How “Socks” began

Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks

 A Suicide Bomber’s Pension Scheme  

a freaked-out pop-sci novel by Hilton Ratcliffe, author of “The Virtue of Heresy” and “The Static Universe”


 Albert Einstein - it's all HIS fault!

Preface: Tea time

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.

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, 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 a factor of about 10 raised to the power 50.

Nor does something need to be seen to qualify as “observed”. The tau neutrino is listed as the latest edition 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”, due to 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.

I miss Tony so much, he was the rudder on my ship, and I’ve had a hard time of it regaining forward momentum since he left. I hasten to add that he was a professor of electronics engineering, specialising in high-energy circuits. As a consultant for GEC, he travelled the world, designing and installing huge projects that spanned continents. They worked and as far as I know, are working still. He was not interested at all in Green Elephant theories.

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 that we needn’t bother with 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 acid water 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.

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 marshaling 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.

My strategy is to write books that cut to the chase, avoiding hocus-pocus, as my Dad put it. The current work is hopefully a narrative rendering of “physics 101”—I want to produce a guide book for people seeking real knowledge the physics and chemistry way. On the academic front, I am in tentative negotiation with colleagues at SA universities, trying to become influential in setting graduate curricula that will reform the way that physical science is learnt and practiced, but I must say, it’s harder than trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Or selling retirement homes to suicide bombers! Once you have been properly indoctrinated in mathematical thinking, it is like heroin addiction – you can’t imagine life any other way, no matter how difficult it makes things.

The theoretical part of anyone’s thesis needs to provide definite predictions (not retrodictions) which can be tested by experiment and observation. That’s the first step. Next is to establish empirical procedures which could verify the predictions unambiguously. Then we and the mainstream of physical science have something solid to work on, with definite conclusions one way or the other.

Like the principle of infinity, the fundamental template I called the X-Stream in the Virtue of Heresy is for me a logical certainty. The first example of a specific arrangement of matter and energy may possibly have come about by random collisions of sub-particles, but if it happens consistently, producing the same results every time, then there has to be a template or blueprint of some kind. This has been established beyond doubt in biological reproduction. How did we get billions of galaxies, all similar to each other within species? In terms of Big Bang evolution from a quark-gluon soup, even if a nucleus happened by chance, how did the process proceed without a plan?  How did 10 to the power 1000 other absolutely identical nuclei happen if there was not first a template? Where are the consistent laws of chemistry written? How is this passed on? What came first, the chicken or the egg? The rules, or the product of the rules? So it is to me inconceivable that we could get the Universe we experience without pre-existing design. It’s as simple as that. How we deal with it is a personal matter. I have no idea where the X-Stream is located, or how to measure it. What we get out of it is simply a better philosophical understanding of nature, no more than that. Perhaps a useful argument against Richard Dawkins’ arrogance? Sorry, don’t buy into the theory that life (that insubstantial spirit which distinguishes the living from the dead) is merely a chemical reaction that could be reproduced in a laboratory crucible. There is nothing at all that has been discovered so far by science that supports that idea. It’s the same as the Theory of Everything—just intellectual arrogance in my view.

The good news is that I don’t have to do anything. I could happily sit in my garden with my telescope and binoculars for the rest of my life, and leave science as it is. I don’t have delusions of grandeur, and I definitely don’t have a cosmological model to sell!

Yes physics is fun.

Hilton Ratcliffe

Durban, South Africa, 2011

9 comments on “How “Socks” began

  1. Denis

    Hilton, mazeltov on getting a blog going even as you get Socks going. May both thrive and conquer. Here again we are in parallel positions. My comment line or whatever, the equivalent of your blog, is I think exactly a month older than yours. It is still blinking a bit in the sunlight, wondering if it is really alive. I think yours might do its 0 – 60 a bit more alacritously.
    Appreciate that most of what you are talking about is Greek, to those of us old enough and weird enough to have had Latin in our education. When you drop all these evidently physicistically known names, Alfven and Guth and Arp and Smoot and CMB, to me you sound like a Woody Allen novella. When you kind-of apologise for presenting Physics 101, you involuntarily give a firm reminder that my level is Physics 001, where a neutrino might be somebody selling candy floss in Florence. You aren’t about to have me as a regular, and you sure aren’t getting debate from me.
    What I can see is a style with lots of class. It’s not just that you and Prof Cliff are clearly plotting a global Tea Appreciation Institute, it’s not just how you smartly manage to disparage the particlists in the very breath you disavow disparaging them. It’s not just the relief-giving metaphors like the flea on the climate’s back, the heroin addiction of math thinking, the selling of a retirement home to a suicide bomber. It’s that you treat everything as up for challenge.
    The logic that “in an infinite universe we will always be infinitely more ignorant than wise” is to my mind unchallengeable [though surely not “wise”; “knowledgeable”, maybe?] and that is where unchallengeable stops. Your scepticism about the science that “is settled”, about Collider conjecture, about unshakeable pronouncements, rings very right bells to me. May you ring those bells long and loud. May minds wiser – and/or more knowledgeable – than mine hear them. I will maintain a watching brief, and who knows, I might in short order put myself up for promotion to Physics 002, or even 3. Thanks and good going!

    1. Skywalker Post author

      Thanks so much, Denis. Your points are right on the button. When I set out to write Socks, it was an entirely different animal to the one that is about to be published. It was originally intended to be a follow-up to Heresy, and it assumed that the Socks reader had thoroughly digested The Virtue of Heresy first. In Heresy, those mysterious names and weird cosmic mosquitoes are all explained in words of three syllables or less. But then along came Peter Pan in the form of Campbell-Gillies the Ugly, and nothing was ever the same again 😀

      1. Matt Terry

        Dear HR, I’m lost! I googled the poor jockey’s name (RIP in the Island in the Skye). The only sense I can make of “But then along came Peter Pan in the form of Campbell-Gillies the Ugly, and nothing was ever the same again” is: nothing. Might I ask of you an explanation?

        1. Hilton

          Hi Matt,

          Thanks for your comment. My post was in reply to Denis Beckett, and Ian Campbell-Gillies is a mutual friend of ours. It was Ian who got me up at the height of my illness, and virtually forced me to write Socks. I had given up on it. So whatever Socks achieves, I owe it to Ian.

          Cheers, Hilton

  2. Matt Terry

    On being indoctrinated in mathematical thinking, and not going back, I coined a term to describe the almost erotic levels of self-love practiced by mathematicians declaring that just because their calculations can be run back to Plank timescales, or forward into trillions of years of darkness, therefore the truth is at hand. This faith in the generative power of figures and squiggles, so exquisitely massaged, I call:

    1. Skywalker Post author

      Hahahaha, yes, I guess it’s up to us to develop the terminology of recovery. 😀

  3. Bill White

    It is funny that I have just stumbled on the fact that you are writing this new book called Socks as I have just finished reading Heresy for the third time. And I commented to my wife yesterday that the only real Black Hole in the known Universe is the one where one half of all the pairs of socks I own disappear in to when I need wear them. Anyway good luck Mr HR with your new book and I hope you give them hell. And that you succeed in your effort to get some of the educators to listen to you in the changes you wish to have made in the way students are indoctrinated so they will not become Mathsturbaters and ruin their brains and lives when the The Big Bang , Standard Model and string theory BS meets its inevitable end, hopefully soon.
    Bill White

    1. Skywalker Post author

      Thanks again, Bill. The latest news from my publisher is that we anticipate having Socks listed on Amazon by the end of October. Holding thumbs!

Leave a reply to Denis Cancel reply


Captcha * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.