An interview with Beverly Lynds

Interview by Bo Reipurth, SFN #358 - October 2022

Your PhD in 1956 from the University of California at Berkeley dealt with spectra of white dwarfs. How did you choose this subject and did you have important mentors?

I had started graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, but I decided that if I was to become a science teacher, I wanted to teach astronomy, my first love. So I applied for graduate school at the University of Chicago, Michigan State, Cal Tech, and U. California at Berkeley. I was admitted to the first three, and received a letter from Otto Struve saying they looked forward to seeing me in Chicago in the fall. However, when they discovered at Cal Tech that Beverly was a female (I should have spelled my name Beverley) they withdrew the offer, saying that they did not accept female graduate students. Berkeley didn't accept me but they sent me a kind letter explaining that they were concerned that I had had little experience in astronomy and suggested that I spend a year as an assistant at Lick Observatory before being accepted in their program at Berkeley. I accepted this offer, and spent the year of 1950 at Lick assisting Nick Mayall with his measurements of radial velocities of galaxies and George Herbig with spectroscopic programs at the 36-inch refractor. Meanwhile Otto Struve had moved from Chicago to Berkeley. Struve was quite an imposing figure and I was awe-struck when I met him. But it didn't take long to see his kindness underneath that stern exterior, and once I moved to Berkeley, he was one of the most supportive and understanding of the faculty, and he became my main advisor. I had mentioned to Herbig that I had never seen a spectrum of a white dwarf, so he encouraged me to take some myself. Using a spectrograph built by Mayall (in a wooden cigar box) and armed with finding charts from a new white dwarf survey by Luyten I obtained the observations for my dissertation at the 36-inch refractor. Years later, when asked why I had done no more on studying white dwarfs, I replied “I ran out of finding charts”.

At the end of my year at Lick, Donald Shane, then director at Lick, found a job for me at the Berkeley Radiation Lab so that I could start graduate school; working a year in California qualified me for in-state tuition, which was important because I had no money and needed to support myself through graduate school. So, yes, I had important mentors during these young years, and all became life-long friends.

After your PhD you worked with Otto Struve on the famous popular book “Elementary Astronomy” by Struve, Lynds, and Pillans. How did that come about?

In 1955 Otto Struve was teaching an introductory astronomy course for non-majors and at that time the textbook usually used was written by Robert H. Baker and it was a simplified version of the two-volume Astronomy by Russell-Dugan-Stewart. Struve decided it was time for a new elementary astronomy textbook and arranged for Cambridge University Press to publish it. This was a time when Struve was contributing popular articles on astronomical subjects to Sky and Telescope on a regular basis. My husband Roger and I had just completed our Ph.D.s and Roger was given a 3-year appointment at Steward Observatory. Struve obtained an advance on royalties for his proposed textbook and hired me part time to take notes of his introductory astronomy course and to convert his lectures into a book. Helen Pillans was working as an assistant to Struve at that time, having gotten her Ph.D. in 1952.

For the next three year we worked on the book - with some medical interruptions - Struve was observing at Mt. Wilson during that time and he fell off the platform and suffered serious injuries. He was transported back to Berkeley in an ambulance and spent some time bedridden. During that period, I would go to his house to review our progress. When Struve was back at work he contracted a case of shingles and said that he was in worse shape than I was (I was 6 months pregnant then) so I had to finish giving his lectures. My daughter Susan was born at the dawn of the space age in February 1958, the third year of Roger's 3-year appointment. Roger then accepted an appointment at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and we moved to Victoria that summer. I remember reviewing the final drafts of the book in Victoria and it was published in 1959. It was well received and there were still royalties to be had in spite of the advance. A contract was signed with the press dividing the royalties between the three of us: Struve, 50% (because, he said, his name would sell the book), Lynds, 40% (because she wrote the book) and 10% to Pillans (for her contribution). In all honesty, I think it more accurate to say that I 'transcribed' most of the book from his lectures.

In 1962 you published your “Catalogue of Dark Nebulae”, which has been and remains extremely useful for the field of star formation and molecular clouds, and over the past 60 years has accumulated ~900 citations. How did that project come about?

