Monday, August 12, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday Margaret Burbidge!

AP Photo | Annie Gracy [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

August 12 is the 100th birthday of Dr. Margaret Burbidge. Her contributions to the field of astronomy include verifying nucleosynthesis in stars, measuring redshifts to some of the first quasars, and helping develop the Faint Object Spectrograph onboard the Hubble Space Telescope &emdash among many others. In 1971, Margaret Burbidge refused to accept the AAS Council's Cannon Prize because "the prize, available only to women, was in itself discriminatory." The Council's response was to set up a committee, the "Special Committee on the Cannon Prize," which not only dealt with this issue but also recommended that the AAS review the status of women in astronomy. These events were the catalyst that started the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA).

Dr. Burbidge impacted astronomy in so many ways. She is not only a brilliant researcher but also an inspiration to future astronomers. Today, the CSWA is honoring Dr. Burbidge by sharing stories that show her impact in advancing both discovery and community in the field of astronomy.

Crosspost: Happy Birthday, Margaret Burbidge

By Ben Skuse in Sky & Telescope Magazine

"You can’t give telescope time for this junk science! Who does she think she is?” blustered a young upstart upon hearing that an elderly astronomer wanted half a night with one of the brand-new Keck telescopes to observe objects that might disprove the Big Bang theory.

Observatory Director Joe Miller was quick to put the youngster in his place: “You just look up Margaret Burbidge, the Margaret Burbidge, and you’ll know who she is,” he said. “If Margaret Burbidge wants half a night to draw up pictures of Mars, I’ll give it to her — whether we think it’s crazy or not, we’re going to show respect to one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century.”

Though the night turned out to be cloudy and she wouldn’t have found evidence to support an alternative to the Big Bang anyway, this mid-1990s episode — when Burbidge was already in her 70s — is but one of many in a career spanning more than 60 years that highlight a determination to push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Mentor, Role Model, and Inspiration to Future Astronomers

We asked the community to share their fondest memories of Dr. Burbidge and her impact on their lives. Below are the responses in no particular order. If you have your own memories or thoughts to share, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

This celebration of Margaret Burbidge’s birthday triggered a memory of the time we (the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and Vera Rubin) organized a celebration of Margaret Burbidge at an AAS meeting in San Diego, I think it was in 2001. She really enjoyed it. We had a special lunch (which was full to capacity), and on Vera’s advice, we gave Margaret a star-studded brooch from Tiffany, which she loved. A great time was had by all. Margaret deserves all kinds of recognition. She was such a pioneer and role model for all who followed. Her stories about observing at Palomar earned with proposals signed by Geoff but written by Margaret – well, this was a textbook example of how to get around ridiculous, arcane rules. And of course, Margaret used her observing time to discover and study quasars, which are a particular interest of mine – only one of her many, many other contributions to Astronomy. In any case, on the occasion of the San Diego lunch, Margaret spoke at the session organized by the CSWA (which, by the way, she was so instrumental in founding!). She talked about her career in astronomy, and how she just ran around, over, or under any obstacles that presented themselves, which I found very inspiring. Then she answered many questions from the audience. One young woman asked: why, did she (Margaret) think, women were discriminated against or ignored in our field? She replied in her high-pitched British almost-falsetto, “Well, sometimes I think they simply can’t hear women’s voices.” We all laughed. She continues to be an amazing inspiration.
Meg Urry, Yale University, Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Margaret is the reason I became an astronomer. In 1976 I was a graduate student in the Physics Department at Florida State University. I was part of a large group carrying out experiments using the tandem Van de Graff experiments. Good stuff, but it was not really lighting any fires in my scientific soul. Margaret gave a colloquium on BBHF and the programs from the previous two decades on identifying the origins of the elements and I was hooked. We chatted after that talk and in her wonderful slightly-understated British way of speaking, with that ever-present twinkle in her eye, she encouraged me to consider a change of career direction. I finished up my master's degree at FSU that year and enrolled in the astronomy and astrophysics program at the University of Washington.
Michael Bolte, UC Santa Cruz, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics
In the 1960s she often observed at the prime focus on the 120" at Lick Observatory. I would observe on other telescopes on the mountain, and we both would show up at breakfast, she looking as if she stepped out of a fashion plate and me looking like the abominable snowwoman. Amazing how that worked.
Sethanne Howard, USNO/retired, former Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office
When the Burbidges visited Lick Observatory in the mid-1960s, it was typical for Margaret to drive, drop Geoff off at the Lick "Diner" if it was mealtime, and then go deposit their bags in their rooms. This behavior was noticed especially by the future Anne Boesgaard.
I hope my interview with her might be of interest: I also interviewed Geoff in the same series, but separately.

