Geoffrey Burbidge

(b. 1925)

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(1925–) British astrophysicist

Born at Chipping Norton, Burbidge graduated in 1946 from the University of Bristol and obtained his PhD in 1951 from the University of London. In the period 1950–58 he held junior university positions at London, Harvard, Chicago, Cambridge (England), and the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories in California. He became associate professor at Chicago (1958–62) before being appointed associate professor (1962), then professor of physics (1963) at the University of California, San Diego. Burbidge was director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona, from 1978 until 1984, when he moved to the University of California, San Diego, as professor of astronomy.

Burbidge began his research career studying particle physics but after his marriage in 1948 to Margaret Peachey, who was to become one of the world's leading optical astronomers, he turned to astrophysics and began a productive research partnership with his wife. The Burbidges worked on the mysterious quasars, first described by Allan Sandage in 1960, and produced in their Quasi-Stellar Objects (1967) one of the earliest surveys of the subject. Geoffrey Burbidge was far from convinced that quasars were ‘cosmologically distant’ in accordance with the orthodox interpretation of their massive red shifts. In 1965 he proposed with Hoyle that they were perhaps comparatively small objects ejected at relativistic speeds from highly active radio galaxies such as Centaurus A. The effect of this would be to place the main body of quasars only 3–30 million light years from our Galaxy and not the 3 billion light years or more demanded by the generally accepted view.

He was equally reluctant to accept without reservation that other emerging orthodoxy of the 1960s, the big-bang theory on the origin of the universe. In 1971 he published a paper in which he maintained that we still do not know whether the big-bang occurred and that much more effort must be devoted to cosmological tests. Although such views have found little favor, Burbidge has continued, like Hoyle, to be highly productive, rich in new ideas, and yet to remain outside and somewhat skeptical of prevailing cosmological and astrophysical orthodoxy.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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