1 September 2007
How would you describe reaction to your book – among both the scientific fraternity and general public?
Two words: Incredible, fantastic. Most of the reaction (that I know about) so far has been from the scientific fraternity, and I am quite astonished at how positive and enthusiastic they have been. Although negative reviews are inevitable, I haven’t seen one yet.
Please give some details of your education and qualifications.
For reasons that are probably obvious to readers of my book, I am something of a pariah in the academic world, and some of the profs at universities with which I have been associated don’t really want that relationship publicised. I have post-graduate level-qualifications from a number of universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, and have had a doctoral thesis (DSc) assessed and approved in principle by one of my advisors at UKZN. But I really wish to emphasise a very important point here – I did not come to the conclusions that I have because of post-high school formal education. I matriculated from Greytown High School in 1967, and the physical science and mathematics grounding that I had there was enough to allow me to be discriminating in my selection of a scientific belief system. I was able from that foundation to teach myself by reading and talking to people much of what I later used in science. Perhaps you might be interested to learn that I started my checkered university career by studying psychology and sociology, and only changed direction to physics and maths after two years. I am still deeply interested in the psychology of science, and particularly the pathology that is now recognized in individuals too much exposed to meta-mathematics!
When did the idea behind The Virtue of Heresy take seed?
That’s quite a story. It actually germinated in my mind beside a waterfall in Swaziland in the early ‘70’s, about 1973, I think. I was there with Billy Kean, a friend from the University of Natal in Durban, and we were using our supposed maths skills to crack a system for roulette. We failed in that, but took a break outside for some fresh air, and were talking about the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Billy said something to me that really got me thinking: “I can’t accept any philosophy that does not embrace the concept of infinity.” That’s where it started. I started trying to figure out how we could bring infinite space and time into cosmology.
Can you please explain the origins of the title – and indeed, if possible, the essence of the book – for the benefit of our readers?
I actually explain the title in chapter 5. Science progresses by being challenged – we get nowhere if everything we uncover out there is just more of the same stuff, but history shows us that invariably, prevailing consensus on anything, including science, becomes dogma, and challenges to entrenched doctrines are regarded as heresy. It is ironical therefore that all the progress in scientific knowledge over the last two thousand years at least has been because of the courage and determination of heretics. Hence the title: The Virtue of Heresy. The essence of the book? It is an account of the crisis in science as epitomised by cosmology and meta-mathematics. In layman’s language (I hope!) I give an account of some of the major theories in science that are used as a foundation for all future science, and show how patently flawed they are. But it’s a personal journey, a narrative that surely shows my great love for science and the truth it seeks to uncover.
You write convincingly, endearingly and entertainingly about beings such as Haquar and the FEA’s. What’s your take on extra-terrestrial life and the likelihood thereof?
Ha, ha, just now, I’m sure, you are going to ask me about God! I have seen no convincing evidence of extra-terrestrial biological life. Statistically, it is likely that biological life exists somewhere else, but we have no means of calculating the probability beyond a wild guess, and no means of testing the answer we get. I generally avoid the subject because there is so much hocus pocus and charlatanism involved. The whole UFO syndrome is seriously hectic, and my interest in it, if any, would be focused on the psychological aspects of it. The so-called face at Cydonia on Mars is another example. There are still intelligent, sincere, well educated people, some of them friends of mine, who claim that it is an artificially created sculpture of a human face. The latest pictures by the ESA surveyor clearly show in sharp detail that it is just a pile of rocks, but no, the face people claim that the photos have been interfered with by NASA and others to suppress the discovery of extra-terrestrial civilisation – it’s another conspiracy theory, and I don’t go there. I am totally against the invention of answers.
From start to finish, how long did the book take?
Four years to write, 30 years to research. I started writing on 1st December 2002, and submitted the final proof to the publisher in March this year. But of course it will never be finished, science marches on. That’s why I love it so much. There have been major discoveries since March that support my thesis, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Where, when and how did your interest in or love of astrophysics begin?
Either my Dad or my maternal Grandad sowed the seed. I grew up in a very rural part of Zululand and my Dad, who had an amazing grasp of physics, didn’t patronize me at all. By the time I was four or five we were talking about Isaac Newton and gravity, Albert Einstein and light, and so on. I grew up with a clear understanding that the fundamental concepts of physics can be talked about in natural language without the need for advanced mathematics. The famous American physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you cannot explain your theory in simple language that ordinary people can easily grasp, then you don’t understand it!” Those clear rural skies showed me more stars every night than city kids ever see, so it was a natural progression for me to associate physics with the cosmos.
Please explain the difference between astrophysics and cosmology.
Astronomy is the pursuit of knowledge of celestial objects by observation. Astrophysics applies what we have learnt from our physical environment on Earth to what the astronomers see in order to derive the physical properties of those objects, like their chemical composition, size, remoteness, temperature, and many more. Cosmology asks the philosophical questions – where did it all begin, what’s going on, and how might it end? I’m not convinced that Cosmology is truly science, or that we need it as a branch of astrophysics. There is just too much unrestrained conjecture involved and too little observation. A lot of it is irrational, and I don’t think that can be called science.
