[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 Gennady W. Potapenko
By telephone from the University of Washington to his home in Pasadena, California
December 26, 1974
Interview Time: 16 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

Iím talking on the telephone with Dr. G., for Gennady, Potapenko, who is retired and living in Pasadena. Iím talking from the University of Washington on 26 December í74. I see, so what exactly did you do out in the Mojave Desert?

Potapenko

We got definite results about the direction...

Sullivan

You did get definite results?

Potapenko

I didnít understand you.

Sullivan

Did you get any definite signals?

Potapenko

Yes, I had definite signals. I and my assistant, we worked, there were just two of us, and he pointed the direction...

Sullivan

Right, and who was your assistant?

Potapenko

[Donald F.] Folland.

Sullivan

Is he still alive now?

Potapenko

I beg your pardon?

Sullivan

Is Folland still alive now?

Potapenko

Do you mean right here?

Sullivan

Do you know where he lives now?

Potapenko

Oh, in Salt Lake City.

Sullivan

In Salt Lake City?

Potapenko

Yes.

Sullivan

And is he working somewhere?

Potapenko

I'm not sure. He may be sick.

Sullivan

I see, what was his first name?

Potapenko

Donald. Just a minute. If I would know that you were recording me I would pay for this record. But they are not as [?]. Just a minute. Can you talk more?

Sullivan

Talk more about what?

Potapenko

Can you talk longer?

Sullivan

Oh yes, certainly.

Potapenko

All right, just a minute. I will try to get that...

Sullivan

Ok, very good. Can you tell me why you were interested in doing this?

Potapenko

Oh, signals from stars, certainly it is interesting, very interesting.

Sullivan

But, you had no doubt that what Jansky had was real?

Potapenko

No, I did not.

Sullivan

Why do you think it was that other physicists and astronomers and so forth did not see the importance of this?

Potapenko

I really do not know, but I went so far that, after the Mojave Desert work, I designed a big antenna.

Sullivan

You designed a big antenna?

Potapenko

Yes, and I did it for Dr. [Robert Andrews] Millikan and explained him everything and next day he told me, "You know it would cost $1,000? Then we [?] and my work was finished.

Sullivan

I see, what frequency were you operating at?

Potapenko

14 meters, if I remember correctly.

Sullivan

14 Megacycles?

Potapenko

I don't remember- megacycles or meters.

Sullivan

Right, itís pretty close, yes...

Potapenko

Wait a minute...

Sullivan

Hello.

Potapenko

I got it - the research. February 18, 1936.

Sullivan

February 18, 1936?

Potapenko

Yes.

Sullivan

I see.

Potapenko

There is a report and there is a reference to [Karl] Jansky.

Sullivan

Was this a Caltech laboratory report?

Potapenko

About us, Science Service writers. Now wait a minute...

Sullivan

Hello...

Potapenko

I did it with this- Iím pretty sure it is in 1936; 1935 we made our measurements. Although I have no direct reference for that.

Sullivan

I see, now what do you actually have there- do you have any of the original data or just comments on...

Potapenko

Yes, I have my original drawings.

Sullivan

For the telescope- for the antenna?

Potapenko

Yes. If you would know [Russell Porter?] you would at once see and appraise them. He did his sketches of our antennas.

Sullivan

Oh yes, that would be very interesting. The trouble is I don't think I can get down there until next summer.

Potapenko

Oh, [?].

Sullivan

Do you think it would be possible to send them to me and I could make copies of them and send them back to you?

Potapenko

I do not know. I don't know. There are many of them.

Sullivan

Well, you could send them...

Potapenko

Can you wait until summer?

Sullivan

Well, I can wait, yes, but I'm very interested- I'd like to see this material, because I'm going to be looking at Janskyís archives which are kept in Wisconsin...

Potapenko

Ah ha...

Sullivan

And I would like very much to see- I'm going to do that in March and I would like to...

Potapenko

And I have my report about the other people.

Sullivan

I see, yes. Do you not think it would be possible to mail this to me? And then I would mail it right back to you after I made copies of it.

Potapenko

I will try to.

Sullivan

Ok, I would appreciate it very much.

Potapenko

All right, but first next week, I will maybe have an operation.

Sullivan

OK. Which will give me no time for another week.

