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?