1952 – Through a Glass Darkly

They used to be called ‘pea-soupers’, those thick fogs that would regularly descend on London.  I can’t recall if I took them very seriously, but I’m confident my mother kept an eye on me, trying to make sure I stayed indoors.  A pea-souper was a smelly fog, a smog, combining smoke and fog.  If you’ve seen scenes of bad air pollution, then you know how it reduces visibility.  Smog is like a fog, but it’s a dirty yellow rather than grey.  In the years after the war, London smogs were a familiar part of life in the city, annoying, but accepted as the way things were.

Views of smog changed in 1952.  In early December, a dense, thick pea-souper covered the metropolitan area, the ‘Great Smog of London’.  Beginning on a Friday, a school day, it was much thicker and heavier than usual.  Quickly, visibility dropped to just a few yards, and on quiet streets, like the one where our house was in Northolt, it was down to just three feet or so.  At night it was even more eerie, as the street lights weren’t strong enough to penetrate through the gloom, and it was hard to see where you were going or what was in front of you.  Lasting for five days, it created a sense of isolation, with school cancelled on the Monday and Tuesday.  Outside for long, your clothes got dirty, and it even seemed to seep inside, so rooms became slightly murky.  Public transport came to a stop, except for the Underground, and traffic almost disappeared completely.  Smog invaded buildings, cinemas were closed.  We were in a version of a lockdown, this one self-imposed with little choice, although, of course, I did sneak outside!

Reading about the Great Smog now, two things are striking.  The first was how smogs had become normal.  London had experienced some level of atmospheric pollution for over 300 years, and the slow increase in prevalence of dense pea-soupers had been accepted.  Londoners just grumbled, accepted another day of inconvenience, and life went on.  It was a telling example of how we accommodate to change, the incremental increases going unnoticed or unquestioned.  Another smoggy day?  As my dad would say, “what a damn nuisance!”

The other issue that has my attention now is how the event was seen, the context.  The narrative back then was about the weather.  Well, it was the dominant daily topic in the UK then, and still is today, I’m certain!   It had been a cold beginning to the winter that year, unusually cold, and it led Londoners to burn far more coal than usual, wanting to keep warm.  One of the economic consequences of the Second World War was the UK had big debts to repay, and sold anthracite, a high quality coal, overseas.  As a result, local coal was low grade, high in sulphur, and was used in power stations and in home fireplaces.  In late 1952, power and heating were pushing large quantities of smoke particles, accompanied by hydrochloric and sulphuric acid, up into the atmosphere, combining the soot with car exhaust and diesel engine smoke to make a smog.

London could have survived all that; it was used to putting up with occasional bouts of smog, but the weather caused trouble in another way. In that early December period, the city was windless, and cold air was stuck under a layer of warmer air.  The exhausts and smoke were trapped, together with carbon particles.  The Great Smog began.  To begin with, no-one was especially concerned:  Londoners had been through this before.  They were wrong.  Somewhere between  4-12,000 died, mainly young and elderly, from bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory infections.  It was too much, and clean air acts were passed, along with the promotion of coke rather than coal (which we began to use in our home) and the installation of gas radiators.  The level of pollution dropped, although London was to have another major smog event in 1962.

What wasn’t seen clearly at the time was the broader issue of climate change.  This was about atmospheric pollution caused, quite clearly, by burning low grade coal.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was yet to appear.  While scientists were expressing concerns, the greater focus was on local issues.  There were no other signs to alert the general public, no thousands of dead fish like those found on the edge of the Great Lakes, no melting glaciers.  Dealing with the smog, it was hard to peer beyond local and possibly manageable events to see the broader picture.

That year, my dad had become greatly excited about a rather different issue.  An amateur astronomer, he loved cosmology.  One of his heroes was the exciting, controversial and always entertaining Fred Hoyle, then a lecturer at St John’s College, Cambridge.  Hoyle had trained as a mathematician, but left the university world in 1940 to work with the Admiralty in the huge team developing radar.  He developed a method to ascertain the altitude of incoming aeroplanes. He was also put in charge of “countermeasures against the radar guided guns” found on German battleships. [i]  After the war, and back at Cambridge, Hoyle quickly enhanced his reputation as a maverick in the field, brilliant, impetuous, constantly kicking against orthodox ideas and what he saw as derivative thinkers.  Paul Davies quotes him as saying as saying “I don’t care what they think” about his theories on discrepant redshift in cosmological observations, adding, “it is better to be interesting and wrong than boring and right”. [ii]  He was never boring, even if often wrong.  I think he was, for my dad, the scientist equivalent of a larger-than-life bad-boy rock star.

The issue that had excited my dad that year had to do with the nature of the universe, a topic which appeared to pit Fred Hoyle against another favourite, George Gamow, a leading thinker on the big bang model of the universe.  Both scientists drew on Hoyle’s groundbreaking research on the synthesis of the chemical elements heavier than helium by nuclear reactions in stars. The first of two key papers appeared in 1946, which demonstrated that temperatures of billions of degrees existed in the core of stars, and these would allow the creation of heavy elements, a critical step in understanding the distribution of all the elements in the universe.  A second paper, which was to appear in 1954, showed that the elements between carbon and iron were the result of nuclear fusion reactions, the accepted model today for the synthesis of these primary elements.  Such is the complicated path of science, Hoyle was to co-author a paper with three others on this topic in 1957, and it was this publication which became the cited source for the theory.  When the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded in 1983 for work on nuclear reactions in stars, Hoyle was not included, despite having made the initial and key contribution.  It was only in 2007 that his central role was finally acknowledged, six years after his death.

In 1948, Hoyle, working with two other leading astrophysicists, Thomas Gold and Herman Bondi, argued that the universe existed in a steady state, and contrasted this with the already popular ‘big bang’ theory.  In 1950,  a series of his lectures were published, The Nature of the Universe. [iii]  His approach sought to explain how the universe could be eternal and essentially unchanging while still having the galaxies we observe moving away from each other. The theory hinged on the creation of matter between galaxies over time, so that even though galaxies get further apart, new ones develop between them fill the space they leave.  Leaving on one side the improbability of his views back then, it was the drama that caught my dad’s attention.  In a BBC interview he said “The reason why scientists like the ‘big bang’ is because they’re overshadowed by the Book of Genesis. It is deep within the psyche of most scientists to believe in the first page of Genesis”. [iv]  You have to conclude Hoyle loved being controversial.  He argued continuous creation was no more inexplicable than the appearance of the entire universe from nothing, even though continuous creation had to take place on a regular basis. In the end, observations and theoretical developments convinced most cosmologists the Big Bang was the theory that better fit the facts, but Hoyle continued to support and develop his ideas.

Did I say controversial?  There was a side to Fred Hoyle that drew him to theories ‘on the edge’, which he then promoted with an almost careless fervor.  Outside of the steady state universe, he also was an advocate of panspermia, the idea that the first life on Earth began in space, spreading through the universe, and that evolution is influenced by a steady arrival of viruses on comets reaching the earth.  Once he had taken on this idea, it was unstoppable.  With supportive colleagues he argued various outbreaks of illness, including the 1918 flu pandemic, polio and even mad cow disease, arrived on interstellar dust!  From there, it was only a short step to believing in intelligent design, an interesting perspective from an avowed atheist!

Over his career, he advocated several other rather crazy views.  When two fossils were found with evidence of feathers, Archaeopteryx, he claimed these were man-made fakes.   This foolish assertion was easily refuted by observation –  there were tiny cracks extending through the fossils into the surrounding rock.  Another was his support for the claim that the fifty-six ‘Aubrey holes’ to be found at Stonehenge were used to predict eclipses, a view that had been proposed Gerald Hawkins.  Hawkins was professor of astronomy at Boston University, a similar figure to Hoyle, happy to be controversial, and frequently willing to take an idea just a little too far.  There is compelling evidence the megaliths at Stonehenge were aligned to the sun, but little support for the idea it was an astronomical computer.

In 1958, Hoyle was appointed the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University. In 1967, he became the founding director of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy (later renamed the Institute of Astronomy)  which he developed to the point it became recognised as one of the premier groups in the world for theoretical astrophysics.  Temperamental, he jumped into debates and attacked what he saw as the results of labyrinthine and petty politics at Cambridge .  His regular feuds with members  of the British astronomy community were tangled up with his advocacy for unpopular and even unscientific views.  In the end, he resigned from Cambridge in September 1971 over petty internal politics to do with the replacement for a retiring professor.

If my father had told me about Hoyle’s views on the steady state universe, I got to know him as a novelist after he left Cambridge.  Was I aware of all this Big Bang versus Steady State stuff when I was young?  Of course not, though I think my dad did try to explain a bit of the controversy.  No, I knew him as the Fred Hoyle who wrote science fiction.  I loved the first of his books, The Black Cloud, in which most intelligent life in the universe takes the form of interstellar gas clouds.  The clouds are surprised to learn that intelligent life can also form on planets.  Next Hoyle wrote a television series, A for Andromeda, which was also published as a novel.  It concerns a group of scientists who detect a radio signal from another galaxy which contains instructions for the design of an advanced computer.  When the computer is built, it gives the scientists instructions for the creation of a living organism named Andromeda, but one of the scientists, John Fleming, fears that Andromeda’s purpose is to subjugate humanity.  Hold on just a minute, even more important this television series was the first major role for Julie Christie! [v]  Putting her alongside Fred Hoyle, much as I liked him, well, there’s no comparison.

In retrospect, 1952 marked the beginning in an important shift in how we saw our world.  One theme to emerge from concern over atmospheric pollution was sustainability.  Fourteen years after the Great Smog, Barbara Ward published Spaceship Earth, with the memorable comment, “We are a ship’s company on a small ship.  Rational behaviour is the condition of survival.” [vi] That led to Only One Earth, an unofficial report commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.  Prepared with the assistance of a committee of corresponding consultants from 58 countries, it pointed to areas of concern for economists and political scientists, as well as philosophers and theologians.  Ward saw a close connection between wealth distribution and conservation of planetary resources, and argued “the careful husbandry of the Earth was essential for the survival of the human species, and for a decent life for all the people in the world.” [vii]   She was an optimistic analyst, as a third book on Progress for a Small Planet revealed.  Alas, rationality hasn’t been sustained as she had hoped.

The image of spaceship earth was also a reflection on the developing views of astrophysicists.  As more astronomical observations and theory has revealed, we can be seen as a tiny dot on a developing canvas, with a finite beginning and a finite end.  Brian Greene’s recent book, Until the End of Time, explains how scientists see the universe today. [viii] Rather than depressing, his book offers testimony to the extraordinary time we live in.  Greene suggests this is a special moment to be living, a time to enjoy, but also a time to manage what we have with care.

The phrase “to see through a glass, darkly” comes from the apostle Paul.   The full quote in the Bible is “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  For Paul this was a way to explain that we will understand all there is to know when we confront god.  At a more mundane level, it is a salutary reminder that we make sense of things imperfectly, especially initially, but, with time, we are able to understand a little more.  In 1952, there were some hazy glimpses about our environment, about pollution, which we now see somewhat more clearly in the context of climate change.  There were emerging ideas about the universe, of which we know so much more now, especially about how it has evolved over time, but most of which remains uncertain and in doubt.

Back then with the Great Smog and the Big Bang we saw through a glass, darkly.  Today, the glass seems somewhat clearer, but despite more clarity, we still only “know in part”.

[i] As is often the case, I am indebted to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle

[ii] In his Foreword to Simon Mitton’s biography, Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, Cambridge UP, 2011

[iii] Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1950

[iv] Reported on the BBC: Adam Curtis, A Mile or Two off Yarmouth, 24 February 2012.

[v] 21 years old, in 1961, two years before Billy Liar, and four years before Darling and Dr Zhivago.  See it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FEP-oJ0plI&list=PLzQivjcgT2J0cTMYLp1XCCppLgeDgXf1k&index=1

[vi] Columbia University, 1966

[vii] With Rene Dubos, Norton, republished in 1983

[viii] Knopf, 2020