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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…