What do a rather gnomish British scientist and a beautiful film star have in common? The former was Fred Hoyle, genius of astronomy and lover of cult fiction, and the latter the sensuous actress Julie Christie. The former chose the latter, then unknown, to be the “cool humanoid built according to computer instructions from an alien intelligence” in his publicly acclaimed radio series A for Andromeda. It launched her career, made Hoyle a beloved public figure, and all but buried him professionally.
The attention Hoyle garnered for this and other non-scientific ventures into labyrinthine switchbacks of his own famous mind was not always positive. It’s a classic paradox of academia that one must publish, but if one publishes too well and becomes too popular, one is then condemned for being, well, too popular and not brainy and convoluted enough.
Hoyle, according to this exhaustive biography by an admirer and fellow astronomer, was always walking on the razor’s edge of that paradox. He invented the expression “Big Bang” but only as a way of mocking the theory which later became the prevailing model of the origin of the universe. He himself held out for the “steady state” theory, regarded as not only incorrect scientifically but downright ungodly. Hoyle believed the universe simply was and had always been. When he touted this theory on the radio, he was roundly criticized by everyone from his own colleagues to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Though Hoyle did break ground in the field of astronomy with his proposition that we are made of “stardust,” and though he was no doubt a brilliant and disciplined scientist, his greatest contribution to history was undoubtedly his willingness to popularize scientific subjects. He was good on the radio, and his sci-fi books were well received. In taking his ideas directly to the public, he was deemed a black sheep among his academic peers, but for a significant period of time he was the most famous astronomer in the world and energized his colleagues to collaborate rather than compete with their American rivals.