Fred Hoyle: A life, in science, by Simon Mitton

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The Independent Culture

Fred Hoyle was the greatest astrophysicist of all time. He was the man, more than anyone else, who explained in detail how the stars work, and how they manufacture the chemical elements of which we and everything on Earth are composed.

Fred Hoyle was the greatest astrophysicist of all time. He was the man, more than anyone else, who explained in detail how the stars work, and how they manufacture the chemical elements of which we and everything on Earth are composed. Essentially single-handedly, in the 1960s he dragged astrophysical research in Britain out of the mire, and made Cambridge a centre of excellence which attracted the top theorists from around the world, and in particular the US.

These achievements have to some extent been overshadowed by his disagreements with the bureaucracies of Cambridge University and British science, which led him to work alone in the later part of his life, and by some unconventional scientific ideas which tarnished his reputation. But he died in 2001, and as time passes any cool reappraisal seems more inclined to increase his perceived stature. Simon Mitton's book is just such a cool appraisal, which reminds us why Hoyle was such an influential figure, and how much he achieved.

I was the first student at Hoyle's Institute of Theoretical Astronomy when it opened in Cambridge in 1967, and can vouch for the accuracy of Mitton's account of the decades that followed. I thought I knew a lot about the preceding period in Hoyle's life; but there were still surprises in store for me. In particular, I had never appreciated just how big a contribution Hoyle made to the development of naval radar in the Second World War.

His special achievement was to find a way to use existing, inadequate ship-borne radar to make identification of attacking aircraft easier. He saved countless lives, and made a major contribution to the success of the war at sea; but he never received any official honour for this because instead of inventing a new gizmo, he "merely" worked out with paper and pencil (and the laws of physics) a new technique for getting the most from existing technology.

The theme of lack of recognition recurred when he was the driving force behind the research programme which worked out in detail how the elements are made inside stars. He was the man who proved that we are made of stardust. Hoyle's colleague Willy Fowler later received the Nobel Prize for this work. Fowler was considerably embarrassed that in their ignorance the Nobel Committee did not include Hoyle in this award, but not sufficiently embarrassed to refuse the prize.

In the popular mind, if Hoyle is remembered it is as the prime mover of the discredited Steady State theory of the universe. "Everybody knows" that the rival Big Bang model won in the battle of the cosmologies, but few (not even astronomers) appreciate that the mathematical formalism of the now-favoured version of Big Bang, called inflation, is identical to Hoyle's version of the Steady State model.

Hoyle's lasting achievement was as a teacher and populariser of science. His books sold by the truckload, and his research students and their students spread out across the world with his ideas and approach. Modern astrophysics is largely built in Hoyle's image, and we get the full story of how that happened here. This is an informative rather than exciting book, but as Marilyn Monroe so nearly said in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, my goodness, isn't it informative!

John Gribbin is the author of 'Science: a history' (Penguin)

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