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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter Boyce by David DeVorkin on 1996 December 4,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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 is a tape-recorded oral history with Peter Boyce, at the Executive Offices of the American Astronomical Society. The interviewer is David DeVorkin. The auspices, the American Institute of Physics and the National Air and Space Museum. And the date is December 4, 1996. Peter, we're going to start out by reviewing some biographical information. You were born November 30, 1936, which means you just had a birthday.
You pushed the big 60.
I was surprised. I thought your age was a little less than that.
Most people do, so I try to keep that going. [Laughter]
Well, the important thing is, I know you were born in New York, New York. Does that mean you were born in Manhattan?
It does. Midtown Manhattan.
Midtown Manhattan. Well, tell me a little bit about your background, your life, who your father and mother were, or are, if they're still alive, and if you had brothers and sisters, and what your early home life was like.
Well, I say I was born in Manhattan, but I also say I had the good sense to leave when I was a year and a half. My mother was an aspiring opera singer. My father worked for NBC, and when he left, he was the head of continuity there, which means that since everything that went on the air was, by union regulations, live, in the early days of radio, he had to — or his staff — had to write down all the scripts that were used, all day long. So it was a rather intensive job.
So they were transcribers in a way?
No, they produced the scripts, and then the announcers and actors would read them over the air. And so he told me one time that the most horrendous thing was when Thomas Edison died, and somebody upstairs, in his wisdom, decided they, starting then, would have a twenty-four-hour program on Thomas Edison, and came down to the Continuity Department and said, "We're going to start this thing in twenty minutes, and you've got to have twenty-four hours' worth of material." [Laughter] And you can imagine researching the history, and getting everything together, and writing twenty-four hours' worth of copy, virtually in real time.
That's incredible. What was your father's full name?
My father's name was Burke Boyce.
And your mother's?
Name was Mabel Zoeckler. And that, presumably, should be held confidential, because that's what all the credit card companies ask you, when you say you've forgotten your PIN number. "What's your mother's maiden name?" Right? [Laughter]
You were about to say something about your grandfather.
I had a couple of interesting grandfathers. Grandfather Boyce grew up around Syracuse — Auburn, New York — and had a family tree done that traced back to 1699, a French Huguenot that came over into New Rochelle. One of the many branches led back that far. He moved to St. Louis. He was a doctor. He was a very successful doctor, and, in fact, his father was also a doctor, practicing in Auburn. I have a grandfather's clock from my great-grandfather.
So there's a lot of tradition. Continuity, so to speak.
One of the things that really impressed me was how good my grandfather, Adolph Lippe Boyce, was with his hands. This grandfather's clock, which I grew up listening to the sound of ticking in the front hall, as a comforting thing, had a one-second pendulum, which my father thought was very amazing. Every tick was exactly one second. It was an old Scottish clock, and it used to hang on the wall, and the pendulum would wag back and forth in the open. My great-grandfather reputedly set a person's arm, and set it so well that he could go back to work as a cabinetmaker, and the first thing he did was make a beautiful mahogany case for this clock.
So then my grandfather, at the turn of the century, was a little miffed that it only ran for seven days in this case, and so he took a keyhole saw and a bit and brace, and he cut out a little round circle in the bottom. The pendulum would go to the floor, and that turned it into an eight-day clock. So if you forgot to wind it on Sunday, as you were supposed to, you had one more day of grace. We still have it today.
My grandfather was a surgeon. He had a set of tools and he told me about how he wired a person's kneecap back together when it got split. I was amazed at what he could do with his hands. He, in fact, built me a workbench when I was a little kid with my name on the front, hammered in with brass, roundhead tacks, upholstery tacks.
This is important, because you eventually go off to Lowell Observatory and build —
And build instruments, yes. That's sort of why I went through this sort of detour.
Your dad — what was his life like when you were young? It sounds like it was very busy, very demanding.
Well, he left NBC because my great-uncle, who was my grandfather's brother, I guess, had invented the adding typewriter, back in 1900 or so.
It was an adding machine and a typewriter combination. He drove the company into the ground, because he couldn't do business, and so my grandfather, who was living in St. Louis at the time, moved back to Newark, New Jersey, where my father grew up, and ran the company for him. Eventually the company was sold to National Cash Register for a rather tidy sum, I gather. My father was able to get his father to buy a place in the country and, I guess, had a trust fund set up, so that he could indulge his real dream of writing novels for a living. So when I grew up, he didn't go away to work. He just went into the study and wrote, and he wrote all day, and disturbances were inimical to this, so we always had to be careful not to disturb my father when he was writing.
Did he publish?
He did publish. His first book came out about 1940. It was called The Perilous Night, about the American Revolution. He wrote a couple of books on George Washington. He did a book on the Earl of Oxford, as a proponent of the idea that it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the plays of Shakespeare, because that made more sense to him, as an author, and things like this. So it was mostly historical novels, got into a couple of children's books at the end. But there was a strong feeling of history, and what we can learn from history. Trying to figure out what made people do things and how various points in civilization developed. Crucial turning points in the Revolution were part of my daily fare as I was growing up.
And where was this? Where were you living?
It was four miles outside of a town called Vail's Gate, in New York. And that is four miles, in turn, outside of Newburgh, New York.
Definitely out in the country.
We had ninety acres of land. And it backed up on 200 acres that was totally unspoiled, and is now owned by the Conservation Foundation.
How would you describe your early life, then?
Oh, idyllic, I guess, is the only word for it. It was growing up in the country, a father who was home, who would take me out and swing, and just sort of develops nonsense rhymes in his head as he pushed the swing. My mother had a piano, and she was still practicing. She gave local concerts around Newburgh, and used to sing on Sunday at the beautiful cathedral in West Point, a gorgeous, gothic thing with an organ with four manuals.
And this was in the Hudson River Valley?
Yes, in the highlands.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have one sister, four years younger.
And did she go through school like you did?
Yes. We both did for the first four years; I went to a private school. Fourth grade, I started going to public schools. I guess my sister started in the public schools.
But did she end up in a profession?
No, she did not. She went through college, but got married and has a couple of kids.
What's her married name?
Her name is Susan Priebe, and she lives in a town that, I think, has the longest name of any town in the country, and doesn't fit in any of the standard forms — Half Moon Bay, California.
I know it well. Talking about your schooling, what private school did you go to, for the first four years?
Hutchinson School. It was just a local day school.
And then you went to public school?
Then I went to public school in Cornwall, which was the closest.
Considering that your father is at home, writing historical novels, and your mother is at home, too, in music, how did your interests develop, and did they develop around your parents' interests, or did you develop your own interests?
Well, my father was always one to explain why things happened. He liked to explain why he did things. He liked the idea of the sun coming up higher in the sky as you got along toward February and March. He was fascinated by the fact that the entire major world's religions had a rebirth ceremony at the time of when the sun started to come back, around Christmastime. So we'd talk about that. I remember, vividly, going out on the porch when I was a little tiny kid, and my father pointing out — I mean, like I was three or four, I think — and my father pointing to our dog, who was lying in the sun, even though it was February, and saying, "See, the sun is already a lot higher in the sky, and it's now high enough so that it warms the dogs, and the dogs sit there, when they don't sit there in December, because there isn't enough sunshine getting through." So there was this, and my father liked the constellations, and, of course, there were no lights or anything. We'd go out, and he could pick out the Big Dipper and Orion, is about all he could do. But, you know that was enough. And Orion always signified that it was time to bring in the crops.
Did you have crops on your land?
Yes. Nothing that you'd bring in like that. It was vegetable gardens. This was during the Second World War, of course. So we had virtually an acre, I think, under tillage, if not more, corn and vegetables, broccoli and beans and peas and lettuce and parsnips, and good things like that.
And the family managed that?
We did it all ourselves. My father would hire a young kid to come in and help garden and work around the place.
Was your father too old to be drafted?
Yes. He actually was in the Merchant Marine in the First World War. Born in 1901. One of his terrifying tales is watching a ship next to him get blown up by torpedoes. But he did get an able seaman's ticket and a love for the sea from that trip, and he's imparted that love to me, also.
So would you say, then, that you're very much influenced by your father? It sounds like you are.
When did you definitely start developing your own personal interests, though, and can you point to any particular teachers in school who were important for you, influential on you?
Fifth grade teacher, name of Mrs. Brown. I don't remember her first name. She really encouraged science, I guess.
This was at the public school?
Do you remember the name of the public school?
The Cornwall School. It was all grades up through high school in those days. Cornwall had 3,000 people or something. It was a five-mile trip to go to school, and I rode the school bus. Since we were nine-tenths of a mile from the cement road, the school bus didn't have to go into the dirt road, because the mile was the breaking point. So I virtually walked a mile every day to the school bus stop, and then rode the school bus.
Rain, shine, snow?
Yep. My mother, of course, would always have pity on me, and meet me if it was really bad. I usually got driven in the morning to the school bus stop, but gas was tight, and this was maybe half the time I walked.
You certainly were aware of the war. You must have been five to seven years old when we were engaged.
Oh, yes. We'd play war all the time with kids, you know, much to my mother's disgust.
"He shouldn't have toy guns." My grandfather, however, used to train soldiers before we got into the war, and he has a Letter of Commendation from Teddy Roosevelt for what he did, both in the First and Second World War. He wound up, in the First World War, at the rank of major. Never told me any stories about it. It was all on the home front, but I never heard him talk about what he did in the war. In the First World War, my father was just old enough to get into the Merchant Marine, take one trip across, and back, at the end of the war.
It was your grandfather who stayed home?
It was my grandfather who stayed at home, and who did things.
Mrs. Brown stimulated in you an interest in science, but would you say it went so far as for you to start thinking about what you would be doing?
Oh, heavens no. I never thought about what I was going to do.
Virtually until I got into college, really. I mean, I thought about things, and I was going to be a doctor when I was in high school, but we can get to that in a minute. I guess the one teacher who just stands out is Mrs. Brown, just because she was a good teacher, and we did a lot of good things in the class. We did some writing, I remember, and we had an astronomy unit, and learned the names of the planets, but I already knew them. There were two kids in the class who already knew the names of the planets.
So this must have been about 1946, '47? You were in fifth grade?
What did you hear by then about the war, or about the end of the war? What are your recollections?
Well, one of my father's good friends, who used to visit all the time, lived three or four miles away in a town called Washingtonville, and their son, the one who used to get down on the floor and play with me with blocks and things like that, was drafted into the Navy, or went into the Navy somehow, and was killed in Okinawa by a kamikaze plane. So there were some bitter feelings as a young kid can develop.
Were you aware of the atomic bomb?
I certainly was, and I can't understand why I was. We had good contacts with both West Point and their Air Force Base, Stewart Field, because somebody decided that everybody who went through West Point should learn how to fly in the modern Army. So they rushed and built an airfield in the early days of the war, and they used to train — all the cadets had to go through it. One year they found out — the first time they did this, they found out — my father was told that a third of the class crashed, and, you know, a lot of them died, by trying to make everybody fly. Now, I don't know if that's true or not, but anyway, it's one thing that kind of stuck with me.
But you make an association with that and being aware of the bomb?
Yes, because I remember hearing on the radio about a bomb blast. Now, certainly the Trinity experiment in New Mexico was not broadcast, so I don't know what it is that I remember, but it probably must have been one of the tests later on, and I was older.
So it wasn't Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
I do know that the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and I was aware of that. And a week later, Japan surrendered, and I remember going to a notebook and writing down, "This is the day Japan surrendered."
Did you keep diaries?
No. That's what makes this so spectacular.
It sounds like you had friends, but you were living on a farm, and they probably were not too close to you.
Oh, a mile away, was my nearest — my good friend.
Was it a special thing, or a casual thing, to see him?
Well, we rode the same school bus, so that was all right. And then on weekends, I'd pedal over, when I got older, and we'd drive around, I mean, on our bikes. We biked around a lot, did hiking, and going up onto one of the nearby mountains. So I learned how to handle a map and read it and not get lost and find north and things like that.
How about overnight camping trips and stuff like that?
Very little of that. Some Boy Scout stuff, mostly to camps in cabins. I didn't really start doing overnight camping until I moved to Arizona.
So you went to Arizona?
Yes. Didn't learn to ski until I moved to Arizona either. [Laughter]
But your grandfather made you a workbench?
And I'm wondering if you used it.
I used it for a while, but outgrew it very quickly. I did grow up — my mother died just when I was just out of high school — first year in college, she died in that fall. So I kind of had to take over, did a lot of the cooking for the family when I was home in the summer, and kept the place up, and tried to keep things going. But I did a lot of repair of the autos and things we had on the place. I rebuilt a whole engine, and things like that. By this time, however, I was using the big workbench in the sort of shop area we had in the garage.
What was your father like with tools? Was he any good with tools?
Pretty poor, actually. So he was very glad to see that I had developed my grandfather's interest and was able to do a lot of thsse things.
So your mom passed away around 1954?
Fall of '54.
What was the cause of death?
Cancer, of the worst kind, stomach and other organs. I guess it wound up in her pancreas, finally, but not before she suffered a lot.
That must have been very difficult for you and your sister.
Yes, it was. I was sort of shielded from the worst of the last, because I was away at school. I came home maybe three weeks before she died, and kind of said goodbye. My father hated funerals. He thought it was a barbaric custom, and he did not have a big service, and I was instructed not to come home, which seemed all right to me, because that's sort of the way he'd approached life, and the way I was brought up.
