Cindy Kelly: This is Wednesday, March 20.
Inge-Juliana Sackmann Christy: March 20.
Kelly: 2019. I’m Cindy Kelly, and I’m in Pasadena, California. And I’m with Inge-Juliana Sackmann Christy. So what I want you to do is say your full name and then spell it.
Sackmann Christy: Inge-Juliana Sackmann Christy. And should I spell it?
Kelly: Yes, please.
Sackmann Christy: I-n-g-e, Juliana, J-u-l-i-a-n-a, Sackmann, S like Sam, a-c-k-m-a-n-n, Christy, C-h-r-i-s-t-y.
Kelly: But I want to start with you. I want you to tell us about where you were born and when, and how you became interested in science. About your family’s background, and how you emigrated to Canada.
Sackmann Christy: Well, that’s a long story. My family background—we are Germans. My ancestors were fed up with the wars in Europe. They had a fair amount of property and they sold all their property in Germany—mostly they were in Prussia. They could either go to the United States, west, or they could go east. They made the mistake of going east.
They were offered something by the Russian Czar, that they could go to a territory that had just been taken by war from the Turks by the Black Sea. They would be able to live their life there without any service to the Russian military. They could keep their own religions and their own language and their own school systems. And they wouldn’t pay taxes for a certain period. They could basically live there like in a German colony.
Napoleon had just gone through much of Europe, and he’d invaded much of Europe and Russia and so on. Most of my ancestors came from Prussia, and they were fed up having to serve another conqueror and sacrifice their sons. So they decided not to go to the West, which I very much regret. They could have gone to the United States. They instead went into Russia, because they could keep their animals. They were horse-lovers—they were animal-lovers. And they could take their animals with them. They had carriages and you could load them up. They could take all their belongings that you couldn’t take in a trunk on the boat, which I did later.
They emigrated with their animals into this Russian area by the Black Sea. When they came there, it was a shock. It was very different from Europe that they were accustomed to, Germany, with the gorgeous forests and lakes and everything is so attractive. There were no trees. It was just grassland. Nothing to build a house with, no rocks.
Two-thirds of them died. They had with their shovels—there was no machinery then—dug themselves into the ground and lived underground to survive the first bitter winters. There was no decent water around. They had to drill their own. Not drill – they had to make their wells. So it was a very tough beginning and only very few survived.
I’m the child of some of these survivors. The women were extremely important in that period, so that’s why we have strong women in my family. I love horses and it comes from that period still. My children are top-notch riders. It’s in the blood, it just goes for generations. They became very well-to-do, and they sent their children back to the homeland to go to school. Oh, and they had to serve in the military in Russia. After a few generations, the papers were all torn up and they had to go into the military again. Some of them were fed up that Russia broke their promises, and some of them went to the United States at that time.
Unfortunately, my family still stayed. They were still attached to everything they had, and they didn’t want to leave everything. So they stayed in their well-to-do houses with chandeliers from Switzerland and who knows what and lived a very nice life there. They imported cars. The cars were driven by the women. The men had chauffeurs. That’s the kind of environment that I come from.
The First World War was pretty lousy. Then came the Second World War and they had a choice, because they were well-to-do. [Adolf] Hitler and [Joseph] Stalin made a pact. Either you went to Siberia or you got executed—especially when you had money, which we had—or you followed Hitler’s invitation and go back to the mother country.
They had no choice. They didn’t want to go to Siberia, so they left and went back to the mother country, where they were really not wanted. They had lived outside for over 100 years. They spoke German with a slightly different, older tone and so on. They were not really welcome in the homeland. But they established themselves again in Prussia.
They were still against warfare. This hadn’t passed away. But my father was drafted. He was the right age—in his 20s—and so he served in Italy fighting the Americans, against his will. They were involved in war again, and it was very bad, the Second World War. I have many memories of it. I lived through the bombardment from the American airplanes. I saw that. I heard it. I grew up in the ruins of Western Germany. We fled from the communist East. We fled several times.
First we fled from Russia into Prussia. Then we left from Prussia into East Germany near Berlin, near where that big bombardment was. I was right there. Dresden was very much—I was on the outskirts as a refugee as a three-year-old. So I heard all that coming down. Then we fled for years without property, smuggled—I became a good smuggler as a child—from East Germany to West Germany. Whole trainloads of machinery were smuggled by my father successfully.
Then I grew up in West Germany, and among all the ruins caused mostly by the American airplanes. It’s a difficult past and I have pictures in this book that I dug up, where you can see the things that I saw. Then the times were so difficult that my parents split up. They had an ugly divorce because of the stress of the war. They were both stressed out.
My father was at the Italian front, being shot through by the Americans. Right through the limbs, right through the arm, while my mother was at home with an officer and 18 soldiers guarding our estate. Our estate was a big deal. We had our own private lake and who knows what else. My grandfather had dozens of secretaries. We were very wealthy.
A lot of conflicts arose, and my father was far away on the front trying to survive. He owes his life to kind Americans, he says, who could have shot him many times and they chose not to. I don’t know how many he shot of them, but anyway, he didn’t want to shoot either. But it was one of those forced things. You have to go when you are the right age. So they had a lot of conflicts in their personal life, because he was more or less ruined. My father was ruined emotionally after the war.
So they had this ugly divorce, which went on for three years before it was finally signed. Then they had another fight for five years: who would get the children. I was awarded to him—I was the oldest and I had the most energy—he wanted me. Then my second sister was awarded to him too, and the little one was awarded to my mother by court. It was a very ugly divorce. My mother got zero alimony and next to no child support. That’s what German courts would do.
My mother said, “To heck with Germany.” She didn’t want to live in that country either. She applied for the United States. She had no profession—she was a dilettante. She could play the piano, she could arrange flowers, but she was not a professional. And she had no husband. She was a divorced woman with three young kids. So the United States said, “Absolutely not. We don’t take people like that.”
So she applied to Canada and she was in the bottom of the pile. She tried to learn English and she worked for the PX [Post Exchange]. She wouldn’t even get a job. She was too old, in her 20s, and she didn’t have an education for jobs. Germany wouldn’t give her a job, so she worked for the Americans—for the Army as a sales clerk in the Army stores. She learned more English there and she liked the Americans and the Canadians.
One day, a Canadian family came in and they had a child that had a schizophrenic attack right there in the store. My mother bent down and took this child in her lap. She was a good mother. She got this child to calm down and not suffer so much.
The father was very impressed by my mother – and the wife, too – and said, “You know, is there anything I can do for you in your life?”
She said, “Yes, I want to leave Germany. I want to get out of this country. My children are taken away and the courts are so impossible.” He took all the money and she got nothing. It was my mother’s money, mostly. 10% was his, but he got it all by Germany. He bribed the court; he bribed the lawyers. It was an awful story.
Anyway, she said, “I don’t want to live in this country, where women can be treated this way. I want to leave for Australia or New Zealand, U.S. Anybody who will take me, but out of this country.”
The man said, “You know, I’m the consul of the Canadian country. Come to my office. If that’s what you want more than anything else, come to my office.”
She came to his office, and he said, “Well, I found your applications below in this bottom of the pile, and here, I’ll sign it. You can go to Canada.” She hugged the man. She had a way of getting out of this country. She left with the next boat. She left her three children behind with her parents knowing she might never see us again.
My father had custody of me and my middle sister, and she only had the little one. I was 13. 12 and 11. And [inaudible] was one more child. Anyway, my father also had a fondness for me, because he saw my energy and he wanted me at his right hand in his business. He had business in Brazil. He had business all over Germany.
He liked horses. He was a fantastic horseback rider. I liked horses. So he had a certain connection with me—although he had another wife, children and so on. He would give me favors, and I asked him for a favor to go and see my mother in Canada. Because I was very close. “I want to see her.” I knew once he would give me that piece of paper that I could leave the boundary of this country, I would never come back. He gave me that piece of paper and $60, because he wanted me to come back.
I traveled on a boat for 11 days with $60 in my pocket, just a little bit of English that I’d learned in school. But I didn’t understand English. I could just read and write. I left by myself with someone supposed to take care of me as an immigrant, but they didn’t speak English and I was pretty independent.
I left at age 13 to go to Canada a few months after my mother, and I arrived in Montreal. I got myself—my mother didn’t have money to pick me up, she was five hours away in Toronto—I had $60 so I got myself a cab. I had a big trunk and I asked my mother, “What do you want me to bring?”
She said, “Books, china, silver, oriental rugs.” So I brought a trunk with much of that stuff and I got into a cab and I got it with some porter into the train. I went from Montreal by train to Toronto, where she stood at the station. Then I was there.
I was very lucky. She lived in the area of immigrants, but these were intelligent immigrants. She had one room; we shared a kitchen and a bathroom with other immigrants, a very nice family from Estonia. This is close to where my family had come from and we got along very well. My mother made $30 a week working at Sears Roebuck selling things. But you couldn’t live very well for $30 a week—we had to pay rent, too.
So I got myself a job. I lied about my age. You couldn’t work below the age of 16, so I said I was 16. I put on high heels, I put on makeup, nail polish, and dressed myself like a big teenager. And I got myself a job after school. I was very lucky. I ended up in a very good school. I wanted to get out of school as fast as I could to get my little sisters over. I had another sister, 12, and another, 11. We needed money to be able to eat.
I told the principal in the school that I’d had three years of high school. I was 13 years old, but he didn’t understand the system in Germany. I had three and a half years of what’s called public school, and then you continue to grade eight in public school, which is a school for ordinary people. Or, you’re one of the elite few percent and you go to the gymnasium, and you have special exams. I barely passed those—I wasn’t a very good student with the divorce of my parents in the background. I was a very bad student, but I got in with some luck, and I had three and a half years of high school.
When I came to Canada, and he wanted—all of the immigrants were put back. After all, they’re immigrants. So I told him that I had three and a half years of high school, and so he thought he was putting me back in grade ten. I wanted to get out of school as fast as I could and get a job and help my mother. That was my aim in life. And he thought grade ten was putting me back. Well, I was jumping three grades. I’d only had seven years of very good school, three and a half public and then that gymnasium. Three and a half makes seven. So I was jumping three grades.
I had to get into Latin. It was a very good school. They were teaching Latin and French and German and—not Hebrew—but a lot of languages. They were very advanced in physics and all the sciences. Anyway, I worked my butt off to not get put back to grade nine, and I did very well. Because I wanted to get out of school. Remember, that was my aim in life—to get out of school. I became a top student because I wanted to get out of school. I won every prize they had, and my picture still hangs in that school.
I used to stay in school until 8 o’clock to study, because we only had one room anyway and there was no food anyway. The teachers were so kind in that Canadian country. They allowed me to stay myself in the school with the custodians. They left the light on for me that I could study, study, study. I studied and at 8 o’clock I went home.
Then I got myself a job Thursday night after school, Friday night after school, Saturday. Seven cents an hour. Sunday I studied again. So I helped my mother, seven cents an hour. In a few months we had enough money that we could spend something bigger—rent another room and get my second sister over. She did exactly the same thing that I did. I was always kind of a threat to her, so she had to do what I did and better. She came in half a year and she went in as a babysitter and so she worked. Then a half a year after that, we got the little one.
My father, of course, thought that I would come back to Germany. But after we got all the three children—and he sent zero money to Canada—I stopped all correspondence. I was angry at him, very angry, because he had a house near a river with his own inside swimming pool. He had a place at the Italian Riviera to do his vacations at. He had a place in the Alps to do his skiing at.
And we were so poor. He had all my mother’s money. He had 10% and she had written over 90% in order to keep the marriage together. He’d taken it all and then he kicked her out. I was very angry at him and I broke all contact with him for five years.
Then after two years, we bought a house—my mother bought a house with the savings of myself and my second sister. The little one we didn’t allow to work. She was always so thin-looking and sickly-looking. We said, “You stay home. We’ll do the job.” My grandparents sent over some money, and between the three parties, we were able to buy a house. My mother wouldn’t get any old house. It had to be a brand-new house that she picked. We rented rooms and I continued working, as I’d always done. I continued to get better in school all the time.
Finally, it was time to go to university. I wanted to stay in Toronto to help my mother, and I was admitted to the University of Toronto with every prize they had. I had free tuition and lots of money. I always liked money, frankly, because we had so little. So I continued there and we bought our house. When I was 18, there were other immigrants living in our house. They became too interested in my little sisters and in me and my mother. So I wanted to kick them all out, and I didn’t want to have tenants in the house anymore.
