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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Nan Dieter-Conklin by David DeVorkin on 1977 July 19,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Covers her career in astronomy. Focuses on college education at Goucher, 1945-1948, and Harvard Graduate School from 1955; influence of Bart Bok and Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin. Positions at Naval Research Laboratory, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory; funding, satellite tracking, telescope for Cerro Tololo, Berkeley, 1965; Hat Creek. Discussions on radio astronomy in 1950s and 1970s; very large array telescopes; women in astronomy and search for alternatives. Also prominently mentioned are: William W. Campbell, Harold Ewen, Thomas Gold, Helen Dodson Prince; Harvard Radio Observatory, United States Air Force, Cambridge Research Laboratory of United States Air Force, and University of California at Berkeley.
I understand that you’re about to leave astronomy for reasons that I hope will become apparent in the time that we’re talking about it here. But first, in preparation, I’d like to know a little bit about your background to provide context. The major things would be primary, early influences upon your life that brought you to astronomy initially, where you were educated, some of the important professional influences on you, a summary of how you got here and various different interests and influences on you that eventually led to this decision to leave.
Well, I was educated at Goucher College in Baltimore, and that was the beginning of my astronomical career, because I was majoring in math, and in my sophomore year I took a course in introductory astronomy from Helen Dodson, now Helen Dodson Prince, and after two weeks in her class I determined that that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life. She’s a superb teacher. It turns out that that is not going to be quite true, but anyway it has made me happy for a very long time.
When was this?
That would have been … I graduated in 1948, so that would have been ‘45. She arranged for me to be able to go to the Maria Mitchell Observatory on the island of Nantucket for two summers, and that was a bewitching experience both professionally and personally.
— Margaret Harwood. Was she the director there?
Yes, she was.
And did you do variable star work?
Yes, I did.
And at that time you had contact with other women who were studying astronomy.
The only one who was a student at the same time was Harriet Malitson, who now works for N.A.S.A. in Washington — not very much really. Helen was the career image or whatever. She had come back to Goucher, which was her alma mater, for two years of teaching. She was doing research both before and she did after also. And so here was a real live person, doing research not just teaching. After I graduated I went to work for the Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, where I was doing pretty routine things in the gravity and astronomy section, not really astronomy I was doing.
It was fundamental astrometry.
Well, fundamental for positions on the earth. That’s what was being done. While I was working there, I saw a piece in a Sunday newspaper that showed a picture of the putting together of the 50-foot antennae at the Naval Research Laboratory on the roof there at the laboratory. And what I saw them doing in this picture was putting in the last section of the large structure, and I thought, “Aha,” and requested an interview and got a job to my amazement.
With whom did you have the interview?
John Hagan. Fred Haddock and Connie Mayer were working there at the same time.
That’s very interesting because this was a very early interest in radio astronomy for anyone in the United States.
Yes, it was. We were not accepted by the optical community at all. I worked there then … That would have been 1951 until 1955. I worked there largely on radio astronomy projects. I was part of the group that did the first survey of sources at 21 centimeters, continuum sources, and I was there when hydrogen-line absorption was first found. The line was discovered by Ewen and Purcell but it was actually discovered in 1951 at Harvard. After the discovery then, the people at NRL began gearing up to look at it. We did look some in emission, and to our astonishment we discovered that sometimes the line went “down” instead of “up,” and it was a complete surprise. There were some very exciting times. I also worked some on the solar eclipse work that was done in Khartoum by the group there. I worked briefly on that. I decided it was time that I was able to make my own decisions, and what I had to do in order to bring that about was to go to graduate school. So I went to Harvard in 1955.
How did you apply to Harvard — formally?
You wrote a letter of application and procured letters of recommendation?
Yes. I knew a few people — in particular Bart Bok, who was my friend at that time and has remained so ever since, as he does with all his students. It was primarily because he was there that I thought of Harvard as a place for me. And r went there in 1955 and found it rather a shock. I had by that time been out of school for seven years and it was a little shocking to me to go back to it, but two and a half years later I was finished.
Who were the important influences in addition to Bok? Bok was co-director?
He was director of the radio astronomy project. While I was there and before I finished my thesis, he left for Australia, and then Tom Gold became my thesis adviser.
Did you have any understanding of why he left?
Oh, dear, yes. There was a tremendous fight in the observatory. I think he had expected to become director of the observatory. That was no secret at all. And so he went to do something that he felt he could do effectively, and that’s why he went to Australia — for a position of responsibility. It was a very sad thing for all of us. We were desolated.
I would appreciate your impressions and your recollections of what did go on, if you wouldn’t mind.
I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about what went on behind the closed doors. It was not a thing that was discussed with students. They were discreet about it. But my impression was that he had expected to become director of the observatory, the whole place, and that did not happen and he was somewhat embittered by it. However, he didn’t sulk; he went and did something else. I think it was very very painful for him to leave Harvard, but he felt he had no choice.
He couldn’t stay in a nondirectorial position?
He could have. He could have stayed there forever. But he felt it was an unreasonable decision that had been made, and he wasn’t going to stay around for it; he was going to go and do something effective, which he certainly did, and he has a great following in Australia. One of the truly remarkable people in astronomy.
Are you in contact with him now?
Is his health all right?
It has been. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. I saw him shortly after his wife, Priscilla, died; and he was still very much upset at that time but clearly all right and planning travels and so on. He was going to be all right although terribly shaken by it.
