Becoming an astronomer may seem simple. The wonder of the night sky leads a boy to one day study astronomy in school, eventually leading to a graduate degree and a job in the field. But as two new books make clear, few women find the path so simple.
In A portrait of the young scientist, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a geologist turned planetary scientist, recounts her struggles with depression and anxiety as a child and with the sexism she faced early in her career. In one example, she and her colleagues (all but one man) were collecting rock samples in Siberia, looking for evidence of a connection between volcanic eruptions and past extinctions. Taking his time getting her chisel into the right spot to break the rock, Elkins-Tanton could “practically smell the quiet impatience of the men nearby,” she writes. “Yes, they could have done it faster and with fewer hits. But why should that be the important metric? Why isn’t it more important to let each person do the tasks they want and need to do, at their own pace?
The implicit and explicit bias of her male colleagues against women in science, she writes, fueled her own doubts. To command the same respect as male scientists, she learned that she had to politely insist on carrying her own luggage and taking her own samples, his way and her time. The lessons she learned in Siberia and in the lab, she writes, helped her develop a compassionate and just leadership style as director of the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration and as chief of NASA’s next Psyche mission. That mission will send a spacecraft to probe a metal-rich asteroid to better understand Earth’s iron-rich core.
Each scientist’s experience is unique, but elements of the Elkins-Tanton story, particularly sexism in science, are expressed throughout. The sky is for everyone: female astronomers in their own words. Edited by astronomer Virginia Trimble and author David Weintraub, this anthology of 37 short autobiographies covers more than six decades of astronomy and shows the varied paths of female astronomers and the obstacles that can delay or sideline their success.
Astrophysicist France Córdova, for example, opens her story with an evocative description of the time she spent in the summer of 1968 in a town near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, working on a cultural anthropology project. He had planned to study anthropology in graduate school, but after watching a TV show about dead stars, he realized he “had a deeper wanderlust,” he writes, “to connect with something larger, deeper than I could imagine: the stars and the Universe that sustained them.”
As a child, Córdova had not met anyone who believed that women could be scientists. Her parents thought that finding a husband should be her college goal. Instead, she chose to pursue a graduate degree in astrophysics. She launched a career in X-ray astronomy and then pivoted back into politics and leadership, taking on the role of chief scientist at NASA and then director of the National Science Foundation, positions in which, she writes, she could advocate strongly. more effective by women in science.
Dara Norman, on the other hand, never questioned that she had become an astronomer; she at 10 years old she was sure. She obtained a Ph.D. in 1999 after studying the bias in measurements of distant galaxies that can distort our understanding of the universe. For her, the similarities between biases in scientific data and biases in the culture of science were stark. “I am amazed that as scientists we understand the idea of bias in our data and methods…. We work tirelessly to identify such biases…and remove that bias,” she writes. “However, when faced with prejudice in our profession…many of us continue to deny that the problem exists.”
Norman realized that the traditional path of an astronomer was not for her. Her joy in research was overshadowed by the negative experiences she endured “as a black woman just trying to be a scientist.” Like Córdova, he now works to improve the culture of science at the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson.
That culture is changing, slowly. Before 1990, fewer than 40 women held full-time positions in astronomy or astrophysics at North American universities. Now, the number is high enough that it’s not so easy to track how many women successfully pursue careers in the field, Trimble and Weintraub say. While those numbers point to progress, both books remind readers that overt and subtle acts of sexism are still around and that scientific careers can still be precarious for women. And yet, women persist, perhaps, as Elkins-Tanton writes, driven by the “realization that we are only a small part of a vast uncharted universe.” If true, it is a pillar of resilience to aspire to.