The Life of E. Margaret Burbidge

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April 23, 2020

The Life of E. Margaret Burbidge

April Photos of the Month


"It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions." (King Lear, Act IV, Scene 3)

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2)


These quotes, taken from two well-known Shakespeare plays, act as an epigraph to "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars", the paper written by E. Margaret Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle. The paper was published by the Review of Modern Physics in October 1957 and is a rousing 100 pages long (approximately). As a non-scientist I cannot fathom- only respect- the idea of writing a technical piece of that length and complexity. As evidenced in "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars," as well as her other works and accomplishments, Eleanor Margaret (née Peachey) Burbidge was a remarkable scientist whom the world was supremely fortunate to have. Burbidge passed away on April 5th, 2020, after turning 100 years old just last fall. She will be remembered for her contributions to astronomy, which helped to change the way we now understand cosmic evolution, her services to scientific societies such as the American Astronomical Society, and her perseverance to take part in the field she was passionate about, despite the blatant gender discrimination that existed in the 1940’s (and beyond).

I want to keep the April photos of the month simple: let’s honor and celebrate the incredible life of Eleanor Margaret Burbidge with images taken throughout her career.


Portrait of Eleanor Margaret Burbidge. 

Credit: University of California at San Diego, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives


Portrait of Burbidge viewing astronomical slides at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting, 1980.

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection


Vera Rubin, Margaret Burbidge, D. W. Sciama, and others gather at Judith Perry's home in Cambridge, England, 1990. 

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives


Group portrait of Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge (front left), William Fowler (front right), Fred, Barbara, and Elizabeth Hoyle (center), and Donald Clayton and Martin Rees (rear left) at the monastery on the Isola St. George in Venice, Italy, 1975. 

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection


Left to right: Geoffrey Burbidge, Fred Hoyle, Margaret Burbidge, and Donald Clayton in the garden at Hoyle's home, Cockley Moor, above Lake Ullswater in England.

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection


Large group portrait of the University of Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy 1974 Conference 'Supernovae,' which Margaret Burbidge attended. She can be seen toward the center of the first row. 

Credit: Edward Leigh F.I.I.P. F.R.P.S., University of Cambridge, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection


E. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Fred Hoyle with the steam train presented to William Fowler in July 1971 at the conference on massive objects organized in honor of his 60th birthday.

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection


Margaret Burbidge holding a photograph of a model of a telescope. 

Credit: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection



Lastly, I wanted to share this lovely quote from Burbidge's oral history interview.


I highly recommend you take some time to read what else Burbidge had to say in her oral history interview with David Devorkin. In it, she discusses her childhood, family, education, some of the struggles she faced as a woman in her field, and details some of the relationships and collaborations she had with other scientists. It is a fascinating read; one which really solidified my admiration for Burbidge. I am confident her life and contributions to science will continue to inspire others.

Thanks for joining me for the April photos of the month! We’ll be back next month to share more images with you from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

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About the Author: 

Samantha Holland is the AV & Media Archivist. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in humanities with a concentration in English from the University of Hawai’i- West Oahu and a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. One of her favorite books in the collection is The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo. 


Submitted by Anonymous on

Thanks, as always, for the fascinating history of the people in physics and related sciences.

I believe the caption, "Margaret Burbidge holding a photograph of a model of a telescope," is not correct. Rather, she is holding a black board with a wooden frame around it so that the real (not a photograph) model telescope, on a small cylindrical pedestal, can be seen against the visually busy background of shelves of books. A sharp photographer would have realized that the model would not be readily visible against a complicated background, and improvised a backdrop that enhanced its visibility.


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