As you can well imagine, he’s very very high on our list. We just haven’t been able to get to Tucson yet, but I’m planning a Tucson trip.
Oh, it’s worth it. He is, among other things, eloquent. You won’t have to ask many questions. He will be telling you these tales without any problem at all.
Okay, then. That certainly is an extremely poignant story, and we ought to be able to retrieve it, and I think Dr. Bok will be the best source.
From the point of view of the students who were there, it was indeed poignant, because he had begun the Radio observatory and begun the radio astronomy project there and built the instruments and had set up something really very special. There were a group of six or eight of us who worked there. He somehow managed to give us the idea that this was at that time the biggest radio telescope in the world, which it was.
Yes, the Agassiz telescope.
And we were students and we were running it. We had a golden opportunity, and I think he foresaw one that would never come again, and knew that it would become much more organized and a much more staid outfit than it was at the beginning. It had some disadvantages in what we had very very little mechanical or electronic help, and so we simply made it run by force of will more than anything and by helping one another; so that it became a real community, and we all remain friends. It was an important part of our lives.
Who are some of the other names?
Bill Howard and Mary Connelly, now Sandage; and May Kaftan-Kassim.
Allan Sandage was there too at that time?
He came and spent a semester at Harvard, which is when he met Mary.
I knew he was there just for a short time.
They were entertained in our house. We didn’t know what was going on, but we soon found out.
Then there was May Kaftan-Kassim?
She was May Kaftan at that time?
No, it was both. She was married then. She’s now at Iraq.
Yes, she was at Albany when I met her.
And Frank Drake. I’m forgetting somebody no doubt. So we really were very much upset at Bok’s departure.
Now, Tom Gold took over your thesis.
Well, I hadn’t actually begun the thesis. I knew it was going to be in radio astronomy, but I didn’t know exactly what.
Was Tom Gold to your knowledge involved in any of this upheaval?
No, none. He wasn’t there at all before this happened. He was brought from England to take over the radio astronomy project after Bok had left. He was in no way involved in that. That was fortunate because I think there would have been a revolution among the students if we’d felt that somebody had done bad things to Bok, but that wasn’t true at all. But he was not the same kind of person, and of course it was very hard for him to come into such a place where there had been such a beloved person.
Was he aware of what he was stepping into, to your knowledge?
I don’t think so, but I don’t think he was happy because he left in two years. And there was plenty of evidence of that anyhow. He tried to do some major improvements in the observatory, and they were indeed major, and it was a great help from that point of view to have him there. But he did not relate to the students in the same way. And I know nothing of what went on in the halls of the faculty, but I think it was not pleasant for him, and so he too left. By that time I had gone.
Well, your reaction to all that was going on could not have been positive in terms of astronomy.
No, it was not. I was delighted to get out of the place, overjoyed, for many reasons. Well, one of them was that at this time I was married, and I took my oral examination for my thesis on the first of April, and my child was born on the 25th of July. I don’t recommend that. So I was very eager to leave.
When were you married?
Well, this is my third marriage. I should straighten this out. My maiden name was Reier, under which I did no astronomy at all. I was first married in 1950 and the name was Hepburn, and there were some publications with that name.
What is the family background there?
German, a long time ago German.
So your family has been in the United States for some time.
Yes. Hepburn was my name at that point. I did some publishing before I went to graduate school under that name. When I worked at N.R.L. that was my name.
Okay. Your first husband — what was his background?
He was very young at this point, but what he was going to an Episcopal theological seminary. We had one child, who is now 25, and then after some more time I went to Harvard and was married again and had a second child, who was born just immediately after my thesis. That was Dieter. This is all very unastronomical background.
Well, the question will inevitably come up. Did your astronomical interest in any way affect your marriages?
It preserved my sanity.
From your husband’s standpoint?
It was very hard for me to know that. I think the second time anyway there was some element of competition. My husband was an engineer. I think that a woman especially has a difficult time in making priorities. I don’t regret that at all. I think we are fortunate to have somehow from the beginning the idea that there are many things in living, not just the job or just the career, and one has to find a path through that. I think a man does, too, but it’s immediately obvious to a woman. I wanted love and children as well as my career, and I am now entirely successful.
Did you have any contacts with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin?
Yes, she was one of my very favorite people and remains so. She was very important to the women students at Harvard in addition to being important to every student. My contact with her was mostly in class, in lecture classes, at that time. I listened to a course of hers in variable stars, and what I learned was the English language. If there was ever anyone who speaks it in the way it was intended to be spoken it was Cecilia and it was beautiful. The course was full of painful details, but it was certainly beautifully done. And she is a warm, real, lovable human being. I remember once, as evidence of her extreme modesty, the time when I was in a small tutorial library, and I was doing my thesis, I guess — I knew her pretty well. She had an office immediately next door. I was standing in the room reaching up to the very top shelf to get down a rather heavy book, and I was having a hard time. She’s quite tall, of course. She came into the room; she reached over and got the book for me and handed it to me and said, “You see, I can do something you can’t.” She meant it; it was a true thing she was saying. I was speechless. The things that she can do are legion. I think her reaction at getting the Russell lectureship was one of disbelief. She really doesn’t count herself high enough. She’s an extraordinarily modest person. I’m absolutely certain that it is sincere. It’s in no way a false modesty.
