[Morrison, 1983]
Morrison, 1983 (Photo courtesy of NRAO/AUI/NSF)




NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with Philip A. Morrison
At the Redshift Meeting, Paris, France
September 6, 1976
Interview Time: 32 minutes
Transcribed for Sullivan by Bonnie Jacobs

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

This is talking with Philip Morrison on 6 September ’76 at the Redshift Meeting in Paris. Now could you tell me when you first sort of became aware of the fact that radio astronomy was doing something? Trained as a physicist.

Morrison

Well, I think that the famous paper of [Karl Otto] Kiepenheuer.

Sullivan

Well, Kiepenheuer had one and then [Hannes] Alfvén and [Nicolai] Herlofson had one.

Morrison

That's right. Kiepenheuer and those two papers - 1950, that's when I became clued into radio astronomy. But I wasn't then really devoted to astronomy quite. And I only became really interested in it through the cosmic ray problem. I guess in '52 or something like that.

Sullivan

Can you say what the cosmic ray problem was at that time?

Morrison

Well, it was a question of the origin and time changes of cosmic rays. You see, from my point of view - I was at MIT in the summer and I talked to [?] and I was thinking about the problem of cosmic rays. I guess my interest had really been whetted by the work of [?] Peters and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, whom I knew quite well, and so we talked about these things. And that made it fairly clear I think for the first time- I think it must have been 1949 or something like that. That the cosmic rays were physical phenomena and were not some cosmological un-understood thing as [Edward Arthur] Milne had said.

Sullivan

No, I'm not aware of this. I don't know much about the history of cosmic rays. What do you mean by physical phenomenon?

Morrison

Well, I'd better tell you that then. You see, Milne, for example, I don't think it was very important I thought at that time but I would now say it. Milne was a cosmologist and an astronomer and for him cosmic rays were probably to be interpreted as some kind of fundamental phenomenon upon which the whole substrata of the Universe was based. They were the marks of the fundamental observer or a uniform gas filling the whole Universe, that sort of thing.

Sullivan

Some property of space essentially, one could say?

Morrison

Yeah, that's right. They were protons, they were fundamental particles. They were protons and maybe they were electrons but that's all they were. And that was a general point of view.

Sullivan

Was that a dominant view at all?

Morrison

No, I think there was no real dominant view.

Sullivan

I get the idea that the work of [Arthur Holly] Compton and so forth established that they were particles long before World War II.

Morrison

I didn't say they weren't particles. They were protons and electrons. That's particles. But they were not produced there by physical processes. The world was made, you know. What starts the galaxies going is particles, it's protons and electrons, but how they're made is cosmological. It's very hard to study that. So that was the idea. And then I had the vague idea well maybe they are something really new and fundamental and very hard to do. Yes, they are particles. But then [?] Peters and Oppenheimer showed that they contained alpha particles and carbon nuclei and perhaps even iron nuclei. And so they were just a sample of matter. And so once you've recognized that they were a sample of matter then it became extremely hopeful and plausible to say there was some kind of matter whose physical origin was like that of other kinds of matter, but had been given high speed by some processes that we don't really understand. That was the general idea. That was the great break through.

Sullivan

You weren't bothered by the fact that this matter had a rather different chemical composition?

Morrison

No, it was too detailed. We didn't even know the chemical composition. It had a similar chemical composition but the point is before this point it was thought to be pure hydrogen. It made it quite clear. And then they showed it was not pure hydrogen, it had some alpha particles in it, it had some oxygen. So it was unlikely the fundamental process that made protons - like the steady state. The steady state always assumed it made protons. The steady state would have had no support if it had to assume that the thing made oxygen nuclei, iron 56, nickel 53- you'd be crazy. So you had to say these were made by some slow adiabatic process that didn't break nuclei apart. Not some instantaneous cosmic nuclear physics. That was the phenomenon. So from that time on one became interested in the study of the origin of cosmic rays. It seemed like a nice problem. It was related to astronomy. And at the same time the cosmic ray people were coming against the problem that the cosmic ray work of looking for fundamental particles, looking for mesons and so on, couldn't compete any longer with the machines. The Pi-mesons were now made copiously at Berkeley. I don't remember when that was but that would be a big landmark back in the ‘50s. And while cosmic rays up till then discovered that the particles and the Pi-mesons - it was clear you were not going to get much more because the competition was too keen. So the cosmic ray people were looking for somewhere to go [?] take up astronomy and study physics. And here was this radio astronomy dealing with relativistic particles and it was interesting, very interesting.

