[Cover of Sullivan's book 2009, Cosmic Noise]
Sullivan's Cosmic Noise, Cambridge University Press, 2009


NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with Cornell H. Mayer
At Naval Research Laboratory
June 21, 1978
Interview Time: 47 minutes
Transcribed for Sullivan by Pamela M. Jernegan

Note: The interview listed below was either transcribed as part of Sullivan's research for his book, Cosmic Noise: A History or Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009) or was transcribed in the NRAO Archives by Sierra Smith in 2012-2013. The transcription may have been read and edited for clarity by Sullivan, and may have also been read and edited by the interviewee. Any notes added in the reading/editing process by Sullivan, the interviewee, or others who read the transcript have been included in brackets. If the interview was transcribed for Sullivan, the original typescript of the interview is available in the NRAO Archives. Sullivan's notes about each interview are available on the individual interviewee's Web page. During processing, full names of institutions and people were added in brackets and if especially long the interview was split into parts reflecting the sides of the original audio cassette tapes. We are grateful for the 2011 Herbert C. Pollock Award from Dudley Observatory which funded digitization of the original cassette tapes, and for a 2012 grant from American Institute of Physics, Center for the History of Physics, which funded the work of posting these interviews to the Web.

Sullivan

Ok, this is part two with an almost seven year intermission with Connie Mayer on 21 June ’78 at NRL [Naval Research Laboratory]. Just throwing in some odd questions, after listening to the first interview- first of all, could we just pick up on the story about when Charles Townes came to use the NRL dish [Sullivan: in early 1969]? Just how did that come about? Was it a matter that he'd done it ten years before and why not do it again? What are your recollections of that?

Mayer

No, I don't think so. He called on the phone and said he had some stuff that looked pretty exciting and he thought that the further investigation of it could benefit greatly from using our dish because of its larger collecting area, better resolution. So he posed that we sort of throw something together and put it on our antenna. As far as I remember, we put together the RF part. His people threw together some crude [?]

Sullivan

Right.

Mayer

We started it off with the integration noise, backed up the [?] for hydrogen line stuff.

Sullivan

So it was pretty straight forward?

Mayer

It wasn't exactly straight forward and it was all done in a very short time scale. I think he called in November or something like, maybe December. We were on the air in early January, I think.

Sullivan

That's right. January 10th or 15th or something like that. What I meant was that the arrangements were pretty straight forward in terms of there was no problem with an outsider using the NRL antenna or anything like that?

Mayer

No and it was quite collaborative.

Sullivan

Right, it wasn’t just an outside... Okay. Now to go back to some things that we didn't touch on before. Can you tell me a little bit about your educational background and what sort of problems you worked on before you came in contact with radio astronomy?

Mayer

Yes. I had a B.S. in electrical engineering, and I was working on, well, first off, radar installation and testing and that sort of thing.

Sullivan

Here at NRL?

Mayer

Yes. Here and at field sites during World War II. And when not doing that we were working on mainly antenna design and tests here at the lab.

Sullivan

And was this pretty much all microwaves?

Mayer

Microwaves, yes. We were part of the Centimeter Wave Research Branch, which was under [John P.] Hagen. And pretty much the whole branch was working on centimeter wavelength radar type problems.

Sullivan

What other people that later became involved in radio astronomy besides you and Hagen here at NRL? Do you remember?

Mayer

Oh, yeah. [Fred T.] Haddock, of course. And originally Tim Decker, but he didn't last in radio astronomy. There were two or three other people who were in and out, and, of course, [Edward F.] McClain got in a little later.

Sullivan

Was he there during the war?

Mayer

Yeah. That's probably all that I can think of.

Sullivan

[Russell M.] Sloanaker?

Mayer

No, he was not part of our group then. Oh, Scotty McEwan and [J. E.] Gibson were there during the war years. And there was a fellow by the name of Ed Sees, who worked very closely with did a lot of work with Hagen like on checking out the 50 foot antenna and that sort of thing.

Sullivan

I see. How do you spell that name?

Mayer

S-E-E-S.

