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Fred Hoyle’s Universe – Jane Gregory ****

Fred Hoyle, the theoretical astronomer who came to fame in the 1950s with both his theory of the production of the elements in stars (since widely adopted) and his collaboration in the steady state theory of the universe (since abandoned for the “big bang” that Hoyle himself named) is a natural for a science biography. It’s not amazing that there have been two in the past few months – it’s rather more amazing that it has taken so long.
In photographs, Hoyle looks solidly old fashioned, but his Yorkshire temperament, dramatic imagination and unparalleled ability to communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists broke the stuffy mould of 1950s science.
Like Simon Mitton’s competing Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, this is a book that could have been a little better. Jane Gregory, like Mitton, is an academic, and Hoyle’s story needs a good journalist to make the most of it. Having said that, Gregory does a slightly better job. There’s more feeling for the personal tensions between the players, and a little more of the science (though yet again this is skipped over in a way that a Singh or Gribbin never would – we often get just a bald statement that (for instance) those who supported the Big Bang expected to find a low level of cosmic background radiation, without any explanation of why). Gregory also gives a more rounded picture. She discusses Hoyle’s fiction in some detail, which Mitton only gives a passing mention. This really is important, because Hoyle’s popular writing (both fiction and non-fiction) is a major part of what makes him different from most other scientists. The downside of her greater thoroughness is that she seems to relish the bureaucratic details of grant applications and departmental memos – sometimes a little judicious skipping is necessary.
The least appealing side of Gregory’s version is a rather cold approach to many of the events in Hoyle’s life. She may give more feeling for the venom felt by rival Martin Ryle, but when describing what Hoyle did in life, as opposed to his work, the text is rather hollow, reminiscent of a school essay rather than good biography.
Not a perfect book then, but if you are only going to buy one biography of Fred Hoyle, this is probably the best choice.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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