Sullivan

In other words, take the interest away from the particles themselves and put it more into where the particles came from, what they came through, and so forth?

Morrison

Exactly. See, before that nobody cared where they came from. There were a few theories but they were all bizarre because nobody could understand it. They just used them as a laboratory of high energy [?]. And then two problems were worked on. What was the nature of the processes in the atmosphere that made all the complicated secondaries. And that developed into a lot of fundamental physics. And second, what were the particles you saw. And that was the whole business of cosmic rays.

Sullivan

What about this very early suggestion, '32 or something, I think that [Fritz] Zwicky made that cosmic rays came from neutron stars or something like that? Have you ever looked at that?

Morrison

Well, I have since.

Sullivan

Is that just a fluke amongst a dozen suggestions?

Morrison

That's right. It's very insightful paper, this was a two-page paper. It doesn't give any conviction, it has a lot of things in it that are wrong. If you look at it in hindsight, those were very imaginative...

Sullivan

In any case it was not something...

Morrison

Not something terribly helpful.

Sullivan

That anyone followed up in any sense?

Morrison

Yeah, that's right. And also I think even if you take it as it stands, he thought that the cosmic rays were born in the formation of the neutron stars by some mysterious process, the kind we're talking about. You know, all at once, bing! Not by electromagnetic forces.

Sullivan

It wasn't that they were accelerating? Accelerated by a pulsar field?

Morrison

No, no. It was a matter of God made them. You know, when you had a neutron star you make cosmic rays. And that's what everybody thought because they were so strange and they seemed to be all protons and electrons, like anything else. And that's why it was so exciting when these people first got data from high atmosphere that showed there were heavies coming in. As soon as you saw a few heavies coming in, then qualitatively you said this is not a fundamental way of making matter. It is the same old matter somehow delicately accelerated. Accelerated so slowly that the nuclei don't come apart.

Sullivan

So having an interest in cosmic rays, how did you get interested in radio?

Morrison

Having an interest in cosmic rays then it was Fermi's work on the origin of cosmic rays. I thought I should do something of the same sort. I had different ideas. I couldn't believe Fermi's theory exactly and we modified it. That was probably the first publication I did in the cosmic ray field. Around '52 or '51. And then, of course, we were quite well aware of the relation between radio sources and cosmic rays and we expect from these, Herlofson, Alfvén and Kiepenheuer.

Sullivan

Well, but now that was not really accepted in the field of radio astronomy.

Morrison

Yeah, but it was easily accepted by the cosmic ray people.

Sullivan

Many years later. Well, this is a rather striking difference. It took a long time.

Morrison

Well, accepted is a strong word. I would say it seemed plausible, rather... One knew that the radio astronomers who talked about equivalent temperatures and so on, suggesting a temperature that was silly. And the clincher to it was the '55 work- it was a long time by then. '55, that's what I remember because it was a big meeting at [?] on cosmic rays where the Russians reported the polarization of the Crab, visible polarization of the Crab. That was the beginning of the modern era from my point of view.

Sullivan

And there was no quarrel with that data? I mean looking back at it, it looks rather shaky.

Morrison

Oh, no, really? Well, you see, I think the Russian data were rather poor, but by the time the meeting was held [Walter] Baade had already confirmed it with these photographs. So it was absolutely...

Sullivan

A combination of the two then.

Morrison

And then [Lodewijk] Woltjer had written his famous thesis.

Sullivan

Also at that meeting, you knew about that?

Morrison

We knew about that. At least he was doing it or something like that. [Jan Hendrik] Oort was there and he described what was going on. He fully believed it. So once Oort accepted it everybody did. So I think that we all felt that yes, indeed, the Crab was a fascinating object. It’s got something to do with radio astronomy and these electrons are relativistic and the polarized light. And the whole story of looking for those things was clear. That was certainly sometime in '54 or '55 or '56. Now before we had done that, at that very time I was working on the time variation of cosmic rays in the solar system, which is not exactly the same related problem- it’s a related problem. Where do cosmic rays come from? It seemed pretty clear to me that we demonstrated that they were galactic and not solar. And the solar correlation was inverse. Then we started talking about diffusion of particles through fields and accelerations and all those things. Which then were capped by [Eugene N.] Parker with the solar wind and stuff, which came out a little later. So, here radio astronomy was not terribly simple physics except to call one's attention to where relativistic particles and cosmic rays came from.

Sullivan

I see. So is it fair to say that then during the early ‘50s most physicists working in this field had no doubts about the synchrotron mechanism being active and they thought that the radio data were really tying together with the cosmic rays, that the two definitely had something to do with each other?

Morrison

Yeah, I would not say no doubts, but that it was a very hopeful suggestion and as soon as the [Iosef Samuelovich] Shklovskii-Russian-Baade-Oort thing came out in the middle ‘50s then it was completely convincing. That's sort of the thing they were looking for. We hoped for it and were looking for it.

Sullivan

This is what [Vitaly L.] Ginzburg told me, you might be interested in, that he had no doubts whatsoever from 1950 on, it just felt right. That this was going to go.

Morrison

I too felt it was going to go, but I wouldn't say that I knew it. It was just a [?]. There was no way to do it from temperature and so on. It was clearly wrong. This thing just won't work. [?] that was the key.

Sullivan

Now what about the connection though between- you had two sorts of things - you had these discrete sources and you have a lot of argument, in the early ‘50s anyway, about whether they were in the Galaxy or not. And then you have a diffuse background. Were you thinking of synchrotron radiation as we now call it as causing both of these?

Morrison

Yes.

Sullivan

And what was the relation between them? Was the one the integral of the other unresolved?

Morrison

Well, no. One happened out in space where there were lots of clouds and weak fields and one happened in some strange places where there were very strong fields that got the particles going, because the magnetic fields which you need to make cosmic rays and at the same time the things that make radio sources. So it looked all very, very good. The connection between radio sources and cosmic rays then was very intense. And the Crab Nebula sort of over-clinched it because it was too easy. [?] So I'd say from '55 on I regarded radio astronomy and radio sources and cosmic rays as being the same thing. Now in what detail and where, and so on, that was still doubtful.

Sullivan

Well, there's still the question mark of course as to what was giving the energy to these particles. Of course, that was just a question mark in the center.

Morrison

Sure.

Sullivan

Which we still have today with radio sources.

Morrison

That's right. We're still trying to understand them. That's the whole point you see. I'm not talking about giving answers but of raising questions for research. It's obviously interesting to try to come to the point of saying what could the energy source be. Where would it be, and so on. But again it was quite clear, you'll never find it out from cosmic rays because they don't go in straight lines. That was the thing that soon became very clear. And therefore you want to look at these radio sources that may be pointing to you where the cosmic ray source is. And the Crab Nebula was the best candidate.

Sullivan

Now what about the contention at that time and it still is an argument, about the existence of a halo in the Galaxy? Was this something that was necessary for cosmic ray people to have, if they didn't have a halo, then you didn't have something to confine the...

Morrison

It was very natural, that's all. It was not necessary. We took great satisfaction in Baldwin's measurements of halo, if not well. But there are many theories, we discussed disks, we discussed halos. The geometry of something which goes way beyond the firmness of the conclusions you can draw from the theory. The geometry doesn't affect your fundamental ideas. There are details. They might be very important but they wouldn't change the whole situation.

Sullivan

Now your paper in the Reviews of Modern Physics in ‘57 on the origin of cosmic rays- you mention the Crab and M87 in, also. Now how would you tie in, in that case clearly an extragalactic source with our Galaxy? Were you thinking that this was evidence that a whole halo of cosmic rays would be produced in M87 or that it was contributing to our own cosmic rays or what?

Morrison

Both I think. I took the view that the low energy cosmic rays would be in our own Galaxy and the highest energy cosmic rays were made of bigger objects [?] and they might come to across [?] space [?] And that also the other radio sources were full of cosmic rays.

Sullivan

So that's it, special galaxies then that are producing the high energy...

Morrison

That's right. Special explosive galaxies.

