Astrophysical Bohemia

(Being the Further Adventures of a Cosmic Terrorist)


By Hilton Ratcliffe



Voelvlei is a 300-acre patch of pristine veld and wetland in the lee of KwaZulu-Natal’s Karkloof Mountains. There, in a rambling Meccano-set, double story house, shaped, it would appear, more by its inventors’ exploratory drive than by architectural vision, live Paul and Jill Jackson. Paul is a retired professor of physics and general inquisitor of nature. From time to time, I make the two-hour journey through the rolling emerald hills of Natal’s magnificent midlands to spend some quality learning time with the Jacksons, gazing out over the valley towards distant timber plantations with their two dogs and a cat that came in from the cold. I would like to recount a recent visit, because it illustrates the long-term benefits of listening to someone who knows more than you do, even if you don’t always agree. The dialogue took place in warm autumn sunshine on the front lawn, traced over a litany of birdcalls and buzzing friendly insects. I have named it “The Lesson of Voelvlei” and my account takes the form of an unsent letter to Prof Jackson.


“Dear Paul,

“I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation yesterday. There’s good news and there’s bad news. First, the bad news. You pointedly advised me to be wary of logic and rational thought as the means to reach conclusions about the world. Thank you for the advice, but it occurs to me that you used logic to frame your argument! It’s a paradox in the purest sense. I listened carefully, and weighed up what you said—with logic again. I’m afraid it’s a dead-end street, a classical circulus in probando sand trap that leads nowhere useful. Actually, I must say, it’s just plain bad advice.


“Notwithstanding that, I came away enriched by something else. You told me to remember who I am. Where do I come from? How am I equipped to deal with my shift in history? Yes, I am indeed a chattering African ape with interesting thumbs, given to exuberant vocal signalling called speech. This is where our dialogue, essentially between two monkeys on a hillside, barking and coughing at each other under a clear blue African sky, has led me: To look carefully at just what sort of machine I am in this magnificent wilderness, and how the cogs and wheels of my consciousness equip me to derive, hold, and express an opinion on anything at all that drifts in through the windows of perception.


“The Lesson of Voelvlei is profound, and may in fuller time emerge as a book in its own right. For now, I want only to set the wheels in motion. What kind of monkey am I? This is the threshold of a tricky game in which I think about thought, and I must be careful not to out-clever myself.


“It would appear likely that in common with all sentient species, my mental pictures mimic—that is, symbolise in a faithful way—the world outside. The first principle is that the spatial frame of reference in my mind is the same as that which applies to the real world outside. It is a 3-dimensional construct, plain and simple. I can create and hold in my mind an image of a 2-D object, say the surface of a page, but must realise that the image, like a hologram, is framed in a 3-D place. If I rotate the page in my mind, it becomes obvious. We cannot conceive of any object in other than 3-dimensional space. That’s the first clue that we are designed to accommodate environmental parameters, not conflict with them.


“The next phase is how the ‘facts’ arrange themselves; the way cause proceeds to effect; and how our mental processes best deal with this. Essentially, what happens is that we can manipulate these mind-bytes, using our designed-in cerebral abilities, in such a way that we are able, more or less successfully, to predict a given effect from observed causes. This is logic. The rational, dependable progression from cause to effect is a process that we are cerebrally equipped to manipulate towards a useful outcome. Once again, it is obvious that we are monkeys designed in harmony with natural, real world processes.


“In the context of the Lesson of Voelvlei, what emerges is this: To get a coherent mental reconstruction of external reality, we must use logic. There is no other way to consistently produce a proper result. We are simply not equipped—dare I say intended?—to deal with the world irrationally as a survival mechanism. It would be counter-productive and unnatural. Whatever we think, the only audit we have is comparison with external reality. No matter how convinced I might be that by simply flapping my arms I could fly like a bird, if I were to test my faith by jumping off the Empire State, gravity would win. If I can predict gravity’s victory, that’s logic.


“So yes, I am a chattering African ape (a notion which does not offend me in the slightest), and I babble on unashamedly in ape-talk, thinking and developing opinions in the fashion of the monkey that I am. For every yin, there is a yang. Intelligence is a mastery of logic and an appreciation of the aesthetic. Hedonism is tempered by ethics. Rational is shadowed by the irrational, and we, creatures of the little blue planet, must cope with that. It’s how well we harmonise with the laws of nature that will determine in the broadest terms the location of that seminal line drawn in the sands of time that separates success from failure. We won’t win by fighting it.


But I guess we all need to decide just what the ‘it’ is in our equation of state.


With kind regards, Hilton”


My father was agnostic, and I was brought up without religious prejudice. That really was an advantage, because when I went into science I had no philosophical or theological baggage to worry about. It was great. Eventually, my journey took me into the infinite universe of astronomy, and what I came across, what I saw with my own eyes, absolutely blew me away. There are enormous creatures out there, so big they make your eyes water, and they belong to species with the same general shape and behaviour that stretch out for as far as our instruments can see. I hadn’t expected to find what I did, and must admit to being somewhat puzzled that most professional astronomers seem to be desensitised to the spectacle and take these things for granted.


How can I possibly convey the rush that I get from looking at the cosmos? You see, what we have in the environment—and remember, astrophysicists are actually environmentalists on a really big scale—is consistently repeated patterns. We see millions of things, all with the same shape and general behaviour. Why? That’s the question! A few months ago, someone gave me an orchid to put on my desk. The buds were still furled, but over several weeks they opened up into the most stunning blooms with absolutely incredibly detailed intricacy. They were symmetrical, yet not. I spent hours gazing at them in abject wonder, and it occurred to me that orchids do not emerge because of a random, chaotic process. They are perfectly formed according to a detailed, pre-conceptual template that lays out the plan in such way a way that although all orchids of a particular species are similar, no two are identical. It’s all written in the genetic plan.


The kind of “intelligence” evolutionary processes have is a vision of the outcome before the process starts.


It’s exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale up in the heavens. The nebulae, stars, galaxies and clusters of clusters of galaxies are blooms in the cosmic flower garden, and they reproduce themselves in the same general way. Consistently repeated patterns can’t be fobbed off as coincidence. It’s design, and it’s incredible.

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