Margaret Burbidge

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Margaret Burbidge
Margaret burbidge.jpg
Eleanor Margaret Peachey

(1919-08-12) August 12, 1919 (age 99)
Nationality American
Known for Astrophysics, Fellow of the Royal Society
Spouse(s) Geoffrey Burbidge
Awards Helen B. Warner Prize for Astronomy (1959)
National Medal of Science (1983)
Albert Einstein World Award of Science (1988)
Scientific career
Fields Astrophysics

Eleanor Margaret Burbidge, FRS (néePeachey; born August 12, 1919) is a British-born American astrophysicist, noted for original research and holding many administrative posts, including Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science'.

The Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory was the senior scientist responsible for the administration of the Royal Greenwich Observatory from 1972 until the institution's closure in 1998.


During her career, she served at the University of London Observatory, Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago, Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, the California Institute of Technology, and, from 1979 to 1988, was first director of the Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences at the University of California San Diego, where she has worked since 1962.

University of London federal public university in London, United Kingdom

The University of London is a collegiate federal research university located in London, England. As of October 2018, the university contains 18 member institutions, central academic bodies and research institutes. The university has over 52,000 distance learning external students and 161,270 campus-based internal students, making it the largest university by number of students in the United Kingdom.

Yerkes Observatory Astronomical observatory in Wisconsin

Yerkes Observatory is an astronomical observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin operated by the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It closed public operations in 2018. The observatory, which called itself "the birthplace of modern astrophysics", was founded in 1897 by astronomer George Ellery Hale and financed by businessman Charles T. Yerkes. It represented a shift in the thinking about observatories, from their being mere housing for telescopes and observers, to the early-20th-century concept of observation equipment integrated with laboratory space for physics and chemistry.

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. The university is composed of an undergraduate college, various graduate programs and interdisciplinary committees organized into five academic research divisions and seven professional schools. Beyond the arts and sciences, Chicago is also well known for its professional schools, which include the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Booth School of Business, the Law School, the School of Social Service Administration, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Divinity School and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The university holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.


Burbidge started studying astronomy in 1936, at University College, London, was graduated in 1939, and received her Ph.D. at University College in 1943. She was turned down for a Carnegie Fellowship in 1945 because the fellowship would have meant that she would have had to observe at Mount Wilson observatory, which was reserved only for men at that time. [1] [2]

Astronomy natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.

1936 (MCMXXXVI) was a leap year starting on Wednesday of the Gregorian calendar, the 1936th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 936th year of the 2nd millennium, the 36th year of the 20th century, and the 7th year of the 1930s decade.

Mount Wilson (California) mountain in California, USA

Mount Wilson is a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, located within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County, California. With only minor topographical prominence the peak is not naturally noticeable from a distance, although it is easily identifiable due to the large number of antennas near its summit. It is a subsidiary peak of nearby San Gabriel Peak.

In 1950, she applied for a grant at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and went to the United States in 1951. Her research interests focused on chemical abundances in stars. She returned to England in 1953 and started research in collaboration with her husband Geoffrey Burbidge, William Alfred Fowler, and Fred Hoyle. Based on experimentation and observational data initiated by Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, the team produced a hypothesis that all chemical elements might be synthesized in stars by nuclear reaction (known now as stellar nucleosynthesis). The resulting astrophysical theory, which was published in 1957, was called the B2FH theory after the participants who collaborated in the research (Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, Hoyle). [3] [4] This theory has been the basis for a substantial field of research in astrophysics.

Geoffrey Ronald Burbidge FRS was an English astronomy professor and theoretical astrophysicist, most recently at the University of California, San Diego. He was married to astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge.

William Alfred Fowler American nuclear physicist

William Alfred "Willy" Fowler was an American nuclear physicist, later astrophysicist, who, with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics. He is known for his theoretical and experimental research into nuclear reactions within stars and the energy elements produced in the process.

Fred Hoyle British astronomer

Sir Fred Hoyle FRS was a British astronomer who formulated the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. He also held controversial stances on other scientific matters—in particular his rejection of the "Big Bang" theory, a term coined by him on BBC radio, and his promotion of panspermia as the origin of life on Earth. He also wrote science fiction novels, short stories and radio plays, and co-authored twelve books with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle.

After ten years, in 1955, she finally gained access to the Mount Wilson Observatory, posing as her husband's assistant. When the management found out, they eventually agreed that she could stay, if she and her husband went to live in a separate cottage on the grounds, rather than staying in the dormitory that had been designed for men alone.

Mount Wilson Observatory astronomical observatory in California, USA

The Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) is an astronomical observatory in Los Angeles County, California, United States. The MWO is located on Mount Wilson, a 1,740-metre (5,710-foot) peak in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles.

