Astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981) was once a leading candidate for the "Most Important New Zealand Scientist You've Never Heard Of Award", but has been largely eliminated from consideration by a stage play, having a mountain named after her, and a full-length biography. [It also turns out she has a street named after her in North Auckland – thanks to Ed Linklater for pointing this out.]
In my case, though, I have crossed Beatrice's trail several times. She studied at the University of Canterbury in the early 60s, and was still talked-about when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. Likewise, she was a professor at Yale from 1975 until her untimely death in 1981, and her influence was still felt when I arrived there as an Assistant Professor in 2004.
I came to know Beatrice best by way of her biography, Bright Star. I got to the biography via its author, Chris Cole Catley, and I was introduced to Chris by my mother, Shirley Maddock.
All three women, Chris, Beatrice and Mum, were pioneers in their fields. Broadcast television arrived in New Zealand in the early 60s and Mum was the first woman to produce a television show in New Zealand, before having a second career (or third or fourth career -- she had been a librarian, acted, and worked in radio, too) as a writer.
In May 2001, when I was a post-doc at Columbia University in New York City, I came home to New Zealand for a visit. Mum called me at my in-laws in Auckland, to tell me she had bumped into Chris at a writers' meeting. Chris was working on a book about an astronomer, whom I might have heard of. The astronomer was Beatrice, and yes, I had heard of her. Chris thought Beatrice's story needed to be told, both as a feminist story and a New Zealand story, but cheerfully confessed to Mum that she knew next to nothing about astronomy. Mum had volunteered my services as someone who did know something about astronomy, and would I please get in touch with Chris. I wrote down the number and promised to call. Then about five minutes later Mum phoned again, adding, "Chris is a very important person, and a very good friend – please be very polite." Mum wasn't given to telling people things they were supposed to know (and had once introduced me to a sitting Prime Minister without stopping for a lecture on manners), so I called right away.
When I met Chris in person, I wasn't sure what would be needed from me. It certainly wasn't introductions -- Chris was already on first-name terms with a slew of A-list astronomers who had worked with Beatrice. But she would be very grateful, she said, if I could help with the science. This was a role I shared with several other "native guides". From Chris's perspective, one astrophysicist much like another, but as a cosmologist with a background in high energy physics I found myself learning a good deal about galaxies as I scrambled to answer her queries.
Many of the questions Chris had for me were about the impact of Beatrice's work. Reading back through Beatrice's oeuvre, I was struck by just how much she had done. Moreover, Beatrice's path was not an easy one. She travelled from New Zealand to the United States in the wake of her husband Brian who was pursuing his own studies at the University of Texas, at Dallas. Propitiously, the early 1960s saw a remarkable concentration of talented astrophysicists working in Texas. Beatrice enrolled for a PhD at UT Austin and joined this community. However, just as she was hitting her stride as a scientist, Brian's family asked the young couple to adopt a baby born "out of wedlock" to one of his relatives. This had a far greater impact on Beatrice's ability to work than it did on Brian's. Another (adopted) child followed, but unable to solve the two-career dilemma, the family eventually separated.
Academia is not a paradise of gender equity today, but phrases like "spousal hire" or "two-body problem" (at least as far it applies to academic couples) were yet to be invented when Beatrice most needed to hear them.
Some scientists make their name by doing One Big Thing. But just as Google mines and combines freely available information to construct new knowledge, Beatrice made her mark by taking information available to anyone in the field, processing it rapidly, and churning out a sequence of new insights about the universe. With the benefit of hindsight, two things stood out for me. The first was that Beatrice helped us see galaxies as dynamic objects that evolve and change with time – a once radical view that is now part of the bedrock understanding of cosmology.
The second milestone in Beatrice's career was a slim little paper she wrote with three other young(ish) astronomers and astrophysicists, Richard Gott, James Gunn, and David Schramm. All three co-authors are famous in the field. Gunn is one of the world's leading astronomers, and has played a key role in several major projects. Gott is a theorist who specializes in asking whether you can build time machines (answer: it seems that general relativity will let us design them, but not build them), while Schramm worked on the early universe at the University of Chicago. (Schramm died in the '90s when he crashed his private plane. I first met Schramm when I was a PhD student in 1992. A former wrestler and a bear of a man, he peppered me with questions about rugby – assuming that, as a New Zealander, I would know the history of the game. However, he clearly already knew the sport better than I did. I now wonder if he asked Beatrice the same questions.) Gott, Gunn, Schramm and Tinsley tackled what is probably the first question anyone asks when they learn about the big bang -- will the universe expand forever?
It is a simple question, and can be posed by anyone who has heard of the big bang. Remarkably, this question now has a definitive answer -- the universe will expand forever, and this paper was one of the first to suggest that it might.
Gott, Gunn, Schramm and Tinsley's arguments have long since been superseded by more modern analyses, but this paper pointed the field in the right direction, and remains a lasting monument to Beatrice's remarkable career in science.
This blog post is based on a talk I gave at Auckland's NerdNite on March 6, 2013 – thanks for the invite!