High Strangeness: You Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

Thursday, August 28, 2014

You Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

I hate to quote a Jim Croce song, but it fits today's post.

You don't tug on Superman's cape,
You don't spit into the wind,
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with Jim.

What has brought me to such a state that I'm quoting corny 1970's story songs?

Well... I've written it before and I'll write it again: One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the biography of famed UFO researcher Dr. J. Allen Hynek is that I keep finding more evidence that contradicts the popularly-held belief that he was a timid, weak coward. He was, in fact, a cape-tugger, a wind-spitter-intoer, a mask-puller, and a Jim-messer-around-wither.

One striking example came to light shortly after Hynek's passing in 1986, at the memorial services held for him at the University of Chicago. Now, Hynek is not often associated with the University of Chicago, since he spent most of his career at Ohio State, Harvard and Northwestern, but U of C was Hynek's alma mater. He earned his bachelor's degree there, and then earned his Ph.D. at U of C's Yerkes Observatory on the shoes of Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

His thesis work at Yerkes "was concerned with the spectra of certain bright F-type stars," explained Dr. William W. Morgan in his eulogy to Hynek. "He revealed a delicate sensitivity to the varied appearances of the spectra of differing F stars," Morgan went on, "and a sense of morphological form as the thesis developed. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1935; the thesis was published in the November 1935 Astrophysical Journal."

That's all well and good, but then Morgan went on to describe a certain awkward incident involving Hynek's thesis work that reveals a striking aspect of Hynek's nature:

"Perhaps the most important result in the thesis," Morgan said, "was Hynek’s demonstration that the Mount Wilson classifications of many bright F0 stars from the Henry Draper Catalogue were seriously in error. These are HD F0 stars showing the broadest spectral lines, due to rapid stellar rotation. Such stellar spectra were classified too early, as A stars, by the Mount Wilson observers."
This was a common get-up for astronomers in the 1930s
Morgan is referring to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in southern California, which, at the time Hynek was writing Doctoral thesis in the early 1930s, was pretty much the planet Krypton of astronomy. It was another world, and the scientists who lived there were astronomy Supermen, with X-ray vision, the ability to fly and outrun locomotives, and, yes, capes.

You didn't fuck with the men of Mt. Wilson, especially if you were a lowly graduate student working in complete and deserved obscurity in a backwater like Williams Bay, Wisconsin. But that's just what Hynek did. He found an error in the work of the Mt. Wilson astronomers and then he proved they were wrong in his thesis.

What's more, he crowed about it... There is a very entertaining and illuminating correspondence in the Yerkes Observatory archives between Hynek and his boss at Yerkes, Dr. Otto Struve, in which the political ramifications of Hynek's discovery are embarrassingly apparent... Struve, who also published the Astrophysical Journal, was distressed that Hynek's paper would cause a row when it appeared in the Journal...

In a letter to Hynek, Struve gently, subtly, timidly suggested that Hynek might want to think about revising the passages in his paper in which he describes the Mt. Wilson astronomers as dummies and amateurs. Struve delicately requests that Hynek could... perhaps... choose gentler words to describe these people who are, after all, soon to be his professional colleagues...

Hynek responded with...

You didn't think I was really going to spill, did you? I'm saving the good stuff for the book!

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