Speaker My name is Wendy Friedman and I'm an astronomer on the faculty at the University of Chicago.

Speaker Do you want me to say more because I can say what I do or that's a title.

Speaker OK, I'm Wendy Friedman and I work at the University of Chicago on the faculty of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Speaker What was that? I think that's great and we'll get you some of your discoveries after. Yes.

Speaker So you're a you were a trailblazer in your own right. Tell us why you chose this career and how did you how far back does the interest in astronomy go for you? Is it something that you you had as a child or is it something that came to you later in life? Was.

Speaker So if I look back on my life, it's obvious to me why I became an astronomer. I was fascinated by the night sky when I was a child. I was fascinated by the planets. My father had an interest in astronomy. He certainly sparked my interest. But I didn't know that there were such things as professional astronomers. I just didn't have any inkling of how one would go about being an astronomer and how it would be possible for me to do that. And when I look back, I say in retrospect, I know that that's what I wanted to do, but it wasn't obvious when I was going forward at all.

Speaker So how did you what was the group after you?

Speaker I was always interested in science as a child. I had a chemistry, said I had a biology dissection set and I would sit in my basement and do experiments, science experiments. And I love the night sky, read every book on astronomy on the shelf in our public library. And and so by the time I got to high school, I realized I had an interest in science. But I also loved history. I love mathematics. I love drama. I loved a lot of things. And it wasn't clear to me what I would do professionally. But by the end of high school, I knew that I wanted to do science and I really liked biology and I liked physics. And again, I didn't know how to become an astronomer. It was more of a hobby for me, even though I was fascinated by it. So it wasn't until I got to university and I took a course in astronomy because I loved it. And I also took physics because I loved it. And I realized the marriage of those two subjects was really what I wanted to do.

Speaker So what are the discoveries that you're known for? And can you tell us a little bit about your research?

Speaker I'm known in my own research for making measurements of a quantity called the Hubble Constant. It's a measure of how fast the universe is expanding at the current time. And that quantity allows us to measure how old the universe is. And it's a measure of how big the universe is.

Speaker Sorry I forgot the second part of your question and.

Speaker So that's your research, your discoveries?

Speaker When I started out in this field, there was a big debate at the time about how old the universe was and the debate was, is the universe 10 billion years old or is it 20 billion years old? And it was actually a rather contentious debate. I had been going on for several decades. And with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope for the first time, we were able to get outside of the Earth's atmosphere and make very precise measurements that had not been possible from telescopes on on Earth. And so I'm I'm known for resolving this debate, making a measurement of the universe, which is about thirteen point seven billion years between the values of 10 and 20 billion years that people have been arguing about before that time.

Speaker Can you describe for us if you feel like you've experienced any specific challenges and I science field, especially astronomy as a.

Speaker I think I'm the kind of person who tends to look at a glass as half full and not half empty. I think there have been challenges in my career and some of those perhaps have been because I am a woman in a field where not very many women, when I entered the field, had come into the field. I think the opportunities for women of my generation have been far greater than women in the past. And for that I'm very grateful, which isn't to say that we don't have a long way to go. And the numbers of women in the field, the numbers are climbing, which I think is great. But in the top ranks and the positions, tenured positions, full professors at universities, those numbers still are low relative to the numbers of women coming into the field. So there have been hurdles along the way, but I've had many opportunities to lead a major observatory to lead this major project with the Hubble Space Telescope, to lead a project to build the world's largest optical telescope. I feel very grateful for the role that I've been able to play.

Speaker As you know, the title of our project is Unladylike 20 20, and that title was really kind of derived from a woman in the Progressive Era who was a journalist who basically always and kind of said, I do not want to be I don't want anyone to have an expectation that I'm going to perform in a lady like way.

Speaker And the whole idea of what lady like was, I think, especially in that time period, was that women were defined by primarily domestic roles in marriage and as mothers not to take anything away from those functions. So we're we're describing women who broke out of that war with great intentionality to do so. So what would what is your definition of unladylike and how do you feel like that may resonate in your life?

Speaker I think the the name unladylike is very interesting. And I think I certainly went into a field where there weren't very many ladies.

Speaker I had a grandmother who grew up at the time where women were in the home.

