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In Memoriam

E. Margaret Burbidge

Professor Emeritus in Physics

UC San Diego

It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Eleanor Margaret (née Peachey) Burbidge, the trailblazing astronomer renowned for her work on synthesis of the elements in stars and her leadership in advocacy for gender equality in the sciences. The professor emeritus of physics at the University of California San Diego died peacefully, with her family at her side, at her home in San Francisco, April 5, 2020, from complications after a fall. She was 100 years old.

“Margaret Burbidge was a giant in the field of astronomy,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “Her work on synthesis of the elements in stars and on quasars significantly changed scientific understanding of the universe. Her global leadership in research and her early advocacy for diversity within the fields of astronomy and physics helped shape UC San Diego’s reputation as a leader in science and as a leader in inclusive scientific research.”

With her passing, the world loses a towering figure in the history of modern physics and astronomy. Burbidge was a key driver of three great revolutionary thrusts in the development of physics and astronomy over the last 70 years. Her death is a significant loss for the UC San Diego community, especially for the Department of Physics and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS). Burbidge spent the bulk of her career as Professor of Physics at the university, and she ushered in CASS as its first director. She was instrumental in founding and leading UC San Diego’s efforts in astrophysics.

“We are very fortunate to have had her and her legacy in CASS and at the university,” said Distinguished Professor of Physics and Director of CASS George Fuller. “Margaret’s scientific accomplishments and her brilliant career serve as a shining example of the best of scientific research. We will miss her.”

Born August 12, 1919, in Davenport, England, Burbidge was educated at the University of London, where she remained until 1951. She worked at Yerkes Observatory and the California Institute of Technology, before joining the UC San Diego faculty, along with her husband Geoffrey Burbidge, a theoretical astrophysicist, in 1962.

Margaret Burbidge’s early work centered on spectroscopy and the abundances of elements in stars. This expertise put her at the center of the effort to understand the origin of the elements. This effort, fostered and led by the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at Caltech, where she was a postdoctoral scholar, culminated in a seminal publication that included the blueprint for how most of the elements could be synthesized in stars, in violent events like core collapse supernovae and, as more recently known, from gravitational wave observatories and multi-messenger astrophysics, merging binary neutron stars.

In 1957, Burbidge, along with Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, famously published, “The Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” in Reviews of Modern Physics. It outlined how all of the elements, except the very lightest, are produced by nuclear reactions in stellar interiors. Their theory – known as B2FH (each of their initials) – set the stage for understanding the origins of the elements. It also brokered the deep relationship between observational astronomy and nuclear physics. Margaret Burbidge went on to achieve particular renown for spectroscopic studies of quasars, and she played a major role in developing instrumentation for the Hubble Space Telescope. Throughout her career, she also studied spectra of galaxies, determining their rotations, masses, and chemical composition.

The collaboration with her husband, Fowler and Hoyle – all experts in different fields – synthesized their varied expertise and served as the paradigm for the marriage of observational astronomy with frontline developments in theoretical and laboratory nuclear and elementary particle physics. The brilliance of the B2FH approach is evident today, for example, in the efforts to identify the source or sources of dark matter, or the symbiotic connection of cosmic microwave background observations and high energy physics.

The connection between observational astronomy and nuclear and elementary particle physics took another turn in the 1960s. Again, Margaret Burbidge was an important leader. The advent of high energy (X-Ray) astronomy and the identification of non-thermal sources, plus the discovery of quasi-stellar objects, quasars (QSOs), was paralleled by an explosion of theoretical work in general relativity, especially on the physics of black holes. Burbidge’s work on the spectroscopy of QSOs was instrumental in dissecting the physics of these objects. That research effort, joined by her students, postdoctoral scholars, and collaborators around the world, continues to this day. It helped establish that supermassive black holes power QSOs. In turn, that set up one of the outstanding and profound mysteries in physics: Where do the monster black holes at the centers of galaxies come from?

This effort melds into a third thrust of Burbidge’s work: the development and pioneering use of space-based instruments. The era of the great observatories in the 1980s and 1990s, continuing to this day, provided a wealth of data on the cosmos, leading to unexpected discoveries in physics. Burbidge helped in the development and application of the Hubble Space Telescope’s Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS). This instrument largely originated with CASS and UC San Diego physics faculty, especially Carl McIlwain. Burbidge, as leader of CASS, helped foster the university’s other space-based instrumentation expertise as well, for example the X-ray astronomy efforts of Richard Rothschild and Larry Peterson. Burbidge’s FOS spectroscopy work, aided by her collaborators Vesa Junkkarinen and Ross Cohen, was important in trying to characterize the morphology and evolution of active galaxies and QSOs.

Finally, Burbidge’s scientific accomplishments have served as an inspiration to generations of young astronomers and physicists. She “broke the observatory gender boundary in the mid-20th century,” as the American Astronomical Society (AAS) recently noted when it created its Legacy Fellows, naming Burbidge the Inaugural Fellow. Burbidge also held many significant administrative positions, including first female director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and first female president of the AAS. The Division of Physical Sciences named its Margaret Burbidge Visiting Professorship, launched in partnership with the Heising-Simons Foundation, after her.

Burbidge is survived by her daughter Sarah Burbidge, who resides in San Francisco, California, and her grandson, Connor Loeven, Sarah Burbidge’s son, who lives in New York.

Steven Boggs
Dean, Division of Physical Sciences

Brian Maple
Professor and Chair, Department of Physics