Book Review: Conflict in the Cosmos, Fred Hoyle’s Life in Science

Fred Hoyle climbed through the challenges of Britain during the inter-war years. His diligence to his primary schooling was poor to say the least. Playing hookey was the order of his day. However, fortune smiled on him. Through this and his own effort, he managed to achieve a number of scholarships that kept him advancing until he gained acceptance into Cambridge University. There followed a checkered career as he studied mathematics with special application to nuclear physics. He had a short diversion due to the second world war where he advanced the state of electronic warfare. After, he jumped into the field of astronomy with both feet. During the remainder of his life, Fred Hoyle advanced this field and contributed to many others, often as not, by leading the explorations.

Leading any field is a balancing act between divining the future and keeping up with current events. Here emotion comes to the fore and here is where Mitton concentrates his book. He shows how Fred Hoyle, being in theoretical astronomy, often came to grips with observational astronomers. Further, Mitton builds a feeling that Fred Hoyle was like a kettle constantly steaming. Continual requests for publication were countered by people not understanding, or believing or wanting his views presented. Apparently, during most of his career, Fred Hoyle was at odds with the Royal Astronomical Society even though he was a member for most of his life. As well, Mitton shows how he appears to have used the largess of Cambridge to pursue his own work. In particular, he was a mentor who was seldom present. When he was, he was so caught up in his own theories, he didn’t always give the attention graduate students deserved. The resulting picture is of a vibrant, thoughtful, and analytical mathematician at the top of his game.

Mitton’s biography includes a mix of both personal and technical aspects to Fred Hoyle’s life. We read of Friday lunches in dimly lit rooms little better than cloisters. Further along there are recounts to a remarkable passion for hiking. He achieved the Munro, a climbing of a collection of hills in Scotland over 914 metres. He drove fast cars, enjoyed conferences by the lakes in Northern Italy and championed a telescope in Australia. Mitton relies on Fred Hoyle’s own autobiography as well as many friends and acquaintances to ensure accuracy and detail in the recollections.

On the technical side, Mitton details contribution to radar such as the bending of beams along the curvature of the Earth. Nucleosynthesis, one of the main focuses of Fred Hoyle’s career, gets a detailed and historical recount. Added are accounts of collaborations with experts as well as competitions against others. Mitton presents the information in a smooth, qualitative manner so there is no worry of confusion. All in all, Mitton builds an excellent link between the people, their discoveries and knowledge of the day that is both enjoyable to read and enlightening in its own way.

The interesting mix of personalities and technical information works well. Chapters are loosely divided chronologically. However, as Fred Hoyle had his finger into so many pies, Mitton decided to collect information into subject areas and deal with them chronologically. Due to this, there is a fair amount of jumping around in time throughout the text. This isn’t unduly bothersome but the reader must stay aware. Given the details on radar, advanced cosmology, science fiction novels, movie scripting, and leading an international collaboration on siting and building an observatory, this book is more of an insight into Fred Hoyle’s technical contributions than his personality.

Fred Hoyle’s emotions drove him to advance our understanding of cosmology. His work as a theoretical astronomer and science communicator captured the imaginations of people. Simon Mitton in his biography Conflict in the Cosmos, Fred Hoyle’s Life in Science brings back the life of Fred Hoyle, including the people and some of the technical issues of a person at the top of their game. Emotions are free to everyone, perhaps reading this will entice you on your own search for understanding.

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Review by Mark Mortimer