She’s writing an autobiography.
Oh, superb, wonderful!
And she doesn’t want to be talked to until that’s all finished.
Oh, that’s a good move. How long do you think it will take her to finish?
She said that her manuscript was finished and she’s waiting for a publisher to reply.
They will be enthusiastic beyond a doubt.
She says she’s been waiting for a while, and I hope to see her again in November. There’s a symposium that we’re asking her to participate in.
She’s a person that we want very much to understand better. She was interviewed briefly by Owen Gingerich a good while ago and it was only on her Cambridge years.
It would take a clever interviewer really to bring out her feelings about things.
Right. Does she ever talk to you about her early experiences at Harvard through the ‘30’s?
Only that they didn’t want to have her. Dr. Lyman didn’t want to admit her. Lyman was the one, — It’s perhaps wrong, hearsay — who she had applied to in the school from England. There’s some story about Harlow Shapley being mixed up in it, too. He was something of her sponsor. She will tell you all this. But that is the story that we had. I think that Dr. Lyman didn’t know that she was a woman and that’s how she managed to get in. He didn’t want a woman, I believe. One of the delightful memories of her is the time when she received at last a full professorship in the University — the first woman to be a professor at Harvard, not in an endowed chair, but a standard one.
Did it happen while you were there?
That long? It took her that long?
That’s right. And it was a scandal, of course. There was a little ceremony in the library, and she sent invitations — handwritten little scraps of invitations — to all the women students saying, “Please come — this is your victory as well as mine.” You can see why we love her so. And in the little talk that she gave afterwards — there was quite a lot of flowery speech — and then she got up and said, “I find myself cast in the unlikely role of a thin wedge.” It brought down the house. She is a very large large person, but she could make fun of herself and see the humor in the whole business. She certainly had an influence on me.
Have you by any chance kept that invitation?
Perhaps. I’ll look for it.
In making a large move, we’re always worried about scientists’ chucking everything out wholesale. I know that the urge is extremely strong; I do it myself. But in that preservation form we try to alert you to the tremendous value of these kinds of little things — if they’re nothing more than mementos.
Yes, I think I can put my hands on it. I remember seeing that not very long ago — little notes that she wrote to me at the time when I passed various exams. She would send a kind of notification to me and they are precious. I will look for it. What should I do with them?
If it’s acceptable to you, you would deposit them here at the manuscript division.
All right, I’ll find out how to do that.
Well, I’ll be talking to them again at manuscripts, and if there’s anything that the A.I.P. can do to facilitate it we can help as catalysts. If there’s any questions as to how your papers are to be deposited, you can write to me or better yet, though, to the people who really are involved like Joan Warnow and Spencer Weart, the director and associate director of the Center.
I would not have thought you wanted such sentimental things as that.
But you’re interested in its preservation.
There’s an absolutely first class archives department here: “Archives” here are only institutional papers; manuscripts are personal papers. Some people get it confused and contact the archives first and they feel nobody is interested in them. But that’s not true at all in the manuscript division.
Manuscripts. All right, I’ll look them up.
Okay. Very good. Material like that is priceless, absolutely priceless.
It certainly is to me.
I’m sure. In some cases we microfilm in case you want to deposit this with your family and it would be out of touch for historians. We are capable of microfilming material, and in that case we would talk to you about it.
Yes. I don’t anticipate anything like that, but I will be in touch with you in one way or another.
Okay. These recollections are marvelous of Mrs. Gaposchkin. She was a unique person of her age, and I think that her image is slightly confused with the women who formed part of Pickering’s dynasty, if you know what I’m talking about.
Oh Dear, yes.
There is a mild confusion from time to time, and the more that we learn about her and her early life decisions, why the more reasonable the picture becomes.
Oh, she was nobody’s helper. She was an independent person from the very beginning.
Did she ever talk about how she got interested in variable stars from her early interest in stellar atmospheres?
I don’t remember if she did. It’s hard to make her talk about herself.
Yes, okay, well, let’s talk about you then. After Harvard you were very happy to leave, and where did you go?
First of all, I had a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship, which I worked on for a while at Harvard. I gave it up after about a half a year because the equipment was not going to produce the results I had hoped for. So I decided I should end this and not take any more money, and I went to work for the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. I had to stay in the area because my husband was there, and so I worked there at the beginning for the Space Track outfit, which grew into more satellite tracking and so on.
Here’s an important question right there. Were there other places you could have gone, like N.R.A.O. or someplace like that that was building up — Struve’s group — where you would have preferred to go but you couldn’t because your husband was based in Cambridge?
Yes. I really never looked because there wasn’t any possibility at that point.
Was there any tearing problems at that point?
No, no, I don’t think so. I had anticipated this. It wasn’t any new thing. I also felt that at the beginning I had rather high hopes for A.F.C.R.L. — it turned out that they had problems. But I knew that I could also maintain my contacts with Harvard and I could in fact use the instrument there if I needed to, so I had all my colleagues nearby. It wasn’t a great thing. And I learned a lot working there because not only did I work in the satellite tracking business, but I learned something about administering funds in astronomy. I was then part of the group which was granting funds for pure research projects. In fact, one of the grants which I administered was for Harold Weaver. And I traveled a lot in the process and learned what the other side of funding is like. That is, there is a problem from the other end where people are trying to decide how the money should go to various places and how to get money from above. It was educational.
