Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Openly Heliocentric

Galileo had a lot of trouble with authority. He was a closet Copernican for years. But he eventually followed his heart and his scientific senses to become a major affront to the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic system of the universe and indirectly the powerful Catholic Church. On April 12, 1633 he appeared for trial in the Vatican and was convicted of heresy and disobedience and spent his remaining years largely confined to his villa at Arcetri, near Florence. But the genie he released could not be put back in the bottle. Science would eventually prevail.

My point here is that scientists have to true to their discipline. Now I’m not talking about physics crackpots clinging to half-baked theories. I’m referring to scientific giants who offer theories as alternatives to the mainstream. A good example is astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge (1925-2010) who recently passed away at age 84 (see inset photo). Along with famed British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, he refused to accept the widely held view that the universe originated in a Big Bang, arguing instead that matter is continually created, emerging as quasars ejected from energetic galaxies. Burbidge and his wife Margaret, married since 1948, spent a great deal of time at UC San Diego from 1962 trying to support their point of view.

Burbidge suffered professionally because of his views. He was passed up for the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983 due to his views. Still he persisted, and never publicly expressed bitterness about his exclusion.

I believe scientists like Burbidge and Hoyle, in the mold of Galileo, keep the scientific establishment honest by offering up alternative theories. They ultimately may be proven wrong, but it is healthy to continue to explore the robustness of existing theories like string theory, quantum mechanics, and various flavors of quantum gravity. Science must resist being closed minded. There must be an openness to varied ideas, and I’m not talking about the climate change deniers who generally refute solid science for political, ideological, and religious reasons. Long live the essence of Galileo’s spirit of inquiry!

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