By Emily Levesque, University of Washington
Margaret Burbidge, Ann Boesgaard, and Vera Rubin were some of the most eminent astronomers of the 20th century, yet they had to grapple with roadblocks that were never put in the paths of their male colleagues. Today, women make up nearly half of all astronomy PhDs, and many astronomers continue to work hard at removing gender-based barriers for today and tomorrow’s scientists.
We’re All Made from Star Stuff
There is a famous adage that ‘we’re all made from star stuff’. The elements that we’re made of, the atoms that make up the very building blocks of life on Earth—all of it came from the insides of stars. Margaret Burbidge and her colleagues studied the origins of the heavy elements—beryllium, boron, carbon, and onward—and revealed that they could form inside stars.
This was the landmark discovery of Margaret Burbidge’s work and observations. She, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle worked tirelessly together on a scientific manuscript revealing these results, combining extensive atomic physics theory with Burbidge’s observations and laboratory results to mathematically prove the origins of these elements.
Margaret Burbridge: A Trailblazer
The resulting paper became a keystone of modern stellar astrophysics and chemistry and is one of the most frequently cited papers in all of astronomy. The four researchers insisted they had all contributed substantially to the work and listed their names in alphabetical order. This made Burbidge, whose first name was really Eleanor, the lead author of the paper.
Burbidge went on to become the first female president of the American Astronomical Society in 1976. As president, she led an initiative to prevent society meetings from being held in states that had refused to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. She died in April of 2020 at the age of 100, the author of hundreds of scientific papers and a remarkable trailblazer for her fellow scientists.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Boesgaard and Rubin
At Mount Wilson, it wasn’t until the 1960s before women were permitted to observe under their own name. Ann Boesgaard, another expert in the chemistry of stars, was the first woman to observe at the 100-inch telescope as the primary scientist in 1966. Like Burbidge, she also went on to win the American Astronomical Society’s Russell Lectureship in 2019.
A similar push happened at Palomar Observatory, which had the 200-inch telescope of its own. Around the same time that telescope finally got its own first official female observer, another scientist went on to win the Russell Lectureship: Vera Rubin.
The ‘Decadal Surveys’
Beginning in the early 1960s—just as women were following in Margaret Burbidge’s footsteps and becoming primary observers at telescopes, the United States astronomy community began carrying out what became known as the ‘Decadal Surveys’, which examined the latest advances in the field and tried to identify and prioritize the biggest goals on astronomy’s horizon for the next 10 years.
Working with the National Academy of Sciences, the first survey in 1964 was ambitiously titled ‘Ground-Based Astronomy: A Ten-Year Program’. It outlined plans for developing national observing facilities from the early efforts that had already begun on bringing telescopes to space. Since then, the Decadal Survey has re-visited these questions every 10 years, considering the vital priorities and critical projects that the astronomy community must prioritize in the years ahead.
In the 1970s, the Decadal Survey led to the creation of the Jansky Very Large Array radio facility, and in the 1980s, it prompted the creation of a cutting-edge X-ray telescope in space. By the 1990s and early 2000s, the survey was prioritizing the development of groundbreaking new infrared telescopes in space, an undertaking that continues today. However, these same surveys now also include topics for how to support the astronomy community.
Astronomers’ White Papers
In the years leading up to the Decadal Survey’s publication, astronomers pen what are known as ‘white papers’. They are non-peer-reviewed scientific papers that focus less on presenting finished research and more on imagining and working out the possibilities of future endeavors.
For the 2020 Decadal Survey, many of these papers focused on groundbreaking new observing technology, or ideas for focusing resources to support theoretical research and the growing field of computational astrophysics.
Making Studying Space Better
In addition, the survey also explicitly solicited white papers on the state of the profession, encouraging astronomers to collaborate and pool their efforts to consider how astronomy in the 2020s can continue the efforts of Margaret Burbidge and many others, making astronomy a fairer and more equitable field where anyone with the passion and drive to study space can be a part of the community.
Topics for 2020 white papers included recommendations to conduct ethical and unbiased peer review of research papers and telescope proposals, a process that tends to yield more even outcomes when reviews are done anonymously. Other papers considered ways to make astronomy more accessible to researchers with disabilities. Still others proposed methods for training future generations of computationally skilled researchers or called attention to research on how astronomers can manage and organize the enormous thousand-person collaborations that are becoming more and more common in research today.
Common Questions about Making Astronomy a Fairer and More Equitable Field
Ann Boesgaard, an expert in the chemistry of stars, was the first woman to observe at the 100-inch telescope as the primary scientist in 1966.
In the early 1960s, the United States astronomy community began carrying out what became known as the ‘Decadal Surveys’. These surveys examined the latest advances in the field and tried to identify and prioritize the biggest goals on astronomy’s horizon for the next 10 years.
‘White papers’ penned by astronomers are non-peer-reviewed scientific papers that focus less on presenting finished research and more on imagining and working out the possibilities of future endeavors.