Strange but True

How the US Air Force failed to win the Nobel prize…


I was at the 40 Years of Pulsars conference this week.
Most interesting, with lots of good reviews and new discoveries.
Sounds like anomalous x-ray pulsars and some low mass x-ray binaries are revealing their secrets, and lots of very interesting binary millisecond pulsars in the pipeline – be fun to see what is going on there when the followup observations are done – soon as Green Bank Telescope and Arecibo are back on line.

But, the surprise of the meeting came with the last invited talk – before Joe Taylor’s “summary” talk.

A gentleman named Charles Schisler stood to speak, introduced by Jocelyn Bell herself, he was a USAF officer, a bombardier/navigator on B-47 bombers after WWII and then stayed for a 20 year career. He finished at Clear USAFB Alaska in 1967, home of the 13th and 213th Space Warning Squadrons. Part of the DEW line of early warning stations in the arctic back then.
Google Map satellite image

He was on radar duty, looking for ICBMs coming over the pole or pacific, with three ~ 50m antennae doing double sweeps at 420MHz covering 120 degrees in RA and 10 degrees in DEC with 5 seconds intervals.

He noticed in the upper sweep (ie not coming over the horizon) a fluctuating signal, which was fixed in RA, and logged it – this was summer of 1967.
The next day the signal was there again, but 4 minutes early, as a former navigator he recognised sidereal drift and figured he had a celestial source.
He went and looked up the sky position, and found it was in Taurus – the Crab Nebula.
He kept looking and found several sources, some of which were known bright 3C sources, but some of which were unknown and “fluctuating” or “pulsating”.

He asked his superiors what to do, it was not “in their mission”, so the sources were noted as background and they kept looking for high proper motion sources. Fortunately never found any.

Then they received the early 1968 issues of Nature, realised what they had been seeing, some of the brightest pulsars in the northern hemisphere – which Mr Schisler confirmed a decade later when he bought M&T77 and checked The List.

Now, Joe mentioned in the discussion afterwards, and others have mentioned this, that the DEWs had seen pulsars – fluctuating new celestial sources as early as 1964 for the Thule stations.
But, it was all anecdotal. Schisler kept logs and he still has them, neat handwritten time and location logs with annotation on strength and nature of the source.
This is for real, Dick Manchester checked the numbers, this guy discovered pulsars several months before Jocelyn, and took notes.
But, the information, which reveals the DEW radar capabilities was classified.

There is a webcast for friday pm session through the conference website.
Schisler is in the friday afternoon session, which hopefully this link will take you directly back to, they seem to have some dynamic pages. Schisler starts speaking just before 3h 8m into the session.
Listen to it – it is 20-30 minutes of amazing history.

Ok, link above was dynamic, as I feared: try this one

Found by googling as in the comments

PS: Bob put up a more detailed account of Schisler’s talk on the conf blog (which amazingly blogger shows as being written before Schisler’s talk! ;-)

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    August 18, 2007

    Way cool. I am so going to use this in a talk…

  2. #2 Louise
    August 19, 2007

    A fascinating series of posts. I hope to hear some answers for the ten questions soon.

  3. #3 Alessia
    August 19, 2007

    A great story. It must be tricky for those working on classified stuff. Not being able to follow up hunches and publish findings must be pretty galling.

  4. #4 Farhat Habib
    August 19, 2007

    Somewhat similar to people in British intelligence figuring out asymmetric key encryption and the watching others discover it independently and get famous.

  5. #5 Alex
    August 19, 2007

    That’s so sci-fi; especially the navigator spotting the sidereal drift and looking it up in his tables. Heinlein would have been delighted.

  6. #6 R
    August 19, 2007

    That is an amazing story… But Jocelyn Bell didn’t win the Nobel Prize either…so it goes.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 19, 2007

    Wonderful story, well-backed by “contemporaneous written notes” as the lawyers say, and the Jocelyn Bell intro nails the anecdote.

    Then the Air Force discovered the Gamma Ray Bursters, and couln’t publish.

