Remarks for the Department of Astronomy Reunion, Owen Gingerich

Remarks for the Department of Astronomy Reunion

5 April 2013

Sheraton Commander, Cambridge, MA 

Owen Gingerich


            When I first started attending AAS meetings back in the 1950s, the total membership of the Astronomical Society was about 600.  So when I recently learned that HCO had produced 354 astronomy PhDs, I was stunned.  That’s because I made an anachronistic comparison when 600 came to mind.  Had I just made a simple calculation, things would have been different.  In my entering graduate class in 1951 there were six of us.  Sixty years have passed.  Six times 60 is 360, just about right.

            But let me begin with the very earliest years of Harvard College.  Every two or three years, generally from Europe, someone asks me if it is really true that Harvard had offered an astronomy professorship to Galileo.  Now that could have been possible, because Harvard was founded six years before Galileo died.  But it would have been a serious misfit, an Italian–speaking Catholic in a small school training Puritan ministers!  My guess is that the story was invented at the time of Harvard’s tercentenary in 1936 to keep the Eli’s in their place.  After all, Yale wasn’t even founded in the same century when Galileo lived.

            I jump ahead 130 years, to a time when Harvard really did have a distinguished astronomer on its faculty, John Winthrop, one of the Winthrops for whom Winthrop House is named.  In those days there were only four professors at Harvard, and they were more powerful than the president.  Winthrop obtained some telescopes for himself and for the college.  In 1761 he went on an expedition of Newfoundland to successfully observe the transit of Venus, sent the results to the Royal Society, and was elected a member.  Harvard College agreed to pay his membership dues provided he deposited his copies of the Philosophical Transactions in the College library.

            Seventy years later Harvard decided to have a more permanent observatory, and brought on board William Cranch Bond, a Boston clockmaker.  A few years thereafter a brilliant comet illumined the night sky and struck terror into the hearts of the local intelligentsia.  They were too sophisticated to be superstitious about comets, but the problem wasn’t so much that neither Boston nor Cambridge had a big telescope to observe the comet, as it was that Cincinnati, way out in the boondocks of Ohio, did, a 12-inch refractor made by Merz and Mahler in Munich.  Horrors!  Could Cambridge be outclassed by that river town?  (But after all, it was the fourth largest city in the US.)  The money was raised for a 15" refractor from Munich in just six weeks.  And the Harvard telescope was the biggest in America for nearly two decades.

            Another jump ahead, to the 1890s.   E. C. Pickering had developed Harvard College Observatory into a major research institution.  He established the leading photographic program, and was covering both the northern and southern hemisphere with his spectrum surveys.  But as for an organized educational program, that was not part of his agenda.  Astronomy was taught down at the Yard, and every spring the seniors lined up double abreast to march up to the observatory to look through the big telescope.  And Robert Wheeler Willson, of whom most of you have never heard, had a major program of developing astronomy exercises and laboratory teaching equipment in the Astronomical Lab, a frame building that stood where the Harkness Commons now rests.

            When Harlow Shapley succeeded Pickering as director in 1921, the educational situation on the Hill soon changed.  A brilliant young student from England, Cecilia Payne, was a catalyst for a new educational program.  She had heard Shapley speak in the old Cambridge, was charmed by his enthusiasm, and resolved to come to America.  She sometimes said she thought Shapley was very startled when she actually showed up, but that can’t be true because the Archives has detailed correspondence concerning her arrival.  Shapley set Annie Cannon as her tutor, and soon organized a doctoral program for her with his own thesis advisor, Henry Norris Russell, as her de facto advisor.  In the 1960s Otto Struve would refer to Payne’s results as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.”  That was because she showed that, despite the great differences in the spectra of stars, they almost all had essentially the same composition.  Struve’s judgment had nothing to do with the anomalously high abundance of hydrogen, a conclusion she rejected and which was still wrapped in mystery.

            In 1928 Shapley’s annual report opened with the words:

“The inauguration at the Observatory of formal graduate studies in astronomy is a significant advance in the Observatory’s development.  Heretofore Harvard has played a minor part in the training of teachers and investigators in astronomy. . . .  Professor Harry H. Plaskett has been called from the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory at Victoria to take a leading part in the direction of the researches of advanced students. . . .  Research courses are now offered in the fields of stellar systems, analysis of spectra, stellar statistics, meteors, and photometry.”

            Three years later, in 1931 the annual report stated, “The courses in astronomy in the College have been organized as a department in the Division of Physical Sciences.”  As far as I know, this is when the Department of Astronomy formally came into existence.  Bart Bok was here then, Fred Whipple had come to take charge of the photographic work, and Donald Menzel would arrive a year later (taking over from Harry Plaskett, who left for Oxford).  Along with Shapley and Cecilia Payne, the personnel then made up the quintet that would guide the educational program of the observatory for the next two decades. 

            Although Shapley did not himself teach any courses, he was an effective organizer, and in the mid ‘30s inaugurated a summer school in astronomy that during the first two years brought in people like Struve, Bowen, Saha, Wildt, and Russell.  The astronomy summer school lasted through the 1942 season before World War II took its toll.  Our present graduate student program is very much a monument to Harlow Shapley’s vision, his enthusiasm, and his organizational skills.