Sullivan

Were you in close contact with the MIT Radiation Lab, which must have been doing similar work in many respects, or did they do some task and you did others - how did that work?

Mayer

We weren't in close contact except in some problems. You mean during the war?

Sullivan

Yes, right.

Mayer

Yes, some problems, there was some contact and some commonality of work, but not really that close a liaison.

Sullivan

Was there a coordination at the higher levels of these efforts or was one pretty much the military doing its thing and the other civilian?

Mayer

That I don't know; I wasn't at the higher levels. I assume there was some, but I don't know.

Sullivan

Okay. So you were trained then as an electrical engineer. What did you do after the war then?

Mayer

Well, it was only about a year or two, maybe three, between the time the war was over and the time when we started in radio astronomy seriously. And during that time we finished up some of these antenna projects and did some further work on microwave waveguide test equipments and techniques.

Sullivan

This decision to get involved in radio astronomy, at least to some extent after the war, pretty much something Hagen decided to do or did everyone sit down...

Mayer

No, as best I can remember, it was at least primarily Hagen's interest and he was specifically interested in the Sun. And most of the original work was on the Sun.

Sullivan

Right. We discussed that, and I have interviewed Hagen two years ago, but I was just wondering about the initial decision. Also, along this line certainly as you worked in radio astronomy in the beginning, you wouldn't call yourself a radio astronomer, What would you call yourself in the late ‘40s as you were working on these?

Mayer

Electronic engineer.

Sullivan

And electronic engineer? And what about through the ‘50s? If someone asked you at a cocktail party what are you, what would you have said?

Mayer

That’s always a difficult question even now, but probably would have said radio astronomer by then.

Sullivan

So sometime during that period you began to think of yourself more as working on astronomy and using radio techniques rather than being an engineer who was using engineering on this problem and then later would switch to another problem - you were pretty much committed to astronomy.

Mayer

Oh yes. By that time we were getting familiar with radio astronomy. In fact, probably beginning about 1948 I was committed.

Sullivan

What was the Navy's interest in supporting this branch through this period, 1948-1960 say?

Mayer

Well, I guess you'd call it applications type interest, was mainly navigation, the possibility of using radio sources. And beyond that, the Navy at that time set up ONR [Office of Naval Research] to carry on the coordination of the scientific work and there was a big interest in basic research.

Sullivan

Right, and they funded a lot of universities, of course, in the late ‘50s and so forth. I talked to [Sullivan: Arnold] Shostak about a lot of that. But did you, as you actually worked on things like Venus and solar eclipses, really think of yourself as helping the Navy with navigation or was this really just something to keep them happy?

Mayer

Well, that's two different questions.

Sullivan

Okay.

Mayer

There always was work directed toward navigation applications.

Sullivan

I see, a part of the branch, you mean?

Mayer

Yes, a part of the effort. And there were these other efforts like the eclipses and later on, other things, which didn't have any very direct bearing on it- some indirect perhaps, you had to know about the Sun.

Sullivan

So it was more a matter of the Navy...

Mayer

There was some general interest in the brightness distribution of the Sun and even more in the brightness distribution of the Moon- or maybe not even more- because they were being considered as a navigation system.

Sullivan

So it was really more a matter of the Navy being willing to sponsor the whole branch knowing that a minority was working on navigation directly; the others were doing basic research which might someday have some application?

Mayer

Yes, but of course it was a process of evolution. In the era of 1948 to probably 1953, there wasn't the whole branch - it was only two or three or four people and some of them not full-time.

Sullivan

Ah, yes. Then how did it change after that?

Mayer

Sometime around 1954 timescale the decision was made to commit a branch to radio astronomy and...

End of Tape 106A

Sullivan Tape 106B

Sullivan

Continuing with Connie Mayer on 21 June ’78.

Mayer

But there were other things going on in the branch. Doppler navigator [?] and I forget what else.

Sullivan

This was when McClain came on, I believe?

Mayer

Yes. Then there was a whole group of five or ten people who were working on other projects having to do with microwave techniques. And at that time they split off and went into a different branch of the lab. What was left was dedicated to radio astronomy.

