The Manhattan Project

Verna Hobson's Interview - Part 1

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Verna Hobson was an American secretary. She and her husband, the jazz musician Wilder Thornton, moved to Princeton, NJ in the 1950s. From 1954 to 1956, Verna Hobson worked for J. Robert Oppenheimer as a secretary at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. In this interview, she discusses life in Princeton during the mid-’50s, including the social scene and her personal relationships with the Oppenheimer family. She worked for Oppenheimer during his security trial hearing, and explains why she felt the legal strategy was flawed and recalls the strain the Oppenheimer family was put under. She also discusses the personalities of Robert, Kitty, and Peter Oppenheimer, and Robert and Kitty’s relationship.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
07/31/1979
Location of the Interview: 
New Gloucester
Collections: 
Transcript: 

Martin Sherwin: Today is July 31, 1979. This is an interview with Verna Hobson in New Gloucester, Maine.

I think the best way to proceed is probably to start with when you first met [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and how you got the job.

Verna Hobson: Okay. We were living in Princeton. My husband commuted to New York, and we had two little children. I was beginning to think about when I could go back to work or maybe take some more training. In other words, getting on with my own life.

Sherwin: This was when?

Hobson: It was in '53, '52? Were the hearings in the spring of '53?

Sherwin: In the spring of '54.

Hobson: '54, okay. Well, then this would have been the fall of '53.

Sherwin: Just before the hearings?

Hobson: Yeah. We had actually met the Oppenheimer's at a dinner party at the O'Haras, who were very old friends of ours. In fact, they moved to Princeton really because we were there.

Sherwin: The O'Haras are?

Hobson: The O'Haras. John and Belle O'Hara.

Sherwin: Oh, yeah.

Hobson: They had met the Oppenheimers and taken a great shine to them, and so they had us around, just the six of us, one evening. But we hadn’t followed up on that. Then somebody else we knew who had been Oppenheimer's secretary, Kay Russell, asked me if I would like to go in and do some transcribing from tape recordings of some seminars at the Institute [for Advanced Study].

Sherwin: Those were the [Dean] Acheson Seminars?  

Hobson: The Acheson Seminars, yeah. So I did that for a while. Then the number two person in the office—there were two secretaries in the office—and by this time Kay Russell had left, but she was kind of hanging around. Her successor was Nan Jaffin, who still lives in Princeton. Her assistant quit, and they asked me if I would fill in temporarily.

Sherwin: Nan Jaffin. I have never seen her name on letters that he wrote. It must have been a very brief period.

Hobson: I think she had started that summer, and she must have been there for a good six months.

Sherwin: Oh, it didn’t extend for five years or anything like that?

Hobson: No it didn’t. And the fact that Kay was still hanging around and Kay worked a lot with Robert when the hearings were all about to happen. So I suppose, in a way, that Nan had a shorter time and less of a free run as his secretary.

Sherwin: Is her name Nancy?

Hobson: No, it’s Roseanna. Her husband's name is Charles Jaffin, and I cannot remember the name of the road they live on.

Sherwin: Do they live out in the western section?

Hobson: Yeah, up towards Hopewell.

Sherwin: I have their daughter, I think. Would their daughter go to Princeton about now?

Hobson: Could be, could be.

Sherwin: Are they tall people?

Hobson: Nan isn't, but Charles is, fairly, yes.

Sherwin: She was a tall girl. There was a Jaffin who lived in Princeton who lives out near—

Hobson: That is most likely the reason why Nan did not stay and why I got the job. She left because she was pregnant.

Sherwin: Well, that must have been different.

Hobson: Born in ’54, would now be twenty-five. Well, I know they’ve had five or six children.

Sherwin: Oh, okay.

Hobson: Well anyway, that’s what happened. I wouldn’t have taken that job, and I do not believe I would have been considered able to handle it, if it had not been for the hearings. I was working temporarily as the number two in the office. And when the whole thing came up, which was in December, the letter of charges, Robert told me about the whole thing and I stayed on temporarily.

Then Nan was pregnant and was going to leave. It was no time for him to go out and recruit a stranger. I don’t think they ever thought of Kay coming back, although she was working with him, but not coming back to the Institute side of the job.

