Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Beatrice Tinsley

Beatrice Muriel Hill Tinsley was born January 27, 1941, in Chester, England. Her father was a minister, and her mother was a cellist and writer. After World War II, her family moved to New Zealand, where she and her sisters attended the all girls district schools. Beatrice showed an early affinity for learning, and did quite well in her studies. She was one of those children who would read the encyclopedia for fun, and dreamed about becoming a scholar some day.

When she was only 14, she announced that she would be an astrophysicist. Her teacher at the time, Joyce Jarold remembered it clearly:
"Beatrice asked me if she could borrow some physics books, 7th form reference books. I was skeptical at first although I knew she was bright. When you teach, you're mostly trying to din something in. Very occasionally you realise that you are dealing with a great mind that is infinitely superior to your own. Beatrice came into that category."
At the age of 16, she received a Junior University Scholarship, and left school to attend Canterbury University College, where she continued to excel -- earning her Bachelors of Science in 1961, and a Masters in Physics in 1963.
She gained an MSc with first class honours in 1961, winning every prize open to her. She did not write for student publications or play sport, although delighting in weekend excursions to Steeds Hut, but she was an outstanding violinist (a member of the National Youth Orchestra) and particularly enjoyed the meetings and discussions of the Socratic Society, or Soc Soc.
(source: NZine
While working on her Masters, she also taught Physics at a local girls high school, as well as offering private instruction for college students. It was at this time she married fellow post-graduate student, Brian Tinsley. When Brian was given a position teaching at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS), in Dallas, Texas, they moved to a small apartment, and Beatrice sought an academic position for herself.

Sadly, the standard practice for universities at the time was to refuse positions for spouses of current faculty. This meant that wherever her husband was able to find a job, she would not. This frustrated her deeply. But, in July of 1964, she was accepted to the University of Texas, Austin, to study for her Ph.D. in Astronomy.
Though some judged Tinsley as a mere Dallas housewife with no experience in astronomy, her top-notch academic record convinced the head of the astronomy department at the University of Texas, Austin, to take a chance on admitting her, even with the added burden of her commuting the 200 miles from Dallas to Austin. 
Initially Tinsley planned to take part in the longstanding cosmological pursuit of deciding whether the universe was open or closed. But as she examined all the servables in this line of work—the diameters of clusters of galaxies, galaxy magnitudes, galaxy sizes—one question kept diverting her: how were the galaxies changing over time? How were they evolving? That information was crucial to finding an answer to the universe’s fate. At that point she chose the problem that became her dissertation: actually simulating the evolution of a galaxy. Setting up a numerical model, she would track its changes in color and brightness over billions of years as the stars within it are born, fiercely radiate, and then inevitably die. It was an ambitious task, as numerical simulations were grueling in this primordial era of computing.
(source: Natural History Magazine
In typical over-achiever fashion, she finished her Ph.D. studies in a remarkable two years. This, while also caring for their first child. Unfortunately, after receiving her degree, she was unable to find a suitable position, again because of the rule against hiring the spouses of faculty. Instead, she had to cobble together her own funding for research from grants and scholarships, and was given a "fictitious" position as a visiting scientist. As a consequence, she did very little actual cosmology study during this time.

In 1971, she landed part-time work for the National Science Foundation, and was able to attend the American Astronomical Society meeting at Amherst. In 1972, she took a leave of absence from her "fictitious" position at the University of Texas, and took her now two children with her to visit the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to work at Mount Palomar's Hale Observatory. Here, she was inspired by her fellow astrophysicists and dreamed of someday being able to do observation work, once her children were older.

In 1973, she accepted a temporary lectureship at the University of Maryland, which was nearby where Brian was also teach, in Washington, D.C. While her position was not "profitable financially" is was a "great boost professionally." She finally felt like she was "an accepted member of the community of cosmologists and astrophysicists," as had been her life-long dream. "The work is a pleasure to me!"