Otto Struve accepted the position as Director of the newly-formed National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1959. He had been on the search committee that was trying to find a distinguished astronomer to take the job. When they couldn't find anyone suitable, Struve agreed to take it himself, knowing full well that it was a professional sacrifice for him. He wanted an optical astronomer to accompany him and so Roger was offered a position there. Roger, our one-year old daughter, Susan, and I moved to Green Bank.

Struve had gotten a grant to establish a library at the newly formed observatory in the middle of the West Virginia mountains, and he hired me part time to be the librarian charged with the responsibility of creating an astronomical library. I remember how thrilled I was when I got a letter from Jan Oort telling me that he was sending me the last complete collection of the Leiden publications that had the pioneering radio studies of the structure of our Milky Way. He said he was delighted to donate them to the new American Radio Astronomy Observatory.

One of the other items that I acquired for the library was a set of the recently published National Geographic Society-Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (1958). I was fascinated by these photographs and quite taken by how clearly it was to see the dark nebulae. I had acquired a copy of Barnard's collection of photographs of dark nebulae for our library. It occurred to me that I could make a catalogue of the dark nebulae visible on the Schmidt prints and it was something I could do in my “spare” time while working as the librarian. It is easy to forget today, when an image of any part of the sky is only a click away on a computer, what a major revolution the Palomar Survey was when it appeared and for the first time provided a complete, deep view of the whole sky north of declination -33o at blue and red wavelengths.

So for the two years that we were at NRAO, I worked on compiling this catalogue. I got a lot of mileage from that publication, warts and all.

You also prepared a “Catalogue of Bright Nebulae”, followed by an atlas of dust and HII regions in galaxies.

Yes, Roger decided he wanted to return to an optical observatory and accepted a position at Kitt Peak National Observatory, and we moved to Tucson in 1962. During the work on the dark clouds, it became obvious that the Palomar survey also revealed numerous bright diffuse nebulae, both known and unknown, and it seemed a logical next step to record such nebulae, measure their size and area, estimate their brightness and, based on their colors and morphology, attempt to classify them as reflection nebulae, HII regions, and supernova remnants. Planetary nebulae were excluded. After studying them awhile I decided it would be easier to find a relationship between bright and dark nebulae if I looked at other spiral galaxies, rather than trying to sort it out from the perspective of being immersed in a spiral arm. Alan Sandage was kind enough to let me look at the Edwin Hubble collection of photographs of galaxies. I started to try to see what the relationship was between emission nebulae and dark clouds. After moving to Arizona, I began to collect my own images of spirals and produced yet another atlas. It was an exciting time to be involved in this and I was fortunate to meet C. C. Lin, who was quite interested in the results of my studies because they seemed to confirm his density wave theory.

In 1968 you and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote an Annual Reviews article on “Interstellar Dust”. The topic has of course advanced enormously in the more than half century since then, but please outline what were the pressing issues at the time?

During the 1960s much work was done to understand the properties of interstellar grains. As observations in the infrared and ultraviolet became possible, the extinction curve could be extended and helped to specify the nature of the grains. At the time there was much discussion about variations in the extinction ratio R = AV/EB-V and their impact on distance determinations based on spectral classification, with indications in certain regions of values much greater than 3. Measurements of polarization, assumed to be due to anisotropic grains aligned by the galactic magnetic field, were also advancing, and the correlation between polarization and total extinction was explored. Observations were also being carried out of reflection nebulae, where grains could show up by their scattered light. And studies were being pursued of dust in HII regions, which indicated that such grains must be highly refractory and able to survive sputtering by impacts with gas atoms. A plausible mechanism for the formation of grains assumed that grains, such as graphite, from evolved stars would serve as condensation nuclei for the growth of icy mantles, allowing molecule formation. We concluded that further laboratory, observational, and theoretical work was needed before the properties of interstellar dust could be established, all of which has been intensely and successfully pursued over the past half a century.

In the 1980s you wrote, together with Earl O'Neil, several papers on the gas and dust in the Trifid Nebula based on the first CCD observations of the region.

