In March 2023, Dr. George Field, founding director of the Center for Astrophysics sat down with Dr. Harvey Tananbaum to discuss the CfA as it approaches its 50th anniversary. Throughout their conversation, Field and Tananbaum remember the CfA during its formative years– when the idea of a joint Smithsonian and Harvard research institution was a novel idea.
(Cambridge, MA) At the kitchen table in their home, Dr. George Field inspects the transcript of an interview featuring the founding Director for the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. As the research facility approaches its fiftieth anniversary, George sat down with Dr. Harvey Tananbaum to give an oral history of the CfA during its formative years– when the idea of a joint Smithsonian and Harvard research institution was a novel idea.
This morning George, his wife Susan, and I discussed how the published version of the interview would come together, where cuts could be made and how the audio would sound. George is meticulous about making sure his memories are accurate down to the letter, which they are. As we settle on minor changes and redactions, the conversation returns to a recurring theme found in the interview: George’s reverence for science as a guiding force in his life, as well as how that reverence manifested itself in lasting admiration for the scientists he worked closely with. At one point in his conversation with Harvey, George says of an early member of the CfA, Dr. Riccardo Giacconi,
Giacconi had been a colleague to George throughout his career and a mentor to Harvey Tananbaum, first at American Science & Engineering and then at the CfA. Giacconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which led to the discovery of cosmic x-ray sources (NobelPrize.org).”
Both George and Harvey remember Riccardo Giacconi, alongside other important figures in the early days of the Center for Astrophysics fondly and with great respect. These were friends, colleagues, mentors, and collaborators.
George’s words of admiration display an unsurprising kindness; the astrophysicist is a gracious, intelligent man who speaks with a thoughtfulness that reveals a lifetime of practice in listening. In his own words, that practice was essentially how George approached his leadership style at the Center for Astrophysics– by listening to others and respecting both the scientist and the science.
You will observe through this recording that Dr. George Field’s founding approach to science administration still embodies the core mission of the Center for Astrophysics today: to advance knowledge of the universe irrespective of institutional allegiance and across a broad range of disciplines.
I count myself lucky to have gotten the chance to meet George. To paraphrase the man himself:
Listen to the full audio of the interview with Dr. George Field here:
Click here to read the entire Interview transcript
Harvey Tananbaum: Just for the record today is March 9th, 2023, and I’m Harvey Tananbaum. Giancarlo [Romeo]– both of us work at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and we are with George Field, the founding director of the CfA. We are going to have a nice discussion of some of the early days and some of the history going back about fifty years now.
George Field: [laughs] yes. Great introduction.
HT: So George, I think– I don’t know very much about the decisions you were making in the early seventies to join the faculty and come to Harvard, but can you tell us just a little bit about how you were quote unquote “recruited” and what your thoughts were about joining Harvard?
GF: Yes. I am happy to do so. I first learned that Harvard was interested in having me as the director of the HCO, which is now half of the new CfA, from a [person] named Edward Purcell who was a physics professor at Harvard. He had a home in NH, and went there in the summer– I also had a home there. I get a call “We would like you to come over for lunch” hmm.
So we drove over, I sat with him on the porch looking out at the mountains. He said, “George, we would like you to be the director of the Harvard Observatory.” So I did a double take, a triple take… This can’t be happening to me, at that point I was a professor at Berkeley and had been– for one year– the chairman of the department. That was the sum total of my management experience.
I took it seriously, started thinking about it. So that is how I was recruited. Now you might ask, why me? I had a history with Ed Purcell. He was a Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which is now very commercially available.[When] I was a graduate student at Princeton there was an opportunity to join a group at Harvard called the Society of Fellows– you may have heard of it. My supervisor, Lyman Spitzer, knew Ed Purcell- they worked together on something– Ed asked Lyman,
“Do you have a person who might be a candidate for this?”
I was a candidate, I was accepted and I ended up working with Ed Purcell.