Speaker She was mathematically very gifted. She ran her father's business.

Speaker But her concern for me and I think it was a genuine concern was no one would ever want to marry me if I went into this profession or unladylike and and why would I want to do something like that when I could have a home and a family and husband and and I was driven by a real passion for the subject. I loved what I did and I couldn't see giving it up unladylike for me as I would go to mountaintops, remote mountaintops in the Chilean Andes or fourteen thousand foot peaks at Monacan, Hawaii and Chile. There were scorpions and tarantulas. And my grandmother would say there are no stories. How could you go to a place where there were no stores? And I would go to the top of the mountain, mount up and I'd be using these large telescopes and I'd be studying the universe and I couldn't imagine being happier. And so for me, unladylike, I think you have to pursue things that interests you. And by the way, to my grandmother's pleasure, I did find a husband. I did have children. And I don't think you have to sacrifice one for the other. I think that's what's really changed.

Speaker So we're talking about the period of 18, 19, 20, more than 100 years ago. What do you think it was like for women in science in that period, in astronomy in particular?

Speaker We're looking at the time period, the 80s, 90s and 1920s, women didn't have opportunities in astronomy at that time in the sense of they were not admitted to universities, they could not get graduate degrees in astronomy. There were no graduate programs that accepted women. And the the idea that a woman would become a full professor or be an actual researcher in astronomy with her own program and and do what men did at the time was unheard of. There weren't opportunities to do that. And so there was a period when Edward Pickering, who became director at Harvard, began to hire women who he recognized were mathematically gifted, but they were hired at fractions. Twenty five to 50 percent, half of the salaries of men doing the same work at the time. And they weren't granted degrees in their own right. They didn't have their own observing programs, but they turned out to be really gifted scientists in their own right.

Speaker So what about astronomy at that time period? What you're talking about, obviously, very the field has changed a lot technologically relative to the telescopes that are available to you now versus what was available then. So what would the technology have been like and what was being studied at that time?

Speaker So around the turn of the last century, astronomy was very different. At the time, astronomers were interested in cataloging stars and measuring the positions, taking spectra, and is dispersing the light of a star into a rainbow and measuring the features in those spectra. And those features are chemical signature signatures of of the abundances of the elements that are present in the stars.

Speaker People didn't understand at the time how to explain these spectra completely. That came in the 1920s with the understanding of quantum mechanics and actually a woman by the name of Cecelia Pink Aposhian at Harvard who who correctly interpreted the spectra. But at the time, cataloging those spectra and making maps of the entire visible universe was what preoccupied the astronomers of the day.

Speaker So as you mentioned, because of the fact that women were not admitted into into universities to a large degree. Absolutely. It was very rare for women to be in graduate programs. So how rare would it have been for women to be participating in the sort of studies that you're describing at a professional level?

Speaker It was very rare for women to be involved in astronomy and astronomical discoveries in the late eighteen hundreds, early nineteen hundreds. And so it was very unusual that Edward Pickering hired a number of women, which were called computers, because they did computations. It predated actual computers. Some people referred to these women as Pickering's Herot, which was a derogatory way of describing the work that these women did. Much of it was fundamental. And to this day we rely on the discoveries that were made by these women early on. But the opportunities were very limited and it was felt that women didn't have the strength, the stamina to go out to telescopes and the cold and do observing.

Speaker So they couldn't possibly be actual professional astronomers. And I think Pickering also realized he could hire many more women because he could pay them lower salaries to do the work that that men had done in the past.

Speaker Can you just for one second about this is, you know, kind of a little off script, but there were so many. Kind of false assumptions and stereotypes that were promoted about why women couldn't participate in science, for example. That if women's brains got to develop, then they couldn't have children or so what what were some of the kind of underlying ideas that were. Suggested about why women shouldn't be involved in science or astronomy.

Speaker There were a lot of opinions that were expressed at the time about why women couldn't do science or couldn't do astronomy, somehow if you educated women and their brains were developed, that they would be able to have children. And there were this many hurdles that were placed in front of women that said you can't do these things. And in fact, they persisted.

