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Credit: Meg Urry
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Interview of Meg Urry by David Zierler on July 1, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45444
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Meg Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Yale University, and Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. She recounts her childhood in Indiana and then in Boston and she discusses her family background and what she gained as a result of having a father who was a professor of chemistry. Urry describes her undergraduate experience at Tufts, where she developed her career interests in physics, and she describes a formative summer working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where she became the first person to identify the first gravitational lens source of a background quasar. Urry discusses the circumstances leading to her graduate work at Johns Hopkins, where she conducted research with Art Davidsen, and she explains how she got her first job at the Goddard Space Flight Center where she spent a majority of her time during graduate school. She describes her research with Richard Mushotzky on blazars, and she explains some of the cultural differences between physics, which she felt was overly hierarchical and astronomy, which was more laid back and which employed many more women. Urry discusses her postdoctoral research on Seyfert galaxy spectra at MIT with Claude Canizares, who at the time was building the Chandra X-ray Observatory. She describes her second postdoctoral position at the Space Telescope Science Institute where she focused on the unification of radio-loud AGN, and she describes the decisions that led to her first full-time job at Space Telescope. She describes the high-pressure work environment at Space Telescope, and some of the structural disadvantages she experienced as a woman. Urry reflects on some of the shifting distinctions in the terms astronomy and astrophysics, and she explains the centrality of supermassive black holes during her tenure at Space Telescope. Urry recounts her decision to join the physics faculty at Yale, and she describes her excitement at the prospect of teaching in an academic environment. She describes how she maintained her collaborations with her former colleagues associates with the Hubble telescope. Urry describes tenure as chair of the department, and she reflects on her efforts to encourage a culture of greater diversity and inclusivity in the department, where she championed the recognition and promotion of many women and people of color, and she shares her ideas on how the physics community can work collectively to continue to advance this work. Urry discusses her work as president of the American Astronomical Society, and she reflects on the lessons of perseverance she learned from her father. At the end of the interview, Urry provides an overview of the current state of research on supermassive black holes, and she describes her work conveying scientific concepts to a broader audience. At the end of the interview, Urry explains the specific threats that science faces in a culture of eroding trust in public institutions.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 1st, 2020; it is my great pleasure to be here with Professor Meg Urry. Meg, thank you so much for being with me today.
It’s my pleasure.
Okay. So, to start, please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
I am the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University and Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.
And if I can put you on the spot, who is or who was Israel Munson, and why are you connected to this person?
[laugh] I Googled him. He was descended from a 1700s New Haven seafaring family. This particular Israel Munson, born in 1767, graduated from Yale in 1787 and apparently became a wealthy Boston merchant. On his death in 1844, he bequeathed to Yale the princely sum of $15,000 — a fortune at the time — to support a Professorship of Natural History and Astronomy. It’s one of those endowed professorships that is a very great honor, though it probably means the university reassigns your salary from the general pot to this particular named pot.
I see. So, Mr. Munson had—
Sadly, it’s not one of those ones with, like, a big research budget.
So, Munson had no connection to astronomy or anything like that as far as you know?
I don’t know, really. Perhaps he recognized the role that astronomy had played in his family’s navigation at sea? I do know that my predecessor who held this chair before was a professor of astronomy, whereas my primary appointment is in physics with a secondary appointment in astronomy. So, it’s historical but appropriate.
OK. Well, let’s take it right back to the beginning. One theme that I definitely want to develop as we go from your childhood is who some of the people were at formative junctures in your life, who encouraged you as a girl and as a young woman that these were fields that were absolutely available to you. So, that’s a continuing theme I just want to keep in mind as we sort of trace your background. So, let’s start first with your parents. Where are your parents from?
My parents were both, by the way, first generation college students. My father was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of nine children, to a father who was an upholsterer and a hard-working mother who was five feet tall, if that, and about 95 pounds, and had nine strapping children. Anyway, my father grew up there, left at age 16, went to Chicago, where his older brother was a professor of chemistry at University of Chicago. And he pursued a chemistry major then got his Ph.D. there. And that’s where he met my mom. My mother was born in New York, in an Italian area, where she only spoke Italian for the first five or six years of her life.
Oh. Where in New York?
Queens, I think. I’ve forgotten exactly. I mean, they moved around. They were very, very poor. My grandmother—it’s a great story actually. My grandmother grew up in in a middle-class family in Genoa, Italy. She was apparently kind of a wild thing. She decided to marry this Merchant Marine guy, Giulio, who then went to America. And my grandmother waited for about a year for him to send for her but got tired of waiting and basically got on a boat and sent him a telegram saying, “I’m arriving, here’s my info, see you soon.” You know? So, she gets over there and it was very tough, you know, Italian immigrants, early 1920s, living in various parts of New York city. (Come to think of it, they must have arrived in the middle of the great flu pandemic of 1918.) After she got pregnant with my mother, she and Giulio separated—we never got the story fully, but my grandfather wasn’t in the picture for very long. And then my mother and her mother were constantly moving because the rent was due and they couldn’t pay it, that kind of thing. In fact, my older sister told me that when my grandmother came home from the hospital with her second baby, my mother, who was then 12, had to go talk their landlady into letting them come back, because they hadn’t paid rent and they had nowhere to go. I mean they had very, very tough times. You can imagine my mother didn’t want to talk about those things. So, anyway, my mother, after high school, she got to Chicago somehow, and went to the University of Chicago. She and my father met while they were working as docents at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Your mom must have been bright for her to go to the University of Chicago, coming from that background.
Yeah, she did very well in school. But, again, always without role models in her own family, right? No academic anything. And then—I’m telling you all this cause my family was probably—if you just pick one influence, it’s my family, full stop. My mother majored in zoology. My father was in chemistry. My mother stopped her education after the bachelor’s degree, and never worked as a professional—but she was a scientist her entire life. We used to go on picnics when we were kids and while we were cleaning up the food and putting it away, my mother would be over in the creek turning over rocks, looking for worms. That was just normal for us, seeing what kind of worms were in the creeks.
So, you definitely had science in the blood?
Yeah, we did have science in the blood. I have to say I totally didn’t recognize it at the time. If you’d asked me in fifth grade what my favorite subject was—science was at the end of the list. Everything else—well, I loved school. I loved everything. I loved every subject, and science just didn’t seem the most interesting to me. I was born in St. Louis where my father was a professor of chemistry at Washington University and then we moved to Indiana where he was at Purdue. He made science sound really daunting. He told me that to get a Ph.D. you had to discover something that nobody else knew. I was a really good student, but the idea of discovering something nobody one else knew—that just seemed impossible to me. Cause we never did it, right? In school you just learned what is already known.
But it was daunting, not as a girl, but just as his child?
Yeah, I think it wasn’t a boy-girl thing and, in fact, I would say through high school, I never felt disadvantaged in the slightest, by being a girl. In part, because I was always one of the smartest kids in the class— I did extremely well. Everything came pretty easily. So, I just thought—I mean, [laugh] I suppose I was pretty arrogant—I just thought I can do anything I want, absolutely anything.
Now, did your father involve you in his chemistry work? Did you get exposure to the kinds of things he was working on or he tended to keep that world separate from you?
Yeah, not really. When I first took chemistry in tenth grade, from Miss Crawley, who was another very important influence— Miss Helen Crawley, female science teacher, which was relatively rare and very strong personality and a great mentor. She was fabulous, Anyway, I—
And this in Indiana, your formative years—
No, sorry. Forgot to say that when I was twelve we moved to the Boston area.
Winchester. So, this was when I was in high school, in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Okay. What was the job that took your family there?
My father went to Tufts, to become Chair of the Chemistry Department at Tufts. So anyway, I made the mistake of asking my father for help with chemistry homework a couple times and, man—
—we were just not—he couldn’t figure out what I was asking and I couldn’t figure out what he was saying so, I learned very quickly, yeah, just don’t talk about chemistry with him. I loved chemistry but it’s interesting that I had no notion at that time of becoming a physicist. I did take physics in 11th grade—and it was a disaster. I mean, I could answer the problems and everything, but I really didn’t understand anything. Looking back, I was clueless. And the teacher—I didn’t understand what he was doing or why. I remember he used to leap up on the desk and demonstrate his golf swing. I still don’t know what that was about.
It made no sense to me. We did PSSC physics, which involved a lot of hands-on experiments, though mostly we were—I mean, it was a great idea, in retrospect, if we’d actually done experiments and learned from them. But mostly we were goofing around. [laugh] I don’t think we were really learning anything.
I hated it. I hated it. If you’d ask me then, I just would never have been interested in physics. Yeah.
But science, generally, when you were thinking about colleges, did you know that you wanted to focus on science in some way?
No. Not really. I mean I sort of thought chemistry, because I loved Miss Crawley and my father, whom I admired, did chemistry, and so on. But, I loved English. I loved writing. I loved AP history. Just for fun, I wrote some Civil War papers that won prizes at our local library. I just liked everything. French. Math. I was really good at math and loved calculus and—so, I think I went into college really not knowing what to do at all. And I say this because so many of my colleagues were planning to be scientists from childhood.
And would go to places like an MIT or a Cal Tech where you were almost 100% science from day one as a freshman.
Yeah, right. Although, I have to say, looking back, I absolutely wanted a well-rounded education. So I went to Tufts, for college—
Now obviously the tuition was right there with your father, I assume?
Yes, it was free. And that was it.
You know, I applied to a few other colleges and, of course, got in, but there was no money so…that was it. So, I went to Tufts and if I look at what I took, it turns out I took mostly science and math. [laugh] So much for well-rounded! Although the course I remember most fondly was an art history survey course given by Professor Ivan Galantic. I think of what I learned there all the time. Anyway, I guess I—what I think happened is I discovered that I think like a scientist. We have an arbiter of the truth in science: it’s called nature. And that’s not true in history. I love history, I love getting evidence and digging things up; it’s very scientific in that way. But you can never say somebody’s right and somebody else is wrong, because it’s just kind of opinion.
So, I realized that I thought like a scientist, that’s part of it. Also, my father talked me into taking physics and, in retrospect, he also pointed me toward astrophysics. I mean, he was always saying, “That’s a good field, you should go there.” I didn’t really remember that until long after I graduated from college. I didn’t remember that he had said all that stuff. But I know that was influential. And physics—so let me tell you my physics story.
Well did your father, did he do a kind of physical chemistry? Was he pretty fluent in physics, himself?
He did his early work on the chemistry of boron, and then in his later years was doing the chemistry of carbon. It was classic inorganic chemistry. I mean, carbon’s organic chemistry, but it was basically reactions and catalysts and things like that. I knew a bit about that and I thought it was really cool to go to his lab and see the—he had these vacuum lines where he and his students could experiment. The lab was pretty interesting. I always thought chemistry was interesting because I had enjoyed Miss Crawley’s class in 10th grade. And in 12th grade, I took A.P. Chemistry with her again and she was just the greatest. And also, the only woman around. She told me great stories about getting her college degree in 1930-something, at a time when women barely did that, much less go into science. You know, a pioneer, this totally inspiring person. But, my father always said chemistry was a dead field, and he was a chemist so, I thought, okay [laugh] I should maybe take that advice.
So, you started at Tufts in what, ’73?
And at that point, I assume, all of the counterculture had sort of left the scene on campus, by that point.
Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Yeah. It was sort of done by then. That was a great disappointment to me—I thought part of my future would be to make the world better for everyone. But once the draft ended, all the energy for reform seemed to evaporate as well.
Right. And so, when did you actually—well, you did a double major, right? It was math and physics?
What was the thinking there?
Well, I just kept taking the math, and the math courses counted for the physics major, and some of the physics courses counted for the math major, so it just seemed easy to do a double major.
And the math that you were doing was more like applied math that would be relevant to physics? It wasn’t abstract stuff?
