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Two Against the Big Bang

Why are two celebrated astronomers laughing at one of the most fundamental theories?

By Richard Panek and Catherine Ledner
Nov 22, 2005 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:27 AM


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The cosmological revolution of 1993 ended before it began. In The Astrophysical

Journal, one of the most prestigious publications in their field, three prominent theorists presented an alternative to the Big Bang, the creation myth that has dominated cosmology since the 1960s. The

Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge on the beach near their home in La Jolla, California. They believe that galaxies like the ones in Stephan's Quintet, superimposed behind them, beget other galaxies.

reaction of their peers wasn't antagonistic. It wasn't even argumentative. It was worse—so dismissive that the new theory might as well not have existed at all.

Geoffrey Burbidge was one of the authors of that paper, and he still rages at the response. "Do we know all the laws of physics?" he asks, sitting in his office at the University of California at San Diego. "Apparently so!" Just down the hall, Eleanor Margaret Burbidge, his wife for nearly six decades, sits at her desk, silently reviewing transparencies she'll be presenting the following day at a conference up the coast in Berkeley—data that she says support her view that the Big Bang might never have happened. However dissimilar the Burbidges' styles (a colleague once described them as "a lady with a very outspoken husband"), their sympathies are the same, as is their sense of urgency.

Geoffrey was born in 1925, Margaret in 1919. Neither teaches now, but both hold research professorships. Every weekday morning they show up at their offices together just past nine o'clock and leave for home together promptly at five. In between, they continue to refine their alternative theory to the Big Bang, but in recent years the emphasis of their argument has shifted. What's at stake now isn't merely how the universe came to be; it's who gets to decide such matters, and how—nothing less than the integrity of the scientific method itself.

The Burbidges first came to most astronomers' attention in 1957, when they

helped launch an earlier, far more successful revolution. That year, in a 104-page tour de force in the journal Reviews of Modern Physics, they and two collaborators did for the origin of elements what Darwin had done nearly 100 years earlier for the origin of species. They declared that nuclear reactions within stars rip apart the basic building blocks of matter and put them back together again to create new and more complex elements. As they phrased their conclusion, echoing Darwin's last line in On the Origin of Species, "The elements have evolved, and are evolving." Or, as Joni Mitchell put it in her song "Woodstock" more than a decade later, "We are star dust."

The reaction to "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars" was immediate: praise, press conferences, a consensus among their peers that the Burbidges, Willy Fowler, and Fred Hoyle—or B2FH, as scientists to this day call them—had produced one of the seminal papers of the century. Geoffrey was only 32, Margaret 38. They soon received the Helen B. Warner Prize, the American Astronomical Society's highest honor for young astronomers.

The B2 part of the collaboration had begun a decade earlier. In 1947, while sitting next to each other during a physics class at University College London, Geoffrey Burbidge and Margaret Peachey discovered they shared interests in tennis, politics, history, theater, and opera. One passion they didn't have in common was astronomy. "As I always tell students," Geoffrey says, "I got into astronomy by marrying an astronomer."

Margaret married Geoffrey in 1948, then left the country with him three years later in search of "better telescopes, better instruments, clear skies," as she later wrote. A brief stop at an observatory in France resulted in the 1951 publication of the first paper that future generations could cite as "Burbidge and Burbidge." Then the couple scrounged enough Fulbright and other funding to travel to the United States. More Burbidge and Burbidge papers followed, as did a change in their research.

As a child, Margaret had often pondered: How far away are the stars? As an astronomer, she focused on what they're made of. In 1954, after Geoffrey delivered a seminar on his and Margaret's research on how stars create elements, a cheerful American, Willy Fowler, introduced himself. "I like that kind of work," he said. Fowler had begun researching the problem at the instigation of the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, whom the Burbidges had met several years earlier in France. Burbidge, Burbidge, and Fowler left for the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at Caltech in 1955. Hoyle joined them the following spring. Over an 18-month period, they worked in a windowless room, scribbling on a blackboard, feverishly figuring out how nuclear reactions in successive generations of stars could create the elements in the periodic table.

