Astrophysics and Astrochemistry

Technical stuff for understanding the cosmos.


There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure that [we’re not] covering up aliens in New Mexico.”
—CJ Cregg
A couple of years ago, I was mentioned at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, of which organisation I am a proud contributing member of many years’ standing. I was not present at this particular meeting, held at the Johannesburg branch of the Society. It appears that a member in the audience challenged some statements made by the guest speaker, and supported his challenge with quotes from my book, The Virtue of Heresy.
Sensing that the invited speaker was being scurrilously questioned, the chairman leaped to his defence. “We take no notice of what Ratcliffe has to say,” the chairman declared, “because he is a conspiracy theorist.”
Good grief. In a manner of speaking, that’s akin to being called the antichrist. There can hardly be another member of the global scientific community who is as anti-conspiracy theory as I. I detest them. I rail against them and their proponents at every opportunity. So I am left to wonder whether my accuser had even read anything I’ve written.
Let me try to clarify this misconception. My position is this: For reasons of efficiency and brevity, science is done by means of widely accepted standard models. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we analyse the results of an experiment or attempt to explain novel observations. We can quickly make great leaps in our reasoning by slotting in the appropriate standard model, which for our purposes is assumed to be true to material reality. However, it should be borne in mind always that the standard models are hypothetical constructs, which may in due course be falsified by more recent discoveries.
Meanwhile, the standard models form the basis of scientific education and constrain the mindset of future generations of researchers and educators. It is inevitable that properly qualified reviewers and editors of mainstream journals will test submitted material against the standards of university science curricula, and therefore, strictly in terms of the accepted standard models.
This not a conspiracy. There is no sinister plot in which people secretly conspire to get rid of opposition. It simply a natural consequence of our education. I know from long experience that professors and journal referees participate in this practice with great sincerity and without any trace of malevolence. The inevitable consequence of this part of the scientific method is that dissenting results are rarely, if ever published.
As a result, it becomes patently ludicrous to measure the veracity of a theory by the proportion of peer-reviewed papers that support the popular view. It is a very real, if entirely unintentional bias in the publication of scientific results.
No, Sir, I am not a conspiracy theorist; but I am, very definitely, a dissident.
From RationalWiki: “”Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed in vast conspiracies against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces.
—John Gray, political philosopher
“”Conspiracy theories: They’re just fairy tales adults tell each other on YouTube.
—John Oliver
A conspiracy is a secret plan to achieve some goal. Its members are known as conspirators. A conspiracy theory originally meant the theory pre-formed conclusion that an event or phenomenon was the result of conspiracy; however, from the mid-1960s onward, it is often used to denote ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational theories.
Daniel Pipes, in an early essay “adapted from a study prepared for the CIA”, attempted to define which beliefs distinguish ‘the conspiracy mentality’ from ‘more conventional patterns of thought’. He defined them as: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains power, fame, money, and sex.
One of the worst things about conspiracy theories is the fact they are almost airtight. Every debunking or piece of evidence against it will be viewed as an attempt to “misinform the public”, and the lack of evidence for it is viewed as a government cover-up.
The flood of conspiracy theories results in possibly-rational conspiracy theories getting lost in the midst of the noise of newsworthy but disingenuous ideas such as New World Order or the Moon landing hoax.
Not everyone involved in a conspiracy necessarily knows all the details; in fact, invariably none do.

Cosmology: Dickensian Misery

(This note is an excerpt from chapter two: The Hubble Universe in the book, The Static Universe by Hilton Ratcliffe, C. Roy Keys 2010)
Before we move on to other pastures and fresh contemplation, we should discuss the “subsequent work” so often alluded to but seldom decently identified in articles and papers about the Hubble Law. Surely there have been more recent tests, using modern equipment? Indeed there have; several in fact. All those that I have seen are unanimous in their support for the Hubble Law and concomitant expansion. Did the later redshift-luminosity data succeed where Hubble’s original effort had failed? That question haunted me. The way to check it out would come to me quite unexpectedly on a dark and windy night in the mountains. Professor Paul Jackson, a retired physicist and trusted confidant, lives in an intriguing, charmingly Heath-Robinson, self-built home on the inland slope of KwaZulu-Natal’s Karkloof range. From time to time I visit him there, usually to take advantage of some fresh mountain air, good farm cooking, and solid advice.
The night in question was Dickensian in its misery. The freezing wind howled through the whipping pines behind us, and anyone outside must have been convinced that ice, not fire, would signal Armageddon. Inside though, I was as snug as a bug in a rug, quite unaware of the impending epiphany. My bedroom doubled as Paul’s study, and I was delighted by the prospect of exploring his pregnant bookcase. I pulled a large, dog-eared book from the shelf and settled down to read.
One of the standard texts in the field is the definitive volume The Principles of Physical Cosmology by eminent Princeton physicist Dr Jim Peebles.[1] The context of what follows will be taken from Dr Peebles’ concise summary of the expansion concept on page 71: “The expansion of the universe means that the proper physical distance between a well-separated pair of galaxies is increasing with time, that is, the galaxies are receding from each other. A gravitationally bound system such as the Local Group is not expanding … the homogeneous expansion law refers to galaxies far enough apart for these local irregularities to be ignored.” There you have it, in a nutshell, from the pen of one of the most revered spokesmen of consensus cosmology. Expansion, and indeed any consistent sign of it, can only exist at extremely great but apparently indeterminate distances.
Like the persistent whine of a determined and hungry mosquito, the notion of non-locality hovered subliminally in the recesses of my mind, and as we shall soon see, improperly tinted my spectacles on this occasion. On page 50 of that book, figure 3.13 is a graphical representation of the correlation in a sample of elliptical galaxies of their velocity dispersion (represented by σ, the Greek letter sigma) with their apparent luminosity.[2] There is, without doubt, a linear trend through the scatter of data points in the plot, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is a real trend in the data. Theory relates velocity dispersion to cluster mass, and mass in a body of incandescent stars is proportional to intrinsic brightness (because, simply put, more mass means more stars, and therefore more light). What does this actually tell us? Certainly not what I thought at the time, and somewhat less than Dr Peebles implies.
My weariness must have blurred my concentration somewhat, because (as Paul later pointed out) I mistakenly took the diagram to represent a direct extrapolation of the relationship Hubble tried to establish in 1929 (redshift versus measured brightness of galaxies), whereas Dr Peebles plots the velocity dispersion of stars within galaxies without invoking redshift of the galaxies themselves. It doesn’t particularly worry me that I made a mistake; I often do, and gladly admit my error as soon as it is revealed to me. In this case, it was the principle involved that pitched a curve ball at the science I was tracking, and gave me a positive clue to the Achilles’ heel of redshift cosmology.
I consider it vital that we take due cognisance of a pervading habit in any zealous search for observational evidence. This treatment of observationally acquired data sets has haunted relativistic cosmology since its inception: Commencing with the eclipse data reported by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1919 [3] and punctuating the development of Big Bang Theory all the way through to the latest claims being made in the first decade of the 21st century, evidence is somehow found in observational measurements that either does not meaningfully exist in the unadulterated data, or if a pattern is found, does not refer to or in any way validate the preferred theoretical model. Objectively inconclusive results are given meaning that closer analysis reveals to be pointing in another direction completely. It’s a dangerous game. Like a cornered dog, synthetic evidence can bite you, and in the case of establishing a trend of luminosity versus redshift, it bit. What I needed to do was find the wound. I did find it, some time after my return from the Jacksons, and further careful inspection of my own copy of The Principles of Physical Cosmology provided the crucial and long-sought breakthrough.
