Alfred Wegener withstood years of derision for his “preposterous” idea that continents drift. Judah Folkman was ridiculed for his theory that cancer tumors create their own blood-vessel networks. And we all remember what happened to Galileo. Today we celebrate these erstwhile crackpots, while their tormentors have faded into egg-faced obscurity.
But until such vindication arrives (if it ever does) the torment endured by the crank, the maverick theorist, makes the perch a difficult one to hold. In 2004 the crank du jour is the big-bang denier. Geoffrey Burbidge of the University of California at San Diego is among the most prominent of this breed. He acknowledges that the universe is expanding but contends that this doesn’t mean it must have expanded from some seminal point, as just about every cosmologist now believes. In his view, the universe is a natural oscillator, expanding and contracting alternately—and infinitely—over time.
Burbidge’s scientific credentials include the 1959 Warner Prize (awarded annually to a hot young astronomer) and the 1999 Bruce Medal (an astronomical lifetime achievement award),
and he has published extensively on quasars and the physics of galaxies. But because he’s not on the big-bang wagon, he is refused funding and the chance to publish on his controversial theory. On the rare occasions he’s asked to speak at a conference, zealots shout him down while the rest of the audience snickers. He endures constant insult from young upstarts such as Sean Carroll of the University of Chicago, whose blog belittles big-bang deniers: “They just aren’t, for the most part, very smart.” Burbidge takes refuge
in his native British stoicism.
“It’s just the road to conformity,” he says. “They’re all happier thinking alike.”