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In Search of Beatrice Hill Tinsley

Christine Cole Catley - 02/03/07

Reprinted from "Canterbury" Summer 2006

Christine Cole Catley recently launched Bright Star, Beatrice Hill Tinsley, Astronomer, the biography of remarkable Canterbury graduate and astronomer Beatrice Hill Tinsley. Catley first heard of the young Beatrice when she was researching the New Plymouth Girls' High School history, Springboard for Women, published in 1985. But that was only the beginning...

I was astounded when I came to research the history of New Plymouth Girls' High School and discovered something of the brief and brilliant life of Beatrice Hill Tinsley, 1941-81. Few New Zealanders had ever heard of her, yet she has been called the outstanding woman scientist of the 20th century and her work is widely commemorated in the United States.

Both as a cosmologist and an inspired and inspiring teacher, Beatrice can have had few equals. Her 1966 PhD thesis on the evolution of the stars and gas in galaxies is acknowledged as one of the most outstanding scientific papers of the century. She is credited with opening up a whole new branch of science with her work on the origins of galaxies, and the origins of the universe itself. Her personal life is also of absorbing interest.

Beatrice was an inspired and inspiring teacher.
Beatrice was an inspired and inspiring teacher.

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In Beatrice, genetics and environment interacted in memorable fashion. My lifelong friend, psychoanalyst Evelyn (Polly) Lind, herself a Canterbury graduate (MA(Hons), English,1943) said this about my early research: "Apart from anything else in Beatrice's life, it seems that enough has come to light about her forebears, on both sides, and about her upbringing, to make her a classic study."

When researching I first thought my task would be eased because we both went to the same school and same university. I, as Christine Bull enrolled at NPGHS in 1936, and Canterbury in 1941, in each case 17 years before Beatrice did. I did find that student life had not greatly changed in that interval. My background is in the arts, not the sciences, with an MA(Hons) (1944). Study was not to the forefront as I edited Canta, was on the students' exec for two years, a member of the basketball team and the choir, argued in what was then the Dialectic Society, acted in Ngaio Marsh's first play with Canterbury students and helped build Steeds Hut at Arthur's Pass.

In comparison, Beatrice's student years could scarcely have been more distinguished. She was still only 16 when she left school with a Junior University Scholarship and then, like her linguist sister Rowena Hill two years before her, enrolled at Canterbury University College. She gained an MSc with first class honours in 1961, winning every prize open to her. She did not write for student publications or play sport, although delighting in weekend excursions to Steeds Hut, but she was an outstanding violinist (a member of the National Youth Orchestra) and particularly enjoyed the meetings and discussions of the Socratic Society, or Soc Soc.

The pages in the biography dealing with her student days are starred with names of fellow Soc Soc members who became widely known in later life: Guff France, Rae Julian, Don Locke, Robert Ludbrook, Harvey McQueen, Ann Ballin and Brian Lilburn among them. Their discussions opened many doors for her and, as she herself said, helped her grow up.

It was in looking back at these growing-up years that I found the keys to reveal the real Beatrice.

The Beatrice who shone on campus was still very young, and not just in years. Like her English parents before her, she had been brought up by a nanny with whom she had the closest of bonds. The Hills arrived in New Zealand when Beatrice was five, and when, three years later, this nanny was sent back to England, Beatrice fell into a black hole of grief (her own words). She coped with this by filling her life to the utmost with purposeful activity; an astronomer colleague was to say later that she "got the marrow out of time".

It seems that she unconsciously feared losing the love of her parents, people with the highest of principles and the best of intentions, and so developed a strategy of placating and protecting them. She did not lie, but over the years her many hundreds of dutiful letters home omitted almost everything which might disturb or alienate them. Much more than most of us have done in our own youthful letters home, she selected only those things that would reassure and please her parents. Music, the natural scene, the surface activities of everyday life. These plus her great joy in scientific discoveries are the mainstay of her letters home.

At the Socratic Society Beatrice met Brian Tinsley, four years older and soon to be a scientist respected for his work with spectrometers. Beatrice, longing for what she called "that communion of hearts and minds", found in him someone, at last, with whom she could talk science. Although she was always the youngest in any of her classes, she was the first of her contemporaries to marry, and accompanied Brian to his position at the Southwest Centre in Dallas, later to become the University of Texas in Dallas.

A partial but certainly only partial account of what happened then is found among her letters home selected by her father, Edward Hill, and published with his narrative framework in 1986 in the US under the title My Daughter Beatrice.

It took me many years and many interviews with close friends and colleagues, together with the study of Beatrice's letters to them and to her sister Rowena in particular, before a different and deeply frustrated Beatrice was revealed. She was still kind and generous, passionate in her search for scientific truth, and, like her father, wanting "to be a good person and contribute to mankind". But even after her phenomenal PhD in 1967, that pioneering study of the evolution of galaxies which she completed in about two years while commuting weekly some 400 miles to and from Austin, she was far from fulfilled.

Back in Dallas she found herself still locked in a hostile and barren environment with no prospect of scientific work at her level and with, as Milton wrote of himself, "...that one talent which is death to hide/Lodged in me useless...".

In a sad parting of the ways she left her husband (and their two adopted children, at his insistence) and held a six-month position with Sandra Faber at Lick Observatory at the University of California in Santa Cruz, before taking up an associate professorship in astronomy at Yale. At Lick, as at her two previous short-term positions at Caltech and the University of Maryland, she constantly amazed her colleagues by her all-round abilities, particularly her extraordinary flair for synthesising.

James Gunn, later of Princeton, said of Beatrice that she would have been outstandingly successful in any specialisation she settled on, but that it would have been a real tragedy if she had specialised. "Breadth, not depth, was her forte. She could spot connections that nobody else could see, seeing that this tied up with that, and so on." To all of this she added her own ideas, transfixing her peers and later her students by new insights and new horizons that constantly changed as more was discovered.

Beatrice found in Yale the welcoming atmosphere she had long dreamed of. Here her production of scientific papers, some in collaboration with Richard Larson, increased to an extraordinary extent. Her projects continued to expand the study of galactic evolution and its relationship with cosmology, everything to explain its past, present and future.

As Larson said, "Most scientists are interested only in small, defined areas; Beatrice put it altogether."

Since her death from cancer in 1981 when she was only 40 and a professor of astronomy at Yale, her ideas, her methods and her discoveries have continued to fertilise the thinking of the next generation of astronomers.

Note on author

Chris Cole Catley, now of Devonport, Auckland, is a writer, publisher and lecturer who also conducts writers' workshops. All being well, she says, she rather wants to continue doing all those things until she is 92, when she hopes to travel.

To assist writers and to commemorate Frank Sargeson, she established the Sargeson Trust after his death in 1982. Similarly she initiated the Michael King Writers' Trust after his death in 2004. Now she hopes individuals or institutions will take the lead in setting up memorials to Beatrice Hill Tinsley.

Bright Star, Beatrice Hill Tinsley, Astronomer by Christine Cole Catley was published by Cole Catley in September 2006.

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