Fred Hoyle Interviewed by Brig Klyce
According to his reputation, Fred Hoyle can sometimes be brief, blunt and irrascible with amateurs such as this interviewer. On the occasion however, he was friendly, talkative and generous with his time. Three times he went to the blackboard to illustrate a point. He seemed especially pleased by the presence of a third person at the interview and occasionally he would address his remarks to her. Obviously, she and he had already discussed some of the same issues. She was Nicola Hoyle, the youngest of his four granddaughters. Although only 13, she was as tall as he (5' 9" possibly), and charming. Like her father, Geoffrey Hoyle, she is a jazz drummer.
at The Institute for Astronomy, Cambridge, England, 5 July 1996. What'sNEW
In 1987 Fred Hoyle had written in Mathematics of Evolution (p 48), "Viewed from the point of view of grandparents, no immediate mixing of genes occured in their immediate children. Mixing occurred in the grandchildren, which is perhaps why the relation between children and their grandparents is so clearly different from the relation with their immediate parents. In a genetic sense, nothing is really achieved between male and female until in the second generation their grandchildren are born." This understanding and the presence of Nicola Hoyle must have contributed to Fred Hoyle's happiness on that day.
Relationship to Steady State Theory?
You advocate panspermia and the steady state theory of the universe — each, in its field, is accepted by only a very small minority of scientists. Although the former is about biology and the latter, cosmology, the two theories tend to support each other. Some critics have suggested that your interest in one was contrived to support the other. Is this accurate?
No! No! I don't work that way. Never worked that way! I keep everyone of my problems in a watertight compartment. ...We had a famous astronomer named James Jeans. He got the idea that stars would be unstable if their means of producing energy did not satisfy a very restrictive set of criteria. He was a very good mathematician, did very fine work in other fields. But he used that idea consistently, in a big book called Astronomy and Cosmography, which he printed with the Cambridge Press, and as a result he got everything wrong throughout astrophysics. So as a young research student, I realized if you try to make everything consistent, the penalty is that you might be wrong in everything. If your are wrong in one, you are wrong in a lot. So I keep everything watertight.
Early Biological Influences
One fortunate aspect is that my father was a direct believer in Darwin's theory. He used to tell me it was a wonderful thing, the greatest thing in science. I would say no, Newton is the greatest thing in science. He would try to explain to me Darwin's idea because he was an uneducated man — self educated I should say. Maybe he didn't do too good a job. And so, I started by thinking this is a lot of bunkum, you see, at the age of 12 or so. I just didn't believe it. I knew a lot about — I had been brought up in the country and I knew all the flowers and all this sort of stuff. And I just did not believe it.
At Cambridge I made friends with an Irishman from the north, George Carson. He had come over from the University there to do a Ph.D. in Botany here. Later when I was a research student — you didn't live in college in those days, you lived in the town. People let out rooms to advanced students, maybe 2 students. It was better if the chap you roomed with was some one you knew and got along well with. The chap I roomed with was Carson. He had just got a job.
George was a very skeptical about Darwin's theory. He always had the view that if he did the right mathematics, it would be revealed to you what was wrong with it. George always had this suspicion. But these were just biasing seeds, as it were. At that time, I never got into panspermia, in fact, didn't believe it at all. I thought it was a lot of nonsense all through the years. Until in 1975 — that's when I got involved....
From Grains to Bacteria
...Because what happened was that I put Chandra on to the problem of what the interstellar grains are and understanding their properties. And all through the sixties we thought we were doing quite well, but it was like Kepler's analysis of the motion of Mars. He had proved Copernicus's theory quite substantially, but it still was not really based on the best observations. There were small discrepancies. Eventually he became dissatisfied with these small discrepancies and it was then that he decided that instead of fitting the observations and theory, see what the observations really implied for the shape of the orbits. He would look at it that way round — observation first. Then he decided that it was an ellipse. Starting with the observations was the correct way. Chandra did the same thing. We would calculate all manner of models with different properties. There would always be decrepancies in what should have been a very simple problem — something you could calculate exactly using a digital computer.
