy dynamics from her. By the end of the year, I knew all about rotating galaxies.
Maude Makemson had one paper in the late 30s, I think it was maybe l940 even, on galactic orbits.
I don't even think I know of that. And I don't think there was ever, anything in the volume of Russell, Dugan, and Stewart I used. It was like a l926 edition that may have been upgraded. But you really didn't even learn the difference between galaxies. I learned pretty much of what was in the book, but it wasn't much.
Russell also wasn't very interested in galactic dynamics. And so there wasn't much in it.
That's right, so I really didn't know that stuff. And I learned that from her, or from Smart through her.
Well, if she was at Berkeley, she would have been maybe a Trumpler student, or she would have known about these things. And there was much more of that going on at that time with Trumpler and Weaver there. I don't know her.
She was very sweet and quite young. How she survived Shaw I don't know.
Shaw must have hired her.
Yes, I know, but how she lived in the same department with him, I don't really know.
You said that Shaw gave a competent astrochemistry course. But here you have another person who seems to be just as defensive or abusive as your physics teacher was. Did this help move you more into the physics department maybe at this point?
No. It was really very much the same. My reaction was just "He just doesn't understand." I want to be an astronomer, and I just dismissed it.
Were there other astronomy students?
There were other people in the classes. I don't think there was anyone else getting a degree.
In the first year that you are mentioned [in Observatory Reports] is for the '48-49 academic year. It only mentions staff changes, which is typical in the annual reports. But he says that in '48-49 that you joined the staff as a graduate teaching assistant, you had charge of the laboratory work in introductory astronomy. Stahr taught advanced courses on the galaxy and on external galaxies. So this was your introduction to any memories of that.
Yes. That's right. I remember the course on galaxies. We had to read the Hubble Atlas. I had to learn about galaxies, learn names, learned about Cepheids. It was sort of a contemporary course. You might do it in a freshman contemporary course now, but it was more contemporary than Russell, Dugan, and Stewart.
Was this a terminal masters program or did they have a PhD. at Cornell?
I don't know. I certainly had made the decision to get a masters because Bob was ahead of me and would finish his PhD. in a couple of years. So I knew I was only interested in a masters. I don't know whether they gave a PhD.
But you found the physics department there, I take it.
Yes. They were pretty inspiring. I still don't think I liked physics any more, but it was quite inspirational to study quantum mechanics under Hans Bethe.
I can imagine. When did you realize about stellar energy and all of that? Was that at Vassar or Cornell?
I can't remember.
What was Bethe like as a teacher?
He was miraculous. In retrospect, I don't know how much of it was an act. I don't mean this unkindly, but I know what it takes to give a lecture. He would walk in with no notes and start at the upper left hand of the blackboard and start writing and deriving equations. By the end of the hour, he had just come to the other end of the blackboard and would link it to what he did yesterday. It was like reading a text book in a sense. I would like to know what he did the hour before the class, whether *Astronomy. 1926-1927; 1938 he really had just prepared all this, and I think he must have.
Did other faculty members sit in on these classes? Do you know?
No, I don't think I would have even known. There, too, Bob actually got his degree under Debye in chemistry. Now Debye's courses were just as different as could be. They weren't like Bethe's at all. He would talk about it to Planck, and Planck would say, "Well, you know, suppose it was just like a game of billiards, and it just fell into little pockets." Debye may not have had any notes either, but his lecture were full of stories and very lively, and Bethe's was just rigorous.
We didn't follow up on the Feynman course in quantum electrodynamics. Did you take that at the same time you took quantum physics under Bethe?
No, I must have taken quantum electrodynamics and then maybe classical mechanics next because the normal sequence would have started with classical E & M. I took classical mechanics under P. Morrison, and I took a course under G. Cocconi on cosmic ray physics, which was a nightmare. [G. Cocconi spent most of his career at CERN. He and (Phil) Morrison — 1950 first raised
Well, I was the only non-physics student in the class. I didn't know these other people. I would walk in and take the class and leave. He had just come from Italy, and you couldn't understand him, and he would write with one hand and erase with the other hand. And then he would give us problem sets, and there were about ten of us in the class. And the other nine people, I assume, all worked together because they would all do their problems the same way. And then he would hand me my paper without a word. Except, he didn't say right, wrong, or indifferent. He would just say, "Why did you do it that way?" And the reason I did it that way was because it was the only way I knew how to do it. I did not like the course.
Was it essentially a course in particle physics?
Well, it was balloons and number counts and energy distributions. I'm sure it was all very fundamental and very up to date. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the classical or even quantum mechanical treatments. They sort of made sense. This just didn't. It was really a very contemporary course. It's probably what you would have gotten if you had read that year's cosmic ray papers, and they just didn't fit into anything I knew.
That makes sense because cosmic ray physics was going through quite a change at that time, I think, where they had finally gotten the cosmic ray primaries just about that time.
Yes. He was difficult for me, and I'm sure all these other kids—maybe I am wrong, but my belief at the time was they sort of all solved their problems together.
What about Feynman's course? How did you do?
I guess I did fine. I did fine in Bethe's course. I did fine in all of them but, gee, my husband is a much better physicist than I am. I think we took Bethe's course together. Sometimes I did better than he did. But that wasn't a measure of how much physics I knew or what I understood. Bethe would give us problem sets but mostly take-home exams. So we would both be working on an exam at the same time. And Bob would just do everything from first principles, and I couldn't do that. But I remembered where somebody had done a problem like that. It was a very different technique. And I would start as close to the answer as I could and managed to get through the rest.
I would imagine that you would have found this sort of stuff more exciting because the people may have been more exciting than Shaw was.
Did it change you? Did it make you wonder what a career in astronomy would be like? Consider the possibility that you would end up at a college, teaching under someone like Shaw.
I can only say whether it was just shear stupidity on my part or whatever, nothing bothered me. I really understood that it was going to be very hard for me to become an astronomer for lots of reasons. But I was going to do it. And it was sort of that attitude that kept me going.
You were beginning to bear children around now. I don't quite want to get to your thesis, but I assume at this point that Martha Stahr was your thesis advisor?
No, I had my first child after I finished my masters.
So you finished your masters in l950?
Yes. Actually the degree was awarded in '5l, and the first child was born in late '50.
You were balancing some pretty heavy obligations here.
Yes. I think we should quit. This is really a good place. The child didn't come until after the masters.
Is this a good place to quit?
I think it is. Part of the story of the masters business is tough because of Shaw.
Is there more that we should go into in the future?
Yes, we should go into the masters story.
Okay. That will be a good place to start.
Nov. 12, 1986 Dark Matter in the Universe.
Stars in Their Courses Universe Around Us.
W. T. Skilling and R. S. Richardson, Astronomy (Henry Holt and Company New York), 1939. Going to it (1995) I find a front of a Porter drawing of 200-inch telescope.
Astronomy I, II Ginn 1926; 1938.
The Book of the Jaguar Priests, M. W. Makemson (Henry Schuman: New York) 1951.
There is a J. Eric Thompson in the index of the book above.
November 15, 1994 "What the Matter in the Universe?"
Don't know if I have a copy most likely not.
Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, John Hopkins University Press 1982.
Astronomy. 1926–1927; 1938.