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.

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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.

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In order to make sense of this, statistical adjustments are made to get a fit with the model of the day. For example, although 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 orders of magnitude.

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

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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!

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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” (after 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).

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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 and that we needn’t bother 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 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.

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Firstly, 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 marshalling 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.

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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.”

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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.

One comment on “Neutrinos, Nautilus, and the Notre Dame, by Hilton Ratcliffe

  1. Steve Garcia

    I have a girlfriend who is a historian by training. In history, everyone has an opinion, and to her everyone’s opinion is to be respected, because, well, everyone has one. it doesn’t enter her mind that an opinion based on hard, quantitative fact could possibly be more correct than an opinion based on studying the writings of, say, Bacon or Keats. TO her all biases are equal and no one can know the real truth.

    So, when I ask how ancient Egyptians could possibly believe – as Egyptologists insist most of the time – that granite with a hardness of 7.0 on the Mohs scale, was commonly cut using a hammer and a copper chisel (2.5-3.0), she asserts that my opinion is just an opinion. Hardness scales to her don’t matter; she doesn’t fathom what they are even about.

    No, some opinions are more objective because they are based on hard reality (no pun intended), that of physical materials and their measured strengths and hardnesses and chemistry and crystalline structures, as well as how they are treated to give them other, better, qualities for usage. It isn’t their opinions that matter, but the quantitativeness of the things they have measured and controlled via processes. An aircraft screw is a better screw because of the objective way it is alloyed, forged and heat treated, not because some engineer’s opinion out-debated another engineer or a poet.

    All other things taken into consideration, at 30 km per hour, it takes 6 hours to traverse 180 km. That is not an opinion, but a fact. A REPLICATABLE fact. Within the tolerances of the measurements taken, that time will be 6 hours, no matter who measures it or who drives it.

    On the other end of that, the mathematicians and theoreticians and their numbers cannot have reality in regards to the physical, natural world unless those numbers and equations and models correspond replicatably with that actual natural world.

    It seems that historians and partical physicists and astronomers have met on the far side of the barn, with reality wrapped around the barn and real reality still in front, where we can see it. On our side, backing up claims is necessary for people to accept ideas. Will this plow work better than someone else’s? Let’s take it out and try it out. Will these screws hold better than someone else’s? How can we test them on real things? Testing will tell us.

    On that other side of the barn, in the wrapped-around reality, the historians and astronomers and archaeologists and anthropologists and particle physicists are allowed to use things other than tests – like peer review and debate and models and equations (any of them ALONE) to assert anything, and because of their standing, they are allowed to claim an opinion that others of their ilk will consider as having weight – after all, the asserters have doctorates, so we can’t be sure that they are not correct. It never occurs to them to come around to the front of the barn, where people put ideas to the test.

    A plain and simple statement of fact, with my girlfriend is seen as an unfair claim to certainty. Thrust me on that. Calculations based on actual physical measurements are seen as merely opinions, and someone else, according to her, is entiteled to have a counter opinion. She KNOWS what, for example, thermometers measure, but does not know what a mechanical engineer measures. And she is not interested in watching boring tests or experiments; by the time the tests are done she has lost interest. No amount of pointing at the numbers to her can make a difference. The other person’s opinion, even without any measurements at all – must be given proper deference, too.

    We have, in large part, gone back to the time of Plato, where minds conjure up what sounds reasonable and that is what passes for science. As you say, you would not want such people designing your bridges!

    Long ago I heard someone state that, “Anybody can design a car that moves; it is the design engineer who is able to make one that gets more than 1 mile per gallon.”

    NUMBERS COUNT! But numbers without connection to physical reality are to be mistrusted.

    THE REAL WORLD COUNTS, TOO! Picturing the real world from the generalist viewpoint, without detailed inquiry and quantification can give the wrong understanding – witness how long Aristotle’s thinking misled the world.

    Numbers and reality – one without the other is simply not science.

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