Life from Space Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe look for Life from Space

Another Beginning

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By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College.

To introduce the origins of this research one has to go back to 1940 when Ray Lyttleton and Fred suggested that the gas between the stars was likely in places to be clumped into much denser clouds than astronomers were then prepared to admit. They also suggested that the gas in dense clouds would be molecular rather than atomic, with molecular hydrogen the dominant component. These perfectly correct predictions were thought outlandish in their own time. Three decades later, when observation had shown them to be correct nobody remembered what had been said as long ago as 1940.

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The thought that molecules, even quite complex molecules, might be present in great quantities within dense clouds of interstellar gas never died away in Fred’s mind. Astronomical opinion throughout the 1950’s was so firmly set against the idea that to argue for it in the scientific literature became impossible. Hence Fred turned to the medium of science fiction to publish his thoughts in “The Black Cloud”.

In 1958 Fred was appointed Plumiam Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University. As a consequence of this appointment he became an influential member of many government and university committees responsible for the development of Astronomy in Britain. Inevitably, perhaps, his approach and theories brought him into conflict with the 'Establishment' resulting finally in his resignation in 1972 and a move to the Lake District.
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Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

By the autumn of 1976 Fred and his wife Barbara decided to make a bicentennial trip through the United States. In all, they covered some 12,000 miles, visiting places they had enjoyed in former years and discovering many new ones. There was no thought in Fred’s mind as they drove south in splendid fall colours along the Appalachian chain of mountains from New Hampshire to N. Carolina that he would ever again be concerned seriously with scientific research. He was sixty one, long past the age for such things. Yet unknown and unsuspected he had thrown a casual glance a few weeks earlier in a direction that was to open up in the next four years into the largest investigations of his research career.