Sullivan

So what was the rough growth then? You say there were three or four full-time equivalents before ‘53 or ‘54 - how many once the branch was established, would you say?

Mayer

I don't remember, probably fifteen. Maybe twenty.

Sullivan

And that's the level it stayed at?

Mayer

No, then it grew. It grew to a maximum of about 25 to 28. And then it started to decline.

Sullivan

When was that peak reached?

Mayer

Oh in the ‘60s, I guess.

Sullivan

Mid ‘60s?

Mayer

Earlier, maybe.

Sullivan

Okay.

Mayer

And it stayed at about that level up until about the later part of the ‘60s. Part of the reason for that increase was the added on Radar Astronomy.

Sullivan

Oh, yes, that's right.

Mayer

Then in the late sixties, that was added off- the project was terminated.

Sullivan

Right. And then also...

Mayer

Still at that time, it was all the people in the Radio Astronomy Branch but some of the people weren’t then working on radio or radar astronomy. They were working on other things.

Sullivan

Okay. Well, while we're talking about these general questions, do you have any thoughts on what were the ingredients that contributed to the success of the Radio Astronomy Branch, particularly in the ‘50s? Well, that's the basic question.

Mayer

Two strong factors were the 50 foot dish and the technical capability. We could put together decent receivers at centimeter wavelengths and we had a good, large, centimeter wavelength antenna. So the two things together provided the facilities for doing radio astronomy in a range when nobody else had the facilities.

Sullivan

Right. You had very little competition, actually, on many of those projects.

Mayer

Yes, for quite some time. A few years at least. And I guess in addition to that, we had good people - they weren't trained in astronomy, but they were trained in either physics or electronics, and it's fairly easy to pick up basic astronomy.

Sullivan

Would another thing perhaps be just the whole supportive atmosphere? I mean, you had the Navy willing to keep you funded at a reasonably high level, of course.

Mayer

Yes, not necessarily the high level, but sustained funding was definitely a plus- the fact that you didn't have to worry about whether you were going to have any money next year.

Sullivan

Next year's grant, that's right. Along this same line, do you have any thoughts on - it's somewhat puzzling to me why U.S. radio astronomy had a very, slow start relative to British and the Australians - do you have any thoughts on how that came about?

Mayer

Well, yes, I guess more thoughts on how it came about than why. I don't know why exactly. I think one factor was particularly in places like Australia and possibly the Netherlands- they were small countries and they could only devote a certain amount of effort to science so they had to pick something where they could have a significant impact on the field so they wouldn't go into high energy physics. And radio astronomy was a good thing and they had the same kind of situation we had at NRL where they had people who were trained radar and had surplus equipment which could be used for radio astronomy. And the only other basic difference I can think of is that for one reason or another because of equipment and funding limitations, primarily I guess, they thought in terms of interferometers and got all these ingenious schemes for doing things with interferometers.

Sullivan

Right. And that's certainly...

Mayer

A lot of the impact they had particularly in England and Australia, because they were using interferometer-type techniques.

Sullivan

Yes, that's right.

Mayer

And they isolated out discrete sources and compositions on them and so forth.

Sullivan

Right. So you're saying basically that the people, for instance, in the Radiation Lab, many of which did go into nuclear physics, had many more options in that they could go into big science because more funds were available, whereas in the smaller countries you had to pick more carefully.v

Mayer

Yes, and it might even have been a national type thing, where the country went into big things and the people along with it.

Sullivan

U.S. science tended to think it was best to think biggest and best, to think along those lines. NRL, of course, was one exception to this, having gotten started very early, although it was a very small effort until the mid ‘50s, as you just said. The other exceptions I guess, Cornell had a small program. Was there anyone else besides Grote Reber?

Mayer

Well, the Bureau of Standards had a small effort for a long time.

Sullivan

Right, which was Reber.

Mayer

Later Reber, yes. For a while, not for a long time. But that was only I think at most three or four or five people at any one time.

Sullivan

And then Harvard starting in 1952 or 1953. In the late ‘40s, I think there was really only those three groups. NBS with Reber, and Cornell and here.

Mayer

You may be right - I can't think of any others.

