.Rebecca Anne Wood Elson
, Canadian-American astronomer and writer, was born on January 2, 1960 in Montreal, Quebec. A bright star, she would excel both in astronomy and writing in her all-too-short life.
As a teenager, Elson often travelled in Canada with her geologist father as he performed field research. She was 16 when she began her bachelor's degree at Smith College, where her major subject was astronomy. Following this, she earned a master's degree from the University of British Columbia. During that 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.
Her PhD was taken at the Institute of Astronomy and Christ’s College, Cambridge University in England. She also spent time at two Australian observatories. Elson then did her postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton). In 1987, she was the first-named author on a major review article on star clusters for the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
In 1989 Elson took up a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College where she taught creative writing, followed by a term teaching a Harvard expository writing course on science and ethics. In that same year, she became the youngest astronomer selected to serve on a US National Academy of Sciences decennial review.
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. Sadly, at the age of 29 Elson had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphona. 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.
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. 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 magazine The Economist
In her short career, Elson was also lead author on – or contributed to – seventy scientific contributions, including thirty-eight major articles in the refereed scientific literature research papers.