May 10, 2021

My interview with the world’s greatest astronomer

By John Guy LaPlante

Just a few weeks seem to go by before we get to read another news story about life being possible way, way out there in the heavens.

Well, that’s not news to me.  I heard that 66 years ago.

Harlow Shapley (1885 – 1972). Familiar with him? He was our greatest astronomer. The world’s greatest. Was called the greatest since Copernicus (1473 –

 1543). Copernicus was the Polish genius who said the sun was really the center of the universe, not our earth.

Harlow Shapley made big headlines when he said there were “zillions” of planets out there but—and this was astounding — at least 100,000,000 of them that could support life as we know it, with vegetation and animals and people!

He made one bold announcement like that after another.  He was the first to measure our galaxy, the Milky Way, and tell us it was enormously bigger

Dr. Shapley up in Peterboro. He wasn't dressed up like this the first time I met him! I was so tickled when he granted me an interview!.
Dr. Shapley up in Peterborough. He wasn’t dressed up like this the first time I met him! I was so tickled when he granted me an interview!

than was thought.  And by the way, that there were many other galaxies out there besides our Milky Way!

And to say that the sun, so essential to life as we know it, was NOT in the center of the Milky Way, but out in left field, so to speak.  And many other stars were just as big—in fact the sun was quite ordinary. Imagine that!

To a layman like me, and perhaps to you, all this was amazing, astonishing, bewildering.  What is called science fiction stuff. But not to him.

He had been an astronomer for decades. Countless hours scoping the sky.  No way could he get to actually see all this out there. Telescopes weren’t powerful enough. He made these assertions on the basis of his math. His countless calculations made him totally convinced of everything he was telling us.  In time, other astronomers backed him up.

I was a feature writer on Feature Parade, the magazine of the Worcester (MA) Sunday Telegram. I was always on the lookout for a good story. When I read about Dr. Shapley, I paid real attention.  He’d be a fantastic interview. More than that, it was do-able.

Yes, do-able. Dr. Shapley was professor of astronomy at Harvard University. In fact, Dr. Shapley was the one who put Harvard’s astronomy department on the map. He was also the director of the Harvard Astronomical Observatory.  Harvard –  in Cambridge – was just a 90-minute drive away.

I put in a call to him with great misgivings. I wasn’t calling for the New York Times or any other mega paper. The Worcester Telegram-Gazette was a fine paper, one of the 100 largest in the country, but just a regional. For those of you not familiar, the Telegram was the morning paper and the Gazette the evening one.

And I wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize reporter with reams of stories behind me. I was a mere 30. Sure, I had one of  what were considered the two best writing jobs on the Telegram, but still. Ivan Sandrof, my colleague on the magazine and much older and seasoned, held the other.

Would Dr. Shapley give me an interview? He was known as a gentleman.  He’d probably dismiss me in a nice way. “I’d very much like that, Mr. LaPlante, but I’m just overwhelmed by my schedule at the moment. I’m very sorry.”

My first surprise was that I got right to him on the phone. No secretary, no assistant professor. I pitched my request in what I hoped would go over as relaxed and assured.

“Certainly,” he told me. “But you’d have to come up to Peterborough, New Hampshire. I have a second home up there. Is that possible?”

“No problem, sir. Possible next week?”

He paused. He was checking. “Tuesday would be fine. You’ll have quite a drive to get up there. Would Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. be okay?”  Quickly I said, “I’ll be there!”

But it might be a problem. That would indeed be a long drive up and back. I’d have to check with Mr. Fred Rushton, my editor.  I crossed my fingers.  He listened and said, “Sure, John. He’s worth it.” He tried to sound casual. But I could see what a whopping exclusive he knew this would be and how to wring it for all it was worth.

I got up to Peterborough on time.  Dr. Shapley’s was a nice old home on the edge of town. I had done my research, of course. Hey, just about all I knew about astronomy is that we went around the sun and the moon went around us, each on their  own axis, and that’s why we have different seasons of the year and varying hours of daylight and high tides and low tides, period.

Nowadays with Google and Wikipedia and so on, it’s easy to prepare. We had nothing like that back then.

Professor Shapley was out in the yard, standing by a big oak. Welcomed me with a good handshake. He had pad pencil and pad in hand.  Not because he was ready for me. No, no. For an intriguing project he was working on. “We have chipmunks here. Lots of them. I’m having fun studying them. How many, their sizes, their habits, and so on.”

Who would believe it? Dr. Shapley—the world’s greatest astronomer—out here studying chipmunks!

He took me inside. Charming old place, antique furniture, lots and lots of books. He introduced me to Mrs. Shapley, very gracious, who quickly left us alone.  He made me feel right at home. Answered my questions in plain English, which was a huge relief.  Was patient. I was so grateful.

He had grown up in Nashville, not the big one in Tennessee but a small town in Missouri. Believe it or not, went to work as a teen-ager reporting for the local bugle. Liked that. Enrolled at the University of Missouri to study journalism. But the brand-new department’s opening got delayed a year.

What to do? He looked at the university’s long list of other offerings.  The first was Archaeology.  He skipped that—“I couldn’t even pronounce the word,” he explained later. Next was Astronomy. “That sounded interesting. I signed up.”

The result was his fantastic career in that. But he was not one-dimensional about it. He accomplished many other things in other interests. Not only chipmunks.  He took a great interest in politics. Was even considered a dread Commie! Which was crazy.  I can’t go into all that. I beg off by asking you to take advantage of Google and Wikipedia and so on and look him up. Or his books at You’ll be impressed.

