A Tribute to
By Vera C. Rubin
Vera Rubin has astronomy degrees from Vassar
College and Cornell University and a Ph.D.
from Georgetown University. She has been on
the staff of the Department of Terrestrial
Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of
Washington for over 35 years. A longtime
friend and colleague of Margaret Burbidge,
Vera has been honored extensively for her
work in observational cosmology, and like
Margaret, is a member of the National
Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the
National Medal of Science.
MARGARET PEACHEY BURBIDGE,
born in England in 1919, was interested
in astronomy as a youngster and
read the books of Sir James Jeans, to whom she
is distantly related. She attended University
College, London, and was surprised
to discover that a degree in astronomy
was offered. She earned a B.Sc.
from University College, and a Ph.D.
from the University of London
Observatory. In 1948 she married
fellow graduate student Geoffrey
Burbidge. She and Geoff have a
daughter, Sarah, and a grandson.
In 1951, Margaret and Geoff left
England for the U.S., she to Yerkes
Observatory and he to Harvard
College Observatory; by the next
year, the Burbidges were both postdocs
at Yerkes. Margaret's earliest research concerned
chemical abundances in stars. In 1954,
following their return to Cambridge, England,
they approached Willy Fowler, there on sabbatical.
Fowler affectionately recalled a day when a
“wonderful Charles Laughton replica” (Geoff)
walked into his office at the Cavendish Lab and
asked “Why not work on problems important
for Astrophysics?” This query culminated in the
now-classic work by Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler,
and Hoyle (familiarly known as B2FH) entitled
Synthesis of the Elements in Stars.
When Fowler returned to the U.S., the
Burbidges followed him to Pasadena. With their
usual adaptability, Margaret was a
postdoc at Kellogg Lab at Caltech,
Geoff was a Carnegie Fellow at
Mount Wilson Observatory (which
was not available to females). Not
surprisingly, whenever Geoff went
off to Mount Wilson to observe,
Margaret “coincidently” appeared.
In 1957 they returned to Yerkes,
Margaret again as a postdoc, and
continued their observations and
analysis to understand the physics of
stars. With the McDonald 82-inch
telescope, their observations centered
around both stars and galaxies.
In the early 1960s, with the founding of the
University of California at San Diego, both
Margaret and Geoff moved again, Margaret to the Department
of Chemistry and
Geoff to Physics,
the couple to
in the same
department. I was
working with the
the 1963-’64 academic
year, and heard Margaret give her wonderful
inaugural lecture on Astrochemistry.
Shortly thereafter, with the change of rules,
Margaret moved to the Physics department. In
addition to her position as Professor of
Physics, Margaret was for many years
Director of the Center for Astrophysics
and Space Sciences at UCSD.
Throughout her career, Margaret has been a
leader in the study of galaxies, rotation of galaxies,
QSO redshifts, and their interpretation. She
has also played a leadership role on many
national committees for space science and for
setting priorities in astronomy. Her achievements
have been recognized with numerous
honors, prizes, and honorary degrees. She was
President of the AAS, she shared the AAS
Warner Prize with Geoff, she is a Fellow of the
Royal Society (London), and in 1978 was the
first woman astronomer elected to the U.S.
National Academy of Sciences. In 1983, she was
awarded the National Medal of Science.
Margaret Burbidge has met each challenge
of her career with brilliance, with originality,
with dedicated hard work, and with
grace. She has been a mentor to students and
young astronomers. She was a role model for
many, even before we knew the word. Thank
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