Volatile Stardust

The fertile mind of astronomer Fred Hoyle.


Conflict in the Cosmos: Fred Hoyle's Life in Science, by Simon Mitton, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 401 pages, $27.95 Fred Hoyle's Universe, by Jane Gregory, New York: Oxford University Press, 406 pages, $29.95

Fred Hoyle (1915?2001) was an English astronomer, cosmologist, science popularizer, science fiction writer, combative gadfly, and restless intellect. He was in the thick of debates about science and religion, evolution and creation; his name and ideas live on in today's growing strife over whether the natural world bears the fingerprints of an intelligent designer.

Hoyle moved gradually from a position as one of the world's most prominent scientists–he's the man who coined the term "Big Bang," albeit as an opponent of the idea–to a figure whose views frequently fell outside the scientific mainstream. Since his death, his ideas have been selectively adopted by people even further from mainstream science, among them creationists, even though Hoyle himself believed in a steady-state universe without a creator.

Hoyle's busy life and eclectic ideas present a challenge to biographers, who must choose where to focus their accounts. Simon Mitton's Conflict in the Cosmos and Jane Gregory's Fred Hoyle's Universe are both worthwhile treatments, and each has strengths that largely make up for the other's weaknesses. Mitton, an astronomer and science editor, displays a firm grasp of the mainstream science involved but has less to say about Hoyle's heterodox theories. Gregory, a science studies lecturer, is more comprehensive in covering Hoyle's work, including his most adventurous speculations (and the plots of his novels).

Conflict in the Cosmos is mostly arranged thematically, as Mitton focuses on one area of Hoyle's work at a time. This approach helps disentangle scientific complexities but somewhat dissipates the sense of a life as it was lived. Fred Hoyle's Universe offers a more conventional chronological narrative. Mitton's discussion of Hoyle's later decades is oddly flat, given that Mitton knew Hoyle and was involved in publishing his work during that time. But it is Mitton who presents the more absorbing and in-depth account of Hoyle's early life.

Hoyle was born and raised in the Yorkshire countryside of northern England. His family struggled economically, and young Fred spent much time as a truant on the moors. Once he took an interest in his studies, however, his prowess at science and math got him into Cambridge University. During World War II, he did useful radar research for the British military before resuming his ascent through the academic ranks at Cambridge. In 1967 he founded an institute there devoted to theoretical astronomy, but he quit the university five years later in a dispute over control of the institute after it was merged with Cambridge's observatories. Hoyle was often arguing with someone, whether as a scientist or as an administrator. But he was laudably open-minded in letting researchers at his institute pursue their intellectual inclinations, rather than pushing a party line of his own ideas.

Hoyle came to public attention in 1950 by giving lectures on BBC Radio. He had a knack for public communication, and he became a prolific writer of books and articles, both popular and technical, nonfiction and fiction. His disputes with the Big Bang theorists made headlines, and laypeople as well as experts took sides in the cosmological controversy. His bureaucratic tussles at Cambridge and elsewhere also attracted media attention.

The 1950s and '60s, when Hoyle's visibility was at a peak, were a boom time for public interest in science. Partly this was because of Hoyle himself; his role as prominent science explainer was similar to that later played by the astronomer Carl Sagan. Such a role has some occupational hazards; both Hoyle and Sagan sparked jealousy among some of their peers and were too quick to opine beyond their expertise. Still, it is a worrisome sign for scientific literacy that nobody really fills their shoes today.

Throughout his career, Hoyle maintained a wide range of interests. He was an avid mountaineer, chess player, and would-be opera librettist. During one period at Caltech, he worked on a plan to put Los Angeles traffic in above-ground tubes that would vent smog to the Pacific. His politics leaned to the right, albeit with a technocratic emphasis on giving scientists funding and authority. He wrote a book criticizing the postwar Labour government for stifling economic growth and dismantling the empire. His science fiction books sold well, and his 1957 novel The Black Cloud, about an intelligent nebula entering our solar system, is a genre classic. He co-wrote A for Andromeda, a science fiction TV series, and picked actress Julie Christie for the leading role, launching her to stardom.

Hoyle's collaboration with scientists Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, colleagues in wartime radar research, led to the steady-state theory. Gold, inspired by the circular plot of the 1946 horror film Dead of Night, conceptualized a universe with neither beginning nor end. As the trio developed this idea, Hoyle theorized that the outward motion of galaxies, discovered in the 1920s, signified not an initial explosion but rather an ongoing creation of matter throughout space. He coined the term "Big Bang" in a radio broadcast to describe the opposing view; he would later say it was meant to be vivid, not derisive.

The emerging field of radio astronomy was deployed to test steady-state theory. Although results in the 1950s were inconclusive, the evidence gradually turned against the steady-state prediction that distant cosmic regions (observed as they were long ago) would look much like the nearer astronomical environs. The mid-1960s detection of the cosmic microwave background, a pervasive radiation field predicted by Big Bang theorists, turned professional opinion in cosmology sharply away from the steady state.

