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


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As an alternative to the Big Bang, Hoyle, Bondi and Gold proposed the "steady state" theory. The universe, they said, has simply always existed: it had no origin in time and needed none, because no condition other than existence is possible. To make up for the fact that stars are burning away their fuel, the three supposed, there must be a hidden "continuous creation" that supplies hydrogen for suns, keeping an eternal universe alight.

Detractors scoffed. Just where, they asked, does this mysterious continuous creation get its stuff? Of course, the Big Bang theory also assumes that stuff enigmatically emerges out of nowhere. So far all theories of the cosmos involve mystifying stuff-out-of-nowhere, with the dispute being whether it happens slowly or all at once. It's hard to imagine a theory of creation that doesn't entail something from nothing.

The idea of an eternal "steady state" universe fell into disfavor when research of the 1960s began to confirm a Big Bang. Especially important was the discovery of "background radiation," a faint cosmic glow, present everywhere, that seems as though it could only have been caused by a primeval energy discharge far more powerful than all stars combined. Big Bang calculations predicted there would be background radiation, whereas steady-state calculations predicted there would not be. Over the years, as Bang thinking became the scientific mainstream, Hoyle, Bondi and Gold gradually softened their advocacy of the eternal steady-state universe, though maintaining the notion could someday make a comeback. Current ideas about "virtual particles" that pop out of nothing, and about an extremely potent "Higgs field" of latent energy that permeates the cosmos, suggest it may not be impossible that some natural force does replenish existence.

While he was fiddling with steady-state theories, Hoyle focused on one of the objections to the Big Bang -- that it seemed to account for why there are light elements such as hydrogen and helium, but not for why there are the heavy elements on which planets and life are based. Hoyle and others studying the problem began to theorize that heavy elements were formed by stars. Solar burning would fuse simple hydrogen and helium into progressively more complex atoms, a process dubbed "nucleogenesis." Then the star would explode as a supernova and hurl its contents into space, where eventually the heavy stuff would form planets.

But study of nuclear fusion turned up what appeared to be an alarming barrier. In tests, it seemed the solar foundry process ought to stop with the light element beryllium, never proceeding upward to the vital complex atoms. Years of work--we'll skip the details--convinced Hoyle and three collaborators that stars form a full range of elements because an isotope of carbon can catalyze the jump to atoms more complicated than beryllium. The existence of this carbon isotope was statistically unlikely, in fact quite unlikely. Yet it turned out that exactly the correct isotope is present in "main sequence" stars like our sun.

Hoyle was stunned by this discovery, for to him the presence within the roaring heat of stars of an unlikely substance, without which there could never be planets or organic life, seemed to suggest a guiding hand. He pronounced himself "greatly shaken" - meaning his atheism was shaken by an indication of purpose, a postmodern inversion of the traditional experience in which faith is shaken by indications of chance.

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