Simone Manuel and the Racism of Fred Hoyle
Reading just now about Simone Manuel, the first black person to win an Olympic Gold medal in swimming, I suddenly remembered a bizarre event that has been lurking in the back of my mind since 1985.
In September of that year I attended a Summer School for new PhD students in Astronomy, held in Durham. I have posted about this before actually, primarily because it is interesting how many others who attended that School are still around, in senior academic positions.
Anyway, one evening during the course of this meeting there was a public lecture by non other than Sir Fred Hoyle, many of whose books on cosmology I had borrowed from the public library when I was at school and played a big part in encouraging me to study physics at university.
But Fred Hoyle’s talk that evening (to a packed lecture theatre) was not about physics but about his pet theories about the evolution of life, most of which are now generally regarded as nonsense.
At one point in his somewhat rambling discourse he digressed into the subject of the sporting abilities of different racial groups. His first assertion was that black people (by which he meant people of African origin) do not make good swimmers because their bones are too dense and the consequent lack of buoyancy is a significant disadvantage. “Have you ever seen a black swimmer in the Olympics?” he asked. None of us had, of course, but couldn’t that be because of other reasons such as lack of access to swimming pools? No. Fred was adamant. It was down to biology. I assumed he knew what he was talking about, so kept quiet.
He went on to argue that black people were also disadvantaged at tennis – not because of social factors limiting access to tennis courts – but for reasons of “poor hand-eye coordination” which he also asserted to be an inherited characteristic. This time I knew straight away he was talking drivel. The previous summer I had watched the brilliant West Indies cricketers thrash England 5-0 in a test series; their hand-eye coordination certainly wasn’t poor. And neither was that of Arthur Ashe who had beaten Jimmy Connors in the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon a decade earlier, nor the majestic Serena Williams who is probably the greatest female tennis player the world has ever seen.
These examples left me not only deeply suspicious of Hoyle’s racist attitudes but also staggered by his completely unscientific attitude to evidence. Great theoretical physicist he was – at least early in his career – but being expert about one thing doesn’t mean can’t make an utter fool of yourself if you blunder into another field. Sadly, theoretical physicists do have a greater tendency than most scientists to forget this.Follow @telescoper