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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001)


Distinguished and controversial British astronomer, mathematician, popularizer of science, and novelist, who rejected the 'big bang' theory. Fred Hoyle argued that every cluster of galaxies, every star, every atom had a beginning, but the universe itself did not. He coined the phrase "big bang" to mock the opposing model, according to which the universe originated from a spontaneous explosion. Hoyle also suggested that life had a cosmic, not terrestrial origin, and viruses could originate from certain meteor streams. He supported the anthropic principle, holding that there is a design in creation: the universe was designed in such a way as to produce life. Besides scientific works, Hoyle published many science fiction novels, written in collaboration with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle.

"Our existence dictates how the Universe shall be, a fine ego-boosting point of view on which you may travel, fare paid, to conferences all over the world." (Home is where the Wind Blows: Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life by Fred Hoyle, 1994, p. 257)

Fred Hoyle was born in Bingley, Yorkshire, the son of  Ben Hoyle, a wool merchant and Mabel Pickard, a talented pianist, who worked as an accompanist for silent movies. Hoyle never took up an instrument but music became a life long passion for him. At the age of four he could write out the multiplication tables up to 12x12=144. However, Hoyle did not master reading until the age of seven. He later attributed this and his persistent headaches to his extreme short-sightedness.

By the age of thirteen, Hoyle had begun to read widely, from such books as Arthur Eddington's Stars and Atoms to T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. With his three-inch telescope  he sometimes stayed up all night. However, instead of astronomy he first studied mathematics at Cambridge University's Emmanuel College. Hoyle received his B.A. in 1936 and his M.A. in physics from Cambridge in 1939. In the same year he married Barbara Clark; they had a son and a daughter. In 1939, under the influence of his colleague Raymond Lyttleton, Hoyle's interest started to shift from mathematical physics toward astrophysics. He had attended Eddington's lectures in 1935-36 and answered his questions on general relativity in examination.

Hoyle was elected a Fellow of St. John's College at Cambridge in 1939. During World War II Hoyle worked at the Admiralty Signals Establishment, later Admiralty Weapons Establishment, where he participated in the development of radar. The mathematician Cyril Domb, who joined him in Hut No.2, recalled that his free time Hoyle spent devouring cheap science fiction. (Fred Hoyle's Universe by Jane Gregory, 2005, p. 22) During this period he met Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold. With them he developed the revolutionary "continuous creation" theory or the "steady-state" cosmology. According to an anecdote, the theory was inspired by a ghost movie called Dead of Night (1945), which ends just as it began. Gold has said that "I think we saw that movie several months before, and after I proposed the steady state, I said to them, 'Isn't that a bit like Dead of Night?'" (The Universe at Midnight: Observations Illuminating the Cosmos by Ken Croswell, 2001, p. 43)

In the model, the universe has no end, nor a beginning, and new material is constantly being created out of nothing. Hoyle's paper was published in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1948. Hoyle's Nature of the Universe (1950), originally broadcast as a series of BBC lectures, introduced the theory to a wider audience. The book caused a heated scientific debate. Hoyle was accused of having blurred the line between facts and speculation. Nevertheless, it was a betseller and the Hoyles celebrated the success by buying their first refrigerator. "If "Hoyle and those modern astronomers who share his thinking are wrong," said one critic, "they have at least made a magnificient guess." ('Hoyle, Sir Fred,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 686) Similarly, reactions to Frontiers of Astronomy (1955) varied from enthusiasm to rejection.

Although the "big bang" hypothesis was confirmed in 1960s and became a scientific paradigm, Hoyle continued to examine its weak points, believing that the universe shows signs of logical structure. The hypothesis had been introduced in the 1920s by Georges LeMaitre (1894-1966), a priest and cosmologist.

When evolution theory had been a problem for the Catholic Church, the "big bang" was not – partly because it strongly supported the idea of creation. In 1965, Hoyle abandoned for a period his theory, writing in Nature magazine that it "is widely believed that the existence of the microwave background killed the 'steady state' cosmology, but what really killed the steady-state theory was psychology. Tommy Gold and Hermann Bondi had for long urged the predictability of their version of the theory as is outstanding virtue, and yet here, in the microwave background, was an important phenomenon which it had not predicted. Bad." (The Universe at Midnight: Observations Illuminating the Cosmos by Ken Croswell, 2001, pp. 63-64)

In 1945 Hoyle became a junior lecturer in mathematics at the university of Cambridge. His three teaching terms took up less than twenty-five weeks of the year, and for the rest of the time he could pay attention to research. In 1946 he sent for publication to the Royal Astronomical Society two papers, the longer was 'The Synthesis of the Elements from Hydrogen' and the shorter was 'Note on the Origin of Cosmic Rays,' in which he predicted that heavy elements would be found in cosmic rays. The prediction was confirmed twenty-two years later.

