Fred Hoyle Nucleosynthesis

Remembering The Man Who Discovered The Origins of Chemical Elements In The Universe.

When I first heard that I should write an article on Fred Hoyle, I had to check out the blog because I couldn’t believe I’ve never done this before! He’s been crucial to developing our understanding of how stars work and for things such as coining the phrase “Big Bang,” writing science fiction books (and non-fiction books) and being a doctoral advisor to many successful scientists. 

Born on 24th June 1915 (hey, it’s his birthday!), Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) was an English astronomer, the first line of scientists of the 20th century. And that is not an easy thing to achieve. 

Remembering The Man Who Discovered The Origins of Chemical Elements In The Universe. 2

The B2FH paper

After studying mathematics at Emmanuel College of the University of Cambridge, he won the 1936 Mayhew Prize, offered to the best student in Applied Mathematics, jointly with George Rushbrooke. That was only the beginning of an amazing career with bright ideas. 

The story leading to his groundbreaking paper starts at Portsmouth, England, where he was employed during wartime to research radars. There, he had two colleagues with whom he shared his interest in astronomy and cosmology, namely Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, both of them being exceptional scientists. The thing is, the research facility where they worked paid them trips to the United States to meet with other fellow scientists. During one of those meetings, Hoyle attended a talk on nuclear physics, namely the processes of plutonium implosion and explosion. Around the same time, he attended another talk, this time on supernovae, those big explosions in the final stages of a star’s life

This was definitely a happy course of things, as something clicked in Hoyle’s relentless mind. He started ‘seeing’ a similarity between those two completely different (at the time) things, the processes in which stars do a ‘kaboom’ and nuclear fusion. One funny anecdote tells that Hoyle said the words, “I will make a name for myself if this works out.” And so, he started working on proving that stars can actually create chemical elements by nuclear fusion. The process is now called stellar nucleosynthesis. Although Fred Hoyle did not know at the time, the original creation of elements such as hydrogen, helium, or lithium was done through nucleosynthesis. 

Fred Hoyle initially published his theory in 1946 in a paper named “The Synthesis of the Elements from Hydrogen” in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The first words beautifully describe what happens during a star’s last moments, and then it reads 

The temperature generated at the center of a collapsing star is considered and it is shown that values sufficiently high for statistical equilibrium to exist between the elements must occur. The relative abundances of the elements can then be worked out from the equations of statistical mechanics. These equations are considered in detail and it is shown that a roughly uniform abundance of the elements over the whole of the periodic table can be obtained. The process of rotational instability enables the heavy elements built up in collapsing stars to be distributed in interstellar space.


That single phrase, “enables the heavy elements built up in collapsing stars to be distributed in interstellar space,” basically summarized work that explains how stars are created in the Universe. How everything, actually, is created in the universe. Those heavy elements are the foundations of stars. 

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However, this 1946 is not the B2FH paper mentioned in the title. Hoyle’s work was expanded, and supported by his friends, he proposed a better paper with more explanations and more details. It was published under Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Fred Hoyle, and I guess now you can guess where B2FH comes from. The paper was published in 1957 and written during 1955-1956. 

Unlike the 1946 paper, the B2FH caught the scientific community’s attention and basically propelled the field of nuclear astrophysics. In 1983, William Fowler was awarded a Nobel prize for the paper, which has been subject of debate, since all of the contributors to the B2FH paper, especially Hoyle, deserved the prize. It has been said that the award was given to Fowler because for some reason or other, he was considered the leader of the group. Regarding the problem, Fowler himself said the following: 

The concept of nucleosynthesis in stars was first established by Hoyle in 1946. This provided a way to explain the existence of elements heavier than helium in the universe, basically by showing that critical elements such as carbon could be generated in stars and then incorporated in other stars and planets when that star “dies”. The new stars formed now start off with these heavier elements and even heavier elements are formed from them. Hoyle theorized that other rarer elements could be explained by supernovas, the giant explosions which occasionally occur throughout the universe, whose temperatures and pressures would be required to create such elements

Periodic Table | Fred Hoyle

Big Bangs and others 

The irony is, he is famously known for coining the term Big Bang in a BBC show, although until he died in 2001, he still didn’t believe the theory. That was also why Stephen Hawking was happy (after some thought) to have Dennis Sciama assigned to him as a doctoral advisor since working under Hoyle’s lead would have thwarted his efforts, which ultimately led to giving a good mathematical explanation of singularities and their existence. That would have been impossible without believing that there actually was a Big Bang. Hawking’s ultimate discoveries buried Hoyle’s ideas regarding a forever-existing Universe for good. 


Happy birthday to the amazingly bright Fred Hoyle! In a career filled with success, but also with not-so-good ideas (hey, Big Bang really happened, and now we know that for sure), Hoyle sure had something I’ve mentioned before today: a relentless mind. He was a free soul, and freely he explored the wonders of the Universe, explaining what others couldn’t even wish to explain, how stars are actually created (because they had no clue until then… well, maybe a slight clue, to be fair). Besides reading his work (it’s not easy, I have to say that), I do recommend something anyone can do in his honor these days: read one of his science fiction books! Have some fun and pick up maybe his most famous one, The Black Cloud. All the best! 

Learn Astrophysics at Home

Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Then, read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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