Margaret Burbidge

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Biography of Margaret Burbidge, outstanding British astronomer, endowed with wonderful qualities that she could not exercise in her homeland, but in the United States of America.

She held the positions of director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and president of the American Astronomical Society.

Margaret Burbidge’s family and early life

Margaret Burbidge was born in 1919, in London, England. Her parents belonged to a family of scientists. Both were chemists. Her father was surnamed Peachey.

At a very young age, when she was just 21 years old, Margaret Burbidge had the opportunity to start working in astronomy.

Her country, England, was still in the midst of World War II, when she began making her first observations in 1940, with the 60 cm Wilson reflecting telescope.

One of the first attempts to achieve a reflecting telescope was that of Sir Isaac Newton, who considered the reflecting telescope to be the only reasonable alternative to avoid chromatic aberration of the lenses.

He proudly took it to London in late 1671, where it caused a sensation. Newton presented his telescope to the Royal Society upon being chosen as a fellow in 1672.

In 1861, William Lasell built two of the largest metal mirror reflector telescopes in Newtonian configuration in Malta. One of them had a diameter of 60 centimeters, and with it he discovered Neptune’s Triton satellite.

The Wilson reflecting telescope used by Margaret Burbidge in London was similar to the one made by William Lasell.

As soon as the war ended, Margaret completed her PhD course at London’s University College. Her PhD thesis was a spectroscopic study of Be stars (they are characterized by extremely high rotation speeds, on the order of 250 to 500 km / sec).

Margaret Burbidge found the great goal of her intellectual and professional life in astronomy. For this reason, shortly after obtaining her doctorate, in 1946, she applied for a scholarship to the Carnegie Institution of Washington to continue her observations, at the Mount Wilson Observatory.

Unfortunately, even in the fine print of the call it was not specified that the scholarship was only for men. It was taken for granted that women were absolutely out of competition. The scholarship was denied.

It is very curious to see how the distance between Boston and Los Angeles (8,400 km) was not only physical, but also cultural. While Boston universities had already yielded to the evidence of women’s intelligence and ability (Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Williamina Fleming), at the magnificent Mount Wilson Observatory they were still running around macho bullshit.

Fortunately the ideas were changing in California; In December 1965, Vera Rubin was the first astronomer to be officially admitted to the Mount Wilson Observatory.

The Mount Wilson Astronomical Observatory is one of the largest astronomical observatories in the United States.

Founded in 1904, by astrophysicist George Hale, it stands 32 km northeast of Los Angeles. In addition to several other instruments, it has a 150 cm reflecting telescope.

Mount Wilson Observatory
Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Credit: Wikipedia.

Marriage of Margaret Burbidge

In 1948 Margaret married Geoffrey Burbidge, a physicist by profession and an astrophysicist by vocation.

So, at age 29, Margaret Peachey was renamed Margaret Burbidge, as she has been known ever since.

During the 1950s and 1951s, Margaret worked at the “University of London Observatory“.

In 1955, her husband Geoffrey Burbidge obtained a research scholarship at the “Observatory of Mount Wilson“, as a theoretical astrophysicist.

With this endorsement, the authorities allowed Margaret Burbidge to attend, as an observer at the Observatory and to use the telescopes. She did so, during the years 1955 and 1956.

Margaret Burbidge’s research in nucleosynthesis

From the beginning, Margaret Burbidge teamed up with her husband Geoffrey, with physicist William Fowler, and with astronomer Fred Hoyle.

Very soon, in the year 1957, the four of them published the results of their investigations about the process of nucleosynthesis inside the stars.

One of them, the physicist William Fowler, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, for this work. She shared it with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), an American-born astrophysicist and mathematician of Indian origin.

Margaret’s contribution was important in explaining how chemical elements are synthesized in stars (and in the Sun).

These investigations served to explain the relevant nuclear reactions in the formation of chemical elements in the universe.

It is now known that the enormous energy produced from these reactions maintains the nucleus of stars at temperatures of approximately 15 million degrees Kelvin.

Margaret Burbidge’s investigation with galaxies

In the 1960s, Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, together with astronomer Kevin H. Prendergast (1929-2004), published the first study regarding the rotation of a galaxy.

Based on these data, they calculated their mass, and with astronomer Vera Rubin they studied the peculiar speeds of some galaxies, such as the M82 galaxy.

This M82 galaxy is located in the Ursa Major constellation, and is called the “Cigar Galaxy” due to its narrow and elongated shape.

Galaxy M82
Galaxy M82 studied by Margaret Burbidge. Credit: Wikipedia.

The galaxies studied by the Burbidge couple are characterized by having a high rate of star formation at their center.

Furthermore, they showed the existence of explosive phenomena in the nuclei of some galaxies.

Finally, they sequenced the abundance of ionized gas in galaxies, from elliptical to spiral, and attributed it to processes of stellar evolution.

Margaret Burbidge investigated quasars

Since the late 1960s, Margaret Burbidge has chosen quasars as her favorite field of research, some very peculiar stars discovered in the late 1950s.

Her husband, Geoffrey Burbidge, was also attracted by the fact that the luminous spectra of quasars presented very peculiar redshifts. This characteristic indicated that they were very distant objects, located thousands of light years away.

Both were impressed by the characteristics of the quasars that also indicated a progressive withdrawal and a great release of energy.

The Burbidges were the first astronomers to discover a method of evaluating the amount of matter we don’t see in the universe, based on the absorption systems of quasars.

Acknowledgments to Margaret Burbidge

Happily, on August 12, 2019, she turned 100 years old. A good record for a great star.

Among other prestigious recognitions, Margaret Burbidge received:

  • The Jansky Prize in 1977.
  • The Bruce Medal in 1982.
  • The Henry Russell Lectureship in 1984.
  • The Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal in 2005.

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