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?
• 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.
• 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 …
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.
My monthly astrophysical column written for the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
“All truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher, 1788 – 1860
The media are awash with rumour, speculation, and no small measure of excitement. No doubt the thirteen million eager sycophants who bought and applauded Stephen Hawking’s monumental best-seller, A Brief History of Time, are leaning forward in their armchairs in rapt expectation—the shady halls of journalism are experiencing a feeding frenzy, devouring the scraps cast out by CERN and regurgitating them with thrilling headlines: The God Particle has been found! It must have been. As the cost of the Large Hadron Collider spirals upwards towards the twenty-billion-dollar mark, the world of armchair scientists prepares a fete of celebration not seen since Sir Arthur Eddington announced that he had indeed found confirmation of General Relativity Theory in the solar eclipse of 1919. So what’s all the fuss about?
My monthly astrophysical column written for the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
I have regrets; not overwhelming, psyche-twisting regrets, but nevertheless there are things in my life that I wistfully wish could have been played otherwise. One of them is that I missed (due to a persistent and mysterious viral infection of my inner ear) Prof Mike Watkeys’ talk at the May meeting of our society. From what I understand from friends who attended, Dr Watkeys nailed his colours to the mast: There is nothing we can do about climate change.
My monthly astrophysical column written for the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
Would you buy a second-hand car from this man?
The patent for a time machine has been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office by one Dr. Marvin B. Pohlman of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here is the abstract of his submission:
“The method employs sinusoidal oscillations of electrical bombardment on the surface of one Kerr type singularity in close proximity to a second Kerr type singularity in such a method to take advantage of the Lense-Thirring effect, to simulate the effect of two point masses on nearly radial orbits in a 2+1 dimensional anti-de Sitter space resulting in creation of circular timelike geodesics conforming to the van Stockum under the Van Den Broeck modification of the Alcubierre geometry (Van Den Broeck 1999) permitting topology change from one spacelike boundary to the other in accordance with Geroch’s theorem (Geroch 1967) resulting in a method for the formation of Godel-type geodesically complete spacetime envelopes complete with closed timelike curves.”
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.
I received a letter from a reader the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important.
In the first sentence, he told me he was majoring in English Literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, however low on the social scale, so I read on.)