Beatrice Tinsley

Beatrice Tinsley
Credit: Giantflightlessbirds

Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981)

Beatrice Muriel Hill was born in Chester, England but the family moved to New Zealand after the Second World War. Beatrice won a junior scholarship to study at Canterbury University in New Zealand and graduated as Master of Science with First Class Honours in Physics in 1961. She married a university classmate, Brian Tinsely, and moved to Dallas, Texas when he was offered a job at a university there. Beatrice was not allowed to work at the same university as her husband so she took a part time teaching job at the University of Texas at Austin, about 200 miles away. In 1964 she started a PhD at Austin and completed it in 1966 only taking a third of the time it takes most people to do a PhD in America.

Little was known about the life cycles of galaxies until Beatrice began her research. She was interested in interacting galaxies and the idea that galaxies could change over short timescales. In particular Beatrice studied how different groups of stars age and how that might affect what a galaxy looked like.

It was assumed that galaxies of the same type - spiral, elliptical or lenticular - would be a similar size, shape and luminosity and that this information could be used to work out how far away they were by comparing distant galaxies to similar galaxies that were closer and their distance already known. However, Beatrice’s PhD thesis showed that this was unreliable and other things needed to be considered too, such as how much of each chemical element was in the galaxy, the mass of the galaxy and the rate of starbirth.

Her work was so important that in 1974 she received the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy, in recognition of her work on galaxy evolution. Sadly, though, despite her academic achievements the universities in Texas still didn't take her seriously. So in 1974 she moved to take a position as assistant professor at Yale, becoming Professor of Astronomy in 1978. She worked there until her death from cancer in 1981 and in that short time she wrote or co-wrote about 100 scientific papers on the evolution of galaxies.

In 1986 the American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize for outstanding creative contributions to astronomy or astrophysics, the only major award created by an American scientific society which honours a woman scientist.