Today, thoughts about Fred Hoyle and the problem of
honoring science. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Chemist Ivan Bernal tells
how, in 1840, the French Academy elected that
year's foreign member. On the slate were Oersted,
Faraday, Bessel, Jacobi, and Herschel -- all
familiar names to students of math or science. Also
on the slate was one Christian Leopold von Buch,
who has been long since forgotten.
Yet von Buch got 56 votes. No one else got more
than six. Faraday had set the foundations of
electric theory. He got none. Neither did Jacobi,
who did basic work in mathematics.
So who was this von Buch whom the French Academy
elected by a landslide over a field of giants? He
was a geologist who observed volcanoes and
stratigraphy. Von Buch seems to've been a good
observer, but he was only a fashionable and
ineffective theorist. He gets one paragraph in my
Britannica. My Britannica
also says he was a close friend of two famous and
influential members of the academy: Humboldt and Gay-Lussac.
In 1857 it became Louis Pasteur's turn to be passed
over in favor of since-forgotten scientists. In
this century Marie Curie, with two Nobel Prizes,
was never given membership.
And that brings us to Fred Hoyle, now 80 years old.
In the '50s, Hoyle studied the astrophysics of
quasars, red giants, white dwarfs, and radio
isotopes. Some of that work became the basis for
another man's Nobel Prize.
You and I know Hoyle best for his books. His novel,
The Black Cloud, captivated me when I
was in college. It's about an interstellar cloud of
inorganic matter that turns out to be both sentient
and intelligent. If that sounds like off-the-shelf
Star Trek, it's because the idea has
been copied ever since. But in Hoyle's book it's
new, and not a technical hair is out of place.
All his life Hoyle has been a daring theorist.
Theories of ether-borne disease, theories of our
origins. Now Hoyle tells us that everywhere he
looks, he sees purpose in the universe. How
monstrously out of step with orthodoxy that is! The
first new tenet of modern science, as it parted
company with medieval alchemy, was that nature is
blind and purposeless.
But then, Hoyle notes, science locks itself into
its own belief systems. Any established science "is
blocked by beliefs that are wrong." Science
established is science fenced in.
So we're back to the French Academy. Faraday's,
Pasteur's and Curie's greatness was authentic, and
it's prevailed. National Academies can neither
determine nor predict that. Hoyle is now old and he
is content. He's reached a point where he can smile
and remind us that real science has to be
revolution. It has to be a thing that we can never
see whole -- in its own time.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bernal, I., Election to the Academy of the Immortals.
The Chemical Intelligencer, January
1995, pp. 50-53.
Horgan, J., The Return of the Maverick.
Scientific American, March 1995, pp.
Nieuwenkamp, W., Buch, [Christian] Leopold von.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography
(C.C. Gilespie, ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1970-1980, Vol II, pp. 552-557.
I am grateful to Ivan Bernal, UH Chemistry
Department, for providing me with a copy of his
article; and to William van Arsdale, UH Mechanical.
Engineering Department, for providing the Horgan
article. By the way, the 1840 French Academy slate
also included two more names that I didn't mention
in the episode. They were Brewster and
Mitscherlich, who, while not widely known today,
are remembered with respect by people who work in
their areas. Of the eight it was only von Buch who
went on to what appears to be richly deserved
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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