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My work and career: Man's influence on his surroundings


My work and career: On becoming a woman scientist
Joan Feynman Scientist
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The stars were in the sky and in one place we lived... he [Richard] was in college but he took me up to the flat roof of the building whenever he was home and showed me the stars and told me about the individual ones. It was this one, this was very... was a red giant and that one was such and such and so on. So it was constant. My father was constantly at it, too. So there was never a time when I discovered science. It was always around me. And then my mother told me women's brains couldn't do science and I sat and cried for quite a while with that information.

My brother was in graduate school, and it was my birthday – maybe 12, 13th birthday – and he left a book when he went back to school. And I saw it and I picked it up. I said, 'Richard left the book on astronomy'. And I opened it up and it had my name and then 'happy birthday'. And it was a book for a science class. And I said to him, 'How do I read this? It's a difficult book'. He says, 'It's easy. You start at the beginning and you read it until you don't understand it anymore. Then you start at the beginning and you read it till you don't understand anymore and you'll find you're further along and you keep going. You keep doing that until you can understand the whole book'. And I kept doing that. And on page, God only knows what, I still have the book right here. It's had a picture, an illustration of a spectrum of a star, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the name. And Cecilia was a woman's name and Payne-Gaposchkin suggested she was married. So I knew the secret was out. Women could do physics and science. And so ever after that I didn't hesitate. If Payne-Gaposchkin could get her thing in a textbook, then it was possible. And I didn't worry about it anymore.

Oberlin College at the time I went to it was the college that had the largest number of graduates who went to graduate school after college. Now, we claimed that that was because we didn't learn very much at Oberlin so we had to go on to the next school, but it wasn't. It had a very excellent reputation. I don't remember much in the way of prejudice against women in Oberlin. It was the first school in the United States to have really... It admitted women in 1837 which was the earliest of any college in the United States that admitted both men and women. So I picked it partly for that.

I got a call from another group that was working. They wanted my advice on something. This was at a time when I was elected secretary as a part of the science. I would come and give my opinion.

So I got permission to go. I went to the building. The building was a press building or something. And I walked in and I started to go up the stairs and whoop!, someone says, 'Women are not allowed upstairs'. I assumed that women could only be allowed upstairs for certain reasons, but I didn't assume it then. To reiterate, I said, 'What?' And then they said, 'No, you can go with a man in the cafeteria but not upstairs'. Well, this is a big famous place in New York. So I called the head of our organization and said, 'I am not permitted to go upstairs because I'm a woman'. So he talked to the guy who let me go upstairs and went and took care of it. Then I came back. And since I was already a member of a governing part of the American Geophysical Union, I introduced a suggested rule that the American Geophysical Union would not hold any meetings in any organization that did not allow equal admission for all of the people in the American Geophysical Union. That was passed unanimously. And a major... at least one major meeting had to be cancelled because they didn't admit somebody or another and I felt very proud with that.

I did several things like that. For example, I looked at the meeting... the programme, the meeting for ten years and not a single woman had been asked to chair a single leading section or to give an invited paper. You could give a contributed paper for 15 minutes, but you never could get an invited paper or to chair. So I just talked to people. They were arranging things. I said, 'Did you know that no woman was ever invited to give a paper or to chair a session?' And they said, 'No' – I mean, the guys – 'No, we didn't know'. And it was the case with ten years or something, and it was the end of that. Women got invited to give invited papers. There was no argument once it was discovered that this was going on. And I feel very good about that because nobody was angry at me. Nobody was trying to do anything. It was just a custom.

Joan Feynman (1927-2020) was an American astrophysicist. She made important contributions to the study of solar wind particles and fields, sun-Earth relations and magnetospheric physics. In particular, Feynman was known for developing an understanding of the origin of auroras. During her career, Feynman was an author or co-author of more than 100 scientific publications. She also edited three scientific books. In 2002, she was awarded NASA's distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Listeners: Alexander Ruzmaikin Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Duration: 9 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019