Speaker When I first started observing at the Palomar telescope, the Hale telescope, two hundred inch telescope in California, Southern California, the decade before women had been told, you can't observe because there are no restrooms for women at the observatory.

Speaker And somehow, I think, you know, airplanes solve this problem. You have one restroom and people use it one at a time and you don't have to have a special restroom for women. But these barriers have been placed all along as if somehow this isn't a ladylike thing for women to do. Independent of talent, of course.

Speaker I'm sorry. So these barriers have been placed and it's been suggested that these rules are unladylike, but it had nothing to do with the talent of these women.

Speaker When did you first learn about it and what impression did her story?

Speaker I probably learned about Wilhemina Fleming soon after I was in graduate school, and it would have been in the context of the work that I was doing to measure the distances to galaxies and the expansion rate of the universe. And all of that work is premised on the type of a star. It's called a suffit variable. And one of the other computers who had worked for Edward Pickering was named Henrietta Swann Levitt. And she's the person who discovered the relationship between how bright a Soviet star is and how fast the star is changing in its brightness.

Speaker And that discovery is fundamental. It's it's it's the basis of everything that we do now in observational cosmology, measuring the size scale of the universe, measuring the the acceleration now of the universe, how we measure distances. And so I became interested in these computers. I read about them the discoveries of Cecilio paying Aposhian and Wilhemina Fleming and her role as curator and leading this group of women.

Speaker So tell us as much as you know about her life. I think I mean, you've mentioned Edward Charles Pickering. I think it is. Unusual, maybe not that unusual, but that Wilhemina Fleming started working for Edward Charles Pickering as a maid. So can you talk a little bit about her evolution from May to. Doing clerical work to actually be a leader within the within the observatory.

Speaker So what I mean, Fleming actually started out as a maid in Edward Pickering's home and that the law is a little her talent. She was actually a schoolteacher in her native Scotland, came over to the US and was abandoned by her husband very early on when she was pregnant. And she found herself having to support eventually her new family on her own.

Speaker And it was Edward Pickering's wife who recognized that this was a woman who actually was quite bright and encouraged her husband to hire Wilhemina Fleming. And so she started off, she began working with photographic plates of William Pickerington even before he was using photography and cataloging the objects.

Speaker Eventually, she became curator of all of the photographic plates and spectra that were being taken as part of the Harvard program. And in her own right, she made numerous discoveries. She discovered stars that appear out of nowhere. They're called novae. We now understand that they're brightening of a star at a certain period in their evolution. She discovered something called the Horsehead Nebula, which is a beautiful dark patch, and our Milky Way, where there is dust and probably young stars about to form that block the light. But that silhouette, it looks like a horsehead. She won many prizes in her own right. She was recognized as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London. That time, there were no actual women who were fellows of the Royal Society, and Pickering nominated her for various awards. And by the time she rose up in the ranks, she was running the entire Harvard computing group. She was working six days a week, very long hours for very little salary. Pickering did recognize her scientific achievements. He always acknowledged her and promoted her for recognition, but at the same time paid her very, very little. And but she was extraordinary. She she, at the end of her life, was editing every publication that came out of the Harvard Observatory. So in addition to making her own scientific discoveries and running this group, so she was quite a phenomenal woman.

Speaker And tell us a little bit.

Speaker Tell us a little bit about the Harvard Observatory in terms of its importance relative to this growing field of the Harvard College Observatory, took on this fundamental task of mapping the heavens, essentially every visible star that could be measured and taking spectra, classifying them.

Speaker And that really became the foundation for understanding the physics, the astrophysics of stars, what their chemical compositions are eventually led to the understanding of the evolution of stars. And and it was the pioneering work of people at Harvard that made that possible. And the work of these computers that did the analysis of all of these spectra that were taken.

Speaker So coming back to Pickering in this picture right here on.

Speaker It's kind of interesting when we look at now that kind of whole phenomenon, you know, the hidden figures of women and and looking at the women that were hired at Harvard, you mentioned that he observes that women had a certain mathematical aptitude. So how would he have been able to identify those women or know them? I mean, how would considering that time period? How would he have I mean, obviously, his wife identified with Amelia Fleming. But in terms of the other women you hired, how would he have discovered them or known they did have this mathematical aptitude?