You were in direct contact with the funding sources?
Oh, yes. There was a lump of money which we distributed.
And what kind of decisions did you have to make in the distribution of those funds? You were building up new facilities or were you improving old ones? There weren’t too many old ones.
No, but there wasn’t enough money for building up facilities. It was really more investing money in people like Dr. Weaver, for example — people who needed support on a rather small scale. The major thing in that regard was in setting up Baker-Nunn cameras which were intended to be satellite tracking instruments. The idea was to put them at existing observatories so that they could be used for satellite tracking when satellites were there and otherwise be used for astronomical purposes.
It was a nice idea but didn’t work very well. It turned out that the satellite tracking required more elaborate installations than really could be managed there: secure, for example, and rapid communications. But anyway that was an interesting exercise.
Yes. Well, satellite tracking at that time — people were using almost every technique they could figure out.
Right, right. These cameras are the kind that are used now, of course.
Yes, they were developed in the early ‘50s. These were the super schmidts. And you were just trying to get more of them located at that time.
Yes. One of them went to Chile, and it was at the same time that we began negotiations for setting up a telescope there. I guess that’s one of the things I forgot. The 60-inch telescope that was the first telescope at the observatory (Cerro Tololo) in Chile was funded by the Air Force, and I was part of that operation. I went to Chile first for setting up that Baker-Nunn Camera or for deciding where it was going to go. The idea at that time was that the 60-inch would go to the observatory very near Santiago, but that was clearly not the right thing to do, and then at that time a serious site survey was undertaken and then the telescope was situated far north of Santiago, one of the world’s best sites.
How long were you down there?
Oh, I was only there for a week or something. No, I didn’t do any of the work. I was only the one with the funds in hand.
Okay, because then that would be another kind of family decision that we may want to pinpoint — in other words, if you had to be there for a year or two years.
Oh, dear no, it was before construction began, so there was nothing to be done there. And about that time, while I was mixed up with it, the University of Chicago got into the act, and eventually A.U.I. took over the arrangements for the telescope and then of course it went to the National Optical Observatory.
Oh. The A.U.I. is the precursor to A.U.R.A. basically.
Yes. I guess from an administrative point of view they were.
Okay. Were you working at all with the A.U.I. in that regard?
I only went to committee meetings about this. That was all I did.
As a funding source.
Yes. I went as somebody who said, “If the Air Force puts money into this, this is what they have to get out of it.” A name tag somewhere or something. And we couldn’t build buildings. We could build removable things but not buildings.
That’s interesting. What was the reason for that kind of a policy decision? It remained the property of the Air Force?
Yes, as simple as that.
Yes, that makes sense. Well, to the Air Force it makes sense. Okay, well, how long did you work for them?
Until March 3, 1965, when I came here, and it was the best thing I ever did.
How did you come here? How did you decide to come here?
I decided that my marriage was at an end and that my two daughters and I were going to go somewhere else, and I wanted very much to find a place to work in astronomy that would fill more of my life than had been up until that time. I knew it was a thing I could cling to — much more than that, but still that was my reason for looking very hard for something that would be ideal, and I certainly found it. I asked around a little bit about what were the possibilities and what really should I do. I talked with Doc Ewen, who was the one who discovered the hydrogen line in this — Ewen and Purcell, also one of my long time friends, and he said very quickly after I began the conversation: “Berkeley is the place for you.” And so he set out to try to get a hold of Harold Weaver, who was a friend of his also.
I wonder why he said that. Not that it isn’t a marvelous place, I’ve always had a love for this place, although I never got closer than Lick myself.
He didn’t mean primarily for the place. He meant that for a radio astronomy group here, professionally he thought it was an opening area; something where I could contribute and where I would be satisfied. And he knew Harold, which was a vital matter.
You came as a staff member.
Yes, as a staff member, which I have remained.
Is there a distinction between faculty and staff?
There are two categories of workers in this establishment: the teaching faculty is the kind that has tenure — that’s the major difference. The research staff is of equal pay and equal standing (I suppose so) but it does not have tenure. It is not funded by the University. It is funded by outside sources. This laboratory — the radio astronomy laboratory — is funded by N.S.F. and also partly by the University.
These are continuing grants, of course.
Yes. I’ve been here for 12 years now, so I haven’t felt any pinch about that.
Was there ever in your mind a feeling that you would have preferred being on the faculty, the teaching faculty?
Sometimes in a kind of romantic notion. It’s a higher echelon of people in the view of the administration of the University. It is not in fact in terms of working. It makes no difference at all.
Well, actually you have more time for research.
Precisely. The only difference is that I have no teaching responsibility and I have all the joys of having graduate students around who are stimulating and fun, and I have had tutorial groups since the first year I was here. I haven’t done any formal teaching at all, so I have no such responsibility.
But you have tutorials that have been requested primarily by the graduate students, I imagine.
Yes. Well, we have a kind of program in which that is possible, and I have had groups and individuals and have had a lovely time with them.
This seems to be a frequent occurrence where you find women on research faculty rather than teaching faculty, and I don’t quite understand why and I would like your impressions on it.
I’m a little uncertain how frank to be about this, but I might as well.