In 1972 she became director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. [4] This was the first time in 300 years that that directorship was not associated with the post of the Astronomer Royal, which instead, was awarded to radio astronomer Martin Ryle. She attributed this to continued sexism in the field. [2] Burbidge left this post in 1974, fifteen months after accepting it, when controversy broke out over moving the Isaac Newton Telescope from the Observatory to a more useful location.

Astronomer Royal position in the Royal Households of the United Kingdom

Astronomer Royal is a senior post in the Royal Households of the United Kingdom. There are two officers, the senior being the Astronomer Royal dating from 22 June 1675; the second is the Astronomer Royal for Scotland dating from 1834.

Martin Ryle English radio astronomer

Sir Martin Ryle was an English radio astronomer who developed revolutionary radio telescope systems and used them for accurate location and imaging of weak radio sources. In 1946 Ryle and Derek Vonberg were the first people to publish interferometric astronomical measurements at radio wavelengths. With improved equipment, Ryle observed the most distant known galaxies in the universe at that time. He was the first Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, and founding director of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. He was Astronomer Royal from 1972 to 1982. Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, the first Nobel prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research. In the 1970s, Ryle turned the greater part of his attention from astronomy to social and political issues which he considered to be more urgent.

Isaac Newton Telescope

The Isaac Newton Telescope or INT is a 2.54 m optical telescope run by the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands since 1984.

Experiences such as those turned Burbidge into one of the foremost and most influential personalities in the fight to end discrimination against women in astronomy. Consequently, in 1972 she turned down the Annie J. Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society because it was awarded to women only: "It is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed". Twelve years later the Society awarded her its highest honor, regardless of gender, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship. [5] At the University of California San Diego, she served as its first director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Science. [4]

In 1976, she became the first woman president of the American Astronomy society. [6] In 1977, she became a United States citizen. In 1981 she was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); [6] she also has served as vice-president and president of the American Astronomical Society.

In 2003, Burbidge was inducted into the Women's Museum of California Hall of Fame honoring her career and achievements. [7]


On April 2, 1948, Margaret Peachey married Geoffrey Burbidge, also a theoretical astrophysicist, with whom she collaborated in one of the most significant astrophysical theories of the century (B2FH, described below). Their daughter, Sarah, was born in late 1956. Geoffrey Burbidge died in 2010. [8]

Scientific achievements

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1943, she started to research galaxies by linking a spectrograph to telescopes. At the Yerkes Observatory in the USA her work involved studying B stars and galaxy structure.

In 1957, the B2FH group showed the famous result that all of the elements except the very lightest, are produced by nuclear processes inside stars. For this they received the Warner Prize in 1959. In her later research she was one of the first to measure the masses, compositions, and rotation curves of galaxies and was one of the pioneers in the spectroscopic study of quasars. [4]

At UCSD she also helped develop the faint object spectrograph in 1990 for the Hubble Space Telescope. With this instrument, she and her team discovered that the galaxy M82 has a massive black hole at its center. [2] Currently, she is a professor emeritus of physics at UCSD and continues to be active in research, including non-standard cosmologies such as intrinsic redshift. [9] Burbidge has contributed to over 370 articles on astronomical research. [7]



Named after her

Margaret Burbidge Award

The Margaret Burbidge Award for Best Experimental Research was an award established to recognize the best research in experimental physics by a graduate student presented in the annual meeting of APS Farwest section (previously called APS California section and later APS California-Nevada section). It also included a prize money of $500 for the first prize winner, which was later reduced to $250. The winners were selected by the APS Farwest section committee. A list of previous award winners can be found here.

See also

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  1. Rubin, Vera C. (1997). Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. Woodbury, N.Y.: American Institute of Physics. ISBN   1-56396-231-4.
  2. 1 2 3 "UCSD Times: Vol. 15, No. 4, Feb. 1–28, 2001". 2005-04-14. Archived from the original on 2005-04-14. Retrieved 2017-07-06.
  3. Rubin, Vera C. (1981) "E. Margaret Burbidge, President-Elect". Science211(4485) pp. 915-916
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 "The Bruce Medalists: Margaret Burbidge". Retrieved 2017-07-06.
  5. "Henry Norris Russell Lectureship". American Astronomical Society . Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  6. 1 2 Yount, Lisa (1996). Twentieth-century women scientists. New York: Facts on File. p. 46. ISBN   0816031738.
  7. 1 2 "Margaret Burbidge: 2003 Trailblazer". Women’s Museum of California. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  8. Faulkner, John (18 February 2010). "Geoffrey Burbidge obituary". The Guardian .
  9. G. Burbidge, E. M. Burbidge, H. C. Arp, W. M. Napier: Ultraluminous X-ray Sources, High Redshift QSOs and Active Galaxies. Preprint (2006)
  10. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences . Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  11. "E. Margaret Burbidge". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  12. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details - E. MARGARET BURBIDGE". National Science Foundation . Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  13. "Albert Einstein World Award of Science 1988". Archived from the original on June 7, 2014. Retrieved August 13, 2013.
  14. "Margaret Burbidge Award".

Further reading