Fred Hoyle

British astronomer and cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle (born 1915) is best known as the champion of the steady-state theory of the nature of the universe. He also has made significant contributions to the study of stellar evolution and has published more than 40 books, including science fiction.

Fred Hoyle was born in Bingley, Yorkshire, England, on June 24, 1915. His fascination with mathematics and astronomy was evident at an early age. He taught himself the multiplication tables before he was six and would often stay up all night looking through a telescope he received as a gift.

Hoyle was educated at Emmanuel College and St. John's College, Cambridge. He spent six years during World War II with the British Admiralty working on radar development. In 1945, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in mathematics. Three years later, in collaboration with the astronomer Thomas Gold and the mathematician Hermann Bondi, he announced refinements to the steady-state theory first put forward by Sir James Jeans in about 1920. Within the framework of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Hoyle formulated a mathematical basis for the steady state theory, making the expansion of the universe and the creation of matter interdependent.

Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle found the idea of a sudden beginning to the universe-the so-called big bang theory-philosophically unsatisfactory. They devised a model derived from an extension of the "cosmological principle" that had been used for previous theories. It stated that the universe appeared the same from any location, but not necessarily for all times. They proposed that the decrease in the density of the universe caused by its expansion is exactly balanced by the continuous creation of matter condensing into galaxies that take the place of the galaxies that have receded from the Milky Way, thereby maintaining forever the present appearance of the universe.

Controversy Over Steady-State Theory

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, controversy over the steady state theory grew. New observations of distant galaxies and other phenomena, supporting the big bang theory, weakened the steady state theory, and it has since fallen out of favor with most cosmologists. Although Hoyle was forced to alter some of his conclusions, he attempted to make his theory consistent with new evidence.

Hoyle was elected to the Royal Society in 1957, a year after joining the staff of the Hale Observatories (now the Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories). In collaboration with William Fowler and others in the United States, he formulated theories about the origins of stars as well as about the origins of elements within stars. He directed the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge (1967-73), an institution he was instrumental in founding. Hoyle received a knighthood in 1972.

In 1976, Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, a fellow professor at the University of Cardiff with whom Hoyle often collaborated, speculated that microorganisms or biochemical compounds from outer space are responsible for originating life on Earth and possibly other parts of the universe.

In 1981, the two coauthored Diseases from Space in which they hypothesized that viruses and bacteria fall into the atmosphere after being incubated in the interiors of comet heads, and that people become ill by breathing this infected air. They supported their theory by stating that the spread of disease is frequently far too rapid to be attributable solely to person-to-person contact. Their theory, known as panspermia, was widely derided.

AIDS From Outer Space?

In December 1988, Hoyle wrote to the Daily Telegraph of London explaining his theory that AIDS originated in outer space. It was immediately dismissed by most British AIDS experts. Many viewed the theory as proof that Hoyle had overstepped the limits of acceptable scientific eccentricity. His letter claimed that viruses from outer space are also responsible for many other epidemics in Britain, including Legionnaires' disease and meningitis. "A small comet disintegrating low in the atmosphere could lead to pathogens being brought down in rainstorms that are geographically localized, " Hoyle claimed. "The comets responsible for new diseases such as AIDS are admittedly rare objects, but the sudden injection into the human population of at least three disjoint viruses point decisively to an input that is external to the Earth, " Hoyle wrote. "We think it most likely in each instance primary entry was secured through infected rainwater entering lesions in feet in the mainly barefoot populations of the Third World with subsequent transmissions proceeding through human contact. Hoyle urged that a major international effort was needed to carry out "a rigorous and continuous microbiological surveillance of rainwater and of groundwater on a worldwide scale. The survival of our species may well be contingent upon this." His ideas were largely viewed as fantasy by other scientists.

