Science Fact Book Review


Fred Hoyle's Universe

(2005) Jane Gregory, Oxford University Press, 20.00, hrdbk, 406pp, ISBN 0-19-850791-7

Jane Gregory is Lecturer in Science Communication and Science Policy at University College London, concerned with the Public Understanding of Science, and is co-author of Communicating Science: A Handbook and Science in Public. Her subject, Sir Fred Hoyle, died in 2001 following a severe stroke after a long and distinguished, if controversial, career as an astronomer, who also penned several SF novels and shorts, both solo and in collaboration, especially with his son Geoffrey. Sir Fred was a true British original, a gifted and brilliant Yorkshireman whose thoughts roamed all of existence. One of the first popularisers of science, Fred made radio broadcasts from 1950 intended to include the public, or at least their imaginations, in science in general and astronomy in particular (this is before Patrick Moore's Sky At Night, remember, which didn't start until 1957). Fred was key in formulating the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis (the process by which elements are made in stars), with Gold and Bondi he conceived the Steady State Universe, and defended it long after observational data confirmed Big Bang, pretty much single-handedly founded the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, helped get the Anglo-Australian Telescope up and running, promoted the panspermia hypothesis through his work with Chandra Wickramasinghe (ie. that Earth was 'seeded' by organics formed in space), and more besides. Some of this work was more controversial than others, and Fred has often been condemned for stepping outside of his area of expertise (not least by biologists and climatologists), though all kinds of collaborations seem possible these days... Arguably Fred was more often right than wrong, though he was often right for the wrong reasons, if you see what I mean. For instance, it is doubtful that we would today treat seriously the concept of astro-biology were it not for Fred and Wickramasinghe's ideas.

Fred wrote The Black Cloud (1957), in which a distributed entity (a sentient cloud of organic particles) makes an incursion into the solar system, blotting out the sun and frying the odd scientist's mind when they attempted communication. With John Elliot, Fred created A for Andromeda and Andromeda Breakthrough for the BBC (their follow-up to the Quatermass series) and adapted novels were released in 1962 and 1964 respectively. These involve scientists receiving a message from outer space which first tells them how to build a computer, which itself tells them to create a being, Andromeda, who intends to 'invade' Earth by replacing inferior humans with a superior species (over 30 years before the film Species (1995) played with similar ideas). His last solo novel was October the First is too Late (1966) in which Earth is cut up into different historical epochs, 38 years before Clarke and Baxter did it in Time's Eye (2004). Collaborations with his son include The Inferno (1973), an explosion at the galactic core wipes out life on Earth, The Incandescent Ones (1977), a dystopian Earth is occupied by the Outlanders who maintain peace through the control of energy supply, and The Westminster Disaster (1978), in which London suffers nuclear destruction inspired by terrorists.

Gregory's book certainly illuminates the connections between Hoyle's protagonists and the trials he suffered in the real world, both at the hands of academia and the government. If the book has a fault it is that there is, on occasion, just too much damn detail about some of the squabbles - every memo and phone call and drafts of letters and conversation - which is just not necessary (it comes across as 'padding'). However, I'd have to say that on the whole this is as good a biography of Sir Fred as we could expect. Recommended.

Tony Chester


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