Astronomer Beatrice Tinsley – a snapshot biography.

Beatrice Tinsley loved music and math, enjoyed being in the outdoors, and was completely unafraid to speak her mind, even if that meant challenging authority.
 
As a child, Beatrice dreamt of being a scientist. Her path to becoming one started in Chester, England, where she was born in 1941 during World War II. Shortly after the end of the war, she moved to New Zealand with her family. There, she attended college, earned a Master of Science in Physics, and married a classmate. 
 
Life then took them to the U.S., where her husband took a job in Dallas, Texas. Beatrice, who had already caused uproar by refusing to host a tea party when it was her turn, decided to pursue her dream and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at UT-Austin. Her commute each way was 200 miles. But she earned top scores on exams, conducted pioneering research in the evolution of universes, and earned her doctorate in 1966.
 
But still, this was the 1960s, and Beatrice was a woman. A job was hard to come by. She wrote, “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.” After years of struggle to find a position, she became an assistant professor of astronomy at Yale in 1974. The choice to take this position came with a painful decision to divorce her husband and leave her family in Texas.
 
Beatrice conducted groundbreaking work at Yale, won awards, published over 100 articles, and mentored many scientists. Her work was described by a fellow scientist in the following way,
 
“Ranging from the tiniest stars to the horizons of the Universe, the field of galactic research incorporates essentially all astronomical knowledge. A special quality of mind is required to encompass a subject at once so detailed and so vast and this is where Beatrice Tinsley excelled. When she began her work, the life-cycle story of galaxies…was only dimly apparent. Beatrice was thus inspired to commence a systematic program to explore essentially every aspect of galaxy evolution. Initially alone and later with many collaborators she calculated accurately how stellar populations age, how they change in luminosity and color, and at what rate and in what proportions they convert pure hydrogen and helium into heavier elements via nuclear burning. She estimated the age of the Universe from isotope ratios of uranium and thorium, traced the production of heavy elements in the halo and disk of the Galaxy and tested systematically whether every known phase of stellar evolution would have observable consequences in the light of galactic stellar populations…The knowledge thus gained was constantly applied to improve models of galaxy evolution.”
Confident, positive, devoted to her research and field happenings, and an inspiration to others, Beatrice became known to many as the “Queen of the Cosmos.” For all her work, she became a professor of astronomy at Yale in 1978, the first woman to achieve this position. 
 
Unfortunately, however, in the same year she became a professor, Beatrice was also diagnosed with cancer, melanoma. But in her typical fashion, Beatrice continued to research and show care for others. As recalled by a fellow researcher from the time
 
“Beatrice’s outer-directedness and concern for others was especially apparent during her long struggle with cancer. When it began, I myself was laid up in bed with a back problem that lasted several weeks and was much depressed with my slow rate of recovery. Beatrice somehow heard and telephoned to cheer me up, mentioning casually at the time that she, too, was in the hospital – undergoing surgery for melanoma. My heart stopped; I knew how virulent the disease could be. The very next day, a further surprise arrived – a beautiful plant from Beatrice to brighten my room. This display of concern from someone whose own health was in an infinitely more precarious state was most touching, but typical of her.”
Beatrice passed away three years later at the age of 40. She wrote the following poem shortly before her death,
 
“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.”
Following her passing, the American Astronomical Society created the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize to honor exceptional creative contributions to astronomy or astrophysics.
 

“Astronomer Beatrice Tinsley – a snapshot biography.” sources: BRIAN SWEENEY AND JACQUELINE OWENS

  1. “Beatrice Hill Tinsley.” Goodsell Observatory, Carleton College Department of Physics and Astronomy.
  2. “Beatrice Tinsley.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Tinsley
  3. Hill, Edward. My daughter Beatrice : a personal memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley, astronomer. New York, American Physical Society, 1986 (Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/mydaughterbeatri0000hill/mode/2up)
  4. Owens, Jacqueline and Sweeney, Brian. “Beatrice Tinsely.” NZEDGE, https://www.nzedge.com/legends/beatrice-tinsley/
  5. “UC Legend – Beatrice Tinsley.” University of Canterbury, https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/alumni/our-alumni/uc-legends/beatrice-tinsley/

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