Were you a religious family?
It's hard to say.
Your mother sang in the West Point Cathedral.
My mother grew up Lutheran. She thought I ought to have some sort of religious training when I was growing up, so I went to a Methodist Sunday school for a while, and apparently I was coming home with stories that disturbed them, and then they found a slightly more liberal Protestant church, and I went to that for a while, but no real thing. And then my mother suddenly converted to Christian Science, and I remember getting terrible headaches and being told that I was all really okay because I was God's perfect child. I was thinking, "Bullshit. This is not working." [Laughter]
If your mother converted, did your father still go to doctors?
Oh, yes. We went to doctors. I mean, she was sensible enough to do that. My big awakening was when my mother took me to one of the Wednesday night sessions where people are supposed to stand up and say what Christian Science had done for them that week. My mother was looking around the room, saw a friend of hers come in, and she said, "Oh, here's Peggy Ogden. I've got to let her know I'm here." And so there was a lull in the conversation, and she popped up, and you know you'd stand up and say, "Well..." She made up some story about how Christian Science had enriched her life that week, which was just a lot of made up on the spot, and that put it in perspective for me right there. But she and Peggy Ogden got together afterwards and had a nice chat.
Interesting way to put it.
So I just said, "You know, maybe I don't need this." My father was always knowledgable about a whole bunch of world religions, and how important it was to be square with other people, to run your life by the rules of Christianity, by the rules by which Christ lived, and that if you looked at almost all the other world religions, they all had the same basic rules, so they must be important. So that's what I've always tried to do. But the organized religion of being told what to do and when and how to do it, and so forth, has never been part of my philosophy.
So you haven't kept up any church activity?
In your own life?
I've probably gone more times now to Catholic churches, because my wife, present wife, is Catholic, and she doesn't go to church either, but occasionally she has to take her mother. And certainly all the funerals and all the weddings are taking place in churches, so I've had my share of Catholic masses now. [Laughter]
What was high school like? Was it, again, Cornwall School?
No, I went to Storm King School, four years of a private school on Storm King Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River.
And what was the specialty of that school, if it had one?
Just that it was a better education than the local high school.
Is it basically a prep school?
It's a prep school. All boys. My father had taught there a couple of times during the war, when they couldn't find teachers, and so he knew it, he knew the headmaster rather well, one of the sort of intellectually elite people. We had a group of people, of artists, some very good artists and educators and just intellectually stimulating people that would get together from time to time for musical evenings or for general discussions. I never participated in them, but the conversation around the table was always very stimulating. We had regular dinners and we talked at dinners, and we had good table manners so that people wouldn't interrupt each other, but the great thing was that the kids were included in all of this discussion when we were there, and we were expected to hold up our end of the conversation.
You and your younger sister?
Yes. We both learned to read before we went to school, by the way.
That's very important. So would you typify yourself as a pretty good student in school?
You had high grades?
I might have come in second, but it was neck and neck. I was probably the top person in high school.
Where did your father go to college?
Harvard. I'm pointing to my father's Harvard Varsity Club certificate when he was elected to the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame. He was captain of the fencing team at Harvard, and an Olympic fencer for the U.S. in the 1924 Olympics.
And somebody stole his participation medal, which has broken my heart.
Sure. So he was the class of '22.
Did his father go to Harvard as well?
So you were a second-generation Harvard man, in a manner of speaking?
Yes. And I was also captain of the fencing team.
Were you really?
Was there any choice, other than Harvard, or was it always Harvard for you?
It was always Harvard. I applied to Princeton, just in case. [Laughter]
Did you get in?
Sure. [Laughter] No, life was a lot simpler in those days.
You would have gone to Harvard in the class of '58, so you matriculated in '54.
That means you graduated high school in something like June of '54.
Yes. I played a lot of sports in high school, and that was wonderful. It was one of the tremendous advantages of a small school. I played fencing, soccer, and tennis, and I lettered in all three.
And that was something that was important? The school sports were institutionalized, in a way?
And you mark this as an important part of your training?
Yes. I've kept athletically active ever since. You know, I'm not a nut about sports, but when I'm watching a game, I can get as rabid as anybody, and it's kind of fun. It's a way to break ice, to start conversations, to bond with people. That was pretty important for a young kid who was a mile from his nearest neighbor.
And who was, unfortunately, the intellectual superior of just about everybody in the class.
You say "unfortunately." What does that mean?
Just makes it difficult. Get a lot of teasing, you know.
Oh, you got teased?
I got teased, yes.
You got teased for being, a what, a grind?
No, for just being so smart. I tried not to be a grind. But it was very important to fit in, and that's where the sports came in, in high school. That helped me feel a lot better about everything.
Did you have any particular teachers in high school that you'd like to mention?
Yes, there were two. One was Mr. Chase, who has since died. He taught biology. And we had a couple of people who were very good and very interested in this, and so he taught what would now be called AP Biology. We had three years of biology, and this was absolutely wonderful. We got into the chemistry of how muscles work, as much as you can in high school. But the other one I didn't appreciate as much, at the time. His name was Herb Sauer.
And what was he teacher of?
You didn't appreciate him that much at the time, because—
I didn't think he was as inspiring a teacher, but he really grounded his students well.
Did you have any kind of counsel in school as to what you would declare for, or they were against specialization?
Oh, they were against specialization. There was just a few courses that you could take as electives.
So you did very well in school, and now you're going to Harvard, but you're going to Harvard from a small, private school, you come from a rural area, even though it was an intellectually strong
Well, let's not say I came from a rural area, because my grandfather lived for a lot of the time, when I was growing up, on Central Park West. We would go down to New York sometimes every weekend, but at least every other weekend. My father would take me around, and I got so I could maneuver the subways, the Staten Island ferry, and the buses, and I knew what was what and what to watch out for. So, while I'm not a Steve Maran, I knew my way around New York reasonably well.
And where would you go? What were the destinations for you?
Well, the Museum of Natural History, for one.
That was also Central Park West?
Yes. And the Zoo. We occasionally would go to the Bronx Zoo, but mostly it was the Central Park Zoo, and a couple times the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One or two shows. My mother took me to an opera, which would have been just fine, thank you, except I heard so many arias and things being practiced around the house, that this was not as special as it should have been. I don't know why she did it, but the first opera she took me to was "Lohengrin."
And to this day, I can't stand Wagner.
There are some long passages where nothing happens.
Yes. [Laughter] I was counting the cloud wheel going around in the back, I must say.
What about the Hayden Planetarium?
Oh, of course, yes. Now, I had read in a book that some spacecraft had landed on Mars, and the inhabitants of the spacecraft were looking up and watching one moon rise in the east and one rise in the west. I got down to the orrery underneath the planetarium.
And this was when you were a kid, of course?
Yes, like in sixth grade, or fifth grade.
So this is science fiction.
And so I went down to the orrery and looked at Mars, and both moons were going in the same direction. I said to my father, "That can't be right, because one rises in the east and one rises in the west." So he said, "Well, you should write a letter." So I sat down and wrote a letter, and I got back an answer, which was absolutely the worst thing, I realize now, that could have happened. The guy said, "You're quite right, but the gearing, making a gear, everything else goes in one direction, and making a gear so that one goes backwards is just so hard, and so we don't do it, and most people don't notice." Now, if he had told me that the reason it rises in the west is that it's actually going around faster than the planet rotates, this would have opened up a whole new concept to me.
So the guy at the Hayden didn't know that? You wrote a letter to the Hayden Planetarium, right?
Yes. And I guess, you know, some docent was sent to answer the letters from the kids. So he just made up something, and sent it off to me.
Oh, that's a pity.
And I wish he had taken the time to set me straight. So I always try to set kids straight. I spend a lot of time, actually, doing that, and I think it's important.
The Hayden did go through a period when it didn't really have much of a staff after Clyde Fisher left, I think, and before people like Ken Franklin and others came in.
Oh, this was before Ken Franklin.
So you would go to the planetarium shows and stuff like that, and you were familiar with the sky. But as you said, you went to Harvard without any particular career decision.
Oh, no. Actually, by the time I got to Harvard, I had decided. I really liked biology and I would have liked to find out more about how biology works. I wanted to go into a research career, but I didn't know it at the time. I thought doctors did research. So I went pre-med.
Was that something you would declare your first year at Harvard?
Yes, I think we did. I mean, they didn't make a big deal of it, but they just wanted to know what we were thinking of. Because they knew so many kids were going to change their minds, depending on what they learned in the four years, and so as I said, it wasn't anything at all cast in concrete.
What was Harvard like for you? Do you remember your first impressions?
Well, since I had gone to a prep school, I figured I was going to be King Tut there. Moving into another room — no big deal, right? Leaving the family — no big deal. The only problem was, had I figured, "Well, you know, I got top grades in this little school. I must be a big guy." Trouble is, when you got there, you found that everybody else at Harvard was top in their class, too. [Laughter] And about half of them had gone to prep school, and to bigger and fancier and more prestigious schools than you had gone to. This was quite a shock, to have to actually work when you didn't want to.
So this was the first time you really had to apply yourself?
Yes. I mean, I applied myself before, but it was because I really loved what I was doing, and I wanted to. Unfortunately, that habit sticks with me today, that I don't like to do things that I don't want to do. I get by as much by convincing myself that, "Okay, now this is going to be an interesting thing to do," and then working flat-out on it for a while.
Ignoring things that you don't want to do?
That's right. Like filing. [Laughter]
I take it you took the standard curriculum at Harvard?
Yes, I did. As I said, I started out to be pre-med, and I got pretty good college entrance exam marks, enough to allow me to take my first year of chemistry in half a year, which turned out to be absolutely pivotal in my whole rest of my life.
Because I took my first year of chemistry, and I did all right, but not outstanding. I would have gotten a better grade if I'd been able to take such an intensive course over the course of a full year. But it isn't grades that are important. It's what you're going to do afterwards, and I had a half a year to spare, and I thought, "Well, gee, I'm interested in astronomy." My mother actually had given me a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine in high school, and I got so enamored that my father and I actually went down to the second-hand shops in Veasey Street, south of Wall Street, in the Greenwich Village area, I guess, in New York City, and bought a mirror and a tube, and things like that, and I made a telescope when I was in high school.
There were a lot of surplus stores there. I think it was from an ad in the back of Sky and Telescope. And so I bought a little six-inch mirror and a cell, and I had never seen anything quite so perfect as the surface of that mirror, when I looked at it. Of course, I'm sure now, if I had tested it and so on, I'd find it wasn't perfect.
Do you still have it?
No. I left that behind some time ago.
But you built a six-inch telescope, and so you were observing?
Yes. No clock drive, and the one thing that was fairly impressive was how quickly an object would leave the field, and how difficult it was to find objects. Wow.
You didn't have a finding scope with it?
Well, trying to line that up and keeping in alignment, and when you don't have a drive or a good mount, trying to make that stay where it is when you move your eye from the finder scope into the main telescope eye piece is difficult.
Did this challenge you, or did this disappoint you? Do you remember?
Oh, it was challenging. I mean, I remember the night I saw M33 through the telescope for the first time. Andromeda, of course, was easy, and the Orion nebulae and the star clusters are gorgeous through any size telescope. But M33—suddenly, the whole background of the eyepiece just got brighter. I moved it away, and it went away. You just could barely tell it was there.
You couldn't quite tell that there were arms, but you could see that there was a large object.
Yes. It was an F/12 telescope. It wasn't really set up to find these objects, but I found it one time, and I was so excited. It was just so impressive. But you learn to go from star to star, and, you know, fall back on your map-reading skills as a kid, you go from here to there, to there, to there.
Well, Triangulum is not particularly an easy constellation to find anyway.
No. Well, anyway, that's just a little bit of background.
So the fact that you had an accelerated chemistry course gave you an extra semester?
Right. And so I decided, "Why not just learn a little more about astronomy? After all, you're here to learn something new." And so I took a course. Well, as luck would have it, Bart Bok was teaching the course.
Oh, my God.
And it was all over. [Laughter]
You were hooked, I guess.
Well, it isn't only Bart, who was one of the finest teachers in the whole world, but it was all the kids who were also interested in astronomy. The people in that class were so different from the people in the chemistry class.
The chemistry students were going to be doctors, and they knew they were going to be doctors, and they knew they were going to live on Fifth Avenue, and they were already picking out, in their mind, as freshmen in college, what specialty they were going to take, based on how much money each specialty earned. This was puzzlement, that somebody who loved finding out how things work, and wanted to be a doctor, to help people, and to find out more about how the natural world was I just couldn't make this go.
The astronomy students probably weren't thinking about living on Fifth Avenue.
No. They were just good old folks.
Was this Astronomy I?
Yes, Astronomy I. The first half was the planets and solar system, and the second half year, where I jumped in, was all the rest of astronomy.
Remember the textbook you used?
Baker, I think.
That was pretty much a standard semester textbook at that time.
So you met Bart Bok.
Lo and behold, there was Bart Bok at the front of the class. He would say, "Now, you know, the planet goes around, and when it gets in closer, it goes faster. Can you see it? Whoops! And around it goes." [Laughter] But you learned, you knew, when he got finished lecturing, just sort of by instinct, how things worked then. It was really good. The year before, there was one astronomy major. Bart's year, there were eleven of us that declared a major in astronomy.