In 1996, however, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that a small asteroid it had been studying possibly contained fossil remains of primitive life. This finding rekindled speculation about the extraterrestrial "seeding" of life on Earth. Other recent discoveries in astronomy, biology, and chemistry have tended to support the idea first proposed by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe some 20 years earlier. Other scientists, however, remain skeptical. Under closer scrutiny, the evidence turned out to be ragweed pollen and furnace ash. If NASA's microfossils really are the remnants of past life on Mars, then the implications for life and how it got started are profound. The first thing that would have to be explained is why ancient microorganisms on Earth and on Mars are apparently so similar. Some scientists, such as Ian Crawford of University College London, believe that the resemblance may be only superficial.

An Iconoclast

Hoyle has published numerous books challenging many of the basic tenets of modern cosmology. In his 1951 book, The Nature of the Universe, Hoyle rejects the longstanding big bang theory of the origin of the universe in favor of the steady state theory. He expounds further upon the steady state and other theories in The Intelligent Universe: A New View of Creation and Evolution, published in 1977. In it, he dismisses one piece of orthodox science after another, replacing each with ingenious alternatives. He also presents an argument against Darwin's theory of evolution, claiming that "living organisms are too complex to have been produced by chance." Hoyle suggests, instead, that "we owe our existence to another intelligence which created a structure for life as part of a deliberate plan." In describing the attributes of an intelligence superior to ourselves, Hoyle admits that we may have to use the word forbidden in science, "God." He said he found his atheism greatly shaken after calculating the chance that carbon, "uniquely designed to make life possible, " would have precisely the required resonance to permit it to form in sufficient abundance in the universe. "A common sense interpretation of the facts 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. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." His scientific works for a lay audience include Highlights in Astronomy (1975). He has also written science-fiction, including The Black Cloud (1957), and an autobiography, The Small World of Fred Hoyle (1986).

Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were among the first to argue against the theory that life on Earth originated in a so-called "prebiotic soup." The theory is based on a famous experiment by Stanley Miller in 1953. Deciding to test an earlier hypothesis by Alexander Oparin and John Haldane, Miller started with a sealed mixture of gases thought to be constituents of the primitive Earth's atmosphere. The gases-water vapor, hydrogen, ammonia, and methane-were subjected to an electric discharge, simulating lightning, and the products were found to contain certain amino acids that are building blocks of proteins. This experiment led to the theory that living organisms originated from a prebiotic soup formed in the above manner. This theory soon became the textbook model to describe the origins of life. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe pointed out that the primitive Earth could not have had the hydrogen-rich atmosphere postulated for a prebiotic soup.

Science Fiction

Hoyle has remained controversial. In 1981, he and others made the erroneous claim that a famous Archaeopteryx fossil in the British Museum was a fake. In 1990, he coauthored a theory linking influenza pandemics and sunspot outbreaks. While noting that Hoyle's theses are sometimes far-fetched, reviewers often express their admiration for the author's writing style, statistical data, and its richness in classical quotations. Hoyle has also authored over a dozen science fiction novels, more than half of which have been co-written with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle. Several critics suggest that Hoyle's highly technical and scientific background enhances the credibility and appeal of his novels.

Among the numerous awards and distinctions bestowed on him are the UN Kalinga Prize, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1997, he was awarded the highly prestigious Crafoord Prize by the Swedish Academy in recognition of outstanding basic research in fields not covered by the Nobel Prize. Hoyle is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has published over 40 books, including technical science, popular science, and science fiction. Hoyle is an Honorary Fellow of both Emmanuel College and St. John's College Cambridge and an Honorary Professor of Cardiff University in Wales.

Further Reading on Fred Hoyle

Contemporary Authors, Volume 55, Gale, 1991, p. 234-237.

Alberta Report, September 23, 1977, p. 35.

Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1985; December 18, 1986.

Independant, September 18, 1997, p. 3.

Reuters, August 7, 1996.

Scientific American, August, 1996.

The World and I, September 1, 1997, p. 218.

"Sir Fred Hoyle Homepage, " Cardiff University, (April 1998).

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