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Secrets of the Hoary Deep

A Personal History of Modern Astronomy

Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Publication Year: 2008

The discovery of x-rays continues to have a profound and accelerating effect on the field of astronomy. It has opened the cosmos to exploration in ways previously unimaginable and fundamentally altered the methods for pursuing information about our solar system and beyond. Nobel Prize winner Riccardo Giacconi’s highly personal account of the birth and evolution of x-ray astronomy reveals the science, people, and institutional settings behind this incalculably important and deeply influential discipline. Part history, part memoir, and part cutting-edge science, Secrets of the Hoary Deep is the tale of x-ray astronomy from its infancy through what can only be called its early adulthood. It also offers the companion story of how the tools, techniques, and practices designed to support and develop x-ray astronomy were transferred to optical, infrared, and radio astronomy, drastically altering the face of modern space exploration. Giacconi relates the basic techniques developed at American Science and Engineering and explains how, where, and by whom the science was advanced. From the first Earth-orbiting x-ray satellite, Uhuru, to the opening of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the lift-off of the Hubble Space Telescope to the construction of the Very Large Telescope, Giaconni recounts the ways in which the management methods and scientific methodology behind successful astronomy projects came to set the standards of operations for all subsequent space- and Earth-based observatories. Along the way he spares no criticism and holds back no praise, detailing individual as well as institutional failures and successes, reflecting upon how far astronomy has come and how far it has yet to go. Crisp, informative, and prognostic, Giacconi’s story will captivate, inspire, and, at times, possibly infuriate professional and amateur astronomers across the breadth of the field and at all stages of their personal and professional development.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This book is an account of the development of astronomy from 1959 to 2006 as told by one of the participants. It is intended not as an autobiography but rather as a narrative of my own understanding of the field in an intellectual sense and its development as I experienced it. Biographical notes are thrown I was very fortunate in my career as a scientist to be involved in some of...

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ONE: My Italian Roots

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pp. 1-19

Though I was born in Genoa (on October 6, 1931), I have always considered myself a Milanese, because it is in Milan that I was raised and educated. Today, having swallowed all its suburbs, Milan is a sprawling, multinational metropolis of five million people, with all the attendant problems of traffic and...

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TWO: New World: The Fulbright Fellowship

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pp. 20-32

We sailed into New York Harbor on a fine day, which was fortunate, because I was able to see the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline as they should be seen—as millions of immigrants had seen them—from the sea. Arriving in New York by plane does not have the same emotional impact; the aerial view is actually rather banal, so I am glad I was able to sail up the...

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THREE: Introducing X-Ray Astronomy

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pp. 33-44

In September 1959, I started working at AS&E, a private research corporation founded in 1958 by a group of scientists and engineers primarily from MIT. Many of the stockholders were employees or consultants of the corporation. The chairman of the board, Bruno Rossi, was a professor at MIT. The president of the company, Martin Annis, had obtained his PhD at MIT...

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FOUR: The First Celestial X-Ray Source: Discovering Sco X-1

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pp. 45-59

While writing the 1960 white paper, I had come across the work of Hans Wolter, 1 which described several possible optical designs based on two reflections from conic surfaces. The use of two reflections ensured that the Abbe sine condition for imaging would be satisfied. Ernst Abbe, while...

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FIVE: Plans and Progress in X-Ray Astronomy

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pp. 60-76

One of the difficult aspects of building up and retaining our technical staff at AS&E was the lack of any safety net to carry on the research when government support was substantially reduced. Thus it was imperative that we plan in advance for programs that had financial as well as logical continuity...

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SIX: The First Orbiting X-Ray Observatory: Uhuru

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pp. 77-91

Although the concept for the first orbiting x-ray observatory was already included in the strategic blueprint submitted to NASA in 1963 (described in Chapter 5), the formal proposal, “An X-Ray Explorer to Survey Galactic and Extragalactic Sources,” was submitted to NASA on April 8, 1964. 1 The...

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SEVEN: Breakthrough: The Uhuru Results

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pp. 92-114

To receive, record, reduce, and analyze the data from Uhuru, we had set up a data room on the sixth floor of 85 Broadway, one of the several buildings occupied by AS&E in Cambridge. They were mainly old milk truck garages owned by MIT and held by the university to await eventual demolition...

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EIGHT: Constructing X-Ray Telescopes: Overcoming Technical and Institutional Hurdles

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pp. 115-138

X-ray lenses or telescopes must use reflection rather than refraction because of the absorption of the radiation by matter. The optics using reflection must be designed, however, so that the reflection occurs at grazing incidence to obtain reasonable reflectivity. X-rays are efficiently reflected from surfaces at...

