Boy from Bingley 'lobbed intellectual grenades' at science

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The Independent Online

To some he was a towering intellect who dominated the rarefied atmosphere of astronomy for a quarter of a century. To others he was a stubborn iconoclast who consistently chose the wrong scientific shibboleths to shake.

Professor Sir Fred Hoyle, whose death at the age of 86 was announced yesterday, was always original, often controversial and never boring.

He will be remembered for his pioneering work in cosmology, his books on science fiction and his support of radical and highly speculative theories of how the Earth is being bombarded by microbes from outer space, causing, among other things, outbreaks of flu, BSE and even Aids.

In an age when science is dominated by its media superstars – from Stephen Hawking and Susan Greenfield to Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins – it is easy to forget that Hoyle was the original voice of popular science. His BBC radio broadcasts in 1950 are said to have made him more popular than the variety entertainers Tommy Handley and Wilfred Pickles.

It was in those same radio talks that Hoyle first coined the term "Big Bang" to describe the idea that the universe was created in a massive explosion at some definite point in the distant past. Hoyle meant his catchy alliteration to be tongue-in-cheek – he did not believe in the Big Bang – but the name stuck.

Hoyle had already formulated his own "steady state" theory, which proposed that the universe had always existed in a form not so different from what we know today. He never renounced his belief in the steady-state universe, even though support for the Big Bang grew steadily over the latter half of the 20th century.

"It was rather sad that he didn't accept that the evidence was piling up against him," said Professor Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who in the Sixties was a research fellow in Hoyle's Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge.

Professor Rees remembers Hoyle as an intellectual giant. "I would say that between 1945 and 1970 he injected more good ideas into the field of astronomy and cosmology than anyone else in the world," he said.

Hoyle's greatest achievement was the explanation of how the relatively heavy chemical elements of life, such as carbon and nitrogen, are generated by "nucleosynthesis" from helium and hydrogen present in the nuclear furnaces of the stars. Hoyle's brilliant mathematical work in effect demonstrated that we are stardust.

The theory has stood the test of time and is widely recognised as a work of genius. It should have won him a Nobel prize, especially as the accolade did eventually go to his colleague Willy Fowler. Friends insist the oversight did not make him resentful but others believe it added to a sense of alienation from the establishment.

The distancing of Hoyle began with an acrimonious dispute with Sir Martin Ryle, the then Astronomer Royal whose measurements in radioastronomy contradicted the steady-state theory in the Sixties. Reports of how vituperative the row became are not exaggerated. "It was real and highly personal. Ryle certainly couldn't get on with Hoyle and Ryle was a person who tended to take criticism badly. Criticism of his work was taken as criticism of him personally," according to the Cambridge astronomer Dr Simon Mitton, a Hoyle student at that time.

Hoyle, the grammar school boy from Bingley who walked four miles to school each day with holes in his shoes, retained the blunt Yorkshire approach that rubbed against the public-school etiquette of Cambridge. He resigned in 1972 over a dispute about the future funding of his institute and went to live in the Lake District, where he continued to lob theoretical grenades at the establishment.

He made forays into other areas of science, accompanied by fellow mathematician Chandra Wickramasinghe, and built up an array of enemies.

Perhaps his biggest blunder came in the Eighties when he accused the Natural History Museum of a cover-up, alleging that the fossil Archaeopteryx – a creature half-reptile, half-bird – was a fraud. The museum responded with a battery of tests definitively proving that Hoyle was wrong. When one young science reporter later rang Hoyle to ask whether he was going to take back his accusations and apologise, Hoyle told him "no" in no uncertain terms.

Hoyle's theory of panspermia – the dispersal of microbial lifeforms through space – led to wild speculation about flu epidemics being caused by sunspots and BSE resulting from cattle grazing on cometary dust settling on winter pastures. Specialists in these fields were rendered speechless.

John Gribbin, another former student of Hoyle's and a prolific writer of both science fiction and non-fiction, believes these more outrageous propositions were the result of a fertile mind and a distrust of the scientific consensus.

"He taught me one important thing: just because everyone believes in something it doesn't mean that you have to believe in it," Dr Gribbin said. "That's really rather healthy."

"He always had this hate-hate relationship with authority and he simply didn't know his own limitations," Dr Gribbin said. "It's fair to say he was stubborn, but there was more to it than that. He was very open-minded and prepared to look at things on their merits."

Yet Hoyle clearly delighted in courting controversy and questioned some of the most basic assumptions in science. Evidently, Hoyle was respected the most by those who knew him the best.