Speaker Well, I think Pickering really was ahead of his time in the sense that he was able to recognize talent in women mathematical talent. And I think he started off I believe one of the first computers was the daughter of the director of the Harvard College Observatory. So he would have known of her, probably been familiar with the fact that she did well in school and, um, again, hired women, paying them very low salaries. There wasn't much risk. And then discovered, gee, these women really were talented. And he hired a number of them who became famous in their own right to this day.

Speaker So we now call the Levit Law, this relationship that allows us to measure distances using Suffield variables. It's the Levit law.

Speaker And I think that he really was ahead of his time in recognizing that women were very talented in mathematical abilities.

Speaker So coming back to warming up, she did create a system of classification relative to these. These stories that she helped to discover. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of that system?

Speaker Yeah, so what we did was to look at the spectrum on these photographic plates and recognize there were these spectral features that had been observed, for example, in the sun. And and there was a classification system, essentially alphabetical classification, according to the the appearance of these spectral lines, lines in the spectra. And so by going through them systematically and recognizing that there were patterns, it became possible eventually to interpret these spectra as the physical characteristics in the stars themselves. So not simply these were lines that but we could learn about the temperatures of the stars, the masses of the stars, the chemical compositions of the stars, the velocities, the motions of the stars. All were possible with these spectra. And so the what became, for example, the Henry Draper catalog came out of the Harvard College Observatory was a reference for all astronomers that they could use to compare any new objects that they had studied. Some of them were varying with time so you could compare the photographic record that hadn't been possible before photography. And so it was really the work of Wilhemina Fleming and her colleagues, these computers, who made that possible painstaking work. It took years and years of effort, decades.

Speaker Would you say that there's some residual benefit from that work, that there is it still being used in some form today?

Speaker Oh, absolutely. This work is still being used today. The classification of those spectra remains and it evolved over time. In fact, other of the computers and Tony Amaury, for example, began to realize you could reorder the spectra in terms of their properties, which we later understood to be a sequence and in temperature. And we use that classic's classification system today, right till this day.

Speaker So, again, coming back to kind of the evolution that we observed.

Speaker We observe in our.

Speaker Moving to the United States, being abandoned almost the instant that she arrived by her husband being pregnant. And basically from kind of starting with nothing to, uh, really all of these achievements that she was able to accomplish.

Speaker So what would you how would you describe her drive in terms of.

Speaker Um, that really allowed her to see herself in all of these frames of possibility.

Speaker It's very clear from what Wilhemina Flemyng accomplished and her rise from being a school teacher coming over to a new country, being abandoned almost immediately by her husband, raising a son who eventually went off to MIT, doing this all on her own and then run effectively running the observatory and making discoveries in her own right, becoming editor of the publications that came out of the observatory. This was a determined woman training new computers who came in and yeah, her her legacy, I think lives on. And what we use today, astronomers today, and she accomplished a great deal. And yet today she, I suspect, is not known by most astronomers.

Speaker Why do you think that is?

Speaker It's an interesting question as to why many of these computers we don't remember today, I think partly it has to do with she didn't have very many publications that we could refer to now in the way, for example, Henrietta Leavitt had a publication in 1998 that was very influential. We still reference that today. So I think a lot of the work of some of the computers got unrecognized and just got buried in history. And and even those who had publications, I'd say it's only in the last 10 or 20 years that people have remembered again and some of these names have resurfaced, but they did get buried for a long time.

Speaker Can you talk a little bit about the of women who work together and their camaraderie and how. In some ways, they had kind of an informal professional society or support system.

Speaker Yeah, as far as I know, these women really got along very well. They spent their days together. I think they were supportive of each other. It was hard work for which they weren't often recognized. And and many of them, again, were extremely passionate about what they did when Willamina Fleming died. And Annie Jump can another one of the computers, Pickering tried to float her to the same position that Fleming had held. And Harvard decided no, because women didn't have those positions ordinarily. And and so I think comaraderie really did blossom amongst that group of women. They clearly enjoyed what they were doing, worked very hard and enjoyed each other.

Speaker So.

Speaker What what about all the findings, as you said, her drive and her accomplishments, what and what may inspire you about? About her life and her accomplishments.