You write fondly of people such as Albert Einstein. Who do you hold as the most respected scientist of all time?
Ha! That’s a tough question. You say “respected”? For me, it’s Isaac Newton. Although he was a strange character and hard to deal with, I believe as a scientist he was without peer. You know, you can understand and use his Principia Mathematica with just high school maths? That’s the genius of the man. Those self-same 17th century laws are still used today – they were used to programme the flight path of the recent Cassini-Huygens exploratory spacecraft to Saturn. The trip took seven years, included four gravitational “slingshots” around other planets, and after all that it got there one second late. That’s good science, in my opinion.
Stephen Hawking fairly recently uttered words to the effect that if human beings don’t leave the planet by the end of the century, there may be no human race left. What’s your take on that?
I have the greatest respect for Professor Hawking, and feel desperately sorry for him because of his affliction. It’s really very sad how he does his work these days. But that’s where it ends for me. I don’t take the slightest notice of what he has to say. He is brilliant but terribly confused.
What’s your take or interpretation of God or a Higher Power?
I knew it! No problem. There is a power greater than myself in the Universe. That’s obvious. I am in absolute awe of what I see out there. Nature is wonderful beyond words. Could it have happened by chance, from the random interaction of particles? No way! There is design in everything I see. The cycles of our environment at every scale, from atoms to galaxies and beyond, go on in a systematic way, consistently following a template that appears to be available everywhere. There is design, and by my standards, it’s intelligent beyond comprehension. That’s as far as I go. Draw your own conclusions and deal with it however you please.
What do you have planned for the future, career-wise and personally?
Well, it seems that my writing is appreciated in the market place, so there’s definitely more of that coming up. I am still co-writing scientific papers for journals, and will continue to do that for as long as I have something pertinent to say. My passion for science – reality physics, as I call it – still rules my life. I’m still studying formally at an American university, but there’s no pressure on me to get any more formal qualifications now. I’m accepted and apparently respected for the contributions I currently make, so really, I’m in a wonderful position with amazing options.
Please explain the origins of the Alternative Cosmology Group and your role therein.
In 2004, a group of about 30 concerned scientists from around the world wrote and signed an open letter to the scientific community protesting the stranglehold that Big Bang Theory has on scientific research and funding. It was published first in New Scientist magazine and later posted on the Internet where other interested parties were invited to add their signatures. Of course, I put my name to it and very quickly got involved at an organizational level. Soon, there were over 400 signatures, including some of the top scientists in the world, several of whom are Nobel Laureates. We decided to call ourselves the Alternative Cosmology Group and hold an international conference to plan our way forward. That happened in Portugal in 2005, and now I’m on the conference organizing committee for our second Conference to be held in the USA next year.
Please elaborate on your co-discovery of the CNO nuclear fusion cycle.
In the 1930s famous physicist Hans Bethe predicted a particular nuclear fusion process involving principally the elements carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, referred to in chemical notation as C, N, and O. My colleagues and I are particularly interested in the Sun, and have a wonderful synergy as far as our research is concerned. Michael Mozina studies the raw images from solar satellite observatories, highlights aspects of interest, and then passes it on to Oliver Manuel at the University of Missouri for chemical analysis, and then it comes to me in South Africa so that I can comment on the physics and help with the maths if necessary. In late 2005, Michael found something very exciting in the satellite data, and we went through it very carefully. It was perfectly recorded by the satellite cameras with time codes so we could identify each intricate step of CNO fusion on the surface of the Sun, some 65 years after it was predicted. It was a major breakthrough that shows the intimate relationship between electro-magnetic arches in the corona and energy produced by nuclear fusion at the surface rather than the core of the Sun.
Astrophysics aside, how do you spend your time?
Nature and the environment are my chief interests. I’m no longer as active outdoors as I used to be because of some accidents, but some of the highlights have been canoeing the Zambezi from below Kariba to the Cahora Bassa dam in Mozambique, white water rafting on the Yukon river in Canada, hiking and caving in the Drakensberg, playing in the desert around Swakopmund, and rock climbing in Lesotho. I’m a non-smoking teetotaler, and have run a couple of ultra marathons. I like bird watching, and also amuse myself for hours on end with linear algebra. Music is a big deal for me.
Can you perhaps give a list of awards and commendations you’ve received, as well as positions, posts and memberships you hold?
My greatest award has been recognition by my peers. The fact that I am on first name terms with many of the greatest minds of this era on Earth is something I could not have predicted but which is immeasurably rewarding. I’m not going to name drop, but there are giants in the world of science who are happy to answer my questions. I am a contributing member of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, both locally and nationally, a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and a fellow of the British Institute of Physics, where I am also active in the Theoretical and Mathematical Physics subgroup. I have already mentioned my association with the ACG.