Sir Fred Hoyle is a man of many parts: theoretical astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, science fiction author, mountaineer, to name just some of his many roles. He is a controversial figure, especially in view of his opposition to the cosmological theory popularly called the Big Bang (a nickname which Hoyle himself invented). His autobiography provides a typically idiosyncratic account of all these matters.
The first part of the book describes his early years and upbringing in rural Yorkshire in the 1920s. It is astonishing to realize how isolated and unacquainted with the outside world people in such areas were as recently as this: with no television or radio, and few newspapers, they lived their lives within a very small compass. It wasn't easy for a boy from a not very well-off family to get to Cambridge to study science, but Hoyle managed it. He seemed set for a research career at Cambridge, but then came the war. The newly married Hoyle found himself doing work on radar, about which at the outset he knew nothing ; however, he soon was making important contributions in this field to the war effort.
After the war Hoyle returned to Cambridge and research. He eventually became Plumian Professor of Astronomy, but resigned on a point of principle; an almost unheard of thing. Throughout the remaining quarter-century he continued to contribute to science as a freelance researcher in collaboration with others, especially Chandra Wickramasinghe.
Hoyle is an entertaining writer and there are plenty of humorous touches. In the course of his long life he has met many of the leading scientists of our time and he provides numerous pen sketches of them. I thought some of the accounts of science politics dragged a little and the book is perhaps over-long, but there is much to enjoy. I particularly liked Hoyle's remarks on the nature of science, and I was fascinated by the concluding section, in which he summarizes his views on cosmology.
Hoyle's advocacy of the steady-state cosmological model is well known. Most cosmologists appear to have rejected this decisively, but Hoyle continued to support an updated version of the theory. The early model postulated continuous creation of matter throughout the universe, but the new model was based on localized production of matter at sites of extreme density. The implication of this theory is an immensely old universe which pulsates, alternately expanding and contracting like a giant heart but becoming a little larger at each oscillation. Each oscillation takes about 40 billion years and about 20 oscillations are needed for the universe to double in size, so this doubling takes about 800 billion years. How fascinating it would be if Hoyle, against all the odds, turned out to be right. Equally strange things have happened in science in the past, though it seems increasingly unlikely today.