“Girl interested in wave technology”, David Hill

Bright Star: Beatrice Hill Tinsley Astronomer
Christine Cole Catley
Cape Catley, $49.99,
ISBN 1877340014

I can offer the usual apologia for astronomy. There’s its significance as a global employer (NASA alone pays 20,000 salaries). Its contributions to other sciences, such as geology, optics, physics. Its indirect spin-offs: heart pumps developed from space-shuttle fuel systems; tumour-killing diodes based on zero-gravity plant-growth experiments; velcro fasteners; kids’ toy gliders ….

I can also offer a less conventional justification. In another four billion years or so, around the time our Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy begin their slow-motion collision, the Sun will run out of hydrogen. It will start burning helium, and will swell to red-giant proportions, engulfing Mercury and Venus, searing life from Earth. If Homo sap still exists, its reps will need to have shifted house to Mars or one of the solar system’s outer moons. Astronomy may help ensure the survival of our species.

And I’ll suggest another defence of the science. Astronomy encourages wonder. Real wonder: an awareness of the mystery, scale, aesthetics of some of the greatest narratives in the … well, in the Universe. Try the Hubble Space Telescope images of a fingernail-sized segment of the sky flecked with thousands of galaxies, or aurorae blazing at the poles of Saturn. Get your head around the concept that a space-time anomaly smaller than an atom may have started our entire Universe, and that other universes may be budding off from us, or that shredded stars pouring into a black hole produce a “sound” some 57 octaves below Middle C.

That wonder even affects humanity’s hardest-to-impress sub-species – teenagers. When school groups come up to our New Plymouth Observatory (public nights Tuesday; gold coin donation), and we show them tiger-striped Jupiter, or the million-star globular cluster of Omega Centauri, they soar into lyricism: “Phwoaah! Way cool!” Or, as cameo-faced Gendee put it, “Shit!”

Some of that wonder, plus a more extensive vocabulary, shows in New Plymouth-educated Christine Cole Catley’s big biography of similarly-schooled astronomer Beatrice Hill Tinsley. This is a book where you may know more about the writer than her subject. Indeed, Cole Catley notes that anger at New Zealand’s neglect of a person whom US academics called “the outstanding woman scientist of her age” was part-motivation for the project which spent two decades on her mind and on her computer.

Tinsley died of melanoma a quarter-century ago in 1981. She was just 40. I have to say “just”; another 10 years, and this “intellectual vacuum-cleaner” would very likely have become a name to put beside Hubble and Hawking. As it is, her work on the structure and evolution of galaxies was at the slicing edge of mid-20th century cosmology. Her colleagues called her “dazzling … exhilarating … wonderful”. She was one of the great scientific synthesists.

Don’t be too upset if you’ve never heard of her. Apart from a hagiography by her father, this thoughtful, thorough life story is the first published recognition of Tinsley in her home country. (Cole Catley waited till Beatrice’s father died at the age of 94. As she says, he would have been upset to see his daughter’s warts in print.) The book is nicely dedicated to Michael King, who helped with its editing up to his death. Drafts of the final chapters burned in the crash which killed him and his wife Maria.

You could argue that we’re only just Tinsley’s home country. She came here from the UK aged five, the middle daughter of idealistic, intellectual parents who expected high achievement and breathed sweet disapproval if it didn’t happen. The Hill family were also colossal correspondents: Cole Catley had hundreds of letters to quote from, and uses them extensively, along with the scrapbooks that nearly all family members kept. We even get a page on the 10-year-old subject’s toy koala.

In her early teens, Beatrice had a timetable on her bedroom wall, dividing her waking day into profitable 10-minute segments. The difference was that she kept to it. She played the violin well enough to consider a professional career. She “did not waste a minute of her life”. She and her sister Rowena, whose indifferent poetry is quoted throughout the biography, “agreed they had always felt different”. At Canterbury University College, Beatrice studied music and physics, and joined in the philosophical discussions of the Socratic Society. Yes, universities were like that once. Her first date with husband-to-be Brian was a lecture on x-ray spectroscopy. Aged 19, the tiny, bird-faced “Beetle” told her family she planned to become a cosmologist. They’d never heard of the word.

She and Brian Tinsley were offered university posts in the US. He was kindly, sober, industrious, interested. He was also emotionally introverted, conservative, only marginally interested in people. Beatrice wrote later that just two weeks after the marriage, she knew it was a mistake. They worked in Texas. Beatrice couldn’t become pregnant; she regarded it as her first failure. When she declined the chance to pour coffee at a University Wives’ function in order to talk with other scientists, it was clear she didn’t fit socially. Intellectually, she could hardly have fitted better: her first three assignments for a PhD on galactic formation and motion scored 100, 100 and 99. What went wrong with the third?

An out-of-wedlock baby arrived in Brian’s family. Beatrice agreed/was pressured to adopt him. Later, they adopted another, unrelated child. Beatrice worked hard with them, campaigned for zero population growth, fretted at the intellectual wasteland that was now assumed to be her future. When, incredulously, she found she was pregnant, she aborted the child on philosophical grounds. Good, kind Brian went off to conferences on the upper atmosphere and couldn’t understand how she was feeling.

Cole Catley has plenty to say about the archetypal dilemma. Appropriately, she gets others to say plenty as well. The marriage ended. Brian threatened to fight for custody of the children, so Beatrice let him have them. “My children were interfering with my career,” she later told a colleague at Yale.

Glacial honesty or a plaster over a deep wound? Cole Catley discusses it lucidly and sympathetically. But one result was unequivocal. Beatrice Tinsley’s career was under way again. She went on to Caltech, the Lick Observatory, a professorship at Yale. She worked on the chemical composition of galaxies, whether the Universe is closed or open, types of supernovae and their relation to galactic development. Colleagues spoke of her “joy in the pursuit of knowledge”.

In early 1978, a black raised mole on the back of her left leg began bleeding. She left it and hoped it would go away. Lumps appeared in the lymph glands. Metastasis was appallingly advanced. Tumours began to show in her lungs and liver. At least, she said, it would save her from having to be on committees. In the last full year of her life, she wrote 10 scientific papers, working much of the time from the Yale University Infirmary. Friends who visited often found her lying or sitting with hands quietly folded, apparently waiting and serene. Others, who came when they had a cold, were berated for their thoughtlessness in bringing infection.

She was difficult and demanding, and Cole Catley is meticulous about her unsunny sides: “She had no mercy on herself when she made errors, and none on other people.” Her letters to her father have been called a sham. She made mistakes “grave enough to distort lives”. So the biographer covers her subject comprehensively. You do wonder whether, if this book had been published under another imprint, it might have been significantly shorter, and if that might have brought benefits. Certainly, its flaws are ones of inclusion rather than omission. We get a great deal of all the family, a great deal of geographical background. And I concede that leaving any of it out would have been painful.

Cole Catley writes carefully, closely, correctly. She’s not at all bad on the science; I envy her description of Einstein space-time as a “magic carpet that rearranges itself as the actors move about the stage”. She provides an adequate index, notes, even a bibliography. And she provides a good number of those spotlit details which writers cherish and readers delight in. Aged 16, Beatrice advertises in a Personal column “Girl interested in wave technology… .” and gets a reply – plus a brief betrothal – from a future movie star. She rebukes a graduate student for spending too much time with his wife; publicly tells an importunate colleague to piss off; almost gets raped in a university carpark.

Among the astronomical topics that excited Beatrice Hill Tinsley’s astonishing mind was the conjecture that galaxies might begin with a “bright flash” – an initial, intense burst of star formation that dramatically affected the galaxy’s subsequent life. The phrase evokes Cole Catley’s title and its supernova associations. Both fit very satisfyingly with this major study of a major New Zealander.


Writer David Hill is honorary secretary of the New Plymouth Astronomical Society.  


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