Sunday, March 31, 2013

happy birthday, joan feynman

Today is the 85th 86th birthday of astrophysicist Joan Feynman.* If her name sounds familiar, it's because she has a very famous brother, the late Nobel prize-winning, Manhattan-project-building, quantum-electrodynamics-defining, O-ring-demonstrating, bongo-drum-playing physicist, Richard Feynman. Until this week, I had not known that Richard had a sister, nor that she was an accomplished physicist in her own right. I learned a bit about her, though, as I read the fantastic graphic novel, Feynman, which beautifully illustrates Richard's life and work. In the book, we meet Joan as a young girl in the early 1940s who revels in the scientific magic her older brother deftly demonstrates for her at home. We also learn, however, that Joan is actively discouraged from pursuing her scientific passions because her mother feels "women's brains are psychologically incapable of doing science."

As you might imagine, my interest at this point was indubitably piqued. So I ambled on over to Wikipedia to see what it would tell me about Ms. Joan Feynman. There was a loud sigh of frustration as I discovered her article was but a stub, just a few sentences long with barely any detail about her life and accomplishments.

After a little digging, I found that Feynman had indeed gone on to become a well-respected astrophysicist specializing in interactions between Earth and the solar wind. Among her biggest contributions to her field were key studies on the nature of coronal mass ejections, auroras, solar storms, and effects of the sun on climate change. Make sure to check out the wonderful clip above, by the way, of Joan explaining how she originally came to marvel at auroras...

Joan and Richard at the beach

I also read a compelling tale of how young Feynman drew strength from an astronomy book she'd received from her big brother. She could barely understand it at first, but with Richard's encouragement, she eventually made her way through. And when Feynman realized that one of the graphs in a later chapter was based on the work of pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin, she gained new resolve in her dream of becoming a scientist herself.

Feynman would go on to face plenty of discrimination on her way toward becoming a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, from where she retired a decade ago. But she displayed steadfast determination, and in so doing, carved out an important spot in the history of astrophysics.

After learning all of this, I decided a few days ago to beef up Joan Feynman's Wikipedia article. After all, just as she was once inspired by Cecilia Payne, so some other young budding scientist might be inspired by her story... After considerable expansion, the article has now been nominated for inclusion in the "Did You Know?" section on Wikipedia's main front page. So on this special occasion, I suggest you head on over to Feynman's shiny new Wiki and read all about her!

Happy birthday, Joan, and thanks so much for all you've done for science and for humanity.

*UPDATE: Since publishing this piece last night, I've traded a few emails with the lovely Dr. Feynman, who is doing well. She was delighted about the new Wikipedia page, but also informed me that her birth date was a year off! And so, both the Wiki page and this here post are now up to speed. (Fear not, my fellow Wikimedians, I found a citation!)