As I remember it, he gave me more than two hours, which was also incredible. I was ecstatic. I hurried back to Worcester and the next day wrote my story, and showed it to Fred. He spent a full half hour scrutinizing it line by line. I was sitting tensely at his side as he worked through every paragraph. He’d double-check a detail with me and then plod on.  Finally he dropped his blue pencil and said, “Pretty good, John.” I could see he was really tickled.

We had a routine at the magazine. I and my fellow writer Ivan Sandrof always made two trips to whatever person we were writing up. The second was with a photographer. We would assist him. We’d take many shots including color shots for the cover. Color photos in newspapers were quite new back then. The photographer would use several lights. I’d help with that. And we’d suggest shots to him. We’d write down all the caption info.

Most important of all, I for one would have the chance to review my draft with my subject. These were long, detailed stories. Double-check details, make sure my facts were right, maybe dig up good new info. It all went easily.  Prof. Shapley was a pleasure to work with.

(This aside may interest you. The Telegram had six photographers.  They’d rotate onto the magazine three weeks at a time. They loved it.  The work was more creative. More relaxed. Such a pleasant change from fires and City Hall meetings and women’s page features and bad accidents and so on.

(On my first trip, I’d turn in my expense account for car and meals and such.  On the second trip, the photographer would use his car and he’d turn in the expenses.  They loved that, too. This time it was Howard Smith, who was terrific as both photographer and colleague.)

Every issue of Feature Parade published two big stories and lots of smaller ones. We were two staffers. Fred Rushton also got daily staff reporters to write stories on a free-lance basis.  The two play stories started on Page 3 and jumped to another page or two, or on the double-truck, which were the two facing pages in the very center, also with jumps. My story was published on Sunday, Sept. 11, 1960.

It started on Page 3, then filled all of Page 4. It ran about 2,500 words. Which is longer that what I’m writing right now. And far more than just about any straight news story in the regular edition of the Telegram. The Sunday Telegram had a circulation of just a hair less than 100,000. The advertising department’s research showed that 250,000 would look at the magazine every week.

The magazine would print on Friday night for the Sunday paper.  I never tired of the thrill of those huge roaring presses down in the bowels of our building.  By the way, back then the paper had some 850 employees. Yes, it took that many for its morning, afternoon, and Sunday editions.

Nowadays, it’s easy to go online and look up newspaper and magazine articles published within 20 or 30 years.  That technology was decades away back then.  In fact, Feature Parade magazine no longer exists, another casualty of the great changes in print journalism.

Speaking of that, I think of how technology could have made Harlow Shapley’s work so much easier.  He did it all long-hand, so to speak. Amazing!

When Mr. Rushton retired. I became Feature Parade editor. Loved it. When I left the Telegram, I made sure I had copies of all my stories, as a reporter in my early days and then a feature writer. That’s been invaluable to me.  Right now I have my Dr. Shapley article open and just  re-read.

Know what?  I was impressed by it. A challenging interview.  Very technical topic.  I found my piece clear, well developed, easy to understand, interesting.  Perfect for our Sunday readership. I felt proud.  Maybe you’ll think I’m boasting but I’ll take that risk.  I had another thought.  No way could I could do a job like that as well today. Honest.

And here are important points that Dr. Shapley established:

The Milky Way had been believed to be 20,000 light years in diameter. A light year is the distance that life will travel in one year at the speed of 185,000 miles per second! Dr. Shapley figured that the Milky Way was really 200,000 light years in diameter. A fantastic difference!

The 100,000,000 planets out there that he was talking about would all meet the following requirements:

They would have water which is liquid, not uncondensing steam or melting ice.

They would rotate at a speed that would not let the night get too chilly or the days too hot.

They would have a stable orbit so that they would receive heat and energy from their stars at a steady rate.

Their air, land services, and oceans would be free of poisons and able to sustain life.

Their stars, like our sun, would be stable, too, so that a flaring up or burning out would not cause the planets to be scorched or frozen.

Finally, conditions would be such that life would not only get started, but would multiply and perpetuate.

Could life exist closer to us, for instance on the other planets of our solar system? Do Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto support life?

Dr. Shapley ruled out life on all except possibly Venus and Mars because their atmospheres are poisonous and are “out” also for other reasons. Mercury, he said, is too hot on its sun side, too cold on its dark side. And Jupiter, Saturn, and the others, distant as they are from the sun, are too cold also, and have atmospheres poisonous in various ways.

“We think that there is life on Mars, but it’s of a very low type, like lichen. As for Venus, we don’t know, although the chances are against it because its atmosphere is polluted with lethal gases.”

How about UFOs? Numerous reports were coming in about sightings of them. Dr. Shapley conducted a meticulous study. He said, “These UFOs are good stuff for science fiction, and that’s about all. Just claptrap!”

His bottom line:

Man exists in space.

Maybe someday we will meet him.

What huge news that will be! Well, I’m sure I won’t live to see it. Maybe you will, or your children. But! Will that be good news for us earthlings? Or bad news? Or good news and bad news? What do you think?

Last night in a dream I spoke to Dr. Shapley. “Sir,” I said, “wherever, wherever you are, please open your Time Machine. I know it lets you peer backward and forward. Will that really be good news?”

Sad to say, I woke up before the world’s greatest astronomer could answer. I might try again tonight.

~ ~ ~


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