Virginia Trimble, 78, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, whose astronomy career spans more than 50 years. She has studied the structure and evolution of stars, galaxies and the universe and published more than 1,000 works, including research papers in astronomy, astrophysics, the history of science and scientometrics – the field concerned with measuring scientific results – as well as book reviews and biographies. She has co-edited Heaven is to all, a new collection of 37 autobiographical essays by prominent female astronomers, including herself. They span a range of generations and nationalities, and each recounts the barriers they have overcome to change the face of modern astronomy.
What got you into astronomy?
It wasn’t a love of 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 major in archaeology. My father looked at the catalog and saw astronomy. I signed up for an astronomy-maths double degree, but that got moved 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 student program.
In 1962 you were featured in a Life magazine article, Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 IQ. Where did it lead?
As a result, I was approached by an advertising agency looking for a way to boost ratings for what would be the final year of dusk time programs. In my year as Miss Twilight Zone, I toured 10 TV ratings cities and did newspaper, radio and TV interviews. The point was I read the scripts 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 extra, 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 were awarded 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 hadn’t quite realized that they only admitted women under special circumstances. My exceptional circumstances were that my fellowship 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 both came with their husbands.
It seems that Caltech was a hotbed of seduction. You became friends with physicist Richard Feynman by modeling for him…
I had quickly noticed in both my undergraduate and graduate classes there were many nice men – students and faculty. The astronomy professor who became my PhD advisor – Guido Münch — and I were lovers for about three years until I left Caltech.
Feynman was learning to draw, and he had seen me walking across campus and decided, “I want that.” He saw Münch when I came out of the building I had entered and went up to him and said, “I am hunting, perhaps you know the quarry.” Munch brought 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 used to go there on Tuesday nights for a couple of hours. Sometimes I posed naked. Sometimes we cuddled, but innocently. I remember one time he suggested we cuddle on the sofa and I said I didn’t think we would really wanted to do it. 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 professors? There was a huge power imbalance.
I liked the company of men who liked me. I was never aware of a power imbalance; I could always just walk. Of course that would get us all fired today!
You’ve published hundreds of research papers, but perhaps your colleagues know you best for your hilarious, must-read annual summaries of astrophysical research, which you conducted for 16 years starting in 1991. How deliberate was the humor?
I couldn’t help it [the jokes]. I am told that if we who are on the autism spectrum – and I would say that I am a little aspergerish – simply describe things as we see them, it seems funny to many others. But some of the footnotes were designed to be funny. I described prominent colleagues with pseudonyms such as “the rotund musician” or “the keen amateur dentist”. I made enemies both by not quoting people and by quoting them, because quite often I picked something out of their paper that was not what they originally intended. It was 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 entered through a father, brother or husband, and some almost certainly married to pursue science. Then there was 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. So in the United States, fueled 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, about 30–40% of graduates in astronomy are women, although that reduces the hierarchy.
Which female astronomers have been 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 her male supervisor. In contrast, the male graduate student who recognized the signal from the first binary pulsar shared the award with his advisor.
Various female astronomers in the book note 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 annoyed that men behave badly…
Clearly, “men behaving badly” has been a big problem for some of my colleagues, and I don’t want to seem like I’m defending offenders. I never feel that I have ever been sexually harassed. I am friends with some senior male researchers who have been accused of being seriously inappropriate, and I find that hard to believe. I think maybe some things can feel very different to different women.
What advice would you give young women who want a career in astronomy?
Almost everyone says: follow your passion. My view is: find something you’re good at for a living and do it.
Heaven is for all, 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 costs may apply