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David Nightingale: Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) Part 1

This essay is about Fred Hoyle, but first we should say who he was.

The late Walter Sullivan of the New York Times called Hoyle 'one of the most creative and provocative astrophysicists of the last half of the 20th Century' as well as a 'lifelong rebel, eager for intellectual combat' [ref.2,p.339].

Hoyle was the author, with his son, of a dozen science fiction novels, the most well-known being "The Black Cloud"; he was Plumian Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cambridge, and was the main proponent of cosmology's Steady State Theory in opposition to the more accepted Big Bang Theory -- a phrase he coined in a popular BBC talk. He died in 2001.

He was a Yorkshire boy (i.e., halfway between Edinburgh and London), and he grew up in a village of fewer than 300 people. Their small house was near the big wall of an estate, owned by the people who ran the mill that his mother was first employed in -- until she saved enough money to take herself to London and attend the Royal Academy of Music.

In Hoyle's autobiography "Home is Where the Wind Blows" Hoyle describes how he and his young friends managed to find a break in the estate wall and describes the grim-looking house there as (quote) 'surely designed by some more-than-usually-insane architect in a fashion that would have done credit to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe' [Ibid,p.10]. Once, lifted by the ear by a brawny estate keeper and marched to one of the exits, he attributed some of his later deafness to this experience. (Shades of Edison's experience as a boy when a conductor lifted him onto the train by the ear.)

Hoyle had been born during the 1st WW and his father was almost immediately conscripted to fight in France. With her music diploma his mother managed to earn money playing accompaniments to silent films at the cinema in a nearby town, and one of Hoyle's earliest memories is of lying in bed at the age of 3 or 4 not only wondering what he would do if his mother never came back but also working multiplication tables in his head [p.13] but did not learn to read until he was 7.

His rather impoverished childhood never seemed to get him down. He describes how wooden clogs gave way to shoes, leather-soled -- which soon developed holes and were too costly to have repaired, and how children often sat in school with cold wet feet. His walk to the local school was about a mile and a quarter, there being no school buses of course [ibid p.22] -- and even by the time of university there would be holes in his shoes, a 2nd pair being beyond his reach.

At that first elementary school, when the syllabus included Roman numerals he asked the teacher how to multiply them [ibid p.45], and when told that you didn't multiply them, he says that this (quote) 'outrage to the intelligence' became his last day there. Subsequently, setting off from home in the mornings he gave his parents to understand he was in attendance, but had conveyed to another child at the school that he was (quote) 'confined at home with a ghastly illness.' That bubble lasted, writes Hoyle, about 6 weeks until burst by another parent asking Fred's mother how he was ...

He spent his free days exploring in the fields and woods, watching things like steamrollers, and being absorbed by the series of locks on the nearby canal. After his  ruse had come to light his parents chose another elementary school, but when a teacher told him that a certain wildflower that he was very familiar with from his walks to school had only 5 petals while he had always counted 6, he received a stinging flat-handed blow to the ear again, and thus told his mother he had no desire to remain in school at all.

After 2 or 3 weeks he and his mother were summoned to the offices of the local education committee, where Fred opened his tin box to show that the flower in question indeed had 6 petals. The committee agreed to a stand-off of home-schooling from his mother.

His father had possessed an old book on elementary chemistry experiments, and 7 year old Fred now became totally absorbed doing explosive and stinky experiments at home.

Ultimately, Fred's loving parents sent him back to the elementary school, where he caught up his grades and managed to win a scholarship to the high school -- a 2 hour walk away, four times a day.

I'm out of time but it's my hope to submit, 3 weeks from now, a 2nd part on the life of Sir Fred Hoyle, former Director of the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cambridge, and look at his work on nucleosynthesis, and the origin of the universe.


1. "Home is Where the Wind Blows; Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life", by Fred Hoyle; University Science Books, Mill Valley California 94941.

2.  "Fred Hoyle's Universe", by Jane Gregory; Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon St., Oxford OX26DP, UK

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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