Fred Hoyle’s Universe by Jane Gregory

That it’s taken me so many months to read this is the fault of neither author nor subject: it is all mine.

I read this hoping, like others no doubt, for illumination and amplification of the story Hoyle tells in his autobiography and Gregory certainly delivers. I guess autobiography is rather a ‘mind your own business, I’ll tell what I want’, whereas biography presumably has expectations and standards to meet.

Hoyle tells the story he wants to tell. Gregory does an admirable job of being Hoyle’s rivet man. She reports the early years pretty much as Hoyle does, no surprise there as Hoyle tells the story of those years in detail and is obviously going to be the principal source for his youth. But once he starts becoming part of the world of science Gregory comes into her own with a comprehensive depth and breadth of research. She has interviewed people, been through written background records from newspapers to government correspondence; in short, she’s looked at all the angles.

What emerges from this, as may be gleaned from the title, is a book that is far more than a biography. It is about the world in which he lives. One might read this book, for example, to gain understanding of how science and politics combine – or don’t. It tells the story of what the politicians need from science and vice versa, this at both national and international level. Who gets the credit for combined international projects? Who leads them? Scientists have an invidious choice in that they can leave all this to people who don’t necessarily, supposing the best will, have the understanding to make the decisions; or they can get involved themselves with the costs in time, emotional energy, pyche, that may result. Indeed this was the case for Hoyle whose battles on these fronts must have cost him dearly. There is much material here to fascinate the sociologist.

It tries to explain what we see as the degeneration of Hoyle’s standing as he takes deeply unpopular stands which sounded crazy – still sound crazy no doubt – but may still be vindicated. In short his science fiction, his stubbornness, his isolation, his independence and his satisfaction from making people angry came together to see him roundly abused by his peers. Gregory, in a way she has of being subtle but firm, distances Hoyle from his partnership with Chandra Wickramasinghe which did so much to destroy his reputation. Nonetheless, one can see the attraction for Hoyle of Wickramasinghe’s wacky theories. It gave Steady State new hope and it clearly fitted in with ideas he had been toying with for a long time in his science fiction. Thankfully, he was able to drop this aspect of his thinking and get back to more conventional cosmology for a good period before his death.

The price he paid for his involvement with Wickramasinghe was heavy, Fowler alone being awarded the Nobel Prize he should have shared with Hoyle. Many were uneasy about this situation – his Nobel prize winning work was just that. How can a scientist be judged instead on whether he rubs people up the wrong way or whether he has fields of investigation that are unpopular, if not crazy. This judgement on Hoyle was a judgement on science. A warning of what could happen if you didn’t toe the line. Hoyle often thought his fields had developed politically to a point where one wasn’t able to think brilliantly and come up with new important ideas. This story of his Nobel that wasn’t would be an object lesson not to rock the boat. Ironically, he suffered just the fate that Jocelyn Bell did, who might also have been awarded a Nobel Prize but wasn’t. It was for different reasons, it was because she was a girl, or because she was a student, or both, but Hoyle didn’t like it one bit and went in to bat for her subsequently. She distanced herself from Hoyle’s defence – or attack, if you like – but it isn’t at all clear to me that this was for any reason other than she knew to toe the line.

I’m amazed at how unknown Hoyle is now, within his discipline and without it. It is staggering to compare with his rockstar (never let it be said that I can’t use a post-1950s word) presence in his prime. Not only was he publicly a star who inspired a generation of children to become scientists and was at one point the most popular broadcaster on the BBC – imagine that, a scientist – but one of the fascinating stories that is part of this book is the efforts of the British Government to try to keep him in Britain when he was threatening to move to the US. He wouldn’t have been the first of his colleagues to do so in this period, but the others didn’t matter. Reading the vast amount of harried, fraught governmental correspondence during this tense period of trying to keep Hoyle sweet, is to get a true understanding of how important the man was.

In short, this is an admirable work of footslogging scholarship, which takes us behind the scenes. It doesn’t just show us the universe, it gives us micro-views of how it operates. Gregory completely takes the backseat to the material, it is almost like primary sources, which is why the sociologist would find it so rewarding. There should be an XKCD cartoon – stand back, I’m going to do history – Bravo, Gregory!

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