Astronomy is the study of the greater environment, that part of the Universe that appears to us as the celestial sphere—the sky. By day, it is dominated by the Sun, our very own star, but by night it becomes a wonderland as the earth’s shadow dims the sunlight and allows us to see the Milky Way. With the naked eye we can see, depending on conditions, the Moon (the Earth’s only substantial natural satellite), 6 planets, part of the Milky Way galaxy, and our sister spiral galaxy, Andromeda M31. Of course, there are also transient phenomena that come and go from view relatively quickly, like artificial satellites, comets, and meteors. And Jumbo jets!
As we sweep nonchalantly into 2009 and a sea of political intrigue, we can easily overlook the drama unfolding in science. That’s what Breaking News is about – sharing the drama, catching the flak!
First the bad news. A few weeks back I got the following email from Halton Arp in Germany:
There is terrible news about Tom Van Flandern. He was brought to the hospital with blood clots in his lungs and expected to die within the hour. A very risky blood thinner avoided that threat. But the cause remains colon cancer metastasised – untreatable. I talked to him in his bed in the hospital last night. He will try to beat the odds but he realizes it is improbable. He was concerned about carrying on the work of the Meta Research Bulletin in notifying independent researchers about important events which would be avoided by normal media. The only person that he and I could think of was you. Your interests in newer and more correct theories, your connection to the South African magazine, attendance at conferences, etc, etc. You should talk to Tom, about this.
As soon as I could, I phoned Tom in hospital. Regular readers of this column, and those brave souls who read The Virtue of Heresy, will know that Tom Van Flandern has been mentor, advisor, colleague, and friend, all rolled into one—despite our strong and unreconciled disagreement over the Martian “face” at Cydonia. He brought up the matter of Meta Research, and I told him what Chip had said, by my understanding, that Tom wanted me to edit and distribute his bulletin. What followed completely surprised and humbled me. “Not quite,” Tom said from his hospital bed, “It’s way more than that. I want you to take over from me as president of the Meta Research Institute, Inc.”
Another year has come and (almost) gone, and we wonder what tomorrow may bring. I, for one, hope that it is fulfillment of our potential as human beings, and as a nation, and as a region. We have dared to dream, so let us replace sentiment with action. We can…
In December each year, I look back on the Breaking News columns for the year, and construct from them an astronomical history with a particularly local, personal flavour. The January Ndaba let readers peep into the thinking of an astronomer still basking in the afterglow of a visit to Sir Patrick Moore. After a brief teaser about my official report back on the trip, due the following month, I proceeded to tell a disjointed tale of ultra big numbers, wavelengths of light, and elephants talking in ultrasound. Yes, it’s clear, I do get stoned on the cosmos!
With Eric Clapton’s blues mellowing the background heat, I sit and stare at the screen, wondering how I’m going to be able to tell you the latest news from Skywalker’s jaundiced perspective. I looked at last November’s Breaking News, which announced with schoolboy excitement that I had received a letter from Sir Patrick Moore inviting me to Selsey. That was a year ago! Next month I will do my annual review, so for now let me give you just the latest.
My flight from Atlanta, Georgia, via Dakar, touched down smoothly and right on time at O R Tambo on Friday 19th September, and so another dream wound down to a conclusion. I had plenty of time to think on the 31-hour journey back from the USA. After sultry Missouri, tropical Senegal, and sunny Gauteng, the freezing weather in warm-hearted Durban seemed strangely incongruous, but it was nothing that a pot of properly brewed tea couldn’t make up for. It was an amazing trip, and I hope to have the opportunity to report back to you in full before too long. The warm and enthusiastic reception I enjoyed from Prof Richard Lieu (U. Alabama), Prof Gerrit Verschuur (U. Memphis), Prof Philip Mannheim (U. Connecticut and MIT), amongst other distinguished scientists, and the resounding applause that rewarded the presentation of my paper, were ringing in my ears all the while.
We all dream, I guess, but some of us make them come true. Have we all seen the summit picture of our forever-esteemed Ndaba editor nonchalantly posing atop Uhuru Peak, Mt Kilimanjaro? Well done, Ed! You stood above all of Africa, and your regal expression says it all. Gosh, I understand you were higher even than Bob Mugabe, and that’s saying something. We are in awe.
The symposium has come and gone, and I want to reiterate the sentiment expressed at our August meeting: Heartfelt thanks go to those ASSA members who did all the work. It was a great success, and you really did us proud. I applaud too your courage in inviting a paper from me, though in the end it was thankfully received without violence or bloodshed.
Time is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to believe that only a year ago, The Virtue of Heresy hit the shelves. It seems to have gone so quickly, yet on the other hand, so much has happened in consequence of the book’s publication that it’s equally hard to convince myself that the last year hasn’t actually been ten! The first paragraph of the August 2007 Breaking News broke the news:
What a momentous day was Monday, 2nd July 2007! Without fanfare or ceremony, my book The Virtue of Heresy—Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer slipped quietly onto the Internet and sold 20 copies on the first day. Within the first week, I heard from the BBC programme Sky at Night (the long-running creation of Sir Patrick Moore) and the science journal 21st Century Science & Technology—both wanted review copies and interviews. The reception given to the book has been, well… (dare I say it?) astronomical! To all those of you who have been gently pressuring me for news on the book for the last couple of years I say a great big “Thank you!”
Many of you have taken the plunge and actually read the book—more than can be said of the purchasers of 80% of copies sold of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—and I find that enormously gratifying. I repeat my great big Thank You to you all! I’m awaiting with trepidation the publication in Ndaba of the first reader’s review—that will be by Peta Cramb, as I recall…