Burbidge, Margaret (1919—)

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Burbidge, Margaret (1919—)

English astronomer, distinguished for her research on the creation of galaxies and quasars, who became the first female director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Born Eleanor Margaret Peachey in Davenport, England, on August 12, 1919; daughter of Marjorie Stott Peachey and Stanley John Peachey; granted a B.Sc. from the University of London, 1939, Ph.D., 1943; married Geoffrey Burbidge (an astronomer), 1948; children: one daughter, Sarah Burbidge (b. 1956).


Shirley Farr Fellowship, Yerkes Observatory (1957); Helen B. Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1959); member of the Royal Society of London (1964); president of the American Astronomical Society (1976); member of the American National Academy of the Arts and Sciences (1978); honorary D.Sc., Smith College (1963), University of Sussex (1970), University of Bristol (1972), University of Leicester (1972), City University, London (1974), University of Michigan (1978), Williams College (1979), State University of New York (1985), University of Notre Dame (1986), and University of Chicago; Bruce Gold Medal, Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1982); president of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences (1982); Lindsay Memorial Lecture, NASA (1985); Einstein Medal (1988).

Enrolled at the University of London (1935); became assistant director of the London Observatory (1943–50); made acting director of the London Observatory (1950–51); became researcher, Yerkes Observatory (1951–53); became researcher, California Institute of Technology (1955–57); appointed associate professor, University of Chicago (1957–62); appointed associate research physicist, University of California at San Diego (1962–64); appointed professor, University of California (1964–84); served as Mauze Rockefeller professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1968); became director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (1971–73); made a member of the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board (1972–74); appointed Virginia Gildersleeve professor, Barnard College (1974); appointed director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Science, University of California (1979–88); named professor emeritus, University of California (1990).

Selected publications: "Distribution of Gas in Spiral and Irregular Galaxies," The Distribution and Motion of Inter-Stellar Matter in Galaxies: Proceedings of a Conference held at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, N.J., April 1961); (with Geoffrey Burbidge) "Theories of the Origin of Radio Sources," IEEE Transactions of Military Electronics (Vol. 8. NY: Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 1964); (with Geoffrey Burbidge) Quasi-Stellar Objects (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1967); "Radiogalaxies," Relativity Theory and Astrophysics: 2, Galactic Structures (J. Ehlers, ed. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1967); "Quasi-Stellar Objects," Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics (Vol. 5, Palo Alto, CA: 1967); (with Geoffrey Burbidge) "Quasi-Stellar Objects-A Progress Report," Nature (London: Macmillan, 1969, vol. 224); (wrote foreword) Home is Where the Wind Blows (Mill Valley, CA: University Science Books, 1994).

Eleanor Margaret Burbidge was born in Davenport, England, on August 12, 1919. Little is known of her early life, save that she preferred to be called Margaret, and that her father Stanley Peachey was a lecturer in chemistry. In 1935, Margaret Burbidge enrolled at the University of London, graduating with a B.Sc. in 1939. She subsequently earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics. In 1943, she joined the Observatory of the University of London as assistant director. In 1948, she wed Geoffrey Burbidge, a co-worker and fellow astronomer. From 1950 until 1951, Margaret Burbidge held the position of acting director at the Observatory of the University of London.

By the end of World War II optical astronomy in Britain was in decline. An increasing emphasis on theoretical and radio astronomy, as well as cloudy British skies and chronic underfunding, left British telescopes substandard and antiquated. In 1971, upon the retirement of Sir Richard Woolley as Astronomer Royal, Sir John Carrol referred to the "superannuated scrap heaps that constituted most of British astronomical equipment" at the time of Woolley's appointment in 1955. The lack of proper equipment initiated a "brain drain" among British optical astronomers. Promising young scientists such as Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, A. Dalgarno, T. Gold, and W.L.W. Sargent all departed for countries like the United States, where optical astronomy was taken seriously. Ironically, all five were subsequently elected as fellows of the Royal Society of London.

The Burbidges moved to the United States in 1951. While Geoffrey worked as a research fellow at the University of Chicago, Margaret

held a fellowship from the International Astronomical Union at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In 1955, the couple moved to California. There, Geoffrey held a Carnegie fellowship at the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena. Because women were ineligible for such fellowships, Margaret was forced to accept a junior teaching position at the California Institute of Technology. It was not the first time, nor the last, that gender bias interfered with her career.

