Obituary: Rebecca Elson

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
REBECCA ELSON was a distinguished astronomer and a well-known poet.

Her work as an astronomer ranged from searching for stars in the halo of our own galaxy to exploring regions of rapid star formation halfway across the Universe. Using the deepest image ever taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, Elson and her colleagues at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University, were the first to set strong limits on the contribution normal stars could make to the mysterious dark matter surrounding the Milky Way.

She was also a key participant in exploring how galaxies change in shape over cosmic time through the Hubble Medium Deep Survey. But her principal work focused on globular clusters, massive systems of several hundred thousand stars packed into regions of space only about 10 light years across. These systems provide the benchmark for all theories of star formation and evolution. She identified unpredicted patterns of stellar brightness and temperature in these gravitationally dynamic regions. Teasing out the history of stellar birth, life and death was Elson's craft.

Rebecca Elson matriculated in 1976, at the age of 16, and continued her education at Smith College, Massachusetts (graduating cum laude), St Andrews University and the University of British Columbia, before taking her doctorate at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, where she won an Isaac Newton Studentship. She received a post-doctoral research appointment to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1986 to work on the first Hubble data. When the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger set back the telescope's launch date, she continued her ground-based work on globular clusters in the Magellanic Clouds, the galaxies nearest our own.

During her first year at Princeton she wrote a definitive article on star clusters for Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, becoming one of the youngest authors in that publication's 40-year history. In 1989 she was the youngest astronomer to serve on a committee for the US National Academy of Sciences decennial review. That year she also became a fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, a multidisciplinary centre for women scholars at Harvard University, working at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics. She returned in 1991 to Cambridge University.

Her 52 professional publications indicate the scale of her contribution. In the last round of Hubble time allocations, her Cambridge team was awarded one of the largest portions ever scheduled.

But her work in science was only one aspect of a multi-faceted life. She remained true to pleasures discovered in childhood. Every summer her father, the geologist John Elson, loaded up the family and set out on his field work, exploring the shores of the huge prehistoric lake whose remnants include lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba. To young Becky a "beach" was a gravel ridge overgrown with grasses, sweet clover or black spruce, where the shapes of limestone pebbles revealed how long the waves had broken over them.

Facts were only as interesting as the possibilities they opened up to the imagination, and to entertain herself she wrote poetry. A poem for her father distilled this earliest education: "You honouring all my questions / with questions of your own." Like the ancient lake or the dazzling night skies, Elson herself lived in the tension between immediate sensuality and irretrievable distance. Her vocation was finding or making connections.

When she went away to college, she would complete assignments days or weeks ahead of time, astonishing her teachers. Her delight in getting things done never left her, sometimes trying those who started with other ideas about what beaches are for.

Becky Elson's genuineness and humour made an instant impression. She formed close friendships wherever astronomy or poetry took her, and she had a gift for maintaining them over many years despite geographical distance. She climbed mountains on three continents, notably surviving an Andean blizzard above 16,000 feet. In Cambridge she was a dangerous top-scoring striker on the Saturday football team.

She loved playing her mandolin, conversing in three languages at once, creating meals. Her marriage to the artist Angelo di Cintio in 1996 brought her enormous happiness. Intensely proud of his work, she filled their house with his studies and attended the opening of his solo exhibition 12 days before she died.

She began publishing her poetry whilst at Princeton, where she had joined a group of writers. Extraordinarily for a working scientist, she taught writing classes during her time at Harvard, and was nearly tempted away from astrophysics. Becky Elson's poetry was published in magazines in America and Britain, appearing regularly in Rialto. She read in Simon Armitage's masterclass at the 1998 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. She also created a set of children's books answering her niece's questions about the Universe.

Her last published poem before her death, "Antidotes to Fear of Death" (Orbis, Summer 1998), described giving herself to astronomy, as she had all her life, but ended with her old sense of awe at mortality on earth: "every skull a chrysalis" left behind by bright wings.

Rebecca Anne Wood Elson, astronomer and poet: born Montreal, Quebec 2 January 1960; Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1986-89; Fellow, Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, Harvard University 1989- 91; Research Associate, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University 1991- 99; married 1996 Angelo di Cintio; died Cambridge 19 May 1999.