Fortean Times, June 2004 (amended copy, with thanks to Markus Pössel)

Fred Hoyle's universe
Chandra Wickramasinghe, Geoffrey Burbridge & Jayant Narlickar (editors)
Kluver 2003
HB, Euro99, pp328, ISBN: 1 4020 1415 5

It's tempting to agree that this is indeed Fred Hoyle's universe – we just live it. Hoyle, who died in 2001, was undoubtedly one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20th century, but was somewhat marginalised for his overriding interest in ideas damned by mainstream science.

Many of his supporters feel, with some justification, that Hoyle was denied the Nobel Prize that was rightly his because of his maverick tendencies. Hoyle was the first to realise that all chemical elements are created inside stars by nucleosynthesis, and one of his collaborators on the milestone paper 'Synthesis of the Elements in Stars' (1957), William Fowler, was awarded the Nobel in 1983 for precisely this work. Hoyle was not short of formal honours during his life but is still often regarded as, to be blunt, a bit of a crank.

Acceptance into the pantheon of great scientists may also have been hindered by his dabbling in science fiction while the genre was still thoroughly disreputable, and his occasionally abrasive personal style – as the biographical note in an early edition of his novel 'The Black Cloud' (1957) notes, the Bingley-born Hoyle 'expresses himself at one and the same time with the precision of a scientist and the bluntness of a Yorkshireman'.

This new volume comprises the proceedings of a conference celebrating Hoyle's life and work, held at Cardiff University in the summer of 2002, with contributors including the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. There's two strands to the contributions: reminiscences about working with Fred on projects from wartime radar research to applying Mach's principle to gravitation; and new research on the often controversial areas that fired Hoyle's own work.

Hoyle is probably best known as the astronomer who wouldn't accept the big bang. Ironically, it was Hoyle who coined the term during a 1950 radio lecture as a sarcastic label for the new explosive theory. It would however be wrong to dismiss him as an obstinate reactionary for his refusal to accept what is generally heralded as one of the crowning glories of modern science - it was rather the lack of a coherent theoretical explanation that made him sceptical.

Big bang theory depends to a large part on Edwin Hubble's observation that distant objects show correspondingly high redshifts because of the expansion of the universe. Hoyle's steady state model also accepts this cosmological explanation of the redshift, albeit powered by a continuous creation of matter. Other models discussed here propose that these redshifts are caused by some as yet unexplained effect intrinsic to galaxies and quasars. Either version isseriously flawed, but there are also numerous observations that point to no less serious flaws in big bang models. Among those highlighted here are the existence of apparently coherent galactic formations that contain wildly different redshifts within a single structure; and periodicities of the redshifts of certain classes of object, something that is inexplicable if redshifts are considered simply as a Doppler-like effect caused by an expanding universe.

The basic question is whether the universe had a moment of creation, as in big bang theory; or has always existed, as in steady state. It's hardly a new controversy, as detailed by Robert Temple, author of 'The Sirius Mystery', in a paper on its historical precedents. Temple tracks the debate back to Aristotle's argument for an eternal universe, a concept abhorrent to late Judeo-Christian civilisation, and suggests that support for the two camps may in part be down to personal psychology – Hoyle, he notes, was renowned for his 'open, frank and candid' personality.

Hoyle's other hobbyhorse was panspermia – the theory that biological material is spread widely throughout the universe, and that life on Earth began with these extraterrestrial building blocks. The idea is again an old one, discussed by Anaxogoras and common in Vedhic and Buddhist philosophy – it is perhaps significant that many of Hoyle's collaborators in this area are of Indian origin.

That comets carry simple organic molecules is now widely accepted, but the deeper claims of panspermia – that terrestrial life and evolution, and the continuing emergence of new diseases, are driven by a constant rain of biological material from outer space – remain highly controversial. It's fascinating then to read the results from one of Hoyle's final projects, a balloon experiment to detect microorganisms from the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Viable bacteria were indeed identified in samples collected at 41km, well beyond the normal reach of terrestrial material. Sceptics may invoke laboratory contamination as an explanation, but it's a line of research that demands further work.

The book also includes a couple of fascinating chapters on giant comets and their effects on the development of human culture, in work that attempts to reclaim some intellectual ground from the Velikovskian fringes; and a new interpretation of natural selection based on molecular biodiversity.

Those looking for an introduction to Hoyle's thought would be advised to start with some of his own popular writing, but this is a valuable detailed overview of some often overlooked aspects of his work, and a snapshot of the current state of play in some of the most fundamental arguments in science.