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NINE: Plans for Space and Realities on the Ground: LOXT, Einstein, and NASA

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pp. 139-161

NASA’s approval of the LOXT program in September 1970 marked a bold step forward in x-ray astronomy. Bypassing all intermediate steps of smaller telescopes and with only thirty x-ray sources known at the time (Uhuru had not yet flown), NASA initiated an ambitious development that was not...

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TEN: The Einstein Results: Observation Collides with Theory

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pp. 162-180

The High Energy Astronomy Observatory (HEAO-2) was launched into orbit by an Atlas Centaur rocket on November 13, 1978. Shortly after launch, the consortium scientists (from AS&E,Columbia University, Goddard, and MIT) renamed it “Einstein” in honor of the centennial of the great physicist’s birth...

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ELEVEN: Transitions: From American Science and Engineering to Harvard

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pp. 181-200

When people are young, they are quite happy to be given the opportunity to work in an interesting field where they can learn new and important subjects. Provided the organization in which they happen to work can sustain their personal and professional growth, there are few reasons for discontent. In my...

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TWELVE: The Hubble Space Telescope and the Space Telescope Science Institute

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pp. 201-222

One of the difficulties in convincing NASA to proceed with a 1.2-m x-ray telescope in the 1970s was the overwhelming desire of some people at NASA to start with the Space Telescope, regardless of its technical readiness or cost. The scientific potential of a telescope in space had been understood by one...

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THIRTEEN: Paradigm Shifts: The Space Telescope Science Institute at Work (Color Plates Follow)

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pp. 223-240

When I assumed the directorship of STScI in 1981, I was determined that the institute would be successful and meet or exceed the expectations of the community. It seemed to me that we could do it, in a practical sense, by ensuring that after-launch scientific operations would be flawlessly executed. We...

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FOURTEEN: The Space Telescope Science Institute: Launch Readiness and Its Finest Hour

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pp. 241-259

While paying great attention to the technical and scientific issues of the Hubble program, the institute worked hard to prepare itself for its service role in science operations, which included proposal selection, study of the proposed observation’s feasibility, assignment of guide stars, planning and scheduling, data reception, data reduction and calibration, data archiving and distribution,...

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FIFTEEN: Science at the Space Telescope Science Institute

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pp. 260-275

In the previous two chapters I have emphasized the aspects of STScI that had to do with service to the research community. Just as important to the scientific staff was the opportunity to work in an environment where science was actually being done and that provided the intellectual stimulation conducive to learning...

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SIXTEEN: The European Southern Observatory

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pp. 276-296

The European Southern Observatory is an intergovernmental European research organization for astronomy in the southern hemisphere. It was created by international treaty in 1962, is governed by a council composed of representatives of the governments of the member states, and is funded by...

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SEVENTEEN: Building the Very Large Telescope

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pp. 297-321

The Very Large Telescope was designed to be an array of four identical 8-m telescopes. They could work independently, be combined, or act as an interferometric array. Interferometry could be obtained by combining the beams of two or more unit telescopes and/or using unit telescopes in combination...

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EIGHTEEN: The Role of ESO in Major European Astronomy Programs

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pp. 322-339

I have left management issues to the end of the VLT/VLTI story, even though in my opinion they are very important. When I arrived in 1992, most astronomers at ESO considered management a useless and expensive waste of resources that could better be employed in pursuing research. This attitude was not unusual, because the idea that management tools can be used to...

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NINETEEN: Radio Astronomy on the Radar

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pp. 340-357

Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) is a nonprofit science management corporation that was established in 1946 by nine universities: Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Prince-ton, the University of Rochester, and Yale. The charter of the corporation is to “acquire, plan, construct and operate laboratories and other facilities” that...

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TWENTY: First Loves and Last Words

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pp. 358-374

After 36 years of proposals, work, cancellations, and restarts, on July 19, 1999, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was finally launched. The 1.2-m x-ray telescope was placed into a highly elliptical orbit with an apogee of 121,279 km and a perigee of 27,539 km—the kind of orbit I had advocated in my paper...

Acronyms and Abbreviations

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pp. 375-377


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pp. 379-389

Name Index

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pp. 391-398

Subject Index

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pp. 399-411

Photo Credits

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pp. 413-416

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402062
E-ISBN-10: 1421402068
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801888090
Print-ISBN-10: 0801888093

Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 34 color photos, 32 halftones, 62 line drawings
Publication Year: 2008