2016-07-27
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.

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.

Shaken atheism inspired Hoyle to begin pondering the origin of life, and he came to conclusions that defied scientific orthodoxy. The idea that the first animate compounds spontaneously assembled themselves was "absurd," he declared, with a probability of only one in 10 followed by 40,000 zeros, much greater odds than that monkeys chained to typewriters would bang out Hamlet. And experiments with letting monkeys press letter-buttons show they require hours to blunder onto the shortest word, suggesting that even given billions of years they would never produce Shakespeare, much less a grocery list - just as lab experiments have never been able to employ chance to produce any living substance from simulated primordial "soup." Hoyle would state, "the probability of life originating at random is so utterly miniscule as to make the random concept absurd."

So what's going on? Somewhere in the universe, Hoyle came to believe, there must be "higher intelligence," influencing if not necessarily directing events. The higher power might be God or might be some sort of advanced natural intelligence that is not organic. Suggesting that God really does exist got Hoyle into trouble which the scientific materialists who dominated the academy and literary thought; suggesting that aliens could have created human life got him into even more trouble.

Establishment unhappiness did not stop Hoyle. He tormented Darwinian biologists at Cambridge University by asking, if life began on Earth, why don't we see any evidence of the beginning? Why can't we figure out what the conditions were? Why does it seem as though life suddenly appeared here fully functional?

Hoyle began to advocate panspermia, the idea that life began somewhere else in the universe and was transported here. Perhaps, he said, advanced aliens specifically send the building blocks of life to promising planets like Earth, and someday when we meet those aliens they'll teach us how life really began. Or perhaps an as-yet-unknown natural process creates building blocks of life and sets them adrift through space, where they fall on worlds and trigger organic chemistry. Hoyle was encouraged in this speculation by the discovery that bacteria living near deep-ocean heat vents endure higher temperatures than they would if entering Earth's atmosphere from space. He was also encouraged by findings that enormous clouds of carbon-based molecules, similar to those in living things, drift through the cosmos.

Aliens seeded the universe? Life from space? Sounds like a bad episode of "The X Files," and Hoyle was reviled for these views. When, in 1983, a collaborator on the nucleogenesis project won the Nobel Prize for physics and Hoyle did not, this was widely seen in the science world as a deliberate snub to his nonconformist views. The fact that Hoyle's hobby was writing science fiction - much of it far-out stuff about alien civilizations - didn't help.

Yet there is no reason in principle why alien involvement in the origin of terrestrial life should not be considered. If the universe is at least 13 billion years old, as studies now suggest, there should have been ample time for other forms of intelligence to evolve, and who knows what sort of grand project they might undertake? Perhaps, the deliberate dispersal of life. Alternatively, if God is running the show, who knows how many life-forms the divine might create to populate an enormous cosmos, or what responsibilities for spreading new life other ancient beings might have been given?

Undaunted by criticism - and comforted by the respectability he eventually won, becoming president of the Royal Astronomical Society and knighted Sir Fred - Hoyle went still further. Why, he asked, do diseases appear in many places at once rather than evolve in one place then slowly spread outward? His answer: Because germs are falling on us from space. Hoyle spent much of his last years laboring to show that the emergence of new influenza strains corresponds with the transit of Earth through clouds that contain organic molecules. This work is considered quirky at best by other researchers, though it might be noted that so far there's no disproof, either.

Quirky pursuits aside, Hoyle is credited both with the essential work of nucleogenesis and with forcing the debate over cosmic origins to become more scientific: competing ideas about how the universe began are now matched against each other to see which one can withstand criticism. Maybe the Big Bang will win, maybe the steady state will rally, maybe some other explanation will come into view.

But because his name became associated with science fiction and unusual views about disease, the larger significance of Hoyle's intellectual journey may be missed. He began his scientific career as a determined atheist and philosophical materialist--that is, one who holds that there is nothing more than what meets the eyes. By the time of his death, Hoyle believed that life must be the result of some unseen intelligence and that "there is a coherent plan for the universe, although I admit I have no idea what it is." And he ended by believing there is much, much more than what meets the eye: that humanity is still in the early hours of its awaking to a wondrously vast universe. These are great thoughts, and may stand the test of time. Fred Hoyle, who thought them, was a great man.