Speaker I think Wilhemina Fleming's life is very inspiring, I think she persisted despite real difficulties in her personal life, her health toward the end also, and she persevered because she really liked what she was doing, felt that it was important. And and I think it was people like Wilhemina Fleming and the other computers who opened the doors for women of today and for people like me. There weren't women in the field before. And despite the fact that many people disparage the work they did, it was fundamental work and and it was an existence proof, hey, women can do this. And it did open the door for those of us who came later.

Speaker So do you feel you're part of an extension of that legacy?

Speaker Oh, absolutely. I feel an extension of that legacy. If it weren't for those women, I think it would have taken a lot longer before the doors opened.

Speaker And how do you feel is she should be remembered in astronomy today? And do you think it's important that women work will be the plumbing, that we continue to recognize them, especially in science history?

Speaker I think it's very important that we continue today to recognize the legacy of women like Wilhelmina Fleming. They really were pioneers in a field where the doors had been closed. And and by sheer hard work and perseverance, they managed to really wrench open doors that had been barriers and and made it possible for those of us today to actually have jobs, have leadership positions for which were recognized and do research in our own right if we can decide what we're doing. We don't have to be hired by a director and put into a room that's cold and and told to work behind the scenes.

Speaker So I guess we're kind of wrapping up now.

Speaker So how would you describe the man you talked about with the, um, the the field has changed, even though in some of your early experiences you did see still differences or barriers, I guess you could say to women. Do you feel as if it's more of a level playing field now? Do you feel like there are more women and there's more diversity in the field?

Speaker In my lifetime, I've seen a lot of changes in the field. I think so. In my particular case, when I had finished graduate school and I came to the United States, I finished graduate school in Canada and the director who previous director where I had been, had said that maybe he could get me a key to the library. And that was his view of what women could do. And by that time, I already had an independent position and a grant of my own and a permanent position. And there was no way that I was going to go take a position where I was unpaid and had a key to the library.

Speaker And so can you expand on that, what he said to you? He thought he could get you a key to the library. Would you mean as a a job working in the library? What is it?

Speaker So this is how much do you want me to say all of that over again or just pick up? You can just pick, OK? I think what he meant was that I could do research, perhaps I could sit in the library and he would give me a key so that I could have access to the library and do some research, but not an actual faculty position at the university. There were no women on the faculty at the time.

Speaker And and I think so. What I would say is that change has happened in my lifetime. Actually, I've been very encouraged by the changes that I see.

Speaker There are many more women coming now into the field, getting bachelor's degrees, getting graduate degrees, being hired as assistant professors. It's still not the case that the numbers of women that are getting educated are filling these positions all the way to full tenure. And I hope that I will see that in my lifetime.

Speaker I think many universities now in the US at least, are making very, very directed efforts or undertaking directed efforts to increase the numbers of women in the field.

Speaker We still are doing extremely poorly at getting minorities into the field. And and but I think it's not without people now really turning their attention and trying to fix that.

Speaker And I hope I I found when I was young, I didn't have any examples of people in my family who were scientists.

Speaker I didn't know how to become a scientist.

Speaker And I didn't have any encouragement when I was thinking about this. What I should know, I don't want to say that sort of.

Speaker And there were so when I was starting out in the field, there were many people who tried to discourage me.

Speaker And and so and I think they were trying to be helpful. This is not something you want to do. Someone very close to me said, well, there's never been a female Einstein. And that really stuck in my head. You know, maybe women can't do science. It was. It was. And it was many years later I realized, well, there haven't been very many male Einsteins either. But there's room for people in the scientific profession, not all of whom are going to end up being Einsteins. And and I think it's important for young people to realize that it's a fantastic opportunity to be a scientist and to learn things about the universe, whether it's astronomy or any other science. And and the opportunities are open for anybody who has an interest in the subject. And it's often hard if you don't know people who've done it, you don't know what the steps are. But I think more and more the doors are opening to to everyone. And so what I would say to people, to young people is if you have any interest in science, pursue that interest because it is a really worthwhile endeavor.

