Early life and education
Rebecca "Becky" Anne Wood Elson was born in Montreal, Quebec, to Jeanne Bridgman, née Hickey and John Albert Elson (1923–2010), a geologist and professor at McGill University. Her older sister, Sally was born in 1958. As a teenager Elson often travelled Canada with her geologist father as he performed field research.
Elson matriculated in 1976, at the age of 16. After initially choosing Biology, with a particular interest in Genetics and then transferring to Astronomy she earned a bachelor's degree from Smith College, where she was taught by Waltraut Seitter. Her degree included a placement at St Andrews University in Scotland.
Elson gained a master's degree in Physics from the University of British Columbia, funded by a postgraduate fellowship from the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, resulting a thesis An investigation of models of dynamical friction'. During this time she undertook summer study visits to the University of St Andrews, and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, which led to her first published research article and her interest in globular clusters of stars.
Elson undertook her PhD (1982 - 1986) at the Institute of Astronomy and Christ’s College Cambridge University where she was awarded an Isaac Newton Studentship, an overseas research student award, and a vice chancellor’s bursary.
Her primary supervisor was S. Michael Fall and while working on her PhD she spent time at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra and Siding Spring observatory Coonabarabran, New South Wales, working under Ken Freeman.
This period led to several scientific articles, and her PhD thesis, ‘The rich star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ which developed the Elson-Fall-Freeman (EFF) luminosity profile and resulted in the discovery of unexpectedly extended profiles in star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Career in astronomy
Elson did her postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study under the supervision of John N. Bahcall, continuing her star cluster work using ground-based telescopes when plans to use the new capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope were affected by its delayed launch following the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
In 1987, she was the first-named author on a major review article on star clusters for the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, after which she took up a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College in 1989, where she taught creative writing, followed by a term teaching a Harvard expository writing course on science and ethics.
In the early 1990s she returned to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, UK to accept the research position she would hold for the remainder of her life. Her work centered on globular clusters, chemical evolution and galaxy formation. In April 1990 as the first images were released from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers were disappointed that the images were spoiled by the spherical aberration in the space telescope mirror. When Hubble was repaired the resulting sharp images led to an acceleration of research, Elson's team successfully bidding for one of the largest allocations of observation orbits at that time.
A volume of wide-ranging poetry and essays she wrote from her teens until shortly before her death was published posthumously as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001 in the United Kingdom, and in 2002 in the United States. The works were selected by her husband Angelo di Cintio and a friend and fellow poet, Anne Berkeley, from a much larger body of unpublished efforts. Some of the works refer to vast concepts of physics and astronomy, often in unexpectedly abstract or playful ways, to reflect aspects of human experience. Others reflect profound joy with life or poignant observations of her impending death. The collection was selected as one of the best books of the year by The Economist.
Death and legacy
Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 29. With treatment, it went into remission, and in 1996, she married the Italian artist Angelo di Cintio. However, the cancer returned soon afterwards. Elson died of the disease in Cambridge in May 1999, at the age of 39.
- Hill, Wayne. "Obituary: Rebecca Elson". The Independent. Retrieved 28 July 2016.
- Gilmore, Gerry (2020). "Elson, Rebecca Anne Wood (Becky) (1960–1999), astronomer and poet". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.72381. ISBN 9780198614128. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
- "Books of the Year." The Economist. 20 December 2001.
- "Research Gate - Rebecca A. W. Elson's research".
- Elson, Rebecca. "author:"Elson, Rebecca"". ui.adsabs.harvard.edu. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
- Henry Gee "A critical moment in stellar evolution" 2 July 1998, www.nature.com/news, on work by Elson on recently formed white-dwarf stars in a star-cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
- Eva K. Grebel and You-Hua Chu, eds. "Rebecca Elson (1960-1999)", in Maghellanic Clouds Newsletter, 33, June 13, 1999, page 2, www.astro.keele.ac.uk. Obituary of Rebecca Elson.
- McGill University Earth & Planetary Sciences Alumni Newsletter 13, January 2013, page 16, www.mcgill.ca. Obituary of John A. Elson (1923 – 2010), Rebecca's geology professor father.
Poems by Elson
- Interdisciplinary Studies in Letters & Science, Rebecca Elson, August 5, 2005, web.archive.org online.chabotcollege.edu from Chabot College: Poems We Astronomers and Carnal Knowledge from Rebecca Elson: A Responsibility to Awe, OxfordPoets Series. Carcanet. ISBN 1-90303-954-1. Retrieved on May 23, 2021.
- Maria Popova: The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson, “It is this, and the existence of limits.“, October 27, 2011, www.brainpickings.org. With full-text poem Explaining Relativity by Rebecca Elson. Retrieved on May 23, 2021.
- Maria Popova: The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson. Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning, April 29, 2019, www.brainpickings.org. With full-text poem Theories of everything by Rebecca Elson. Retrieved on May 23, 2021.
- Maria Popova: Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart, “Sometimes as an antidote to fear of death, I eat the stars.”, April 10, 2020, www.brainpickings.org. With full-text poem Antidotes to Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson. Retrieved on May 23, 2021.