So before Bart started teaching, there was only one?
Well, Bok had been in South Africa, and he came back that year. Yeah, so the year before, it was Tuckerman Moss.
Tuckerman Moss was the only undergraduate?
He didn't go on, did he?
He wound up running, or being very high up, in an optical company that he worked for, in the Route 128 area. He played tuba in the band, and it was wonderful. [Laughter]
So you decided for astronomy. Did you talk to anybody at that time — to Bart Bok, to somebody else, to your parents — about your plans?
Not to the parents, but to Bart Bok and to other people, and other folks in the class. "Yeah, let's all get together. We're going to do this. This is just great."
What was the feeling about a career? Did you have any at that time?
I didn't know what an astronomer did. I'm still not sure I know anymore. [Laughter]
Was the course taught on campus, or did you have to go up to Garden Street?
The course was taught on campus, but part of the perks were that you could go to Garden Street, and I remember going up there, and you could be checked out on, and get the keys to, the little seven-inch refractor. Well, I went up there and Francis Wright checked me out, and I got these keys on this big six-inch brass ring, and was allowed to just poke around the sky from a telescope that had a clock drive and was inside a dome. Can you believe that? [Laughter] This was wonderful, just wonderful. And, you know, that, plus the course, I said, "Well, might as well major in astronomy."
Did you have to adjust the rest of your curriculum? Did you think about the mathematics and physics and stuff like that?
I was taking math anyway, and physics was going to come next year, anyway, and that was part of the course.
Who were some of your other astronomy teachers then, as you moved on? Because you took the elementary course from Bart Bok. Did you continue to take astronomy as an undergraduate?
Yes. What they did — and this was wonderful, and I think it's partly Bart's influence — was that they put together a curriculum that was suitable for both undergraduates and graduates, because they had a lot of graduate students coming in from physics who needed to understand what astronomy was all about. So second year was a less than sterling course on observational astronomy, put together by Gerhart Miczaika. We went out to the Oak Ridge Station a couple times, and we learned how to take sights, and do this and that and the other thing.
So this was practical astronomy?
This was practical astronomy.
You were in a course with graduate students from physics. Was there a similar grading system, or did you feel outdistanced?
Certainly didn't feel outdistanced in the kind of stuff we were taught there. These were just sort of the background catch-up courses for the graduate students. These were not the advanced math and physics that the graduate students also had to take. So this was an easy course for the grad students, and it was an exciting course for us, and we were neck and neck. I think I got an "A" in the course, for instance. I suppose they graded us a little bit easier. The other thing was that there was a section — a lab assistant, name of Campbell Wade, radio astronomer, who eventually wound up at NRAO and VLA, since retired, and he was very good. He was just a nice guy.
The radio stuff was just barely starting out there.
It was so exciting to see the radio stuff. I started playing bridge with the graduate students, like Paul Hodge and Bill Howard was there, who was sort of downtrodden.
At the time, Bill Howard was downtrodden?
Oh, they teased him unmercifully.
He was just sort of the odd man out. This is Bill Howard, who's here in the Washington area, William Eager Howard III. I suppose that the name helped in terms of this teasing.
Bill was always so serious about things, and some of the other students were just [teasing]. Jackie Kloss was a student. That was Kloss of KLH Audio. She had a plant, and Bill Howard started measuring the plant growth by putting a stake in the pot and then just measuring with this little centimeter ruler how much the plant grew. And then he said, "I wonder if the growth rate would shrink if we keep it in the refrigerator," so he put Jackie's plant in the refrigerator. [Laughter] Fred Franklin was the ringleader on this, and he would take the stake, and he moved it backwards, so that it looked like the plant was actually shrinking. And Bill Howard said, "Wow! This is great!" And he said, "Let's take it out!" And so they took it out, and sure enough, he went back a couple days and measured it, and the plant had grown again. Of course, Fred was carefully adjusting the stake. So then he put the plant back in the refrigerator, and Jackie found her plant in the refrigerator, and that terminated the experiment. [Laughter]
These sorts of pranks going on, it sort of helped identify you with this group of people?
Oh, no, I wasn't part of that, just sort of peripherally. But, you know Frank Drake was there, working on the 21-centimeter line.
Harvard was a big place. Did you meet Shapley?
Shapley was gone by then.
So he really wasn't around?
Actually, he might have been in the office, but basically, from time to time, I think I saw him once in the hall.
So he wasn't much part of the atmosphere of the place?
No, he wasn't.
Whipple was certainly there.
Fred Whipple was there. Whipple and Donald Menzel were vying over who was running the place, I think. They built this new building, and they painted it the most God-awful color inside, and the rumor had it that it was Menzel's wife who chose the color. Building C. [Laughter]
Building C. Well, it's a huge complex now.
Oh, I can't find my way around it.
You were taking courses. When did you take your first physics, and how did you start understanding what the groundwork of modern astronomy was, and did this change your feelings about being an astronomer?
No, it didn't, because I always felt that if I had worked harder, I could have understood physics, actually. I mean, after all, you can't do everything, and I was fencing three hours a day and enjoying that immensely. One of my best friends there was a guy named Bob Renton, and he was a conductor. He'd already been through the [Eastman] School of Music in Rochester, N. Y., I think.
Oh, a musical conductor.
Yes. He roomed with the first chair of the Boston Symphony, under [Serge] Koussevitzky — -first chair oboist. And so I would go up to their place a lot and go in to concerts, and that's when I really began to appreciate music a tremendous amount. Bob always had to analyze pieces of music, and he was very au courant on which singers were good, and the rumors about who did what, and stories about Koussevitzky trying to teach somebody how to play the triangle. Somebody was playing the triangle — ding, ding, ding, ding — and Koussevitzky says, "No, no, no!" and he went tearing up into the orchestra. He says, "Give me that! I'll show you how to play the triangulo," and he picked it up, and he went, "ding, ding, ding, ding." You know no difference. [Laughter]
But your argument is that you were doing a lot of things.
I was doing a lot of stuff like this, and course work was coming in third in priorities. So I did very poorly at Harvard. I got A’s in astronomy.
So you continued to get A’s in astronomy, even though your physics wasn't too good.
I got some B’s. I would get roughly B’s in physics. Some of the harder math later on, I got a couple of D’s in things that were listed as engineering courses, and were fortunately discounted when I went into graduate school as not being relevant. [Laughter]
What was interesting to you about astronomy, though? What particular type of astronomy? Were you thinking of anything in particular?
Oh, this was one of the most exciting things I could think of, because here you are as an undergraduate, you're going up there [to Garden Street], and you're playing bridge all night long — another time-waster, by the way, but it wasn't really — with the graduate students. This was the year, either in my sophomore or junior year — I think it was the junior year — when Allan Sandage was there, and he was just coming out with the analysis of the cluster HR diagrams, and ages of clusters, and stellar evolution, and these were just being published in the ApJ. I remember getting an ApJ out and copying it for the first time. Fair use, mind you, fair use. [Laughter]
What did you copy it on, in the 1950s?
That is peculiar, because I certainly remember standing in front — maybe it was a light box, and I was just reading it. It just seemed like a Xerox machine. [Laughter] But anyway, just the excitement of saying, "Wow! You can really tell how old these objects are." And then it's so far away, and it just was so entrancing to me, that I just thought, "This is wonderful."
So stellar evolution, stellar models, the observational side of it, was that intriguing you, basically?
Who became your most influential teacher at Harvard, would you say?
For the first two years, it was Bok, because first he taught, and then he set up a series of tutorials, and he had an astronomy get-together at one of the houses once a month. And we'd all go over there, and he'd have somebody come in and talk to us, and there was a feeling of community and camaraderie that he particularly sponsored.
When did you start getting the lay of the land, that you had to go to graduate school, that you had to do this, that you had to that?
Oh, not 'til very late. I really didn't face that. I was just having so much fun in the present, I didn't think much about what it is we had to do. Then people began to talk about graduate schools, but I went off and got married.
You got married as an undergraduate?
Right after graduation, which was a mistake, because I focused too much on that, and I really, in retrospect, don't have much memory of graduation. It wasn't as important a thing, because two days later, I was going to get married, and that was the overriding thing.
Who did you marry?
A woman named Joan Cobb.
And you met her where?
Up at Storm King School.
So you knew her in high school?
Yes. On and off high school sweethearts.
She was a neighbor, then?
Yes. Her summer place was next door to the school. Now, there are a couple of interesting things that we didn't go over, and that is, when I was a sophomore in high school, the headmaster quit, or was fired or something, and my father, in order to keep the school going, so that I would have a place to go, came in and became headmaster. So he brought fencing to the school. The quality of the place and the English that was taught went way up. But it was kind of difficult to have your father as headmaster. If I hadn't been there and had a reputation already, it would have been hopeless to go there.
How long was he headmaster?
Oh, he was headmaster for about six years, I think. He was headmaster after I left, of course, but we overlapped for, I think it was two years. But anyway, that meant I lived up there in the summer, and then that's where I ran into Joan. There was a community pool that we all joined. My father lived on campus their, yes.
Oh, really? Now, this was after your mother died?
No. My mother actually died in the house at Storm King.
So did you still have the farm?
Yes. I mean, it's amazing what you can do if you buy a farm outright and you don't have to pay a mortgage.
And the school, as part of the job provides the housing.
Yes. Well, let's go back, though, to Harvard, and get you graduated from Harvard, with a decision as to what you were going to do after that.
Well, I just should say, I told you I got some really bad marks, but I was captain of the fencing team, both of which turned out to be very important.
That you got bad marks and that you were captain of the fencing team?
Well, the bad marks are important, because they limited my ability to get into graduate school, and the fact I was captain of the fencing team, and, in my application, indicated that I really liked music and stuff, was an important thing. Two more things that are extremely important are that Bok created a set of weekly tutorials before he left for Australia. That's where I ran into Max Krook, and had a tremendous influence on my last two years. He's a mathematician, did stellar models.
South African. So we would go up every Wednesday night, and we'd have two hours of discussion in a classroom. There were four of us — John Gaustead, who's still in astronomy; and I; Bill Day, who I haven't heard of since; and somebody else, who went into physics. And so, junior year, we talked about various things, but in the senior year, he said, "I'll tell you what we're going to do. We're going to go through stellar evolution, and we'll make a little stellar model." So he taught us the rudiments of the mathematics of how stellar models were calculated.
Was Schwarzschild's book out?
No, not yet. So he basically did that for us.
And you did it all by hand, I take it, or with a hand calculator? Boyce27
Well, we didn't actually do a lot of the calculations, but we went through a lot of the "Here's how you do it," and we'd do a couple of sample things. Then he'd go pick from a table, you know, and then he said "You have to have these graphs," and he would bring in graphs that maybe the students had calculated in his class.
So the UV Plane, you mean? You were doing fitting procedures?
And you found that exciting and stimulating?
Well, to think that you could actually figure out what was going on deep inside the star by what comes out was a good thing, you know.
Had you read Eddington's book [Internal Constitution of the Stars]?
No. I think I bought it during the course of that year, actually. Dover had it out, and it was great.
Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin had a book on stellar evolution, published about 1950.
We did not use that. Now, Sergei was there.
And the Gaposchkin kids — I mean, Peter would ride around in his little car, with his head sticking out the sunroof. Yeah, he had a tiny little car. You know, and how big he is, his head would stick out over the sunroof. He'd drive through Harvard Square that way. [Laughter]
You mean a real car?
A real car. But it was one of the mini models. I think he probably put a pillow on the seat or something to make this happen. I mean, would you expect otherwise?
No. My God. So the Gaposchkins were around?
Oh, yes. They were fighting. They would roll around on the floor of her office from time to time.
That kind of fighting?
Well, I didn't see that, but all the graduate students said, "You should have been here yesterday!" [Laughter] They apparently really did get into it. I was there when Cecilia gave her famous colloquium, stood up in the front of the little hall in the beginning — in the old library there — and said, "Well, I'm doing something quite new, and I realize I may be making a target of myself." And Sergei pipes up from the back, "Yeah, and a mighty big one, too." [Laughter]
So that relationship was totally in public?
Oh, yes. Everything Sergei did was in public, wasn't it?
Yes, I guess. Did that make it more exciting for you, or did it make any difference to you?
Well, he was just a peculiar Russian, right? What did I know? [Laughter] No, that didn't have a lot of influence. You know, everybody's got characters around, and he was a character.
One thing very important happened in your senior year, I guess it was, Sputnik, and, of course, the IGY was a big deal, and Whipple brought the SAO up there while you were an under grad. You graduated in '58, right?
Right, but they were apart. They didn't come onto the campus of the observatory while I was there.
They were on Garden Street. Didn't they come to Garden Street?
No, they were in a building that was two blocks away.
Oh, I didn't know that.
So there was very little influence, except more people were in the library.
I see. So you didn't see Hynek or Whipple?
No. Well, Whipple was there, of course, because he had his office there.
But all the people who came in for Project Moon Watch and all of that excitement were not around.
No. I mean, I knew that they were training moon watch teams and they had these little telescopes, and we'd see them lined up there in the yard of the observatory. We would go out and occasionally try to find it, as undergraduates. I remember doing that from Kirkland House, where I was.