So that is really how it happened. My children were in first and second grade, and it was not really a time for me to take a more than full-time job. I used to work all day Saturday, and often half of Sundays, and late every evening. But there it was.

Sherwin: Could we back up a bit and talk for a moment about the dinner party at the O'Haras?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Do you remember anything about that?

Hobson: I remember being aware that John was having one of his wild enthusiasms. In fact, it must have been—no, I don’t think it was New Year's Eve. Anyway, John made a very special toast about—maybe it was New Year's Eve. He said, “A toast to the year passed, with which the great thing that happened was that we met the Oppenheimers.”

I remember that Kitty at least once showed her claws slightly.

Sherwin: That evening?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: I understand she had very sharp and long claws. She could do that socially in a way that he [Robert Oppenheimer] could do it intellectually.

Hobson: Right. Although when you say he could intellectually, it was impatience. It wasn’t to hurt—he didn’t want to hurt people.

Sherwin: Right.

Hobson: He just couldn’t wait for their slower wits to catch up. Whereas Kitty had a certain need to hurt people. So it wasn't really the same.

Sherwin: What was it that evening?

Hobson: It was something about the way a drop of water bulges when it sits on glass. What I said was that—I cannot even remember what. But instead of saying, “No it is caused by so and so,” Kitty did it in a way to indicate that I was a fool to have suggested that it was. I cannot even remember now, something pretty small.

But after the Oppenheimers left first, John said to me, “Well, you certainly showed up Kitty Oppenheimer by behaving like a lady.” So I remember that.

Sherwin: That was your first time you ever met her?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: In terms of an overview, was that characteristic of her behavior, or a certain part of her behavior towards you, for the rest of the time?

Hobson: No. My goodness, this is hard work.

I mean, it was so intense a part of my life for such a long time. I would have to say as a simple answer to your question, no, that she treated me with great respect and affection right through.

Sherwin: But she didn’t hesitate on meeting somebody for the first time at a dinner party to sometimes bite their head off?

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: Okay. So let's say this could be December 31, 1952.

Hobson: It could have been, yeah. Because it certainly wasn’t '53, because by then I was working there.

Sherwin: Is this John O'Hara, the novelist?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Okay. Then the next time that you saw the Oppenheimers was—?

Hobson: It may have been when I went in to do that transcribing of tapes. I don’t remember meeting them in between.

Sherwin: Okay, but you knew Katharine Russell?

Hobson: Yes.

Sherwin: What do you know about her relationship as Robert Oppenheimer's secretary?

Hobson: I think she was his secretary for seven years. She gave her whole life to it. She had a husband and some children, but the job was really her whole life.

Sherwin: So she was there for seven years, since the beginning of the time that he came to the Institute?

Hobson: That is right. I think I remember now that she was perhaps already working there.

Sherwin: She became his secretary?

Hobson: Yeah. Very bright.

Sherwin: How old of a woman was she at that time?

Hobson: About my age. She would have been thirty-ish, early thirties. So she must have started in her twenties. She is another whole story. I wonder where she is now.

Sherwin: I thought she was dead.

Hobson: Is she?

Sherwin: No. I don’t know for sure, but I thought that somebody said that she had died. It could be I might have it in my notes that—

Hobson: You’re not thinking of Ruth Barnett, are you?

Sherwin: I don’t know that name.

Hobson: She was Assistant General Manager at the Institute and worked with Mike Morgan, and was very close to Kitty and saw a great deal of Robert, but really more of Kitty.

Kay may be dead. She stayed in Princeton for a while and then she went west. I have not heard anything of her for years, but she was kind of coming apart at the seams.

Sherwin: In what sense?

Hobson: Drinking too much, not making any sense. Getting into minor kinds of trouble, her children getting into trouble.

Sherwin: Was this falling apart of her life tied up with her job?

Hobson: I don’t know, and I don’t know why she quit. I really don’t, unless she felt that it was getting to be too much for her. Maybe it was an attempt to get out before she was sucked in.

Robert was an extraordinarily demanding person to work for. Kitty demanded just as much from his secretaries as Robert did, so it was like working for two demanding bosses, who took you right into their lives, made you a part of it. They expected you to be at the house half the time.