What struck a chord for me was that the galaxies in Dr Peebles’ sample are ellipticals from the Virgo and Coma clusters. We all know that the postulated expansion of space does not occur locally, and “local” includes the Virgo cluster and almost certainly also the Coma cluster. With unsubstantiated optimism, the standard theory alludes to a threshold for expansion at around 100 Mpc from the Earth, meaning that for the first 350 million light years or so, space does not expand. Any perceived pattern in these data cannot indicate expansion, in terms of Big Bang Theory. This would be an utter train smash for the Hubble law if only I could find proof in the form of a published data table or graph.
It wasn’t hard. It’s right there in black and white on page 86 of Dr Peebles’ book. Figure 5.4 bears the caption, “Test of Hubble’s law using Tully-Fisher distances.” [4] Before we continue, I wish to acknowledge Dr Peebles’ self-deprecating honesty in the statement, “The distances in figure 5.4 are expressed in megaparsecs, but this is based on the still somewhat controversial calibration of the absolute magnitude-δν21 relation”.[5] We shall be discussing this controversial uncertainty in the next chapter.
The plot in the diagram shows the Hubble relationship established in the supposed redshift-distance correlation for a sample of galaxies in the vicinity of an object popularly identified as the Great Attractor. Although it has never been seen (it would in any event be obscured by the Milky Way’s disk), it has been invoked to explain the peculiar streaming motion of galaxies in the neighbourhood. A team led by Lyndon-Bell discovered in 1988 that peculiar velocities in this region are puzzlingly large, around 600 km sec-1 for the entire Local Group, and this could only be explained by the presence of an extremely massive object somewhere in the direction they were headed (Aside: this also caused a bad headache elsewhere in consensus cosmology, because the anisotropy—a local effect—shows up persistently in the CMBR, which of course is expressly forbidden by underlying theory).
The crucial significance of this geographical location is twofold: Firstly, it is local (all galaxies on the plot are <100 Mpc); and secondly, the presence in this locale of a structure massive enough to divert entire clusters of galaxies from the mooted Hubble flow is in defiance of the Cosmological Principle, and therefore rules out Hubble expansion in the region being observed. Despite the fact that all parties to the debate would agree that the galaxies represented in the graph occupy a volume of space that is definitely not expanding, Professor Peebles is quite clear in his conclusion about this particular plot: “We see that, even with the anomaly in the direction of Centaurus, Hubble’s law is quite a good description of the redshift-distance relation.” [6]
There you have it. Bingo! The Hubble law shows up in non-expanding space, and would therefore manifest in a static Universe. Hubble’s 1929 discovery and all the subsequent developments upon it are clearly invalid as indicators of universal expansion. As I perused further in The Principles of Physical Cosmology, I quickly saw that there is an abundance of such observational evidence refuting the notion of redshift-verified expansion, but of course I need only one substantive example to make my point.
At the risk of labouring the point, here’s the principle: Any correlation in observational data, perceived or real, between redshift and brightness cannot be taken to indicate expansion if it is also seen in static space. In fact, by their own logic, Standard Model theorists should concede that observationally, a linear relationship between the redshift of local galaxies and their apparent luminosities indicates quite the opposite: A static universe, not an expanding one.
[1] P J E Peebles The Principles of Physical Cosmology (Princeton University Press, 1993).
[2] Velocity dispersion is the spread of velocities of stars or galaxies in a more or less spherical cluster. It is estimated from the radial velocities of selected component objects in the group, and once established can give the cluster mass by means of the virial theorem.
[3] In my opinion, it is argued with merit that it started well before Eddington’s blatantly censored Principe and Sobral eclipse data. The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 is a case in point. However, we cannot afford to be distracted by peripheral arguments right now.
[4] The Tully-Fisher relation is a robust correlation between internal rotational velocity in spiral galaxies (a function of stellar abundance) and their intrinsic luminosity. See chapter 5 for further discussion.
[5] The term δν21 refers to the width of the atomic hydrogen 21cm radio line from the galaxy disk, a standard measure of rotation.
[6] P J E Peebles, op cit.

Skywalker interviewed by Author Poppet


Today I’m chatting with published astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe. Hilton is just one of those people who makes life infinitely interesting. No matter what question I have, he takes the time to *put things into perspective* for me, and he’s rather lovely. I’m pleased my path crossed his last year, and that we’ve maintained contact… let’s talk books, space, and big bangs (the innuendo in that is endless)…
Poppet • • • looks to Hilton…


• The Virtue of Heresy: That’s quite a title – care to explain it?

The full title of my first book is “The Virtue of Heresy – Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer”. It has nothing to do with religion. Science progresses by being challenged. The history of organised knowledge has been characterised by periods – I suppose we might even call them dynasties – during which a prevailing dogma has held sway, and this has always meant the suppression of dissent. For example, the regime that promoted the Earth-centred Universe ruled science and society for about 2,000 years. It has invariably been the efforts of a few resolute individuals, the heretics that brought about regime change described as a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. We owe the ongoing development of true science entirely to the efforts of those few dissidents like Copernicus and Galileo who risked their lives to challenge the orthodoxy, hence “the virtue of heresy”. My book puts that into a contemporary idiom, focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on insidious repression of dissent by a clique promoting Big Bang Theory in cosmology.

• Now, you have released your latest book, *The Static Universe* – that alone to me feels like a contradiction. Static implies, “unchanging” – is this what the title is insinuating?


The full title of the book is “The Static Universe – Exploding the Myth of Cosmic Expansion”. The term “static” has a specific meaning when used in astrophysics, quite different from the meaning it has in natural English. It means “non-expanding”, not “standing still”. This is part of standard terminology in the field, and I explain it early on in the book, and again in the glossary. It’s interesting to note that from far enough away, the perception of relative motion disappears. The distant stars appear fixed on the sky, yet they are in reality moving around at hundreds of kilometres per second relative to one another. It’s called an “observer effect”.

• I have to argue with you (sorry I have to) – when you say this after arguing Galileo’s theory – you say: Mathematics does not exist in nature. It is contained absolutely and entirely in the human mind—which of course, by my definition, is an unnatural place! I absolutely have to disagree – how can you explain chemical bonding then? Without numbers (mathematics) how would we build sound structures? – Or measure ingredients to bake a cake? I personally feel that mathematics is the only language which cannot be manipulated or corrupted – and yet you say it doesn’t exist in nature – but it has to, because we are all just atoms bonding – our own bodies are a mass of firing neurons and chemicals inducing impulses. Hilton, you have to explain that preposterous statement. – Or you are being cunning and calling the human mind *alone* unnatural? – which would lead to a whole new debate about the theory of *mind*…

No, there’s nothing cunning about it. Mathematics is a language, a way of describing things in nature using symbols, quantities and units of measure. It’s just fancy arithmetic. Like any language, it doesn’t exist in nature, it’s simply a mental construct used by human beings to communicate ideas. Thus, we may say that you and I are about 500km apart, but go and look at the road, at the earth and the rocks and the trees. There are no kilometres there. It’s in our minds only, but it helps us to agree on certain properties of the world about us. The same is true for chemical bonding or suspension bridges or the Fibonacci curves of spiral galaxies – not one of them contains mathematics, but may be usefully described by mathematics in its role as an efficient international language. Note that I do not say that mathematics is not useful, in fact it’s essential in science. But it should be a tool, not an argument for some esoteric higher truth. Read chapter ten (or chapter nine in the 3rd edition), “The Haquar Monologue”. The idea is developed there without a single equation!
I have to chuckle when you say “mathematics is the only language which cannot be manipulated or corrupted”. How wrong you are! Black Hole theory and Big bang theory are both gross corruptions and manipulations of the field equations of the General Theory of Relativity. In The Static Universe I devote a chapter to the question of space curvature, probably the greatest corruption of mathematics ever conceived. The fact that analysts solving the equations in these fields come to so many mathematically legitimate but opposing conclusions tells us that mathematics has the limitations of any language – it cannot express truth in an immutable way. Cosmology is ruled by no more than preference, certainly not by some eternal truth revealed unambiguously by mathematical formalism.

• Okay – let’s get to the nitty gritty here – who is Hilton? And what drew you to authoring books?

I grew up in rural Zululand, with a physicist father, an astronomer grandfather, and a musician mother, under a brilliant unpolluted sky. My dad would read to us every evening from books like “Jock of the Bushveld”, and would quote from Gray’s Elegy before supper in lieu of grace. How could I not have ended up where I am? It was pre-ordained. I was infused with a love of language (including mathematics and isiZulu) from the time I was born, and absolutely everything was done to some kind of musical sound track. So, Hilton is an astrophysicist and mathematician with a love of prose, rhythm, melody, and harmony, and he sees nature through those eyes.

• Where are your books available? (And what’s this I hear about a trip abroad to promote the newest one?)
They are both available on Amazon


Yes, I have just returned from a globally-cooled UK where I stayed with legendary British Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore . It was awesome. I visited him first in 2007 following his positive review of The Virtue of Heresy (you can read the story under “Articles” on my website) and he suggested that I should write a book called The Static Universe. I was already two-thirds of the way through a follow-up to Heresy, and was initially about as enthusiastic as drunk fowl. He was right (he usually is) and a few weeks ago I went over there again to thank him and celebrate his 87th birthday. He’s physically a broken man, but mentally – wow! What a mentor to have.

• What is it like being an astrophysicist?

Very sexy!

• Do you ever walk through the mall and think – my IQ is higher than yours? Or do you feel that IQ is overrated?

No I don’t. Not in a mall. Most of my time in malls is spent planning my escape. Yes the whole thing about IQs is muddy. Is it a measure of intelligence, or perhaps something else? What is intelligence? How is that distinct from being a proficient advocate? I know people who can “win” any argument they get into, but they are not necessarily intelligent, and almost always have no respect for the truth. So morality comes into it somewhere. I was taken out of my comfort zone in standard 5 when our IQs were done and put into a “gifted child” programme that all but ruined me academically. The fact that I went on to achieve a measure of success in a mentally challenging arena of science is despite that IQ-mania, not because of it. In any case, it was really just a test of my mathematical skills, that is, the ability to see patterns, and nothing to do with my understanding of nature.

• What do you do for fun? Or is your life mostly conducted looking into a magnifying lens?

Interaction with nature. I do a great deal of naked-eye observing – of celestial objects, of birds, of trees, of termites, of crystals, of exotic motor cars. Driving well engineered vehicles is my most enduring and rewarding hobby. I read a lot. I do photography. And I write. Oh, and don’t forget music. Music is a very big deal for me. One last thing – I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from dissing pseudo-science. Anthropogenic Global Warming and 2012 Doomsday are current favourites.

• You have looked through the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – what was that experience like? The waiting list is endless – yet a little birdie told me – you just had to flash that irresistible IQ – and you were granted passage – do tell!
No, there’s nothing sinister about my visits to Sutherland. I am part of the space science community, and despite my unorthodox views, am still respected as such. I have friends who are professional astronomers attached to the SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) and can generally get access to the inner sanctum. Of course, I didn’t get observation time (although in principle I could). To be granted observation time, that is, dictate where the instrument should be pointed to acquire images for research, is naturally enough a very difficult thing to achieve, but it’s not impossible! For my purposes as an astrophysicist, the data obtained from orbiting observatories is enough to keep me out of mischief. This last trip, I was there during the day and just played with that magnificent R300-million toy. Wow!

• My Mum wants to know how old you are and when she can date you? (laughs)

Oh crap! I’m 60 . I have a girlfriend (well, a friend with benefits) but I’m free on Tuesday.
(much chuckling)

• I’m going to veer off topic of your books briefly – to ask you a question that plagues one of my friends. He’s been watching the phenomenon known as *The Big Wobble* around the sun in our solar system, since 2007. – This is apparently – disc shaped *things* moving around the sun – physics dictates that anything that close – would surely disintegrate – yet these objects have been seen by a number of telescopes around the world – for a number of years – does the scientific community have an explanation for these things? (as I feel that there must be a basic, scientific – logical explanation for it)

Oh crap again! Refer to my previous comment about pseudo science and my mantras in the next answer. The Big Wobble refers specifically to a theory of aliens, and that’s just horse dung. I can’t go into detail here, but bear two things in mind: One, the centre-of-mass (known as the barycentre) of the Sun shifts fairly randomly within the orb of the Sun itself, and results in a complex set of physical wobbles throughout the Solar System, but most obviously near the Sun (eg, the precession of Mercury’s perihelion); two, the Sun and all stars and systems of stars are to some significant extent electromagnetic phenomena (refer to the chapter “A Twist in the Tale” in The Virtue of Heresy). The biggest structure in the Solar System is an electromagnetic plasma sheet. The Sun has an electrical potential with respect to surrounding space of a billion volts. There is copious geological evidence of electrical arcing in all Solar System bodies studied in surface detail (eg striations and lines of mini-craters that the nutters say are caused by alien warships). Bottom line: We’ve got enough real stuff to keep us mystified without this kind of dark and mysterious nonsense.