Sullivan

Now switching the subjects to a little bit more general topic. In Nuovo Cimento in '58 you talked about the possibility of doing gamma ray astronomy which, of course, was several years off at that time on radio sources, specifically.

Morrison

Yes.

Sullivan

I suppose this is because they were sites of high energy?

Morrison

That's right, high energy, relativistic electrons, therefore probably relativistic protons and nuclei, therefore the collisions of those things, therefore nuclear gamma rays, bremsstrahlung, pair annihilation gamma rays, etc.

Sullivan

Now, I'm interested from an historical point of view because it seems to me that radio astronomy really opened up the spectrum and now we have opened up virtually every other range in the spectrum.

Morrison

That's right.

Sullivan

Now, do you think it is true to say that the radio directly led on to trying to open up the gamma ray and perhaps other parts of the spectrum? Or would this have happened anyway if the technology had been such that the radio had been the last one to open up?

Morrison

I think it would have happened as soon as you saw the polarization of the Crab Nebula, the optical polarization.

Sullivan

So the radio was not critical to wanting to do the...

Morrison

Well, it was valuable because it was earlier, as you say.

Sullivan

That could be called a technological accident.

Morrison

It could have been, yes. If the optical polarization had been found earlier and one had tried to explain the synchrotron as Shklovskii did and make it quite successful. With the right directions and scale and so all those things then I think it wouldn't have been necessary to have the radio. It was essentially the strong continuum polarization. That was the key. Now that was reinforced by what the radio people saw. I was going to say also just as a general remark that I think that the radio people added to astronomy something much more important than any of these results even. And that is an up-to-date technology and attitude which I feel optical astronomy has only very slowly come to and even now has be not fully evolved. That's the most important thing.

Sullivan

Can you give some examples of that?

Morrison

Well, for example, all radio telescopes are altazimuth telescopes, computer controlled.

Sullivan

Of course they weren't then. That's taken awhile for even them to learn.

Morrison

I understand that. It was only because there were some optical astronomers who were directors of radio observatories that they didn't!

Sullivan

I can remember one telescope.

Morrison

That's right. And so I think that's the thing I would say and they were interested in using electronics, interested in signals to noise and so on. And they didn't use magnitudes or they used flux units and things like that. They all had to have a much more physical- they came, of course, from electrical engineering mostly, maybe some physics. And so they tightly unified astronomy with physics, which was much more difficult than the building of the Palomar Observatory. Photographic techniques and electronics and as you said the long classical study of conventional astronomy before you become an astronomer. And the idea of time scale, the idea even that objects are [?] people. All those things are characteristic of optical astronomy, not at all of radio astronomy.

Sullivan

Yeah, and they still are.

Morrison

That's right. I feel that's the biggest difference. Radio astronomy dragged astronomy into the modern world of physics. Perhaps it most important contribution.

Sullivan

And I suppose it would be fair to say, dragged physicists into astronomy also?

Morrison

That's right.

Sullivan

A revolution in itself.

Morrison

Opened up the way to go into astronomy. There were physicists... you see in my thesis when I was a student, I had one third of it or one quarter of it was doing astronomy. I liked astronomy, I wanted to do more.

Sullivan

What year was that?

Morrison

Oh, I don't know, 1938 or something like that, working on inverse beta decay processes in white dwarf stars and things like that. You know the internal stellar constitution from the physicists’ point of view. The same thing, after all Bethe was doing nuclear physics then and...

Sullivan

Essentially the attitude the radio astronomers brought in made it more a comfortable place for a physicist to be, are you saying?

Morrison

Yeah, sure. I think they made the experimental situation much better. Whereas we just used... I remember very well going to see an astronomer, a rather good one, and discussing with him some statistical conclusions he had used in his paper. And I had to go away and realized this man failed to understand the fundamental ideas of statistics and [?] But he was a very well-known astronomer, published many papers in [?].

Sullivan

This was an optical astronomer in about what year?

Morrison

That was about 1937, 1938 at Berkeley.

Sullivan

Well, let me change the topic slightly because of another famous paper I have in your bibliography before 1960 and that's the paper you did with [Giuseppe] Cocconi on searching for interstellar communications and I'm wondering was that influenced by radio astronomy?

