Saturday, October 2, 2010

So, where is "mathematics"?

"Q&A with astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe"

His new book, "The Virtue of Heresy - Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer"


D. A. Kentner

September 30th, 2010

The Holland Sentinel

South African astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe is not the conventional anything. If a reader is expecting to find confusing jargon in his acclaimed novel, “The Virtue of Heresy - Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer,” they will be sorely disappointed.

If the reader expects theories – guesswork – again, disappointment is sure to follow. However, if the reader is seeking pure fact about the universe in which we live based upon Ratcliffe’s belief that “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,” the reader is in for a delightful and educational read.

And Ratcliffe is hardly alone in this “groundbreaking” information. While Ratcliffe expected theoretical and philosophical stoning, what he found was an ally in none other than legendary British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Together, they coauthored “The Static Universe,” which deals a devastating blow to the notion of universal expansion.

Q. To ask what filled you with the passion to study beyond man’s theoretical teachings would, no doubt, be a book in and of itself. So, allow me to ask why go out on a philosophical limb and publish your findings? It took a lot of courage.

A. No, it was unavoidable. I was a pressure cooker and publication was a relief valve. Courage? Not much. I am financially independent, so the pedagogues who rule the practice of physics and, especially, cosmology do not threaten my personal comfort.

I have colleagues who have been barred from observatories, had been refused publication, had research funding withdrawn, lost jobs and even been chased from their country of birth ­­–– all because they insisted on publicly announcing what they had seen in the heavens, which did not fit the preferred model. They have so much courage it makes my eyes water. They almost literally put their lives on the line. They are the Galileos of our time.

Q. You wrote: “I want to put the physical back into physics. We will certainly explain far less of the perceived universe if we do as I suggest, but we will explain it in a fundamentally better way.” What do you believe is necessary to return education to teaching fact over theory?

A. Theory would be more interesting if it were logical and comprehensible. In the case of mathematical theory, it is neither. There have been no new fundamental discoveries in physics for over half a century.

Physics is dying, being suffocated by meta-mathematics, and physics departments at major universities with grand histories in physical science are closing down for lack of interest. It is a crisis in my view. My belief, therefore, is that physics should be taught with less emphasis on math and more on empiricism. Let’s get back to when physics worked in the real world and formed the backbone of applied sciences. Only then will we progress as we should.

Q. As an opponent of the “Big Bang,” can you briefly explain why you believe this theory is held onto so strongly?

A. Professor Don Scott told me once, “The problems with cosmology and astrophysics in the modern era are not scientific so much as sociological.” The Big Bang Theory is a faith-based system. People believe it because they want to believe it, not because they have been convinced by the supporting data.

When Einstein was ready to write down what was to become his General Theory of Relativity, he found that the mathematics required by such a concept were quite beyond him. He consequently engaged the services of his friend, mathematics professor Marcel Grossman, to construct the mathematical formalism. Grossman felt, for reasons we can only speculate, that the best way to achieve this was to use a new and arcane mathematical language called Differential Geometry.

It is estimated that when GTR was published in 1915, only about a dozen specialist meta-mathematicians in the world could decipher the math. Yet, before long, Einstein was the focus of intense international adulation by millions of people. Since only a minute fraction of those fans could understand the theory, there had to be another reason for the adulation.

It was not the workings or the plausibility of the theory that impressed people so much that they created from it an enduring dogma. It was a psychosocial imperative that characterized all widely defended dogma, including Big Bang Theory, of course, which is the offspring of GTR. Once the new dogma has become entrenched within the educational system, it is done and dusted. Universities (mostly inadvertently) become in effect propaganda machines and produce scientists who quite frankly cannot practice or teach physics any other way.

If, as in the case of GTR and later with Big Bang Theory and Black Hole theory, the protagonists have seductive charisma (which Einstein, Gamow, and Hawking, respectively, had in abundance) then the theory, though not the least bit understood, becomes the darling of the media. GTR and Big Bang Theory are sacrosanct, and it’s most certainly not because they make any sense. In fact, they have become the measure by which we sanctify nonsense.

Q. You adhere to the classical approach to space science. Everything you do is based upon observation, not esoteric theory. I suspect someone in your life helped to provide such a “feet on the ground” attitude. Who was it?

A. Initially, my father. He was a nuts-and-bolts physicist. His motto in life was “no hocus-pocus.” There is a beauty intrinsic to Newtonian Mechanics that emulates the beauty of nature in the world around us, and even more compelling is the fact that it works so well. The whole of Newton’s monumental “Principia” can be understood and put into practice with just high school mathematics. My father explained nature to me in Newtonian terms, and it stuck.

Q. May we look forward to another book from you in the near future?

A.Yes, I have started a third book, titled “Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks!” Watch this space.

The Virtue of Heresy: Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer


Hilton Ratcliffe

ISBN-10: 1434307271
ISBN-13: 978-1434307279

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