(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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
J. Astrophys. Astr. (1984) 5, 79–98
For the Golden Jubilee of the Indian Academy of Sciences, representing a culture which has investigated cosmology for four millennia
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, and University of California,
1. Pre-Galilean Cosmologies
1.1 Ancient Cosmological Myths
Cosmology began when man began to ask: What is beyond the horizon and what happened before the earliest event I can remember? The method of finding out was to ask those who had travelled very far; they reported what they had seen, and also what people they had met far away had told them about still more remote regions. Similarly, grandfather told about his young days and what his grandfather had told him and so on. But the information was always increasingly uncertain the more remote the regions and the times.
The increasing demand for knowledge about very remote regions and very early times was met by people who claimed they could give accurate information about the most distant regions and the earliest times. When asked how they could know all this they often answered that they had direct contact with the gods, and got revelations about the structure of the whole universe and how it was created. And some of these prophets were believed by large groups of people. Myths about the creation and structure of the universe were incorporated as essential parts of religious traditions.