Famous last words…

Too precious to be forgotten

All Time Grand Prize Winner:

“From the intensity ratio of the [CN] lines with K = 0 and K = 1 a rotational temperature of 2.3o K follows, which has of course only a very restricted meaning.”

Gerhard Herzberg in: Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure I. Spectra of Diatomic Molecules (Van Nostrand: Princeton, NJ), p. 496 (1950).

Click here and here for the reason why that finding has a little more than a “restricted” meaning.

From here on (mostly) personal items involving people I have met over my career in astronomy. Enjoy, Karl Menten

Most profound truth:

“Some things are just fundamentally not easy.”
Chris Carilli to Karl Menten (KMM) after the former had given a course lecture on radio interferometry at Bonn University’s Argelander-Institut für Astronomie, discussing the difficulty to present some of its basic concepts to students. KMM agreed. (July 12, 2005).

According to the citation of the Max-Planck-Forschungspreis, which he won in 2005, Chris is”one of the leading experts on radio astronomy world-wide.” So students out there, don’t despair!

  • Related to the above
    “Ein Interferometer ist wider die menschliche Natur” (“An interferometer is against human nature”)
    is what Karsten Danzmann’s thesis advisor Prof. Manfred Kock told him while showing him his laboratory, in which the former was to perform research for his dissertation (A White Light Interferometer for the Measurement of Diffraction Indices). Prof. Danzmann, a director at the Max-Planck-Society’s Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein- Institut) and a Professor of Physics at the University of Hannover, is PI of GEO 600 a laser interferometer observatory built to search for gravitational waves.
  • The right stuff:
    “Things usually look better if you’re doing something right.”
    Mark Reid to KMM (his postdoc at the time) on data reduction and all that (somewhen in the late 1980s). Click here for a list of joint papers, which generally demonstrate the truth of this.
  • Fun factor:
    “When I was a student at Oxford, I saw these well-established, tenured professors doing the same old things they’d been doing since they were students. I decided then and there, whenever I’d get tenure I would do just fun stuff.”
    Tom Phillips to KMM on (his) philosophy of science (at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, on top of Mauna Kea on Hawaii, around midnight, early 1990s).
  • Bob:
    Overhearing just one side of a phone conversation (probably late 1970s; la Bob Newhart)
    “What??? Did I get this correctly? You mean we should publish just in case we are right?”
    Reported by Mark Reid; characters involved (well) known to KMM.
  • Non olet:
    “The ammonia you observe out there is so thin, it doesn’t even stink.”
    The late, great Georg Mumme, operator at the Effelsberg 100m telescope, to then student Rainer Mauersberger (1980s), cited in the latter’s dissertation.
  • B.U.L.W.:
    “Well, looks like we got the best upper limit in the world!”
    Lew Snyder to student KMM at the Effelsberg 100m telescope after spending ~50 hours of integration time on a spectral line (actually from the ammonia dimer, NH3*NH3) that was detected at the ~8 sigma level in the very first scan of a joint observing run, but went “weaker” with increasing integration time down to the noise level (mid-1980s).

    Some other joint projects where a little more successful.
    Note: The only dimer [a weakly (van der Waals)-bonded molecule consisting of two single molecules] so far detected beyond Earth, is the H2 dimer (H2*H2) from which infrared emission is found in the atmosphere of Jupiter and other gas giants. Sensitive millimeter-wavelength interstellar searches for the CO*CO , CO*H2, H2O*H2O and HCN*HCN dimers (and the NH3*NH3 dimer; see above) were conducted, but remained fruitless.Lew, a long time member of the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, was a winner of the prestigious Research Prize awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which enabled him a stay at the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in 1985/6. During that time, I was finishing my Diploma thesis and started my dissertation at the place.Once we were having lunch at the Institute’s world famous canteen. It was famous at least in the small world of radio astronomy, though not necessarily for the culinary finesse of its cuisine. However, amongst other attractions, on its menu it had a choice ofSchnitzel mit Pommes in various variations daily and then there was the absolutely unique Frau Müller (no WWW link available for her, sorry!).

    Lew and I were talking about music and somehow our conversation turned to Country & Western. Not being a big fan of the mainstream C&W popular then, I mentioned that I loved the music of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing. Lew was so perplexed over the fact that anybody in Germany would remember Bob Wills that he immediately requested his student Mark Schenewerk to airmail a copy of the definitive biography of the man, titled San Antonio Rose after the Wills-composed signature song of the greatest Western Swing band ever, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (featuring vocals by Tommy Duncan and steel guitar by the absolutely fabulous Leon McAuliffe). The biography by Dr. Charles Townsend is a scholarly but warmly appreciative rendition of the man’s life and work, which had just been published by the University of Illinois Press. Lew gave it to me as a belated present for the completion of my Diploma Thesis.