There was some abstract stuff, like complex analysis, things like that. But, I sort of realized that I don’t like pure theory. I don’t like just sitting and thinking about possible math things I don’t know. I like doing problems; somebody sets you a problem and you figure out how to do it. You know, can you do that integral? Or, how do you solve that differential equation? I like that stuff; it’s like a puzzle. But, actually inventing new math I realized would give me a headache. It just wasn’t my thing. And that also meant I wasn’t going to do theoretical physics. In those days, and actually it’s still true now, if you’re a physics student, the vibe you get is that the smart kids do theory and—
—the rest of us do experiment. So, of course, buying into that, I had to be the smart kid, that’s probably the only reason I even considered doing theory for a minute.
But then I realized, “I just don’t like this.” It’s not—there’s no—it was more like my complaint about history. There’s often no arbiter of whether you’re right or not. Of course, you can make a prediction that sometimes turns out to be correct or not. But in some areas of theoretical physics, that’s not even possible. In astrophysics, it’s a bit different. If you do pure theory—and many great, clever people do it—no one’s gonna believe it until they see it in the data.
Yeah. So, if we could fast-forward, would you be one of those people that has no patience for a string theory paper that’s based on another string theory paper that’s based on another string theory paper?
Yeah, I would say I’m an agnostic about string theory. I’m happy people are thinking about it, but I certainly don’t want to be one of them. If they’re ever able to describe nature as we know it and make some predictions about nature as we know it, it could become very interesting. But, right now I don’t need to expend my energy thinking about it.
[laugh] Who are some of the physics professors at Tufts that you became close with?
Or at least, who are some of the people—
Yeah, I was gonna say, not really— [laugh]
There must have been someone, though, that was formative and encouraging you that this is something that you can pursue on a professional level.
Okay, so this is the problem with this interview, because my professors were nice people who I’m sure wanted to encourage students. But the fact is, and I’ll just say it baldly, I feel as if, a lot of the time, I have been anti-mentored, and my passage through physics in undergraduate and graduate school seems sort of—
Against all odds?
—like an obstacle course that I survived. So, for example, my undergraduate advisor, a physics professor at Tufts—I mean, there’s no need to out these people, but—
Sure, names aren’t necessary. That’s fine.
I’m happy to tell you just for some deep historical record, but I don’t really see the point in naming people who let me down. Anyway, the summer after my junior year, I came back all fired up from a summer job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I had gotten this job on my own, by reading a notice on the Physics Department bulletin board. I came back, fired up, in love with research about the cosmos, and I thought astrophysics was the thing for me—
Oh let’s, wait, wait, let’s stop there. What were you doing? What was the job?
Yeah, this is a great story. So, this 25-year-old British guy, Richard Porcas— he actually did mentor me. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t had that research experience. Richard Porcas, a young postdoc at NRAO hired me (he told me later) because on my resume I said I played violin, which was barely true—I play extremely badly. But, thank God I put it on there because he hired me. Anyway, he had done a radio survey of the sky, one of the early radio surveys, and I did various things related to that. One was finding optical identifications for the radio sources. Which, by the way—little digression—led to my identifying the first gravitational lens source. But, at the time, of course, I did not know what a gravitational lens was and I certainly didn’t know that that was what I was looking at. I found the two optical counterparts at the location of one of Richard’s radio sources, and dutifully noted that they were blue stellar objects of roughly equal brightness—then three years later somebody took spectra of the two objects and discovered they were gravitational lensed images of the same background quasar.
I was the first person to ever see it, but anyway, [laugh] if I’d known what it was I could have been famous. Anyway, that summer was the greatest job I had ever had. I mean, I learned a lot. I didn’t know any astronomy when I went —none—that’s why he wouldn’t have hired me if he’d known any better. But, I was able to contribute clever ideas now and then—very rarely—but, you know. And it just felt so alive, and we were studying quasars. The idea that you could study these things and somebody would pay you to do it was just a shock to me, and a delight. So, I go back to Tufts, and I’m fired up, I want to go to graduate school in astronomy, and I told my academic advisor that I wanted to do astrophysics. And he replied, “Oh, you have to be a genius to do astrophysics.” Which, number one, is far from true. And number two, how did he know I wasn’t a genius? I was the smartest student they’d had in many years, okay? So, it was just the most wet blanket response you can imagine—
It’s also a major one-two punch from your father telling you that a Ph.D. means you need to discover something new to science as a fifth grader, or however old you were.
Oh, yeah. I suppose. Although my dad is probably the main reason I am in science. But that guy was just so anti-encouraging and most of my—
And do you think the gender thing had something to do with it? Was your sense—would he have said this to a male student?
I think he might have. I think he might have. We had very few majors. In my year there were four guys and me. So, there wasn’t—I mean there was only me as the woman, but there weren’t that many students, period. So, I just think he, and some of my other professors, were maybe just kind of disengaged personally. They weren’t—
—they weren’t, they didn’t really evidence any caring about students or what happened to them. But I did like some of my teachers. You know, Gary Goldstein was a great guy. I took freshman physics from him though, honestly, most of the time I didn’t know what he was talking about. I guess I thought I did, at the time. The first semester I did very well but, in retrospect, you only learn physics when you teach it. That’s part of it—
—and I hadn’t taught it. Then, second semester when we started this new material of electricity and magnetism, which I’d never seen before. I didn’t know anything about it. It’s not easily intuitive—not like mechanics, where you can watch a ball drop—so you don’t have intuition for E&M. You do have intuition for acceleration; you don’t really have intuition for electric fields, or at least I didn’t. Anyway, there’s Gary Goldstein trying to explain electric fields to us—oh my God, I just was like, “What is he doing?” I remember this vividly—I’ve told this story before—one day, he said, “Okay, you have an infinite sheet of metal,” and he draws this vertical line on the blackboard. I thought, “Okay…” And he says, “And you have a point charge here,” drawing a point to the right of the line. And I’m like, “Okay…” Then he says, “What’s the electric field?” [baffled sound] Nobody knew. We’re all sitting there going [laugh], “What are you talking about?” Then he goes, “This problem’s too hard. Let’s put a charge on the other side, exactly symmetric, and then figure that out.” And that was too much for me. I’m like, “No, no. You can’t do that. Why can you do that? That’s not the problem you gave us.” And if—what am I trying to say here? If there had been some context, if somebody had said, “We’re going to do some very oversimplified problems to build up your intuition for how electric fields look, number one. And number two, this principle of superposition, let me illustrate it with a problem. We can’t do this particular charge-on-one-side problem; it’s too hard. But if you think of it as the mirror image of a charge-on-the-other-side problem and you add them, we can do that problem,” blah, blah, blah, right? I think it would all have been clear if someone had said those words.
But physics professors tend to teach they way they were taught, which is with very little context. I discovered some research papers about this, long after I was already tenured somewhere, research on “low-context” and “high-context” learning. It turns out this is a gender thing. Girls are generally more interested in context than boys, according to the research. If you put an infinite plane of metal and a point charge on the board, the boys are like, “Okay, let’s figure this out.” And the girls are going, “What are we doing? What is this? What is this about?” So, anyway, there I was, freshman year, second semester, and I was just mystified. I bombed the first E&M test. I got the worst grade of my entire life, and I think that was the critical moment where I could have just said, the heck with this physics stuff. But, I thought, come on, this cannot be that hard. Many people do it. I’m really smart. I should be able to figure this out. And I decided I would just teach myself. And I did. I figured a lot of stuff out. After which I realized, oh, this physics stuff is really cool. You can have these very simple physical laws and then you can predict things and it all works. It’s just amazing. So, I sort of, I don’t know—after not being interested in physics, at all, before, I just suddenly taught myself to love it.
Did Tufts have an astronomy program?
No, no. There was one astronomer on the faculty, who was kind of a weird guy, and ultimately not very helpful. When I came back senior year, fired up from my summer experience, I asked if he had any research I could do. And, without going into lots of detail, he gave me a project I was utterly unsuited for. He gave me a huge stack of paper printout, of an enormous program—those wide sprocketed pages printers used in those days—a stack of code a foot high that ran the NRAO interferometer, which I was supposed to learn and adapt to a mini computer running a tiny (and quite different) interferometer somewhere else. I knew a little Fortran. There’s no way I could have done this project. But I didn’t know enough to realize I couldn’t do it. It was just a disaster.
And probably your world was too small to know or appreciate what people like Rai Weiss or John Mather or Joe Taylor—were you aware of all of these exciting things that were just getting going in the seventies?
No, not at all. Not at all. My husband, now, was an MIT student at the time—I didn’t know him then—he worked in Rai Weiss’s lab and I know Rai. I know John Mather. I know a lot of those guys now, right? And, that would have been so exciting, but we had one astronomer. Well, there was one other astronomer who was the dean or something and not in the department. So, we had this one astronomer, and I thought if I want to apply to graduate school in astronomy I need to get a letter from him. And that’s what led to this failed project, which was a disaster. And, he wrote me a bad letter, which I found out later.
So, he might have been the reason I was rejected from most of the graduate schools I applied to. Anyway, yeah, in spite of, as I said. Progress in spite of my professors.
Did you go straight or did you take some time off after undergrad?
I went straight to grad school which is kind of curious cause at the time I was thinking I might not. But then I went and applied anyway. I had horrible physics GRE scores, which is a gendered thing. Partly, Tufts, the undergraduate program at the time was not as rigorous as MIT’s or Harvard’s. So, I’d never had a proper quantum mechanics course. I mean, we did the Schrödinger equation, but that was it. About what MIT sophomores did in modern physics. I didn’t know most of the material on the GRE. But anyway, fine. So, I was thinking I might take a year off, and I had looked around for some jobs and—but, then, I don’t know, I just thought I was in a hurry and I should go. So, I did.
But, for what you wanted to do, I mean Hopkins was actually pretty great, in the end, right?
It worked out really well. I don’t think—it certainly wasn’t my plan to go there initially. I applied there because it was free to apply if you had a high grade average. [laugh] That’s why I applied there. But, I didn’t get in six of the eight places I applied. So, I had a choice of two—
Well how could you with a bad letter? That’s a killer.
It’s a killer, yeah.
It’s amazing you got in anywhere.
Hopkins must have been desperate, I don’t know.
But they turned out to have—they didn’t have much astrophysics at the time, almost none. Because this was before—it was 1977—it was before the Hubble thing.
So, Art Davidsen was the guy who brought the Hubble to Baltimore, actually. And, he was really good. He was a really smart, really—
Did you connect with Art right away, or did that develop later on?
I did. I did. Though it took a while. I really wanted to work for him. I didn’t go to work for him right away because, oh—I’m such an idiot—now I could probably negotiate this better. But I was very shy and two guys from my year had already gotten summer jobs with him, so I was afraid to ask him because I thought he’d say no. So, instead, I filled out a government form—some friend of mine who worked in the State Department knew about this—I filled out the standard application for a job in the federal government, said I wanted to work at Goddard Space Flight Center, and just sent it off. I mean, I didn’t know anything about what jobs were available there or anything. And the Goddard folks called me up because I had worked at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics the summer after I graduated from Tufts, in their X-ray astronomy group. And so, the X-ray group at Goddard must have seen this application and thought, “Oh, she might know something.” So they call me up and say, “Yeah, we want you to come down.” So, that’s how I got to Goddard and I ended up working there that summer and the next summer and then they said, “Why don’t you do your thesis here?” So, I actually never worked at Hopkins and I didn’t really work for Art directly. He was my official adviser, and I talked to him now and then but really, I worked on my own.
So, your real graduate life was at Goddard?
Yep. Every day.
Were there course requirements? Was there anything you had to do for that?
So, I did the courses at Hopkins my first two years, with my fellow graduate students. All the classes and exams. In those days they had this incredible array of preliminary and qualifying exams that took you two years to pass. And then after I passed that I just went to Goddard full-time. I would drive down every day and work all day and come back at night.
And was it at Goddard that you fully realized your identity, professionally, in terms of what you wanted to focus on?
Yeah. At first it was kind of exploratory. I did a project to look at some unidentified X-ray sources and two of them turned out to be blazars. That’s how I got into working on blazars with Richard Mushotzky, who was really an excellent thesis adviser. He wasn’t a professor at the time—he was a government scientist then—now he’s a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland. As a government scientist, he wasn’t able to help me understand how universities work or academia works cause he really didn’t have any connection to that but he was—he is—a great scientist, full of ideas, very personable, very generous to his students. He had a lot of students, too. He was great. And it was such a pleasant environment. Everybody was on a first name basis. At Hopkins—[laugh] I went to the thesis defense of one of my good friends, this guy I knew there, and I’m standing next to him at the after party and his adviser, his thesis adviser, comes up to him and shakes his hand and goes, [in thick accent] “Congratulations, Richard. Now you may call me Gabor.” [laugh]
[laugh] You’ve made it.
That’s what Hopkins was like at the time, very hierarchical, very stiff. So, I think I voted with my feet several times. I think I went into astrophysics, in part, because it was exciting. But also because people are—because the astronomy culture is really different from the physics culture. It’s much less hierarchical. It’s much less stiff. Much more first-name basis. People played volleyball after work. Very friendly. Many more women. When I was a summer student at NRAO, there was a woman post-doc, Martha Haynes, who—I never worked with her directly, she never advised me about anything, but just being friends with her that summer and connecting with her a little over the next years, it was very positive, very encouraging. I didn’t see any women in physics except for the wife of Gabor, actually. [laugh] At Hopkins. There were just—physics was so serious and astronomy was fun. So, I think culturally I voted with my feet to go there. And same with Goddard. I think I did my thesis there because it was so relaxed and friendly and an environment I could thrive in.
And what was the state of play with blazars at the time you went through that field?
Yeah, we didn’t know anything at all.
They were defined by being very luminous, very rapidly variable. Why? What the heck was going on? And—
How long had people been thinking about blazars? Was this brand new?
It was pretty new. I worked there the summer of ’78. That summer there was a pretty influential conference called BL Lac Objects (which I didn’t go to) in Pittsburgh. That was probably the first time people started to put everything together about what these kinds of objects looked like, what they were. (It’s where the term “blazar” first appeared.) And for my thesis, I looked at the X-ray data, which were new. People hadn’t had that information before the late ‘70s. For my first paper, I showed that if you analyze the physics of the emission, you are forced to require that blazars be relativistically beamed. That meant that the true luminosity wasn’t as high as originally thought, and the idea that the blazar emission region—the jet—was moving relativistically along the line of sight—all of that sort of came together as the picture of what we now understand blazars to be.
And what do you see—at the time, of course, you’re not thinking grandly—but, in what ways did you see your dissertation contributing to the broader field?
Yeah, you know it’s funny. At the time, I just thought, okay, I showed that the physics worked and the demographics worked. Looking back, I think I wrote an amazing thesis. I’m really proud of it. But, I don’t think I understood that at the time at all. In part, cause nobody told me it was good in any way. [laugh]
And it was really Mushotzky and not Davidsen that was, sort of, guiding the dissertation?
Yeah, yeah. Completely.
Who signed the approval? I mean, you were a Hopkins student. You were not a Goddard student.
Yeah, I think they both did. And Richard came to the defense. I had to get special permission for him to come. Because I was the only Hopkins student who had done a thesis at Goddard. All their other graduate students at Goddard were from the University of Maryland.
Meg, I’m curious, I mean, how warmly you speak of your experience at Goddard—did you consider pursuing a career within a NASA kind of environment, a government kind of environment?
Yeah, honestly, I would have taken a job anywhere anyone wanted to hire me. I just felt—I just thought, I’m gonna do this as long as I can—I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t see anybody—in retrospect, I didn’t see anybody ahead of me who looked remotely like me. So, all I thought was I’m just gonna do this as long as I can. And then I’ll think of something else to do. So, there I am in graduate school; it seemed to be going well. I wrote some interesting papers. And then, I got a postdoc with Claude Canizares at MIT. And, again, that was pretty lucky because Claude was a very appealing person, unlike most of the physicists I knew, I have to say. [laugh] Isn’t that terrible?
He had a personality. He interacted like a human being. [laugh] So, he had a very nice research group. Of all the MIT professors in the Center for Space Research—I mean, I liked several of them. Hale Bradt was a wonderful guy. And George Clark was very nice. There were some very nice people there. But the women were all in Claude’s group. He had the one woman postdoc (me) and also, I think I was the only postdoc who hadn’t been a student at MIT. And he had like three or four undergraduate women in his group, which none of the other professors did. So, it was kind of interesting that we all gravitated there. He had a graduate student who was a woman—she’s still a good friend—so, yeah, we all gravitated to him because he was a good mentor.
And what was Claude working on in those days? What was his research about?
So, he was building the Chandra X-ray Observatory (which was eventually launched 15 years later) and using the Einstein X-ray Observatory, for which he had built a spectrometer. I started working with Einstein data, helping one of his graduate students do a big project on Seyfert galaxy spectra. And, I did some work on variability of Seyfert galaxies in the X-ray.
And what was MIT’s breakdown in those years? Did it have a joint physics and astronomy program? Separate departments?
It was then and it still is a physics department with an astrophysics group. And the Center for Space Research was where space astrophysics was—it was a big place, and MIT is huge, and their Physics Department’s huge. At that time, I think Physics had about 100 faculty. Now they probably have about 75 or so.
And is the Center for Space Research a world unto itself or is it—do you feel pretty connected with the physics program?
Oh, no, it was totally disconnected. It was a separate building, for one thing. And whenever I attended the Physics Colloquium, I felt pretty out of place. [laugh] First of all, it’s this enormous room, and the faculty all sit right in front and the old guys, you know, Viki Weisskopf and probably, Rai, although Rai wasn’t that old. Anyway, all the big shots from the nation’s World War II effort were down in the front right of the room and everything was very, I don’t know, it was just off-putting to me in some way. So, I stopped going. Instead I went to the weekly astrophysics seminar, which was fine, good. I asked questions. I was a pretty outgoing, interactive scientist, but it was a tough environment, MIT. It was a tough environment. Especially—
Not just for a woman? For everybody, your saying?
For everybody, I think, but maybe more so for outsiders and for women. You know, I still don’t know. So, here’s the question: Are these places harder for women because they’re harder on women, or are they hard on everybody and women just feel it more because we’re alone and isolated?
Don’t know, can’t tell. But it was tough—
Right. You don’t have nature as the arbiter here, this is the sociological issue where you’re not going to get a perfect answer.
Yeah, right. Then there’s no controlled experiment, right? There’s not two Megs going through there that you could compare. I thought it was tough. It was—my confidence probably was eroded during that time. I kept getting told that I’d have no problem getting a job because I’m a woman. Everybody has to hire women, so it’s easy, right? And who told me this? Young white men who had just gotten faculty jobs.
These are the ones who are telling me this. That women get all the jobs. “Oh yeah? [laugh] You just got this job, buddy.” Anyway—MIT also had a way of making you feel that it’s the center of the universe.
And that if you don’t end up there, you’ve failed. I totally bought into that when I was there. Now I look at that and I’m like, really? I don’t see it. But, I felt that way then. And they did have a faculty opening and I did apply for it and didn’t even get interviewed. That was very, very demoralizing. One of the faculty members, [in thick Dutch accent] Walter Lewin [end accent], who I was friendly with, I was at dinner at his house with his wife and some other people, and I remember him saying, “Oh, we’d never hire someone like you.” His wife looked about as shocked as I felt. She said, “Walter, that’s not very polite.” And he said, “Well, it’s the truth.” [laugh]
And what is “like you”? What did you read into that? What does that mean?
What did he mean? I don’t know what he meant. I don’t know what he meant, actually. I didn’t ask. And I didn’t get much support. Claude said I should apply, but then someone said he didn’t write me a letter, so I don’t know. It was just, yeah, it was a very depressing, very depressing end to my time at MIT.
Well, on the research side, were you—was this an opportunity for you to branch out into new areas or were you looking to improve and refine on the work you did as a graduate student?
Both. I started new things and I continued my work on blazars. I was organizing some multiwavelength observing campaigns, but those take a lot of time and the payoff is quite low for the amount of effort, actually. So, I wanted to do some new things and that’s why I got into Seyfert galaxies and came up with some good results. I would not say they were earth-shattering, but it was the first very large survey of Seyfert galaxies and what their properties were and I gave some invited talks about it. I gave a lot of talks, I guess because I gave good talks. I gave one talk at a conference in Tenerife where I worked up some new analysis of X-ray emission from AGN—there’s this trope about X-ray binaries being good analogs for AGN, so I did a whole thing on accretion theory and how it scaled and didn’t scale and, yeah, it was pretty interesting. So, I think I was doing good science, but I also didn’t really understand how things worked in academia. Now I do have a model for how the academic world works best: I call it the dog model. It’s basically about peeing in your corner, okay? So, if you pee in your corner, everybody knows it’s your corner, and they say, “Oh, that’s that dog’s corner.” Right? Or, more precisely we say, “That dog is such-and-such kind of person.” Right? But as a postdoc I was doing too many different kinds of projects. I was really interested in a lot of different things. Whenever I thought something was interesting I would just go work on it. And, in retrospect, that’s not a good profile for getting identified and hired somewhere.
But, as a matter of intellectual history, it does beg the question: What’s the through line that connected all of these disparate areas of research? In other words, what were some of the big questions that you were most interested in, that might have informed why you picked a particular project to work on?
Yeah, so I think it was, kind of, how all of these objects have super massive black holes powering them. And they all are ultimately powered by accretion onto those black holes converted into something—radiation, relativistic jets, etc. At the time, it was kind of a zoo. There were many different kinds of AGN and why were some one way and some another, and how did that change over time? And how did it change as a function of the galaxy they’re sitting in or the environment? I mean, we just didn’t know anything so it was really kind of trying to figure out how this happened. And the blazar thing worked beautifully into that. Shortly after I left MIT, I went to another postdoc position, at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. And that’s when I started thinking more broadly about the unification of radio-loud AGN. For my PhD thesis, I had already thought about how blazars are the AGN where the jet’s pointing at us, and that means there must be many more randomly oriented jets elsewhere. So, I starting looking at the consequences of that picture. I just tried to broaden it out and say, okay, let’s look at all AGN that are radio-loud and have jets. What are they? How can we identify them? Does this picture work? And I determined what the luminosity functions of the parent population were and what the beamed population would look like.
Actually, that was in my thesis too. A luminosity function is the number of objects as a function of their luminosity—what is the distribution that nature makes. For AGN, luminosity functions are often power laws in log-log space—that means there are more low-luminosity AGN than high-luminosity AGN. So, if that is the parent population of objects, and you say, “Okay, I’m randomly gonna beam them in arbitrary directions,” and I know how much the beaming does to the luminosity depending on the angle and the velocity of the jet, and so on, I can predict what the luminosity function of the beamed objects should look like. I did that for my thesis, but at the time I had only five objects that I was looking at, so I couldn’t test whether the demographics worked out. You can’t really do a luminosity function with so few objects. But when I went to Baltimore, we knew more, so I could. I put together luminosity functions of BL Lac objects and of radio-loud quasars and showed that were the beamed “daughters” of radio galaxies exactly as I had predicted my thesis, based on a straightforward theoretical calculation—it’s overstatement to call it theory; it was a calculation, but it was pretty nice work, I think. In retrospect, it was very nice work. [laugh] But again, I didn’t have anybody—nobody—
There were no cheerleaders in your life.
Hoo! No, I had a lot of detractors. A lot of people—I can remember around that time, one guy, nice guy, friend of mine—he was a professor at Hopkins across the street. And he told me, he said, “Meg, you know, every year there’s a superstar on the faculty job market, and you’re just not it.” [laugh] That was his advice. Like, “You’re just not a star.”
And I was a star, in retrospect. I didn’t really understand this at the time, but when I applied for faculty positions, I got four good offers. Two or three of them were at the associate professor level people were saying, “We could tenure you now.” That’s pretty good.
You mean, direct out of MIT?
No, no, out of my postdoc at Space Telescope. So, I’d been a postdoc for a total of six years. At that time, Boston University, Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, and Space Telescope wanted to hire me. And for various reasons—I had a husband who was working at Goddard, and—
When did you get married?
When did we get married? 1987, when I moved to Baltimore for the Space Telescope job, we got married.
We had met in graduate school, at Goddard. He was a Maryland student. And then, I went to MIT for three years and then came back down afterwards and we got married then.
And you accepted upon yourself the two-body problem, at that point.
Then we had the two-body problem, yeah. And, again—
Did Space Telescope, did the opportunity there as a career move, was that attractive to you at all?
Frankly, it was the least good of all the faculty offers, for sure. It was 30% lower salary. Let’s see, technically it was a 10% lower salary, but it was 12-month salary instead of a nine-month salary. It was at the assistant professor level. There was no start-up package—zero, zero start-up package, while the other ones had start-up money. And it wasn’t teaching which is the thing I really I love.
Given that the other offers were better, people told me, “You should negotiate.” So I went to the director, because right? I went to him and said, “I have these other offers and they’re much better.” And he said, “What do you want me to do about it?” And I said, “Well. You should match them.” You know? And we discussed and he was kind of grumpy and he said, “Well, I’ll have to check with the faculty.” And he goes away and nothing happens. A week goes by, nothing happens. Another week goes by. So, I make an appointment to see him again. We meet in his office. He goes, “What do you want?” I said, “Well, I told you what I wanted two weeks ago.” In retrospect, I think he probably did nothing about it. He probably didn’t go talk to anybody. But what he said was, “Well, no, the offer’s totally unchanged. That’s it. Take it or leave it.” And I looked at him and I said, “Well, [laugh] what would you do? These other offers are much better.” And he goes, “Well, I’d probably take them. But maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are.” Or something like, “Maybe you’re not as good as you think you are.”
Meg, you have a remarkable ability to attract really obnoxious guys.
[laugh] Well, now I can laugh about it, but at the time it was so wounding. I remember thinking, “Uh-oh, I just need to get back to my office now before I burst into tears.” And I did. I made it back to my office. And then I had to sit there for five hours, because I think I cried for two hours and then I had to wait ‘til I could walk through the building and not look horrible. So, it was pretty demoralizing. Pretty terrible. And the Space Telescope Science Institute—the whole time I was there, 14 years total, I was paid less than the guys were. Like, paid a lot less than the men were. All the women were. Well, first of all, there weren’t any women at the beginning, hardly. There was one woman scientist hired a year before me and another who had just left. We were paid badly. And we were way more productive than the men. We brought in more grants, we wrote more papers, we gave more talks. We really were, objectively, succeeding, but we were treated terribly, actually. So, it was a tough environment. Even—
So what offer did you end up taking?
I stayed at Space Telescope.
Yeah. I did. Yeah. Well, it was much easier to stay. I wanted to have kids. My husband really didn’t want to move. He was very happy where he was. He had looked at jobs where I was looking but didn’t have any decent options at all. It was mostly, sort of, “We’ll try to help you get a job if you come here,” that kind of thing. So, it would’ve been very disruptive to move somewhere else. And if I stayed, I could have kids. The job wasn’t really terrible. It would be okay. So, that’s what I did.
In terms of the kind of work that you wanted to do, was it actually good from an instrumentation perspective? I mean, could you do things there that you might not have been able to do regularly in a faculty position?
No, I think scientifically—I think for my career it was terrible. First of all, I think we had a way heavier burden of what we called functional work, but it would be the equivalent of a teaching load, say, at a university. Way, way more time doing the functional work. I mean, it was probably 40 hours a week of that alone. High pressure, deadlines, stress. Being treated like shit most of the time. Not being respected. And then I spent a lot of my time fighting for the cause of women at the Institute, which was formed in 1981, at the same time everybody’s telling me women have every advantage, and of the first 60 Ph.D. scientists they hire, 59 are men. This at a time when women were getting 15% of the Ph.D.’s. So, it was just not a good environment, especially because they didn’t recognize there was a problem at all. There were some nice people there. I made some really good friends and other people at my level, we helped each other. The other women, in particular. We got some more women hired. Anne Kinney and I helped each other like crazy. But it was very stressful. When I came to Yale—which, you know, I work really hard at Yale, and I spend a lot of time on teaching. But it is so much easier. Oh my God. It’s way easier. I have so much more time for research. And so many more students. I mean, Space Telescope wasn’t all bad. I would say there were several good things. First of all, I ran the proposal review for some years and I made it much better and I think that was kind of a nice accomplishment. And, also, they gave us some management training, which is the kind of thing academics never do. Like: time management, team building, written communication, oral communication. It’s stuff that you do if you’re in a company, not as a professor. But, in fact, I remember a lot of that stuff, it was really helpful. So, there were some good parts to working there, but—and it was hard to leave, even so. It was hard to leave. Yale came out of the blue and made me an offer. And even then, it took me about a year to accept the offer. Looking back, I’m like, “What were you thinking?”
[laugh] I mean, Yale is where I should be, actually. It’s just great for me. I love teaching. I love undergraduates. I love having graduate students. I love having colleagues who are not only astronomers and physicists. I think you can have a big impact on the next generation in a way that I’d never have an impact on guest observers with the Hubble telescope.
Meg, when you talk about the high pressure environment and all of these deadlines, who were the clients? Who were the people that were pounding on your door to get this work into their hands?
Yeah, so, it was driven by the fact that we served the astronomical community who wanted to use Hubble. There are many customers. NASA is a customer; they wanted documents and studies and everything else on certain deadlines. Observers had proposals due on certain deadlines, reviews involving hundreds of astronomers had to happen on other deadlines. Internally, we had a big management hierarchy and they wanted certain work by a certain time. Academics—pretty much the only thing you have a schedule about is your teaching, right? You have to be in class that day and teach something. But even that, you decide. You could walk in and teach whatever you want that day. So, it’s very, very different. The Space Telescope Science Institute was much more like a business. It’s like a business has products and so you have your internal management and you hope your product is selling. At the same time, we had a tenure system, so we went through the whole similar process as in academia, but in fact, even though tenure was hard to get, we could all have been fired the next day if the funding was cut—like if Hubble died or if NASA decided to stop it, we would all have been out of work. I mean, now Hubble has been going for 30 years, I was there at the launch in 1990. And my job could have ended at any time. So, it was kind of a high-risk, low-reward kind of environment.
[laugh] How well were you connected with academic physics? Were you coauthoring papers with people in academic departments? Were you presenting at conferences? Or was it a more cloistered environment?
Yeah, yeah. No, I was really well connected. I actually worked with a lot of astrophysicists around the world—partly from doing multiwavelength astronomy, by not being in any one waveband I was working with lots of people, many different universities, and publishing lots of papers, and giving lots of talks. I was pretty connected. I think people in government labs, and this was sort of a quasi-governmental lab, are at a disadvantage. But I think of all the people at Space Telescope, I was probably one of the better known scientists.
Hmm-mm. Hmm-mm. Now, aside from the demands of the customers and the deadlines, was there a culture of basic science? Were you able to pursue things that were interesting to you, personally, that might not have had a direct connection to larger requirements?
Yeah. There was—and I credit Riccardo Giacconi for this, he was the first director—the Institute had a very academic environment. So, that was not lacking. We had to be as good scientists as any of our counterparts at universities. It’s just that we were supposed to be that good with one-tenth the time [laugh] so… And some things were easier. We didn’t have to come up with summer salary money from grants—and there was a small amount of internal funding. So external grants were less of an imperative than they are now that I’m at a university. So, there were some advantages.
And postdocs and graduate students—would you have an opportunity for younger people to come in and study under you?
Yeah, I had postdocs and I had graduate students. Graduate students were hard because we weren’t an academic institution so you had to steal them from somewhere. And, of course, nobody would—
Although you could look at your own personal history for how to do that, right?
Yeah, good point. So, I had a couple of graduate students—some from Italy, because I regularly worked with a bunch of people there. And I had one really great student from Australia who, I guess, just wanted to go abroad and applied to our program and he came and worked with me for several years. It isn’t the same of having your own student from start to finish, but it was good. And, then, postdocs—I actually hired my first postdoc when I was still a postdoc at Space Telescope myself. [laugh] Because I had some money, and this young person I was working with, suddenly his funding source cut so I hired him. So, as a postdoc I hired a postdoc.
Oh, cool. Meg, if you can isolate in your mind all of the frustrating and annoying things about those years, right?
Just to foreshadow the good times that would come—what are some of the big takeaways that you learned both, sort of, socially as a scientist rising in your field and also, academically, in terms of the top line items that your field was interested in knowing more about? If you could sort of isolate all that annoying stuff and just sort of extract what was really useful in your ongoing development, I would love to hear it.
Yeah. So, I think actually I’ve been an amateur anthropologist my whole life because for me it was really a lot about figuring out the culture. And the culture of physics and what people care about and how to act in order to be successful. And I think I eventually learned all that. I toughened up a lot and I learned how to present myself in order to succeed in the physics world. Now, I don’t actually think any of that had anything to do with the physics itself. And I think if we had an environment that was more diverse, just more accepting of different kinds of people—I mean, to oversimplify, the environment that I saw was one in which you brag all the time and you only ever talk about science. And, okay, that’s the game, I get it. When I went to Yale—you know, partly I moved there because I really liked the people. They seemed really friendly, which was a big draw. But I remember one guy asking me, “Are you an astrophysicist or an astronomer?” And I immediately thought, “Uh-oh, this is a trick question. What’s the right answer here?”
And I said, which was the wrong answer, “There’s no difference.” And he mansplained, “Well, an astronomer is someone who goes to the telescope and writes down what they see and publishes it. And an astrophysicist interprets what they see.” And I said, “Oh, every astronomer I know interprets what they see.” But the lesson I took from that was, okay, when you’re in a physics environment, you should describe yourself as an “astrophysicist.” And if you’re on an airplane, if you want to not be bothered by your seatmate, you also would say “astrophysicist,” and if you don’t mind talking to the person next to you, you say “astronomer.”
So, there was a lot to learn around behavior, and I think, in retrospect, I wish I’d known that stuff sooner. I see a lot of young people coming out of graduate school knowing lots of stuff I did not know. Not everybody. Some know much more than others. So, I started a thing, when I got to Yale, I started something I call “postdoc lunch” where we talk about how to present yourself in a job application or in an interview or at talks. All my students, every time we meet, practically, I make them introduce themselves with a three sentence “elevator speech”—to practice, get used to it, that kind of thing. Because nobody ever told me how to do any of that stuff and, in retrospect, it would have been kind of helpful. We should do better by students around that kind of professional development. So, back to your question, big takeaways. Scientifically, I think I always had a sense of looking for what we could figure out from what we can actually see. I never had a constant direction in the sense of, like Rai Weiss has spent 40 years trying to measure the strain in this big block of metal, I mean, very focused on one goal. But I’ve always been interested in how things work and—I’ve alluded to the theme but let me explain it more clearly. There’s what nature is, and there’s what we see, and that’s a very biased subset of what nature is. And, so, working backwards from what we see to what nature really is, that’s the unifying theme of my work on supermassive black holes. I’m always asking, “What are we missing? What is consistent with what we’ve seen?” rather than just reporting what we see.
Right. And how involved were you with supermassive black holes during your time at Space Telescope?
Yeah, it was the focus of all my research. Funnily enough, because it was a big institute, with well more than 100 Ph.D. scientists, it paradoxically had the effect of narrowing my scientific focus. Because we had scientific talks every day of the week: an AGN talk once a week, an astronomy colloquium once a week, maybe a galaxies talk once a week, maybe a cosmology talk once a week, other talks on stars or planets, plus the Johns Hopkins physics colloquium across the street every week. So, there were like eight talks a week. You don’t have time to go to them all, so what do you do? You go to the talks closest to your own research interests. Right? So, it was very narrowing in a way. I think that’s another reason Yale was so much better for me: suddenly I’m going to the physics colloquium every week and the astronomy colloquium every week and I learned lots of new stuff that I hadn’t been keeping up with. So, another way that change was good.
And you said Yale came out of the blue. How did that play out?
[laugh] It’s a great story, actually. The guy who was the director of the Institute at the time—he was the third director of the Institute, and one of those arrogant physics types, although actually he’s an astronomer, who thought he knew better than everyone else. Anyway, he had decided in a flash that I was an idiot. I don’t know why. But he had written me off. And he was a real obstacle. And I’ll have to tell this faster because I don’t want to bore you.
