Anneila Sargent

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Anneila Sargent
Daughter of Burntisland and
distinguished astronomer

The article below is based on my interview with Anneila Sargent which
took place on 17 August 2000. It first appeared in the Burgh Buzz,
Burntisland's community newspaper, in October 2000.

Anneila Sargent 

From Burntisland to the Outer Limits:
the Journey of Anneila Cassells

 by Iain Sommerville

I have to admit that I heard of Anneila Sargent (née Cassells) for the first time only a few months ago. But quite a few folk in the town will remember her and her parents, Dick Cassells and Annie (Nan) Blaney.

Some quick research on the Internet soon remedied my ignorance, and I discovered that, among other things, Anneila is Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, President of the American Astronomical Society, and actively involved at the leading edge of space research: a long way from Union Street in Burntisland where she was brought up.

Luck was certainly on my side when I discovered that she would be paying a brief visit to Burntisland in August, and I was able to catch up with her at the Inchview Hotel to secure an exclusive for the Burgh Buzz.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I found an extremely charming lady, quite devoid of any academic pretensions, and whose accent owed more to Burntisland than California - despite the fact that it’s nearly 40 years since she emigrated. Pressures of work and family commitments had meant that it was ten years since she last visited Burntisland, but it was soon evident that she retains a deep affection for the town of her childhood, and a quiet pride in her humble beginnings.

Like many others from Burntisland, Anneila is registered as ‘born in Kirkcaldy’ for she first saw the light of day in Forth Park Hospital - but her mother soon had her home to Burntisland: to number 1, Union Street. There is nothing to remind us of the building today, but it was next door to St Andrew’s church, in the area where we now have two public benches, one of the town’s few sizeable rubbish receptacles, and a small car park.

Times have indeed changed, for, as Anneila recalled, in the vet’s on the other side of Union Street was Möller the grocer; and, on the site of the modern extension to St Andrew’s Court was the old St Andrew’s church hall - one of the town’s social hubs, often entertaining the street with the sound of the accordion. Her first tangible memory is of the celebrations at the Porte at the end of the Second World War, when she was two years old; and of her father going off to Sinclair’s shop for something to celebrate with.

Anneila’s family connections with Burntisland go back a long way. Her mother’s father, John Blaney, came from County Donegal to Burntisland to work as a coaltrimmer - one of the army of men whose work in Burntisland Docks involved climbing into the bowels of ships to spread the coal evenly throughout the hold, ensuring stability when the ship sailed. Around 1892, he met and married Isabella Smith, the daughter of a coastguard who had transferred from Buckie to Burntisland some years earlier.

Anneila told me that coaltrimmers earned very good money in those days, and were able to invest in sizeable houses - for example, in Kirkton Road. The Blaneys contented themselves with setting up home in Buccleuch Place (now the western part of Kinghorn Road); moving subsequently to Union Street where they raised a family of eight, including Anneila’s mother, Annie.

The Irish connection continued in the next generation, when Annie married Dick Cassells. Dick had left Dublin at an early age and had found employment in the shipyards of Clydebank before moving to Burntisland Shipyard where he worked as a driller. In due course he moved to the aluminium works.

Annie lived latterly in the High Street. Her death in 1985 effectively ended Anneila’s family connections with Burntisland. But there remains an enduring and poignant reminder - the name of Annie’s brother, Thomas Blaney, is inscribed on Burntisland’s war memorial. Thomas was in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and died on 3 September 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. He was 21.

Anneila has happy memories of her days at Burntisland Primary School, and well remembers Miss Georgeson, Miss Peattie and Miss Shand - as well as “Pin” Robertson, named for his wooden leg. She tells an interesting story which came to light well after the event, and illustrates the importance of social class in the 1950s. Anneila and another pupil had been graded first equal at the end of Primary 7, and the annual prize was at stake. The headmaster of the day wanted to settle on a clear first, and there followed a robust debate in the school hierarchy on the proposal that this should be done on the basis of the social pecking order. As Anneila’s father was a humble driller, and the other pupil’s a Chief Engineer, Anneila would have had to be content with second place! But eventually justice prevailed, and the first equal grading was confirmed.

On to Kirkcaldy High School, where she came under the benign influence of Bill Ritchie, teacher of Physics. It would have been nice to hear that Anneila, as a child, had made a detour past Mary Somerville’s house on her way home from school every day and said to herself: “I wonder if some day …”.  But the truth is rather more prosaic, and it was Bill Ritchie’s influence which set her off on the path to a career in astronomy. Next came four years at Edinburgh University, where she graduated with honours in physics in 1963 [*]; and then across the Atlantic - first to the University of California, and in 1967 to the California Institute of Technology where she has been ever since.

As a woman who is a strong advocate of affirmative action to achieve gender balance, Anneila doubts if she could have made the career progress which she has if she had remained in the UK (although she notes with approval the relatively high proportion of women who were successful in the first Scottish Parliament elections). On the other hand, she has nothing but praise for all three stages of her Scots education.

Owens Valley Radio Telescopes
Among her many responsibilities, Anneila is Director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, the largest university-operated radio observatory in the world and located some 200 miles north of Los Angeles. The picture shows their newly completed array of six high-accuracy radio telescopes, each 34 feet in diameter. The individual telescopes can be moved to observing stations along a T-shaped railroad track and pointed toward the same object in space. The observatory itself is a spectacular sight, matched by the snow-covered Sierra Nevada in the background.

So what does she do now? As well as being Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, close to Los Angeles, she is Director of the Institute’s spectacular Owens Valley Radio Observatory, the largest university-operated radio observatory in the world and situated 250 miles north of Los Angeles on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (See the box on the left.)

Anneila is an authority on star formation in the Milky Way and other galaxies. Most recently she has been investigating the way in which stars like the sun are created and evolve. Her interests range from the earliest stages of star formation, when dense cores in interstellar clouds collapse to form stars, to the epochs when individual planets may be born. This field has attracted considerable media interest because of the possibility of locating other worlds outside the solar system. Perhaps one day the Burgh Buzz’s lead story will be headed “Anneila Sargent discovers life in outer space.”

It would take several pages to list Anneila’s achievements, but career highlights include advising United States Vice President Al Gore on the future of space exploration and research; receiving the 1998 NASA Public Service Medal; and, in June of this year, her installation as President of the American Astronomical Society.

Anneila married Wallace Sargent in 1964. Wallace, too, is a distinguished astronomer at the California Institute of Technology; and a native of Lincolnshire and self-confessed supporter of Scunthorpe United. They have two married daughters, Lindsay and Alison. Anneila’s installation as President of the AAS at the beginning of June was interrupted when Alison presented her with her first grandchild, Patrick Wallace Hubbs! When they find the time, Anneila and Wallace like to travel; and they enjoy hiking and visits to the opera.

I’ll end with a quote from Anneila from earlier this year: "Everybody, across the spectrum, would agree that if we could find a planet that could support life like on Earth, we would be stunned. It would be the kind of thing that would change our philosophy of the world."


I’d like to record my thanks to Anneila Sargent for giving me some of her precious time in Burntisland; to Helen Mabon and Morag Smith for their help; and to John Burnett for suggesting the idea of an article to me in the first place.

[* Postscript - on 23 June 2008, the University of Edinburgh conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Science on Anneila Sargent.]

 © Iain Sommerville 2000

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