Lady Stardust was a star of astrophysics

Margaret Burbidge, named by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as “one of the most influential astrophysicists of her time”, died on 5 April this year. She was 100 years old.

Among the many stories told about her remarkable life, one of the best is also one of the earliest. In a 1978 interview with the American Institute of Physics, she recounts how her “fascination” with the stars began at age four when she became seasick while on a night crossing of the English Channel with her family, on the way to France for a holiday.

“To take my mind off that, I was lifted up to look out of the porthole on the upper bunk to see the stars,” she says.

For a child growing up in foggy London, the sight of the stars at sea was amazing. “You know how they are at sea, on a clear night,” she says. “These twinkling lights then became another fascination to me, tracking down any kind of twinkling light and enjoying twinkling lights.”

This fascination with stars, and her groundbreaking work in astronomy and spectroscopy – the analysis of starlight by wavelength – led to her being nicknamed Lady Stardust.

Eleanor Margaret Peachey was born on 12 August 1919 in Stockport, Greater Manchester. The family moved to London when she was two and she went on to study astronomy, physics and mathematics at University College London, graduating with first-class honours in 1939.

She earned a PhD from UCL in 1943, in the thick of World War II, while also working as a caretaker at the university’s Mill Hill Park observatory.

As the war was ending, Burbidge applied for a postdoctoral fellowship to work and study in the US, at the renowned Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California; the outcome was unexpected.

As she wrote in a 1994 article titled “Watcher of the Skies” in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, “The letter of denial opened my eyes to a new and somewhat frightening situation: new, because I had never before experienced gender-based discrimination.”

201107 geoffrey burbidge
Geoffrey Burbidge

The letter Burbidge received pointed out that Carnegie Fellowships were available only for men, and that women were not allowed to use the Mount Wilson telescopes. The experience caused her to become a champion for women’s rights for the remainder of a long and productive life.

Temporarily frustrated, she returned to UCL to do graduate studies. She also gave classes on practical astronomy, and one of her students, says a recent article in Sky & Telescope magazine, was an enthusiastic undergraduate named Arthur C Clarke.

AT UCL she also met a well-regarded young physicist, Geoffrey Burbidge, and they married in 1948. They continued their studies, and a series of grants allowed them to work at observatories in Europe, Canada and, in 1951, the US.

In 1955 Margaret again applied to join the staff at the Mount Wilson observatory, and again was turned down because of her sex.

As she says in “Watcher of the Skies”: “Standard reasons for not allowing women on the telescope included the fact that there were only male-oriented bathroom facilities on the mountain, and that the telescope technicians would object to operating under directions from a woman.”

Not to be deterred, Geoffrey applied for the Mount Wilson position and was hired. However, as The Guardian notes in its obituary for Margaret, when he went observing “she went along as his assistant. In reality, however, she operated the telescope and ran the observing program.”

In 1957 Margaret wrote the paper for which she is best known, “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”, which was published in the journal Reviews of Modern Physics. The New York Times calls it “one of the most influential scientific papers of its era”.

She produced the work with Geoffrey, the renowned American physicist William Fowler and English astronomer Fred Hoyle; so great was its impact that the group became known in astronomical circles simply as B2FH.

In it, the authors argue that nearly all of the chemical elements, from aluminium to zinc, are forged in the bodies of stars, a process now called stellar nucleosynthesis, The Times says. “The heavier elements are synthesised from the lighter ones by thermonuclear reactions within stars. Loosed into space, these elements can also recombine to form new stars, beginning the cycle once more.”

Fowler believed the work “laid the foundations for all of modern nuclear astrophysics, and particle astrophysics as well,” The Times says.

In 1972 Burbidge become the first woman to direct Britain’s Royal Observatory. In 1977 she became a US citizen and was the first woman to serve as president of the American Astronomical Society, a position she held from 1976 to 1978.

“She simply wanted to be very good at her work as an observational astronomer, and I would say she was probably the best of her generation,” Burbidge’s daughter, Sarah, told Sky & Telescope magazine.

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