Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Interviewed by
David DeVorkin
Interview date
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Dr. Eugene Avrett (1933 - ) is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This interview reviews his personal and professional life and was conducted as part of a study of the history of the SAO during the tenure of Fred Whipple, 1955-1972. The interview covers his family life in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, public schooling and development of interests, influential teachers, and matriculation at Georgia Tech in electrical engineering in 1952. Facility in conceptual subjects like physics, but no special interests. Knowledge of WWII. Summer employment at Glenn L. Martin Aircraft on Matador program. Decision to switch to physics. Graduation in 1957 and entrance to Harvard for graduate study in physics. Advisors included Gerald Holton, Max Krook, George Carrier. Growth of interest in astrophysics slow, due to Krook and exposure to, first research in, and publications in stellar atmospheres. Teaching assistant for Bill Liller. Thesis with Max Krook. Collaboration with Owen Gingerich. Marriage in 1961 to Judith Reno Brett. Ph.D. in 1962, conferences attended that solidified his interests in stellar atmospheres and spectral line formation and non-LTE processes. Hired by Charles Whitney into the “Stellar Theory Division” at SAO. Organization of SAO under Whipple and his managers, including Harris Rosenthal, Charles Lundquist and Paul Tillinghast. Impressions of joint program between Harvard and Smithsonian. Teaching activities. Backup theoretical group for Celescope; extended discussion of Celescope, calibration issues, and the challenge of analyzing the data and the production of the catalogue of UV stellar colors. Nature of the data, methods of post-hoc calibration of the fields. Continued refinement of stellar atmospheres techniques and changing state of knowledge of theoretical energy distributions mitigate value of Celescope data. Role of Celescope staff, mainly Robert Davis, in the processing. History of OAO program; failed launches. Nancy Roman’s role in OAO and suggestion to close down Celescope. Work with student Steve Strom to prepare for Celescope reductions. NASA conference on OAO results. Relations between HCO and SAO and between Leon Goldberg and Fred Whipple. Teaching and thesis direction by SAO staff. Strom and early development of optical astronomy at SAO -- the MMT. SAO collaboration with Arizona rather than with Harvard. Use of OSO data for solar atmospheres research. Layoffs at SAO, deteriorating relations between Harvard and SAO and the formation of the Center for Astrophysics.