Potapenko

Thank you very, very much for...

Sullivan

Well, can I ask you a couple more questions?

Potapenko

Yes, sure if you have time.

Sullivan

Why was it that you did not make any formal publication of your results?

Potapenko

Because Millikan disapproved of my work as not interesting.

Sullivan

I see. So Millikan did not think that it was worthwhile?

Potapenko

No, not worth spending $1,000 and I was really disappointed that they hadnít worked [?].

Sullivan

I see. And you wanted to do much more?

Potapenko

Yes.

Sullivan

Oh, that is really a shame!

Potapenko

For shame... The shame is not me. The shame is the situation in the school. $1,000, Caltech cannot find $1,000. That's a shame.

Sullivan

Well, it was the depression though, $1,000 was a lot of money then wasn't it?

Potapenko

Yes, sure.

Sullivan

Can I also ask you a little bit about your background?

Potapenko

Yes, please...

Sullivan

You came to this country from Russia, I think?

Potapenko

In 1930. I was a fellow, a foundation fellow.

Sullivan

And may I ask, what year you were born?

Potapenko

In Moscow.

Sullivan

In what year?

Potapenko

1895.

Sullivan

And then you stayed in this country...

Potapenko

And I was educated in Moscow in the secondary school, the Gymnasium, and in the [?]. In 1913 I got the [?] degree.

Sullivan

Then you came to this country and you stayed- you've been in this country ever since?

Potapenko

Yes, then I was in Germany in 1926. I worked [?] Berlin. Then I went back to Moscow, and in Moscow I received a letter from the Rockefeller Foundation. So I came to this country, and I worked here since then.

Sullivan

I see. But now, you were not an astronomer or a cosmic ray physicist or a radio engineer, how was it that you heard about Jansky's observations?

Potapenko

Oh, I was interested in that problem.

Sullivan

Which problem?

Potapenko

Waves from the stars!

Sullivan

But, did you just happen to see the article?

Potapenko

Yes, that's right.

Sullivan

Just by chance?

Potapenko

No, not by chance. I before was interested in that- enough.

Sullivan

So, basically to summarize then, you did one experiment in the Mojave Desert and you detected the galactic center...

Potapenko

Yes, that's right.

Sullivan

And, how long were you actually out in the desert doing experiments?

Potapenko

Oh, I went there many times, many, many times, so there would be quite some figure if I added [?] all the times.

Sullivan

And, did you make measurements of other parts of the sky besides the galactic center? Did you have enough sensitivity?

Potapenko

Yes, I believe I. did yes, I did.

Sullivan

What kind of antenna was it?

Potapenko

One wire!

Sullivan

Oh, just one wire.

Potapenko

Yes. And one man would walk around and the other would be, in other words, sitting and taking readings. That is a very primitive one.

Sullivan

But you could see that you got more signal when the galactic center was highest in the sky?

Potapenko

I don't remember exactly how it was. I don't want to mislead you.

Sullivan

Well, that's really a shame that you weren't able to do more work.

Potapenko

Yes, that's right.

Sullivan

You might have been the second radio astronomer after Jansky. Did you tell Jansky about this work?

Potapenko

No, I doubt it. Probably he knew, but I'm not sure.

Sullivan

Because you know Jansky had troubles also at Bell Labs. He could not get support to do more work...

Potapenko

Ah ha

Sullivan

He had the same problem you did.

Potapenko

I see, I see.

Sullivan

Also, did you know at all about the work of Grote Reber?

Potapenko

No, no, I don't know.

Sullivan

He was the only other person that did anything in the late Ď30s.

Potapenko

Ah ha. No, I don't know.

Sullivan

Do you know of any other observations, like yourself, that may not have been published at this time, 1935 to 1940?

Potapenko

No, I don't. I really donĎt.

Sullivan

Ok, well thank you very much. If you...

Potapenko

All right, I will try to send all of the references to you.

Sullivan

I would appreciate it. And I will send it right back after make copies.

Potapenko

Bye-bye.

Sullivan

Bye-bye.

Note by Sullivan

That was a phone conversation with Gennady Potapenko, on 26 December 1974, from the University of Washington to his home in Pasadena, California where he is obviously very ill and in between operations, and so forth...


Modified on Tuesday, 29-Jan-2013 08:49:43 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)