Published Articles

Ndaba | May 2009

We live in a 3-dimensional Universe. Maybe the defining characteristic of celestial objects in general is how far away they were when they sent their portraits to us. It can additionally be argued that distance is the defining problem of astronomy. The spatial arrangements in 3 dimensions of objects we see on the sky, and the quantified relationship between them, sets the ground and marks the field of play.

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Ndaba | April 2009

I consider myself an environmentalist. I would like to see human beings become better citizens and treat their planet with greater respect. However, as a scientist, I am really deeply despondent about the whole paradigm that has arisen around Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth road show. The reason is simply this: The theory of catastrophic global warming he has publicised so brilliantly is completely unfounded in fact.

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Ndaba | March 2009

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!

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The Passing of Tom Van Flandern

Tom van Flandern

Tom van Flandern
Astronomer & author


On that overcast Saturday morning, after yet another starless night, I awoke with great sadness to the following email from Tom Van Flandern’s son Mike:

“At 8:54AM on Friday January 9, 2009 Tom Van Flandern passed on. I cannot begin to express what this man meant to me. I’ll write more later as there is so much I want to say about my father, Tom. But right now I and the rest of his family just needs some time to grieve. I do take some solace in knowing we did everything possible to maximize Tom’s quality time once he was diagnosed. Also, Tom was well sedated and died peacefully.
Goodbye Dad, I love you so much. – Mike”

So came to an end the remarkable life of a very special man. He was 68 years old. Tom received his PhD in Celestial Mechanics (theory of orbits) from Yale University in 1969. From 1963 to 1983 he was employed at the US Naval Observatory, where he rose to Chief of Celestial Mechanics for the Nautical Almanac. He was particularly involved in improving the accuracy of the Global Positioning System. In 1991, he founded the Meta Research Institute to support ideas in astronomy and astrophysics that were not popular with mainstream institutions and publications, and followed this with his book Dark Matter, Missing Planets, and New Comets in 1993.

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Ndaba | January 2009

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:

Dear Hilton,
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.
Regards, Chip

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.”

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Ndaba | December 2009

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!

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The Second Crisis in Cosmology Conference

Crisis in Cosmology Conference 2

One hundred-odd participants at CCC2, 2008. I am second row, second or third right, brown jacket.

Following the successful first conference (CCC1), held in Moncao, Portugal in 2005, the Alternative Cosmology Group in the autumn of 2008 hosted a second, even bigger conference in the tranquil seaside village of Port Angeles in the USA’s Pacific North West. In the sociological milieu of scientific politics, dissent is kept safely in a cupboard marked “token resistance”. Publication of non-standard arguments and results is institutionally discouraged, the schedule of research funding deserted, and access to facilities and instruments difficult. Against this background, the Alternative Cosmology Group (ACG) made its second attempt to provide a forum in which reasonable dissent could be expressed and publicised, in the hope that lively debate challenging the orthodoxy would once again stimulate real progress in science generally, and in cosmology specifically. The mission was to epitomise professionalism and sound methodology, and to wipe away the disdainful impression that such a forum is merely a stage for sabre-rattling by disenchanted scientists, an “Old Boys’ Club for Axe-Grinders”, if you will. To this end, it was hoped that the event would attract a fair number of leading researchers engaged in properly structured science, and that collectively, this body of people could earn enough respect, by dint of their impeccable application of formal scientific principles, to have their work published in appropriate journals. In respect of the first part of this wish list, the idea seems to have worked. What remains to be seen is published results.

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Ndaba | October 2008

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.

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Ndaba | September 2008

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.

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Review: “The Black Hole War”

The Black Hole War cover

The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind

Author: Leonard Susskind
Review by: Hilton Ratcliffe, Climate and Solar Science Institute
Written for the journal 21st Century Science and Technology

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review Prof Susskind’s book. I’m far too inclined, prior to reading it, to sing its praises, for this style of writing—science lite, with soul—is right up my street. It is a tale of human conflict, told from the inside out, and promises to be compelling drama. As I looked at the cover of The Black Hole War I recalled the tense human interactions of Interstellar Matters, Gerrit Verschuur’s magnificent revelation of the discovery by pioneer astro-photographer E. E. Barnard of substantial contents in the so-called dark voids in the Milky Way. Dark voids, Black Holes, what’s the difference? Immense! And Prof Susskind should be just the right person to answer my question. The subtitle, “My battle with Stephen Hawking to make the world safer for Quantum Mechanics”, was already enough to get my slavering attention. Someone publicly admits to battling with Stephen Hawking, icon of theoretical physics elite? Tell me more!

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