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Sir Fred Hoyle, FRS (June 24, 1915 - August 20, 2001), was an astrophysicist most famous for being a proponent of the steady state universe, a theory that says the universe is infinitely large and infinitely old. Hoyle also disparagingly coined the term "big bang" to describe the competing theory that the observable universe originated in a great "explosion" of matter and energy some 15 billion years ago. He also theorized that life may have originated in space (particularly in molecular clouds and on comets rich in organic molecules) rather than on planets, a theory called panspermia.

Hoyle was born in Yorkshire, England, and was deeply interested in astronomy as a boy. He studied mathematics at Cambridge University, where he was elected a fellow of St. John's College in 1939 with his dissertation on quantum electrodynamics. During World War II he worked on the development of RADAR for the British Navy, but returned to a professorship at Cambridge after the war. He was elected Plumian Professor at Cambridge in 1958, and founded the Institute for Theoretical Astronomy in 1966.

Hoyle is most positively remembered for his work on nucleosynthesis, particularly for his work energy generation and nucleosynthesis in stars with Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge and Willy Fowler, published in Reviews of Modern Physics in 1957 (volume 29, number 4, page 547). This article (more of a book, at 108 pages) was and is one of the seminal works on nucleosynthesis in astrophysics. In fact, it is the result of Hoyle's work that we now understand that all elements more complex than helium seen in the universe were generated within stars, and dispersed via supernova explosions and stellar mass loss. (That includes the carbon, oxygen and other stuff that makes up you.) Hoyle also contributed to the fields of stellar structure, and star and planetary formation over the years.

However, much of Hoyle's fame (or notoriety) comes from his investigations into "nonstandard" explanations for physical phenomena in the universe. In 1948, Hoyle, along with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold originated (in astrophysics at least) the idea of an eternal universe, dubbed steady-state cosmology (two articles in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, volume 108, pages 252 and 372). In this theory, they suggested that matter is being spontaneously created from nothing (perhaps from vacuum energy?), in order to explain the observed Hubble expansion of the universe. The idea of continuous creation wasn't new, having been discussed by James Jeans twenty years prior to this. However, Hoyle, Bondi, and Gold were the first to apply it to relativistic cosmology. This theory competed with the big bang theory, which states that the universe originated at a time in the finite past, expanding over time from an initial hot, dense singularity.

The steady-state theory fell into disfavor after the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965, which is most easily explained by the big bang theory. To the end of his life, Hoyle tried to improve his steady state theory to explain observations, but was never successful. It is noteworthy that Hoyle collaborated with the astronomer Halton Arp in the 1980's, the latter of whom believed that quasars are in fact ejected from the cores of galaxies, and that their "redshifts" are intrinsic properties of this "young matter" rather than being caused by high recession velocities (despite, I should add, volumes of thoroughly investigated evidence to the contrary). Apparently Hoyle felt Arp's rejection of cosmological redshifts and the "creation" aspect of his quasar theory supported steady state.

Hoyle was truly notorious for his theories on evolutionary biology, particularly those he developed with mathematician Chandra Wickramasinghe of University College, Cardiff, Wales. One theory they advanced was the idea that life originated in space, particularly in places like comets and molecular clouds where organic molecules are abundant. If these organisms reach hospitable climates (like the young Earth, for example), they can then develop and diversify, resulting in all the life we see today. This in itself isn't too implausible, but they later expanded this theory to say that not only did life originate in space, but that evolution is not caused by random mutations and adaptation to local conditions, but by mutagenic organisms from space. (The Daily Telegraph obituary mentions a 1990 article by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe stating that eruptions from sunspots push some of these interstellar microorganisms into Earth's atmosphere where they cause influenza epidemics, AIDS, and other diseases.) Hoyle always maintained that he believed Darwinian evolution was wrong, and was often criticized quite heavily for it. However, that criticism was often earned, as for example when Hoyle and Wickramasinghe wrote the book Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery, saying that the best Archaeopteryx fossil was faked. The book was brutally attacked by paleontologists and biologists, not because it went against the common understanding of evolution, but because its main premise was demonstrably false (the fossil is quite real). However, it should be noted that the work of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe was not without merit; they conducted very extensive and valuable work on the properties of dust grains in the interstellar medium throughout the 1980's as part of their research on panspermia.

Hoyle left Cambridge in 1973 over a funding dispute, and served as a visiting professor at several universities around the world, notably at CalTech, Cardiff, and at Rice University where he continued his work on nucleosynthesis in the mid-1970's with Donald Clayton. Hoyle retired to Bournemouth in the early 1990's, though he continued to give invited lectures world wide, and write articles on his various theories. He was involved in scientific research until his death. But besides his scientific work, he was also an author of science fiction, and wrote several well-received novels, including The Black Cloud. He also wrote A is for Andromeda, about aliens who beam instructions for building a doomsday machine to Earth. Both works apparently featured very accurate descriptions of physics and science, unlike much of the science fiction of the 1950's and 1960's. (I haven't read any of them, so I will leave a review of those to another noder.)

Hoyle was elected to the Royal Society in 1957, and elected the Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge in 1958; he was knighted in 1972. He received many other awards in his life, including the Gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1968), the Henry Norris Russell Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1971), the Royal medal of the Royal Society (1974), and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (2000) for lifetime achievement in astronomy. Minor planet 8077 was named after Hoyle, as is the home of the Institute for Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge which he created.

Hoyle had many controversial ideas during his lifetime, and some (probably not all) of the criticism of him was probably justified. He was certainly an independent thinker, and was -- admirably -- not afraid to discuss his ideas. If I had to criticize him, I'd probably say he probably held onto failed theories too long in the face of contradictory evidence, particularly his views on cosmology. But despite his controversial work, he did make very important contributions in the field of astrophysics, and should certainly be remembered (and honored) for them.

Sources: obits at http://www.dailytelegraph.co.uk/ and http://www.thetimes.co.uk/; a bio at http://www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu/BruceMedalists/Hoyle/index.html; and the astronomy and astrophysics journal archive at http://adsabs.harvard.edu

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