David DeVorkin
My husband, Kenneth Brecher (BU Astronomy and Physics Professor emeritus, HAD founder and AAS member) forwarded it to me. In 1969-72 Ken was a postdoctoral Fellow with Geoffrey Burbidge and I was a UC San Diego (UCSD) doctoral student working on Alfven’s Solar System formation. We were in daily and very close contact with Geoff and Margaret, participating in discussions and meals with their family, colleagues, and friends (like Fed Hoyle). The faculty of Physics and Astronomy photographs from that period include Margaret and are posted on UCSD historical displays. Margaret was an inspiring role model to me for her professional dedication and accomplishments as educator and researcher, and for her persistence in hiring and advancing the career of women astronomers. However, I recall with admiration her calm and effective performance as a mother to Sarah, then a spirited and pretty typical California teenager. Margaret and Geoff kept close tabs on her, often brought her along to the office or meetings and we- as well another postdocs- were charged with supervising Sarah after school or whenever they had to observe nights or attend meetings. On holidays, like Christmas Day we were invited to the wonderful Burbidge feasts prepared by Margaret or we went together to their favorite restaurant (Giulio’s) and to the movies afterward. Although Geoff was more gregarious and loudly opinionated, Margaret weighed in calm and effectively. She also drove Geoff and Sarah everywhere in their family car- an old Jaguar. Geoff always railed at the injustice that Margaret was not allowed time to observe at Yerkes Observatory in Chicago or at Palomar, so he had to sign up as observer on her behalf and go with her on observing nights. Their family life was an inspiration to us as a working and successful symbiotic team, that provided mutual support as parents and as active astronomy researchers, always collaborating with each other and with their younger colleagues.
Dr. Aviva Brecher, 1972 UCSD PhD, 1968 MIT Physics BS and MS
I want to share the article I wrote for Physics Today about the Cannon Award and based on the talk I gave to CSWA at the AAS meeting in Jan 2018.
Roberta Humphreys, University of Minnesota, Professor
I first Met Dr. Burbidge in 1976, when I was a graduate student at Wesleyan University. She gave a talk at the Coast Guard Academy, and Wesleyan faculty and students traveled to attend. It was a marvelous talk!
Ken Rumstay, Valdosta State University, Professor of Astronomy
I first met Margaret Burbidge at a series of lectures on Cosmic Plasma held by Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén at the University of California, La Jolla 1979-1981. Unlike her husband Geoffrey, who was at odds with Alfvén, Margaret was open and I enjoyed conversations with her on cosmology. [Margaret (nee Peachy), and Geoffrey met at University College, London, and married in 1948, a union that launched Geoffrey into astrophysics]. Strangely it was the details and Geoffrey’s argumentative nature that brought him into conflict with the ideas held by Alfvén. Geoffrey never attended a single lecture but Margaret all of them. Through her, over time I did learn that Geoffrey and myself admired some of the same people in physics: Otto Struve, C. F. von Wiezacker, Richard Feynman, Fred Hoyle, Tommy Gold, and Halton (Chip) Arp, among others. Margaret excelled in all aspects of astrophysics, its ideas, theory, observation, and management; at all levels of academia and government.
Anthony L. Peratt, Emeritus AAS, Acting Head of Nuclear Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of Energy (ret.), Los Alamos National Laboratory (ret.)
I attach a photo I took of Margaret with Jim Hesser at an Astronomical Society of the Pacific board meeting in the late 1980's. She served on the ASP Board until 1990 and was a delight to work with.

