On that overcast Saturday morning, after yet another starless night, I awoke with great sadness to the following email from Tom Van Flandern’s son Mike:
“At 8:54AM on Friday January 9, 2009 Tom Van Flandern passed on. I cannot begin to express what this man meant to me. I’ll write more later as there is so much I want to say about my father, Tom. But right now I and the rest of his family just needs some time to grieve. I do take some solace in knowing we did everything possible to maximize Tom’s quality time once he was diagnosed. Also, Tom was well sedated and died peacefully.
Goodbye Dad, I love you so much. – Mike”
So came to an end the remarkable life of a very special man. He was 68 years old. Tom received his PhD in Celestial Mechanics (theory of orbits) from Yale University in 1969. From 1963 to 1983 he was employed at the US Naval Observatory, where he rose to Chief of Celestial Mechanics for the Nautical Almanac. He was particularly involved in improving the accuracy of the Global Positioning System. In 1991, he founded the Meta Research Institute to support ideas in astronomy and astrophysics that were not popular with mainstream institutions and publications, and followed this with his book Dark Matter, Missing Planets, and New Comets in 1993.
In recent years he was a Research Associate at the University of Maryland, and consultant on GPS to the US Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, MD. He was active in both the Alternative Cosmology Group (he served on the committees for both conferences) and the Natural Philosophy Alliance, where he was highly respected for his critiques of both Special and General Theories of Relativity, subjects on which he was particularly well qualified to comment. Throughout his career, Tom didn’t ever forget that he was above all an astronomer, and a significant part of the activities of the Meta Research Institute was organising eclipse expeditions and viewing evenings for meteor showers and other significant celestial events. He leaves his wife Barbara, four children, and a number of grandchildren.
I had recently had the privilege of serving under Tom’s chairmanship on the Organising Committee of the Second Crisis in Cosmology Conference (CCC2), and while at the conference cemented the friendship that began at CCC1 in Portugal, 2005. It was just weeks ago that the symptoms of illness that showed at CCC2 were diagnosed as secondary effects of advanced, untreatable metastasised cancer of the colon. Tom was in pain and going down fast, but we, his fellows in the Alternative Cosmology Group, were largely unaware that it was so serious.
At the end of November last year I was shocked to get an email from Halton Arp, advising me of Tom’s grave condition, and urging me to call Tom in his hospital bed in Seattle. Chip intimated to me that he and Tom had discussed what was to become of Tom’s Meta Research Institute, and that they had agreed that I should be somehow involved. I was astonished to hear that these two icons of astronomy should hold me in such high esteem, and duly made the phone call to Tom. He sounded fairly bright, but didn’t waste time on small talk: “I want you to take over from me as President of Meta Research,” he told me firmly and clearly, “Chip and I are certain that you are the only person who could maintain the scientific integrity of the Institute, and carry that forward into the future.”
I was shocked, and my mind was spinning. “Of course, Tom,” I stammered, “I will do whatever you want me to do to help you through this difficult time.” Sadly, it was never to be. Tom was put onto medication to ease the pain. Subsequent calls to him at home after his discharge from hospital confirmed that he was just winding down, trying to be as comfortable as possible, and without the stamina or concentration needed to maintain the required dialogue and involved legal manoeuvring. My latter emails went unanswered, and then Mike’s letter announced the inevitable. I have lost a great and true friend, one who taught me perhaps the most important principles of science: When we argued about the “face” on Mars, which Tom to my eternal chagrin insisted was artificial, he showed by his clear example that we do not have to agree to respect each other’s reasoning.
