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Lisa Yount - Modern Astronomy

Lisa Yount - Modern Astronomy

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Published by: harcaian_cristina on Mar 30, 2011
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George Gamow and Fred Hoyle had opposing theories about the
universe, but the two men were personally similar in many ways.
Both were known for their lively sense of humor and fearless adop-
tion of controversial ideas, for instance.
Hoyle was born in Bingley, Yorkshire, on June 24, 1915. He studied
mathematics, nuclear physics (another interest he shared with Gamow),
and eventually astronomy at Cambridge University, earning an M.A. in
physics in 1939. He joined the Cambridge faculty in 1945 and remained
there until retiring in 1972. He was knighted in that year and received
the Crafoord Prize, considered equivalent to the Nobel Prize, in 1997.
Hoyle died in Bournemouth, England, on August 20, 2001.
Hoyle did not change his mind easily. Even after new discoveries
made most cosmologists abandon the steady-state theory in 1964,
Hoyle continued to attack what he saw as the competing theory’s
weak points. Other scientists have since modified the big bang
theory, in part by adapting some of Hoyle’s ideas.
This was not the only time that Fred Hoyle and George Gamow
discovered different parts of the same puzzle. Gamow, Ralph Asher
Alpher, and Robert Herman worked out reactions by which the light-
est chemical elements could have been created in the explosion that
began the universe, but they could not explain the creation of heavier
elements. Hoyle, with William Fowler and husband-and-wife astrono-
mers Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, showed in a famous paper
published in 1957, “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” that these ele-
ments were created in the explosive death of stars called supernovas.
Also like Gamow, Fred Hoyle was a well-known popularizer of
science. Hoyle’s books for nonscientists included The Nature of
the Universe (1950), which described the steady-state theory, and
Frontiers of Astronomy (1955). He also wrote best-selling science fic-
tion novels such as The Black Cloud (1957).

COSMIC FIREWORKS 59

60 Modern Astronomy

called photons. The radiation, like the matter, cooled slowly as it
traveled outward. The photons spread within the expanding cloud
of subatomic particles, yet the radiation could not escape the fog of
hydrogen nuclei until the cloud cooled enough for electrons to begin
attaching themselves to protons, forming the first hydrogen atoms.
The radiation then broke free of the cloud and sailed out into space in
all directions, making the universe transparent for the first time.
The two cosmologists claimed that at that time, about 300,000
years after the original explosion, the radiation would have cooled
to a temperature of about five kelvins (K), or five degrees above
absolute zero (450 degrees below zero degrees Fahrenheit). The
redshift caused by outward movement, meanwhile, would have
pushed the radiation from the wavelengths associated with light to
the longer wavelengths called microwaves, part of the radio area of
the electromagnetic spectrum. Alpher and Herman said that detect-
ing this radiation and showing that it had the characteristics they
predicted would provide powerful evidence that the big bang theory
was correct.

Most astronomers did not find Alpher and Herman’s proposal
very helpful. Searching for the radiation the two men described
would require radio telescopes, and at the time, such telescopes had
not advanced much beyond Grote Reber’s backyard dish. Radio
astronomy advanced greatly during the 1950s, but by then, Alpher
and Herman’s idea had been forgotten.

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