Fred Hoyle

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Astronomer who propounded the 'steady state' theory of the Universe and defended it energetically in defiance of orthodox cosmology

Professor Sir Fred Hoyle, FRS, astronomer and writer, was born on June 24, 1915. He died on August 20, 2001, aged 86.

Between 1945 and 1970, the range and significance of Fred Hoyle's contributions to astro-physics and cosmology probably surpassed those of any other scientist in the world, and he was internationally acclaimed for his original work on stars, galaxies, gravity and the origin of atoms.

Although he also became known as a populariser of science and as a science fiction author, he will always be associated with his "steady state" theory of the Universe, which he first proposed in 1948. His views were shared by Hermann Bondi and Tommy Gold, and followed earlier suggestions by James Jeans and Paul Dirac, but it was Hoyle's name with which they were principally associated.

From the outset, Hoyle propounded the theory with great energy, and it became a popular talking point. He became simply "Fred Hoyle" to all and sundry at a time when other astrophysicists tended to be styled by their academic titles and public honours. When, in 1950, he gave his memorable Third Programme talks on The Nature of the Universe, it was said that they won greater audiences not only than Bertrand Russsell and C. E. M. Joad, but than such popular figures as Tommy Handley and Wilfred Pickles.

The theory of the steady state took direct issue with orthodox cosmology, the expanding Universe, which Hoyle ironically styled the "Big Bang theory". This much older idea was that the Universe had started life a finite time ago in a single huge explosion, and that the present expansion, though much slower, is the result of these violent origins. Hoyle, however, argued that the galaxies moved apart, and envisaged that new ones form in the gaps between them.

This theory had the virtue of being testable by observations, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was the focus of noisy and often acrimonious disagreement. The findings of radio astronomers at Cambridge, who were able to discover new types of galaxies and to measure their radio emissions, tended to support the Big Bang theory, suggesting as they did that very remote galaxies must be a part of the expanding Universe process. Hoyle and his associates objected that these radio counts were inaccurate and defended their position.

By the mid 1960s Hoyle's theory was generally on the retreat after two American engineers working on a short-wavelength radio system for a different purpose discovered to their surprise that low-level radiation was uniform in every part of the sky. This was interpreted as being left over from the hot Big Bang, evidence that the Universe had cooled so that matter became dominant over the intense radiation of the early epoch.

Although by the late 1960s the evidence for the Big Bang theory was, to most cosmologists, compelling, discussion on the relative merits of both theories continued. Hoyle can be credited with having led a revolution in British astrophysics which at least banished an uncritical acceptance of cosmological orthodoxy. He had also personally done a great deal to clarify the theory of the Big Bang, though he was never fully reconciled to the evidence. His recent book, A Different Approach to Cosmology, presented a robust defence of a compromise "quasi-steady state".

Hoyle's achievements ranged much wider, however. He retained his engaging wit and relish for an argument throughout his long life, and stirred debate, for instance, with his belief that life is not unique to Earth, but was brought here by organisms from outer space.

His inventiveness and originality also extended to science fiction, which he wrote successfully for more than three decades, winning a devoted following. His most famous novel was October The First Is Too Late, in which Britain and Hawaii remain in 1966, the Americas are switched back to the 15th century and the Soviet Union exists in a future time when the surface of the Earth is a plate of glass.

Hoyle also wrote the television serial A for Andromeda and the children's play Rockets in Ursa Major. When this was performed in 1962 at the Mermaid Theatre, one critic wrote: "Seldom can scientific mumbo-jumbo have sounded so convincing." This writing, Hoyle believed, complemented his serious work, in the middle of which he would stop to indulge in what he called "whimsical fantasies." He was convinced that really important discoveries were most likely to come from an exercise of creative imagination.

With his independence of mind, he retained all that was agreeable of the natural manner and voice associated with his native Yorkshire, and this captivated millions who intuitively appreciated his genuineness and the profundity of his knowledge. Huge numbers of people (including many who later won scientific distinction) received initial inspiration from his famous BBC radio talks, and from books such as Frontiers of Astronomy.

Fred Hoyle was born at Bingley in Yorkshire, the son of a wool merchant descended from Huguenot refugees. His mother had worked in the woollen mills, but had saved enough money to take herself to the Royal College of Music. During the First World War she played the piano to accompany silent films, but was sacked for working in Beethoven's sonatas.

By the age of nine or ten Hoyle could navigate by the stars, and by the age of 13 he was staying up all night sometimes with a telescope. From Bingley Grammar School, Hoyle went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1933 to read maths. There he developed rapidly, the first herald of his distinction being the Mayhew Prize, which he won in the Tripos of 1936, followed in 1938 by the first Smith's Prize. He was elected to fellowship of St John's in 1939 for a thesis on quantum electrodynamics.

Although concentrating at first on theoretical physics, he became fascinated by the theoretical work of men such as Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans in Britain, and by the great observational advances of distant galaxies then being made in the United States by Edwin Hubble and others.

His first papers concerned what it is that makes stars shine, and he soon began to make his mark by propounding original hypotheses -- some of them with R. A. Lyttleton -- about how stars evolved by accreting interstellar gas. These ideas were not always favourably received by his more conservative elders.

