Joan Feynman: From auroras to anthropology

This extract is a chapter from the women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Inventionavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Christopher Riley

Joan Feynman’s career spans more than sixty years of dramatic change in society’s perceptions of the contributions that women can make to science. As a pioneer of the study of high-energy particles in space and the creator of statistical models to predict their impact on a spacecraft over its lifetime, her work is still used across the world today by the satellite industry. Joan’s research has lead to better understanding of sunspot cycles and the causes of planetary auroras. Now in her eighties, she continues to work, applying her research to new frontiers of anthropology. But this impressive career in science was almost stopped before it had started, due to a view of women that prevailed when she was growing up.

Women can’t do science

“Women can’t do science, because their brains aren’t made for it,” Lucille Feynman declared to her eight-year-old daughter Joan. The news was a huge blow to the little girl’s ambitions which, at the time in 1935, were firmly set on following her brother Richard into a life scientific. “I remember sitting in a chair and weeping,” she recalls.

The siblings grew up in an extremely science-nurturing household in Far Rockaway, a neighbourhood of New York City. A deep curiosity about the world had been enthusiastically encouraged at every opportunity and such an upbringing made this sudden news from her mother all the more shocking.

Lucille was an enlightened civil-rights campaigner who had marched for women’s suffrage in her youth. Yet she didn’t consider pointing her daughter towards other women of the time as potential role models. “To me, Madame Curie was a mythological figure,” says Joan, “not a real person whom you could strive to emulate.”

Today Joan appreciates that her mother hadn’t reacted like this to be mean. She’d said it because she believed it as an inescapable truth. But Lucille’s damaging misconception would have a lasting, negative effect on her daughter. “It was devastating to be told that all of my dreams were impossible,” says Joan. “I’ve doubted my abilities ever since.”

The other Feynman

In contrast, her brother Richard had been brought up to have complete confidence in his abilities. Their parents had positively thrust him towards a life steeped in maths and science. Even before Richard was born in 1918, Joan’s father Melville had confidently predicted to her mother that the boy was going to be a scientist.

Naturally curious, he was urged by his parents to question everything, and his life often seemed like a series of opportunities to carry out experiments. It was something his parents positively encouraged, says family friend Dick Davies, “as long as it was for some sort of learning purpose.”

At supper one evening Richard started to play with his napkin ring, backspinning it across the table so that it came rolling straight back. Richard did this repeatedly, until eventually his mother demanded an explanation. “What are you doing that for?” she enquired, becoming a little exasperated. “I’m doing an experiment,” replied Richard. “Oh, well, in that case it’s alright!” responded Lucille.

By the time Joan was born, nine years after him, Richard was eager to enthuse his long-awaited sibling with his excitement about the potential of science. As soon as she could speak, he started to train her in maths. One of Joan’s earliest memories, at the age of two, is of tugging on his hair as he pulled funny faces to reward her for solving the simple number problems he’d set.

By the time she was five, Richard (or “Riddy,” as she called him) had recruited her to help him in his homespun electronics lab. “He hired me as his lab assistant at four cents a week,” she remembers. “For that four cents I was expected to put my finger in a spark gap for the amusement of his friends!”

Joan’s regular electric shocks did little to deter her from science. In fact, her brother’s enthusiasm for it, coupled with her father’s love of knowledge, pushed Joan further towards the subject.

Melville was enormously interested in science. Like most people at the time, he didn’t go to college, but he read everything he could get his hands on, remembers Joan. When she was still quite young, he read her a book on continental drift as a bedtime story. Decades before it was proved, the author, scientist Alfred Wegener, described his radical idea that the continents moved and were not fixed and static. “My father had a very good intuitive understanding of things,” says Joan. “He just loved science, and that wore off on Richard and I.”

The family often played a game on walks called “noticing interesting things,” which Joan still joyfully remembers. “You’d see something that you didn’t know before, and you’d look at it and talk about it,” she says. “My father showed me that if you take a leaf, and a little bug has hatched on that leaf, it eats its way to the edge of the leaf, but as it eats, it grows, so at the end the thing is bigger than when it started. And you can see how fast it grew. That was our game. That sort of thing.”

