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Richard Dawkins: Podcast Week Four

Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.

This is the fourth in our series of podcasts. Dawkins has talked about a wide range of scientists before, and now he introduces us to Fred Hoyle, one of the astronomers who originally proposed the steady state theory of the universe. The steady state theory may have been disproved, but Hoyle’s contributions to science–and science fiction–still remain.

[audio:fredhoyle.mp3] Transcript after the jump.
DORIAN DEVINS: Outside of the realm of biology, you have a lot of physicists and mathematicians as well, and it struck me that you have Fred Hoyle in here—a lot of people may not be familiar with Fred Hoyle.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, Fred Hoyle was an English astronomer, astrophysicist. He was one of the three physicists who proposed the steady state theory of the universe, which is now out of fashion. Indeed, it’s almost certainly wrong, disproved by the evidence. But it was a very, very interesting theory. According to the steady state theory, there never was a beginning to the universe. The universe has always been in existence; and the expanding universe, the galaxies pulling apart, that is true, but the gaps between the galaxies get filled with spontaneously created new matter, so there are new galaxies being created in the gaps that are left as the other, older galaxies pull apart. Now, that theory is wrong, but it was never obviously silly. You might think “Well how on Earth can matter just spontaneously be created?” And Hoyle’s point was well that’s no more odd than the idea that it should be spontaneously created in the first place, at the time of the Big Bang. So it was an interesting theory; its now been disproved. He had another great claim to fame, which was that he worked out how the elements, the chemical elements, are formed in the interior of stars. We now know that in this case, Hoyle was absolutely right, that all the elements apart for hydrogen and helium I think, are made in the interior of stars. And we’re all made of star stuff, that was the poetic phrase that Carl Sagan used to quote. I think maybe he got it from Joni Mitchell or the other way around. But anyway, that all comes from Fred Hoyle. He was also a science fiction writer. His first science fiction book, The Black Cloud, is a wonderful story. I mean it’s just a feast, it’s just a riveting science fiction story marred by the fact that its hero is such a deeply unpleasant character. And all the heroes of Fred Hoyle’s science fiction books are the same deeply unpleasant character, you can’t help wondering where that unpleasant character came from.

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