At that time, they had just discovered the twenty-one centimeter line and there [were] some questions about the physics. So I worked on that with Ed– that’s how I knew Ed and that’s how he knew me. [He] must have sold the idea to the committee.
HT: Wow. Connections.
GF:[laughs] Connections. You bet.I believe in them all the way along the line.
HT: Can we talk a little about the idea of somehow joining the Smithsonian Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory to form the CfA, the Center for Astrophysics?
GF: When I learned of this possible appointment [at the Observatory], I came to Cambridge with the idea of speaking to the senior people. I did so, and it became evident that many of the people I was interviewing were not Harvard people- they were Smithsonian. The main focus of the Smithsonian at this time was interplanetary objects, particularly those that encountered the earth. That was the central interest of Fred Whipple, the director.
I did not agree that in the early seventies, we should be devoting [energy] to the study of comets. I have great respect for Fred Whipple and so I began wondering what was going to be the relationship with him. His relationship with the Harvard Observatory had to some extent deteriorated. He was one professor in the department and he had a vote there, but he was operating independently with a very significant budget and so naturally there was friction with Leo Goldberg. Leo was the director of the Harvard Observatory. He had [steered] Harvard Observatory to be a center of research of the Sun. Sun? Comets?
Since they were offering me a job in which I would have to interact with Fred, I wasn’t sure that I would do any better than Leo (laughs). But Leo, he was a very fine gentleman who understood all these things and I could talk to him.
He said– that he had talked to Riccardo (Giacconi) about joining what was then the Harvard Observatory. He told me something interesting– that there was an official at NASA who said, “Riccardo, if you could find an academic position, we could sell your program better because we are making an effort at NASA to support academic work.”
[This was an exciting suggestion: maybe he could join the Harvard Astronomy Department and his research would have no problem moving, since AS&E was located in Cambridge. All it would mean for his staff would be taking a different bus to work].
HT: Riccardo at that point was the Executive VP of American Science and Engineering, which was a private company very different from an academic position.
GF: I knew that of course, Can I throw in a little intelligence that I have never been able to figure out? I was an assistant professor at Princeton and Lyman came into my office and said, “We are going to the [Institute for Advanced Study] for lunch, I want you to meet [somebody]: It was Riccardo.
Why the institute?
HT: I think he had a [Fulbright] Fellowship to come to the US and was in Indiana for a year or two to do Cloud Chamber work and to build a better detector for cosmic rays and that fellowship that he had allowed him to spend some time at Princeton or the Institute as part of the three years that the program ran. I think he felt that he went as far as he could at Indiana and it was time to move. It must have been someone he collaborated with at Princeton. He met Herb Gursky there and they became quite the team for the next couple of decades, but that Fellowship ran out and he still hadn’t found a calling for himself and that’s when the opportunity arose to join the American Science and Engineering and [Riccardo] moved to Cambridge. Very quickly got into X Ray Astronomy within a year or two- the idea of building detectors for x-rays and telescopes for x-rays. Princeton, there was someone there [working in cosmic ray work] that he came to work with on that Fellowship for a year.
GF: I was impressed that we were immediately whisked into Oppenheimer’s office. So I had the impression that there was something big cooking.
HT: Could you place roughly the year– was that 1956 or ‘57?
GF:I got my PhD there in ‘55 then went back as an assistant professor so it would have been ‘56 or ‘57.
HT: With all due respect to Riccardo, I don’t think he was that well known or that established at that point in his career. So why he and you were given that red carpet, I couldn’t begin to guess. He may have caught someone’s eye already as a very ambitious and interesting individual.
GF: Yes, maybe Lyman’s eye, I never heard Lyman talk about him, but I am sure he respected him as I did.
HT: You were at the point where you were figuring out what your relationship with Whipple might be and obviously you became the director for the joint CfA and both the Smithsonian and the Harvard College Observatory. Did that proceed relatively smoothly or were there pros and cons, or people who were not excited about the idea?