Tom was a forthright and highly principled man. I didn’t ever hear him raise his voice, but he called it exactly as he saw it, regardless of how popular that might make him. At CCC2, Tom invited me to lunch on the third day—and insisted on paying because “you are my guest”—and it was one of the few occasions that I could spend one-on-one time with this learned man. We chatted away, and like the very first time I enjoyed private conversation with him at the Moncao Hotel in 2005, I was struck by the fact that Tom listened. He asked questions, and then gave me full opportunity to reply without interruption. He listened to my questions carefully, and then, after a deliberate, momentary pause, answered them with great clarity. I can remember so vividly asking him about the effect that solar eclipses have on pendulums, and hearing his chuckle as he told me there was nothing mysterious about it at all. Tom was so not a crank!
After I had presented my paper at the conference, Tom made a point of coming up to me and shaking my hand. “That was a very good paper,” he told me, “Good science. Well done.” I felt immensely proud. Tom had been the one who insisted I talk to the conference when I had been quite sure that I had no contribution to make. It was he who wrote in his Meta Research Bulletin, “It has been some time since we have recommended a book, but a new publication by Hilton Ratcliffe seems to qualify for such a recommendation.” Tom Van Flandern listened to what I had to say, took the time to benevolently criticise it, and I was both honoured and flattered by that generous spirit.
I will conclude this obituary with some quotes from The Virtue of Heresy:
From Acknowledgments and Introduction: “Of course, there was that defining moment when Dr Tom Van Flandern, who didn’t know me from Adam, turned to me and said, ‘And what about you? You’re standing there quietly—what do you think?’ Thank you, Tom, not only for considering my opinion worthy of vocalization, but also for seeking it out when I had obviously contented myself just to listen.”
Page 213 (Chapter 8): “Where are the boundaries? Which stars belong to a galaxy, and which are passing as ships in the night? What is the extent of a gravitational system’s sphere of influence? The fields, waves, and consequently, concentrations of matter that we address in physics need to be contained. Even if this boundary is purely conceptual (like the Human Consciousness Unit), we need to validate the boundaries with a balance of forces. Tom Van Flandern utilises a concept called spheres of influence. If you’re going to listen to anyone on the subject of gravitation and gravitationally bound systems, make it Tom. Read his book Dark Matter Missing Planets & New Comets (North Atlantic Books, Berkley, 1993).”
Page 245 (Chapter 8): “It seems we are inclined from habit to think of the formation of astrophysical structure as a bottom-up process. We imagine galaxies forming from countless smaller entities and growing bigger by gravitational aggregation. We may be partially right with stellar planetary systems, but way off the mark with galaxies. As we’ll see in chapter 9, stellar pairs may be created by electrical tension, and the splitting of galaxies could also follow that route. The accretion process inherent in cosmic gravitational aggregation appears to violate Newton’s laws. Dr Tom Van Flandern explains the problem from the point of view of celestial mechanics in his essential book, Dark Matter Missing Planets & New Comets.”
Page 251 (Chapter 9): “There is no greater authority on Earth in the field of gravitation and orbital motion, in my considered opinion, than Dr Tom Van Flandern. His academic foundation is refreshingly practical—a PhD in celestial mechanics from Yale—but I’ve heard him engage detractors in pure theory. He can cut it at any level. In 1993 he published a popular science masterpiece called Dark Matter Missing Planets & New Comets. I carry mine around with me, so impressive is it as a reference, and I urge anyone interested in the way the Solar System works to get a copy. Now here’s the thing: I feel constrained every time I recommend it to put in a disclaimer. You see, Tom includes in his book a bit of qualified conjecture about a landform on Mars that has become known as ‘the face at Cydonia’. Tom claimed that the shape of the hill was beyond reasonable doubt an artificially created rendition of a human face. The upshot of that is whenever I enthusiastically promote his work, I have to contend with ‘Van Flandern? Oh yes, he’s the crank who says that a human face is sculpted on Mars’, and this is usually followed by side-splitting jibes about little green men. Sadly, some people who really need to hear what he has to say then disdainfully shut his book and walk away.”
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” – Herbert Spencer
Those that declined to investigate and merely walked away with contempt are the poorer for it. They ignore all the ore in a mine because they think they spotted an impurity. It’s a shame. Rest in peace, friend.