Eleanor Margaret Burbidge

(b. 1922)

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(1922–) British astronomer

Born Margaret Peachey in Davenport, Burbidge studied physics at the University of London. After graduation in 1948 she joined the University of London Observatory where she obtained her PhD and served as acting director (1950–51). She then went to America as a research fellow, first at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago (1951–53) and then at the California Institute of Technology (1955–57). The period 1953–55 was spent in highly productive work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. She returned to Yerkes in 1957, serving as associate professor of astronomy from 1959 to 1962 and then transferred to the University of California, San Diego, where she was professor of astronomy from 1964 until 1990 and emeritus professor from 1990. She also served (1979–88) as director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences.

Burbidge returned briefly to England in 1972 on leave of absence to become director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, now situated at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. She declared her aim to be to strengthen optical astronomy in Britain. But as the 98-inch (2.5-m) Isaac Newton telescope at Herstmonceux was only a few hundred feet above sea level and sited above a marsh her opportunities for observation at the Royal Observatory were somewhat limited. A little over a year later, in October 1973, Burbidge resigned amid much speculation declaring simply that she preferred “to return to her own research work rather than devote a major part of her time to administrative matters.”

In 1948 she married Geoffrey Burbidge a theoretical physicist, and began a highly productive partnership. They collaborated with Fred Hoyle and William Fowler in 1957 in publishing a key paper on the synthesis of the chemical elements in stars. They also produced one of the first comprehensive works on quasars in their Quasi-Stellar Objects (1967). She had earlier recorded the spectra of a number of quasars with the 120-inch (3-m) Lick reflector and discovered that their spectral lines displayed different red shifts, probably indicating the ejection of matter at very high speeds.

The first accurate estimates of the masses of galaxies were based on Margaret Burbidge's careful observation of their rotation.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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