© 2023
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David Nightingale: Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) Part 2

Three weeks ago I described some of Fred Hoyle's rebellious childhood, which included truancy from school and wandering in the fields as a little boy, making toxic phosphene in his mother's kitchen -- but I didn't describe how, after failing twice, he won a full scholarship to Cambridge. There, partly because his heroes, James Jeans and Arthur Eddington had trained in mathematics, he also decided for the grueling 3 year math tripos. He was awarded the Mayhew Prize, and a year into graduate work the Smith Prize. Paul Dirac took him on as a research student, on the understanding that Hoyle would work on whatever he wanted and that they would never bother each other. His 'official' advisor was German-educated Rudolph Peierls, who had studied under Heisenberg.

Peierls gave Hoyle a problem concerning the Fermi reaction (Beta decay), which, with Hoyle's increasing theoretical knowledge in both quantum physics and statistical mechanics, he solved within a year and which became his first publication. He was then drafted into WW2, to work on radar countermeasures for the war at sea.

After the war (1946) he returned to Cambridge as a low paid junior lecturer in mathematics, so low paid that he and his young wife found it difficult to pay their taxes. Using Cambridge University's long summers and Easter and Christmas breaks he began to work on nucleosynthesis, which is the subject that shows how chemical elements can be formed inside hot stars. He was soon invited to Caltech to join a group working on the same subject, but insisted, on purely mathematical grounds, that the energy level in the carbon nucleus had to have a particular value (7.65 Mev) which had not been found in the experiments done at Caltech and MIT. Hoyle insistently asked that the experiments be repeated. After some reluctance from the labs his predicted 7.65 Mev energy level was found -- which meant that the previous stumbling block of nucleosynthesis going no further than Beryllium was now removed. Consequently it could now be shown that all the known elements could be produced from hydrogen, under very high temperatures and pressures, as in extremely hot stars.

Hoyle was a good writer, and after being invited to give some Saturday evening lectures for the BBC suddenly found himself popular -- as well as earning more from those five talks than his measly Cambridge Fellowship yielded in a year. In his fifth talk, on cosmology and the expanding universe, he coined the term 'big bang', although he put forward an alternative model of the universe -- his so-called steady state model. This model, in order to account for the expansion of the universe, involved a small but continuous creation of matter, in defiance of basic conservation laws in physics. Nevertheless he felt that such defiance was on a par with Big Bang's creation of a universe from nothing.

His work in theoretical astrophysics got Hoyle appointed to Eddington's former position -- Plumian Professor of Astronomy at the age of 43, which at last allowed Hoyle and his wife to pay their taxes.

Hoyle never lost his rebelliousness. When the young Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars, the later Nobel Prize went to her adviser, not to her. Hoyle said publicly that she discovered them and should have won -- which didn't win him friends in Cambridge.

Because of ongoing internecine faculty battles Hoyle resigned at the age of 57, despite a colleague saying 'no-one ever resigns a Cambridge professorship'. With no further salary he and his wife moved to the Lake District -- they both loved hiking -- and, still in demand in many countries as a visiting astrophysicist he supported himself by lecturing and writing science fiction novels with his son. The best-known of his novels is The Black Cloud. Still very much into hiking, Hoyle climbed all 282 Munros of Scotland (a Munro is over 3000 feet) in his 60s, often with other scientists.

Finally, while his steady-state theory is now considered to be wrong, the country boy from Yorkshire was knighted for his huge contributions to astronomy. He died in 2001 after a series of strokes.


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.

Related Content