"We were full of all these processes," Geoffrey remembers. One nuclear process that takes a long time to make a new element was named s for slow; another that works quickly was named r for rapid. "Those names have persisted all these years," Margaret says, shaking her head and laughing, "nearly 50 years."

Just as Darwin explained how single-celled creatures could evolve into species after species, so B2FH explained how single-proton atoms could eventually form everything in the universe. What they couldn't figure out—what nobody has yet figured out—is where those original hydrogen atoms came from.


Graphic by Moonrunner Design

The Big Bang (top) is the dominant theory in cosmology, but a few venturesome astronomers have conjured alternate schemes for how the universe works. The quasi steady state theory espoused by Geoffrey Burbidge is a rejiggering of the steady state theory first proposed by astronomer Fred Hoyle and his colleagues in 1948. That theory described a universe that churns out matter continuously, without beginning or end. In the newer version, the universe expands and contracts in hundred-billion-year cycles, creating matter within galaxies in "mini Big Bangs."

At the time, there were two leading hypotheses. One was the Big Bang. If you accepted the American astronomer Edwin Hubble's observations of galaxies as evidence that the universe is expanding, as many astronomers did, and if you followed the logic of an expanding universe backward, then you arrived at the Big Bang—an infinitely dense point that explodes to form the universe as we know it.

But what if the absence of empirical evidence for such an infinitely dense, physics-defying point bothers you? What if you try to develop an alternative theory? Then you might posit that the universe creates new matter not from one source but from many sources at many times. Then you'd have a universe that exists, and always has existed, in a more or less steady state—the theory that Hoyle espoused.

Although the B2FH paper on the elements in stars didn't address cosmological ideas like the Big Bang, it did carry cosmological implications. The paper argued that physical processes in stars can spew forth new types of matter. If that's true, perhaps vast collections of stars, undergoing an unknown physical process, can eject even greater collections of matter. As Geoffrey once wrote, perhaps "galaxies beget galaxies."

In 1963 astronomers discovered a candidate for such primordial collections of matter: brilliant, compact objects called quasars. At once, some observers like Margaret Burbidge began hunting down quasars, while some theorists like Geoffrey Burbidge began calculating how galaxies might go about creating such bizarre objects.

Unfortunately for the Burbidges, that same year—the year they accepted dual appointments at U.C. San Diego and settled in the then sleepy hills of La Jolla, the promise of successful careers stretching far into the future—researchers also made a discovery that tilted the battle between Big Bangers and steady staters. It came in the form of a faint radio-wave glow emanating from all directions in the heavens. Big Bang theorists called it the cosmic microwave background and declared it a remnant of the universe's birth. They had earlier predicted that in the eons since the Big Bang, the universe should have cooled down to an average temperature of about 2.7 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. At that temperature the cosmos would radiate microwaves of exactly the wavelength that researchers had discovered.

The Big Bang bandwagon, as Geoffrey Burbidge calls it, had begun to roll.

Politics is one of Geoffrey Burbidge's favorite pejoratives. The university's contract with the government to develop a scientific instrument? "A piece of politics." The ongoing hostility to Hoyle's theories among astrophysicists, even after his death? "Academic politics." The resistance of almost everyone to the Burbidges' work? "It's all politics." Margaret, asked if she agrees with Geoffrey about the prevalence of politics in science, closes her eyes as if in pain and whispers, "Yes."

The Burbidges have reason to be skeptical. In the late 1940s, the Carnegie Foundation refused Margaret a fellowship at the observatory on Mount Wilson, where Hubble worked, because she is a woman. In 1983 the

'As a betting man I have to put some odds on the idea that maybe the Big Bang is right. But they will put no odds on the possibility that they're wrong'

Nobel committee in physics recognized the work of B2FH but awarded a prize to Fowler alone—who protested the apparent rebuke to Hoyle and his belief in the steady state theory. (Nobel bylaws restrict the number of recipients in one category to three, so B2FH always knew that at least one of them wouldn't be going to Stockholm.) And by being denied telescope time and good research grants, the Burbidges say they've been repeatedly hampered in their decades-long attempt to collect data that could help validate their ideas.