            I'm sorry to say when I was one of the six entering graduate students.  Chuck Whitney might be here today, and I have heard from Ed Lilley, who, I sorry to say, was unable to join us.  We were the three who ultimately became professors in the department.  The great bonding experiences in those days were the PhD exams, which were given on the first three Saturday mornings in February.  Any graduate student who hadn’t yet passed a particular exam was obliged to sit for it.  First was astrophysics, the exam set by Menzel and Payne-Gaposchkin.  The next week was galactic structure and galaxies, posed by Shapley and Bok.  Finally there was the solar system, practical astronomy, and everything else, prepared by Whipple.  In those days graduate students were required to know three quarters of everything astronomical.  That is, the PhD pass was 75.  On that first try, Dave Heeschen and Ed Lilley, who had better backgrounds than most of us, each got only 74 on Whipple’s exam.  “Anyone who doesn’t know the value of the gravitational constant doesn’t deserve a PhD pass” was Whipple’s explanation.  He was Department Chairman, and that was that.  I’m sure the next year everyone went in knowing the gravitational constant, but it wasn’t on the exam.  On that try Heeschen and Lilley passed.  I didn’t.  It took me five tries to conquer that exam.

            The Observatory family was relatively small, and everyone could squeeze into the director’s house, which was connected to the wing where building B now stands.  Typically the parties included square dancing, with Whipple doing the calling.  The Shapleys also had a farm near Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, another venue for parties.  Before our time there had been a wild night-time ascent to see the sunrise from the summit of Monadnock.  Ultimately a cold and bedraggled crew returned to the farm to dry out.  Subsequently there was often a party cry, “To the summit for sunrise,” but it never happened until a group of us announced we really were going up, but secretly we were simply baiting some others who pooh-poohed the idea.  So, calling them party poopers, our group simply left, and headed to our beds.  Meanwhile the others rushed to collect their French horn and trumpets, and then made a mad dash to Mt. Monadnock and the summit, planning a big surprise fanfare when our group arrived.  It obviously took some time for them to realize that they had been faked out.

            In 1952 Shapley retired, and Menzel became acting director.  Almost all the graduate students backed Bok for the permanent director because he was affable and kept close track of the graduate students, but Menzel, who seemed more aloof to the students, had the connections and the confidence of University Hall and won the appointment.  Soon very important developments were afoot, namely, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Washington needed a director, and a solution encouraged by Menzel was to appoint Fred Whipple and to move the SAO to Cambridge.  This is a huge story in itself, but suffice it to say that hosting the Smithsonian Observatory had an immense impact on the educational role of both observatories.  The move brought opportunities for an enlarged faculty, many more research openings, and the fastest computer in New England.  It also opened the possibility for a woman to be made the department chairman, the first in the university. 

            I had been overseas in 1956 when this happened, so when I returned, I asked Mrs. G about her appointment, because she was my thesis advisor —that’s what everyone called Cecilia Payne, who was by then married to Sergei Gaposchkin.  “Well,” she said, “it seems no one else was available for the job, so they had to make me a professor.”  She was not the first woman professor at Harvard, but because she had long had tenure from a lesser appointment, she was the first tenured woman to become professor at Harvard.

            Part of the augmentation of the faculty was, in 1960, to bring in Leo Goldberg and William Liller from the University of Michigan.  That summer I had briefly visited my undergraduate alma mater, a small college in northern Indiana, and there I quickly learned of Harvard’s impending raid on the Ann Arbor astronomy department, something still unannounced in Cambridge.  When I returned here, I immediately began spreading this choice bit of news, and equally quickly I was cornered by my fellow graduate student, Dick Teske.  “That’s top secret,” he told me.  “I’ve been told it very confidentially, and you’re going around blabbing it everywhere and they’re going to think I couldn’t keep a secret.”  I wasn’t sure whether to be sympathetic or simply amused.  But it wasn’t the only time that what was classified information in Cambridge was well known in the rest of the world; other examples, however, are of course top secret!

            I was reminded of this one day when Leo Goldberg called me into his office.  When Menzel retired in 1966 according to Harvard’s age limits, and when Bill Liller decided to migrate to the Southern Hemisphere—(he had succeeded Mrs. G as department chairman)— Goldberg had taken over as both the Harvard Observatory director and the chair of the astronomy department.  As department chairman he kept track of both the Harvard and the Smithsonian professors, and I was being appointed one of the latter. 

            “Here,” he said rather gruffly, handing me a paper, “proofread this!”  It seems no one had told him that my professorship had been approved by the Harvard Board of Overseers, and the press release from the Harvard News Office was the first notice he had received.  I suppose I was only rubbing salt in the wounds when I assured him I already knew, because I had met the Cal Tech astronomer Jesse Greenstein near the Yard—he was then a Harvard Overseer—and he congratulated me, saying that the Overseers had ratified my appointment that morning.

            Having two different directors on the Hill, one for Harvard and one for the Smithsonian, produced cooperation but also competition that was inefficient, particularly with respect to recruitment of faculty.  Thus, when both Goldberg and Whipple retired, an abrupt but important decision was made to have a single person in both directorships.  It was in this context that George Field invented the Center for Astrophysics, a paper institution that has been extremely successful in generating cooperative goals.  At the same time the department chairmanship was separated from the directorships, and it is under departmental auspices that we celebrate today.  I hope our present student body is proud of the long education tradition we find as our heritage, appreciative of the excitement in being part of the world’s largest astronomical establishment, and, what else can I say?  I think we’re the only astronomy department  that has produced not one, not two, but three Nobel laureates!