A Century of Braving the Elements: A 100th Birthday Salute to Astronomer Margaret Burbidge

Eleanor Margaret Peachey Burbidge (1919- )

Life on earth requires a bevy of chemical elements, including hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and many others. The first on that list is easy to find in the universe. Ordinary hydrogen nuclei are simply protons, positive-charged elementary particles abundant in the cosmos. Under sufficiently hot and dense conditions, other elements might be built up from hydrogen, step-by-step like constructing a building, through the process of nuclear fusion. Indeed much elemental helium emerged from the fiery conditions of the Big Bang, along with a smattering of lithium. But Big Bang nucleosynthesis, a fleeting process that cooled down extremely rapidly due to the expansion of space, cannot explain how the higher elements were forged.

As brilliantly shown by a key paper published in 1957, “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” the rest of the periodic table is star stuff. The authors of the paper, E. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle, known by the acronym B2FH, beautifully demonstrated how the fusion of higher elements transpires in the hot, dense cores of massive stars, and is released into space when those stars undergo supernova explosions. Thus for everything on Earth, save its hydrogen and some of its helium, we might thank an ancient star that gave its life well before the solar system emerged.

Only one of the authors of that seminal paper, E. Margaret Burbidge, is alive today, living in California and still maintaining an office at the University of California, San Diego as Professor Emeritus of Physics. At the age of 100, she is truly a living legend.

Margaret Burbidge with astronomical images (ESVA)

Born Eleanor Margaret Peachey in Davenport, Cheshire, England on August 12, 1919, she changed her name in 1948 when she married astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge. The two were in some ways opposites — she petite and soft-spoken and he a brawny man (whom Fowler once compared to the actor Charles Laughton) with a booming, unmistakable voice. Yet they shared a resoluteness, a love of independent thinking, and a sense of fairness that contributed to their successful careers (which often involved collaborative efforts) and great respect by other scientists.

Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge with William Fowler (Caltech Archives)

Indeed young Margaret was shy growing up, but always focused. The daughter of two chemists (her father was active in industrial chemistry and her mother also had a chemistry background), she was inspired as a girl to pursue science in an era where there was much discrimination. She received her undergraduate degree at University College, London, in 1939 and a PhD from University College in 1943. She loved observational astronomy and decided to pursue it as an academic career.

Much to her dismay, when she applied in 1945 for a Carnegie Fellowship she was declined. It would have meant working at Mount Wilson Observatory, which at that time would only admit male scientists. Years later, after marrying Geoff, she was finally able to observe there. Cruelly enough, however, she needed to present herself as Geoff’s assistant, at first, to obtain valuable observation time. The sexism of the age was truly appalling.

One of the most notable students Burbidge taught early in her career was Arthur C. Clarke, who would become one of the most prominent science fiction writers of the late 20th century.

Arthur C. Clarke

As she recounted in a 1978 interview with David DeVorkin, that is preserved in the AIP Niels Bohr Library and Archives:

One interesting student was Arthur C. Clarke… I was running the practical class then, which was using the smaller telescope, the 8-inch telescope, and using theodolites for navigation, those kinds of things. And the beginning students were coming back to University College, and were coming out also. Arthur C. Clarke came in a group of those…

She remembers Clarke asking her many questions about the planets, and being particularly interested in the British Interplanetary Society. One of Clarke’s stories, The Sentinel, written in 1948, would inspire Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Throughout her lengthy, trailblazing career Burbidge was a scientist of many firsts. She was the first woman to be named director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the first woman astronomer elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She was also elected to the Royal Academy.

She received numerous awards, including the Helen Warner Prize (along with Geoffrey), the Bruce Medal, and the National Medal of Science. Nominated once for the Nobel Prize, she was unfortunately one of many great scientific women who were nominated but never received that honor.

Annie Jump Cannon Award

The one prize she declined, however, the Annie Jump Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society, which was offered in 1971, came as a great shock and disappointment to the world of astronomy. Her reason for declining the prize was that it was designated only for women. Single-sex awards, she felt, did little to ameliorate the dearth of female recipients of general prizes. It would be better, she argued, to award more of the general prizes to qualified women as well as men. As she wrote:

I believe that it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.

Research areas in which Burbidge made her mark in included the study of quasars, enormous sources of energy whose origin at the time was unclear, and explorations of the properties of galaxies, including their rotation. While her husband and his collaborators, including Hoyle and Jayant Narlikar, were interested in cosmology, including the quasi-steady-state theory, she steered away from that area, remaining primarily an observational astronomer, rather than a theorist.

One of Margaret Burbidge’s many seminal papers, published in 1967

Over a career of many decades, she published numerous seminal papers, and received considerable observing time at various telescopes — a sign of accomplishment in her field. She remained an active researcher well into her late 80s, publishing a jointly authored paper on quasars in 2006. Truly, she is an extraordinary astronomer.

One of Burbidge’s final papers, jointly written and published in 2006
Vera Rubin (left) and Margaret Burbidge in Cambridge, England (1990s)

As another noted astronomer, Vera Rubin (co-discoverer of the galaxy rotation curves that indicate dark matter) wrote about Burbidge:

Margaret Burbidge has met each challenge of her career with brilliance, with originality, with dedicated hard work, and with grace. She has been a mentor to students and young astronomers. She was a role model for many, even before we knew the word. Thank you, Margaret.

Happy 100th Birthday to one of the greatest contemporary astronomers and a true pioneer!

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of fifteen popular science books, including The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality.

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect