Oral History Interviews

Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists

Geoffrey Burbidge describes two different views of the universe and how much we understand.

Oral history audio excerpt

Geoffrey Burbidge describes two different views of the universe and how much we understand.

Weart:

You say you call yourself a radical.

Burbidge:

Yes — all [?] No, it’s just that — well, we’ve been talking about the policies in science and the policies of people. What I meant by that was that there’s a whole range of astrophysical problems, I guess, major astrophysical problems.... where there has developed, I think, among a very large fraction of the observers, and many of the theoreticians, a cut and dried attitude about the universe. — The attitude that Fred and I take, if I can express it in a general way —

Well, there are two approaches you can take to these major areas. One is that we do basically understand the rules by which the universe functions, operates. There’s a large amount of information that we’re lacking, but we understand the basic rules, and we know what the skeleton looks like, and we‘re clothing the skeleton. And that’s the way, I think, people would say they understand cosmology and the Big Bang and all the rest of it, and many other propositions. But there is a minority view of, which I think Fred and I are a couple of the most prominent exponents, — we essentially believe (now I’m speaking for myself, not for Fred ) — (but I mean, he does really share this attitude, in what he does and says ) — that we’re so — we’ve observed so little, we know so little about the universe, that we may not have the skeleton right at all. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that I think modern astrophysics is to be compared to 19th century physics, where you have lots and lots of observations, but you’re still talking about the ether... and things of that kind. And therefore, we don’t even know what shape the skeleton is. We don’t know whether it’s a horse or an elephant or a camel, or whether it walks on six legs, or 55 legs.

And in that sense, we’re prepared to take observations and talk about schemes which are not the scheme that everybody’s already swallowed. And in that sense, Fred and I find us in a minority on a large number of problems. And there’s a feeling somehow that you’ve got to believe, in order to do things. Well, I don’t agree with that, but I can see that — the relevance of it. Alan [?] if you don’t believe in looking — if you couldn’t go beyond [?] how can you possibly struggle onto [?] It’s so hard to do it.

Well, you know, “We’ve worked so hard and fought so long, we must be right, we can’t be wrong. “ That’s the attitude. But anyway — you know, there are arguments over the red shifts of the quasi-stallers, whether or not there was a Big Bang, over the origin of cosmic rays — a variety of things, where Fred and I get ourselves into this box, that we think up new possibilities, and people get exasperated like hell with us because they don’t believe in them, but they can’t rule them out. And there’s a big controversy developed, in a nice way, and then people like to — then, the way the reporter goes at it is to go and ask ten eminent astronomers, and nine say it’s one way, so they say, “By a ratio of 9 to 1,” you know — But you don’t do science that way, as we all ultimately know. It’s partly because astronomy is such a difficult subject, and such a frustrating subject, because it’s an observational science. As I was arguing with [?] You can’t pin things down so well. And people get exasperated as hell.