Fred Hoyle

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Professor Sir Fred Hoyle, who has died aged 86, was Britain's best-known astronomer and (until Stephen Hawking's work became generally known) physicist, as well as a much-admired writer of science fiction; he was also an outrageous mischief-maker who took a delight in enraging his academic colleagues.

He and his close associate, Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe, head of mathematics at University College, Wales, used to make other scientists so angry that some even wrote a special sub-program for their word processors which, by pressing a single key, caused the words "Contrary to the views of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe . . . " to appear on the screen.

The H & W keys were pressed liberally in January 1990, when the two men published an article in the journal Nature claiming that sunspots caused 'flu epidemics. Their conclusion, which infuriated medical scientists, was based on their rigidly held belief that space is full of viruses that cause not only 'flu but Aids and Legionnaire's disease as well. Storms on the Sun's surface (indicated by sunspots) were supposed to drive these viruses into the Earth's atmosphere, whereupon diseases spread.

Still greater fury arose from their claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was wrong, and that evolution occurred because mutating life forms continually fall from space. Nor, Hoyle thought, was this an accident. It was deliberately arranged long ago by a super-intelligent civilisation who wished to "seed" our planet.

To establish this case, they made claims that outraged their critics still further. The accusation that caused the most anger was that Archaeopteryx, one of the most significant pieces of evidence for natural selection, was a fake.

Archaeopteryx was a creature, half reptile, half bird, that lived about 60 million years ago. The fossil of this feathered reptile, one of the prides of the British Museum, showed that the creature was in the process of evolving from one species to another. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe rejected this inconvenient evidence by claiming that its feathers were actually made of concrete and were surreptitiously put there in 1861 by its discoverer, Carl Haeberlein.

Their book Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery (1986) was reviewed with unprecedented savagery in the New Scientist by the Reading University zoologist Beverly Halstead:

"This book is couched in such intemperate language and contains such demonstrable falsehoods, as well as hardly imaginable calumnies of persons unable to defend themselves, that it is exceedingly difficult not to fall into the trap of exploding into an emotional tirade. ts main thesis is patently ludicrous and can be proved to be false . . . We must ask the question: what is this all about? This is the unsavoury aspect, which makes this one of the most despicable pieces of writing it has been my misfortune ever to read.

"It displays utter contempt for minimal standards of scholarship -- the book seems to portray a hatred of Charles Darwin and a most involved and twisted mentality towards zoologists. This libellous nonsense will remain for a long time a stain on the reputations of both authors."

Dr Tom Kemp, curator of the University Museum at Oxford, added: "Certainly the claim that Archaeopteryx is a fake should be investigated. But the investigation should be done by those who actually understand fossils, not a couple of people who exhibit nothing more than a Gargantuan conceit that they are clever enough to solve other people's problems for them, when they do not even begin to recognise their nature and complexity."

Hoyle himself denied writing anything objectionable, but conceded: "We may have included a few mild sarcasms." The most puzzling aspect of these disputes was that Hoyle made many genuine and significant contributions to physics and astronomy. These included monumental examinations of the modelling of the structure of stars, nucleosynthesis, accretion theories, cosmology, and theories of star formation and planet condensation.

The most important was his discovery in 1958, with the American physicist William Fowler, of the way that the heavy chemical elements that fill our bodies, such as oxygen, carbon and iron, were forged in the nuclear furnaces of giant stars which later exploded and from whose relics the solar system was born. In short, we are literally made of stardust. But this epochal discovery was strangely rewarded. Fowler won a Nobel prize for it, but Hoyle, to his justifiable annoyance, did not.

Until the end of his life, Hoyle championed the "steady state" theory of the universe which maintained that the cosmos had no beginning. This was despite increasing evidence, amounting in the view of many to proof, that the cosmos began in a Big Bang some 12,000 million years ago. (It was Hoyle himself who, mockingly, coined the term "Big Bang". But the phrase stuck.) In 1992, when the American George Smoot found tell-tale ripples in the fabric of the cosmos, Hoyle refused to accept it. "I have an aesthetic bias against the Big Bang," he admitted.

He also challenged the evidence of the radio astronomer Sir Martin Ryle, who in the 1960s had found similar, if less conclusive, evidence of cosmic origins. Barbara Gamow, the wife of the pro-Big Bang astronomer George Gamow, was inspired to describe their dispute in verse:
"Your years of toil,"
Said Ryle to Hoyle,
"Are wasted years, believe me,
The steady state
Is out of date
Unless my eyes deceive me,
"My telescope
Has dashed your hope;
Your tenets are refuted.
Let me be terse:
Our universe
Grows daily more diluted!"
Said Hoyle, "You quote
Lemaitre, I note,
And Gamow, well, forget them!
That errant gang
And their Big Bang --
Why aid them and abet them?
"You see, my friend,
It has no end
And there was no beginning.
As Bondi, Gold,
And I will hold
Until our hair is thinning!"
In 1985, when Halley's Comet visited the Earth, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's theory of space viruses gave them the chance to start another furious quarrel. They accused an American astronomer, J Mayo Greenberg, of plagiarism.

Greenberg developed a theory that space contains "pre-organic" material which Hoyle and Wickramasinghe said was an unacknowledged copy of their own theory. "We must congratulate him on his startling accuracy," they said slyly. "These two men are constantly making these stupid accusations against me," Greenberg retorted. "I think they have never forgiven me for pointing out some years ago at a public meeting that they had made an elementary scientific error."

Hoyle was a masterly science fiction writer. One of his finest novels, The Black Cloud, published in 1957, described a mysterious cloud of cosmic dust which approached the solar system and parked around the Sun, blocking light and creating a temporary Ice Age. It turned out that the cloud was intelligent and using solar energy to replenish itself. The plot closely mirrored Hoyle's contempt for politicians and his ideas about a cosmic super-intelligence.

Equally frightening was his A for Andromeda (1962), which became a television series, in which radio instructions were received from aliens, telling humans how to build an all-powerful and destructive machine. He also wrote a children's play, Rockets in Ursa Major, which in 1962 ran in the West End, and a libretto, The Alchemy of Love.

He wrote many other works of fiction and non-fiction including (with his son Geoffrey) Common Sense and Nuclear Energy (1979). In this he made a convincing case for nuclear power. Ryle, still smarting from the cosmological dispute, attacked the book bitterly, and a furious correspondence ensued. Hoyle, in his autobiography Home is Where The Wind Blows (1994), remarked cryptically that Ryle lacked his own "sense of humour".

Fred Hoyle was born on June 24 1915, at Bingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was educated at Bingley Grammar School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied Mathematics. In 1939, he was elected a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. He conducted research for the Admiralty during the Second World War.

Hoyle received numerous scientific prizes, honorary degrees and professorships. His many other books included Frontiers of Astronomy (1955), Man and Materialism (1956), Star Formation (1963), Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars (1965), The Relation of Physics and Cosmology (1973), Ten Faces of the Universe (1977), On Stonehenge (1977) and The Cosmogony of the Solar System (1978).

Hoyle was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and knighted in 1972. He served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1971-3. He held visiting professorships at numerous British and American universities, including the California Institute of Technology (in both astrophysics and astronomy) and Cornell University, where he was Professor-at-Large. He founded the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, where he was Plumian Professor of Astronomy from 1958 until 1972. In 1997, he was awarded the Crafoord Prize, designed to honour work in fields ineligible for Nobel Prizes, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He married, in 1939, Barbara Clark. They had a son and a daughter.

(Filed: 22/08/2001) © Telegraph Group Limited.