Fortean Times, September 2005
Fred Hoyle: A life
Aurum Press, 2005
£18.99, Hb, xii+369, notes, bibl, index, illus, ISBN 1 85410 961 8
Fred Hoyle's Universe
Oxford University Press, 2005
£20, Hb, x+406, refs, index, illus, ISBN 0 780198 507918
The rehabilitation of one of the most controversial figures of 20th century science continues with two hefty biographies. Although Fred Hoyle was arguably the most influential and celebrated astrophysicist of his generation, his reputation was later ruined by his habit of barging in against the orthodoxy in fields as varied as biology, archaeology and palaeontology.
Simon Mitton was one of Hoyle's research fellows at Cambridge and knew him for 30 years. His account focuses on Hoyle's time at Cambridge, from his arrival as an undergraduate to his sudden resignation from his own Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in a bureaucratic wrangle over leadership. For much of that time, Hoyle was one of the most famous astronomers in the world, thanks as much to his hugely popular radio and TV broadcasts as to his research.
The bulk of Mitton's book is arranged thematically, with chapters focusing on different aspects of Hoyle's work: stellar structure, cosmology, and the groundbreaking work in nucleosynthesis that won one of his collaborators (but notably not Hoyle) a Nobel Prize.
Even at his prime, Hoyle was a controversial figure, variously accused of dogmatism, a lack of scientific integrity, and of being a dangerous pseudo-scientist comparable to Immanuel Velikovski (whom Hoyle met and attempted to set straight in the early 1950s).
Hoyle won such enmity partly for his bullish personal manner, which he generally excused as typical Yorkshire bluntness, but mostly for his uncompromising championing of a string of heterodox theories. Most famously, he persistently argued for a steady-state cosmology fuelled by continuous creation of matter, a concept that was increasingly at odds with the mounting evidence for a 'big bang' (a phrase coined by Hoyle).
In her biography, Jane Gregory notes that much of this early debate about the nature of the universe was, in the absence of observational evidence, basically aesthetic. Religious and political factors came into play, with steady-state theory carrying the whiff of godless communism to some critics. Ironically, given his public condemnation of religious belief, Hoyle's work was later co-opted by Jehovah's Witnesses and Creationist groups.
Gregory, a lecturer in science communication, lacks Mitton's personal connection to their mutual subject but takes a broader view of Hoyle's life and work which doesn't shy away from his less appealing episodes and more unsustainable claims. As well as his advocacy of the idea that life on earth was seeded from space, Hoyle argued, to varying degrees of ridicule, that Stonehenge was demonstrably an ancient observatory; that the famous Archaeopteryx fossil was clearly a fake; and that the Aids virus was of cosmic origin. Mitton confines these issues to his final chapter, and rather downplays the steady state controversy.
Gregory also takes more account of Hoyle's under-rated SF novels, whose scientist heroes often indulge in bracing attacks on the scientific and political establishment that might have landed Hoyle in even more trouble if offered in a non-fictional context.
Either book is an excellent introduction to this fascinating character. Both are occasionally weighed down by detailed accounts of academic fund-chasing and political horsetrading, but are enlivened by a varied and colourful supporting cast. Hoyle's career bridged pioneering astrophysicists such as Arthur Eddington and modern icons like Stephen Hawking, while non-scientific players range from Julie Christie, who became famous with her role in Hoyle's TV serial 'A for Andromeda', to Margaret Thatcher, then science minister at the receiving end of some of Hoyle's fiercest lobbying.
Mitton's account benefits from the author's personal relationship with Hoyle, and is the one to read for a solid overview of his scientific work. But with its broader scope and more detailed accounts of Hoyle's many controversies, Gregory's will prove more rewarding to the interested fortean.