Sir Fred Hoyle (1915 – 2001)

Fred Hoyle

Yorkshire-born English astronomer and mathematician, Sir Fred Hoyle (1915 – 2001) was a controversial figure who made a number of significant contributions to twentieth-century physics. He is, however, remembered for his vehement opposition to the Big Bang theory of cosmic origin.

Born near Bingley in Yorkshire's West Riding, Hoyle found school boring and remained at home studying chemistry textbooks and conducting his own chemistry experiments until a scholarship won him a place at Bingley Grammar School. From there, he moved on to read mathematics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His  father was a violinist and worked in the wool trade in Bradford while his mother, had studied music at the Royal College of Music in London and worked as a cinema pianist.

During World War Two, he worked on radar-related research in Portsmouth, where he met Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold with whom he shared an interest in cosmology. 

After the war, Hoyle returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in mathematics at St John's College (1945-58). He was appointed the university's Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy in 1958, and became the founding director of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy (later renamed the Institute of Astronomy) in 1967. 

Around the time Hoyle was knighted in 1972, however, political intrigues within the university's astronomical community and rancorous debate on the future of British astronomy prompted Hoyle to resigned from his official positions, effectively cutting him off from most of his establishment connections and a steady salary. However, he remained professor-at-large at Cornell University (1972-78) and was involved in the development of the 150-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in New South Wales.

After leaving Cambridge, Hoyle relocated to the Lakes District in Cumbria, where he combined moorland treks and writing popular scientific titles, science fiction and more serious work in between excursions arounf the globe to visit research centres and deliver lectures.

Hoyle's health declined after a moorland hiking accident in west Yorkshire in November 1997, and he moved into a high-rise development in Bournemouth, where he died after a a series of strokes in August 2001.

During Hoyle's Cambridge years his original ideas on a wide range of topics saw him rise to the top of world of astrophysics. 

In 1948, with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, he propounded an alternative explanation to suggestions that the universe developed from nothing in a massive expansion that Hoyle described as a 'Big Bang" in a broadcast on the BBC's Third Programme in March 1949.

Hoyle was not the only physicist who found Georges Lemaître’s suggestion that the universe started as a hot, dense fireball when a "primeval atom" exploded billions of years ago far-fetched, and there was no obvious way to test the hypothesis. 

The "steady state" theory argued that the universe constantly creates new matter to fill the space vacated as the galaxies in an expanding universe move apart. The result would be an eternal and essentially unchanging universe that resembled a flowing river. Since these notions did not require speculation about cosmic origins or the behaviour of the universe in the distant past, the theoory attracted considerable support as debate over the matter raged through the 1950s. .

The discovery of  cosmic microwave background radiation in the 1960s, and of "young galaxies" and quasars in the 1980s persuaded most of Hoyle's peers that the Big Bang theory was increasingly supported by observations.

Hoyle was a steadfast critic of the Big Bang, and argued that the continuous creation of matter between galaxies was no more inexplicable than the 'Big Bang' as a model for the origins of a universe in which galaxies are observed to be  moving away from each other. 

While he continued to support and develop notions of a "solid state" universe, a 1993 "quasi-steady state cosmology" failed to gather wide acceptance. Most physicists found Hoyle's hypotheses increasingly contrived

His continued belief in the steady state model and a collaboration with Indian astrophysicist Jayant Vishnu Narlikar developed the Hoyle–Narlikar theory of gravity, which incorporated elements that aligned with Einstein's general relativity, but incorporated that Einstein had tried but failed to incorporate in his mathematics. Subsequent observations failed to deliver the data to support the new hypothesis.

Wartime trips to North America introduced him to aspects of nuclear physics that developed into theories about the synthesis of chemical elements heavier than helium by nuclear reactions in stars. In the mid 1950s, Hoyle became the leader of a group of experimental and theoretical physicists including William Alfred Fowler, Margaret Burbidge, and Geoffrey Burbidge whose explanations of nucleosynthesis (the means through which all the chemical elements in the universe were created) won Fowler, the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics. 

The Nobel Prize academy's failure to include Hoyle in the award caused controversy at the time. Some, including the editor of the journal Nature suggested the academy did not wish to be seen as endorsing any of the controbversial positions on other matters that Hoyle was promulgating. It may also have stemmed from his vehement public criticism of their 1973  decision to acknowledge Antony Hewish's discovery of the first pulsar) while ignoring his student Jocelyn Bell Burnell's contribution to the project.

In his later years, Hoyle's promoted a hypothesis that life on Earth began in space, and that evolution on Earth is influenced by extraterrestrial viruses brought into the atmosphere by cometary dust. Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe advanced several instances where they claimed outbreaks of terrestrial illnesses, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, and outbreaks of polio and mad cow disease, were of extraterrestrial origin.

 For the 1918 flu pandemic, they hypothesized that brought the virus to Earth simultaneously at multiple locations—a view almost universally dismissed by experts on this pandemic.

While Hoyle was well-regarded for his work on nucleosynthesis and popularising science, his controversial positions on a wide range of scientific issues, often in direct opposition to the conventional wisdom reflected a self-expressed preference for being "interesting and wrong [rather] than boring and right".


  • Chambers Biographical Dictionary
  • Rachel Feltman, The big bang got its name from a man who thought the theory was total nonsense, Popular Science, 28 March, 2018 
  • John Horgan, Remembering Big Bang Basher Fred Hoyle, Scientific American, 7 April 2020.
  • Bernard Lovell, Sir Fred Hoyle, The Guardian, 24 August 2001.
  • Cormac O'Raifeartaigh, Fred Hoyle: The brilliant man who lost the Big Bang debate, The Irish Times, 29 October 2015
  • Dennis Overbye: The Man Who Believes in Forever, Discover, May 1981.
  • Walter Sullivan, Fred Hoyle Dies at 86; Opposed 'Big Bang' but Named It, New York Times, 22 August 2001
  • Wikipedia
© Ian Hughes 2017