A celebration of Sir Fred Hoyle at the Royal Astronomical Society

The birth centenary of the noted British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle was celebrated on Friday at the Royal Astronomical Society with a one-day meeting of talks describing Sir Fred’s many contributions to 20th century physics. While he is chiefly remembered in some quarters as the physicist who was ‘wrong on the big bang’, Sir Fred in fact made a number of seminal contributions to modern physics in several fields. Indeed, it was a treat to witness former collaborators and students recall his contribution to stellar evolution, stellar nucleosynthesis, astrobiology and cosmology, to name but a few.

I hadn’t been to the RAS before although I was elected a Fellow a few years ago, and I was stunned by its fantastic location in central London. It is housed in the famous Burlington House on Piccadilly, sharing the premises and courtyard with the Linnean Society, the Geological Society and the Royal Academy of Arts, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. As luck would have it, the Royal Academy are currently hosting a show of the work of the Chinese artist Weiwei, and his striking ‘Tree Sculpture’ filled the Burlington courtyard.

Burlington house on Piccadilly, housing five learned London societies, including the Royal Academy of Arts

Weiwei’s exhibit ‘Tree Sculpture’ in the Burlington courtyard. The RAS is located on the west wing of the courtyard.

The meeting opened with an introduction by Lord Martin Rees, who gave a comprehensive overview of Sir Fred’s works in a short, a ten-minute talk. This was followed by a description of Hoyle’s contribution to accretion physics by Professor Andrew Fabian of the Institute for Astronomy (IOA) in Cambridge, and talks on Hoyle’s work on nucleosynthesis by Professor Lynden-Bell (IOA) and Professor Malcolm Longair, Director of the Cavendish laboratory.

Professor Jayant Narlikar of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (Pune, India) then gave the talk ‘Fred’s theories and ideas about gravity’. This was a rare treat – as a long term collaborator, Jayant made several important contributions to the development of Hoyle’s steady-state model of the universe (including the development of a new version of the model based on the principle of least action, and the development of the later ‘quasi-steady-state’ model), so it was most interesting to hear his take on the genesis of the steady-state cosmologies of Hoyle and Bondi and Gold.

Hoyle and Narlikar in 1966

Another treat was a talk by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe of the University of Buckingham, ‘Fred Hoyle and the foundation of astrobiology’. This presented interesting insights into Chandra’s long collaboration with Sir Fred, from their early work on interstellar dust to their famous hypothesis that life on earth was seeded by comets. The latter work essentially founded the modern field of astrobiology, although they are not always credited for this.

Jayant’s talk was followed by a talk on Hoyle’s cosmology by Professor John Barrow of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge. John gave a superb overview of Hoyle’s steady-state model of the universe, and of the battle royale between Hoyle’s theory group and Martin Ryle’s astronomy group at Cambridge during the 1950s. Most members of the audience were familiar with this story, but John brought out many points that are not well known – not least that the widespread skepticism concerning Hoyle’s hypothesis of the continuous creation of matter was something of a moot point. As demonstrated by Bill McCrea in 1951, a viable steady-state model can be constructed without this assumption. John also reminded the audience that today’s models of cosmic inflation are effectively steady-state cosmologies, and, if the eternal inflationary scenario is right, it is possible that the observed universe is a locally evolving patch in a global ensemble that is in a steady state!

Eternal inflation could give rise to evolving universes embedded in a global steady-state ensemble

I touched on both these points in my own talk ‘Steady-state cosmologies in context‘, although my main aim was to remind the audience that Hoyle’s steady-state model was a reasonable hypothesis at the time – and that the notion of a steady-state universe surfaced in cosmology on many occasions, from Arrhenius to Nernst, from Holmes to MacMillan. Further, not many people know that soon after the emergence of the first evidence for an expanding universe, several physicists considered the possibility of an expanding universe that remains in a steady state due to a continuous replenishment of matter, from Tolman to Einstein, from Schroedinger to Mimura. That said, my main focus was to discuss Einstein’s abandoned attempt at a steady-state model , an unpublished work discovered 2 years ago. (You can find more on Einstein’s attempt at a steady=state model here and here).

Between the two talks on Sir Fred’s cosmology, Nicola Hoyle gave a fascinating description of her personal recollections of her grandfather. It included many intriguing photos and pieces of information I hadn’t seen before. The meeting ended with a talk by Professor John Faulkner of the University of California at Santa Cruz on Sir Fred’s contribution to our understanding of stellar structure and evolution, after which we all trooped off to the beautiful library of Geological Society on the other side of the square for coffee.

All in all, a superb conference in memory of a superb physicist. The meeting was organized by Simon Mitton of Cambridge University. You can find the programme here and slides for my own talk on the ‘Seminars’ page of this blog.

After the meeting, speakers were treated to dinner at the famous RAS Dining Club, and I rolled back to my hotel through the gardens of Buckingham Palace. On Saturday, I took a hop-on hop-off open bus tour of London and it was a great success. In particular, I caught a young string orchestra rehearsing Correlli and Vivaldi concerti in St Martin in the Fields, and a superbly talented string quartet playing Brahms’s Hungarian Dances in Covent Garden, not to mention a relaxing stroll  along the Embankment in the afternoon sun. I’d forgotten what London can be like on a Saturday afternoon, must visit the RAS more often!

