Watching the video So much universe, so little time, I was surprised to hear Fred Hoyle talked about in glowing terms.

According to the narrator, by the late 1950’s the big bang model was losing favour; by 1961 Lemaître was lamenting that his ideas had become old-fashioned; steady state theory was getting a lot of attention and Hoyle was :

being held in a dogmatic veneration similar to Aristotle in the middle ages.

I’m not sure what to make of this comment, which occurs at about 22:40, other than it seems doubtful. On the other hand, many were reluctant to give up the static, eternal model so this may have amplified enthusiasm for the steady state model with a knock-on effect for Hoyle's reputation.

My question is, to what extent did Hoyle’s reputation in the scientific community gain currency at this time, and did his “fame” reach into popular culture to any degree?

Hoyle was knighted, which suggests that in Britain he would have been a known popular figure of sorts. His reputation appears to have suffered considerably in subsequent years, to the point that he was snubbed by the Nobel committee regarding his original work on stellar nucleosynthesis.


The quoted passage is a bit exaggerated, but the gist is right, at least for a segment of scientists. The main driving force was anti-theism, the Big Bang cosmology looked uncomfortably close to the Biblical creation, and Lemaître's vocation as a Catholic priest did not help, see e.g. Keating's book Losing the Nobel Prize:

"Lemaître's model... upset the millennia-old orthodoxy of an eternal, unchanging cosmos. It clearly implied that everything had been smaller and denser in the past, and that the universe must itself have had a birth at a finite time in the past... Many atheist scientists were repulsed by the Big Bang's creationist overtones. According to Hoyle, it was cosmic chutzpah of the worst kind: "The reason why scientists like the 'big bang' is because they are overshadowed by the Book of Genesis." In contrast, the Steady State model was the rightful heir to the Copernican principle. It combined the banality of space with humanity's mediocrity in time. Thanks to Hoyle, humanity had humility."

The steady state model of Bondi-Gold-Hoyle (1948), with its perpetual creation of new matter, "sure as hell didn't look like the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1". And of the three it was Hoyle who brought the narrative to the masses, jokingly nicknaming Lemaître's primeval atom "Big Bang", and mocking it on the radio, see NYT obituaries:

"In a series of popular radio talks in Britain in the 1940's, he coined ''big bang'' to ridicule the rival concept of an explosive origin of the universe, but the term is now widely used and the explosion theory is generally accepted. In recent years Sir Fred joined those arguing for a universe that -- while eternal -- expands and contracts."

Of course, pop-sci politics was not the sole source of Hoyle's success, he really was a superb astronomer and cosmologist. The publication in 1957 (with Fowler and Burbidges) of a realisitic scenario of how the heavy elements formed in star's interiors under the steady state model, which also explained the prevalence of light elements, contributed to the popularity of the model aside from its pop-sci fame. In 1958 Hoyle was appointed to the Plumian professor of astronomy chair, previously held by Eddington, among others. There is more discussion and references in SEP, Cosmology and Theology:

"Hoyle referred to big-bang cosmology as “a form of religious fundamentalism” (Hoyle 1994, 413)... It was widely assumed in the 1950s that the steady-state universe was contrary to theism or at least made God superfluous as a creator of the cosmos. After all, how can God have created a universe which has existed in an infinity of time? According to the astronomer, science popularizer and non-believer Carl Sagan, “this is one conceivable finding of science that could disprove a Creator—because an infinitely old universe would never have been created” (1997, 265)."

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I had assumed that closing the door on God was the main motivation for the enthusiasm of the scientific community, and I take from your answer that his popular fame was largely restricted to Britain. The impression I had of Hoyle previously was that he was a more than capable astronomer prone to adopting unorthodox views and possessing a rather prickly personality which may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. It is interesting that some of his unorthodox views, e.g., panspermia, have since become more mainstream. $\endgroup$ – Nick Aug 12 '20 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Can you find evidence that Hoyle was "being held in a dogmatic veneration similar to Aristotle in the middle ages", or indeed that anyone other than Hoyle himself rejected the big bang on anti-religious grounds? My impression is that practically everyone in the field took both big-bang and steady-state models seriously until the discovery of CMB anisotropy by COBE which clearly favored the big bang. The quote from Sagan seems measured and typical of his philosophical style, and it postdates COBE so I doubt he was seriously arguing in favor of steady-state. $\endgroup$ – benrg Aug 13 '20 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @benrg As I said, this is an exaggeration, these sorts of rhetorical flourishes are common in pop-sci, and public discussions generally. What was similar is that a particular type of theory became popular because it was seen as in agreement with a particular type of philosophy, although ironically atheist in this case. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Aug 13 '20 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I think that steady-state models became popular not for religious reasons but because they have fewer parameters than big-bang models, being homogeneous in space and time while big-bang models are only homogeneous in space. Hoyle was an iconoclast (or enjoyed playing one on the radio) but his arguments that steady-state was simpler would have been more convincing, I'd imagine. I don't know the history, but absent actual evidence that other scientists were guided by religious belief in choosing a model, I'm inclined to apply Occam's razor and guess that they were guided by Occam's razor. $\endgroup$ – benrg Aug 13 '20 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @benrg I do not think it is either or, it was not even with Aristotle. There were good empirical reasons to support geocentrism during middle ages, the absence of fly-off, stellar parallax, etc., but it sure helped that the Church endorsed it. And it is psychologically implausible that ideological preferences did not influence a choice between otherwise acceptable rival theories, so such application of Occam's razor is inappropriate here. Hoyle's own remarks leave little doubt in this regard. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Aug 13 '20 at 19:41

One perspective of Big Bang cosmology that often gets lost, is its sheer unbelievability. It's not the idea of creation per se, but simply the notion of the whole universe, all of its billions of lights years, it's billions of galaxies all shrunk into one very small vanishing point.

It sounds crazy.

So it's perhaps no surprise that without convincing evidence otherwise people opted for the steady state theory. In fact, Hoyles theory was not really 'steady state' since he postulated a very small breaking of one of the cardinal principles of physics - the conservation of energy.

  • $\begingroup$ A very small breaking of the law according to Hoyle was one particle per cubic meter every 300,000 years. Apparently this is equivalent to the creating the mass of a typical galaxy in the observable universe every 40 seconds. $\endgroup$ – Nick Aug 24 '20 at 2:52

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