Email exchange between Lew Snyder and KMM after KMM sent him the lukewarm referee response to a joint IRAM 30 meter telescope observing proposal:

Date: Fri, 7 Nov 2003 13:36:25 -0600 (CST)
From: Lew Snyder <snyder@astro.uiuc.edu>
To: kmenten@mpifr-bonn.mpg.de
Subject: Re: [Fwd: 30m Proposal 219.03 Menten]


I never realized before that even proposals from MPIfR Directors are subject to
idiot reviews!

Date: Sat, 8 Nov 2003 10:30:19 +0100 (MET)
From: Karl Menten <kmenten@mpifr-bonn.mpg.de>
To: Lew Snyder <snyder@astro.uiuc.edu>
Subject: Re: [Fwd: 30m Proposal 219.03 Menten]

Dear Lew,

would you mind putting that on my Famous Last Words page?


Date: Sat, 8 Nov 2003 10:21:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Lew Snyder <snyder@astro.uiuc.edu>
To: kmenten@mpifr-bonn.mpg.de
Subject: Re: [Fwd: 30m Proposal 219.03 Menten]

Be my guest. I have complained for years that telescope proposal reviewers
seldom understand or appreciate any molecular line proposals that are more
complicated than the most mundane CO survey.

Lewis Emil Snyder is one of the true pioneers of molecular radio astronomy. During his long and distinguished career he discovered many molecules for the first time in the interstellar medium. These include the first polyatomic species formaldehyde (H2CO), which he found in 1969. Many of the molecules that he and his collaborators discovered are staples of dense interstellar cloud chemistry: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), isocyanic acid (HNCO), “X-ogen”, which later turned out to be HCO+, methyl acetylene (CH3CCH), maser emission was identified as arising from silicon monoxide (SiO), dimethyl ether (CH3)2O), sulfur dioxide (SO2), formyl (HCO), and nitroxyl (HNO). Somewhat later on, methyldiacetylene (CH3C4H) and acetic acid (CH3COOH) were added to this impressive list.As far as I know, Lewnever published a single paper dealing with 12C16O.In the 1990s, Lew and his students indentified an extremely hot and compact molecular cloud in the constellation of Sagittarius whose content in complex molecules is second to none. Being very proud of his German heritage (Schneider, Snyder), he called it the “Large Molecule Heimat”. Here’s a very nice account of Lew’s on the state of the art of the field.Even before their discovery of formaldehyde, Lew and Dave Buhl, suggested the detectability of interstellar water vapor in spectral lines near frequencies of 22 and 183 GHz. Their observing request to the Green Bank 140 ft. telescope was rejected, however, because of an influential, but (in this case) narrow minded referee’s opinion. The 22 GHz line was discovered that same year by a team from the University of California, Berkeley. It always shows natural maser emission and has become one of the most observed lines in radio astronomy.The whole story is recounted in a chapter of the highly interesting (though unfortunately no longer available) Serendipitous Discoveries in Radio Astronomy compiled by K. Kellermann and B. Sheets. This collection gives a great impression of the meandering (hi)story of radio astronomy in which chance quite often played an important role.

The 183 GHz H2O line was discovered many years later (in 1990) by Pepe Cernicharo and his collaborators, using the IRAM 30 meter diameter telescope on the Pico de Veleta near Granada, Spain.

For pictures of Lew from the olden days and from more recently, click Bob Rood’s Photo Gallery Master Index.

(updated September 27, 2008)


