Beatrice Tinsley Biography

Super Beetle: 

Beatrice Tinsley and the fight to expand her universe

By Javaughn Renee Fernanders

In the early 1940’s, in the middle of a room in Britain, a young Beatrice Hill sits among  carefully labeled seashells, triangles and their calculations, and music  pages filled with stars and half notes.  Beetle, Hill’s family nickname, is giving instruction to Bruce,  her beloved stuffed koala.  She may not know that she will perform ground breaking research in astronomy and help develop the field of Expanding Galaxies, or  that her life will be cut short by a unexpected disease.  She may not know that feminism is simmering, and won’t bubble in America when she needs it. For, right now she is giving  rupabluc lessons.  The rupabluc is, “an instrument made and invented by Beatrice Hill [ten years old] and played by Bruce.” (Hill, 1986)

The rest of the room reflects Hill’s early penchant for order and logic, and the desire to hunt down answers to questionable phenomenon and to teach.  This desire to explain the world in orderly, logical terms will become  Hill’s leitmotif.  For Cosmology this is a wonderful accomplishment. For her personal life controlling her world is problematic.   A worldview in which logic explains life  will fuel  major battles in Beatrice’s short life.

Beatrice Hill was born in January 27, 1941 in Chester,  England to an Upper Class British family. Her mother and father (Jean and Edward Hill) provided a home filled with religious education and intellectual stimulation. Beatrice’s passion for order allowed for excellent grades in math, and she developed faith, not in the church, but in mathematics and the laws of physics.  Additionally, her father’s frequent trips away from the Hill children created an environment in which he had limited influence over her religious beliefs.  As a result of his absences, the Hill children created a strong bond with their loyal Nanny Gullidge.  Learning that her Nanny would soon retire she began to write a book entitled, “My Lovely Nanny,” a selection follows:

I love my little Nanny

I think she is so good

She keeps us safe from any harm

And gives us lovely food.

But now she has to leave us,

And oh I am not glad

So of course I am so sad.

Nanny love is going.

So of course I am so sad.

(Hill, 1986)

Beatrice penned the above at the age of eight.  In his memoir of his daughter, Edward Hill admits that in her primary years Nanny Gullidge, “had been possibly the most important person in Beatrice’s life.” (Hill, 1989)

First signs of her fight with religious teachings occurred as a student at NewPlymouthGirlsHigh School. There, in addition to receiving high marks, Hill began a feminist campaign.  She fought to get high school girls access to the new birth control pill (Larson, 2007).  She may not have been missed when she was convinced to take math classes at the boys high school.

However Hill’s battle with religion began (love of logic, lack of religious influence, or paternal resentment), it was in full force during her first term at CanturburyUniversity in New Zealand.   “It’s our job to prove a theory wrong,” she writes about a class.  “ … I now can’t look at any ‘fact’ in a textbook without thinking, ‘How did someone come to believe that?’  So I’m learning to question everything…all advances in science have been made by people who have thought along totally unconventional  lines and haven’t been misled by the authority of a Great Name having said it was true.” (Hill, 1986)

Despite the fact that science and learning validated her thoughts about religion, she held on to a particular social norm that  would later present major personal problems.  In the same letter in which she vows to work on New Math problems in her repetitive  Applied Mathematics class and supplement her Chemistry and Physics syllabus with her own directed readings, she reminds herself  that , “…because I’m a woman my home must come before my science.  That is right and it must be so and it would be unbearable otherwise.” (Hill, 1989).  Beatrice saw the possibilities of being a working  woman years earlier than society would accommodate.  As a result, she would eventually be pulled apart.

The beloved Bruce was among the family guests who attended Beetle’s wedding to Brian Tinsley at Canterbury University in New Zealand.  At first their 1961 marriage was brined in friendship and mutual scientific knowledge.  Brian Tinsley was a fellow astronomer who met Tinsley at Canterbury.  Recruited to the Southwest Center of Advanced Studies in Dallas, he brought Beatrice along to start a family.  Of course Beatrice followed with an MSc in Astronomy and international scholarships for research in tow.  As a married woman, Tinsley accompanied  Brian to conferences and symposiums and continued to gain knowledge for knowledge sake.  To the chagrin of wives of Brian’s colleagues, she often sat with their husbands and contributed greatly to their discussions of astrophysics. She continued to write and research the growth of stars until she could take no more.  A year after their arrival,  Tinsley enrolled into the Ph.D program in Astronomy at University Texas at Austin.

The magic of Tinsley’s story begins at Austin. Her  childhood motivations for investigation,  her adolescent love of stars and her instinct for mathematics all seem to meet like the elements of new stars which burn bright and fast.

“The only thing to do,” she says, “seems to be to take formal courses towards a degree in the right field, then do research for a thesis…then be ready to produce something significant!”  She later reasons,  “Anyway, someone who feels they’re achieving nothing isn’t much to live with.”(Hill, 1986)  What Tinsley does achieve will change the direction of Cosmology, become a burden on her family, and kick start a rivalry against an older experienced giant in Astronomy,  Allan Sandage.

Round 1- Beetle vs. Sandage

Astronomer Allan Sandage had been on a collision course with Tinsley whether he knew it or not.  His worldview conflicted thoroughly with Tinsley’s—so much so that near 1980, Sandage converted to Christianity. Afterwards he was known to repeat that life was not a dreary accident (Overbye, 1991).  After the development of the Hubble constant, which showed that stars farthest away access faster, two camps of cosmology spread.  Sandage’s camp, was the deceleration camp.  According to Sandage,  the Hubble constant was not a guarantee that the universe was expanding infinitely.  His work explained that the amount of gravity related to matter in the universe  would eventually slow down  galaxy’s expansion. This would result in  eventual  collapsing of the universe.

The other camp (which will be known as the Tinsley camp in the 1970’s) was the expansion camp.  These Astrophysicists believed that the Hubble Constant pointed to an infinitely expanding universe—that the universe was open. Neither side had well determined theories  since the complications of the Hubble diagram were still being hashed out.

One well determined theory was festering  in the mind of Beatrice Tinsley and accounts suggest she couldn’t wait to confront Sandage-a symbol for Tinsley of faith influencing bad science—at a 1967 conference in Dallas:

“Before he could speak,  a young woman,  a graduate  student, stood up and told the audience that everything they were about to hear was wrong.  Sandage was stunned and outraged—an outrage he was never to forget.” (Overbye, 1991)

Tinsley’s thesis, Evolution of Stars and Gas in Galaxies,  was completed a year after the infamous  conference. Tinsley not only proved that Sandage was guilty of ‘lazy science’, but that the universe was open—infinitely expanding.  Using knowledge of the stellar evolution she developed models which calculated the stellar populations of galaxies.  Her thesis concluded that, “1) the color of galaxies of all Hubble types can be explained as a result of different ages, and 2) galaxies fade rapidly enough that substantial corrections are required  when they are used as ‘standard candles’ in cosmological studies.” (Larson, 1982)

The thesis kicked off the study of the birth and growth of galaxies.  In fact with her death,  “ …the construction of accurate galaxy evolution models that combine detailed treatment of stellar evolution with spatial motions and dynamic behavior has…effectively ceased.” (Faber, 1986).  Despite, obvious problems with Sandage’s work he initially refused to accept Tinsley’s thesis.  She was wounded by Sandage’s actions (who has said he opened papers from her with trembling) and thus  became more combative in her research.

Most recorded accounts of Tinsley’s and Sandage’s interactions imply that Sandage saw Tinsley as a threat.  However,  it is possible too, that Tinsley saw Sandage as a threat.  She was not just anti-religious she hated religion.  According to friend and collaborator  Dr. Richard Larson,  Tinsley blamed religion for world injustices and civil rights abuses.  Knowledge of an expanding universe gave her hope.

“ I think I am tied to the idea of expanding forever—like life in a sense—more than spatial infinity.” (Overbye, 1991)

Round 2- life vs. LIFE

Tinsley’s positive feelings about an expanding universe  were directly related to ideas of family and progeny.  She writes, “ I think it must be about the most about the most wonderful thing of all to look back  when you’re near death,   to think of your children and to know that because you were a mother there is no possible end to the influence of your own life.” (Hill, 1986).  Due more to ideology than infertility, Tinsley was happy to adopt two children Alan and Teresa Jean.  Although she was a highly efficient and organized working mother it became clear that  both her and Brian’s academic travels made for a difficult family life.  Because of social mores and expectations, Tinsley tried desperately to raise her children while pursuing expanding galaxies, and fighting injustice.

