The Horror Film That Spawned a Universe
How The Dead of Night Helped Inspire Three Astrophysicists to Rethink Reality
In 1946 three friends walked into a Cambridge cinema, looking for a solid distraction from the rigors of postwar Britain. They weren’t just an ordinary bunch of mates — the three were trained in astrophysics, possessed exceptional imaginations, worked closely together during wartime on important military projects, and were open to novel ideas in science. Today we remember Hermann Bondi, Thomas “Tommy” Gold, and Fred Hoyle as co-proposers of the steady-state theory of the universe. What happened in that cinema led directly to that bold proposal.
The film they watched, The Dead of Night, was groundbreaking in many ways. It was filmed in London’s legendary Ealing Studios, where many compelling dramas and hilarious comedies were made. Released in 1945, it was one of the few horror movies produced during wartime. The actors and directors were absolutely top notch, rendering its psychological terror eerily effective. Hoyle, Bondi, and Gold were captivated and impressed.
For the three astrophysicists, the emblem of the film was its circularity — like the ancient symbol Ourobouros, the serpent coiled into a closed loop by devouring its own tale. The frightening events are shown to be part of an endless cycle, with the ending twisted back to the beginning.
The lead character, architect Walter Craig, is invited to a country house that he feels he has been to before, full of people for which he has a vague sense he has already met, but he doesn’t remember how. He also intuits that something horrible has happened there but he doesn’t know what. After conveying his anxiety, a psychiatrist reassures him, and encourages the group to share their own nightmarish stories. That leads into the heart of the film — a series of horror vignettes. The last one is by far the most famous and influential — the tale of a ventriloquist, played by gifted actor Michael Redgrave, and his evil dummy Hugo.
Once those stories end, suddenly Walter Craig becomes plunged into a nightmare of his own. He finally wakes up, only to receive an invitation to the country house he has just been too. With his acceptance of the invitation, the audience realizes that the film is truly an eternal loop.
Hoyle, Bondi, and Gold left the cinema and returned to the rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge where Bondi resided. Upon recapping the film while sipping glasses of rum, Gold suddenly remarked, “What if the Universe is like that?”
Gold’s remark led to the three of them developing the steady-state model of the universe, which lasts eternally by means of continuous renewal. Although it expands, causing older galaxies to move apart, new matter emerges to fill in the gaps. That means it is essentially timeless. Bondi and Gold thought such timelessness was natural, because, like the film, one should be able to step into the plot at any moment and still witness the full cycle of events. They called that idea the Perfect Cosmological Principle. Bondi and Gold published one paper, and Hoyle a second paper, due to some distinctions in the mechanisms they proposed. The steady-state universe would become the leading rival to the Big Bang for a decade and a half, until the cosmic microwave background radiation results by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson suggested that the early universe was hot and dense — supporting the Big Bang hypothesis. What a curious chronicle of events inspired by a classic horror film!
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of seventeen popular science books, including Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.