Geoffrey Burbidge: Astrophysicist notorious for his rejection of the Big Bang theory

Martin Childs
Saturday 24 April 2010 00:00

Geoffrey Burbidge was a British-born astrophysicist, who, in collaboration with three others, came up with space's equivalent of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and who later gained notoriety for rejecting the Big Bang theory.

Geoffrey Ronald Burbidge, the son of a builder, was born in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, in 1925. His main interests were in mathematics and history and he intended to study history at university. But with the outbreak of the Second World War and given his family's financial worries, he embarked upon a degree in Physics at Bristol University, having discovered that he could receive financial support from the government. He earned his degree in 1946 and went on to University College, London, where he obtained his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1951.

Burbidge recalled that originally he had "no interest in astronomy", but at a graduate seminar he met the astronomer Margaret Peachy. She later became the first woman to serve as director of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and was at the forefront of developing instrumentation for the Hubble Space Telescope. Burbidge was besotted and they married in 1948. "That," he said, "is how I got into astronomy." Thereafter, the couple were inseparable, working at a variety of institutions, including the universities of Cambridge, Harvard, Chicago and the California Institute of Technology, before finally settling at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) in 1962.

Burbidge and his wife first came to astronomers' attention in 1957 when, in collaboration with Sir Fred Hoyle and the American astrophysicist William Fowler, they presented in the journal Reviews of Modern Physics what to this day is still regarded as one of the seminal papers of the 20th century. Their 104-page paper, "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars", did for the origin of elements what Darwin had done nearly 100 years earlier for the origin of species. They declared that nuclear reactions within stars rip apart the basic building blocks of matter and put them back together again to create new and more complex elements. Their conclusion echoed Darwin's last line in On the Origin of Species: "The elements have evolved, and are evolving."

The reaction to the Burbidges, Fowler and Hoyle, or BFH as they were known from their initials, was immediate and praise came from all quarters of the science fraternity. "This was without question one of the most important papers of all time in astrophysics," Mark Thiemens, dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UCSD, said. "Geoff was one of the most noteworthy astrophysicists of the past 50 years."

It was said that their paper laid the foundation for an entirely new kind of synthesis of astronomical observations with nuclear and particle science, paving the way for much of modern astrophysics and cosmology. Two years later, the Burbidges received the Warner Prize, the American Astronomical Society's highest prize for young astronomers. In 1983, Fowler received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the collaboration. Many of their colleagues believed that the Burbidges and Hoyle were excluded because of their failure to bow to the Big Bang theory. Burbidge, however, never publicly expressed any bitterness about his exclusion.

Burbidge became notorious in later years for his refusal to accept the theory developed by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble. He, with Hoyle and others, argued controversially for a quasi-steady state cosmology in which quasars are new matter ejected from energetic galaxies in a cyclic universe. In this view, bright quasars are nearby matter travelling at high velocity in spite of their high redshifts.

Burbidge maintained this stance right up to his last paper, published shortly before his death, in which he presented statistical evidence that bright quasars are strongly over-abundant near active spiral galaxies. Quasars ultimately proved to be the cause of his isolation from other cosmologists. Quasars, extremely bright objects, have a very high redshift, a displacement in their spectra, which is believed by Big Bang theorists to mean that they are at extreme distances from the Earth. Burbidge and Hoyle, however, argued that the quasars are emitted from relatively nearby galaxies at relativistic speeds, which accounts for their redshift.

The scientists believed that the quasars are created in these energetic galaxies and that they are the source of new matter in the universe, keeping it at a relatively steady state of mass as other matter is lost in energy-producing reactions. Their view was largely abandoned, however, after the 1964 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, widely believed to be a remnant of the universe's birth – the Big Bang.

He served as a professor of physics at UC San Diego from 1963-2002, except from 1978 to 1984, when he served as director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. He was also editor-in-chief of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics for 30 years and received numerous prizes from astronomical societies. In 2005, he and his wife were awarded the British Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal, the society's highest honour.

According to many of his colleagues, all of Burbidge's work had a profound influence on the development of modern astrophysics and cosmology and helped to expand the frontiers of science. Hoyle died in 2001 and with Burbidge's death there remain few strong proponents of the steady state theory.

Geoffrey Ronald Burbidge, astrophysicist: born Chipping Norton 24 September 1925; married 1948 Margaret Eleanor Peachey (one daughter); died La Jolla, California 26 January 2010.

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