GF: There was one person who was vigorously opposed. We need not go into it. He did not make a big fuss, he made a small fuss. So I had that idea, let’s just do it. So obviously one issue comes up immediately: What about Fred?
There was an assistant secretary of the Smithsonian for Science, his name was David Challinor. He took it up with a guy named Jim Bradley, who seemed to be a fix it man and he said “Let me discuss it with the Secretary”. They decided that they could interpret the personnel rules so as to say that it was time for [Fred] to retire.
He had the honor of that whole group who all respected him tremendously. I was happy with him– I had not known him before, I realized what a fine scientist he was.
HT: That is really an interesting story. The fix it guy, there are people like that at every stage, having people like that is an amazing thing to have.
When the CfA was being organized, I think it officially began in July of 1973, so we’re almost within a few months of the fiftieth anniversary, but there must have been months of planning that went into it and deciding how to structure it. You ended up with these seven or eight scientific divisions. How did that all come about? How did that process work?
GF: Very much so. I took the year off from Berkeley,and I had the house in NH. I moved there and decided to come down and talk to as many people in the CfA as I could and got the feeling– the fact that it would work if we did it right. Since I had little management experience, I had to do it as I [went]. It seemed to me that– first of all, there were many fields being pursued, not only comets and solar. There would be an X Ray or High Energy Division– these people don’t see themselves as working at an observatory. They see themselves as pursuing a field of research because they are interested. So if you [wanted] to get them on your team, you set things up so that you are not standing in the way of their work– you are trying to help them with their work.
That means they have to have control– at least some control of the program and budget of their field. Maybe it would be good to have a system where there is a person who is recognized as a leader of that field who is between the Director– who has final authority– and the guy at the desk. As I went around and talked to people and tried out various schemes it seemed that that was an acceptable way of doing things. So I called them Associate Directors– one level above the assistant director who was the “budget man”. It seemed to work.
HT: Probably helped with recruitment with some of the people you were trying to attract.
GF: [laughs] Yes. Yes, of course. In particular Riccardo would not have done anything for anything less than that. That may have been marginal. In fact, let me make a statement about his participation. I don’t know for a fact but I think he had a different conception of his role when I talked to him about it than I did. I think he thought that I was telling him I would be the Director on paper, but he would be the [actual] director of the whole scenario.
HT: I hadn’t heard that but it’s possible for sure. I was just a kid in those days so it’s not likely that he would have shared those ideas.
GF: [laughs] I was a kid too! At that time I was in my forties.
HT: As was Riccardo by the way. We were all kids. Riccardo was in his late thirties when he joined.
GF: Well I admired him to no end. The better I knew him the more I admired him.
HT: Were there other people you recruited at the same time? Did Al Cameron join for example?
GF: Yes. at the same time. Well that was an odd situation. Why Al? We could go into details, but I had known Al for a long time. He was plugged into the advisory apparatus at NASA, which I respected. He was working on a specific theoretical problem, which is a significant problem– the origin of the moon. He published his work on that and I think it is widely accepted. He had a solid reputation as a nuclear physicist who was very well-informed on the whole issue of the origin of the elements. He could have been in the group that won the Nobel Prize for that, but he wasn’t.
Smart guy, I liked him. That’s how it happened; I tapped him and he said yes.
HT: Did he come in as a theoretician primarily then?
GF: Well, he’s hard to label because he [had] his hands on the experiments. But anyway, he came in and I had to sell him and Riccardo to the University and I don’t know if you know the system, but it’s very interesting. You end up in the President’s office, right? There are a group of people who have been invited, experts and so on. The chairman or director who was proposing the candidate does so, and these experts listen: has he (or her) made a good case? The president, who happened to be a lawyer at the time and is making a decision that is far out of his field, right?– he knows nothing about it.
