BEATRICE TINSLEY
Astronomer
1941 - 1981

World-renowned astrophysicist and trailblazer for women in science

Astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley didn't just reach for the moon, she looked to the stars and galaxies well beyond our own.

A naturally inquisitive child, Beatrice - known as Beetle to her close friends and family - loved to ask why.

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It was a trait that would see her ruffle more than a few feathers over the years - and change our fundamental understanding of the universe.

As astrobiologist Haritina Mogosanu explains: "Before her, there were theories, there were observations. After Beatrice Tinsley, there is almost this unified understanding of what is happening out there in the sky. I would consider her of the caliber of Einstein or Newton. She's one of the giants."

In 1968, Tinsley published a dissertation that went against all accepted science of the time. Her theory, put simply, was that the universe is endless, constantly expanding with no end in sight. In short, the universe will exist forever.

But convincing people - or more specifically the male-dominated fraternity of academic science - of her theories was a constant battle.

By the time she died in 1981, Tinsley was considered the leading expert on the evolution of galaxies, but she never felt truly accepted. In the words of her fellow astronomer and close friend Richard Larson: "She never lost the feeling of fighting the world."

Born in Chester, England in 1941, Tinsley came to New Zealand as a young girl, attending New Plymouth Girls' High, where she graduated as Dux at the age of 16. Armed with a scholarship to study maths, chemistry and science, she headed south to the University of Canterbury, where she earned her masters in physics.

In 1961, she married fellow physics student Brian Tinsley and hoped to earn a place teaching at the University of Canterbury. But the rules of the time forbid women from teaching at the university if their husbands worked there.

Two years later, the couple moved to Dallas, Texas, where again Tinsley hoped to earn a teaching role. But again, her gender was held against her.

Instead, she focused on raising her two adopted children and continued her post-doctoral research, exploring the idea of "an unbound universe".

By 1975, Tinsley's work was well recognised yet she still couldn't find work in Texas. By that time, she had grown apart from her husband Brian and the couple divorced.

It was then, Tinsley faced the most devastating ultimatum: Give up her work and stay with her children or leave her children and follow her life's passion.

Tinsley agonised over the decision before deciding her work was too important to ignore. She accepted a role at Yale University - more than 2500km from Dallas - leaving her children behind.

At Yale, Tinsley's sharp intellect and radical thinking were celebrated and in 1978, she was promoted from assistant professor to became the first female professor of astronomy.

The work she spearheaded during that time continues to shape our understanding of the universe today.

But Tinsley remained full of regret and when, in 1979, she discovered a malignant tumour on her leg, she openly questioned whether it was the universe punishing her for abandoning her children.

Her daughter Teresa, however, believes no such thing, recently telling the New York Times: "She was given an ultimatum that in my opinion was unfair: Choose family or a career … I am proud that she stood her ground and followed her career."

Today, Tinsley is often referred to as Queen of the Cosmos and has earned many posthumous tributes, including having both a mountain (Fiordland's Mt Tinsley) and an asteroid named after her.