Swimming with the salmon, dining with the bears

I had been warned. “Don’t expect an easy ride,” they told me in hushed, sombre tones, as if that’s what a revolutionary would expect. My first book unceremoniously upturned everyone’s favourite theories, eroded the livelihoods and career prospects of some important people, and with barefaced cheek exposed the rampant egotism that holds the high ground of physical science. I put on a suit of Kevlar and stood resolute before the tempest of wounded pride.

It didn’t happen. My brethren in science welcomed me with open arms and a palpable sense of relief. It was though they had all been waiting, on a dare almost, for someone, anyone, to have the chutzpah to stand on the city hall steps and announce that the bubble had been popped. The illusion was shattered, and a tide of pent up frustration flowed through the breach. A little known astronomer from the Southern end of the mother continent had in his ignorance and lack of socio-political sophistication simply been honest: Science has gone haywire, and we really ought to be doing something about it.

It’s all about attitude, really. There are scientists who think they may be able to derive a set of equations they boldly term “The Theory of Everything”. Then there are those, like me, who admit to themselves and others that what we don’t know will always significantly exceed what we do. So it comes down to this: Do we believe the evidence of our eyes, to the extent that it should form the basis of theories in cosmology, or do we rather depend upon our imaginations, expressed in convoluted mathematical dialects, to express our eternal optimism that some day, some how, we might persuade ordinary folk that this is how they should be seeing it.

My journey has not been without moments of high drama, but most often my detractors have done little more than puff themselves up like toads, usually adorning their display with irrelevant criticisms of my persona and intentions. They have used the whole gamut of scare-tactics—pulled rank, called me names, slandered my colleagues, threatened me, suspended membership, refused publication, forbidden my affiliation, and so on. My arguments have remained largely unanswered. In some cases, where I have responded in writing to rational challenges with counterarguments, my letters go without acknowledgement or reply. This is a great pity, and it is a discourtesy that seems to affect South African academics more severely than others.

The interesting thing is, I don’t have a theory, at least not in the sense of being able to explain how the Universe operates. I am trying to do science using the laws of physics and chemistry, assisted by mathematics to establish quantities. This approach immediately rules out nearly all of cosmology of course, and that clearly sets my position: I want to put the physical back into physics. We will certainly explain far less of the perceived Universe if we do as I suggest, but we will explain it in a fundamentally better way. I would like science to deal with reality as first priority, and leave the philosophical arguments for those moments of introspection that set in when it’s raining and we can’t look at the stars.

Here is a quote from Galileo: “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics …without which it is impossible to understand a single word; without which there is only a vain wandering through a dark labyrinth”. I think Professor Galilei was not quite accurate in his assessment of true mathematics. I would paraphrase it, “The book of mathematics is written in the language of nature, without which understanding is merely unrooted imagination, vain wandering through a dark labyrinth in the human psyche”. 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!

What we need to do, seriously, is deal with here-and-now realities as we see them. Don’t tell me why reality doesn’t work; it does, and deep down inside we know it does. A lot of cosmological theory is based not on what we can observe, but on what we think we will observe in time, or what we would observe, if only we could get there. The fact that we don’t have the means to make quick trips to the far corners of the known Universe means that we can’t make real-time, close-up observations of distant events. It makes us feel strangely detached, and we slip into the sand-trap of regarding things at a great distance as being somehow surreal and dreamlike. Beyond the scale of galaxies things are so big that behavioural studies are extremely limited. We can map the two-dimensional form of ultra-large scale structure but the dynamics and depth are vague. We need in some areas to infer or speculate rather more than usual. Let’s be honest: That’s guesswork.

I foresee a revival of the mechanical view. The current Special and General Relativistic approximation of the Universe will collapse into the curvature of its own cleverness, and the virtues of a slower, axially rigid approach will reassure us that what works in the hearth, works also in the hills. We will take the cosmos piece by piece, and try to understand those individual bits as machines, each individual causal input adding to the fusion of effects that present as creatures in our field of view. It cannot happen soon enough, I believe, because we have a great deal of catching up to do. The stalled development of Newtonian Mechanics must be re-ignited and accelerated to the level required by cosmology. It’s a huge task. We must rekindle our love for Euclid, bypass the minefield of abstract topology, and rewrite Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism without Lorentz transformations. Our new understanding of radiant energy will solve the wave-particle conundrum, illuminate the mechanics of redshift, quantitatively explain the trajectories of light rays, and give us new ways of calibrating space. I predict all these outcomes from the mechanical revolution.

A great discovery waiting in the wings is the next step on the cosmic distance ladder. Once we put redshift into perspective, we will proceed to get more believable and reliable calibrations, along with verifying mechanisms to check our measurements. Now that we can for the first time image the optical disk of stars, we have the means to compare the diameter previously obtainable only by quantum variances in limb spectra with the angular spread on a visible disk. Does this correlate with redshift? I hope someone out there is checking right now, and that she will loudly publish her results, no matter which way they go.

Prediction implies also retrodiction. We dare not only to suggest what might happen in eras not yet realised, but also what we might find in the dim, distant past. Fortunately, we have the means, in principle at least, to verify retrodiction by examining the cosmic fossil record, images that have travelled a long, long time to get to us. The Static Universe retrodicts an unevolved cosmos. Once we can confidently identify things at great remoteness from Earth, and be sure that they are ancient, we will no doubt be astonished to discover that they are not at all young, newborn populants. Near and far, the Universe is just the same old, same old…

Let me tell you what I think we will not find by scientific enquiry: The early universe; gravitational waves; the Higgs boson; Dark Matter; Dark Energy; the Final Frontier; the Theory of Everything; a scale at which the Cosmological Principle applies; Schrödinger’s cat; God; Peace; ET; flying saucers; quantum entanglement; Feynman probability; and so on. There is no time constraint on my prophecy. I am simply eliminating the impossible. Then there is the improbable. It is unlikely, and extremely so, to many orders of magnitude, that the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) will succeed. The odds are so great against picking up an intelligent and intelligible signal from “something out there” that it seems to me that SETI is an utter waste of money, manpower, and creative resources. Don’t get me wrong—I truly admire and support any initiative to explore the unknown, but it needs to be sensibly done with at least some likelihood of success. The odds on SETI detecting an intelligently designed signal from outer space are so unfavourable as to be zero in practical terms.

Unless, of course, you argue that every signal from every radiant body on the whole wide sky is not random, not chaotic, not infinitely mutating dumb chance, but instead scintillating, tantalising evidence of a vast system running to plan. If you say that, I will have to concede. You are right. This thing is way beyond the shaky limits of our paltry ideas, and so big and so amazing that even the infinitesimal fraction that we do seem to understand is awesomely overwhelming. We don’t need vast banks of supercomputers linked to radio telescopes in an array reading 100 billion deep sky signals a second in order to find intelligence greater than our own.

Just look carefully at the blossom of an orchid; the antennae of a moth; the structure of a crystal; the surface of the Sun; the movement of a cat; and the rings of Saturn.

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