    Most recently, for all we know, the Air Force found the coded signals in the fine structure constant, or the tachyon beam from SS433, or Carl Sagan’s picture of the circle in digits of pi, or the subcontractor’s logo in the mass spectrum of elementary particles (since contractors made the atomic particles and subcontractors made the subatomic ones). Or something.

    I wrote about SS433 in Jonathan V. Post, “Star Power for Supersocieties”, Omni, April 1980 (1st popular article to predict giant black hole in the center of Milky Way galaxy; 1st popular discussion of J. Post invention “gravity wave telegraph”)

    Wikipedia summarizes:
    SS 433 is possibly the most exotic star system yet observed. It is an X-ray binary pair, with the primary most likely a black hole, or possibly a neutron star. The secondary (companion star) is a supergiant. Primary and secondary orbit each other at a very close distance in stellar terms.

    Its designation comes from the discoverers, Case Western Reserve astronomers Nicholas Sanduleak and C. Bruce Stephenson, and was the 433rd entry in their catalog.

    Is Homeland Security capable of making a scientific discovery?

  8. #8 RBH
    August 19, 2007

    I’ll be darned if I can find a session on Friday afternoon, Aug 17, via the link. Where am I going wrong? The All Talks Online link leads to a two-page menu of individual talks that end on Thursday, Aug 16.

  9. #9 T
    August 19, 2007

    I couldn’t find the video either, so I Googled “Schisler site:mcgill.ca”, and followed the link that shows up.

  10. #10 andy
    August 20, 2007

    Clearly, you astronomers, however inadvertently, violated STATE SECRETS with the discovery of pulsars. You’re lucky Gitmo didn’t exist then! (Wish this was funny.)

  11. #11 The AstroDyke
    August 20, 2007

    Thanks for the link, Steinn! That’s a very neat story. I’ll fold it in when I next teach undergrads about pulsars…

  12. #12 Lee
    August 20, 2007

    Dear Andy,

    Gitmo existed then. You are ignorant.

  13. #13 Scott H.
    August 21, 2007

    Gitmo existed then. You are ignorant.

    Gitmo did not exist as a dumping ground for inconvenients at that time, which is clearly the sense that Andy meant. (It was “merely” a military base.) No need for such a hostile tone.

  14. #14 Robert Rutledge
    August 21, 2007

    Hold on one second — I was present at the meeting, I spoke with Charles for 30 minutes and Dick Manchester after that talk. The talk was slightly misleading about what was actually detected.

    Charles did not discover coherent pulsations in radio sources, nor was his equipment or display capable of demonstrating that coherent pulsations were being observed. He certainly observed radio sources which were highly time-variable — the equipment was designed to catch active radar bouncing off of objects up to 3000 nautical miles away, which means that it “pinged” on radio signals which returned, on a time constant faster than 20 milliseconds.

    Thus, his equipment, from merely detecting the Crab Nebula, unequivocally demonstrated rapid radio variability in the Crab Nebula. It did not demonstrate coherent radio pulsations — which are the signal which indicated the existence of pulsars.

    Charles did not mislead the audience about this — but it was clearly misinterpreted by many. Do keep in mind that the

  15. #15 Scott H.
    August 21, 2007

    Do keep in mind that the

    … to be continued??? ;)

    (Seriously Bob, this is an interesting followup point, I hope you conclude this comment!)

  16. #16 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 21, 2007

    Well, I think you’re being a bit harsh, and you were a bit tough on Schisler at the meeting.

    Schisler had identified a new celestial radio source and he knew it was variable on short time scales – that is a Nature paper right there, even if he didn’t have coherent timing.
    Further, if his superiors had decided they ought to follow this up, it would not have taken much to see the fluctuations were periodical with constant period, so it is reasonable to suppose that if the USAF had shown the intellectual curiousity to authorise followup and publication of this source then they would have quickly been able to characterise it – if nothing else they could have acquistioned time on other telescopes.

    The two things that stand out are Schisler’s sharpness in noting the phenomenon, in logging it properly, and in searching out an explanation, on the one hand; and the USAF shutting down followup and classifying the info on the the other hand.

    What I don’t get is why the USAF people didn’t trip onto the LGM-1 concept that the Brits worried about – it is very much the sort of thing they get paranoid about and should have triggered something in the higher ups to check up this new phenomenon.

  17. #17 Richard king
    August 21, 2007

    Only one word can describe this article – BULLSHIT!

    I am a retired USAF TSgt, & Clear Air Force Station (NEVER an Air Force Base – there IS a difference, which your source or the speaker would know if they weren’t bold face liars) was my first duty assignment.

    Let me point out the most glaring errors (I’m at the end of a hard work day, so I’m bound to miss all but the most obvious).

    1. The AFS vs AFB notated above.

    2. Clear was never a part of the DEW (Detection & Early Warning) line of stations; they were an entirely different system located along the northern edge of Alaska, tasked with detecting airborne threats (i.e. airplanes, NOT missiles). Clear, along with the aforementioned Thule AFB & Fylingsdale RAF Station comprised the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System). In fact, due to system limitations inherent in detecting spaceborne objects, the BMEWS system in & always has been incapable of detecting ANY airbone (planes again – keep up people) objects, & vice-versa the DEW lines could not detect space type stuff. So keep them separate, please.

    3. He took notes which he still has?!?! Okay, a total violation of operations protocol. All logs, notes, etc. taken in the Operations Center were & still are classified, & his merely taking such notes (if he ever did) was & is illegal, prosecutable, etc. Still.

    4. The system, while state of the art for it’s time, did NOT have the capability (within the circumstances described, as well as at all) have the capability of determining the origin coordinates in space, ESPECIALLY if only penetrating 1 fan (as stated above – if he’s even halfway conversant of the system he’ll know what I’m talking about). Whether nearby (such as from the moon) or further out (Taurus? Crab Nebula? Gimme a break).

    5. A bombadier & navagator. Hmmm. Not the same career field which operated in the Operations Center at Clear, or in fact on the Station at all. (A space oriented base – NO airplanes at all, not even a runway). He could have cross trained I suppose, but the bold face lies above have me too pissed to see straight. “Sources” such as the author are a big reason the American public are so paranoid concerning thr US government. Take it from me – I served faithfully for 20 years, with the highest of clearances, & I can clear this up once & for all: There IS a branch of government that is out to screw you. But it’s not the DOD (Department of Defence for you rednecks out there), it’s the IRS!

    I’m too disgusted to write any more at the moment. Comments? Feel free to contact me directly.

    TSgt Richard M. King
    USAF (Ret.)

  18. #18 Shantanu
    August 21, 2007

    Is this talk currently online? I cannot see it as well some other talks(including conference summary talk). If so can someone point me to a link?I am also having the same problems as RBH in locating this talk
    Thanks a lot

  19. #19 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 21, 2007

    Hey Sergeant King:

    1) – I referred to Clear as a US Air Force Base, Schisler may well have referred to it as an Air Station, I noticed when I google’d it that it was referred to as an Air Station, but quite frankly I don’t care about USAF nomenclature – it was a US Air Force facility that existed and had antennae of the correct size. I called it a “base”, not Schisler.
    Schisler stated clearly that he went there at the end of his 20 year USAF career, last year.

    2) The B-47 only had a crew of three, the bombardier doubled up as a navigator and the co-pilot doubled up as a gunner. Everybody knows that…
    It was phased out in 1965; if you had someone with 1-2 years to go before their 20 and the plane they served on was phased out, there are worse things to do then to send them to Alaska to babysit a radar, a bombardier ought to have the basic training to be brought in quickly.

    3) I didn’t say Clear was a DEW station, I said that Joe (Taylor) had said that DEW stations in Thule had noticed sources that were consistent with pulsars as early as 1964, but that the information was anecdotal.
    It is perfectly possible that Joe said “BMEWS” and I heard DEWs – I am happy to keep them separate. Since they are classified, you’d hardly expect me to know which had which capability, eh?

