‘The Sky is for Everyone’: Yale women astronomers share their stories

Cover of “The Sky Is for Everyone.”

The story of women in astronomy is not simply a tale of the planets they’ve discovered and the black holes they’ve mapped. It is a history filled with persistence and personal triumphs.

The Sky is for Everyone,” a new book published by Princeton University Press, tells a bit of that history.

In the book, more than three dozen leading women astronomers tell their personal stories of scientific success over the past 50-plus years. Among them are two revered Yale astrophysicists, C. Megan Urry and Priyamvada Natarajan. Urry is the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics. Natarajan is a professor of astronomy and physics, director of Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, and incoming chair of the Department of Astronomy in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Natarajan and Urry spoke with Yale News about their involvement in “The Sky is for Everyone.”

What was your initial reaction to the invitation to write about your life and career?

Priyamvada Natarajan: I was intrigued by this project led by [co-editors] Virginia Trimble and David Weintraub to document the personal journeys of women astronomers. What was unusual about their request when they reached out to me was the ask — for an account of my trajectory, that went beyond just my intellectual contributions and professional history but also mapped my personal path. I was honored to be asked as I do not feel old enough yet to look back, examine, and reminisce. I always imagine that phase to be a couple of decades away.

C. Megan Urry: I was pleased to be asked and very interested to do it but had to decline because of too many other obligations. Then COVID slowed everything down, and the editors gave me another deadline that I was able to meet. Actually, I went way overboard. The piece was supposed to be 3,000 words. My first draft was 18,000 words, which I edited down to about 11,000. Then I asked David Weintraub, “What should I do?” He was so encouraging, as the best editors are. He took a stab at cutting it to about 3,500 words, and then I messed with that version, adding back a bit but cutting some other stuff. But that has really inspired me to write more, if I can find the time.

How important is it, to you, to preserve the history of women in astronomy?

Urry: You know, it’s such a rich story, starting with women astronomers from hundreds of years ago, whose names I didn’t learn until long after I entered the field. I was always so hungry to hear about women doing astronomy. And although women have made a lot of progress, we still haven’t reached parity (and physics has stalled out far from parity). So, I think there is a real need for these stories. All the different backgrounds, the different ways people came to science, the obstacles they did or didn’t encounter, the joys of the work we do — it could mean a lot to younger people looking for someone they can relate to or aspire to be.

Natarajan: Though women have played a very important role in the history of astronomy and have made significant scientific contributions, they have not been adequately recognized and celebrated. Preserving a rich history of astronomy that includes their invaluable contributions is essential to make the field open, inviting, inclusive, and diverse today and going forward.

In addition to serving as a record, I think diverse personal stories, the multiplicity of ways by which we have all ended up where we are following our passion for science and the universe, stand to inspire. We may all look different, may have been born in very different circumstances, and may have had very different obstacles on our journeys. But in the end, we are united by our shared sense of curiosity and wonder. I found it fascinating to learn more about the life stories and personal backgrounds of many of my women colleagues. I realized that while I am aware of their intellectual work, I really did not know how they got started on their journeys, what motivated them when they were younger, and what drives them today. I found these intimate portraits to be moving, meaningful, and truly remarkable.

What was the writing process like for each of you? Were there incidents that you were reluctant to revisit?

Urry: I just sat down in a few sessions over about a week, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote — it just poured out. About why I became a scientist, and what things nearly prevented me from getting there. A lot of it had to do with my parents and the way they were curious about nature. Both were trained in science; my father was a chemistry professor and my mother did a zoology degree — though they just seemed normal, not overtly science-y. As for difficulties — and there definitely were quite a few — in my head, I’ve turned most of those into funny stories, with punch lines.

Natarajan: The writing process was not easy. I found it surprisingly hard to write as I have been fortunate to have a full, rich life so far filled with many ups and downs, filled with many lucky breaks and hard-earned victories that have impacted my advance through the profession. As I mention in my piece, I have dealt with a lot of unanticipated challenges, and it was hard to figure out what merited mentioning. And oh yes — while it was problematic to figure out what all to include and mention as memorable events, pivotal moments, and fortuitous circumstances that have critically shaped my journey, there have been incidents that I was definitely reluctant to revisit as I feel I still need more time to process them (like a couple of decades more as noted before!).

Had you done any autobiographical writing previously?

Natarajan: I have done a little bit of autobiographical writing previously, especially when I have written for a broader audience. But nothing comprehensive. For example, when I framed the preface for my 2016 book “Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos,” I charted how I fell in love with the cosmos as a young girl growing up in India. And oftentimes in my regular essays for The New York Review of Books, I weave in personal narratives if they are relevant. But I never imagined that my professional colleagues would be interested in my life story as it were.

Urry: The closest thing was an interview I did with the American Institute of Physics a couple of years ago — or, now that I think about it, another interview, 20 years ago, with a Danish journalist. Both interviewers brought up a lot of memories about crazy things that happened to me, so I realized I had a lot to say.

What do you want readers to come away with after reading the book?

Urry: First, how different each chapter was from the next, and how fascinating they all are. These are brief stories of truly interesting people, many of whom I already knew but some of whom — especially the younger ones — I did not. Astronomy naturally attracts interest, so I imagine this book will find a broad audience. I want readers to see the beauty of nature and the drive that women, in particular, must have in order to succeed. It’s far from the cliché of astronomers looking through telescopes, shouting, “Eureka.” There is a lot more routine work involved, and the same petty politics you find everywhere. But I expect the inescapable message will be that we authors — despite the hard work, despite the obstacles — love our work and feel privileged to be able to spend our lives contemplating the heavens.

Natarajan: As I mentioned earlier, I found the book deeply inspiring. I think readers will see that there are many ways to become accomplished scientists, many paths traditional and non-traditional to be successful, content, fulfilled, and excited about a life of the mind. I hope our diverse accounts telegraph that one just needs to dare to dream — the sky is for truly for everyone.

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