In 1974, she was awarded the Annie J. Canon award, and was given an all-expenses-paid trip to Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, Cambridge, England. While the travel and experience was invigorating and intellectually stimulating, it was only temporary, and every time she returned to the University of Texas, she was demoralized further. As she wrote in a letter home, her time there:
"...has reduced me to a state of mental anguish. Hard to explain! I am a good scientist, and among my peers treated like a full and respectable person and feel of worth. UTD has kept me at the nearest possible level to nothing and there is no one who knows enough about astronomy to care in the least for my work, Austin has helped, but it is second rate job (underpaid, half-time) at a department much worse than I'm worth. This isn't supposed to be boasting. To be rejected and undervalued intellectually is a gut problem to me and I've lived with it most of the time we've been here, apart from extended visits to Caltech and Maryland and shorter trips and meetings and so on."
(source: RootsWeb
It was during this time that she received Assistant Professorship offers from both Yale and the University of Chicago, as well as a three year teaching position at Cambridge. Still trying to find a position closer to home, she applied to head the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas, Dallas, which she herself had designed and worked so hard for over the previous years since moving to Dallas. Based on the previous treatment she had received, it is probably no real shock to learn that her application was not taken seriously. In fact, she received no reply at all. It wasn't until she attended a faculty party where she cornered the man who was to have reviewed and responded to her application that she learned exactly how little respect they had for her. When pressed, the man said, "I have a letter from you, don't I, that I must answer some time." Beatrice happily replied, "You needn't bother now. I'm choosing between Chicago and Yale!"

In light of her incredible groundbreaking achievements, she effectively had her career shut down due to her gender. It was at this point Beatrice made a decision that I hope will become one that no woman in science ever need make again. She chose between her husband and staying in Texas and continuing her scientific career.

She chose science. She divorced her husband. The least socially acceptable choices she could make. The courage it took to make them can not have been easy.

Catherine Q
In 1975, she and Brian divorced, with Brian retaining full custody of the children. This enabled Beatrice to take the position at Yale, and pursue her dreams of true scholarship. She traveled from observatory to observatory, gaining respect from her peers and broadening her personal goals. When Yale created a committee to improve the status of women at the university, Beatrice joined immediately.

In 1978, she was made a full professor at Yale. Tragically, that same year, she discovered a lump on her leg that turned out to be melanoma. She continued to lecture and write while she was treated, but there was little hope for a full recovery. The type of cancer she had carried at best a 50/50 chance of survival.

In the final stages, she was cared for at the Yale Infirmary, where she continued to write. When she lost the function of her right hand, she taught herself to write with her left. Her drive and determination never slowed.  Her final scientific paper, submitted just ten days before her death, in 1981, at the age of 40, was published by the Astrophysical Journal posthumously, without revision. In her short, and often thwarted, career, she accomplished a great deal, and left a legacy of research that is still being felt today.
Before Beatrice began her research, little was known about life cycles of galaxies and the stars within them. She pioneered the study of interacting galaxies and the idea that galaxies change over short timescales compared with age of the Universe, which inspired astronomers to study distant galaxies for clues to galaxy evolution. In particular Beatrice studied how different groups of stars age and what observable effects those changes have on a galaxy. Her work was significant in determining the size of the Universe and its rate of expansion. It was also assumed that galaxies of the same type - spiral, elliptical or lenticular - would be a similar size, shape and luminosity.

By comparing the size and luminosity of distant galaxies to nearby galaxies whose distance was already known, it was thought that an accurate distance could be obtained. But her thesis, "Evolution of Galaxies and its Significance for Cosmology" showed that determining distances based on morphology alone was unreliable. Factors such as the abundances of chemical elements, the mass of the galaxy and the rate of starbirth were all important parameters in determining the distance and age of the galaxy and, by inference, the size and age of the universe. Tinsley's work formed the basis for contemporary studies of galactic evolution. She also contributed to research to find out whether the universe is an open or closed system.

She Is An Astronomer
In her honor, the American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize in 1986, to recognize "an outstanding research contribution to astronomy or astrophysics, of an exceptionally creative or innovative character, " and the University of Texas at Austin created the Beatrice M. Tinsley Visiting Professorship in Astronomy. And, fittingly, asteroid 3087 Beatrice Tinsley is named after her as well. The Beatrice Tinsley Institute for New Zealand Astronomy and Astrophysics is a world class research facility, named for her in her home country.
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

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