Well, be as candid as you can, because you do have control over the transcript. You can seal things for a certain length of time if you feel that…
Well, I don’t think it’s as serious as all that. I came here in 1965, and it was very shortly after that the rioting situation here got extremely bad. Of course, exactly during the time I was trying to come, the University was on strike. The day I actually called Harold, the University was on strike. I got in a little bit later — that was early December — and he said, “Yes, come,” and I was here on the 3rd of March. In the meantime we had had a change of chancellor. These are things I will never forget. He just moved mountains to get me here as quickly as possible and it was personally a very important thing: to get out as soon as I could. But anyway things got worse after we were here for a while, and I felt then, as many of the research people did, that we had no voice. There was no place we could express either our anger or our concern for the place, our love for it, our wish for it to be better. There was just no vehicle, as there was for the faculty or for the students. There was a lot of agitation at that time for something to be done, for some kind of a research organization or something, and nothing happened. The administration then suggested that if one had that sort of feeling, what one should do is become an adjunct professor in the department. One would then have all kinds of privileges that would not include tenure — quite reasonably it cannot if the University is not funding the thing. It would not include a vote in the academic senate. But it would make one more a part of the faculty voice. There was a considerable fly in that ointment, because in order to become appointed an adjunct professor, one had to be appointed by the department. In my case I had felt — and now do feel — virtually no discrimination, either personal or because I’m a woman. I know that there were many many women on the campus who did feel it and for whom it was a real thing. So that that was no answer. I applied for that here for the purpose of my connection with the University, not my connection to the people here; and I was refused — I think because of the presence of one man. And that is the report I had from the faculty, that he was the chairman of the department at the time, and he was a very forceful individual; and the story was that my work was not up to that of a professor in the department. I’m afraid I don’t accept that as a fact. But I was briefly wounded about it, but it made no difference in my daily life at all. I have wonderful contacts with all of the people in the department, and they’re, if anything, nicer to me than they are to one another. I find it a great advantage being a woman, and not discriminated against.
What year was that in? Well, it’s like asking the man basically.
1970. George Field.
I don’t know him well enough.
I’m not eager to have that discussed very much, but everybody who was on the faculty here knows that. I was not at the meeting, of course, and so I only have the reports of it. So that is the only hint of any kind of discrimination that I have ever felt, and fortunately it didn’t matter. But it was rather a slap.
Right. And it seems that there are an awful lot of capable women in non-faculty positions in universities I’ve been around. It’s significant enough for me to notice it without actively looking for it. This is why I was wondering if you had that feeling.
No. I’ve certainly had a lot of rewarding contacts with the students and it began as a tutorial program and I’ve had a real interest in them. So in that sense it would be appropriate for me to be part of the faculty, but it’s no problem in terms of practical matters.
So then you wouldn’t have any special advice for a woman going into astronomy at this point as opposed to a man as a function of ability. There are no pitfalls that a woman confronts.
Certainly not here. Women students are treated here exactly as the men as far as I can see. I think it’s a dangerous pitfall for a woman going into astronomy or anything to have the opportunity to say, “It’s not my fault — it’s because they’re discriminating against me.” One must face oneself.
Things are a lot less clearly drawn than I guess in the year that W.W. Campbell told a female graduate student here in 1922 that if she was going to go on and get married, that a woman couldn’t do both astronomy and be married.
It’s not easy but it does work.
Granted. But Campbell’s attitude is still around in various places and happily we see it’s not quite as common.
It’s like saying that a man can’t be married and be in astronomy. It’s not quite like that, but anyway it can be done.
Well, as we move up to the present then and to your decision to leave astronomy, when did you first start consciously thinking that you wanted to take an alternative?
I began, let’s say … the first stage was looking at what I thought I was doing in astronomy. That happened about four years ago when we spent three months in the Soviet Union.
Now you were married again.
Yes. I came here in ‘65 and I was married in 1968.
And the background of your husband?
Well, he owned the house which they rented for me. That’s how I met him. He has a very complicated background which would take the tape for me to tell you, but he’s done many things. When I came here he was an Episcopal clergyman and assistant dean of the graduate Theological Union. He has since left the ministry. But he has done lots and lots of things raised goats and drilled oil wells. He says that his attention span is about ten years long. I’ve been joking with him because our tenth anniversary is about to come up and I hope it doesn’t apply in this case. But he and I together went to the Soviet Union on a grant from the two academies. My object in that trip was to gather material for a book on the interstellar medium. I felt that material from the Soviet Union would be so far out of date, if I got it from the published material, that it would be of no use in such a book. The book has never seen the light of day, partly because of what that trip did to me or for me. I discovered by being there for that time what it meant not to be free, and I felt that I have the ability, I mean the opportunity, to do an unlimited number of things. We are so fortunate. And I suddenly wanted to taste everything. They lead such a drab life, and it was a pretty shaking experience. I came back and every leaf on every tree was precious to me. But I began to contemplate what I was going to do about this book, and I realized that I didn’t know enough to write it. Lots of background but not the right background. And as time went on and I was much depressed for a while, and I began to realize that I had been pretending to know things that I didn’t … subtly. I never really said that I knew, but that’s what I was doing. That was a little upsetting.
Did you talk to people about these growing awarenesses at the time, your colleagues?
Not that, no. I think that was more honest than I could be with myself just then. I had to solidify it in my own mind.
Your husband? Did you talk to your husband?
Oh, yes, indeed, but not people here.
