Today I’m chatting with published astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe. Hilton is just one of those people who makes life infinitely interesting. No matter what question I have, he takes the time to *put things into perspective* for me, and he’s rather lovely. I’m pleased my path crossed his last year, and that we’ve maintained contact… let’s talk books, space, and big bangs (the innuendo in that is endless)…
Poppet • • • looks to Hilton…

 

• The Virtue of Heresy: That’s quite a title – care to explain it?

The full title of my first book is “The Virtue of Heresy – Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer”. It has nothing to do with religion. Science progresses by being challenged. The history of organised knowledge has been characterised by periods – I suppose we might even call them dynasties – during which a prevailing dogma has held sway, and this has always meant the suppression of dissent. For example, the regime that promoted the Earth-centred Universe ruled science and society for about 2,000 years. It has invariably been the efforts of a few resolute individuals, the heretics that brought about regime change described as a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. We owe the ongoing development of true science entirely to the efforts of those few dissidents like Copernicus and Galileo who risked their lives to challenge the orthodoxy, hence “the virtue of heresy”. My book puts that into a contemporary idiom, focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on insidious repression of dissent by a clique promoting Big Bang Theory in cosmology.

• Now, you have released your latest book, *The Static Universe* – that alone to me feels like a contradiction. Static implies, “unchanging” – is this what the title is insinuating?

 

The full title of the book is “The Static Universe – Exploding the Myth of Cosmic Expansion”. The term “static” has a specific meaning when used in astrophysics, quite different from the meaning it has in natural English. It means “non-expanding”, not “standing still”. This is part of standard terminology in the field, and I explain it early on in the book, and again in the glossary. It’s interesting to note that from far enough away, the perception of relative motion disappears. The distant stars appear fixed on the sky, yet they are in reality moving around at hundreds of kilometres per second relative to one another. It’s called an “observer effect”.

• I have to argue with you (sorry I have to) – when you say this after arguing Galileo’s theory – you say: 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! I absolutely have to disagree – how can you explain chemical bonding then? Without numbers (mathematics) how would we build sound structures? – Or measure ingredients to bake a cake? I personally feel that mathematics is the only language which cannot be manipulated or corrupted – and yet you say it doesn’t exist in nature – but it has to, because we are all just atoms bonding – our own bodies are a mass of firing neurons and chemicals inducing impulses. Hilton, you have to explain that preposterous statement. – Or you are being cunning and calling the human mind *alone* unnatural? – which would lead to a whole new debate about the theory of *mind*…

No, there’s nothing cunning about it. Mathematics is a language, a way of describing things in nature using symbols, quantities and units of measure. It’s just fancy arithmetic. Like any language, it doesn’t exist in nature, it’s simply a mental construct used by human beings to communicate ideas. Thus, we may say that you and I are about 500km apart, but go and look at the road, at the earth and the rocks and the trees. There are no kilometres there. It’s in our minds only, but it helps us to agree on certain properties of the world about us. The same is true for chemical bonding or suspension bridges or the Fibonacci curves of spiral galaxies – not one of them contains mathematics, but may be usefully described by mathematics in its role as an efficient international language. Note that I do not say that mathematics is not useful, in fact it’s essential in science. But it should be a tool, not an argument for some esoteric higher truth. Read chapter ten (or chapter nine in the 3rd edition), “The Haquar Monologue”. The idea is developed there without a single equation!
I have to chuckle when you say “mathematics is the only language which cannot be manipulated or corrupted”. How wrong you are! Black Hole theory and Big bang theory are both gross corruptions and manipulations of the field equations of the General Theory of Relativity. In The Static Universe I devote a chapter to the question of space curvature, probably the greatest corruption of mathematics ever conceived. The fact that analysts solving the equations in these fields come to so many mathematically legitimate but opposing conclusions tells us that mathematics has the limitations of any language – it cannot express truth in an immutable way. Cosmology is ruled by no more than preference, certainly not by some eternal truth revealed unambiguously by mathematical formalism.

• Okay – let’s get to the nitty gritty here – who is Hilton? And what drew you to authoring books?

I grew up in rural Zululand, with a physicist father, an astronomer grandfather, and a musician mother, under a brilliant unpolluted sky. My dad would read to us every evening from books like “Jock of the Bushveld”, and would quote from Gray’s Elegy before supper in lieu of grace. How could I not have ended up where I am? It was pre-ordained. I was infused with a love of language (including mathematics and isiZulu) from the time I was born, and absolutely everything was done to some kind of musical sound track. So, Hilton is an astrophysicist and mathematician with a love of prose, rhythm, melody, and harmony, and he sees nature through those eyes.

• Where are your books available? (And what’s this I hear about a trip abroad to promote the newest one?)
They are both available on Amazon
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Hilton+Ratcliffe&x=15&y=17

 

Yes, I have just returned from a globally-cooled UK where I stayed with legendary British Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore . It was awesome. I visited him first in 2007 following his positive review of The Virtue of Heresy (you can read the story under “Articles” on my website) and he suggested that I should write a book called The Static Universe. I was already two-thirds of the way through a follow-up to Heresy, and was initially about as enthusiastic as drunk fowl. He was right (he usually is) and a few weeks ago I went over there again to thank him and celebrate his 87th birthday. He’s physically a broken man, but mentally – wow! What a mentor to have.

• What is it like being an astrophysicist?

Very sexy!
(laughs!)

• Do you ever walk through the mall and think – my IQ is higher than yours? Or do you feel that IQ is overrated?

