The astronomer who taught us we’re all product of stardust celebrates her 100th birthday on August 12, 2019.
Margaret Burbidge, who celebrates her 100th birthday in August, had a protracted and stellar profession in a number of fields of astrophysics. One in every of her most important achievements was formulating our understanding of nucleosynthesis in stars. Amongst positions she held in her lifetime have been director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and president of the American Astronomical Society, each the primary time girl crammed the put up. The exhibits Burbidge in Dallas, Texas, in February 1964.
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“You possibly can’t give telescope time for this junk science! Who does she suppose she is?” blustered a younger upstart upon listening to that an aged astronomer needed half an evening with one of many brand-new Keck telescopes to look at objects which may disprove the Huge Bang idea.
Observatory Director Joe Miller was fast to place the teenager in his place: “You simply lookup Margaret Burbidge, the Margaret Burbidge, and also you’ll know who she is,” he stated. “If Margaret Burbidge desires half an evening to attract up footage of Mars, I’ll give it to her — whether or not we expect it’s loopy or not, we’re going to indicate respect to one of many best astronomers of the 20th century.”
Although the night time turned out to be cloudy and he or she wouldn’t have discovered proof to assist a substitute for the Huge Bang anyway, this mid-1990s episode — when Burbidge was already in her 70s — is however considered one of many in a profession spanning greater than 60 years that spotlight a dedication to push the frontiers of human data.
Margaret and Geoff teamed up with Willy Fowler (third from left) and Fred Hoyle (at proper) to jot down one of many seminal papers in all of astrophysics. They not solely labored collectively, in addition they performed collectively — right here they’re celebrating Fowler’s 60th birthday in July 1971, admiring his mannequin practice engine.
Grasp and Fellows of St John’s School / Cambridge / Donald Clayton
Born Eleanor Margaret Peachey in Davenport, UK, to chemist dad and mom, Burbidge caught the astronomy bug early. “She got interested within the stars when she was three or 4 years previous,” explains her daughter, Sarah Burbidge. “Her household took an evening ferry crossing to France for a vacation, and for the primary time the celebrities have been clearly seen to her, and he or she was smitten.”
This fascination, mixed with a expertise for arithmetic, developed to the purpose the place she was studying the books of astronomer and mathematician Sir James Denims, a distant relative on her mom’s aspect, by the age of 12. She went on to review astronomy at College School London, graduating in the summertime of 1939 with little ceremony because of the looming cloud of conflict.
Over the subsequent few years, the contemporary graduate break up her time between sustaining the College of London Observatory at Mill Hill within the absence of the various scientists and technicians sucked into the conflict effort, fabricating optical devices for the armed forces, and graduate research.
For her PhD thesis, she analyzed spectra of the variable star Gamma Cassiopeiae. She noticed within the harshest of circumstances, usually alone at night time in a cramped house beneath a chilly open dome, typically with the fear-inducing sounds of flying bombs going off round her. But she by no means complained, providing the primary trace of the steely dedication and thirst for data that will later outline her: “These nights, standing or sitting on a ladder within the dome of the Wilson reflector . . . fulfilled my early goals,” Burbidge later recalled in a 1994 memoir.
Burbidge carried out her PhD analysis through the World Conflict II years. Between wartime duties, she noticed Gamma Cassiopeiae on the College of London Observatory in Mill Hill Park. The telescope was donated by J. G. Wilson, and it’s to not be confused with the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Whereas observing on the night time of August third, Burbidge was twice interrupted by bombs exploding close by, however neither incident rattled her, as is evident from her notes.
College School London Observatory
The years instantly following World Conflict II would change into career-defining for the younger astronomer. Alongside giving lessons on sensible astronomy on the observatory roof — to college students that included an enthusiastic undergraduate named Arthur C. Clarke — she additionally attended graduate lectures in physics. There, she instantly hit it off with “an fascinating individual” known as Geoffrey (Geoff) Burbidge who she would go on to marry simply six months later.
