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Review of Two Paths to Heaven’s Gate, Nan Dieter Conklin

Reviewed by Joan T Schmelz

Joan Schmelz is on the faculty at the University of Memphis and is an editor of the AAS electronic
newsletter AASWOMEN.

June 2007

As a graduate student working at Arecibo Observatory in the 1980s, I never knew that an American
woman was there at the beginning, when radio astronomy was born. In those days when I
desperately needed a role model, there seemed to be none available. So imagine my delight in
learning (after all these years!) that such a role model had been there all the time, but her story,
her life, and her accomplishments were unknown to me—until now.

Nan Dieter Conklin had a distinguished career in astronomy that began on Nantucket
Island with a Maria Mitchell fellowship in 1947 while she was still an undergraduate. She then worked at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and published her first paper, “Solar Outbursts at 8.5 mm
Wavelength,” in 1952. She earned her Ph.D. in 1958 at Harvard with a thesis entitled, “Neutral Hydrogen in M33.” Her professional career took her from the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory to the University of California at Berkeley. She studied neutral hydrogen gas in the Milky Way and other nearby galaxies and was involved in the discovery in interstellar OH masers. She is the author or coauthor of almost 50 scientific publications including several in Nature and many in the Astrophysical Journal.

Nan writes about her joys and accomplishments— her scientific discoveries, her
children, and the long-awaited love of her life. She also writes about her individual struggles—her
failed marriages, her estranged daughter, and her multiple sclerosis. She is honest and frank
with us, her readers, as she allows a glimpse into the world in which she lived and worked.
She takes us on the journey of her life, both the personal and the professional. Although
there are bumps as well as unexpected twists and turns in the roads she took, she seems to
navigate them both successfully, hence her choice of title, Two Paths to Heaven’s Gate. In the 21st
century, when women in astronomy (and in all professions) struggle with the balance between
work and family, Nan once again becomes a role model. She grappled with these same issues in
the 1950s!

Nan tells us in her introduction that this book started as a chronicle of her life in science,
which is now available on the NRAO Archives web site (http://www.nrao.edu/archives/Conklin/
conklin_top.shtml). Her creative writing group pressed her to make the story more personal.
After reading the book, I find that I would have pressed her in a different direction—more
scientific details, more about the many radio astronomy pioneers she worked with, more about
what it was like to be a woman in a field so dominated by men at a time when women were
not expected to work outside the home. But this is Nan’s story, and she has told it well. Thank
you, Nan for re-entering the astronomy scene as one of our much-needed role models.
Two Paths to Heaven’s Gate is part autobiography and part scientific history. It is a
book worth reading, and its author, Nan Dieter Conklin, is a woman worth getting to know.

To obtain a copy of Two Paths to Heaven’s Gate send a check for $13 ($10 plus $3 s&h) to: Archives,
National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 520 Edgemont Rd., Charlottesville VA 22903-2475.

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