Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition

Institute of Theoretical Astronomy

Opening Speech

The Institute of Theoretical Astronomy was officially opened on 7 November 1967. This is the speech that Hoyle made on that occasion.

I would like to introduce the question of the aims and purpose of this Institute with a wider reference to Astronomy as a whole. The physical sciences began with Astronomy and much of our present day civilisation now rests on the achievements of these sciences. But we study astronomy today, not so much because of its historical significance, but because the discoveries of modern science have particularly rich applications in astronomy. This is the case for instance with the modern science of nuclear physics – particularly high energy physics – and processes which seem to be widespread throughout the universe – cosmic rays, radio waves and quasars. This then is why we study astronomy; because it has close connections with the sciences on which our civilisation is in a considerable measure based. To put it in simple terms – the kind of things we discover here on the Earth also happen ‘up there’, mostly on a scale that dwarfs our own activities.

The recognition that astronomy has a part to play in physics, and is indeed an important branch of physics, has led to plans being formulation [sic] for major new astronomical developments here in Britain. The Isaac Newton telescope of 98” aperture is now completed, while plans for an aperture of 150" are going ahead. Further substantial steps in radioastronomy are also to be expected. Alongside all this, it is also necessary to provide theoretical facilities, since the understanding of nature is a compound of theory and observation. From the interplay of experiment and theory understanding comes.

We here at this new Institute hope to play our part in the astronomical developments of the coming decade. We have been generously provided for. In an adjoining building you will find a computer. Astronomers everywhere throughout the world are known to be inveterate users of computers, but this is the first time – anywhere in the world – that a computer has been provided explicitly for astronomical studies. We are much indebted to the Science Research Council for its purchase.

Astronomy is very much an interactional science, partly because no one country can cover the whole sky, and partly because we often have to depend on special climatic conditions which are not available everywhere. This international character of astronomy was very much in our minds when this Institute was conceived. It has always been intended that there should be a flow of people between us here and other institutions in other countries. By a flow I mean a two-way flow; not just the east to west flow that we have come to call the 'brain drain'. This has necessitated a new concept in the financial structure of the Institute, since it is not possible to promote a west to east flow on thin air. We owe much to the Nuffield Foundation for recognising the importance of maintaining an equal – or even advantageous – balance in this two-way flow, and for providing the financial aid to express the whole point of view in practical terms. We believe the evidence from even our first few months of operations shows that our hopes in this respect are not likely to be misfounded.

We also owe it to the generosity of the Nuffield Foundation that we are able to contemplate holding together a strong nucleus of young astronomers. From this nucleus we confidently expect that theoretical astronomy – which has not done at all badly in Britain in the past – will maintain a prominent place in world astronomy.

I have spoken so far of our people and our computer. I come now to the pleasant subject of this building, which has been provided for us by the Wolfson Foundation. We are here on this opening day to express our gratitude to the Wolfson Foundation for its generosity to us.

Three things were required of this building. First, that it should give appropriate shelter to those who work here. Second, that it should serve as an international centre – a focal point – of theoretical astronomy. And third, there was the very practical point that we needed a building quickly. In this project we had no wish to let grass grow under our feet – figuratively of course – we expect plenty of literal grass outside. As a matter of fact, starting from rough sketches only, the buildings were completed in less than a year. For this we owe our thanks to the determination of the contractors, Messrs. Rattee and Kett.

I have mentioned three of the four requirements that were needed for this enterprise – this Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. A building was needed, people were needed, a computer was needed. These are three of the four cylinders that were required to make the engine work. The fourth was the University itself, for experience has shown that research institutions work best when they are closely associated with universities – possibly because a university is the only kind of place in which it pays the young to be iconoclastic.

We all recall Churchill’s remark: "Give us the tools and we will finish the job". We are not asking now for tools. We have been given them. Nor really will there be an end to the job. I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said "of the making of books there is no end". And of finding out about the world we live in there is no end either. But we have a job to do nonetheless. To make effective use of what we have been given. We here at the Institute can only hope that we will prove worthy of the trust that has been placed in us.

Opening Speech

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