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Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science by Simon Mitton

I picked up a copy of this book on a quick visit to the local library but was not expecting very much from it: I had already read Hoyle's own autobiograph 'Home is where the Wind Blows' a few years ago and don't remember being particularly impressed by it.

The first chapter of 'A Life in Science' with its somewhat cloying details of his childhood tended to confirm my low expectations (but maybe this is because these details are derived from Fred's own writings). But then Hoyle gets to Cambridge and the book suddenly takes off as he meets Arthur Eddington, P.A.M. Dirac, Rudolph Peierls. Then he goes off to Portsmouth to do war work. He stays with Herman Bondi and Tommy Gold: during the day they work on naval radar, during the evenings they talk astrophysics and, start generating new ideas and papers at such a rate that the RAS papers secretary can hardly cope.

After the war Hoyle returns to Cambridge and becomes one of the central figures in astrophysics for the next three decades. I had not really appreciated the key role Hoyle had played in the understanding of stellar structure and the creation of the chemical elements. Mitton covers all of this in just enough depth for me to follow and to want to find out more about these subjects. He also covers the controversies that Hoyle got involved in, for example that with Martin Ryle, and tries to give a balanced view, pointing out where Fred was being unreasonable or paranoid.

Over the years I had got the impression that many British professional astronomers and astrophysicists regarded Hoyle with a mixture of fondness and awe. After reading Mitton's account I now understand why.

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