In the 1950s Hoyle collaborated with William Alfred Fowler and Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge in developing a theory on the origin of the elements, which earned Fowler the Nobel Prize for physics in 1983. In 1957 they published I. Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, the first comprehensive account how the elements are produced in the interior of stars. The "I" in the title meant that there would be a second paper. However, part II never appeared. Fowler has acknowledged his debt to Hoyle in his autobiography written for the Nobel Foundation: "Fred Hoyle was the second great influence in my life. The grand concept of nucleosynthesis in stars was first definitely established by Hoyle in 1946." (God's Big Bang by L.G. Bullard, 2009, p. 161)

Hoyle was a staff member of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories from 1956 until 1965. In 1958 Hoyle became Plumian professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge. The work took him to the top of the British astronomical establishment. One of his many achievements was the founding of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge. It started in 1967 and Hoyle served as the first director. Hoyle also was vice president of the council of the Royal Society, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, member of the Science Research Council from 1967 to 1972, and a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society and of the National Academy of Sciences. Hoyle was knighted in 1972, at the age of 57, but at that time he felt he had had enough of the Cambridge system and resigned from his formal appointments in the UK. During this period he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Inferno (1973), in which the nucleus of the Milky Way explodes. Cosmic particles cause a disaster, which wipes out nearly all human life. The protagonist is a physicist who represents the voice of reason in the chaos. He becomes the leader of a clan in Scotland. Hoyle's message is clear – scientists should rule the world at a time of global threat.

After leaving Cambridge Hoyle worked at the California Institute of Technology, and at Cornell. Hoyle's nomadic phase ended by the spring of 1977 – Hoyle stayed outside the United Kingdom during these years mainly due to the tax laws of the Wilson government. The intervening years he spent partly in writing, in research, and partly in giving lectures. He published books on a wide variety of subjects, which were noted for their originality. Between the years 1975 and 1985 he examined the big problem of the origin of life. With Chandra Wickramasinghe, his former student, he wrote among others Lifecloud (1978), on the origin of disease, and Diseases from Space (1979) and Evolution from Space (1981). In these works he argued that organic molecules from comets are deposited on Earth during close encounters or impacts, they join the gene pool and make evolution possible. Hoyle's idea of the cosmic nature of life was considered heretical. (The word "panspermia" dates back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxorags.) Copernicus (1973) dealt with the history of astronomy. From Stonehenge to Modern Cosmology (1972) was about archeo-astronomy.

At the end of his autobiography, Home Is Where The Wind Blows (1994) Hoyle wrote: "After a lifetime of crabwise thinking, I have gradually become aware of the towering intellectual structure of the world. One article of faith I have about it is that, whatever the end may be for each of us, it cannot be a bad one." (Ibid., p. 423) Hoyle died in Bournemouth on August 20, 2001.

Often in Hoyle's novels the heroes are scientist, who are opposed by politicians. When a situation of crisis arises, politicians want to hide the truth from people and army officers react with missiles. Alien or cosmic intelligence is beyond human comprehension, but also dangerously ignorant of the value of human life. A sentient molecular cloud kills in The Black Cloud (1957) nonchalantly one quarter of the world's population. (Hoyle had already in 1940 made a theoretical prediction of the existence of interstellar molecules.)  In The Westminster Disaster (1978) the buildings of Whitehall come "down like so many rotten fruit" after a terrorist attack. Scientists are not hindered by catastrophes in their attempt to communicate with super-intelligence – they are objective and willing to learn the secrets of the universe. In Ossian's Ride (1959) the protagonist gladly joins aliens who plan to transform Earth into a high-tech world.

The Black Cloud dealt with one of Hoyle's favorite subjects – intelligent life in the universe. The story starts in the year 1964. At Mt. Palomar Knut Jensen finds that a giant cloud of interstellar gas is approaching the solar system. Professor Chris Kingsley from Cambridge calculates that the cloud will come between the Sun and Earth, which will lead to a global catastrophe. Hoyle follows the work of the scientist and reactions of politicians who first want to keep the cosmic threat a secret. Hoyle's attitude to civilians is ironic; only the scientist can coolly analyze the situation. The effects of the cloud are disastrous when it arrives in the solar system. But it turns out that the cloud is alive, and it starts to communicate with the scientist – it has opinions about music, the roles of men and women, evolution, and the origin of headaches. When the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union try to destroy it with missiles, it sends them back. At the end, the cloud leaves the solar system, encouraging humankind to create more geniuses.