As a student at Lick I used photographic plates, but their non-linearity and insensitivity were severe limitations. After moving to Kitt Peak, for a while we used cascaded image intensifier tubes, but still depended on photographic plates. It was therefore a real breakthrough when we started to use CCDs in the early 1980s. The downside was the need for computers for the data processing. Earl at that time was a programmer who worked mainly for Roger, but he helped me with the data reduction of the CCD observations, and I couldn't have done the research without his assistance. In my first study with CCDs, I imaged the Trifid nebula through interference filters isolating the Hα and Hβ emission lines and the continuum near Hβ. The Balmer fluxes were compared with 4.875 GHz data, and we could derive the optical depth near the Hβ line and concluded that the grains have a high albedo and a strongly forward-throwing phase function. In subsequent papers we added long slit spectra and more interference filters and proposed a model of a dusty nebula consistent with the observations. We did similar observations of several other HII regions.

Eventually you went into administration, and served as Assistant Director of Kitt Peak National Observatory.

I worked with Leo Goldberg, who became my role model for a good administrator. He tried to create a research environment for the staff that encouraged excellence. It was a challenge to be a part of the administration of a National Observatory. There is never enough money to fund all the good programs and setting priorities always causes strife. Honesty and patience are the virtues needed.

As Assistant to the Director, Leo defined my administrative job as doing everything that came into the Director's Office that did not require the immediate attention of the Director. The Director's office was also fundamentally responsible for preparing the long range plans for the observatory and the many documents needed for submission to the National Science Foundation for continued funding and annual reports. After a few years, Leo decided that my job was more that of an Assistant Director rather than an Assistant to the Director so promoted me into that position.

When Leo first arrived, he charged me with the responsibility of setting up and coordinating two committees -- one was a Users Committee which was to advise the Director on how to improve KPNO's service to visiting astronomers, and the other was a Scheduling Committee which met periodically to allocate the 60% of the telescope time designated for visiting astronomers.

The KPNO director was also responsible for coordinating things with our sister observatory, Cerro Tololo, in Chile, and I worked closely with Victor Blanco. When Leo retired, Victor was named acting director of KPNO and he asked me to stay on as Assistant Director during his stay. Once Geoff Burbidge became director, I no longer had an administrative role, and spent the last few years as a research astronomer on the staff.

In 1972 the American Astronomical Society set up a Working Group on the Status of Women, a forerunner to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) that was formed in 1979. You were appointed to the steering committee together with Anne Cowley (chair), Roberta Humphreys, and Vera Rubin. Please tell about the report that the four of you produced.

The Committee was set up after Margaret Burbidge in 1971 had been awarded the Cannon Prize, but refused to accept it, pointing out that "the prize, available only to women, was in itself discriminatory." A large number of volunteers contributed to the collection and analysis of information, based on a questionnaire distributed to all AAS members, requests sent to all Astronomy Departments, canvassing of all women astronomers in the country, NSF records, and other sources. We documented how primarily men would hold prestige and/or tenured positions, while the bulk of women were research associates, assistant professors, instructors and lecturers, or held volunteer positions. In addition, salaries for women were generally lower than for men. The committee also pointed out the near-absence of women on key committees and on editorial boards and as award winners. Overall, the committee put a light on the greater obstacles facing women in almost all aspects of their professional careers. Statistics on IAU memberships across the world showed that the situation was similar in most other countries. At the end of the report we made a series of recommendations to address the issues identified. Since the report appeared, 50 years have passed, and while all discrimination has not disappeared, it is gratifying that the situation now is far better than it was back then.

After retirement you have devoted much time to science education with a view to racial and gender disparities.

Almost my whole career was devoted to these efforts -- I had a summer program while at Kitt Peak that brought Hispanic, American Indians and Black students to the observatory for astronomical education and work. With my good friend Al Qöyawayma, I founded the campus chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society at the University of Arizona and was faculty advisor for several years, I received the Chief Manuelito Appreciation Award from the Navajo nation in 1986. While serving as a Shapley lecturer for the AAS, I specified that I only wanted to visit minority colleges in order to recruit their students. And yes, after retirement, my work was recognized by UCAR and I received UCAR's education award.