Astronomer Virginia Trimble: “When I arrived in 1964 there were 14 women on the Caltech campus”

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, history of science and scientometrics, his field of measuring scientific results, as well as book reviews and biographies. . He co-edited Heaven is for everyone, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by distinguished astronomers, including herself. Across generations and nationalities, each explains the barriers they have overcome 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 myopic and never saw the night sky. I really wanted to be an Egyptologist, but the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] he did not have a degree in archaeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw astronomy. I enrolled in a double degree in astronomy and math, but that got transferred to the engineering school, 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 aa 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 some way to boost ratings for what would be the final year of the twilight zone programs During the year I was Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 TV ratings cities, doing newspaper, radio and TV interviews. The problem was that I was reading the scripts for accuracy. They took some of my suggestions, for example, that there is a difference between a solar system and a galaxy. It brought in some extra and much needed pennies.

You started graduate school at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in 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 fully 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). 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.

Looks like Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. You befriended him physicist Richard Feynman modeling for him…
I had quickly realized that there were many nice men in both my undergraduate and graduate classes—students and professors. The astronomy professor who became my PhD advisor – Guido Münch – and we were lovers for about three years until I left Caltech.

Feynman was learning how to draw and had seen me walking around campus and decided, “I want this one.” He saw Münch Leaving the building I had entered, I approached him and said, “I am hunting, perhaps you know the quarry.” Münch he brought Feynman into my office and introduced us.

Feynman paid me $5.50 an hour (a lot back 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 couple of hours. Sometimes she posed naked. Sometimes we hugged, but innocently. I remember one time he suggested we cuddle on the sofa, and I said I didn’t think so really wanted to do this 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 creepy being involved with these teachers? There was a huge imbalance of power.
I enjoyed the company of men I liked. I was never aware of a power imbalance; I could always leave. Of course we would all be fired today!

You’ve published hundreds of research papers, but you’re perhaps best known to your peers for your entertaining and essential annual summaries of astrophysics research, which you conducted for 16 years from 1991. How deliberate was the humor?
I couldn’t help [the jokes]. I’m told that if we, who are on the autism spectrum, and I’m a little bit Asperger’s, just describe things as we see them, a lot of other people will find it 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 journal that was not what they had primarily thought. He said it every time [a summary] It came out, Princeton astronomers could be seen tiptoeing into the library at night to see if they had been mentioned.

How have things changed for astronomers?
The first women in astronomy came through a father, brother or husband, and some married certainly to do 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 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, approximately 30–40% of astronomy graduate students are women, although this is decreasing down the pecking order.

Which astronomers have been overlooked for a Nobel prize?
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. But they didn’t believe her until the men confirmed it. 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 her male supervisor. Instead, the male PhD student who recognized the signal of the first binary pulsar shared the prize with his advisor.

Several astronomers in the book point to shockingly sexist behavior and at least one detail being sexually harassed in an elevator. You must have experienced some of this in your working life, but you don’t seem too upset about men behaving badly….
Clearly, “men behaving badly” has been a major issue for some of my peers, and I don’t want to sound like I’m defending lawbreakers. I don’t think I’ve ever been sexually harassed. I am friends with some senior male scientists who have been accused of being grossly inappropriate and I find it hard to believe. I think maybe some things can look very different to different women.

What 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 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 the guardian i Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply

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