You’re not. Tell it however you want. This is great.
[laugh] We had few women at the Institute and the first director—I had raised this issue with him. And he was very responsive and he said, “Why would we discriminate?” And I said, “I don’t know but, look, you have. Look around you.” And it changed. He made it change. Then we got a new director who didn’t quite get it but the one after him, the third director, was like, hopeless. So, in my usual problem-solving way, I thought okay, I’ve gotta work on him, gotta get him to understand why there’s no gender equity here. I do this all the time. I’m trying to drive the bus, but from the back seat. Right? So, I have to manipulate these guys to do what I want them to do. Anyway, what I did was ask him to chair a session about women in astronomy that I organized at an AAS meeting, the American Astronomical Society. He readily agreed. I thought, “Great, now he’ll have to pay attention to this.” And then I said, “Would you have dinner with me the night before the session? I want to talk to you about what we’re gonna do.” Again, just trying to work on him. So, during this dinner, when I’m explaining why it is that we have too few women, he shakes his head and says, “No, you know, the only way I can tell what people are worth, is if they get an outside offer. Then I know they’re worth something.” And I said, “Well, you know, women don’t play that game. We tend to have two-body issues more than men do. The MIT report showed this.” One of the speakers in our session the next day was going to be Lotte Bailyn, who was chair of the faculty at MIT when they issued their 1999 ground-breaking report. Her son is my astronomy colleague at Yale, Charles Bailyn. Okay? So, I explained to the Director, “That’s what the MIT report showed, that women don’t play that game.” But he goes, “Nope, no, I don’t understand it if they don’t get an outside offer. I don’t think they’re worth anything.” I’m thinking, “Oh great, not making headway here.” Anyway, that was just one anecdote from a whole night full of shit that I had to listen to.
The story continues. The next day we have our talks and I’m walking in the hallway, and I see Charles Bailyn at this meeting. And he says, “Meg! Meg! I need to talk to you!” He’s a professor at Yale, Charles Bailyn. So, he says, “Meg, we have a faculty opening. It’s a junior position, but we might be able to make it a senior position. Are you interested?” And in that moment, through my head, I heard myself saying no, the way I normally would. I would normally say, “Oh, I can’t move. My husband is really happy where he is.” And blah, blah, blah. But I’d just had this dinner with this jerk the night before, who was just so full of himself and knew nothing and wasn’t interested in learning, so I said, “Yeah, let’s talk about it.” That was in January 2000. I had an offer by May, a tenured offer, in their department. They called me up the week after the AAS meeting to ask, “Will you come for a visit?” I gave a talk in the physics department, I talked to people in the astronomy department. I liked everybody. It was a very interesting place. I hadn’t thought they were on the map, to be honest, in astrophysics, at the time, but that was largely my ignorance. The astronomers were great. The physicists didn’t know the astrophysics landscape but they knew it was an important field. This was a place that could be really great.
I saw the potential and I liked the idea of the university and I liked the whole Yale thing, and I remember calling up my husband that night and saying, “This is really great. I really like it here.” And he goes, “They don’t know where it is.” And then I remembered that his rocket, his mission that he’d been working on for a decade, that was gonna fly a novel X-ray detector that he’d worked on since his Ph.D. thesis, was launching that day. It was in Japan. And the launch failed. They blew it up, actually. So, his whole 10 years of experiment had just failed. And, I’m like, “Let’s move to New Haven.” So, that’s where that came from.
Perfect timing, kinda.
Perfect timing. And also, he really took a leap. He took a very big backwards step job-wise to go to Yale. Because they didn’t offer him a faculty position, per se. Again, cause we didn’t know enough to negotiate effectively. If we’d known more, we could’ve gotten two faculty positions. We didn’t really know enough. So—
Did he convert, did that work out, later on?
So, he’s a senior research scientist. And it converted in a certain sense. They made a promise. They wrote him a letter that says, every five years we’ll review you and the expectation is you’ll be renewed. That’s the deal. So, it’s not a permanent job like I have. And it’s not, as you probably know, the same—there’s a big hierarchy in academia. It’s nowhere near the prestige, or whatever.
For many years, we would get these letters addressed to Professor Meg Urry and Mr. Andrew Szymkowiak, which drove him nuts.
All this stuff still drives him nuts. But, we—but—
But 19 years later and it’s still working.
Yeah, I have to say for the first 14 years of that I thought, this is just my turn. [laugh] Because I was 14 years at Space Telescope. And now, if he wanted to go somewhere else, I’d consider it. Yeah. But I think he’s enjoying what he’s doing. I think.
Meg, was it a little daunting to come to a faculty with a strong teaching component when you had not taught for so long?
I was really looking forward to it because I love to teach, actually. In fact, the thing that really cooked it for me was—
Did you adjunct at all, I mean, were you doing any teaching—
No, Hopkins wouldn’t have me. No, they had several adjuncts from Space Telescope but, not—
Not me. Yeah. I guess because I was a graduate from there, they never could see me as an adult.
I remember the shock, one of the professors heard I was gonna be at Yale, and he just was like, ”You’re going to be, what, an assistant professor at Yale?” And I was like, “No, a full professor.” And he was like, “[snort].”
Does not compute. [laugh]
[laugh] Does not compute. But while I was at Space Telescope, there was this young woman who was a Harvard undergraduate, and she had failed her intro physics class. She was working for my friend Anne over the summer and wanted to study up on physics. So, Anne asked me if I would help her because she knew I’d majored in physics. Tutoring her was the most fun I’d had in years. It was just the most fun. She practically had to shut me up. We’d be down there at lunchtime working on physics problems for two hours and finally she’d say, “Um, I think I’d better get back to work.” I just loved teaching physics. And I felt, “Oh my God. This is what I should be doing, you know? This is really what I should be doing.” So, I was so looking forward to it and it was really great. I will say, it practically killed me the first year.
I took—my first semester there I taught a class of 150 intro physics students. So, it was a big job and I hadn’t done that in 15 years and it took some work. But then the second year, I actually—what was that, 2002? I invented the flipped classroom at Yale. Nobody in Yale physics had done anything like that. I got the idea from Eric Mazur at Harvard whose work I’d studied. It just made so much sense and so, I thought, let’s bring our teaching into the 21st century. So, that was also fun, to invent a new approach to teaching and make up the curriculum and the—not the curriculum. I mean, the material’s the same. But, what are the questions you’re going to ask the students and that they’re gonna answer and that’s gonna engender discussion and how’s that gonna go and all that stuff. So, it was really fun. I enjoyed that a huge amount.
Did you ever involve yourself substantively in physics education research and the work of people like Lillian McDermott?
I have not done any research on physics education. I have read that work, and I keep tabs on it. Also, what Carl Wieman and others did in Colorado, and the guys at Maryland. And we had a talk from a guy at MIT who does physics education research. Actually, one of my postdocs went to work for him—one of my graduate students went to work for him as a postdoc. He gave the worst talk I’ve ever heard in my life.
It was really funny. Here he is talking about how to teach students and he kept his back to the audience the entire time and all his viewgraphs were beige slides with too much black type. Just sentences and sentences. I thought, “This guy is telling us how to teach?” I don’t know, anyway, [laugh] I don’t remember what he said, I couldn’t pay much attention. So, I haven’t spent the time on the research into teaching methods, I just tried to adopt the best ideas. I wanted to focus on making important scientific contributions.
Before I left Space Telescope, I had designed a survey, a multiwavelength survey, using Spitzer Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Chandra Observatory to look for AGN that are obscured. At that point, most of what we knew about AGN was from optical surveys which detect rest-frame UV light. And that is a very, very biased subset, but we didn’t know how biased. We knew that lots of objects weren’t picked up in those surveys, but we didn’t know how many or what their properties were. And so, this new survey had just started and I spent my first decade at Yale basically interpreting the data, with my students, and showing that three quarters of all black hole growth, we hadn’t known about. It was that big. And also, being told I was wrong—some of this is just normal academic competition and some of it is sexism and I don’t know how much. Same comment as before, I have no idea. But we put out these papers which, I think, were really remarkable. A student, Ezequiel Treister, made a model that showed that we were missing growing black holes even in X-ray surveys, and I had people yelling at me at meetings saying, “That can’t be right! It’s completely wrong!” Blah, blah, blah. And, of course, now they say it’s right, but a long time later. It took them awhile to accept. But, I think it was pretty good work and I wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist.
You know, I had spent a lot of my career also working on trying to improve the lot of women in physics and other underrepresented groups. And, back to the dog thing. You can easily be labeled as an activist as opposed to a scientist. And so, I felt it was even more important for me to be still scientifically very productive. So I didn’t spend—I’m not Superperson; I didn’t want to spend too much time—for example, I told you I invented this flipped classroom stuff. So, sometime about five years later, Eric Mazur calls me up, and he says, “I want you to come give a colloquium at Harvard, about teaching physics.” I’m going, “What are you inviting me to give a colloquium at Harvard for? You’re the expert. You’re the one who invented this. I went to your talk. I listened to what you said.” And he said, “Yeah, but you are a practicing research physicist who isn’t spending time doing education research, but you were able to cobble this together.” That is, people can innovate without devoting themselves to it fulltime. Also, he was interested in some of my solutions for how to motivate students to do the things you need them to do. I had some rules for grading and some other things, ways I put them into groups and so on that would get them to work together, read the material ahead of time, these kinds of things. So, it was practical stuff. And I guess that’s sort of typical. I will do what needs to get done to do it, but I’m not thinking about—I didn’t spend time writing that up for an education journal. I don’t think it was good enough for an education journal. I would have had to do more. And I wasn’t interested in doing the more that it would’ve been in order to make it a presentable paper. I was interested in doing enough to make it work in the classroom.
Meg, I’m curious about your ongoing relationship with your former Hubble colleagues. I mean, nowadays, the big line is—everybody is just thrilled and delighted that Hubble is still producing all of these amazing things. And what an incredible return on investment and who would have thought that it would have turned out this way and has lasted so long? Right? How—when you got to Yale, did you already perceive that this would be, sort of, this ongoing success story and it was useful to you to, sort of, remain connected to all of that? Or did you, sort of, let go of all of that?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think I was kind of pushed off the cliff. [laugh] I mean, it’s interesting. First of all, the physics department acted, at Yale, as if I had something. Like it was my experiment. The way, for a particle physicist, if I had been on the ATLAS experiment before, and now I came to Yale and I’m still on ATLAS. Right? That’s not—
Right. You’re their ATLAS person. You’re the Hubble person on the scene.
Yeah, yeah. That isn’t how it works at all—even if you’re at the Institute you have no advantage over anybody else in terms of using Hubble. Back to the experiment I had proposed: basically, I was pushed out by the same jerky director, who gave the leadership role to a colleague who was leading another part of the experiment, without consulting me, and then as soon as I left for Yale, the collaboration dropped me like a hot potato. No funding. No participation. When they did further downstream experiments, with essentially the same team, I was not included. In fact, for many years people would say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were involved with that experiment.” [laugh] I was like, “I invented that experiment.”
Okay. Again, it’s easy to look back and say that, but at the time when people said, “I didn’t know you were involved with that experiment,” I would think, “Yeah, was I? Was I involved with that experiment?”
It’s very demoralizing, actually. So, they dropped me. Some of my Institute colleagues told me I was only hired away because I was a woman. I did hear that. All the women got hired away. We were all miserable at the Institute. And we all got better jobs. Anne Kinney, the woman who was one year ahead of me, she ended up being—so get this hierarchy: the director of the Institute kind of works for Goddard, who works for the head of astrophysics at NASA headquarters. Well, Anne became the astrophysics head at NASA. She went from Space Telescope up several levels to be the astrophysics head. So, she was sort of the boss of the boss of the director. Another colleague went to be chief scientist at Marshall Space Flight Center. Other colleagues went to be faculty elsewhere. We all went to good jobs. And what the guys said was, “Oh, that’s because universities have to hire women.” [laugh] First of all, that’s the only reason they’d hire us because we’re obviously not worth hiring otherwise, right? And also, it was a convenient reason why they weren’t being hired away. It was tough. It was tough. So, I have good friends there but I don’t have collaborators there. I’ve been back. It’s changed a lot. They got a fourth director who really changed the culture. He asked me to chair a committee for them, which I did, which I did a lot of work there for four or five years, trying to help change the culture. And they hired a lot of young people and that did help change the culture. Hiring young scientists who are much more active and much less—and many more women. I don’t think it solved all their problems now, cause they’re on their fifth director and some of it has snapped back. Anyway, actually, it’s not your topic but culture at institutions and within professions are very long lived.
I mean, 50-year sort of time scales. And I think for an institute, whoever the first director is, is very influential. For academic departments, too, it’s often some charismatic person who imprints their personality somehow.
So, I want to ask about that. When you became chair in 2007, right? There’s two approaches to this. One is that it’s like, “Ugh, it’s my turn, fine, it’s service. I’ll do it.” And the other is, it’s a real opportunity to set an agenda, to change the way things are going. And so, I wonder if, from the beginning, you saw the possible opportunity to change things?
Yeah, absolutely, I did. I really wanted to do it. I thought there was a lot I could do.
Were you the first woman chair?
I was the first woman chair. Yeah. I was the first woman ever tenured in that department, in 2001.
It is crazy.
2001 is like, very recently. [laugh]
Like, the modern day. [laugh] Yes. And what puzzled me about it—by then I understood, in a way I hadn’t when I was the only woman in graduate school, or the only woman postdoc at MIT, say—in those days, I thought stupidly, and wrongly, that women hadn’t wanted to do physics. I thought I was a pioneer—kind of the same way Sally Ride was the first astronaut. Actually, it is similar because there were lots of women who wanted to be astronauts and they weren’t allowed to be. Until they were. So, it was more like that. But anyway, by 2001, I had figured out that if there hadn’t been any tenured women, there was something wrong. Right? They weren’t doing it right, somehow. But everybody was really nice and they all wanted me to be chair so I thought we had a lot of opportunity to make change. I thought there was a lot of goodwill toward trying to do things differently. And I have to say, I mostly failed. I failed. Yeah. I would say I failed. I failed to persuade my colleagues to do things differently. I look now at other leaders; I think of Ed Bertschinger at MIT who I think really had a big impact on his department, the physics department at MIT. He spent a lot of his time doing things that, in retrospect, I wish I’d done, to build a consensus around what our departmental values are.
Well, let’s go through this systematically then, right? Cause this is all in retrospect. What did you want to change and what were you up against?
Okay. I didn’t have it plotted and planned out in advance. I just knew that when we—for example, when we were talking about hiring, I wanted to make sure we looked at women candidates. The first five years, well, the first two years I was at Yale, I never heard any women discussed in any job search and I never saw any women give colloquia. I mean, I might have missed the one woman who came through, but I only saw men giving talks. So I knew we needed to have more women in the department. For the benefit of the students. And the science. We did things like host the CUWiP conference three years in a row, which had a huge impact on our departmental culture for undergraduates. Really, really increased the number of women that we had as undergraduates. So, there were things like that. Also, tenure cases. In six years of being chair, I had 25 reviews, for tenure, promotion, and renewals. I was stunned by how differently people talk about women and men. Stunned. In all the—
Even in unconscious ways. Not even—
Oh, it’s all unconscious. It’s all unconscious. I don’t think there’s anybody who would say women can’t do physics. One guy did tell me he didn’t think women should be forced to do physics. But mostly they’re okay.
Whatever that means.
[laugh] Yeah, right. Well, he was Russian. I said to him something about—I was interested in increasing the number of women in physics and he goes, “Well, I don’t think we should force women to do physics.” I thought, “Okay, let’s not go there. It’s just not gonna work.” But in the event, the treatment was so grossly different. We talked about experiments at the top of this conversation. Where you have a natural experiment, you have some woman come through the tenure process and it’s nitpick, nitpick, nitpick. It’s focused on magnifying the worst things you can find. Like ordering the letters from worst to best, to tank the prospects. There were other bad things—I mean people were terrible, okay? And then some guy comes through who has a weak record, who’s got big holes, and it’s the classic, “Oh, he’s a genius.” You know? “He hasn’t exactly done his genius thing yet. But his thesis was mostly a genius thing and he’s really got a genius thing about to pop, any day now.” Whereas, with a woman, she might have had a very strong record, but we had to question whether the ideas belonged to her advisors, or we had to explain away good points—“Well, she has high h-index, but she is in a big collaboration—” It was just very depressing. Demoralizing. In my first years as chair, I felt—and when I first went to Yale—I felt like I could handle anything cause I had come out of the pit of vipers that Space Telescope, which was a tough, tough environment—this was a piece of cake. A pleasant university environment with people who hadn’t had the same obstacles to overcome. So, in a way all of those obstacles had made me stronger. But then, I don’t know, as department chair, I got tired of it. I got tired of people being so biased and not being open to admitting the bias. Not understanding how they were imposing their expectations on others, to get to the conclusion they expected from the start.
Did you see this extended to underrepresented groups generally? I mean—
Absolutely. Absolutely. Oh my God.
An African-American man might have the same kind of experiences as a white woman?
Oh my God. So, we hired an African-American physicist, just before I became chair. I was on the search committee. I had wanted to recruit him. I’m not in his field, but I knew about him. And I wanted to interview him. I thought he was very impressive. I think he might have been a little apprehensive, having been at an HBCU, about coming to Yale. I remember how I felt going to Yale, a big Ivy League place—it was a little intimidating. But this guy, with a team of students, built [part of a major experiment]. With a team of undergraduates. Oh my God, that’s an incredible accomplishment.
Yeah, I know who you’re talking about.
Yeah. And my physics colleagues at Yale hadn’t done anything that difficult. Or impressive. Right?
With such limited resources and being uphill with everything.
Right. Now, we hired him, thank God. He’s doing great. And, moreover, the minute he steps in the door, every Black student in the university goes to see him. Right?
And all of that work, some of it outside the university, doesn’t get seen. Doesn’t get credited. It did when I was chair. I mean, one thing I did, was I looked at, what’s the extra work? Not the committee that is a name and you’re on it and you worry about the colloquium or something. But what are people actually doing to help build our department and our university? So, I gave people like that less additional work, because they already had a high service load. It’s just not a visible service load.
And then the instant I stopped being chair, everything changed. The new chair basically—well, one thing he did was summon the women to his office and say, “You’re not doing enough work.” [laugh] The women are like the busiest people in the department. Anyway, ugh.
Here’s what I’m having trouble with. I mean, right now we’re what, three weeks away from the #ShutDownSTEM, that amazing day where we all took a break, right? And the culture right now seems like everyone is so woke or, at least, they know enough that if they’re not, that they keep their mouths shut, right? And we’re only talking about eight years ago? Nine years ago, where these concepts are not only foreign, but there’s not even any concern that what might happen in terms of how you’re regarded by your peers if you talk like this. So, can you help me square this circle?
There’s a lot of inertia. Yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t fully recognize your description of the present day. I think, I don’t know, in fact, I’m missing a faculty meeting today, while we talk, but I will catch up later. I don’t fully know how it will go. We did just vote to not accept GRE scores in the fall. We’ve been talking about this for at least five years. When I was president of the AAS we studied it, we issued a detailed recommendation, with references to relevant studies, that you not use it, or use it very carefully. The physics department completely ignored that. Two years ago, after a huge debate in which we discussed how it’s racist and also not indicative of future performance, people voted to change it from “required” to “highly recommended.” It’s progress, but not enough progress. Our department is too slow; they don’t—some of the people in the department just don’t see any reason to change. And when you discuss the reasons you should change, such as, that it’s discriminatory, that it’s harmed our women and minority students, they just say “The GRE is good for you. It’s good for them and it worked for me.” That’s what they say. “When I took the GRE [or the qualifying exam], I learned more physics than I knew any other time.” I’ve heard that many times. And you can’t get them to consider that maybe it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Now, this vote on the GRE did surprise me, so that may be the thing you’re talking about. Maybe people have finally woken up, that it’s time to make a difference.
But I still see an amazing number of people who are absolutely unmoved. They think—if you ask them, “Are you with Black Lives Matter?” “Oh yeah, sure, yeah, I support that.” And then you ask them, “Why don’t we have Black students in our department?” “It’s cause they’re weak students and they can’t cut the mustard.” We’re arguing about the qualifying exam; that’s what the faculty meeting is. We had a long one yesterday and I said my piece, so I don’t mind missing some of today’s. But, again, you can say to them, “Look who’s always at the bottom of the qualifying exam.” It’s women and minorities who preferentially make up the bottom. And Chinese-national students who are often at the top. And I had a Chinese graduate student and he explained to me that their whole education involves doing problem set after problem set, under time pressure. He said they’re really good at it. He said, “I can ace those things. We practice until we can ace those things.” But that doesn’t mean they are automatically good at all the other things that are important for research. The idea that people use the GRE as some infallible marker is ridiculous. But I can’t get them to understand that. They just—it’s like I haven’t spoken. What’s changed is that we have hired new faculty who are more enlightened. We have seven women faculty now, and some bright young men as well, and we have a really good chair right now. And these people are changing the culture, but it’s still a minority view.
So how can you say though that you’ve failed? Why be so hard on yourself if, you know, I mean things take a long time to develop, right? Academic faculties and the way that they view the world, there’s a lot, like you said, there’s a lot of inertia. So, if there’s seven women faculty now, right? Obviously you can’t claim credit for all of that, but isn’t there enough that you did in terms of changing the culture that accounts for going from you being the first tenured woman professor in 1901—I’m sorry, I mean 2001?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I guess I have done a lot. Frankly, I think half the women wouldn’t have been hired without me pushing and at least two of them wouldn’t have been tenured—three wouldn’t have been tenured without me pushing. Even though they unquestionably deserved it.
But the bigger point is it’s not—
So, I think I did—but what I really meant was that as chair, if I were a certain kind of impervious person who was not easily wounded and/or didn’t care what people thought, I could’ve done a much better job, because I could have outthought those guys and run circles around them. And I just got tired. I got wounded and tired. And I stopped trying very hard.
But the point is, it’s not, the campaign is not to get more women physicists to get more women physicists. I mean, what you’ve been emphasizing in your own career is that you’re getting good people. And sometimes good people are women. And that’s good for the department. Isn’t that part of what you’re trying to demonstrate as well? That the diversity is valuable, but it’s not valuable to waive the flag of diversity. It’s valuable because diversity means there’s going to be different perspectives and that’s good for the science.
Absolutely, yes, and also that by artificially restricting the talent pool to one-third of the population we were not getting people who were as good as we could be getting.
And, in fact, the women we’ve hired are the superstars of the department. They’re not the only superstars, but they are way, way performing amazingly.
And they shouldn’t have to be superstars. They just have to be as good as the male professors.
Oh, yeah. We’re not there at all.
We’re not there at all.
Meg, what lessons in leadership, and even if they were negatively derived, what net lessons in leadership during your time as chair did you bring with you when you were president of AAS?
That’s a really good question. I think I did learn a lot. I mean, one of the things is you have to really listen to everybody. You can’t just do what you want to do. Especially an unwieldy thing like a professional society. You have your Council, who has to be on board, you have your various committees which are, essentially, activist groups, who want far more than you can deliver, and they have to be dealt with, and nobody’s happy and—I think I did learn I didn’t want to do it for very long. [laugh] I think I had enough, with one 4-year term. But I did see how to try to forge some consensus. And if they say—
What were the different views within AAS that needed consensus to be forged?