I started up contact with my father after five years of no contact. I said I wanted to go back to Germany and meet with him again. He sent me an airplane ticket and I went with a propeller plane from Toronto back to Stuttgart. I didn’t know if I’d end up in jail, because I had broken a contract and he was angry. Or whether he would be nice for a change.
Well, he picked me up at the airport and he was so nice. He did not put me in jail [inaudible] for breaking his contract. He said, “What can I do for you?”
I said, “Well, we need everything. First of all, I need monthly money. We can kick all these tenants out. Secondly, we need lots of clothing. We have no winter coats in bitter Toronto. And we need—”
He said, “Come to my department stores.” He owned something like Bullock’s. While he was sitting in with his executives, I went shopping. He says, “Just give somebody the tickets and I’ll have it sent over to Canada.” So I shopped—you can’t believe how much in one hour or two, for all four of us. I even shopped furniture, and he sent it all and he sent us the monthly amount—exactly what I asked for years. So he behaved, and then I took up contact with him again and I continued visiting him. We continued to have a decent relationship, and he finally visited us in Canada.
Anyway, I took up contact and we had good contact until the end of his life. He married a friend of my mother. He had three more little girls with his second wife. He actually had a lot of property in Brazil, because he loved the country. He had rubber plantations and everything imaginable—mines and so on.
He started a city there, where each of his children got one street named after them. So I have one street there after my name. When he did all this Brazilian stuff, he actually came to North America, and he visited us in our house. He was so impressed, and he was sorry that he had divorced my mother. So I began to forgive him a little bit. He came to be a decent father.
Every time I went to Europe, I visited him. I was invited to astronomical meetings in Hamburg and in Greece and so on, and every time I went over there, I made a point of visiting him. He always gave me a car to travel around.
Then he said, “I want to do something for you. I want to give you an early inheritance. But I’m going to give it to you at age 25 in four installments. If you buy yourself fur coats like my second wife does, or if you drive a Mercedes sports car like my second children do, you will get zero. You have to show me that you can do something with the money I give you, and not just spend it for a good life. I want to have reports, how much money you make from the money I give you.”
Now, the exchange rate was lousy. Today, the [US dollar and the] Deutschmark – well, the European dollar – are almost equal. At that time, it was 4.25 for one, so you got a lousy exchange rate for the Deutschmark at that time. So I didn’t get very much. I got basically $6,700—which is peanuts—for my first installment. Then it went up to $7,000 and then the fourth installment was $10,000. So it went up with the currency exchange rate.
I had to show him what I could do with the money. If I wouldn’t invest it well, then my sisters wouldn’t get theirs. So I owed it to my sisters to be [inaudible] to the bitter end. With that money, I worked very hard to make money. I was okay financially. I wasn’t poor after a certain time any more due to this European stuff that I had to invest.
I bought houses—I owned four houses at the end and I had money to buy a fifth. When I buried my husband, I held four houses and I had money sitting the bank to buy a fifth one. I bought single-family houses in Vancouver, where I wanted to live. That was my dream city. Sort of two—three-bedroom houses in a medium area—not slums, not high-class, something that people could afford. My mother lived in Vancouver at the time, and she would look after my houses while I was off having fun in Europe.
Because I had such a bitter feeling with Germany. Many of the Jewish people do too, and they are right. They have much more reason than I had, but even as a German, I was pretty bitter. So I wanted to get over my bitterness. When I won a NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] award at the University of Toronto I could go to any NATO country. No taxes paid on that award, and a fair amount of money. I thought of going to Princeton, where some of the astrophysics was going on. I wanted to work with Martin Schwarzschild and other people at Princeton. I never wanted to come to California, no way, no way. To Caltech and this smog city, L.A. That’s the last place in the country I would go to. And Germany was another one.
The Cambridge of Germany was always Gottingen. That’s where [Werner] Heisenberg was, that’s where many of the great people that I read about were. The great mathematicians and physicists were in Gottingen. So I very much wanted to use this opportunity and see what the place is like. I used my money to go to Gottingen—my award. The award was for two years. While I was at Gottingen, I was very disappointed. This is not the place that it had been in the past. Everyone that’s great is gone. They lived in their shadow.
The man I went for was [Rudolf] Kippenhahn. Turned out he was a close colleague of my husband, working on variable stars. We moved in a very close society. I knew all the people he knew and vice versa. We moved in the same area, but there was no romantic interest in those days between my husband.
This was ’69, in December, just before Christmas. I went to join Kippenhahn in Gottingen. He saw that I was very disappointed. We had a very good relationship, Kippenhahn and I, always. He said, “You know, Fraulein Sackmann, why don’t you go to Munich? That’s where Heisenberg is today. That’s where all the action is. Why don’t you give a talk down there and see if they are interested in you coming?”
So I went down, and I gave a talk and I met Saul Peter, an American, here. I met many interesting people from Scotland, from England. I said, “Yeah, that’s the place I want to go to—to Munich, to Heisenberg’s institute [Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics].”
I was there for almost three years. My fellowship ran out—my Canadian NATO fellowship. But I got a German one, the von Humboldt’s Award. I got the senior one. It was again a pretty high award. I mean, I was higher paid than Kippenhahn was with the exchange rate the first time. The second time was also pretty good.
Since I had been so poor, I was always interested in having enough to live on. Because there were many years when my hair fell out and I was starving in Toronto. When I was 18, I had a bald head. My hair was falling out, undernourished. When I went to Germany, I went with a scarf and I told my father, “Can you take me to any institute in Germany where they can do something?”
Yes, he took me. There was some institute from Rome and he paid a lot of money. My hair came back, but it took years. But we were poor. We could buy meat once a week at the most, and that went to the little one who needed it the most. The rest of us, we got an apple. So I knew what poverty was like. I’ve gone from being very rich, I had my own nanny—to being extremely poor, my hair was falling out. So I knew both sides of the coin. Well, anyway, I have hair again, as you can see.
I was at Heisenberg [Max Planck Institute], and there I got promptly engaged to the son of the co-director, [Ludwig] Biermann. He [Peter Biermann] was a young man my own age and he spoke 10 languages like they do in Europe. I barely had a little French and I knew English and I knew German and a little Latin. But he spoke Hebrew—he spoke everything around. That’s what the Europeans do. He was an astrophysicist and very intellectual and I liked him, and he liked me. For him, I was a person coming from North America. He was ready to leave Germany, too. He was fed up with Germany, just like we had been.
So I took him to Canada on a trip and he met my mother and everything. I took him to my university. He looked for a job offer in the U.S.—this is important, that’s why I mention it—at Santa Cruz, where my husband was later—possible administration. We went to Santa Cruz.
He was behind me—the same age, but he hadn’t jumped grades like I had. He was maybe two years in education behind me and he got the job. I did not. Here I had won tons of prizes, but he was a male and I was a female. They had limited money. They could only give [a] postdoc to one of the couple, so it would always be the male. It was the same thing at Caltech. If there was something, it would go to the male and the woman just had to find her own way somehow. That made me think, “Well, marrying someone my own age has handicaps in the same field.”
Then he—his father didn’t drive a car, they had chauffeurs—and then when he described the poor life that my mother had led in Canada, his parents said, “Hands off. Don’t get involved with this girl.” So I was turned down by his father, who was a co-director of Heisenberg. Well, those were pretty bitter. I was very proud of what we had done, but this didn’t count.
Then I went to the IAU, the International Astronomical Union, shortly afterwards in Brighton, [UK] where Mrs. Biermann was there with all her daughters. Then we ended up in a train looking at the countryside of England. I happened to be in the department with the Portuguese, and I had already bought a ticket to go back to Greece, where I had been before, to a NATO conference. These international conferences, where they come from 50 countries—we always had satellite conferences in specific fields afterward, normally two weeks. I’d already paid airplane ticket, hotel, registration fee, to go to a NATO conference in Greece where I had been before. I loved Greece.
So I ended up in the department where all the Portuguese delegation was sitting. We started talking, and then the next day they came to me and they said, “Miss Sackmann, we want you to come to our NATO conference in Portugal.”
I said, “Well, I’m already signed up for the one in Greece.”
And they said, “We want you to come.” So they came the next day and they said, “You know what, you don’t have to pay a registration fee and you don’t have to pay for the hotel room if you share it with another young lady from somewhere. So you don’t have those expenses.”
I said, “Okay, interesting.” Because somebody who came to Munich who took me to the ballet there and to all kinds of nice things—a professor from England, he wanted to have a romance with me when I was in Munich. When I was in England—he was British—he wanted me to see his country estate. So, he rented—he got himself a bus with 60 seats, and he wanted me to come to his country estate. And together with the other 59 astronomers from all over, I come to his country estate. It was indeed very beautiful, very British beautiful.
There was [Robert F.] Christy—he was one of the 60. And he started talking the whole night in the kitchen—where he came from, where he had studied. He told me about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and Berkeley. He was born in Vancouver. I hooked right on. Born in Vancouver? My dream city? Canada? Oooh, even more attractive. We had a wonderful conversation and he asked me all about what I had done for my PhD thesis and I asked him what he had done in his PhD. It went on and on and on, the whole night. That night, I knew I would marry this man.
After the evening in the kitchen, the bus took us back to our town where the conference was, and I couldn’t sleep. I went down to the ocean where the waves are breaking in, in the middle of the night. I looked at these ocean waves breaking over these big rocks. And I said, “Christy’s going to be like one of these ocean waves breaking over the rocks. This man is going to break into my life.” I studied his hand, there was no ring there. I knew nothing about his—he never mentioned anything about his private life. So I know this man. He’s it, as far as I’m concerned.
I looked at him the next day. He was tall, so was sticking out, so I find him among all these—there were 2,000 people at that meeting. I found him in one of the breaks among the 2,000 people and I said, “Professor Christy, the Portuguese”—and he told me he was going to Portugal—“the Portuguese delegation. I was in their department, and they very much want me to come to their place and to contribute astrophysics.” He didn’t blink an eye. Didn’t interest him at all. So I said, okay, the man is happily married. I don’t break up marriages. That’s nothing I do. Let him go.
I went back to the Portuguese and I said, “I’m not coming.” I used the airplane ticket as an excuse, I’d already bought the airplane ticket, costing so and so much.
They looked me up the next day, said, “Oh, our committee has said we’re going to pay for your airplane ticket. We insist you come to Portugal.”
I said, “Well, I don’t want to go. I’m more interested in this thing in Greece anyway.”
So I go off to my boss. I said, “Boss, I want to go to Greece. These Portuguese want me to go to Portugal. You are going to Portugal—you tell me what I should do.”
He said, “Miss Sackmann, I want you to go to Portugal where I go. There’s all my students there and my wife is there. You like to sit with her anyway. You come to Portugal.”
I said, “Okay, Boss, your will is my command. If you say I’ll go to Portugal, I will go.”
So I came late. I had to go to Munich, wash my clothing, change to other kinds of clothing in Britain, and I came late. I said, “Christy is passé. He’s happily married, and I don’t get involved with people like that, just because he doesn’t wear a ring. I’m going to ignore him. I’m going to have fun with my German colleagues there, with my Italian colleagues there, with my British colleagues there, with my Scottish friends. Christy can do what he wants to do. I’m not going to talk to him once in any of the breaks.”
I sat by the pool one day, having fun with my German colleagues, with a big hat. He has the guts to come from the back where I didn’t see him, lift my hat, in public—a big white hat. He said, “Who’s hiding under this hat?” Boy, this man has guts. He lifts my hat, he touches my clothing with all my colleagues here, and he asks me such questions. “Miss Sackmann, would you accompany me on a walk down to the ocean?”
I said, “Oh, nothing can happen from a walk on the ocean.”
We walked and walked and walked and not a single word was exchanged. I didn’t want anything to do with him anyway. He didn’t say anything either. Then, fine, a walk doesn’t hurt anybody. After the end of the walk, he says, “I have two sons, age 26 and 24.” That’s all he said.
I said, “Oh, interesting news, he has two sons.” I was 28 – almost my age.
Then the next day he comes to me in some break, “Will you walk with me at the ocean again?” Okay, we could walk. I didn’t say a word; I wasn’t interested. He says, “I’m in the middle of a divorce.”
I said, “Okay, now it becomes interesting.”
