Was Life Begun By Chance?
Not a Chance

The life of astronomer Fred Hoyle, whose atheism was shaken by the indications of purpose he found in the universe.

BY: Gregg Easterbrook

 
The English astronomer Fred Hoyle, who died last week at the age of 86, may be remembered as the person who coined the phrase "Big Bang." Or he may be remembered as the researcher who cracked the scientific mystery of how stars manufacture the elements necessary for planets to form. Or Hoyle may be remembered as a prominent modern scientist who believed that life could not have begun by chance - and was denied a Nobel Prize for saying so. Or he may be remembered as a highly credentialled scientist who put forward the seemingly nutty idea that diseases fall on Earth from space.

There's a lot that could be remembered about Fred Hoyle. I think what is most important to remember is this: his life showed that questions of science and meaning are not mutually exclusive, but rather are intertwined.

The son of an English wool merchant, Hoyle showed an early gift for astronomy: by the age of 10, he could amaze adults by taking accurate navigational sightings off the stars. Bored with school, he often played hooky. But rather than sneaking into movies, he sneaked into libraries to study chemistry texts; his parents were less than thrilled to discovery him making gunpowder one day. At university he won mathematics prizes and, as World War II approached, worked with the hush-hush British radar project. On the project Hoyle met two other scientists, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, who would, like him, go on to become renowned science mavericks. All three became fascinated with the discovery that the galaxies were flying apart from each other as if their enormity had once been compressed into a single point, and the consequent theory - then at the cutting edge of cosmology - that the universe began with an unimaginable explosion.

The three couldn't stand this theory, which seemed to defy common sense: an entire universe squeezed into a single point? Hoyle gave a speech in which he mocked the notion by calling it the Big Bang, which caught on as the theory's name, though Hoyle meant to be flippant. Hoyle, Bondi and Gold were also distressed that under the Big Bang theory, the universe had a finite creation in time, prior to which there was nothing. This not only seemed to them another defiance of common sense - how could there be nothing, no anything? - it also nagged at Hoyle for spiritual reasons.

At that time, Hoyle was a committed atheist. The Big Bang's discrete moment of creation sounded to him too much like what was described in Genesis. Indeed, though some on the religious right today rather curiously view the Big Bang as an idea that undercuts the biblical view of creation, in the mid-century the astronomer Arthur Eddington argued that evidence of a Bang-caused universe made "religion possible for a reasonable man of science." And even if similarities between Bang thinking and Genesis were just a coincidence, the Big Bang implied some majestic force, sufficient to call forth an entire cosmos. Hoyle the atheist couldn't stand that thought.

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