Founding Director John T. Jefferies Recounts Institute for Astronomy Beginnings
by Louise Good
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
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."