HT: So who were a few of the other senior people that you know, you put into leadership roles at that point? Besides Riccardo and Al?
GF: One person comes to mind immediately; Alex Dalgarno– and I was very sorry to hear about his death. He played an important role: he was the temporary director of HO when Leo left.[Alex] occupied an important position. [The] machinations [involved] depended on his maturity to be in a position of power but not exercise it too much. He was a temporary director– so he was a prime person who had a say. Of course, he was in touch with all the professors and what they thought. [As I said earlier] there was one who was dead-against this arrangement.
Okay, [let’s] move on.
HT: If we look at those first ten years, it was obviously starting from scratch with this new structure and so many new people and new fields of interests. How do you think it went? What were some of your challenges? What was your management style and how did it evolve over those ten years?
GF: First of all, I have to say, I am not a manager. Other people are managers but I am not [laughs]. I am a guy who has certain scientific priorities and tastes and I thought of my position as one where I say yes or I say no. You guys know this stuff, come in, we’ll talk and I’ll say yes or no.
I have a certain taste in scientists. For example, I admired Riccardo– and I had to say no to him once. That was quite something.
HT: That would go in the category as one of your challenges.
GF: Yes, it lasted about five minutes but it was a memorable five minutes. One of the failures that I had, maybe the biggest failure, was in the Solar Physics Division. To make a long story short, there was a scientist who didn’t perform well and we found out too late to save the contract. The contract was canceled by NASA after a tiger team came up and blasted us. That’s because my management style did not extend to poking around in any division management- I just had confidence in the guy I had appointed. The guy who didn’t perform was in the engineering side and the guy I had appointed was not an expert in engineering. So things got out of hand and we suffered from the [loss of major budget overhead].
HT: I think when we first started out in ‘73 the prospects for future projects, the bulk of the funding was really much more on the Harvard College Observatory side and then in the ‘70’s it swung much more to the Smithsonian Side.
GF: yes, no question. Your contracts were vitally important.
HT: But just navigating through those types of changes, whether you saw yourself as manager or not, you somehow kept the place together and navigated through that kind of a transition.
GF: Okay, it was [the Assistant Director] John Gregory who was the key to that. You knew him very well. He had been a project manager at NASA. He knew the ropes at NASA very well and insulated me from the dirty details– it worked at some level– that’s all I can say. You had a guy, an internal “John Gregory” on your project…
HT: Oh, Ben Rowe. Riccardo knew Ben Rowe from ASE and even before we came over from AS&E to CfA Ben started a month or two before and helped figure out the office situation and he set up the financial stuff. He was the division Administrator is what we called him.
GF: And most divisions ended up having such a person. Which was good for me, I enjoyed independence from the financial work of each division. I was just sitting there saying “Yes or No”
HT: Yeah but, even saying yes or no, you didn’t say “Yes” or “No” until you had some sense of what you were being asked and making some sort of informed decision about what was best for the science, for the observatory, for the people involved. It is maybe not quite so simple as saying yes or no– that’s your management style that we’re talking about.
GF: Yes it is, you’re absolutely right. I had to go by the information that was supplied by one person– it was John Gregory. It was filtered through him for better or worse. He was the guy who had to tell me who the key players were and were they up to the job and so on. So that is an important point.
HT: So, looking back on the decade– just looking at it as a whole… and then projecting what’s happened over the forty years since then, how would you categorize the experiment of the joint center?
GF: … B+.
HT: Do you care to elaborate at all?
GF: Well, as I mentioned there [was] some serious problems involving the Solar Physics side, but on the whole I think the reputation of the place is positive. It’s had a positive effect on astronomy, just counting the high energy work alone it is sensationally successful. If we could narrow it down to the article you wrote that I was referring to… that’s a tremendous achievement.
