Astronomers are dreamers. They can’t take their eyes off the starry sky. They like to imagine what the other Worlds are like. They write stories about Space. Some of them even look for aliens.
Take Fred Hoyle, for example. The famous British astrophysicist and cosmologist, who explained to us how the elements form inside the stars, was also a great science fiction author. Hoyle wrote 19 science fiction books, some of them in collaboration with his son Geoffrey Hoyle.
This post is about Fred Hoyle and his first 1957 science fiction novel “The Black Cloud” (pdf).
“The Black Cloud” : Plot
The novel begins with a young astronomer discovering “a large, almost exactly circular, dark patch” on a photograph of the sky where just one month ago the stars used to be. The astronomer reports his findings to his senior colleagues who conclude that the phenomenon is a dense nebular, or “the black cloud” as they call it, moving towards the Solar System. At first the Cloud appears to be just another celestial object passing through. But quite soon astronomers realize that if it continues on its course, the Cloud will completely block the light from the Sun. The Earth will plunge into cold and darkness and the consequences would be catastrophic.
The scientists report the discovery to the British and American government and the world begins to prepare for the upcoming “ice age”. Meanwhile, a new research facility is established in Nortonstowe, England, with the sole purpose of studying the Cloud and predicting its behaviour.
When the Cloud reaches the Sun, natural disasters hit the Earth. People endure great hardships, many die. Meanwhile, astronomers at Nortonstowe begin to notice that something doesn’t add up: the cloud stops. Moreover, it organizes itself into a flat disc reclined towards the ecliptic. In other words, the Cloud behaves as if it was an intelligent being.
To test this theory, astronomers make radio contact with the Cloud. The Cloud replies and so the intercivilizational dialog begins.
Eventually the Cloud has to leave. It announced that communication with another cloud has been lost and it is going there to investigate. In the last days before departure, the Cloud attempts to pass on the knowledge about the Universe to several astronomers, both of whom die from brain damage in the process.
The idea of intelligent aliens and the first contact with the ETs is nothing new. But Hoyle theorized the whole new possibility of an alien civilization existing not as a group of individuals, but as a collective consciousness.
This is not as insane as might seem at a first glance. Some astronomers and SETI enthusiasts point out that bodies, such as human bodies, are “very expensive from the energy point of view”. An advanced civilization might eventually be able to go “body-less”. This way they can travel between the stellar systems or just be able to conserve energy (for example if they live by an aging star).
Might there be intelligent “clouds” out there? What do you think?
About the Author
Fred Hoyle was born in 1915 in the village of Gilstead, Yorkshire, to a working class family. His father was in wool business and his mother was a school teacher.
Hoyle attended Bingley Grammar School, then went on to study Maths, Physics and Astronomy at Cambridge. Later he became a Professor of Astrophysics and Natural Philosophy at Cambridge. Fred Hoyle held the post until his resignation in 1972.
In 1967 Hoyle founded the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, Cambridge, (now part of the Institute of Astronomy) and served as its first director. In 1972 he was knighted by the Queen, becoming Sir Fred Hoyle.
Fred Hoyle is most famous for:
- Stellar Nucleosynthesis
Hoyle made a massive contribution to our understanding of the origin of the elements in the Universe. In 1957 he published a paper titled Synthesis of the Elements in Stars (in collaboration with 3 other astronomers, though he was the principal author) that explains how chemical elements are made inside stars
- Steady State Theory and the term “Big Bang”
Hoyle was a severe critic of the “Big Bang” idea. Ironically, he was also the one to come up with the term “Big Bang”. He did not like the idea of the beginning. Fred Hoyle argued that space and time should have always existed as they are.
What’s with a Nobel Prize?
Many scientists agree that Hoyle should have received a Nobel Prize. Not in literature, of course, for the “Black Cloud” or other novels (though many of them are really good), but in physics, for the groundbreaking research concerning stellar nucleosynthesis. That, sadly, never happened. Instead, Hoyle’s co-author Willy Fowler received the Prize in 1983 for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe. Hoyle was never mentioned.
Why? We will never know what robbed Hoyle of his well deserved award. Astronomers and biographers offer two possible explanations. The first one is that in 1974 Hoyle publicly criticized the Nobel Committee for awarding the ‘74 Nobel Prize to Anthony Hewish “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” and voiced an opinion shared by many: Joselyn Bell should have been included too. You will find more details on the controversial ’74 and other Nobel prizes in our post Nobel Prize in Astronomy. Part 1 and Nobel Prize in Astronomy. Part 2.
Another explanation has to do with his character and his harsh criticism of some of the established and widely accepted theories. Here is an interesting article on the topic Fred Hoyle: the scientist whose rudeness cost him a Nobel prize.
“The Black Cloud” is an interesting work of science fiction that doesn’t feel outdated despite being written half-a-century ago. The book also gives a good idea of what it’s like to be an astronomer and what an astronomer’s job involves. Though you might occasionally find some rather dry and lengthy science reasoning on its pages, please don’t let it put you off reading.
We hope you will give “The Black Cloud” a try and enjoy it as much as we did.