Observing with Street Lights

Observing with Street Lights
Dark sky sites not always necessary to see the Milky Way (This image was taken ouside of a B&B in Julian, CA)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trimble Fest: A celebration of UCI Professor Virginia Trimble's 50th anniversity of PhD from Caltech and her approaching 75th birthday

Greetings from Palmia Observatory

Well this week I had hoped to do some astronomical observing of how the orbital plane of the moons of Jupiter appears to change as the planet moves across the sky, but this darn June gloom always puts an end to that around 8:30 in the evening.  So if the weather does not improve my next event will be at the AIAA mini-conference on Planetary Defense on June 30.  But, for now we can report on the fantastic Trimble Fest, where
we were able to help celebrate UCI Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Virginia Trimble on this occasion of her 50th anniversary of getting her PhD from Caltech and of her 75th birthday.  Congratulations Virginia!

Virginia has been a tremendous role model for many professional students and scientists, and also the rest of us physicist wannabes.  She was one of the first women to be allowed to enter and study physics at Caltech and she was a groundbreaker throughout her productive career.  Of the many people that showed up to celebrate this event was Kip Thorne, recent gravitational wave Nobel prize winner.  Other attendees had him sign their copies of some of his very influential books on gravity, but I had chosen not to lug his 7 pound masterpiece to the event and instead just thanked him  as we pondered how he could sign my electronic E-book versions on my Ipad.

Resident Astronomer thanks and asks Professor Kip Thorne if he can sign my Ipad E-book copy at TrimbleFest
Resident Astronomer thanks and asks Professor Kip Thorne if he can sign my Ipad E-book copy

Anyway, after a delightful celebration luncheon at the Beckman Center in Irvine, CA, we all filed in to the auditorium for the afternoon session of speakers celebrating Virginia's career and impact on the field of astronomy.

Entering the Beckman Center lecture hall for TrimbleFest (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Entering the Beckman Center lecture hall for TrimbleFest (Source: Palmia Observatory)

Here, UCI Associate Dean McWilliams welcomes the attendees to this celebration of Virginia's 50th anniversary of getting her PhD and her upcoming 75th birthday.

UCI Associate Dean McWilliams welcomes the crowd to honor Virginia Trimble at the Beckman Center
UCI Associate Dean McWilliams welcomes the crowd to honor Virginia Trimble at the Beckman Center

One of the first of many awards given to Virginia, this first one presented by Stella Kafka, one of the executive officers and director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) for all of Virginia's support to that organization and to the value of citizen scientists around the world.  I am a member of the AAVSO and we hear all the time about how professional astronomers call on the AAVSO and other citizen scientists to do some little observation to help out the professionals.

Virginia Trimble displays award from AAVSO in honor of her support
Virginia Trimble displays award from AAVSO given in honor of her support

We heard many references regarding the valuable contributions that Virginia made in the field of astronomy and history of physics and astronomy, but it was her groundbreaking entry into the field as a women that was especially noted.   She was a very pretty woman, which made her entry into the world of men easier, but her path to becoming a professional astronomer still had a lot of roadblocks which she courageously broke through and made it much easier for women who followed her.

UCI Doctoral Candidate in Astrophysics presents some early photos of pretty Virginia at PalomarObservatory
UCI Doctoral Candidate West in Astrophysics presents some early photos of pretty Virginia at Palomar Observatory

She has always told the story that early on when she would travel to an astronomy meeting or conference that she never had to budget for meals because there was always some invitation to join the other male astronomers for lunch or dinner.  Virginia always caught the eye of the photographers, as seen in this image from Look Magazine.  She was very photogenic and several of the presenters raised the issue of whether she posed for Richard Feynman, who was quite an artist himself, while he was at Caltech.  Whether a nude drawing was ever made or if it still existed was raised several times and when Virginia was asked about it she answered with some witty remark, sadly which I could not quite remember or repeat, but for me, I certainly came away believing that the pose and actual drawing was made.

Professor Tenn shows early image of Virginia in Look Magazine
Professor Tenn talks of Virginia's historical recordings and shows early image of Virginia in Look Magazine

The TrimbleFest also included a panel session where the panelists were asked for their views on previous events in astronomy and future expectations of new lessons from astronomy.  The panelists commented on how they mostly expected for us to know about life and even intelligent life in the universe sometime in the next 50 years.  There seemed to be general agreement that if we find extraterrestrial intelligence, it will most likely be artificial based on machines, which are easier to transport across space and duplicate.  Kip Thorne even ventured that we would understand the nature of the big bang within 50 years.  All in all it was quite interesting and Virginia could not help herself and was always interjecting some interesting comment.

