Centuries of Scholarship: Margaret Burbidge

“Lady Stardust”

Among astronomers, UC San Diego’s physics professor emerita Margaret Burbidge is a true star. Her work, after all, was critical in showing just how literally that statement could be taken—we’re all stars—at least it’s the stuff we’re made of. Earning the nickname “Lady Stardust” during her illustrious career in astronomy, Burbidge is particularly known for helping to advance the understanding of nucleosynthesis— the process by which elements are created within stars by combining the protons and neutrons from the nuclei of lighter elements.

Her work built upon what fellow UC San Diego luminaries Harold Urey, Hans Suess and Maria Goeppert Mayer were doing throughout the 1950s. “Maria Mayer played a big role in figuring out the stability of the elements, and Harold Urey and Hans Suess had shown that the elements came from stars,” says Mark Thiemens, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “But the process of how that occurred remained unknown.”

Not for long—in 1957, Margaret Burbidge, with her husband and theoretical astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge, and colleagues Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle, wrote a paper titled The Synthesis of the Elements in Stars. “It was the first, and still is, the most important paper that’s ever been written on that subject,” says Thiemens. “It was the cookbook of how the elements were made, and why.”

Margaret Burbidge, with her husband and theoretical astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge.
Margaret Burbidge, with her husband and theoretical astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge.

Her career is marked by a number of additional firsts—Burbidge was the first female to direct the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the first female member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the first female president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). As the first director of UC San Diego’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, she helped develop instruments for the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more remarkable, however, is how Burbidge’s trek of firsts began in an era when women were all but eclipsed in science.

She was denied a Carnegie Fellowship, for instance, because it required observations at Mount Wilson Observatory, which at the time was reserved only for men. To gain access, she was required to pose as her husband’s assistant and live in a separate cottage on the grounds.

“One of the things that most struck me about her was how determined she had to be about doing astronomy, in the face of rampant discrimination against women. Yet it never made her bitter or resentful,” notes Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale University. Burbidge was forward-thinking—in 1972, for example, she declined the AAS’ Annie J. Cannon Award precisely because it was awarded only to women. Her letter of rejection stated, “It is high time that discrimination in the favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed.”

At UC San Diego, the impact of Burbidge’s influence is apparent in the Margaret Burbidge Visiting Professorship, a program funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation which brings eminent female physicists to campus. And of course, her influence speaks volumes from those she taught. “Margaret is the first woman scientist I met,” says Kristen Sellgren ’76, now an astronomy professor emeritus at The Ohio State University. “Her discoveries were front-page news when I was growing up in San Diego. She is the reason I went to UCSD for undergrad in 1973. She has been a great inspiration and a great mentor.”

Margaret Burbidge passed away on April 5, 2020. Her obituary is available here, courtesy of the New York Times.

Did Margaret Burbidge or any other UC San Diego professor make an impact on you? Send your memories to tritonmag@ucsd.edu for a future issue.