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Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge at Armagh Observatory

On Monday, 28th July, the renowned astronomer Dr Margaret Burbidge visited the Armagh Observatory and delivered an excellent lecture on Quasars, those mysterious star-like objects scattered between the galaxies that appear to be moving away from us at enormous speeds. Margaret, a sprightly eighty-four year old grandmother, was accompanied by her husband Geoffrey, their daughter, Sarah, and grandson, Conor. Although born in England, the Burbidges have lived most of their lives in the United States. Margaret entitled her 1994 autobiography "Watcher of the Skies."

Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge are perhaps most famous for the work carried out in the 1950s with colleagues, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, which explained for the first time the origin of all the chemical elements apart from the light ones, hydrogen and helium. Remarkably, they were able to show that all the "heavy" atoms in our bodies, and in fact most of the material around us, came from the interiors of exploding stars. In this sense, we are all "star-dust".

More recently, Geoffrey Burbidge has been working with Armagh astronomer Bill Napier on various puzzling aspects of the apparent velocities of the quasars moving away from our Galaxy, known as the problem of the redshifts. It is interesting to note that there is another Northern Ireland connection with this team. William Fowler's grandfather, Alfred Watson, was a grocer from Taniokey, near Clare in County Armagh, who emigrated to Pittsburgh in or around 1880, and Fowler's maternal great-grandparents were teachers in the National School in Taniokey for 60 years in the nineteenth century. The Burbidges, Fowler and Hoyle were jointly honoured when William Fowler was awarded a share of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contribution to their joint research: "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars."

Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge have been at the forefront of astrophysics throughout their careers and have received many awards, including the National Medal for Science presented to Margaret by President Reagan in 1985. In 1971, Margaret was nominated for the Annie Jump Cannon prize of the American Astronomical Society, but declined it arguing that it was a discriminatory award since it was for woman only. As a female working in a largely man's world, Margaret had suffered from much discrimination in her early career and could not condone it by accepting the prize. Margaret and Geoffrey were also the 1982 and 1999 recipients of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Whilst they have both worked at the University of California at San Diego since the early 1960s, Geoffrey served as Director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona from 1978 to 1984, while Margaret was the Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux from 1972 to 1973.

Life with the Burbidges continues at a fast pace. Last year, Margaret used one of the world's most powerful telescopes, the 10-metre Keck 1 telescope located at 14,000 feet altitude on top of the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea, to continue her studies of quasars. She has another observing run scheduled there for October this year.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: John McFarland at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG. Tel.: 028-3752-2928; FAX: 028-3752-7174; E-mail: jmf@star.arm.ac.uk

Last Revised: 2003 August 4th
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