# Virginia Trimble Has Seen the Stars

How a young celebrity became one of the first female astronomers at Caltech, befriended Richard Feynman, and ended up the world’s foremost chronicler of the science of the night sky.

Beginning in 1991, Virginia Trimble read every single astronomy article published in 23 different journals. She would then write an annual “year in review” article, which astronomers everywhere used as a window into the rest of the field at large. Her characteristic dry humor came through even in the first installment: “Science, notoriously, progresses amoeba-like, thrusting out pseudopods in unpredictable directions and dragging in the rest of the body after or, occasionally, retreating in disorder.” She stopped in 2007, in part because, with online publishing, there were just too many articles to read.

This endeavor and others have given Trimble a perspective on the past half-century of astronomy that few others could claim.

Stardom was part of Trimble’s early years, and not just because she attended Hollywood High School. In 1962, while still an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, she achieved her first small measure of fame when Life magazine published an article about her titled “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” Then in 1963, she became Miss Twilight Zone, the face of a publicity campaign to promote the popular sci-fi show with Rod Serling.

### How did that come about?

He saw me walking across campus. He was looking for models. The number of women at Caltech in those days was modest, and you won’t believe this: I was actually very nice looking.

### I’ve seen photos. You’re nice looking now as well!

Well, considering I’m 75 [laughs] and dying of cancer … I was drop-dead gorgeous, actually. And I earned a living that way. I mean, the Life magazine article, being Miss Twilight Zone, and all that stuff.

But Feynman was looking for models. He saw me walking across campus, he started following me, and I disappeared into Robinson — the old astronomy building — just as [my adviser] Guido Münch was coming out, and Feynman went up to Guido and said, you know, “I’m hunting, perhaps you know the quarry.” And he described me and Guido says, “Oh yes, that’s Virginia.”

So Guido brought Richard in and introduced us, and Feynman said, would I pose for him? And I said yes. And so we used to meet on alternate Tuesdays for a year or so.

The Nobel Prize was announced on a Tuesday, as it happens. My mother and I are both morning people. She’d been up and heard the 6 a.m. radio broadcast, and she’d phoned me to say that Richard had won the prize. And so when he came into my office, he was dressed in a suit, which he never did, of course. And he came in to say we’d have to cancel that evening. And I already knew. So we just hugged.

### Did you discuss physics as well?

He didn’t like silence, and if nothing else was going on, he would simply talk continuously. And so I heard the originals of a lot of his stories during the [writing of the] books, like Surely You’re Joking. I heard a lot of those stories as originals and many others besides those.

But if he wasn’t talking, he expected you to talk, and he was willing to listen, some. I remember telling him about R Coronae Borealis stars, and various other astro things. He was interested in a lot.

But if there was a serious problem, he wanted to do the calculation himself. He wasn’t going to take anybody else’s word for a calculation.

### When you spoke to him, did he treat you collegially?

The obvious question, did we make love? As it happens, no, but not a big deal. It might just as well have been yes, and we would still have been good friends.

### So you get to Caltech, and you’re the only woman —

I wasn’t. There was this tiny little cluster of seven of us that went through all at the same time. There’d been no women before in astronomy, one or two in physics and chemistry, and none after us until the 1990s.

And then in those days, when you got your Ph.D., you couldn’t apply for a job, because there was no way to know what was out there.

The American Astronomical Society job register, I think, has been the greatest strike toward equality of gender and race of anything that’s happened in the field since I was a student in the ’60s, because now you’re getting a degree, or you finished your first postdoc, whatever, you can find out what’s available and what you might want to apply for, and will it fit you and will you fit them. And that just didn’t exist.

I don’t particularly care for the word harassment.

Let’s go with “hanky-panky,” OK?

### Sure.

When I was young and beautiful, I engaged in a great deal of hanky-panky. I could never see anything very wrong with it. You may claim that if a very distinguished senior scientist engages in hanky-panky with a much younger scientist — never mind which gender, and make it a conductor and a violinist if you wish, instead of senior and junior scientists — if that results in real injustice to people not involved in the hanky-panky, then, yeah, you have to have a rule against it. But I’m not so sure that that happens very often.

### I just want to clarify, when someone in power makes someone who is subordinate feel that they have to engage in sexual activities for the sake of their job or the sake of their academic career, that is what angers so many people right now.

The step in that syllogism where I part company is the younger — or whatever — person feeling they “have to,” and let me say again that a young attractive female has a lot of power, where older, less attractive men are concerned.

And I never felt I had to, to keep my jobs. When I was involved with a guy, it was because I liked him. My taste may not always have been very good — that’s another issue.

### What are you most proud of in terms of your scientific work?

I did not discover gravity. I’m not Maxwell. I’m not Einstein, I’m not Newton. I worked on a succession of things that filled a niche at the time and were of use, and you can tell that from which of my papers got cited at the time they were written, and I’m still doing stuff like that.

### Anything else?

Pay attention. Someday, you’ll be the last one who remembers.