29 January 2010

The Stars Above Us, Govern Our Conditions

The noted astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge (left) died on January 26. He was 84 and should have won the Nobel Prize.

Burbidge collaborated with his wife Margaret Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle on one of astronomy’s most celebrated journal articles. In fact, this seminal publication has attained such a transcendent stature that astronomers simply refer to it, like some chemical formula, as B2FH (pronounced B-squared FH), from the initials of the authors’ surnames. Within this formidable paper, published in the Reviews of Modern Physics in 1957, the four researchers elucidated a variety of routes for synthesizing the elements within stars. They helped prove that all the substantial elements that make up our body and the planets—the heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, and so on—were first manufactured within a star. How the elements were constructed was a daunting problem at the time, and they brilliantly solved it. They taught us that we are truly composed of stardust. How appropriate, then, that their historic paper, more than one hundred pages in length, opened with a quotation from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “It is the stars, the stars above us, govern our conditions.”

Though Burbidge didn’t receive the Nobel (Fowler did in 1983 for his experimental work), he and his wife received many of astronomy’s highest honors, including the Gold Medal of Great Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society.

Only thirty-two years old at the time of his great accomplishment, Burbidge went on to cast a considerable shadow in the astronomical community. He directed the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona for many years and was editor-in-chief of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics for thirty years.

He was also one of astronomy’s most notable gadflies. Long after astronomers came to accept the Big Bang as the best description of the universe’s behavior, Burbidge continued to argue for a quasi-steady-state cosmology. He believed that quasars are not young and distant galaxies, despite their high redshifts, but rather new matter ejected from more nearby galaxies that are roiling with activity. He continued to press this point, right up to his last paper, which he published shortly before his death.

My last contact with Geoffrey was over the phone four years ago, when I interviewed him for a profile I was doing of Margaret for Smithsonian magazine. As always, he was both gracious and informative about the long collaboration with his wife. But he also didn’t miss the chance to convince me to do another story afterward—a story that would question the Big Bang and showcase his latest proof for doing so. I never got around to it.

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