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E. Margaret Burbidge, Astronomer Who Blazed Trails on Earth, Dies at 100 | Press "Enter" to skip to content

E. Margaret Burbidge, Astronomer Who Blazed Trails on Earth, Dies at 100

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She joined the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1960s and went on to become the first director of its Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. At her death, she was university professor emeritus there.

With her husband, the American physicist William Fowler and the English astronomer Fred Hoyle, Dr. Burbidge wrote a 1957 article that is considered one of the most influential scientific papers of its era. Titled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” but known in astronomical circles simply as B2FH, it was published in the journal Reviews of Modern Physics.

In it, the authors argued that nearly all of the chemical elements, from aluminum to zinc, are forged in the bodies of stars, a process now called stellar nucleosynthesis.

It was already known that the lightest elements, like hydrogen and helium, had been created amid the Big Bang. But the origin of the heavier elements, including the carbon that makes up plants and animals, the oxygen in the atmosphere and the gold and silver mined from the ground — in sum, the very matter of the universe — was the subject of longstanding debate.

The thesis of B2FH, now widely accepted, is that the heavier elements are synthesized from the lighter ones by thermonuclear reactions within stars. Loosed into space, these elements can also recombine to form new stars, beginning the cycle once more.

As the article describes it, we are all, in essence, made from stars.

“That work laid the foundations for all of modern nuclear astrophysics, and particle astrophysics as well,” Dr. Fowler said. “It gave a blueprint for how the elements were formed in the cosmos.”

(For work on the evolution of stars in general, Dr. Fowler shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with the Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.)


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