I was working in the States in seventy-four. When I left to go there, I was under the impression that what we had done in the way of graphite particles and silicates was giving adequate results. When I came back to England there was a conference and Chandra said to me, "I'm doing to better to remove those small discrepancies if the particles are organic." That was the line of research he had pursued during the year I was away. He was adding the infrared information which we hadn't had before. At that time, we tried to fit the infrared. I discussed it. I didn't know if he was right or not. I made an unguarded remark — I said, "But Chandra, if the interstellar material is organic, if that is true, then, there is so much of it that this will be better precursor material for biology than to do it on the earth in Urey-Miller fashion." That was the unguarded remark. That set him off and then he must have looked through hundreds and hundreds of spectra to fit the infrared data among organics. And then quite suddenly as soon as he moved to biological specimens, that fit it better than anything else.
That was the history until one evening, I had been out walking in the hills and settled in front of the fire for coffee after dinner. By now he had started sending me books from the Cardiff Library. I was checking through this book and I came on the page of a diagram, a drawing of a bacteria that had been dried out. The worst source of discrepancies in our calculation was that the particle — we had always been taking them as solid, not as hollow. We discovered that if the particles are seventy percent hollow, most of our difficulties immediately disappeared. It wasn't so much a question of composition as of being hollow. That was the key point. We had never been able to remove the "knee" in the curve of the visual stuff. Lots of things we tried to adjust. It didn't do much good. It turned out it really didn't matter. They were irrelevant parameters. The key thing was to get it hollow. In other words, to get the average index of refraction low. Well — the page I discovered of the bacterium being dried out — we reproduced it from time to time. It shows that, cell walls being very strong, they don't shrivel at all. The bacterium maintains its outer envelope — this is important — with the space enveloped. And then I looked to see how much space is enveloped and the space is seventy percent. So it was from there I switched round.
So I said let's calculate. Let's get a size distribution. Use the size distribution for bacteria because we don't have to assume it, we can look in the books and see what it is, and use what it is. We know nothing about bacteria at this point, until we talked to somebody who gave us routine information. Then Chandra discovers, to his horror, that there are a million species of bacteria, and this is not do-able. He can't count a million. So we have to specify some restriction and we finally decided to keep it to spore-forming bacteria — that didn't seem to be a problem that related to the sizes and so he was able to count those. By now he had a program for his computer which, as soon as he fed it the relevant physical information of the size distribution, within an hour he had the answer. He simply called me three days later and said, "I've got a perfect fit."
It's my nature — I recognize that it must be an accident in my upbringing and the turn of the century when I was at the university — I just go from observation. I don't say, "It's absurd that there should be bacteria in space." I don't say that. It fits the observation, so it's the best theory we have. I don't care if it's absurd. So I didn't hesitate to publish it. That of course was the beginning of the disaster, the ridiculous. [With irony, of those who ridiculed the finding:] They know! They're born to know that the particles in space are not bacteria. God has told them.
Astronomical Data from Australia
Then what happened was that Chandra noticed that in the infrared there were indications from the people in California of an absorption band at 3.4 microns that had some detailed shape and therefore some information about the nature of the absorbing properties of the particles. But the observation weren't very good because the equipment available to the observers was rather crude at that time. ...The British establishment was saying there is no absorption there at all. They were contradicting the Americans. They published in Nature that we were wrong, there's no absorption.
We were fortunate that Chandra had on his research team a chap called Al-Mufti. He'd been a child of one of the outstanding Kurdish commanders. His father was a general and all his family soldiers. They were used to repairing old rifles. Anything to keep fighting, anything for Kurdish independence. So in the laboratory, he was marvelous. He could adapt almost anything to get results. And he discovers this characteristic pattern running from 2.8 microns to about 5. Chandra says, well, when we measure this stuff from the galactic center, we are in bit of a fix because we really have to say it has to look like this. We tried various things and we always get certain features with this pattern. There is no way we can wriggle out of it. It's a decisive experiment because the galaxy is a source of infrared at the center. It's passing through all of particles in space and so it's really the same as the laboratory experiment. There's no substantial difference between them.
The new generation of equipment able to make this measurement became first available on the Anglo-Australian coast because one of the staff members was an infrared expert. He was a few months ahead of the Americans in the field. Oh, another accident, Chandra's brother was going down to Australia. He infuriated all the people because you are not suppose to do on the telescope, when you get the time, anything that you don't write down before you do it. He claimed that he had time over. I don't know whether that claim was right or whether he did it deliberately. But he looked for this absorption, and within half an hour he found it. David Allen, who built the equipment, couldn't believe it. He believed the establishment. So fortunately he came up from Sidney to the mountain, and checked it for himself, and it was there.