But was that an exciting thing, Sputnik, for you people?
More scary than exciting. Like, "If they can do it, why can't we?" kind of. "What does that mean?"
But did you relate it to astronomy at all?
No. This was not real astronomy. This was using astronomical techniques, but for something that was clearly not astronomy.
Interesting. That was sort of the attitude of the observatory?
Yes. And, "Who were all these people? It's a good thing they're not in our building, because they're not doing real astronomy."
The SAO people?
Okay. That's great. That's actually very helpful for us, that kind of insight.
I mean, I realize it's your institution and all. [Laughter]
Oh, no. We're very interested. I didn't realize that they actually were not at Garden Street in the beginning. They were, as you say, a block away or so.
Yes. I never went to that other building, but it was not at Garden Street.
And as far as you're concerned, as a Harvard undergraduate, it had very little influence on you?
Yes. Well, I mean, this was very early on, of course.
SAO coming to Harvard didn't have a revolutionary effect, it sounds like, on everything that went on in astronomy at that time.
No, because it was something done with all this outside government money didn't really apply to astronomy anyway, certainly wasn't a scholarly pursuit. It was just sort of doing engineering-type stuff, and, as such, it should rightly be beneath our notice, was the general feeling around the observatory.
That's very interesting. So there was no bandwagon that you were hot to jump on there?
Oh, heavens no. No. Why would you want to do that? I mean, they weren't doing anything interesting. There's nothing intellectual about trying to find this satellite going overhead, right?
Right. Gets on the front of Life Magazine, lot of hype, lot of stuff like that, you see.
Yes, but its not real astronomy. [Laughter] No. I'm just reporting sort of what I was feeling at the time and what I sensed what was going on around the observatory. People like Cecilia didn't think much of it, and you know, there was a very clear distinction that people from SAO, even though they could use the facilities, were not on the Harvard faculty. I mean, that's something that still persists, but it was very, very strong when they first moved up there.
Very helpful. That's very helpful.
There's an awful lot of interesting people that I met at Harvard, because it was big, it was active. Tommy Gold came and gave a course on galaxies. I was so unhappy, because he gave two lectures and decided that was too much work, and he made the students give all the rest of the lectures.
And that made you unhappy?
And that made me unhappy, because different people gave different quality lectures.
Sure. That's right. Who else came? You said Sandage was there for a while, Thomas Gold. Who else was important to you, or significant?
Well, I took a course from Gold, so he was particularly significant. Sandage had impact on me. I don't recall any other people being particularly important or influential in what I was doing.
Did Bok leave before you graduated?
Yes, he did.
How did the atmosphere of the place change after he left, for you?
Not much difference. Cecilia took over as chairman of the department, and that was actually pretty good. She called me in one time, and told me I had to get my grades up.
So she took things pretty seriously?
But she really could see how great it was, maybe from her own educational background, to have these tutorial things.
So she maintained those?
What about advising you on graduate school or advising you on a career in astronomy? Anybody do anything?
I think my marks were poor enough, they just discarded me, probably.
So how did you end up going to Michigan?
Thereby hangs a tale. [Laughter] Now, as I said, I got married, and my wife was at Brown, and I took a semester off.
That's after you graduated?
Yes. And I applied late to a number of graduate schools. Mostly got rejections, which I immediately forgot, because I like to ignore things, but I sensed a possibility — one of the graduate students said, "Why don't you go see if you can get to Australia, and go to school with Bart?" So I did, and they actually gave me a provisional entrance. And somebody suggested — it might have been Bill Howard— I don't remember, but one of the people suggested that I go off and try to see if Michigan would be interested, because they were doing some interesting observational stuff.
Before you get to that, what did you do in your semester off, or your time off, if you didn't go straight to grad school?
I did a lot of self-tutoring. I bought a bunch of books on mathematics.
So you didn't work?
I didn't work, no.
You were basically filling in the stuff that you had missed?
Yes. Going back through with the College Outline Series and relearning the calculus was one of the best things I ever did.
Was there something about being married, or some reality check that made you feel that you had to do it?
Yes. I mean, now we're going to get serious. And the world didn't just open up because I appeared on the scene anymore.
Interesting. Let me change the tape.
What hit you that made you start realizing that you had to take life seriously and get to work?
Well, I think, just, you know, the fact of getting married, and saying, "Oh, you mean my father isn't going to continue to pay the bills that arrive on his desk?" I mean, I was really naive.
No one took you aside, your father or a faculty member? I mean, you said that Cecilia Payne said you had to get your grades up. None of that made any difference?
You can't point to any particular person, then?
What was your wife's background?
Her father was one of the world's finest orthopedic surgeons, operated on the Danish royal family and various other people, specialty in scoliosis. Did a lot of knee work, too. And he was wonderful. I think I married her because of him. I mean, his motto was "Cerebration instead of operation." In other words, "Think about it. Maybe you don't have to operate." He was the founder and original member of the Scrounger Society, whose motto is "Don't throw away nuttin.'" [Laughter]
What's his name?
John R. Cobb.
There was a Stanley Cobb at Harvard Medical School, a neuropathologist, and psychologist. Did that name ever come up?
They came from a Connecticut family. Certainly it was not any of his very near relatives. They were really from a fishing family, long time ago. But, again, interesting, interesting guy, who was intriguing. Again, this Scrounger Society — the thing I started to tell you, that was really for this statement, because he always said, "It ain't its intrinsic value. It's what the hell could you use it for." And he had some of the weirdest contraptions he'd cobbled up that really worked.
So he was a good instrument man, too?
Yes. That's a slight aside.
Mechanical stuff, electrical stuff?
And they lived in Manhattan?
Yes. But they were up every weekend. They also had an island in the middle of a lake in Maine, where I spent many summers. It was wonderful. Again, you had to be self-reliant. It had its own generator, and you had to make sure it was in repair, and I learned how to shingle roofs and do all kinds of things by having to keep everything on the island up, or helping keep it up.
That is very self-reliant. I can imagine doing that could be a lot of fun, too.
But that kind of thing, then, became very appealing to me. Do things yourself.
What attracted you to his daughter, then, Joan Cobb?
I suppose she was there. [Laughter] I mean, interesting, smart. She got very good grades. She was interested in French, music, played the bassoon. Just generally an interesting person.
Was it a surprise at all to your family, or to her family, or to her, that you took this semester off, or was it a full year that you took off?
Well, she had accelerated her course, because she was a year behind me in school. She accelerated hers so she could graduate a semester early, and I took the semester off to just, you know, to be there with her. She was at Brown, so we lived in Providence.
You mentioned the College Outline Series, which was one series of textbooks that you used. Did you read any astronomy, or was it mainly math and physics that you needed to catch up?
It was math and physics I wanted to catch up.
And somebody suggested that you go to Michigan?
Tell me about that.
Well, I don't remember whom, but I applied. And, again, I got accepted. It might have been provisional, but it seemed like better than going to Australia, so I went. Found an apartment, and we marched out there in February 1959. Now it all comes to pass. The week after I got there and the semester opened, they had the qualifying exams, and they said, "Every student has to take the qualifying exam every year until they pass it."
I said, "But I just got here!" They said, "That's all right. It'll help us kind of understand where you are." This is qualifying for the master's. "And nobody's expecting you to pass it, especially if you've only been here a week." Well, there were three questions. One had to do with how you determine your latitude and all the corrections, a spherical trigonometry question that we had covered in the practical astronomy class, as a sophomore. Second question was sort of generalized; I forget what, about stellar evolution or something. But it's things that we had covered as an undergraduate at Harvard. And the third question was "Construct, as best you can, in the hour you have left, a stellar model
I'll be damned.
"And tell how you're doing it. At least sketch out the process — why, and how, and how it all goes together." Well, I got the highest mark of anybody, qualified for a master's. [Laughter] I mean, talk about blind luck. After that, I got a fellowship and I was a Rackham Fellow the last year.
The Horace Rackham Fellowship, right.
I started out working in the summertime on the radio telescope with Fred Haddock. Bill Howard, who I'd known at Harvard, graduated, got his Ph.D., and came to Michigan, and I worked with Fred.
So he wasn't there at the beginning, but he eventually got there while you were there?
Yes. And it turns out, later, when I was there, are you ready for this? The faculty read: Aller, Liller, Miller, Mueller, Mohler and Goldberg. [Laughter] Lawrence Aller, Bill Liller, who's very important in this story. Freeman D. Miller. Edith Mueller, solar astronomer, was there. Oren Mohler, a solar astronomer.
That's right, because they had the McMath-Hulbert Observatory there.
Right. Goldberg was the head of the department. Now, I conveniently left off Haddock and McLaughlin, two of the more interesting, people I became most attached to, but it just doesn't fit in with this rhyme. [Laughter]
But that is wonderful. I remember Aller had some of his favorite astronomical groupings and words. He loved it when Hogg and Slob wrote together. [Laughter]
Yes, yes, and yes.
And he would always talk about Hogg and Slob, you know. He would always make us read their papers.
I can go on and tell Aller stories later on. [Laughter]
A few would be great. A few would be very much appreciated, because he's one of the great characters in astronomy.
Oh, yes. And it turns out; he cranked out people who knew how stars work, because they had to do it. And there's just nothing like learning by doing, as Maria Mitchell would say. You make approximations, you take a stubby pencil, and extrapolate beyond what it was supposed to be, but whatever it is, you did something so you could come out with an answer.
That's right. Some of it was pretty wild.
Yes, it was. [Laughter]
Well that must have been quite a place. Wasn't Dave Philip there, and Art Upgren, and people like that?
Oh, am I wrong?
They were at Case.
Oh. They talked a lot about a lot of contact with Michigan. I thought they were with Michigan.
Well, Art Upgren, I think, was probably an undergraduate there, and went to Case, I believe.
But you said, "Boooo!" so is there a competition between the two places?
What was Michigan like? What was the flavor like?
It was great. It was absolutely wonderful. Goldberg was an outstanding director of the department. We had coffee breaks. We had the machine shop right there, and we did things, you know, with our hands. Not we, but the whole department. There was a lot of working with real stuff.
So the machine shop was integrated into the department?
Was it that way at Harvard at all?
No. Well, the Harvard machine shop was kind of tucked down in the basement. It turns out that the machine shop was right underneath the classroom at Michigan. We all had our classes in the old observatory, and we lived in the observatory, virtually.
That's where the 37-inch was?
Yes. We had about twenty-some-odd students there.
Well, this must have been the important times. Money was flowing in, astronomy was prosperous.
Oh, yes. ONR [Office of Naval Research] funds for Haddock, and doing some space works, and people had NSF [National Science Foundation] money, and Goldberg had money. So the great thing about Michigan was, we would have coffee breaks twice a day, and Goldberg would come down and he would lead the discussion, and we'd cover some kind of topic.
So they were semi-formal, in a way?
It's hard to think of semi-formal when everybody was sitting around yakking, but they really were, and you could see this, after Goldberg left, and the discussion used to wander over to people like Bill Howard, who would pull out his notebook and show that he counted up the number of times that he sneezed, and then bring out a graph, correlating the pollen count with the number of sneezes that he had recorded in his notebook on the way in to work.
There's just a world of difference between that and Goldberg saying, "Well, there was an interesting article in the ApJ, and it said such and such. Now, Lawrence, I thought you had an article a while ago that pointed to this." And then you'd get into a discussion. This was what graduate school should be all about, and it's plenty of time to do this kind of thing. It's like, when we did a survey of the AAS meetings, the biggest percentage of the reason that people went to meetings was so that they could talk to other people and have private sort of interchanges of discussion. It's the same kind of thing, fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen in the afternoon.
And each time, Goldberg would pretty much lead the discussion by just asking questions or bringing up a topic?
Yes, whenever he was there. And when he wasn't, people were so used to it, that McLaughlin would say, "Gosh, I got a really good spectrum last night of the Nova, and I looked at it and such and such line appeared, and that's early for a Nova, and that must mean the conditions are such — " And Aller would jump in and say, "Yeah, but you know, those constants are really not very good," and so on.
Goldberg and Aller were very much up on modern quantum theory, and fully integrated modern quantum mechanics into their work…What was the importance of having a real up-to-date, right-at-your-fingertips kind of knowledge of the physics, of the physical part of astronomy?
Well that's very important, because that's what astronomy has become. You know, we got away from the wart counting and measuring stellar positions. McLaughlin was doing some of that, but in the spectra. But McLaughlin knew — you know, he had an instinct for what it meant when the stellar lines shifted and brightened in the eclipses and things like that. I mean he certainly couldn't sit down and derive stuff the way Aller did. Aller gave us a course on statistical mechanics that he just did for the fun of it. He was probably writing a book, but it was an auditing course, and it was actually quite good, although various people, like Shiv Kumar, still would slam his lack of rigor. But, nevertheless, he gave us sort of the feeling that you had to know the physics. McLaughlin knew you had to know the physics, but Aller could actually go a long way toward doing the physics.
Would you say there was a certain way that astronomers used physics that was different than the way a physicist used physics?
Aller said, "Absolutely." They're dealing with different ranges. Much of astronomy is in non-LTE, and physicists never even consider anything like that, because how do you get non-LTE, except in a laser?
