Fred Hoyle: The Man Who Proved We’re Made of Stardust

“The cosmos is within us. We are all made of star-stuff”

Carl Sagan

Romantic as it is, Sagan’s poetic words aren’t all that unsubstantiated. The 1957 paper titled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” by a certain Caltech and Cambridge group, more commonly known in academia as the B2FH paper (named after the initials of the authors of the paper), verified that stellar nucleosynthesis was the reason why elements like Carbon, Iron, Platinum, Gold and the rest exist. In this blog post, I’ll give you a brief introduction to the H in B2FH, the controversial English astronomer, Fred Hoyle.

Sir Fred Hoyle was born in a place called Bingley in Gilstead village in Yorkshire County to musicians. Educated in mathematics at Emmanuel College at Cambridge University, he quickly became a distinguished student, winning the Mayhew Prize in applied mathematics. During Britain’s war efforts, he researched RADAR technology for the Admiralty and was also put in charge of countermeasures against the German radar-guided guns mounted on the Graf Spee cruiser warship.

During his time at the Admiralty, he engaged in several conversations about astronomy and astrophysics with his colleagues Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold. With the money accrued from the radar research, Hoyle travelled across the pond to the US, where he was involved with more astronomers during his sabbatical at Caltech.

At Caltech, he worked with a group which was working on stellar carbon production, which happened to be the genesis of the ‘Stellar Nucleosynthesis’ theory. After months of experimentation with the carbon-12 atom, they finally developed a full theory on Nucleosynthesis and published their results in 1957. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler and Hoyle had their names cemented in scientific history.

He was a proponent of several universally rejected theories on a variety of topics, most famously his opposition to Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre’s “Big Bang” theory (Rather ironically, Hoyle himself coined the term in a pejorative sense in a BBC interview) claiming that it was “irrational and unscientific, necessitating a creator”, whilst supporting the ‘Steady State’ theory, which asserts that matter is continuously created to keep the density of the universe constant to adhere to the Perfect Cosmological Principle. He even worked on a theory with his student, the Indian astronomer Jayant V Narlikar in the 1960s called Hoyle-Narlikar theory to support the steady-state model of the universe. The Steady-State Model was rife with inaccuracies since the accidental landmark discovery of the  Cosmic Microwave Background by Penzias and Wilson.

Success did follow suit for Hoyle as he held many prestigious positions, gave distinguished lectures, and also received many awards and honours including a knighthood in 1973. Authoring twelve books in his lifetime, he also wrote many radio-plays, short stories and fiction novels with his son Geoffrey. He was famously deprived of a Nobel Prize for his inflammatory behaviour on radio and television. When Fowler received the Nobel prize in 1983 (along with S Chandrashekar), he credited Hoyle’s efforts into the creation of this theory.

After leading a life being at loggerheads with the scientific opinion while also being a lasting influence on science, Hoyle retired into the coastal town of Bournemouth, England where he finally passed away in 2001.

Samarth Prabhu

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