Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Fathers of Modern British Cosmology

The Guardian has an article discussing a couple of new books concerned with the scientific legacy of Fred Hoyle, the remarkable British cosmologist who coined, albeit sneeringly, the phrase "the Big Bang". Hoyle was one of the people who founded modern cosmology in Britain, and his influence and research were behind the work of many of the great minds working there.

Hoyle is perhaps best known for the steady state theory of the universe, a serious model of an unchanging universe that ultimately was ruled out by the increasingly accurate observations that lent ever-stronger support to the Big Bang model. Hoyle developed the steady state theory in collaboration with Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. I never met Hoyle or Gold, but have had the privilege to meet Hermann Bondi on many occasions, although none of them recently. Bondi was the Master of my college, Churchill College, when I was a mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge University. In fact, I had seen him give a talk on humanism a couple of years before I went to university and been incredibly impressed with him even then. (I once sat next to Bondi's wife, Christine, an intellectual powerhouse in her own right, at a college dinner and she was also delightful, even going so far as to help me get a summer research job.)

What impressed me about Bondi is the same thing that impresses me about Hoyle when reading the accounts of his life. These guys were giants in their field, the same field in which I work now, but beyond that have been major intellectual forces beyond the confines of their research discipline. It is my impression (although I have no data and would be interested to hear what others think) that such widespread intellectual engagement is rarer in recent generations of physicists. I don't think the people are less smart or less able, I just feel that there are relatively fewer of them with such broad interests.

The Guardian article lists many of the areas in which Hoyle made contributions, but points out, in terms that I don't think one would see is a U.S. newspaper, that Hoyle was all these things
"and - in later life - a grade one batty boffin who argued that diseases were forged in space and delivered to Earth by comets and that the archaeopteryx specimen in London's Natural History Museum was a fake."
Well, you can't have it all. If I could have the impact of a Hoyle or a Bondi I'd be over the moon, and you could call me a batty boffin as much as you liked.
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