Astronomer Virginia Trimble: ‘There were 14 women on the Caltech campus when I arrived in 1964’ | Astronomy

virginia Trimble, 78, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, whose career in astronomy spans more than 50 years. He has studied the structure and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the universe and has published more than 1,000 papers, including research papers in astronomy, astrophysics, the history of science, and scientometrics, the field concerned with the measurement of scientific results. as well as book reviews and biographies. . she has co-edited The sky is for everyone, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by distinguished astronomers, including herself. Spanning a variety of generations and nationalities, each speaks of the barriers they have overcome to change the face of modern astronomy.

What led you to astronomy?
It was not a love for the stars: I grew up in Los Angeles very myopic and never saw the night sky. I really wanted to be an Egyptologist, but the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] I didn’t have a major in archaeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw astronomy. I enrolled in an astronomy-mathematics double major, but they transferred me to the engineering faculty, which wasn’t very welcoming to women, so I switched to astronomy-physics. I started at UCLA in 1961 in the gifted program.

In 1962, you appeared in a life magazine article, Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 IQ. Where did that lead?
As a result, an advertising agency approached me looking for a way to improve the ratings for what was going to be the last year of the show. Twilight Zone programs In my year as Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 cities where television ratings were taken, doing newspaper, radio and television interviews. The trick was that I was reading the scripts for accuracy. Some of my suggestions were taken, for example that there is a difference between a solar system and a galaxy. He brought some much-needed extra pennies.

You started graduate school at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in 1964 when you were not quite 21. He earned his joint master’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1965 and your doctorate in astronomy in 1968. Was it difficult to enter?
I hadn’t realized that women were only admitted in exceptional circumstances. My exceptional circumstance was that my scholarship required me to go somewhere other than my undergraduate institution and I didn’t want to leave home (Caltech and UCLA were the only two places in Southern California with astronomy majors). There were 14 women on the entire campus when I arrived, and the two women who came before me in astronomy came with their husbands.

It seems that Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. you made friends with physicist Richard Feynman modeling for him…
I quickly noticed that in both my undergraduate and graduate classes there were many nice men, students, and professors. The astronomy professor who became my Ph.D. advisor – Guido Münch – and we were lovers for about three years until I left Caltech.

Feynman was learning to draw and he saw me walking around campus and decided, “I want that one.” he saw munch coming out of the building I had entered and I went up to him and said, “I’m hunting, maybe you know the quarry.” Chew he brought Feynman into my office and introduced us.

Feynman was paying me $5.50 an hour (a lot then) plus all the physics I could swallow. His studio was in the basement of his house in Altadena and I used to go there on Tuesday nights for a couple of hours. Sometimes she posed nude. Sometimes we hugged, but innocently. I remember one time he suggested that we cuddle up on the couch and I told him that he didn’t think Really wanted to do that. His wife often brought us orange juice and cookies, and he didn’t want to be naked on the couch with Feynman when she did it.

Wasn’t it creepy being involved with these teachers? There was a huge power imbalance.
I enjoyed the company of men who loved me. I was never aware of an imbalance of power; I could always walk away. Of course, he would fire us all today!

He has published hundreds of research papers, but his colleagues may know him best for his fun, must-read annual summaries of astrophysical research he conducted for 16 years from 1991. How deliberate was the humor?
I could not help [the jokes]. I’ve been told that if we who are on the autism spectrum, and I’d say I’m a bit of an Aspergerian, just describe things the way we see them, a lot of other people will find that funny. But some of the footnotes were designed to be funny. I described distinguished colleagues with pseudonyms such as “the rotund musician” or “the enthusiastic amateur dentist.” I made enemies both for not quoting people and for quoting them, because very often I would pick something out of their paper that was not what they had primarily intended. It was said that every time [a summary] When he came out, astronomers from Princeton could be seen tiptoeing into the library late at night to see if they had been mentioned.

How have things changed for female astronomers?
The first women in astronomy came through a father, brother, or husband, and some almost certainly married to pursue science. Then came to be a human computer [which involved doing calculations by hand, and later machine]. These women didn’t necessarily fall in love with astronomy, but it was interesting work for a college-educated woman to do that wasn’t teaching or nursing. Then in the US, fueled by post-Sputnik concerns, graduate programs in space-related fields grew rapidly. They were so desperate to expand that they even hired female teachers! Today, about 30-40% of astronomy graduate students are women, although that narrows the hierarchy.

Which female astronomers have been passed over for a Nobel? reward?
Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. But he was not believed until the men confirmed it. Jocelyn Bell (later Bell Burnell) she was a doctoral student when she participated in the discovery of pulsars, but the resulting part of the Nobel prize was awarded only to her male supervisor. In contrast, the doctoral student who recognized the signal from the first binary pulsar shared the prize with his advisor.

Several female astronomers in the book note shockingly sexist behavior and at least one details being sexually harassed in an elevator. You must have experienced some of this in your working life, but you don’t seem too annoyed that men are mean…
Clearly, “misbehaving men” has been a big problem for some of my colleagues, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m defending lawbreakers. I do not feel that I have ever been sexually harassed. I am friends with some senior male scientists who have been accused of being seriously inappropriate and find it hard to believe. I think maybe some things can feel very different to different women.

What words of advice would you give to young women who want a career in astronomy?
Almost everyone says: follow your passion. My point of view is: find something you’re good enough to make a living at and do it.

  • Heaven is for everyone edited by Virginia Trimble and David A Weintraub, it is published by Princeton University Press (£25). to support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at Shipping charges may apply

About the author


Leave a Comment