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Geoffrey Burbidge (born Chipping Norton, 24 September 1925; died La Jolla, California, 26 January 2010) was an English astrophysicist. For many years he was professor at the University of California, San Diego. In 1957 he published a famous paper, together with three other physicists, about the origin of elements. Many scientists disagreed with ideas that he had later in his life, because he did not believe in the Big Bang theory.
Education and early career
He started to study history at the University of Bristol, but soon changed to physics because he could then get financial help from the government (World War II was on, so science was very important to the government). He went to London and got a doctorate from University College London in 1951. He met the astronomer Margaret Peachey. He became very interested in astronomy and he married her in 1948. From then on they always worked together in several places. They worked at Harvard, the University of Chicago and Cambridge University. Then Margaret got work at the California Institute of Technology, while Geoffrey worked at the Mount Wilson Observatory and Palomar Observatory. They both got jobs at the University of California, San Diego, in 1962.
The B2FH paper
In 1957 he and his wife, together with William Fowler, the American physicist, and Fred Hoyle, the British astronomer, wrote a 104-page paper about stellar nucleosynthesis. The paper became known as the B2FH (because of their initials). It talked about nuclear reactions inside stars, showing how these reactions tear apart blocks of matter and put it together again differently. It was a similar idea to what Charles Darwin had written about 100 years earlier in the “Origin of Species”, where he had described how creatures had evolved. Scientists saw this paper as the most important paper ever written about astrophysics.
Later in his career Burbidge refused to accept the Big Bang theory which describes the start of the universe. Quasars are very bright objects with a very high redshift. The Big Bang theorists say that they come from places extremely far away in the universe. But Burbidge thought that quasars come from nearby galaxies, travelling near the speed of light, which explains their redshift. He thought they produced new matter as old matter was destroyed by reactions.
Although many scientists disagree with Burbidge’s later ideas, he is still thought of as an extremely important scientist. He was given many honours. In 2005 he and his wife were awarded the British Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal.
- ”Geoffrey Burbidge- Obituary” in The Independent 24 April 2010 p. 51