It was what Richard would later refer to as “the pleasure of finding things out,” and it was a sentiment that provided a strong compass in guiding both siblings’ careers.

Richard’s flair for demonstrating and explaining things in a way that infected others with his love of science was forged on Joan. At night, when she would call out for a drink of water, he would hurl the filled glass around in circles in front of him to demonstrate the “magic” of centrifugal force for Joan’s entertainment. One night it slipped from his fingers and flew across the room.

He would tell her things such as the fact that the family dog, the waffle iron, and even Joan herself were all made out of atoms. He’d take her hand and run it over the right-angled corner of a picture frame whilst making her repeat Pythagoras’ theorem “the sum of the square on the sides is equal to the square on the hypotenuse”. Joan had no idea what it meant, but she loved to mimic the way he recited the words like a poem.

The Feynman family home was always full of love and laughter. Lucille believed that life was difficult, and the thing that made it tolerable was an ability to look at it as funny and be able to laugh. Richard and Lucille would often joke around to make Joan and Melville laugh. “We would plead with them… ‘Stop… stop, we can’t eat’,” says Joan. “They would continue until I fell on the floor laughing. And that was the only thing that would stop them. So you see, it was not a very serious household. It had a lot of love in it, both for people and for the scientific world.”

Lucille would hold bridge parties at the house for other women to come and play in their living room in the afternoon. During these occasions Richard would often be at work in his bedroom ‘laboratory’ down the hall. One day something didn’t seem right to their mother, and she asked Joan to go and check on what Richard was doing. She found him in his room with a wastepaper basket, which he was holding with clippers outside the window, with a huge fire in it. “Is everything OK?” enquired Joan. “Yep” replied Richard. Joan returned to the bridge party in the living room and reported that it was “just Richard with a fire. But it’s OK. It’s outside the window!”

“That was our family,” she smiles fondly. “A great family to grow up in.”

The awe of the aurora

The path of Joan’s life would be changed significantly one night when Richard woke her up and told her to get dressed and follow him out into the street. He took her away from the house and the street lights and out onto a wide open golf course nearby with a big dark sky above them. “I can still remember in my mind’s eye the green lights dancing in the sky”, Joan recalls of the flickering northern lights Richard had lead her outside to witness. “He told me that it was an aurora and no one knew what caused it exactly.”

In that moment, she was hooked. And whilst the doubts about a woman’s abilities to undertake a career in science, planted in her by Lucille, remained, Joan’s interest in science continued to be fuelled by Richard’s progress through university. Before he’d left home, her brother had made a deal with her that whilst away at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), studying for his bachelor’s degree, he would answer any science question that she sent him.

“For quite a while we had a notebook which went back and forth, and he sent me a problem in maths and I sent the answer,” remembers Joan of that time. Then for her fourteenth birthday, he gave her the book ‘Astronomy’ by Robert Horace Baker. “It was a book people studied at college,” she remembers. “And he’d pasted my name in it. I was so excited.”

Somewhat daunted by the advanced level of the book, Joan wrote to Richard to ask how she should read it. He replied that she should start at the beginning and read until she didn’t understand, and then start at the beginning again. And each time she’d get a little further.

“So I did,” says Joan, “and I got a little further each time. And then one day there was a figure in the book of a spectrum and underneath it said ‘the relative strengths of the Mg+ absorption line at 4,481 angstroms… of Stellar Atmospheres from the work of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’.” The caption was a revelation to Joan. Cecilia was a woman’s name, and the hyphenated family name indicated she was married. It was proof that a married woman was capable of doing science.

With one page turn and the discovery of Cecilia’s work, Joan’s notion of becoming a scientist was restored. “That broke everything open. I knew it could be done,” she smiles. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a noted astrophysicist who’d proposed an explanation for the composition of stars in her 1925 PhD thesis. But despite this revelation about the potential for women to do science, Joan still doubted her own abilities, and Richard’s continued efforts to boost her confidence would prove vital to her future career.

By the time World War II broke out, her brother was working on his PhD at Princeton University, and their correspondence about astronomy continued. “I was always interested in astronomy,” she says, “because Richard was always showing me the stars.”

Nurturing his sister’s interest in the night sky, Richard wrote to encourage Joan to make her own telescope. He even went as far as offering to get her the glass so she could grind her own lens. But living in an apartment meant that the only place that she could do such work was in the building’s shared basement, and her mother Lucille thought it unsafe for her to go down there alone because of fear that she would be attacked by strange men. Without a place to work on it, the telescope didn’t get built, but her interest in the night sky remained strong.

During the war Joan volunteered to pick tomatoes near an army base, about 200 miles from home. Along with the other girls, Joan would use the excuse of delivering the produce to the base to dance with the boys who were stationed there. On one such occasion, one of the boys asked if he could walk her home.

“We were sort of attracted to one another,” says Joan, who was only sixteen at the time. “But then when I got outside with the boy I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Feeling suddenly unsettled in the dark, and wanting to play down the romance of the moment, Joan changed the subject. “Aren’t the stars beautiful tonight?” she exclaimed. To her delight, the boy responded, “I have a telescope!” Their shared interest in the night sky had made the moment even more special. “Somehow, in spite of everything, people who are interested in stars attract each other,” she thought.

Keen to go away to college at 18, as Richard had done, Joan started to look for a place to study physics. Because of her shy disposition, her parents felt that she might do better in a smaller college and encouraged her to apply to Oberlin College in Ohio. The progressive liberal college was the first in America to have admitted women, in 1835.

Starting her studies there in 1944, Joan soon discovered that there were only two other women on her physics course. And it quickly became clear just how entrenched attitudes towards them were in this male-dominated field. Her male lab partner, during her first year, proved to be so incapable that Joan was forced to do all the physics experiments herself. But whilst the notes he’d taken on her work received an A grade, her own notes only got a D. “He understands what he’s doing and you don’t,” her lab instructor insisted.

Joan didn’t think to complain about her unfair treatment, but it did little to boost her confidence, and she continued to worry about whether a woman could really be a scientist. Seeking further reassurance, she wrote to her brother again, asking whether he thought she could become an assistant to a regular scientist if she studied really hard. Richard wrote back telling her not to aim for the bottom but for the top, adding, “If you don’t make it to the top then you’ll still be a better scientist than if you hadn’t.”

It still felt unthinkable to Joan to aim for the top, seeing it as an impossible goal. But she did study as hard as she could, driven by a desire to understand nature. “Never in history has a little sister taken the advice of an older brother,” laughs Joan.

A peripatetic life

During her first year at Oberlin she met Dick Hirsberg. He’d just returned from fighting WWII in the Pacific, with the US Army’s Fifth Airforce, and was keen to resume his studies at Oberlin, picking up on his physics course where he’d left off to go to war. He was three years older than Joan but now only six months ahead of her at college. The pair would meet at Oberlin’s astronomical observatory, which Dick liked to run. They soon struck up a friendship, which slowly blossomed into a courtship.

“My mother was engaged at eighteen,” says Joan, “and at the time I thought it a perfectly respectable age to be engaged. So I was engaged at nineteen.”

“I don’t think we knew enough about life,” reflects Joan now. “We were too young. It was a ridiculous age to get engaged.”

The pair graduated in physics from Oberlin in 1948 and married that year. To earn some money, Dick moved to Washington DC to take up a job at the Naval Research Laboratory, and Joan followed him there six months later. The only woman scientist on her team, Joan remembers being dispatched to the workshop every time something broke and instructed to use her feminine charm to talk them into fixing it. “I always got excellent service,” she remembers.

Returning to their studies the following year, the couple moved to Syracuse in New York state. Joan took more courses at Syracuse University in physics and maths, whilst Dick switched to cultural anthropology. This was a subject which Joan also loved, and just for fun she attended many of Dick’s course lectures in addition to her own.

Searching for a subject for her doctoral thesis, Joan soon found that she preferred theoretical to experimental physics, leaving her two fields to choose: general relativity or solid-state physics. Pondering her choices, she consulted her professors at Syracuse but once more, as a woman in this male-dominated field, she encountered attitudes that were at best unhelpful and at worst undermining. One professor advised her to do her PhD research on cobwebs because she “would encounter them whilst cleaning”. Joan didn’t take his advice, opting eventually for solid-state physics – researching the absorption of infrared radiation in crystals of diamond-type lattice structure. “I was frightened of general relativity,” she admits, “but I wasn’t in love with solid-state physics either.”

As Dick also sought a thesis subject, the couple decided to go to Guatemala at the end of 1951 to do his anthropology fieldwork. Joan took a break from her own PhD to accompany him. Selecting Guatemala had its advantages for the young couple. Without funding, they could easily get there by driving, and day-to-day living would not cost much.

Dick chose to study how a handful of the Kaqchikel people were changing their identity from Mayan to Latino, whilst the majority remained Kaqchikel in language, dress, religion and lifestyle. The pair based themselves in the small village of San Andrés Semetabaj on the Guatemalan Altiplano, borrowing an old wooden house at the corner of the town square, which they furnished with a new but unpainted wooden bed, a straw mattress, a table and some chairs. Dick began to collate data on births and deaths from registers held in the local village halls, and Joan studied the lives of the Mayan village women. She often worked alongside them, learning to weave brocaded cloth on the pre-Columbian looms that they used to make all the cloth for their clothes.

The couple quickly came to realise just how hard life was for the Kaqchikel, who struggled daily with disease and death. Dick’s research soon uncovered how shockingly high child mortality from whooping cough was in some villages. “Anthropologists aren’t supposed to interfere”, says Joan, “but that’s bunk when lives are at stake.” She went straight to those in the capitol concerned with the health and welfare of the Kaqchikel to point out the problem, and they steered their inoculation program towards the communities near San Andrés.

Despite these hardships, the Kaqchikel were not desperately unhappy. “Success in life was measured by the importance of the many tasks a person took on for their community, such as acting as a policeman when young or arranging major religious celebrations when older,” observed Joan. “By seeking such responsibilities, a person could earn importance and respectability in society and feel fulfilled and happy.”

The year in Guatemala would prove to be hard for Joan, as she struggled to accept the high death rates and daily struggles with life. “It changed my attitude to what I had,” she says. “I stopped complaining and became more satisfied with what I was doing”.

Returning to the US at the end of 1952, Joan and Dick continued with their PhD research. “I’d missed physics,” remembers Joan. “It was good to get back to it.” She got pregnant in the autumn of 1956 and, at the age of thirty, gave birth to her son Matthew the following summer.

A second life-changing event occurred a few months later in October, when the Russians launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth.

“The space era appeared,” she says, “and you could make a new discovery by studying the data from space. It was exciting as could be.” Searching for scientific papers on this emerging new area of exploration, Joan realised that it was a subject called geophysics and made up her mind to shift her research towards this field.

But she first had a thesis in solid-state physics to finish. Completing it in 1958, Joan received her doctorate alongside her husband. It was such an exceptional achievement for a husband and wife to graduate together in this way that the local newspaper took their picture, standing together in their caps and gowns next to commencement speaker Sir Leslie Knox Monroe. The caption read, “It’s a family affair!” but the idea of a female physicist was such an unthinkable idea that it went on to report that “Joan was getting her PhD in Anthropology and Dick was getting his in Physics.”

Joan was eager to start looking for further science positions. But such a course of action was not straightforward for a married woman and mother. Society fully expected her to stay at home. Even the Dean of Women at Columbia University in New York was of this belief, declaring at the time that “sensible motherhood” was “the most useful and satisfying of the jobs that a woman can do.”