“My wife has moved out already.” He’s trying to tell me something.
Then he said, “Are you willing to go into the ocean with me?”
I said, “Well, I’ve never been in the ocean with big waves and I don’t know how to swim.”
He says, “I’ll show you how to handle big waves.” And he went in. He was like a statesman.
I thought, “Gosh, this is not a scientist. This is an athlete.” He showed me how to handle these big waves, and that’s how it continued.
Then he wrote many letters. I have letters here where he never published papers. He’s famous in physics for not publishing papers. He sent around preprints, and other people walked away with his ideas. They got all kinds of recognition for what they published, and he was the one who gave them the idea. That was his style. He did research for its own sake, not for getting recognition.
He loved research. It was his big love. The other big love was Caltech. He did it because he liked it. And so I pulled out things where he said, “You know, I don’t write. People complain I’m not answering letters, not writing letters, not writing papers.” Gerry Brown—who was a colleague of Hans Bethe, who wrote a book on Hans Bethe—told me, “Juliana, he opened up whole fields in physics and never published.”
We had a big romance going on in Portugal for the almost two weeks we were there. He left by plane to go back to the west and I left by plane to go back to the east. Then there was a letter exchange—three, four, five letters a week. He wrote to me, “I have never written so many letters to anyone.” Three letters a week starting off with. And then he wanted to come to Europe, and he actually came.
Well, after changing Caltech so that women could come here—he did that first, and then he actually came. He wanted to see how I could ski. Well, I wasn’t much of a skier. He was a much better skier. We went skiing in Switzerland and Austria together. Two rooms, because I didn’t trust that whole situation. Two rooms, two people. I told him before he came. But he wanted to get to know me more, because he’d had such a bad experience the first time. So he studied me from top to bottom.
It was an incredible romance, and I concluded the same thing like in Britain—that I could spend a life with this man, even though he was 26 years older. I figured I’d only have ten years with him because of the age difference. Then all of a sudden, the romance was off. He decided after a super-duper time—and I said, “I’m going to look over this Caltech place and I’m going to see if I can get a job in Stanford, in Seattle, Boulder, Colorado, Vancouver—somewhere on the West Coast.” I really preferred the East Coast, but I was making a sacrifice coming to the West Coast for him.
I came here, and I introduced myself. I kept the romance very, how should I say, private. Nobody knew except the colleagues in Portugal who saw us together all the time. But nobody saw our letters. Nobody saw that he flew over for two weeks. I kept it very private. I didn’t want to be attached to such a famous man. I wanted to make my name in science on my own and not as connected to him. But the father of my second fiancé, he knew. He asked me, “What’s going on between you and Christy?”
I said, “I won’t discuss it.” It was none of his business.
But anyway, it was a pretty strong romance. I came to Caltech to introduce myself, to see if I could get a chance against all odds as a postdoc here. I was hired on the spot. [William] Fowler said in his office he had plenty of research money. “I want you here. You can come anytime you want.” But I had just won an award in Germany, so I couldn’t just leave that either. I had to stay there for nine months or 12 months, because I was very pleased to get that award. So I couldn’t come immediately. I could come at the end of the year.
By that time, the romance was kaput. Christy decided, “The age difference is just too much,” and all the other things that age differences brought. He knew that I would want children in my life. He already had children—didn’t go very well, he wanted no more children.
Other things, he always figured I would flirt with others and I was just too young, that men would be after me in science and—you know, there are not that many women. So he figured I’m unsafe, and so he says no, he’s going to find somebody who’s more in his own age bracket, someone who doesn’t want children anymore. He recognized that I needed children in my life. Someone who doesn’t come with all this burden.
So I decided not to come. But I had this thing, this fellowship. I went to my boss—he was in Gottingen, I was in Munich. That’s eight hours by train. So I got myself a plane [misspoke: train] ride, eight hours up and eight hours back, and staying a night over there—to ask my boss, “What should I do? I don’t want to go to Caltech anymore. I have no interest. I want to get this position in Hamburg.”
Same thing like Portugal. He says, “Fraulein Sackmann, it is my command that you go to Caltech and you tell us here in Germany what they’re doing. You can learn. We need more exchanges. I want you to go back. Go for two years, and I’ll make sure you get that position in Hamburg. You come back.”
I said, like before, “Boss, your will is my command,” and I left.
I stayed at the Athenaeum and I was not going to have any contact with this man who was challenging, difficult. I wasn’t interested in marriage under all these circumstances. Too difficult for me, too.
Well, it did finally happen. His colleagues at Caltech, his buddies, persuaded him that he’s lucky if he gets me. So we finally married. I was going to go and have a wedding in Germany—just two people and a witness. Then Caltech, the president, Harold Brown—he says he wants to invite all of Caltech once it became known that the provost was going to marry an astrophysicist. He invited all the professors and all the wives. Invited all the children, too. So it was a big event with a lot of dancing, candlelit in his garden.
Just before that wedding, I wanted to jump out. I got cold feet again. Either he got cold feet, or I got cold feet. One of us always had cold feet. But because his secretary had already written all of these invitations and they had already gone to such big expense, I said, “I’m not going to embarrass them.”
So I went through with it against my fears, and it turned out to be—oh, and that night of the wedding, Caltech professors came to our house with pots and pans and all kinds of things to make music on our wedding night. It’s in my book—it’s one of the books I haven’t published yet. It was quite something, and it’s the best thing I ever did. But it was meant to happen. Bosses and people all over—his boss, my boss, they made this happen.
Then I got to know his world, which was very different from my world. I noticed that we’re all in the same group of people. Biermann, the father who turned me down—the father of my second fiancé—he had been to dinner in Christy’s home. He used to come to the United States regularly each summer. He came to Caltech, of course. He was hosted by Professor Christy and his first wife. He couldn’t believe that Christy would marry somebody like me. He actually came to this house, seeing Professor Christy. But I was a new wife now, and already had a little baby. Anyway, life is very strange. But we had the same circle, everybody we met.
When I went through the letters for you to prepare myself, we knew all the same people. There were exchanges. It was just meant to be. It’s fate, and I would marry him again in the next life. It was a very good, dangerous thing to do.
Kelly: Tell us about what you know of his experience and background and life in Los Alamos. Or, you know, whatever you think is the best way to present the rest of this story.
Sackmann Christy: Well, he, unlike myself, had no parents. His father was a Jewish engineer who couldn’t get jobs in Vancouver. Where he married a beautiful woman, who was a fellow student. They were both at McGill [University], and they fell very much in love. His [Christy’s] English grandmother—the mother of this particular father—came on the Titanic to meet this young woman. She was totally against her.
There was a marriage contract made that none of the British money would ever end up with these Canadian children, if there would be any. She would get a certain amount at the beginning from her husband, so she could have a proper household with the proper silver and the proper who knows what. And then he would give her a certain amount, $10,000—which is a lot of money at that time—later. But children, if there are any, would get zero from England.
As I say, she inherited a tremendous of money. She could buy a boat ticket together with the richest people on that Titanic boat which went down. Every boat she went on went down. This was 1912, this boat went down, April 15, 1912. 1907, she came to Canada also to meet her beloved son. That boat [Empress of Ireland] went down [later], too. But she wasn’t on it. That went down a couple of years later, just before the First World War, which started in 1914.
Anyway, she was very much against this young woman. They married nevertheless, and he couldn’t—he looked very Jewish, the facial bones and everything. He lived in British Columbia, very British, and he couldn’t find work as an engineer.
He joined the Canadian Air Force to become a little bit more Canadian, serving in the military in the First World War. He also had a Jewish name, Cohen. His name was Moise Cohen, so his name was also in that direction. So he had trouble with jobs and supporting his family. Nothing came from Britain, so he finally went to Oshawa, Ontario, where he got a job as an engineer. He was electrocuted by accident when—my husband only saw him when he was one year old, and after that the man was in the Air Force, and then he got electrocuted.
So he lost his beloved father that he always was intrigued by. He always gravitated towards fatherly figures. Bethe was about 10 years older. [Enrico] Fermi, about one and a half dozen years older. Oppenheimer. He always gravitated to older physicists, and I think that’s one of the reasons. Because he always missed having a father figure.
All the men in that family died. The Canadian grandmother that brought him up and got him the education, her husband died while she was still pregnant with her fourth child. In that family, men didn’t last very long. That’s why it’s a miracle that my man made it to age 96. But I think I had something to do with that.
Not only did we have a fantastic life together, I also did the shopping and I controlled the food. I’m very much into health food. Him getting up to age 96 is quite unusual in that family, because they all died in their 30s—the men. His brother died very young, too, which was around food. He had some heart attack, very young. So anyway, there’s a history of men dying young and the women being stuck without the men.
His grandmother in England—her name was Jones-Cohen, and then she married a Mr. Christy, who was incredibly wealthy. He had left Germany, probably due to all the reasons that my family left Germany, and emigrated to England. He was very technically apt. His father had emigrated—actually, he was born in England. The father emigrated and he had made surgical instruments, so the family was very well-to-do in England, due to the surgical instruments discoveries.
The son worked in the textile machinery business, importing them, so they were very wealthy. This grandmother in England who would have had a pretty rough—because her husband died also young, leaving her with toddlers, five, three and one. She had a terrible time, too. She married this older man in his 50s, who was incredibly wealthy—this Mr. Christy. And that’s where the name Christy comes from.
So this father, who couldn’t get jobs in England—this Moise Cohen, he changed his name to Christy to help him get a job. And so my husband was born as Cohen, but later he became a Christy. That’s where the name Christy comes from. It was by marriage and it was not by the German background. My husband was stuck with German wives twice, and then this Christy name, which came from Germany. All these talents came from there.
He grew up without a father in the big Depression. It was hard. Only one aunt had a job as a secretary, and she supplied many, many people with only the income. My husband had to work when he was 10 years old. His mother died at home after surgery on the thyroid. He had piano classes until then. They went to a horse farm. He had a nice life. His mother managed a nice life with what her husband had left behind, insurance money—little bit of workman’s comp, a little bit of money he had here and there.
They had a pretty decent time with luxuries. She bought a very nice house in a very good area of Vancouver. But she all of a sudden was found dead in bed due to a third surgery of thyroid. When she was sent home, the children were left with nobody—no father and no money in a Depression. Two little boys, older brother and himself. The grandmother then moved into the house and took care of them and made sure that they got an education. That was the solution for the problem.
Then when my husband was 21—that was in 1937, it was still Depression time—his grandmother from England sent a lot of money. She sent this $10,000 that had been promised in the contract, hoping that the young men could use it for education. Well, what did my husband do with—he got five and the brother got five. It was enough money to buy several houses to rent to have some income.
Because that’s what I did. I had four houses with money for the fifth. He could’ve done the same in the Depression. He gave every penny away. This is something—one of the reasons I married him. He was so incredibly selfless and generous. At Berkeley, he worked as a waiter just to get some free milk and some rice. He didn’t have much to eat, and he gave every penny in that period to his maternal grandmother, so that she could eat.
He did that kind of thing, which is totally in contrast from what my father did with us, again and again. When his wife wanted to move out and she asked for a divorce—he didn’t do it, it was her. He asked her, “What do you want? How can I help you?” He had a salary at that time as a professor of Caltech. This was 1969, 1970. $26,000 gross [income].
He had a little bit from a consultation at RAND and the Atomic Energy Commission and who knows what. So he got a little above that, but it was still, maybe $28,000. He had to pay $7,000 in income tax, so he ended up in the early 20s. He gave her between $13,000 and $14,000. She had more money than he did. That’s why he couldn’t marry me. He had no money. It went to his first wife.
Then he said, “Do you want all the savings we have, or do you want to have our house?”
She said, “The house needs a lot of repair. There’s roofing leaks.” She was a heavy smoker. It was all smoked up. It needed a lot of things. “You keep the house with all the damage. I want the money.” So she got all the money, which was worth a lot more than the house.
This is what he did, starting when he was a student, and he did this all his life. With his sons—he wouldn’t go and eat with his colleagues so he could pay the private tuition for Harvard and for another college the other son went to. He bought himself six-dollar shoes, so that he could have a good life for his sons. He did that, he was incredibly selfless everywhere I looked. That’s why he broke off with me, because he knew I wanted children. He couldn’t afford another child. He knew how much the first ones cost.
