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 over 1,000 books, including research papers in astronomy, astrophysics, history of science and scientometrics – the relevant field by the measurement of scientific results – as well as book reviews and biographies. . She co-edited The sky is for everyone, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by prominent female astronomers, including herself. Covering a range of generations and nationalities, each recounts the obstacles they overcame to change the face of modern astronomy.
What brought you to astronomy?
It wasn’t the love of the stars: I grew up in Los Angeles very nearsighted and never saw the night sky. I really wanted to be an Egyptologist, but the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] did not have a specialization in archaeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw the astronomy. I enrolled in a double degree in astronomy-maths but it moved to the engineering school, which did not welcome women very well, 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 pretty face, an IQ of 180. Where did that lead?
As a result, I was approached by an ad agency looking for a way to boost the ratings for what was to be the final year of the blurred area programs. During my year as Miss Twilight Zone, I visited 10 cities where TV ratings were taken, doing newspaper, radio and TV interviews. The shtick was that I was reading the scripts for accuracy. Some of my suggestions have been 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 your higher education at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in 1964 when you were not quite 21. You obtained 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 didn’t quite realize that they only admit 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 campus when I arrived, and the two women who came before me in astronomy both came with their husbands.
It seems Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. You made friends with physicist Richard Feynman by modeling for him…
I had quickly noticed in my undergraduate and graduate classes that there were a lot of friendly men – students and professors. The astronomy professor who became my thesis supervisor – Guido Münch — and I was in love for about three years until I left Caltech.
Feynman was learning to draw and he saw me walking across campus and decided, “I want this one. He saw Münch Leaving the building I had entered, I approached him and said to him: “I hunt, perhaps you know the quarry. Bite brought Feynman to 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 went there on Tuesday evenings for a few hours. Sometimes I posed naked. Sometimes we cuddled, but innocently. I remember once he suggested we snuggle up on the couch, and I said I didn’t think we really 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 to be involved with these teachers? There was a great power imbalance.
I enjoyed the company of men who loved me. I was never aware of a power imbalance; I could always walk away. Of course, that would get us all fired today!
You have published hundreds of research papers, but perhaps your colleagues know you best for your entertaining and must-read annual summaries of astrophysical research, which you undertook 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’d say I’m slightly Aspergerish – just describe things as we see them, that sounds like fun to a lot of other people. But some of the footnotes were meant to be funny. I described distinguished colleagues by pseudonyms such as “the chubby musician” or “the passionate amateur dentist”. I made enemies both by not quoting people and by quoting them, because very often I picked up something in their journal that was not what they originally wanted. We said that every time [a summary] came out, you could see the Princeton astronomers 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 do 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 that a college-educated woman could do who wasn’t a teacher or a nurse. Then in the United States, driven by post-Sputnik concerns, graduate programs in space-related fields expanded rapidly. They were so desperate to grow that they even hired female teachers! Today, about 30-40% of graduate students in astronomy are women, although this diminishes the hierarchy.
Which female astronomers were overlooked for a Nobel price?
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 doctoral student when she was involved in the discovery of pulsars, but the resulting share of the Nobel Prize went only to her male supervisor. On the other hand, the doctoral student who recognized the signal of the first binary pulsar shared the prize with his adviser.
Various female astronomers in the book note outrageously sexist behavior and at least one detail of sexual harassment in an elevator. You must have experienced this in your professional life, but you don’t seem too bothered by the bad behavior of men…
Obviously, “men behaving badly” has been a major issue for some of my colleagues, and I don’t want to appear to be defending law breakers. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been sexually harassed. I’m friends with senior male scientists who have been accused of being seriously inappropriate and I find it hard to believe. I think some things can look very different to different women.
What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue a career in astronomy?
Almost everyone says: follow your passion. My take 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, is published by Princeton University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply