Virginia Trimble, 78, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, whose astronomy career 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 works, including research articles in astronomy, astrophysics, history of science and scientometry – the field that is concerned with the measurement of scientific results. – as well as book reviews and biographies. She co-edited Heaven is for everyone, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by distinguished astronomers, including herself. Spanning a range of generations and nationalities, each recounts the barriers it has overcome to change the face of modern astronomy.
What made you passionate about astronomy?
It wasn’t a love of the stars: I grew up in Los Angeles, very shortsighted 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 major in archeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw astronomy. I enrolled in a double degree in astronomy-mathematics, but then I moved to engineering school, which was not very welcoming to women, so I switched to astronomy-physics. I started at UCLA in 1961 in the gifted student program.
In 1962, you appeared in a Life magazine article, Behind a lovely face, an IQ of 180. Where did it lead?
As a result, I was approached by an advertising agency looking for a way to raise the ratings of what would be the final year of the year. twilight zone programs. During my year as a Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 cities where TV ratings were taken, interviewing newspapers, radio and television. The problem was that I was reading the scripts to be precise. Some of my suggestions have been taken, for example that there is a difference between a solar system and a galaxy. He brought some extra, much needed pennies.
Feynman’s wife often brought us orange juice and cookies, and I didn’t want to be naked on the couch with him when she did.
You started graduate school at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in 1964 when you were not really 21. You earned your joint master’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1965 and your doctorate in astronomy in 1968. Was it difficult to get in?
I didn’t realize they only admitted women in exceptional circumstances. My exceptional circumstance was that my scholarship required me to go somewhere other than my college and I didn’t want to leave home (Caltech and UCLA were the only two places in Southern California with a major in astronomy). There were 14 women on campus when I arrived, and the two women who got to astronomy before me both came with their husbands.
It seems that Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. You became friends with the physicist Richard Feynman acting as a model for him …
I immediately noticed that in the graduation and graduation classes there were many nice men: students and teachers. The astronomy professor who became my doctoral advisor – Guido Münch – and I were lovers for about three years until I left Caltech.
Feynman was learning to draw and he saw me walk across campus and decided, “I want that.” He saw Münch come out of the building I had entered, approached him and said: “I’m hunting, maybe you know the quarry.” Münch took Feynman to 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 went there on a Tuesday night for a couple of hours. Sometimes I posed naked. Sometimes we cuddled, but innocently. I remember once he suggested that I cuddle up on the sofa, and I said I didn’t think so truly I wanted to do it. 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 to be involved with these professors? There was a great imbalance of power.
I enjoyed the company of men who liked me. I have never been aware of a power imbalance; I could always leave. Sure, he’d have us all fired today!
You’ve published hundreds of research articles, but perhaps your colleagues know you best for your fun and readable annual summaries of astrophysics research, which you’ve undertaken for 16 years starting in 1991. How deliberate was the humor?
I couldn’t help [the jokes]. I was told that if we who are on the autism spectrum – and I would say that I am slightly asperger – simply describe things as we see them, many other people seem funny. But some of the footnotes were designed to be fun. I have described illustrious colleagues with pseudonyms like “the chubby musician” or “the passionate amateur dentist”. I have made enemies both by not quoting people and by quoting them, because very often I have chosen something from their newspaper that was not what they originally intended. This was said every time [a summary] outside, Princeton astronomers could be seen tiptoeing into the library late at night to see if they had been mentioned.
How have things changed for amateurs?
The first women in astronomy came through a father, brother or husband, and some almost certainly got married 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 a college-educated woman could do that wasn’t teaching or nursing. Then in the United States, spurred on by post-Sputnik concerns, undergraduate degrees in space-related fields grew rapidly. They were so desperate to expand that they even took on female faculties! Today, around 30-40% of astronomy graduate students are women, although this reduces the hierarchy.
Which astronomers have been overlooked for a Nobel Prize prize?
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. But she wasn’t believed until she was confirmed by the 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 her male supervisor. In contrast, the male graduate student who recognized the signal from the first binary pulsar shared the award with his advisor.
Related: “Will Shock Some Comrades”: Royal Society Adds Jocelyn Bell Burnell Portrait
Several astronomies in the book note some outrageously sexist behavior and at least one detail is being sexually harassed in an elevator. You must have experienced something similar in your working life, but you don’t seem too irritated by the fact that men are misbehaving …
Clearly “men misbehave” has been a big deal for some of my colleagues, and I don’t want to appear to be 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 seriously inappropriate and I can hardly believe it. 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 of view is: find something you’re good enough at to make 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 And Observer order your copy on guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply