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Fred Hoyle

June 24, 2015

Antares, the bright orange heart of the scorpion, stands low in the south at nightfall. It’s one of the biggest and heaviest stars in the galaxy. As such, it’s busily creating new elements in its core and in layers around the core. And before long, it’ll explode as a supernova, which will create even more elements.

Understanding that process of creation was one of the major accomplishments of British scientist Fred Hoyle, who was born 100 years ago today.

By the 1940s, astrophysicists had already discovered that stars like the Sun shine by “fusing” hydrogen atoms to make helium, which releases a lot of energy. But they were unclear about how all the other elements were created. It didn’t seem possible to make them in stars.

Hoyle published several papers explaining that it was possible. He found a process by which three helium atoms could combine to make carbon. And he calculated that massive stars could create most of the other elements — either in their cores, or during their violent deaths.

The most influential of those papers was published in 1957, in collaboration with three colleagues. It outlined the entire process of nucleosynthesis — how stars create heavier and heavier elements. It’s one of the most important papers of 20th-century astronomy.

One of the team members later won a Nobel Prize for the work — but not Hoyle. Some feel he was left out because he was a bit of a contrarian. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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