We have all heard of Rychard Feynman, who was famous for doing fundamental work in the areas of particle physics and in quantum mechanics which led to a Nobel Prize in physics. What is perhaps less well-known is that he also had a sister who was a reknowned physicist.
According to an article in Popular Science this month, Dr. Joan Feynman started her career in 1932 when she was 5 years old. At that time she was set to turn switches to help her brother Rychard Feynman do physics experiments in their backyard.
As a teenager, she recalls being inspired by reading about the work of Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin in an Astronomy textbook. As Joan put it, “When I came to page 407 it changed my life.” For it was at this time that she realized almost as if in a revelation that women can do science!
Joan Feynman graduated from Oberlin College with a B. S. in physics in 1948. Afterward, she tried to get to graduate school. It was around this time that the Dean of Columbia University had recommended as a career for her to be a “sensible motherhood.” After three years of following this advice, she realized that science must be added to the mix. She went on to earn a Ph. D. in physics from Syracuse University in 1958.
Many of her significant scientific contributions involve studies of the Sun and Earth ranging from the shape of the Earth’s magnetosphere to the properties of the solar wind and even to the sunspot cycle. She did all this while having two children and moving often to go where the jobs took her.
Her perseverance in juggling science, family, and some rather extreme politics in the workplace are admirable. She never gave up, choosing to struggle for years to cobble together enough money to cope, until finally she secured a long term position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she still works today.
She reminds one of Prof. Payne-Gaposhkin herself, who recommended undertaking science not for fame or money, but “Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you.”