Beatrice Tinsley: Extraordinary and Profound

Today is Ada Lovelace day – an international day of blogging to draw attention to, and to celebrate the achievements of women in the fields of technology and science.

I’m not sure I can aptly express how important I believe it is as scientists that we use every opportunity we are given (and to make those opportunities ourselves) to showcase the ability of women and to encourage a continuing and ever strengthening contribution of women in scientific fields. I believe this because I think we are at a critical point where we have young girls and women experiencing discouraging signals and roadblocks to being full participants in fields of science and tech, while also increasingly being told to believe these struggles are behind us.

Mentoring, supporting women facing prejudice, and giving voice to our experiences is vital. Saying that women don’t yet hold sufficient influence and support in scientific arenas does not make us complainers, weak or bitter. It simply means we want the best scientific world community we can have and we recognize that we don’t have that until we have the full participation, recognition and support for all who would be involved. Great science comes from great thinking and to that end we need as many and as varied a community of thinkers as we can get. I am not sure we can honestly say we have that yet.

The inspirational scientist I have chosen to write about briefly here is a hero of my home country of New Zealand and of my adopted country of America, so it seems a fitting choice. Her name is Beatrice Tinsley. She is widely recognized as one of the most creative theoreticians in modern astronomy and is best known for her work on galaxy evolution.

Born in 1941 in the UK, she moved with her family to NZ where she attended a small high school, distinguishing herself as a student of mathematics, languages, music and writing. At age 14, she decided she wanted to be an astrophysicist. Imagining the passion that went into such a choice and the obstacles she must clearly have faced in 1955 speak to her character, drive and obvious intellect.

She won a scholarship to attend the University of Canterbury, NZ at age 16, graduating with a Masters of Science with fist class honors in 1961.

Having pursued the same degree many years later, I can’t help but feel that the acceptance and encouragement I was lucky to experience at the University was in part due to this exceptional woman that went before me. Female mentors and professors were scarce when I graduated but an attitude of great respect for the ability of women in Physics and the generous accolades I received from the Faculty there were pivotal in my decision to continue in Physics and I am more and more grateful every day that I was treated this way. I later learned that it was not something to be expected in all places of higher learning.

Beatrice Tinsley left NZ after her husband and fellow physics student was offered a post in Dallas Texas. There she encountered a macho atmosphere, blind to her achievements – so much so that she couldn’t find work and ended up taking a job at the University Of Texas in Austin 200 miles away. She enrolled in a Ph.D program there and finished in record time with the highest marks ever in the department. Her thesis was described as “extraordinary and profound”.

She had determined that internal changes in galaxies due to the evolution of stars and non-stellar material over long periods of time made the accepted method of determining galaxy distances by morphology alone (spriral, lenticular etc) unreliable. This changed the way distances to galaxies and determination of galaxy ages was calculated and as a result this changed the accepted values for the size, age and rate of expansion of the universe.

In 1974, she was awarded the Annie J Canon (another inspiring woman astronomer) prize from the American Astronomical Society for her contributions to astronomy.

And yet, she was still shunned by the University of Texas in Dallas. Despite asking her to start an astronomy department at the Univeristy – the Univeristy chose to ignore her application for the head of this department.

In a letter Beatrice wrote she said, “The University of Texas in Dallas has kept me at the nearest possible level to nothing.” 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.

In 1978 she became a Professor of Astronomy at Yale Univeristy. That same year, she discovered she was suffering from a fatal form of malignant melanoma. She continued her research and published papers up until her untimely death in 1981. In 1986, as a tribute to her, the American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize for outstanding creative contributions to astronomy or astrophysics. It was the only major award created by an American scientific society honouring a woman scientist.

Although I never knew Dr. Tinsley, and wasn’t even aware of her name as I walked the same halls as her in the Physics department of my Alma Mater – I recognise that she had an effect on my life. I encountered far fewer roadblocks and far less discouragement simply because she had a strength of character and dedication to her passion that was an unstoppable force. I’m so grateful for that. Oftentimes I think about whether I would have had that same determination and strength and the answer is, I don’t know. There are times I still believe that however hard I work, I have to accept that I won’t be taken as seriously as I would be if I were a man in science. Unfair, yes. But part of getting where we want to be has to be acknowledging the reality and validity of our feelings and experiences.

I’m grateful for Ada Lovelace day and for all the inspiring, talented women I have read about today. I wish that when I had learned about the pledge to blog about a woman who has made a difference in the fields of science and technology that names had flooded my head- just like they do when I get asked to name an influential male contributor to Physics.

It didn’t happen.

I know that these women are plentiful but the fact that many of their names are unknown to us and come as a surprise is a problem.

Luckily, it’s a problem we can fix. So let’s do it. I challenge both male and female scientists to make it happen.

And to all the inspiring women scientists out there today contributing wonderful, wild and willful ideas and spirits to science, “Kia Kaha” to you all.

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