After being involved in the weapons of the Second World War, he didn’t want any more weapons to be built. He was active in all these things against [Edward] Teller. He didn’t want the hydrogen bomb—the super bomb, which was much stronger than the little Christy bomb. He didn’t want all this testing in the upper atmosphere, and he was partially successful there. He worked on that for decades. He thought we should exchange things with the Russians, so there wouldn’t be this race.
He actually had a thing with the Atomic Energy Commission like Oppenheimer, which is generally not known. I have it on the table here. He was put into an interview—whether he was a possible spy, whether he was trustworthy. But unlike Oppenheimer, he survived and he continued giving classified information to the Atomic Energy—it was the Atomic Energy Commission that made all the trouble for Oppenheimer the year before.
That didn’t happen in ’54. That started already in ’49, because of Oppenheimer’s views. Christy had the same views, but he sailed through it. He didn’t have a Teller on the other end, and he did things differently than Oppenheimer did. I’ve surveyed it several times and I applaud how he handled it. He was considered clear and he could continue working at the top level of these secrets.
But he worked all his life on eliminating weapons and testing of weapons. Harold Brown did the same. His new boss at Caltech, the new president, he had been Secretary of the Air Force in [the] Vietnam [War]. He was very much tied up with the military, and later he became the Secretary of Defense, of all military in the U.S. That’s why he left Caltech. That was the reason he wanted to have the job—Secretary of Defense—is to stop the arms race, to stop this weapons production. He was on the same wavelength like Oppenheimer and like Christy.
My husband had a good reason to work with Harold Brown, because together they tried to stop the weapons development. And they did. Harold Brown constantly would travel to Helsinki where he would talk with Russian delegations. And he would travel to Vienna. Christy would be stuck at home doing the provost job, which meant all the professorial stuff and the money.
Harold Brown would—I have many letters where he was gone, and for four weeks, six weeks—Christy was the acting president and the provost at the same time. This went on for many years, from 1970 until the Carter election in ’76. Then he was gone, not for six weeks, he was gone for months at a time.
Then Christy had things during and afterwards, he would keep the interim president. He used to call Harold in Helsinki, “What would you like me to do here?” Because he was the president. “What do you like, what is your decision?” They were always on the same wavelength. They always had the same—they were a very compatible pair.
There’s several reasons my husband went out of theoretical physics. One of them to support his first wife—two households at a high level. She wasn’t thrown into poverty like my mother was. Secondly, for the arms control race, he worked on this all his life. That was very important to him. He continued in that direction, even in his retirement years.
He did strange stuff when he was in the administration of Caltech. He wanted young blood to come here, and Caltech was in the hole financially. They had hired too many professors and they were in the hole. The expenditures were bigger than the income. My husband started an austerity program, together with Harold Brown when they were the administration.
No more hiring of professors, no more hiring of secretaries. All the postdocs like me, we had to pay for it, too. Our pension fund was cut to zero. Yeah, it was a sacrifice for me, too. In any case, they wanted to get Caltech into the black, which Washington hasn’t done very often, but Caltech did. Christy and Brown got [it] into the black.
In that period, he wanted the professors to retire at age 65, so that they would have money for the young people coming in. Young professors who were most dynamic – and to save money. He figured Social Security should start paying our retirees at age 65. Actually, Caltech professors would have more income if they retired and they didn’t have to do teaching, they didn’t have to do research, they had no committee work.
Good life, they had a life of what they wanted to do and more money with the Washington Social Security money. So he was able to persuade a lot of Caltech professors to take this retirement at age 65. The strange thing is, he never took it. Here he made a policy, but he worked into his late 80s on a big thing with Japan. He felt strongly about that. I’ll get to this later.
He did many strange things. The word was out not to hire young professors, because Caltech was trying to get into the black financially. What does he do? He gives lots of money to Kip Thorne—$2 million in those days—so that Kip Thorne could start the gravitational wave detection experiment. Which was something—it was a dream in those days. They were so far away.
I just learned—we had this lecture on the 27th, Kip Thorne and my husband’s professor thing—that money from little Caltech went all the way to the Soviet Union to support starving scientists there, who didn’t get support on this experiment. And to MIT, where they didn’t have much money. I just learned that. In this time that Caltech was in the hole, the money that my husband squeezed out went far. But that was his philosophy. That we’re an international community, we’ve got to help each other, even if it’s the Soviet Union.
Then the other thing he did is he hired [Ronald] Drever, who was the expert. Kip was a theorist. He needed an experimental [physicist]. So in the time of hardship, he makes the exception and Ron Drever gets hired to get the experiment going. They built a little lean-to. They couldn’t afford a big building, so they built a lean-to with just one wall, 40 meters, and two doors and a shingle roof.
That’s how it started, 40 meters. The instrument where they finally detected it—100 years after Einstein had predicted. Einstein predicted it in 1915, Caltech detected it in 2015, exactly 100 years later, in September, was four kilometers long at the site of Hanford.
Hanford was the thing that was developed in Washington State to prepare the plutonium for the Christy gadget. It’s such a small world. The site was polluted. They couldn’t do much, so they built the gravitation wave experiment there, four kilometers in one direction plus another direction.
They thought they might have a fluke observation, so they built another in Louisiana, somewhere there, so that if both would detect it, then they would believe it. Well, it did happen, and they now have about ten detections already since then. Anyway, that’s a talk we just had a few weeks ago, where we got the details.
But my husband did this hiring and it was a difficult time. [When] my husband came to Caltech, there were only ten professors in physics. Caltech was a very quiet place. It wasn’t like Berkeley, it wasn’t like Princeton, it wasn’t like MIT. It was a very quiet place, and of these ten professors in physics, one was Oppenheimer, who was the only theorist, part-time. He only came here for the spring semester.
The other semesters, he would be in Berkeley or in the East somewhere. Then they had nine experimentalists, so the total of ten professors. My husband got his job because—Feynman always said my husband is one of the best in the world, that’s how he would describe him. He wanted Christy to get Oppenheimer’s job at Caltech. When Oppenheimer felt he had to be more near Washington to help control things, he recommended Christy to get his job here and Christy got it.
That was in 1946, after Los Alamos and after Chicago. So there were ten professors here. In this period when Caltech was under austerity—no hiring was going on—he hired [Hugh David] Politzer, who got the Nobel Prize. He hired a whole bunch of people in that period. Drever—he did not get the Nobel Prize.
There were—I can’t think of their names right now, but these people that he hired brought four Nobel Prizes to Caltech. One was in chemistry, Ahmed Zewail, was hired in that period also. By the time he was ready to retire—at that time it was 70, not 65—the physics department he built up from 10 professors to nearly 70. He had brought a whole bunch of Nobel Prizes to physics. We have more in physics than any other department at Caltech. We have 38 Nobel Prizes now, among a faculty less than 300.
[Rudolf] Mössbauer—he was here also as a guest from Munich—he got a Nobel Prize, too, because my husband recognized him. Feynman was one of those, of course, that my husband hired [inaudible]. [Murray] Gell-Mann, now I remember the name. Feynman first, then Gell-Mann, then came Politzer—who wrote a little thing in my book, too. Willy Fowler got one, too, but that was experimental—had nothing to do with Christy. And then Ahmed Zewail, in chemistry. Yes, these were all people that he hired when there was no money.
He did strange things like this all his life. He went against the wave, against the reputations, against his own rules. He knew how to break rules. I was one of them, when marrying me was very courageous. And it was wonderful. This is something he did all his life. He went against the rules. Today’s administration, they make rules, or they have inherited rules and they follow them slavishly. Christy never followed rules slavishly. He made his own and he broke them, and then he went back to his rules. So this is something about the man.
What else could I help you with? Oppenheimer or Hans Bethe or Feynman, I think you said?
Sackmann Christy: [Robert] Serber? Well, Oppenheimer, he [Christy] considered a natural leader. He called him “a god.” Oppenheimer didn’t just share physics. He shared his other things in life, his poetry, his political opinions. He cared for them as people. For example, when Feynman was asked to come to Los Alamos, he remembered that Feynman had a very sick wife with [an] incurable disease, tuberculosis, and he didn’t want to separate the young couple.
He had done the investigation how to put her into a hospital where she would live in Albuquerque, which was two hours away by car. But when Oppenheimer invited Feynman to come, he immediately had something lined up helpful for the wife, too. He did that for everybody. He always remembered their wives and their personal problems, and he tried to look after them, which most people don’t. He was very caring. He was charismatic. My husband called him “charismatic.”
He was extremely upset that anything — that the injustice would be done to him. My husband shared a house with Teller, so he knew him very well. After Los Alamos, housing was very difficult in the United States, because nothing was built during the Second World War. Everything went into the military, all the funding and so on.
When they went back to Chicago, Teller and Christy, they rented a mansion together and they both lived in the mansion. There was a main kitchen and then there was a butler’s pantry, and Christy and his young wife took the butler’s pantry for their kitchen and Teller got the big kitchen. And they divided up the floors. One floor Christy got with his two little babies; the other one Teller got.
They housed a lot of physicists coming through Chicago. There was a lot of upheaval after the Second World War and housing was difficult. They were basically a free hotel to the physicists wanting to come to Chicago. Chicago was a very lively place. That’s where Fermi was and [Eugene] Wigner and many of the other greats, [Leo] Szilard. It was a fascinating place. Caltech was very quiet in those days. I’m surprised my husband didn’t stay in Chicago. He wanted to stay in Chicago.
It was his first wife who said, “No, let’s go to California.” She was the one who picked it and he always followed his wife, what she said was his command. He got a job in Santa Cruz in ’66, or was it ’67, somewhere in there. He asked her, you know, “I would like to take this job. Should I?”
She said, “No, we stay at Caltech.” So he came back to Caltech. He gave her a lot of freedom in his life. But they had a good relationship in many ways, like camaraderie.
But as far as Oppenheimer goes—he was always very upset that Oppenheimer was treated so unjustly, just because of Teller’s comment. But it wasn’t just Teller, others before him had already—he [Christy] refused people like [Lewis] Strauss for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t sign letters, he wouldn’t go to any place where Strauss was involved. He was very upset about Strauss, what he had engineered for Oppenheimer. So he was very loyal to the very end.
I was surprised. He also suggested General [Leslie] Groves for the Fermi Award, because he felt Groves was an incredibly skilled leader. Not many people would’ve been able to pull off what he did. Groves knew how to make exceptions, too, like Christy. You know, he let his physicists get away a lot in this top-secret place. Feynman, he was always having fun. He was cracking safes, he was going around the guards and coming in multiple times. He always had fun there. Groves must’ve been aware of these things, but he let it go. Feynman was such an important part of the project. He closed his eyes in many things, like Oppenheimer would’ve done also.
They worked very well together, just like Brown and Christy worked well together for the arms control business and the administration of Caltech and all the rest. Those two worked very well together. After Fermi, Oppenheimer got the award shortly before he died. He wanted Groves to get the award, but people didn’t go along. So he very much respected Groves.
The people had a lot of fun at Los Alamos. The European scientists that had left Germany and Italy and Switzerland, they knew how to do a lot of things in nature, they knew how to hike. The physics in Gottingen was always done in the hills around Gottingen, and they continued that in Los Alamos, a beautiful area. They did a lot of hiking. They did cross-country skiing. They had no lifts.
A funny story about Oppenheimer. He gave my husband—they didn’t ride horses. Oppenheimer rode horses, he had a little horse farm there. He gave half a horse to my husband and half a horse to the son of a scientist. They were always arguing, the two people who owned half-and-half, who had to clean up daily the back, and who had to put up the money to feed the front. So they had jokes going on like this all the time.
But Oppenheimer took Christy on horseback riding trips. Christy didn’t know how to ride; he barely stayed on. Sometimes, they almost parted company when Christy wanted to go one way, but the horse wanted to go the other way. But Oppenheimer could ride okay, so they did physics on horseback. They designed the atomic bombs on horseback, which to me was very interesting, because I come from the horse background, too. Not many people know about that.
They did talking, talking, talking on horseback. He would ride almost into Colorado, Oppenheimer, especially with his brother also—Frank—and so on. They had big horse expeditions—Christy was the only one of the scientists that I know was willing to do this. This is a little story you might enjoy, the horseback story and doing physics on horseback.
Sackmann Christy: Anyway, I understand they worked very hard, long days, you know, 10, 12, 14-hour days at Los Alamos. But they took off some time, too, into the neighborhood and hiking and skiing. The Europeans brought that with them. Szilard and Bethe and all those people, they were accustomed doing that in Europe. So they learned a lot, the young American scientists like my husband. That’s where they picked it up and they continued this all their life.