And then they got the details and Chandra was able to show all the points they got. The Japanese have done it in recent times, with much better equipment ...still they get essentially the same results as Chandra's brother got except something has happened in 2 or 3 years, in the galactic center; CH gas has been excited. That slightly changes the Japanese spectra but overall, it's the same.
So I get all these results and now I'm unshiftable. I'm totally unshiftable now because it's sort of religion with me. That is the word of God. ...It's there. It's like the road to Damascus, you know in the Christian Doctrine. Your eyes are opened. And I don't move from then onwards.
Most astronomers rebut this claim by saying that you can produce spectra that match those from space with a wide variety of substances that are not necessarily biological...
You don't! You don't. It is established in minds that there are alternatives. Nobody bothers to check them. They just go around and say that. They will take tiny little bits, maybe five percent of that wavelength range and they'll find a substance that has some rough correspondence, not very good one but a rough one and they just say it's the same. None of them ever look at the full range. NO. This makes me angry.
Methane in Space
Do you maintain that even simple organic compounds like methane, now known to be abundant in space, must be biologically produced?
What we do know is that the Germans tried in the second World War to produce synthetic hydrocarbons to run their tanks. They eventually succeeded but the process was so costly you couldn't make a barrel of oil for less than forty dollars. When oil went up to forty dollars, nobody wanted to set up factories. The way they have to do it is they have to use the gases at high pressure, which is not the astronomical situation. The essence of the matter is very carefully controlled with pure cobalt catalysts, keeping out all substances that would poison the catalysts. The process is so artificial that I don't think it could ever happen astronomically.
Viruses in Space?
You have written about viruses arriving from space, influencing evoution even now. What is your present view about that?
Our last book [Our Place in the Cosmos], that should have been published in soft back last month gives, I think, the correct picture — after lots of thrashing around earlier. I take the view that all the genes that we have were already here, and the event that added them to the Earth was 570 million years ago. You know, the beginning of the Cambrian, that great event. And that everything that we have subsequently used has been simply a question of permuting and combining what came in at that time. That's the only way I can see, that I'm comfortable with the logic.
27 Mar 2017: an exchange with George Nickas includes comments about Fred Hoyle.
Fred Hoyle Birth Centennial, The Royal Astronomical Society, Piccadilly, London, 9 Oct 2015.
"A Man Who Changed the Way We See the World" (docx), by Kamala Wickramasinghe, 2015.
24 Apr 2014: Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio has an excellent section on Fred Hoyle.
worthy of Fred Hoyle is the subject of a Reply from Edward W. Kyle, 8 Feb 2011.
Plaque U-turn for Bournemouth star man Sir Fred by Katie Clark, Daily Echo, Bournemouth UK, 2 Dec 2009.
Geoffrey Burbidge, "Hoyle's Role in B2FH" [html], doi:10.1126/science.319.5869.1484b, Science, 14 Mar 2008.
Donald D. Clayton, "Hoyle's Equation" [summary], doi:10.1126/science.1151167, Science, 21 Dec 2007.
17 November 2005: Sir Fred Hoyle is remembered on Australian radio by Simon Mitton and Martin Rees.
8 November 2005: The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle is published.
22 Aug 2005: Robert E. Cobb supplies a quote from a 1980 lecture by Fred Hoyle.
21 Aug 2005: Fred Hoyle is remembered at Cambridge.
22 Jun 2005: Two new books about Fred Hoyle are available.
16 Jun 2005: The Guardian reviews two new books about Fred Hoyle.
Sir Fred Hoyle, 1915-2001: website dedicated to his life and his work.
The Bruce Medalists: Fred Hoyle
Manzotti — a reply contains an interesting quote from Hoyle's Home is where the wind blows, 22 Dec 2002.
Manzotti — a reply includes comments from Fred Hoyle about cosmology, 30 Aug 2002.
John Maddox. "The Hoyle story" [text] re: Cambridge Hoyle conference, 16 April 2002, p 603-605 v 417 Nature. 6 June 2002.
2002, April 6: Fred Hoyle's Universe Conference at Cardiff University, Wales, 22-24 June 2002.
Ba-Da Bang re: Hoyle's life, by Richard Powers, The New York Times, 30 Dec 2001.
2001, August 20: Sir Fred Hoyle died today. He was 86.
2000, May 20: A Different Approach to Cosmology, by Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge and Jayant V. Narlikar.
1999, August 17: Fred Hoyle's Mathematics of Evolution.