The “situations wanted” section of The New York Times in the late 1950s didn’t help either. It was divided into jobs for men and jobs for women, remembers Joan. “I was not allowed to place an ad among the men’s section, which was the most likely place someone seeking a research scientist would look.”

She eventually found a job at a small company making solid-state devices. The job was interesting, and the husband-and-wife owners were nice to work for, but she had a long commute from where her family was living. And once Joan got pregnant again in 1960, she decided to quit. Throwing herself into homemaking and the roles expected of her by society, Joan reluctantly put her aspirations to work in geophysics on hold.

Charles was born in October of that year, and the growing family moved to a nice new house in the little town of Spring Valley, New York, just north of New Jersey, where Dick was working. “We had three quarters of an acre of land, five bedrooms, a beautiful kitchen, and three bathrooms,” says Joan. But she soon found herself consumed by all the cleaning and dusting in this big house whilst also looking after her two young sons. “My only connection with physics became observing how long it took to heat the baby food!” she remembers.

The drudgery of cooking and cleaning for the family soon took its toll on her mental state, and in 1961 she decided to seek professional help. To her great relief the psychiatrist who saw her was enlightened enough to realize that the best cure for her depression would be to return to work.

Lacking confidence, after three years away from science, and unsure anyone would hire her, Joan went to visit the Lamont Observatory, Columbia University Geological Laboratory, only 20 miles from her home. “I told them I had a PhD in physics and would like a job”, she says.

The research there was all in geophysics, and to her complete surprise and delight three research professors offered her jobs. “There was a project on the moonquakes; one on tektites, glasslike objects formed by the impact of meteorites; and one on rapid variations of the Earth’s magnetic field,” recalls Joan.

Understanding the solar wind

Choosing to work half-days to juggle her childcare commitments, Joan opted to study the Earth’s magnetic field, a subject known as geomagnetics. Her research would focus on the Earth’s magnetosphere, a geomagnetic bubble that shields the planet against the solar wind. In the early 1960s, little was known about how this wind, emanating from the Sun, interacted with our magnetosphere, and the potential for conducting pioneering work in this field excited her.

“Lamont was a great place to work”, she says. “They do fundamental science”. Joan still remembers a colleague rushing in excitedly one day to share the news that the sample cores collected by the Lamont Observatory research ship drilling in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean had provided a great discovery. “The continents are moving,” he declared. Recalling her bedtime stories about continental drift read to her by her father all those years before, she replied, “When did they stop?”

Her own work at Lamont, with the cooperation of a team at MIT that had flown a particle detector into space, soon lead to a revelation about the Earth’s magnetosphere. Using measurements made by a spacecraft launched to police the nuclear test ban treaty, they proved that the magnetosphere was not enclosed in a tear-shaped bubble, as previously thought, but instead had a long wide tail on the side opposite the Sun.

The solar wind is mostly made up of equal numbers of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons, rushing out from the Sun at between 350 and 800 kilometres per second. The wind carries its own magnetic field, known as the Interplanetary Magnetic Field. Joan’s work at Lamont showed that the direction of this interplanetary magnetic field relative to the Earth’s magnetic field plays the most important part in the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth.

Her pioneering work on these processes led to an understanding of the mechanism responsible for auroras. She found this work wonderful, and her immediate reaction was to tell her brother, who’d first introduced her to these beautiful phenomena all those years before.

But then a second thought crossed her mind. “Richard is pretty smart, and if I tell him about an interesting problem, he’ll find the answer before I do and take all the fun out of it for me.” So Joan decided to strike a deal with him. “I said, Look, I don’t want us to compete, so let’s divide up physics between us. I’ll take auroras and you take the rest of the Universe. And he said OK!”

In 1963, Joan’s husband Dick was offered a job in California, and with the prospect of moving across the country she approached the director of Lamont to see if she could continue to work for them from there. He agreed, and the family moved to an area south of San Francisco. Juggling child care with her career had been a challenge in New York, where she’d hired a series of live-in maids who lodged in their own quarters attached to the family home. Once more they looked for a house that could accommodate such an arrangement so Joan could continue her research.

