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Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science – Simon Mitton ****

There can be few more ideal subjects for a biography than the late astronomer Fred Hoyle. He was a larger than life character who devised a whole swathe of theories – some right, some wrong – across the span of theoretical astronomy.
It’s somehow not surprising that Hoyle was from Yorkshire (the UK’s equivalent of Texas or Bavaria), but with ancestry from the neighbouring, perhaps a little more thoughtful county of Lancashire, producing a fiery but deep thinker.
In this book we see the familiar Hoyle to those who remember him – the passionate supporter of unlikely causes from the steady state universe (okay, it wasn’t unlikely when he first came up with it) to life from the stars, the superb presenter of science for the masses, the science fiction author and more. But there’s also the less well-known Hoyle – for instance in his radar work during the Second World War or coming up, almost as a throw-away, with ideas the possibility of there being massive black holes at the centre of galaxies. In some ways, Hoyle was to astronomy what Feynman was to physics – the boy from the poor background who never lost his regional accent becoming the man from which ideas poured like an uncontrollable fountain. His genius may not have been on quite the same scale as Feynman’s, but there’s no doubting their similarities.
So far this is a eulogy to Hoyle, but what of the book itself? Here’s where there are more reservations. Frankly, were it not for the subject, lifting it above the ordinary, it would not deserve four stars. Simon Mitton is a scientist, not a writer, and it shows. It’s not just the wording, at times strangely amateurish (I defy anyone to usefully apply the word “chomped” to a human being’s ordinary eating in anything other than a school essay). It’s not just the irritating structure, based on the categories of Hoyle’s achievements rather than chronology, so the timeline jumps back and forth in a confusing fashion. It’s not even the extremely weak title for the UK edition (come on, not another “Life in Science”!) The real problem is that Mitton misses so many opportunities. It’s too much a biography and not enough a scientific biography.
Surprisingly, Mitton skips over much of the science without really explaining what it’s about. We learn about Hoyle, but much less about the basis for his work. Hoyle’s achievements are described, but not in a way that lets the uninformed reader understand what’s really going on. Interestingly, the book comes to life when describing Hoyle’s political battles, but not when covering the science. This is the best book on Hoyle we’ve seen – hence the four stars – but it could have been so much better if had been written by a good science writer. What’s more, the main competitor also lacks that journalistic flair – still Jane Gregory’s Fred Hoyle’s Universe is probably marginally better than Mitton’s book.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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