    4) If there is a source that shows up at a fixed point in the scan but has sidereal drift then it is a distant celestial source – this is in fact how early celestial sources were determined to be astronomical, not local. That bit is actually what got everyone’s attention at the meeting – the meeting had about half of the top radio people in the world in the hall.The localization was good, probably to within a minute of RA, DEC should have been comparable good. Pretty straightforward to associated it with the Taurus A region, and the Crab Nebula in particular.

    5) He had notes, we’ve seen them, they’re on the web, someone who we trust authenticated them.
    We did tease him about whether he’d be able to get back to the USA, but 200 people were there and heard this.

  20. #20 Robert Rutledge
    August 22, 2007

    Steinn —

    I had a careful conversation with Charles Schisler on Thursday, the day before his talk. After discussing what was observed at length, my specific question to him, about which there appeared to be no confusion on his part was, “Did you observe a continuous train of repeating radio pulses, such as those observed by Jocylen Bell?”, and his answer was “no, the video monitors were not capable of showing that.”

    However, this left uncertain: perhaps his equipment was capable of showing it, but he simply did not recognize it at the time. I had a pointed conversation with Dick Manchester following Charles’ talk. My specific question to him was, “Would a knowledgeable radio astronomer, who knew the existence of coherent radio pulsations, have concluded they were observing coherent radio pulsations?” And his response was “no. They could have concluded they were observing a highly time-variable radio source, but not coherent pulsations.”

    Thus, the use of the word “pulsations” in the slides used in the talk actually should be substituted with the word “variability”. The two are importantly different. Coherent pulsations are what Jocelyn Bell-Burnell observed, which permitted the conclusion that one was observing a radio pulsar, and which had not been documented prior to the August 6 1967 detection of Bell and Hewish. Radio variability, on the other hand, was a phenomenon which was known to exist — for example, from interstellar scintillation, which was the signal Bell-Burnell and Hewish were attempting to observe, to measure the size of quasars — but would not have suggested to anyone the presence of a massive, dense, rotating star.

    Scott (and others) — “Do keep in mind” that the slides which were presented, and which are now online, were prepared not by Mr. Schisler, but by Dick Manchester, a careful radio observer who knows the difference between the phenomena of stochastic variability and coherent pulsations. It was Manchester who had talked to Mr. Schisler prior to the conference, had invited him to come, and had asked the organizers for 10 minutes so that Mr. Schisler could present what he had observed. (Note especially that no significance should be attached to the fact that Jocylen Bell-Burnell introduced Mr. Schisler — she was simply the chair of the session, and introduced all the speakers of that session). It is unclear why Manchester permitted the confusion between the two to be put forward at this academic conference, but my discussion with Manchester afterwards made it clear that he did permit this confusion to be presented, and that permit many to wrongly conclude that the signal for radio pulsars — coherent radio pulsations — had been detected prior to August 6 1967.

    This blog entry perpetuates that wrong conclusion, and should be corrected for historical reasons. It is simply not true — Charles Schisler did not observe coherent radio pulsations. He observed fast radio variability.

    What appears to have been the intended message of the talk was that Mr. Schisler had detected radio sources which were later realized to be pulsars in the radio band. Uncareful speakers summarize this as “he detected radio pulsars” — which has a completely different, but wrong, implication.

  21. #21 Gil Holder
    August 22, 2007

    Steinn, are you suggesting that this was the first radio detection of Tau A? He was about 20 years late for that (Bolton & Stanley 1949) and it had already been measured at a bunch of different wavelengths (including at almost the same frequency by some guys named Wilson & Penzias in 1965).

  22. #22 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 22, 2007

    No, I am not suggesting this was a first detection of Tau A.

    And, Bob, I think you have the wrong end of the stick here – the point is not that the USAF discovered pulsars, they did not discover pulsars.
    The point is that they could have, in that they had much of the tech, and the hints, and even someone with the intellectual curiousity in place; but they squelched it – not in the mission, just tag it and move on and classify it so no one else hears about it. They could have let the exploration go further, and contacted people, quietly to see what more there was to do.

