Reflections 2004

Fred Hoyle: Father of Nucleosynthesis

Jon Brix

fred hoyle

Our current view of the universe has taken millennia to become the unfinished portrait that it is today. We have discovered that it is elegantly predictable, while at the same time, agitatingly uncertain. During its evolution, countless numbers of people have made important contributions to what we believe the overall picture should look like. While many are forgotten, there are some controversial scientists whose ideas and theories are still remembered and examined, even if they have turned out to be confronted with a large amount of opposing evidence that has suggested otherwise. One of these scientists turned out to be a man named Fred Hoyle.

Hoyle was born on June 24, 1915, in Bingley, Yorkshire, England. His dad was a wool merchant, and his mother was a teacher. It is said that by the age of 4, he could multiply numbers all the way up to 12x12, and around the age of ten, he studied stars by reading various books by well known scientists at the time (Liukkonen 2003). Growing up, he attended the local school, and later received a scholarship to Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College due to his exceptional academic performance. In 1936 he received a BA in mathematics from the university, and was elected to a fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1939 for work on beta decay (Rees, online). He became interested in astrophysics from the help of his friend and colleague Raymond Lyttleton, who persuaded him to focus on that particular discipline rather than plain mathematical physics. They wrote papers together on the accretion of matter and stellar evolution. He later took part in World War II, where he was involved with radar, and it was there where he met Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold. In the free time that they had, the three men would discuss astronomy together (Rees 2001). The biggest idea to come from their collaboration was that of the “steady-state” theory.

Hoyle, Bondi and Gold, expounded this theory of cosmology in 1948 in order to counter the idea of the “big bang”, which was first “introduced in the 1920’s by Georges LeMaitre, a priest and cosmologist. When evolution theory had been a problem for the Catholic Church, the ‘big bang’ was not – partly because it strongly supported the idea of creation” (Liukkonen 2003). Hoyle was actually the person who gave the “big bang” theory its nickname. He mentioned it during a radio interview one time, and it stuck. Bondi’s and Gold’s arguments were more general in nature, but Hoyle’s model was more specific. In it, he introduced a negative pressure C-field into Albert Einstein’s equations (Rees 2001). It was already widely believed at the time that the universe would essentially look the same regardless of what direction you looked at it, which is known as the cosmological principle. But what set Hoyle’s idea apart, was that he believed it looked the same at all times as well, making it eternal (Guth 1997, p.57). This is known as the perfect cosmological principle, and it implies that there never was a “big bang”, no moment of creation, and therefore, no Creator.

Hoyle did not want to believe that the universe was created from a big bang, because that would imply that there was a creator, and to him, that idea wasn’t a possibility becaause he was an atheist. He believed that, “religion is but a desperate attempt to find an escape from the truly dreadful situation in which we find ourselves…No wonder then that many people feel the need for some belief that gives them a sense of security, and no wonder that they become very angry with people like me who say that this is illusory” ( His belief, in his own words, was that “‘every cluster of galaxies, every star, every atom...had a beginning, but the universe, itself, did not’” (Willick 2003). This is why he proposed that the universe has been around forever, and that we were not created from some all powerful deity, but from the right combinations of heavy elements that were fused through the nuclear reactions that take place in the center of stars, a process that he named “nucleosynthesis”.

He conjectured that the heavy elements later got distributed throughout their galaxy through supernova explosions, which he claimed is how stars that are a few times more massive than our own sun, die. Over time, from all of the particles exerting a gravitational force on each other, large clouds of gas that contain the heavy elements along with interstellar dust began to form. Eventually, what was once a small accumulation becomes the focus of a swirling crush of matter falling inward. The pressure on the innermost portion of the cloud gets so hot that nuclear fusion is created, and a star is born. Later, planets would form through the accretion of matter, and a solar system would be created. He studied these ideas, which turned out to be correct, in order to help prove his “steady-state” theory. His work on the life and death of stars had a huge impact on the field of astrophysics.

Edwin Hubble’s evidence, showing that the universe was indeed expanding, had been around for roughly 20 years, but Hoyle came up with a way to show that the expansion was plausible in his theory. He claimed that “in a ‘steady-state’ universe…individual galaxies would still evolve; but as they aged they would disperse more widely, and new, younger ones would form in the gaps that opened up between them,” which “maintained an unchanging cosmic scene despite the overall expansion” (Rees 1998, p. 36). Hoyle’s “steady-state” theory was able to compete with the “big bang” for 17 years. Then, in the year of 1964, two young radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, unintentionally discovered a hiss that seemed to come from all directions, at all times.

When they first detected the strange hissing noise, it seemed as though it could only have been caused by a primeval energy discharge far more powerful than all stars combined. They didn’t know what to make of it, so they decided to place a call to the nearest university that housed people who might actually know what it was. The university turned out to be Princeton, and the group that they contacted had already theorized that this type of “hiss” should be detectable. What Penzias and Wilson had discovered was the 3 degree Kelvin microwave background radiation that was a relic from the “big bang.” Once the group at Princeton realized what Penzias and Wilson had stumbled upon, the group leader, named Robert Dicke said “‘well, boys, we’ve been scooped’” (Filkin 1997, p. 100). This was exactly the case, because Penzias and Wilson would later receive a Nobel Prize in physics for their monumental, yet accidental, discovery, which we now “view as the faint echo of the violent explosion of the big bang” (Guth 1997, p. 58). Once the background radiation was stumbled upon, the foundation for the “steady-state” theory became very shaky. Not long after Penzias and Wilson made their discovery, the supporters for the “steady-state” theory of the universe became few and far between. Even Hoyle was unable to explain the finding of the background radiation. His theory was quickly considered to be completely false by the majority of the scientific community, and was no longer taken seriously. Despite all of this, Hoyle’s faith was unwavering and he continued to be a firm believer in his theory, and claimed that it would become popularized again one day.

Throughout the remainder of his life, he would continue to make changes here and there to his theory in order to account for new evidence that was surfacing which supported the “big bang”. But the “steady-state” universe theory had suffered a seemingly fatal blow, so he then went back to working on his theory of nucleosynthesis, and discovered something peculiar. He found what appeared to be an alarming barrier in the study of nuclear fusion (Easterbrook 2003).

In tests, it seemed the nucleosynthesis process ought to stop with the element beryllium, never proceeding along the Periodic Table to the complex atoms that are vital for life. Years of work convinced Hoyle, along with 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” (Easterbrook 2003). Hoyle was stunned by this discovery; for to him the presence of an unlikely substance within the blazing heat of stars, “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…” (Easterbrook 2003). This shakiness in his beliefs, which was perpetuated by the discovery of the carbon isotope, led Hoyle to begin to ponder the existence of life.

Hoyle soon argued that life, in the form of animate compounds, could not have simply spontaneously appeared one day, and claimed that the chances of that happening were worse than a group of monkeys that was chained to typewriters, would eventually type out Hamlet. Hoyle actually reasoned that it would take the monkeys billions of years just to come up with a grocery list. Studies showed that it took the monkeys hours to even stumble across the shortest of words, and would never be able to write out Shakespeare (Easterbrook 2003). Because he conclusively proved that life was not just simply created, he believed that life was brought to Earth through the influence of some higher intelligence. He didn’t exactly know what to make of this, and claimed that either some sort of advanced natural intelligence, or maybe even God played a role in our being. Both theories got him into some hot water. It was bad enough that he, being an atheist, was actually admitting there was a chance that God did exist, but what really made people mad was when he said that maybe aliens were responsible for life being here on earth.

Hoyle liked to argue with Darwinian biologists; if life did spontaneously appear here on Earth, then why haven’t we found any evidence of the beginning? And why does it seem as though life just suddenly appeared on our planet fully functioning? In order to answer these questions Hoyle created a theory that’s called “panspermia.” This idea advocates 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…or perhaps” a “natural process creates the building blocks of life and sets them adrift through space” (Easterbrook 2003). His ideas were farfetched and creative, as he once claimed the idea of the “big bang” as being, but he had no way to experimentally verify them. His theories on the existence of life were never really taken seriously by the majority of the scientific community. Being a science fiction writer in his spare time, one who usually wrote about distant alien civilizations, probably did not help his credibility.

Fred Hoyle kept the scientific community on its toes until his death on August 20, 2001. While most of his ideas are now regarded as false, his work on the creation of heavy elements in the heart of stars through the process of nucleosynthesis revolutionized the field of astrophysics. In 1983, a collaborator who helped with the writing of the theory on nucleosynthesis was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his groundbreaking discovery, and Hoyle, surprisingly was not. Most scientists believe that he was not awarded the Prize due to his outspoken and nonconformist views. He was somewhat vindicated in 1972, however, when he was knighted by the Queen of England, and designated as the chief astronomer to Her Majesty (Willick 2003). He began his career in science as a resolved atheist, but by the time of his death, believed that life, as we know it today, “must have been 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’” (Easterbrook 2003). He realized at the end of his life that there is so much more to our universe than what meets the eye, and that we as human beings were just beginning to discover and appreciate it for all of its wonder and beauty. In a way we are, as Isaac Newton once said, “playing on the seashore and diverting” ourselves “in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before” us (Anton 1999, p. 11).

Works Cited

Anton, Howard. Calculus: A New Horizon. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999.

Easterbrook, Gregg. “Was Life Begun By Chance? Not a Chance.” Beliefnet. 3 March 2003

Filkin, David. Stephen Hawking’s Universe: The Cosmos Explained. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997.

Guth, Alan H. The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1997.

Liukkonen, Petri. “Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001)” Book and Writers. 3 March 2003

“Sir Fred Hoyle (b. 1915).” Positive Atheism’s Big List of Quotations. 5 March 2003

Rees, Martin. Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998.

Rees, Martin. “Obituaries: Fred Hoyle.” Physics Today Online Nov. 2001. 2 March 2003

Willick, George. “Fred Hoyle.” Spacelight. 1 March 2003

Image of Fred Hoyle retrieved February 15, 2005 from

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