Nancy Knight: The life of a singular scientist

July 26, 2011 | One of NCAR’s keenest analysts and appreciators of ice, snow, and hail has passed from the scene. Nancy Knight, most recently with NESL/MMM, died on 26 June after a short illness. (Watch a three-minute video on Nancy’s life and work.)

Nancy Knight in 2010
Nancy Knight at NCAR’s salute to pioneer employees in December 2010.

Nancy was part of NCAR for most of the lab’s history.  A native of the Boston area and a graduate of Wellesley College, she worked in the University of Washington’s atmospheric science department in the early 1960s, where she met her husband-to-be, Charlie. The Knights came to Boulder in 1962, when Charlie (now in NESL/MMM) was appointed as one of NCAR’s first scientists.

Although Nancy’s first career goal was to be a physician, meteorology pulled her away. Originally hired as a casual NCAR employee, collaborating with Charlie, she was on staff on a regular or casual basis for most of the subsequent 49 years.

The couple moved to the University of Hokkaido for two years in the mid-1960s. “While Charlie did research on ice crystals, Nancy taught conversational English and helped Japanese scientists write their papers in English for international journals,” says Peggy LeMone (NESL/MMM), a longtime friend and colleague.

After they returned to Boulder, the Knights embarked on years of research into hail formation and suppression, taking part in the National Hail Research Experiment. In these and other field programs, Nancy honed her skills at sectioning and photographing hailstones for later analysis. By the 1980s, she was lead author on several papers examining hail and its embryonic stages, an effort that led her to collect hailstones in Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, South Africa, and the United States.

Ice crystals in cirrus clouds also captured Nancy’s attention.  She collaborated with Andy Heymsfield (NESL/MMM) on field projects and analysis starting in the 1980s. “I found Nancy to be great fun to be around,” says Andy. “She was spunky, spontaneous, and rebellious. She was also a terrific writer and editor of scientific articles, which drew on her verbal strengths.”

Nancy gained a measure of media fame after “No Two Alike?”, her 1988 paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. In it, she analyzed two nearly identical snowflakes she’d collected and photographed in a Wisconsin field campaign. “The most surprising thing to Nancy and me was the deluge of publicity it produced,” says Charlie, who notes that it was the BAMS editor who named the paper. “Lots and lots of snow crystals are ‘alike,’ meaning similar, but “no two alike’ seemed to translate in people’s minds to ‘no two identical’.” Nancy never hesitated to correct others who she felt were misinterpreting her work or being disrespectful—including radio host Rush Limbaugh, whose live interview with Nancy on the snowflake study was abruptly ended by Nancy herself.

Nancy Knight and the 1970 Coffeyville hailstone
Among the hailstones Nancy Knight analyzed was one that fell in Coffeyville, Kansas, on September 3, 1970. It held the U.S. record for size, weight, and circumference for more than 30 years.

A taste for adventure

In her efforts to preserve frozen precipitation for study, Nancy called on everything from farmers’ refrigerators to an ice cream factory.  During the Wisconsin project, Andy and Nancy photographed ice crystals, freshly collected from NCAR aircraft, in a cold room at a meat processing plant.

Nancy’s colleagues recall her spirited approach to hunting for hail and other items of interest. “Some of my most hilarious memories of Nancy on field campaigns were driving,” says Karyn Sawyer, the former director of UCP/JOSS. “We’d be rocketing along a dirt road somewhere, and she’d insist that we stop because she had spotted an interesting bird.”

Often Nancy would be accompanied on her travels by a pet. Her canine companions  included a pair of standard poodles in the 1960s and a recent series of two small dogs, both dubbed Fang.

“Nancy richly enjoyed all the places she visited, having a keen appreciation of art, architecture, and particularly birds,” says Karyn. “She was smart, accomplished, cultured, and indomitable. She was a model for many women who followed.”

Donations in Nancy’s name are being accepted at the Boulder Valley Humane Society, and a memorial gathering will take place in the Foothills cafeteria at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, August 8.

More on the Web


One hail of a storm
Staff Notes feature on Nancy’s 2003 hail survey in Aurora, Nebraska

All hail
UCAR Magazine feature on a 2010 hail record and Charlie and Nancy Knight’s work

Women scientists at NCAR:
We’ve come a long way

Peggy LeMone on Nancy and other women scientists in NCAR’s early years