Friends? Anybody else?
No, I don’t think so. It’s really the kind of evaluation one has to come to oneself. I discovered that not only was I in some way pretending that I understood, but I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing something about it. And then I thought: what kind of sense does that make? If I don’t do it, it’s because I don’t want to, and so I don’t want to. Nobody can feel guilty about that. But I must not go on being dishonest. It’s not something I could live with. So my invention was to try something within the field of astronomy about which I knew nothing relatively and which everybody knew I didn’t know anything about, so that I would be in a position in which I would have to go to people and say, “Tell me about it.” A great idea. It didn’t altogether work. But it was the right sort of thing.
What did you choose?
I chose very long baseline interferometry. Do you know something about this area?
VLBI stuff? Well, not from a technical standpoint. I studied Michelson’s interferometry, but that’s it.
Well, I didn’t mean do you know what it is. I meant do you recognize how complex it is?
So it was enough different from anything I’d been doing that I had to find out.
It’s still a different application of radio techniques.
Oh, yes, but with very special lingo, very special equipment and computer doings.
Yes, especially computer synthesizing.
Yes, it’s that kind of thing, yes. Well, first of all, getting the data is non-trivial. So I set out to do that.
Were you testing yourself in a way?
Seeing if you could really learn something new?
Partly that. At that time I didn’t really doubt that I could. Only, was I really interested enough to pursue it. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it in the way that I can do anything, but I know that one of the things that is essential, that I be truly interested from within or I cannot do it.
It’s an enormous difference from let’s say being intimidated by a field and shying away from it and “I want this to become clear one way or another.” Yes.
Becoming intimidated by astronomy you mean.
Oh, I’m not that, I don’t think.
Well, not in your actions as you present them.
Well, I set out to do this, and in fact I was very fortunate because just at this time a group from Caltech asked to use our antennae at Hat Creek as part of an experiment with Caltech. And so there was a golden opportunity. Their recording equipment and so on would be at our observatory as well as at theirs, and so I said, “How about if we lend you our telescope and you lend us yours at the same time?” So I proposed a project which two years later turned out I believe to be successful. Two years later is the critical point. The field is in a state out of which it is fortunately growing. It takes an interminable time to get out any kind of result. The number of technical problems that arise you will hear people in the field crying about everywhere. It is a mammoth technical problem and up till now not properly handled.
The improper handling was due to lack of funds, lack of expertise — what?
A groping toward “how.” It’s something not for lack of effort at all. An enormous amount of personal effort has gone into it and quite a lot of money. I don’t think it’s easy to put any kind of blame. In fact, I don’t really think that blame should be laid anywhere. It’s a growing, young and fantastic field. So I was in it near enough at the beginning to feel this. And it’s not out of the woods yet by any means. What I did was to do an experiment and struggle to get the data from the magnetic tape. I mean it’s recorded on video tape on two separate video tapes and then they’re cross correlated on a machine, one of which exists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then they must be dealt with by the computer. Well, I was slower at this than I might have been because I was learning how to do all this. It was totally new to me. People were enormously helpful. All the feelings of competitiveness I had felt in the field before just vanished in this case.
It was a case then where you jumped in knowing people knew you were new at it; you didn’t sense the competition that you had not expressed before but obviously was present.
Yes. I think it is in the field in general.
In radio astronomy, as opposed to astronomy in general.
I don’t know by direct experience. I don’t think it’s really any different. I don’t have the impression that it is.
But in radio astronomy, particularly in the years you were involved, this is when it really grew and grew fast — there must have been people knocking each other aside to be the first to do whatever they were…
Not as bad as now, not at all.
It is now?
Oh, yes, much. That’s one thing that I’m disillusioned with in the field.
Why is it getting worse now?
It’s harder to get a job. I finished my thesis in 1958, and in October 1957 Sputnik went up. There was money all over the place, so there was nothing like the competition for jobs. So that certainly underlies it; it underlies the push for the spectacular, the press conference — which I find distasteful. That’s not the reason for my getting out of it. But it makes it less painful.
I certainly can support that feeling. I’m sorry it causes some people to react negatively to it. But is there any way that you can see it change, other than maybe the job market opening up again? Or is it really the job market that is causing it or is it something else? Is it tight money?
No, I think it’s deeper than that. I’m not sure about this. Perhaps it’s part of the thing that I feel, that astronomy these days is finding lots and lots of fascinating new information and very little insight. I have been working recently, as well as in the VLBI things, in molecular studies, interstellar molecular things. And we discovered here shortly after I came the first OH Maser business and Water Masers were discovered here — the variation of these lines and so on was discovered here. But that is a field in which the disease is virulent. A new molecule today and more new ones, more fierce competition to discover them. And there is less work on the ones that are discovered than might be sensible — the plodding kind of thing that in my mind eventually gets somewhere maybe. I don’t see where it’s going, in the molecular case.
I see what you mean. Could this be the degree that maybe the identifications that are made are not as definite as they should be?
No, I don’t think that. My reaction really is “so what?” with another one.
Bart Bok once said, “Now that they’ve found formic acid in some cloud, let them find the bees.”
(Laughs) That’s lovely. Well, the study is extremely complicated in a way that isn’t apparent from the outside. It isn’t just that they’re finding larger and larger molecules. Carl Hiles and I both here have worked, for example, on formaldehyde and he has recently done with some other people a study of OH and formaldehyde in the same dust cloud — an obvious and right thing to do — but it turns out that there is very little sensible relation between the two. One cannot make any coherent picture of it.
