Fred Hoyle An observer of the world and a ponderer on its problems ...
Years of Joy
Walking the hills in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District in the summer of 1934, Hoyle pondered the challenge of continuing with the Mathematical Tripos, which included theoretical physics. Reflecting on the careers of outstanding Cambridge physicists – Newton, Maxwell, Kelvin, Thompson, Cockroft, Eddington and Dirac – they had evolved through mathematics. So the decision was made – to continue with the Mathematical Tripos.
Hoyle graduated with ‘honours with distinction’ and shared the Mayhew Prize for best performance on the ‘applied’ mathematics side.
For exceptional results the West Riding of Yorkshire would fund Hoyle for a further two years. For his final year of post-graduate research he received a Goldsmith’s exhibition.
He approached Rudolf Peierls to be his research supervisor and faced a dilemma when Peierls moved to the Professorship of Applied Mathematics in Birmingham in 1937. In December 1937 Hoyle submitted his research paper ‘On the Generalized Fermi Interaction’ winning a Smith’s Prize.
In the early spring of 1939 he began a collaboration with Ray Lyttleton that extended over a decade or more. It had to do with the ability of astronomical bodies to acquire additional material through gravitational attraction. Much denigrated at first by the astronomical community, the idea has been seen in recent years to be an important astronomical process, with large numbers of papers on it.
Interestingly Hoyle never applied for a PHD on Pryce’s advice. Once granted a PHD a person was no longer classed as a student and thus became liable for income tax.
In May 1939 Hoyle was appointed to a research fellowship post at St John’s for 3 years receiving a Senior Exhibition worth £600 for 2 years and £250 pa plus accommodation and dinners from St. John’s. After years of managing on limited funds, he suddenly felt quite affluent. He bought his first car, a new 1936 twelve horsepower Rover costing £125.
In that same month he first met Barbara Clark. She was in Cambridge for an interview and visiting her sister, having accompanied her maths teacher Richard Beetham, a fellow maths student with Hoyle in October 1933. They were married on her 18th birthday, 28th December 1939.
Dear Mr Hoyle
I have given careful thought to your letter.
While I think your accretion theories interesting, I do not feel they are so overwhelmingly important as to justify my intervening. After all, it reduces to a question of relative urgency, and I think the winning of the war should come first.
Yours very truly,
My life had now entered its second act, and to this point the actor, or rather the actress, who was to prove the most important character in the plot, had not appeared on stage. It happened quite without plan and quite without warning, as everything that turns out to be important always does. The point is that, if you try to plan your life, nothing important can happen because it is impossible to conceive of what turns out to be really important. The crucial aspects of our lives, it seems, can only come out of nowhere.
There was one undergraduate friend who had not passed into the shadows, because he was, and is still, an excellent correspondent. Richard Beetham had been one of the mathematics students in Emmanuel whom I had joined when I made the switch from natural sciences in October 1933. Now, in May 1939, he wrote from a northern school, where he had taken a post teaching mathematics, to say that he would be visiting Cambridge at his half-term and to ask if I would meet him at such-and-such a time in the Dorothy Cafe. The Dot was a place the size of a ballroom situated on the upper floor of Hawkins, a confectioner with a big shop on the first floor. It was a popular resort for undergraduates, with the Whim Cafe taking its place for us research students. Hawkins is everlastingly associated in my mind with the composer Johannes Brahms. Shameful to relate, I once had an argument with Ray Bell of the Treasury as to the relative merits of Mozart and Brahms, with Bell, as befitted a Treasury man, taking Mozart's side. Overhearing our argument, another chap supported Bell, saying the tune of the scherzo in the Brahms Fourth Symphony sounded to him as if Brahms could do no better than to say to himself: "Shall we go to Hawkins? No!" The remark did Brahms in for me, a position of which Tchaikovsky would have approved.
Anyway, I made my way to the Dot within a minute or two of the time Beetham had given me-I think it was 11:00 A.M. Surveying the many tables, I picked him out from the throng by the wave of his arm, and, as I approached his table, I saw two girls sitting there. They had been his pupils. Jeanne Clark was taking a teacher's training course at Homerton College, and her younger sister, Barbara, had come to Cambridge for an interview at Girton College. Instantly, I knew that the important actress in the play that constituted my life was suddenly, and wholly unexpectedly, on stage. There was little to be done about it there and then, for the solid reason that a chap whom everybody called Percy, the presiding genius of the Dot, with a big round face and big round spectacles, now began to thunder away on the piano and to boom out the latest jazz hits. But a little before that day I had bought my first car, a twelve-horsepower Rover of the 1936 vintage. It had cost £125, which was a lot to pay when you could pick up a tolerable secondhand car for £20, but my parents had always insisted that, unless you can afford a really good article, don't buy at all.
A while later, I had a license to drive alone, and the Rover somehow found its way north to Richard Beetham's school. Barbara of the long plaits seemed mostly astonished that I apparently thought so little of my well-being as to have holes in the soles of my shoes, just as I had much earlier. Even so, I managed to persuade her to make a trip in the second half of August to the Lake District. Two days after leaving her, on 30 July 1939, I wrote my first letter to my future wife:
10 de Freville Ave.,
I forgot to ask your postal address. Don't be surprised at this, I never do anything right.
After leaving you I decided to pay a short visit to an old friend living in Sheffield who writes me periodically asking me to come and stay with him.
I am sending this to the school, and would you send to my address giving yours, so that when I have the preparations made I can let you know?
Having arranged to go on holiday with a girl, I had contrived not to discover her address, nor to leave her with mine.
Mid-August 1939 came round, and the two of us drove off for the Lake District. We had intended to stop the first night at Buckden in Wharfedale, but the inn there was full. We continued to Hubberholme and Oughtershaw Moss, by exactly the same tiny road that Fred Jackson, Edward Foster, and I had walked some five years earlier. We stayed that night at a quiet old inn beyond Hawes, where four months later we would spend our honeymoon.