Settled in California, but somewhat isolated from her peers at Lamont, on the other side of the country, Joan sought out the science community in NASA’s nearby Ames Research Center and asked whether she could attend their lectures. Moving in these circles soon lead to her being offered a position at Ames working with noted space physicist John Spreiter.

Joan got pregnant for a third time the following year, and in September 1965 their daughter Susan was born. Just as her own parents had done for her and her brother, Joan was determined to instil a sense of curiosity and wonder in her own children.

Her son Charles remembers one occasion when, at the age of about six, he asked her about her job as a scientist. In response Joan handed him a spoon. “Drop it on the table,” she said. Charles let it fall. “Why did it fall? Why didn’t it float up to the ceiling?” asked Joan. It had never occurred to Charles that there was a whyinvolved. “Because of gravity,” she continued. “A spoon will always fall, a hot-air balloon will always rise.” Charles dropped the spoon again and again until she made him stop. The boy had no idea what gravity was, but the idea of “why?” kept rattling around in his head.

Joan’s work with John Spreiter, on the interactions of the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field, eventually led to an important discovery about storms of solar wind, known as coronal mass ejections. These bursts of ultra-fast moving charged particles were known to have a significant effect on the Earth’s magnetic field, often inducing electrical currents that could disable satellites and even electronic communications and power systems on the surface of the Earth.

Such events were notoriously hard to identify until Joan showed that they could be recognised by increased amounts of helium in the solar wind. By now John Spreiter and Joan had moved from Ames to nearby Stanford University, and NASA had continued to fund their work. But despite the significance of Joan’s discovery, her research was in jeopardy. The US economy was in recession, and NASA’s budget was being cut as its Moonshot Apollo program was winding up.

Part-time mama or full-time madwoman

In 1972 funding for their work was stopped, and Joan was suddenly out of a job. Over the next few months, as she juggled the work of housewife and mother with her search for another science post, the depression she’d felt before when not working began to return.

In desperation Joan turned to her local synagogue for help. The rabbi was organising networking parties for people looking for work, and she asked for an invitation. But instead of welcoming her, the rabbi told her not to be selfish and pointed to all the men who were also out of work and more deserving than her. All Joan could utter in response was, “But it’s my life”.

Charles, aged about twelve at the time, remembers her returning home that night after being rejected in this way and stuffing food into the fridge, then pulling out the vacuum cleaner and pushing it back and forth across the floor a few times before switching it off and bursting into tears. He remembers crying too, distressed at seeing his mother so upset. “I know you want me here,” she told him. “But I can either be a part-time mama or a full-time madwoman.”

Finding out about a group at the High Altitude Observatory in Colorado with new data she was interested in, Joan started to do her own unpaid research with them, collaborating by telephone. The publication of a series of papers from this work soon lead to her being invited to apply for a research position there. She was accepted, and in 1973 Dick quit his job in California and the family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where Joan could continue to research the impact of solar weather on the Earth.

Society was shifting its attitudes to women, and changes in civil rights in America meant that women now had to be routinely considered for work by companies and institutions. To comply with this legislation, Joan was granted a staff job, but they didn’t tell her for over a year, leading her to assume that her position was still temporary; a fact that made family life even more precarious. With Dick now out of work, the onus was on her to support the family financially, and this new, and still unconventional, family arrangement started to put added strain on their relationship. “That was the year everything changed for the family,” recalls Charles.

Joan and Dick separated in 1974, and Joan took back her maiden name. The family’s problems were compounded two years later when a funding crisis resulted in Joan’s staff job at the observatory being cut. Once more, she was out of work. With three kids and neither parent in work, things were tough. “It was very stressful and scary,” remembers Joan.

Forced to move across the country to Washington DC for work, she accepted an administrative job at the National Science Foundation as liaison between it and her old employer, the High Altitude Observatory. She took Susan with her, leaving Charles with Dick in Boulder and Matthew away studying at college.

