From New Plymouth to new heights - Beatrice Tinsley's impact on astronomy

Beatrice Tinsley, pictured here at Yale University, once dreamed of being a violinist.
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Beatrice Tinsley, pictured here at Yale University, once dreamed of being a violinist.

She changed the way we see the universe, but New Plymouth's Beatrice Tinsley had to fight to have her ideas heard.

Now known as one of the world's greatest astronomers, Tinsley was responsible for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in the  study of the cosmos, including being among the first to prove the universe is not in a fixed state, but is infinitely expanding.

But the former New Plymouth woman, who died from cancer in 1981 at the age of just 40, had to fiercely battle her way through a male-dominated industry.

Google paid tribute to astronomer Beatrice Tinsley on January 27, 2016, which would have been her 75th birthday.
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Google paid tribute to astronomer Beatrice Tinsley on January 27, 2016, which would have been her 75th birthday.

This struggle is being played out in the New Plymouth Little Theatre's current production of Bright Star, which looks at Tinsley's life and the choice she had to make between her family and her career.

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Her younger sister Theodora Lee-Smith, who now lives in the Wellington area, says the family came to New Zealand from England in 1946, when Beatrice was 5 years old and their older sister, Rowena, was 7.

Bright Star playwright Stuart Hoar says he found Beatrice Tinsley's life story gripping.
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Bright Star playwright Stuart Hoar says he found Beatrice Tinsley's life story gripping.

They settled first in Christchurch, before moving to New Plymouth where their father, Edward Hill, was a clergyman and later became mayor.

"Our family enjoyed living at the top of Peace Ave with a view of the sugar-loaf islands, the port and the sea," Lee-Smith recalls.

"Our parents were literary and musical and our father had a strong interest in history. They were religious people who thought about the meaning of life and big questions, such as world peace.

Beatrice Tinsley has often been called a genius, but she's also been described as "bright and lively and affectionate".
SUPPLIED by Carter Observatory.

Beatrice Tinsley has often been called a genius, but she's also been described as "bright and lively and affectionate".

"Although Beatrice gave up Christianity as a young adult, she was interested in the big questions, too, and very concerned that all people should be treated fairly and well."

Lee-Smith says growing up the sisters experienced "some of the problems of the children of immigrants" and felt somewhat different from their peers. But "Beatrice was probably the one of the three of us who assimilated best and had a Kiwi rather than an English accent".

Lee-Smith, who is a piano teacher, says she remembers New Plymouth fondly, and in particular the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in January 1954.

In fact, the 1950s in general were a time to remember, she says.

"Women mostly stayed at home and I remember spotless houses, lavish afternoon teas and beautiful gardens."

The fact that  Beatrice was born into a world where women stayed home and kept house could have foiled her many discoveries, had she let it.

After being named the dux of New Plymouth Girls' High School, Tinsley left New Plymouth at the age of 17 to study in Christchurch. There, she met and married physicist and classmate Brian Tinsley, not knowing this would prevent her from working at the University while he was employed there.

In 1963 the couple moved to the United States, to Dallas, Texas, but she faced similar and ongoing discrimination there.

In 1974, after years of trying to balance her home, her family and her career, she left her husband and gave him full custody of their two adopted children, taking a position as assistant professor at Yale University.

It was there she became a respected teacher and mentor and published more than 100 papers, which are still regularly cited.

Bright Star playwright Stuart Hoar says when he accidentally stumbled across Tinsley and her story he was gripped.

"Beatrice Tinsley was a brilliant but unrecognised cosmologist, who struggled against the whole of the male-dominated astronomical establishment of the 1960s and 70s to prove her worth and genius as a cosmologist," he says. 

"Against male opposition she proposed that the universe was open, not closed, and in the end she was proved right."

Hoar, who is also a novelist, a radio dramatist, and a screenplay writer, says Tinsley was one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy, and she profoundly affected what scientists know about the origin and size of the universe.

"Tinsley's research on how galaxies change and evolve over time resulted in two of the most important discoveries in 20th Century astronomy," he says.

"Firstly that the universe is populated by billions of galaxies and secondly, that they are slowly receding from each other. These two conclusions...formed the basis for contemporary studies of galactic evolution."

Prior to appearing in New Plymouth, Bright Star has been staged twice: once in Wellington and once in London. Hoar says the play has had very positive reactions from audiences, and especially from women.

"One of the themes of the play is about which partner, in a couple with children, should put their career first, and who should put childcare first.

"Although set in the 70s, these issues are still current."

Lee-Smith remembers clearly what these tense times were like for her sister.

"She was extremely busy when they adopted children, burning the candle at both ends in order to keep up some scientific work," she says.

"She also worked voluntarily for Zero Population Growth, and was concerned about the environment. She hoped New Zealand would not become as urbanised as the United States.

"In these years she was probably trying to do too much. When the family visited New Zealand in the early 1970s I felt she was quite strained."

This was a stark contrast to the girl Lee-Smith had known in New Zealand. The sister she knew was bright, lively and affectionate.

"She was a kind sister. She never made a big deal about being clever and academic, she just got on with it. She had sparkling hazel eyes, high colour in her cheeks and a broad, high forehead."

As that bright young woman, one of Tinsley's major hobbies was music. She played the violin and featured in New Zealand's inaugural National Youth Orchestra in 1959.

"Music was always something that gave her satisfaction and a goal to work towards," Lee-Smith says.

It was the same sense of satisfaction that she eventually found in her scientific work, including her teaching position at Yale.

The idea of teaching was not a new one for Tinsley, who used to play school as a youngster and could regularly be found instructing the children's toys.

It's also worth noting both of her sisters went on to teach.

"My sister Rowena is a poet and retired English professor and lives in Venezuela," Lee-Smith says.

"I am a piano teacher and I find it very rewarding. The interaction with younger people and the passing on of a love of music is most satisfying.

"I think Beatrice probably felt the same about giving away her knowledge, experience and love for her subject and this is an important part of her legacy."

* Bright Star, directed by Heather Harrison, is on at New Plymouth Little Theatre until Saturday, July 23. 

 - Stuff

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