My flight from Atlanta, Georgia, via Dakar, touched down smoothly and right on time at O R Tambo on Friday 19th September, and so another dream wound down to a conclusion. I had plenty of time to think on the 31-hour journey back from the USA. After sultry Missouri, tropical Senegal, and sunny Gauteng, the freezing weather in warm-hearted Durban seemed strangely incongruous, but it was nothing that a pot of properly brewed tea couldn’t make up for. It was an amazing trip, and I hope to have the opportunity to report back to you in full before too long. The warm and enthusiastic reception I enjoyed from Prof Richard Lieu (U. Alabama), Prof Gerrit Verschuur (U. Memphis), Prof Philip Mannheim (U. Connecticut and MIT), amongst other distinguished scientists, and the resounding applause that rewarded the presentation of my paper, were ringing in my ears all the while.
I reflected despondently how starkly this contrasts with the attitude of 9 leading academics at 4 South African universities who did not do me even the elementary courtesy of a reply to or acknowledgement of my emailed scientific enquiries. It is in my view a shameful dereliction of etiquette, and the lady and gentlemen concerned might learn some really useful social skills from Sir Patrick Moore, who grits through the pain in his hands to reply to every single letter he receives, no matter how humble.
My family picked me up at Durban airport, and they were naturally excited about the article on the large Hadron Collider that appeared in the Sunday Tribune of September 7. Along with a large picture of me that looked more appropriate for a feature on Tai Chi than something about particle physics, was an article penned by someone who appears to lack even the most rudimentary grasp of physical science. This has happened to me with annoying regularity, and quite frankly, I’m heartily tired of being misquoted in this way. From a mish-mash of notes recorded at abstract angles in her diary, this journalist simply pasted together word-bytes that might sound clever to the average Sunday reader, but which lacked any sort of contextual integrity.
For example, at separate times during the interview I first explained to her the phenomenally high event energies being attempted by the LHC (and this included a detailed explanation of Terra electron Volts), and later discussed the ludicrous precision claimed in descriptions of the Big Bang, starting at 10-47 seconds after the bang. From those two completely distinct discussions came this marvellous example of tired journalism: “First you need to understand the speed at which the particles are going. Think of a fraction of one over one and then add 47 noughts. That is the speed per fraction of a second that the particles will be moving in.” What in the name of pity is that supposed to mean? It is utter nonsense and I am offended by the thought that such gobbledegook could be attributed to me.
I suppose most people would simply laugh, or just shrug and walk away, but not me. I am proud of the way I do science, and take a great deal of trouble to be as factually clear and accurate as I can. In a couple of sentences, a widely read newspaper can reduce well structured scientific argument to meaningless babble, and let me tell you, I am not amused! It is a sad indictment of chronic lack of professionalism in South African journalism generally, and the latest MNASSA carries a report of equally thoughtless reporting in an article on SALT in the SAA in-flight magazine Sawubona. In future, I am going to insist that I get a pre-publication proof to check for blatant misquotes or factual errors. Damn, I’m mad! Mumble, mumble, mutter, mutter…
During the latter part of my trip, I had the opportunity to visit the offices of the Climate and Solar Science Institute in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The Institute is the brainchild of Prof Oliver Manuel (nuclear chemistry, U. Missouri) and Prof Stig Friburg (nuclear physics, U. Virginia). It is primarily a vehicle to encourage analysis of the Solar System, and I was knocked out to be invited to become an affiliate of the Institute. Of, course, I promptly accepted.
So, there’s a proudly South African flag flying on the banks of the grand ol’ Mississippi, and the CSSI will be listed as my affiliation in all future publications and on my business card. No doubt this news will be greeted with great relief by those embarrassed by association with my heterodoxy. Okay, you can relax now. And later on, when the walls of paradigm have been sufficiently breached, you will be unconditionally and without recrimination welcome to join us on this side of the fence. No hard feelings.
It is only a few hours since I arrived back across 9 hours of time zones, and jet lag has made me about as hung over as a teetotaller could possibly be, so please forgive me for making this Breaking News a little shorter (and grumpier!) than usual. I’ll leave you with this thought: A team of astronomers led by K. Barbary of UC Berkeley has published a paper in ApJ detailing the discovery of a peculiar object. In Discovery of an Unusual Optical Transient with the Hubble Space Telescope (astro-ph/0809.1648), the authors state, “The transient’s spectrum, in addition to being inconsistent with all known supernova types, is not matched to any spectrum in the SDSS database. We suggest that the transient may be one of a new class.” Isn’t that awesome?
Space science can only progress with the discovery of new, “peculiar” objects. As long as we ignore or sweep away anything that doesn’t neatly fit our preferred model of existence, and while we continue to resist the exceptions that deny us our Theory of Everything, we will remain steadfastly mired in the stodgy swamp of comfort-zone dogma. Thus sayeth the oracle…