Oral History Interviews

Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists

Fred Hoyle discusses his thesis advisor P.A.M. Dirac and their relationship.

Oral history audio excerpt

Fred Hoyle discusses his thesis advisor P.A.M. Dirac and their relationship.

Lightman:

Was Dirac your thesis advisor?

Hoyle:

Yes. Well actually, I had a strange business. I got an appointment [as a fellow of St. John's] before my thesis was due. So it was all turned around. Normally, you go through your thesis and then you look for a job. But with me, it was the other way around. So I never bothered very much about the thesis. But I did discover that when I began to get a salary, as long as I could claim to be a student, I was free of income tax.

Lightman:

So it was convenient.

Hoyle:

It was convenient indeed. That is why Dirac agreed to be my research advisor. He thought it amusing. He didn't want students, but here was a student who didn't want a research director. That was the typical Dirac sense of humor. But he had a conscience, because he used to invite me to tea once a term. I very quickly divined that the German style of discussing physics, hammering away at it and discussing it, is what Dirac hated. What he liked to do was to think quietly about a problem, work out the solutions, and then present the solutions. He didn't want a lot of talk at the blackboard. I realized this, and so I would talk to him about other things, like mowing the grass — mundane matters. And I discovered that he had a keen interest in practical problems. He's always given out as a person who was impractical. That's just wrong. The nearest I ever came to having a serious row with him was when we were building a house in Cambridge, and we didn't fit a heat pump. He said that was ridiculous [Hoyle laughs.] This was typical of Dirac. If he ever built a house, it would have to have a heat pump, but to my knowledge he never did.