Archive for Fred Hoyle

Happy 100th Birthday, Margaret Burbidge!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

I was reminded by Twitter just now that today is the 100th birthday of Margaret Burbidge, who was born on August 12th 1919. Happy Birthday Margaret!

 

This anniversary of her birth gives me an excuse to mention the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page. One of the interesting astronomical things I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the B2FH paper. Younger readers will probably not realize that preprints were not always produced in the electronic form they are today. We all used to make large numbers of these and post them at great expense to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication in order to get comments. In the age of the internet people don’t really bother to make hard copies of preprints for distribution any more.

Anyway, here’s a snap of it.

It’s a hefty piece of work, and an important piece of astronomical history. One thing I’ve never done, however, is check whether the preprint differs significantly from the published version..

 

Advertisements

Simone Manuel and the Racism of Fred Hoyle

Posted in Biographical, Politics, Sport, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on August 14, 2016 by telescoper

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.

B2FH

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2012 by telescoper

I spent a pleasant evening yesterday at a public lecture arranged by Cardiff Scientific Society and given by Professor Mike Edmunds, former Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University and now Emeritus Professor here. The subject of his talk was Origin of the Chemical Elements, a subject Mike has worked on for many years. Here’s the abstract of his talk:

When the Universe was 300,000 years old, the only chemical elements with significant abundance were hydrogen, helium and a small amount of lithium. All the atoms of all the other elements in the Periodic Table have been synthesised during the 13.7 billion years since that time. Research in physics and astronomy over the last 64 years has allowed us to identify the nuclear processes involved, including the importance of the humble neutron in the manufacture of the heavier elements. We now have a good picture of the astronomical sites where elements such as the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron in our bodies were made, including violent supernova explosions. It is a picture that appears almost, but not quite, complete.

That last sentence is tempting fate a bit, but it’s fair comment! The lecture, which I had the pleasure of chairing, was both entertaining and informative, and very warmly received by the large audience in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre (in the National Museum of Wales).

Inevitably in a talk on this subject, the subject came up of the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page

This reminded me that one of the interesting astronomical things I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the B2FH paper. Younger readers will probably not be aware of preprints – we all used to post them in large numbers to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication to get comments – because in the age of the internet people don’t really bother to make them any more.

Anyway, here’s a snap of it.

It’s a hefty piece of work, and an important piece of astronomical history. In years to come perhaps it may even acquire some financial value. Who knows?

Dead of Night

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2012 by telescoper

It not being possible to watch Match of the Day last night – I didn’t particularly want to watch the horror story of Newcastle’s 5-2 drubbing by Fulham – I rummaged around in my stack of DVDs of old films and came up with Dead of Night. I was actually very happy to have the excuse  to watch this classic British horror film for the umpteenth time. I’ve actually blogged about a bit of this film before. There is a sequence (to me by far the scariest in the  film) about a ventriloquist who is gradually possessed by his evil dummy which came up in a post I did about Automatonophobia some time ago.

Anyway, Dead of Night was made in 1945 by Ealing Studios and you only have to watch it to appreciate why it its held in such high regard by critics to this day. Indeed you can see ideas in it which have been repeated in a host of subsequent (and usually inferior) horror flicks. I’m not going to spoil it by saying too much about the plot. I’m sure there are many (younger) readers who have never heard of this wonderful film and I don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of it by giving away too much. I would say though that it’s basically a portmanteau film, i.e. a series of essentially separate stories (to the extent of having a different director for each such segment) embedded within an overall narrative. It also involves an intriguing plot device similar to those situations in which you are dreaming, but in the dream you wake up and don’t know whether you’re actually awake or still dreaming…

Anyway, you can watch the whole film on Youtube if you like but you have to keep clicking through the different sections used to be able to watch it on Youtube, but it’s sadly now been removed

It’s the “dream-within-a-dream” structure – what physicists would call a self-similar hierarchy – of the overall framework of this movie that gives it its particular interest from the point of view of this blog, because it played an important role in the evolution of theoretical cosmology. One evening in 1946 the mathematicians and astrophysicts Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Tommy Gold went to see Dead of Night in Cambridge. Discussing the film afterwards they came up with the idea of the steady state cosmology, the first scientific papers about which were published in 1948. For the best part of two decades this theory was a rival to the now-favoured “Big Bang” (a term coined by Fred Hoyle which was intended to be a derogatory description of the opposing theory).

In the Big Bang theory there is a single “creation event”, so this particular picture of the Universe has a definite beginning, and from that point the arrow of time endows it with a linear narrative. In the steady state theory, matter is created continuously in small bits (via a hypothetical field called the C-field) so the Universe has no beginning and its time evolution not unlike that of the film.

Modern cosmologists sometimes dismiss the steady state cosmology as a bit of an aberration, a distraction from the One True Big Bang but it was undeniably a beautiful theory. The problem was that so many of its proponents refused to accept the evidence that they were wrong.  Supporters of  disfavoured theories rarely change their minds, in fact. The better theory wins out because younger folk tend to support it, while the recalcitrant old guard defending  theirs in spite of the odds eventually die out.

And another thing. If Fred Hoyle had thought of it he might have  called the field responsible for creating matter a scalar field, rather than the C-field, and it would now be much more widely recognized that he (unwittingly) invented many elements of modern inflationary cosmology. In fact, in some versions of inflation the Universe as a whole is very similar to the steady state model, only the continuous creation is not of individual particles or atoms, but of entire Big-Bang “bubbles” that can grow to the size of our observable Universe. So maybe the whole idea was actually right after all..