Sullivan

Do you remember any effort at that time to reason that, "Well, the U.S. should be in that and this is another reason to keep the radio astronomy effort going at NRL." In other words, were nationalistic considerations ever part of this?

Mayer

Well, I think those of us who were in it thought that way, but I'm not sure it was a national idea.

Sullivan

Yes.

Mayer

Probably still isn't.

Sullivan

Okay. Now to a few specific projects. The eclipse expeditions, which before we talked about the scientific results of them and some of the troubles you had. I was wondering if you could relate some of the details of, in particular, this one off the coast of Brazil, I believe, on a Navy destroyer and so forth. Just some of the recollections you have of getting those things together and carrying them out.

Mayer

Yes, that one I didn't participate directly.

Sullivan

Oh, you didn't go on that one? I see.

Mayer

No, that was shortly after I got involved at all. How I got involved was Hagen had been using a straight, total power receiver, and lots of problems with gain variations. He told me to see if I couldn't do something about that, so I tried with a crude DC amplifier and things that were sitting around and I told him, "I didn't think I could do anything with it and we’d have to go to the Dicke radiometer." Well, he had assigned another guy who was in the branch temporarily - it wasn't temporarily, but to he didn't stay long- to put together a Dicke system, but he hadn't gotten very far. So I took that over and put together a Dicke radiometer along with Ken Becker. And I guess- I don't remember for sure- we put two of them together: one of them was taken on this trip to the eclipse, and the other one we put in the 10 foot dish on the roof and looked at the Sun on the date of the eclipse from here.

Sullivan

[?]

Mayer

I don't think so.

Sullivan

I guess that's right.

Mayer

Just to see what the Sun was doing. No real reason. But the only thing that I know about the expedition was that they had a lot of trouble- one of the troubles being that the antenna, I think, was up on the mast and they had a hard time keeping it pointed at the Sun. And they didn't get, as I remember, any data that was very usable.

Sullivan

How would they keep it pointed at the Sun?

Mayer

I think they had two monkeys on dials or something like that.

Sullivan

They were just trying to keep their signal optimized, I mean maximized.

Mayer

So that's about all I can tell you on that one, except that Hagen did pick up an electronic technician who wanted to get out of the Navy - he came into the branch and he just retired a few months ago - Joe Nichols.

Sullivan

Oh, I see. I didn’t realize that story.

Mayer

Yes, he's an excellent technician.

Sullivan

You might be interested to know that the Russians, also, did observe that eclipse from a ship.

Mayer

Was it low frequency?

Sullivan

Right. And they were steering their array by moving their whole ship. It was at dock, and they would just change the boats and the hawsers and everything.

Mayer

As I remember, they didn't get any results, either.

Sullivan

Well, they got some minimal stuff, but it wasn't all that successful. So you didn't go on that ones. Did you go on the next one?

Mayer

Yes.

Sullivan

Which was which?

Mayer

Attu. That was in 1950. Hagen cranked up a bigger effort for that. We put together radiometers, I believe they were 10 centimeters and 3 centimeters, maybe just 3, but at least 3 centimeters and 8 mm with portable antennas. And Grote Reber put together a system, I forgotten but something like 600 megahertz which he took along. And in addition, Hagen borrowed a big eclipse telescope from the Bureau of Standards, a huge tube about a foot and a half in diameter and 20 foot long. So we set, up all this junk and on an airstrip sticking out in the ocean at Attu. And we got it all working. The day of the eclipse we had a typhoon, but we took data anyway. Needless to say, it wasn't much good.

Sullivan

I gather this was the only place the eclipse was hitting land.

Mayer

I don't think it was the only place, but it might have been one of the few places where it was feasible to set something up.

Sullivan

Yes, I've seen those pictures where you're rather heavily attired and it’s raining and cold.

Mayer

We were wrapped up in plastic sheets. Anyway, we got very ragged eclipse curves, very marginal usefulness.

Sullivan

Nevertheless the effort persisted.

