Geoffrey Burbidge

By Daniel Holz | January 27, 2010 10:30 pm

geoffrey burbidgeI happen to be visiting UCSD this week, and woke to the news that Geoffrey Burbidge passed away yesterday afternoon. He was a giant in the field of astronomy and cosmology, and (despite himself) was one of the main contributors to the establishment of the standard Big Bang model of cosmology. He was perhaps best known for his work in stellar nucleosynthesis (encapsulated in the B2FH paper: Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle 1957, Rev. Mod. Phys. 29, 547), which in some sense established that we are all made of “star stuff”. There are few research papers that are widely known simply by their author’s initials (especially over 50 years later); the paper even has its own wikipedia page. (Off hand, the only other one I can think of is EPR.)

However, for the past years Burbidge was primarily associated with advocating a steady-state model for the Universe. For many decades this model was incredibly important, as it provided a foil with which to challenge the big bang theory. It pushed us to get as much data as possible, and helped usher in the era of precision cosmology. In some sense, it is because of the steady-state model that we are as confident as we are in the big bang model. [Famously, the very name “big bang” was coined derisively by Hoyle, one of the originators of the steady state model, and the “H” in B2FH.] Burbidge was a proponent of his alternative cosmology, long after the vast majority of people in the field abandoned it. The data became overwhelming (in particular, the incredibly perfect black body spectrum from COBE, and then the completely incontrovertible “acoustic” peaks from WMAP, among other things). Burbidge was adamant that we should always question, and carefully distinguish between data and models. He did not like the “bandwagon” aspect of science, and remained leery of the broad consensus behind the big bang.

There’s an article in our very own Discover Magazine which nicely sums up Burbidge’s personality and science. He did vital and important work in the field, and should be remembered for this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science
  • Robert Cumming

    The steady-state universe lives on in Jayant Narlikar. Astronomer Nando Patat has a nice blog post about meeting him and starting a new observational project that just maybe (think of it!) still could turn everything upside down again…

  • Garrett

    I met Geoffrey Burbidge when I went through my quals (on massive neutrinos in BBN). He had just had an accident in which he had fallen and cut his face in several places on a sprinkler, and looked somewhat terrifying. But, on my committee, he was insightful, funny, and kind as could be. One of the shining stars at UCSD — and I’m sure he will be missed by many.

  • nobody

    The link to the B2FH paper in Wikipedia is broken. Please fix it :)

  • Brian

    Here’s the link to the Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle wikipedia page.²FH

  • Keith

    My favorite recollection of Geoff is from a quasar conference twenty-five years ago. The morning session had run late and the last speaker started by apologizing for keeping everyone from their lunch. There was a deep rumble from the front row “You are lunch”.

  • NGC3314

    My memories of Geoff are complex. He enjoyed a level of sarcasm and veiled accusations of imbecility in argument which just feels wrong to me, but never held scientific disagreements against anyone personally. He bemoaned the increasing concentration of telescope access in fewer and fewer observers, yet saw the importance of supporting the project which (after many transformations) became Gemini. My mother-in-law spent some years as his administrative assistant, finally found him too difficult to work with and left – and Geoff never failed to ask about her when calling me about refereeing an ApJ manuscript. He was vastly intimidating to some of us young folk, but often seemed oblivious to the fact. (Hmm – did I mention that he probably had a role in hiring me for my first postdoc while KPNO director?)

    The Steward grad students put on an annual bit of theater by the “Not Ready for Dark Time Players”. One year, they staged “Return of the AURA Board”. To publicize it, they analog cut-pasted some photos onto art for “Return of the Jedi” to produce Jabba the Burbidge. They sold copies to interested parties for $5, and made a little extra which they used to make an extra photographic print and anonymously get it to Geoff’s office. He kept it framed on his wall for the rest of his time in Tucson.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “There are few research papers that are widely known simply by their author’s initials (especially over 50 years later); the paper even has its own wikipedia page. (Off hand, the only other one I can think of is EPR.)”

    Do you mean the only other paper with its own Wikipedia page, or the only other paper widely known simply by the authors’ initials? If the latter, while I agree that BBFH and EPR and by far the two most famous, in the field of gravitational lensing TOG is a standard abbreviation (…284….1T ).

