Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science
by N.D. Conklin, © 2001
In the fall of 1955 I began my graduate studies at Harvard. I find it hard to describe my student days - they contained many high times and a few low ones. One important factor was that I had worked in astronomy seven years before coming to Harvard College Observatory. I knew what I wanted and something of how to get it. And on the faculty there was an extraordinary woman, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Her field was the study of variable stars, now not one of primary interest to me, but her influence went far beyond that field. My first contact with her was in her course on variable stars. Not much of the subject matter remains with me, but I can never forget the lectures for her rich, imaginative use of the English language. I learned that she had applied long ago from England to come to Harvard for an advanced degree in astronomy, and the application was made in the name C. Payne, omitting the obviously feminine first name. Only on her arrival did the administration discover they had admitted a woman. And while I was still a student she was appointed a full professor of astronomy at Harvard University, the first such appointment for a woman. She, in characteristic fashion, shared her joy with the current women students, and her formal acceptance speech was unforgettable. As she stood at the podium, a large, imposing, slightly untidy figure, she said, "I find myself cast in the unlikely role of a thin wedge." Laughter filled the room. On a later occasion I found Dr. Gaposchkin a sensitive and honorable friend.
Radio astronomy was naturally an area I wanted to investigate, and again I was in the right place at the right time. Dave Heeschen and Ed Lilley had just finished their theses on the study of neutral hydrogen in interstellar space in our galaxy. On the strength of their results
Prof. Bart Bok built a 60 ft radio telescope with a receiver for the 21cm hydrogen radiation. He also gathered a group of eager, excited students. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a man who said, "Think what you have. Here is the most powerful instrument in the world for studying an exciting new field, and it is all yours!" With it we could, in fact, look beyond our own galaxy to study other galactic systems.
A quotation from an article Dave Heeschen and I wrote in 1957 expresses the lure of observations of interstellar hydrogen in other galaxies.
21cm line observations of an extragalactic system can yield directly the distance of the system, and the distribution, internal motions, and total mass of neutral hydrogen within the system. Indirectly, comparison of optical and radio data should yield information about the nature and evolution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
Much of this lay in the future, but I was able to choose for my thesis a study of the nearby spiral galaxy M33. Because the interstellar gas associated with the system extends far beyond its optical image the resolution of the 60-ft antenna was adequate for the study. I was able to derive a rotation curve and estimates both of the total mass of M33 and its mass of interstellar neutral hydrogen.
When I began my observations I, along with my fellow students, began to worry about the problem of where to find a job. Money for astronomical research was hardly plentiful. But this was October 1957, and the Russians put up Sputnik - with a resulting change in the national attitude toward things astronomical. On April 13, 1958 I took the orals for my PhD (more grueling than normal because I was six months pregnant). Fortunately the National Science Foundation gave me a one-year fellowship to examine 21cm radiation from another nearby galaxy, M31. My proposal was based on the greatly increased sensitivity expected from our new maser-based receiver. When I discovered that the receiver would not be ready until well after my year was over, I gave up the fellowship and set about job hunting.