I wanted to say about working for Robert—which meant working for Robert and Kitty—that I think the reason why it went well for me for all of those years is because I had a very good and very important marriage. So as fascinating and absorbing as the job was, it came second in my life. I think it would have been very hard for anyone to get involved in that if they did not have something else to keep them outside.

Sherwin: It added a dimension of your life, as opposed to just completely suffocating you.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: When you say that he was a demanding boss, that can mean a lot of things. Is there any way that you can describe it?

Hobson: He expected a very high level of performance, and he expected an astonishing array of general knowledge. He would start off, for instance, dictating physics formulae. Or dictating in Latin, which I could handle. Or dictating in Greek, which I could not.

He would just assume you knew all these things. Then if you said no, you did not, then he would accept that. But he started off at the top.

Sherwin: Did he come to the office early and stay late? Did he expect you to do that?

Hobson: He expected you to be around and to be willing to work all kinds of funny hours. But it wasn't that he said, “Now you must be here.” It was just that the atmosphere was that you wanted to because you could see it was important.

Then of course he was away a great deal, and he used his secretary as his one link with the Institute and with the rest of the world. So everything had to come through that person. That meant that one had to be performing almost better in his absence than when he was there.

Sherwin: Sort of like being an alter ego.

Hobson: Even when they were in the Virgin Islands and one could only communicate by ship-to-shore telephone, I had to call two or three times a week to tell him what was in the mail, keep him posted on everything.

Sherwin: Did you ever go out to the Virgin Islands?

Hobson: Uh-uh.

Sherwin: In what sense did Kitty involve herself in your life and in the office?

Hobson: She was Robert's greatest confidante and advisor, and so he told her everything and she would get involved in making decisions. Ruth Barnett was involved in this too, but I was and Kay was and whoever Robert's secretary was. Kitty's official function as the wife of the director, social functions and that kind of thing, I would do a lot of work with her on that.

Sherwin: Let's go back to the chronological sequence. You first met the Oppenheimers on New Year's Eve, '52, '53. Did you say that you had gotten involved in the office sometime in the spring of ‘53?

Hobson: No. It was the fall, because it was after we came back from Maine. I did that in September, October—

Sherwin: You were doing the Acheson transcripts at that time?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: You had a chance to talk to him and to get to know him? How did the office function at the time? Was that in Fuld Hall?

Hobson: Yes, it was where the present director's office is.

Sherwin: Okay, and there were three secretaries?

Hobson: There were two.

Sherwin: No receptionist?

Hobson: No. There had been, shortly before, an armed guard because of the vault.

Sherwin: He sat at the desk?

Hobson: Well, the rooms are a bit changed. At that time, there was a room you came into, the front room, and I think one of them sat in there. I think another one was downstairs by the vault.

Sherwin: There is a little anteroom that is in front of the director's office right now, and then there is a wall, a part of the office where now where there are three desks and two secretaries sit at it. Around the corner to your left is the director's office.

Hobson: Yeah, well that was the director's office. I sat alone in the big room, which now has two or three desks in it. That is, after I became the number one secretary. The number two secretary sat in the corner office facing me. I could see Robert at his desk, and I could also see my assistant through the door into her office.

Sherwin: Was your room extremely large?

Hobson: Yeah. It was bigger than Robert's room.

Sherwin: Yeah. I guess I haven’t seen that.

Hobson: Well they’ve closed off—it used to be that the circulation was through that room and out, but they closed it off and somebody else works in there now. So there is only one exit.

Sherwin: [inaudible] 

Hobson: Yes, because we did not have all of those things in those days.

Sherwin: Do you remember when you first heard about the charges against Oppenheimer?

Hobson: Oh, yes. He and Kitty came into the office one day. This was when I was temporarily filling in the number two spot. They went in and shut the door, which was an unusual thing. They stayed in there a long time, and then they came out and they talked with Nan Jaffin. It was clear that something was wrong

Then they had a drink. I think maybe they offered me a drink. Yes, they must have done. Anyway, I did not know what it was; I just could see that there was some kind of trouble. I went home and I said to Wilder [Hobson, her husband] that, “The Oppenheimers are in some kind of trouble. I do not know what it is, but I want to give them a present.”