Speaker The interesting thing, I think for us and kind of pleasing ourselves historically in the progressive era, that one of the things that it's there's so many contradictions relative to. Some of some of the. Anti-immigration policies, nativism, eugenics, a lot of things kind of came to fruition or in that time period, but at the same time there seemed to be a real appreciation of exploration that people who were exploring and discovering new things were almost considered rock stars and were given know real celebrity status.

Speaker And it feels as if. The kind of work you're doing, as you said, the excitement of it is not really very easily translated to young people to let them understand that this isn't just kind of nerdy computational stuff. This is actually interesting and exciting. So as you're going around seeking out, are there ways in which you're finding that you're really finding the way, I guess, to communicate, as you said to younger people, that this is, you know, these new fields, these this uncharted territory is really exciting. So how are you communicating that?

Speaker So I think that often when we grow up, we have science teachers who are teaching us out of a textbook, we have to memorize facts and science seems like something that's nerdy. It's boring. Why would I ever want to go into science? And the reality is that being a scientist and for me, an astronomer studying the universe, it's absolutely fascinating. It's we're learning new things about the universe every day and and the opportunity to participate in enterprise, where you're learning something, using telescopes. You're looking at the universe in a way that no one's had the opportunity to do before. That's really exciting. It's fun and challenging and and interesting. And so I do like to to talk to young groups of students who might not realize that that what sounds like an awful profession is actually I can't imagine doing anything. I'm amazed that I get paid to do what I do. I love what I do.

Speaker What's next for you relative to your research?

Speaker So in my own research right now, I become involved again in another debate about the nature of the expansion of the universe. We've been learning from the really, really distant past how the universe was evolving early in its history. And we're trying to match that up with what we're measuring in the nearby universe. And it doesn't fit it. It's off. And so we're trying to understand, is this something that we have to make better measurements and resolve the discrepancy that way? Or is there something we don't understand about how the universe was formed and changed over time? And we're learning something new and fundamental about the very earliest parts of the universe. And so I and my group, large group of us, are using the Hubble Space Telescope to try and answer that question. And we also use telescopes in the Andes Mountains in Chile to try and pursue and solve this current mystery.

Speaker Exciting. Well, I have a couple of questions for you just as a follow up. It's great that you spoke to how her Flemming's classification system is being used today. Do you personally use her classification system in your work or. No.

Speaker Yes, indirectly. So it's not not something that I spend indirectly, so it's probably not a helpful.

Speaker Yeah. And it was great how you spoke to that you love about you love the work you do. Can you tell us just what, again, what you love about your work?

Speaker So I think what I love about my work is that each day I don't know what any particular day is going to hold for me, I come into my office, I might read a new journal article.

Speaker I spend my time meeting with students who I'd love to work with some of my time. I spend teaching students. I go observing to telescopes in Chile, analyzed data coming from the space telescope. We listen to the weekly talks of visitors coming in to tell us the research that they're doing. We understand how that fits in with what we're doing. Maybe it even disagrees with what we're doing and we're constantly trying to improve on our understanding of the universe. And so some of the time we spend writing proposals, for example, to get time on the Hubble Space Telescope. So we have to come up with an idea of what we want to observe with the Hubble Space Telescope. And then there's a group of our peers. They get together and they rank all the proposals that they read. And if you're lucky, you get time on the Hubble Space Telescope to carry out the project that you want to do. And then you analyze the data, you write it up for publication. You might go to a conference and present your results. You're debating with other people again. But what the results mean and it's just it's a constant challenge. And then occasionally there are these discoveries that come out of the blue that nobody is anticipating. And we learn something new about the universe. Sometimes we learn that what we thought before is completely wrong.

Speaker And it doesn't matter if you're a Nobel Prize winner or if you're the head of an observatory, if you're the senior faculty member, it could be a young graduate student that makes that discovery. And and the way that science works is a self-correcting process.

Speaker And I just I love the messy chaos and then the beauty of when things fell into place. And we understand something. Yeah, I love what I do. Thank you.

Speaker And and in terms of throughout the course of your career, what changes have you seen in the field of astronomy throughout your.

Speaker So in what sense are you asking these voters change you've seen of women being involved in the field, but just in the sights sounds like maybe how changes in technology or if there's anything majorly different from the start now?

