Calculating the Hoyle State

Calculating the Hoyle State

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.1

Though I have often used this quote from eminent cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle when making the case that God designed the universe to support life, Hoyle made this statement thirty years ago as he reflected on his work related to the carbon nucleus. But the reason he said it warrants deeper discussion.

Hoyle’s research greatly advanced our understanding of how stars produced elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. He knew that the universe contained a significant amount of carbon but the physics of the carbon nucleus known at the time could not explain the carbon abundance. So, he postulated an excited nuclear state with a specific configuration so that carbon formed efficiently.

Within a few years of Hoyle’s prediction, scientists verified the existence of the “Hoyle state” with suitable properties. However, since that time, attempts to calculate the Hoyle state from first principles have all failed––until now.

Utilizing a powerful supercomputer, state-of-the art programming techniques, and advances in nuclear physics models, a team of European scientists calculated the properties of the Hoyle state from the fundamental forces between particles. The calculated state matched the energy, spin, and other nuclear properties predicted by Hoyle.2

After the big bang, the universe contained essentially only hydrogen and helium. Stars had to produce all the heavier elements. However, as Hoyle noted, “if you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are just the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just about where these levels are actually found to be.”3 The “two levels” he references are the carbon state named for him and a similar nuclear configuration in oxygen. Rather than take some random, “likely” value, these two states must be tuned to specified values in order for our universe to contain substantial amounts of both carbon and oxygen.

Thanks to this collaborative effort, scientists’ calculation of these tuned nuclear states from first principles validates Hoyle’s major contributions to understanding the formation of carbon in our universe. First posited decades ago, the Hoyle state has been empirically confirmed. This result provides a new tool to ask how carbon (and oxygen) production might occur in a universe with different fundamental forces. We expect that such future tests will continue to show that a superintellect really did monkey with physics.

  1. Sir Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering and Science 45 (November 1981): 8–12.
  2. Evgeny Epelbaum et al., “Ab Initio Calculation of the Hoyle State,” Physical Review Letters 106 (May 13, 2011): 192501.
  3. Hoyle, “The Universe,” 12.