Morrison

Well, completely. But it didn't begin that way, it began out of gamma ray astronomy.

Sullivan

Can you tell me about that?

Morrison

Yes, well the idea was that we realized that there was not many gamma rays. And we said that well you could make gamma rays that would cross space, that would be very significant against the background. So we began to think of whether you could communicate across space with gamma rays. Maybe for an hour. And then in the course of that hour discussion, we each realized that you could communicate much better than that with radio. So that's why it came about.

Sullivan

In terms of less energy per quantum and all that sort of...

Morrison

Yeah, that's right. Directionality. The Arecibo telescope was already able to do these kind of things. So there again I think probably you'd say that radio did provide the other spectral channel. And I think that's another thing I would say, sort of generally that it's clear to me that you cannot understand the physics of the universe without exploring every spectral channel. And as long as you have just one, namely optical, you'll never get anywhere really. And therefore adding the second one is the definitive multiplication. But it needn't, has not, cannot stop there. The most important one is probably millimeter-infrared band. The millimeter band because that's where [?]. So radio is very valuable primarily as a marker showing here's one spectral band and finally you have this much bigger window in which to do everything [?].

Sullivan

An interesting question that I haven’t quite resolved in my own mind, the optical band does have an awful lot of the energy because stars tend to have temperatures which puts them- our eyes are adapted to the Sun, which is a typical star, etc.

Morrison

That's right.

Sullivan

So if you had to pick one band, it's perhaps the best one? Wouldn't you agree with that?

Morrison

No question. I would entirely agree with that. Especially because it is so full of spectral lines. The optical band is the band of atomic transitions. So you learn about the matter from that. See, in radio there are hardly any lines.

Sullivan

Well, we found a few in the last few years, but...

Morrison

Well, there are molecular lines but not from hot objects and so on. They're very specialized in their occurrence. It's organic chemistry.

Sullivan

Well, that's a judgment though, that hot objects are more interesting than cool objects.

Morrison

Well, from the point of view of energy sources and- let me rephrase it then...

Sullivan

Stars may form in cold areas, which are then ultimately the energy source [?].

Morrison

Hm.... I wouldn't say that. Where they form is another story. That may be regarded as a geometrical object. The physical processes associated with stars and especially with non-thermal objects like cosmic ray production and radio production and so on must be relatively energetic regions, and though dust is certainly important in radio astronomy I would say that it seems pretty clear after all my whole thing I did the gamma ray, too. You go to higher and higher energies to look for the sources of the energy that's pouring out.

Sullivan

This seems to be analogous to high energy physics?

Morrison

Yeah.

Sullivan

You try to probe further in by...

Morrison

You try to probe into more compact objects at earlier times at the beginning of the process. It's essentially an example of the second law of thermodynamics that most things tend to go downhill. Not all the time but most, so you look uphill to get the place where they start. The richness of stellar spectra, especially the high detail that they get in spectroscopy, makes the optical star be more important. There's really only one radio line which you find in extended radio sources.

Sullivan

The hydrogen line?

Morrison

The hydrogen line.

Sullivan

Is this a fundamental physical tie-up, the fact that the optical spectra are so rich and the fact that most of the continuous radiation is given off in the optical band more than any other band, I’m trying to think now? It seems to be sort of a coincidence.

Morrison

Well, but it isn't, you see. Well, I guess it's true. Most of the radiation in the universe is in the 3° range. That was, of course, atomic radiation. It's the recombination radiation [Sullivan: present day 3K microwave background]. It is continuum, so I guess you're right. That's what you have to say. That's the fundamental source. Of course, that's a very bland source, it doesn't tell you anything. And all the rest then is not - all the rest of the continuous radiation out there is the thermal radiation from HII regions and from the actions of stars in the Galaxy but look at a radio source and all the other, those are all things that are not at all atomic. And have to do with these bulk motions, Herlofson and Alfvén, far out of equilibrium sort of things.

Sullivan

Well, you brought up the question of cosmology. From a physicist's point of view in the '50s when the battle was raging between the log n-log s people, Mills versus Ryle, and the 2C survey [?] steady state versus evolving cosmology came in. How did a physicist view this?

