By Emily Levesque, University of Washington
It may seem like astrophysicists are solely focused on what happens far away from the Earth, but many of the field’s greatest heroes have combined their study of the cosmos with tireless efforts to ensure that the opportunity to explore the universe is available to all. Women in astronomy have long fought for equitable access to education, research, and leadership in the field.
Restrictions on Female Scientists
Telescopes are some of the most crucial resources available in astronomy. There were incredible telescopes built in California by George Ellery Hale at the start of the 20th century. The 100-inch at Mount Wilson and the 200-inch at Palomar Observatory were the best and most sought-after telescopes on the planet at the time, but these telescopes weren’t accessible to everyone.
Observatories are more than just collections of telescopes. Mountaintop research sites like these also include support facilities, dining rooms, and dormitories, giving astronomers working through the night a place to rest and sleep during the day. Both Mount Wilson and Palomar had dormitories that quickly earned the nickname the ‘Monastery’ for a simple reason: women were officially barred from staying on the mountain and working as lead observers.
Decades before the rule was officially lifted, however, women scientists still found ways to carry out cutting-edge research. In the 1950s, Mount Wilson began granting telescope time to an astronomer named Geoffrey Burbidge, whose telescope privileges allowed him to bring along his ‘assistant’ on observing runs. In reality, while Geoffrey was a talented theoretical researcher, he had little hands-on experience with telescopes at the time. During his nights at the telescope, the person operating things and carrying out cutting-edge scientific research was his assistant: his wife, Margaret Burbidge.
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Born outside Manchester, England, Margaret Burbidge’s enthusiasm for astronomy began during a sea voyage at age four, peering out a porthole and becoming enraptured by the twinkling view of the sky. By age 12, she was poring over astronomy textbooks, and she went on to study astronomy, physics, and mathematics at University College London. She earned a PhD there in 1943, observing with the university’s telescope and carrying on her work even amidst nearby explosions from German bombs during World War II.
Just after the war, she applied for a postdoctoral research position at Mount Wilson and was turned down; the job required working at the observatory, and the powers that be simply wouldn’t allow a woman to work on the mountain and stay in the Monastery with male astronomers.
A decade later, Burbidge and her husband, Geoff, were both applying for research positions in California. Geoff, a theoretical physicist, was interested in a theory position at Caltech, while Margaret applied again for the Mount Wilson Observatory position. Turned down again, the two swapped the jobs they were applying for and succeeded: Margaret was giving the theory position and Geoff the observatory job.
Burbidge’s Study of the Stars
The ‘Geoff and his assistant’ model proved to be a workable solution. The couple stayed in a chilly bare-bones cottage on the mountain rather than at the Monastery, the precious observing time stayed listed under a man’s name, and Margaret gained access to the 100-inch telescope where she carried out ground-breaking new observations.
At Mount Wilson, Margaret Burbidge immediately undertook detailed observations of stellar chemistry using spectroscopic data. Light is absorbed or emitted by specific atoms in different ways, and spectroscopy can reveal the chemical composition of something by sorting light into the wavelengths that are detected. By identifying light in a star’s spectrum that’s been absorbed by hydrogen or helium or calcium, or any element, in a star’s outer layers, an astronomer can learn a great deal about that star.
This method had been used by Annie Jump Cannon and her colleagues—the women known as the Harvard Computers—to develop a classification scheme for stars. Now, Margaret Burbidge was using it to study the fundamental physics inside the stars that helped produce these elements. Working with her husband Geoff, and with fellow astronomers William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, Margaret Burbidge published an immense paper detailing the origins of chemical elements.
Burbidge’s Distinguished Career
Burbidge continued a long and distinguished career of astronomical discovery, becoming known as one of the great astronomers of the 20th century, but along the way she was adamant that women be recognized for their contributions and not faced with the roadblocks that she had been forced to grapple with in her own career. She was a staunch advocate of equal rights for women, and of women being recognized for their accomplishments alongside men.
In 1971, she was offered the American Astronomical Society’s Annie Jump Cannon Award—an award specifically created to recognize women astronomers. Burbidge turned the award down. In a letter declining the award she wrote, “It is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.” Burbidge’s objection stemmed in part from the idea that some of the field’s best scientists were being given the ‘women’s award’ and passed over for more prestigious prizes and professional positions.
Her refusal startled the American Astronomical Society and led to the creation of a committee studying the status of women in astronomy, a committee that still operates today. Burbidge was later awarded the American Astronomical Society’s highest honor, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship.
Common Questions about Margaret Burbidge
At the start of the 20th century, the 100-inch at Mount Wilson and the 200-inch at Palomar Observatory were the best and most sought-after telescopes.
At Mount Wilson, Margaret Burbidge undertook detailed observations of stellar chemistry using spectroscopic data. Spectroscopy can reveal the chemical composition of something by sorting light into the wavelengths that are detected. By identifying light in a star’s spectrum that’s been absorbed by hydrogen or helium or calcium, or any element, in a star’s outer layers, an astronomer can learn a great deal about that star.
In 1971, Margaret Burbidge was offered the American Astronomical Society’s Annie Jump Cannon Award—an award specifically created to recognize women astronomers. Burbidge turned the award down stating that it was high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women was in that category.