Right. But this is the kind of a dynamic, though, that I would like to appreciate more, at a period when more and more physicists are getting interested in astronomy, moving into astronomy, and how astronomy itself changed in the process.
We had one of the best-rounded curricula that I know of, as graduate students, because we had to take a course in radio astronomy, and we really began to understand, even though Haddock was a semi-poor teacher. In fact, a lot of our teachers were semi-poor teachers. But the students are excellent teachers, and we would all gather around every night, after supper, we'd reassemble at the observatory in one office or another. Ed Upton, who has disappeared from astronomy now, was one of the great leaders of the sort of self-tutorial sessions. "Well, what did Aller mean?" "Well, I haven't any idea.
And I looked in his book, and he said the same damned thing in his book, and I can't understand it there either." And you know you go through this kind of thing. And so we would sit down, and we'd say, "Well, this and that..." and the older graduate students would help. We'd go off to Paul Mutschlecner, who was really good. He finally wound up in—oh, poor guy. He put his thesis in a trailer to go to Los Alamos, where he was for a while, and on the way, his only copy of the thesis got spread along the highway when the trailer came loose.
Oh, my God. [Laughter] But he went to Los Alamos?
Paul was so nice, and he was very good. He and Ed Upton — of course. Ben Peery was there, buried in the pier of the twelve-inch telescope.
What do you mean?
Well, he had built this little machine for measuring spectral line positions, based on electronics, and used an oscilloscope, and you'd center a sweep this way, and a sweep that way.
Sort of split the image?
Yes, and bring it back together, and then you read the position on the dial. So he was there, measuring incredible numbers of lines, so he was always down in the basement. But it was very interesting. And Shiv Kumar was there, who's at Virginia.
He's more of a mathematical theorist?
Yes, very much. We took the Aller sequence, and so Upton had this wavelength range and Cowley and Boyce had this wavelength range, and Mr. Kumar himself, using a different method would attack the problem. [Laughter] Shiv says, "This is terrible. This is nothing — this doesn't work!" And he would go off. Actually, Shiv was a pretty good computer programmer, so he'd do a lot of stuff on the computer.
So Aller would split up his problems into real problems, and then create teams of students that were led by a senior student?
Yes. And then he'd come around and ask how the numbers were coming.
And was he sticking the red pencil in his ear at the time?
Yes. Well, Ed Upton went down to the computer center and dumped out a bunch of the little numbers that were punched out of IBM cards, and he put it in a card box, which was a foot and a half long, and eight inches wide, and three inches high, filled up with these confetti numbers, and he gave it to Aller at a Christmas party one time. He says, "You're always asking how the numbers are coming. Well, here should be enough numbers to last you a lifetime." [Laughter]
I don't think Aller appreciated it.
But that's a wonderful story. Because, you know, Upton followed Aller to UCLA.
Right. And then disappeared. And then Upton painted the march of the physical variables.
For the microphone, you're drawing a —
Bunch of stick figures on the board. Musicians. And the march of the physical variables are, you know, rho, the density, and so on. So this head would be a rho, and then the next one would be one of the other variables, G, the gravity, and the mass, and so on. And finally, the last one brought up beating the big drum. This went all across the bottom of the blackboard, and stayed there for months. Now, Aller did like that. He came down—he would come down and look at that every two weeks, and just laugh to himself, and chuckle, "The march of the physical variables." And then he'd go, "Oh, that's a good one," and then he'd go away. [Laughter]
It sounds like the spirit at Michigan was very positive.
It was wonderful.
Were you fully competitive? I mean, you had caught up in physics and math, and so you were doing all right now?
Oh, this was going to be serious business. I didn't do any fencing. I did virtually nothing except spend time at the observatory.
And you were supported by fellowships, primarily?
Yes. Well, the first year was a research assistantship. Never did teaching. And then I think I had two years of a Rackham Fellowship. Well, a graduate school fellow, and then the last year, I got a full Rackham Fellowship, which was honorific, and also paid an extra three hundred dollars.
Was your wife working?
She worked in the library, a number of the libraries there.
And how was your life, generally? Was it a good life? I mean, Ann Arbor, college town.
It was great. Yeah, Ann Arbor was nice, and, you know, good fruits and vegetables, and we would occasionally go to the football games at the stadium there.
But astronomy had become primary?
But astronomy was really the primary thing.
You got a master's degree in '62, and then your Ph.D. a year later.
Yes, but we just didn't pay any attention to the master's degrees. They just kind of came. Somebody did something, and they said, "Well, here's a paper that you published, so we'll count that as a thesis, and so here's your master's degree." I said, "Oh, okay."
So the idea was that graduate students would publish and do publishable research?
I actually did a paper with Bill Howard on something or other, time constant effects in drift scans.
Were you getting into building instruments at this time?
I used to hang out with Bob Tull a lot.
Bob Tull? And he was the instrument man, or what?
No, Bob Tull was a graduate student, working with Liller, building a spectrum scanner, photoelectric, single-channel spectrum scanner.
And you said that Liller was very influential in your training.
Yes. I should go back to that. He was influential in getting me there.
Because I understand later that they were discussing the applicants, and they were about to discard me, and Bill says, "Well, now wait a minute. This guy went to Harvard, and I did, and this guy was captain of the fencing team, and I was captain of the baseball team, and I know that takes a lot of time. And he likes music and stuff, well-rounded. Well, when I came here, I did all right." And they said, "Yes, you're right." So he said, "I suggest we accept him." So they did. So if I hadn't been a perfect match for Bill Liller, I think I would be polishing silverware somewhere today.
Or fencing. Heavens knows. That's an interesting connection, because Liller certainly was from Harvard himself. You were moving on in your graduate work. You had to choose a specialty of some sort, or a particular field, or subspecialty. What was it?
Well, I guess there was no question I was going to work with Aller on areas of star formation, nebulae, gaseous nebulae, and HII regions.
And how was that decision made?
Darned if I remember. It just was always there as an interesting thing. This was where stars were being born. Although our view of the universe was a much more static one. Everything was static. The planets were static, and the galaxies were static, and, yes, we knew stars were being born, but basically the Orion nebulae was a static place.
Was it? I mean, it is a place where stars are being born.
You're thinking static how?
There wasn't a lot going on. Yes, occasionally a star would coalesce, but the kind of violent outburst that M82 has, or the quasars, or colliding galaxies, we knew they were colliding, but it didn't mean much. I mean, it's just chance encounters, and it made pretty patterns, but the fact that this was a huge energy source in wavelengths other than visible light, we were pretty comfortable with what we knew about the universe, and it was a static place, well ordered, well run. Nothing much exciting going on.
But this is just on the verge of the discovery?
We just had to discover it, yes. And then by the time you get out, and then later, it's just so clear that it was really — so much going on that you couldn't just tell from looking in the visible region. But we had a good curriculum. We had to take radio astronomy. We took solar astronomy. We had to take the full Aller sequence, including stellar atmospheres, stellar interiors, and the nebulae.
Now, the Aller sequence was atmospheres, interiors. These are his textbooks, of course.
Yes. That's how he got them written, by each class in succession. [Laughter] No. So one was an introduction to astrophysics, and then he had the atmospheres, interiors, and HII regions. We also had a lot of work in radio and ultraviolet stuff that Goldberg was involved in.
But then Goldberg left for Harvard some time around then?
This was still the kind of thing that permeated the whole place, that astronomy was broader than the traditional stuff, and so, in talking to people, I know we got a much better grounding than, say, people at Indiana, who were pretty well stuck in the traditional lines of astronomy. Michigan was going non-traditional, which is, of course, the way all of astronomy went. So that gave me a leg up. That's the only reason I wanted to bring that in.
Well that's very important. Now, you must have had contact with other graduate campuses—Indiana, Illinois, Case.
Some. The Case department had N. Sanduleak, and they did Schmidt work. Michigan had a Schmidt too, but we weren't using it effectively, and so that was their specialty, but it was hard then for their students to find out about radio astronomy, for instance.
Right. How did you feel about this? Did you sense at the time that astronomy was undergoing a metamorphosis?
No, not really. But, yes, because we were finding such interesting stuff when we worked with radio telescope or Haddock or Goldberg would send an ultraviolet satellite up to take a picture of the sun or something. You could get at stuff that you knew was important, that you couldn't see visibly. And then, of course, with the discovery of quasars and so forth, and the realization there were these tremendous sources of energy out there, there was so much more violent stuff going on than we had realized.
That was just as you were graduating.
Were you still interested in star-forming regions?
Well that's what I did my thesis on. I did my thesis on the Orion nebulae, and I was actually able to show that as you move toward the center — I only studied the central regions — the concentration of dust went up, which if I'd been a little more savvy or had had somebody around like Liller and Aller, they would have jumped on it and said, "This is pretty important. We need to make a noise about it."
In stimulating star formation, you mean?
Well, the fact that there was dust existing presumably mixed in with the gas. Because the traditional view was that all the dust had been cleaned out and melted and stuff. So we were dealing with a very clean gaseous mixture, just uniformly spherical, and so on. And the idea that there was actually dust inside the nebulae was a peculiar view.
Peculiar because people couldn't figure out why it was there?
Yes, it shouldn't be there. Grains can't withstand those kinds of temperatures, can they? Those radiation fields? But it's the fact that the dust is there, that is shielded. It's like a swarm of bees: the UV eats the outside ones, but the ones in the middle can last the winter.
And did this start-giving people hints that the infrared was going to be an area important to study these regions? Did you have this idea at the time? I mean, that would have been the link, once you start seeing dust.
It's hard to know, because when I left Michigan, I got a job at Lowell Observatory, working for Bill Sinton, and doing two-micron spectroscopy.
So you were going into the infrared?
I jumped into the infrared myself. I can't tell you if the infrared was as appreciated at Michigan as, say, the radio was. But then you talk to people at Indiana, and you realize they didn't appreciate either one of those.
That's quite a difference.
At the time, mind you. I don't mean to be putting down Indiana.
I understand this. How did you choose Lowell? Did you have other choices?
I could have gone to Amherst. By this time, Goldberg had left, and Liller had left, and Aller had left, and there was nobody looking out for the students. When I was working on my thesis, I knew more about — if you don't mind my calling them "gaseous nebulae" — about HII regions — than anybody else in the department. I mean, by a lot. So I couldn't get much help in the thesis from that. McLaughlin was fairly helpful, but as you say, he didn't know physics that well.
So you finished your thesis with Aller, but he had gone?
No, I didn't. My thesis committee was McLaughlin, might have been Haddock, and Bill Howard, and somebody from another department.
Very different. Okay.
Bill Howard was the chairman of my thesis committee, and I picked him because I knew him from Harvard, and figured he wouldn't give me any flak. That was really all.
Your choice between Lowell and Amherst was a very, very significant choice. Two very different places. One is a teaching type of an institution.
They wanted me to come and put a 20-inch telescope back into operation. I didn't think that was a particularly exciting or productive thing to do.
A 20-inch telescope?
Yes, they had a 20-inch optical telescope that was sitting in a basement somewhere.
Oh, I see. Not the old 18-inch refractor, the classic.
No, it was a reflector, but it was the same age. I mean, it was really pretty bad.
Would you have been on the Amherst faculty, a straight faculty appointment?
I think it was U. Mass., to tell you the truth.
Oh, you mean the five-college deal?
Or four colleges, at that time. Was there any question in your mind where you'd go— Amherst or Lowell?
Not after I got the job offer from Lowell.
How did your wife feel about moving off to the west?
Well, she put me through school. Wasn't she going to follow me around the country? [Laughter] I think she was a little excited about it, but I was surprisingly insensitive to this kind of situation.
Ann Arbor was a college town.
I was very much selfish. I was a very standard chauvinist at the time, I think. Ann Cowley and "Laney" [Helene] Dickel were fellow graduate students, and I was probably number two in the class because Ann always got better grades, and Laney was right up there with us, too.
Helene Dickel. She's at Illinois.
I don't know the name, but I know Ann Cowley as a spectroscopist.
Yes, I was Ann Cowley's best man twice. She and Bush — don't call him "Bush" anymore, but he was Bush at the time — Charles R. Cowley. Her father was the bursar of Harvard College, and she came from Marblehead, and Bush was raised in Eagle Rock, Virginia, born in Guam, of a naval officer. His summer job used to be picking peas for Campbell's or one of those places. They got attracted to each other, and apparently the parents sent down that Ann was not to get married to this bumpkin. [Laughter] We were their best friends. And we went down, and witnessed their marriage in City Hall, just in case the parents wouldn't relent. The parents did relent, so they never mentioned it, so I had to be best man at their wedding in Marblehead. [Laughter]
Oh, boy. So you decided to go to work for Bill Sinton at Lowell Observatory, doing something—you had not had previous contact with two-micron work?
Zippo. Two-micron work.
This is this classic two-micron window — atmospheric window, you were working on?
1.8 to 2.2 microns, yes.
And this was in star formation again?
No, it was actually whatever we could see. This was the typical Peter Boyce and Bill Sinton approach — build an instrument and the work will appear, whatever it's suited for.
If you have a good enough instrument, you're going to find all kinds of uses for it that you hadn't thought of earlier.
Yes, I know from your bio, it looks like you built all sorts of stuff in the ten years you were at Lowell.
But did you do more instrument-building than observing, would you say?
Was this acceptable to you, or did you really want to observe?
Oh, I loved the instrument building. I sort of felt I wasn't a good enough scientist to observe.
I loved building equipment that other people would use, could use effectively. I liked building the best stuff in the world.
You were working in a wavelength region at the same time as the Neugebauer group at Caltech was building their 2.2 micron telescope?
Right. That was a survey and it was much more sensitive. We were doing interferometric spectroscopy. Low-dispersion. It was just a way of getting a spectrum in the infrared. You had a rutile crystal and you just change — rutile being likes Icelandic Spar— and transmission in one polarization is different than the transmission in the perpendicular polarization, and so you polarize the two beams and you send them through the crystal. It's a wedge-shaped thing, and you move the wedge along so you thicken the crystal, and as you do, you'll increase the path difference in the two beams. And then you recombine them. It's just Fourier transform spectroscopy. Bill was trying to get it to work on a computer that we were hiring in Los Angeles. I had done some computing at Michigan. I learned to compute by calculating refraction and altitude tables of stars so that, from the right ascension and declination, I could get the altitude and air mass and then plot that against observed brightness to make your corrections.
That was computing mainly to do reductions, observational reductions?
Was this like a big IBM mainframe?
This was a 709. It got really great when they got a 7090, and that was X times faster.
Your introduction to computing sounds pretty standard.
Yes. I just did it. I read the Fortran manuals. If I could do my own taxes, I could read the Fortran manuals. [Laughter]
Did you see anything special about computing? Like its future impact on astronomy? Were you particularly interested at that time?
Oh, it was sort of interesting to see that all the stuff we would take a huge amount of time doing in the class for Aller could be done by Shiv very quickly, once he got his program working, and he could do it at every wavelength. I mean, the promise was there.
How did Aller react to that? Did Aller find this exciting?
He looked around for other people who knew their computer that he could get to work for him. No, he was always one to adopt new things.
He did the same thing at UCLA. Let's go back to Lowell. I'd like to get an overview from you of how you thought your career was progressing at Lowell, because you stayed there for ten years.
This is tape two, side two. In the early period, your highest cited paper [Science Citation Index] is not in your vita and it's an article in Sky and Telescope.
Oh, yes, because that's not peer-reviewed.
You wrote two articles, one in '64 and one in '65, and the highest was cited by all sorts of people.
That's because Bill Sinton, who could never write a final draft of anything, never got a paper to the ApJ, so that was the only record of our instrument work. So people cited it,
All sorts of people cited it. Nat Carlton, Moore, Morris, Schada. Bill Sinton cited it. Spinrad, Stevenson. A lot of people were citing those papers.
That was probably a different thing.
It was a Sky and Telescope, 1965, Volume 29, page 78, but there's no title. Since I don't have it here in your vita. I'll try to go back and find it. Peter Boyce and William M. Sinton, "Infrared Spectroscopy with an Interferometer," Sky and Telescope 29 (February 1965), 78-80.
The one that was cited by Spinrad was actually some work on Jupiter, I believe.
Okay. But among your refereed publications, starting in '62, was one with Bill Howard and Herb [H.J.] Rood, "Central Component of the Galactic Center, Source: Sagittarius A."
Then you, yourself, "Some Effects of Neglecting Interstellar Reddening in the Orion Nebulae." That must be your thesis.
Yes, in 1966 that was thesis work. What was that published in, the Lowell Bulletin?
ApJ. That was ApJ 144, 1981.
Oh that was probably a letter.
But it came out of your thesis.
But this one that we didn't talk about, the paper with Howard and Herb Rood. Was Herb Rood at Michigan at that time?
He was a grad student there.
So he was a contemporary with you, pretty much?
Yes, he and Bob Chapman and Steve Maran.
So you were looking at Sagittarius A, at this point, knowing it was a radio source?
Yes, we were doing drift curves. We were trying to get a size out of it.
Steve Maran was there, too?
So you kept in contact with a good number of people who you were a grad student with. You're still sort of together.
Yes. Well, we had a good time. But I was talking about other people there. Bob Tull actually designed this scanner and did a sort of a quick-and-dirty observational topic, but I'm the first person who actually used the scanner a lot. Steve Maran and I actually were driving out to go observing in the 24-inch telescope, using the scanner. He was following a long-period variable, a circumpolar variable, called T Cephei, and he was going to analyze how the bands changed. And then he discovered how much work it was and that he had to do extinction corrections for every night, and he began to say, "Well, this is an awful lot of work." And sure enough, a nova went off, and he went and took a bunch of 37-inch plates with McLaughlin, and analyzed the plates, and he got out a lot cheaper, in terms of effort. [Laughter] But he was good company as an observing companion.
Oh, I'll bet. Well, you were doing a lot of different work. Among your refereed publications, "Interstellar Helium Work in Orion," "Classification of Early M Giants." This is the far red. "Titanium Oxide Bands." You did that in '67.
Yes, We were trying to develop a synthetic filter, which would be a discriminate for luminosity and spectral class.
You have a few papers in the mid-sixtie — '67. Then it jumps to 1970, where you're analyzing Mariner images.
What's the shift there?
Bill Sinton left. We did some work on comet Ikeya Seki that never got published. We did a lot of observations during the daytime, which makes me think that that should be the comet of the century. Well, probably the 1911 Halley's comet should be the comet of the century.
On what basis?
Well, it's a daytime object. And so was Ikeya Seki. It was a beautiful 30-, 35-degree tail at sunset and things. I can't see how Hale Bopp is going to rival that at all.
But you were doing infrared stuff on Ikeya Seki.
No, it was visual work with the spectrum scanner. I built a spectrum scanner when I was there, sort of an upgraded model of Tull's. In fact, I got a lot of drawings from him, because he was building the same kind of thing at Texas.
What was Lowell Observatory like when you were there? What was its main characteristic, would you say? Was it a place to do observing, or a place to build instruments?
A place to do observing, but we needed instruments. John Hall had always been an instrument person, but he wasn't all that good at it. He was just a little too much bailing wire and chewing gum, to make a go of it. I mean, the number of nights that he observed and then threw out the data because the equipment wasn't functioning was more than it should be.
But Kent Ford was there, too, or was he at Carnegie?
He was at Carnegie. He would come out. That was wonderful fun. Helium lines were done with the image tube.
You were using his Carnegie image tube?
Yes, the image tube and spectrograph.
Were you one of the firsts to use his image tubes?
No, he and Vera Rubin had been doing this a long time. Larry Fredrick was one of the firsts to actually use a tube.
He was out there in the summer before I came, working with Kent Ford's image tube.
What was your position on the staff?
Where were you in the pecking order, so to speak?
Well, I was the newest guy there. But we were all treated pretty well. John was not anybody to stand on ceremony.
Was it as a vibrant and active a place as Michigan was?
Michigan, in the time I was there [at Lowell], really went downhill. I mean, that list of people I reeled off some time ago had mostly all gone, and Mohler was not an active person. Freeman Miller is not an exciting person. Although he's interesting, he's not that exciting. And they didn't replace them with a lot of people at that point yet. So Michigan had pretty well declined, in terms of excitement, and Lowell was something brand new. Bill Sinton was doing his best to try to find carbon bands on Mars.
John Hall was doing polarimetry. Bill Tifft was there, building new photoelectric equipment, and so we were doing a lot of new stuff. The 69-inch telescope had just been moved from Ohio State. And in my first few years there, we got peeved at the 69-inch mirror, because it wasn't good enough, so we made a 72-inch mirror, an airbag flotation system and a mercury girdle around the edge. There were a lot of new things in terms of instrumentation.
The Naval Observatory had moved out there, too.
That's right. John had actually moved it out there and then gone from the Naval Observatory to be the director at Lowell.
Oh, I see. I didn't know that connection. That's interesting.
And not too long previously, Harold Johnson had spent a year at Lowell.
Right. So there was a lot of instrumentation going on there.
Yes, and so it was, in its way, a very, very exciting place.
Where was the money coming from for all of this? It wasn't just the Lowell Trust, was it?
Sort of like my father. I mean, you know, my father paying the bills at Harvard, I never questioned that, at that time. Naiveté continues. Actually, the truth is, they have a pretty good-size endowment, which by then was firmly theirs. Henry Giclas had nurtured the organization through really hard times, and so they had a history of trying to do things inexpensively — some would say on the cheap — many of which actually worked. So we didn't have a huge infrastructure to support, so there was a lot of money. John had Navy ONR contracts. Bill Sinton had an Air Force contract that was big enough to hire me on.
So that's how you were hired?
I suspect that Carnegie was actually paying some money to help operate the telescopes when Kent Ford and Vera came out. And then we had the moon-mapping project from ACIC. I'll never forget that secretary's name — Elsie Ribke. Used to answer the phone, "ACIC, Elsie Ribke." [Laughter]
What was ACIC?
Aeronautical Chart and Information Center. Came out of St. Louis, and has since been moved to be part of the Army Map Service, or the Defense Mapping Agency.
This was when they were mapping the moon for the lunar landing?
Yes, for Ranger and things. So they had bought a huge amount of time on the 24-inch refractor.
Just like they did at Lick. I think the USGS did that at Lick later on. How did you see your career going? Were you thinking yet in terms of a career? Were you pretty satisfied there?
I was satisfied there. I was just having a good time, and I got a chance to do what I loved to do. I lived in the woods, and I was skiing and running down the Colorado on a raft. Actually, for a couple of years, I was a boatman on a raft, earned my way down the Colorado, through the canyon, while I was there. I'd take two weeks off in the summer for vacation, and sign up with this raft company. We'd take an eighteen-day trip, go down through the canyon. Absolutely marvelous.
You went as a guide?
As a boatman, actually?
Yes. And, it turned out later, I should have been charging them, because they were advertising themselves as the only raft company to have a Ph.D. astronomer on their staff, to give astronomy lectures around the campfire. [Laughter]
Oh, you did it pro bono?
Yes. Oh, it was the best thing I have ever done in my life, was that first trip through the canyon.
That sounds really wonderful.
That wasn't pro bono. I got the world given to me just because of the canyon.
You eventually left Lowell, and I'd like to know why. You took a leave of absence. You were a visiting professor the last year of your Lowell work, at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark.
Yes. Please do call it "Copen-haygen."
The Germans always called it "Copenhagen," and it still, to this day, raises bad memories. Aina Elvius came over. But she had nothing to do with Copenhagen. She was Swedish, and she and John Hall worked on polarization of galaxies. Karl Rakosch came over from Vienna and built an area-scanning instrument, which was a photoelectric, intensity slice machine, basically, which would average out seeing, because you would rapidly scan across an object, like a planet or something.
This was an area scanner?
Yes. He was using it to swipe a slit across double stars. I put it in front of my spectrum scanner, used the spectrum scanner as a narrowband filter — tunable narrow band filter — where wavelength could be a square passband ten angstroms wide. I was looking at gaseous nebulae, particularly planetary nebulae. I got wonderful images showing that the hydrogen was more widely distributed than the oxygen. You know, it was very good. I looked at Mars one time, because it was close, and because of the history (of Mars work at Lowell), and in thirty seconds, I got as good a scan as it took me forty-five minutes to get on the ring nebulae. And so I thought I'd look to see what was known about intensities on the planet, and zippo. So that's when I started doing planetary work.
So pretty much, your instrumental capabilities drew you into planetary work?
Yes. That was something I did myself.
Did you get NASA money for that, when you started doing it?
John wouldn't let me apply for grants, because he was afraid that I might get turned down, and that would "give us a black mark." Talk about naiveté.
That was his policy?
His policy was, if we weren't sure we were going to get the grant, we couldn't apply.
How could you be sure?
By talking to people informally, ahead of time.
So he did allow people to write grant proposals when they were sure?
But in your case, he wasn't?
He wasn't sure.
So how were you supported?
Well, I became then a staff astronomer, and got supported out of Lowell money after Bill Sinton left.
This led to your "Colorimetry of Martian Features by Means of Area Scanning?"
That's a 1970 paper in an IAU symposium.
And were you really moving see more and more paper on Mars. You were moving more into planetary work.
Yes. Because people knew so little about the reflectivity of the surface of Mars, and they were trying to measure it off photographs. You can't do that off photographs. There were atmospheric seeing effects to be taken out and all kinds of stuff that I was trying to do in a much more rigorous way.
Did this lead you to Copenhagen, or was that instrumentation?
Let me put Copenhagen aside, and go back. Bill Baum came to head the big NASA planetary patrol network, which were six telescopes around the world to take high-quality pictures of planets on a continuous basis. So I began to work on planets, and got paid out of that grant, partly, too, I believe, but I never had to worry about this. This was all just stuff that John and the administration took care of and insulated us from.
You didn't mind accepting NASA money? It was just as long as it was assured.
Right. Well, they even fought for this kind of thing, but that's where we were dealing with Bill Brunk. It's just that he didn't want me to apply at NSF.
But this is big-time stuff.
Yes. So anyway, we used that money to help us get a computer, our own IBM 1130, and I went to school on that. Two of the most exciting weeks of my life, I think. Intense. Learned how to program in machine language, and so on. Then when the PDP-11 came out, I was able to get some Planetary Center money to buy that, to start hooking on to my spectrum scanner, in area-scanning mode, to do the Mars things. I went down to Chile twice. I spent two months and five months in Chile, in '69 and '71, for the close oppositions of Mars, to supervise their picture taking down there, because that was one of their better sites. That was great fun. Of course, I met all kinds of people who would come through and observe. I was sort of permanent staff.
