Professor Sir Fred Hoyle

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Date: Wed Aug 22 2001 - 09:04:41 EDT

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    Professor Sir Fred Hoyle

    PROFESSOR SIR FRED HOYLE, who has died aged 86, was Britain's best-known
    astronomer and (until Stephen Hawking's work became generally known)
    physicist, as well as a much-admired writer of science fiction; he was also
    an outrageous mischief-maker who took a delight in enraging his academic

    He and his close associate, Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe, head of mathematics
    at University College, Wales, used to make other scientists so angry that
    some even wrote a special sub-program for their word processors which, by
    pressing a single key, caused the words "Contrary to the views of Hoyle and
    Wickramasinghe . . . " to appear on the screen.

    The H & W keys were pressed liberally in January 1990, when the two men
    published an article in the journal Nature claiming that sunspots caused
    'flu epidemics. Their conclusion, which infuriated medical scientists, was
    based on their rigidly held belief that space is full of viruses that cause
    not only 'flu but Aids and Legionnaire's disease as well. Storms on the
    Sun's surface (indicated by sunspots) were supposed to drive these viruses
    into the Earth's atmosphere, whereupon diseases spread.

    Still greater fury arose from their claim that Darwin's theory of evolution
    by natural selection was wrong, and that evolution occurred because mutating
    life forms continually fall from space. Nor, Hoyle thought, was this an
    accident. It was deliberately arranged long ago by a super-intelligent
    civilisation who wished to "seed" our planet.

    To establish this case, they made claims that outraged their critics still
    further. The accusation that caused the most anger was that Archaeopteryx,
    one of the most significant pieces of evidence for natural selection, was a

    Archaeopteryx was a creature, half reptile, half bird, that lived about 60
    million years ago. The fossil of this feathered reptile, one of the prides
    of the British Museum, showed that the creature was in the process of
    evolving from one species to another. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe rejected this
    inconvenient evidence by claiming that its feathers were actually made of
    concrete and were surreptitiously put there in 1861 by its discoverer, Carl

    Their book Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery
    (1986) was reviewed with unprecedented savagery in the New Scientist by the
    Reading University zoologist Beverly Halstead:

    "This book is couched in such intemperate language and contains such
    demonstrable falsehoods, as well as hardly imaginable calumnies of persons
    unable to defend themselves, that it is exceedingly difficult not to fall
    into the trap of exploding into an emotional tirade. ts main thesis is
    patently ludicrous and can be proved to be false . . . We must ask the
    question: what is this all about? This is the unsavoury aspect, which makes
    this one of the most despicable pieces of writing it has been my misfortune
    ever to read.

    "It displays utter contempt for minimal standards of scholarship - the book
    seems to portray a hatred of Charles Darwin and a most involved and twisted
    mentality towards zoologists. This libellous nonsense will remain for a long
    time a stain on the reputations of both authors."

    Dr Tom Kemp, curator of the University Museum at Oxford, added: "Certainly
    the claim that Archaeopteryx is a fake should be investigated. But the
    investigation should be done by those who actually understand fossils, not a
    couple of people who exhibit nothing more than a Gargantuan conceit that
    they are clever enough to solve other people's problems for them, when they
    do not even begin to recognise their nature and complexity."

    Hoyle himself denied writing anything objectionable, but conceded: "We may
    have included a few mild sarcasms." The most puzzling aspect of these
    disputes was that Hoyle made many genuine and significant contributions to
    physics and astronomy. These included monumental examinations of the
    modelling of the structure of stars, nucleosynthesis, accretion theories,
    cosmology, and theories of star formation and planet condensation.

    The most important was his discovery in 1958, with the American physicist
    William Fowler, of the way that the heavy chemical elements that fill our
    bodies, such as oxygen, carbon and iron, were forged in the nuclear furnaces
    of giant stars which later exploded and from whose relics the solar system
    was born. In short, we are literally made of stardust. But this epochal
    discovery was strangely rewarded. Fowler won a Nobel prize for it, but
    Hoyle, to his justifiable annoyance, did not.