Yeah, there were two big crises that hit while I was president. The first was the Mauna Kea thing. The University of California tried to start building the TMT, Thirty Meter Telescope, and there were protests—a blockade—on the road to the summit of Mauna Kea. This was in 2015. And that split the Society because a lot of young astronomers think we shouldn’t be building telescopes anywhere, that mountains belong to somebody and they don’t belong to us and we should just stop building telescopes. The older people think, okay, our job as a society is to promote the aims of astronomy as delineated in our decadal surveys and that includes a TMT, so, we have to support it. And in 2015, the complaints were not only about the mountain. It was more about some disrespectful emails that two prominent astronomers had written. And, so, on one side I’m being asked to denounce those people publicly and put the sign around their necks like in Mao’s China, [laugh] you know, “Traitor to Equality” or something. Which wasn’t gonna happen. And other people were saying we should denounce TMT and so on. And then on the other side, the sort of conservative side, were saying, “We’re not doing any of this, fuggedaboutit.” And so, I just had to walk that path and figure out how to do the right thing, which was to, which I see now, was to express our values very clearly. The AAS President now is doing a wonderful job, for example, about Black Lives Matter and #ShutDownSTEM. And the AAS Board of Trustees [formerly the AAS Council] is much more nimble, they’re doing it much faster, and they’re more united around it, I would say.
But we had to deal with those issues first, and figure out a way that we could be effective. We learned we have to state our values. We have to say, “This is important to us.” That everybody must be treated with respect. I didn’t see the point in saying that what those particular people said was racist. I don’t actually think it was racist. But that’s not the point. The point is we have to speak respectfully of everyone. There’s no excuse to not be respectful. And then the other issue was about sexual harassment business. So, we had, first we had “Shirtgate.” You probably don’t even know what that is. But a guy at ESA, on camera, for their Rosetta comet landing, was wearing this shirt with half naked women with guns. [laugh] It was really wild. Very few women in the room or someone might have noticed it was inappropriate. Anyway, in retrospect, that was such a minor thing compared to Geoff Marcy being outed as a serial sexual harasser. And then dealing with subsequent reports of sexual harassment in astronomy. One of the things I’m proudest of in my time as president is that we really improved our in-person AAS meetings. We improved the code of conduct. We made it much more visible. We made people check it off when they register for meetings. We disciplined people who violated it. We had many more complaints coming in which, as you know, is a good sign because people feel safe enough to report and they know to report and where to go.
And I think that was really good. Everybody in astronomy—outside astronomy people would say to me, “What’s wrong with astronomy? You have all these problems. They’re making it into BuzzFeed articles. What the heck is wrong with you?” But really, what it was saying was, we’re a field where people feel they can speak up and where something is actually happening to deal with these egregious cases. I mean, Marcy was sort of forced to retire. And other professional societies are taking big steps. There are repercussions. And there should be.
Meg, one aspect we haven’t talked about yet is your work as a mentor to graduate students during your time at Yale. So obviously, again, some negative lessons that you’ve clearly learned from your own experience, but how would you describe your style as a mentor and what are some of the shared characteristics that some of your most successful graduate students have had?
Oh. That’s a really good question. My style has evolved, cause I had this unusual career path. So, when I came to Yale, I really didn’t have, I didn’t have a lot of graduate students previously, and I wasn’t the sole responsible person for them either. I told you, I had to borrow them from their home advisers. So, it took me a little while. I think I started out being friendly in the way that I understood things from my time at Goddard. You just treat people like scientists and they act like scientists. And in some cases that worked spectacularly well, with students who had a lot of motivation and get-up-and-go and really did remarkably well. There were other students who were less able to get moving and it took me longer to figure out what they needed and in some cases what they needed was more criticism. I was more about encouragement and I realize I needed to add in a little more criticism like, “You really need to get this done. This should be done by such and such a time. What do you need?” Blah, blah, blah. So, I learned over time that I should not be their pal. That I need to be—I’m not their pal. I have to judge them. And so, I need to figure out what they need.
And that’s another real useful insight for this gender business. I used to be irritated that many men were such lousy mentors of women essentially. They were much more willing to mentor—and were good at mentoring—the young version of themselves. And then when I became an adviser to many students, I suddenly understood that so much better. Of course, you’re a better mentor to someone who reminds you of yourself! Because you understand them and you understand what they need. For example: I found myself almost frozen when someone would say to me, “I’m not very good at physics.” Or, “I’m think of quitting graduate school.” Something like that. That happened from time to time when I was chair and talking to graduate students. But if you don’t know what the student is like, you just can’t know the right answer. Maybe the right answer is to say, “Oh, you’re gonna be great. You just need to do it.” Because they need to be encouraged. But maybe they really don’t want to do physics, in which case they should be supported in that way—told that graduate school isn’t the be all and end all, there are plenty of other things a smart person like you can do and, sure, you should go to those things. Which of those is the right answer? You can only know if you really understand that person well. And that suddenly just made it so clear to me, that’s why we’re good mentors to ourselves, essentially, and not good mentors—the farther away you get from what you’re like, the harder it is to guess what would be best for that person, what would help them the most in what they need to do. So, I haven’t solved that problem; I just am more aware of it. Actually, this circles back to lessons from my family. My father, I told you he was a chemistry professor, and his persona was like ‘tough old bastard’; that was his style. And my sister and I are both scientists; Lisa’s a biologist—we confronted him at one point. Because he used to tell us stories of his students in his group. We thought they were pretty funny because he was our hero and nothing he did could be wrong and everything. But he had four women students, none of whom finished their Ph.D. with him. And there’s this one story he told us, where he was really frustrated because the student, he said, was very good. This woman who was very good, she just couldn’t quite decide what her project should be, or something like that. And he told her she should “just piss or get off the pot.” When we were little kids we thought that was hilarious and we just used to laugh. But suddenly, when we were in graduate school, Lisa and I realized, “Oh my God. If anyone ever said that to us, we would’ve quit.”
And my father goes, “No, no, you wouldn’t have quit. You’re too smart. You’re too good.” All this stuff. And we’re like, “No, Dad. That would have been awful.” And that’s when I realized, okay, why was that his style? Because that’s how his adviser treated him and it worked really well for him. He sometimes needed a kick in the pants, I guess. So, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing about physics departments. Physics departments are mostly homogenous—or they used to be, maybe less so now—in terms of how people think. Faculty tend to have similar backgrounds. They tend to think the same way. They think that if they have an idea, asking the government for 10 billion dollars to do some experiment is perfectly reasonable. Okay? They just think the same way. So, then what happens if you have students who are different? It’s like you’re trying to teach in English and they know Swahili. I mean, you can’t communicate. And what this monoculture does is decide the outsiders are bad students. I think I have an advantage because I’m not in line with that kind of thinking. I do think differently. But I sort of sympathize with them. If you’re surrounded by people who think just like you—think of social media—you really don’t interrogate your thinking at all. And you don’t question if what you’re doing is right or sensible. So, I question everything because it looks wacky to me. But that’s because I’m an outsider or I was an outsider. I suppose I can’t really claim that now. Anyway, I think mentoring students is one of the greatest challenges faculty have. We have to work at it. We have to try really hard to do our best, but we’re never gonna be great at it, I think, if we have accepted a diverse student body because there are going to be lots of students not like us. So we need a diverse faculty to cover the bases. We owe it to our students. And the one thing I will say is that if you’re a lousy mentor, it’s your fault. It’s your fault. You have to do better. I don’t care how great a scientist you are. If you’re a lousy mentor, you’re not a great scientist. Because part of science is training the next generation. And if you’re failing at that, you have failed as a scientist. So, we shouldn’t glorify people who had a lucky discovery if they have been a lousy mentor.
Yeah. Right. So, a big question. It will be my last question on the, sort of, frustrating people side of things, right? And there’s obviously no way to test it, but I’m curious, overall, if you think that all of the problems that you endured, microaggressions, outward aggressions, general sexism, however you want to describe it, all of those moments, right? On balance, do you think that you put them to positive use? Do you think that it made you better, both in terms of your desire to prove those people wrong but, also, because you had to be better than you otherwise might naturally had been in order to demonstrate that you should be taken seriously? Or do you think that you were really held back in aggregate from all of those things and you might have even achieved more at this point had you not had all of these additional things to deal with that a white man never would have even given a second thought to?
Yeah. I’m sure it made me stronger, but at the same time—I don’t want to be too much of a whiner, but I think it’s been detrimental to my professional progress, I have to say. I think if we had no sexism, if it didn’t exist, I think my career would’ve been piece of cake. Much easier. I would’ve gotten lots more done. I would’ve had less stress. I mean, I can’t complain about where I am now. I’ve landed in a very happy place and I’ve had lots of successes. But I think someone who achieved what I achieved would have been—well, I see young men today who are sort of wafted upwards on the support from others—they’re being promoted by lots of senior wise people and they do very well. They deserve it. They’re very talented. But if I’d had an easy ride like that, I think I might have gotten more done. Yeah. And I would definitely have had many more students and many more grants. The studies show that—all those proposals I wrote for Hubble, I actually think I contributed most of the signal for why they find that women don’t get proposals approved—I think it’s because all mine were getting rejected. I think it was much harder and I also think, physically, it was very hard on me. I have migraines. I have lots of health problems that I think are stress related.
If you have a woman graduate student and she asks you, “Meg, honestly, do you think I’m gonna have it easier than you?” can you look at her with a straight face and say, “I think you will”? Or, you can’t do that?
Yes, absolutely. No, things are definitely better now than they were. And I also think it’s interesting to have been both in the astronomy and in the physics world, because I see physics today, the culture of physics today is about where astronomy was 25 years ago. And so, I see both that we’re behind, but also that we can change and improve, because astronomy has changed and improved. And I think we’re on the road to do that. I think numbers help. I think the situation of, say, African Americans in physics today is very similar numerically to my experiences as a woman in physics 40 years ago. And I know both the damage that causes, the difficulty it causes to always be alone, to always be thought to not be able to do things until you’ve proven that you can, etc., but I also know the hope that that represents. Many of today’s outsiders will succeed and they will change our field, and change it for the better. As we said a moment ago, if everyone is thinking the same way, we will discover nothing new. If I look in the mirror and have a conversation with that person in the mirror, I learn nothing. But if I talk to someone different—even someone annoying or somebody I don’t like—I might learn a lot because they think differently than I do. And that’s what science needs. Science has way too much sameness. It needs more difference. And difference, it doesn’t map one-to-one to skin color or gender or other identity, but those experiences in our society do give you a different perspective, typically. And I think, yeah, I think we’re on the cusp—you know, these thousand girls who are at the CUWiP meeting every year, that has got to have an impact. They aren’t all going into physics, per se, but they’re going into engineering and physical sciences and other things and that’s got to have an impact. What I hesitate about is, it has been really hard and I—I don’t like having to say to people, “Just tough it out.” I don’t like that. I think we have to improve faster, somehow.
Meg, let’s focus on a happier place, in a happier place, for the last part of our talk. And that is, of course, science. Right? Let’s just talk about the science. So, first of all, where is the science on supermassive black holes now, relative to 25, 30 years ago? How has the field progressed—
—and where, again, don’t check your humility at the door and just give it to me straight, where do you fit in on the advances that have been made in supermassive black holes?
Okay. I will say, that’s extremely hard. I was socialized never to brag and it’s still in there. But I’ll do my best. Okay, so, first of all, I think we’ve learned a huge amount in the last 30 years about supermassive black holes. For one thing, we thought, when I was doing my thesis, we thought that supermassive black holes were rare, they were in only a few galaxies, and those were the ones we call the active galaxies. [pause] One of the things we’ve learned is that every galaxy has a black hole. I didn’t have much to do with that. That was—those discoveries were supported by Hubble, but they weren’t my work. One of my biggest contributions is the unification idea for blazars and radio galaxies—including the idea that you could quantitatively compare parent populations to the beam populations and prove that that scheme is correct. I also did a massive amount of work on host galaxies of AGN showing that they live in perfectly normal galaxies. And that was a precursor to the discovery that there was a black hole in every galaxy, but it sort of fit in, right? Because if the galaxy that the—if you can see an AGN and it’s in a perfectly normal galaxy, and it’s just like the other galaxy that doesn’t have an AGN, then a few years later when we discover that they all probably have supermassive black holes, it all makes perfect sense.
And why does that all make sense?