Andrew Fraknoi, Fromm Institute, U. of San Francisco, Old Professor
When I was in high school, Margaret Burbidge appeared in a Time magazine article. I carried that clipping in my wallet for years. She was a source of inspiration and a role model for me, and I feel privileged to have met her in later years.
Debra Elmegreen, Vassar College, Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair
Margaret is the first women scientist I met. Up until then, I only knew of Marie Curie (dead) and Susan Calvin (fictional). Her discoveries were front-page news when I was growing up in San Diego. Proof that women could do astronomy! She is the reason I went to UCSD for undergrad in 1973. She has been a great inspiration and a great mentor. Thank you, Margaret.
Kristen Sellgren, Ohio State University, Emerita professor
I can't imagine what my astronomical life would have been like without the presence and kindness and friendship of Margaret Burbidge. She has been a role model for me since the day I met her - but she may be a little surprised to hear that. I was fortunate to be a graduate student in the group that she and Geoff led at UCSD; my late husband, Wal Sargent, had just been hired as an assistant professor and they accepted me too. We had wonderful times with the Burbidges and their daughter, Sarah - so many dinners and walks on the beach, and visits to the Institute in Cambridge with more lunches and dinners. Visitors, old friends, everyone was welcomed and science conversations never stopped. I learned from day to day observation how very possible it was to be a woman scientist with husband and children, whose opinions were not just accepted but sought after. There were certainly adverse experiences in her life but she just rose above them or, perhaps, just found a way around them. I am so grateful to know her and hope I've managed to follow her lead at least a little.
Happy 100th Birthday, Margaret!

Anneila Sargent, California Institute of Technology, Professor Emeritus
It is great you are putting this together! I barely knew Margaret because we worked in different fields, and she was a famous professor at UCSD and I was a grad student at Lick. I did see her a number of times at UC conferences when I was a graduate student at Lick.

I have attached a few photos from the collection of Dr. Olin Eggen. He died in Chile intestate and it fell on me to put his estate together. He left many wonderful photos of his life as an astronomer which I scanned. The originals are at his archive at the University of Wisconsin.

MISC25 - a quick sketch of Margaret. I don't know who SG was and why it seems to be dated SG67 when the sketch identifies her in 1949. A mystery. A rather cheesy poem was also included with this sketch which I did not include in the scan.

MISC05. La Plata, Argentina, undated, but the conference happened in 1962. I love this photo because we have all been to conferences like this. I can identify Margaret and Maartin Schmidt. According to her interview at the AIP history site, the conference was "Recent Observations of Galaxies and Their Relation to Problems of Galactic Evolution" Symposium on Stellar Evolution, La Plata Conference, 1962.

OE73. Undated conference with Margaret and many other notables. But I think it is the same conference as MISC05 because the woman to Margaret's left is the same woman in MISC05. Martin Schmidt is directly behind Margaret. To her right, the man looks like Otto Struve. Olin Eggen is third from left. On the other side of the pillar, you can see Geoff Burbidge and Allan Sandage. I bet there is a conference book and the people in the photo are identified.

Nicholas Suntzeff, Texas A&M University, University Distinguished Professor
Margaret helped me understand many aspects of spectroscopy and abundance determinations during her visits to Caltech in the late 1960s. She was also a welcoming presence to my family during the summers of 1967 and 1971 at Fred Hoyle's Institute of Astronomy.
Bob Wagoner, Stanford University, Professor of Physics, Emeritus
In the fall of 1969, I was a beginning graduate student at U.C. Santa Cruz, as green as can be. Early in the fall, we were taken to Mount Hamilton to do some photometric observing under the tutelage of Rem Stone, and there are many stories there to distract us. But while on the Mountain who should be observing but Margaret Burbidge with her colleagues from UCSD. She was just a delight, inquisitive and enthusiastic. I saw her many, many times in subsequent years when I observed for my thesis on the coude CAT telescope, and every time we had a wonderful conversation. I can't forget her consistent curiosity and friendliness, even though we were working in very different areas. She was usually accompanied by Gene Smith, also from UCSD, who, sadly, was taken from us at too young an age.

I saw her after that as well, at the occasional AAS meeting, or with Geoffrey at a topical symposium. What an extraordinary pair! And one final memory: Margaret is the only person I've ever met with a voice like that of Julia Child. Distinctive and unforgettable, like her.

David Soderblom, Space Telescope Science Institute, Astronomer
In the late 1970s, UCSD appointed a committee of senior faculty to make an important academic recommendation. Margaret chaired the committee, she being the obvious candidate for the topic in question. The committee was informally known as the "greybeards committee." I don't know how Margaret felt about that privately, but publicly she expressed only amusement. I'm guessing that was because she knew all too well what real discrimination was like.
I was still a teenager when I first met Margaret Burbidge at a meeting reception at UCLA in the mid-1960s. She was indeed an inspiration in the days when it was commonplace to be told that women had no place in research astronomy & physics. But I survived! Thank you, Margaret.
Geraldine (Gerrie) Peters, University of Southern California, Research Professor
Congratulations on your birthday. Whether observing at Mt. Palomar or working on the Faint Object Spectrograph, you paved the way for the rest of us.
Donna Weistrop, Retired, Professor Emerita of Physics
From 1975-1977, I was a research assistant at Cerro Tololo. Once when a major visiting committee was traveling to meet and review CTIO (I guess - I had no idea what was what), I was bounced up the mountain to observe for Victor Blanco and was there when the committee came up for lunch. Margaret Burbidge was on that committee, and I wanted to meet her because - well - she was Margaret Burbidge. I finally stood up from my table (which had Barry Lasker and Vera Rubin at it at the time) and walked over and introduced myself, saying simply that I wanted to meet her. She, in turn, was very gracious and knew details about who and what I was at CTIO (completely blowing me away at the time). Returning to the table, Barry remarked: "I can't believe you just did that!" Now, I can't believe that I interacted with both Burbidge and Rubin on the same day.
Faith Vilas, Planetary Science Institute, Senior Scientist
Please post the attached story on the blog for Margaret Burbidge’s 100th birthday. I apologize that it is beyond the deadline, but I was only recently able to find this quote from my father, Prof. William a. Fowler (1911-1995). His story, though told with some humor, encapsulates the kind of attitudes of some male scientists in the mid-1950s that made careers in science difficult for women. He did not share those attitudes and went to some lengths to bring Geoff and Margaret Burbidge to Caltech.
Please remember me to Margaret and her daughter, Sarah, if she is present. I send my warmest congratulations to Margaret on reaching 100 years along with my hope that she has a wonderful celebration relishing memories.
Excerpt of Interview with William A. Fowler, Professor of Physics, California Institute of Technology, conducted by Charles Wiener, Session IV, 6 February 1973, Pasadena, CA
Source: Oral History Interviews, Center for History and Philosophy of Physics, American Institute of Physics
Read the full interview at