    Until the end of his life, Hoyle championed the "steady state" theory of the
    universe which maintained that the cosmos had no beginning. This was despite
    increasing evidence, amounting in the view of many to proof, that the cosmos
    began in a Big Bang some 12,000 million years ago. (It was Hoyle himself
    who, mockingly, coined the term "Big Bang". But the phrase stuck.) In 1992,
    when the American George Smoot found tell-tale ripples in the fabric of the
    cosmos, Hoyle refused to accept it. "I have an aesthetic bias against the
    Big Bang," he admitted.

    He also challenged the evidence of the radio astronomer Sir Martin Ryle, who
    in the 1960s had found similar, if less conclusive, evidence of cosmic
    origins. Barbara Gamow, the wife of the pro-Big Bang astronomer George
    Gamow, was inspired to describe their dispute in verse:

    "Your years of toil,"
    Said Ryle to Hoyle,
    "Are wasted years, believe me,
    The steady state
    Is out of date
    Unless my eyes deceive me,
    "My telescope
    Has dashed your hope;
    Your tenets are refuted.
    Let me be terse:
    Our universe
    Grows daily more diluted!"
    Said Hoyle, "You quote
    Lemaitre, I note,
    And Gamow, well, forget them!
    That errant gang
    And their Big Bang -
    Why aid them and abet them?
    "You see, my friend,
    It has no end
    And there was no beginning.
    As Bondi, Gold,
    And I will hold
    Until our hair is thinning!"

    In 1985, when Halley's Comet visited the Earth, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's
    theory of space viruses gave them the chance to start another furious
    quarrel. They accused an American astronomer, J Mayo Greenberg, of

    Greenberg developed a theory that space contains "pre-organic" material
    which Hoyle and Wickramasinghe said was an unacknowledged copy of their own
    theory. "We must congratulate him on his startling accuracy," they said
    slyly. "These two men are constantly making these stupid accusations against
    me," Greenberg retorted. "I think they have never forgiven me for pointing
    out some years ago at a public meeting that they had made an elementary
    scientific error."

    Hoyle was a masterly science fiction writer. One of his finest novels, The
    Black Cloud, published in 1957, described a mysterious cloud of cosmic dust
    which approached the solar system and parked around the Sun, blocking light
    and creating a temporary Ice Age. It turned out that the cloud was
    intelligent and using solar energy to replenish itself. The plot closely
    mirrored Hoyle's contempt for politicians and his ideas about a cosmic

    Equally frightening was his A for Andromeda (1962), which became a
    television series, in which radio instructions were received from aliens,
    telling humans how to build an all-powerful and destructive machine. He also
    wrote a children's play, Rockets in Ursa Major, which in 1962 ran in the
    West End, and a libretto, The Alchemy of Love.

    He wrote many other works of fiction and non-fiction including (with his son
    Geoffrey) Common Sense and Nuclear Energy (1979). In this he made a
    convincing case for nuclear power. Ryle, still smarting from the
    cosmological dispute, attacked the book bitterly, and a furious
    correspondence ensued. Hoyle, in his autobiography Home is Where The Wind
    Blows (1994), remarked cryptically that Ryle lacked his own "sense of

    Fred Hoyle was born on June 24 1915, at Bingley in the West Riding of
    Yorkshire. He was educated at Bingley Grammar School and Emmanuel College,
    Cambridge, where he studied Mathematics. In 1939, he was elected a fellow of
    St John's College, Cambridge. He conducted research for the Admiralty during
    the Second World War.

    Hoyle received numerous scientific prizes, honorary degrees and
    professorships. His many other books included Frontiers of Astronomy (1955),
    Man and Materialism (1956), Star Formation (1963), Galaxies, Nuclei and
    Quasars (1965), The Relation of Physics and Cosmology (1973), Ten Faces of
    the Universe (1977), On Stonehenge (1977) and The Cosmogony of the Solar
    System (1978).

    Hoyle was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and knighted in
    1972. He served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1971-3.
    He held visiting professorships at numerous British and American
    universities, including the California Institute of Technology (in both
    astrophysics and astronomy) and Cornell University, where he was
    Professor-at-Large. He founded the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge,
    where he was Plumian Professor of Astronomy from 1958 until 1972. In 1997,
    he was awarded the Crafoord Prize, designed to honour work in fields
    ineligible for Nobel Prizes, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

    He married, in 1939, Barbara Clark. They had a son and a daughter.

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