Speaker Yeah, over the course of my career, I've seen a lot of changes in my field from the development of high speed computing to new telescopes to new instruments.

Speaker So I actually started out in the era where we used photographic plates in the same way as Wilhemina Fleming was was interpreting the spectra on plates. And then we moved to electronic devices similar to what we have in our handheld cell phones, but operated at very low temperatures. And the noise is very low and used for cameras on astronomical telescopes.

Speaker The wavelength range accessible has really opened up. We now can observe with telescopes in space ultraviolet radiation that's blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, infrared radiation that's blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, x ray radiation and so on. Recently, there's been the discovery of gravitational waves. These are waves that were predicted by Albert Einstein, as are the rippling of space and time as as these gravitational waves from, say, mergers of massive black holes in the universe, which our detectors today and the Hubble Space Telescope was launched soon after I finished graduate school.

Speaker We're now building these massive new telescopes. So this project that I was leading, I was a founding leader for something called the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be an 80 foot diameter optical telescope located in the Andes Mountains in Chile. So at the same time as there's been all this technical improvement or theories that the mathematical physical underpinnings, trying to understand how the universe is evolving also really has improved over time. So there's a matching of of both observational, experimental and theoretical work that helps us understand the universe that we live in. So it's been a very exciting time.

Speaker So it's interesting in terms of the placement of the telescope. So you've mentioned a couple of times in your interview traveling to the Andes, to Chile. Why that particular location?

Speaker Yes, dormers go to remote locations. It sounds funny at first, but the reason that we do it is that first we need to get away from city lights. So the city lights block out the light from stars growing up. Now, in a city, if you're a young kid, you might see a dozen bright stars in the sky. I feel badly for young kids who haven't seen the night sky. But in these remote observatories, these mountain tops, the sky is very dark. And also so, for example, in the Andes Mountains, it's a desert area. And so it's very dry. About three hundred nights of the year are clear. So you also need clear skies to observe with telescopes. And the other is in the Andes. And in Hawaii, for example, the prevailing winds come off the ocean and then they hit the mountain top. So there haven't been a lot of turbulence that they experienced that the winds experienced before coming to the mountain top. So it creates a steady, stable air layer so that you can observe and your your image is not blurred. So for those reasons, we go to these remote mountain tops and they're the best places in the world to observe.

Speaker Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn't talk about, that you thought you think might be pertinent both to Wilhelmina's story and and kind of your contemporary work in the Britain's work?

Speaker I don't think so. I think you really covered the the ground here. Um.

Speaker What, if anything, I would add?

Speaker Oh, yeah, so you were teaching students or any of the women that you were mentoring or you feel had great promise relative to this, right?

Speaker Yeah, it's very exciting for me now because many of the students that I teach and that I mentor are women, young women. And that, for me is particularly meaningful. It's it's nice to see so many young women coming into the field now, many more than than when I entered the field. I would often be the only woman in the room for much of my career. I've been the only woman in the room. And now when I walk into last week, we had a seminar and there were two guys in the room. And I don't think I've ever experienced that before. They were all women. So, yeah, things are changing and it's great to think you.

Speaker Can I just ask you just briefly what you feel and most proud of in your career that you've accomplished?

Speaker I'm proud of.

Speaker Proud of that's interesting, um, could be any of the things he spoke to our.

Speaker I guess if I look back at my career, there's a moment when we use the Hubble Space Telescope, the right after the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and there had been some worries that we would not be able to do the project that we set out to do, which was to resolve the debate between the age of the universe between 10 and 20 billion years.

Speaker And some very smart people had said for these reasons, it won't be possible to make these measurements.

Speaker And when we got the first data from Hubble and I was able to analyze it and I was sitting in my office and it was actually discovery of of the first variable star in a really distant galaxy in the Virgo cluster. And and I knew that we would be able to do the project that we had proposed to do. And it was no one else had seen the data. It was just it was just a moment of, wow, this is this is fantastic. We could do this. And so that was certainly a highlight for me.

Wendy Freedman
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Wendy Freedman, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 17 Oct. 2019,
(2019, October 17). Wendy Freedman, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Wendy Freedman, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). October 17, 2019. Accessed January 23, 2022


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