Barbara had arranged also to visit friends in Cheshire. We drove there from the Lake District, after which I continued to Bingley. Four days later, at the very end of August, I drove again to Cheshire to pick up Barbara and take her back home. A few miles along the road, we stopped on a grassy verge. The news on the radio had been consistently bad. However much we wanted to believe otherwise, it was clear now that war was coming. War would change everything. It would destroy my comparative affluence. It would swallow my best creative period, just as I was finding my feet in research. But it also made a nonsense out of the two or three years of courtship that was considered proper in those days. On the grassy bank somewhere in Cheshire-I was never able to find the exact spot again-we decided to marry forthwith. More precisely, we would marry as soon as Barbara's parents could be accommodated to the idea.
The wedding was held early on 28 December 1939. The after-wedding ceremonies being over by 2:00 P.M., we set off to chase the light of the short winter day, through Doncaster, Leeds, and Skipton. The roads became icy, and, trying to hurry, I had a bad skid between Skipton and Settle. Fortunately, there was no other traffic on the road. Crossing the moor after Clapham, Ingleborough came in sight at last, glowing pink in the last moment of sunshine, with snow on its upper slopes. Not long afterwards, we were at our destination, with a bright fire in the little sitting room to welcome us.
The war had come everywhere to the towns and cities, but it had still to reach up into those Yorkshire dales. The ten days we spent there were to be the last surviving breath of the old prewar world. The inn was run then by a middle-aged couple. It would be twenty years on before we would stay in the same place again, by which time a younger generation of the family would have taken over. But the old man was still around. One day, he looked hard at us, saying: "I remember you now. You were the honeymoon couple who came just after the beginning of the war." We had tried to hide our honeymoon status. When I asked the old man how he'd known, he just hopped away along the passageway that led from the kitchen to the main outer door, chuckling to himself.
There was a research group with a limited membership that met in the evenings - once a fortnight, I believe - called the Delta-Squared V Club, a name derived from the nineteenth-century electrical theory. Whenever a place in the membership fell vacant, candidates to fill it would be proposed, and a vote by existing members would then decide the winner. During 1936-1937, I had twice been proposed but had not made it on the vote. In 1938, Pryce, who was then the club's secretary, again proposed me, and, to my surprise, I won in a near landslide, which seemed to amuse several persons present at the meeting, which I had attended by invitation. The system in the club was that, after serving a specific time, which I think was a term, the president stood down and the secretary took his place. So it was with Pryce at this particular meeting. Once in the presidential chair, Pryce immediately proposed me for the now-vacant post of secretary, and I again won in a landslide, amid much laughter, as it was realized how I'd been limed and snared into a job with a considerable amount of work to it-arranging the venue of meetings (which, by tradition, swung from college to college as the secretary changed), writing up minutes, obtaining speakers and making abstracts of their talks, and generally standing up to the barrage of pointed comments with which meetings always began. On the way out after the meeting, Pryce grinned and said: "Let that be a lesson not to trust anybody, not even your supervisor."
The most awkward part of the secretary's duties was to find speakers. Since Pryce had just been secretary, I asked if he had any suggestions. "You might try Dirac," he replied, "and there's a chap in John's called Lyttleton who has interesting ideas about planets." The next day, I took my courage in both hands and phoned Dirac at his house. When he had understood my request, Dirac made a remark that nobody else, in my experience, would have conceived of: "I will put the telephone down for a minute and think, and then speak again," he said.
The upshot was that Dirac agreed to give a talk to the club, and a famous talk it was, for it was the first occasion on which Dirac explained his idea for introducing advanced potentials to solve the paradox of the self-action of a classically accelerated electron. My attempt to get Ray Lyttleton to give a talk to the Delta-Squared V Club was not so successful. I visited him in his rooms in the New Court of St. John's at about three o'clock one afternoon. In reply to my request, he explained that he was snowed under with work from which he could in no circumstances be dragged. In 1945-1946, I was to have those same rooms myself, above the Bursary (as it was then) on Staircase I. Withdrawing from my failure to entice Lyttleton into appearing before the Delta-Squared V Club, I was crossing the yard or two of a small hallway when a thought occurred to me. Almost certainly, my life would have gone differently in its details if, in that fleeting second, the thought had not been there. I turned impulsively on my heel, moved the yard or two back to the inner door, half opened it without knocking, stuck my head inside, and said: "I hope I can do as much for you another time."
I hadn't realized it, but my remark was exactly the sort of thing that sets Ray Lyttleton off laughing. He called me back immediately and put on the kettle for tea. He was friendly now, but, try as I would, I couldn't persuade him to give that lecture to the Delta-Squared V Club. He talked of being on the verge of great things, of vast depths, in the fashion of Owen Glendower in Henry IV, Part I.
The immediate problem for Lyttleton had to do with the rate at which the gravitational influence of a large body causes it to pick up material from a diffuse gas in which the body is immersed-the "accretion problem," as it subsequently became known. Lyttleton had the feeling that a formula in Eddington's book The Internal Constitution of the Stars gave considerably too small a rate. The upshot of our conversation was that I agreed to take a look at the thing. It was from this problem that my shift to astronomy from theoretical physics began. It did not take long to see that Eddington's calculation was correct for disconnected lumps of material, but, for a gas in which internal collisions were important, the accretion rate could be much higher than one would suspect from Eddington's formula, just as Lyttleton had hoped might be the case. Although we were to make a wrong immediate use of the discovery, which caused us some unpopularity in astronomical circles for a while, the technical details as they were developed from that time, especially in collaboration, a few years later, with Hermann Bondi, have proved their worth in later years. Today there is hardly an issue of any astronomical journal that does not contain a paper concerned with some aspect of the accretion problem.
This was a sideline, however, over the first six months of 1939. My Goldsmiths' exhibition would soon be running out, and, if I was to continue in research at Cambridge, I had to bestir myself once more, especially with regard to the possibility of securing a College fellowship. The time had come, therefore, for me to stitch the various bits of research I had done into an essay. I submitted my achievements, such as they were, for the annual fellowship competition at St. John's College. My tutor, P. W. Wood, wanted me to submit also for the fellowship awarded annually at Emmanuel. Although it might have seemed rather like turning my back on my old college, I decided, after some heart-searching, to restrict my application to St. John's, which was one of the few colleges whose fellowships were freely open to any graduate of Cambridge or Oxford (within certain age limits). I knew John Cockcroft personally from the Cavendish meetings, and I knew Dirac a little. Both were fellows of St. John's, whereas I knew no physicist who could speak for me at Emmanuel. John's gave three or four fellowships, against only one from Emmanuel, and competing for a single award against candidates in all subjects (arts as well as science) had to be a chancy business.
On the St. John's application form, there was a question asking if one were a candidate also at another college. I knew this, because I had already applied both at St. John's and at Emmanuel in the previous year, and I had been turned down for a fellowship by both colleges. In the case of St. John's, Cockcroft told me I had been turned down because it was thought that Emmanuel would elect me. In 1939, I didn't want to fall between those same two stools again, so I confined my application this time to St. John's, and, as it happened, I was appointed to a fellowship there for three years from May 1939.
I had also applied for a prestigious award offered by the Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, and, to my astonishment, a week or two after the fellowship, I was successful in obtaining a "senior exhibition," which paid £600 per year for two years. Since the St. John's fellowship was worth £250 per year, plus accommodation and dinners, I now had the enormous sum of £850 per year, with little in the way of living expenses to worry about. But let the reader not be envious of my apparent good fortune, because, in May 1939, the prospect of war was becoming overwhelming. Soon I would be postponing both the fellowship and the exhibition until the end of the 1939-1945 war. When I returned to Cambridge in 1945 to take them up again, the income of £850 a year would have declined to about one-half of its 1939 value, and by then I would have a wife and two children to support.
Shortly after inveigling me into the secretaryship of the Delta-Squared V Club, Maurice Pryce left Cambridge to take up a lectureship at Liverpool University. If I was to retain my student status with the Inland Revenue, another research supervisor was therefore needed. Pryce suggested Dirac, so I went.to Dirac and explained the position. Although normally he didn't accept students, Dirac broke his rule on this occasion because he simply couldn't resist the circular counter logic of a supervisor who didn't want a research student who didn't want a supervisor.
Dirac didn't seem too much amused by farce or repartee, but he liked this kind of mental contretemps. The time I saw him laugh most was a year or two later, when I told him the following story, after I had returned from my first visit to the United States. During the war, you had to have a priority (of which there were, I believe, four grades) in order to travel on domestic airlines in the United States. If you wanted to make a journey and you had a priority higher than someone else on a plane that was already full (they were always full), you simply took the fellow's place and he was bounced off. One day, a well-known scientist was traveling to give an important lecture, when, unfortunately for him, he was bounced by a general. It was unfortunate also for the general, because he was traveling to hear the lecture.
More than any other person I have known, Dirac raised the meaning of words and syntax to a level of precision that was mathematical in its accuracy. He had nothing at all of the irritating habit of attempting to read hidden significance into your remarks. He paid everybody the compliment of supposing they knew exactly what they were saying, a compliment he sometimes took to extreme lengths. There was a time, during the 1939-1945 war, when the British government was fencing with the American government to get as deeply as possible into the Manhattan Project (for making a nuclear bomb). The clarion call rang out in Whitehall to get Dirac involved as a bargaining counter with the Americans. I did not witness the occasion myself, but I have it on good authority that the minister concerned, Sir John Anderson, telephoned Dirac in Cambridge to ask if he would call at the ministerial office when next in London. Dirac said that he would. Sir John then went on to ask, as an afterthought, how often Dirac was in London, to which Dirac replied: "Oh, about once a year."
Those scientists who moved first into what was called "war work" quickly took up the most influential positions. The Cavendish began moving already in the summer of 1939, a few months ahead of the actual outbreak of war on 3 September 1939. Considering my close connections with the Cavendish six months earlier, it would have been natural for me to have gone along with such people as John Cockcroft and Philip Dee. The reasons I didn't do so were personal; they would lead to my marriage on 28 December 1939.
It was in the second week of December 1932 that I first visited Cambridge, and it was at the end of December 1972 that I finally left the University there: during the intervening forty years I saw many changes. Objectively the most important was an increase in the number of students, from about five thousand in the early 1930s to some ten thousand graduates and undergraduates in 1972. More subjectively, I was able to observe the workings of a democratic system at close quarters, with my nose rubbed in it, much as the citizens of ancient Athens must have observed it. I saw democracy working at its best, with nearly everybody anxious to do their jobs well, and I saw the decline which inevitably sets in with the emergence of sea lawyers.
These thoughts were impossibilities for me in 1932. I began the journey to Cambridge at Bingley Railway Station. In those days you left the local shuttle at Shipley, where a 'change' brought you to Doncaster. Then to Peterborough, and another change to March and Ely, and thence on an unhurried last link into Cambridge.
I had been two years before in the south of England, in the summer of 1930, to visit friends of the family who lived near London. I travelled then by bus down the Great North Road. To a lad from the northern moors and dales the 'south' had seemed uninterestingly flat. Yet the Great North Road winds its way through gently undulating country, and so there had been nothing on my earlier trip to warn me of the total flatness of the fenlands. On that December day in 1932 the fields were unpleasantly waterlogged, the many stations on which 'changes' had perforce to be made were unpleasantly windswept, the trains themselves largely unheated, and if the truth is told I was almost certainly undernourished - this was the height of the Great Depression years.
My companion was Fred S. Jackson, a distant cousin. We were both pupils from Bingley Grammar School, seeking our fortune in the Cambridge Scholarship Examinations held by the several colleges which go by the name of 'the John's group'. My cousin was equipped with an excellent sense of balance that I envied, and with an intrepid quality which I could scarcely comprehend let alone envy. He was to graduate as a doctor, eventually becoming the head of the cardiac department of Newcastle General Hospital. As expedition doctor he was to be a member of a dozen or so climbing parties in the high Himalayas. Rather more than twenty years later, just after I had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, he would write, 'It is a little strange that at almost the same time we have both realised a life ambition, you in the Royal Society, myself in the Alpine Club.'
We both crowded to the window of the train for our first sight of Cambridge, high spires on the distant horizon. The buildings must have been King's Chapel, John's Chapel, and the Catholic Church. A few minutes later we discovered the singular fact that the Cambridge Railway Station is a mile and a half from the town centre, a fact made singular by the unique peculiarity that the 'centre' of Cambridge lies on its circumference. The bus fare changed at Emmanuel College, and as I was going to Emmanuel I paid 1d, whereas Fred who was going to John's paid 1½d, much to his chagrin.
The Cambridge Colleges mostly empty of their undergraduates during the first week of December, and Emmanuel seemed deserted and forbidding in the fading light of a winter afternoon. It was a curious quirk of psychology that later, when I spent two of my three undergraduate years living in rooms in 'Emma', I could never bring back to memory exactly which rooms I was given on that first occasion. I remember being thoroughly homesick, for this was the first occasion in my seventeen-and-a-half years that I had ever been alone and away from home. I also remember eating dinner in 'hall' for the first time. There was much to amaze me, not least the manner in which some of the regular students who were still in residence made their way in and out of their seats. The tables were wooden, broad and of great length, some arranged parallel and close to the walls. Those who were on the wall side of such tables appeared thoroughly wedged-in. But not so. At the end of the meal they stood up on the seats, hopped up onto the table and simply marched its length until they could jump down. It seemed that the better mannered did their best to avoid kicking the plates of those who were still eating.
It was a strange place to be, and it was a strange sequence of events that had brought me there. I had taken my 'matric', as it was then called, just on my fifteenth birthday. My results were by no means spectacular: two 'passes', five 'credits', three 'goods' and no distinctions as I recall. But then my school did not specialise in spectacular results, which seems a little surprising since we certainly had quite a number of well-qualified teachers. The point I think is that the people of my town and valley had their own highly individual local culture which the teachers absorbed, even though they were not native to the district. This led to individualistic teaching, which educationally was surely excellent. Possibly my memory plays me false, but I do not recall ever being drilled in the matric papers that had been set in previous years. We were required to take the examination 'cold'.
Our school was small, with about thirty pupils sitting the school-leaving examination each year. It was typical for about five of them to 'matrick', fifteen to obtain the still-coveted' school certificate', and the rest unfortunately to fail. Since I had 'matricked' successfully, nobody worried at all about the lack of brilliance in my actual results. This I am convinced was educationally favourable. It is an invitation to disaster to expose the young too soon to the highest standards. Any youngster who becomes mooted as a future Einstein is instantly exposed to unnecessary strains, which are far more likely to lead to mental instability than to future distinction. Einstein himself did not suffer this handicap.
What really matters is to be generally regarded as one of the better members of one's group, and to be so at all stages, starting at quite unambitious levels and gradually increasing the quality of the group to which one is exposed. At the age of fifteen it was quite sufficient for me to have been one of the four or five in my class who had matricked.
On entering the sixth form of my school I immediately moved up into a higher group, a group to which my cousin belonged, together with Edward Foster, a big strong lad a year or two older than I was, who was eventually to become a Reader in Physics at London University. The problem now was to obtain one of the scholarships awarded each year by the West Riding of Yorkshire. For this I was well placed. Eighteen being the normal entry to university, I had three years from fifteen instead of the usual two in which to win such a scholarship. But I had no intention at all of needing three years. My plan was clear-cut. In the summer of 1932, at the age of seventeen, I would get my scholarship, and in the following autumn I would go to the university at Leeds, where I would study organic chemistry. I was one of those young people, fortunate in many respects, who knew exactly what they intend to do. And I came within a whisker of doing it. Fate robbed me by an unexpected twist of fortune. I will recount the circumstances, for the incident has been rather typical of the way my whole life has gone. I have never been unfortunate enough to receive one of the crushing blows from which recovery is well-nigh impossible, but time and time again unlucky chance has tripped me in ways that it would have been hard to anticipate. I am just the sort of person who buys a bit of land, only to find molehills erupting all over it within days of my purchase.
Each year scholarships were awarded by the West Riding strictly on the marks total obtained in each candidate's best three subjects. This was at the Higher Certificate level of the Northern Matriculation Board. There was a prescribed number of scholarships, and the highest marks got them, irrespective of the number of previous occasions on which candidates had entered themselves for the examination. The same number of scholarships had been given in each of the years preceding 1932, and the number had been sufficient for the mark total separating winners from losers to be quite closely the same from year to year.
My headmaster knew the approximate required total, which he passed on to those of us who were candidates. The situation was that if you averaged 70% per subject you were on a sure thing, if you averaged 69% you were a likely winner, if you averaged 68% you were a possible winner, and at 67 % you were a likely loser. So I knew my target. In the summer of 1932 I sat the examination for the first time, successfully as it should have been. I reached my target, only to find it no longer relevant. The West Riding of Yorkshire had responded to demands from Westminster that its educational budget be cut as a contribution to the mysterious economics of the Depression. So it turned out that I had aimed at a moving target, for the mark which now separated winners from losers had made a sudden upward leap, beyond what I had achieved. Edward Foster was the only one of us to manage the new total.
So in September 1932, instead of entering Leeds University as a prospective organic chemist, I found myself returning for a further year's work at Bingley Grammar School. I told my headmaster, Alan Smailes, that I was unhappy with the situation. I felt that even with a further year there would be no guarantees of an improved performance, and Smailes realised that my point was well taken. Unlike public schools and large city-centre grammar schools, there was no possibility of my being given systematic lessons, and the same was true for my cousin, as it had been for Edward Foster. The resources of a small grammar school simply did not run to it. What further steps we took had to be taken mostly for ourselves, and in such a situation it is only too easy to go backwards instead of forwards.
Smailes had seen immediately that the answer was to raise the target level, not just by four or five percentage points, but by an order of magnitude. The answer was the Cambridge Scholarship Examination. The first I knew about this idea was when Smailes handed me a packet containing Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics question papers for the preceding two or three years. A glance at them told me instantly that I was being coaxed into a different league. So far from being able to answer the questions, I did not even know what most of them meant.
Fred Jackson's position was different from mine, in the important respect that the financial position of his parents was different. Fred's father was manager of a branch of Barclay's Bank, and was indeed soon to become manager of the main local headquarters in Bradford. At that time the cost of a Cambridge education was around £200 per annum, and this was not a sum out of Mr Jackson's reach, especially I am sure as he had Alan Smailes always seeking to persuade him that Fred should go to Cambridge. Yorkshiremen are canny folk, however, and Mr Jackson wanted to be assured that the extra cost would be worthwhile, and the proof of this was to be in the Cambridge Scholarship. Fred's task was therefore to satisfy his father by giving a satisfactory account of himself in the December examination.
From September to December 1932 was a pitifully short length of time to make the upward leap to Cambridge standards, but it is the great advantage of youth that such things do not seem impossible. The support we got from the school was in remarkable contrast to the careful coaching we would have received at scores of scholarship-minded schools, Manchester, King's Canterbury, Winchester, Eton, Oundle. There were no chemistry or physics lessons at all as such. Cubbyholes off the chemistry and physics laboratories were set aside for our use. The chemistry master, Herbert Haigh, bought us books out of his own pocket (even in the Depression) and what tremendous books they were. For physical chemistry, we had the classic text of G. N. Lewis. Not that I understood Lewis in any strict sense, but I soon had a general qualitative picture of the various types of chemical bond. For organic chemistry, our project was little short of fantastic. Lacking substances of appreciable complexity, we began with just two organic compounds, methylated spirits and (I think) benzene. Starting from them, the aim was to synthesise chains of substances, building one on another, rather as one proceeds from proposition to proposition in Euclidean geometry. It was a valid glimpse of the method of operation of the modern chemical industry.
We dug around separately for clues to the answers to the Cambridge questions, pooling our knowledge as we acquired it. Frequently the questions would run us into a brick wall. I still remember struggling vainly to understand the operation of a diffraction grating. At length I asked our physics master, E. A. Kaye, if he could explain. His answer was short: 'No, I can't, but I can tell you it's difficult.'
So far from avoiding the question, Kaye's reply was really a good one. He had taken a first -class himself at Cambridge, in Part I of the Natural Science Tripos. To understand anything of the correct operation of a diffraction grating demands a standard higher even than that. Indeed the question I had been trying to answer had no business at all to appear in a scholarship examination.
Mathematics was the worst problem, however. Unless one is gifted with quite exceptional talent, mathematics is difficult to learn alone. Nevertheless, the school had an excellent mathematics teacher. Alan Smailes had been a student at Emmanuel College, where he had taken Part II of the Mathematical Tripos, including the advanced level of what used to be known as 'Schedule B'. Given time, Smailes could have guided us with ease through the Cambridge Examination. The trouble was that there was no time. Our own time was short enough, but Smailes himself had little or none. The depths of the Great Depression was not an era when the education authorities supplied headmasters with secretaries and typists. Smailes had to do every scrap of administrative work himself. His days were crammed full of minutiae, and the real ability of the best-trained teacher in our school went abegging.
In this situation, twice a week after dinner, Smailes would have us round to his own house. Although his instruction was entirely unprepared, he would invariably write out the solutions to problems in an unblemished hand. He always went at a methodical slow pace, excellent for us, digging into his memory as he went along. But it was scarcely enough for us to cope with the meticulously trained products of Britain's specialist schools. Many years later I would myself an examiner of mathematics papers in the same scholarship group of Cambridge Colleges. I found that sets of candidates would tackle questions in precisely the same way, even using identical abstract symbols in their work. For a while I thought there must have been wholesale copying between them. Then I noticed they all belonged to the same school, and had obviously been drilled together like recruits on a parade ground. Against this kind of competition our position in 1932 was ridiculously weak, but it was a weakness of a somewhat unusual kind. Some things we knew well. But against the things we knew well there were great gaping holes in our knowledge. If we were lucky we might find two or three questions our of ten on a Cambridge mathematics paper which could be summarily dispatched, but the rest would be quite beyond our comprehension.
This was the background as I ate dinner in 'hall' that first night at Emmanuel College. I knew nothing then of the parade-ground drilling provided by schools which prided themselves on the achievements of their pupils, schools competing fiercely for the reputation of winning most scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge. Yet I sensed it, even on that first night. I listened to the conversation around me, and the gulf between my homespun knowledge and the best from great schools of long experience and tradition was far too obvious to be missed.
It might therefore be supposed that I went along to the first paper (in the Hall at John's I think) in great apprehension. Yet I was entirely relaxed. This Cambridge expedition had not been my idea in the first place. My idea was to become a chemist at Leeds University, and the real problem was to raise my standard to make certain of winning a Yorkshire West Riding scholarship in the summer of 1933. If a miracle happened, and I won something in Cambridge, well and good. I would condescend to accept it, but my real aim as I set about answering the first paper was to prove to myself that the efforts of the past three months had really improved my standards.
In this spirit I had a considerable advantage over well drilled candidates, especially over those who were under pressure to 'do well'. And Cambridge examiners are no easy pushovers for awarding scholarships to those who are only repeating what they have been carefully taught. Every effort is made to award scholarships to pupils, not to schoolmasters. This is the reason why Cambridge entrance papers contain so many unexpected (and sometimes hopelessly awkward) questions. The aim is to get off the beaten track, so that the examiners can separate spontaneous ability from repetitive efficiency. But of course schoolmasters sometimes become experts themselves at guessing what unbeaten tracks the examiners will choose to follow. Then the unwary examiner may come to believe that he has a genius on his hands. The distinguished mathematician A. S. Besicovitch always believed himself to be discovering genius, and if you happened to be one of Bessy's fellow-examiners you risked summary decapitation if you so much as dared suggest that it might not be so.
The chemistry paper fell extremely well for me. The questions in physical chemistry were such that I could throw G. N. Lewis again and again at the examiners, without acknowledgements I must confess. The physics paper was not quite so good, but tolerable, and the mathematics was just as I had expected. Two questions out of ten I could do quickly and well, and then for the rest of the time I tried vainly to guess what the others meant.