Mayer

Yes, the next one was Khartoum, and I guess that was an even bigger effort. I put together two radiometers for that one: one at 10 and one at 3, this was 9.5 and 3 or something like that, centimeters. And by that time, we'd gotten more sophisticated and had a built-in trailer so the whole trailer could be transported, antenna and all the equipment. And then Hagen and McEwan and Gibson put together an 8 millimeter system with a cylindrical parabola fan beam. The idea was to line up the fan beam with the track of the Moon and get less of a sector scan and more of a strip scan.

Sullivan

Right.

Mayer

And I guess we still had the eclipse camera plus the eclipse movie camera, I didn't go on that trip either. And the results there were fairly good, but I guess as I remember the main problem there was too much solar activity. They had this big jog in the eclipse curve that was covering active regions.

Sullivan

Yes, you mentioned that before. Was this all shipped using U.S. Navy ships?

Mayer

I think so.

Sullivan

So you probably had to have it ready several months beforehand?

Mayer

Oh, yes. It was like a year's effort to get everything built and put together and packed up, and we had to provide spares for everything- motor generators, and cables.

Sullivan

And then the persons themselves probably had to be gone for at least a month, or six weeks - they didn't just fly over in those days, I guess.

Mayer

Oh, yes. By MATS- I guess for Khartoum they actually had a big troop transport planes, the type that would carry them over and bring them back.

Sullivan

So...

Mayer

Yes, they were tremendous efforts.

Sullivan

In retrospect, it would seem to me that they probably weren’t worth it. Would you agree with that? The man-years that went into them versus the scientific results that were obtained...

Mayer

Well, up until that point we never got a clean eclipse curve, but the next one in Sweden - the Sun was reasonably well behaved and the weather was reasonable and we got good results, we had, good clean eclipse curves and more respectable scientific output. Yeah, I personally would probably not have opted to put the effort in that direction.

Sullivan

Okay. Another question I had was the detection and linear polarization in the Crab Nebula. I notice in the abstract for two different articles, that in the first one published in 1957 you quote 7% at 3 cm wavelength, and then in 1959 with Sloanaker, a AAS talk, you quoted 3%. I was wondering do these actually refer to the same thing and you had improved your measurements or are these different?

Mayer

The 7% at 3cm and the 3% is at 10 cm or 9 cm.

Sullivan

Oh, okay.

Mayer

I believe.

Sullivan

Yes, that sounds right. What was the critical thing that allowed you to detect this polarization, would you say?

Mayer

Oh, going to a higher frequency where the degree of polarization is higher plus depolarization, Faraday rotation.

Sullivan

So the polarimeter itself wasn't that tricky to build once you had the high frequency radiometer?

Mayer

During the initial detection we didn't use the polarimeter at all. The initial detection was during the measurements of Venus, which were carried on for a period of three or four weeks. So we had the opportunity to use the Crab Nebula as a calibration object. And with the linearly polarized antenna and the altitude-azimuth mount, we got a change of parallactic angle, I forget, by a sizable amount, 60° or something like that. So we saw a definite, systematic variation across the sky, and midway through the first experiment, we rotated the whole receiver by 90° and the systematic variation turned around to be what it should be for polarization. That was the initial detection. Then we immediately set up a radiometer with a rotating beam to get further measurements. That was all at 3 cm.

Sullivan

Was this accidentally discovered?

Mayer

No, we were looking for it. See, people had been looking for a number of years - particularly I guess, [Gart] Westerhout and Charlie [Charles L.] Seeger and [?] had, at least, one or two tries.

Sullivan

Right, at 21 cm I believe.

Mayer

Maybe, yeah. So it had been something that people were looking for.

Sullivan

Why would you use it for a calibration source, though, if you suspected you might detect polarization?

Mayer

Well, we used it- the calibration was primarily pointing not intensity.

Sullivan

Oh, okay.

Mayer

In other words, we wanted to feel secure that we were looking at Venus.

Sullivan

Right. And before you rotated it 90°, was there some doubt that it might be due to an antenna gain effect that you didn't know about?

Mayer

There was no doubt in my mind.

Sullivan

Just the rest of the world.

Mayer

Well, you have to do it.

Sullivan

Yes. It was pretty clear right at first?

Mayer

Well, both the Venus and the Crab Nebula experiments were planned experiments; they weren't just chance.

Sullivan

I knew the Venus was, but...

Mayer

And the reason the Venus one was planned for several weeks up to inferior conjunction was to see if there was a phase effect.

Sullivan

Was this your second time on with Venus?

Mayer

No, the first.

Sullivan

That was your first. That's right, you had to quit right at inferior conjunction. I remember you were saying you didn't have as much time as you would have liked to have. I got the impression from re-listening to your tape that there was sort of 'your' group and then there was Hagen and McClain and I guess [A. Edward] Lilley - their group, sort of competing for telescope time. With you having a somewhat lower hand since you weren't in charge of the Branch. Another question I was wondering after re-listening, was why you didn't go on to the 84 foot when it came into existence? In fact, I'm not quite sure what you worked on in the early ‘60s and very late ‘50s.

Mayer

Well, we worked on mainly extensions of polarization measurements and measurements of planets. We looked at Venus several times, chasing this elusive phase effect.

Sullivan

With the 50 foot?

Mayer

With the 50 foot.

Sullivan

This is even after the 84 foot existed?

Mayer

Oh, probably; I guess so, yes. And the polarization led to other sources and other wavelengths to try to pin down the Faraday rotation- Then also to see what the polarization of other sources was. And for example, one thing that we were doing at that time period with polarization was the general variation of polarization at various wavelengths wasn’t all that interesting, except for the possibility of getting the Faraday rotation and making some kind of estimates about magnetic [?]. But Cygnus A turned out to have this very peculiar polarization spectrum where it dropped very sharply at longer wavelengths. And later on it turned out that it could be all puzzled out by having independent polarization on the two main components, which probably counter-rotate. At least the counter-rotation idea was the simplest.

Sullivan

Has that held up since then?

Mayer

Yes, as far as I know.

Sullivan

Yes.

Mayer

And then we extended the polarization measurements from 3 to 10 centimeters and then we went after other planets. That was primarily what we were doing. Now as to why we didn't go on the 84 foot- we did actually, but it wasn't very useful for polarization measurements because the instrumental polarization was high.

Sullivan

I see.

Mayer

It was something around 3%, I remember.

Sullivan

Also, I guess it couldn't go shorter than 10 cm or something like that?

Mayer

Yes. But we did use it to some extent.

Sullivan

Were you involved in the 300 foot observations?

Mayer

No.

Sullivan

That was Bologna and Sloanaker.

Mayer

Yes, they started that up with McClain while I was at Caltech.

Sullivan

Were you on a sabbatical type thing at Caltech? What did you do there?

Mayer

Not much of anything, in terms of supposedly useful work. I was fooling around with trying to get a cool paramp working that they had gotten about that time, without a great deal of success. Unfortunately, it was bought in pieces. And I wasn't all that successful in getting that put together.

Sullivan

What year was that?

Mayer

I don’t know- 1961-62, something like that.

Sullivan

It would be interesting to know what your appraisal of the Caltech group was- from an outsider's point of view. Were you impressed with what they were doing?

Mayer

Oh yes. Very much so.

Sullivan

What were their strong points, would you say?

Mayer

I guess at that time their basic program was looking at radio source survey type things.

Sullivan

They were doing CTA and CTB surveys?

Mayer

Right. And along about that time Moffett was doing his thing with source structure and [Kenneth I.] Kellermann was doing his thing with source spectra - they were graduate students and [Alan T.] Moffet, maybe, was a post-doc then. Barry Clark was doing something that nobody could figure out what he was doing exactly, and I guess some of the things that they had done along about that time had quite a bit of impact other than general source structure stuff and surveys. They had done this interferometer stuff on Jupiter.

Sullivan

Oh, yes.

Mayer

And locking in with the polarization and the whole bit pretty well identified with radiation belts.

Sullivan

Did you ever try polarization of the planets?

Mayer

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

Was this Jupiter just below sensitivity?

Mayer

No, it was done. But that was at 21 cm.

Sullivan

That's right.