The war took Hoyle away from Cambridge to engage in technical projects for the Admiralty, such as radar. He found himself working with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, and in spare moments they shared ideas that were to figure prominently in Hoyle's postwar researches. The most celebrated outcome of this collaboration was the steady state theory.

From 1945 Hoyle was based in Cambridge, first as lecturer in maths, and from 1958 as Plumian Professor of Astronomy. But he made regular visits to the United States, where, with a series of distinguished collaborators, he contributed key ideas on the physics of stars and galaxies.

One of his outstanding and durable contributions was his pivotal role in discovering that the elements of the periodic table are the outcome of nuclear reactions in stars and supernovae. He argued that all the atoms of carbon, silicon, and iron on Earth (and in our bodies) were forged from hydrogen in faraway stars which lived and died before our solar system formed. The details emerged during a long and fruitful collaboration with the nuclear physicist William Fowler, who made many of the key laboratory measurements needed to make this theory quantitative. A classic book-length article which Hoyle wrote in 1957 with Fowler and their longstanding collaborators Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, codified this theory of "nucleogenesis". This presentation of the theory has largely stood the test of time, although Hoyle and others added details, particularly regarding the role of supernova explosions.

In parallel, Hoyle kept up his researches in solar physics, on the origin of the solar system, the structure of galaxies, quasars, and the nature of gravity. During the 1960s, with his former student and long-term collaborator J. V. Narlikar, he formulated a new theory of gravitation, though it never achieved wide acceptance.

His theory was based on ideas resembling those earlier applied to electromagnetism, which held that influences passing both forwards and backwards in time had to be taken into account. This idea, however, was bypassed by the dramatic advances in relativity theory made by Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking and their associates.

Committee work and administration held little attraction for Hoyle but nonetheless, during the 1960s and early 1970s particularly, he served effectively on the Science Research Council, the Council of the Royal Society, and other national bodies. He was knighted in 1972.

In Cambridge, his energetic advocacy and fundraising led to the creation in 1966 of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, of which he became the first Director. Among the younger members of that institute were Hawking, Brandon Carter and Martin Rees, and others who later achieved prominence, with encouragement from Hoyle despite differences of scientific perspective. Hoyle was also pivotal in establishing the Anglo-Australian Observatory, which for the first time guaranteed British astronomers access to a world-class optical telescope, in Coonabarabran, New South Wales.

A regrettable dispute about funding and appointments led to Fred Hoyle's premature retirement from Cambridge in 1972. He thereafter based himself for many years in the Lake District (hill-walking being one of his lifelong enthusiasms), and held visiting positions at various universities.

The first of his many science fiction novels, The Black Cloud (1957) -- about an alien intelligence embodied in a cloud of interstellar gas that threatens to engulf the Earth -- is a classic. His frank and entertaining autobiography Home is Where the Wind Blows (1994) offers a specially fine evocation of his early life in Yorkshire.

In later life his scientific interests diversified, and he became frequently enmeshed in controversy on issues from epidemiology to archaeology. With the encouragement of Glyn Daniel he wrote a book arguing that Stonehenge was an elaborate astronomical observatory, and he also made regular appearances in the broadsheets' letters columns.

On one occasion he wrote to say that life could not have originated on Earth but was -- and is still being -- transported here on comets, the modern version of the Tanspermia theory, which he worked on with Chandra Wickramasinghe. On another occasion he claimed that BSE was the result of small particles of bacterial and viral sizes descending through the Earth's stratosphere during the winter months. He also declared that patterns of winter epidemics, and in particular of influenza, which spread according to where individuals lived and worked rather than according to the people with whom they were in contact, suggested a viral agent falling through the atmosphere.

His thoughts were also recalled in letters from other readers, one of whom remembered Hoyle saying: "I find myself wondering whether somewhere there is a cricket team that could beat the Australians."

Hoyle received many honours from learned societies and international bodies, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, the UN Kalinga Prize, and the Balzan Prize. It was widely felt that he should have shared William Fowler's Nobel Prize, but the Swedish Academy made at least partial amends by later awarding him its 1997 Crafoord Prize.

He is survived by his wife Barbara, whom he married in 1939, and by his son and daughter.

© The Times, 2001

From Mr Donald Francke

Sir, Contrary to your otherwise excellent obituary of the late Professor Sir Fred Hoyle (August 22), his mother did not study the pianoforte at the Royal College of Music but at the Royal Academy of Music, London, renowned for the excellence of its teaching this instrument in the last century.

Mrs Hoyle was indeed "sacked" by a Bingley cinema manager for playing Beethoven. She decided that the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata was a far better accompaniment to Cowboy and Indian chase scenes than the usual, hackneyed diddle-diddle-dum-diddle-diddle-dum, etc. After her dismissal, audience attendances dropped off and so she was reinstated, whereupon the patronage grew again. The cinema manager, making his own research amongst customers as to why this was so, was told that the public did not come to see his films but to hear Mrs Hoyle play.

I remain, Sir, yours truly, DONALD FRANCKE, 10 Polworth Road, Streatham, SW16 2EU.

August 23 2001 © The Times, 2001