There were sessions in practical chemistry and practical physics, the latter held in the old Cavendish Laboratory, and the chemistry in the old Pembroke Street Laboratory. Coming from the tiny cubby holes at Bingley school these places seemed vast beyond belief. The boot was on the other foot now with a vengeance. Those who had been carefully trained seemed to know their way around those big laboratories. I knew nothing of laboratory conventions, nothing of where I might expect to find reagents or the simplest equipment. Whenever anything had to be queued for, I always seemed to be the last in line for it. There was, moreover, a fundamental difficulty. In the theoretical papers the examiners had purposely left their questions a little vague, to give some scope for originality. But practical examinations cannot be left vague. yet the precise specification of what one is expected to do involves technical jargon, and jargon involves conventions. Because I had not been meticulously trained in the conventions, there were inevitable uncertainties in my mind, semantic uncertainties, in exactly what I was expected to do. This difficulty was compounded in the physics practical by certain of the instructions being given verbally, so that I had nothing written down that I could read through several times to clarify the meanings of words. Although I didn't realise it then, the same lack of training in laboratory procedures, and especially a lack of training in keeping meticulous laboratory notes, had almost certainly cost me a West Riding scholarship the previous summer. We had performed many quite difficult experiments in our cubby holes, but our style would have been more appropriate to the old alchemists than it was to these well-scrubbed Cambridge laboratories.
It was while I had something or other 'cooking' in the chemistry practical that a hand tugged at my sleeve, and a voice said something in my ear about a chemistry scholarship. I knew nothing about a chemistry scholarship. All I knew was that I was seeking what Cambridge called a natural science scholarship. I realised that the hand and voice belonged to a messenger, not to one of the university scientists. You could tell from the smarter suit and the voice. So it would be pointless to ask what chemistry scholarship. I simply listened, to learn that I was required to present myself for an oral examination at such and such a place and time.
I noticed the messenger go up to one or two others. Among them was another candidate from Emmanuel, a man named Leben. He was taller than I was, heavier in the shoulder, and he walked with his head thrust a little forward. I had noticed him because, unlike most of the others, at dinner in the evenings he had been quite silent. Of course there were candidates in a wide variety of subjects. Those of us who were 'up' for chemistry, physics, and mathematics were I suppose about a quarter of the total. There was much crosstalk over the dinner table, not on the first night, but as the examinations proceeded. If all the talk was to be believed Emmanuel would soon be awarding a powerful lot of scholarships. But of course this was just a way for the lads to keep up their morale. If they announced to the world how well they had been doing, perhaps some fairy godmother would hear them and it would come true after all.
Throughout the talk Leben kept silent, and this was why I had noticed him. When the chemistry practical was thankfully over I asked him if he understood this business about a chemistry scholarship. He told me there was to be an award specifically for chemistry, and it must be that the two of us were shortlisted for it. We walked back to Emmanuel together. Later we were to have neighbouring rooms on opposite sides of a staircase of the Drummer Street hostel, with Geoffrey Jackson the ex-British Ambassador to Uruguay two doors away from us.
I turned up for the chemistry oral at the appointed time. It was in Emmanuel too. I went up the appropriate staircase and knocked at the appropriately numbered room. There was a shout and I went in.
I was not to get that chemistry scholarship, but I can scarcely complain at the competence of the man who now sat facing me as I stood awkwardly before him, since thirty years or so later the man would receive a Nobel prize for Chemistry, something which even he could not guess, because the work for which the prize was to be awarded still lay far in the future. Nor could I guess that the day would come when I would be Ron Norrish 's guest when he was President of the Savage Club. The Savage Club does not provide its President with a toy of a gavel. It furnishes him with a massive knobkerry that could smash your skull as easily as a hen's egg. My overwhelming memory of Norrish is of the smile on his face as he pounded furiously with that lethal instrument, in prelude to the speech I was to make. The thunder of it still rings in my ears, quite excluding all efforts to recall just what happened during the oral examination back in 1932. I could never get Norrish himself to remember the occasion, and I myself remember only a single odd detail. It had never occurred to me that the word halogen could be pronounced with anything but a short 'a'. Norrish pronounced it 'hale-ogen', astonishing me mightily, although I would not wish to claim that it was my bemusement on this matter which cost me the chemistry scholarship.
Cambridge does not keep either its own undergraduates or its scholarship candidates on tenterhooks for very long. Within not much more than a week after my return home to Bingley, I had a letter from Emmanuel giving highly detailed marks of my performance. In total, I was a mere handful below what was called Exhibition Standard, which is the lowest level at which Cambridge awards money, and then not very much money. My theoretical paper in chemistry had been of scholarship standard, but I had of course been pulled down by the practical test, but still in total for chemistry I was above Exhibition Standard. Likewise in physics I was just above Exhibition Standard. It was mathematics which pulled the whole thing down below this apparently mythical 'Standard'. The few questions in mathematics I had understood and answered had given me solid marks, but they were just too few to maintain the 'Standard'.
Thinking I had lost only £40, which was the extent of an Exhibition award, and which would not have taken me to Cambridge anyway, I went to see Alan Smailes and showed him the letter. As he read it through he came as near to swearing in real anger as I ever observed him. Only then did he explain what that 'Standard' would have meant, and what those few missed marks (less than 10 out of 500 or so) had cost me. The point was not the £40. The point was that if I had obtained the 'Standard', and if I obtained a West Riding Scholarship in the coming summer, then Yorkshire would have met all my Cambridge expenses. Without the mythical 'Standard' they would not do so. Like the axing of scholarships the previous summer, it was another of fate's minor digs in my ribs.
I made my way to the Public Library in the centre of Bingley and found there the copy of The Times with the 'John's group' scholarship results in it. As my eye travelled down the list of awards, I saw that Leben had the chemistry scholarship, and in that moment I found that I envied him deeply. It was with this momentary surge of emotion that for the first time I realised that I wanted to go to Cambridge.
Left to myself I would have been beaten, but Alan Smailes was not. He soon discovered that Pembroke College held its scholarship examinations in March. The situation would be recovered he told me if I were to attain the 'Standard' there. So the pressure was on. I knew the stake now, and I had three months more to force the position.
Oddly I remember very little of that second attempt. Nothing of the train journey, which I made alone since Fred Jackson's father had been happy to accept his entry to St John's. I remember nothing of the dinners, only of the room I was allotted. Not of its interior, but of a climb up a long hard flight of stone stairs to reach it. I knew nothing of the great ghosts who walk the cloisters of Pembroke, of James Clerk Maxwell from Edinburgh or George Gabriel Stokes from County Sligo. I do not even remember the details of the examination itself, only that my performance was somewhat less brittle than it had been in December.
