Margaret Burbidge obituary

Star scientist

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Margaret Burbidge with the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1982. Photo: NYT

Margaret Burbidge (1919-2020), one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century and a pioneering observational astronomer, died aged 100 on April 5 in San Francisco, California, U.S.

The year was 1961, the location Cambridge University. I was amongst the dozen or so research students in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). All of us, students and faculty members belonging to DAMTP, had been given “desk space” on two floors of the Phoenix building of the famous Cavendish Laboratory. Naming the building “Phoenix” was a tongue-in-cheek exercise by the Head of the DAMTP because the building had been rebuilt after it was burnt down.

It was one of those afternoons when we were busy with academic jobs like writing papers, having discussions, or reading research journals or simply gossiping. In my office, shared with two other students, we often talked about anything under or over the sun. The discussion was, however, interrupted by the entry of a senior scientist, Roger Tayler, who was evidently very excited—certainly not in the “cool” state one associates with an Englishman. What had caused the excitement?

It was like telling a pop music fan that the Beatles were out there, or a cricket lover that Don Bradman was in the corridor outside. “I want to tell you people, that the Burbidges are out there,” said Roger. He could hardly contain his excitement. And I recall (even today) the thrill I felt on that announcement. Certainly, I did not want to miss them! And it came as a great satisfied feeling to me when a few minutes later, the celebrated couple walked into my (one-third of an) office. 

To understand the excitement generated that day by the arrival of the “Burbidges”, Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, often shortened to “B2”, it is necessary to appreciate the work they are often credited with. 

So what was the reason for such accolades? To understand the contributions of Margaret Burbidge, we take a look at her early work. She did her doctorate work in the University of London Observatory in 1944 at the height of the Second World War. This meant going to Mill Hill Park from her residence in Hampstead Heath at night while the Luftwaffe was firing flying bombs from Northern France. On one occasion, the bomb exploded with such ferocity that all her telescope settings were disturbed. 

In postwar peace times, the working was not so chaotic. But there were other problems. Her application for observing on the 100-inch Mount Wilson Telescope in Southern California was turned down because the facilities in the observatory did not have women’s toilets. Margaret Burbidge got married to another up-and-coming astronomer, Geoffrey Burbidge, and both shifted their centre of activity to the United States. In 1957, the Burbidges combined with the duo of William Fowler and Fred Hoyle and the outcome was a comprehensive paper in Reviews of Modern Physics describing details of how different chemical elements are formed in stars. Nearly a 100-page paper, it covered a large number of scenarios which they used to show that except for some light nuclei like deuterium, most nuclei are produced in thermonuclear reactions in evolving stars. This work is often referred to as B2FH after the names of the four authors.

The husband-wife combination worked well for astronomy since Margaret was an observer and instrumentalist while Geoffrey was a theoretician. Their styles also greatly contrasted. Geoff was aggressive while Margaret was gentle but firm and stuck to her point of view. In fact, many opponents in a controversy discovered that the soft-spoken lady was hard to budge on the basis of evidence submitted.

Margaret had been to India several times. Indeed, one could say that Bangalore and Pune were her favourite haunts. She had been a participant in a workshop conducted by the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) at Pune. The workshop had important inputs in observations and instrumentation, which helped guide future developments in these fields. Later Margaret became one of the prestigious honorary fellows of IUCAA. Another contribution to IUCAA programmes was her participation in science popularisation activities. At the conclusion of her opening lecture, she showed a group of geese all going in one way with a small group in the lead. She pointed out how anomalous evidence is ignored because it is found to be inconvenient for accepted paradigms.

With her many academic contributions, many honours came her way. She was made the Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) in 1972. Although this was a well-deserved honour, it was rightly criticised as it did not do honour to her. Why? Historically the directorship of the RGO carried with it the title “Astronomer Royal” (AR). From 1972 onwards it was decided to split the dual status and accordingly another (radio) astronomer, Sir Martin Ryle, was made the AR. It would instead have been better to give both the posts to the first appointee under the new rules. Thus Margaret Burbidge should have been the first AR as well as Director, RGO. Margaret, however, was not very happy with her RGO appointment because the work was more bureaucratic than she liked and the weather was not very conducive for her usual observing experience. So she resigned and came back to her earlier work in California.

Margaret Burbidge was awarded several distinguished prizes. One of them was the Henry Norris Russell Award, which requires delivering a lecture. 

But she was sensitive to sexually discriminating awards. For example, she was offered the Annie Cannon Prize, which was for women only. She felt that such awards tried to distinguish between men and women and could create the undesirable impression that one gender was superior to the other. Nevertheless, she kept fighting for the equality of men and women.

Margaret Burbidge belongs to the “old style” of astronomers whose genre is fast disappearing. In the earlier days the observer had to use a series of tests to decide if an existing theory was right or wrong. Modern observers start with the assumption that their paradigm is correct and the telescope is there to rubber-stamp that belief.

Young or old, we all will miss her.

Jayant Narlikar is Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, and founder director of the centre.

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