Morrison

Well by that time I think I was sort of an astronomer, at least in the origin of cosmic rays. But I was very sympathetic to the steady state. It was such a beautiful theory. I must say that I think that the log N-log S plot is useless. I still think it's useless. It's an example of the Hubble program at its worse. If you can't identify the objects, I feel that you aren't going to understand the statistics unless you're very, very lucky. And that's still my view. I'm not interested in surveys of that sort, until they show me they can identify and describe the physics of each point on the diagram.

Sullivan

Even though they argue that no matter what the distribution it didn't influence log n-log s?

Morrison

But it's not true. You can always superpose local sources. There are all kinds of things you can do to influence log N-log S.

Sullivan

Oh, presuming that it was homogeneous?

Morrison

Oh yeah, but it's not homogeneous. Why should it be?

Sullivan

So what was your view then? You say you were sympathetic?

Morrison

Very sympathetic. In fact, I was at Cornell and the Cornell group had first invited [Hermann] Bondi to come to this country. I think any of us remembers Bondi, [Thomas] Gold, and [Fred] Hoyle. The first of any of them to come to this country. We had Bondi come over. I can't say when, but certainly in the early ‘50s. Before he wrote his book on cosmology [Sullivan: Book=1953]. And he gave us lectures on the steady state theory. And we were very enthusiastic, we tried to save it and preserve it and so on. We kept it this way pretty much, gradually getting less and less enthusiastic and then finally giving up, I think, with the 3° discovery.

Sullivan

Did you yourself write papers trying to save the steady state essentially, argue for it?

Morrison

I don't know that I actually wrote any cosmological papers but I thought about cosmology and taught cosmology and so on. Nothing salient, maybe some remark that said this was compatible with either cosmology or something like that. But no big deal.

Sullivan

And the microwave background in your view then was the death knell? Although, of course, as you know, Hoyle is now trying to explain the microwave background in terms of the steady state.

Morrison

Well, I mean he's trying but not succeeding. I've read all those papers. As much as I can understand, they do not make any show of explaining the microwave background. They just wave their hands and say well maybe it occurs here but there's no derivation of it.

Sullivan

No, no. They just say this is how it could come about.

Morrison

Yeah, but they don't show it has a single temperature. That's the most fundamental difficulty.

Sullivan

Let’s return to this whole business of going back to interstellar communication. Like I say, you came upon it after thinking about it for a short time that the radio band was a very useful way to do it.

Morrison

Yes.

Sullivan

Do you think that this field would have exploded as it has in the last 5 or 10 years - maybe the last 5 years - if it hadn't been for radio?

Morrison

No.

Sullivan

Astronomy, I mean. Would people be thinking about...

Morrison

No. I think radio astronomy is indispensable to the whole idea.

Sullivan

It's a really nice way to communicate but does it really make one start to think more about other civilizations also? In other words is the technology...

Morrison

You see, that's my point. I've always said that in radio [?]. Perhaps I can clarify that. For us, for me and Giuseppe, certainly for me and I think Giuseppe has the same view, the speculation that there are other civilizations is palpably, demonstrable is very old. It goes back - you can't find any classical authors that haven't [?] the possibility. But the thing that is new about our time is that it has become an empirical problem. If you ask yourself how could we communicate on this day in 1976 with a star 10 light years away with light or sound or heat or X-rays or gamma rays or anything, you name it. There's no way we can make our presence known. Even 10 light years, yet alone 10,000 light years away. With anything we know about, that we have built now except radio dishes. You can imagine building lasers that would do it- they're not built yet. You can imagine- I think it could be done. But it's way beyond us.

Sullivan

It would be very inefficient.

Morrison

That's right and it's way beyond us. It would take a million or a hundred million dollars. Then maybe you could do it. But the radio can do it. Not only can do it, but has done it for 10 years. And signals, not only that but signals a 100 kiloparsecs with no great trouble. So I think that radio is just of enormous importance in this problem, for giving the sense that it's realistic and not pure speculation.

Sullivan

Which then makes one begin to think much more about the whole general question of what sort of civilizations there might be and how many there are.

Morrison

Yeah, at least it fixes that context. Nobody did that until these things [?]. And that's what I keep saying. It's not that we have new ideas - speculative, that's not new. The new idea was that there may be an empirical means to find out.

Sullivan

Straining you perhaps even a bit further, I can't resist. Someone made the comment to me, I've never quite thought of this before- I know who it was, it was [Antony J.] Hewish- that if extraterrestrial life were discovered, that it would not be a scientific discovery, that it would be incredibly fascinating, etc., but it would not be a scientific discovery, therefore not suitable for a Nobel prize or whatever. I'd be interested in your comment on that.

Morrison

But seriously, I'd say exactly the same thing. I'm not sure he didn't get it from me because I've been saying it for- well I'll tell you frankly , too, a couple of reasons. The first reason is I think intrinsically it's true that it's not scientific because it is the nature of exploration. Explorations always lead to interesting science. Why? Because the outcome is satisfactory. It's not just testing hypothesis and developing theory. The outcome is some great complex consequence. We find beings out there. That's not going to just change our theories. But it's going to have a long- when Columbus discovered America he just changed the geographical statement about continents. It made a huge thing open up. And you ask, where would you publish it? It would be published in the Journal of the History of Astronomy or the Astrophysical Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine. I think it would be published everywhere. You see, that's another way of answering it. It doesn't just need a specialized sort of thing. So, I've said too that exploration is not science. It's employing science but not itself science.

Sullivan

But there is a scientific component to the discovery itself, also?

Morrison

Of course, there is always, always. The same thing when he discovered America. It was an enormous scientific component but it wasn't just restricted to that. So, to call it a scientific discovery underestimates it. Puts it in the wrong context.

Sullivan

Well, I get the feeling that Hewish was saying that it had no science in it, that it was more some sort of other activity. Maybe I'm mistaken.

Morrison

Well I disagree with him if he says there is no science in it. It depends on what you think of science. If you think of science being, as I say, the things that are within the reach of the specialists that makes the next chapter of the Physical Review or Astrophysical Journal, then it not science. But if you think of it as being the fundamental thing, for example, I'd say the fundamental thing is the laws of nature have a certain uniformity and that evolution is a generalized process. That's what demonstrates that more than anything else. So I regard that as very important to the science. But going much beyond the science. And also not very detailed import. It doesn't matter much because Hewish doesn't think about evolution because I think he doesn't care. But somebody does and it's nice to have a result that cuts 16 different ways. So I would say yes, it's more than science, not less than science. It includes science. But it transcends science. And one reason for saying this is that I think the effort and expenditures to make it should not be charged, so to speak, to the budget of science. It's very important for me to say that. I don't feel so strongly about it. But many people do feel strongly about it. And I'm anxious to gain their support and not alienate them by saying well I think this is the most important thing for science. We take away your scientific activities and turn the funding out about this now.

Sullivan

Are you saying that maybe that HEW or the Interior Department should put money out for this, rather than just NSF [National Science Foundation]? Is that what you mean?

Morrison

Yeah, I would say NASA should put money out for it and not just NSF.

Sullivan

Of course they to some extent.

Morrison

They are. It's the exploration of space rather than the developing of new science. And I would not be amazed though. I'd be a little surprised at the moment if we had some sort of initial hints if things went well, if Viking really showed living forms that were strong. I would not be surprised to see urgency made solely for this purpose. But that's what I mean, it would not just be a piece of the NSF budget. Where would it come from, the biology budget, the astronomy budget, the communications budget, the linguistic budget, the social studies budget- you know, it doesn't make sense. It cuts across everything. In that sense it's not science. The explorations we have are categorized. Exploration is a very good one. You see, in extent NSF does support exploration but not fully and they have a hard time.

Sullivan

National Geographic Society...

Morrison

National Geographic Society, definitely. You see, NSF supports Antarctic exploration but the Navy threw in the whole logistics costs. And that’s exactly the idea.

Sullivan

So would you agree that if interstellar communications were established with some other form of civilization that this perhaps might be radio astronomy's greatest contribution rather than something to do with the microwave background or pulsars...

Morrison

Yes, well it might not be its deepest contribution, but it would be the one to have the greatest impact on human life. It might not go deeply into the basic laws of nature.

Sullivan

Ok, well, thank you very much. That ends the interview with Phil Morrison on 6 September ’76.


Modified on Tuesday, 05-Feb-2013 13:32:36 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)