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Founding Director John T. Jefferies Recounts Institute for Astronomy Beginnings

by Louise Good

Jefferies Library Dedication

On November 1, the library at IfA Manoa was dedicated to John T. Jefferies in honor of his being the first IfA director. Jefferies headed the IfA from its inception in 1967 until he left in 1983 to head the newly created National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Jefferies (left) was at IfA to give a colloquium when he was surprised with this honor.

John T. Jefferies, the founding director of the IfA, gave a colloquium talk on November 1 entitled "Reflections on the Early Days of the IfA." In it, he explained how he, a theoretical solar physicist, became the founder of the world's foremost nighttime observatory and the Institute for Astronomy. He was back in Hawaii to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration for two Mauna Kea telescopes.

Jefferies began his talk by thanking the current IfA staff "for the way in which you have built this program to a stature where it finds a place with the best in the world. This is what I had hoped for, dreamed of, worked for, from the very beginning."

In 1964, it was the opportunity to fit the new Mees Solar Observatory on Haleakala with instruments and then to conduct solar research that drew Jefferies and three colleagues. When he left for Hawaii, Jefferies was the head of a group studying radiative transfer at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Physics in Boulder, Colorado. "There was absolutely no justification for this impulsive action," he said about his decision to come here. He added, "The rest of the [solar physics] community thought I was just nuts" to leave an established program for an obscure place in the middle of the ocean. And though he achieved great things— developing the UH 88-inch (2.2-meter) telescope on Mauna Kea, founding the Institute for Astronomy, and establishing Mauna Kea as an international observatory that is second to none—ironically he never did get to do much research at Mees.

A series of serendipitous circumstances, combined with individuals and organizations willing to take risks, created the UH telescope, and ultimately, the Institute for Astronomy. Shortly before Jefferies arrived, astronomer Gerard Kuiper, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, was in Hawaii to find a site for a planetary telescope "that NASA was thinking of building." He looked first at Haleakala, but the 10,000-foot summit was not always above the inversion layer of clouds. From Haleakala he saw the taller peak of Mauna Kea and thought it might be a better site, so he persuaded Hawaii Governor John Burns to build an unpaved road to the summit to facilitate site testing. Kuiper and his colleagues found that Mauna Kea was indeed the site where the telescope should be built.

But NASA would fund only the telescope and its instrumentation, and not the basic infrastructure, including a better road and utilities. Those would have to be built by the state. When Jefferies arrived, discussions about what the university and the state might receive in return for providing this infrastructure were ongoing between Kuiper and the university's Hawaii Institute of Geophysics (HIG). UH had "absolutely no plans" for "expanding into general astronomy." In the hope that he could suggest how the university or HIG could benefit from the Arizona initiative, Jefferies was asked to attend the meetings with Kuiper. "I was the closest thing to an astronomer that the university had," he said.

In early December 1964, Jefferies and UH Vice President for Academic Affairs Robert Hiatt arranged a meeting with NASA and representatives of Harvard University in Washington, one that Kuiper was unable to attend. Harvard, like the University of Arizona, had expressed interest in building a telescope in Hawaii with NASA funding. Because Hawaii owned the land, and so much new infrastructure would be required, "NASA said they thought it only appropriate for Hawaii to recommend a partner," that is, choose between Arizona and Harvard.

Jefferies thought he would recommend Harvard because it was "the best thing for the discipline" and then "go back to worrying about building coronagraphs" for Mees Observatory, but on the way back to Hawaii from Washington, he stopped at Sacramento Peak Observatory to visit a colleague, who encouraged a reluctant Jefferies to undertake the project on behalf of the University of Hawaii.

On returning to Hawaii, Jefferies convinced Hiatt that they should at least find out if NASA would consider such a proposal from UH. Perhaps because this was a way of avoiding the choice between the renowned Dr. Kuiper on the one hand and the eminent astronomers of Harvard on the other, NASA quickly said "yes." With much assistance from people on the mainland, Jefferies completed a proposal for the telescope in February 1965. Within a month, it was accepted, and by July he had $3 million with which to build an observatory in Hawaii. He recalled, "I had nothing—no engineering staff, no astronomers, no administrative assistance. I'd never built anything beyond a ragged brick wall around my children's sandbox, and I most certainly had no experience in anything remotely resembling this." Nonetheless, in June 1970, the UH 88-inch telescope was completed and dedicated. "Securing this telescope … established astronomy as a discipline at the university and underlay the foundation of the institute," Jefferies said.

Jefferies also discussed the advent of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which he termed "the second seminal event" that "led immediately to Mauna Kea's identification as an international site of central importance."

Finally, Jefferies declared that none of this would have come about if individuals and institutions (NASA, UH, the state) had not been willing to take risks. He stated, "I see too little of this nowadays. What I see too much, and greatly fear, is the search for the soft ambivalence of a risk-free society and the parallel decay of a sense of personal responsibility. I would not advocate, heaven knows, a national recklessness, but surely we must leave room for the human spirit to stretch."