  • Downstream:
    In early 1984, KMM went, along with his advisor Malcolm Walmsley, to MPIfR director Peter G. Mezger’s (PGM’s) office (which now is KMM’s office) to inquire whether KMM, who had just finished his Diplom thesis on interstellar ammonia, could also start a dissertation at the MPIfR. Malcolm suggested two possible projects: first, Circumstellar SiO maser studies with the (then new) IRAM 30m telescope or, second, further studies of interstellar methanol (CH3OH), motivated by the recent (serendipitous) discovery of the 23.1 GHz maser line, by Tom Wilson et al. that year. This was the first new CH3OH maser line found in the interstellar medium after the 25 GHz lines discovered by Al Barrett and collaborators at the MIT Haystack Observatory. These lines had been detected in only(!) one source (Orion-KL) way back in 1971(!). PGM said (in German):
    “Ich habe schon viele gute Astrophysiker gekannt, mit denen ging’s den Bach runter als sie anfingen sich mit Masern zu beschäftigen.” (“I’ve known many good astrophysicists, who went downstream after they started dealing with masers.”),
    but, nevertheless, let us go ahead. I’ll be eternally grateful to him for this. We chose methanol masers. The rest is (sort of) history:
    Papers by KMM involving masers (not only from methanol)
    All methanol maser papers since 1984 and before 1984
    (Thanks to Rainer Mauersberger for reminding me of this one.)
  • Energies:
    Peter Goldreich in the discussion following a conference contribution by David Field(IAU Symp. 87 – Interstellar Molecules):
    “Non-LTE level populations occur under a wide variety of conditions if radiative rates are greater than or comparable to collisional rates. It is probably not worth making detailed models of pump cycles unless the maser has very special observational characteristics. It is only in this case that one might hope to obtain conclusive results. While it is admirable that people are working in this subject, their energies might be better spent in other ways.”
    Click here for Goldreich’s papers on masers, which are the most fundamental theoretical ones in the field.
    Actually the conclusion to the proceedings volume of that conference is a hilarious spoof by a J. J. Charfman found here.
  • Masers & Moods:
    Andrej Sobolev to KMM over a post-dinner Grappa at La Taverna, Bonn-Endenich (07-Oct-2003):
    “With Vodka it’s the same as with Masers: If you’re in a bad mood and you drink one, your mood gets better and if you’re in a good mood it gets even better.”
  • What’s in a name?
    Telemachos Mouschovias in the discussion following an (excellent) invited review talk* by PGM at IAU Symp. 75 – Star Formation:
    “After the courageous, but aborted, effort by Dr. Mezger to pronounce my name, I can now understand why Greeks who immigrate change their names from Agamemnon to Charlie…..”
    *The first few pages of the pdf file are bungled up.
  • Everything is relative:
    “Back in the mid- Sixties I was present in the control room of the NRAO 140 ft. telescope while the team of Ben Zuckerman and Pat Palmer were observing. I’ve forgotten what it was that they detected but it was a first detection and considered important at that time. Ben Zuckerman jumped up and down, ran around the control room waving his arms and shouting “We’ve found it! We’ve found it!” over and over again. Pat Palmer simply sat there quietly observing the antics of Zuckerman and finally said quietly ‘Ben, will you sit down and be quiet—there can’t be more than 5 or 6 people in the whole world that give a damn.’”

Reported by Neil Albaugh, who was a Technical Specialist with NRAO from 1964 to 1977 and was involved in building many receivers that were used on various Green Bank and Kitt Peak telescopes. NeiI writes “I was privileged to work with many astronomers during my time there, including Peter Mezger.” Presently, Neil co-runs Diamond Bell Technology, an electronics component company based in Tucson, Arizona. Neil is the guy on the far right of this picture, which shows the 1950s SF movies-style command console in the control room of the legendary (if ugly) NRAO Green Bank 140 ft. telescope. Peter Mezger looks at you from the left.

Ben and Pat jointly discovered many molecules for the first time in interstellar clouds, including ethyl alcohol. Yes, there’s lots of the good stuff around in space! To cite their 1975 Publication: “During early October of 1975 we located a truly astronomical source of ethyl alcohol in the general direction of the center of our Galaxy. Preliminary estimates indicate that the alcoholic content of this cloud (Sgr B2), if purged of all impurities and condensed, would yield approximately 1028 fifths at 200 proof. This exceeds the total amount of all of man’s fermentation efforts since the beginning of recorded history.”
(added September 19, 2008)

  • Last resort:
    KMM to Ernst Kreysa, discussing whether to accept a certain student to pursue a dissertation in Ernst’s MPIfR bolometer group:
    “If, after all, she’s not any good at lab work, she can always do astronomy”.
    Ernst loved this! (August 2003).
  • The secret live of plants:
    When Rainer Mauersberger was teaching Astronomy 100 (“Introductory Astronomy”, known, among faculty members, as “Astronomy for Poets”) at the University of Arizona, Tucson, he asked his students the following question:
    “How do we call the process by which stars generate energy?”
    One student wrote on the return slip:
    “Photosynthesis” (Thanks to Rainer for sharing this with us!)
  • Glory:
    “If we can’t be first in the world to discover a new molecule, we will be first in Germany. If we can’t be first in Germany, we will be first in North-Rhine Westphalia.”
    Remembered by Lew Snyder, who pointed to Tom Wilson as a possible source. Tom recalled “what Wilhelm Altenhoff said (perhaps in a slightly different way, but in essence the same)”. (probably early 1980s)
  • Priority and Productivity:
    KMM to Christian Henkel after he gave a presentation of (some of) his latest results: “Wow, fantastic! That’s absolutely hot stuff; I guess you’ll publish it immediately?” Christian back:
    “Of course! And it’s only the sixth paper in my waiting line.” (2002)
  • Crazy:
    From the “Acknowledgements” section of Claudia Comito’s (2003) dissertation: “Three years ago in Arcetri, Antonella Natta advised me not to get involved in Peter Schilke’s crazy line surveys’. You’re a wise lady Antonella, thanks for trying.” (found by Malcolm Walmsley)


Disclaimer: All of the above has really been said or written or both, although the representations here might not be exactly verbatim.

Policy information:
Please let me know if you

  • want your name removed from any of the above or want any contribution anonymized. (Of course much of the stuff “works” best if you know the characters in question in person).
  • have any corrections.
  • want to contribute a gem of your own.
  • discover “dead” links.

Karl M. Menten (started 09-August-2003)