Because then the growth of the black hole is just a phase. And so, when you’re looking at an ensemble of objects, some of them are in that growth phase and some are just in a dormant phase. If there were black holes only in some galaxies, those galaxies should look different. There’s a huge amount of stuff happening there that presumably wouldn’t have been happening in the other galaxies. They should look different. And they don’t. So, we should’ve known it, but like all discoveries, you don’t really know it until something else drops and—
And then my third big contribution—it started with the GOODS survey that I designed when I was still at Space Telescope. Basically, we used multiwavelength data to quantify the growth of black holes over cosmic time showing that optical/UV surveys had missed most of the growth before. This is now really clear. My latest graduate student, who just finished her PhD a year ago—she has the world’s best model now for when and where black holes grew. It’s fantastic work. And it builds on the surveys we started. I’m very proud of that work. So, what do we know about black holes now? I think there are still a few unknowns, like what were the seed black holes? We’re getting at that. They might have started as remnants of stars, in which case they’re small and they have to grow a lot. Or they might start as direct collapse of huge gas clouds, in which case their initial masses could be much bigger and they wouldn’t need to grow as much. And which of those two is correct? We don’t know. Probably both channels happen. And I would say in the next decade we’ll probably figure that out. And then, with LIGO, we’re getting a sense of what the gravitational physics is like really close to a black hole, that’s super exciting. But maybe we’re getting to the end. Maybe we’re getting to the end of sort of knowing everything. When I started in astronomy as a student, these things were still semi-fictional. Right? Black holes. [laugh]
Right. I mean, there were departments that prided themselves on not believing in black holes.
Yeah. Yeah. It was just an artifact of general relativity. It wasn’t anything nature did. But here we are. I think I came into grad school—no, I came into college right around the time when people were starting to talk about black holes powering AGN. Actually, I remember as an undergraduate reading a series of papers about what quasars were—I think I read every paper written about quasars at that time, mid-1970s. There weren’t that many—maybe 100 or so. And now we know a huge amount. We know a huge amount more.
I like to think about a pie chart, the components that drive progress, that drive discovery. So, you have the hard work, the day in and the day out. You have the funding. You have the luck and the serendipity. You have the moments of genius, or insight, your eureka moments. And then you have the technology, right? So, in assessing how much we now know about black holes, what do you see as the most, the largest slices of that pie chart? What have been the most important factors?
Wow. [pause] Well. I’d have to think about it for a long time to order them properly. I will say technology’s important because suddenly you can see things you couldn’t possibly see before. So, the advance in space telescopes has been phenomenal. And that really, probably, contributes enormously to what I’ve been able to do. Just having newer, better, greater data. I don’t think much about the—I don’t think too highly of the eureka moments. I’ve had very few moments where you’re like, “Puzzle, puzzle, puzzle. Oh!” It seems much more incremental, putting things together, over time. I think—
So that’s the hard work. That’s the day in and the day out.
Yeah, the day in and the day out, I guess. Yeah, it’s not—yeah. It’s, at the time you’re doing it doesn’t necessarily feel inspired, when you’re doing it. But when you look back you think, “Oh, yeah, look at that. I made progress. Significant progress.” But it doesn’t—it’s more like a ramp than a sudden leap. [pause]
In astrophysics, I think it works particularly well. Everybody sees that they’re contributing in a particular way to the overall understanding, right? Whether you want to call the great identified theory—
Yeah, there is more of that. Yeah.
Right? So, to the extent that everybody is do…their research is sort of all building toward this generalized understanding of how the universe works and how it started and where it’s going, right? What do black holes contribute to that overall story?
Hmm. I think a couple of things. I think one is that black holes validate certain physics laws. If I were a physicist in 1915, assuming I could understand Einstein’s paper or, you know, the Schwarzschild solution, I might have thought that was nonsense, right? And that’s a little bit what I mean about theory and astrophysics as always, kind of, you know people can also talk about wormholes and other exotic things that are allowed by existing theory. Or strings, you mentioned. That are allowed by existing theory, but who knows if they exist? So, I think actually discovering what exists and how it works is really interesting. It kind of validates the physics. And also, isn’t knowledge—I mean, just knowledge—and here, this goes back to what my dad said was so important, new knowledge—isn’t that, in a way, our legacy? I think it is. I think it’s what we leave to the next generation. They may think it is trivial and they’ll have some other more complicated thing to solve, but yeah, I think building on what we know is always a positive thing. [pause] I had some other thought about what it was worth, but now I’ve forgotten—oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah: there’s an advantage to black holes because everybody thinks they’re really cool. I’ve kind of lost that. You know, it’s kind of hard to—like you don’t wake up and go, “Oh! Black holes, cool.” No. To me, black holes now seem very routine. But the—
They’re publicly accessible. I mean people don’t know what they are but they’ve heard of them.
Yeah. I don’t know if you ever do The New York Times news quiz. The weekly thing.
Yeah, sure. Sure.
I do it every week. And I’m always curious what percentage of people get the answer right. If it’s about Kim Kardashian, it’s more than 90 percent. If it’s about which Eastern Europe country just had an election, it’s 50-ish percent, or something. But, the week that the Event Horizon Telescope released its result on M87—the first shadow of a black hole—100% understood what that image was. Every single person knew what the picture was. For a science result.
It’s the only time I’ve ever seen 100% in The New York Times quiz.
Isn’t that amazing?
So that’s also something black holes do. I didn’t go into it for that reason, but the fact that it’s a connection to public appreciation of science I think is really a neat thing.
Yeah. So, I want to ask one, sort of, current events question before my last question which is more forward looking and that is—we touched on this very briefly before—what do you see as some of the positive ways that scientists can more effectively communicate, generally, about their work? You know, I think that there’s so many crises that are emanating from coronavirus right now, and certainly one of them is this really horrifying disconnect between really basic science about wearing a mask, right? Really fundamental, you don’t have to under—people know to cover their mouth when they sneeze, so this is not like major leaps of faith and it really does suggest much broader issues than who’s in the White House right now, right? And, so, to the extent that part of this has been on the scientists themselves, it’s not—there is a two-way street, in terms of this disconnect with a wide swath of the American public. What do you see as some important and productive ways that this can serve as a wake-up call to the scientific community, generally? Pandemic or not, the importance of communicating not only the importance of what you do, but the relevance of this work to, quote unquote, everyday normal Americans.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think the pandemic has brought it into stark relief. But I would say that almost every scientist I know has been worrying about this problem for at least a decade, if not two. Probably more than two. But certainly, for the last two decades we’ve been having this battle between how we see ourselves as scientists—we see ourselves as discoverers of truth that exists. Many non-scientists look at science as just another kind of religion. You know: a set of beliefs that you chose, and your beliefs are no better than my beliefs. So, I think we’ve known about this disconnect for a very long time. I think the foundations for the problem were laid, in a way—sorry for the big arc thing, but scientists saving the world in World War II led to 50 years of sustained support for science from U.S. governments, with no need to persuade anybody in the public about anything. And that changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago, really. That was the moment at which suddenly scientists found that their work was not that central after all—that Congress didn’t care much about science at all. They were just trying to support people who could build bombs. And now that we don’t need the bombs, support for y’all is gonna drop. And that really has been a 30-year saga.
And I think it took people awhile, but over the last two decades I think young people in science are mostly raised to communicate effectively. And some of that is because it’s more important now than it ever was before. Some of it’s because there are more avenues—everybody can write a blog, start a podcast, whatever—there’s many, many places where science is communicated. So, I think we’re doing better, but we have ossified into a—well, tribes of anti-vaxxers, people who don’t believe in climate change, people who ignore scientific data. You know, Exxon-Mobil believes in climate change but they wouldn’t admit it for 40 years, right? So, how do we navigate that? I think—I don’t have a solution to the tribal part, the political polarization is—I’m like at a loss for how to solve that. Maybe in some odd way the crisis of the pandemic will help. This morning, I actually started typing an op-ed for CNN about how scientists like to do experiments and we have inadvertently created an experiment where the U.S. is one condition and Europe is another condition and—let’s examine, and so on.
I don’t know whether I’ll finish that. But my point is that I think we can try to do this, but there’s a deeper problem—you know, for 40 years, certain politicians have been trying to undermine faith in institutions. I grew up with faith in institutions. Like government. Like libraries. Like teachers. Universities. And what was the story this morning in the Times? Oh, oh, right, it was a gentleman whose son had been killed in Afghanistan as one of these Russian hit jobs.
And what the—I don’t want to pick on this poor man whose son died, I guess a year ago. But, the lesson he learned from that is to trust government less. Not that any specific person in government or entity had let him down, but that government was worthless. And I think that’s a long—now there’s generations, two generations who’ve been raised with that kind of Reagan-esque viewpoint—“The worst thing you can”—what did he say? “The worst thing you can—"
“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
[laugh] “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” That’s it. I mean, so scientists are caught up in that because we are very dependent on government support for our work. One of the things I tell my Yale students, they don’t know this, I tell them—I have to write a grant. And then I say, “Do you know what I’m writing that grant for? I’m writing that grant so that I can get enough money to pay a salary to my graduate student. So that that student can learn how to be a good physicist.”
I said, “I’m not buying a Maserati. I’m not having a dinner party. None of that money goes to me for anything. It’s all helping train people to do science, in basically in the cause of the nation or the world.” And to them, that’s total news. These are smart Yale students. It’s like, really? They have no idea how it works.
So, I guess I haven’t answered your question at all and I’ve meandered but I think we absolutely have to do a better job. And we have to put more value in it. I mean, again, talk about physics culture. Traditionally, outreach is considered a negative, right? One of my really brilliant female colleagues, at one of her reviews, the guy who should’ve been her mentor and biggest booster basically said, “Well, she’s doing very well in spite of all the outreach she does.” What he should’ve said is, “She’s doing an amazing job. Not only is she succeeding in her science, beyond our wildest dreams, but she manages to do that while running an outreach program for middle school girls and running this and that and the other thing.” That’s how we should look at it. But we look at it as a deficit. Physicists see outreach as a negative. “You’re wasting time on that. You could’ve written another paper.” That’s wrong. We have to have a more holistic view of what people contribute.
Meg, for my last question, I want to ask, what else do you want to do in your career? As a scientist, as a, I don’t know if activist is the right word, even though it might be a lowercase ‘a’, activist, right? What are the things, first, scientifically that continue to excite you and engage you and you think are worth your time and effort? And then what do you want to do on the sociological side because, as we both know, right, that the games that have been made—first of all, there can always be backtracking and, second, whatever those games are, they need to be built upon because they’re not, by any means, fully realized? So, I wonder if you could speak to both of those things in terms of your ongoing goals looking to the future?
Yeah. Well, scientifically I’m excited about some new information that we’re getting. Like the eROSITA satellite, for example, is an X-ray satellite that will be doing the first all sky deep survey since 30-40 years ago. So, new information that’s all about black holes growing. We’ll be able to go to much higher redshift [greater distances], maybe address these issues of early black hole growth, etc. I think that’s really cool. I like the idea of—I love having students and postdocs, especially students though. Training them to think and question their results and—I really enjoy that. So, I kind of have a short time horizon and I don’t really think ten years out; I just think about what’s interesting now. But I vote with my feet. So, I’m thinking about what is it I actually want to do? I want to make my profession better. I do want to make my profession better. And whether that means my department, my university; I’ve just been elected to our faculty senate and the executive council. I want to make sure we do better in terms of—I think we have a lot of good values at Yale and especially the administration is pretty evolved. But we don’t put our money where our mouth is. We don’t actually get it done. Yeah. So, there are a lot of things I think we could do better and I want to try to help make those things happen. [pause] Yeah. I have about a five-year horizon, max, I think. And then we’ll see. Then we’ll see what happens. I mean, one of the things in science is things change rapidly.
And, there was just a paper today I saw on—I saw it on press release about finally explaining those first two merging black holes, the first LIGO result. They were a weird mass and these guys have a good explanation for that mass. That’s really interesting. I love seeing us make actual, real progress in understanding the universe. And I want to contribute in my own little way to that, you know?
Meg, it’s been awesome speaking with you. I really want to thank you for spending the time with me.
Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.