Fred Hoyle

Always a controversial astronomer, he rejected 'big bang' theory, turned his back on Cambridge and was mysteriously denied a Nobel prize

Fred Hoyle, who has died aged 86, will be remembered as one of the most distinguished and controversial scientists of the 20th century. Soon after the end of the second world war he became widely known both by scientists and the public as one of the originators of a new theory of the universe. He was a fluent writer and speaker and became the main expositor of this new theory of the steady state, or continuous creation, according to which the universe had existed for an infinite past time and would continue infinitely into the future, as opposed to what Hoyle styled the "big bang" theory.

As a young man during the second world war, Hoyle had worked in the Admiralty Signals Establishment and during that period he became friendly with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold. The ideas that led to the continuous creation theory were born at that time and in 1948 their historic papers on the theory were published. Although the names of Bondi, Hoyle and Gold are associated with that revolutionary theory, Hoyle's paper was published separately, two months later than the joint one of Bondi and Gold. The latter had stressed the philosophical aspect of a perfect cosmological principle in which the universe would have a high degree of uniformity not only in space but also in time, thereby evading the scientific problem associated with a beginning in a finite past time. Hoyle dealt with the continuous creation of the primordial hydrogen that would be essential to maintain the steady state, and placed the concept within the framework of general relativity.

The detailed presentation of the theory in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1948 was not a cooperative effort. The evidence is that Hoyle had sent his paper to an American journal, where it was rejected. Its eventual publication, two months after the Bondi-Gold paper, was a coincidence that formed an impenetrable phalanx for nearly two decades. The conflict with the conventional idea that the universe had a specific origin billions of years in time past was absolute. Until the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965, the observational evidence was inconclusive and the emotive feelings aroused led to one of the bitterest scientific divisions of the century. Hoyle never accepted the complete defeat of the continuous creation theory, and long after the "big bang" universe had become conventional scientific wisdom he continued to probe its defects.

Although Hoyle was most widely known for this cosmological theory, there is little doubt that his most lasting and significant contribution to science concerns the origin of the elements. This theory of nucleogenesis (the build-up of the elements in the hot interiors of stars) was an outstanding scientific landmark of the 1950s. In the development of this theory Hoyle collaborated with WA Fowler of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge.

Hitherto, the general belief was that all the elements must have been produced in the hot primordial universe. The new paper, on the contrary, showed that the elements could be produced from the primordial hydrogen by nucleo-synthesis in the hot interior of stars. The theory gave a satisfactory account of the relative abundances of the elements, provided an explanation of the direction of stellar evolution and gave an objective basis for calculation of the internal constitution of stars.

The theory also confirmed a prediction of Hoyle's that there must be an excited state of the carbon twelve isotope -- at the energy he had predicted from a consideration of the evolution of red giant stars. This, incidentally, was agreeably consistent with the steady state cosmological theory, since there was no necessity for an initial hot condition of a primordial universe.

The paper, published in an American journal in 1957, has been described as monumental, and the theory has had a cardinal influence on astrophysics. Although there were four authors, it is widely known that the Burbidges contributed the data from their stellar observations and that the core and essence of the paper was the work of Fowler and Hoyle.

Fowler was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1983, and why Hoyle was not included in this award remains a mystery hidden in the confidential documents of the Royal Swedish Academy. The editor of the scientific journal Nature suggested that the academy did not wish to be associated with any endorsement of another idea then being promulgated by Hoyle. This was linked to Hoyle's belief that life must be of frequent occurrence in the universe. He argued that the primeval molecules from which life evolved on Earth had been transported from elsewhere in the universe. In itself this idea would not necessarily be rejected as absurd by the scientific community, but Hoyle had publicised a further argument that influenza epidemics were associated with the passage of the Earth through certain meteor streams, the particles of which conveyed the virus to Earth.

This was dismissed as fictional by nearly all members of the biological and physical scientific disciplines. Indeed, the idea belonged more to Hoyle's activity as a writer of science fiction for over three decades. His most famous novel was October The First Is Too Late, and several others, such as The Black Cloud (1957) and A For Andromeda (1962), which was made into a television serial, achieved a wide circulation. Another, Rockets In Ursa Major (1962), was also produced as a play.

