Q&A

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.
Virginia Trimble at UC Irvine.

Virginia Trimble at the University of California, Irvine, where she has been on the faculty since 1971.

Monica Almeida for Quanta Magazine

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.

In college she immersed herself in the other kind of stars — the ones in the broader universe — and went on to become one of the first women to earn a doctorate in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology. While she was there, she befriended Richard Feynman, who paid her $5.50 an hour to pose as a model.

She returned to Caltech in October of this year to receive the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics for her lifetime accomplishments. She gave her prize lecture in the Richard P. Feynman lecture hall, with a copy of one of Feynman’s portraits of Trimble observing from the blackboard ledge.

In total she has published over 900 papers. Most recently, she’s become prominent in scientometrics, the study of scientific research itself, which asks questions such as how often different kinds of papers get cited, and whether there are correlations with gender and other characteristics. She still does some astronomy research as well — last year, for example, she co-authored a paper with recent Nobel Prize winner Kip Thorne on the search for black holes and neutron stars.

But for David DeVorkin, the senior curator of history of astronomy at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Trimble’s biggest contribution may be her unreserved presence at astronomers’ meetings, where she asks challenging questions and stimulates sometimes heated debate among scientists. “She’s been extremely important in keeping the astronomical community intellectually vital,” said DeVorkin, who remembers Trimble from when they were both undergraduates at UCLA.

The world has changed a lot during Trimble’s career, but in many ways she has not. Today, Trimble, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, owns no cell phone. For lectures, she composes the text for slides on a typewriter, sometimes scrawling handwritten notes on them, and gives them to a staff member to scan — making them look like the acetate transparencies from years gone by. She says she has never once turned on the air conditioner in the apartment she’s lived in since 1991.

And while the #MeToo movement has brought to light many cases of harassment or other forms of sexual misconduct in academia, Trimble’s views surrounding this issue would be seen by many as antiquated as well.

I sat down with Trimble before her prize lecture, and we continued the conversation later by phone. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me about how your annual reviews of astronomy got started. What inspired you to begin?

Oh, I wasn’t inspired. I was asked. Back in 1990, the publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific acquired a new editor, and he wanted to do things that would make it be different.

He wrote to me and asked, would I like to do a review of everything that happened last year for their January issue?

So having done this for so long —

It’s only 16 years.

I mean, it was a long time.

Well, when you’re 75, 16 years isn’t that long.

Did you notice particular trends in the field?

More. I mean, the community grows at something like 5% a year, but the number of papers, the words on paper, grow at more like 10% a year, and you know, 10% a year for 16 years and you can’t afford it anymore. Inflation is cumulative. More was the most obvious thing.

Gradual trends, of course. I mean, gamma-ray bursters were a great mystery for a long time, and then finally they were identified. The first exoplanets came along in 1995 and so forth. So you have changes, but not overwhelmingly. But more. Larger teams, that’s been a trend for a long time. Used to be the average paper had one author — well, the average paper had 1.2 authors, I guess. [Laughs.] But now, so many papers have thousands of authors.

Especially the big discoveries.

And they’re not as much fun to read. A paper with one author can be much more boring, but it could also be much more interesting than a paper with a thousand authors that have to agree.

Virginia Trimble discusses how astronomy has changed over the course of her half-century career.

Video: Virginia Trimble discusses how astronomy has changed over the course of her half-century career.

Monica Almeida for Quanta Magazine

When we spoke a few months ago, you mentioned that “people don’t do stars anymore.”

Stars have kind of gone out of fashion, it’s true. There was a time when optical observation of stars was the single largest chunk of the astronomical community. That was true the first time I did a citation analysis, but that has definitely changed.

The hot topics are early universe and exoplanet atmospheres, first lights and, at the moment, the fast radio transients.

Are you especially excited about a particular branch of astrophysics right now, or any particular discoveries?

I would like to know what the rapid radio bursts are. If they could find life on another planet, that would be nice. Do I take very seriously the discrepancy in the two values of the Hubble constant and the different methods? Not terribly seriously. I think it will sort itself out. After all, they’re not measuring the same thing. They’re measuring something of the same name, but 10 billion years apart.

I understand that Richard Feynman used to draw you.

Yes, I posed for him when he was learning to draw — $5.50 an hour plus all the physics I could swallow.

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.”

Virginia Trimble in the mid-1960s.

Trimble holds a photo of herself as a Caltech graduate student in the mid-1960s.

Monica Almeida for Quanta Magazine

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.

Virginia Trimble sits in her office.

Trimble in her office at Irvine.

Monica Almeida for Quanta Magazine

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 want to talk about sexual harassment in academia.

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.

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