I wanted to tell you a little bit about the water that I just served you. They all loved nature. Feynman used to sleep under the trees in Los Alamos. In 1983, when it was the first trip that these people would meet each other again, it was a 40-year reunion from 1943—plus 40 makes ’83. They were getting together, and I think it’s the last time they all got together.
I went there for the first time also in ’83, and Feynman asked me before—Feynman and I, we always had a very intriguing relationship. I was always intrigued by him and he was always intrigued by me. So we liked to spend time together. He was parked in front of our house on Arden Road, and we walked together to Caltech. He would stop at the stoplight and he would ask me strange questions. And we couldn’t cross the street until he had his question answered.
We always had many conversations, and when we went to Los Alamos and we were planning that trip in ’83, Feynman asked me, “Can I sit next to you in the airplane? It’s a very difficult trip for me to go back to Los Alamos, because that’s where I had time with my big love.” And then he said, “Could you sit next to me in the taxi as we pass that hospital where Arline and I, we used to cook together. We had a barbecue thing and we would play husband and wife next to the road, next to the hospital. And just try to make out, you know, the best life as we could.”
When we finally got to Los Alamos, he asked me if I could sit next to him, because it was a very emotional trip for him. He said, “You see those pine trees over there? I used to sleep under them.” Or we would pass something on the road in the taxi going—it’s a two-hour trip from the airport in Albuquerque to Los Alamos—he says, “Now, this is where I used to stand on the street corner, thumb up, trying to get a ride to see my wife.” Nobody had cars, they were not paid enough. The one who had a car was Klaus Fuchs, the spy. He had a car, and Feynman used to say, “Well, Fuchs was nice. He let me use his car so I could get to the hospital.” There were many stories about that car, and then things went wrong and so on.
But later, when my husband got in somewhat of a depression—I would say professional depression. I said, “We got to do something to get you out of this.” This was 1980. He had been provost from 1970 to 1980, and he felt he’d lost his connection to his big love, theoretical physics. He couldn’t get back. He didn’t enjoy the teaching anymore; he didn’t enjoy his students anymore that he enjoyed before. He didn’t have the right things; he didn’t go to meetings anymore. He had just lost his connection and he was depressed.
I said, “You know, there are ways to deal with this. Why don’t we do something wild? Why don’t we take a big loan on our house and we buy something that you always wanted? You always wanted to go back to Los Alamos and buy some land and go hiking there again like your colleagues have done.” Some of his colleagues did do it. Professor [Robert] Walker did that and a couple of others.
I said, “It’s too much trouble going with the children to Los Alamos.” We had all these dogs and so on and can’t take the dogs in the airplane so easily. So we thought he’d learn how to fly, we could use a plane, if he and I could fly. But I said, “You know, they come down so often, these little planes. Then with the dogs and so on, it’s not a good thing. Why don’t you buy something within driving distance, where we can pack everything and the children, their friends, the dogs, everything.” He always wanted something near Mammoth [Mountain] where he used to ski with—Harold Brown skied there, too. I said, “Well, there’s more skiing there.”
But he found a place close to LA, 90 minutes from Caltech, so it’s easy to go there on Sunday afternoon and be back that same night. You can go there for half a day and you can pack everything, you know, dogs and children and everything. We found this place, which is a private mountain valley. It had no house on it. We couldn’t afford anything with a house. It was just a lot of land embedded in a national forest, very much like Los Alamos. So we made a bid on it and we got it.
That water that you’re drinking, there are 48 springs on that particular piece of land, comes from those springs. There’s no fluorine, no chlorine. It’s granite mountain water. The mountains go up to roughly 9,000 feet. We’re at 6,000, and so there’s lots of snow melt from granite and so on.
So we bought that place to get him out of the depression, and it helped, it made a huge difference. Later, Feynman went there, too. Feynman used to tell me about how he slept under the trees in Los Alamos. Well, we slept under the trees there. There was no house there, we didn’t have a trailer. So we slept under the trees with $8 tarps, just like they did at Los Alamos.
I used to worry a little bit, because it’s embedded in national forest, and there’s bears around—brown bears, and there’s coyotes and lots of birds. There’s mountain lions, pretty good-sized mountain lions. Christy said, oh, that doesn’t bother him. That didn’t bother Feynman either. They could sleep in the middle of nowhere.
He said he went to a meeting once and slept outside, and he had a bottle with drinking water next to his head. In the morning, when he came up, he saw that a bear had visited him and the drinking water and had made holes in the drinking water to suck it out, but didn’t touch him. So he always told me the story that they’re not interested in us, they’re interested in candies and water and stuff like this.
Yes, the water that you’re drinking, I just use these bottles to fill it up—a glass bottle. I fill up about 100 bottles when I go. We now have a house and we have everything there. We built a house, and Feynman went there several times, sleeping like Los Alamos under our place. Then later, he wanted to own a place like this himself. The nearby mountains, there are cottages, and he bought himself one little piece of land there with a little cottage on a hill and no road. He would have a wheelbarrow to put his groceries in, to take it by wheelbarrow through the bushes up to his little cabin. He had that just before he died. He didn’t enjoy it very long.
That’s a little story on Feynman. Another story I wanted to tell you about Feynman, I met him eating where the students eat, in the “Greasy” of Caltech. I never used to go where the professors eat. I always ate with the students when I was a postdoc here. Feynman chose to eat there, too. He was always interested in students.
We met among the students and I was new here, so he would immediately zero in on me. He wanted to know what you do at Caltech and he started throwing physics questions on neutrinos on me, because he knew I was in Willy Fowler’s laboratory. “What are you doing about the neutrinos?”
I said, “Professor Feynman, I know nothing about neutrinos, but I’m going to find out.” Then he never asked me another science question in all the conversations he had.
But he asked me about everything else. He would ask me on our walks here from my house to Caltech, “Now, tell me, Juliana, what is it between you and Bob that you still have that magic spark flying between the two of us?” I had never thought about that question. You know, what is it that our life is still so animated and there’s such a force between us?
I didn’t have an answer, because I never thought about it. And he didn’t cross the street until I gave him an answer. What I told him is, “You know, he gives me room to grow. He leaves me a lot of room in this relationship. I think that’s one of the reasons the spark is still here.” And then he was quiet, very quiet.
I had another—he would come to every invitation I had. When I later was getting engaged to Christy and then married, Christy would give a lot of dinners and I was then the hostess. Just before we married, there was one of these events. I always liked candlelight. Coming from Europe, I liked candlelight, so I would have no electric light. It was all candlelight at my wedding, at dinners I gave later in this house. Many, many candles.
One dinner that I came to, and that Feynman came to at the beginning—I had a big bowl, glass bowl with water in it, and there were flames coming out. Then I had these little sea petals, little leaves of flowers floating around. He got down on hands and knees and he says, “Juliana, how did you get the flame going in water?”
I said, “Well, you figure it out.”
He would get down on hands and knees and look through the bottom and would look on the top. I finally had to tell him there were little—it was pretty dark—there were little plastic dishes in there and you wouldn’t see any color. And there was a tiny wick in there and I had put a match to the tiny wicks and then I had hid things with rose petals. He had to get to the bottom of it. So that’s another story that I enjoy.
When he had his big surgery—his cancer surgery—he explained it all to me in great detail. This was at Los Alamos. We sat at a table. He said, “Juliana, they took this big chunk out of my thigh here and they put it here.” When he was diagnosed with cancer, he went to the hospital here in Pasadena. The Huntington Hospital, it was called at the time. He went to the library and he studied the original papers in the jargon in medicine and he figured out the solution to cancer himself. He wasn’t going to trust cancer experts.
Later, when cancer hit me, I did exactly the same thing. I had cancer starting in the breast, like for many women, but then I had let it go too long. I had tumors not only in the lymph, but I had tumors in the kidney and in the liver. I wanted to live, just like Feynman wanted to live. Because my husband, we had a good relationship, I wanted to live for him. I went in Feynman’s footsteps and I went to the Huntington Hospital, which is only a few miles away. I went to the library there and I studied about chemo, radiation, surgery, just like he had done.
He came to the conclusion that chemo wasn’t going to do much. He had cancer up here. There was another famous physicist who had the same—Fermi had the same thing in the ‘50s. He also had cancer in the upper abdomen, in the stomach. Anyway, Feynman figured out that chemo would be only a few percent, it wasn’t worth it. And radiation wouldn’t do it either. It had to be a drastic surgery. So he explained, showed me how all that was cut away, and he was very dramatic about it. He was an actor. How it was stuffed in here and they stuffed this full with other stuff.
When he had that surgery, he only wanted Caltech blood. He was Type O, which is not the most common blood, and all of Caltech was ready to donate. It was a big deal, and he made it. This was in 1980. I had a big thing going here once and he didn’t come, because he was facing the cancer doctors, and then you know, he had that. But later he got cancer again. It came back.
What he hated the most is administration in Washington. Then we had the Challenger Seven accident, the seven astronauts were killed. There was a committee to find out what went wrong with this Challenger Seven thing. They were all NASA-paid people. You couldn’t persuade Feynman to say anything that he didn’t believe in. He was very honest about everything, even if it was unpopular. His wife persuaded him that he has to go to Washington, and he has to sit on the committee, and he has to get to the truth why things went wrong that far.
That basically killed him, because he worked 15 hours a day. He went to the laboratories, interviewed low-down engineers. They took too much of a gamble with this O-ring. There was a high probability that the O-ring would go wrong and that the whole thing would come down and people would die. That was well-established, but the administration wanted to keep their time schedule, and they were saying, “Oh, the probability is so little, and we’ll just go ahead anyway.” And then it happened.
When they had finally an interview where they were all telling what went wrong, the NASA people all said the same thing. He had his own interview and he stated what he had found out, which was the case. But it was so difficult on him that basically, the cancer came back and he died not too long after that. I think he would have lived had he looked out more for himself. But his wife, his third wife—he was married three times—she persuaded him that he had to make the service to the country.
When my boss, Willy Fowler, got the Nobel Prize in ’83, I was trying—he wasn’t home, he was in Chicago somewhere, some observatory somewhere—I wanted to do something special before he got home. He was expected home on a Friday, and it was announced on Thursday that he got the Nobel Prize. I wanted to do something for him, so I decided a banner would be a good thing.
The highest building is ten stories high at Caltech, and I figured I couldn’t afford the banner. And it would be professionally made, and I wanted to do something homemade. I figured I could afford bedsheets, so I bought eight king-size bedsheets, and then made stencils with the students of Caltech. Eight feet big, two feet wide. “Whoopee [inaudible] Willy,” you know, alliteration.
While I was doing this banner, Feynman came by. We were working on it, the students and I, and he said, “Juliana, what’s going on?”
I said, “You know, Willy got a Nobel Prize. This is a big surprise.” Because [Alfred] Nobel did not like to give anything connected to astronomy and astrophysics. He had this lady friend and she had a romance with an astronomer or astrophysicist, something like this, so none of his money would ever go in that direction. Willy’s was for that direction, nuclear reactions in stars and stuff like this, element creation in stars. This was against Mr. Nobel’s direction, so we were very surprised. Not that he didn’t deserve it, that he got it for that subject.
Feynman comes by and sees us working on it, and I said, “He got the Nobel Prize against all expectations.” He was so happy; he was jumping with joy. Then later, when he got very ill after going to Washington and finding out about these astronauts, I did it for him, too. I figured I had to do it for him, and I heard that he was supposed to go through—he only had one kidney. It had been operated on due to this cancer business. Seven years later, he died, exactly like my husband. My husband only one kidney, too. They both died exactly seven years later. I don’t know why, but that is what I observed. He was supposed to have this kidney treatment every so often—and what is it called?
Sackmann Christy: Dialysis, right. He had his first dialysis on a Thursday, and he figured out that he could get another six months of life—they told him—out of this. After his first treatment, he decided six months of life isn’t worth it for the stuff he would go through. In addition to that, he always told me he would—he always talked about his father. He had a fascination with his father, and his son. He was a very good son [misspoke: father] to the only child he had, and then one was—Michelle was adopted, of course.