He had just bought a record of Brazilian songs by [Heitor] Villa-Lobos, sung by a Brazilian soprano. The Oppenheimers had just come back from Brazil. This was a record that we had played a few times, so it was not brand new, and all of these are a part of the story.

So I took it in the next day and I gave it to Robert and I said, “This is not a Christmas present and I did not go out and buy it for you. It has been played. It is a present I just want to give you now.” He took it and sat with his head down very still for a moment. Then he looked up and he said, “How incredibly dear.”

Then sometime later that day, I guess he probably had talked with Kitty. He said, “I would like to tell you what the trouble is.” So he took me into his office and shut the door and he told me the whole story of the charges, and his life.

Sherwin: Could you tell me?

Hobson: Which was all new to me. I mean, not only was a lot of it secret, but it was also stuff that I had not followed in the papers insofar as it was public. So I was hearing the whole thing for the first time.

Sherwin: Could you recall what it was that he told you?

Hobson: Oh my God. Well, I suppose it took an hour, or an hour in a half. He started out by telling me about his family and his childhood. As a matter of fact, it was very much the material that he had put into the letter which you have.

Sherwin: I was going ask if he was essentially rehearsing the letter.

Hobson: I think perhaps, yes. He did that letter with Kay. But he might have been rehearsing the letter, yeah.

Sherwin: Okay. Did he ask you to stay and help now that this was coming up?

Hobson: Well, Nan didn’t know she was pregnant yet, so that issue hadn’t come up and it wasn’t mentioned, no. I think they were going to Paris for Christmas and I think they did say, “We hope you will stay until we get back.” But I do not think that anything more was said at that time.

Sherwin: They left after they received the charges? The chronology that I thought I had in my head was that they had been in Paris and they had come back to—

Hobson: You’re right, you are right. So no, that is right. Yes, of course. And then they would not have gone, because then they had all of those weeks of working with the lawyers on the whole thing. No, that is right.

Sherwin: When did Nan leave?

Hobson: Yes, I can tell you that exactly. Her pregnancy was recognized while they were in Paris, so—

Sherwin: It was just before Christmas?

Hobson: Yeah, that would have already come up. Anyway, she left and I took over on April Fools' Day. So I do not forget that. And that was just before the whole case broke in the papers.

Sherwin: Yes. They knew that she was leaving sometime around then, and you were essentially integrated into the office?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Well, this is such an extraordinarily important part of his life. I would like to learn as much from you as possible about the January, February, March, April; the winter and spring of 1954.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Can you recall the kind of work you were doing, or any conversations with lawyers that you were involved in? You must have gone home after—as a way of jogging your memory—this hour and a half discussion with Robert Oppenheimer, you must have been pretty overwhelmed and shook up by the whole thing.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Did you then go home and tell your husband about it?

Hobson: No. I cannot remember how soon this happened after that, but I would think that probably within the next couple of weeks, Kay Russell asked me if I would take Nan's job. I refused to answer. I did not think it was proper for her to be offering it to me. I think I said that I would have to be asked by Oppenheimer, because otherwise I was afraid that Kitty was going to ask me and I thought that that was improper too.

Anyway in the end he formally did ask me and I said yes. I told Wilder that the Oppenheimer's were in trouble, but I did not tell him anything about it and he did not ask. He was satisfied to let that be kept a secret. And then along in, I would say, in late February, I began to feel pretty uncomfortable about being involved, as involved as I was then in the whole thing, and not having Wilder know. Although he never pushed me or made me, it was just me feeling uncomfortable.

So one day I said to Robert, “May I have your permission to tell Wilder what the trouble is?”

And he looked at me in astonishment and he said, “Of course I thought you had done so long ago.”

Of course, they were very intense days. I think my own work was more learning the Institute's side of the job, because Kay was doing all the stuff about the papers that Robert was preparing for the case. And I think I was learning from Nan Jaffin, working with her, learning the Institute stuff.

But then, and this was a pattern almost every day, Robert would go home at five, I guess, unless there was something that kept him. If there was more work to do, it would be adjourned to the house, we would all go to the house for drinks. Then there would be a lot of talk, and sometimes the lawyers would be there then. But I do not think that I was working specifically as a secretary on those things. I was just a part of the group.