Hoyle played a prominent part in the scientific affairs of the UK. He served on the council of the Royal Society as vice president from 1969 to 1971 and was president of the Royal Astronomical Society 1971-73. As a member of the Science Research Council from 1967 to 1972 he was active in the assessment of the astronomical facilities in the southern hemisphere, which led to the creation of the 150-inch Anglo-Australian telescope at Siding Spring in New South Wales. He was a member of the joint policy committee from 1967, during the planning stage for the telescope, and became chairman of the Anglo-Australian telescope board in 1973, and presided at the inauguration of the telescope in 1974 by the Prince of Wales.

Hoyle was born at Bingley in Yorkshire, the son of a wool merchant, and by the age of 10 could navigate by the stars. From Bingley grammar school he went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to read maths: he was the Mayhew Prizeman in the 1936 Cambridge Mathematical Tripos. In his immediate postgraduate years he was Smith's Prizeman, Goldsmith Exhibitioner and was awarded a senior exhibition by the Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. He was elected to a fellowship at St John's in 1939.

During these years he first became associated with RA Lyttleton on problems of accretion of dust and gas around large bodies. Thereby began his shift of interest from mathematical physics to astronomy and, in later years, led to his work on the formation of planetary systems and to his conviction that life must be of frequent occurrence in the universe. In a broadcast talk in the early 50s, at a time when Australia was dominating England at cricket, he remarked that he would wager that somewhere in the Milky Way there was a cricket team who could beat the Australians.

During the war he was engaged in technical projects, such as radar for the Admiralty, where he found himself working with Bondi and Gold. Hoyle returned to Cambridge after the war as university lecturer in mathematics. In 1958 he was appointed the Plumian professor of astronomy and became the first director of the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in 1967.

Although the occupant of two such distinguished offices, he became immensely unhappy with his life in Cambridge. The crisis came over a dispute concerning the election to a professorial chair and he tendered his resignation as Plumian professor from 1972 and as director of the institute from 1973.

For many years I had been closely associated with Hoyle in astronomical and policy matters and his attitude to Cambridge was epitomised in his explanatory letter to me.

"I do not see any sense in continuing to skirmish on a battlefield where I can never hope to win. The Cambridge system is effectively designed to prevent one ever establishing a directed policy -- key decisions can be upset by ill-informed and politically motivated committees. To be effective in this system one must for ever be watching one's colleagues, almost like a Robespierre spy system. If one does so, then of course little time is left for any real science."

At the age of 57, Hoyle retired from his formal appointments in the UK, residing first in the Lake District and then on the south coast. He held honorary research professorships at the University of Manchester and University College, Cardiff, from which he published extensively with NC Wickramasinghe on the biological aspects of his astronomical concepts. He did much of his work in the United States, particularly in the California Institute of Technology, where he was appointed visiting associate in physics in 1963, and at Cornell, where he held a visiting professorship for six years after he retired from Cambridge.

Hoyle was awarded numerous honorary doctorates, medals and prizes. His many books included Frontiers of Astronomy (1955), Men And Materialism(1956), Star Formation (1963), Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars (1965), The Relation Of Physics And Cosmology (1973), Ten Faces Of The Universe (1977) and On Stonehenge (1977). His autobiography, Home Is Where The Wind Blows, was published in 1994.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and was knighted in 1972. In 1974 he was awarded the royal medal of the Royal Society, and on that occasion the president said that Hoyle was one of the most original minds in present-day astronomy and that his "enormous output of ideas are immediately recognised as challenging to astronomers generally... his popularisation of astronomical science can be warmly commended for the descriptive style used and the feeling of enthusiasm about his subject which they succeed in conveying".

Indeed, Hoyle packed the lecture rooms wherever he spoke in the world, and "according to Hoyle" was a frequent catchphrase of the second half of the 20th century.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Clark, whom he married in 1939, and by his son and daughter.

[Fred Hoyle, astronomer and writer, born June 24 1915; died August 20 2001]

Bernard Lovell, Thursday August 23, 2001 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002