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Exploding Binaries with Dr. JJ Eldridge

Written by: Kelly McSweeney
Published on: May 1, 2019

Dr JJ Eldridge Photo of Dr. JJ Eldridge distributed under distributed under the creative commons license of Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Binary systems are a sticky subject for Dr. JJ Eldridge, a theoretical astrophysicist based in Auckland, New Zealand. “I joke that I study exploding binary stars while exploding the myth of a gender binary,” they say.

JJ is known for having an extensive science-themed wardrobe that helps make science accessible and fun for everyone. Some favorites include a particle physics dress, a galaxy dress, and a star cluster dress. When lecturing on neutron star mergers, for example, JJ likes to wear gold shoes to remind students that these mergers may create much of the universe’s gold.

In physics, many scholarly papers focus on the concept of binarity, such as a binary star system where two stars orbit the same center of a mass. As a non-binary transgender woman who is still understanding their place on the gender spectrum, JJ feels that thinking of anything in exclusively binary terms leaves out the full picture. Binary stars don’t have a simple on/off switch, JJ says. They have a range of behaviors, just like gender expression includes a range of behaviors.

JJ makes computer models of the life and death of stars to study stellar evolution. Making a model of a star is hard enough, but with binary stars, there are many more possibilities. Instead of making a few hundred stellar models for a single star, JJ has to make a few hundred thousand, which involves lots of time at the computer coding, modeling, and bringing it all together in one interface.

“Being able to just be myself in an environment with such a supportive department is great,” they explain. “I can actually be myself, and I am so much happier at work, and so much more productive than I think I've ever been.”

The University of Auckland embraces the transgender community with a school-wide LGBTI network, departmental faculty groups, and a student group called Trans on Campus. Many institutions around the world are aiming for diversity and inclusion, but gender binaries are deeply embedded in standard policies at large institutions.

At Auckland, for example, they attempted to change the bathrooms to include all genders. This sounded like a good solution at first, but then there were issues with building codes requiring floor-to-ceiling cubicles for gender-neutral bathrooms. Plus, some religions require separate bathrooms for women, so the attempt at inclusion ended up unintentionally excluding people.

Some systems are too unwieldy to handle the evolution of societal norms. The university’s complicated IT system doesn’t handle name changes very well, but in the meantime the school set up a scholarship for students who want to change their name. It covers the cost of a new form of identification, such as a new passport or driver’s license, which helps ensure their safety.

Name changes can be especially challenging for researchers who have previously published work under a different name. JJ says that Google Scholar and ORCHID iDs have helped track citations from past papers that were published under a different name. “People change their name and it’s still the same person. It’s still the same research quality,” they say.

In physics and society alike, it’s helpful to consider spectrums instead of only binaries. JJ explains, “Everyone should have unconscious bias training, and it shouldn’t just be about gender. People are wonderfully different and that’s what you want because you want different ideas, because that’s the only way you’re going to solve problems.”