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.

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.