Margaret Burbidge returned to the Yerkes Observatory in 1957 as a Shirley Farr fellow. She also held the position of associate professor at the University of Chicago. In 1962, she became an associate research physicist at the University of California. Two years later, she was promoted to the position of professor.

In 1959, along with William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, the Burbidges had been awarded the Helen B. Warner Prize for their paper "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars," published in the Review of Modern Physics. Commented Hoyle:

Luck was certainly on our side, for we managed to find a whole series of results which pointed, I think conclusively, to the stars as being the main site of origin of chemical elements. We were able to go a long way towards understanding what might be called the "history of matter."

Margaret Burbidge's research built on results achieved by Paul Merrill, who had discovered spectral lines of unstable technetium in red stars. Due to the inherent instability of technetium, Merrill argued that its presence revealed the first evidence of the creation of elements. Margaret's research accepted the premise that most stars are largely composed of hydrogen. As stars grow, they produce helium from hydrogen. On earth, we see the released energy as starlight. Burbidge went on to argue that as stars mature they burn off some of their helium, producing other elements, such as oxygen and carbon. Oxygen and carbon may then trap hydrogen, which creates complex elements, such as silicon, argon, magnesium, sulphur, and calcium.

Margaret pointed to three other processes that may occur. One is the e-process, in which iron, cobalt, chromium, and nickel are formed due to extreme heat. When the "iron-peak" is reached, energy from the star is released. Beyond this point, additional energy is required to produce heavier elements. When an exploding star occurs, such as a supernova, the required amount of energy is released.

Burbidge also identified the r-process, in which the newly formed nuclei ensnare neutrons and are able to shed electrons. The resulting explosion produces elements such as bromine, krypton, selenium, xenon, tellurium, iridium, iodine, uranium, gold, and platinum. Margaret Burbidge's calculations provided a theoretical framework for measuring the production of different heavy elements in a supernova. She also theorized that a slower process, the s-process, also creates heavy elements in red giants.

Together with her husband, Margaret Burbidge published Quasi-Stellar Objects in 1967. Her research into quasars established that the ultraviolet radiation given off is the result of quasars receding at a great speed. This creates a spectrum shift towards red light, so that only a weak blue light is visible from the earth. During her research, she also discovered objects with red shifts, but no ultraviolet radiation. The Burbidges dubbed these quasi-stellar objects. Subsequent research by Margaret revealed that quasars and galaxies are intimately connected. Quasars tend to be located at the opposite end of bright galaxies, thus suggesting a yet to be determined dependent relationship, but one that put into question the Big-Bang Theory.

In 1971, Margaret Burbidge took a leave of absence as chair of astronomy at the University of California and returned to England, where she succeeded Sir Richard Woolley as the first female director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The circumstances of the appointment, however, were far from ideal. Tradition dictated that the positions of the director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and that of Astronomer Royal be held concurrently. While Woolley retired as director of the observatory in 1971, he retained the title of Astronomer Royal. Although the staff of the Royal Greenwich Observatory protested to both the secretary of state for education and science, and to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher , no action by the British government was taken to remedy the situation.

On November 18, 1971, Margaret Burbidge held a news conference in London. As The Times of London reported:

This attractive middle-aged woman brings to the job a charm not usually associated with the realms of advanced astronomy. Whether this factor, added to her reputation, will be enough to steer her through some difficult times ahead is an open question.

Burbidge made it clear during the news conference that gender bias was at the heart of the decision to exclude her from the position of Astronomer Royal. She argued that men and women should by treated equally in the field of astronomy. What should have been one of the crowning achievements of her career thus became another example of the discrimination she faced.

Burbidge promised to focus her energies on research, rather than allowing administrative duties to consume her time. "I would be a poor director if I got too involved in administration when there was such a very able administrative staff already at work," she told The Times of London.

It had taken considerable effort on the part of the Science Research Council to persuade Burbidge to return to Great Britain. She had arrived with the understanding that she would work to revive optical astronomy in the British Isles. The field, however, was in disarray. In an article entitled "Scandalous Muddle in British Astronomy," published in Nature, her husband Geoffrey argued that optical astronomy in Britain was on its death bed. He then catalogued a long list of errors that had led to the departure of elite astronomers from Britain over the years, including the Burbidges.

