Q&A with Virginia Trimble

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Q&A with Virginia Trimble


Kendra Redmond, Editor

Trimble as an mid-career astronomer.  Photo courtesy of American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.Virginia Trimble is a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of California, Irvine. She studies the structure and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the universe and has published hundreds of papers, articles, and book chapters during her distinguished career. For 16 years she wrote a popular “year in review” article for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific based on a survey of all of the astrophysics papers published in 23 journals. In recent years she has been exploring several aspects of the history of astronomy. In 2019 she received the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics, which recognizes contributions to the cultural, artistic, and humanistic dimension of physics. Her responses to Radiations have been edited for length and clarity.

What strikes you about the difference between what students are learning today and what you learned when you studied astronomy?

It’s not so much the content. Of course, the content has changed. There are new objects, new windows for observation, new technologies . . . and changes in fashion. When I first surveyed the field, more than half of the community worked on optical observations of stars. That’s not true anymore; very few people work on stars. But I think the single thing that’s changed the most is more. More people, more papers, more facilities. And the need to work in large groups. When I got my degree, the average paper had 1.2 authors. It now has 1.2 thousand or something like that. It requires a different kind of person. It requires a different set of skills.

What are some of the most fun things you’ve done during your career?

I really enjoyed that 16 years of writing a review of everything in astrophysics. That was fun to write because it gave me an excuse for reading everything and nobody ever tried to control what I said.

I wrote a piece for the American Journal of Physics1 on the cluster of seven women who, in a fairly narrow period of time, came through Caltech astronomy and earned advanced degrees. There had been none before us, and it took another 20 years before there was another. We earned PhDs between 1964 and 1977. The article took forever to put together because I had to get the other six to agree on what we remembered from graduate school—which things were true, which were sort of half true, and which weren’t true at all.

What advice do you give physics and astronomy students?

I try very hard not to give advice. Most of my experience is totally irrelevant. But there are some things that I think are important. One is that you should always be working on several different tasks at a given time so if you get stuck, you can go do something else. I don’t mean multitasking—nobody does that well, and studies show that—but I do think having more than one task on your plate is a good choice. Attending conferences is very important, and taking notes. If you know a language besides English, don’t lose it. It’s another tool for understanding the world and communicating with people. Recently, I’ve started telling students to pay attention, because someday you’ll be the only one who remembers.

1. Cohen, J., et al., “Uncle Jesse and The Seven ‘Early Career’ Ladies of the Night,” Am. J. Phys. 87, 778 (2019); doi: 10.1119/1.5122880.

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