majority of astronomers lead relatively uneventful lives, but [Olin]
Eggen came with a varied, even bizarre past. Having put himself
through Wisconsin State University by working as a waiter, a barman
and a pianist in a nightclub, he was employed during World War II
by the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) as
a courier, posing in Germany as a Swedish traveler in ball-bearings.
After the war he wrote science fiction under the name-reversal pseudonym
of Nilo Negge…’ his ‘red Austin-Healey sports
car made a considerable impact on the public-service environment
of Canberra.’ (Explorers of the Southern Sky, A History of
Australian Astronomy 1996 R.Haynes et. al. p.179.)
In 1994, senior RGO archivist Adam Perkins announced that the UK’s
‘Neptune file’ had been missing since the sixties, in
an address to the 1994 Federation of Astronomical societies, at
Herstmonceaux castle (formerly the home of the RGO) on October 3rd.
Not a single article written in 1996, commemorating the 150th anniversary
of Neptune’s discovery, mentioned this fact. Admittedly, the
situation was rather peculiar. Back in 1969, Neptune scholar Dennis
Rawlins was the first to be told that the file was unavailable:
the RGO’s librarian Philip Laurie informed him that ‘in
spite of a prolonged search, the missing volume has not materialized.’
On October 1998 the eminent stellar astronomer Olin Eggen died,
at the Southern hemisphere observatory in Chile (Sierra Tololo)
and the Neptune file was found in his office with sixty other rare
books and piles of historic manuscripts , all belonging to the RGO.
A call from Chile that month was put through, the very week before
the RGO at Cambridge closed and cut off its telephones. Adam Perkins
was E-mailed: ‘at the RGO no-one believed there could be any
Airy papers in Chile, but they passed the phone number to me’
(A.P.) The RGO closed after its long and eventful life at the end
of that very October, just as its files were being returned.
The papers were discovered by Elaine MacAuliffe at La Serena observatory,
at Cerro Tololo, Chile. Altogether Eggen’s flat was found
to contain 105 kg of stolen archive material! When I e-mailed Ms
MacAuliffe she denied that any theft was involved, claiming that
Eggen had merely borrowed material, for his researches on Airy.
In June of ’99 the sizeable crates of borrowed/stolen material
arrived in Cambridge, senior RGO archivist Adam Perkins having collected
Around the 150-year anniversary of Neptune’s discovery in
1996, Eggen answered two letters of enquiry, both times denying
that he had the papers. His letter to RGO Public Relations Officer
Peter Andrews (sent in c.1993, gone missing) flatly denied having
the file and took umbrage at the suggestion that he had it. His
e-mail to astronomy writer Ian Ridpath gave an equally spurious
answer concerning the files. Was Eggen a kleptomaniac, and did he
like having his shelves Down Under lined with priceless historical
documents? He had much Newtonian 17th-century archive material,
and the earliest major volume he took was of Horrocks, early 17th-century.
The RGO’s Neptune files were only a tiny part of what he took.
The Neptune file emerged from under the North Downs in 1956 where
it had been in wartime storage with other RGO archives and these
were taken to the Herstmonceaux castle, postwar site of the RGO.
The library was then in chaos. Eggen and Woolley both arrived in
that year, the latter as Astronomer Royal having little interest
in archive material and Eggen his chief assistant a keen bibliophile.
Eggen, gaining access to an unsorted library, was evidently exposed
to temptation. ‘Olin spent most of the cloudy evenings in
the library, and more or less re-arranged it single-handed’
(Observatory 1999 Vol 119 p.186). The library was kept in the Great
Hall of Hertstmonceaux castle. He stayed till 1961 when he returned
to California. In 1964 he somehow came back as Chief Assistant a
second time, for a year.
The theft occurred in the mid-sixties. Eggen then became Director
of the Mount Stromlo Observatory, up in the mountains outside Canberra,
a part of the Australian National University. Wooley, Britain’s
Astronomer Royal, was then an A.N.U. hon. Prof, and had formerly
held the same post as Eggen, Director of the Mount Stromlo Observatory.
Did Wooley know that Eggen was taking the UK’s RGO Neptune
file Down Under? Eggen was lent the file, because he had been commissioned
to do two items for the forthcoming Dictionary of Scientific Biography,
on Airy and Challis, which he did prior to 1971. From that point
of view, everyone knew he had it; but, on the other hand, one cannot
readily imagine him being given permission to take this priceless
file to Australia, which is where he went.
The only official mention of the Neptune file, as belonging within
the RGO for a century and a half, is here shown. A list of all RGO
manuscripts had to be drawn up as mandated by the Public Record
Act, and so the RGO produced a book thereof, which has no date upon
it. It alludes to the bound volume made by Airy. The archivist then
at Herstmonceaux was Phil Laurie, and at an unspecified date he
wrote beside the Neptune file 'Missing for a long time, c. 1965'
as shown i.e. that was his estimate of when it vanished. Laurie
was an honourary i.e. unpaid archivist so it would have been improper
for him to indulge in whistle-blowing over the behavour of a superior,
viz. Eggen. This page is the sole statement, concerning the existence
of Airy's Neptune file, in any official RGO document!
Olin Eggen is on LHS, Woolley (the Astronomer Royal) is on RHS
Eggen visited the RGO 24th April 1967. He was the last scholar to
make verbatim use of unpublished material from the ‘lost’
Neptune-file, for his 1971 DSB article on Challis. Eggen’s
‘official’ biography has him chief Assistant to the
Astronomer Royal at the Royal Greenwich Observatory 1956-1961, and
then Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and Staff Astronomer at the
Hale Observatories, 1961-66. This however omits a second term of
employment with the RGO 1963-5 approximately, after which he was
fired by Woolley. He must have stolen the shelfloads of material
during this period. According the Margaret Penston, ex RGO, it was
his row with Woolley, in September 1965, over promotion, as led
to his 2nd departure from RGO.
A slight puzzle remains, why a galactic stellar astronomer should
have been asked to do two DSB items, for the lives of Airy and Challis,
when he had no qualifications as a science historian and had not
written on these topics previously (except for a review of Grosser’s
book which he did for Sky and Telescope).
Eggen's Portrait courtesy Royal Astronomical Society
RGO Page by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library