In the article, Geoffrey reported that radioastronomy and theoretical astronomy were on a sound footing. Years of underfunding and neglect, however, had rendered optical astronomy third rate. Major mistakes, he alleged, included the mis-sighting of the Isaac Newton Telescope, Britain's largest. The mistake rendered the instrument virtually useless, contended Geoffrey.

Other errors in judgment, such as the failure of Britain to join the European South Observatory Project, had left British astronomy far behind international efforts. While Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and Russians were all building observatories in northern Chile, British astronomers had failed to grasp the observational opportunities that the Chilean site presented. Instead, the British Government decided to build a large Schmidt telescope jointly with Australia. The decision was condemned by Geoffrey, due to the poor observational conditions of the site. Margaret subsequently echoed many of the same concerns, though her position at the time precluded her from voicing these opinions as forcefully.

From 1972 to 1974, Margaret Burbidge served on the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board and advocated a management strategy common to major observatories around the world. It was rejected by the board, largely due to its American origins. As well, Burbidge sat on the board when the Australian National University, a major participant in the project, attempted to seize control of the observatory. Only a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser finally resolved the impasse.

Controversy arose in 1973 when Margaret officially reported that the new Isaac Newton 98-inch telescope at the Royal Greenwich Observatory should be moved to a better location. The new telescope, which cost £1 million, could only be used a quarter of the time. British skies, she said, were simply too cloudy. Geoffrey had predicted just such a situation the year before. Margaret was supported in her views by professors Hoyle, Ruyle, and Redman of Cambridge University. She also noted the propensity of British astronomers to squabble among themselves and confided to The Times of London that she found the situation "quite repugnant."

After 16 months as the director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Burbidge resigned. The task had been a thankless one. In her letter of resignation, she cited the lack of support among expatriate British astronomers as one of the primary reasons she had found it impossible to rebuild optical astronomy in the United Kingdom. As well, the sighting of the Isaac Newton Telescope and the Anglo-Australia Telescope had proved to be sources of major frustration. She then returned to the University of California.

In 1976, Margaret Burbidge became the first female president of the American Astronomical Society. She was elected to the American National Academy of Sciences in 1978 and awarded the Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1982. From 1979 to 1988, she was director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of California and would eventually become professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego. Burbidge also served as the president of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. In 1984, she and a team of astronomers perfected a faint object spectrograph for NASA's Space Shuttle. She also was a member of the team that worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1985, Margaret Burbidge gave the Lindsay Memorial Lecture at NASA. For a lifetime of scientific achievement, she was awarded the Einstein Medal in 1988.

Margaret Burbidge has been the recipient of honorary doctorates from Smith College, the University of Sussex, the University of Bristol, the University of Leicester, City University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Williams College. On May 19, 1985, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science from the State University of New York. Burbidge was lauded by the institution for her "vigorous role in the promotion of scientific research" and her "encouragement of women and minorities to embark on scientific careers."

Never one to anticipate the linear progress of astronomy, Margaret Burbidge acknowledged the uneven rate at which astronomical discoveries have been made:

As one looks back over the advances in astronomy and astrophysics during the past 50 or 60 years, one sees that the pathway is marked by sudden leaps forward, both by new observational opportunities and by striking instances of perceptive theoretical insight. These discontinuities are followed and spaced by stolid observational or theoretical research that breaks no new ground but tracks along the newly opened pathways, as on a plateau following a major upward step.

Despite the uneven rate of astronomical advances, Margaret Burbidge's work has always been in the forefront of that quest. Her research led to the discovery of pulsars and the source of supernovas. As well, her subsequent observations led to the first accurate estimates of galactic masses. Her work with her husband and Fred Hoyle suggested that heavy elements were perpetually created from light ones within stars. This put into question the Big-Bang Theory, proposing that it may not be the sole explanation for the creation of the universe. Margaret Burbidge's contributions to the field of astronomy have ranged from spectroscopy to nycleosynthesis. In the long run, the quality of her research has overshadowed any professional impediments she may have faced as a woman.


Gascoigne, S.C.B., K.M. Proust, and M.O. Robins. The Creation of the Anglo-Australian Observatory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Golemba, Beverly E. Lesser-Known Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1992.

Hoyle, Fred. Home is Where the Wind Blows: Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life. Mill Valley, CA: University Science Books, 1994.

Mitton, Simon, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. NY: Crown, 1977.

Porter, Ray. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Oxford: Helicon, 1994.

Ridpath, Ian, ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Space. NY: Crown, 1979.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada