Independent astronomer says another big bang created interstellar clouds


June 12, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Columbus, Ohio Astronomy is big science, dominated by universities and institutes, foundations and consortia, collaborators and co-authors.

But Gerrit L. Verschuur stands alone.

The 55-year-old scientist from Bowie, who holds neither a full-time academic post nor a research grant, showed up at the American Astronomical Society meeting Tuesday claiming to have single-handedly solved a 31-year-old puzzle concerning the origin of an interstellar shell of hydrogen gas clouds approaching the sun at nearly 500,000 mph.

Dr. Verschuur, who calls himself a "self-employed radio astronomer," is no mere scientific amateur. Back in 1968, he was the first researcher to measure the so-called Zeeman effect, the magnetic fields in the interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy. In the 1970s, he was the first director of the University of Colorado's planetarium at Boulder. And, he notes proudly, he was the first person to observe the surface of the moon with a radio telescope.

Today, the gentle, slightly rumpled maverick scrapes together money for his research by writing popular books and magazine articles on astronomy. When he goes to Green Bank, W.Va., or Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to use the giant radio telescopes there, friends put him up. For him, the editors of the Astrophysical Journal sometimes waive the $85 per page fees they charge contributors.

He spent $5,000 of his own money to buy a bigger computer to produce the graphics for his latest research, and works mostly out of an office in the home he shares with his wife, astronomer Joan T. Schmelz of the Goddard Space Flight Center in `f Greenbelt.

He admits that he would like a full-time university post. (He

teaches one course a semester at the University of Maryland at College Park, and hopes to win a grant for research at a college in Tennessee, where his wife will be teaching.)

But he has sometimes chafed at the rules and the subtle pressures that come with jobs in big institutions. "You tend to get into this group mind-set," he said. "People seem to rewrite each other's theories. It's very risky to think a new thought."

L Dr. Verschuur is regarded as a scientist of strong opinions.

"He's a little controversial . . . because he likes to take people on," said Felix Lockman of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va. But, he added, Dr. Verschuur is an enthusiastic, well-respected scientist.

"When Gerrit comes up with an idea, it's usually not something you've already thought of and dismissed," he said.

Dr. Verschuur's latest idea is that the unexplained hydrogen clouds moving toward the sun are evidence of one of the biggest bangs since the Big Bang. The clouds, perhaps created by an explosion 7 million years ago, have reached a point about 150 light-years away.

The high-velocity clouds were discovered in 1961 by the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, who later suggested the clouds were being pushed forward by the shock wave of a large explosion. But the clouds weren't traveling at the expected speeds at the expected locations. The answer didn't fit.

Dr. Verschuur thought about the problem off and on until last year. Sifting through data in his office, it struck him that the galaxy's magnetic field might have modified the shape of the explosion's shock wave.

Over time those magnetic fields may have squeezed the shock wave into an elliptical or egg-shape, he realized, not the round golf ball Dr. Oort expected, and altered the speed.

"Suddenly, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together," Dr. Verschuur said in a press release he prepared himself.

The explosion was created by an event more powerful than any '' ever detected in the Milky Way, Dr. Verschuur said. "Perhaps it was a rare, supermassive object that blew apart," he said, a blast equivalent to 2,500 simultaneous supernovae.

Other radio astronomers were intrigued. "He may very well be onto something," said Paul Vanden Bout of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, after looking over Dr. Verschuur's display at the conference.

Dr. Lockman, one of the few astronomers working in the field of interstellar clouds, pointed out the explanation requires an extremely unusual event.

"It's a complicated model," he said. "I'm going to have to take some time to think about it."

Dr. Verschuur, meanwhile, doesn't seem to let other people's opinions discourage him.

As a graduate student in England in the early 1960s, he said, he wrote his doctoral thesis essentially debunking a discovery claimed by his thesis adviser.

While working at Green Bank in the early 1970s, he conducted searches for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations without prior authorization, although he later won retroactive approval.

In 1979, he quit as director of the Boulder planetarium to go to California to join efforts to communicate with dolphins.

Today, the free-lance astronomer is ready to rejoin what he calls the scientific "mainstream."

Over the past seven years, he said, "I've followed my instinct rather than planned too far ahead, and it's been very rewarding."

pTC His only regret? "It's been a little bit hard to get some of my former colleagues to take me seriously," he said, "although they are starting to now."

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