Published Articles

The Age of Stupid

A well known local environmentalist who is convinced that humans are causing the Earth to heat up catastrophically asked me to view the AGW propaganda film “The Age of Stupid” and let him know what I thought of it. It seems he fully expected me to so impressed by the film that I would convert and henceforward carry the AGW flag. Here is the letter I wrote him after watching the programme.
Footnote: I did lend him my copy of The Great Global Warming Swindle, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not do me the courtesy of watching it, and it was returned to me pristine and unviewed. Belief! Eish…

A review of “The Age of Stupid”

Chamonix in 2007. Compare this with the snowless images in "The Age of Stupid".

Chamonix in 2007. Compare this with the snowless images in “The Age of Stupid”.

 

Well, I have after trial and tribulation managed to watch all of “The Age of Stupid”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a free download site that offered the entire movie in one chunk, so ultimately I resorted to YouTube and watched it in 9 episodes. Given the emotional style of the production, which requires uninterrupted flow to carry the feelings in the intended way, this was not ideal, but perhaps, in a way, it gives me an objective advantage – the fragmentation breaks the subjective grip, and lets one more freely examine the facts without syrupy emotional overhead. The Great Global Warming Swindle is by contrast produced entirely differently, and is much more satisfying to the objective investigator, regardless of ideological persuasion. Of course, both movies strongly express a particular point of view, that’s given, but by and large, one of them relies on tears and the other on data.

 

Honestly, I had mixed feelings about this production. There is no question that it is technically excellent as a movie, and makes its point with both vigour and subtlety, but as a scientist seeking the truth, I don’t like the style of presentation at all – “Methinks they protesteth too much!” It definitely doesn’t let the facts stand in the way of a good cry.

 
Right at the beginning, we meet the alpine climber who, in his 80s, laments global warming. Pretty soon his eyes glisten with tears, and the scene of barren rock where the Chamonix ski slope should have been is overlaid with “Here at Chamonix, it’s December and there’s no snow at all. It’s a glimpse into the future.” I don’t know when that scene was shot, but in 2008 and 2009 there was record snowfall at Chamonix, so heavy in fact that for most of December both years skiing was considered dangerous. The bias is painful.

 
Then we have the chap who was overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He too had tears in his eyes as he told of rescuing a baby from the rising waters. Then we have a TV presenter laying the blame: “Intensity of hurricanes is related to surface sea temperatures. So increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming.” What utter nonsense! There is no connection whatsoever. Hurricane intensity as far as we know is most likely related to polarity, both of the electromagnetic sheath vortex, and of the differential in temperature between the basin beneath the axis of spin (warm) and surrounding water (cold). Another factor is wind shear above warm spots, which actually weakens hurricanes. It has nothing to do with global warming. Also, the catastrophe in New Orleans was not the result of an abnormally fierce hurricane, but because of that city’s below-sea-level vulnerability and dependence on poorly constructed and maintained levees. The incidence and strength of hurricanes in 2006, as well as their landfall percentage, were well below average. The figures are freely available. Was that caused by global warming?
So I didn’t get off to a good start with this movie, but heck, I stuck it out. Well, it didn’t get better. The images of poverty and disease, corruption and barbarism, of millions struggling for food are emotionally deeply compelling. It certainly makes me sad to see evidence of the human and environmental conditions that result from the greed and megalomania of individuals who exert physical dominance over their tribes. But how on Earth is human nature a consequence of man-made climate change? Where does global warming fit in? And how will carbon caps alleviate mass hunger and endemic disease; how could massive industrial rollbacks possibly increase production so the hungry can eat? The Niger Delta scenes are such a mixed message. Corrupt, power-mad people will opportunistically use whatever currency is to hand—witness Gore’s use of AGW—whether it is opium poppies in Afghanistan or oil in Nigeria, it’s just what the Earth offers up in a particular region. We have to deal with human population pressure. We can’t just say “It’s their fault for having children so let them suffer.” It’s energy consumption versus output productivity. The granaries of the world use more energy and produce more food. It seems to me the Age of Stupid belongs to a school of thought and an ideology that is really just anti-capitalist when you boil it down, and we’ve seen how well those schemes have worked in the past. What we really need to do is let pragmatism rein in this rampant idealism. We have a job to do.

 
The aim of this movie as I understand it, its central message, is that we are corrupting the environment by our misuse of resources. I am wholeheartedly in support of that ethic. What I cannot tolerate is that blatantly false evidence is raised to create the popular impression that human activities control global temperatures, and that all environmental (and even many sociological) evils stem from this. The entire moral effort of a generation has been cunningly steered in a particular direction, and it has been infused with a self-satisfying moralistic anger that defies logic. While this is going on, Gore, Pachauri, and their henchmen are pocketing personal profits amounting to many millions of dollars. Our environmental conscience has been hijacked by greed of another persuasion, but greed it certainly is. This has been achieved by superbly crafted propaganda, and The Age of Stupid is perhaps the best of the lot.

 
By the time I reached the credits at the end of The Age of Stupid, I was as despondent as I would imagine most people are who are exposed to this sort of message. In my case though, I was most saddened by the power and effect of carefully constructed propaganda in determining, or at least reinforcing what people want to believe. It has nothing to do with the data or the measurements. An Inconvenient Truth presents 35 main scientific arguments to support Anthropogenic Global Warming. Guess how many were falsified by comparison with the measurements? 35! But pathetically few people who carry Gore’s banner ever bother to check his facts, and indeed, when faced with them, simply write them off as “denialism”. If we create a human desert in years to come—and we might—it will be because we put all our ecological effort into uselessly fighting carbon when all the while the real environmental issues, the ones that can really make a difference, are ignored. With our conscience appeased, we will go to sleep thinking we have done the right thing, and we may never wake up.

 

So I guess we are both depressed by what is going on. I just don’t see the moral justification in lying about it. I look forward to hearing your reaction to The Great Global Warming Swindle. I have the DVD if you’d like to organise a viewing.
Best wishes
Hilton

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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Response to Malcolm Keeping’s letter in Ndaba, February 2010

Dear Malcolm

Thank you most sincerely for your response last month to my April 2009 Breaking News column in Ndaba. I wish more of our readers would express their views and exchange ideas. I fear though that objectivity may be on thin ice here (pun unintended) because we both, by our own admission, engage for ethical reasons in what is clearly an emotionally-charged conflict of ideals. We clearly have some common purpose at the outset: We are both greatly concerned about progressive harm to ecology and species; and we agree that global warming and dynamic climate change are real. Let’s take it from there. What I say is that there is nothing historically unusual about current global temperatures. Global warming and global cooling are periodic. They are perfectly natural peaks and valleys in cycles driven primarily by the Sun. There are no data to support the hypothesis that greenhouse gases, whether human-related or not, drive climate fluctuations. This is a story of how an unsubstantiated theory of climate, a model, became political ideology.

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Ndaba | November 2009

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has over the years been home for radically innovative thought. From its days as focus of the Manhattan Project which gave us the first nuclear weapons, out-the-box thinking has characterised the successes of Los Alamos. The legendary Dick Feynman was a citizen there, and so was plasma pioneer Tony Peratt. The most recent news to reach me from Los Alamos is a paper that addresses supernovae light curves in a way that prompts me to say, “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?” The author is John Middleditch, and using SN1987A as an example, proposes that issues still outstanding after 22 years of analysis may be explained by one simple fact, so obvious in hindsight: What we see in supernovae is directly influenced by the progenitor object.

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Ndaba | October 2009

The much-vaunted “perfect fit” curve published by John Mather et al in 1991 allegedly shows the exact alignment of theory and observation in the Microwave Background Radiation. It is indeed a wonderfully precise match, the result of years of intense scrutiny. In private correspondence, my friend and helmsman Professor Paul Jackson shared the experience.

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Ndaba | September 2009

Oh dear! My every good intention of doing September’s Breaking News on the science of Jules Verne has gone by the wayside—dashed by the cruel march of time to the pile labelled “Work In Progress”. How M. Verne’s literature could be seen as the latest news is something only Skywalker could comprehend, but be that as it may, I shall bless you with it in some (unspecified) future edition of Ndaba. My editor at this esteemed and widely-read journal has now also placed her regal presence upon the throne of omniscience and irresistible timekeeping at the Durban Centre meetings. Her hand “that the rod of empire might have swayed, or waked to ecstasy the living lyre”, now stills the rumble of inane thought—and lets the show begin!

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Ndaba | August 2009

Astronomy ought to be an observational science. It really should. It used to be, after all, a hundred years ago or so. Ideally, astronomers would point their instruments at the heavens, find astounding new things, and publish them where we could all share in the joy of discovery. I wish it were so. The appalling truth is that we are permitted to see only what a faceless, nameless group called “the moderators” deems fit for our eyes. Thought Police are alive and well in the world of space science, and who knows, some of them might even be friends of ours. Alas, so great is their commitment to anonymity that we would simply never know.

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Ndaba | July 2009

I am terrified of Geoffrey Burbidge. I admit it. He makes me quake in my boots. The larger by a considerable margin of the famous husband-and-wife team that has earned the moniker “B-squared”, Geoff is certainly a different kettle of fish. Margaret, on one hand, is a motherly figure, treating visitors to their lovely San Diego home to tea and crumpets in the glorious English tradition. Dealing with her husband is quite another matter. Geoffrey does not suffer fools gladly, and it would seem to me that by his definition, all the world’s a fool. And that includes me, of course.

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