Astronomer Virginia Trimble: “There were 14 women on the Caltech campus when I arrived in 1964” | astronomy

FifthVirginia Trimble, 78, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, whose career in astronomy spans more than 50 years. She has studied the structure and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the universe and has published more than 1,000 works, including papers in astronomy, astrophysics, history of science, and scientific measurements – the field concerned with measuring scientific output – as well as book reviews and biographies. I participated in the editing The sky For everyone, a new collection of 37 autobiographical articles by notable astronomers, including herself. Spanning a range of generations and nationalities, each recounts the barriers they overcame to change the face of modern astronomy.

What led you to astronomy?
It wasn’t love for the stars: I grew up in Los Angeles very short-sighted and had never seen the night sky. I really wanted to become an Egyptologist, but UCLA [UCLA] He did not have a major in archeology. My dad looked at the catalog and watched astronomy. I enrolled in a double degree in astronomy and mathematics but was transferred to the College of Engineering, which wasn’t very welcoming for women, so I switched to astronomy and physics. She started at UCLA in 1961 in the Gifted Student Program.

In 1962, she appeared in life Magazine article, behind a pretty face, IQ 180. Where did that lead?
As a result, I was approached by an advertising agency in search of some way to spark ratings for what would have been the last year of the year Twilight Zone software. In my year at the Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 cities where TV ratings were recorded, giving interviews to newspapers, radio and TV. The trick was that I was reading the texts for accuracy. Some of my suggestions were taken, for example that there is a difference between the solar system and the galaxy. It brought some much needed extra pennies.

I started postgraduate studies in the prestigious Caltech, or Caltech, in 1964 when I was not quite 21. She obtained a master’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1965 and your PhD in astronomy in 1968. Was it hard to get in?
I wasn’t fully aware that they only accept women in exceptional circumstances. My exceptional circumstance was that a fellowship asked me to go somewhere other than my university institution and I didn’t want to leave home (Caltech and UCLA were the only two places in Southern California that majored in astronomy). There were 14 women on the entire campus when I arrived, and the two women who arrived before me in astronomy came with their husbands.

Caltech seemed to be a hotbed of seduction. I became friendly with Physicist Richard Feynman by showing models of his…
I quickly noticed in both my undergraduate and graduate classes that there were a lot of nice guys – students and faculty. Astronomy professor who became my PhD advisor – Guido Munch – and I was lovers for about three years until I left Caltech.

Feynman was learning to draw and he saw me walking across campus and decided, “I want to.” saw munch I came out of the building I entered and went up to him and said, “I fish, you probably know the quarry.” biting Feynman brought it to my office and introduced us.

Feynman paid me $5.50 an hour (a lot at the time) plus all the physics I could swallow. His studio was in the basement of his house in Altadena and I would go there on Tuesday evenings for a few hours. Sometimes I pretended to be naked. Sometimes we hugged, but innocently. I remember once he suggested we cuddle up on the sofa, and I said I don’t think we truly He wanted to do that. His wife often brought us orange juice and cookies, and I didn’t want to be naked on the couch with Feynman when she did.

Wasn’t it scary to get involved with these professors? There was a huge power imbalance.
I enjoyed the company of men who loved me. I never knew there was an imbalance of power; I can always walk away. Of course, that will get us all fired up today!

You’ve published hundreds of research papers, but your colleagues probably know you better than the entertaining must-read annual summaries of astrophysics research you’ve done for 16 years starting at 1991. How was the humor intentional?
I couldn’t help [the jokes]. I’m told that if we’re on the autism spectrum — and I would say I’m a bit Aspergerish — simply describing things the way we see them, it shocks a lot of other people as amusing. But some of the footnotes are designed to be funny. She called distinguished colleagues by pseudonyms such as “round musician” or “amateur dentist”. I made enemies by not citing and citing people, because often times I would pick something from their newspaper that wasn’t what they originally intended. It was said every time [a summary] You can see Princeton astronomers entering the library late at night to see if they’ve been mentioned.

How have things changed for the astronomer?
The first women came into astronomy through a father, brother, or husband, and some of them almost certainly married in order to practice science. Then came being 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 an interesting job that a college educated woman could do that wasn’t teaching or nursing. Then in the United States, spurred by post-Sputnik concerns, graduate programs in space-related fields grew rapidly. They were so desperate to expand that they even hired female faculty! Today approximately 30-40% of astronomy graduate students are female, although this lowers the hierarchy.

Which female astronomer was overlooked for the Nobel Prize? prize?
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin They discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. But she did not believe until the men confirmed it. Jocelyn Bell (later Bill Burnell) She was a doctoral student when she co-discovered pulsars but the resulting share of the Nobel Prize was awarded only to her male supervisor. In return, a male doctoral student who learned about the signal from the first binary pulsar shared the prize with his advisor.

Several of the astronomers in the book note some shocking sexual behavior and at least one detail of being sexually harassed in the elevator. You must have experienced some of this in your work life, but you don’t seem to be too mad at guys behaving badly…
Obviously, “men behave badly” has been a huge problem for some of my colleagues, and I don’t want to sound like I’m defending the outlaws. I don’t feel like I’ve been sexually harassed before. I am friends with some of the top male scientists who have been accused of being seriously unfit and I find it hard to believe. I think some things can look very different on 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 is: find something you’re good enough to make a living and do it.

  • sky for all Edited by Virginia Trimble and David A Weintraub, and published by Princeton University Press (£25). to support guardian And the observer Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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