Sir Fred Hoyle 1915 - 2001
Aug 22, 2001
The astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle has died at the age of 86. Hoyle famously coined the phrase 'big bang' to describe the explosion in which the universe was born, but rejected that idea in favour of his 'steady-state' theory. Hoyle was the first to realise that all chemical elements are created inside stars by nucleosynthesis - a central idea in modern astrophysics - but missed out on a Nobel Prize for his efforts.
Hoyle's 1953 prediction that an excited form of carbon-12 would be produced within stars was soon proved correct by the observations of William Fowler. Together with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, Hoyle and Fowler published their theory of nucleosynthesis in 1957. The astronomical community was shocked when Fowler alone received the 1983 Nobel Prize for this groundbreaking work.
Hoyle also believed that the now-accepted 'big bang' theory - which describes how the universe was created in a cataclysmic explosion and has been expanding ever since - was flawed. In his opinion, the big bang could not have taken place unless space and time already existed. This led him to propose a 'steady-state' universe in which matter is continually generated by some as yet unknown mechanism. Hoyle could not explain the subsequent discovery of the microwave background radiation - widely believed to be a remnant of the big bang - but his challenge to the accepted theory prompted the research that ultimately proved it right.
In the early 1960s, Hoyle established the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge University, but his relationship with the university broke down following administrative quarrels. Hoyle was also persuaded by the sponsors of the Mullard Radioastronomy Observatory at Cambridge to attend a meeting at which his steady-state theory was publicly ridiculed.
Born in Yorkshire in 1915, Hoyle attended Bingley grammar school before gaining entrance to Cambridge University, where he obtained his PhD under the supervision of Paul Dirac. Ever the maverick, Hoyle's recent investigations with Chandra Wickramasinghe explored the controversial idea that life on Earth may have originated from extra-terrestrial microbes.