The battle between steady staters and Big Bang advocates hinges on an effect called redshift—the way a star's light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum because of its motion away from the viewer. Both sides accept that the faster a source of light recedes from you, the more intensely it exhibits a redshift. And both agree that if the universe is expanding, then objects farther from us should exhibit higher redshifts. Where they differ is that steady staters believe some objects with high redshifts—especially certain quasars—are actually nearby matter traveling at a high velocity. According to the Big Bang theory, quasars lie at extreme distances. But according to the steady state theory, quasars are being expelled by galaxies, so in these cases the high redshifts indicate the rapid motion of objects that could be relatively nearby.

Since the 1960s Margaret and a few others have been collecting examples of galaxies and quasars in seemingly close proximity to one another. Is that proximity real? If so, then galaxies may well eject quasars as

AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Geoffrey Burbidge (front row, second from left) and Margaret Burbidge (second row, fifth from left) at the Institute for Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge in 1967.

the steady state theory suggests. Or are the galaxy-quasar pairings optical illusions, like a smokestack that only appears to be producing a storm cloud that, in reality, lies a great distance beyond it? To answer that question, astronomers have to determine whether galaxies and quasars lie close together in just a few cases or frequently enough to beat the odds. And to answer that question would require many observers working on many telescopes. But it's tough to get access to big telescopes for a project that most astronomers consider quixotic. "Margaret continues to get observing time because she's Margaret Burbidge and it's hard to deny her," Geoffrey says. "It's slow work," Margaret sighs, "because nobody else is doing it."

I'm not a good politician," Geoffrey Burbidge offers over dinner one night at the Shores, a beachfront restaurant where the Burbidges often dined with Hoyle. "I believe in speaking my mind. I'm not afraid to make enemies. And I do."

As if to prove his point, the restaurant's hostess appears at his elbow, and Geoffrey seizes the opportunity to complain about the noise the other night when he and Margaret came for dinner with their daughter and son-in-law. The hostess shifts from foot to foot. She tries to stammer an apology or explanation, but Geoffrey repeatedly overrides her. Finally he mutters, "It's OK, it's fine, you're doing fine," leaving Margaret to add, for the hostess's benefit, "It is nice here, with the ocean."

When Geoffrey launches into complaints in his office, he likes to lean his substantial bulk back in a chair, tilt his head until he's communing with the ceiling, and spout. He doesn't tolerate interruptions or requests to clarify a point. He simply raises his voice and silences the perceived opposition. Even when he remembers his manners and asks an interlocutor a question, he tends to interrupt with a rising chorus of "but, but, but, but, BUT!" until his voice is the only sound he hears.

All of which may make Geoffrey Burbidge rude, but it does not make him wrong. Since the 1960s, he has published a series of articles that seem to challenge the Big Bang, culminating in his 1993 update of the steady state theory with Hoyle and Jayant Narlikar. At the January 2005 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the Burbidges presented what they claim is a prime example of an allegedly distant quasar lying within a nearby galaxy.

By this point, however, their peers have pretty much stopped listening. "The Big Bang does not have the whole truth," Michael Turner, an influential cosmologist at the University of Chicago, concedes. "But I can't imagine somebody not acknowledging that it has much of the truth." He points to a series of recent cosmic measurements that seem to support the Big Bang and refute the steady state.

Even when fellow cosmologists do acknowledge the Burbidges' current work, the response ranges from quaint admiration to contempt. In 2000, when Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Narlikar published their monograph, "A Different Approach to Cosmology," astrophysicist Mario Livio wrote, "It is extremely important for such skepticism to exist and for such books to be written." The following year, Hoyle's obituary in the journal Nature ended with a quote from one of his colleagues, responding to the question of whether he'd read Hoyle's monograph: "Wouldn't waste the time."

