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First-Hand:A Jesuit's Forays in Astronomy and Seismology

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Submitted by Francis J. Heyden

In 1938 I applied for admission to Harvard to work for a doctorate in astronomy. I was very green and, with four full courses in atomic physics, statistical astronomy, astrophysics and research, I worked longer and harder than ever.

The first qualifying examinations came after six months. I reached bottom with a fifteen percent in one. My advisor thought it was wonderful joke. In the second year I obtained a fifty-eight out of a passing sixty percent. This was a warning. Then in my third year I was ready to give up. For days after the tests, I thought of the answers I should have written. Then one afternoon Fred Whipple sent for me. He shook my hand and congratulated me on the wonderful results. I still save those papers. One has Harlow Shapley's remark, "This is the best examination paper I have ever seen." Humility goes a long way towards getting results.

Around the end of my high school, I decided that I did not want to go off as a sparks" on an ocean liner, but instead as a Jesuit priest. Learning Latin, Greek, history, chemistry, physics and philosophy, I had some time to work with radios.

A Jesuit superior asked if I would delay my doctoral studies and go to the Jesuit college in Manila of the Philippines to teach college physics. My physics minor qualified me. In August, 1931, I arrived in Manila and took over a class of forty students within two days. The teacher was leaving on the same ship on which I came. Teaching was a new kind of life and I learned more about physics just working with the laboratory experiments.

After five months, another Jesuit superior in the Philippines sent for me, "We did not bring you here to teach physics. We want you to be chief astronomer of the Manila Observatory."

Manila Observatory had started in 1865 when a Jesuit in the college made a forecast of a typhoon. The Spanish government began financing the little observatory which also started astronomy and observations of time for ships in the harbor. A time-ball was dropped every day at noon on the roof. Seismology was also introduced along with magnetism. It was a complete unit for public service in weather: seismology, time and magnetism. Jesuit priests had full charge. In 1898, the U.S. took over the Philippines and decided to keep the weather bureau as it was under the Jesuits.

So I became "Chief Astronomer" within ten days after the appointment by the Jesuit superior. I needed those ten days badly. Because while teaching college physics by day, I worked nights with my predecessor, Charles Deppermann, S.J., learning how to observe time stars, rate the master clocks and transmit the evening time signals by wire to the U.S. Naval radio station at Los Beanos and Cavite, to the Bureau of Posts and to the Philippine Railroad.

An earthquake shock came about every two weeks. It was strong enough to shake the pendulum clocks off their regular error. One clock, a "synchronome" had two pendular in synchronism. The master was in a constant temperature room in a 6 millimeter vacuum. Every thirty seconds it received an impulse from the "slave" pendulum, which moved the clockwork. The impulse released an arm with a tiny jewel that fell against a little wheel on the "master." The position of the wheel timed the return, pulse, to the "slave."

With the "slave" set to run slow, the wheel on the master determined whether or not the "slave" received an impulse from a spring that dropped into position at the end of its swing. The spring shortened the amplitude and sent the pendulum back on its return. This synchronism kept the two pendular in perfect synchronism. But an earthquake could throw out the synchronism enough to drop the jewel in the master so that the wheel would meet it head on! At least once the jewel was broken.

As soon as the tiniest tremor came, even from my bed at night, I would be running for the clock vault to stop the impulses from the "slave." I soon learned how to get the pendular back in synchronism with my finger on the "slave" or with the air valve on the "master." When the tremor had slowed down the amplitude of the pendulum, a jet of air from the valve would give it a push. This saved the trouble of opening the vacuum case to push the pendulum. The former director told me about this just before he left. The observatory got its radio station. We had an RCA one kilowatt transmitter and an unusual receiver which a telegraph operator turned "on" and "off." I fixed everything. "Signal tracing" was new to me but I kept every piece running.

I was sent later to Washington to work with the U.S. Weather Bureau and work with Georgetown College Observatory. From 1945 to 1946, I drew the daily weather map for the United States and then compared it with the routine one done by the staff. I followed isobars strictly while the staff followed continuity by moving the frontal lines forward. We did a map every three hours.

At the observatory, I worked a bit with the telescopes and waited for the liberation of the Philippines. It came in 1945 but the news brought Charles Deppermann S.J. to Georgetown. He was wanted for his knowledge of weather for the final attack on Japan. Everything was destroyed at Manila Observatory. In the last days, the buildings were burned and their surviving walls were forts for an artillery duel between the U.S. and Japan.

A letter from New York told me I was the Director of the Observatory and to look for some new Jesuits. The former director, Miguel Selga, S.J. had resigned. Charles Deppermann, S.J. wanted to go back into astronomy. He was finishing some papers he had lost while a prisoner at Los Beanos. Bernard Doucette S.J. wanted to do seismology. William Repetti, S.J. resigned. Leo Welch, S.J. resigned. He had a degree in meteorology from MIT. I was lost for a while. Some said to forget the Manila Observatory. Finally I agreed to turn weather forecasting over to the Philippine Government and keep astronomy, seismology and ionosphere work for the Jesuits.

I began writing war damage claims. For the library, meteorological, seismic, astronomy, magnetism and even the lost buildings. I received enough money to get started.

All this went on, while I stayed at Georgetown University. I started a graduate department of astronomy which turned out some ninety graduates, in some twenty-six years.

There was also the radio station, WGTB. It began with a small six watt transmitter that fed standing waves over the lighting circuits. I got to know the heat tunnels very well as I coupled all of the power transformers into the six watter.

Besides the six watter, I undertook three outside broadcasts. First was a broadcast of "The Mass for Shut-Ins" from the chapel. Second was the "Blue and Gray Show" of variety entertainment by college students every Saturday, that lasted for five years until I gave up. Students were fine but professors who wanted to help were impossible. Third came from the Georgetown University Forum.

When I left Georgetown in 1971 to return to the rebuilt observatory in Manila, Georgetown closed the observatory and gradually stopped all broadcasts including the FM station. I have heard that the six watter is still going. During the FM years, the six watter carried "musak" for study music.

I still have some "Blue and Gray" show tapes and some special broadcasts I did for NBC on "Breakthroughs in Science." These are like the candle stubs that the hunchback of Notre Dame saved as treasures.