They were hoping that it would have tremendous significance for acting as a heat sink, were they not?
No, they were thinking of simpler things, far more fundamental things. The first step would be: the cloud should be at the same velocity. Or when there’s a lot of OH, there ought to be H2CO too — I mean simple, direct observational things. And they’re just not true: sometimes yes, sometimes no. So that it is a morass of problems that exist because the molecules themselves are complicated and their excitation is so complicated, depending on so many interwoven factors. So I don’t see it going anywhere very quickly right now, especially if the drive is for the spectacular. I don’t think that really is where it’s at. And I think one of the most damning things to me is that with all the new molecules and all the study of them, we know no more than we did about where they came from and where they are going or very much at all about the excitation. So I’m discouraged about what kind of progress is going to be made in that field now or what I can do. I don’t know what to do in it. And I don’t want to just gather data.
But people when they see formaldehyde in a cloud at the popular scientific level, SCIENCE NEWS or AMERICAN SCIENCE, they immediately ask what are the ultimate implications rather than looking for the basis.
Well, the ultimate implications are interesting, but one can’t answer those questions, can’t find out what they are without fundamental things. And I feel…
You feel a frustration.
Yes. I feel as if we need somebody or several somebodies with an Olympian view of it all, and I’m very sure that I do not have it.
And there’s no other role that you can see for yourself that is self-satisfying.
Well, something a good deal less than that would be all right, but. Yes, I know what you mean. Well, it turns out that my efforts in the VLBI direction have shown me that the problem of my not learning new things is what underlies my dissatisfaction with myself.
This problem of not learning new things, but the VLBI was a completely new thing.
Yes, but not enough, not enough. That is, I didn’t learn enough. The field is wildly complicated, and in order to contribute what I consider to be enough, I would have to learn much more about the electronics involved. It is still young enough to be very tied to instrumental problems, and I would have to learn very much more about computers than I know in order to contribute in that area. There are people who can do both and who do contribute to it. With my present equipment I cannot, and I am not willing to learn. It doesn’t interest me enough. Those areas don’t. The problems do interest me and the possibilities in the field do very much, but I am not contributing enough, so I want to do something else. One doesn’t come upon this decision overnight, of course.
Right. Well, the prospect of having to learn a number of very very complicated and sophisticated techniques at once for the use of the VLBI work could be simplified somewhat in the future when this large array in the southwest desert is completed. That will be a national facility, and therefore there will be a lot of program packages and that sort of thing set up. Is that an acceptable direction do you think for you? Is that a hope, that some of the problems we’ve talked about will be solved?
That should be a center in which this kind of problem can be dealt with. The VLA project is not directly connected with the very long base line interferometry.
Oh, no, because that is an array of telescopes within some miles of one another. The base line that we operated on in the first experiment is 475 kilometers. The two telescopes are not connected at all. They operate entirely independently and the recordings are made and then they are mixed together.
Well, that was an assumption on my part: that the problems that would be attacked by the two different kinds of instrumentation would be the same.
They wouldn’t be doing molecular work at all?
They probably would. We’re confusing the issue a little because very long base line interferometry mostly does only things that are very very small like OH or H2O masers. I would expect the VLA would do more general molecular lines work that isn’t available. I think the VLA is using a lot of energy in the field that might possibly now be used in the VLBI business. So maybe temporarily it would slow that down, but eventually it will contribute — particularly if they take an active part in managing the future generations of these experiments. I think it’s a reasonable hope.
In the VLBI work, has there been an effort to place identical instrumentation at very great distances, or have you always worked patching together dissimilar facilities?
The existing facilities are very dissimilar. It’s only the recording equipment that is the same, and the standards of time and frequency. There is a proposal to make a so-called dedicated array of telescopes that are the same and spaced throughout the country and in fact throughout the world in optimum ways. We now have to use telescopes where they happen to be, and that isn’t always just right for the experiments. But that is a thing that is in proposal form right there (pointing to draft).
Does this mean that you’re involved in the proposal?
No, I just got a copy. But it is in the beginning stages. I think if that happens, that will be a great step forward, but it is a large expenditure of money for this particular area, and there are not large chunks of money for any particular area.
How did you feel when the VLA got so well supported? Or is it well supported?
Oh, I suppose so. It seems like a lot of money, but I think it is a step toward this country regaining some leadership in radio astronomy, at least in terms of instrumentation. But one doesn’t always need the biggest instrument in the world to do the reasonable work, but it will be a help.
Well to end up, your reasons for leaving seem to be a conscious personal choice. And the question is: do these problems you have encountered and that we have discussed become more acute through various institutional decisions locally or nationally, or is it again just straight tight money?
That’s a very big question.
Institutional meaning: what are the I.A.U. priorities set down, the astronomical community, A.A.S.?
I can’t think of anything that really would be a big enough decision to influence the feeling that I get: it’s a kind of grassroots affair — other than the fact that jobs are hard to find. But still it isn’t only the very young people looking for jobs who are doing this scrambling for attention.
By very young, you mean the people who have not yet come up for tenure. You’re also including people who are not so young but have been in an institution for seven years and are coming up for tenure and have not made it.
