Nan Dieter Conklin: Two Paths to Heaven's Gate

This year, for Ada Lovelace Day, I’d like to celebrate women in technology and science by celebrating the life of another early pioneer of radio astronomy: Nan Dieter Conklin. (If you haven’t, check out last year’s post on Ruby Payne-Scott!)

A couple of years ago, I picked up Nan’s memoirs, “Two Paths to Heaven’s Gate” which was published by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It is a really beautiful memoir, like a conversation over tea. So many of her impressive feats are explained quite humbly, or with an almost childish glee. It is the path of her life, not a great epic tale. She shares nuggets of wisdom, inspiration, and kindness from her mentors, collaborators, and friends throughout her life. I believe that she must also be a good teacher, as her explanation of astronomical terms and processes are quite thorough and accessible and don’t detract from the flow of her story.

Her love affair with astronomy began in college. She was greatly inspired by one teacher, Dr. Helen Dodson, who inspired her to want to do her own research. Nan eventually took her astronomy knowledge to the Naval Research Lab in 1951 to get a job with their brand-new 50-ft radio telescope, just as the field of radio astronomy was finding its feet. Her “male colleagues had no hesitation in working with a young woman.” She began studying solar flares and worked on her first published paper. Her home life was not entirely peaceful as her husband was asked to leave seminary, and they had their first baby. She was lucky enough to find help to raise the little girl so she could continue her career. However, she left with her daughter on her own in 1953, while continuing to work, she says, “not only for the money, but for my sanity.” She went on to co-discover HI (neutral hydrogen) absorption along the line of sight to the center of our Galaxy. She began to long, once again, to direct her own research, which would mean returning for graduate school. Her second husband moved with her to Massachusetts where she got her PhD in astronomy at Harvard, the home of many female astronomy pioneers. And in case getting a PhD isn’t hard enough, she finished her HI studies while being barred from the main observatory due to a false accusation of a fellow student, and she defended her thesis while five months pregnant in 1958. But finally, she could do her own astronomical research.

She went on to continue her contributions to radio astronomy in mapping hydrogen disks in nearby galaxies. She also published a paper on a model of our own Galaxy based on HI observations, but a fundamental error (missed by reviewers) led her to leave modeling to the theorists and stick to observational astronomy. In 1961, after dealing with some troubling medical symptoms, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She decided to learn as little about the disease as possible and take her own symptoms as they came, since they can vary so much from patient to patient. As her second marriage deteriorated, she found a new life with her girls in Berkeley at the Radio Astronomy Laboratory. A 39-year-old single mother with a 13-year-old and a 6-year-old, she continued to blaze a trail in the radio skies. She and her colleagues probed the Galaxy with observations of the OH molecule, including highly variable OH masers in the star-forming Orion Nebula, with the 85-foot telescope at Hat Creek. She mapped high-velocity HI clouds in the Galaxy with 2500 hours of observing time and, seriously, data printed out on punch cards to be fed to the University’s computer! She later searched for formaldehyde in dark interstellar clouds as the Vietnam war protests of the 1970s raged around Berkeley. She also helped pioneer the technique of very long baseline interferometry, linking together the Hat Creek 85-foot antenna with the 130-foot dish at Owens Valley, 300 miles away.

Images courtesy N. Dieter-Conklin/NRAO/AUI

In 1968, she married Garret Conklin who was to be the love of her life until his death in 2002. With him she shared sailing, fabulous food, their summer house in the mountains, an apartment in Paris, and trip to the USSR. I found this part of the book particularly fascinating as Nan describes her experiences navigating a foreign and, for so many Americans, closed off country during the Cold War. The three month visit was made possible due to her status as a scientist as the trip’s primary purpose was to find out what Soviet researchers had discovered about the interstellar medium for a review article. Her recollections, interspersed with entries from her husband’s travel diary, tell a story of a trip that she describes as “profound,” and my attempt at a summary could never do it justice.

In 1977, Nan retired from astronomy at the age of 51, and set about living first on the Mediterranean island of Menorca for a short while, then Vermont for 17 years. Nan worked on pottery for as long as her MS would let her, then switched to painting. She dealt with chronic pain for a number of years until she beat it with the help of some wonderful visiting nurses, but she still lost the ability to walk. They moved to Seattle to be near Nan’s daughter when Garret’s Alzheimer’s became a strain, and they both moved into an assisted living facility where Nan met the writing group that eventually persuaded her to write the book. After Garret’s death, she moved to a retirement community where her memoirs end in 2005. Her work, however, extends beyond that, as I quickly found a short paper by her in the Astronomical Journal, dated April 2009, on high-resolution observations of interstellar clouds in absorption! (Unfortunately, behind a paywall. Sorry!)

She considered herself, and felt she was always treated like, “an astronomer who happened to be a woman.” However, no one should underestimate the strength and intelligence it took for her to take this journey. I highly recommend her memoirs as the story of a solid researcher and a fascinating woman who happily traveled her parallel paths of the personal and the professional.

I’ll leave with some really poignant observations on a career in astronomy from the conclusion of “Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science,” the precursor to the book:

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.

Nan, I’ve never met you, but in case you stumble upon this posting, I’d like to tell you that you are an inspiration to me.

8 thoughts on “Nan Dieter Conklin: Two Paths to Heaven's Gate

  1. Nicole
    Wow! What a review! A friend sent it to me or I should never have seen it. Thank you for your very kind words, especially thatyou have seen my April article in the AJ. There is another in the hands of a referee.
    The book has done many things for me — best of all, having the opportunity to work again. I have even had observing time on the VLA.
    Again many thanks, Nan

    1. Thank you for the kind comment! Congrats on the VLA time as well. I really did love the book, and I brought it to work for others to borrow. Thank you so much for visiting!

  2. I recently met the lovely, Dr. Conklin and was immediately taken by her story. I read her book and wished that she had written more about her life. I know that if a producer or director put their mind to it, they could transform her story into a heartfelt movie about her love for science and radio astronomy. Sad to say that I only knew her for a short time, she passed away on Saturday, November 15, 2014.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that. Thank you for the message, and I’m glad more people will be remembering her through her work.

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