[Paleopsych] eSkeptic: The Life and Science of Fred Hoyle

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eSkeptic: The Life and Science of Fred Hoyle

From: Michael Shermer <skepticmag at aol.com>
Date: Fri, 01 Jul 2005 00:00:00 -0700
To: eugen at leitl.org
Subject: eSkeptic: The Life and Science of Fred Hoyle
Reply-To: E-Skeptic <SkepticMag at aol.com>
riday, July 1st, 2005


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This week's eSkeptic features an announcement for Michael Shermer's
upcoming weekend workshop at the Esalen Institute, Science,
Spirituality & the Search for Meaning, followed by James N. Gardener's
review of Conflict in the Cosmos: Fred Hoyle's Life in Science,
a biography by Simon Mitton, published by Joseph Henry Press,
ISBN 0309093139.


     a weekend seminar led by Michael Shermer

         August 12th, 8:30pm to August 14th, 11:30am
         at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA

The intellectual and spiritual quest to understand the universe and our
place in it is at the core of both science and religion. At the
beginning of the 20th century social scientists predicted that belief
in God would decrease by the end of the century because of the
secularization of society. In fact, the opposite happened. Never in
history have so many, and such a high percentage of the population,
believed in God and expressed spirituality. To find out why, science
historian and social scientist Dr. Michael Shermer has undertaken a
monumental study of science, spirituality, and the search for meaning
through his numerous writings, presented here for the first time in
workshop format.

Since humans are storytelling animals, a deeper aspect of this issue
involves the origins and purposes of myth and religion in human history
and culture. Why is there is an eternal return of certain mythic themes
in religion, such as messiah myths, flood myths, creation myths,
destruction myths, redemption myths, and end of the world myths? What
do these recurring themes tell us about the workings of the human mind
and culture? What can we learn from these myths beyond the moral
homilies offered in their narratives? What can we glean about ourselves
as we gaze into these mythic mirrors of our souls?

Humans are not only storytelling animals, we are also pattern-seeking
animals, and there is a tendency to find pattern even when none exists.
To most of us the pattern of the universe indicates design. For
countless millennia we have taken these patterns and constructed
stories about how our cosmos was designed specifically for us. For the
past few centuries, however, science has presented us with a viable
alternative in which we are but one among tens of millions of species,
housed on but one planet among many orbiting an ordinary solar system,
itself one among possibly billions of solar systems in an ordinary
galaxy, located in a cluster of galaxies not so different than billions
of other galaxy clusters, themselves whirling away from one another in
an expanding cosmic bubble that very possibly is only one among a near
infinite number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this
entire cosmological multiverse exists for one tiny subgroup of a single
species on one planet in a lone galaxy in that solitary bubble
universe? In this workshop, we will explore the deepest question of
all: what if the universe and the world were not created for us by an
intelligent designer, and instead is just one of those things that
happened? Can we discover meaning in this apparently meaningless
universe? Can we still find the sacred in this age of science? The
answer is yes!


Esalen is, geographically speaking, a literal cliff, hanging
precariously over the Pacific Ocean. The Esselen Indians used the hot
mineral springs here as healing baths for centuries before European
settlers arrived. Today the place is adorned with a host of lush
organic gardens, mountain streams, a cliff-side swimming pool, hot
springs embedded in a multimillion-dollar stone, cement, and steel spa,
and meditation huts tucked away in the trees. Esalen was founded in
1962 by Stanford graduates Michael Murphy and Richard Price and has
featured such notable visitors as Richard Feynman, Abraham Maslow,
Timothy Leary, Paul Tillich, Carlos Castaneda, and B. F. Skinner.
Regardless of your source of spirituality (science, religion, or self),
Esalen embodies the integration of body, mind, and spirit.


Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the
Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific
American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series
at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the co-host
and producer of the 13-hour Fox Family television series, Exploring the

He is the author of Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the
Unknown, about how the mind works and how thinking goes wrong. His book
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share Care, and
Follow the Golden Rule, is on the evolutionary origins of morality and
how to be good without God. He wrote a biography, In Darwin,s Shadow,
about the life and science of the co-discoverer of natural selection,
Alfred Russel Wallace. He also wrote The Borderlands of Science, about
the fuzzy land between science and pseudoscience, and Denying History,
on Holocaust denial and other forms of pseudohistory. His book How We
Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, presents his
theory on the origins of religion and why people believe in God. He is
also the author of Why People Believe Weird Things on pseudoscience,
superstitions, and other confusions of our time.

According to the late Stephen Jay Gould (from his Foreword to Why
People Believe Weird Things):

     Michael Shermer, as head of one of America,s leading skeptic
     organizations, and as a powerful activist and essayist in the
     service of this operational form of reason, is an important figure
     in American public life.

Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University,
M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University,
Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont
Graduate University. Since his creation of the Skeptics Society,
Skeptic magazine, and the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series
at Caltech, he has appeared on such shows as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie
Rose, Larry King Live, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, Lezza, Unsolved
Mysteries, and other shows as a skeptic of weird and extraordinary
claims, as well as interviews in countless documentaries aired on PBS,
A&E, Discovery, The History Channel, The Science Channel, and The
Learning Channel.


$595, which includes the workshop, housing, and meals at one of the
most beautiful locations in the world. Register for the seminar through
the Esalen Institute, (not through the Skeptics Society).
     (831) 667-3038 (programs)
     (831) 667-3005 (reservations)
     <programs at esalen.org>


     The Life & Science of Fred Hoyle

         a book review by James N. Gardner

The vast scale of the cosmos confounds our imagination.

What human mind -- calibrated by natural selection to appreciate
intuitively the dimensions of African savannahs, primeval arboreal
hideaways, and Ice Age mammoth hunting grounds -- can truly grasp its
fathomless enormity? Billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of
billions of stars, those stars probably orbited by trillions of
planets, and the entire fabric of spacetime expanding outward like the
surface of an inflating balloon -- this is the surpassingly strange
picture of our universe that constitutes the consensus paradigm of
modern cosmology.

That vision is centered on the premise of a Big Bang -- a primordial
explosion that launched the whole shebang hurtling outward at breakneck
speed -- which seems, from a commonsense perspective, perfectly
outrageous. What came before the Big Bang, we wonder? What caused this
peculiar genesis event? Could the cosmos really have been born ex
nihilo, for no apparent reason and from the loins of nothing at all?

These were the puzzles that led a giant of British astronomy -- Fred
Hoyle -- to suggest a dramatic alternative: the steady-state theory,
which hypothesized that the universe is eternal and ever-expanding and
that the cosmic storehouse of matter is constantly replenished through
a process of continuous creation. As Simon Mitton demonstrates in this
superb new biography of Hoyle, the great scientist's genius lay in his
ability to resist the temptation to surrender to mainstream orthodoxy.
While Hoyle's cosmological theory may have turned out to have been
spectacularly wrong (more on this below), what cannot be denied is that
his stubborn unwillingness to bow to conventional wisdom was a valuable
intellectual asset that benefited the entire scientific community. As
Mitton puts it:

     Hoyle's personal contribution to the rebirth of British astronomy
     came from his outstanding ability to think outside the box... An
     enduring feature of Hoyle's character was that in every sense he
     never let setbacks, rejections, or political maneuvers deflect him
     from his research agenda. He always had a deep conviction that in
     his "search for the truth," which is how he expressed his life's
     mission, any opponent should be able to provide a counterargument
     from experiment or direct observation. He declined all opposition
     based on semantic arguments invoking the philosophy of science, or
     the deployment of a paradigm, or appeals to common sense.

Iconoclasm and catholicity of scientific interest were the two key
markers of Hoyle's long and conflict-laden life. As astrophysicist Owen
Gingerich observes in a thoughtful foreword to Conflict in the Cosmos,
these characteristics -- deeply rooted in Hoyle's hard-scrabble
background -- were both his greatest strength and the source of his
ultimate undoing:

     Fred Hoyle was the quintessential outsider, entering Emmanuel
     College Cambridge from an impoverished family background and with a
     distinct Yorkshire accent, and leaving Cambridge in a misguided
     huff 39 years later. But in between he ascended into the highest
     ranks of British science, almost single-handedly returning Britain
     to the top echelons of international theoretical astrophysics and
     setting it on the path toward excellence in observational
     astronomy. It is a stirring Dickensian story of an inquisitive,
     rough-hewn lad making the grade in the tightly traditional world of
     Cantabrigian academia, yet with the depths of a Greek tragedy where
     the flawed hero finally becomes an outcast.

The 39-year interregnum was the central chapter in the scientist's life
-- a tumultuous period characterized by heroic accomplishment, intense
controversy, and an extraordinary level of celebrity, which Hoyle
achieved both as a popular BBC commentator and as a highly successful
science fiction writer. As Mitton points out:

     After 1950, Fred Hoyle was a very public figure at home and
     abroad... His broadcasts for the BBC in 1950 were just
     extraordinary and brought him immediate fame as a gifted expositor.
     With his gritty Yorkshire manner, his ability to be picturesque
     using words alone, and the universe as his topic, he transformed
     the BBC's approach to academic lectures, persuading them of the
     benefits of a less donnish style of presentation. His lectures for
     radio audiences set the prelude for a brilliant parallel career as
     a popular science and science fiction writer... In science fiction,
     his first novel, The Black Cloud, remains his best, having now
     acquired cult status: In 2004, an opinion poll conducted by the
     British newspaper The Guardian to find the most accomplished
     science fiction writers placed Hoyle in third position!

Hoyle is remembered most vividly for the idea about which he was
famously mistaken: that the universe exists in a steady state, with the
stockpile of atoms in an eternally expanding cosmos continuously
refilled by the constant creation of new matter. Normally, falsified
scientific hypotheses like the steady-state conjecture are tossed
unceremoniously in the dustbin of intellectual history, serving at best
as amusing footnotes to the main body of orthodox theory (think of
Darwin's misplaced reliance on Lamarckism as a subsidiary engine of
evolution in The Origin of Species). But, once again, Hoyle confounds
tradition. Because he was both passionate and brutally honest about the
implications of his steady-state hypothesis, Hoyle was able to foment a
heated intellectual debate that significantly advanced our
understanding of the universe, despite the fact that his particular
conjecture turned out to be deeply flawed. As Mitton notes, "What is
extraordinary about Fred Hoyle's science is that his impact derives
equally from when he was right and when he was wrong!"

If Hoyle was wrong about the nature of the process of cosmogenesis, he
was spectacularly right about an equally profound mystery: the origin
of the chemical elements. In what is surely his most important
contribution to astrophysics, Hoyle and three collaborators were able
to demonstrate rigorously in their famous B2FH scientific paper that
all of the elements of the periodic table except the lightest are
forged in the hearts of giant supernovae, under a variety of physical
conditions, through a process known as nucleosynthesis. It is this
process of stellar alchemy, Hoyle and his colleagues showed, that
accounts for the richness and complexity of the chemical palette of the
universe, which in turn accounts for the possibility of life.

In the midst of this monumental accomplishment, Hoyle stumbled across a
deep mystery that eventually lured him away from the shoreline of
genuine science out onto the trackless sea of metaphysical speculation:
the apparent fine-tuning of nature evidenced by the details of the
process through which the element carbon is synthesized.

This discovery provoked Hoyle's most controversial conjecture: the
notion that the universe appeared to be deliberately fine-tuned to
favor the emergence of carbon-based life. As Hoyle wrote late in his

     The issue of whether the universe is purposive is an ultimate
     question that is at the back of everybody's mind... And Dr. [Ruth
     Nanda] Ashen has now raised exactly the same question as to whether
     the universe is a product of thought. And I have to say that that
     is also my personal opinion, but I can't back it up by too much of
     precise argument. There are many aspects of the universe where you
     either have to say there have been monstrous coincidences, which
     there might have been, or, alternatively, there is a purposive
     scenario to which the universe conforms.

The debate over this portentous issue rages on to this day, fueled by
the recent discovery of the monstrously large landscape of alternate
versions of low-energy physics mathematically allowed by M-theory, only
a tiny fraction of which would permit the emergence of anything
resembling our own universe and of carbon-based life. Indeed, that
discovery has lead many cutting-edge cosmologists to overlay a
refinement of Big Bang inflation theory called eternal chaotic
inflation with an explanatory approach that has been traditionally
reviled by most scientists known as the weak anthropic principle. (The
weak anthropic principle merely states in tautological fashion that
since human observers inhabit this particular universe, it must
perforce be life-friendly or it would not contain any observers
resembling ourselves.) Eternal chaotic inflation, invented by
Russian-born physicist Andrei Linde, asserts that instead of just one
Big Bang there are, always have been, and always will be, an infinite
multiplicity of Big Bangs going off in inaccessible regions all the
time. These Big Bangs create a vast horde of new universes constantly
and the whole ensemble constitutes a multiverse.

One gets the uneasy feeling that if this current theorizing turns out
to be correct, Fred Hoyle may have been on the right track all along!
Perhaps the multiverse is eternal. Perhaps there is a process of
continuous creation (a.k.a. eternal chaotic inflation) as opposed to a
one-off genesis event (i.e., a single Big Bang).

Maybe the only thing Fred Hoyle truly failed to grasp was the sheer,
unexpected grandeur of steady-state cosmogenesis. Hoyle believed that
the continuous-creation process yielded "no more than one atom in the
course of a year in a volume equal to St. Paul's Cathedral." This is an
image of a natural process comfortably within the confines of our
biologically evolved human imagination.

But if Linde and his colleagues are correct, the process of continuous
creation operates at a scale utterly beyond our capacity to physically
envision it -- not mere atoms but entire new baby universes are
continuously created in an eternal process with striking parallels to
Hoyle's discarded steady-state cosmological theory.


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