Moderator, David Helfand, chairs panel with Professors Rees, Virginia, Yodh, Shultz, and Thorne at TrimbleFest
Moderator, David Helfand, chairs panel with Professors Martin Rees, Virginia, Yodh, Shultz, and Thorne at TrimbleFest

I know in my own case, never having had taken a class with Virginia, that one of the first lectures where I heard her speak on the history of events in WWI and WWII and how the world of physics was impacted.  As I recall at that time, she just used viewgraphs and did not have a Powerpoint presentation.  At the time I thought that she was just another professor.  It was only a while later, at an APS meeting, I think it was in Baltimore, where I was in one of the technical sessions and the speaker made some introductory remarks about some historical event.  Before he could finish, there was this loud voice from the front row of the auditorium saying that the speaker was wrong and he did not have his facts straight.  Now, physicists can be quite argumentative during the Q&A session, but to have someone shout out during the speech was something that I had not experienced before.  As it turned out, the speaker gave in and recognized that he had misquoted the event.  But to me, it was more how I though the rest of the audience reacted when the voice from the front row interrupted the presentation.  I could sense that both the speaker and the audience was almost bowing in respect to the voice.  It was only later that I could see that the voice in the front row was Virginia.  It was only at that time that I recognized that she was a well recognized expert and a force to be reckoned with.

She was often described as "knowing everything about the universe" and it was said she had a photographic memory and could remember so much that she should even write a review paper which included hundreds of footnotes, which she typed down all by memory.  I remember one time when just by chance Virginia and I were seated at the same dinner table, somewhere, and I showed her a copy of a book that I had just picked up on the history of adaptive optics.  She scanned the copy and said thanks and said she was interested but did not write anything down.  Now I now that she didn't have to write anything down; she remembered everything she had to.

The final part of the formal auditorium TrimbleFest events was a performance by a local string quartet, playing one of Virginia's favorite pieces.  The must was great, although I find I don't have the same deep appreciation of music that many other people, physicists too, do.  Maybe on my journey as a physicist wannabe, I'll have to take more time out for music too!

String quartet (UCI/CSUF) performs one of Virginia's favorites, by Haydn, Opus 76, "Quinten"
String quartet (UCI/CSUF) performs one of Virginia's favorites, by Haydn, Opus 76, "Quinten"

Anyway, after the formal lectures and reading of congratulatory letters from folks who could not be there, we all had a chance for wine and a nice dinner to top off the event.  Even there, Virginia continued to display her wit and charm.  She even sang some songs in Russian and Spanish.  Many people in the crowd came up to the microphone to offer a little 1-2 minute thank you to Virginia for how she had helped them in their career.

Some of the most pertinent comments were from other women physicists who were trying to follow their love of physics, which at that time was almost completely dominated by men.  Virginia was a trailblazer and after hearing from other women physicists describe their rejection letters from various institutions to which they had applied for graduate school, she told of the first letter she received from Caltech, and I hope I am reporting it correctly, but she said the letter said "we can't deny you a spot in the graduate program, but we encourage you to apply elsewhere."  Well, she was resolute in what she wanted and graduated from Caltech and was always then and still now a trailblazer for other physicists.  I am reminded of how Vera Rubin was treated and how even much earlier, how Henrietta Leavitt, discoverer of the Cepheid period and luminosity relationship, which forms the basis of much of distance measurement in astronomy, was not even allowed on the observatory floor, little alone able to look through the telescope.  There were many stories told about how the observatories at the time had no separate sleeping quarters or restroom for women, because after all, women observers were not expected and often were not allowed.  Now, today, when I attend any APS meeting or AAS meeting, the number of women in attendance is coming up closer to the number of men.

Separately,  I remember from my engineering student days, now over 40 years ago, at that time there was only one woman student in my engineering classes.  Wow, times have changed; and for the better!  Years later in my engineering career in Big Oil, I remember how we had to add a women's restroom in one of the laboratory buildings, because of the growing number of women scientists in the research center, and I was asked to use my PE stamp on the lighting design building permit.  Well, this was not in my domain of expertise, but after reviewing the applicable codes, I stamped the drawing and the construction started.  It turns out that event was especially significant for me in that it was the only time, even after helping build out electric power distribution systems and a cogeneration power plant, that I ever used my PE stamp, which just continues to gather dust in some drawer or storage box now.

Barely seen from our dinner seating, Virginia wows the guests with witty repartee and songs in Russian and Spanish
Barely seen from our dinner seating, Virginia wows the guests with witty repartee and songs in Russian and Spanish

This VirginiaFest was really great and I was glad that I could attend the event.  Some other members of our little science squad also partook in the festivities, including Math Whiz, Dave; Visionary Physicist, Dr. Don and wife Chemist, Dr. Noel; Science Nerd and Theatre Impresario, Scott; Legacy Coder and Physicist Wannabe, Larry; and Part Time Texan, Jay.  Good to see everyone!

Until next time,
Resident Astronomer George

If you are interested in things astronomical or in astrophysics and cosmology
Check out this blog at www.palmiaobservatory.com

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