Despite her celebrity in the Cosmology community, Tinsley could not get a job in Dallas.  After receiving her PhD, she had several  part-time stints, was a visiting professor at Dallas, and even taught high school science.  She continued to publish work on galaxy evolution, and was spent much of her time at Mt.Wilson observatory, Harvard and Yale for speaking engagements and research assignments.  When she was home, she dove into her children’s activities and feminist causes.  She was involved with Planned Parenthood in its beginnings and was a leader in the local Zero Population Growth movement.  Between 1968 and 1973 Beatrice became Secretary of the Dallas branch of ZPG.

Her work as a mother, activist, scientist and wife proved to be too much for even the lovely Beetle.  In 1974 after winning the Annie Jump Cannon Prize, Beatrice and Brian Tinsley began divorce proceedings.  Beatrice choose to grant Brian full custody of Alan and Teresa Jean.  Beatrice’s father attributes the breakup to “…conflicts between their careers.” Which is ironic for two reasons—the first being that both Beatrice and Brian’s pattern of career travel mimics Edward Hill’s. The second irony is that Brian and Beatrice worked in similar fields and may have been able to work out logistical conflicts.  Instead, as Brian’s work was rewarded with trips to Brazil and Peru ( to construct a spectrometer he’d been working on), Beatrice’s life was limited to working in Texas, and declining invitations to lecture at University of Chicago, Cornell, and Yale.

The separation is a beacon of freedom, not from her children, but from customary restraints that would not allow her to progress in Astronomy otherwise.  In his dedication, Edward Tinsley almost apologizes to his daughter for things he and society may have overlooked in the interest of, “how things should be.”

This book is dedicated to

Every parent of a gifted child

Every woman who has struggled between family and a career

Everyone interested in science—and to everyone with any interest            

            In the stars, galaxies and space.  (Hill, 1986)

A colleague of Tinsley believes that Tinsley suffered from ignorance of her true self.  “This ignorance of her true nature led her to take on personal commitments that later proved to be insupportable…it appears that there was overwhelming pressure to push her in traditional directions.” (Faber, 1986)

Leaving the children was no easy feat, and it seems as soon as she became an assistant professor at Yale, she discovered a melanoma on her thigh.  She would later wonder, even believe, that the stress of  leaving her children  was responsible for her cancer.

In 1981 Tinsley died at the Yale Infirmary, a full professor, and a pioneer in the field of Expanding galaxies. However, it seems that scientific biographies have failed to tell the story of her life’s work.   My Daughter Beatrice, the resource used for this paper, is memoir written by her father.  Although it provides a personal portrait of Beatrice and excerpts of her letters, we are blind to their strained relationship they are rumored to have had.

Collaborator, and roommate Richard Larson, PhD, remembers that Tinsley had lifelong battles with her father and shunned religion early.  “She was a left-wing, radical, atheist…” who fought against religion. (Larson, 2007). Also, My Daughter…chunks of scientific biography are deleted due to Hill’s ill comprehension of her Cosmological work.  Other books that point to the origins of Cosmology briefly mention Tinsley’s achievements, while crediting the birth of the field to her.  In Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, a history of Cosmology which reads like a biography of Allan Sandage, the author gives up a chapter about Tinsley and Sandage’s battle.  This year however, a fellow graduate of Tinsley’s New Zealand High School, published another work of Tinsley literature.  It is Bright Star by Christine Cole Cateley and will the shelves  in the United States in 2007.


Faber, Sandra.  Forward to My Daughter Beatrice: A personal Memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley Astronomer. New York: American Physical Society, 1986


Hill, Edward. My Daughter Beatrice: A personal Memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley Astronomer.New York: American Physical Society, 1986

Larson, Richard B., Professor of Astronomy, Yale University Interview by      author, 9 April, 2007. Telephone interview.

Overbye, Dennis.  Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe New York: Harper Collins, 1991


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