But Hoyle never gave up on steady-state theory, believing it ultimately would be vindicated in a more sophisticated form. Along with several colleagues, he modified it into a "quasi-steady-state cosmology" in which the universe periodically generates bursts of matter as it spins through a cycle of expansion and contraction. Such efforts gained little acceptance, striking many cosmologists as unwieldy or contrived. Yet Big Bang cosmology also evolved, shifting closer to Hoyle's view in some respects. The theory of cosmic inflation, in which the early universe expanded rapidly, bears a mathematical similarity to Hoyle's creation of matter, and in some variations it places the Big Bang's universe inside a larger, older cosmos.

The Big Bang's ascendance sparked headlines such as "The Bible was Right," and such cosmology continues to be cited as indicative of a divine creation. But the bang is something like a cosmic Rorschach blot, suitable also for atheistic interpretations. And biblical literalists have long argued that the Big Bang picture of a universe billions of years old is off by many orders of magnitude.

Unlike steady-state theory, Hoyle's ideas about nucleosynthesis, the formation of elements through nuclear reactions in stars, received striking empirical vindication. (When Joni Mitchell penned her classic song "Woodstock," she drew on the ideas pioneered by Hoyle: "We are stardust, billion-year-old carbon.") In particular, in the early 1950s he predicted that carbon has a certain resonance, or energy level, one not indicated by the nuclear physics of the time. Hoyle's reasoning was unconventional: Such a resonance was needed if the stars were to produce enough carbon for human and other carbon-based life to exist. A skeptical Caltech physicist named William Fowler ran experiments seeking the specified resonance and promptly found it.

This result would feed, over time, into arguments about a supposed "fine tuning" of the universe. Some physicists use "anthropic" reasoning to narrow unknown quantities in cosmic parameters; if they were outside some range, we would not be here ("we" being carbon-based life, and "here" being the observable universe). Few, however, make the further leap that the parameters were deliberately set for the benefit of life. Hoyle, by his later decades, was in the latter camp. "A common sense interpretation of the facts," he wrote, "suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

Yet Hoyle's concept of this super-intellect, though somewhat vague, was different from ideas consonant with traditional theism. He thought it was part and parcel of the natural world, rather than a supernatural being. Such an entity might be diffused throughout the universe, in clouds of living matter; perhaps, he suggested, it was reconstituting itself on Earth, as the latest turn in a cosmic cycle.

By this point, Hoyle was veering increasingly far from the scientific mainstream. He became convinced that extraterrestrial life had seeded Earth's biology and shaped its ongoing development. Extrapolating from the presence of carbon compounds in interstellar dust, Hoyle and the Cardiff astronomer Chandra Wickramasinghe argued that genetic material rains onto Earth and becomes incorporated into terrestrial genomes. Diseases were one consequence of this, marked by correlations between outbreaks and celestial phenomena such as comets and meteor storms. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggested that the AIDS virus arrived from space in the mid-1970s and was originally passed to humans from rainwater via cuts on their feet.

Scientific reaction to such ideas was overwhelmingly dismissive, sometimes hostile. Reviewing one of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's life-from-space books, the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins said it was "not worth the paper it is written on." Further controversy ensued over the authenticity of the Natural History Museum's celebrated fossil specimen of archaeopteryx, a transitional species between dinosaurs and birds. Few scientists were impressed by the claims of Hoyle and several collaborators that the fossil's feather impressions were made by someone using bird feathers and cement.

Disputes like these brought Hoyle favorable attention from critics of Darwinian evolution. There were, however, notable differences between Hoyle's views and those of the antievolutionists. Hoyle's life-from-space picture was naturalistic; it could supplement rather than replace the Darwinian view. Moreover, in criticizing Big Bang theory as leaving insufficient time for life to develop, Hoyle was at an opposing extreme from biblical literalists who thought the universe was merely a few thousand years old.

Such tensions became evident during an Arkansas legal battle in the early 1980s, when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a state law requiring that creationism be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Hoyle wrote a London Times article arguing that Darwinism deserved no privileged status, and Wickramasinghe went to Arkansas to testify for the state. Under cross-examination, Wickramasinghe said that there was no scientific basis for positing a universe thousands of years old, and that he and Hoyle believed it to be "essentially eternal." When he later upheld the ACLU's challenge, the judge expressed puzzlement that the state had called a witness so inimical to its case.

Nevertheless, one piece of Hoyle's thinking frequently resurfaces in arguments for creationism and intelligent design. Hoyle depicted the presumed origin of life from nonliving matter on the primordial Earth as being as implausible as the assembly of a functional jetliner by a tornado whirling through a junkyard. This analogy is vivid but dubious. The standard scientific view assumes life to have originated not in a single leap from simple chemicals to cells but through gradual accumulations of chemical complexity. Yet the junkyard tornado analogy spins on, often shorn of its origin-of-life context and serving as a supposed point against any evolutionary change.

The Nobel Prize committee eventually honored William Fowler, the man who confirmed Hoyle's carbon resonance prediction, but Hoyle himself never won a Nobel, even though many scientists believed he deserved one for his work on stellar nucleosynthesis. The Nobel committee may have been deterred by his more far-out ideas. Still, Hoyle received various other honors, was knighted as Sir Fred, and died at age 86, having generated much light as well as heat.