Maverick individuals who make a huge difference through their spot-on hunches are becoming an increasingly rare breed in this age of big research, with fundamental physics generally investigated in sprawling institutions such as CERN and LIGO.
As a result, those who have done so in the past have taken on a mythic nature.
Because of the complexity of many fields of research, which frequently necessitate enormous cooperation, their excellent estimates influenced history in a way that would be much more difficult today.
Fred Hoyle, a controversial British astrophysicist who was recognized as much for his persistent commitment to fringe beliefs as for his considerable contributions to science, died 20 years ago on August 20, 2001.
Both the good and the terrible in his profession emanated from the same source: a proclivity for broad forecasts based on haphazard calculations and an instinctive sense of what must be the correct explanation based on nature’s rules.
George Gamow, a Russian-Ukrainian-American scientist, was Hoyle’s main argument partner, at least according to the media.
Gamow died in 1968, more than three decades before Hoyle, but their public fight of ideas lasted long enough, roughly from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s.
Their quarrel was about the origins of the universe and the substance that made it up.
While they both agreed that space is expanding, Hoyle insisted that it was indefinitely ancient, with new stuff gently trickling into the space left by expansion, generating new stars and galaxies and filling in the gaps over aeons.
As a result, in the “steady-state universe,” which Einstein and co-creators Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold coined, the cosmos largely looks the same over time.
Gamow, on the other hand, believed that all matter was produced billions of years ago in a hot, dense condition when the universe was much smaller.
He assumed that all of the chemical elements were formed within the early scorching minutes.
He attempted to demonstrate how such a buildup may be possible in a primordial cosmic cauldron with his pals Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman.
Hoyle mocked such models (including a previous notion by a Belgian mathematician and clergyman Georges Lemaître) for dismissing the idea of a catastrophic breach of conservation of matter and energy at the outset of time.
He coined the term “big bang” for such a sudden birth on a BBC radio show in March 1949, and it stuck.
Gamow, like Hoyle, made scientific forecasts based on his personal feelings.
He was impatient with undertakings that necessitated page after page of computations and years of effort.
While their cosmological viewpoints were widely different, they had a lot in common when it came to conducting research.
For example, when visiting the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1928, Gamow learned about a conundrum faced by physicists in understanding the process of alpha decay, which occurs when a heavy nucleus such as uranium emits an alpha particle (a cluster of two protons and two neutrons).
The alpha particle overcomes an energetic barrier that would typically prevent passage, but how does it do so?
The puzzle reminded him of a quantum physics situation in which electrons had a finite chance of tunneling across a classically prohibited zone.
Gamow solved the alpha decay problem overnight using quantum laws and shared his findings with Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner the following day.
Gamow later discovered that Princeton physicists Ronald Gurney and Edward Condon had independently developed a solution that was comparable to his.
After that accomplishment, nuclear physics advanced tremendously.
Gamow’s formula also predicted collisions between individual nucleons (protons and neutrons), which is crucial for understanding how a fusion cycle converts hydrogen to helium in the cores of active stars, generating heat and light in the process.
However, there is a bottleneck in the formation of chemical elements, which Hoyle’s discoveries helped to uncover.
The isotope carbon-12, as well as the elements above it, are not easily created in nature.
Big bang nucleosynthesis, the theory proposed by Gamow, Alpher, and Herman to explain how the atoms were created, fails to maintain a high enough temperature for long enough to overcome the instability of beryllium-8, one of the rungs on the ladder to carbon-12.
Beryllium-8 decays incredibly quickly, leaving it with a miniscule probability of combining with helium-4 to form carbon-12 (the simplest method to generate that isotope statistically) unless conditions were considerably more favorable than the big bang could provide.
Hoyle didn’t believe that the chemical elements (apart from helium) were formed in the early universe because he didn’t believe in the big bang.
Instead, in 1946, he ingeniously devised a new way.
Stars’ cores compress and become hotter and hotter as their principal source of fuel—converting hydrogen into helium via fusion processes—runs out.
Such extreme temperatures provide the ideal conditions for element production.
Furthermore, if a star is large enough, its dramatic contraction after its life is accompanied by a supernova explosion that spews the forged elements into space.
Hoyle’s model, in short, cleverly explained both the composition and distribution of the elements we see on Earth.
Another of Hoyle’s brilliant ideas was how to get around the beryllium-8 bottleneck.
He theorized that carbon-12 had a quantum energy level that was similar to that of beryllium-8 paired with helium-4, suggesting that transformations at extremely high temperatures were possible in contracting cores.
Hoyle’s assumption was magnificently validated when a team of experimentalists at Caltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory demonstrated that such a carbon-12 excited state existed in nature.
The disadvantage of Hoyle and Gamow’s intuitive method is that a mere guess could be completely wrong.
In Hoyle’s instance, intellectual fencing fights were fun for him, and he didn’t mind if people strongly disagreed with his theories as long as they remained open to dispute.
As a result, he adhered to versions of the steady-state model long after substantial evidence pointed to a hot big bang, beginning with the discovery of a faint afterglow of radiation that pervades the cosmos in the mid-1960s.
Furthermore, in his later years, he authored several books and essays promoting fringe ideas in domains other than his own.
He claimed, for example, that many illnesses on Earth are caused by extraterrestrials and that a well-known, well-established fossil in a London museum is a fake—without providing credible evidence for either claim.
Gamow, on the other hand, did not take such a risk.
During their time together at George Washington University in the late 1930s, he inundated his colleagues, such as Edward Teller, with a series of speculative ideas, most of which never materialized.
In other words, the same intuitive method that led Hoyle and Gamow to propose concepts that expanded scientific understanding also led them to countless hunches that never materialized.
Hoyle, more than Gamow, was infamous for holding on to ideas for much too long.
Gamow would just shift his attention to other topics and schemes.
The importance of such iconoclasts is substantially lessened today, with many scientific organizations being larger and far more conservative.
Still, we should applaud the foresight of mavericks in the past, such as Hoyle and Gamow, for the advances that resulted.
the author is Paul Halpern is the author of Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate