Once all our attempts to obtain living matter from inanimate matter have failed, it seems to me that it should be part of a validly correct scientific procedure, to ask ourselves whether life actually ever had an origin; if it could not be as old as matter itself; and if the spores could not have been transported from one planet to another, and had taken root wherever they found fertile ground. (Hermann von Helmoltz, 1879)
Panspermia (from the ancient Greek πᾶν for “everything” and σπέρμα for “seed”), of which the previous sentence is a declaration of faith, is a hypothesis that suggests that the seeds of life (in an obviously figurative sense) are scattered around the Universe, and that life on Earth began with the arrival of these seeds (simple organic molecules?) and their development. This obviously implies that the same can also happen on many other planets. This hypothesis roots its ancient origins in the ideas of Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher from the fifth century BC, but was revitalized starting from the nineteenth century with Lord Kelvin, the doctor-physicist Hermann von Helmholtz and, in the first decades of the twentieth century, by the Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius, while in the last quarter of the twentieth century the relay passed to the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe.
When I was a student, one of my favorite readings was “The Expanding Universe” by William Bonnor, a concise and informative book from which I learned, among many other things, about the steady-state theory of the universe put forward by Fred Hoyle, together with Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. At that time (1974-75) this theory of the “non-origin” of the universe was already on its way to be disproved by several observations that seemed irreconcilable with its main postulate, namely that matter is continuously created at random by some quantum process in such a way that the average density of the universe remains constant. It is a singular nemesis that the “rival” theory of that time, which instead has survived and improved up to these days, was christened by Hoyle himself, by giving it the name of Big Bang. In fact, it was during an interview with the BBC in 1949 that he diminutively expressed his views about the singular birth of the universe as: “These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.” The discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1964 would give his theory of the steady-state universe a major hit, and the 1998 discovery of the accelerated expansion, which motivated the 2011 Nobel prize in physics, nailed the coffin. However, I still liked the idea of Hoyle, because I liked the character Hoyle.
Fred Hoyle revealed a prodigious intellect from early childhood. We know that he taught himself the multiplication tables before he was six, and he would often stay up all night looking through a telescope he received as a gift. After leaving grammar school, he studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he would later become Plumian professor of astronomy, and founder/director of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. Over time, he made an incredible number of contributions to astrophysics, from the discovery of the heavy element nucleosynthesis in supernovae, to the carbon-12 resonance that makes it possible to develop life in the universe, to the theoretical formulation that the quasars at core of radio galaxies are collapsed supermassive stars. He was knighted in 1972. In 1976 together with Chandra Wickramasinghe, a fellow professor at the University of Cardiff, they speculated that microorganisms or biochemical compounds from outer space are responsible for originating life on Earth and possibly other parts of the universe (panspermia revived). In Diseases from Space (1981) they hypothesized that viruses and bacteria fall into our atmosphere after being incubated in the interiors of comet heads, and that people become ill by breathing this infected air. The idea was widely derided, but Hoyle vigorously defended it, going as far as suggesting that AIDS came from outer space in a 1988 letter to the Daily Telegraph. His list of personal enemies could increase as steadily as the number of hydrogen atoms in his fictional steady universe. He was also known as a successful author of many novels and short stories in science-fiction, The black cloud (1959) being probably one of his most fortunate books. I myself remember eagerly awaiting, each week of winter 1972, a new TV episode of A for Andromeda, a futuristic mystery-thriller for which Hoyle himself wrote the script, taken from his title novel.
But Hoyle was also adamant in defending what he felt was plain unfairness. When
in 1974 Antony Hewish was awarded the Nobel for discovering the first pulsar, Hoyle was terribly upset that Hewish’s student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, had not been recognised, when she was the first to identify the stellar radio source that was later realised to be a pulsar. Hoyle publicly accused Hewish of stealing her data but, probably to avoid a legal suit, he rather preferred to accuse in a public letter the Nobel committee of the wrongdoing (which indeed was nothing new, remember Lise Meitner or Rosalind Franklin). The photo at the beginning shows fellow astrophysicist Donald Clayton and Fred Hoyle while they revise drafts of Hoyle’s letter to The Times (published Apr 8, 1975). The Times commentary closed with the following statement, which says much about the character: “It was noted that Sir Fred Hoyle parted company with Cambridge University, where he had directed an institute of theoretical astronomy, in a controversy regarding the university’s control over his institute.” This new controversy about a wrongly attributed Nobel would have been a singular premonition of things to happen. Just wait a few more years.