Deprived of her geophysics research and with family life in tatters, it was a very unhappy time. “I hated it,” says Joan. “It was terrible. But part of my job in Washington was to regularly travel back to Boulder, so I could stand it.”

Joan tolerated the job in Washington for three years until she could stand it no longer and quit. Happily she returned to scientific research when she took a post at the Airforce Geophysics Lab near Lexington, Massachusetts in 1979 and, under a research contract to Boston College, she immersed herself once more in studies of solar-terrestrial relations.

The break from her husband had given her the perspective she needed on her life, feels son Charles. “She could begin to regard it as a success. She’d been twice the scientist that her limited dreams had ever allowed her to imagine she could become, whilst also managing to bring up three children.”

In the early 1980s, Joan wasn’t the only Feynman seduced by solar-terrestrial relations. Her brother Richard had kept his original promise to her not to work on auroras. Despite an impressive polymath career in which he applied his genius to a spectacular spectrum of problem-solving across the fields of maths, physics, chemistry, and biology, he had never turned his attention to Joan’s chosen field.

But then he traveled to Alaska, an important centre for aurora studies. On a tour of the facility, the head of the lab pointed out many of the interesting geophysical phenomena that were yet to be explained. “Would you be interested in working on it?” he enquired. Richard responded that he would, but added that he’d have to ask his sister’s permission. Joan remembers that he came back and told her the story. “I’m sorry Richard,” she replied, “but I’m not giving you permission.” Richard duly reported back that his sister had refused to allow him to study auroras!

Word of this story eventually got round, and people would come up to Joan at conferences and ask her if it was true. At one meeting, a colleague from UCLA told the gathering that he wanted “to publicly thank Richard Feynman for not studying aurora, so that we can all have some fun!”

Still having fun, Joan left the snow of New England to return to California in 1985, accepting a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where her brother and his family lived. After a couple of years there, she joined a group studying the Sun and the solar wind and has been with them ever since.

“As a member of this group, I got interested in solar activity cycles,” she says. “The Sun exhibits a well-documented eleven-year cycle of sunspot numbers. Sunspots produce solar flares, which produce high-energy particles in space resulting in aurora.”

Throughout her career, Joan’s deep sense of wonder at auroras, which had begun on that golf course one night with Richard, has never left her. And her tenacious approach to unraveling their secrets has lead her to help discover how the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field produces them.

Whilst at JPL, her dedicated study of coronal mass ejections has also shown that they come in groups rather than occurring separately. This discovery has allowed engineers to better calculate how a spacecraft is affected by high-energy solar particles during the course of its lifetime, resulting in safer satellite designs.

Combining her research with an active membership in the American Geophysical Union, Joan has also contributed to the work of a number of significant scientific commissions over her career. In 1974 she was the first woman to be elected as an officer of the AGU and helped to create a committee charged with advancing the fair treatment of women within the geophysics community. She was twice elected secretary of the Union’s Solar and Interplanetary Physics section.

New collaboration

In 1990, heading for a conference in the then Soviet Union, Joan stopped off to visit son Charles and his girlfriend in New York. As her plane passed low over Long Island and the district she’d grown up in, she stared down at the streets and houses below her and was filled with an unfamiliar sense of contentment.

Although she’d never found another man with whom she could fall in love and spend the rest of her life, part of her contentment at this moment had suddenly and unexpectedly come from acknowledging, after many years of trying, that it was unlikely.

A day later she was at the conference in Sochi, near the Black Sea, where she met another solar scientist, Alexander Ruzmaikin. He’d grown up in Siberia, but despite their obviously different upbringings and cultural backgrounds, the couple clicked. And although Alexander was seventeen years younger than Joan, their shared passion for solar physics swept aside these differences. His interest in theoretical physics and her interest in observational physics were a good match.

They’d met briefly the year before at a conference in the US, where Alexander had taken issue with a paper Joan had presented, and the two of them had spent a “very pleasant” hour discussing the research.