Mayer

That was done not by us, but by McClain and Lock and Bruce Gary and Al Miller, using the 84 foot.

Sullivan

Yes, that's right. Okay, one final question is to do with the amalgamation of radio astronomy into optical astronomy or traditional astronomy. What recollections do you have about how that came about? Do you think it still maybe has not yet come about? In the ‘50s, in particular, and also in the ‘60s.

Mayer

Well, it was always there to some extent. There were always optical astronomers who were interested and eager to get results.

Sullivan

Were there any that you personally were in touch with in the ‘50s?

Mayer

Yeah.

Sullivan

Who were they?

Mayer

I guess, the main ones were [Charles H.] Townes and [Gerard] Kuiper and to some extent, [Donald H.] Menzel and [Bart J.] Bok. Of course, you know Bok was interested.

Sullivan

Oh sure.

Mayer

And to a minor extent, [Jesse L.] Greenstein. But there always was that kind of interest; I don't really know what you mean by your question. There was also a lot of skepticism, of course.

Sullivan

Which was the dominant attitude? If you gave a paper at an AAS [American Astronomical Society] meeting, was it only the radio astronomers in that room that you were talking to in that room to begin with or...

Mayer

Well, that probably is true and it was probably also true that in the earlier days there probably weren't many papers given at astronomical society meetings. They'd be more likely to be given at URSI [International Union of Radio Science]. The radio astronomy commission at URSI was very strong.

Sullivan

Right.

Mayer

And it was a good meeting place for radio astronomy. A lot of the things they were talking about were mainly of interest, at least the details, to the radio astronomer. But yes, I think certainly the things like the initial identifications of radio sources with optical objects, the Crab Nebula and Cygnus A, were certainly of great interest to astronomers.

Sullivan

So how do you look back upon it? There were a minority of them that were very interested and the others sort of didn't have much to do with this upstart or...

Mayer

Probably a few that were kind of basically interested in the technique and in the way of looking at things. And there were others who would become interested when it touched on what they were interested in.

Sullivan

Yes, yes.

Mayer

Greenstein was interested when we measured the radiation of H II regions. Kuiper was interested when we measured Venus. But yes, I think by and large people regarded it as a possibility for new information but until things got a little bit sorted out, nobody knew what it meant and everybody was sort of confused and didn't know what to make of it. Probably a little bit like X-ray astronomy has been the last few years.

Sullivan

Yes.

Mayer

It was kind of like a separate group of people, and other people get interested when they see something that's along their line that maybe they can use...

Sullivan

What era would you place this getting sorted out for radio astronomy. When did this transition take place, would you say?

Mayer

Oh it didn't take place all at once. When Cygnus A was first recognized or for that matter when galactic radiation was first recognized, nobody really had any good way to explain it. Then when people started getting ideas like synchrotron radiation and so forth and seeing that it could be explained as non-thermal radiation and things got a little better sorted out.

Sullivan

I see.

Mayer

As long as nobody had any idea what it was. There wasn't much to talk about, except, "Isn't that wonderful?"

Sullivan

Do you think that was the basic reason for this communication gap - that the traditional astronomer just was not familiar at all with radio techniques?

Mayer

I don't think so. I think as far as I know by and large- now, there probably are exceptions- the idea of non-thermal radio radiation in astronomical sources probably hadn't really been considered that much.

Sullivan

Well, I agree to that. I think maybe you misunderstood my question; I was asking a more general question. With the fact that most traditional astronomers did not pay much attention to radio astronomy, do you think that was aided by the fact that it was just so foreign to them as to what an antenna did and antenna temperature and so forth, that it was just too much for them to comprehend what was going on, so they just ignored it?

Mayer

Well, you can probably say it that way, but I would say it differently.

Sullivan

Okay. How would you say it?

Mayer

It's just not their thing. They watch what the people who are doing it are doing. I watch X-ray astronomy. That's not my thing.

Sullivan

Okay, well that pretty much covers what I wanted to do. Thank you very much. That ends the interview with Connie Mayer on 21 June ’78.


Modified on Tuesday, 29-Jan-2013 08:48:20 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)