From the skin, the pair made an unlikely couple. Geoff was a big man with a truculent, impatient character, whereas Margaret was so demure and quiet that Miller claims, “My spouse all the time used to say ‘If Queen Elizabeth ever wanted a stand-in, Margaret might do it’.”
However appearances could be deceiving. Although Geoff had sturdy scientific views and a penchant for a heated argument, he was sincere, loyal, and carried on friendships with colleagues with whom he disagreed, and even promoted them. And as for Margaret, “It was the basic iron fist beneath her velvet glove,” says Miller. “She knew what she knew and believed strongly, and he or she would keep on with her rules.”
In truth, it was Margaret’s ardour for and data of astronomy and spectroscopy — the evaluation of starlight by wavelength — that prompted Geoff to change from physics quickly after they married, spawning a successful collaboration that led to quite a few new insights into chemically peculiar stars. In a single examine, they carried out the primary detailed spectral evaluation of Alpha2 Canum Venaticorum, now thought-about the prototype of a category of variable stars that harbor sturdy magnetic fields. Amongst quite a few seminal leads to the paper, printed in 1955, in addition they confirmed that the star had, on common, an overabundance of uncommon earth metals of about 800 occasions that of the Solar. This discovering piqued the curiosity of distinguished experimental nuclear physicist William (Willy) Fowler. On the time, Fowler was spending a 12 months in Cambridge, UK, working with Fred Hoyle. In 1946 and 1954, Hoyle printed the first-ever papers wherein he theorized how stars may forge hydrogen and helium into the heavier components discovered all through the universe, an idea now often known as stellar nucleosynthesis. This went towards the established notion that the weather have been all derived from the Huge Bang.
The seminal “B2FH” paper on stellar nucleosynthesis, headed by Margaret Burbidge, was cited so usually that the authors have been known as “B2FH.” Above is a schematic diagram of the nuclear processes by which the synthesis of components in stars takes place. This tour de drive is 108 pages lengthy.
E. M. Burbidge et al. / Critiques of Trendy Physics Vol. 29, No. four, P. 547 (1957) / American Bodily Society
Seeing how the Burbidges’ analysis and experience might assist in proving Hoyle’s stellar nucleosynthesis concept, Fowler invited Geoff and a pregnant Margaret to affix them in Cambridge. They instantly clicked: “You possibly can’t think about how a lot enjoyable all of them had working collectively,” says Sarah Burbidge. The following 12 months and a half was a flurry of intense exercise.
Although Margaret was to this point alongside in her being pregnant that “Willy stated he was fearful she would ‘pop’,” says Sarah, it didn’t deter her from making key observations that helped determine all of the processes inside stars that kind the weather populating the periodic desk (aside from the very lightest). This included increasing on Hoyle’s earlier work to indicate how components as much as iron might be created by the successive levels of nuclear fusion as a star evolves. In addition they illuminated how briskly and gradual neutron seize, the r- and s-processes, might clarify the noticed abundances of components heavier than iron.
The results of all these efforts was a 108-page paper written by Margaret and Geoff together with Fowler and Hoyle, and printed in Critiques of Trendy Physics in October 1957. It confirmed how components are fashioned at numerous levels of the stellar life cycle, and maybe most significantly how many of the components that make up every thing round us — and ourselves — originate from stars. “This one paper simply utterly laid the muse for what’s going on when it comes to the formation of the chemical components,” summarizes Miller.
“Synthesis of the Components in Stars,” because it was titled, shortly popularized the concept of stellar nucleosynthesis within the scientific neighborhood. The article was referenced so usually that it was later merely known as B2FH (after the primary letter of every writer’s surname) for brief. It turned and stays a landmark contribution to nuclear astrophysics.
But the paper was not with out controversy. Hoyle and Geoff have been key proponents of the Regular State idea of the universe. In contrast to the Huge Bang idea, wherein the observable universe had a particular starting, the Regular State idea maintained that the universe has and all the time will exist. Importantly, it claimed that the universe might generate new matter, which B2FH demonstrated. Nevertheless, this victory for the Regular State neighborhood would quickly be drowned by a tsunami of proof in favor of the Huge Bang image, specifically the invention of a faint glow coming from all instructions. It quickly turned clear that this glow was relic radiation left over from the early universe that immediately we all know because the cosmic microwave background.