• What do you tell yourself on bad days? When the world gets you down – do you have a winning formula or mantra?

Keep it real. No hocus-pocus. Emotion is wonderful and therapeutic unless you wallow in it. I’m REALLY small. In an infinite Universe, we will always be infinitely more ignorant than we are wise. Cats rock!

(yes they do)

• What’s your favourite food?
Varies with my mood and what I ate last. A good English breakfast is right up there. Fish. Vegetables, raw or hardly cooked. Brown rice. Scrambled eggs. Ice cream. Pies. Apple tart. Prawn curry. Grilled pepper-lemon calamari. Mealie meal porridge with peanut butter. Tea and scones. Buttermilk rusks and Horlicks.

• Tell me your take on the Big Bang Theory

An incredibly complex mathematical theory that has no basis at all in reality. Creationism without God (unless man is god). The ultimate impossible theory of A to Z evolution. Prevailing dogma, the paradigm about to shift.

• What is it you would like the world to remember you for?

An uncompromising desire for truth, independent of any model or subjective opinion.

• What would you like the people you’ve known, to remember you for?

Well, I’m trying to be a decent person, so I guess if I succeed, people will include in their cocktail of memories of me that I was sincere and honest to a large degree.

• If you could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

That animals eat other animals. Cruelty appals me.

• Do you have an *idol* – a person who’s inspired you – or someone whose magnificence simply humbles you – and you can’t help feeling – one day – I’d like to be just like that?

Gautama the Buddha.

• And… what is your ideal gift? (I’ve always wondered what sort of gifts astrophysicists like to unwrap on Christmas morning)

Books. Washburn D10SNSK steel-string acoustic guitar. BMW R1200GS. 20” Meade reflector. Love. okie.

Hilton, thank you so much for this – it’s been great fun. I really enjoyed what I read of- “The Virtue of Heresy” – it’s a fun read, which is fascinating, informative, and really not what I expected. You blow the boring badge into smithereens. Good luck with both books …

Astrophysical Bohemia (Being the Further Adventures of a Cosmic Terrorist)

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.

Neutrinos, Nautilus, and the Notre Dame, by Hilton Ratcliffe

First and foremost, for me, knowledge is a journey, and I’m happy to hang around with people I can learn from. I prefer to do this in a pleasant way, hence the preference for comfortable chats over a cup of tea. My mother was a veritable teapot, and my late academic advisor, Professor Tony Bray, conducted all our research fuelled by tea and scones. It involves respect, courtesy, charming etiquette, and admission of our own ignorance.


Tony once described what I do as “agricultural astrophysics”. I try not to be disparaging about particle physics because a) I don’t understand it, and b) it sometimes does something useful (or so I’m told). In the field of experimental particle physics, I probably come closest to a glimmer of understanding when I’m thinking about neutrinos. An extra, distinct energy transport mechanism (besides light) was needed to explain conservation of energy and momentum in chemical reactions, so neutrinos were predicted, along with a means of detection (they are optically invisible). When a neutrino impacts an atomic nucleus (preferably a single proton), it emits a flash of mauve Cherenkov light (which is optically visible) aligned with the source. When large bodies of interactive material with prominent protons (like heavy water) are put somewhere shielded from ambient radiative pollution, we do in fact see patterns of Cherenkov light apparently aligned with sources of radio activity.


In order to make sense of this, statistical adjustments are made to get a fit with the model of the day. For example, although the neutrino flux density on Earth according to theory must be on the order of several billion neutrinos per square millimetre per second, neutrino observatories like Sudbury typically see less than one Cherenkov flash per hour. From that they extrapolate a beautiful, complex sub-model like flavour-changing. All this is accomplished without yet dealing with antineutrinos. When matter particles meet antimatter particles, they tell us, there is an energetic explosion and both are annihilated. Well don’t hold your breath! Not a single explosion has been observed, although, they tell us, the neutrino-antineutrino blizzard is thicker than Scotch broth by orders of magnitude.