“…When the year ended [1954-55 Fowler’s Fulbright year at Cavendish Institute, Cambridge, England], I realized that there was a great deal more to be done in collaboration with the Burbidges and with Hoyle, and it turned out that Geoff Burbidge’s appointment as a theorist in the Cavendish was ending that year, and he and Margaret were essentially looking for a job. So before I came back I began to make arrangements so that they could join me in Pasadena, and Margaret of course wanted to observe. That was the field for her. But the problem was that I knew that it was very difficult for women to make observations at Mt. Wilson — I think Palomar was completed by that time but there were longstanding prejudices in the astronomical community against women observers. The director then, Ike Bowen, my old friend, said, “We can’t have women up there because we don’t have toilet facilities for them,” and things like that. Astronomers call the place they stay on the mountain the Monastery, as you know. So we had to trick the Carnegie Institution people. We got Geoff appointed as a Carnegie Fellow. The Carnegie Institution did give Carnegie fellowships in theory, so Geoff Burbidge was appointed a Carnegie Fellow at Mt. Wilson, and then I arranged for Margaret Burbidge to be given a research fellowship in physics in the Kellogg Lab, paid for out of our grant funds at the time. So in the fall of ‘55 Margaret and Geoff came to the United States, and Geoff took up his Carnegie fellowship at Mt. Wilson and Margaret took up her research appointment at the Institute, and it just developed that whenever Geoff went to observe, which he decided to do after he got here, Margaret went along. So there was a happy ending in that regard, and I’m sure that Bowen was very soon aware of this, but he knew that Margaret had quite a reputation as an observer, and he knew she was doing good work, so Ike simply just overlooked the fact that maybe some silly rule was being broken.”
“Would Geoff Burbidge have known what to do?”
“Oh, Geoff wouldn’t have had the slightest idea. He’s all thumbs — and brains!”
Martha Fowler Schoenemann, Pawlet, VT, younger daughter of William A. Fowler
My most vivid memories of Margaret come from the times when we would take her with us on two week sailing trips in the BVI on a bareboat charter. My wife and I had such delightful times on the boat with Margaret along with Jack Welch and Jill Tarter. Margaret seemed to really enjoy herself, often being the first person in the morning to jump into the water. Anchoring in various coves overnight, we had wonderful, wide-ranging discussions, especially after imbibing large amounts of wine. One memorable night we were somewhat heatedly expressing our opinions about who authored the plays of Shakespeare and apparently ignoring Margaret’s attempts to join the conversation. Finally, she raised her hand and said in that quiet, but definitive, voice of hers, “Excuse me, I have something to say about that.” At that, we all quieted down and listened as she said, ”The important thing is that we have the plays.” We still talk about that evening.
Another time we set out on a long sail, and to pass the time, I set about teaching Margaret how to sail, how to watch the sails and keep them drawing, how to set and follow a compass course. Margaret started out tentatively, having never sailed before. As the accompanying picture shows, Margaret was a quick study and ended up with a big smile on her face. Keep on sailing, Margaret!

Peter Boyce, Executive Officer, AAS 1979-1994


  1. I first Margaret Burbidge met at my parents’ house around 1980. My father had recently taken the position of President of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and he was putting together a board of advisors of eminent scientists in various fields. “I want to include an astronomer. Who should I ask?” and I immediately said “Margaret Burbidge would be my first choice.” To my delight she agreed to serve, and I was invited up to the dinner my parents held for the board. Margaret’s style of interaction reminded me of my mother, so it was no surprise that my father was delighted with her as a member of his board.

  2. I am delighted to add a small recollection of Margaret Burbidge, and to learn that she is still going around even at 100. In the early 70s, I was a research student in Physics/ Applied Maths at Cambridge. In 1971 Prof Hoyle (then Director of the Institute of Astronomy there) organised a symposium on "massive objects" to mark Willy Fowler's 60th Birthday. It was the most distinguished scientific gathering I ever attended. I still have the group photo, with Margaret Burbidge in the centre of the front row, between Hoyle and Fowler, with Martin Rees, Geoffrey Burbidge, Kip Thorne and Roger Penrose not far away. Margaret was quiet but right on the ball. Although I was no longer working directly in that field, my previous undergraduate thesis was on Quasars, so I was at least able to understand what was being talked about, even if not to contribute. It was about that time that Margaret was appointed Director of the RGO and Astronomer Royal.