A tale of two Hoyles and two phrases

Edmond and Fred Hoyle would appear to have little in common apart from a shared surname. There are some interesting links, however, not the least their connections to well-known phrases.

Edmond trained as a lawyer but is best known for his hugely successful book A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, published in 1742, in which he codified what is sometimes called the English national card game.

Encyclopedia.com suggests the book was the first “to offer a scientific approach to whist, or any other card game, for that matter”. “Along with providing a systematised book of rules for the game, Hoyle introduced laws of probability in determining the correct play.”

Hoyle went on to write several similar books on gaming, including on chess and backgammon, and on probability theory.

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Edmond Hoyle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Such was his success that his surname came to signify any action taken while following established rules – as in the popular phrase “according to Hoyle”.

At first glance, such a term seems unlikely to apply to Fred Hoyle, who The Guardian called “one of the most distinguished and controversial scientists of the 20th century”.

However, in his 2011 biography Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, author Simon Mitton – himself an acclaimed astronomer and educator – says: “After 1950, Fred Hoyle was a very public figure at home and abroad. In the 1960s, ‘according to Hoyle’, originally applied to the rules for card games, became a catchphrase in discussion of the latest news from the cosmos.”

The irony is that Hoyle is most commonly known for coining another phrase – the “big bang theory” – to describe the popular hypothesis for the origin of the Universe that he never accepted.

In the August 2015 edition of Astronomy Now magazine, in an article headlined “Fred Hoyle’s Greatest Hits”, Mitton describes how, in 1948, Hoyle was working with Austrian-born British mathematicians Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold when they published their important paper, “The Steady-State Theory of the Expanding Universe”, in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Soon afterwards, Hoyle published his own paper in the same journal, titled “A New Model For the Expanding Universe”.

Mitton says most astronomers (with the notable exception of Edwin Hubble) believed “the sudden expansion of the Universe came from a primordial explosion”, and that Georges Lemaître, “today regarded as an important innovator in evolutionary cosmology, nicknamed the model the ‘Fireworks Universe’.”

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A statue of Sir Fred Hoyle at the Institute of Astronomy. Credit: vla22 / Wikimedia Commons

In Hoyle’s steady-state theory, Mitton says, “now considered obsolete, new matter appears spontaneously to fill the voids otherwise caused by the expansion of the Universe. This matter creation ensures that on the grand scale the observable Universe has the same appearance for any time or place.”

In a 2015 edition of The Irish Times, physicist Cormac O’Raifeartaigh calls Hoyle “a brilliant and controversial figure who made a number of original contributions to 20th-century physics”, and who, however, “will always be remembered in the public mind as the scientist who was wrong about the Big Bang”.

He says Hoyle’s “steady-state universe was attractive to many scientists because it did not require any speculation about cosmic origins or the behaviour of the universe in the distant past”.

Meanwhile, O’Raifeartaigh says, “astronomical evidence for a Big Bang universe continued to accumulate”.

However, calling Hoyle wrong, he says, “is a little unfair” because evidence against his theory was not available when it was first proposed. “Indeed, Hoyle’s steady-state model was a reasonable hypothesis at the time.”

Furthermore, he says, Hoyle’s “resistance to the Big Bang model played an important part in provoking astronomers to test the theory”.

And a final note about cards. In an article in Scientific American magazine, author John Horgan reveals that while interviewing him in 1992 for a book, The End of Science, Hoyle referred to “a bad theory” as a “bust flush”, which is a term for a poker hand gone wrong.

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