The best way to see London


There is a detailed summary of the meeting in this month’s issue of Astronomy and Geophysics


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17 responses to “A celebration of Sir Fred Hoyle at the Royal Astronomical Society

  1. Phillip Helbig

    When I am rich, I will fly over to Blighty in my private plane for such meetings.

    “Remembered in some quarters as the physicist who was ‘wrong on the big bang’, Sir Fred in fact made several seminal contributions to modern physics in a number of diverse fields.”

    Both true statements. However, many people were wrong in that they initially supported the steady-state model: Bondi obviously, Philip Morrison, Dennis Sciama, good company all. Why is Sir Fred remembered as the one who got it wrong? Probably because he clung to this belief in spite of the evidence. This was not only the case with the big bang, but also in some other areas he held on to ideas which had long since been proved to be wrong. Many who knew him also report that he became quite bitter and arrogant with respect to being the “only one with the right opinion”.

    I don’t remember what it was about, but once he was explaining some idea in astrophysics, commenting on how simple it is, when someone cried out “You’d look pretty simple too, Fred, at a distance of ten parsecs!” Does anyone recall this exchange or know what it was about?

    • It was Professor Roderick Redman at an afternoon tea seminar at the Cambridge Observatories

      Simon Mitton
      Author of Fred Hoyle, A Life in Science, Cambridge UP 2011

  2. Yes, the reason I used quote marks is that none of the ‘steady-staters’ were wrong at the time of the original proposal. It was a logical possibility at that time – they were not to know the evidence that was to emerge.
    At the same time, it is undoubtedly true that Hoyle grew more stubbornly attached to his model as evidence mounted against it. It was this stance, added to the fact that he used his position as a science communicator to promote a model that soon became a minority view, that irked most of the community.
    I hadn’t heard of the ‘parsec’ exchange before, but the interjection makes sense to me – I presume the speaker meant that it is reasonable to make assumptions about homogeneity and isotropy of the cosmos if one is talking about the universe on very scales…

  3. telescoper

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    I had to miss this meeting – because I was involved in a special Senate meeting on Friday afternoon – but I did make it to the “famous RAS Dining Club” afterwards where I had a brief chat with the author of this post, Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh.

  4. Phillip Helbig

    Most people think that the CMB killed the steady-state model. While the CMB is a natural prediction of the big-bang model, it doesn’t necessarily rule out the steady-state model, but a steady-state model with CMB would be rather contrived. Historically, I think it was the radio-source counts which ruled out the steady-state model, since they made it clear that there was evolution in the population.

    There is another argument which doesn’t rule out the steady-state model but does make it look contrived. I don’t think it was used as an argument against it at the time, though. In the steady-state model, the average age of a galaxy and the Hubble time really have nothing to do with each other, but they were known to be equal even 50 years ago, at least to an order of magnitude or so. In the big-bang model, this is natural, and one needs fine-tuning to get a model in which this is not the case.

  5. Thanks, Peter!
    Yes Philip, John Barrow made this point in his talk and I have seen it before. It wasn’t made in the 1940s because the Hubble constant was more of a problem for evolving models, due to a conflict with the age of the stars, as you know. It was only when the systematic errrors in the measurement of the distance of the galaxies were recified by Baade and Sandage that the Hubble constant stopped being a problem for evolving models, and started looking like a strange coincidence for steady-state models

  6. Shantanu

    are the videos of the meeting online (or did someone videotape them?)

  7. Wonderful report of an event I could not get to from my home in British Columbia.
    Any chance you would consider reading this in a Soundcloud audio track and letting me add images to make a YouTube video?

    • Unfortunately not. The Royal Astronomical Society does not have the technology or capability

      • You misunderstand. I am offering to help you. You would read your written words into your webcam – audio only. I would then merge your soundtrack with suitable images approved by you. The result would be a historic podcast on YouTube.

  8. I believe his understanding of the concept and implications of infinity was at the heart of Fred’s theories. In particular his famous 747 analogy illustrated his understanding of the time frames and mechanisms needed to evolve even viruses and cynobacteria. He was a visionary. Canada was pleased to donate a painting to Churchill College Cambridge in July 1, 2015, entitled “Life is a Cosmic Phenomenon”.

  9. I presume the 747 analogy is Hoyle’s junkyard argument against evolution? I’m not sure what to make of that analogy, I think it overlooks the fact that evolution is a very gradual process, happens only a very small step a ta time..

    • Phillip Helbig

      Right. Hoyle just got this completely wrong.

      • You need to read Virolution and understand better the complexity of nanoworld processes. I believe Hoyle was visionary to conclude the evolution of virus and bacterial could not have evolved in the time frames of early earth existence. His belief was not just philosophical but based on simple mathematical models and calculations that you might not have studied. We now know that world is beyond imagination in complexity. There was just not enough time for cynobacteria to evolve in primordial soup. Or gave you the calculations to prove otherwise.

      • I do not want leave this BLOG without apologizing for getting irritated by criticisms of Fred’s intuitive brilliance. I also want to leave a short playlist on LENR. I believe it is now a time when LENR has been declassified – perhaps Obama leaving a legacy to lo cost energy. Hopefully the BLOG writer can research LENR and explore time frames. I believe the UK money being spent on a new Nuclear Fission reactor would be better invested in bringing Fussion to markket.