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No. 1011:
Von Buch and Faraday

Today, thoughts about Fred Hoyle and the problem of honoring science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Chemist Ivan Bernal tells how, in 1840, the French Academy elected that year's foreign member. On the slate were Oersted, Faraday, Bessel, Jacobi, and Herschel -- all familiar names to students of math or science. Also on the slate was one Christian Leopold von Buch, who has been long since forgotten.

Yet von Buch got 56 votes. No one else got more than six. Faraday had set the foundations of electric theory. He got none. Neither did Jacobi, who did basic work in mathematics.

So who was this von Buch whom the French Academy elected by a landslide over a field of giants? He was a geologist who observed volcanoes and stratigraphy. Von Buch seems to've been a good observer, but he was only a fashionable and ineffective theorist. He gets one paragraph in my Britannica. My Britannica also says he was a close friend of two famous and influential members of the academy: Humboldt and Gay-Lussac.

In 1857 it became Louis Pasteur's turn to be passed over in favor of since-forgotten scientists. In this century Marie Curie, with two Nobel Prizes, was never given membership.

And that brings us to Fred Hoyle, now 80 years old. In the '50s, Hoyle studied the astrophysics of quasars, red giants, white dwarfs, and radio isotopes. Some of that work became the basis for another man's Nobel Prize.

You and I know Hoyle best for his books. His novel, The Black Cloud, captivated me when I was in college. It's about an interstellar cloud of inorganic matter that turns out to be both sentient and intelligent. If that sounds like off-the-shelf Star Trek, it's because the idea has been copied ever since. But in Hoyle's book it's new, and not a technical hair is out of place.

All his life Hoyle has been a daring theorist. Theories of ether-borne disease, theories of our origins. Now Hoyle tells us that everywhere he looks, he sees purpose in the universe. How monstrously out of step with orthodoxy that is! The first new tenet of modern science, as it parted company with medieval alchemy, was that nature is blind and purposeless.

But then, Hoyle notes, science locks itself into its own belief systems. Any established science "is blocked by beliefs that are wrong." Science established is science fenced in.

So we're back to the French Academy. Faraday's, Pasteur's and Curie's greatness was authentic, and it's prevailed. National Academies can neither determine nor predict that. Hoyle is now old and he is content. He's reached a point where he can smile and remind us that real science has to be revolution. It has to be a thing that we can never see whole -- in its own time.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bernal, I., Election to the Academy of the Immortals. The Chemical Intelligencer, January 1995, pp. 50-53.

Horgan, J., The Return of the Maverick. Scientific American, March 1995, pp. 46-47.

Nieuwenkamp, W., Buch, [Christian] Leopold von. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980, Vol II, pp. 552-557.

I am grateful to Ivan Bernal, UH Chemistry Department, for providing me with a copy of his article; and to William van Arsdale, UH Mechanical. Engineering Department, for providing the Horgan article. By the way, the 1840 French Academy slate also included two more names that I didn't mention in the episode. They were Brewster and Mitscherlich, who, while not widely known today, are remembered with respect by people who work in their areas. Of the eight it was only von Buch who went on to what appears to be richly deserved obscurity.