Opportunity Can Come From Unexpected Places

or   How I Spent Two Gap Years After Yale

By Mark A. Gordon

There I was one early afternoon in the spring, in a Yale physics lab class with a graduate student partner, learning how to break things as well as make things. I was a Senior physics major who didn’t know what I should do next.

I had arrived in New Haven in 1955 knowing exactly what I wanted: electrical engineering. Why not? Yale’s EE department was then one of the best in the nation, and their graduates found work easily.

Alas, after my first semester, I realized I might kill myself in one of the EE electric power labs. And, I had found that I was more interested understanding things than making things. So, I changed my major to physics.

As a Senior, I didn’t know what to do next. My GRE score was high. Two excellent universities had accepted me as a physics graduate student. But, by then I was a little brain-dead.

I asked my lab partner what he did before coming to Yale’s physics grad school. “Spent a year in Antarctica,” he said, “running experiments for scientists who didn’t want to spend a year in Antarctica.” Wow, I was immediately interested. “How did you get to do that?” I asked. “I applied,” he said. “They look for people to do these isolated jobs and pay them well.”

I grew up in a tiny village in northern Connecticut to which my family had immigrated from Scotland in the 1840s. My vision was limited; my family seldom left this village.

And so, my father—a Yale graduate—urged me to attend Andover for high school. He and my uncle were graduates of both schools. My father felt that Andover’s highly diverse student body would give me perspective on a career as well as an excellent education. I went, and it did.

But I digress. I applied for a job in Antarctica and got it. I passed the physical exam and the nuclear submarine psychiatric exam—required for every prospective Antarctic winterer because each research station was inaccessible during the winters. The range of the military transport aircraft—a ski-equipped Lockheed Super Constellation—in those days was insufficient to fly from its New Zealand air base to any Antarctic research station and return. They could not extract someone during the Antarctic winter if they got sick or went nuts.

The Navy gave us survival training appropriate for Antarctica, and the researchers I worked for gave me specific training how to keep their instruments running. Attending these “schools” required me to travel on commercial airlines, which I had never done.

The Military Air Transport System (MATS) flew us to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we waited for a flight to the Antarctic supply base at McMurdo Sound. Then, for me, I took a Navy supply ship to Hallett Station, located on an Antarctic inlet.

At Hallett Station, I loved my work operating and repairing specialized optical and radio instruments which recorded observations of airglow and auroras. Of course, those one-of-a kind instruments broke. On more than one occasion, I stayed up more than 48 hours to repair them.

Me at the South Pole in summer, 1960. The temperature was -55F.

All went well, and when summer came, I wangled a seat on a new Lockheed C-130 ski-equipped Hercules to fly from the McMurdo Sound supply base to the then very isolated South Pole Station. [See photograph]. Immediately after landing, the crew shut down the turbo-prop engines whose lubricating oil immediately congealed. Solving that problem took another few days as well as causing worry that this new airplane might have to be abandoned. But, it gave me more time at Pole Station.

Returning home after my stay, I arrived in the SeaBee air base at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, just a few days before Christmas in 1960. En route from California, the pilot of the MATS DC-6 aircraft invited me to sit in a jump seat in the cockpit, where I turned the knob of the autopilot to steer the aircraft around New York City. Very fun.

For the next 4 months, I worked at the Cambridge Air Force Research Center near Boston organizing my observations and helping prepare another crew for Antarctica.

Afterward I earned a PhD in astrophysics, spent 4 years with MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Massachusetts and, then, moved to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory for the rest of my career.

What’s the point of this essay? Unconventional ideas can produce good results. That brief conversation with a lab partner in 1959 led to 2 productive gap years and a wonderfully satisfying career.

Addendum: Recently I learned about an unexpected benefit of spending a winter in Antarctica. I now have a large dry valley named after me, i.e., ‘Gordon Valley’ in Antarctica’s Queen Alexandria Range. Not a biggy, because the naming committee chose names from the pool of persons who had wintered there. My name finally came up. But, it’s fun to have it.


3 comments on Opportunity Can Come From Unexpected Places

  • Kent Hackmann

    Mark, Your catchy title gave me reason to read your essay. You had great fortune in your lab partner, and you are right that the two gap years took you to a wonderfully satisfying career. Not everyone is so fortune in life-work planning. Thanks for your contribution.

  • Don Watson

    Who else in our class can say that they stood at Lat. -90, Long. 0
    I’m impressed. DW

  • John Stickler

    Hey Mark:
    Well told!
    Look for my adventure in South Korea — How I Met Chiang Ki-shek and launched Korea’s Advertising Industry. It’s in here somewhere.

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