Fred Hoyle’s varied and prolific output spanned more than 60 years. Indeed, throughout the entire period 1945-70, he was preeminent among astrophysicists in the range and influence of his contributions. His engaging wit and relish for controversy—which he retained throughout his long life—gained him a high public profile. He had a wide following as a popularizer of science and as a successful writer of science fiction. He also played an active organizational role in UK science. Hoyle died on 20 August 2001 in Bournemouth, England. He was physically and mentally robust until the year before his death, during which he suffered a series of strokes.
Born on 24 June 1915 in Bingley, Yorkshire, in the UK, Hoyle was the son of a wool merchant. He attended the local grammar school, from which he gained a scholarship to Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College, where he studied mathematics. The university awarded Hoyle a BA in mathematics in 1936; that year, Hoyle also won Cambridge’s Mayhew Prize for his outstanding performance. He was elected to a fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1939 for work on beta decay. His shift toward astrophysics was stimulated by his colleague Raymond Lyttleton, with whom he wrote papers on accretion and stellar evolution.
During the years of World War II, Hoyle was engaged mainly on technical problems related to radar. He found himself working with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold; in spare moments the trio discussed astronomy. The most celebrated outcome of this collaboration was the steady-state cosmology, put forward in two papers in 1948. Bondi and Gold’s arguments were general (almost philosophical). But Hoyle’s model was more specific: He introduced a negative-pressure C-field into Albert Einstein’s equations. As Hoyle enjoyed pointing out, this formulation was, in some sense, a precursor of currently fashionable inflationary models. The steady-state theory was a serious contender for 15 years. It had the virtue of being testable, and was the focus of often acrimonious controversy, especially with Martin Ryle and other radio astronomers. Hoyle held out against Big Bang theory, even post-1965, when the discovery of the microwave background led most cosmologists to favor it. He nonetheless contributed important studies of Big Bang nucleosynthesis with Roger Tayler, Willy Fowler, and Bob Wagoner.
From 1945, Hoyle was based in Cambridge, first as lecturer in mathematics, and subsequently, from 1958, as the Plumian Professor of Astronomy. But he derived stimulus from frequent visits to the US. At Princeton University, he and Martin Schwarzschild modeled the evolution of low-mass stars right through to the red-giant branch. He spent much time at Caltech, where he followed up the ideas adumbrated in his famous 1946 paper, “The Synthesis of the Elements from Hydrogen” (published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society), in a long and fruitful collaboration with Fowler on nuclear processes in stars and supernovas. This research was codified in a classic 1957 article, universally referred to as “B2FH” (published in Reviews of Modern Physics), which Hoyle and Fowler coauthored with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge. Many of us felt that Hoyle should have shared Fowler’s 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences later made partial amends by awarding Hoyle, with Edwin Salpeter, its 1997 Crafoord Prize.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hoyle kept up his wide-ranging interests in solar physics, on the origin of the Solar System, the structure of galaxies, and the nature of gravity. The discovery of quasars in the 1960s led to a stream of stimulating papers, many coauthored with the Burbidges, on supermassive objects and various aspects of high-energy astrophysics.
Committee work and administration held little attraction for Hoyle. Nonetheless, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s, he served effectively on the UK’s Science Research Council and the Council of the Royal Society, among other UK bodies. In Cambridge, his energetic advocacy and fundraising led to the creation, in 1966, of an Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. Its building, now named after him, was modeled on the University of California’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics in La Jolla, California, although it overlooks a field of cows rather than the Pacific Ocean. The Institute of Theoretical Astronomy quickly made an international mark, and Hoyle organized an extensive visitors’ program. Key ideas on supernovas and explosive nucleosynthesis were developed by Hoyle’s US colleagues during such visits.
Hoyle’s regular collaborators Jayant Narlikar and Nalin Wickramasinghe were part of the institute’s full-time staff. In addition, a lively group of postdoctoral scientists benefited from the stimulating environment of the institute. I was privileged to be one of these scientists. Hoyle was supportive to us all, even when our researches were orthogonal (or even contradictory) to his own.
On the broader UK scene, Hoyle’s role was pivotal in establishing the Anglo-Australian Observatory, in the early 1970s. As a result, for the first time, UK astronomers had guaranteed access to a world-class optical telescope.
A regrettable dispute led to Hoyle’s premature retirement from Cambridge in 1972. He thereafter based himself for many years in a remote part of England’s Lake District (hillwalking being one of his lifelong enthusiasms) before moving to the more sedate environs of Bournemouth. His consequent isolation from the broad academic community was probably detrimental to his own science; it was certainly a sad deprivation for the rest of us. His later scientific writings, which continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, dealt, often controversially, with topics as disparate as Stonehenge, panspermia, Darwinism, paleontology, and viruses from space. But he never lost his interest in cosmology: His book A Different Approach to Cosmology: From a Static Universe through the Big Bang towards Reality, coauthored with G. Burbidge and Narlikar, appeared in 2000 (Cambridge U. Press).
His lifelong success as a popularizer started in 1950—in the pre-Sagan era, long before the dominance of television—with a celebrated series of radio talks. Huge numbers of people (including many who later achieved scientific distinction) were inspired by these talks, by books such as Frontiers of Astronomy (Heinemann, 1970), and by his lectures. Throughout his life, he retained the agreeable manner and accent of his native Yorkshire.
Hoyle’s first novel, The Black Cloud (Harper, 1957), about an alien intelligence embodied in a cloud of interstellar gas, has achieved classic status. It was followed by a dozen others, including A for Andromeda: A Novel for Tomorrow (Souvenir Press, 1962), coauthored with John Elliot, which was dramatized as a television series; Ossian’s Ride (Harper, 1959); and October the First is Too Late (Harper & Row, 1966). Some of Hoyle’s books, including those he wrote for children during his later years, were coauthored with his son Geoff Hoyle. Hoyle’s autobiography Home Is Where the Wind Blows: Chapters from a Cosmologist’s Life (University Science Books, 1994) sensitively evokes his early life in Yorkshire and offers entertaining perspectives on later academic disputes.
Hoyle’s enduring insights into stars, nucleosynthesis, and the large-scale universe rank among the greatest achievements of 20th-century astrophysics. Moreover, his theories were unfailingly stimulating, even when they proved transient. He will be remembered with fond gratitude not only by colleagues and students, but by a much wider community who knew him through his talks and writings.