Soon after arriving at Sochi, Alexander invited Joan to go swimming in the Black Sea at 6am the following morning. It was October and chilly, and he didn’t imagine for a moment that she would agree. Alexander came down a little after six the following morning and to his surprise found Joan already waiting for him in the hotel reception. The cold swim began and the couple have never looked back.

Alexander soon traveled back to the US, and they married on the 16th August 1992. “We still find ourselves swimming together at strange times of day,” laughs Joan.

As she collaborated on new fields of study in geomagnetics over the following years, Joan’s scientific output continued to flourish, and in 1999 she was named as one of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s elite senior research scientists. The following year, she was awarded NASA’s distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal for her “pioneering contribution to the study of solar causes of geomagnetic and climate disturbances”.

In the mid-2000s, Joan imaginatively applied this work to anthropology, co-authoring a major paper with Alexander about the history of mankind in which they postulated that climate stability, which suddenly took place 10,000 years ago, was a key contribution to the emergence of agriculture globally. According to respected anthropologist Bruce Smith, this theory now forms the basis for a consensus on why such a vital development in human history did not happen sooner.

But it is the cycles of solar activity on which Joan and Alexander have mostly focused their work. Examining the effect of the Sun on patterns of wintertime climate anomalies, known as the Arctic Oscillation, they have discovered that periods of lower solar activity, with fewer sunspots, coincided with major cooling periods in certain parts of the world. Such a pattern occurred in Europe during a time known as the Little Ice Age, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and appears, to a lesser extent, to be cooling the Earth’s climate again at the moment.

“About eight years ago, the Sun started to do something unexpected,” explains Joan. “Instead of starting a new eleven-year sunspot cycle as usual, the sunspot number became extremely low for an extended length of time. Then the present sunspot cycle began to develop, but it was extremely small. The solar wind was also more dense and had a lower magnetic field in it than had been observed before.”

Joan’s current work on this strange solar behaviour has helped to confirm a less well-known 90 to 100 year solar cycle, during which time the amplitude of the 11 year sunspot cycles varies. “This longer cycle was first proposed by Wolfgang Gleißberg, who found some evidence for it in old data,” says Joan. Along with Alexander’s, her research, drawing on historic European and Chinese records of mid-latitude aurora observations, suggests that the longer cycle has been present for 80 percent of the last 1500 years. “If we can prove that it is a real pattern, then solar physics theory will need to find an explanation,” she says.

Together with Alexander, Joan continues to publish work on the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate and has now authored or co-authored more than 150 scientific papers and edited three scientific books. Despite officially retiring from the Lab in 2004, she continues to work there and still goes to her office most days. “How could I retire when the Sun is doing such crazy things?” she says, smiling.

Further reading

Hirshberg, C (2002), “My Mother, the Scientist”, Popular Science, Bonnier Corporation.

Feynman, J, & Ruzmaikin, A (2007), “Climate stability and the development of agricultural societies”, Climate Change, Springer Science + Business Media B.V.

Wikipedia, “Joan Feynman”,

About the author

Christopher Riley is visiting professor of Science and Media at the University of Lincoln’s School of Media.

He gained his doctorate in planetary geomorphology from Imperial College, University of London in 1995, before beginning his broadcasting career; first reporting for the BBC Radio Science unit and later moving to the BBC TV’s Specialist Factual Department.

He conceived and co-produced the Sundance Award-winning film In the Shadow of the Moon, produced and directed the innovative documentary recreation of Gagarin’s pioneering space flight First Orbit, and wrote the best selling Haynes owner’s workshop manual on Apollo.

His most recent films for television include The Fantastic Mr Feynman, made to mark what would have been the Nobel Prize–winning physicist’s 95th birthday in May 2013, and Neil Armstrong — First Man on the Moon, a landmark biopic made in close collaboration with the Armstrong family following the astronaut’s death in 2012.

Twitter: @alifeofriley
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Find out about more women in STEM in A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, both ebooks just £1.99 on Amazon.