Early life and career
Hoyle was born near Bingley in Gilstead, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. His father, Ben Hoyle, who was a violinist and worked in the wool trade in Bradford, served as a machine gunner in the First World War. His mother, Mabel Pickard, had studied music at the Royal College of Music in London and later worked as a cinema pianist. Hoyle was educated at Bingley Grammar School and read mathematics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
In 1936 he won the Mayhew Prize (jointly with George Stanley Rushbrooke).
In late 1940, Hoyle left Cambridge to go to Portsmouth to work for the Admiralty on radar research, for example devising a method to get the altitude of the incoming aeroplanes. He was also put in charge of countermeasures against the radar guided guns found on the Graf Spee. Britain's radar project employed more personnel than the Manhattan project, and was probably the inspiration for the large British project in The Black Cloud. Two key colleagues in this war work were Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, and the three had many and deep discussions on cosmology. The radar work paid for a couple of trips to North America, where he took the opportunity to visit astronomers. On one trip to the US he learned about supernovae at Caltech and Mount Palomar and, in Canada, the nuclear physics of plutonium implosion and explosion, noticed some similarity between the two and started thinking about supernova nucleosynthesis. He had an intuition at the time "I will make a name for myself if this works out." Eventually (1954) his prescient and ground breaking paper came out. He also formed a group at Cambridge exploring Stellar nucleosynthesis in ordinary stars and was bothered by the paucity of stellar carbon production in existing models. He noticed that one of the existing processes would be made a billion times more productive if the carbon-12 nucleus had a resonance at 7.7 MeV, but the nuclear physicists did not list such a one. On another trip he visited the nuclear physics group at Caltech, spending a few months of sabbatical there and persuaded them against their considerable scepticism to look for and find the Hoyle state in carbon-12, from which developed a full theory of stellar nucleosynthesis, co-authored by Hoyle with some members of the Caltech group.
A blue plaque
at Bingley Grammar School commemorating him
After the war, in 1945, Hoyle returned to Cambridge University, starting as a lecturer at St John's College, Cambridge. Hoyle's Cambridge years, 1945–1973, saw him rise to the top of world astrophysics theory, on the basis of a startling originality of ideas covering a very wide range of topics. In 1958, Hoyle was appointed to the illustrious Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University. In 1967, he became the founding director of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy (subsequently renamed the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, where Hoyle's innovative leadership quickly led to this institution becoming one of the premier groups in the world for theoretical astrophysics. In 1971 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject "Astronomical Instruments and their Construction". Hoyle was knighted in 1972. Hoyle resigned his Plumian professor position in 1972 and his directorship of the institute in 1973, with this move effectively cutting him off from most of his establishment power-base, connections and steady salary.
After his leaving Cambridge, Hoyle wrote many popular science and science fiction books, as well as presenting lectures around the world. Part of the motivation for this was simply to provide a means of support. Hoyle was still a member of the joint policy committee (since 1967), during the planning stage for the 150-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. He became chairman of the Anglo-Australian Telescope board in 1973, and presided at its inauguration in 1974 by Charles, Prince of Wales. After his resignation from Cambridge, Hoyle moved to the Lake District and occupied his time with a mix of treks across the moors, writing books, visiting research centres around the world, and working on science ideas that have been nearly-universally rejected. On 24 November 1997, while hiking across moorlands in west Yorkshire, near his childhood home in Gilstead, Hoyle fell down into a steep ravine called Shipley Glen. Roughly twelve hours later, Hoyle was found by a search dog. He was hospitalised for two months with pneumonia, kidney problems as a result of hypothermia, and a smashed shoulder, while he ever afterwards suffered from memory and mental agility problems. In 2001, he suffered a series of strokes and died in Bournemouth on 20 August.