Kraus, John D.
Ohio State University Library
1858 Neil Mall
Columbus, OH 43210-1046
.1 cubic foot; 18 pp transcript
Dr. John Kraus was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Astronomy at Ohio State University. He arrived in 1946 and immediately made significant contributions. Working in his basement he invented the helical antenna, which soon became in use worldwide, and especially on satellites in space and the space station. He was able to build an array of 96 of these antennae into a single unit that formed a radio telescope, one of the first ever built. The radio telescope was directed from a small building on a corner of the University Farms. The building was built by Kraus with his own hands, assisted by a graduate student, Gabe Skitek, and paid for by donated materials and a small grant from the College of Engineering. Unfortunately there was some serious fallout when the university central administration discovered that a building had been built on University property without their knowledge or permission. But the program continued despite an almost total lack of interest or cooperation from the Astronomy Department. “We were just a lot of black boxes that they did not understand.” He also taught for some years a course in radio astronomy. Several other universities, including the Universities of Michigan and Illinois, developed strong programs in radio astronomy. One key benefit of the “Big Ear” was that it was a “fantastic teaching tool.” Students and others who used the telescope surveyed the sky and determined where radio emissions were coming from, although the signals did not come from any object known at the time. Myra Gearhart, a graduate student, found that some of these radio sources corresponded to an extremely faint optical object. It was numbered OH471. Astronomers at Stewart University obtained a spectrum of OH471, discovered by Gearhart, and proved it was the most distant known object in the universe. It was a page one story in the New York Times. Other discoveries followed from this student-built telescope. Preeminent among these was discovery of the so-called “WOW” signal which moved with the stars and might have been from an extra-terrestrial intelligent civilization. No one can say for sure. The search for extra-terrestrials continues today at other observatories notably at the SETI Institute in California. At Ohio State the leading investigators were Alan Hyneke and Marion Poole. Al Garrett was an administrator who was especially helpful. In time the reputation of the “Big Ear” was worldwide. Sir Arthur Clarke, the distinguished writer of science fiction, credits Dr. Kraus and his work on “Big Ear,” for some ideas used in his novels. Kraus published a book appropriately called The Big Ear. It was translated into Japanese and Chinese and other languages. Another successful book by Kraus was Our Cosmic Universe. The transcript of the oral interview includes a three-page quotation from this book which deals with the discovery of cosmic rays, and, in particular, with the work of the twelve-story tall German research balloon, the Boehmen, which lifted Dr. Victor Hess and other scientists some 5,350 meters high into the edges of the atmosphere. Thus it was proved that the higher one rose the stronger the radiation from above. This was the discovery of cosmic rays which continually bombard the earth. Dr. Victor Hess won the Nobel prize for the researches he conducted using the balloon. Dr. Kraus includes the story of this scientific breakthrough in Our Cosmic Universe. Dr. Kraus closes his interview with the observation that so much more remains to be done in understanding the universe. “We know less about the universe than Columbus knew about America in 1492.” Earth is, after all, just a tiny little planet in a solar system in a huge galaxy. And there are billions of galaxies. “We are such an imperceptible speck that it’s awesome, it’s frightening, it’s overwhelming.” One small part of the research effort was the voyages of Voyager I and II which are both now beyond the outer limits of the solar system. They have provided much valuable data, but also their voyages were a symbolic thing to do since they sought to encapsulate for some distant, unknown intelligence what our civilization is like on Earth. Certainly current researchers and those who follow will fill in more and more details about the realms of space, and the possible existence of extra-terrestrial beings. Future discoveries may well be serendipitous, or accidental discoveries found while looking for something entirely different. Karl Jansky built an antenna to study radiation from thunder storms and he discovered radio emission from our galaxy. Arnold Penzias and Robert Wilson sought to find the lowest level of radio emission from the sky, but in so doing found a minimum temperature of about three degrees Kelvin, which is the temperature of the Big Bang. Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell wanted to study fluctuations in radio emissions from radio sources, and discovered a previously unknown object, the pulsars. They were all looking for something else when they made their most important discoveries.