When on October 19, 1983, the American physicist William A. Fowler, 72 years old at the time, received a phone call from the Nobel committee in Stockholm, he was bluntly told that he would share that year’s prize with renowned Indian astrophysicist Subramanian Chandrasekhar, who had carried out pioneering work on the inner structure of stars. But of Fowler’s collaborator, Fred Hoyle – who had actually firstly inspired and chiefly led their joint research work on stellar nucleosynthesis – there was no mention. Fowler was quite shocked at the news, as he admitted later, as were many colleagues like Hubert Rees, who knew the whole story of their research in some depth. According to Hoyle’s biographer Simon Mitton, Fowler’s contribution to their joint 1957 paper in Reviews of Modern Physics which motivated the Nobel (https://doi.org/10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547, so-called “B2FH” from the initials of the four co-authors) was relatively minor, mostly providing basic nuclear data for validation of the theory. It was Hoyle who did most of the work.
In fact, Hoyle had already published two papers laying down all the key elements of the fundamental theory: one in 1946 (Monthly Notes R. Astron. Soc. 106, p.343), and the other in 1954 (Astrophys. J. Suppl. 1, p.121). Especially the latter contains practically the whole theory of stellar nucleosynthesis, but is strangely little known and little cited, in comparison to the 1957’s B2FH paper. In that early work, Hoyle proposed that the gravitational contraction causes temperature to increase, after each layer of nuclear fuel in the star center is consumed, and he described the nuclear burning and the associated nucleosynthesis during each sequential evolution of the stellar core. Both these concepts are today widely accepted and proved by spectroscopical observations. According to Clayton, such a misjudgement of Hoyle’s monumental contribution to our understanding of the star cores, should be due to a curious oversight: in his key 1954 paper, the central equation of the theory was never written down explicitly, but was only described in words! How much “hoyleish” that looks like: Hoyle was known for never carefully proofreading his manuscripts. If he did, such a mistake could have been easily corrected. (But then, what about the anonymous referees who reviewed the manuscript…?)
As the science journalist Robin McKie reported in 2010 for The Guardian, “Hoyle was cantankerous and opinionated, and had offended a large number of influential colleagues, who were unused to his Yorkshire bluntness. He had called some of them liars and cheats in public, while his beliefs, in later life, verged on the lunatic. He said that Earth was being constantly bombarded by microbes from outer space and that these were responsible for outbreaks of flu and other illnesses. He also claimed that the remains of archaeopteryx – the British Museum fossil that demonstrates the early link between dinosaurs and birds – was a fake.”
Such notions went down badly in scientific circles. But then, were they grounds for refusing Hoyle a fully deserved Nobel prize? Understanding the origin of the elements from stars was one of the major intellectual breakthroughs of the XX century. Does it matter if he was a bit crazy about microbes and fossils? And surely, by awarding one scientist a Nobel prize for a piece of work, while refusing to give it to the major partner in the endeavor, the Swedish academy was being deliberately provocative? Was this a warning to scientists about the dangers of speaking out of their soul? Quite likely, Hoyle was the victim of his own intemperate nature, while the Nobel prize committee was guilty of a petty lack of objectivity. According to Sir Harry Kroto (1996 Nobel prize for chemistry), a Nobel prize is not just an award for a piece of work, but is a recognition of a scientist’s overall reputation. If we buy that definition, Sir Fred Hoyle, who never recanted his belief in the steady-state theory even when it was clearly demonstrated to be wrong, would have been unworthy of such a prize. “Apart from his earlier work, his arrogant, misplaced assumption of his own genius together with his blunt stubbornness, of which he was so proud, caused him to be wrong so often on high-profile issues, that people have forgotten when he was right.” Sir Harry dixit.