In today’s blog we discuss changes in astronomy over two centuries with scientometrics expert Dr. Virginia Trimble, PhD from the California Institute of Technology and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.
David: You have a uniquely broad understanding of astronomy and how its subfields have evolved in time over many decades. Does any part of astronomy reflect the ideal of continuous progress toward truth or does it all stumble in various ways on the path toward knowledge?
Virginia: I'm not sure that the ideal you describe is the way science progress has ever happened, or ever supposed to happen. Closest, perhaps, the very rapid correct identification of cause of pulsar phenomenon. But much commoner, and not at all bad, I think, is a new phenomenon being greeted by enormous numbers of hypotheses - gamma ray bursts may have set a record, but there have been others. The cause of the variability of Delta Cephei, period measured by Piggot & Goodricke in 1784 took something too nigh on to 150 years to sort out. One cause of multiple hypotheses for new observed events/sources/phenomena is that many folks have been working on some specific entity (black holes, magnetic fields, mass transfer in close binaries...) and want their 'thing' to be relevant (magnetars for FRBs are perhaps a recent case of that). Farther back, Paczynski remarked about a stage when everything was black holes, then everything was magnetic fields, then everything mass transfer, leading to some sources being all three. Lodewijk Woltjer once described himself as having earned his living from magnetic fields for some years (check ADS for which is still his most-cited paper!) - a comment he made privately, though I wouldn't swear it isn't somewhere in one of his conference concluding remarks. David: I remember fellow UMD graduate students feeling intimidated by you and witnessing my mentors in the astronomy department visibly nervous around you. Is this a natural part of your character or did you develop this characteristic by virtue of the STEM environment you were in?
Virginia: Intimidation? By gentle Virginia, meek and mild???? Really?!?!? A couple of relevant items, maybe. Even now many folks expect different manners and ways of interacting from women vs men. I was an only child, grew up in Hollywood, graduate of Hollywood High, and earned part of my keep from fairly early on doing Hollywood type things, meaning accepting responsibility for running (fairly simple) things from early on - water ballet group, Christmas pageants when such things existed in the schools.... Possibly relevant (and possibly also a result of early training), I have a fairly retentive and accurate memory (the most important contribution to this is to be paying attention in the first place, and probably take notes -- conferences, faculty meetings, sermons...). Quite possibly I was not always as tactful as would be appropriate when bringing some factoid out of the store that differed from someone else's factoid. Very broad interests and reading perhaps also relevant here. Specifically in the University of Maryland context, I was not the first woman in astronomy: Elske Smith (who still answers her own email when I send birthday greetings) was there first, thinking mostly about solar astronomy. I never thought it odd for there to be women in astronomy - my first semester as an undergraduate at UCLA Dr. Maud Makemson was teaching the celestial navigation course. Other women professors in Egyptian hieroglyphs - Miriam Lichtheim - a friend until she died; and two in Latin, one of whom was an actress under the name Evelyn Venable; linguistics - Mrs. Han - but she was Japanese and a fount of wisdom. David: You often hear how STEM fields foster critical thinking skills but in astronomy we then subject people to the pressures and constraints of big collaborations. Does research need redesigning?
Virginia: Changes in atmosphere/structure of astronomy (etc) and the folks doing it: Unquestionably yes. MORE of everything. Competitive telescopes, kinds of sources, papers, journals, people, authors.... Helmut Abt (who may be the oldest living AAS member, since Guido Munch, who was my thesis advisor, died) has collected statistics from time to time. You can do your own on ADS, by not entering an author's name, but some small range of years and a favorite journal (ApJ of course), and asking it to order the papers by numbers of authors. Count down half way to get the median for that time period. It is less than one for 1964 (when I started graduate school) and something much larger now (check for yourself if you are interested). You might need to use the classic rather than modern form of ADS request page. Kinds of people: I think today nobody would hire Fritz Zwicky, Allan Sandage, or me. In some more or less farewell remarks, Woltjer (I'm working on a biography of him at the moment) said he hoped that it would not be necessary for everything to be done by giant collaborations, but increasingly it is. History of science is interestingly different in this respect, which is perhaps why most of what I do these days is history and scientometrics. Thus folks who want jobs need to be able to work in groups, where each member brings some specific skill to the collaboration and can interface smoothly with the folks having different skills. The most remarkable single-inventory topics have included Kepler Mission (Bill Borucki, who is curiously low-profile), detection of solar neutrinos (Ray Davis,Jr), and beginning of the search for gravitational waves (I hear there is a Weber garden there, with some of Joe's old bars cleaned, shined, and perched on end). Single-inventor: I'm a pretty good typist, but a lousy keyboarder. By the way, that ADS experiment will also tell you who were the most prolific authors in various time periods - there are some surprises here. David: Students often convince themselves out of pursuing STEM fields because they are not gifted mathematically. From seeing students transition from your classroom into spaces where they apply their skills, can independent thinkers with good intuition be successful in research?
Virginia: Math skills? Part, maybe most, of the problem is a "generation to generation" one - all but the luckiest (which may mean coming from upper income families) are taught early on by folks (well, women nearly always) who not only don't understand much of science & math, but are scared of it. Some effort is (or was til this year) to do something about this at high school level (Teach for America, slightly different kinds of college degrees for future teachers...), but this is nearly too late Oddly, I did a bit of paid tutoring very early for a boy my own age in my neighborhood whose father really wanted him to get through grammar school, and a bit later for the grandson of the principal of my high school...and came to the conclusion that, salvation was possible, but it would need going back just about to counting on one's fingers and would take lots of time -- incidentally, there is an AAS member who does a lot of this with considerable success, using methods of his own devising. I think for most parts of physics & astronomy these days one does need proper calculus, linear algebra, and the other stuff from standard "math methods" courses, plus programming skills. How to acquire these? Well, somebody claimed that everybody who was really good at something had put in 10,000 hours on it (violinists, basketball players....and many students will agree if asked nicely that yes, they have had to work long and hard at things in these territories that they are pretty good at, and yes it is worth it). Very sadly, for math and science classes, this tends to get called "busy work," and is despised. Cure? Don't just work the assigned problems - work every problem in the book. The classic case for "intuition is enough" is, of course, Einstein, who did indeed need a good deal of help with the advanced mathematics of SR and especially GR (Riemann tensors and all) from two good friends (see almost any of the literally thousands of books about him for significance of Besso and Grossman). A somewhat (but only somewhat) more recent example of creative physicist who did not start with all the math he was going to need was Joe Weber, who thanks Misner, Wheeler, and others in various publications, and late in his career reinvented s-matrix theory with his own notation. Out of similar ignorance, I re-invented one of the standard theories of convection to persuade myself that there would be a measurable difference between measured radial velocities of stars with convective vs. radiative atmospheres that were, in fact, at rest with respect to us.
Which is all MUCH more than you wanted. David: Quite the contrary. Thank you Professor!