Geoffrey charges that the other side has proclaimed premature victory. "You've got Michael Turner shouting from the housetops, 'Look what we're proving! Look what we're proving!' He's quite sure that he knows the answer. As a betting man I have to put some odds on the idea that maybe the Big Bang is right. But they will put no odds on the possibility that they're wrong and we're right."

Still, theorists don't automatically assume, as Geoffrey asserted in a recent paper, that "to learn something new about physics from astronomy" is "anathema."

Photo by Catherine Ledner

Though they're now in their eighties, Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge still hold research professorships at the University of California at San Diego, arriving at nine every day and leaving together at five.

Beginning in the 1970s, observers reported that the rotation rates of galaxies don't obey the gravitational laws of Newton—a discrepancy theorists fixed by invoking the presence of mysterious "dark matter." Seven years ago, two independent teams of observers found that the expansion of the universe wasn't decelerating, as everyone had assumed, but accelerating. To explain this astonishing result, theorists invoked the presence of an equally mysterious "dark energy." As one cosmologist concluded at a recent conference on dark matter and dark energy, "Folks, we need a new physics."

This could be seen as a hopeful sign that modern cosmology is revealing new aspects of the universe. Geoffrey sees something more worrisome: an upending of the traditional scientific method. In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton helped inaugurate a scientific revolution by taking Galileo's observations of the heavens' motions and expressing them mathematically. Then in the early 20th century, Albert Einstein helped inaugurate a second scientific revolution by reversing that process, taking his own calculations and looking for their physical expression in the heavens. In 1929 Einstein's general theory of relativity provided a theoretical frame for Hubble's discovery of the expanding universe. Later the cosmic microwave background was interpreted within that framework and taken as evidence of the Big Bang. Now physicists are talking about dark matter and dark energy based on a theory whose traces can barely be perceived.

"We don't think science should be done this way," Burbidge, Hoyle, and Narlikar declared in "A Different Approach to Cosmology." Rather than theorize and then observe, they argued, cosmologists should observe and then theorize.

"The present situation in cosmology," Geoffrey says, "is that most people like to believe they know what the skeleton looks like, and they're putting flesh on the bones. And Fred [Hoyle] and I would continuously say, we don't even know what the skeleton looks like. We don't know whether it's got 20 heads instead of one, or 60 arms or legs. It's probable that the universe we live in is not the way I think it is or the way the Big Bang people think it is. In 200 years, somebody is going to say how stupid we were."

He shakes his head. "Who knows?" he says. "Who knows?"

The last streaks of daylight have long since drained from the sky over the Pacific. Outside the restaurant,

floodlights along the beach have snapped on. Newton once likened himself to a boy playing on the shore of science, "whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me." From where the Burbidges sit, they can see the sand and they can even see the surf, but the ocean before them remains as unfathomable as ever.

Margaret says she's tired, and Geoffrey immediately offers to take her home. But before they throw in their napkins, Geoffrey has a final thought—an anecdote, really.

A few years ago, at Geoffrey's request, a historian of astronomy added a mention of the steady state theory to her annual roundup of astronomy news. Then she

added something else: a line saying that opposition to the Big Bang will die out when its opponents do. Geoffrey sighs at the memory and falls uncharacteristically silent. After a moment, he laughs.

"And it's true!" he booms.

Discover More

A Different Approach to Cosmology: From a Static Universe Through the Big Bang Towards Reality. Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Jayant V. Narlikar. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

"Synthesis of the Elements in Stars." E. M. Burbidge et al. in Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 29, No. 4, pages 547–650; October 1957.

"A Quasi-Steady State Cosmology Model With Creation of Matter." F. Hoyle et al. in The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 410, pages 437–457; June 20, 1993.

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