[Pastel portrait of Nan Conklin]
Image courtesy of N.D. Conklin

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[photo of Nan Conklin, 1975]
Image courtesy of N.D. Conklin

Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science

by N.D. Conklin, © 2001

UC Berkeley: Exchange Visit to USSR

At about this time I was given a remarkable opportunity. I received to grant from our National Academy of Sciences and from the Soviet academy to visit the Soviet Union. The visit was such a memorable one, and so many things have changed there that I decided to include here my original report on that visit.

Report on Exchange Visit to the USSR April - June 1973

The purpose of my visit to the Soviet Union was somewhat different from that usually sponsored by the Academy. I went to learn about Soviet research, rather than to pursue a program of my own. As part of plans for a book, or more accurately, a monograph, concerning the interstellar medium, I wanted to learn about Soviet contributions to, and thoughts about, the field. This area of research is one that is progressing in this country at an explosive rate, and I therefore expected that my knowledge of Soviet contributions would be far out of date.

My plans included interviewing as many astronomers interested in problems of the interstellar medium as I could - both the well-known ones and the younger people whom I would not have known. Therefore, I visited several institutes throughout the Soviet Union. I was delighted to be able to bring with me the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific that had been awarded the year before to Dr. I.S. Shklovsky of the Institute.

[Writing Shklovsky's name at the end of Bruce Medalist listing]

Nan Dieter Conklin adds Shklovsky's name to the list of Bruce Medalists. Left to right: Prof. D.Ya. Martynov (seated, Director of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute), Prof. I.S. Shklovsky, Nan Dieter Conklin
(Image courtesy of N.D. Conklin)

My host institution was the Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow, where Dr. S.B. Pikelíner was a constant source of help and friendship. I found, in general, an open and welcoming attitude, and not only from the Russian scientists I already knew. There were, however, some problems: in fact, many of the same ones encountered by my American colleagues in Moscow. Making arrangements to visit with a particular scientist was annoying or worse, despite the fact that the institute was quite open to visitors. Part of the problem certainly arose from the extreme crowding in offices at the institute; in order to work, an astronomer normally stayed at home, and it was therefore necessary to make an appointment well in advance, usually a week. Also, most of the prominent scientists are extraordinarily busy with duties other than research and teaching - editing, committee meetings, oral examinations for graduate students from all over the Soviet Union, and many others of which I am not fully aware. As a result, my hours of fruitful consultation were incredibly limited, despite a growing persistence on my part.

The content of those hours was also (to be frank) surprisingly uninteresting. With the exception of one man (who is no longer in full-time research) the junior scientists seem to be doing a reasonably competent job without a vision of where their work fits into the larger picture, and with no thought at all of directing their efforts in new directions. (The contrast with staff members and students at Berkeley is beyond description). Unfortunately, the senior scientists are not engaged in a more than peripheral way in the study of the interstellar medium. As with all things in the Soviet Union, there are qualifications to be made to such a flat statement. Dr. Pikelíner, for example, and Dr. Kaplan (from Gorky) have written an article for an American review journal concerning the influence of galactic-scale dynamics on the interstellar gas.

That article, however, can serve as an example of the strangely frustrating process of communicating with Soviet scientists. Let me say at the outset that both authors were as friendly to both me and my husband as any other Russians we met, both professionally and socially. They had just begun work on the article when I arrived in Moscow and they made it clear that they would be happy for any help I could give them concerning the observational material with which they were not very familiar. I spent about two hours with them (separated by about a month) doing just that. The day before we were to leave Moscow on one of our journeys, Dr. Pikelíner gave me a draft of the paper (in English) that had been written by Dr. Kaplan. I read it with dismay; it was most obscure both because the material was fuzzily organized, and because the English was dreadful. (Dr. Kaplan speaks very good English, and I was therefore surprised at the opaqueness of the writing.) With a feeling that at last I might be doing something useful, I went over every word of the long manuscript suggesting changes for clarity in organization, noting questions intended to show how the reader would be confused, and correcting the English. I had one further talk with the authors afterwards at which the intention was to discuss the material. In the indescribable way of such talks, we didnít really do that at all, and Dr. Kaplan said that he was sorry I had seen the manuscript in such miserable English, since he really could do better. On the day we left the Soviet Union, Dr. Pikelíner brought me the final copy of the manuscript to take home with me. On the plane to Paris, wrought up as all Americans are leaving the Soviet Union by the sadness of leaving new friends - perhaps forever - and by the prospect of "getting out", I read the manuscript. It was, as far as I could see, exactly like the earlier version; none of my scientific suggestions and none of my corrections to the English had been incorporated. It was, and is, a mystifying occurrence.