HT: Thank you. Everything has its challenges. We had this unique environment in which we were not a university– High Energy was primarily on the Smithsonian side and primarily funded with NASA projects and grants, which made us aware that our future depended on our success. The environment was such that we were not working against the tenure clock, we were not spending a certain amount of time teaching or with students… We were in an environment that was scholarly but did not have the full government bureaucratic weight on it. We had the freedom to build the projects and be in a research environment– it wasn’t industry, it wasn’t the government or the university. It was this unique mix of things. It was very enabling. We were in a situation where management did enable us to do the things we set out to do.
I think fostering that environment, it grew in a sort of an ecological kind of way. I mean I don’t know that anyone could have laid out a blueprint. I think if I had to lay out an organizational chart peoples’ heads would have exploded. The reality was that it was a situation that grew out of what was created that enabled us to do a lot of very, very important work very effectively.
GF: Amen. However, I would highlight the importance of the nature and character of Riccardo. Would you say that you could have done all that without Riccardo?
HT: Absolutely not. The project that launched in the year 1999 was the outgrowth of a white paper that he wrote a year after the first discovery of Sco X-1 and the background. He wrote a paper about a 1.2 meter x-ray telescope– a white paper laying out the future of the field, expecting to accomplish it all in less than a decade. It took us about twenty-five or thirty years more to get there. The reality is that he had this vision to make the field so much more powerful than the initial rocket and balloon flights.
He empowered those of us who were younger, the Leon Van Speybroecks, the Steve Murrays, the Harvey Tananbaums to do the things we were able to do with the knowledge that if we had a question or problem he would be there to discuss it. We had this very nurturing relationship which allowed us to grow– but we knew there was a bit of a safety net underneath. It was not just Riccardo’s vision but also the way he interacted with his team was amazing.
GF: Yes, extraordinarily talented fellow. Let me mention an encounter that impressed me. When he won the Nobel Prize, that put him in a position where he was invited to sit around a table with the other Nobel Prize winners that year and it was broadcasted on GBH. If you ever get a chance to see a rerun, it was extraordinary– he dominated this group of twelve people– they looked like [students]!
Not only in a scientific way, but in a human– in a human instinct way. He revealed the breadth of his character. Astonishing.
HT: So when you stepped down as director– there was an interim of a year or more– you stayed at the observatory and continued to teach and do research. How did that feel to you?
GF: Fine! I came to it as a professor and I left as a professor. The big jump was when I retired. I had been teaching and researching and so on… and I had been part of the theory group. That sounds impressive but it actually meant going to lunch with Bill Press. Bill was an entertaining fellow and we would listen to his exploits.
My office when I retired was across the hall from the room where we had lunch and as I walked out, I felt disempowered in some sense. I was “the incredible shrinking scientist” but I got over that. [chuckles] Right now I am again doing research on a problem in cosmology with another fellow who is a former student. Honestly it’s the most innovative idea I ever had. The paper has been in the works for two or three years now. It’s coming to fruition, I am getting the nearly final version and so on. To pursue the idea, which is a solid idea, I had to invent a concept that I had never seen in print.
My colleague, Sean Carroll, is a brilliant fellow in command of general relativity, particularly [in] cosmology. He is plumbing the depths of that side. It’s basically MHD. I contribute the “MHD”, he contributes the “relativity”. So it’s a mixture. I think the basic idea is sound. It’s based on axions. We start with the hypothesis that the axions are the dark matter and we follow the general knowledge of axions. Of course they have not been detected and then follow up the interaction with the electromagnetic field. So I am very pleased with that.
Gee, It’s been great to see you again. I appreciate your participation. Is there anything else?
It’s so fine to see you again.
For more content like this, check out Object Permanence, a Wolbach Library exhibition celebrating fifty years of memories at the Center for Astrophysics told by artifacts and belongings left behind by the people who shaped the institution.
Special thanks to George Field, Harvey Tananbaum, Susan Field, Stefanie Dimeo, Sam Beneitone, Frank Sienkiewicz, and the Staff of the Wolbach Library.