From a historic perspective, that Hoyle and Geoff remained cussed adherents to Regular State cosmology — lengthy after the consensus deemed it had been disproved — considerably overshadowed the sunshine they each illuminated on quite a few scientific mysteries all through their careers. The reminiscence of Burbidge’s contributions to astronomy, in distinction, stays unfettered by the controversy.
Cleverly, she not often supplied her opinion publicly on theoretical issues, both leaving Geoff to slug it out or, if he have been absent, astutely contributing to the controversy by beginning her argument with: “If Geoff have been right here, he would say . . . ” Sarah feels the explanation for this was easy: She was by no means a theoretician. “I don’t suppose Mum ever fearful about the place Fred’s theories may lead,” she says. “Keep in mind that she was an observational astronomer, targeted on her observations and decreasing spectra.”
A New Astronomical Thriller
An overhead picture taken round 1970 exhibits Burbidge sitting within the “cage” of the Shane Three-meter (120-inch) telescope at Lick Observatory owned and operated by the College of California. These days, observers function telescopes from comfortably heated management rooms, typically miles away from the precise dome.
Having wielded these formidable observational expertise in B2FH, Burbidge wanted a brand new scientific thriller to get her tooth into. After 10 years working with Geoff measuring the rotation of stars and fuel in disk galaxies and learning peculiar galaxies and galaxy clusters, she finally discovered it within the newly found puzzling objects we now name quasars — or, as they have been termed on the time, quasi-stellar objects.
The primary positively recognized quasar to be noticed and recognized as such, 3C 273, prompted an amazing commotion within the astronomical neighborhood in 1963. Barring any new physics, it was shining 40 occasions extra brightly than the brightest recognized galaxies. Plus it had a redshift — which means its mild is shifted towards the crimson finish of the spectrum due to its movement away from the viewer — that positioned it far past our personal galaxy, round 2.5 billion light-years away.
With only some telescopes around the globe that might acquire spectra of quasars, Burbidge was ideally positioned to affix the race to search out extra quasars with even larger redshifts, given her entry to the Shane Three-meter (120-inch) telescope at Lick Observatory. This she did — with a repute as “a quite formidable driver,” she would fairly actually velocity to the observatory of their Jaguar. She found tens of examples, together with OQ 172 at redshift Three.53 in 1973, a quasar that remained the farthest recognized for almost a decade.
Although fascinating, quasars introduced an issue for Hoyle, Geoff, and their dwindling band of fellow Regular State universe supporters. Except some new physics peculiar to quasars might be mustered or observations of blueshifted quasars made, these redshifts have been cosmological, indicating that the universe is increasing all over the place and that this growth needed to come from the Huge Bang. Because it turned clear that neither of those could be forthcoming, Burbidge’s quasar observations turned out to be yet one more nail within the coffin of the Regular State universe. Nevertheless, Burbidge herself by no means noticed it that manner, maintaining “an open thoughts all the time.”
Margaret nonetheless owns the 1961 Jaguar Mark II, proven right here behind the Burbidges. Though she doesn’t drive it anymore, she loves being pushed round by Sarah and her grandson, Connor.
The latter years of Burbidge’s scientific profession have been spent probing the spectra of galaxies, figuring out galaxies’ rotations, lots, and chemical composition, and, after all, investigating quasars. She additionally performed a significant function in transferring observational spectroscopy into the heavens, serving to to develop the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS) aboard the Hubble Area Telescope. The FOS was one of many authentic Hubble devices, designed to detect the bodily state and chemical composition of very faint objects equivalent to quasars. Her final main scientific contribution was main the FOS knowledge evaluation staff. Amongst different findings, this staff supplied proof for the presence of an enormous black gap on the heart of close by elliptical galaxy M87 (see web page 10 for extra on M87).
