Conflict in the Cosmos: Fred Hoyle's Life in Science. Simon
Mitton. xviii + 401 pp. Joseph Henry Press, 2005. $27.95.
Conflict in the Cosmos is a warm appreciation and cogent
assessment of the scientific life of the British astrophysicist Fred
Hoyle. Hoyle, who died in 2000, was one of the most capable and
controversial theorists of the 20th century, contributing
provocatively to a wide range of problem areas, from stellar
structure and the origin and evolution of the chemical elements to
the large-scale structure and history of the universe.
The author, astronomer Simon Mitton, is at his best when introducing
and then explaining in simple language the scientific underpinnings
of Hoyle's theories. He also clearly recounts Hoyle's life, training
and career, helping the reader to better appreciate the world of
Born in Yorkshire in 1915, the son of a woolens merchant and a
former schoolteacher, Fred Hoyle was sent to a local
"Dame" school (a private one-room school with a single
teacher) and then to elementary schools, where he distinguished
himself first by his truancy. His talents emerged as he was slowly
attracted to science, and then he rapidly went straight to the top
of whatever academic ladder was available to him. In 1933 he entered
Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, and his life was
centered there for more than 39 years, with the significant
exception of his wartime service, which involved working on the
design of radar systems and taking lengthy research trips to America.
Hoyle rose from a mathematics lectureship to assume the Plumian
Professorship of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy in 1957,
holding that position until his heated and painful resignation in
1972, when he also terminated his relations with the Institute of
Theoretical Astronomy, which he had founded and directed for six
years. During this span of years, Hoyle had become an international
figure in science and enjoyed a great deal of public visibility
through his radio broadcasts and his popular science and science
fiction writings. He had also become a power broker in the British
scientific establishment. Yet he remained very much an outsider,
accumulated passionate enemies and espoused unpopular theories.
As a result, much has been written about Hoyle; his autobiography is
extensive, and he and his colleagues wrote numerous essays covering
aspects of his scientific life. The book under review here is the
first significant biographical effort by a witness who was not a colleague.
Simon Mitton is well known as the science director at Cambridge
University Press and as author and coauthor of many popular works on
astronomy. His postgraduate training was at Cambridge, in Martin
Ryle's radio astronomy group, and then he became a member of the
institute Hoyle had founded, taking an academic management post
there in the wake of Hoyle's resignation and departure. Mitton is
therefore in a rather good position to provide an institutional as
well as intellectual profile of Hoyle's years at Cambridge and in
the British scientific establishment.
The book is solid but has the usual odd blunders and biases. Hoyle
was surely not 15 in 1915 (as Mitton states on page 23) and was also
not the eponymous source of the popular phrase "according to
Hoyle," as Mitton seems to imply on page xvi (the real source
was Edmond Hoyle, the author of a popular 18th-century book on the
game of whist). Slips such as these are minor, although a bit too plentiful.
At the outset, I was concerned that Mitton might regale the reader
with accounts of how the world of astronomy had misunderstood or
mistreated Fred Hoyle or even conspired to thwart his spectacular
talents, energy and drive. And indeed, some of Mitton's claims early
in the book, particularly that "Fred Hoyle completely
transformed British astronomy in the quarter century beginning about
1950," were quite worrisome. But happily, my fears were not
realized. Mitton, although his writing is filled with deep respect,
admiration and even awe for Hoyle's intellectual capabilities and
attainments, is also almost always refreshingly balanced and probing
in his analysis of Hoyle's fate, recognizing that it was often as
much the result of Hoyle's own actions as of those of his
competitors. Specifically, Mitton's treatment of Hoyle's resignation
from Cambridge is most illuminating. Hoyle became enraged, charging
conspiracy and collusion, when he believed he was not properly
consulted in the deliberation to designate the head of a new
combined organization merging his institute with Cambridge
Observatories. Mitton shows, clinically, how such decisions were
made at Cambridge and how Hoyle indeed deluded himself.
Mitton makes much of Hoyle's famous contempt for authority, a flair
he traces at least as far back as Hoyle's early childhood and the
influence of his father. Mitton also well identifies the equally
difficult personalities with whom Hoyle clashed, or in one famous
case, allied himself. Certainly Martin Ryle stands out as Hoyle's
chief antagonist, and a large portion of the book is devoted to
exploring the profound depths of their troubles. Those took on their
greatest significance when Ryle and a group of radio astronomers he
led claimed to have established evidence that the universe was
evolving—not static, as Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold
had envisioned in their "steady state" model.
The most fascinating, and saddening, of Hoyle's allies was Ray
Lyttleton, a brilliant mind who was unable to manage honest
differences of opinion or of fact. Mitton's portrayal of Lyttleton
would be almost impossible to believe unless one knew that the man's
remarkably iconoclastic behavior was already well established by the
time he allied with Hoyle. Indeed, if Mitton had referred to
contemporary historical literature, something he does very
sparingly, it would have helped to clarify that Lyttleton's
reputation was well established before he teamed up with Hoyle.
Mitton knows full well that Hoyle rarely cited anything other than
the efforts of contemporary workers and slighted earlier literature.
This is obviously the case in Hoyle's 1994 autobiography, Home
Is Where the Wind Blows (University Science Books), an
intensely thrilling yet oddly rambling effort. To place Hoyle's work
in fuller historical context, Mitton should have taken more care to
probe the histories of concept formation beyond the citations in
Hoyle's own papers. An especially important case in point is the
erroneous claim that Hoyle "was the first to replace the iron
Sun with one overwhelmingly dominated by hydrogen and helium."
At least three sources in the recent historical literature trace
this advance to other researchers (such as Bengt Strömgren and
Thomas Cowling) working a decade before Hoyle.
Another concern about many of Mitton's sweeping statements is the
lack of adequate citation or documentation. Although he generously
cites personal sources, interviews, letters, e-mails, scientific
articles and books, there are some very important passages where
there are very few citations. At times I was unsure whether the
author was voicing a personal opinion from experience or from his
extensive contacts within Hoyle's circles of students, colleagues
and friends, or whether, indeed, he was voicing the collective
opinion from uncited reviews or even secondary historical works.
Part of the problem surely lies in the complexity of Hoyle's
academic life, which had many intertwined and contingent elements:
Cambridge politics; college, laboratory and institutional rivalries;
and national policy formation. Unfortunately, Mitton's lack of
pointed referencing makes it impossible to determine exactly who
held what opinion at what point in time. It is difficult, in other
words, to evaluate whether something is the author's opinion or an
actual reflection of the sides taken in these policy debates.
Mitton is to be congratulated for providing insight into a
particularly fascinating character. But this biography is not
definitive. It is certainly not the case that no one will want to
delve into the life of Fred Hoyle again—there is much left to
do. After all, Hoyle acted as a provocateur—probing and, yes,
disturbing the professional communities he touched. No historian who
wants to understand how communities of science define and structure
themselves, intellectually as well as institutionally, can ignore
the importance of watching how the organism reacts. A good start has
been made right here.