Nor does something need to be seen to qualify as “observed”. The tau neutrino is listed as the latest addiction of “directly observed” particles in the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and likewise, the MSW effect (oscillation between types of neutrinos) is credited in the literature with having been “directly observed”. With respect, in both cases what was actually observed was the mathematical formalism.


I don’t think it’s hard to see why I plough the fields of science with a tractor I can sit on. These guys just don’t make sense to me. I’m glad they don’t build bridges!


The principles I am following (and which seem to appeal to your sensibilities) are that 1). Physics is a branch of science that deals with quantities that are measurable. 2.) All measurements in physics can be made in four basic dimensions – mass, length, time, and polarity (charge). With these we understand distance and time, and therefore speed and acceleration. Thus we understand the effects of force, and consequently projectile motion, ballistics, friction, optics, and action-at-a-distance (like orbital motion and magnetic fields). Motion can be expressed differently depending on the co-ordinate frame preferred, and that is what we call relativity. Tie physics in with chemistry, and we have a coherent, empirical explanation of our physical neighbourhood. No hocus-pocus. In my view, any theory concocted outside of these (physical) principles is just a mind-game, and falls into the category of “green elephant theories” (after the guy who famously offered US$100,000 to the first person who could disprove his theory that the Universe propagates by green elephants laying speckled eggs in Black Holes. Of course, his money was safe).


Common sense tells us that when we weigh an elephant, we must take into account the creature that rides upon its back and subtract it to get the correct weight for the elephant; quantitative observation tells us that the creature is in fact a flea and that we needn’t bother because the difference is insignificant. Studies involving fine measurement indicate that anthropogenic carbon emissions are a flea on the climate’s back, and spending billions on trying to cut that little flea in half will do nothing but make the poor poorer. The fact of the matter is, we cannot significantly control the climate, for better or for worse. Global warming, when it happens, is a completely natural, inevitable, solar-driven cycle. If it were not for global warming, without any input from mankind, then we would not have emerged from the last ice age. The major problem facing our terrestrial environment is human over-population. If we could cut the population density, then the waste products of human enterprise, including carbon and DDT and methane from sheep, would be cut along with it. That’s the core of the problem, the actual cause of our headache, and taking an aspirin doesn’t cure it. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a myth feeding off our collectively guilty political conscience.


Firstly, on the question of bias, we all have bias. As soon as one has an opinion, one has bias. It’s as natural as having an ego, which after all is just the apparent identity of our consciousness. Both ego and bias are necessarily part of a healthy psyche, unless and until they dominate our personalities. Then we become a right old pain to deal with! Our job as scientists is characterised by a battle to see the results of experiment and observation without the taint of bias, or with as little of it as possible. In a perfect world (which I believe is what we strive for, although it is unattainable), we would let the facts fall where they will, and follow the clues wherever they might lead. I think the first step in this direction is to do the primary analysis of any data set without reference to any particular model. We should look at solar data without first marshalling them into the corral of the Standard Solar Model, and we should look at cosmological data quite regardless of Big Bang Theory. That way we significantly reduce the effect of user bias on the object of observation.


The stars are what they are irrespective of the opinions expressed in the field of cosmology. It amazes me that pronouncements are made about distant objects with such unshakeable certainty when in the cold light of day the reach of verifiable science is not nearly so self-assured. I am reminded of Al Gore’s brazen assertion that “the science is settled” in climatology, a field which rivals cosmology in chaotic outcomes. The most daunting challenge facing space science is that of scale. In an infinite Universe, we will always be infinitely more ignorant than we are wise. In my view, we have more than enough to keep us occupied in the celestial neighbourhood, and would do well to take things one step at a time. Compare the science proposed in Hannes Alfven and Gustav Arrhenius “The Evolution of the Solar System” with Alan Guth’s pronouncements on Inflation Theory, or George Smoot’s take on the CMB, or indeed, even the core principles of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The question I like to ask myself is “How does this theory connect to observed reality?” In a sitting room conversation with Halton Arp a few years ago, the late Fred Hoyle said, “I suppose that in the end, Chip, the Universe will have its say.”


