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Plumian Scholarship Essays

What did Lewis think of the possibility of discovering life on other planets? What implications might such a discovery have for Christian theology? Originally published in the Christian Herald and entitled “Will We Lose God in Outer Space,” Lewis’s essay on the subject was first published in 1958 and later became titled “Religion and Rocketry.” (1) The essay was written in partial response to the writings of Professor Fred B. Hoyle, the Cambridge astronomer and founder of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge.

In 1958, Hoyle was Plumian professor of astronomy at Cambridge and engaged in thestudy of the structure and evolution of the stars. Even though he coined the phrase “Big Bang,” Hoyle rejected the ‘big bang’ theory of the origin of the universe in favor of the steady state theory, which claimed that the universe has always looked as it does now. Martin Ryle, however, held to the big bang theory for the creation of the universe in a moment, the theory that eventually held sway.(2)

Some of Hoyle’s writings, including science fiction and plays, popularized astronomy.(3) Christopher H. Derrick of Geoffrey Bles publishers, presumably in 1963 and before Lewis’s death, wrote a proposal for a book that was to include “Religion and Rocketry,” stating that “This essay seems to have been written in rebuttal of an argument which is only likely to be brought forward by a rather silly minority (though an academically distinguished one)…”(4) Hoyle would have been part of that academically distinguished, but silly, minority.

Lewis also mentioned Professor Hoyle (1915–2001) in his essay “The Seeing Eye” (1963). In “The Seeing Eye,” Lewis challenged the conclusion of the Russian cosmonauts, who concluded that there was no God, since they did not find Him in outer space. In that same essay, Lewis claimed that Hoyle and many others were saying that life must have originated in many, many times and places, given the vast size of the universe. He was referring to a series of broadcast talks that Hoyle had given in 1950, later published as The Nature of the Universe, a series of talks that argued against a Christian view of origins and the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Later, in 1977, Hoyle championed the ancient theory of panspermia, supported these days by Richard Dawkins, that life on earth originated with the importation of living cells from space.

The philosopher C.E.M. Joad agreed with Lewis and concluded that the size of the universe and the span of time in which it formed did not have “any necessary bearing upon our views as to the nature of the universe as a whole, more particularly as regards its origin, purpose, destiny and end.” (5) The enlargement of the scale of the universe did not reduce the importance of mankind. Disagreeing with Hoyle, Lewis thought it unlikely that life existed anywhere else in our solar system, but that it was at least possible elsewhere in the galaxy. He argued that “those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space.”(6) People with dogmatic preconceptions, and scientists are not immune to such positions, will find themselves looking for evidence to support their preconceived opinions. Science is not equipped to do theology and evaluate the arguments for the existence of God, and, furthermore, the discovery of life in other parts of the universe would have no effect upon Christianity.

The essay itself starts with Lewis proclaiming two equal and opposite scientific proposals: one, that life only began on earth with the rarest of accidents, and another, proposed by Hoyle, that life probably began in many places. Both positions, Lewis wrote, claim to show the absurdity of the Christian belief in divine origins and the Incarnation of Christ. The odd thing is that arguments from two very different positions would both be used to attack Christianity, but such as the desperation of the anti-religionist.

The cogency of Hoyle’s argument, wrote Lewis, was dependent upon five other questions, which must be answered before we can give any credence to Hoyle.

1. Are there animals anywhere else besides earth?

2. If yes, do any of these animals have what we call ‘rational souls’? That is, are they spiritual beings?

3. If there are such spiritual beings, are any or all of them, like us, fallen?

4. If any of them have fallen, have they been denied Redemption by the Incarnation and Passion of Christ? Christ could have come to those worlds also.

5. Finally, if all of the first four questions could be answered yes, is it certain that this is the only possible mode of Redemption?

In Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:19–23), Lewis argued, God hints that the longing for redemption is cosmic, and therefore not limited to this world. Perhaps redemption has happened for all those who need it, has happened through Christ’s redemption, and has somehow been extended to other creatures. But we really don’t know. And to speculate about other creatures in other worlds takes us into the imaginative narrative that comprises Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, especially Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. One paragraph of the essay in particular, beginning with the words “It is interesting to wonder…,” imagines the scenario that Lewis spells out in Out of the Silent Planet. We find Lewis speculating that the vast distances in the universe are “God’s quarantine precautions,” designed to prevent the rest of the universe from being contaminated by the corruption of our world. The rest of the essay continues that speculation, and I will leave it to the reader of this article to pursue the original article by Lewis and enjoy his speculation for itself.


Since 1998, Rev. Dr. Joel D. Heck has served Concordia University at Austin as Professor of Theology. He teaches courses in Old Testament, New Testament, Reformation history, and the life and writings of C. S. Lewis.


(1) Christian Herald, Vol. LXXXI, April 1958.

(2) Christopher N. L. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge. Vol. IV: 1870–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 488.

(3) Patrick Moore, “Sir Fred Hoyle,” Dictionary of National Biography, consulted Jan. 11, 2005, 2-3. Patrick Moore, “Hoyle, Sir Fred (1915–2001)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/76123, accessed 11 Jan 2005].

(4) New Bodleian Library, MS. Facs. b. 90, p. 63.

(5) C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief, 32.

(6) C. S. Lewis, “The Seeing Eye,” in Christian Reflections, 171.

Three weeks ago I described some of Fred Hoyle's rebellious childhood, which included truancy from school and wandering in the fields as a little boy, making toxic phosphene in his mother's kitchen -- but I didn't describe how, after failing twice, he won a full scholarship to Cambridge. There, partly because his heroes, James Jeans and Arthur Eddington had trained in mathematics, he also decided for the grueling 3 year math tripos. He was awarded the Mayhew Prize, and a year into graduate work the Smith Prize. Paul Dirac took him on as a research student, on the understanding that Hoyle would work on whatever he wanted and that they would never bother each other. His 'official' advisor was German-educated Rudolph Peierls, who had studied under Heisenberg.

Peierls gave Hoyle a problem concerning the Fermi reaction (Beta decay), which, with Hoyle's increasing theoretical knowledge in both quantum physics and statistical mechanics, he solved within a year and which became his first publication. He was then drafted into WW2, to work on radar countermeasures for the war at sea.

After the war (1946) he returned to Cambridge as a low paid junior lecturer in mathematics, so low paid that he and his young wife found it difficult to pay their taxes. Using Cambridge University's long summers and Easter and Christmas breaks he began to work on nucleosynthesis, which is the subject that shows how chemical elements can be formed inside hot stars. He was soon invited to Caltech to join a group working on the same subject, but insisted, on purely mathematical grounds, that the energy level in the carbon nucleus had to have a particular value (7.65 Mev) which had not been found in the experiments done at Caltech and MIT. Hoyle insistently asked that the experiments be repeated. After some reluctance from the labs his predicted 7.65 Mev energy level was found -- which meant that the previous stumbling block of nucleosynthesis going no further than Beryllium was now removed. Consequently it could now be shown that all the known elements could be produced from hydrogen, under very high temperatures and pressures, as in extremely hot stars.

Hoyle was a good writer, and after being invited to give some Saturday evening lectures for the BBC suddenly found himself popular -- as well as earning more from those five talks than his measly Cambridge Fellowship yielded in a year. In his fifth talk, on cosmology and the expanding universe, he coined the term 'big bang', although he put forward an alternative model of the universe -- his so-called steady state model. This model, in order to account for the expansion of the universe, involved a small but continuous creation of matter, in defiance of basic conservation laws in physics. Nevertheless he felt that such defiance was on a par with Big Bang's creation of a universe from nothing.

His work in theoretical astrophysics got Hoyle appointed to Eddington's former position -- Plumian Professor of Astronomy at the age of 43, which at last allowed Hoyle and his wife to pay their taxes.

Hoyle never lost his rebelliousness. When the young Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars, the later Nobel Prize went to her adviser, not to her. Hoyle said publicly that she discovered them and should have won -- which didn't win him friends in Cambridge.

Because of ongoing internecine faculty battles Hoyle resigned at the age of 57, despite a colleague saying 'no-one ever resigns a Cambridge professorship'. With no further salary he and his wife moved to the Lake District -- they both loved hiking -- and, still in demand in many countries as a visiting astrophysicist he supported himself by lecturing and writing science fiction novels with his son. The best-known of his novels is The Black Cloud. Still very much into hiking, Hoyle climbed all 282 Munros of Scotland (a Munro is over 3000 feet) in his 60s, often with other scientists.

Finally, while his steady-state theory is now considered to be wrong, the country boy from Yorkshire was knighted for his huge contributions to astronomy. He died in 2001 after a series of strokes.


1. "Home is Where the Wind Blows; Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life", by Fred Hoyle; University Science Books, Mill Valley California 94941.

2.  "Fred Hoyle's Universe", by Jane Gregory; Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon St., Oxford OX26DP, UK.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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