For generations women have not been permitted to participate in many of the fields that men have. It is only within the last few decades that we have seen a landscape with a shifting dynamic where women and men are being considered equals. Yet, in America there have still been fewer women entering into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). During the next three months I will be writing a three part series focused in on three women Astronomers who have significantly contributed to our intellectual capacity and comprehension in the fields of Science and Astronomy. The first part of this series will be about none other than Beatrice Muriel Hill Tinsley.
Part I. – Beatrice Tinsley: Beatrice Tinsley was born in a time when very few women had jobs, let alone went to school to study astronomy and cosmology. Even rarer, where women who graduated from these programs and accepted academic positions equal to their male counterparts. For Beatrice, this was a real life struggle that she had to face every day of her life – to be judged not by her academic ability, competence, accomplishments, or qualifications, but first by the fact that she was a woman. Beatrice was born in Chester, New England, but was raised in New Zealand. Her parents provided an intellectually stimulating and religious household, but her father’s work required a lot of travel, so faith had a limited scope in Beatrice’s life. As a result, she was largely raised by Nanny Gullidge, someone her father would later go on to write in his daughter’s memoir “had been possibly the most important person in Beatrice’s life.” (Hill, 1986). It was very clear from a young age that Beatrice, or Beetle as she was known to be called, was bound to do great things in the field of Science. Her love of music, mathematics, and poetry was visible at an age when most girls where still playing with dolls. As a young poet she described this as the view from her bedroom:
“I see the dainty blue sea lightly tipped with foam
Over these wide waters I’d someday like to roam.”
By the age of 14, Beatrice decided she wanted to be an Astrophysicist. She studied at New Plymouth Girls High school, an institute that focused on academics and strong religious teachings. It was here one could see the women that Beatrice was becoming when she started a feminist campaign to allow girls access to contraceptives. (Larson, 2007).
Beatrice went on to study at Canterbury University, where she was of only a handful of women studying math and physics. In 1961 she graduated with a Master of Science with First Class Honors in Physics. Canterbury University is also where she would meet Brian Tinsley; a classmate of Beatrice’s who she would go on to marry. Together they would leave New Zealand and move to Dallas Texas where Brian accepted an offer at the Southwest Center of Advanced Studies. At the time, Beatrice was forbidden to work at the same university as Brian. She would continue her research and writing while being the culturally fit definition of a married housewife who supports her husband’s carrier. But internally, Beatrice was struggling to break out. She finally reached a tipping point and made the decision to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Astronomy at the University of Texas in Austin. She would commute more than 200 miles away, all at a time when only about two percent of the entire faculty where women. She would go on to complete the program in a third of the time it takes most students. But it was also here that Beatrice would face what will be both the most difficult challenges and greatest accomplishments in her life.
Beatrice was only 26 when she announced her presence to the world by starting a feud with, at that time, one of the most prominent astronomers in the world. Allan Sandage was invited to give a lecture regarding his work on the end stages and fate of the universe, particularly on the view that the universe’s expansion is slowing, that one day it will eventually collapse, and that we are all doomed to this fate.
Before Allen would make it to the podium to start his lecture, Beatrice promptly stood up in front of all those in attendance and would proclaim that everything they were about to hear is wrong! Naturally, Allen was shocked, flustered, and would go on to be one Beatrice’s biggest critics for years to come.
A year later, Beatrice published her thesis Evolution of Stars and Gas in Galaxies, which would change and disrupt the course of Astronomy. In her thesis, Beatrice would argue that variables like the chemical elements present, the mass, and the rate of star birth, all contributed to the evolution of galaxies, and the color of galaxies of all Hubble types can be explained as a result of different ages. She went on to develop models to calculate the number of stars in galaxies, what these galaxies look like today, and how they would change over time – all before computers and algorithms could be used to determine such calculations. She attributed Allan Sandage’s work as simply, “lazy science”. Later, thanks to the Hubble Constant proposed by Edwin Hubble, which demonstrated that the universe is in fact expanding (and in some cases, depending on where you look even accelerating), Allen was proved to be wrong. Allen would continue to criticize Beatrice’s work and would eventually convert to Christianity.
Beatrice and Brian would later go on to adopt two children, Alan and Teresa Jean. As motivated and methodical as Beatrice was, she found the balance between professional and personal life overwhelming. She did her absolute best to pursue both being a mother to her children, and wife to her husband, all while studying the skies and fighting against inequality. After finishing her PhD she would continue her work on the evolution of galaxies, giving lectures at many of the Ivy League schools, and engaging as a leader of Planned Parenthood in its founding days. In 1974, she won the Annie Jump Cannon Prize for her work in galaxy evolutions, but also began divorce proceedings to focus more on her career. Even with the outstanding achievements Beatrice had accomplished, she found it very difficult to get a job in Dallas and struggled to have her work accepted in a male-dominated field. She sought to be a working woman and mother but society was forcing her to make a choice, and so that’s what she did. In 1978, she was offered a position at Yale and became the first women to be a professor of Astronomy at the school. It wasn’t long there after that she was diagnosed with melanoma and found herself in the Yale Infirmary speculating that the cancer was largely due to stress of leaving her children and family behind. In 1981 Beatrice would pass away, but not before leaving a long legacy of work that flipped the Astronomy world on its head. She wrote and contributed close to 100 papers in her short time at Yale. Even on her death bed Beatrice was a fighter. She began to lose use of her right arm, and so taught herself to write with her left. Just before her death she wrote to her father a short poem that was read at her memorial service:
“Let me be like Bach, creating fugues,
Till suddenly the pen will move no more.
Let all my themes within – of ancient light,
Of origins and change and human worth-
Let all their melodies still intertwine,
Evolve and merge with ever growing unity,
Ever without fading, Ever without a final chord…
Till suddenly my mind can hear no more.”
Her father Edward Tinsley would later go on to write a memoir highlighting Beatrice’s life and accomplishments. In it he wrote a dedication that seemed to allude to the sympathy he felt with his daughters struggle to be a working mother in a society that may not have accepted that view.
This book is dedicated to
Every parent of a gifted child
Every woman who has struggled between family and a career
Everyone interested in science—and to everyone with any interest
In the stars, galaxies and space. (Hill, 1986)
Although Beatrice had passed away, her achievements are still honored to this day. In 1986 the American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize; the only award that is dedicated solely for woman and recognize their outstanding contributions to astronomy or astrophysics.
In 2010 the country of New Zealand celebrated Beatrice by naming a mountain, “Mt Tinsley” in the Fiordland Kepler Mountains, named after fellow astronomer Johannes Kepler.
In January 27, 2016 Google honored Beatrice Tinsley’s 75th Birthday on their homepage with a Google Doodle.
And on July 18, 2018, The New York Times started a column called “Overlooked” which was dedicated to “the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times” where Beatrice’s obituary was published.
For years, Beatrice was never given the credit she truly deserved. Beatrice Tinsley was simply brilliant. She was a pioneer in the field of Astronomy, and a visionary that fought for the equality of women, and the idea that one should not be judged by their gender, but instead by the merit of their work. Let us not forget Beatrice Tinsley and the important role she has played to Astronomy, and the role model she serves for young women scientists.
- “Overlooked No More: Beatrice Tinsley, Astronomer Who Saw the Course of the Universe”. New York Times. 18 July 2018.
- Hill, Edward. My Daughter Beatrice: A personal Memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley Astronomer.New York: American Physical Society, 1986
- Larson, Richard B., Professor of Astronomy, Yale University Interview, 9 April, 2007. Telephone interview.