Gerard P. Kuiper
He was a very, very demanding individual. He worked extremely hard himself, and he demanded the same dedication, devotion, seriousness from everybody around him. If they didn’t give that, if they didn’t perform, then they ran afoul of him. That applied to students; that applied to fellow faculty, technical associates, engineers, anybody around him.
At the same time he had a humorous side, a warm side, a personal side that was in some ways appealing. But he was very difficult to work for, or even in the same building with. He prided himself on knowing almost everything, or having access to people who did. There’s funny things that linger on even in the new building over here. The entrance door on the side is always locked. I assume it’s still locked. It certainly was from the get-go with him because he didn’t want “common people” trafficking through his new building, and he would put it exactly that way: This is only for serious people who are doing what we’re doing here, which is very serious, and everybody else, the public, just stay away.
He was undoubtedly a great scientist. He was very, for want of a better word, authoritarian. He was of the European school of “the professor says, and the students do what the professor says” kind of thing. Though he loosened up quite a bit I think.
He was not the easiest man to get along with. But he wished everybody well. I’ll never forget one incident where a Polish astronomer had to leave Poland because the Russians were after him, or something or other. He came on a visit and then he had to go back. Gerard Kuiper set up a deal with him whereby if he sent a colored postcard, Kuiper had a position for him, a permanent position. If he sent just a black-and-white postcard, unfortunately that meant that he didn’t have a position for him. Kuiper worked very hard to get this [position opened]. I worked with the guy for many years: Wieslaw Wisniewski.
So that was the kind of guy Kuiper was. Just those incidents describe him. He had to be very strong. He was starting a major effort here at the University of Arizona, so he had to kind of dominate the scene; and he attracted very good people.
There were only a handful of us, and one of the reasons I believe was very few people could tolerate being with Kuiper. Carl Sagan, Dale Cruikshank, Bill Hartmann, me, Toby Owen—there’s less than a dozen people who can say, “I studied under Kuiper.” To me, it’s all a matter of Darwinian evolution: Either you could stand being under him, or you couldn’t. Very few people really could.
Kuiper had very little interest in our education. We were there to work as assistants, and that’s what we learned. We had 20-hour assistantships, and he would bawl us out if we worked less than 40 hours, saying we weren’t taking our assistantships seriously. When he taught the few courses he did, he would be up there: “How much longer do I have to be here?” He did not like to teach. He did research, and anything that got in his way, he didn’t want to do.
Dale and I worked in the infrared spectrometer lab; we built spectrometers and went on these two-week long observing runs three times a year, so you see how much time we spent away from class—and that was it. We learned by doing, and by listening to him. When you’re on the observatory floor all night—and of course nowadays they don’t do that, astronomers sit at home with their computer and they don’t go up there—in my day I sat out there in the freezing night all night, and helped Kuiper, or did my own observations, later in my career. So you learned by being around Kuiper, not by formally having coursework and things like that. I would say, people who worked with Tom Gehrels had a different relationship, but those of us who were with Kuiper, it was pretty much that. You were on your own. You survived, or you didn’t.