For that amount of time.
You were getting to know more and more astronomers. You were going to American Astronomical Society meetings by then?
Oh yes. My first paper at an AAS meeting, I followed a paper by Schwarzschild. I stood up, and I said, "You know, this is very difficult for a young person to stand up and try to give a paper after Dr. Schwarzschild has given such an excellent presentation. It's sort of like following the trained seals." And he laughed. I thought he was going to come off his seat — being compared to the trained seals. [Laughter] After that, it went okay. So it was great to get over my shyness about going up and talking to people, because I found, if you had something to say, they listened to you.
So you had an initial shyness?
Yes, very much so.
Were you initially nervous about going to AAS meetings then?
No, not nervous. Just worked on the presentation. I mean, my parents had both been very good speakers, and I've never been particularly ill at ease in front of an audience. I'm most ill at ease among, like, twenty people or so, where I have to make an important presentation. Like the council meetings, I've always been more ill at ease at, than if I'm giving a lecture to a whole room, or if I'm talking one on one, or one on two. Interesting.
Yes that's an interesting dynamic.
But this gave me a lot of observations to talk about at places like the IAU. And it turns out that when I was at Michigan, I went to the IAU meeting at Berkeley, as a graduate student.
Yes. And I've been to every IAU since then, except for when I first came to NSF, and it was a split one between Poland and Australia.
Yes, they had a meeting in Poland, but a lot of people couldn't go, and so they had a meeting in Australia at the same time, and called it one meeting. [Laughter] Well, I couldn't decide where to go, so I took the geometric mean, and stayed in Washington, D.C. [Laughter] But anyway, John Hall had this penchant for bringing over Europeans. He was collaborating with Aina Elvius.
He was very interested in [Karl] Rakosch, who was doing a new thing, and who I fed off. He was very important to me. And he also set up something with the Danish astronomers, since they were looking for a place to observe where it wasn't cloudy all the time, or when it was clear in the summertime, the nights were so short, that you couldn't do any observing anyway. And so he made an arrangement, and, I guess at the '64 Hamburg IAU meeting, started the tradition of having a Danish astronomer come over, and we had four of them come over — Bodil Helt, who's still there; Karen Johannsen, who is retired, does mostly teaching; and the third person — Erik Hein Olsen, who's still doing Strömgren photometry, and the final person was Per Ulrich Jakobsen. He's teaching high school now.
So there were a lot of people coming over.
So there were four people from Denmark that I got to know and I became very good friends with all of them. I don't know, but somehow through John and this connection, I got offered a job, a chance to go over there and teach a course.
So that's what it was for, mainly just to broaden your horizons, go over and teach?
I told them I would teach a course on planetary astronomy, which they had no experience with, but which was clearly going to become more important. And so they paid me. They had a professor on leave, I think, and I went, and since the salaries there weren't so hot, John continued to pay me a few hundred dollars a month, also, from the Lowell salary. John was very, very human and a very nice person.
Within nine months of your coming back from Copenhagen, you left, if I have it right here. You left Lowell, to take up a position at NSF as Science Coordinator for National Observatories. Or, there's a year missing here?
No, in '73, I came to Washington.
Oh that's right.
My prime responsibility was as program director for astronomical instrumentation and development. One of my other duties was to work with the national centers.
Right. So in September '73, you came to Washington as Program Director for Astronomical Instrumentation and Development at NSF.
Was that supposed to be a temporary job?
Sure. Isn't everybody's job here temporary? [Laughter] I came on a two-year appointment. I didn't want to do one year, because I figured it'd take me a year to learn the job, and I wanted to do it at least one year right.
But what got into you to make such a change?
Well, it had been ten years, and I'd been in Denmark, where I was treated very well, and I'd been down to Chile, where I was treated very well, as if I really knew something. But I felt that the people at Lowell did not understand what I was doing, and how good the instruments were that I was building, and I wanted a little more respect, if you will.
Sinton was gone?
Yes. And one day Bob Fleischer came by. I think he was looking for a program director to run the instrumentation program, and I think John Hall had known him, and John said, "Well, you know, I got a good guy here."
Of course, it's the instrumentation program you went to.
Yes. I started it, basically. It was going. Ray White had gone in for a summer. He is now at Arizona, had gone in for a summer, and really sort of messed around with it, and got kind of a structure in place, and then I came in and took it over. Once I did that, I discovered that astronomy was big time, and that a lot of Lowell stuff was not big time, and that you had to really compete for these things. The mix of observation and theory was extremely important, and there was going to be a lot of infrared stuff, and millimeter wave seemed very, very exciting at the time. All this stuff that I didn't see Lowell at all interested in, and I was kind of worried whether Lowell was going to be able to survive as an independent entity.
You saw that, being at NSF, because of the proposals coming in?
Well, because at the time, we had a lot of travel money, too, and I got to visit Berkeley, and I got to visit the U. Mass. radio telescope, and I got to visit the national centers, and I got to visit Palomar. Of course, I had observed at Palomar with Bill Sinton.
And this was giving you a much bigger horizon.
I could see what was going on at Lick Observatory. The instruments there were being praised up and down as being great. It turns out; I had a better scanner than Joe Wampler made at Lick.
Everybody knew about the Wampler scanner.
That's right. Well, mine was actually better.
But it wasn't supported at Lowell?
Oh, I couldn't possibly think I was in the same league as Joe Wampler. I mean, it was just so exciting to find that what I had done was really world-class stuff.
Then why didn't that drive you back into instrumentation, to do it?
Oh, I've tried to. I went back to Lowell, I went to John, and I went to the sole trustee, and I said, "You've got to enlarge. You've got to do things. You can't sit still, or the world will pass you by." And they all said, "No, it's our mission." I mean, John's idea was that the mission was to take the observations, and if they're good, somebody will interpret them.
I see. So Lowell remained a place where observing was to be done.
That's right. And I kept trying to say, "John, you don't know what observations to make anymore, because it's gotten too complex." But I just couldn't sell that, and I couldn't sell it to the sole trustee, either.
This was while you were at NSF?
Yes. So I decided to stay.
And you were able to stay?
Yes. In those days, that was pretty easy.
How would you want to structure your NSF years?
Let's talk about the instrumentation program first, which started out at $700,000 per year for astronomical instrumentation and development, and when I left, it was 6 million.
That's very important. One thing I know about the history of NSF was, it didn't grow much in the fifties. But you got there already in the seventies, and you're saying it still hadn't really grown enormously?
Yes, I'd have to go back and look at the budgets overall to see where my money came from, but my program, when I began to do a few things, it was seen that the instrumentation was something that is important to astronomy, and so they gave me more resources.
How did you convince them to make the pie bigger? This is convincing Bob Fleischer?
Or Harold Lane, or people like that?
No, Harold was a competitor. Jim Wright and Harold Lane were the old-time competitors. But it was clear more people needed things like the Wampler scanner.
But did you form groups or committees that would argue these points?
No. The money was just divvied up on the basis of what arguments we could make, internally in the foundation, by ourselves.
So each program officer really became an advocate?
For their own program. Oh, yes.
It must have been a very competitive atmosphere.
Yes, and people like Jim Wright, who'd been there for a while, would spend all their money in the first five months of the fiscal year, and then when good proposals came in, they'd go back and cry poor mouth to Fleischer and get part of his reserve, whereas old well-brought-up Peter, always thinking, "Gosh, I might have a good proposal coming in tomorrow," wouldn't spend all his money, and find that my money was being taken, unless I spent it, and given to people who had already been spendthrift about it.
This was federal money. It disappears year after year.
Yes. They print it every day. [Laughter]
Did you go out and drum up business, also?
Some. But mostly people came to me, saying, "You know, we've really got this tremendous new development of such and such a detector," or, "It's really important to do some of these new high-throughput interferometric spectrometers," or, "We don't have a really good millimeter wave telescope." [Richard] Hugenin came and talked me into supporting the 45-foot telescope at U. Mass., five-college. Joe Taylor was there, doing pulsar work at the time. They had this marvelous graduate student, who was an outstanding cook, and they used to make him bake quiches for the visiting NSF group.
Oh my God!
Can we put this on pause for a minute?
Sure. Okay. [Tape recorder turned off]
We're taping again.
So Dave Helfand was this graduate student, but he's an outstanding gourmet cook. I talked to him recently about those times, and he said, "You know, I really used to resent being called up to be the chief chef for visiting dignitaries." [Laughter]
But he obviously survived.
Yes. But they had an interesting group, and they convinced me that it was a good thing to build this millimeter dish. Leo Goldberg thought it was a waste of time. He said, "I really wish you wouldn't..." I think it was Leo.
Was he on the NSF advisory committee?
No, but at some point, he said, "They're either good scientists, in which case they'll waste all their time building the instrument, and won't do any research, or they're good instrumentalists, in which case, there are not enough good scientists around to use it." [Laughter]
You described the program and some of the major things that you established during your period as program director for instrumentation, mainly millimeter wave radio astronomy, and you say that you established world leadership in this area, for the United States, by starting Berkeley's Hat Creek work and stuff like that. How did you go about convincing people that millimeter was important?
I didn't have to. I mean, the reviewers said, "Yes, this is pretty good," and it was my decision to fund or not fund.
But you had to choose between millimeter and optical and infrared, and all of these different areas.
Yes. See, now here is where it all ties together. That's where my Michigan background comes in. I could see, both at Harvard and Michigan, what some new field would do to shake up the established way of thinking about things, and it just seemed to me that if you're finding molecules, some of which were organic, that this was going to lead to really good things: you were probing a regime of temperatures and densities that you couldn't reach with other traditional methods. And it seemed to me this was where the forefront had to be. I mean, it just had to be.
Wasn't there a separate program director for radio astronomy?
No. That had been changed, When I came in, they had gone away from radio and optical, and split it now by object. So we had solar system astronomy, we had stars, we had galaxies.
So you were responsible for funding instrumentation projects in all ranges of the spectrum?
That's right, yes. I was the only sort of non-object-oriented person there.
You went across all objects.
Yes. And this was one of the really good things that happened at NSF. It helped to integrate the wavelengths.
Who made that decision to reorganize like that? That was Fleischer?
I don't know. It was done before my time, and I never talked to anybody about it. Harold Lane could have shed light on that, but I never talked to him about it. Jim Wright might know.
Within a year of your being at NSF, you also became Science Coordinator for National Observatories. What was that?
Well, the national observatories were funded in an entirely different division, headed by "the Admiral." Can't remember his name now.
I'm sure that would identify him.
Not by Fleischer then?
No. It was in a facilities branch, and they were getting all this money. Nobody from headquarters was looking at it to see if it was being spent well. And Fleischer wanted to try to get a little bit of some scientific judgment into these requests for money that was coming in from the observatory directors.
So, really, Kitt Peak was not part of your program?
Not originally, no. I was just in the grants program, which was very separate. It still is separate, as you know.
I'm not that familiar with the way NSF works, but that does sound a bit peculiar that the national observatories were separate.
Not only were they in different divisions, but there were different chains of command, different assistant directors in charge of them.
This sounds almost like an old Navy model.
Yes, so that the polar programs in various other places, where there were big facilities, were under that facilities branch so that you could manage the facilities in a way that was suitable for facilities, without much concern being given to whether those facilities were suitable for the best science.
AURA had a board, and astronomers were on the board. Was it a feeling that Fleischer had that even AURA wasn't able to police itself?
I really don't know how far to get into various people's opinions of whether or not the AURA board was doing anything.
Well, I'd like your opinion. How do you feel about that?
I'll flat out say the AURA board was doing idiotic things, and completely ineffective in terms of what they might have done.
There were visiting committees of astronomers, weren't there, that sort of thing?
Yes, I guess carefully chosen and run in such a way as to not rock the boat, because a lot of money was coming in.
Were there people unhappy about this, who would come up to you and complain, from the community?
Yes. Always. On both sides. I mean, now it's the other way that they've cut back on the centers. They're expecting to give all these services, and with 25 percent less money than they had before. So it goes back and forth. But I think the AURA board was rather ineffective. I think the AUI board [was effective]. Their philosophy was to pick the very best, strongest person you could get, like Dave Heeschen, and let him run his own thing, and don't let NSF poke into your business. It was much more effective.
That's a very different style.
We were talking about the different styles between AURA and AUI, but I'm interested in the dynamic. When you became Science Coordinator for the National Observatories, you were a flying wedge, moving into other territory, weren't you?
I'm the softest flying wedge you ever saw. My whole approach, from fourth grade in public school, as a new kid on, has been to adapt protective coloration and take on the non-threatening pose of becoming part of the team. They felt I had no great power, which I didn't, and I felt that if I were able to get them excited about some of the scientific results, and come in in a very enthusiastic way about why they sit down and go through all these reams of paper every day, they should be really working a little more arduously to make sure that the science was the best it could be.
And there was no resistance to that?
No. I mean, I would always come in and say, or sometimes come in and say, "Well, now my grantee has done this and this and this with only this amount of money," and that would raise hackles to some extent. But on the other hand, there it was, and they could see it. But, again, the oversight people had almost no scientific background.
