Life and Work of Fred Hoyle, British Astronomer

Portrait of Fred Hoyle in His Laboratory
Portrait of Fred Hoyle in his laboratory, 1967. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The science of astronomy features many colorful characters throughout its history, and Sir Fred Hoyle FRS was among them. He is best known for coining the term "Big Bang" for the event that birthed the universe. Ironically, he was not a big supporter of the theory of the Big Bang and spent much of his career formulating the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis—the process by which elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are created inside stars.

The Early Years

Fred Hoyle was born on the 24th of June, 1915 to Ben and Mable Pickard Hoyle. Both his parents were musically inclined and worked various jobs during their lives. They lived in the small town of West Riding, in Yorkshire, England. Young Fred attended school at Bingley Grammar School and eventually moved on to Emmanual College at Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. He married Barbara Clark in 1939, and they had two children.

With the onset of war in the 1940s, Hoyle worked on various projects that benefitted the war effort. In particular, he worked on radar technology. During his work for the British Admiralty, Hoyle continued to study cosmology and made trips to the United States to meet with astronomers.

Creating the Theory of Elements in Stars

During one of his astronomy tours, Hoyle became acquainted with the idea of supernova explosions, which are catastrophic events that end the lives of massive stars. It is in such events that some of the heavier elements (such as plutonium and others) are created. Yet, he was also intrigued by processes inside ordinary stars (such as the Sun) and began looking at ways to explain how such elements as carbon could be created inside those. After the war, Hoyle returned to Cambridge as a lecturer at St. John's College to continue his work. There, he formed a research group focused specifically on stellar nucleosynthesis topics, including the formation of elements inside all types of stars.

Hoyle, along with colleagues William Alfred Fowler, Margaret Burbidge, and Geoffrey Burbidge, eventually worked out the basic processes to explain how stars synthesize heavier elements in their cores (and, in the case of supernovae, how catastrophic explosions played a role in the creation of very heavy elements). He stayed at Cambridge until the early 1970s, becoming one of the world's foremost astronomers due to his work on stellar nucleosynthesis.

Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang Theory

Although Fred Hoyle is often credited with the name "Big Bang", he was an active opponent of the idea that the universe had a specific beginning. That theory was proposed by astronomer Georges Lemaitre. Instead, Hoyle preferred the "steady state" universe, where the density of the universe is constant and matter is constantly being created. The Big Bang, by comparison, suggests that the universe began in one event some 13.8 billion years ago. At that time, all matter was created and the expansion of the universe began. The "Big Bang" name he used came from an interview on the BBC, where he was explaining the difference between the "explosive" nature of the Big Bang versus the steady state theory he favored. The Steady State theory is no longer taken seriously, but it was vigorously debated for years.

Later Years and Controversies

After Fred Hoyle retired from Cambridge, he turned to science popularization and writing science fiction. He served on the planning board for one of the most famous telescopes in the world, the four-meter-wide Anglo-Australian telescope in Australia. Hoyle also became a staunch opponent of the idea that life began on Earth. Instead, he suggested it came from space. This theory, called "panspermia", says that the seeds of life on our planet may have been delivered by comets. In later years, Hoyle and colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe advanced the idea that flu pandemics could have been brought to Earth in this way. These ideas weren't very popular and Hoyle paid the price for advancing them.

In 1983, Fowler and astronomer and astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the stellar nucleosynthesis theories. Hoyle was left out of the prize, even though he was an important pioneer in the subject. There's been much speculation that Hoyle's treatment of colleagues and his later interest in alien life forms may have given the Nobel Committee an excuse to omit his name from the prize.

Fred Hoyle spent his last years writing books, giving speeches, and hiking on the moors near his final home in England's Lake District. After a particularly nasty fall in 1997, his health declined and he died after a series of strokes on August 20, 2001.

Awards and Publications

Fred Hoyle was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1957. He won several medals and prizes over the years, including the Mayhew Prize, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Medal, and the Klumpke-Roberts Award. Asteroid 8077 Hoyle is named in his honor, and he was made a knight in 1972. Hoyle wrote many science books for public consumption, in addition to his scholarly publications. His best-known science fiction book was "The Black Cloud" (written in 1957). He went on to author another 18 titles, some with his son Geoffrey Hoyle.

Fred Hoyle Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Sir Fred Hoyle (FRS)
  • Occupation: Astronomer
  • Born: June 24, 1915
  • Parents: Ben Hoyle and Mabel Pickard
  • Died: August 20, 2001
  • Education: Emmanuel College, Cambridge
  • Key Discoveries: theories of stellar nucleosynthesis, the triple-alpha process (inside stars), came up with the term "Big Bang"
  • Key Publication: "Synthesis of Elements in Stars", Burbidge, E.M., Burbidge, G.M. Fowler, W.A., Hoyle, F. (1957), Reviews of Modern Physics
  • Spouse's Name: Barbara Clark
  • Children: Geoffrey Hoyle, Elizabeth Butler
  • Research Area: astronomy and astrophysics

Sources

  • Mitton, S. Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, 2011, Cambridge University Press.
  • “FRED HOYLE.” Karl Schwarzschild - Important Scientists - The Physics of the Universe, www.physicsoftheuniverse.com/scientists_hoyle.html. “Fred Hoyle (1915 - 2001).”
  • Careers in Astronomy | American Astronomical Society, aas.org/obituaries/fred-hoyle-1915-2001. “Professor Sir Fred Hoyle.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 22 Aug. 2001, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1338125/Professor-Sir-Fred-Hoyle.html.