I remembered that in the beginning, I used to push. I thought Robert was not fighting hard enough. I thought Lloyd Garrison was being too gentlemanly. I was angry. I thought we should go out and fight. One day Robert said to me very gently, he said, “Verna, I really am fighting just as hard as I know how in what seems to me the best way.” After that, I stopped pestering him.

Sherwin: That is very interesting. He said it gently, at his house?

Hobson: It was on the steps of his house. I think he had come out to say goodbye. And perhaps it had some quality of confidence, or perhaps he wanted until we were alone to say it, so that it would have more weight.

Sherwin: Now, the hearing was not already going on?

Hobson: No, no, that was before the hearing started.

Sherwin: Your complaint about what was going on at the time was in the context of the strategy that was being developed?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: What was Garrison like? What troubled you about his approach? I preface all of this by saying that, quite clearly in retrospect, his strategy was all wrong. The idea that they could approach this thing as they should, that all of this was in good faith, which I think was Garrison's strategy, the system would work properly, you just had to show them that you are not too arrogant [inaudible], and then they’ll realize it was all a dreadful mistake and would go away. It was just all wrong. It was something that was political.

Hobson: Yeah. Right.

Sherwin: But you had a sense of that, which interests me.

Hobson: Well I do not know whether six months later I would have had it. By that time, I might have been too thoroughly soaked in the Oppenheimer style.

Sherwin: The letter comes in the very end of December and the hearing is in April. Late March, early April, or two weeks in April?

Hobson: It was two weeks, wasn't it?

Sherwin: About that.

Hobson: And the whole thing broke in the press on the—was it on the 10th or the 13th of April? So yes, it was probably late March, the hearings, I should think. No, wait. The hearings were still going on when it was broken

Sherwin: That’s right. It was about the [inaudible]. But I do not recall the dates of the hearing, so I can’t help you with that. The review process took place in June.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: So this was before the hearing. Could you recall, let's say, one strategy session, who was sitting there?

Hobson: Well, it was at Olden Manor or Olden Farm, as we came to know to call it. Robert always sat in a leather swivel chair, an office chair, by a table by the window on the south side. He always sat there. Kitty would sit in one of two blue upholstered armchairs. Lloyd Garrison was certainly there, and Kay Russell would have been there. I have a feeling that there were about three, Garrison plus two, but who were the others?  

Sherwin: Well, one lawyer would have been Robert's friend Joe Marks.

Hobson: Herbert.

Sherwin: Herbert.

Hobson: No, was it Herbert Marks?

Sherwin: I do not know, I was fishing.

Hobson: Marks. You know, I do not believe I ever met him. I think they saw him in Washington.

Sherwin: I see. Then these might have been two assistants?

Hobson: I think they were people from Garrison's office. I cannot bring them back into mind. I am not going to be very good at remembering an awful lot of things here, because it was a complicated story. Of the people who got plunged into the middle of it, I was the one who had the least background. So I had to learn ancient history as well as today all at once, and there was just so much that a lot of details are just gone.

Sherwin: I am just trying to see wherever I can catch anything. So that is fine.

Hobson: Okay.

Sherwin: These meetings, when the strategy began to develop, you’re sort of on the perimeter of the circle, looking in. That is what really interests me. You’re not a primary planner. You are watching this process. And if you could characterize it for me and suggest what bothered you about the strategy that they were planning?

Hobson: Well, it seemed to me that the whole story was such an obvious piece of nonsense, that anybody who was using it to stir up trouble would not be open to sweet reason. They must be using it as a tool. And the thing to do was to push back, kick back, attack. 

Sherwin: Did you ever say that?

Hobson: Yeah I did. And that’s why Robert finally shut me up [laughter]. I think I would have been too scared to say it to the whole group, but I would sort of keep muttering it at him.

Sherwin: What was Garrison's style and his approach to all this?

Hobson: Very, very gentle. Very judicial, and very gentlemanly.

Sherwin: How about Kitty who, my understanding of this so far, is a woman who was very much a fighter?

Hobson: Yeah. And I wish now that I could observe her again in those days. It brought out the very best in her. It called on all of her faculties, and it was probably the only time in her life she ever really felt that she was being demanded something that really used her capabilities. She was brave. But as to the details of what she said—

Sherwin: I know that Kitty had a very serious drinking problem, and that was a problem that was evident even by the late 1940s, let alone by 1953. You just said something that interests me very much. You said that this was perhaps the first time in her life, certainly the first time in her life with Robert Oppenheimer, that she was called upon to use all the abilities that she really had. Did you ever think about why she was drinking so heavily?

Hobson: Well yes, and Robert did too. And he even sometimes talked with me about it.

There is no point in my doing this with you if I do not tell you as much as I can. I must say that I think of Peter [Oppenheimer] when I think of telling you what Robert said to me about Kitty.

Hobson: I’d agreed with Robert that the foundation, or a foundation, of Kitty's troubles was that she was insanely jealous of Robert. She couldn’t stand it when he either got praise or blame, because he was in the spotlight. She loved him very much, and he loved her very much. But I think that is what it was. She just envied him.

Sherwin: She could not stand not being in the spotlight?

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: When you say, you think of Peter—?

Hobson: I mean, that it makes me uncomfortable to think of if Peter could hear me talking, because I do not know what he thinks about it. But how would he feel to think that his father had said that about his mother to somebody else?

Sherwin: I have talked to a lot of people who knew them as a couple [00:40:10] quite well, each in different ways. My sense of Peter's relationship with his mother was that it was not very good one.

Hobson: Oh it was not, no.

Sherwin: To say that they were alienated from each other is almost a euphemism, as I understand it. I have a lot more to find out exactly what the nature of the relationship was. When I saw Peter, I didn’t want to ask him those kinds of questions.

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: So I don’t think that that kind of comment certainly—

Hobson: It is not so much the content of it as the privacy of it. Peter has a very strong sense of privacy, and he is the only one left now.

Sherwin: He certainly seems to be well.

Hobson: Good.

Sherwin: As I said, I had spoken to him. I was asking him who he thought I should talk to. I guess a characteristic answer for Peter would probably [inaudible]. But then as we continued to talk about it, I asked him [inaudible] speak to Verna Hobson, “I liked her very much,” which I take coming from Peter, it is a very meaningful comment. So I gather the two of you had some kind of a special connection.

Hobson: Yes we did. Still do I guess.

Sherwin: Were you, in a way, a surrogate mother to him?

Hobson: A bit during the hearings, a little bit, but then very much more the spring and summer that Robert and Kitty and Toni spent in Paris and Peter did not go. He was at the George School. I was specifically left in charge of him at that time.

Sherwin: What summer was that?

Hobson: I think it was when Toni was eleven. Does that date it for you?

Sherwin: She was born in 1944, I think.

Hobson: So that would have been—

Sherwin: '55?

Hobson: No, she could not have been born in '44.

Sherwin: Let's see, he was born in '41. When she was born, they were still at Los Alamos.

Hobson: Let's see. Peter was at that time a junior.

Sherwin: That would be about right. It could 1956 maybe, and he was born in '41.

Hobson: He was seventeen, because he just had his driving lessons. Or he might have been sixteen in Pennsylvania, seventeen in New Jersey as well. I remember, I went over to the George School one day with an Institute station wagon, and I let him drive it. And we knew that we were both breaking the rules, and we had a pretty good time.

Sherwin: Yeah, he spent his last year at Princeton High School.

Hobson: He did not stay at the—?

Sherwin: George School.

Hobson: I thought he went west and finished school out there.

Sherwin: I know he had a year at Princeton High School.

Well, in terms of Kitty's participation in strategy in the hearings, etc., she was really in there, she was very supportive of Robert. She was active, I take it, in the discussions.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Would it be right to say that he leaned on her a lot?

Hobson: Oh, yes.

Sherwin: How would you characterize it?

Hobson: Yes, I think he leaned on her tremendously. He didn’t always follow her advice, but he sure listened to it and he respected her political and intellectual capacities.

Sherwin: Was she inclined in a direction that was somewhat like yours, to be tougher? 

Hobson: I do not think that I can answer that. No, I think probably not.