Thursday, April 9, 2020

Lives of Astronomers

In summer 1997 I went to Oxford to do research on a character I thought should be an astronomer.  I went to the Radcliffe Science Library and began reading journals, increasingly aware of how ill-equipped I was to create a fictional astronomer: I should probably spend several months getting a better understanding of the kind of research he might do.

My agent, Stephanie Cabot, had said in June 1996 that with 6 chapters she could get me money to finish the book; somewhere along the line she seemed to have forgotten this, so it was not easy to know how to do justice to this astronomer.  In the meantime I went on looking at journals in the few days I had managed to take off work.  I came upon the Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which includes a splendid feature: each issue included a brief autobiography by a distinguished astronomer or astrophysicist.

I don't think any of these were used in the book, but I offer a couple of examples, mainly as a reminder of how much better it would be if all academic journals offered this kind of feature:

From Evry Schatzmann's autobiographical entry, Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 1996


Saving My Life

July 1, 1943: I was joining the Observatory of Haute-Provence. I was full of emotions and feelings, which certainly had, in a very subtle way, an influence on my scientific life. It was the beginning of an illegal life. I had a complete set of papers (false papers), identity card, food card, and most important the Carte du Service du Travail Obligatoire (the government of Pierre Laval in Vichy had negotiated an agreement with the German Government: boys born between1920 and 1922 had to go to work in Germany), with the notation “trente-quatre mois de captivité.”2When I went to Digne a few days later to meet my young wife Ruth who was coming from Nice, these papers demonstrated their validity.Just as I got off the bus, I had an identity check by a gendarme3and he let me go without any problem. I learned much later (after the liberation) that the gendarmerie in this part of France was closely connected with the resistance movement. Did the gendarme simply feel comfortable seeing a young man,who was of an age to work in Germany, carrying the proof that he was exempted from this kind of constraint, or was he connected with the resistance movement and supporting illegal activities? I shall never know.
the rest here

From Lawrence H. Aller's autobiographical entry, Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 1995


After school, on the dreary afternoon of November 22, 1928, I went down to the Seattle Public Library to seek some forbidden books, i.e. books on astronomy. There I found the second volume of Russell-Dugan-Stewart Astronomy, with the tantalizing title of "Astrophysics and Stellar Astronomy." I checked it out and read it with great enthusiasm; the text was always fascinating if not always intelligible to a high school sophomore. My elders were annoyed, so I had to read it surreptitiously, at school or at home. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do in life but did not yet appreciate the obstacles that were to be cast in my way. There was no surer road to ruin than to have followed the advice of my elders, particularly that of my worthless old man. 

In the autumn of 1928, I was living in Seattle with my oldest brother, Leeon. The old man had parked my mother and me there until he deemed me old enough to work as a slave laborer on his crackpot mining venture.
 the rest here
 While I was in Oxford I made a call to Stephanie, who had been trying to set up a meeting with Philip Gwyn Jones, then at Flamingo: he had read two chapters of the book early on and loved them, and I assumed the point of the meeting was to push through a deal.  He had in fact offered an appointment later in the week. It seemed to me that I could do much better by this astronomer if I could take more than a few days off work, so I went back to London for the meeting.  Gwyn Jones seemed embarrassed and awkward, said there was a lot in the book that one wanted to skip (Greek, Japanese, quotations ...), said it needed a lot of work.  (It seemed to me that it is in the nature of an unfinished book that it needs work; money would permit the book to benefit from the undivided attention of its author. I kept my inevitable reflections to myself.)  He said he wasn't sure what to suggest, perhaps if he sat down with the MS over a weekend ...  I mentioned that Stephanie had said she could get money so I could concentrate on finishing the book.  He seemed somewhat surprised. I still don't know what Stephanie thought to achieve with this meeting.

I can't persuade myself that I ever came up with an astronomer to match the extraordinary contributors to the Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, but that's all the more reason, of course, that these pieces should be known to a wider public.

[There's also a wide-ranging interview of Aller here, including this:

Of course, I first became aware of the existence of atomic physics from reading Russell—Dugan—Stewart, but I learned these things in physics courses, and sometimes by reading books like Pauling and Wilson (Quantum Mechanics, 1935, Mc—Graw Hill). Alas, my background in physics was built up in a very spotty and haphazard way, Sometimes I did not get adequate advice from my mentors, but also some of the important physics courses were given at barbaric hours, as far as a practicing astronomer was concerned. To do classical astronomy what you really had to know was mechanics and a few elementary things about optics. The realization that you had to know electromagnetic theory as thoroughly as mechanics had not appeared. Thermodynamics was something chemists did and physical optics was a lot of fun but it did not have much to do with measuring star positions. These views seem so archaic now but you must realize we are recalling a generation of astronomers who were versed in orbit theory and astronometry pretty much to the exclusion of “speculative” topics. My physics teachers were mostly very good. Harvey White let me read his “Introduction to Atomic Spectra” 1934 McGraw—Hill in manuscript form in his office. I got interested in all kinds of spectroscopic problems. I recall the very first observations I ever got of a planetary nebula.]

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