Fred Hoyle


Fred Hoyle : biography

24 June 1915 – 20 August 2001

After the war, in 1945, Hoyle returned to Cambridge University, starting as a lecturer at St John’s College, Cambridge. Hoyle’s Cambridge years, 1945–1973, saw him rise to the top of world astrophysics theory, on the basis of a startling originality of ideas covering a very wide range of topics. In 1958, Hoyle was appointed to the illustrious Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University. In 1967, he became the founding director of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy (subsequently renamed the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, where Hoyle’s innovative leadership quickly lead to this institution becoming one of the premier groups in the world for theoretical astrophysics. In 1971 he was invited to deliver the to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject ‘Astronomical Instruments and their Construction’. Hoyle was knighted in 1972. Hoyle resigned his Plumian professor position in 1972 and his directorship of the institute in 1973, with this move effectively cutting him off from most of his establishment power-base, connections, and steady salary.

After his leaving Cambridge, Hoyle wrote popular science books (of immense impact to young astronomers the world over) and top-quality science fiction books, as well as presenting many popular lectures around the world. Part of the motivation for this was simply to provide a means of support. Hoyle was still a member of the joint policy committee (since 1967), during the planning stage for the 150-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. He became chairman of the Anglo-Australian Telescope board in 1973, and presided at its inauguration in 1974 by Charles, Prince of Wales. After his resignation from Cambridge, Hoyle moved to the Lake District and occupied his time with a mix of treks across the moors, writing books, visiting research centers around the world, and working on science ideas that have been nearly-universally rejected. On 24 November 1997, while hiking across moorlands in west Yorkshire, near his childhood home in Gilstead, Hoyle fell down into a steep ravine called Shipley Glen. Roughly twelve hours later, Hoyle was found by a search dog. He was hospitalized for two months with pneumonia, kidney problems as a result of hypothermia, and a smashed shoulder, while he ever afterwards suffered from memory and mental agility problems. In 2001, he suffered a series of strokes and died in Bournemouth on 20 August.

Origin of nucleosynthesis

In the 1950s, Hoyle was the leader of a group of very talented experimental and theoretical physicists; with William Alfred Fowler, Margaret Burbidge, and Geoffrey Burbidge. This group realized the basic ideas of how all the chemical elements in our Universe were manufactured, with this now being a field called nucleosynthesis. Famously, in 1957, this group produced the cornerstone B2FH paper (known for the initials of the four authors) in which the field of nucleosynthesis was defined and the large picture solved.

An early paper of Hoyle’s made an interesting use of the anthropic principle. In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the triple-alpha process, which generates carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific resonance energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based life-forms of any kind to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work. Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

These energy levels, while needed to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

His co-worker William Alfred Fowler eventually won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 (with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar), but for some reason Hoyle’s original contribution was overlooked, and many were surprised that such a notable astronomer missed out.. 2 October 2010. The Guardian Fowler himself in an autobiographical sketch affirmed Hoyle’s pioneering efforts:



  • Fellow of the Royal Society (March, 1957)
  • Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1968)
  • Bakerian Lecture (1968)
  • Bruce Medal (1970)
  • Henry Norris Russell Lectureship (1971)
  • Jansky Lectureship before the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
  • Knighthood (1972)
  • President of the Royal Astronomical Society (1971–1973)
  • Royal Medal (1974)
  • Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1977)
  • Balzan Prize for Astrophysics: evolution of stars (1994, with Martin Schwarzschild)
  • Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with Edwin Salpeter (1997)

Named after him

  • Asteroid 8077 Hoyle
  • Janibacter hoylei, species of bacteria discovered by ISRO scientists. 17 March 2009. The Indian Express.
  • Sir Fred Hoyle Way, a dual carrigeway in Bingley.