Fred’s been my companion at breakfast so often this year that I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Manny’s been a bit testy at times. I expect that question’s been at the back of his mind ‘If he’s here for breakfast, where was he last night?’ In fact I haven’t taken Fred to bed, not once. It hasn’t been a question of primness, loyalty or even the bed not being big enough for the three of us.
It’s more Fred’s unflagging enthusiasm, energy and opinionated observations of everything, bombarding the reader as an independent thinker might. One finds oneself stopping to reflect every few pages of a rather long book not because you reach some sort of sciencey stumbling block but because he’s just presented a theory about 1920s hat fashion, or the efficacy of geese as domestic lawnmower or the reasons we organise into society. He carries you along in a way that is infectious, thrilling – and tiring. I love reading in bed, but this is more theoretical than practical. Mainly I fall asleep by the time I find my place. In the mornings, however, I’m irritatingly bouncy and chirpy and happy. That’s the time to pick up Hoyle.
Hoyle was nothing if not stubborn. I’m thinking of something that plays only a small part in his chosen story: Steady State theory. One of the themes of Alan Lightman’s interviews with scientists of that period is the tension between it and the Big Bang theory and the denouement as the supporters of the former all slowly accepted defeat. Not so much beaten by the bell, as by the bang. But ‘all’ did not include Hoyle. To me it is easy to understand why. The mechanisms we have which permit our survival in the world include our sense of confidence, our judgement, intuition. They are difficult to reject even in the face of blunt evidence to the contrary.
In practice, he was not as stubborn on the point as many have made out. Donald D. Clayton points out in his obituary of Hoyle that
The steady-state theory makes strong predictions. Hoyle’s reaction to poorly documented attacks on the steady-state theory was to demolish the “disproofs.” Almost against his will this reaction placed Hoyle in the position of seeming a sore loser in a scientific debate, a perception that persisted until his death. But in 1964, Hoyle pioneered calculations of nucleosynthesis in a big-bang cosmology with Tayler by arguing that a hot big bang was the source of a uniform cosmic density of helium, though he and Tayler differed on whether the big bang was necessarily of a primordial object (which Tayler favored) or could have been a cumulative result of a series of smaller events involving miniature oscillating universes (which Hoyle himself favored.)
Indeed, Clayton goes on to point out that
Three of Hoyle’s papers were selected for the AAS ApJ “centennial volume” featuring the most influential research of the twentieth century published in AJ and ApJ. (This is a record equaled only by Chandrasekhar and Baade.) I would argue that his 1964 paper with Tayler on big-bang nucleosynthesis might also have been included. Most of his publications were in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, however, including the field theoretic steady-state model. These earned the international Crafoord and Balzan Prizes, and many felt that Hoyle might have shared Fowler’s Nobel Prize but for Hoyle’s embarrassed status over exobiology.
Hoyle was an absolute heavyweight of his field. But he was also always an outsider, as suggested by the poignant title of this book, and had the sort of relationship such people have with the rest of the world that ensures that things stay that way. As well as being an outsider, he was also a loner. I’m sitting in the loungeroom of the Geneva Four Seasons as I write this; Hoyle is the only one who might be said to be sharing my company. But around us people, not matter how they are organised – alone, in couples, in groups – have their mobile phones in front of them. Almost every one. Has there ever been such a mass addiction? What confuses me, in the context of this book, is how do people think any more? In tiny bytes between one screen and another, one twitter and another, rushing from FB to Youtube. Can you have profound thought without profound concentration – without being alone?
The world of Hoyle couldn’t be more different. As a child in rural Yorkshire isolation from the world at large was normal. News came now and again. Nature was the principal of play, entertainment, adventure. Observation. Patience. Wonderment. Curiosity. Deduction. Experimentation. These were the sorts of qualities a child could develop with nature as prime playmate. There was another sort of isolation at work. Young Hoyle walked incredible distances to and from school for years on end. He calculated that he had walked 10,000 miles over the course of his highschool years. These days even if a person did have to do that, he’d do it plugged in. To brain-numbing music is the choice of many. To phones is another. Hoyle had nothing but his own thoughts to occupy him. Are thinkers like this possible any more? The habit was never lost. Hoyle walked and walked on his own even when he no longer had to.
Not just on his own. His passion for climbing was either shared by or forced upon his colleagues. There are many like this in Hoyle’s book. These are from Clayton’s personal collection.
These are from Clayton’s collection – these and more can be found here. I dare say there are many hills and mountains in the UK that could be renamed according to the cosmological problems discussed on them by Hoyle and his colleagues. Can this be done today? Is there any territory to be traversed in the UK that doesn’t permit the endless intrusions and interruptions of the internet? Hoyle walked 5 miles to and from school in primary school, eight in high school. Often in the rain, with shoes that might have holes in them. We laugh at the Monty Python skit about The Four Yorkshiremen:
But the reason it’s funny is that it’s true. Life WAS hard and it was never far from his mind that it could be worse. Money comes up again and again in his book as he describes early struggles to make ends meet. His big break was getting to do the radio shows that feature so prominently in the recollections of others talking about their lives as scientists. His popular books and shows galvanised youngsters around the world to take up science, hunt down the meaning of life. Martin Rees commented:
His lifelong success as a populariser 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, and by his lectures.
But I’m not sure that Hoyle understand how inspirational he was in this way. He was so many things. A scientist’s scientist. The people’s scientist. An outsider. A fighter. A loner. A grudge-holder. A shit-stirrer. An interested observer of the world at all levels, with ideas and opinions about every bit of it. A good raconteur. A good writer.
My copy of Home is Where the Wind Blows is littered with notes and underlinings, ticks and crosses. It’s that sort of book. It involves you every bit of the way. And you get to understand the origin of The Four Yorkshiremen. What more could a book offer?