"Our knowledge of the universe is limited, and the wealth of natural phenomena on the universal scale that remain to be discovered by the passive method of observation is unparalleled in other fields of natural science." -- Geoffrey Burbidge (astrophysicist) and Margaret Burbidge (astronomer), 1967
"As [Fred] Hoyle said, 'Any time you point a new telescope at the sky now you're only going to find what you already know is up there.'" -- Geoffrey Burbidge, astrophysicist, 2004
"What's really happening in these systems is the centers of galaxies are the places where the creation is taking place...." -- Geoffrey Burbidge, astrophysicist, 2004
"There's a large body of work going on, observational work, theoretical work, which is based on the assumption that quasars are at their cosmological distances. If it turns out seriously that we're right, then all that work is in vain. We don't know anything like as much as we think we do by saying that quasars are far away, and that's another huge problem for people to face up to." -- Geoffrey Burbidge, astrophysicist, 2004
"Geoffrey [Burbidge] does not suffer fools gladly, and it would seem to me that by his definition, all the world’s a fool." -- Hilton Ratcliffe, astronomer, May 29th 2009
"Whether or not Geoffrey Burbidge’s social skills make you feel all warm and cuddly, you will ignore him at your peril. He is arguably the most accomplished theoretical astrophysicist alive today ... I use every opportunity that comes my way to learn from him. He is without doubt one of the giants of the modern era." -- Hilton Ratcliffe, astronomer, May 29th 2009
I was hoping to go to UCSD before he died: Geoffrey Burbidge dies at 84.
Astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge, who with his wife and two other colleagues determined how elements are synthesized in the nuclear reactors of stars, died Tuesday at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla after a long illness. He was 84.
Widely honored for his contributions to astrophysics, cosmology and the study of radio galaxies, Burbidge became notorious in recent years for his refusal to accept the widely held view that the universe originated in a big bang, arguing instead that matter is continually created, emerging as quasars ejected from energetic galaxies.
But the English-born scientist's place in posterity is preserved by his work determining how all the heavy elements in the universe can be synthesized from the simple hydrogen atom in the intense fusion furnaces of stars.
Over a period of 18 months spent scribbling on blackboards in a windowless room at Caltech, Burbidge; his wife, Margaret; American physicist William Fowler; and British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle overcame the roadblocks that had beset other theoreticians and provided a clear pathway to each of the elements.
Their 104-page 1957 paper in the Reviews of Modern Physics "was without question one of the most important papers of all time in astrophysics," said Mark Thiemens, dean of the division of physical sciences at UC San Diego, where the Burbidges spent most of their careers.
Astrophysicist George Fuller, director of UC San Diego's Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, said, "This paper laid the foundation for an entirely new kind of synthesis of astronomical observations with frontier nuclear and particle science, paving the way for much of modern astrophysics and cosmology."
Two years later, Geoffrey, then 34, and Margaret, 40, received 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 from the award because of their failure to bow to the prevailing influence of the big bang theory. Burbidge, however, never publicly expressed bitterness about his exclusion.
He later spent considerable time studying radio galaxies and was the first to determine the enormous amounts of energy involved in the radio emissions. His studies ultimately led astrophysicists to consider gravity as the energy source for these objects, as well as for quasi-stellar objects, or quasars.
"Much of the Burbidges' work revolved around the nature of quasars and active galactic nuclei," said astrophysicist Art Wolfe, a former director of the astrophysics center at UC San Diego. "During the 1960s, the Burbidges were virtually alone in their efforts to measure the masses of galaxies from the rotation speeds." Geoffrey Burbidge's penetrating ideas and questions stimulated much research by others, even though his ideas were not always confirmed.
Quasars ultimately proved to be the cause of his isolation from other cosmologists. Quasars, extremely bright objects, have a very high red shift -- a displacement in their spectra -- that is believed by big-bang theorists to mean that they are exceptionally distant from the Earth. Burbidge and Hoyle, however, argued that the quasars are emitted from relatively nearby galaxies at relativistic speeds, which accounts for their red shift.
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 big bang.
The Burbidges spent recent years identifying quasars that they believed were relatively nearby and supported their point of view, but other astronomers seemed to be paying little attention.
Hoyle died in 2001. With Burbidge's death, there remain few strong proponents of this view.