October 14, 2015

Women of Doubt: Sandra Faber and the beauty of our expanding universe

There's a noted lack of diversity in STEM fields, and astronomy is no different. Just this week, we saw a headline proclaiming that a noted astronomer--who had been considered a potential Nobel Prize laureate--was found to have violated his university's sexual harassment policy multiple times, with multiple female students, over several years.

And this isn't new. There's a long history of writing off or overlooking the accomplishments of women in the sciences.

The Harvard Computers, or "Pickering's Harem", made possible one of the first star catalogs, which listed over 10, 000 stars by spectrum. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the computers, made it possible for us to first measure the distance between earth and far-flung galaxies. Annie Jump Cannon also worked closely with Pickering on developing the Harvard Classification scheme. Cecilia Payne used this work to prove that the sun was mostly hydrogen--a conclusion she was dissuaded from publishing by Henry Norris Russell, who egregiously go on to "discover" the idea through different means and be given credit for it four years later (although he was kind enough to briefly mention Payne when he published...).

When you look through the biographies of famous women in astronomy, they are littered with the routes and roundabouts and tricks and hacks these women had to do simply to secure an education and a spot in their field.

Sandra Faber must be aware of this legacy, because she studied with Vera Rubin, an astronomer who was unable to take graduate courses at Princeton because at the time--the late 1940s--women weren't allowed to attend who went on to do amazing things in the field.

You wouldn't really know it though. As you read what she's written and listen to her interviews, one idea comes across really clearly.

She's absolutely fascinated by the beauty of the world all around us, and it is positively infectious.

Who Is Sandra Faber?

Faber was born on December 28, 1944, in Boston, Massachusetts. She would wind up finishing her high school in Pittsburgh. She received her B.A. with high honors in Physics from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, also receiving minors in Mathematics and Astronomy.

She went on to Harvard to pursue her Ph.D. in Astronomy, and drew the short stick, so to speak, of theses, as explained here:

The main challenge at Harvard was to find a thesis topic on galaxies that could be pursued at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only facility open to her. Furthermore, as a young graduate student she was limited to one of the smaller telescopes, a problem since galaxies are faint. Sandra settled on a program to do crude spectrophotometry of galaxies using a set of 10 interference filters. She didn't really have a clear idea in mind when proposing this project, and the original program as submitted had far too many galaxies. It was turned down, a major blow. She resubmitted with a more focussed program on elliptical galaxies, was accepted, but was assigned a malfunctioning photomultiplier tube and fell off the rising floor of the telescope the first night. She suffered a concussion and injured her lower back, a problem that became a life-long plague. This thesis was definitely not starting out well! However, the equipment and plan eventually jelled, and the result was the first homogenous body of spectral data on elliptical galaxies showing both colors and absorption-line feature strengths. Sandra noticed that there was a relation between the spectrum and the size of the galaxy - big ellipticals were red and had strong absorption features, while small ones were blue and had weak absorption features. This was the first of many "scaling laws" for elliptical galaxies, some discovered by Sandra and many by others.1
As you can see, Faber persevered. She received her Ph.D. in 1972.

While at Harvard, as mentioned above, Faber worked closely with Vera Rubin, another astronomer. AstronomyCast says this in one episode:

So at Harvard, Sandy Faber was actually one of Vera Rubin’s grad students and from there, she’s gone on to have an amazing career where she has bridged both doing amazing science and working on the instrumentation necessary to enable that science. There aren’t a lot of people out there who are both on the making sure the instruments get built and on making sure awesome science gets done.2
After receiving her Ph.D., Faber moved to the West Coast, securing a position at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1976, Faber co-discovered the Faber-Jackson Relation. Dr. Pamela Gray of AstronomyCast explains:

Right, and from there, she went on to be one of the names behind what’s called the Faber Jackson Relationship. This is a relationship that was noticed in elliptical galaxies. These are the ones that look kind of like a big ole swarm of stars rather than having the pretty spiral structure like Andromeda does. She found, along with her collaborator, that in big ole elliptical galaxies there is a relationship between the rate at which stars are orbiting around the center of that galaxy and the surface brightness of that galaxy. This allows us to start to get at how far away is the galaxy. If you know how bright it appears to be, you can get at how bright it actually is using this relationship by measuring the rate of stars going around which has nothing to do with how far away it is.2

In 1986, Faber headed the "Seven Samurai", a team of astronomers who discover The Great Attractor, a gravity anomaly that shows a concentration with a mass tens of thousands of times that of the Milky Way.

Also in the late 1980s, Faber played a vital role in problem-solving issues with the Hubble Space Telescope. AstronomyCast again explains:

She’d been out in California as a part of the U Cal System and went to live out east, working at the Space Telescope Science Institute when they realized holy expletive Batman, something is really wrong with Hubble. And it was her team at Space Telescope Science Institute that worked hours upon hours that we probably don’t want to even think about trying to understand what had gone wrong and how to fix it. 
Then years later, she was one of the people that went to the National Academies and worked her butt off, arguing that we fixed it, now let’s keep it in orbit and keep upgrading it because after the Columbia disaster, there was plan to scrap the refurbishing mission. She fought to figure out how do we get one more shuttle to fly to the Hubble.2

During her time as an astronomer, Faber has been fascinated by how galaxies involve. She lists galaxy evolution as the only teaching interest on her staff profile at UC-Santa Cruz, and the site says this about her current research:

Sandra Faber’s research focuses on the formation and evolution of galaxies and the evolution of structure in the universe. She utilizes ground-based optical data obtained with the Lick 3-meter and Keck 10-meter telescopes; she also has several projects on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). She does most of her work with graduate students and has several ongoing collaborations with former students which have lasted many years. 
Currently she is concentrating in three areas. A project is nearly complete to measure the large-scale peculiar motion of local galaxies and make comparisons to density maps from IRAS and optical galaxy catalogs. The aim is to measure the total mass-density of the universe. Related to this is a long-term project on the mass-to-light ratios and stellar populations of elliptical galaxies. This work has culminated in methods to disentangle age and metallicity for stars in elliptical galaxies, with the result that many elliptical stellar populations are found to be surprisingly young. Faber is planning to hunt for the presence of such galaxies using lookback studies of distant clusters with the Keck Telescope. 3

Faber is still an active astronomer with ongoing research. She's also a University Professor at UC Santa Cruz, so we can look forward to future discoveries from her and those she has influenced over the years.

What Does Faber Have to Say?

I absolutely adore quotes that I found in two different pieces.

The first I found was in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in a piece by Molly Sharlach:

"This talk is about a group of people -- our species -- reaching a special point in their history. It's really analogous to the point that we all reach in life when we come of age," Faber said at Wednesday's lecture. "It means we're becoming self aware, we have a good idea of who we are, our surroundings and how we fit in, and we're using that knowledge to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives."

And another on PBS said this:

 “I take comfort in the fact that it is a beautiful universe, and we belong here and that we fit,” Faber mused. “This is our home.”

The PBS piece also mentioned Faber's lack of religious belief:

That night in Hawaii, Faber declared that there were only two possible explanations for fine-tuning. “One is that there is a God and that God made it that way,” she said. But for Faber, an atheist, divine intervention is not the answer. 
“The only other approach that makes any sense is to argue that there really is an infinite, or a very big, ensemble of universes out there and we are in one,” she said.


After having my social media blowing up with the sexual harassment case mentioned above, I'm buoyed to read the story of a woman in science like Sandra Faber.

Her discoveries are important, and her passion is simply contagious.


1 "Biographical Sketch of Sandra M Faber". < http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/articles/faber.htm> Accessed October 14, 2015.

2 "Episode 358: Modern Women: Sandra Faber". <http://www.astronomycast.com/2014/12/ep-358-modern-women-sandra-faber/> Accessed October 14, 2015.

3 "Dr. Sandra Faber". University of Santa Cruz. <http://astro.ucsc.edu/~dept/faculty/faber.html> Accessed October 14, 2015.

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