Another year has come and (almost) gone, and we wonder what tomorrow may bring. I, for one, hope that it is fulfillment of our potential as human beings, and as a nation, and as a region. We have dared to dream, so let us replace sentiment with action. We can…
In December each year, I look back on the Breaking News columns for the year, and construct from them an astronomical history with a particularly local, personal flavour. The January Ndaba let readers peep into the thinking of an astronomer still basking in the afterglow of a visit to Sir Patrick Moore. After a brief teaser about my official report back on the trip, due the following month, I proceeded to tell a disjointed tale of ultra big numbers, wavelengths of light, and elephants talking in ultrasound. Yes, it’s clear, I do get stoned on the cosmos!
The February column started thus:
“This is a good news column! There is a lot of positive development lined up for astronomy in 2008, and some of it is reported here first. The ongoing adventures of the Mars rovers; Ulysses first time ever passing over the North Pole of the Sun at the beginning of a solar cycle; repair plan for the Hubble Space Telescope; more anomalous results from WMAP; dazzling solar images from STEREO; an exposé of Al Gore’s propaganda; two books—including a collaboration between this writer and Sir Patrick Moore; and another conference where adversaries in the Big Bang debate can engage one another in a civilised way; this and much more is what’s in store for us in the year ahead.”
Apart from a bit of wishful thinking about dethroning Al Gore, that’s pretty much what happened.
March 2008 carried news of ASSA President Magda Streicher’s very welcome visit to the Durban Centre. March also gave an unprecedented glimpse into letters between Dr Halton Arp and me. Chip Arp is one of our era’s greatest observational astronomers, and I have the rare privilege of being able to share ideas with him, and in turn, I shared some of them with you. I hope you found it interesting.
The April column featured Chris Lintott’s amazing Galaxy Zoo project. They used amateur astronomers around the world to classify more than a million objects in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Here is how I described it:
“Chris’s enthusiasm was rewarded with an incredible response from people like us. Within a very short time after the July 2007 radio announcement, 115 000 volunteers had signed up and were classifying 50 000 galaxies an hour! To date they have made 34 million classifications, which means that on average 34 different observers have classified each galaxy in the survey. The final conclusion in each case is arrived at democratically, and professional physicists and mathematicians (being two distinctly different species of the genus Homo) are now busy pulling the big picture together.”
April concluded with an obituary for Arthur C Clark, who passed away on 18th March 2008. He was a visionary scientist and writer, and had been a very close friend of Patrick Moore.
In May, I kicked off like this:
“As I start assembling the collection of ideas that will go into my paper for the 2008 ASSA symposium, it is vividly brought back to me how much I feared some of the concepts in cosmology that were placed before me as a student. I didn’t think I would ever master Relativity, and I was terrified of being exposed as an idiot. Being scared wasn’t the answer though; I should have accepted the inevitable. I did not master Relativity, and there are many more people in the world of astrophysics who today regard me as congenitally inept than those few who wriggle in their straight-jackets and drool uncontrollably as they blither away that someone should be listening to me. Poor souls. Like the sly old fox that I am, I am going quote from my soon-to-be-completed collaboration with Sir Patrick Moore, The Static Universe. In it I address the problems inherent in trying to calculate cosmic velocities, and the critical role played by where we anchor our logic, and upon what. Please let me know if this is easy to understand, because if it isn’t, I must make changes now!”
Sum total of people who emailed their comments? Zero! Thank you so much, friends. Perhaps you were more impressed with the obituaries for Edward Lorentz and John Wheeler…
By midyear, my disillusionment with the paltry feedback I was getting from Breaking News readers was reaching crisis point. I moaned about it like this:
“You guys have been extremely shy with the emails of late. I have very little feedback to shape the content of my column, so I guess I will just have to wing it. Something completely different happened to me a couple of weeks back, and I’d like to share it with you. I got a letter from Prof Kiril Panov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences with an unusual request: He had been invited by the prestigious Franklin Institute to submit a nomination for the 2009 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science. He had chosen as a nominee my friend and colleague, Prof Oliver Manuel of the University of Missouri, and asked if I would agree to writing the required letter of support. Of course I said yes.”
Thank you, Arthur Hughes, for writing to me about what I had to say in my letter, and for the promising dialogue that ensued between you and Oliver. It seems to have fizzled out, but at least someone emailed me with their point of view. I appreciate it. More please!
Based on the enthusiasm I experienced from readers for Chip Arp’s letter (not!), I decided to include some personal correspondence again in July. This time, the letter—called “The Lesson of Voelvlei”—was from one of the most patient and tolerant teachers I have ever met. Professor Paul Jackson (son of well known professional astronomer and icon of South African astronomy, the late Cyril Jackson) was until his retirement several years ago head of the Department of Physics at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. We have become friends over the last few years, and I have been their luncheon guest on a number of occasions at their isolated estate, Voelvlei, between Mooi River and Greytown. The subject this time was the use of logic in science, and the fan mail dropped back to zero. I knew I had to up the ante or sink to ignominious silence in the world of science journalism.
In August you got the full Monty! News of the 2nd edition of The Virtue of Heresy, my invitation to present a paper at the ASSA symposium, followed by Martin Clements’ invitation to do my mid-blowing slide show at the Botanical Gardens Star Party. I rounded it all off with a preview of the 2nd Crisis in Cosmology Conference, set to take place in the USA in September and predicted to make waves with Richter values. Reader response? Let me just say that I’ve seen more activity in a pod of slumbering Zambezi hippos than I saw in my email inbox after the August Ndaba hit the newsstands.
Who would have a soul so dead, a spirit so devoid of the faintest spark of adventure, as to be left unmoved by an account of the conquering of a lofty peak, or the tale of war between scientific superheroes, culminating in an exploding Black Hole and the subsequent vaporising of the entire Universe? I hate to tell you this, but you may well know such irreparably dour folk. My September column celebrated the conquering of Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, by our intrepid and fearless editor. Not satisfied, I followed this with my review of Leonard Susskind’s Black Hole War. Reader hit rate? Nada. Luto. Zilch. Niks. Perfect vacuum. Eish!
Well, as you can imagine, by October I’d had enough. Time to rant and rave. Chronic jet lag put a handy edge on my grumpiness, and I railed on about South African academics who couldn’t be bothered to reply to letters; journalists who misquote people; and the frightening reluctance of many scientists to deal with, or even admit the existence of, peculiar objects detected in observation. I let off steam.
For once I had an appropriate response—respectful silence.
Last month, I gave a brief summary of CCC2, and the maelstrom of post-event duties that landed on my desk. Included was a skimmed précis of some of the more interesting papers presented there, and some conclusions reached. But that wasn’t what got everyone excited. After a hiatus lasting over a year, something got you guys back to your keyboards and responding to a disconsolate Skywalker in the hills beyond Kloof. One email came from as far afield as Barcelona! What was it that finally woke the sleeping dragon? It was this paragraph:
“Before I go, let me answer a question that has been raised by several of you concerning the remarks directed at me by Prof Phil Charles as he left the ASSA symposium. Yes, I did respond to him with a rebuttal. Obviously, since I had no opportunity to do so at the symposium, I put my counter-arguments in the form of a letter to Prof Charles, and emailed it to him on 21st August, 2008, at 01:02pm. That’s two months ago. I have not yet been honoured with a reply or acknowledgement. What do you think I should do? Graciously accept that he has no further argument, and concedes defeat? Or perhaps submit it to a top, widely read publication like Ndaba in the form of an open letter, and see if that wakes somebody up at the SAAO?”
Thanks everybody. Your unanimous consensus that my unanswered letter be made public is duly noted. I will see what I can do.