In the facilities side of NSF?
In the facilities side of NSF. And so they couldn't effectively go in and argue with the directors, or with the AURA board, and the AURA board itself were, sometimes I felt, just more proud of their position as AURA board members, than as being real effective watchdogs. And besides, a board can't meddle in the operational work. If the operation isn't running well or running efficiently and effectively, nothing the board can do will change it. The board has to be able to recognize that, and decide to make a sweeping change if they want to.
And things weren't that perceptibly wrong that they ever wanted to make that kind of precipitous change. But on the other hand, the scientists, not the administrators, dominated the AURA board. They would come in and try to get into the nitty-gritty little operational details, and they spent a lot of their time spinning their wheels on things that were matters of operations and not policy. And this is where the AUI board, being made up of a much more broadly diverse set of people, who had a lot more practical experience, much of it developed during the Second World War, when a lot of things had to be done quickly and efficiently and well, brought that kind of experience to bear on the AUI board. If they thought something was going wrong, they might tell Dave Heeschen that, "You know, we're hearing such and such," and Dave would say, "That's bullshit. Here's the story. Stay out of my business." And they'd say, "Good, that's the answer we wanted to hear," and then they'd support Dave.
And you just couldn't get that kind of a reaction out of the optical astronomers. I tried and tried to get optical astronomers together. They'd bitch and moan all the time about, "You're supporting radio astronomy for operations, and you've got to support optical astronomy the same way." And I'd say, "Great. Put all of your stuff in the one observatory together, and submit it." "We couldn't do that! Some of us are better than others." [Laughter] They'd just continue to fracture themselves.
They were so entrenched. It's what made American astronomy great. All of these optical observatories had always been on the top of the heap. Isn't that part of the problem?
Yes, and they were very comfortable. They got comfortable. It's like the rivalry between Lick and the 200-inch. The 200-inch was never pushed to its real capacity, its ultimate productivity, whereas the 120-inch, because they knew they were smaller, were fighting for every photon, and doing new instrumentation, and trying new things. And as a result, I think they got a lot more productivity out of the 120-inch than the 200-inch.
This is already in the sixties and seventies?
Because in the fifties, with Ira S. Bowen's instrumentation, I mean, there was nothing to compare with a 200-inch.
That's right. But, on the other hand, you never had quite the breakthroughs. Maybe it's just a fact of nature that it wasn't quite big enough to do what you needed to do to get the next breakthrough. But it seems with Bowen and the image-slicer and stuff, you got a lot of stuff but nothing really earth shaking, whereas some of the stuff, I think, that was done at the 120-inch had a lot more effect. But I'd be hard-pressed to document that. It's just a feeling.
It's an important impression.
I certainly have the feeling that if people aren't forced to compete, they won't give you their best. And I think that the observatories being on the top of the heap didn't force them to compete, or to collaborate, in a way that the radio astronomers have always collaborated.
When it really comes down to it.
It seems like the astronomical community does collaborate more than other disciplines, with the ten-year programs.
Oh, yes. I mean, nowadays, we're just a very, very different field.
But that started about 1960, you know, with the Whitford Report and the Greenstein Report.
And we're doing international collaborations and stuff like that. But even with the Whitford Report, and so on, the idea that you might not still is on top of the heap just never surfaced.
Yes that's an important element in creating coalitions, and some people would be asking for things, cooperating together. While you were Science Coordinator for the National Observatories, or sometime during your NSF period, were you ever asked to look in on the deliberations for the space telescope?
No, I had nothing whatsoever to do with Space Telescope.
OMB never approached you?
No. OMB approached me a couple times after Goetz [Oertel] spent some time there, and I came in to help Jack Fellows, or his predecessor. There was a black person there, whose name I can't remember now, but I was asked to listen in to the NASA presentation, in the back of the room, and just talk to them about it. But there was never anything specific on Space Telescope.
So this was just a general NASA presentation.
For their budget, yes, for the coming year.
What were you asked? Did what they asked make sense, or what?
Yes, and how well coordinated was it with NSF, and are you both working in the same direction, and are we wasting money there, and why do we have to go into space? Are all their arguments scientifically correct?
And what was your general advice?
It was a pretty good presentation.
Usually it was good.
Yes. Well, Noel Hinders actually made it, and it was a good presentation.
So this only happened once?
I might have been there twice. I remember Noel's presentation.
But you were there sort of for ground truth.
Yes. Very quietly. I never told anybody about that before, actually.
Well, it was something that has come to my attention independently of all of this.
Yes, but it was nothing to do with space telescope.
That's important to know.
In fact, I'd forgotten about it until you mentioned it.
It was just a question that was on my mental list to ask you, because I had heard that you had advised OMB.
Memphis Norman is the black OMB examiner. He actually lived in my neighborhood and he was the first person in his family to actually own a house, and he was so proud of it. He was fairly good, but he had no scientific background whatsoever. He approached me personally.
Did you know him personally?
No. But Goetz Oertel, who followed Fleischer as Section Head at NSF, knew him. He got into trouble because he pushed the organization too hard. He was a very, very good Section Head. He wanted to do more stuff; he wanted to get money for astronomy. He wanted to have judgments, decisions made on the basis of actual data and material, and well-organized presentations instead of the sort of seat-of-the-pants, continue-as-we've-always-done-with-tiny-changes approach that he found there. And I think he got crosswise with one of the assistant directors, and found him out after a stint of like only seven or eight months. I met my present wife, Mary, at the National Science Foundation, after I'd been divorced in Flagstaff.
So you were divorced from your first wife in Flagstaff?
She stayed in Flagstaff?
For a long time, yes. Now she's in Eugene, Oregon, where my youngest son is.
So you have children?
Something we haven't talked about at all.
With your first wife?
Yes. One was born in Ann Arbor, and one was born in Flagstaff. One makes earrings, or designs earrings now. He's gotten out of the production end. The other one designs and builds satellites.
Both very delicate works.
Actually, yes. [Laughter] They're both very good at what they do, actually.
I just want to remind you. You indicated that five was sort of a limit for you. How's your time?
Yeah, I should go fairly soon. Ten more minutes or so.
Let's finish with your National Science Foundation years. Were you looking for another job when you were approached for the AAS Executive Officer position, or were this something out of the blue?
Well, you're forgetting something very, very important in the intervening years. And, again, it has to do with Goetz Oertel. Goetz put my name in to the Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellowship Program.
That's when you worked for Morris ["Mo"] Udall?
We must talk about that.
And I got accepted into the program, much to the disgust of the people at NSF, who had to pay my salary, but I wasn't there. Actually, that's not true, because NSF had always provided an outside fellow to the Com Sci program. So it wasn't all Department of Commerce fellows. Anyway, Goetz Oertel knew about the program.
This is a program called Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellow?
Yes. Abbreviated as Com Sci.
Com Sci. It's a scientific advisor to a congressman.
No, it's just to take people out of their current jobs in the Patent and Trademark Office, in NOAA, and in what's now NIST, and allow them to work anywhere else in government. And about a third of them go up on the Hill and work, as the AAAS fellows do, either for a committee or on a congressman's staff. Goetz said, "This guy's really good, you know, and he's just at the point where he ought to get out and get around, and I really recommend him. I think he'd be good for the program." And so Com Sci sent over a letter, and said, "Oh, we'd like Peter Boyce to apply." NSF got upset because normally, previous requests had come into the NSF administration, and they had picked somebody they would want to reward with this. And instead, these people wanted me, specifically. [Laughter] But that was all Goetz's doing.
I see, because normally they see these as a real plum, because you go off, you work for a congressman, and you have those great contacts.
Yes, that's something that you want to reward one of your favorite administrators with, like Joel Snow or somebody like this, not this lowly program director, for God's sake.
How much time was it? It was almost nine months.
And what was your experience?
It was great. It was just wonderful. I mean, you'd get on the Hill, and you have a Ph.D., and people respect you, yet you were part of the office. The phone shouldn't ring more than twice before somebody could answer it, and if the receptionist didn't, it meant she was busy, and so whoever was free would pick it up. You had to help open the mail in the morning. It turns out that a congressional office is one of the last real fiefdoms around in the country, where these guys are very, very independent, and virtually, at least at that time, could do anything they wanted to.
You said, again, in your bio, that during that time, you worked on the personal staff of Udall, drafting speeches, newsletter stories, legislative testimony, serving as the congressman's general science advisor.
Was that official? That was an official position, as a science advisor?
Well, every time he had a science question, he'd come to me, unless it was dealing with the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], in which case he had somebody on his committee who was a nuclear physicist.
What was the Congressional Solar Coalition?
That was an informal group of people, organized by the staff people, to get more funding for solar energy.
Because Udall was consciously interested in that kind of stuff?
Yes. Yes, he was. And I got involved in a project to grow jojoba bushes, because jojoba oil is really good oil. So I visited the district with Udall a couple times, and I took him up to Kitt Peak and I said, "You know, you've got 20 million dollars coming in here, into the state."
He wasn't aware of it?
He did know, but it's always nice to remind him that this is a big employer in his district. But I didn't have to. We had an hour and a half drive up, and an hour and a half drive back, and it was just wonderful to do that.
Remember what you talked about?
Oh, just everything, about the state of the country, and how he had to sign a mining bill, because Arizona — he said, "It's hard to be a one-eyed ex-basketball player, Democrat, and still get elected in Arizona. You have to compromise, up to a point, because if you're out, you can't affect anything." We talked about politics and astronomy, what's exciting about astronomy, and where we're going in astronomy.
At that time, was there any tension about astronomers taking over what are now called sky islands?
No. And that's stupid, anyway, of course. Mo would have just laughed at that, because they treated the Indians quite well at Kitt Peak, and still do, and I think that's appreciated. Mt. Graham hadn't arisen as a thing, but Mo would've recognized that if you have a whole bunch of cabins up there and the whole top was hunted every year for big game animals, and you have people tramping through, and a paved road at the top, that actually closing the top of the mountain to make it an astronomical preserve does better for the animals. Mo would've just recognized that right off the spot.
Lick Observatory had been a game preserve for ages, and I remember that was a very important point to the astronomers and to the University of California system. It was a very sore point for the hunters.
And I don't know whether there was a coalition between the hunters and the Earth First people, but something went crazy at Mt. Graham. But none of that happened while you were advising him?
What do you feel was the most important thing you did while you were a congressional fellow?
Personal growth. I understood a lot more about the system and how it worked, and how bad NSF was in its Hill presentations, representations. Yes. They did a terrible job.
You weren't at the level where you went up and made presentations?
No, but I came back and tried to share with the agency some of my experience.
You came back in June of '78?
Yes. I went to the assistant director, and I went to a couple of other people and said, "Look, I've just been on the Hill. I've seen how a lot of people come and make presentations. I can help you guys." And they wanted to have nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing. It was anathema that I might rock the boat. How could I know anything?
Why were they afraid of rocking the boat?
Oh, because there are a whole bunch of incompetent people who were being featherbedded at NSF, in the upper echelons, particularly in the News and Congressional Relations Office.
News and Congressional.
Yes, newspaper stories, and publicity.
You were recommending a much more aggressive posture.
Well, I would have, yes.
But were you also recommending more connection with scientific communities, more accountability, and stuff like that? Were those issues that you were concerned about?
I hadn't really gotten into it. I just thought that NSF was doing a lot of good things it was getting no credit for, and was making very inept presentations, so that Congress didn't understand what it is they did, in many ways.
So you approved of what NSF was doing for science, you just didn't think they were selling themselves very well.
Yes that's right. No, NSF was a great agency, because it was so isolated from the congressional, the political pressures.
But could it have been less isolated if they started getting more connected?
Well, it was getting less isolated anyway, as we can see, so they should have done it anyway. So they just didn't want to have anything to do with it, and I thought, "Well, all right." And Bill Howard had come in, and was running the division, and I didn't like some of the things that were going on. Just personal opinion, and so I started looking for jobs.
But how did Bill Howard do? I imagine it was fine working for him, but some people that I've talked to in the past said that he was pretty good at slicing up the pie, but he wasn't too good at making the pie larger.
Yes. Because his whole idea was, as he looked around, astronomy was being cut back, so that NSF could focus on more practical things, Eric Bloch type of stuff, and Bill Howard's argument was to very carefully document statistically, like the number of sneezes back in Ann Arbor, that he very carefully documented that the NSF astronomy was getting less money than it used to, and less money than therefore it should. And all he was confirming was "Yes, they sure have a policy [Laughter]
That didn't go anywhere.
He didn't seem to understand that the numbers themselves were not justification for more funding. Well, I'm going to have to cut this off, and we can, next time, get into why I went into AAS, but basically, just so you know, I didn't want the job, but it was a job, and I thought, "Well, it could be a very potent force to connect the constituency with Congress and the funding process." And so I said, "The job as it exists isn't worth having. What would make it worth having?" And I listed all the things that I would do.
We have to meet again in the relatively near future, say, one or two weeks. Two weeks maybe, something like that. Are you going to be here over the holidays, as far as you know?
Up to Christmas, then I'm gone.
Okay. Is there any chance we could actually do any of this in Toronto, or are you going to be too busy?
No, I'll be too busy. Really.
Okay. Thanks a lot, for the first session.