No I don’t. Not in a mall. Most of my time in malls is spent planning my escape. Yes the whole thing about IQs is muddy. Is it a measure of intelligence, or perhaps something else? What is intelligence? How is that distinct from being a proficient advocate? I know people who can “win” any argument they get into, but they are not necessarily intelligent, and almost always have no respect for the truth. So morality comes into it somewhere. I was taken out of my comfort zone in standard 5 when our IQs were done and put into a “gifted child” programme that all but ruined me academically. The fact that I went on to achieve a measure of success in a mentally challenging arena of science is despite that IQ-mania, not because of it. In any case, it was really just a test of my mathematical skills, that is, the ability to see patterns, and nothing to do with my understanding of nature.

• What do you do for fun? Or is your life mostly conducted looking into a magnifying lens?

Interaction with nature. I do a great deal of naked-eye observing – of celestial objects, of birds, of trees, of termites, of crystals, of exotic motor cars. Driving well engineered vehicles is my most enduring and rewarding hobby. I read a lot. I do photography. And I write. Oh, and don’t forget music. Music is a very big deal for me. One last thing – I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from dissing pseudo-science. Anthropogenic Global Warming and 2012 Doomsday are current favourites.

• You have looked through the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – what was that experience like? The waiting list is endless – yet a little birdie told me – you just had to flash that irresistible IQ – and you were granted passage – do tell!
No, there’s nothing sinister about my visits to Sutherland. I am part of the space science community, and despite my unorthodox views, am still respected as such. I have friends who are professional astronomers attached to the SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) and can generally get access to the inner sanctum. Of course, I didn’t get observation time (although in principle I could). To be granted observation time, that is, dictate where the instrument should be pointed to acquire images for research, is naturally enough a very difficult thing to achieve, but it’s not impossible! For my purposes as an astrophysicist, the data obtained from orbiting observatories is enough to keep me out of mischief. This last trip, I was there during the day and just played with that magnificent R300-million toy. Wow!

• My Mum wants to know how old you are and when she can date you? (laughs)

Oh crap! I’m 60 . I have a girlfriend (well, a friend with benefits) but I’m free on Tuesday.
(much chuckling)

• I’m going to veer off topic of your books briefly – to ask you a question that plagues one of my friends. He’s been watching the phenomenon known as *The Big Wobble* around the sun in our solar system, since 2007. – This is apparently – disc shaped *things* moving around the sun – physics dictates that anything that close – would surely disintegrate – yet these objects have been seen by a number of telescopes around the world – for a number of years – does the scientific community have an explanation for these things? (as I feel that there must be a basic, scientific – logical explanation for it)

Oh crap again! Refer to my previous comment about pseudo science and my mantras in the next answer. The Big Wobble refers specifically to a theory of aliens, and that’s just horse dung. I can’t go into detail here, but bear two things in mind: One, the centre-of-mass (known as the barycentre) of the Sun shifts fairly randomly within the orb of the Sun itself, and results in a complex set of physical wobbles throughout the Solar System, but most obviously near the Sun (eg, the precession of Mercury’s perihelion); two, the Sun and all stars and systems of stars are to some significant extent electromagnetic phenomena (refer to the chapter “A Twist in the Tale” in The Virtue of Heresy). The biggest structure in the Solar System is an electromagnetic plasma sheet. The Sun has an electrical potential with respect to surrounding space of a billion volts. There is copious geological evidence of electrical arcing in all Solar System bodies studied in surface detail (eg striations and lines of mini-craters that the nutters say are caused by alien warships). Bottom line: We’ve got enough real stuff to keep us mystified without this kind of dark and mysterious nonsense.

• What do you tell yourself on bad days? When the world gets you down – do you have a winning formula or mantra?

Keep it real. No hocus-pocus. Emotion is wonderful and therapeutic unless you wallow in it. I’m REALLY small. In an infinite Universe, we will always be infinitely more ignorant than we are wise. Cats rock!

(yes they do)

• What’s your favourite food?
Varies with my mood and what I ate last. A good English breakfast is right up there. Fish. Vegetables, raw or hardly cooked. Brown rice. Scrambled eggs. Ice cream. Pies. Apple tart. Prawn curry. Grilled pepper-lemon calamari. Mealie meal porridge with peanut butter. Tea and scones. Buttermilk rusks and Horlicks.

• Tell me your take on the Big Bang Theory

An incredibly complex mathematical theory that has no basis at all in reality. Creationism without God (unless man is god). The ultimate impossible theory of A to Z evolution. Prevailing dogma, the paradigm about to shift.

• What is it you would like the world to remember you for?

An uncompromising desire for truth, independent of any model or subjective opinion.

• What would you like the people you’ve known, to remember you for?

Well, I’m trying to be a decent person, so I guess if I succeed, people will include in their cocktail of memories of me that I was sincere and honest to a large degree.

• If you could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

That animals eat other animals. Cruelty appals me.

• Do you have an *idol* – a person who’s inspired you – or someone whose magnificence simply humbles you – and you can’t help feeling – one day – I’d like to be just like that?

Gautama the Buddha.

• And… what is your ideal gift? (I’ve always wondered what sort of gifts astrophysicists like to unwrap on Christmas morning)

Books. Washburn D10SNSK steel-string acoustic guitar. BMW R1200GS. 20” Meade reflector. Love. okie.

Hilton, thank you so much for this – it’s been great fun. I really enjoyed what I read of- “The Virtue of Heresy” – it’s a fun read, which is fascinating, informative, and really not what I expected. You blow the boring badge into smithereens. Good luck with both books …

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