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Cicely Ridley Refuses to Relax

Photo of Cicely Ridley
Cicely Ridley. (Photo by Curt Zukosky.)

When Cicely Ridley really means something, her eyes glisten and her voice turns airy. "I've essentially worked on the same project the whole time I've been at NCAR--and it's been fascinating," she whispers like the punch line of a ghost story. A computer programmer first in the Scientific Computing Division (SCD) and later in the High Altitude Observatory (HAO), Cicely will retire on 24 February. As she scans a 26-year career devoted to crafting a series of increasingly complex models of the earth's middle and upper atmosphere, she elaborates, "I love to wrestle with complicated math problems. The physics, the chemistry, the math-- there've been lots of very, very interesting problems."

Born in Leicester, an industrial city "bang in the middle of England," Cicely attended the Wyggeston Grammar School for Girls, where she followed the humanities track until high school. Then, "I realized that I loved math so much [whispered] that I could not bear to give it up, so I absolutely had to do science in case I wasn't quite good enough to be a mathematician." With a full scholarship to the University of Cambridge, Cicely earned a "first" (the highest of four grades) in physics, which she hid from many of her college friends, so as not to appear too brainy. Part II of the undergraduate physics program was attended by 6 women and over 60 men, one of whom became her husband when they both finished their doctorates--hers in atomic physics, his in nuclear physics.

A theoretician from the start, Cicely hated the hands-on side of science at Cambridge. In chemistry lab, she recalls, "All my precipitates were black!" In crystallography, "You had to balance a tiny crystal on a little point and the damn thing would fall off and by the end of it I was quivering with fury." But she welcomed frequent access to the first electronic computing machine in Cambridge and carried those skills to her first job at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, a government-run nuclear physics lab south of Oxford. There she focused on solid state physics.

After four years, Cicely, by then 30 and a senior scientist, quit her job a week before her first child was born. She recalls, "I cried terribly about leaving my work but then found, quite surprisingly, that I adored small children." Within four years and as many months, she had produced four of them. "The timing was intentional," she's quick to explain. "I did still want to go back to work one day." When her husband, Brian (no relation to the NCAR scientist), was invited as a visiting scientist to the nuclear physics lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the family of six sailed to America on the Rotterdam. Both Ridleys agreed at once that Boulder was the place to be.

In 1968 her youngest son entered first grade, and Cicely reentered the work force part-time as a computer programmer in NCAR's Scientific Computing Facility (SCD was not yet a division). Later, when Brian became ill and Cicely found herself supporting and parenting the four children on her own, she went full time at NCAR to make ends meet. She had prepared for such a necessity early in life. Cicely's father died when she was four and her sister was still an infant. "After watching my mother's total dependency on her husband's parents, having the qualifications to support myself and my children became a driving force in my life." Managing it all required relentless organization: "At any one time there were the fixings for 12 meals in my refrigerator."

Cicely's professional life kept pace with her personal life. Her first assignment as a programmer was with Bob Dickinson (now at the University of Arizona), who had just arrived from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "He was just incredibly bright and terribly stimulating," she remembers. Together they developed one- and two- dimensional models of the Venusian atmosphere and then applied the latter to the earth's upper atmosphere. After Dickinson shifted into climate studies, she and Ray Roble developed a three-dimensional upper- atmosphere model based on NCAR's general circulation model. They gradually added more physics and chemistry over the years to create a series of models that extends from the top of the thermosphere down through the stratosphere. Cicely's SCD responsibilities also included handling requests for computer time. In 1988, she moved over to HAO, working full-time on the models. She recalls, "The greatest challenge was adding the dynamo. For a long time I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it, but I didn't want to break my record."

Cicely's greatest career satisfaction has come from solving elusive mathematical problems. "You need to soak yourself in a problem, but then there comes a point when thinking about it doesn't do any good. Fortunately, the subconscious is awfully clever at putting things together and giving it all a chance to work." Subliminal processing has saved Cicely from several close calls. On one occasion she'd been working like a sumo wrestler for months to put helium and argon into the model. Two weeks before a scheduled talk at the American Geophysical Union, she still had no results. Both she and Ray were trying not to panic. In despair, she gave up and headed to Keystone for a weekend of skiing. Riding up on the lift, she suddenly saw the solution.

Cicely's intuitive solutions have benefited more than HAO. Over a 100 students and scientists have either run the models themselves or used results generated in HAO. In 1988, in recognition of her successes in "elegant" problem-solving, she was nominated for the Outstanding Performance Award for Technology Advancement, and this year she received Honorable Mention for the Technical Support Award.

"It's come all too quickly," says Cicely of her retirement, "but it's the right time." She plans to do some consulting for HAO as needed, travel to China, resume weaving (a lifelong interest), and spend time with her children and three grandchildren. One son lives in Wheatridge and a daughter in Lyons, and Cicely will travel to Portland, Oregon, and western Australia to see her other two offspring and their families. "I have so many interests--concerts, hiking, theater, travel--and I hate relaxing."

Reflecting on her NCAR legacy, Cicely concludes modestly, "I would like people here to think that I had done some good work and that I was a reasonable person to get along with. She may have overshot her goal. Says Maura Hagan, one of HAO's next generation of bright women scientists, "Cicely is my idol."--Anatta

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:41:55 MST 2000