"Of course, it's hard to make any great claims for this as literature. The characterisation is rudimentary and the prose sometimes clunky. But the beauty of such a story is that you can be a second-rate novelist and still produce a first-rate yarn. And the interesting thing about the book, apart from its ability to enthrall, is that it hasn't really dated, or has dated only in inconsequential or charming ways." ('The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – review' by Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, 23 October, 2010)

The story also aroused the interest of Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1945. He told once to Hoyle that he had studied it together with Carl Jung, who wrote a critical essay on it. "I didn't have the temerity to explain that I thought I was only writing a story. But I had an intelligent life form in the story that didn't think in words, a form that had to learn words before it could communicate with man. Pauli knew all about Schrödinger's cat, about arguments over the origins of mathematics, while Jung knew about human emotions. So it was evidently the problem of what lies behind words that had been occupying them." (Home is Where the Wind Blows by Fred Hoyle, 1997, p. 310)

With John Elliot Hoyle co-wrote the BBC television serials A For Andromeda (1961) and Andromeda Breakthrough (1962), starring Julie Christie. In the story messages from the direction of the Andromeda galaxy contain a blueprint for making a female android. Rockets in Ursa Major (1962) was originally written for the Mermaid Theatre. In the story a rocket ship, launched to Ursa Major, returns without the crew, with a message from its captain: "If this ship returns to Earth, then mankind is in deadly peril – God help you – ". (Ibid., p. 30) Earth is drawn into a galactic war, but with the help of human-like aliens, the world is saved, not evacuated.

"All other eating places were now completely automatized, choice remaining only in the different ways of ordering one's food, and I suppose the decor came into it. For instance, the inexpensive cafés are very simple. You sit at a long table with a moving panel in the middle. Having chosen from the menu list, you punch your choice and the food comes up within seconds on the moving panel. In more expensive restaurants there are separate tables. A microphone is used to order food. According to the advertisements, this is the personalized way." (from Rockets in Ursa Major by Fred Hoyle, 1969, p. 112)

In Fifth Planet (1963) the year is 2087. A new solar system with a sun named Helios, approaches ours, but would not really disturb the orbital path of the Earth. The Euro-American and Communist blocks launch rival rocketship expeditions to explore Achilles, the planet of Helios. The western crew, professor Hugh Conway, Mike Fawsett and two other members, lose the race – the Russians land first, but unluckily. The planet is Earth-like with its atmosphere and green hills. In the spirit of détente the crews work together and find a strange transparent construction, but not much else. An alien returns to Earth in the body of Fawsett, and then takes the body of Cathy, Conway's wife, telling him the secret of cosmic lifebank. Conway accepts the marriage of human and alien mind. A global hallucination of the nuclear war shocks the world. Conway escapes to the grassy wandering planet with Cathy, carrying the homesick alien.

For further reading: 'Hoyle, Sir Fred,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer (1990); 'Hoyle, [Sir] Fred' by JC [John Clute], in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1995); The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle, edited by Douglas Gough (2005); Fred Hoyle's Universe by Jane Gregory (2005); A Journey with Fred Hoyle: the Search for Cosmic Life by Chandra Wickramasinghe; edited by Kamala Wickramasinghe (2005); Fred Hoyle: a Life in Science by Simon Mitton (2005); Conflict in the Cosmos: Fred Hoyle's Life in Science by Simon Mitton (2005); God's Planet by Owen Gingerich (2014); A Great Man of Science: An Appraisal of the Works of Fred Hoyle by Francis A. Andrew (2015); Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate by Paul Halpern (2021) - Note: Arthur C. Clarke has prophesied that in the year 2061 first humans land on Halley's Comet, and the discovery of both dormant and active life-forms vindicates Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's hypothesis that life is omnipresent throughout space. "The astronomer Fred Hoyle once remarked to me that it was pointless for the world to hold more people than one could get to know in a single lifetime. Even if one were president of United Earth, that would set the figure somewhere between ten thousand and one hundred thousand; with a very generous allowance for duplication, wastage, special talents, and so forth, there really seems no requirement for what has been called the global village of the future to hold moire than a million people scattered over the face of the planet." (Arthur C. Clarke in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds, 1999)

Selected works:

