Sir Fred Hoyle was born on June 24, 1915 in West Yorkshire, England. From his humble beginnings, he would become an accomplished mathematician and cosmologist. During World War II, he helped perfect radar to accurately track flying objects. After the war, he joined mathematician Hermann Bondi and astronomer Thomas Gold to develop the steady-state theory of the universe, though this was later discredited with the acceptance of the “Big Bang” theory, a term Hoyle himself came up with. He later went on to promote theories on evolution and Stonehenge. Hoyle died on August 20, 2001.
Early Life and Education
Fred Hoyle was born on June 24, 1915, in the English village of Gilstead in West Yorkshire. Fred’s father Ben worked as a fabric merchant and his mother, Mabel Pickar, was a talented pianist who trained to be a teacher.
The family moved around and young Fred initially struggled in school, often truant and disinterested. His mother nonetheless taught him to read and do arithmetic. He soon began to show strong interest in chemistry and astronomy and won a scholarship to Bingley Grammar School in 1926.
Academic success won Fred a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1933. With his impoverished background, he felt ostracized from the other students who came from privileged society. He plunged into his studies with stunning success, finishing his freshman year first in his class and moving on to graduate level courses in this third year. He earned a research internship at the Cavendish Laboratory where he worked with prestigious instructors like Paul Dirac, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in physics and the founder of modern quantum theory.
In 1938, Fred Hoyle won the prestigious Smith’s Prize and a year later, a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Hoyle switched his interest to astronomy from nuclear physics, a field which he felt was headed toward developing a nuclear bomb.
Work on Radar During World War II
During the war, Fred Hoyle worked in the Royal Admiralty on radar research and made advancements in radar’s ability to track aircraft. There he met mathematician Hermann Bondi and astronomer Thomas Gold. The three lived in a small rented house close to their work and spent evenings and weekends debating problems in astrophysics.
The Steady-State Theory of the Universe
After the war, all three returned to Cambridge and started to work together on cosmology. In 1948, the trio devised the “steady-state” theory, which theorized that the universe had no beginning or end and thus was eternal and unchanging. This was in contrast to the rival theory, prompted by Edwin Hubble’s 1927 observations, that the universe had a beginning in a high density form, then exploded and is expanding rapidly outward.
"Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards."
In the 1950s, Fred Hoyle helped produce a BBC radio program on cosmology where he referred to the rival theory as a “big bang” to describe the explosive origin of the universe. Many believed he used the term to deride the theory, though he denied this. At this same time, the discipline of radio astronomy was emerging and would prove to be the tool for testing the rival theories. By 1965, it was determined that the universe was changing and evolving from a distant past to its present, evolving form. Though the steady-state theory was doomed, Hoyle never accepted the rival theory.
Knighthood and Controversial Ideas
In 1966, Fred Hoyle founded the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge and was its director until 1972, the year he received his knighthood. He resigned all his positions at Cambridge in 1972 and continued to publish interesting and often controversial theories on various subjects including the idea that Stonehenge was built for the purpose of tracing the orbits of the sun and moon to better predict solar and lunar eclipses. He also argued that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was “wrong” and declared that natural selection couldn’t explain evolution. In the 1980s, he co-developed the theory that the origin of life involved cells which arrived from space and that comets helped promote evolution by bringing a steady influx of viruses.
In 1997, while hiking across the moorlands of West Yorkshire, Hoyle fell into a steep ravine and wasn’t found for nearly 12 hours. He was hospitalized with pneumonia and hypothermia. His health declined and in 2001 he suffered a series of strokes. Fred Hoyle died on August 20, 2001 in Bournemouth, England.
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