The shocking reality is that research is done for money, not in pursuit of truth. The Theory of Everything which will no doubt be pronounced by high-energy physicists in the not-too-distant future will, I fear, be a set of mathematical sentences so arcane that none could render them false, and they would in any event be based upon experiments that have no intrinsic meaning discernable to scientists in more general research. In short, the magic will be witnessed and explained exclusively by the conjurors themselves, and we will have to decide on blind faith alone whether we believe them or not. What really happens in the Large Hadron Collider remains for the vast majority of us nothing more than conjecture, and I suppose their conclusions are inevitably going to form the basis of a large chunk (or even all) of cosmology. Astronomers will play no part in where astronomy is going.

Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics

I recently retired after 40 years in astrophysics, during which time I succeeded in making of myself something of a pariah, although all I wanted to do was practice physics, physically. I am South African, partially educated at the University of Cape Town, George Ellis’s academic home. At this stage of my life I can say what I like without jeopardising my meagre pension. And what I say is this: thank heavens for George Ellis, Peter Woit, the late Geoff Burbidge, and those few others who had the courage of their convictions and stood up to the corruption of science. My swansong, and indeed also my magnum opus, is my third book, Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks, a treatment of the influence of belief in the formulation of our opinions, scientific or otherwise. In it, I acknowledge the courage of Ellis, Burbidge, and you, Peter. I salute you, Sirs.

Ndaba | September 2011

The pioneers who tamed electricity had an exciting ride, and the picture became much more enticing once the intimate relationship of electricity with magnetism came out of the closet. Halfway through the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin was magnetising and demagnetising iron bars by subjecting them to an electrical current. 70 years later, the accidental arrangement of a compass needle and an electrically charged wire at an evening lecture by Danish physics professor Hans Orsted provided the first experimental evidence of the dynamic relationship between the two phenomena. By subsequent investigation Orsted was able to show a principle of profound importance to our understanding of the universe, and indeed, to the dazzling acceleration of man’s advance into an era of high technology. He observed that a freely suspended magnet tended to curl around an electrical conductor, in other words, that an interaction between electric current and a magnetic field produced rotation. It wanted to spin! Quite by chance, Orsted had stumbled upon the principle of the electric motor. And then came Faraday.

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Urgent Submission to the SAICE Council on the Likelihood of Severe Water Resource Droughts

WJ R Alexander, Pr Eng

Honorary Fellow, South African Institution of Civil Engineering

Professor Emeritus, University of Pretoria.


Civil engineers and climate change scientists are on a collision course. The outcome could have very serious, nationally important consequences. These differences should be resolved as a matter of urgency.

In this submission it is demonstrated with a very high degree of assurance that southern Africa, and possibly the rest of the world as well, is about to enter a period of severe droughts commencing within the next twelve months. There is an estimated 20% likelihood that they will be as serious as the Great Depression Drought of the early 1930s. These drought sequences could have disastrous consequences for South Africa if the authorities are caught unawares.

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Neutrinos, Nautilus, and the Notre Dame

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

First and foremost, for me, knowledge is a journey, and I’m happy to hang around with people I can learn from. I prefer to do this in a pleasant way, hence the preference for comfortable chats over a cup of tea. My mother was a veritable teapot, and my late academic advisor, Professor Tony Bray, conducted all our research fuelled by tea and scones. It involves respect, courtesy, charming etiquette, and admission of our own ignorance.

Read More…

The Mystery of Life

In the ancient epochs of astronomy, it was tightly bound to social superstition, and there was little to set it apart from the religion of the day. The celestial sphere was perceived to be nearby, and charmingly benign. It was as if the stars in the sky were merely a backdrop to a world that existed entirely to nurture and benefit people. The self-importance that resulted from this myopic view is staggering. I’m trying to stay away from religion as much as I possibly can in telling this story, but gosh it’s a circus! We have in this day and age a popular conception of the creator of the Universe who is proudly male! Good grief! If there’s any one thing that persuades me that a literal take on biblical philosophy is incredibly naïve, it’s that God looks like a human male, and even more astoundingly, behaves like one, stereotypically. I’m not given to mocking the faith of others, but the conception of a patriarchal, sexist, chauvinist God is surely the most flabbergasting facet of a monumentally incredible belief system.

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