As Hubble’s FOS was churning out new astronomical insights in 1995, Fowler died. Hoyle adopted in 2001, with Geoff sadly passing away in 2010 on the age of 84. In consequence, for nearly a decade Margaret has remained the only residing member of B2FH. On the eve of her 100th birthday, it’s a great time to replicate on and applaud what she and the opposite members of B2FH achieved, in addition to all of the triumphs she will rightly declare are hers alone.
“You’ve made me look again over her 100 years — beginning with observations from that little telescope in Mill Hill within the 1940s all the best way to the event of the Faint Object Spectrograph on the Hubble Area Telescope — and it’s actually fairly outstanding,” displays Sarah. “She merely needed to be excellent at her work as an observational astronomer, and I might say she was in all probability the perfect of her technology.”
Triumph Over Obstacles
In her largely quiet and undemonstrative manner, Burbidge’s dealing with of the various moments of discrimination she encountered throughout her profession impressed different feminine astronomers to pursue and obtain their very own ambitions.
With World Conflict II ending, Burbidge noticed a possibility to realize “entry to bigger telescopes, higher devices and clearer skies” within the U.S. via an commercial for a Carnegie Fellowship at Mount Wilson Observatory. Nevertheless, her hopes have been instantly dashed when her software was denied — merely on account of her gender. “A guiding operational precept in my life was activated,” she stated in her 1994 memoir. “If pissed off in a single’s endeavors by a stone wall . . . one should discover a manner round.” Ten years later, Geoff submitted one other software, which was accepted. The couple stayed in a separate summer time cottage on the mountain away from the completely male dormitory, and Margaret was formally solely there as Geoff’s assistant. In actuality, Geoff carried out the darkish room work and smoked cigars, whereas Margaret lastly acquired to look at the heavens from Mount Wilson.
The Annie Soar Cannon Award was the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) oldest prize and the one one completely for girls. It had been awarded to luminaries equivalent to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Helen Sawyer Hogg, so it wasn’t in any respect stunning when the AAS needed to award Burbidge with the accolade. What was stunning, as an alternative, was the rejection letter Burbidge wrote in response. In it, she stated “it’s excessive time that discrimination in favor of, in addition to towards, ladies in skilled life be eliminated, and a prize restricted to ladies is on this class.” Her refusal led to the creation of the primary working group on the standing of girls in astronomy, and elevated consciousness of discrimination towards ladies and different minority teams in astronomy.
Only a 12 months later, Burbidge turned the primary feminine astronomer to change into a member of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences, and the primary feminine director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory — however wasn’t elected Astronomer Royal, the primary and solely time within the group’s historical past this occurred. As an alternative, Martin Ryle was given the place. Whether or not this was pure gender discrimination or a symptom of political shenanigans within the British astronomical neighborhood stays unclear. What was clear was that Burbidge didn’t need to be concerned within the turmoil inside British astronomy on the time, and he or she tendered her resignation only a 12 months and a half later.
Regardless of, or maybe due to, the Annie Soar Cannon Award rejection, Burbidge was elected the primary girl president of the AAS. On the time, the U.S. Equal Rights Modification — guaranteeing the identical rights for all Americans no matter gender — had been ratified by all however three states. Burbidge put ahead to the membership the concept of banning annual AAS conferences from being held within the three dissenting states. She obtained extremely polarized responses, but it surely narrowly handed, providing a sign of assist from the AAS for girls in science.
B2FH was a transformative paper deserving of the best accolades. And in 1983 this was acknowledged when Fowler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. But even Fowler was shocked by the omission of his colleagues. Hoyle might have been neglected for numerous causes: his stance on the Huge Bang idea, the varied outlandish concepts he put ahead in later life, or for heavy criticism of the committee in 1974 for awarding Antony Hewish and failing to acknowledge Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s contributions in discovering the primary pulsar. Numerous commentators have since posited that Bell Burnell’s and Burbidge’s Nobel omissions have been however two of many examples of sexism in astronomy. Burbidge stays characteristically reserved on the topic.
This text first appeared within the July 2019 subject of Sky & Telescope.