    “For many decades this model was incredibly important, as it provided a foil with which to challenge the big bang theory. ”

    All due respect to Geoff Burbidge, but I disagree with you here. The steady-state model was essentially ruled out in the 1960s, after it had been around for just 15 years or so. The nail in the coffin were number counts, showing evolution of extragalactic sources. The steady-state model was a good theory in that it made clear predictions, but the number counts clearly and unambiguously falsified it. (Another reason was the failure to predict the CMB, which is a natural prediction of big-bang theories. While a CMB is not incompatible with the steady-state theory, the fact that the big-bang theory predicted it and the steady-state did not was a big plus for the big-bang theory.)

    Sure, the big-bang theory has been refined, and foils/devil’s advocates such as Jim Peebles have played a role in this, but the steady-state theory was essentially not even in the running anymore during the last 4 decades, when the big-bang theory was refined. In later years, Burbidge and collaborators (Arp, Narlikar etc) tried to save the appearances by introducing “epicycles”, but these were never a serious foil for the big-bang theory. Of course, Geoff Burbidge as a person, especially in the front row, might have helped some of us to hone our rhetorical skills.

  • Peter Coles

    I don’t remember where I got it, but I actually have a preprint of the B2FH paper. They don’t make ’em like that any more.

  • Doug

    The Alpha-Beta-Gamma paper is known by initials in a different alphabet. Does that count?

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    What a guy! I liked that “You ARE lunch”. For reflection:

    “The arrow of time, therefore, is not a feature of the underlying laws of physics, at least as far as we know. Rather, like the up/down orientation space picked out by the Earth, the preferred direction of time is also a consequence of features of our environment. In the case of time, it’s not that we live in the spatial vicinity of an influential object, it’s that we live in the temporal vicinity of an influential event: the birth of the universe. The beginning of our observable universe, the hot dense state known as the Big Bang, had a very low entropy. The influence of that event orients us in time, just as the presence of the Earth orients us in space.”

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I heard the story than on an observing run with several postdocs back in the 70’s
    he said to them that they were as conservative in their science as they were unconservative in their
    dress. Anyone know more of this story ?

  • bob

    In the 1920s the Bohr-Kramers-Slater paper (BKS) was very famous under its initials, and there is a Wikipedia article on it “BKS Theory”. It still is famous among historians of qm as “BKS”. Of course it was wrong, at least the part that got most attention: non-conservation of energy, which was quickly demolished experimentally by Compton and separately by Bothe and Geiger. Slater says in his autobiography that he hated that part of the paper and was forced by Bohr to include it. Still, it did leave the legacy of “virtual states”, Slater’s idea.

  • daniel

    @nobody 3, the link is fixed.

    @Doug 9, the αβγ paper definitely counts! It’s 50 years old, and is a classic. @Phillip Helbig 7, TOG is a relative youngster, at only 25 years. And I’m not sure how well it’s known outside of the lensing community; I’m biased, since I’ve referenced it heavily over the years. Maybe someone should start a wikipedia page on it?

  • Phillip Helbig

    There are a few more “initial” papers:

    BCS (superconductivity):

    FKK (nuclear reactions): (this paper seems to be so famous that many other papers refer to it without actually citing it)
    Of course, FKK is a common German abbreviation, so common that even the English Wikipedia page refers to this and not to nuclear physics:

    Anyone have any more?

  • Mike Brotherton

    I know it’s not smiled upon, to speak ill of the dead, but this is how science really advances. Those who can’t update their ideas die off. Burbidge was really doing more harm than good the last 10-15 years or so, at least in every interaction I saw, experienced, or heard about. When I think about how cool it would be to be immortal, I think about this drawback and the harm it would do science.

    Yes, better to think of his work from his own youth, but I also wouldn’t celebrate anything about the steady state model or associated silliness from the last few decades.

