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Harold Zirin Oral History with Shirley K. Cohen

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000173


  • Other: 2016 February 17


An interview in three sessions, in February 1998, by Shirley K. Cohen with Harold Zirin, Professor of Astrophysics, emeritus, in the Division of Physics, Math and Astronomy at Caltech. Dr. Zirin received his undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard (AB, 1950; AM, 1951; PhD, 1953). He joined the Caltech faculty in 1964, became Chief Astronomer at the Big Bear Solar Observatory in 1970 and Director in 1980.

The interview briefly covers Zirin's youth and early education in New York City and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and notes his youthful interest in astronomy and success in school. Recalls Harvard astronomers Bart Bok, Harlow Shapley, Armin Deutsch, Donald Menzel. PhD work on stellar opacities under Philip Morse at MIT with Harvard's approval; leads to first job at RAND Corporation and first move to California, 1952-1953. Denial of security clearance based on father's membership in Communist party sends him back to Harvard for postdoc position. Move to Colorado to High Altitude Observatory and beginning of solar observing; reminiscences of S. Chandrasekhar, G. Munch. Recruitment to Caltech by J. Greenstein, R. Leighton, 1964. Discusses history of solar observing at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Site survey for new Caltech solar observatory; role of astronomer Sue Kiefer; selection of Big Bear Lake site in San Bernardino Mountains (1967). Story of construction and operation of Big Bear Solar Observatory, concluding with its transfer to New Jersey Institute of Technology (1997). Relates episode of grievances by Sara Martin and other women against him for discrimination (mid-1990s). Discusses decline of solar astronomy at Caltech and elsewhere in favor of other directions in astronomy and cosmology.

The interview concludes with observations concerning Caltech's presidents and other administrators; Zirin's activities on committees and involvement with institute governance and finance. Wife Mary quits as Russian teacher at Caltech. His international connections; 6-month period in Russia's Crimea.

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