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. She 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 measuring scientific output—as well as book reviews and biographies. . . She co-edited Heaven is to all, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by distinguished astronomers, including herself. Spanning a range of generations and nationalities, each tells the story of the barriers they overcame to change the face of modern astronomy.

What got you into astronomy?
It wasn’t a love of the stars: I grew up in Los Angeles very short-sighted and never saw the night sky. I really wanted to be an Egyptologist, but the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] he did not major in archaeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw astronomy. I signed up for an astronomy-mathematics double degree, but that got moved to the engineering school, which wasn’t terribly welcoming to women, so I switched to astronomy-physics. I started at UCLA in 1961 in the gifted student program.

In 1962, you were featured in a movie Life magazine article, Behind a Lovely Face, an IQ of 180. Where did that lead?
As a result, I was approached by an advertising agency looking for a way to bring the ratings of what was to be the final year of twilight zone programs. The year I was Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 TV ratings cities doing newspaper, radio and television interviews. The foolishness was that I was reading the scriptures for accuracy. Some of my suggestions were taken, for example that there is a difference between a solar system and a galaxy. It brought in some much needed extra pennies.

You started graduate school at prestigious California Institute of Technology or Caltech, in the 1964 when you were not quite 21. You received your joint master’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1965 and your doctorate in astronomy in 1968. Was it hard to get in?
I hadn’t really realized that they only admitted women 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). When I arrived, there were 14 women on campus, and the two women who came before me in astronomy both came with their husbands.

Apparently, Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. You became friendly with physicist Richard Feynman modeling for him…
I quickly noticed in both the undergrad and grad classes, there were a lot of nice men – students and professors. The astronomy professor who became my PhD advisor – Guido Münch – and we were in love for about three years before we left Caltech.

Feynman was learning to draw and had seen me walking around campus and decided, “I want that one.” Saw Münch coming out of the building I had entered and walked up to him and said, “Hunter, maybe you know the quarry.” Münch brought Feynman into my office and introduced us.

Feynman paid 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 would go there on Tuesday evenings for a few hours. Sometimes I posed naked. Sometimes we hugged, but innocently. I remember when he suggested we cuddle on the couch and I told him I didn’t think so really he wanted to do that. His wife brought us orange juice and cookies quite often, and I didn’t want to be naked on the couch with Feynman when she did.

Wasn’t it scary being involved with these teachers? There was a great imbalance of power.
I liked the company of men who liked me. I was never aware of a power imbalance; I could always leave. Of course, that would get us all fired today!

You’ve published hundreds of research papers, but your peers may know you best for the amusing and must-read annual summaries of research in astrophysics, which you undertook for 16 years, starting with 1991. How deliberate was the humor?
I couldn’t help myself [the jokes]. I’m told that if we on the autism spectrum – and I’d say mildly Aspergers – simply describe things as we see them, many other people find it funny. But some of the footnotes were designed to be funny. I described distinguished colleagues by nicknames such as “round musician” or “passionate amateur dentist”. I’ve made enemies both by unquoting people and by quoting them, because quite often I pick something out of their paper that wasn’t what they intended in the first place. It was said that every time [a summary] came out, you could see Princeton astronomers tiptoeing into the library late at night to see if they were mentioned.

How have things changed for women astronomers?
The first women in astronomy came through a father, brother or husband, and some almost certainly married into 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 university-educated woman could do that wasn’t teaching or nursing. Then, in the US, driven 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 this is moving down the hierarchy.

Which astronomers were overlooked for a Nobel prize?
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. But she was not believed until it was confirmed by men. Jocelyn Bell (later Bell Burnell) was a PhD student when she participated in the discovery of pulsars, but the resulting share of the Nobel Prize was awarded only to its male supervisor. Instead, the PhD student who recognized the signal from the first binary pulsar shared the prize with his advisor.

Various female astronomers in the book note shockingly sexist behavior, and at least one details being sexually harassed in an elevator. You’ve probably experienced some of this in your professional life, but you don’t seem too upset about men behaving badly…
Clearly “men behaving badly” has been a major problem for some of my colleagues and I don’t want to appear to be defending those who break the law. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been sexually harassed. I am friends with some senior scientists who have been accused of being grossly inappropriate and I find it hard to believe. I think maybe some things can be very different for different women.

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

  • Heaven is for everyone, edited by Virginia Trimble and David A Weintraub, is published by Princeton University Press (£25). To support guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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