Monday, March 19, 2018
Q&A: Virginia Trimble on 50-plus years in astronomy
The renegade scientist speaks unreservedly about her scientometric research, women in science, and coping with face blindness.
Virginia Trimble stumbled into astronomy. Archaeology, her field of choice, wasn’t offered to undergraduates at UCLA. She had to declare a major, she says, and “my father informed me that I’d always been interested in astronomy.”
Trimble earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and physics in 1964 and then a PhD in 1968 at Caltech, where she was among the first female students. She recalls being only the second woman who was assigned observing time at Palomar Observatory, in 1965. “At the time a woman couldn’t legally lift up the 48-inch Schmidt plate holder because it weighed more than 40 pounds. But we bent that rule a little,” she says. “The barriers fell as I approached them, so I never found disadvantages to being a woman in science. And there were a lot of advantages.”
While pursuing her undergraduate degree, Trimble was featured in Life magazine, in a 1962 piece titled “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” Life was doing an issue on California, “and somebody from the magazine went to UCLA’s student honors program and asked for a coed who was photogenic and doing some serious subject,” she says. “They thought of me.” While growing up in Los Angeles, she had also done voice-overs and appeared in advertisements and movie crowd scenes.