I had just one clear memory, of another oral examination to which I was called, this time in physics. I do not know if I was so called because I was a contender for some award. If so, I didn't get it. The examiner was Philip Dee. Later I discovered that Dee had something of a reputation for giving students a hard time, and he quite certainly gave me a hard time. When I was seeking to answer a question on absolute temperatures he got me in something of a tangle and then exclaimed: 'Is there any physics that you do know?' This was the sort of remark which gets me fighting mad, and instantly I dumped my deferential attitude and waded into Dee just as hard as I could. Like Norrish, I was never able later to get him to remember the occasion. Of the broad-spoken candidate from Yorkshire who had sparked back at him he had no recall. I had been but a momentary irritation, an unwelcome interruption from some more important activity: 'Glad to have finished with these damned scholarship candidates', as I was to hear at High Table so often in later years.
In spite of this encounter with Philip Dee I travelled back to Yorkshire with cautious optimism. There was no letter from Pembroke setting out my results in the detail which Emmanuel had done. There was simply a short communication, regretting that I had not been given an award. Smailes wrote off in great anxiety about the elusive 'Standard'. Soon there was a further reply, saying that it gave the tutor at Pembroke pleasure to report that I had indeed attained the Exhibition Standard. This can happen even though there is no actual award, because there are often more candidates above the Standard than there are awards available. Yet since I never saw the actual marks, I do not know to this day what the situation really was. A kind-hearted tutor might quite well have given Smailes the answer he so obviously wanted, since it cost the College no money to do so. If so, the kindhearted tutor made a profound difference to my life.
But all this would be a pointless charade unless I should win the West Riding scholarship, which by now Smailes and my parents seemed to be taking for granted. The Higher Certificate examinations started in July, when circumstances fell out that my parents and younger sister had the chance of a holiday in Cornwall, the period of the holiday to overlap the two-week duration of the examinations. My mother would not hear of being away at such a critical time, but I made strenuous protestations that the opportunity should not be missed. Holidays that could be afforded, as this one could, were scarce in our family. And if the truth were told I was not unhappy at the thought of our small house being quiet when I needed it to be quiet. Still more important, there would be no one to offer consolation and advice if I should happen to hit a bad paper. Too much solicitude leads inevitably to a crack-up, with worse to follow.
By a bad paper I do not simply mean doing badly. One can give a poor performance through lack of understanding or lack of preparation. These are acceptable hazards. I mean a poor performance occasioned in some abnormal way. When I sat the scholarship examination at the age of ten which took me to Bingley Grammar School I was unaccountably slow. On the arithmetic paper I could manage to get through only five questions, instead of the asked-for eight. The following day I was in bed with a face the size of a football, mumps. The virus must have been approaching a clinical level during the examination, slowing my thinking. This could well have proved another of fate's little jabs. Luckily, however, the five questions I had done were all correct, and in a year in which marks throughout the West Riding of Yorkshire had been exceptionally low the examiners had taken a second look at my work. Finding I was young, actually as young as it was possible to be, they apparently concluded that my slowness was due to inexperience. Then instead of sending me the usual 'a good try, come again next year' they took the bolder step of adding my name to the list of winners. So fate on that occasion was on my side.
Three times in my teens I had bad papers and the last thing I wanted on each of those occasions was consolation. The first occasion was only an early in house school examination. But the last occasion, at nineteen, was as crucial as it could be. At a critical juncture in one of the three parts of the Mathematical Tripos, I had a literally blinding headache. Each time I wanted to go into a corner and kick myself, or as Alexander Alekhine is said to have done in 1923 after losing a game of chess (to the English champion Yates) to break every stick of furniture within sight.
I had no bad papers that summer and I obtained the Yorkshire scholarship by a safe margin. Yet fate still could not quite let me off its hook. With six months further experience, after reaching scholarship standard in chemistry at Cambridge, I might have been expected to run away with the chemistry paper, and this is exactly what I thought I had done. I did not seem to find a difficulty anywhere, and the questions with definite answers had all been verified later - the answers I had scribbled on the margin of the printed question papers were correct. Yet my marks were completely overturned from the Cambridge results. In mathematics my percentage was up in the high 80s, in physics in the upper 70s, and in chemistry down just below the 70-level. From 1930 to 1933, I sat four chemistry examinations set by the Northern Matriculation Board, and each time my result was about fifteen percentage points lower than I expected it to be. Once or perhaps twice I might have misjudged the situation, but not I think four times. There had to be something wrong for the Northern Board examiners about my style, and something right about it for the Cambridge examiners. The Northern examiners apparently did not want G. N. Lewis - evidently they had little use for differences between chemical bondings. The year being 1933, only eight years after the beginnings of modern quantum theory, and hence of modern chemistry, such matters were probably too new. What the devil the Northern Board really did want I never discovered, for nobody could tell me. Perhaps it was carefully drawn, ruled diagrams, instead of my freely rendered sketches. The situation was interesting because of its insight into the vicissitudes to which youngsters are exposed, even in an apparently strict science. The vicissitudes of examiners must be significantly worse in history, economics and English literature, and they could even be important in mathematics - if A. S. Besicovitch happened to be around, although Bessy's vicissitudes were sharply in the upward direction, never downwards.
There is no doubt at all that it was much harder for students dependant on scholarships to gain access to universities in my time than it is today, and that the situation in this respect was particularly severe in the early '30s. But there was now a big compensation. It would be unheard of today for a student, completing his financing as late as September, to enter a Cambridge College less than a month later. Nowadays entry would inevitably be delayed a further year. But the pressure on the Colleges was less in 1933, and now my marks in the December examination stood strongly to my advantage. Emmanuel wanted me, because for a 'commoner' rather than a 'scholar' my standard was good. Besides which I am sure the letters written by Alan Smailes to his old College had maintained a stubborn vagueness about my prospective finances, to a degree where the College had been persuaded to keep a place open for me.
So it came about that at the beginning of October 1933 I journeyed again to Cambridge, again by train, changing at Shipley, Doncaster, etc., and again in the company of Fred Jackson. We again parted company at the Cambridge Railway Station. In the months ahead we were to see each other only occasionally, for the logistic reason that our 'digs' were widely separated on opposite sides of the town. His were situated in a maze of streets to the north of Chesterton Road, and mine were far to the south, close by where the railway bridge crosses Mill Road. There was no thought at all of our hiring taxis at the station, as I was to do so often in later years. Fred took the bus, paying 2d I suppose to Chesterton Road, while I humped my heavy suitcase the half mile into Mill Road. The route was unfamiliar to me, and I remember twice asking the way.