I suppose that’s right. I don’t think of them because I think of them as having jobs. But I guess they don’t on a permanent basis.
Yes. I’m approximately at the age where my friends who went through school and have maintained faculty positions at one place or another are now looking for tenure, and not to a man, but the vast majority of them are losing tenure and not achieving it and are therefore floating. It’s particularly critical in a case where there’s a family involved, not from a financial standpoint so much as the fact that the woman usually is professional nowadays and there’s a terrible conflict.
And so much where a man or a woman is involved — it’s much worse than a graduate student. This is a person who has put a large chunk of his professional life into this.
Well, a graduate student has, too.
Yes but seven years more.
Right. I mentioned men primarily because it’s interesting that most women do have jobs of one sort or another. But then there’s the other side of the coin.
Reverse discrimination. We get jobs but…
No, but the jobs are not always professional and in many times I’ve seen a case where the woman did have an excellent job but simply had to leave it so that the man could find another job. And in some cases there’s been a cycle where the woman has built up a number of excellent jobs and constantly had to leave them. And I’m just wondering: is there any element in your decision that would involve the present job market? Are you in part thinking that you’ll leave this position open for someone else?
Yes, somebody who can do first rate astronomy. I’m certainly not sacrificing myself on this altar, but it is a fact. I would expect that the position would be better filled.
There’s no guarantee of that.
No, and I would expect to get some argument from my colleagues about it, but I’m the one who does the evaluating of myself.
Have you gotten arguments from your colleagues? I imagine you have.
Well, they say they’re sad, and personally I will be sad to leave them. But the world is small, so I won’t lose them personally.
Well, this change, this complete change in life style, is something that your husband is completely in agreement with?
He’s delirious with joy.
He’s apt to do the same thing.
Yes, he’s pleased with the whole thing.
I assume there are no financial problems.
Fortunately, no. And if there had been any, selling real estate in California would have removed them. But, no, I did well. I’ve been extremely fortunate.
And at this age the move would be considered to be permanent?
Yes, certainly out of astronomy — that’s permanent.
How did you come to choose this particular place, the island of Majorca?
No, it’s Minorca. Majorca is the major island of the chain off the coast of Spain, and it is spoiled by tourism — enormous hotels and it’s very very sad. The smaller island is not, and they have just recently made a regulation to limit this: there will be no more hotels built, and there’s a real appreciation for the beauty of their place and what will happen to it. But it will be long enough for us anyway.
Well, why did you take such an enormous move? Let’s say even though obviously the place is beautifully and idyllic as opposed to let’s say living in the area — not Berkeley but someplace other than…
We have a country house, in fact. We have been spending six weeks every spring in Europe and like it very much, and we would rather be closer to the cities of Europe for that purpose — cultural things. We look forward to the excitement of a different culture and a different language. I anticipate that there will be some serious period of adjustment for me, because from this story you can see that my life has been very full of very structured things. My days are really quite organized. And I have been saying all this time that I haven’t been able to do all these other things I want to do. I can’t crowd them in. I have neither the time nor energy. And now I will have the time to do them. And there may be a time when that is a little difficult, in really organizing it. I anticipate that the time of finding what this new society is like and new people and so on will ease that period. There will be so many new things to do that I think it will be a good thing. It’s an adventure after all. A castle in Spain. It won’t be a castle, but anyway…
So then just, let’s say, moving over the hill to one of the coastal cities or something where you may have just as much isolation in the short run would not be as acceptable. It would not be the change you’re looking for.
That’s right. We want something more remote. We have made a country house which is virtually independent of the outside world. In sight of it, but we want to be away from traffic and away from pollution and the kind of pressures and violence and so on that we have felt in this country, and Berkeley is certainly one of the hotbeds of such things. But the idea of being at the sea and someplace where there’s quiet and yet within easy reach of all the wonders that we could ask for seems like quite a dream.
Are there other similarly minded people in this area, on the island?
There are many British people there. It used to belong to England, and there’s a considerable community of such people.
Have they all taken up some other line of interest such as pottery or something?
I don’t know. One woman that I know was married — her husband was in the diplomatic service and so she was doing all a diplomat’s wife would do, and he died and she came there and started an antique store. It’s more than a store — it’s a large-scale business. But it should be interesting anyway.
One final question. Are you going to continue subscriptions to astronomical journals or anything like that?
So you will completely cut yourself off.
Yes. It need not be forever in every possible way. That is, return to a career in research astronomy will be impossible — I’m convinced of that. But I could do other things — writing or less demanding things than that. And I certainly don’t say that that is for always. But getting subscriptions to the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL would really be a waste of money. I read only the titles most of the time now anyway. And in order to understand and remember and take in those things, one must have a real purpose. I can’t just read an article for pleasure. It has to be something that I want to get from it. And without that additional drive, I just know I wouldn’t do it.
Any secondary literature that you would think about maintaining?
Possibly something like SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. That would be a possibility. I never read it now because I’m reading science all the time, but I may want to learn…
I think that we’ve gotten a marvelously interesting vignette of your life, a small one to be sure, but extremely valuable I think. So I thank you very much for your time. If I’m cutting off anything at this point.
I think not.
Okay. Thank you again. And you’ll be receiving a transcript from us, and I hope that you’ll have the time and interest to look through it.
No, no, I shall certainly do so.
Okay. Thank you so much.