As we sweep nonchalantly into 2009 and a sea of political intrigue, we can easily overlook the drama unfolding in science. That’s what Breaking News is about – sharing the drama, catching the flak!

First the bad news. A few weeks back I got the following email from Halton Arp in Germany:

Dear Hilton,
There is terrible news about Tom Van Flandern. He was brought to the hospital with blood clots in his lungs and expected to die within the hour. A very risky blood thinner avoided that threat. But the cause remains colon cancer metastasised – untreatable. I talked to him in his bed in the hospital last night. He will try to beat the odds but he realizes it is improbable. He was concerned about carrying on the work of the Meta Research Bulletin in notifying independent researchers about important events which would be avoided by normal media. The only person that he and I could think of was you. Your interests in newer and more correct theories, your connection to the South African magazine, attendance at conferences, etc, etc. You should talk to Tom, about this.
Regards, Chip

As soon as I could, I phoned Tom in hospital. Regular readers of this column, and those brave souls who read The Virtue of Heresy, will know that Tom Van Flandern has been mentor, advisor, colleague, and friend, all rolled into one—despite our strong and unreconciled disagreement over the Martian “face” at Cydonia. He brought up the matter of Meta Research, and I told him what Chip had said, by my understanding, that Tom wanted me to edit and distribute his bulletin. What followed completely surprised and humbled me. “Not quite,” Tom said from his hospital bed, “It’s way more than that. I want you to take over from me as president of the Meta Research Institute, Inc.”

You can imagine how I felt. Tom founded Meta Research in 1991, after he retired from the US Naval Observatory, where he had done some outstanding work in, amongst others, the fields of the Global Positioning System, and the flight paths (especially docking procedures) of the space shuttles. Meta Research is a registered corporation with a board of 8 directors. I was stunned. But of course I couldn’t say no. I could not leave him in the lurch in his hour of need.

So what is to become of Skywalker, scallywag so beloved of South African academics and professional astronomers? I’ll tell you when I know…

Big news, of course, is the launch, after much mumbling and muttering, of my website and blog, www.hiltonratcliffe.com. I’d love to get your feedback, and comments on the blog would be wonderful. It’s still under development, so it changes almost daily, and I’m really listening to what visitors have to say. I have linked it to several interesting websites, including of coursewww.astronomydurban.com. Any reciprocating links would be highly appreciated, and help to raise the Google profile of both ends of the link.

This is the holiday season. In the interests of promoting literacy (I can hear you laughing from here) I think we should discuss what we’re going to be reading over the next few weeks. The second ACG newsletter out of my keyboard has gone to press. Hey, this is quite a job! What I do is review all papers published in astro-ph on arXiv for the month, and write reviews on a selection of them. In November, that amounted to scanning more than 1,000 papers! I have to decide, based first on the title and authors, then on the abstract, whether I consider it a candidate. If yes, I download the PDF and save it. Then I read the introduction and the conclusions. That usually indicates whether it is hit or miss. If yes again, I read the whole paper through a couple of times, examine the diagrams, graphs, and tables, and from that compose introductory notes that we hope will encourage people to get hold of the paper and study it. Of, course, this selective method immediately excludes all those possibly relevant papers that are published in index fields other than astro-ph (unless they are cross-indexed). That’s a pity, but I can’t see my way around the problem short of getting specialist editors involved. In view of the fact that the position carries no remuneration, I’m not inundated with volunteers! If any of you want to send me suggestions of papers that you might come across—I’m sure many of you regularly scan the arXiv in search of a good holiday read—they will be very welcome .

Talking about what to read at the beach or in the hills, how about this: Geoffrey Burbidge has just published a paper called A Realistic Cosmological Model Based on Observations and Some Theory Developed over the Last 90 Years (arXiv:astro-ph/0811.2402). Isn’t that the most tantalising title for a scientific revue? A realistic cosmological model? Good heavens! I wouldn’t have thought such a thing was possible these days. It’s a very good read though, perfect for those long, quiet stretches between bites. I find all of Prof Burbidge’s publications extremely readable, and despite our disagreement on the question of expansion, greatly compelling. This review, covering a century of cosmology, puts a stark perspective on where we are today. He declares at the outset,

In this paper I shall take a different approach, showing first how cosmological ideas have developed over the last 90 years and where mistakes have been made. I shall conclude with a realistic model in which all of the observational material is included, and compare it with the popular model. Not surprisingly I shall show that there remain many unsolved problems, and previously unexpected observations, most of which are ignored or neglected by current observers and theorists, who believe that the hot big bang model must be correct.”

How about this one: Hubble’s Cosmology: From a Finite Expanding Universe to a Static Endless Universe by Andre Assis and two colleagues (astro-ph/0806.4481). It is absolutely essential, in my view, to pay close attention to this paper, essentially a summary of quotes from Hubble’s own writing. The implications are quite astonishing! Hubble also developed with his friend Richard Tolman an experimental test to check if redshift does indeed represent velocity. The results of Tolman surface brightness tests, as far as I have seen, are nil for and two against expansion. Therefore, according to the principles of modern science, those results will be ignored.

To end off with, here’s a quote from my blog:

“Then there’s a stunning analysis of solar activity, related to river flows and precipitation basins on Earth. There is the fascinating implication that sunspots may not, after all, be caused by internal reactivity in the Sun, but by external influences. Specifically, there is a direct correlation, at high statistical significance over considerable time, between evaporation basin activity on Earth, cosmic ray flux, and sunspot abundance. Are sunspots evaporation basins in the Sun’s photosphere? The lower temperature of the sunspot central dark spot (about 1,000K less than surrounding plasma) supports the idea.” 

This refers to the paper Solar Forcing of the Streamflow of a Continental Scale South American River by Pablo Mauas and colleagues (arXiv: 0810.3882). Nobel Prize Committee, please note that the derivation of Sunspot properties is entirely my own idea! You ignored CNO fusion; don’t lose this one, please.

Happy New Year!

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