Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…