Skip to main content

Fred Hoyle’s Universe – Jane Gregory ****

Fred Hoyle, the theoretical astronomer who came to fame in the 1950s with both his theory of the production of the elements in stars (since widely adopted) and his collaboration in the steady state theory of the universe (since abandoned for the “big bang” that Hoyle himself named) is a natural for a science biography. It’s not amazing that there have been two in the past few months – it’s rather more amazing that it has taken so long.
In photographs, Hoyle looks solidly old fashioned, but his Yorkshire temperament, dramatic imagination and unparalleled ability to communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists broke the stuffy mould of 1950s science.
Like Simon Mitton’s competing Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, this is a book that could have been a little better. Jane Gregory, like Mitton, is an academic, and Hoyle’s story needs a good journalist to make the most of it. Having said that, Gregory does a slightly better job. There’s more feeling for the personal tensions between the players, and a little more of the science (though yet again this is skipped over in a way that a Singh or Gribbin never would – we often get just a bald statement that (for instance) those who supported the Big Bang expected to find a low level of cosmic background radiation, without any explanation of why). Gregory also gives a more rounded picture. She discusses Hoyle’s fiction in some detail, which Mitton only gives a passing mention. This really is important, because Hoyle’s popular writing (both fiction and non-fiction) is a major part of what makes him different from most other scientists. The downside of her greater thoroughness is that she seems to relish the bureaucratic details of grant applications and departmental memos – sometimes a little judicious skipping is necessary.
The least appealing side of Gregory’s version is a rather cold approach to many of the events in Hoyle’s life. She may give more feeling for the venom felt by rival Martin Ryle, but when describing what Hoyle did in life, as opposed to his work, the text is rather hollow, reminiscent of a school essay rather than good biography.
Not a perfect book then, but if you are only going to buy one biography of Fred Hoyle, this is probably the best choice.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…