  • 'The Synthesis of the Elements from Hydrogen', 1946
  • The Nature of Universe, 1950
    - Maailmankaikkeuden kehitys: radioesitelmäsarja (suom. R.A. Hirvonen, 1951)
  • Frontiers of Astronomy, 1955
  • Men And Materialism, 1956
  • Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, 1957 (with William Fowler and Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge)
  • The Black Cloud, 1957
    - Musta pilvi (suom. Mirja Tolsa, 1961)
  • A for Andromeda: A Novel for Tomorrow, 1962 (with John Elliot)
    - A niin kuin Andromeda (Suomen Kuvalehti 24-41/1962)
    TV series 1961, starring Esmond Knight, Patricia Kneale, Peter Halliday, Noel Johnson; television series A come Andromeda, 1972, dir. by Vittorio Cottafavi, starring Tino Carraro, Paola Pitagora, Nicoletta Rizzi, Luigi Vannucchi; television drama 2006, dir. by John Strickland, Tom Hardy, Charlie Cox, Kelly Reilly, Jane Asher, David Haig
  • Ossian's Ride, 1959
  • Astronomy, 1962
  • Rockets in Ursa Major, 1962 (play for children)
  • Star Formation, 1963
  • Fifth Planet, 1963 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
    -Viides planeetta (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1975)
  • Of Men and Galaxies, 1964
    - Tähtisumujen ja molekyylien välillä (suom. Kalevi Pusa, 1972)
  • Andromeda Breakthrough, 1965 (with John Elliot)
    - TV series in 1962, starring Peter Halliday, Mary Morris, Noel Johnson, John Hollis
  • Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars, 1965
  • October the First is Too Late, 1966 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
    - Los Angeles ei vastaa (suom. Liisa Korhonen)
  • Element 79, 1967
  • Rockets in Ursa Major, 1969 (with Geoffrey Hoyle, based on a play)
  • Seven Steps to the Sun, 1970 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Molecule Men and The Monster of Loch Ness, 1971 (with Geoffey Hoyle)
  • From Stonehenge to Modern Cosmology, 1972
  • The Inferno, 1973 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
    - Inferno (suom. Veikko Rekunen, 1982)
  • Nicolaus Copernicus: An Essay on His Life and Work, 1973
  • The Relation Of Physics And Cosmology, 1973
  • Into Deepest Space, 1974 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • Astronomy and Cosmology, 1975
  • Highlights in Astronomy / Astronony Today, 1975
  • Ten Faces Of The Universe, 1977
  • Energy Or Extinction? The Case for Nuclear Energy, 1977
  • The Incandescent Ones, 1977 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • On Stonehenge, 1977
  • Lifecloud: The Origin of Life in the Universe, 1978 (with Chandra Wickramasinghe)
  • The Westminster Disaster, 1978 (with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Cosmology of the Solar System, 1978
  • Diseases from Space, 1979 (with C. Wickramasinghe)
  • Space Travelers: The Origins of Life, 1980 (with C. Wickramasinghe)
  • Commonsense in Nuclear Energy, 1980
  • Evolution from Space: A Theory of Cosmic Creationism, 1981 (with C. Wickramasinghe)
  • Ice, 1981
  • The Universe According to Hoyle, 1982
  • Why Neo-Darwinism Does Not Work, 1982
  • The Energy Pirate, 1982 (the Professor Gamma series, with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Frozen Planet of Azuron, 1982 (the Professor Gamma series, with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Giants of Universal Park, 1982 (the Professor Gamma series, with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Planet of Death, 1982 (the Professor Gamma series, with Geoffrey Hoyle)
  • The Intelligent Universe, 1983
  • Comet Halley, 1985
  • Living Comets, 1985
  • Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird, 1986
  • The Small World of Fred Hoyle: An Autobiography, 1986
  • Cosmic Lifeforce, 1988 (with C. Wickramasinghe)
  • The Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion, 1993
  • Our Place in the Cosmos, 1993
  • Home Is Where the Wind Blows: Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life, 1994
  • Lectures on Cosmology and Action at a Distance Electrodynamics, 1996 (with Jayant V. Narlikar)
  • Life on Mars?: the Case for a Cosmic Heritage, 1997 (with Chandra Wickramasinghe; series editor and foreword, Paul R. Goddard)
  • Space and Eternal Life, 1998
  • Mathematics of Evolution, 1999
  • editor, with N.C. Wickramasinghe: Astronomical origins of Life: Steps Towards Panspermia, 2000 
  • A Different Approach to Cosmology: From a Static Universe Through the Big Bang Towards Reality, 2000 (with Geoffrey Burbidge and Jayant V. Narlikar)
  • Three Classic Novels: Ossian's Ride, October the First Is Too Late, Fifth Planet (Fred Hoyle's World of Science Fiction), 2016 (Kindle Edition)

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