Right said Sir Fred

October 18, 1996

Sir Fred Hoyle, treated like a heretic for saying that life on earth came from space, tells Lucy Hodges why he is nevertheless suspicious of Nasa's claims to have found traces of life in a Martian meteorite.

When Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer, cosmologist and scientist extraordinaire, heard earlier this year that United States space agency Nasa had come round to the idea of life on Mars, he was instantly suspicious.

He was pleased too, of course, on account of his theory that life started elsewhere - somewhere other than on our planet. "But the circumstances that Nasa is anxious to ingratiate itself with Congress make me suspicious," he explained. "I am suspicious about whether it is worth tuppence, this so-called evidence. I think it was politically important to have to get into this field."

Aged 80, Sir Fred has lost none of the Yorkshire savvy, the candour and bolshiness that led him to resign his Plumian chair at Cambridge in 1972 and that propelled him around various universities in the US and back to Britain. Ever since he has led a freelance life, writing, thinking out loud and getting up the noses of as many members of the scientific establishment as possible.

Today he lives with his wife Barbara in a tower block flat in Bournemouth with a sublime view of the English channel. He does not answer the telephone nor watch much TV. One feels he is too busy annoying the world. His ideas about life in outer space have certainly annoyed biologists. And his theory about why we British do so badly in the Olympic Games has irritated everyone. It is because Britain has viruses raining down on it from space, he says. As a result we are not as healthy as those big Americans and Russians. Sir Fred is fond of a good joke but he is not joking about the viruses.

Best known in scientific circles for his explanation of the origin of the elements from hydrogen nuclei in stars, a process known as nucleosynthesis, and for developing, with Sir Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, the controversial steady-state theory of the universe, which assumes the continuous creation of matter, Sir Fred has been fighting the system all his life. Such rebellion must be essential to his creativity because he has a string of achievements to show for it - books, fiction and nonfiction, prizes, scholarships and professorships.

As a boy living outside Bingley, he bunked off school, preferring to teach himself chemistry at home with glass tubes and a Bunsen burner. But he won a scholarship to Bingley grammar school and from there a place at Cambridge where he read mathematics, despite being better at science.

Cambridge got his competitive juices going. He was determined to climb out of mathematical ineptness, and did, ending up with the top prize. Thus began a glittering academic career, first in theoretical physics and later in astronomy.

Physics, he explains, passed through a golden age between 1925 and 1935. "A pause for recuperation had become inevitable," he writes in his autobiography, Home is Where the Wind Blows, to be reissued next year by Oxford University Press. "Moreover, the effective lifetime for a theoretical physicist is usually reckoned to be not much more than ten years. With the war likely to eat up a considerable fraction of my own effective creative lifetime, there was an evident need to diversify my interests."

Jostling within Sir Fred are two oddly contradictory strands: an almost bumptious inventiveness and creativity; and a hard-nosed ability to sniff out humbug and get to the truth of a matter. His analysis of the recent episode when Nasa announced fossilised bacteria inside a chunk of comet which came from Mars reveals the sceptic.

According to Sir Fred, if Nasa decided the future lay with research into life in space, it would have to persuade a doubting public which was against the idea of life on Mars to change its mind. What better way than a high-profile announcement supported by the president of the United States?

"I made myself unpopular with my colleagues who were ringing me and saying 'This is great for us.' I said I didn't think it was. I said I thought it was probably bogus and I didn't want to be associated with it."

Sir Fred thinks the evidence from other meteorites has been even stronger than the one Nasa made all the song and dance about. He points to a host of indications that life came from outer space. One is that living beings are capable of surviving and replicating in environments quite different from ours. Bacteria and algae, for example, can live in nuclear reactors. And bacteria can survive in the wildly fluctuating temperatures of the moon. If you look hard, you can see particles in space all the way through our galaxy, he says. These are clearly living organisms.

It does not seem to bother him that he holds views with which almost everyone else in the scientific establishment disagrees. What generally happens in science, he explains, is that information is decided on in the first place by very few people. When the biggest theories first hit the world not more than ten people know about them. Those ten people attend international conferences and pass the ideas on to a second tier of cognoscenti.

That tier takes the theories back to the universities and passes them on to students. And so on, he explains. By the time the press has got hold of them, they have become accepted wisdom. It has become very difficult to change people's minds.

Originally, it was not much more than ten people deciding whether theories had merit. Einstein's theory of relativity was decided in this way, as was quantum mechanics, according to Sir Fred. "If those ten people got it wrong, you have to wait until there's a Genghis Khan to give you a new start."

For lack of a Genghis Khan, Sir Fred and his buddies have been publishing papers. Most of the scientific journals are no longer influential, he says. Books are more influential nowadays. "We have gone back to the old 18th-century situation,'' he adds.

None of this is an ego trip, he assures me. It is more in the style of a religious medieval monk. "You feel it's your intellectual duty to hold to your beliefs." So, he and his mates, Geoffrey Burbidge and Jayant Narlikar are pooling their ideas in a book which will be completed by Christmas this year.

It is ironic that Sir Fred coined the term "Big Bang" to characterise the theory of creation which is fashionable and with which he disagrees. Not only has the Big Bang become the dominant theory, the term has also become a permanent addition to the language. Sir Fred hopes his new book will shift thinking away from Big Bang.

Why did he leave his prestigious Plumian chair of astronomy and experimental philosophy at Cambridge and thereby throw in a job at the top of the British astronomical establishment? There were a number of reasons.

In his autobiography he describes the hideous bureaucratic infighting that comes with any major scientific research endeavour in British universities. He had been told that Whitehall was a place where nobody breathed the air freely, he writes. "Everybody sat around in face masks, nobody controlling his own oxygen, the only freedom anybody had being to turn off somebody else's supply."

His 14 years as Plumian professor were dogged by such tactics. During that time he was the astronomy representative on the Science Research Council. Each year the representatives from different disciplines would explain what had happened in their field in the previous year. One year Sir Fred mentioned what is now a big field, the discovery of molecules in space. A chemist at the table pricked up his ears and suggested a collaborative project with astronomy.

Sir Fred explained the Americans were already in the field, and estimated it would cost Pounds 300,000 for the British to catch up. Enthusiasm was such that it was agreed to speed up a decision on the matter. Sir Fred approached the scientists Bernard Lovell and Martin Ryle for help, but they were not interested. So, he turned to American friends. They said they could help with a tricky bit of electronics. And he found someone at the Government radio centre in Slough who could help him with another aspect.

When he returned with his project, the Science Research Council had changed its mind about the need to take a quick decision. Then, says Sir Fred, a research council member from Marconi, "was mad that the Americans were going to do the tricky part". Together with Martin Ryle at Cambridge, who was not a fan of Sir Fred's, he killed the project. Reliving the story, Sir Fred says: "I thought why am I wasting my time? Why am I not doing things I want to do?" So, he went to Caltech in California. But he still wonders whether he did the right thing. Two people who had caused him the most trouble at Cambridge had gone within a year. "If I had stayed, who knows what would have happened?" If all this sounds rather intense, it reflects only one side of Sir Fred. In conversation he is a lively and engaged companion. He likes to tell stories and to laugh, breaking out into a great toothy grin at the memory of some ridiculous thought or event. When he was a big cheese at Cambridge he would escape from the Machiavellian committee grind to climb mountains in Scotland. He also wrote science fiction. Towards the end of the interview he jumped out of his chair to fetch a blue leatherbound volume called The Black Cloud, a work of science fiction he published in 1957. It was clear he enjoyed writing science fiction, but in his restless self-critical way he wanted to tell me what an unsatisfactory medium it was. You cannot draw characters very well, he says. You tend to be crushed by the nuts and bolts of the story.

After working around the US in the 1970s building up a nestegg in the absence of a decent Cambridge pension, Sir Fred returned to Britain. His wife refused to emigrate to the US. But Sir Fred likes it. Americans do not put unnecessary obstacles in the way, he says. And he approves of US-style private universities, free from government control and the deadly hand of bureaucracy.

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