    Contrast it to Bell, who had a similar hint (a bit better) and realised it was real, interesting and important, and was allowed and encourged to follow through on it and nail it down properly.
    Note that it took the Cambridge group four months to go from “weak sporadic signal” to coherent pulsation, and it wasn’t really until christmas 1967 that they had the Earth’s Doppler shift nailed and showed how stable the pulses were – this is as I recall from Bell’s talks about this, it is not totally obvious from the paper.

    Schisler “discovered pulsars” – in so far as he observed celestial radio sources, which he knew to be fluctuating and thought were interesting; but he, and the USAF in general, did not discover pulsars – because they failed to do the critical followup and because they classified it, even if they had found coherent pulsations it would not matter if they did not tell anyone.

    This is interesting, and part of bigger tale, including gamma-ray bursts (which they did talk to people about, and then eventually publish), and adaptive optics, which they also, eventually made public. There is also the issue of pubic key cryptography (see comments).

    So there is the additional issue, beyond the failure of agencies with high capabilities to see beyond their mission; there is the object lesson of to what extent this continues today.

    I supposed we should be glad for the evidence that a lot of the classified stuff is actually very good, as opposed to the “hafnium bombs” and psychics and other waste of money.

  23. #23 Phil
    August 22, 2007

    I tend to think that stories like this speak mostly to the efficiency of academic research. Public key cryptography was rediscovered and published in the open literature, despite the fact that (at least prior to the internet) codes were genuinely mostly of interest to spies, criminals and intelligence agencies. What was the research budget at GCHQ and NSA in the 1970s relative to that available for related work at universities?

    Of course, we don’t know what’s been discovered and not rediscovered. But in our field the fact that the DoE still takes an interest in supernova simulations at least suggests that Los Alamos doesn’t have a vastly superior hydro scheme to PPM behind the fence, and if we’re optimistic DARPA’s sponsoring of their “Grand Challenge” races implies something similar about artificial intelligence. No doubt the national labs know more about the metallurgy of plutonium than anyone else, but that’s no more worrying than Intel knowing plenty of “secrets” about silicon…

  24. #24 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 23, 2007

    Well, we don’t know… but I suspect the USAF knows a lot about building and deploying large foldable lightweight high optical quality mirrors, that “we” do not – not even the people who sort of straddle “the fence” for liasion.
    And it’d be really nice to get some cost savings and expeditious implementation of such stuff.
    I also suspect they know more about optical/near-IR interferometry than we do.

    The Navy was sitting on a lot of interesting and useful oceanography stuff, don’t know if all of it was released.

    It would be interesting to speculate if they know about interesting signal processing algorithms – from what I heard, I suspect not, that they just brute force it.

    But it is the unknown knowns that are really interesting…

  25. #25 Hank Roberts
    August 29, 2007

    > The Navy was sitting on a lot of interesting and useful oceanography stuff,
    > don’t know if all of it was released.

    By no means all. There’s data on the Arctic Ocean from submarine work that was declassified at the behest of the then Vice President, for example, some years ago; it’s called the “Gore Box” on the map.

    I heard in the 1960s from some marine biologists that they got together at meetings and compared their echo-sounder profiles for studies of plankton —- the US, French, and British governments each furnished sonar gear to the biologists from their nation, equipped with cutout filters to keep the biologists from detecting their submarines. But they didn’t block the same frequencies, so the biologists could assemble fairly complete profiles by combining their data.

    One suspects that humans are far smarter than we think, but manage to keep most of the interesting stuff classified.

  26. #26 harold nations
    October 23, 2007

    I’d be shocked and amazed if the USAF did not “know a lot about building and deploying large foldable lightweight high optical quality mirrors” etc. A couple of years ago they “gave” = transferred a 4 meter class adaptive mirror worth tens of millions of dollars to Derek Buzasi and Geoff Anderson at the USAFA. This mirror obviously never flew on any mission. It just so happens that Dr. Anderson is one of the world’s experts on holographically correcting telescope mirrors….I’m betting that an IR/Optical ‘scope in the range of 20 meters, holographically corrected, is now in orbit above us……

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