It was a brand-new department, with no history, with no traditions. We were inventing the traditions. We were inventing our own history. The faculty were the first to tell us. They said, “We’re going to give you a general exam that no member of this faculty could pass, because it has a little bit of this field and a little bit of that field.” Every one of them had their specialty, but no one had been educated in the whole breadth of planetary science, from celestial mechanics to geology.
There was also a real sense of camaraderie among the students, because we were a small number. The year I arrived the number of students majoring in planetary sciences went from maybe six to 11. We all knew each other immediately. It was a very tight group.
It was a very young department, and a very lively department. The faculty were very young and very lively. Also in some cases, inexperienced. Mike Drake was 29 when he was trying to direct me in a thesis. I didn’t know anything, but he didn’t know that much more. We were both learning, you know, how to be a faculty, how to be a scientist. There was an awful lot of on-the-job training.
When I came here there was no academic part of the Lunar and Planetary Lab, like there is the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory. There was just the Lunar and Planetary Lab. Kuiper sought at some point to have a Department of Planetary Science, an academic branch. I took the first courses that were offered there. Kuiper taught one, Bill Hubbard taught one, Bob Strom, Ewen Whitaker, in the forming stages of the Department.
I’ve always enjoyed the solar system. I’ve never understood why astronomers didn’t see that the planets were actually interesting places to explore. Bill Hubbard’s course was very challenging; it was about basically the physics of the interiors of planets. It’s rigorous physics under high pressure, in the interior of Jupiter for example; quantum mechanics, thermodynamics; or the physics of the solar wind and how it interacts with the magnetic fields of planets.
On the other hand you had Strom’s course, which was more qualitative, though not entirely so, because it was about surfaces of terrestrial planets and moons and cratering processes, and how a surface of a planet evolves. Generally something you can relate more to, because you could imagine hiking those surfaces, but still having a physical, quantitative underpinning to it.
I enjoyed it very much, so I tried to make those my electives for astronomy. There are certain courses I never took in astronomy. I never had a formal graduate course in stellar interiors for example, which would be normal to have here. So they let me dabble a little bit to satisfy those requirements.
There are two kinds of grad students. There’s the kind of grad student that gets up early, and there’s the kind that gets up at two in the afternoon. I was more of the one to get up early in the morning. There used to be a grad student house; it was maybe a mile away from here, called Hawthorne House, that I lived in for seven years. A surprising fraction of all grad students in my day who went through this Department lived in Hawthorne House at one point or another.
Usually we would have a class or two, somewhere in the morning. It depended on when the faculty member decided he wanted to teach the class. So you’d take a class or two; you’d maybe be working on problem sets or something he would give you.
Otherwise you’d be working on your science. Usually what happened is you signed up with an advisor somewhere, and he would have some projects you were working on. What you’d do is you’d go to a computer or you’d go to the lab and you would start working on making incremental progress on whatever you were doing.
I was working on solar system dynamics. I was working on the computer code, or in some cases I’d just go in the library and read papers and other things. That actually takes up a lot of your day. With that, you’re joking around with your friends, you’re having fun, you’re seeing what other people are doing, you’re talking to them about their research.
On a normal day, usually you’ll see grad students working late. Sometimes you’ll go out and play volleyball or basketball or something around five or so. Not everyday, but a surprising number of days, you’d go out and have a beer or two. Especially at the grad student house, because all the parties were focused there.
If there was a push on, often you would see people here late at night. If there was a test the next day, or you had some project you had to get done, or you had to give a talk or something, then you’d be working very late. You’d see people here roaming around at midnight. There’s also, again, these night-shift people. Some of them were observers, so they got used to working nights. Some people would be here at three or four in the morning, so they’d just work all night and sleep during the day. It’s a very strange schedule.
But that would be our day. If there was something going on among the grad students, we’d assemble usually at the grad student house and sit around and drink beer and do whatever we want.