But he always talked about the father in his walks to me and that he died so young, and that he expected to die young, too. He always predicted his death. His father died in his 50s and Feynman died when he was 69, expecting it. He almost pushed it, I would say. When he had this dialysis, he figured it’s not worth it to go through that for another six months when he was expecting to die young anyway. He was 69 already, ten years more than his father.
I learned, Friday morning, my husband comes home at 11:00 to pick up something. You know, we were only three doors from his office. He says, “Guess what? He finally decided to die. He doesn’t want to go through these treatments anymore.”
I said, “Oh, my, oh, my. I don’t like it. I got to do something for him. The banner that he liked so much for Willy Fowler, we got to do that for him.”
That was just before 12:00, so I march over to the student houses where we had good climbers. Those climbers—they sit in hammocks doing their homework, and they were well-known going to the mountains and doing difficult climbing. Because I’m not a climber, and it’s a very difficult project doing this thing.
The tenth floor doesn’t go to the top. The top is the ninth floor, then you’ve got to get ladders up there and you have to carry them up. They don’t fit in the elevator. Then you have to—the building kind of projects out many feet—you have to lean over and get that thing over. When we did it for Willy Fowler, we went to the construction sites of Caltech and we borrowed PVC pipes to put them in, so that it would not fly in the wind. And they fell out—could’ve killed someone up there.
I asked Christy to help me. That’s the only joint publication we ever did, “Whoopee Willy.” I said, “Christy, you got to help me with this. How do we prevent this thing from flying and flipping?”
He says, “Use ropes. They sew on ropes and we take the ropes from nine stories down and we anchor it in the floor, and that thing will be rigid up there. It won’t go anywhere.” I had the president of Caltech, I told him what I was doing with the students, and he was down there and he was praying that nothing would happen. I did it with the permission of the administration.
Anyway, when Feynman’s thing came, I went to the same student house—new students. This was in ’68 [misspoke: 1986] and before it was ’83, so new students. They turn over every four years. I said, “Will you help? Another climber getting this done is out there. So Feynman can still have a smile on his face. He’d like a practical joke.”
I knew he was at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. I called the photographer at Caltech. I said, “Can you make a good picture of this and make a print immediately in an 8×10 print or something big? Let’s get it down to his hospital bed so he can smile.” I wanted to put on it, “We love you, Dick.” It’s a lot, much more than “Whoopee Willy.”
I got the students to agree, and so we did it. We were ready before it got dark to start mounting it. Because Feynman was predicted to die Saturday evening, and I wanted to get it down Saturday morning before he died. I needed the photographer and the whole works Saturday morning with the sunshine, we’re going to do it. So I went to the secretary of Feynman and Christy – they always had the same secretary. I said, “Helen Tuck, I’m doing this, I just want you to know. We’re going to get a picture down to Feynman tomorrow.”
[She] says, “Juliana, if you do this, I’ll never talk to you another day of your life.”
I said, “Why? I want a smile out of him.”
She says, “You must leave the family in peace. He’s dying. He wants to spend the last hours with his family, but when you put this big thing up, eight king-size sheets, it’s going to get in the newspapers and he won’t have any peace. They’ll come down to the hospital and bother the family. You can’t do it.”
I said, “Okay, makes sense. I won’t do it.”
She says, “You can do it after he died as an expression of Caltech feeling towards him.”
He didn’t die Saturday night, he didn’t die Sunday night. He didn’t die Monday, and then on Tuesday morning—the LA Times, my husband comes back with, “Feynman died last night late.” Then I went to student houses shortly after. They’re all sleeping at 7 o’clock. It’s dangerous. We got a man from JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] who’s accustomed going to work at 8 o’clock in the morning. Our students show up anytime they want, they’re up half the night.
Then later we got the students involved and we did it. I’m very proud of that, how it all happened. We didn’t tie it down with Christy ropes. Later, the wind disturbed it and it became like a ghost flying in the wind. I want to show it to you later, okay. Anyway, that is another Feynman episode.
Feynman had a daughter, Michelle. She loved horses like we did, and we ended up at the same stable. She had her horse and she called it Sir. We had other horses, we had two horses, we had different names. Anyway, we used to talk to each other because of the horse business. He was not a horse person. Feynman was not very athletic. He walked and he slept under trees, but he did not go into the waves, he did not go skiing. All of that was not his cup of tea.
Sackmann Christy: He would go out of his way. He used to park his car right in front of our house. It was the most modest car of the period, very humble car, because his money would go to Sir. He strongly supported Michelle in whatever she wanted to do. When he gave talks in Greece, he would come back and he would have the most beautiful little statue from Greece, a horse statue, for his daughter.
He was a very loving father, all I could judge. For his son, he used to walk early in the mornings with his son and explain physics to him, just like his own father had explained physics to him. He wanted to continue this tradition. He went out of his way to support whatever Michelle wanted to do. So I always admired him as a father.
And, he didn’t accept any invitation that I gave him unless he had checked with his wife, Gweneth. She was in control, just like my husband’s first wife. She controlled where he would work and all the other details. He controlled the physics and she controlled the life. It was the same thing with Feynman’s wife. They had a very good relationship and he very much respected her and let her have whatever she wanted. He always talked about his big love, but I saw a very nice relationship that he had with Gweneth. When he died, she started traveling a lot, and she died within a year. Because it was just too much.
They are buried in the same place where my husband is buried, and where I’ll be buried. I looked for a burial place before he died, and the place that I found was all filled up and I didn’t want him next to a freeway or anything. It’s called Mountain View Cemetery. It’s close to the mountains that Feynman always loved. It’s a private cemetery and it’s close—well, Christy always loved the mountains.
Then I found there was a little path that these people used to walk on. In that path, they’re making new graves available where there never had been any graves, few steps away from Feynman. I was able to buy a grave in this path, right next to another Caltech person called Rudy Marcus, another Canadian, whose wife had died before him with cancer. She’s buried there already. Right next to them, and then there’s a road and there’s a couple more graves, and there is Feynman, all in one exact line pointing towards Caltech. I thought that is kind of strange how that goes that way.
What else do I want to say about Feynman. I have many memories with him. Anyway, I admired him in many ways, and he was always on the same wavelength. As I was preparing myself for your visit today, I was reading all these challenging things that Christy started with arms control and Feynman would always be on the same side. They had the same opinions and so on about almost everything. They were like two brothers.
My husband went out of his way to have Feynman come here, and so did Bob Bacher. They used Hollywood, they used that he could go to sabbatical for the first year to Brazil without coming to Caltech. And they used that he wouldn’t have to have many students, that Christy would take the load of students. Because Feynman always felt he could solve it so much faster than his students could. It was no fun working with students.
But I looked up the number of students my husband had, and I figured he had one student every four years, PhD. I found the theses. When he passed away, I had to get the boxes out of his office, and I found all these PhD theses that he had kept, but I don’t know what there was in addition to that. I found actual theses that he kept—one every four years.
Then we looked into Feynman, who came here so that he wouldn’t have to have so many students, he had one every three years. So he actually had more students than I can prove for my husband. I don’t know everything about my husband, but the little I found out, he had an amazing number of students. I ran into one student, an eye doctor, that I liked very much. Well, this eye specialist was a student of Feynman. He had impact in many different fields.
It was due to Feynman that I’m sitting here today and living after this cancer that I had. Because in my family, the predominant cause of death is cancer. My father died of cancer, my grandmother died of cancer, all my aunts, sisters died of cancer.
We have cancer in the family, you might say. The cancer hit me in 2003. It was done within 2005. So I’m still here, 14 years after getting rid of it. You know, it’s quite a long time. I went in Feynman’s footsteps. I did what he did.
He went to the nearby hospital to study the probability of the original—read the original papers. Don’t ask an oncologist, get to the bottom yourself. Then I went to UCLA just like he did—the eighth floor of UCLA where all the medical journals are. I read the original papers. Then like Feynman, I designed my own cure. Feynman had this big surgery in 1980, where he had multiple surgeons working on him.
When he was on the gurney being shoved into the surgery, he was still giving out orders to the surgeons. They were basically following his orders. He said, this and this specialist should be there, some blood, vein specialist has to be there. And he was totally right. Later, one of his things broke and that specialist was able to put it together again. He designed his own recovery.
When the cancer hit me, I did exactly the same thing. Huntington Hospital, UCLA, and that’s why I’m here today. But I tried not to get into the stress that Feynman got into. It was too much for him and his body was weak. But he was a very impressive man in many different ways.
Bob Bacher, he was another man I have some little stories for. Bethe was in charge of the theoretical aspect of the atomic bomb, and Bacher was in charge of the practical aspects. The first atomic bomb experiment—the one that exploded in Alamogordo, July 16, 1945, was brought not by the Army. It was brought in the personal station wagon of Bob Bacher. He didn’t trust anybody.
Even though Caltech was a very quiet place when my husband accepted the job of Oppenheimer here, it became the center of the atomic bomb people. Not only did he get Bacher and Feynman, he got Bethe. He was here every year for many years, giving wonderful talks and inspiring everyone around here. Many, many of the physicists ended up here one way or the other, visiting or permanently.
The station wagon, I had to tell you. His car had another important role. He offered his car when Feynman was persuaded to visit from Cornell. He said, “You can use my car to go to Hollywood.” That was another thing that persuaded Feynman to break his ties, Hollywood. Then he got Bethe here. He also needed a fatherly figure, just like Christy did. Bethe was a fatherly figure to him. So they got Bethe here, too. That was Bob Bacher’s thing, too.
Sackmann Christy: I wanted to say a few words about Bethe. He was extremely nice to interact with. He was so humble, just like Christy. Oppenheimer was not humble. Oppenheimer would make you scared quite often with his intellect and put you right in the corner and so on. Oppenheimer used to talk so fast in his lectures that it took two people to follow a lecture. One would listen and one would write, and then later they exchanged things. Christy was one of the very few who had no pal. He listened and wrote at the same time. But Oppenheimer was challenging.
Bethe was so calm and easy to talk with. He was so supportive. I was a little nobody here at Caltech, and I went to accompany my husband to Hiroshima once. I wanted to visit my own colleagues in astrophysics in Tokyo and in Kyoto. Then I visited my own colleagues and they showed me how they had made with a little home camera—inexpensive thing—a computer graphics movie of stuff that was going on in the generation of stars, formation of stars. I was so impressed with it on a shoestring budget that I came home, and I said, “If they can do it, we can do it.”
So I wanted to make a movie—computer graphic movies with my home camera. But then I got the JPL camera for free. It cost tons of money, but they allowed me to use their camera, which was very nice of them. I used a SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] student, an undergrad, and it wasn’t a job for eight weeks. The job went on for one and a half years, but he got it done.
I showed the nuclear reactions inside stars, the runaway nuclear—not bombs—runaway nuclear explosions. And they repeat and repeat and they repeat and the sun’s going to—one day, like this, too—the sun’s going to expand out to earth. I was showing what’s happening in aging stars with these nuclear runaway actions and the stars contracting and collapsing. These are my calculations. When Bethe came here, I thought, “Ah, I’ll show him my own little computer graphics movie.” He was so supportive, and he didn’t demolish me with questions. He was just nice. Everybody felt that way about it.
He did everything with brain and slide rules. He was famous for his slide rule. So were a few other physicists, whose name—but, he inspired people in that direction. When he came here, he had lots of visitors always—his office was always full of people that he was treating very nicely. He gave excellent talks about the construction of the atomic bomb and this and that.
But he was also very clear when we met privately that he missed his wife, Rose, terribly. She stayed home most of the time taking care of her older parents. He needed a housekeeper, so he had another physicist, Gerry Brown—a student of Szilard, top physicist—be his housekeeper. Brown made sure they had food in the house, Brown made sure about all—they shared an apartment just around the corner from Caltech—Brown took care of everything. I was very impressed always how one physicist would help another physicist when it came down to even daily jobs like that.
[Robert] Serber—I met him in 1983 when we went back after the 40th reunion. He also struck me—he was so humble and so nice. I’ve also found a lot of letters from him that strike me the same way. He had a beautiful young wife there with a little child, a little boy, two years old. Now, he was the generation of my husband and also shows up with a young woman my age. I lost track of them. That’s the only interaction I had with him, but his letters were always very nice.
These people were always inviting each other, and I found letters of Christy wanting Serber to come very much to Caltech. He wouldn’t come, because his wife, Charlotte, didn’t wish to drive and didn’t want the upheaval of packing and all that. All these men gave a tremendous amount of everything to their wives. They were a very giving group, all of them. And I met many.
Another incident in ’83—here were these scientists from the bomb construction meeting for the first time. Victor Weisskopf and many, many others were there. I met them for the first time. There was a protest going on by reporters outside, newspapers and other people outside the conference room, to give hell to these people who had constructed the atomic bomb and all these weapons. It was a very negative protest for the people inside.
I was amazed. When they heard that all these people were outside with candles and throwing dirty words, they got up and they all marched out and they joined with these protestors and said, “Let us share the candles, we have the same opinion.” To me, that was shocking that they kind of regretted what had come of the atomic bomb.
I had many discussions with Christy on the atomic bomb business. Because I came from Germany and I witnessed as a toddler these bombs coming down. As I was growing up, seeing all these buildings demolished, these brick buildings. I had to walk around the ruins going shopping in Stuttgart and so on. I had not very pleasant memories of these bombs.
I fear the bomb would’ve been thrown on Berlin. Or I was close to that city that was totally destroyed almost, Dresden. It was not a military city. It was full of churches and castles and refugees. We were one of the refugees. So I had divided feelings on this bomb business.
I used to question my husband, whether it was really necessary to get into this nuclear business. He said yes, and Bethe thought the same way. I discussed it with Bethe, too. Their argument was that they were trying to save American boys. That the war in the Pacific was so ugly, it was so destructive on American soldiers.
There was this air bombing going on by this general [Curtis LeMay], who made these fire bombs on Tokyo and many of the other cities, where they lost 100,000 or 90,000 in one night. Because the houses are out of wood in Japan, and they all burned. One atomic bomb was roughly one firebombing as far as loss of life goes.
In addition to that, the Japanese were defending their emperor. The [Japanese] generals claimed they could not give up because they wanted—the emperor was their god to them, and they had to save their god. And the generals in Japan did not wish their emperor to suffer a similar fate as the generals of Hitler. So they would’ve fought to the bitter end.
Their children, ten years old, were already trained in the schools, when the American soldiers would land on the shores of Japan—which was planned pretty soon—that the children would get into the fight, the little boys with swords. It would’ve been a bloodbath of armed American boys against these little Japanese boys—a terrible bloodbath. And it was coming.
Now, the bomb was built not for the Japanese. They didn’t anticipate the Japanese war. That was a surprise to them. It was built because of the German war. It was built because Hitler wanted to dominate the world, they thought. But coming from Germany, I know that isn’t quite true. He wanted to get neighboring areas.
He did not wish a war with England. He fought very hard not to get into war with England, but Churchill wanted that war. But in any case, he wanted to just get the boundaries for his people that had been taken away in the First World War and before. He wanted to get that. But people in this country thought he wanted world domination. Well, after he attacked, after the war with England happened, he probably would’ve gone further—yes, there’s no doubt about it. No doubt about it with me either.
But the bomb was built against Hitler and that was basically a good thing. Because, Hitler was terrible, and he was terrible to his own people, including us. My grandfather was almost shot because of Hitler. He was not Jewish—because he was assisting people that you weren’t allowed to assist. You know, we Germans did good stuff, too. Hitler was a terrible menace, and we all—my grandfather was always praying that somehow, he would be gone sooner or later. But we had to suffer under him. People tried to assassinate him, they were unsuccessful. So yes, it was built against Hitler.
There was this notion that the center of physics was in Germany and that they could do it. It was discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. They had the know-how, they had the manpower, and they had the uranium through Belgium that they would build an atomic bomb.
Bohr was pushing that also—Niels Bohr—he traveled here. They were not wrong about that. He would have built it. The strange thing of fate is the Americans got their money in the Depression from the military budget. And the Germans used money from the military budget also, exactly the same, to build an atomic bomb.
But what the Americans didn’t know, but what I know, is that most of the German scientists who were not Jewish who were left behind sympathized with the Jewish scientists who had to leave. Otto Hahn [misspoke: Fritz Strassmann] was hiding them in his own apartment. He was risking his own life. There was an incredible camaraderie internationally in physics.
There were a few idiots who were not that way, but the majority, as far as I could tell when I went back—and I was at the Heisenberg Institute and I met those people. They were against Hitler. Heisenberg almost disappeared like the Jewish scientists disappeared, himself, without having Jewish blood.
He almost disappeared. It was his mother who rescued him, I learned in Munich. A lady rescued his life, a mother. That’s another story. I’m going to put that in this book.
There’s a very interesting history there. When I went through my letters here for you, reading for the first time that Heisenberg—who was the center of physics in the world for a long time, before Oppenheimer became so prominent—he traveled when he was still unmarried, in 1930, to America. America was an idol for him. He traveled to China and some other countries, big trips. He traveled to America again after Hitler was in power and he actually went to see Oppenheimer at Berkeley. He wanted to tell Berkeley, “I’m not going to do it.”
But there was language, a communication problem. German, like Japanese, is a very convoluted language. I can write a whole sentence for one page. You don’t get to the point until you get to the verb at the end. English is very short and very direct, and you get to the point quickly. An educated German doesn’t talk like that.
An educated person talks—I know there’s various levels of Japanese, too. You have to talk at a certain level. So he didn’t communicate. He was also being observed all the time, what he was doing in America in the Hitler time. But he was trying to tell Oppenheimer, “I’m not going to do it.”
The other thing is he had just gotten married. He had a big flame who was an aristocrat connected to—what’s his student, the one that also worked with him—[Carl Friedrich] Von Weizsacker, was a big family in Germany, aristocratic family. They were very good in politics; they were very good in physics. Anyway, he was in love with a sister, I believe, of this von Weizsacker family, or one of these people there. He was turned down by the family; he wasn’t good enough.
He had a grudge for a long time and then he finally found a lady, Elisabeth, who he married in the ‘30s. They had six or so children, very good marriage. She was a musician, a pianist like himself. All these German scientists were musicians, by the way. Anyway, they had a very good life together.
When you became an immigrant to the United States, you couldn’t bring your family with you. It was just a wife and your children. He actually was discussing with his wife, Elisabeth, whether they should leave Hitler’s Germany just like the other physicists had done. With his Nobel Prize, he could’ve gotten a job at Columbia or anywhere around there. He was actually contemplating doing it, and Elisabeth said, “If my parents can’t come, I can’t go.” Due to the parents, they stayed in Germany.
Then of course, the war came. This was ‘30s. Yeah, he was in the States several times, and the war broke out for Germany, September 1, 1939. He actually was in the States in the month before he had to go back. He had to learn how to shoot, himself, and do army training. I don’t think Oppenheimer ever had to do this, but Heisenberg did. And he made sure that Hitler would not get the atomic bomb.
I was arguing to the bitter end with Robert F. Christy about this. I could never persuade him. He stuck to his point; it was developed to throw on Hitler. Of course, then it wasn’t necessary anymore. Germany capitulated in May ’45. The bomb wasn’t ready.
But I agree with the Japanese. They had—well, several ideas. They should’ve done just an experiment in the air and shown Japan that they could do it. But the argument was it wouldn’t have persuaded them. What the Americans should have done is persuaded Japan that there was nothing going to happen to their emperor. The generals in Germany [misspoke: Japan] did bad stuff, but the emperor didn’t.
And they should’ve given them guarantees that he would be safeguarded and that nothing would happen to their god, which is the case. You know, after the war, nothing happened to the emperor and he could still visit Washington many years later, and he stayed alive. He was not degraded in any way. That was a mistake on the American side, that they didn’t. We wouldn’t have all these weapons today.
But of course, Christy didn’t only work on weapons and trying to stop them. He worked also on nuclear energy generation and he—with Fermi—was in that [Chicago Met] Lab. December 2, 1942, they got the self-sustaining nuclear reaction going at Chicago. Then he worked with Fermi the next few months for the first nuclear reactor they developed at Argonne later. He worked with nuclear reactors all his life. He went to meeting after meeting, and until his very end, he believed that that is a good source of energy, the sun and nuclear reactors.
The problem with the nuclear reactors was that they didn’t do enough inspection, and they didn’t go enough into safety. It was a problem of the American government that they should’ve provided more funds to make these reactors perfectly safe. He felt that everything else was more unsafe than the nuclear reactors would’ve been. So he worked on that all his life.
What he did at the end of his life, when most people retire, he was invited to be the head of a committee to figure out what happened in Japan with these only two bombs that exploded—the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki one. It was a very difficult project, because this was 40 years later. He was given that job in 1982, so that’s 40 years later. How do you figure out what happened 40 years before with radiation?
There were so many shielding effects. First of all, when you picture the Christy gadget, they had this plutonium at the center, the plutonium-239. Then they had a lot of dynamite around that, directed dynamite. And so these neutrons that came from the plutonium had to go through the dynamite. The dynamite consisted of a whole bunch of different elements and that gave off more neutrons and they interacted with each other.
Then it had to go through the iron shell, whatever it was, and that made more neutrons and things that had to be studied. Then it went into the atmosphere with nitrogen and oxygen. There were multiple interactions between all these neutrons and all the stuff that flew out. And, then what would actually happen to people? You had to study the shielding of the houses and of clouds, and a lot of shielding calculations that were very, very difficult.
This thing went on for—it’s still going on. I can give you the telephone number of someone who’s still working on it, Steve Egbert from the Science Applications International Corporation in San Diego. This was a big American project and they collaborate with Japanese physicists. They had 100,000 patients that they were studying—survivors—where they were and all the details over there, where they could figure out.
The end result was—after these very difficult things, they had to examine cement walls, they had to excavate dead people from the radiation and study their teeth. They found an interesting thing, that women are three times as susceptible to radiation as men are. If there’s a radiation, women get three times as much. I never knew that before. Because, radiation is used in every dentist’s office and every medical clinic, you have radiation. Well, anyway, it affects women more than men, that’s one of the things that came out.
They said where the Hiroshima bomb fell, nobody could ever live there again. That territory was polluted for eternity. Well, they built a nice hotel there in which we slept, and life is going on there like before. It didn’t last all that long.
The two radiations which were kind of known to come out is neutrons produced by the bomb and gamma rays. What the study found out under my husband’s direction is that the neutrons were not the main problem, it was the gamma rays. Because the neutrons went into gamma rays, so the Fat Boy [misspoke: Man] bomb in Nagasaki was mostly damage due to gamma rays.
The same with the other, the Hiroshima one. That the Hiroshima bomb did not explode where they think it exploded. They couldn’t fit observations from the ground. It exploded a little higher up, 25 meters, but it was a little higher. That made a significant difference for what happened below.
To the bitter end, my husband had certain opinions and he found out a lot of other stuff. He was very unusual in many different ways. He was so selfless; he was so giving. He loved his physics so much. He did so much for Caltech. He brought so many Nobel—it’s not a quiet place anymore, it’s a very lively place, and he made it so.
He was involved in the defense—I found letters, it shocked me. You know, you needed two-kiloton to defeat an airplane from the Soviet Union at 200 meters or something like that. All this defense stuff on the defense of Europe he worked on. I mean, he didn’t just work on physics and students and all that at Caltech. He did an awful lot on an international basis, and to eliminate the bombs as much he could, and the testing. I think that’s one of the best things of his life.
His students worshiped him, just like Oppenheimer was worshipped by Christy and many of his associates. Christy’s students worshipped him. He went out of his way helping them when they were ill or this or that family problem or inspiring them with this and that. He went out of his way. I think he was this nature, but he also took over Oppenheimer’s ways. You know about Teller and so on, right. He became rather cool and didn’t have much contact.
Sackmann Christy: My husband knew that I had this passion for horses, and in post-war Germany, there was no way you could ride. The country was destroyed, so I had to start riding as an adult when your body’s already pretty stiff and, you know, your fall isn’t so easy. He asked me when he wanted to keep me in California, “What can I do to keep you in Los Angeles?” which wasn’t my first choice with the smog and all the rest.
I said, “Get me up on a horse.”
We used to go to places in LA up on a horse, and then he asked the trustees, “Where do I take a young lady who wants to be up on a horse?” And they told him about a ranch out in Northern California, where they have 200 riding horses and you ride every day, morning and afternoon. You don’t have to cook, and everything’s done for you. You just ride horses at different levels that you fit into. And that’s where he took me to. We’re still going there. He was an incredible rider. These creeks, six feet wide, he always used to jump them, and he rode a horse until he was 93 years old, holding hands with me.
