English astrophysicist Hermann Bondi (born 1919) made his career out of studying the universe and its origins. Although his "steady state" theory was eventually discarded in favor of the "big bang" theory of creation, Bondi opposed what he called the "arrogance of certainty" that discouraged scientists and others from questioning current theories of the universe's origins.
Born in Vienna, Austria, on November 1, 1919, Bondi grew up with Jewish parents who disagreed about the importance of religious observances. "My father didn't believe, but liked the religious observances and rituals as social cement. My mother was a nonbeliever who didn't like the forms," he said in an interview in Free Inquiry. He credited his attraction to humanism to this division between his parents.
By 1933, social strife in Austria was peaking; Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had come to power, and Bondi's country struggled to remain independent. The increasing prominence of the Nazi party in Austria led to two civil wars within six months. In his autobiography, Bondi recalled, "It was against this background that I threw myself into my mathematical physics and dreamt of going to live elsewhere." By 1936, Bondi realized that his academic potential could never be realized while still living in Austria, and he began to work toward acceptance at Cambridge University, in England. He moved to England to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1937 and considered it his home ever since.
Despite his allegiance to England, anti-German and anti-Nazi fervor during World War II put all immigrants and foreigners under suspicion, and Bondi, despite his Jewish heritage, was not an exception. In May of 1940, he was interned along with most other foreigners in Britain, remaining confined on the Isle of Man. He was later transferred to Canada and while there he attempted to immigrate to the United States, where his family had moved to escape Nazi persecution. Because he had arrived in Canada as an internee, very nearly a prisoner of the British government, the United States refused to permit his immigration. He returned to the Isle of Man, still under internment, and was not released until August 1941.
Advanced the Steady-State Theory
Upon returning to Cambridge, Bondi worked with other astro-physicists who would be influential in his career: Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle. In the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, Hoyle claimed that he persuaded both Bondi and Gold to become interested in astronomy. "Hermann was the most confident manipulator of equations I had ever seen," Hoyle recalled. Hoyle reported that Bondi had a very theoretical mind, which "led him at times of course to lose contact with physical reality."
In 1948, Gold and Bondi worked together to develop the steady-state theory of the creation of the universe, which held that the universe is ever-expanding, without a beginning and without an end. They supported the theory by appealing to the perfect cosmological principle, according to which the universe is the same at all points; their colleague Hoyle advanced the same theory according to physical laws. The theory addressed a crucial problem of astrophysics: How do the stars continually recede without disappearing altogether? Dr. Edwin Hubble had already demonstrated that the stars actually do recede, but no one had yet explained why their recession did not leave a void in the universe.
As Bondi explained in his book Cosmology, "Since the universe must be expanding, new matter must be continually created in order to keep the density constant." Cosmologists had previously believed that the expansion of the universe marked the beginning of time, and that as it expanded outward it was approaching the end of its existence. These views were based on the belief that there was a moment when everything was suddenly created together in a dense mass. According to Bondi and Gold's steady-state theory, creation was continuous: it did not occur suddenly, and it was still occurring. The spontaneous creation of matter, they maintained, was brought about by the interchangeability of matter and energy, as demonstrated by Albert Einstein.
While Bondi accepted that the steady-state theory was as yet only an unproven hypothesis, he argued that the theory would create more possibilities for scientific discovery than the belief that creation was an event in the past: "The hypothetical character of continual creation has been pointed out, but why is it more of a hypothesis to say that creation is taking place now than that it took place in the past? On the contrary, the hypothesis of continual creation is more fertile in that it answers more questions and yields more results, and results that are, at least in principle, observable. To push the entire question of creation into the past is to restrict science to a discussion of what happened after creation while forbidding it to examine creation itself. This is a counsel of despair to be taken only if everything else fails."
Failed Theory Led to Applied Science
Bondi later worked with R.A. Lyttleton of Imperial College, London. In 1959, the two proposed that the outward movement of planets and stars was the result of electrical "leaks" in space. The theory was founded on the assumption that galaxies have electrical charges on the surface, producing a force of repulsion that surpassed the force of gravitational attraction. As the New York Times reported, one of the strengths of the theories was its potential to explain the origin of cosmic rays. The equipment to test their theory, however, was not available, although physicists were not able to find a flaw in their logic.
A strong believer in scientists' responsibility to explain their work to society, Bondi began writing books for students and laypeople and appearing on BBC educational programs in Britain. Chief among his efforts was his attempt to explain the theory of relativity and the works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. As John Durston explained in the preface to Bondi's book Relativity and Common Sense: A New Approach to Einstein, "Where previous writers have tried to develop relativity in opposition to the ideas of Isaac Newton, Professor Bondi derives relativity from Newtonian ideas. He pictures relativity as being neither revolutionary nor destructive of classical dynamics but rather as being an organic growth." Bondi felt strongly that all scientific advancement came from, as Newton had said, "standing on the shoulders of giants."
As Bondi was reflecting on the inevitable evolution of scientific theories, he saw his own steady-state theory threatened with obsolescence. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a radiation background in microwaves. This radiation, it was hypothesized, was background noise from the "big bang." Although the "big bang" theory has roots as early as 1922, the discovery of this radiation brought it back into prominence. Cambridge radio astronomer Martin Ryle told Newsweek, "I think after this few students will go into the steady-state theory in detail."
While Bondi's colleague, Hoyle, began revising the steady-state theory to take into account the new data, Bondi moved on to problems in applied science. In 1967, Bondi was appointed director of the European Space Research Organization. One of his main achievements while in office was the development of plans for phone and air-traffic satellites for Western Europe. These satellites would enable international phone connections that had previously required several hours to complete. Perhaps more important, they would increase air-traffic controllers knowledge of a plane's location, particularly as it began to "disappear" over the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1971, he became chief scientific advisor to Britain's Ministry of Defence, a post he maintained through 1977, when he became chief scientist for the Department of Energy. Bondi also served as chairman and chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), for which he traveled widely, attempting to generate interest and income for scientific research.
Returned to Cambridge
Throughout this time, Bondi continued his scholarly pursuits, publishing several papers and serving twice as president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Application. Staying active in his academic discipline enabled him to return to Cambridge when he retired from government service in 1980. He took the position of Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, from 1983-1990, and continued as a fellow there from 1990 onward.
Bondi was also an active advocate for humanism, signing in 1973 the "Humanist Manifesto II," in which 120 religious leaders, philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers declared, "Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute: neither faith nor passion suffices in itself. The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the nature and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems. But reason must be tempered by humility, since no group has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue."
In 1992 Bondi became president of the British Humanist Association, through which he lobbied for tolerance of differing viewpoints and appreciation for the life-enhancing benefits of science. In particular, he stressed the importance of continuing to question the origins of life and of the universe. "I don't think answers to these question are the business of us humans," he said in Free Inquiry, "Trying to get there-asking questions, investigating, discussing, sharing views, sharing arguments-that is the important thing. The continuing quest is what we humans must work for, not achieving the final answer."
Further Reading on Hermann Bondi
Bondi, Hermann, Cosmology, Cambridge University Press, 1952.
Bondi, Hermann, Relativity and Common Sense: A New Approach to Einstein, Heinemann, 1965.
Bondi, Hermann, Science, Churchill and Me: The Autobiography of Hermann Bondi, Pergamon, 1990.
Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, December, 1989.
Free Inquiry, Spring 1992.
Newsweek, October 25, 1965.
New York Times, May 24, 1952; May 24, 1959; October 13, 1970; August 26, 1973.