Yorkshire lad who reached for the stars: Tony Jones talks to Fred Hoyle about monks' haircuts and the origins of the universe

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The Independent Online
When I was at school in the late Sixties, Sir Fred Hoyle seemed to be an icon of the age. The owlish face, the blunt Yorkshire vowels, the trenchant views, were light years away from the popular image of an academic astronomer. Here was a man who dealt in big ideas - the very origins of the universe - and was ready to argue loud and strong about them, on television and radio, and in books and articles.

But when astronomers talk about Hoyle, the question of the Institute of Astronomy soon comes up. In the early Sixties, as Plumian professor of astronomy at Cambridge, Hoyle undertook to create an institute that would draw together some of the best talent in theoretical astronomy. Despite official blessing, he met resistance.

'I suddenly found that, although my proposals had been accepted at the very highest level, they were not accepted at the lower levels . . . I mean, the aristocrats who appointed the Italian painters or the Viennese musicians didn't have to get agreement from all the odds and sods around, did they?'

Such was the struggle to set up the institute that Hoyle had to threaten to take it to Inverness before he got his way. 'I eventually succeeded by total obstinacy,' he recalls. 'If I hadn't been a fairly obstinate character I wouldn't have gone through with it.' The institute opened at Cambridge in 1967, and rapidly became a leading centre for astronomical research.

But in 1972, in a move that shocked astronomers everywhere, Hoyle resigned as director of the institute after a row with the university authorities over its development. 'It was one of those situations where the only conceivable policy is to draw a line,' he says. 'I believe very much that, if one has a responsible job and things get very difficult, one should draw a line.'

He moved to the Lake District, from where he continued to work, spending much of the time on fellowships in the US. Within a few years, he had disengaged from the British astronomical scene - prompted, he says, by the taxation policies of the Labour government - and was free to adopt a new role, as an outspoken critic of established scientific thinking.

It is generally agreed that Hoyle's outstanding work was on the theory of nucleosynthesis: how chemical elements are built up from hydrogen and helium by nuclear reactions inside stars. Many believe he should have had a share in the 1983 Nobel Prize awarded to others for work on nucleosynthesis.

His skill as chairman of the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board in the early Seventies, when he secured the construction of the telescope that marked Britain's return to world-class optical astronomy, is also widely praised.

There is little sympathy now for the causes that have occupied Hoyle since he left Cambridge. In the early Sixties, a fierce debate was continuing about the origin of the universe. Had it been created at a definite instant in the past (the Big Bang theory) or had it always existed (the Steady State theory)? Hoyle published a mathematical formulation of the Steady State theory in 1948, which required the continuous creation of matter.

Until the Sixties, both ideas were in the running. Now the consensus favours the Big Bang, and most cosmologists regard the Steady State theory as a historical relic.

Hoyle has always refused to follow that line, arguing that the Big Bang has not lived up to its early promise, and that his revised Steady State theory better fits the facts. 'The past history of science shows that successful theories are hugely prolific of new ideas and new discoveries; a great train of things usually follows,' he says.

'The Big Bang theory had a period of three or four years from 1964 when it looked to be going well, but that completely dried up. I just don't believe that successful science goes like that. If it turns out that the Big Bang is right, it will be unique in the history of science in going for a quarter of a century in a fossilised condition.'

He maintains that the Big Bang theory - he coined the name in a BBC lecture in 1950 - owes its supremacy more to lazy thinking and received wisdom than observation. 'There was a Synod of Whitby in 664 that met to decide on how you should tonsure your hair. It's the same mentality. The human mind doesn't change - it's the same today as it was in 664, except that it's taught to consider somewhat different things. The structure of logic is the same.'

Hoyle now argues that life originated in interstellar space, and was brought to Earth on comets in the form of viruses, bacteria and more complex organisms. This view has dismayed his former colleagues, and enraged biologists who think he is meddling in a subject outside his competence.

Yet Hoyle is characteristically robust in his views. 'I just don't see that the trend of the data favours the people who hold the other point of view. We know that life was here 3.6 billion years ago, and we know it wasn't here 3.8 or 3.9 billion years ago,' an interval which Hoyle argues is too short for life to have evolved on Earth. 'So something happened. According to standard theory, all the DNA structure, all the protein structure appeared in a small window of time - it seems to me like an incredible stupidity to imagine that.

'Somebody who believes in the Big Bang can equally well believe that some miracle happened on the Earth. It's a question of whether you believe in miracles or not. I just don't happen to believe in miracles.'

With the publication of his autobiography, readers can learn how a lad from Bingley, West Yorkshire, found himself among the greats of Cambridge, of his experiences in wartime radar research, his tussles with the scientific establishment, and his 15-year project to climb all 277 Scottish Munros. It is an absorbing story from someone who has good reason to be less forgiving than he is.

Hoyle, now 79, still writes books and scientific papers. He remains confident that his views on cosmology and the origins of life will prevail. 'If I didn't think in the long run that the point of view I've tried to follow is going to be right, I wouldn't be doing it. I don't expect all the details will be right, but I think the line of attack will be seen to be the right one.'

For a man whose ideas have been almost universally derided, Hoyle is still regarded with affection by the astronomical community. It is not a feeling he entirely reciprocates. 'To me, the Big Bang people are like the monks of medieval times who chant the masses at various times of day. It's all ritual. My mind just doesn't work that way. I go entirely by mathematical structure and facts. I don't really give much attention to what other people think.'

'Home is Where the Wind Blows', by Sir Fred Hoyle, is published this week by University Science Books and distributed by W H Freeman & Co.

(Photograph omitted)