  • Tod R. Lauer


    I’m afraid that I disagree with your conclusion in these particulars. Burbidge’s steady state stuff became marginalized long, long ago, and I doubt that his interactions with the rest of us really did any harm. The science advanced while he was still there to carp about it! I had a few random conversations with Burbidge over the years – I would say that anyone who was properly educated in modern cosmology should have able to hold their own with him. The only time I heard him say anything harmful was a very public quip at a AAS meeting in which he advanced the notion that astronomers leaving academics to work in government agencies are second rate – it got lots of laughs…

  • Mike Brotherton

    Tod, I know of a few cases stemming from when he was an ApJ editor and when he served on some national review panels that have strongly biased me against him, at least in his later years. I don’t think he was fully competent and/or professional in those instances, and while the field wasn’t seriously harmed, I suspect a few people lost positions they might have otherwise deserved and some certainly had to jump through unnecessary hoops getting papers published.

  • Phillip Helbig
  • Tim Tait

    I had Geoffrey Burbidge as the instructor in an advanced undergraduate course on cosmology my last year as an undergraduate at UCSD. I think I owe some of my fascination with the subject to him, and certainly a lot of the initial understanding came from his course.

    While he did spend some time talking about the steady state vision of the Universe, I think he was responsible and fair in presenting the more canonical views too. I certainly don’t feel like I was mislead at that young and impressionable point in my life.

  • pj

    enjoyable read

  • coolstar

    I think I have to agree with Mike B. and Phillip H. on their attitudes towards Burbidge. Though I knew him only by reputation, that reputation over the past 25 years was not a particularly good one (he was unkindly referred to as Moby Geoff while KPNO director, as I recall, and for whatever reasons, did not remain there long.). My very few interactions with Margaret gave me a distinctly different and positive attitude about her, which I suspect is the norm for those of my generation.

  • Bill Napier

    I had the privilege of working closely with Geoff for the last ~10 years of his life, and indeed finished our last joint paper since he was too ill to continue with it (ApJ 706, 657, 2009). He was a delight to work with. Geoff had his viewpoint, but I found him to be a real scientist, absolutely straightforward, and willing to run with the evidence. At one point, looking at the QSO/galaxy correlations which he, Margaret Burbidge and Chip Arp had been claiming for 30 years, and which I was failing to confirm statistically, he was prepared to abandon everything and come up with what he called the Great Retraction (in the event I found that there are, after all, strong associations which I can’t explain in terms of microlensing or the like).

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  • nicholas suntzeff

    I knew Geoff as Director of NOAO when I was a grad student at Lick and a postdoc at Carnegie. When you are young, everyone over about 40 seems to be in the same generation. I never really had a serious scientific conversation with Geoff, but I had lots of conversations with him about the Big Bang, the Steady State Theory, and the like. Those are fond memories now. The B2FH paper is one of the great papers of all time in astronomy. I wonder what it really what like for them when it all came together – the chemical abundance of the Universe suddenly made sense, the sense of *knowing*. I regret that in our 1998 paper on acceleration, when we showed that q0 was negative, that we did not reference Burbidge & Co papers where they showed that a prediction of the SS theory was that q0 was negative. Obviously our value plus all the other data clearly did not support the SS theory, but I felt it would have been a nice closure to the history of SS – that this one prediction did come true, if not for their reasoning. Sandage was pissed off at me, and I regret that we did not give due reference.

  • Travis Rector

    There’s too many great stories about Geoff to recall at once. How about the time he incited anger amongst the public (at a AAS meeting in San Diego) because, as he claimed, there was a conspiracy to keep him from using HST to study the “light bridges” between QSOs and galaxies? He did have a good sense of humor about himself. Long after everyone else had switched to powerpoint, he joked that he was going to keep showing us the same old, yellowed transparencies until we believed him. My best personal experience with him was at my dissertation talk at the AAS, when he chided me for throwing out ideas that were not yet well supported. The looks on faces in the crowd was worth it.

  • Dave Tribbett

    Geoff like others seemed to understand that a theory and model based on voodoo can’t be correct, he wasn’t necessarily a genius just somebody that used common sense to evaluate “the standard model”. It is a shame that he is gone, not many people left to argue the silly paradigms of standard model cosmology. At some point in the not too distant future an observation will be made that will finally kill the current “standard model”, its a shame Geoff won’t be alive to see it.

    Outspoken and resilient, Cosmology will miss him.


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