Sackmann Christy: Christy got the PhD May 30th, 1941, I am born February 8, 1942. If you make a subtraction, I was born nine months after he married his first wife. It’s a very strange coincidence, to live through the German warfare and then to marry one of the top people on this side of the warfare.
I wrote a little thing a couple of years ago that I called, “On Opposite Sides of the Fence.” In warfare, you always have a fence, and I came from the opposite side. Both sides had heroes in it. Heisenberg, to me, is very much a hero and I want to write a book on him, too, because I know a lot. How his mother got him out of the clutches of Hitler, how she did it.
His name is Heisenberg, H-e-i-s-e-n-b-e-r-g, Werner. He was the center of physics in Germany and he trained many of the American physicists. I have a list there, but Teller was one of his students. Oppenheimer was also in Gottingen. He got his PhD, by the way, but not under Heisenberg, somebody else. But anyway, he was kind of the guru in Germany. He very much wanted the professorship of [Arnold] Sommerfeld, who was another great man [inaudible]. He didn’t get it, because of his political views against Hitler. He did not get this position. So he was very bitter.
Then shortly afterwards, he was called something, a derogatory word which meant “the white Jew” in Germany. That’s what they called physicists who were not Jewish but who were against what Hitler was doing and were sympathizing with the others. They were called white Jews. It appeared in, I think, newspapers – and I must find all that stuff – that he was called a white Jew. That’s one of the reasons he didn’t get the Sommerfeld position.
It was clear that people were disappearing. It wasn’t clear to my family. We lived close to Auschwitz. Later I lived close to Dachau, near Munich, when I went back. None of the local people seemed to know about these terrible places, Auschwitz and Dachau, not from what I could learn. They knew something was going on, but they didn’t know about the murderous stuff. They knew they were disappearing. But anyway, I never found out that anybody knew of the circles that I was in. Anyway, people were disappearing, so they were expecting Heisenberg to disappear also to an unknown place.
His mother feared for him. His mother was a socialite. She did a lot of entertaining. She made an appointment with the mother of another giant [Heinrich Himmler] in Germany—can’t think of his name right now—but he was in charge of the secret police. He caused all these criminal things. Mother didn’t know.
This one mother of Heisenberg’s goes to the mother of the chief of the secret police and said to her, “Do you remember our fathers used to be friends? They used to go hiking together in the Alps, and they had such similar interests. It would be nice if our boys could be nice to each other, too.” The mother of this terrible criminal did not know that her son was doing such things. And so the two women decided that their sons should be friendly with each other.
Then Heisenberg’s mother said, “Why don’t you tell your son to be a nice boy and be nice to my boy?” That’s how they talked. The mother actually went out and talked to her boy, not knowing what criminal acts he was doing. The boy [Himmler] sent out two letters, one to the military, which are historic things which I’ll put in my book, to spare Heisenberg. And another one—two letters are known, signed by him, to spare Heisenberg. Heisenberg was spared. These women did it. That’s how important women can be. That’s why Heisenberg was spared.
He did everything that nobody would—there were six Kaiser Wilhelm Institutions. Hahn, the chemist in Berlin, was in charge of one, and then there were others in physics. He [Heisenberg] very much wanted the directorship of one Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, they had a lot of funding and so on. I think Einstein was in one of them.
Then his student, Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker—while he didn’t get his bride there, he was in charge of another physics institute. They were cahoots under the same wavelength. They were both against Hitler. So they controlled three of the six Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. That’s a lot, and I don’t know at the moment who the other ones were controlled by. He did everything he could to have no bomb business in his institutes—there were three, the chemistry and the two physics ones.
I know a lot about that stuff, and I have a lot of evidence for it. I have six books there written, some of them in German, that people don’t read, but I can read them and I’m going to use them. Letters that he wrote to his parents, letters that he wrote to his wife, which all substantiates what I’m saying.
But he had to be very careful. He would’ve been executed like this had it been known what he was doing. He carried that thing through until he was imprisoned at Farm Hall in Britain. He was always claiming you needed too much uranium, and he covered up to the bitter end, but it was a coverup. I’ve seen in letters from his wife and to his parents.
It’s wonderful that people like that exist when you have a villain in the top government position who can order anything he wants to order, that you have some responsible parties among the people who do what they can do. We need people like that in every country. In Germany, certainly. I’m proud of him.
Kelly: Did you know him personally?
Sackmann Christy: A little bit. It was the same institute. He once came to the United States when I was here. He came to Caltech and I met him. I was very angry at my husband and at Caltech. We had very nice auditoriums there that he would get in Germany everywhere. And they put him into a little classroom, where minor people come to give a minor talk. They did not give him any official, nice—Christy thought to the very end that Heisenberg was a villain. I could never persuade him. They treated him in this way when he came to Caltech.
Kelly: That would be in the ‘50s, ‘60s?
Sackmann Christy: Shortly before he died. It would’ve been in the ‘70s. I went to his talk, and he knew who I was from Munich. I was engaged to the son of his co-director, Biermann. He knew very much who I was, and he met me here as the wife of Christy, and he was upset. I saw a lot of upset on the Caltech side, but on his side, too.
I greeted him in German with a Bavarian greeting, which is normally not used anywhere else. Grüß Gott, it’s “Greet God,” it’s a dialect form and I tried to do it in a dialect way.
He looked me over from scalp to toe. “How could you do it.” That’s what he told me without words. He wouldn’t take my hand. And I worshipped the man. That’s life. I’m going to do some good for him still. “How could you marry Christy?”
Sackmann Christy: Implied that to me. He didn’t say it verbally, but his eyes told me that. I was damned angry that he wasn’t received in a way that he would’ve been received anywhere else. But it wasn’t my doing. But that’s life.
He did do a lot that was very good. And as an example for future countries to do likewise when they get into trouble in the administration.
Kelly: There are lessons here.
Sackmann Christy: Yes, yes. Things always repeat. That stupid Hitler, why did he invade Russia? Napoleon’s empire got killed that way. He does it again. It always repeats, yeah.
Kelly: What do you think, and you can answer this however you’d like, about how the role of women in science has changed over the course of your lifetime?
Sackmann Christy: It has changed. It’s better. We have between 20 and 30% women now at Caltech and I’m grateful for everyone. But Stanford has over 50%, where my students went. My oldest daughter got into Caltech and she turned it down as a protest, because they’re still not good enough to women. We have two division chairmen among six, which is progress, in chemistry and in physics, the first women chairmen. We still have a long ways to go, and we’ve only come part of the way.
The way they treated us at the beginning, like myself or Catherine Cesarsky, who was a big woman in science. Or Beatrice Tinsley, who lost her life due to that, or Olga Taussky-Todd, who got the first professorships in mathematics at Caltech. It’s sad. Olga Taussky-Todd was married to a mathematician. She came from, I think, Hungary [misspoke: Austria], and then she was educated in Vienna. She went to England, because she was also Jewish. From England, she came to the United States working in Washington somewhere, the Bureau of Standards and so on.
She desperately wanted a child. Later, when I met her in Pasadena, she used to ask me, “Juliana” – when we met in supermarkets buying vegetables – “Let me hold your child.” She could never have a child, because she would’ve never gotten a job. She cried about that all her life. So I let her hold my firstborn: “Hold it as long you want.”
She was made the first professor at Caltech in science, due to my husband. I have a picture of her in my book. She had so many high awards from countries outside the United States. She had 300 papers published. She opened up whole new fields in mathematics, and she had a little postdoc, it was a low-down research position, at Caltech. I told Robert, “Caltech should be ashamed.” She made a quantum jump from a low-down research position. Her husband had the position and she became full professor. But it was near the end of her life. She sacrificed too much already.
Another scientist that very much inspired me was Beatrice Tinsley. She came from New Zealand. She married an astronomer from New Zealand. They came to the United States. He got the position, just like it would’ve been with me and Biermann in Santa Cruz. She got the position in Texas. No, he got the position, and she had nothing. She was sitting at home for four years wanting to do science also. She was so tense, they couldn’t have children, and she finally adopted two children.
Then finally, she got a little job at Caltech for three months or so and that’s when I met her for the first time. She came with her two children here in a station wagon, all alone. Her husband was at home in Texas. She had to get these kids to school, she had to shop for them, she had to wash for them. She had to do everything for the kids and do science, since it’s the only chance she had for three months or so. She worked herself to death, and she told me, “Juliana, you’re married now. If you ever consider having a child” – and I wanted them – “Hide it. Don’t let anybody know that you have a child. You’ll be kicked out at Caltech like this.”
That’s what I followed—I followed Beatrice’s advice. I hid my pregnancies. I lived close by, so I could go back and forth. There was no health insurance. When you go into the hospital and give birth, it was a private luxury at Caltech. I got out of the hospital in one day, because I couldn’t afford the private luxury. We didn’t have health insurance either.
Later, I go to visit Beatrice when she was in Washington and so on, and her tough life continued. She finally decided to split up with her husband. They went through a very friendly divorce, and she kept the daughter and he kept the son. It’s only then when she split up and she was a single mother, she got the position at Yale. She became a full professor at Yale, and I was so pleased, because my PhD advisor was there, Pierre Demarque. I’m sure he was helpful. He was always supportive of me, too.
She got this position and then she dated a colleague of mine, Richard Larson, and it was discovered that she had cancer and she died shortly afterward. She was barely 40 years old. She worked herself to death. Now they have an asteroid named after her. They have awards in the American Astronomical Society named after her. But it’s too late. She had a hell of a life, but she inspired me. “Hide the fact if you want a child. Go ahead, but hide it.”
I have a lot of bitter experiences here, too. But because I wanted to support my husband, I swallowed it all. I swallowed a lot. I could’ve gotten a job somewhere else, but I told my husband we would see each other once a month. How do you carry out a marriage seeing each other once a month?
He very much wanted a wife who would accompany him to meetings, who would accompany him on vacations, who would accompany him at everything in his life. Who would be home, who would cook for him. He didn’t want to cook. He had so many—he wanted a chic wife, he wanted so many things and I figured I couldn’t do that if I wouldn’t be close by. So I swallowed LA, I swallowed the smog, I swallowed everything I didn’t like about here. But the smog has gone away. It’s much better. It has improved.
I basically stayed here to help him with his dreams. It was a good marriage, but I had to pay a lot. I’m still paying in many ways. But I swallow it, that’s life.
Kelly: On balance, you were a winner.
Sackmann Christy: Yes. It’s, it’s tough. Stanford is different. I came from Canada, I was educated in Canada. We had a very small faculty, but two fulltime professors among the small faculty, and both of them inspired me a great deal. Without these women, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.
But they had a very fulfilled life and they did many things that men don’t do. They inspired me, and we need that for our young students here—for women students. What I did is when I ended up here is I had preferentially women students. Caltech women students, I had them come to my house and see what the life of a working professional is like.
I picked the Chinese ones, preferentially. I wanted my children to learn Chinese, because I figured there’s a lot on the other side of the ocean from LA. I wanted to get to know things that are not translated. My children had to learn Chinese. I used Chinese students to speak in Chinese, Mandarin, to my children and to play with them and to see what I was doing.
I would have a student come – actually she was out of China and she was working here in a house. She asked me if she could clean my house, and I was in the front. It was Easter and I was hiding Easter eggs. I looked at her and I said, “Uh-oh, this is not a cleaning lady, this is a highly intellectual woman who’s desperate.” I said, “I’ll clean the house if you speak in Chinese to my children. If you go swimming with them in the Caltech pool and play with them in Chinese only. I want my children to learn Chinese and I don’t know anything myself.” That’s how I got Chinese people involved in bringing up my children.
I lived next door and I understand some of these women are very important scientists now, but they saw what the life of a struggling wife who’s a scientist is like, you know. I tried to pass that on.
Kelly: Would you encourage young women to go into science today?
Sackmann Christy: I love science. I would do it again. I would do theoretical physics again. Yes, but you have to know what you’re facing and somehow survive it. I did survive, and I had a very good marriage, and I would marry him again. I told my husband when he died, “Don’t fret too much, whatever comes. I’m coming.”
Yes, one of my daughters is an engineer, Stanford-trained engineer and she does unusual stuff. The other one is in medicine and she does unusual stuff. I was very interested in medicine due to the cancer background and my husband’s eye problems. You know, personal reasons. I said, “You do it, you make new inventions.” She’s very good at it, and she’s very kind also.