My other contact in Moscow was with the Lebedev Physical Institute. There is strict but erratic restriction on entry to the grounds of the Institute. My two visits had to be arranged 7 to 10 days in advance, although it was on my list of approved contacts, and is located a few blocks from the Academy Hotel. During my second visit I was able to talk with two junior members of the Instituteís Serpakov Radio Observatory, and to arrange for a visit to that observatory. That trip provided the most striking demonstration of the outdated nature of Soviet astronomical equipment, and led me to a greater appreciation of the effort required for a Soviet observational astronomer to produce meaningful results. The 25-meter radio telescope at the site has an altitude-azimuth mounting, (not unusual in large in instruments of this type),that requires tracking of an astronomical source across the sky to be accomplished by changing positions in two coordinates. (An equatorial mounting allows such tracking in a rather simple manner by changing only one coordinate.) The complex tracking at Serpakov is done by a man who sits on a perch high up inside the telescope, and guides the instrument by keeping a visible object on a pair of cross hairs. No professional radio telescope in this country operates in such a fashion; computer control of such a system is considered (rightly) to be absolutely essential. Furthermore, a virtual twin to the Serpakov telescope is located in Crimea, and it is operated by computer (somewhat old-fashioned, but apparently adequate).

The work at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in radio astronomy is largely concerned with the sun, but there are two or three men working in areas that promised to be of some interest to me. Although my visit was planned many months in advance, and cleared a few days before my arrival, those men were not at the Observatory.

The atmosphere at the Bjurakan Astrophysical Observatory in Armenia was one of dedicated effort with apparently better optical telescopes and great hope for the performance of a new one under construction. The group is obviously dominated my Professor Ambartsumian, its director, and it is his interests that are pursued. I was impressed, however, by the energy and imagination of various members of the staff. They shared their work with me freely, (and with a charm not seen in Moscow). The radio astronomical project at Bjurakan apparently failed to work because of long delays in getting parts and engineering help. The one radio astronomer on the staff, an imaginative young man, has traveled extensively "outside" to get his material. He now contemplates an infrared program at Bjurakan - and may bring it about.

The story of the development of radio astronomy at the Special Astronomical Observatory, (at Leningrad and in the North Caucausus), is again dependent on the energy of one man. The facilities at Leningrad are dreadfully outdated and certainly severely handicapped by the presence, within sight, of Leningrad Airport. The work still in progress there on interstellar neutral hydrogen is at least fifteen years out-of-date, and has already been completed elegantly at Berkeley. However, a new instrument modeled on the one in Leningrad is being built at Zelinchukskaya, near the six-meter optical telescope. The design is novel and the construction involves some risk because of the high precision required. The complex series of panels making up the instrument, (which covers a circle 600m in diameter), was about one-quarter complete when we saw it. An unfortunate problem is that no money is available for providing computer control of the positioning, (in three dimensions), of the panels. In order to change the direction of pointing of the telescope, the individual electric motors controlling each panel must be activated by hand - and there are hundreds of them.

In the mountains above Zelinchukskaya is the six-meter optical telescope - the largest in the world. We were the first Americans to visit it - a truly unforgettable experience. Here, I can report much less confidently about the science in progress, because the construction of optical telescopes does not fall within my area of competence. In any case, the observatory is in stunningly beautiful surroundings, with Mt. Elbrus visible on a clear day, and the main ridge of the Caucausus nearby. The dome is a beautiful building - the interior of marble and stained glass, designed with taste not discernable elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of rubles are to be spent on the landscaping. It is obviously intended as a national monument.

The telescope mounting is impressive, to say the least, and the attendant computers, re-aluminizing facilities, and living quarters for observers, are first-class. The mirror had not been delivered because of problems with its final figuring. They have hopes, (although somewhat faint), of reaching an image size of 0.5 seconds of arc. I was surprised at this modest goal when I learned that on some occasions the seeing disc reaches values substantially smaller. However, even the director is concerned about the weather on the mountain. When we were there for a week in early June, (one of my happiest memories being the birthday party given for me there), it rained every afternoon with high, billowing clouds, and cleared somewhat by evening. On two nights I saw a spectacular display of stars against an absolutely black sky. Marvelous, but not available a large percentage of the time. Winter is said to be better.

In looking back at my experiences in the Soviet Union, I have tried to evaluate them on the basis of two distinct criteria - their scientific value and their personal impact. It is not possible, in fact, to separate these judgments entirely.

From a strictly scientific point of view, I must say, (with some sorrow), that my journey was virtually useless. The current work in the Soviet Union in my field is so far behind that in the United States, that I felt sometimes as if I had been transported back in time by twenty or thirty years. As with every such statement made about the Soviet Union, there are exceptions. However, the fact remains that a prodigious expenditure of time, (three months), produced only a few hours of moderately useful discussions.

From a less strictly scientific point of view, the journey was productive. I saw Soviet astronomy at first hand - its observatories and offices, its computers, and its telescopes. More important, of course, I spoke with many Soviet astronomers, some of whom I had known at meetings and as visitors in our home. My view of Soviet publications is forever modified by that experience, in one sense by increasing my skepticism, and in another by increasing my admiration for the occasional first-rate work.

From a personal point of view, the journey had a profound effect on my view of myself, my American colleagues, and my country. One has few such experiences in a lifetime. It is for this reason that I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union. I found on my return to Berkeley, (by way of Paris), an indescribably exciting experience. I saw everything with fresh eyes - the vitality of astronomy as practiced in Berkeley, the wonders of the local supermarket, and the evidences of personal freedom everywhere. I shall not forget my joy in realizing that it all really mine - that it is my home.


Modified on Tuesday, 09-Apr-2019 10:22:15 EDT by Ellen Bouton