Fascinated by twinkling lights

Print edition :

Margaret Burbidge. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Frontline supplements Jayant Narlikar’s reminiscences with other brief information about her as an astronomer:

When Margaret Burbidge wanted half a night of observation time on the new 10m telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, built in the early 1990s, to look at objects that might disprove the Big Bang Theory (she did not believe in the theory until the very end), a young staffer there apparently remarked in annoyance: “You can’t give telescope time for this junk science! Who does she think she is?”

Obviously, the young astronomer had not heard of Margaret Burbidge yet. The observatory director Joe Miller quickly admonished him saying, as quoted by the magazine Sky & Telescope in the article it ran on her 100th birthday last year, “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.”

Burbidge, the British-American observational astronomer, began to get interested in stars at the age of three or four. As she has recounted in her interview for the Oral History Archives of the American Institute of Physics, “A small child brought up in London doesn’t get to see much of the sky, because it’s so often cloudy in the winter when it’s dark enough, early enough in the evening, to be looking at the sky…. The first time I consciously remember really noticing the stars was the summer that I was four, and we were going on a night crossing to France, for summer vacation. And we were taking the long crossing. I began to feel seasick during the night, and so to take my mind off that, I was lifted up to look out of the port hole on the upper bunk to see the stars. You know how they are at sea, on a clear night. These twinkling lights and tracking down any kind of twinkling light and enjoying twinkling lights then became another fascination to me….”

Eleanor Margaret Burbidge (nee Peachey) was born to chemist parents in Davenport in the United Kingdom, and it was her parents who encouraged her to learn science at a very young age. By age 12, she was reading astronomy textbooks by James Jeans, a distant relative of her mother. She studied astronomy at the University College, London (UCL). She graduated in 1939 and did her PhD during 1940-43. During the war years, since male staff were engaged in Britain’s wartime efforts, she acted as the caretaker of the University of London Observatory (ULO). As has been recorded in the ULO archives, “Burbidge conducted her PhD research during the World War II years. Between wartime duties, she observed [the variable star] Gamma Cassiopeiae.... While observing on the night of August 3rd [1944], Burbidge was twice interrupted by bombs exploding nearby, but neither incident rattled her, as is clear from her notes.”

Burbidge has later said of these early days of her research in her 1994 autobiography in Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, “Those nights, standing or sitting on a ladder in the dome of the Wilson reflector, guiding a star on the slit of the spectrograph, fulfilled my early dreams. I have never tired of the joy of looking through the slit in the darkened dome and watching the stars.”

Soon after the war, she taught astronomy to University of London’s undergraduate students, which included Arthur C. Clarke, who was then an undergraduate at King’s College London. During her days at the UCL in the post-war years, she met Geoffrey Burbidge, in 1947, who she would marry soon after. It is said that Geoffrey shifted to astronomy influenced by Margaret’s passion and knowledge of astronomy and stellar spectroscopy, which subsequently grew into many long years of fruitful collaboration, yielding highly productive astronomy research, with her skilful observational data giving a firm theoretical basis to Geoffrey’s insights as Narlikar has recounted in his essay.

Their seminal work on Alpha2 CanumVenaticorum (a type of variable star), which was published in 1955, drew the attention of the U.S. nuclear physicist William Fowler, who was then visiting Fred Hoyle at Cambridge. Between 1946 and 1954, Hoyle had advanced his theory of stellar nucleosynthesis of how nuclear fusion reactions of hydrogen and helium in the stars drive the formation all the heavy elements in the stars. The Burbidges’ spectroscopy results were seen as a means to verify Hoyle’s hypothesis. This led to the collaboration among these four, which resulted in the magnum opus landmark paper, universally referred to as the B2FH paper, to which Narlikar has referred.

In her interview for the Oral History Archives, when asked as to which piece of research that she had done had given more satisfaction than anything else, Margaret Burbidge said: “Oh yes. It would be the nucleosynthesis, B2FH.”

On Fowler’s advice and invitation, the Burbidges moved to California and in 1962 they moved to the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), where Margaret Burbidge had unquestioned time on the Lick Observatory’s 3m telescope. After the discovery of quasars in 1963, she measured their spectra and by measuring their very large red shifts, she also showed that these were the most distant objects known until then.

Margaret Burbidge also measured the rotation and masses of spiral galaxies. Her skill at instrumentation, coupled with her observational experience with distant astronomical objects, resulted in her contributing to the development of the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS), which was launched aboard the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.

Vera Rubin, one of Margaret Burbidge’s collaborators in her galaxy rotation studies, would later discover motion in the far outskirts of spiral galaxies which could be explained only through the hypothesis of gravitational pull of unseen matter, now called “dark matter”. As the U.S. astronomer Virginia Trimble recently wrote in Nature, this was one of the many ways in which Margaret Burbidge blazed a trail for women astronomers.

Margaret Burbidge was not one to be deterred by setbacks and hurdles; she would always find a way to overcome it. In fact, in her tweet in 2017, when she was 97, she had said: “If you’re having troubles in your life, to quote myself—‘If you meet with a blockage, find a way around it.’ You can do it.”

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