One of the first things to be done was to have a personal interview with one's college tutor. This does not necessarily mean one's teacher or 'supervisor'. A tutor's job is to look after an undergraduate's worldly well-being, like bailing him out of jail. It is perfectly possible for a science student to have a historian or a classics don as tutor, although by and large an attempt is made to minimise big differences. Thus whereas I was a science student, apparently destined to work for the Natural Science Tripos, my tutor was a mathematician.
P. W. Wood was a striking and tragic Cambridge figure. He was tallish, quite thin, with a slight stoop. He mostly walked around the room as he talked, likely enough jangling keys in his pocket. He had a big beak of a nose through which he sniffed frequently and very audibly. He wore casual 'bags' and a tweed jacket liberally studded with leather patches. These leather patches were a kind of badge of the Cambridge don. You could always distinguish them from the 'servants', who were more neatly dressed in dark suits.
At the risk of incurring the scorn of mathematicians more profound than I am, I have no hesitation in saying that P. W. was the finest Cambridge geometer of his generation. The trouble lay in his style of geometry. Nowadays, mathematicians use an algebraic style just as Wood did, but in Cambridge up to 1939 the preferred style was different. It was a style in which almost everything was argued in words, a style that really was a negation of mathematics, for one of the most powerful weapons of mathematics lies in its notations, and of this the preferred style of Cambridge geometry (whose protagonists referred to themselves as 'pure' geometers) made little or no use.
P. W. Wood on the other hand was an outstanding master of notation, a breathtaking wizard at it. He would begin by writing a seemingly straightforward equation on the blackboard. Now came a tour of the lecture room, talking the whole while with head down and keys jangling. When the tour reached the blackboard again he would add some apparently simple superscript or subscript to the symbols in his equation, which he did casually as he passed by. The tour would be repeated, with a further casual addition to the equation at the second passage by the board. And now at the third tour the real sniffing would begin, so that you knew the denouement to be fast approaching. On reaching the blackboard yet again he would delicately adjust his subscripts and superscripts, the notation, and lo-and-behold the proof of some startling proposition, which you might have puzzled about all morning without being able to prove, was suddenly before your eyes. It was characteristic of P. W. 's marvellous sleight of hand that you were always convinced at the moment of revelation that you could perform the same rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick for yourself, but when a couple of hours later you tried you couldn't. Nor I think could P. W.'s fellow-geometers, and this was exactly why they condemned his methods.
The Cambridge fad for 'pure' geometry, or 'projective' geometry as it is more properly called, had been given impetus earlier in the century by H. F. Baker, whose several unreadable volumes on the subject I still keep on my shelves, to remind me of how far an absurd fad can go. There is a modern damaging fad abroad in physics and engineering, going by the name of the S. I. System. A book entitled S. I. Units, a System for Fools, which I wrote some years ago, still lacks a publisher. Indeed whenever I mention it, publishers always show me the door. This too was poor P. W.'s position. Nobody would take him seriously, except a sprinkling each year of discerning students. Wood had really only himself to blame, however. He was at the height of his powers at just the time Einstein published his general theory of relativity. Instead of continuing to fight a worthless battle with H. F. Baker, he should have transferred his interests to Riemannian geometry and general relativity. If he had done so, his impact would quite likely have been sensational. It was similar unfortunate judgments, allied to an acid tongue, which caused him to be passed over several times for the Mastership of Emmanuel.
My last memories of Wood are from the autumn of 1945. I had just been made a junior lecturer at Cambridge and my first task was to give a course of lectures in geometry to science students. The number of students was so large that it was necessary for the course to be given in parallel by two lecturers (in different rooms thankfully). The other lecturer was P. W. I had been away from Cambridge from 1940 until the early summer of 1945 and so had not seen him for some time. He was at the verge of retirement now, looking older than he really was, more stooping and thinner than before. I walked into the lecturers' common room to find him already there, walking around in the same characteristic pose, head down, keys jangling. As I came in he looked up with the wry twist to the corners of his lips that was the nearest I ever saw P. W. come to a smile. Eyeing me ironically, he said: 'Well Hoyle, we meet again under changed circumstances.'
Indeed it was then a far cry back to the day, almost exactly twelve years before, when I had first called on P. W. Wood. After turning in at the front gate of Emmanuel you took the staircase immediately on the left. P. W.'s rooms were one flight up. I knocked, waited for the shout, and then went in. P. W. didn't waste any words. He took a sheet from a file, a sheet with my marks from the December scholarship exam. He studied it with a loud disconcerting sniff. I waited in silence until the process was completed. At length he said, 'Not good at mathematics. Not good enough for a real scientist.' I was tempted to blurt out that my recent Higher Certificate performance was better, but then I reflected that Alan Smailes must certainly have written about the Higher Certificate results. So I asked what would he, P. W., do about it? 'You might consider Mathematics, Part 1', he replied.
In a few tersely worded sentences he told me that the first part of the Mathematical Tripos was a one-year course, and this would leave me favourably placed with two years to devote to Natural Sciences Part II, instead of the usual one year, which was much too short for effective specialisation in either physics or chemistry. He told me that in any case I must already have covered a fair portion of first-year chemistry and physics, and that if I opted immediately for science I would find most of my time going on the study of subjects I didn't really wish to do, such as botany or geology. 'Go away and think about it', he concluded.
Two days later I returned and told P. W. that I would accept his advice, whereon he sniffed and said that it wasn't advice he offered, only the facts of Cambridge life. Neither of us thought it a particularly important decision. For me, however, it was to be a watershed. It was to lead, not to a leisurely two years of chemistry or physics as we both thought then, but to the full rigours of Parts II and III of the Mathematical Tripos. I was either too late or too incapable ever to become a creative mathematician, but the training I would receive in the next three years would have one inestimable value. When eventually I returned to science, no mathematics, however new or hard, would ever frighten me. It was the real beginning.
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