Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science
by N.D. Conklin, © 2001
Conclusion and Acknowledgments
By 1977 I had been working in astronomy in one way or another for 30 years, and it was time I thought about all the changes those years had brought. I had chosen astronomy for a complex set of reasons, among them my feeling that science held a sort of security for me. In particular the physical sciences, so-called hard science, seemed to me to be based on a clear, precise foundation, one that might be difficult to understand but never uncertain. I thought that I could depend on my intellect, but that I could not depend on other people. I also knew that although much of that was my fault, I did not know how to change it. I remember very well being told that the way to be popular was to hide "how smart you are", but I neither knew how nor wanted to.
Like many young people I wanted to do something that mattered, something that would last. It soon became clear that my high-flown ambition would require not only very hard work but also a measure of luck. I found also that it would make my connecting with other people still more difficult -- especially with women. If I had chosen something in the humanities, history or art or music, it would undoubtedly have been easier. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, anyone who chooses science is thought to be somehow smarter, and all my protests to the contrary don't seem to make any difference. Surely the attitude must come in part from the unimaginative way science is taught in the early grades, but how to improve the method is quite beyond me.
That is not to say that astronomy provides an easy life. Acquiring the background in physics and mathematics is hard, both from the point of view of the struggle to understand and the constant challenge to one's confidence. Actually working in observational astronomy presents other problems, probably not the ones an outsider supposes. Imagine that you have an idea for a project and that you embark on the often slow and intricate process of gathering and interpreting data, enlisting the help of a skilled staff. It is vital, of course, that you carry out the project with absolute integrity, and without emotion, although in order to invest the effort in the first place you need to believe that the project is worth doing. An astronomer, or any scientist, fights a daily battle between emotion and discipline, and the job cannot be done without both.
On the other hand, I have found in astronomy a career always satisfying and occasionally thrilling. One persists through times of routine, demanding hours with the possibility of an extraordinary reward. Make no mistake; the approval of colleagues, especially those not familiar with your work, is wonderful, but it does not hold a candle to the joy in realizing that you are seeing something for the first time. In my experience there are two ways in which real discoveries are made: stumbling on something totally unexpected while looking at something else, and searching for something because you think it might be there. In my own work I found one of each.
The first was in the study of the OH molecule in the interstellar gas. Harold Weaver, David Williams, and I were all astonished at the strange behavior shown in our observations. Every new record seemed to contradict our assumptions. For me there was a special moment that occurred because I was in charge of collecting, organizing, and compiling the material sent from the observatory at Hat Creek. Because all the signals are weak, we needed to add together many days of observation of each source. As I was preparing to combine data obtained in July 1965 with that obtained in October, I realized with a shock that the two sets were different from one another, too different to combine. After scrambling through the records to determine whether they were indeed properly recorded and from the same source in the sky, I knew that I had in front of me irrefutable evidence that the interstellar gas changes in an unbelievably short time, a few months. It was a delicious moment! However, I very nearly let my excitement lead me astray. I immediately set out to see if there were shorter term variations and found some changes over a few weeks. So why not days or hours? It looked to me as if there were some very short period changes, and only the advice of Harold Weaver led me to re-examine the validity of my conclusions. I had, it seems, let my excitement run away with me.
The second discovery occurred in quite a different way. Because a group of astronomers from Caltech had proposed to use our antenna and theirs as an interferometer at a frequency quite near that of neutral hydrogen, I had the opportunity of testing for the first time my idea that clouds exist in the interstellar gas much smaller than any so far seen. This time the thrill of discovery was by no means immediate. It took long hours of observing and even more in processing the data before I knew I had been right. There was, however, the final moment when I knew that the data would prove it. There ain't, as they say, nothiní like it.
There was another difference in this project. In the case of OH, I faced reasonable skepticism that I was able to overcome because parts of the observed spectrum stayed the same while others varied. In the case of this unexpected, very small hydrogen cloud I encountered indifference. Although I left valuable information behind, no one bothered to examine it, and it was only 13 years later because of Millerís personal confidence in me that the observation was confirmed and extended. Without that confirmation the observation may just as well never have been done.
For many years now I had no longer needed astronomy as a source of what one might call psychological security; I had found Garret, my husband. He offered not only security but a life of discovery of another sort, of exploring the world and learning to reach the people in it. He was wonderfully talented at both. In early 1977 I learned that I could retire from the University that year when I was 51 years old with my pension to begin at 65. My health was not a major issue in the decision to leave astronomy, but I knew it could interfere in the now necessary extensive travel to other observatories. Since Garret was already retired and we wanted to leave Berkeley, we decided to try living abroad and spent some months "throwing darts at maps" to decide where. We narrowed things a bit by focusing on islands (influenced by my love of Nantucket) and then on islands near Europe. The Spanish Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean seemed to fill the bill, and in the spring we journeyed there to choose which of the three, Mallorca, Menorca, or Ibiza.
In September 1977 I retired early from the University of California. I hope that this chronicle has made it clear that my being a woman in no way interfered with my career. I had all the observing time, all the help, and all the opportunity to travel that I needed. It was time to do something else, and my husband and I moved to the Spanish island of Menorca.
What I have written about my astronomical projects does not, of course, tell the whole story, because being part of this scientific community affects the whole of one's life. Astronomers need to share ideas, hopes, failures, and successes, and that leads to wonderful opportunities to travel. These experiences are different from those of tourists -- for me a good deal richer. I was able to dip (gingerly) my toes into a cold mountain stream in Chile; to visit the cave at Lascaux and see its wondrous 15,000-year-old paintings; to live as a foreigner for three months in the Soviet Union of 1973; to be in Prague in 1967 (the summer before the tanks came) where several members of the Russian delegation to the meeting of the International Astronomical Union asked me to ride on their bus for a tour of castles (with the added benefit of my being unable to understand the Russian tour guide); to be (with Jean-Claude Pecker) the first foreigner to sit in the observing chair of the Russian 200+" telescope in the North Caucasus; and to come to know Paris. There are, of course, many others that fill my precious collection of memories.
And then there are the people who were and are my friends: Helen Dodson who introduced me to astronomy, and my teachers at Harvard especially Dick Thomas and Bart Bok who opened surprising doors for me. Perhaps quotations from the acknowledgments in several of my papers will show what I owe to all my colleagues.
If I were to name my colleagues who have contributed to this paper, the list would read very much like the staff list of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory -- Hat Creek and Berkeley. (1967)
The generosity of my colleagues in providing information before publication is obvious throughout this paper. Not so obvious but greatly appreciated is their constant encouragement. (1969)
Harold Weaver has contributed both by sharing his insight and by maintaining a stubborn refusal to be convinced on too little evidence. I am grateful for both. (1972)
Virtually the entire community of VLBI observers has contributed in one way or another to the study here reported. [There follow names of 11 people who contributed] their advice at the outset of the program ... essential help with the instrument and the observing... efforts in adapting the computer program to our problem... time and talents generously given toward the solution of reduction problems, and we are grateful. (1976)
There is one person who has given me the highest compliment one scientist can give another. Miller Goss (retired director of the
National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Array Operations Center in New Mexico), whom I first met when he was a student at Berkeley, has demonstrated his faith in my work by testing the conclusions in several of my papers. So far he has verified them although he may not have made me aware of less favorable results.