Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.
The Sky is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words is a newly published collection of autobiographical excerpts from renowned women in astronomy, detailing their challenges and triumphs in this historically male-dominated field. It features two prominent Yale astrophysicists: Meg Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Priyamvada Natarajan, Joseph C. and Sofia C. Futon Professor of Astronomy and Physics and Director of Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities.
In her chapter titled “The Gentlemen and Me,” Dr. Urry speaks about the few times this field felt unwelcoming. As one of two women in her graduate astronomy program, she was never invited to weekly study sessions and was cruelly pranked with a Playgirl magazine by her male classmates. Dr. Natarajan’s chapter focuses on her background, work, and personal journey through academia and how her love for science developed.
What was your reaction when asked to contribute to this book?
Urry: I actually told them I couldn’t do it at first, but then shortly after Covid hit, while I was sitting at home, I was reflecting about where I was and how I’d gotten there and thought, “Wow, this is really something I’d like to do.”
Natarajan: I was very honored but also kind of surprised and intrigued because they made it explicit that they wanted something about my personal experience and journey, and I didn’t think that would be something of interest.
What was your writing process?
Urry: In two days, I’d actually written eighteen thousand words while the editors had only wanted three thousand. So, I spent time cutting it down—the whole process actually inspired me to write and tell more of my stories.
Natarajan: I like writing, and I do a lot of different kinds of it, but it was very challenging because I don’t ever write explicitly about myself… It was also interesting to go over my path and look back—I tend not to reminisce much as there is so much more science that I want to do.
Why do you think these stories are important?
Urry: Sadly, I think it’s because there hasn’t been enough change. When I came to Yale in 2001, I was the only woman in the physics department faculty. Now we have six so there’s been a positive change there, but I still hear younger women talking about similar experiences [that I talk about in the book].
Natarajan: It was quite amazing to hear about how others had found their way into academia and what motivates them. It’s so important for people to see that there’s no one way to be a scientist…. But what’s really sobering is that you can see that a lot of women have had more challenging paths through intellectual life [than men], and it’s important to see all the different kinds of struggles and how they persevered for the love of the subject.