Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hoyle's Nobel

Fred Hoyle never got a Nobel Prize, but he did win the admiration and respect of his colleagues thanks to his incredible insights into the brand-new discipline of nuclear astrophysics. One such contemporary was George Gamow, who wrote later of Hoyle's theory of the formation of the elements:
In the beginning God created radiation and ylem. And ylem was without shape or number, and the nucleons were rushing madly over the face of the deep. And God said: "Let there be mass two." And there was mass two. And God saw deuterium, and it was good. And God said: "Let there be mass three." And God saw tritium and [helium-3] and they were good. And God continued to call number after number until He came to the transuranium elements. But when He looked back on his work He found that it was not good. In the excitement of counting, He missed calling for mass five and so, naturally, no heavier elements could have been formed. God was very much disappointed, and wanted first to contract the universe again, and to start all over from the beginning. But it would be much too simple. Thus being almighty, God decided to correct His mistake in a most impossible way.
And God said: "Let there be Hoyle." And there was Hoyle. And God looked at Hoyle... and told him to make heavy elements in any way he pleased. And Hoyle decided to make heavy elements in stars, and to spread them around by supernovae explosions. But in doing so he had to obtain the same abundance curve which would have resulted from nucleosynthesis in ylem, if God would not have forgotten to call for mass five. And so, with the help of God, Hoyle made heavy elements in this way, but it was so complicated that nowadays neither Hoyle, nor God, nor anybody else can figure out exactly how it was done.


  1. I had never heard that before .. cracked me up.

    In other topics, I recently read in SciAm that Russia is busy selling nuclear reactors to underdeveloped countries.. good or bad?

    1. It's a touchy subject, isn't it? I don't personally understand why we're so secretive about a technology that one can work out reasonably well by perusing the internet. I also think it's generally a good thing to allow any country access to the technology needed to create cheap nuclear energy. That said, I think the global initiative to monitor and control who has nuclear fuel is, in principle, a good thing. If you keep track of what goes in and what comes out, you can know who is playing by the rules and who is trying to do something else on the side.


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