Margaret Burbidge

(This is another Ada Lovelace day post. Ada Lovelace Day was started and organized by Suw Charman-Anderson. Even Sarah Brown, wife of UK PM Gordon Brown, has blogged and tweeted about it.)

I was going to blog about the physicist Emmy Noether, but then I realized that someone beat me to it — last year. Then I thought of the cosmologist Vera Rubin, one of the first proponents of dark matter — same problem. Instead, I’ll write about Margaret Burbidge, a British-born astrophysicist, now an emeritus professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Burbidge started out in astronomy as a student at UCL during World War II, moving to Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago, and then back to Britain before finally ending up at UCSD. Early on, she was barred from observing at the male-only Mount Wilson Observatory in California, but eventually brought that barrier down. Married to a fellow astronomer, Geoffery Burbidge (who died only a couple of months ago), at a couple of times in her career she was forced to take lesser or alternative jobs in order to avoid so-called nepotism rules.

But her astronomical prowess was never in doubt. She had been studying the abundances of elements in stars, which we can measure by the lines in their spectra. In 1957, along with her husband Geoffery, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, she wrote the now-famous “B2FH” paper which explained how elements could be formed through fusion in stars — at the time it was not clear that anything heavier than Helium could be made.

Since then, she became a pioneer in the study of quasars, probably the first person to understand that these incredibly bright objects were, nonetheless, as far away as distant galaxies. She was the director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in the early 1970s, and was a principal investigator on one of the original instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope. She has dabbled in the steady-state theory that her husband and Fred Hoyle had championed as an alternative to the Big Bang, but never seemed quite as curmudgeonly about it, and so actually retains a higher stature in the community at large.

I admit that It’s not clear that Burbidge would entirely appreciate this mention. In the early 1970s, she was awarded the Annie Jump Cannon award for a female astronomer, saying “It is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed”. Would that the discrimination against were indeed removed… But she has deserved and won plenty of other prizes in astronomy, physics and science in general.