Archive for November, 2020


November 29, 2020

Imagine a liquid which, if left out in the sun, absorbs energy from it and goes into its ‘Charged’ state. Later when it passes through the engine of your vehicle it is induced to release that solar energy without burning Oxygen, but reverts to its inert “Discharged’ state and is stored in the vehicle’s waste tank. Afterwards, at the refuelling station the inert liquid is exchanged for fresh ‘Charged’ liquid which goes into your fuel tank, and off you go again. The discharged liquids are collected, re-energised in the sun, and then recycled through the whole process; again and again and again. And because no Oxygen is is burned, no Carbon Dioxide is produced to pollute the atmosphere and warm the globe. In other words humankind would be getting all the energy it needs in a convenient form from the Sun , without damaging the planet. We’d have harnessed endlessly Recyclable Oil, or ‘RO’ for short. And why not? If cabbages can turn sunlight into chemical energy why can’t kings? Eating cabbages, burning the Oxygen which the cabbages have produced as a by-product, and then breathing out CO2 doesn’t have to be the only way we can survive. Sunlight is abundant and free. Surely, by taking thought, we can make use of it without preying on cabbages — or their fossils — and mucking up the atmosphere into the bargain? Grudges will say it can’t be done; but then they always do. As Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago: ” But by far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and the undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this — that men despair and think things impossible.”. Anyway I believe there’s evidence that someone succeeded long long ago:

Mind you one could reasonably argue that if RO were feasible then some creature in all the aeons of past Evolution would surely have exploited it already. The fact that none has is pretty convincing evidence against its practicality. Anyway if you do a simple sum you can show there isn’t enough sunlight out there to power a normal animal. Such a solar powered creature would have to be spread out like a blanket to catch enough of it. Surely that rules the idea out?

A slide from a Powerpoint presentation produced by my son Mathias for a talk he gave on our joint behalf at his own university, University College London back in 2005. It more than hints at what is coming next.

Almost, but not quite. I want to convince you that once upon a time there was a solar creature that ruled our skies for over a hundred million years, only to be wiped out in the great meteorite extinction which ended the age of dinosaurs.

Look at the next photo which I took in the Natural History Museum in New York in 2000:

The fossil wing of a gigantic dinosaur excavated in Texas, with behind it the complete skeleton of a much smaller specimen. The shoulder bones in particular look more like those of an ox than a bird. I was flabbergasted when I saw it because the laws of physics simply rule out such a monster from flying. But what else did it do if not fly? Bigger specimens up to 11 meters in span have been excavated since, though none is complete.

When alive the creature would have had a total wingspan of twenty feet or more and weighed around a hundred kilos. When I saw it first my hair literally stood on end. Why? Because a long term interest of mine had been the science of animal flight (principally birds) and I knew at once that the creature hanging from that ceiling could never have flown — not using normal metabolic processes; never, never, never! To stay aloft it could only have used solar power directly (and didn’t its giant wingspread resemble a blanket?).

Science is hard, mainly because there is so much to learn. We overcome that by specialising early, then specialising further again and again, learning more and more about less and less. That is all very well but it does have crippling limitations. To tackle any really ambitious project we have to form teams in order to broaden our individually narrow specialities. But what if nobody on the team is aware that fact X, from an entirely different field, will be the indispensable key to solving our problem? That happens all the time, and as we become increasingly specialised, may become the greatest brake to further progress in research.

Let’s take a famous example. Hans Christian Oersted was an undistinguished Danish scientist employed by his government to look into the hazards of storms at sea. Reading through the logbooks of ships that had survived, he could hardly ignore the frequent reports that during electrical storms the compasses on board went haywire. At the time (1820) nobody knew that Electricity and Magnetism were in any way related — but Oersted could hardly avoid that inference. So he went out and bought a battery (they’d just come on the market) and sure enough he found that modest currents would cause any compass nearby to swing dramatically. He published a brief note ( in Latin) which set laboratories across the world on fire. In particular Faraday and Ampere worked out the details of Electromagnetism, as it came to be called, and the modern world began: motors, dynamos, telegraphy, radio, Relativity, broadcasting, television, the computer — they were all waiting in the wings of history. But to set off that frenzy of invention it took Oersted’s almost accidental recognition that two previously unrelated phenomena were in fact intimately connected.

In my case the the accident was a warbler that landed on our ship during a storm in mid-Atlantic. To me it seemed like a miracle that such a tiny ball of feathers had made it out so far with no opportunity to either feed or rest. Not believing in miracles I set out to find its secret for myself, with no help from the existing literature. It took me ten years to crack the Range problem and a further two to prove that no bird weighing more than 12 kilo’s would ever fly. It could never generate the requisite power. So what was this monster doing hanging above my head in New York? It must have weighed at least a hundred kilograms,. What was more it could never have taken off, or landed safely. So how could it stay forever up in the sky? Solar power seemed to be the only possibility.

So if I am right Recyclable Oil once did exist upon this Earth — Pterodactyl’s Blood — and if it existed once surely we could synthesize it again — and save our planet?

You might suppose that everyone would be excited by such a possibility. Not a bit of it. On the contrary. Why not? It’s that bloody Specialisation once again. Palaentologists know all about pterosaur bones but don’t understand aerodynamics or physiology sufficiently well to convince themselves that pterosaurs couldn’t fly by normal means, while aerodynamicists knew how to design airliners but are not all that interested in dusty old pterosaur bones. Worst of all no one has that combination of knowledge in paleantology, aerodynamics, mathematics, physiology and energy- generation to convince themselves, or anyone else, that RO could be waiting just round the corner, to save us all. I know, because I’ve tried, and so has my son, to convince different audiences both in print and in person. Nobody has so far been able to find anything wrong with our arguments , but then nobody has so far been sufficiently convinced to publish them either

So then I grew desperate and tried to put the truth, as I see it, in a novel called Pterodactyl’s Blood, which is described elsewhere on this site, but which almost nobody has read so far. The facts are:

  • No animal weighing more than 11 kilograms could ever fly because Oxygen powered physiology is too weak to sustain the required power. Period.
  • Yet pterosaur fossils with wingspans of up to 30 feet testify that they indubitably did.
  • But creatures of that size could never have taken off ( running speeds of over 50 mph required) nor landed without crippling themselves. So they must have remained airborne, day and night, throughout their lives.
  • With Oxygen metabolism ruled out the only means of sustaining themselves in perpetual flight was direct solar power. And such was their wing area in proportion to their likely weight that this looks entirely feasible — even with moderate solar efficiencies ( less than 10%).
  • But such a departure from normal zoology would surely leave tell-tale marks in the fossil record. For instance solar powered pterosaurs could not have had feathers. And so on and so on……

What distinguishes honest science from mere speculation is vigorous Hypothesis-Testing. So we subjected the Solar Power Hypothesis to every test we could think of, and it passed. With no reasonable alternative it therefore deserves very serious consideration, especially so since it could , in principle, solve the Global Warming problem.

If you want to find out more about Recyclable Oil there are three possibilities:

Read my novel Pterodactyl’s Blood — its all in there bar the technical calculations. (described under ‘My books’ Category)

Look at the Power Point Presentation my son prepared for a seminar at his university — University College London. You should be able to see it at:

Or go direct to our rejected science paper ( which may be hard going) at:

and see what you can make of it.

As always comments are more than welcome.

PS There are several more posts on this site about Flight, particularly bird flight, even a simple primer on aerodynamics which should enable one to understand where the Range and Power Equations come from. There’s nothing genius about it, but the consequences are dramatic. That warbler for instance. Click on my Tags and Categories.

PSS We were not the first to worry about pterosaurs with such vestigial legs taking off ( see references in our Science paper) but nobody before us realised the Power-problem, which is quite definitive.


November 26, 2020



As far as I can see Common Sense Thinking (CST henceforth) works like this: we all get ideas, they constantly bubble unasked to the surface of the mind; the real challenge is to decide which ones are sound [‘Hypothesis Testing’ it is called]. To determine that we look for evidence (clues) bearing on our idea or hypothesis H and place each clue in one of only 5 categories (This is the ‘Principle of Animal Wisdom’, or PAW for short):

TABLE (5:1) The Weights of Clues bearing on Idea H





Strongly in favour of H



Weakly in favour of H



Neutral towards H



Weakly against H (underlined)



Strongly against H (underlined)



We then combine (symbol ★ ) the Weights in obvious ways thus:

w★w = s

w★w = n

s★s = ss

s★w = w and so on.

And we finally decide to act on H only when the combined evidence reaches either sss [decide for H] or sss [decide against H]. This is a precautionary measure which saves us from making premature, possibly fatal decisions based on only two strong clues, one of which might be unsound.


A detective is having to decide whether to charge X with a crime [her hypothesis is ‘X is guilty’. Her thinking, based on the available evidence, might look like this:



Her Weight

Accumulated Weight














Witness A




Witness B




Witness C




Witness D







Charges X


My scheme is nothing more than the systematic Association of an Idea H with different clues, combined with a simple precautionary mechanism for avoiding overhasty decisions. I suspect such CATEGORICAL INFERENCE (CI for short) is our main survival mechanism with roots that go back a billion years. You won’t find it in text-books on Inference or Logic; they appeal instead to notions such as Probability Theory, Bayes’ Theorem and Parsimony. The problem is that their authors disagree violently among themselves – so something must be seriously wrong. That’s why scientists ignore them and go on using Common Sense CI to progress.

Notice three important features of this scheme:

1) The more evidence the better. With a sufficiently long string of clues, even when they conflict, we can eventually reach a decision [sss or sss ] about H, one way or the other, provided (a major proviso) a record has been kept of the incoming clues, together with their Weights. For instance I was eventually able to bring my own tangled research project to a triumphant conclusion but only after using writing to compound 25 separate clues, some in stark conflict with the rest. This means the scheme can be used, but only by the literate, to handle highly complex tasks such as voyaging to the Moon.

2) The process is open-ended; there is always room to add new evidence to the tally whenever it is found. Thus it is Provisional in nature, and even after a decision to act has been taken there must be room for a change of mind – in other words to Adapt.

3) Rather than remember these unfamiliar symbols it turns out to be much easier to use betting Odds and replace “combine” (★) by the multiplication sign ×, ‘n’ by the number 1, s by 4, w by 2, underlined-w by ½, and underlined-s by ¼ . Then a decision in favour takes place when the Odds are 64 to 1 on or better, and against at Odds of 64 to 1 against or worse. In future that is what we do. But remember it is still Categorical Inference, no more and no less, a process innumerate animals could have used to survive in the wild. We have just changed the symbols

NB. This extract was taken from Chapter 5 of my book “History of the Brits” where it is later used to tackle some very thorny issues such as ‘Is America Britain’s friend or enemy?’, or ‘Would the Scots have been better off Independent’ and ‘Is mass immigration good or bad for Britain?’.


November 24, 2020

Fuzzy thinking is far worse than fallacious thinking for whereas the latter may be spotted, or overturned by new evidence, the fuzzy variety may linger for millenia, causing endless harm, as we shall see.

There is a remedy against fuzzy thinking called “Ockham’s Razor (OR)” named after a mediaeval monk, though its roots stretch back into the classical world where it was labelled ‘lex parsimoniae‘ or ‘The Law of Parsimony’.

Ockham’s Razor states: “ALWAYS PREFER SIMPLE HYPOTHESES OVER COMPLEX ONES” which is easy enough to write down but damnably hard to justify. For instance both Newton and Einstein utterly relied upon it but both gave unsound reasons for doing so. Newton averred: “….for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.” while Einstein waffled about God. He said, with regard to his Law of Gravitation “God would not have passed up the opportunity to make nature this simple.” [As it happens she had.]


1) Heliocentrism (A Sun-centred planetary system) was first advocated in modern times by Copernicus(1543) in De Revolutionibus. He didn’t have any new observations to justify his claim (the telescope wasn’t invented for another 30 years) but it was evidently much simpler than the traditional Earth -centred scheme, which needed twice as many arbitrary parameters to square it with the facts. [Confirmation only came in 1609 when Galileo with his spyglass spotted that Venus exhibited changing crescent- phases as it orbited the Sun.]

2) Newton recognised that the theory of Gravitation he proposed to explain the dynamics of the Solar System was ridiculous. He wrote: “That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter so that one body should act upon another at a distance through a Vacuum, without the Mediation of anything else, by and which through their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe that no Man who in philosophical matters has a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” Nevertheless that one simple law explained so many things about the heavens and about he Earth that it was quickly and universally accepted…. because it was so parsimonious.

3) In his Origin of Species (1859) Darwin acknowledged that there were so many difficulties with his hypothesis of Evolution that he wrote in his conclusions: “That many and grave objections may be raised against the theory of descent with modification through natural selection, I do not deny. And I endeavour to give them full force.” And he did. Nevertheless many readers came to accept it rather than ascribing every peculiarity of Nature as due to a special intercession by God. Again because it was so much more parsimonious. And in the fullness of time ( a century) the various objections to Natural Selection melted away as Radioactivity and Continental Drift came to light.

4) It was Henri Poincare’ (1904) who first realised that the grave difficulties which then faced Physics could be resolved by accepting the Lorenz Transformations and modifying Newton’s Laws of Motion to agree with them. This is called ‘The Theory of Special Relativity’. However Einstein got the credit for it a year later by making a single outrageous assumption: “The speed of light is constant for all observers”, which was much less satisfactory from a philosophical point of view– but oh so much simpler algebraically. As in Newton’s case one outrageous assumption explained and predicted a thousand surprising observations: parsimony again.

5) And Parsimony isn’t just about science. Not at all. Take for example Military Intelligence. R.V.Jones who was head of Air Ministry Intelligence during the SWW, and who was responsible for the threats to the UK of Nazi bombing, radar, the V1 and the V2 missiles , later wrote a very fascinating book about his experiences ‘Most Secret War‘. In his summary at the end he calls Ockham’s Razor : “The Cardinal Principle of Military Intelligence.”


1) The Four Elements was an idea promulgated by Aristotle around 300 BC in which all substances were supposed to be composed of a mixture of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. By adjusting this hypothetical mixture, and a deal of plausible sophistry, the old thinkers could explain everything – and therefore nothing. So long as it was widely believed, serious chemistry was unnecessary and therefore unpursued. This monster was a many headed gorgon bristling with free parameters. Whenever something didn’t fit you ascribed further properties (parameters) to your 4 imaginary elements and lo everything could be made to fit once again. Thus it couldn’t be overturned; because it was too fuzzy.

What we  would call Chemistry was ruled for over 2000 years by Aristotle’s hypothesis. Almost no material evidence supported his scheme but it appealed to religions such as Christianity and Islam looking for a comforting order to life. It wasn’t overturned so much as left behind by crisis, the firewood crisis which struck Britain in the 18th century after it had cut down most of its forests to build houses and ships. A new source of power had to be found and the mining of coal led to a desperate search for new materials and new contrivances such as pumps to stop the mines flooding. Experiments were necessary, and from experiments came evidence that made no sense within Aristotle’s fuzzy scheme. For instance burned in air some substances became heavier not lighter. And careful balance measurements initiated by Joseph Black in Glasgow University (1750, the English universities didn’t teach science then!) showed that substances combined in precise ratios to form compounds. Out of such observations the notions of atoms and molecules grew. These in turn gave rise to materials of great strength like steel, and to new compounds of great value such as artificial dyes. Crisis, experiment, discovery, understanding, wealth: The infinitely flexible, therefore unprogressive chemistry of Aristotle was simply left behind as unprofitable.

(B) The Four Humours was another fuzzy Greek hypothesis which held up progress for 2 millenia. Modelled on the Four Elements it imagined that health was determined by a balance of four liquids: choler, melancholer, phlegm and blood. Physicians who were learned in such jiggery-pokery dosed us, leeched us and charged us, shortening our lives as they impoverished our purses. Again the hypothesis was immune to criticism because it was infinitely adaptable. In place of bones it had an infinitude of free paramaters –  and what was more could earn good money. Again it couldn’t be displaced by evidence, being infinitely flexible. It was gradually superseded by more useful notions about physiology such as the germ theory of disease, a direct result of the invention of the microscope. But Greek Medicine held up real medicine for twenty centuries

(C) The ‘Argument by Design’ opined that all things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small, were instances of The Creator’s wonderful powers of invention. After all no other cause could be imagined for the intricacies of Nature’s architecture, from the perfect spiral of a sea shell to the extravagance of a Rainbow Lorikeet’s plumage. Science at the ancient universities, even to the end of the nineteenth century, was solely aimed at uncovering such wonderful manifestations of the Almighty. Since nothing was outside His powers everything could be explained. There was no possibility of bringing Him down, since nothing was beyond Him, even burying fossils of inexplicable design merely to challenge our faith in Him. This ‘Argument by Design’ could have been rejected by nothing else but Parsimony, by the discovery of an alternative theory which was simpler, far simpler than a Great Designer in the Sky. And so it eventually was (see Darwin above) The trouble with Him was that he had an infinite number of free parameters (fudge factors).


To my mind the greatest obstacle to progress in Western Society was Christianity. Forced upon the Roman Empire by Constantine on his deathbed (337 AD) in return for ‘absolution’ for his sins (he’d murdered his wife and son) it brought Thinking to an abrupt end for over a thousand years for, as Saint Augustine its early theologian wrote (~400 AD) : “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity ……It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” Shortly afterwards Christians burned down the Great Library in Alexandria and executed its head by torture.

With no good evidence for its core belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God Christianity (and other Abrahamic religions) at least offered a very desirable and necessary explanation for “the wonders of Nature” [see ‘The Argument by Design’ above]. But when Darwin and Parsimony had punctured that, thoughtful Christians, like the Bishop of Worcester’s wife, knew that Christianity’s days were numbered. As she put it : “Dear me, let us hope it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope it does not become widely known.”


Why should anyone accept Ockham’s Razor? That’s the central point. All the explanations I have examined are either unconvincing, or go off into stratospheric mathematics — which is the same thing. The problem is that anything as fundamental as Ockham’s Razor has to be grounded on a clear understanding of Common Sense — which was lacking. Put it another way: any claim to understand Common Sense Thinking must lead to a crystal clear explanation for OR. But don’t expect it to be simple or obvious — otherwise it would have popped out of the woodwork long since.

The secret, as always, turned out to be The Detective’s Equation (DE). Whenever you are trying to understand Hypothesis Testing, which is surely the aim, the DE can be used to calculate the Odds for or against the hypothesis under test, whenever the evidence and the assumptions are changed. So you can play around and find out what adds to one’s certainties and what subtracts, and out of such calculations Ockham’s Razor gradually emerged from the shadows. The best reason to believe any hypothesis is that it fits the existing evidence better than it has any right to do by chance. A simple hypothesis has little chance of fitting more complex data unless it is actually right, whereas a complex hypothesis deliberately contrived to fit it is hardly convincing. Much the best way to understand how things work is to look at a specific example, and we shall go through one in detail below while there is a whole chapter in my book Thinking for Ourselves about OR and its multifarious implications.

Because most scientists still don’t understand CST they don’t realize just how counterproductive it is to complexify their pet theories to fit new but inconvenient facts. Thus Big Bang Cosmology has been so seriously challenged by modern observations that cosmologists have been forced to fuzzify it with strange new parameters like Dark Energy, without realising that in doing so they’ve entirely undermined its credibility.


Once a hypothesis conflicts with the facts it cannot be left unmodified. But fixing it by introducing arbitrary modifications one by one to remove the separate discrepancies won’t work either because each such mod. will weaken the odds on the hypothesis overall. Only if one can find a mod. which offers to clear up several discrepancies at once should it be seriously considered. Of course that will be much harder — but nevertheless that is the challenge.

Applied to Big Bang Cosmology (BBC), Inflation (to fix isotropy), Cold Dark Matter (to fix galaxy-formation) and Dark Energy (to fix acceleration) shouldn’t be considered seriously because none was ambitious enough to fix more than one serious discrepancy. It was, and is, much healthier to admit that as it stands BBC is seriously at variance with the facts (observations). Some of it might be right ( e.g. expansion) and it is certainly hard to think of a plausible alternative. But it is much healthier for now to admit that BBC has failed. Trying to keep it alive, (Like Ancient Greek medicine) is the kind of fuzzy thinking which can hold up progress for generations, millennia perhaps. BBC has failed — we’ve got to start again.

Looking at the wider picture beyond Cosmology, we can see just how fundamental Ockham’s Razor must be to clear thinking of all kinds, from Astronomy to Military Intelligence. What was lacking was a transparent explanation of just how and why it works, but now the Detective’s Equation (i.e. Common Sense) has supplied that.

Ockham’s Razor must surely be one of the cornerstones of all serious systems of thought, including Common Sense .

My detailed explanation of why Ockham’s Razor works is given at:

The best reference on the history and influence of Ockham’s Razor that I know of is Chapter 8 of Hugh Gauch Jr.’s volume “Scientific Method in Practice” CUP 2003. He goes so far as to say. “…. the scientific enterprise has never produced and never will produce a single conclusion without invoking parsimony. It is absolutely essential and pervasive.”

A readable but sceptical account of Big Bang Cosmology is In Search of the True Universe, by Martin Harwit, CUP 2013

P.S. Is there a quick way to check whether some hypothesis is unhealthily fuzzy? I believe there is: find out how many Free Parameters it has. BBC has 18. But so does The Standard Model of Particle Physics. That makes one wonder. That seems to be stuck in a cul-de-sac too: no exciting developments since the 1970’s . Umm. Do Quarks really exist? No one has actually captured one.[Constructing Quarks, by Andrew Pickering, Univ. Chicago Pr. 1984, makes for provocative reading].


November 18, 2020

Evolution is a painfully slow process. Modifications from generation to generation are generally imperceptible. How come then that humankind can launch telescopes into Space while our cousin the Chimpanzee, with whom we share 98% of our genes, is still struggling to crack nuts in the jungle? No wonder thoughtful people have invoked Divine Intervention, or the arrival of wisdom from elsewhere by interstellar spacecraft (Arthur C Clarke in the story/film “2001”) . If we are not to believe in miracles then we are faced with a fearsome puzzle: ‘How have we become so clever so quickly?

Had aliens come to the Earth a mere 10,000 years ago they would have had no good grounds for believing that humans would soon erect Santa Sofia, build Venice on piles in the Lagoon, devise the Hay-on-Wye Festival, organise the D-day landings, get to the Moon or launch the Hubble Space Telescope. In a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, a marginal species has so come to dominate the Earth that we now worry that we will damage it irreparably. The zoologist Peter Medawar wrote: “For all their intelligence and dexterity. — qualities we have always attached great importance to — the higher primates (monkeys, apes and men ) have not been very successful. Human beings have a history of more than 500,000 years. Only during the last 5000 years or thereabouts have they begun to be, in a biological sense, a success.”

Then again the more we learn about other animals the harder it is to believe that we are much smarter than some of them. Jane Goodall found that we are by no means the only tool users; Cetaceans hunt collectively; birds navigate the globe precisely in ways we do not understand while crows can solve puzzles that defeat many humans. So it doesn’t look as if we are that much smarter than some other creatures….. and yet. Then again our advance has happened so recently, and spread so quickly. That sounds more like something cultural to me than organic Evolution. What trick have we learned in the last few thousand years or so that could boost our thinking capacity by a factor of something like a million? Finding it is not merely a colossal challenge, it may be the very clue we need to establish how we actually think. Explaining that factor of a million will be the acid test for any proposal which claims to understand Common Sense Thinking (CST).

After studying how scientists appear to think I found that we almost certainly use a method based on The Detective’s Equation. Now look hard at that Equation. Doesn’t it give you an idea?

The DETECTIVE’S EQUATION and its potential implications for the Miraculous Ascent of mankind, Can you work out the secret? It’s staring us in the face. Mind you it took me months to see it. But you have got an extra clue in the format of this script.

Yes it was WRITING! With it we were suddenly able to handle 10 or more clues instead of the 2 or 3 we could when we were illiterate. And in an EXPONENTIAL process like the Detective’s Equation that can make a difference of order millions. If you don’t believe me study the following Table of Odds derived from that Equation:

THINKERNo.of Clues N Average Weight (Av.) (Av.)N DECISIVENESS ODDS
Our Cat34 64 64:1 Decisive in favour
Me 34 64 Decisive
Me & pen104 Millions Very Decisive
Me & pen101.5 60 Decisive with confused Evidence
Team & pens152 30,000 Very Decisive with confusing evidence
Team & pens 151.525,000 Ditto but more confusing
Research Community251.2 100 Decisive even with Very confused evidence
Decisiveness values for different numbers of clues with different average Weights per clue. If the Av’s were less than 1 the Odds would be equally decisive but against; for instance if N were 10 but the average weight were 1/4, the Odds would be millions to one against the hypothesis H.

Recall that [‘Principle of Animal Wisdom’ or PAW] individual Weights can only take the values 4, 2, I, 1/2 or 1/4 so their averages in a particular investigation could take any value between 4.0 and 0.25. Where the evidence is confused or conflicting that average will tend towards zero as the various clues cancel one another out. Even so, with enough clues (N), we could still come to a decisive view regarding H, whatever H might be.

So I am suggesting that the Miraculous Ascent of Humankind can be ascribed entirely to our development of writing.

To back up that suggestion note:

(a) It fits almost perfectly into the chronology. The earliest phonetic script appears on the sarcophagus of the King of Biblos, a port in Phoenicia just North of present day Beirut and dated about 1200 BC. According to Herodotus, about 800 BC Cadmus took this script to the Greeks who modified it considerably, to include vowels (previously ‘understood’) and reversed it to write left to right. About 600 AD, via Etruria, it reached the Latinas, fore-runners of the Romans; and so we were off. Previous non-phonetic scripts were probably not flexible enough for sophisticated thinking, as well as being confined to a tiny priestly cast because so many glyphs were needed, thousands instead of tens.

Phonetic scripts, Phoenician in the centre, Greek first Left, Latin second; Persian first Right, Arabic second. The great similarities suggest that phonetic script was invented only once, probably around 1500 BC somewhere near Biblos in what is now the Lebanon. Courtesy Wikpedia, in which there are many fine articles on the history of scripts and languages,

(b) To demonstrate to yourself just how vital writing is to thinking, try to do a puzzle such as a Sudoku, a Crossword or a Codeword, without writing anything down. It can’t be done. As Einstein put it: “My pen and I are smarter than I am.”

(c) Daniel Boorstin the American scholar wrote: “I write to discover what I think.” Me too.

(d) Large or complex projects are absolutely dependant on documentation. It may be a pain in the arse but it is indispensable. For instance I was a member of the Hubble Space Telescope project for 35 years. So many teams were involved, so many individuals passed in and out of each team, so many subsystems relied upon one another, so many modifications were and had to be made that, without precise and regularly updated records, the whole thing would have been impossible. For instance Wide Field Camera One was vital, and depended on its CCD detectors. But when the first batch got ruined they couldn’t be replaced because the highly skilled technician at Texas Instruments who had ‘thinned’ them had gone off to have a baby and no one could either repeat her feat or find her. Had there been relevant documentation……. Likewise the effectiveness of your treatment by the NHS will be entirely dependent on the medical records that are meant to follow you around. It’s not bureaucracy, it is the indispensable accumulation of relevant information.

(e) If writing is all that makes us so smart we can no longer suppose that we are smarter than many other illiterate animals, be they chimpanzees or pelicans [see below]. Perhaps we should leave more room for them on this planet?

(f) There are so many fascinating and sometimes profound connections between Writing and Thinking, that one could write a whole book about them: in fact I have [see Thinking for Ourselves under Category My Books]. But let me mention just one last one here. The human need for Certainty gave rise to both Deduction (Logic ) on the one hand and Dogma (religion) on the other. But with Common Sense Thinking, allied with Writing, we no longer need either because, at least in principle we could reach sufficiently high Odds for or against any hypothesis to act on it with safety.

Being short this has to be a fairly superficial post. But you can follow up the rationality for the Detective’s Equation and Weights at:

or in my aforementioned book Thinking for Ourselves (see ‘my books’ Category here). I also have a couple of essays about really smart animals who have taught me much including ‘Our Jack‘ about the young Jackdaw who shared my life for a short while at:

and ‘Browning and the Cockatoos‘ about a troop of Cockatoos which outsmarted the smartest guy in Canberra, which is at:


November 14, 2020

Before all, dwelling in cities – which is what civilization literally means − requires massive amounts of cheap and reliable transport. A household requires roughly ten kilos of raw food, and ten kilos of fuel a day. If it is to come from twenty kilometres or more away, as most of it must, we are talking very roughly of one Unit of Transport required per household, where one Unit corresponds to one ‘ton-kilometre-per-day’. This is a sensible unit because an extremely fit man could carry on his back forty kilograms for 25 kilometres if he marched all day. In other words every city-household would turn its menfolk (or womenfolk in Africa where most men don’t deign to carry things) into beasts of burden, leaving nobody left to create the very culture the city was supposed to promote. Horses and carts could help, but not by much when you take into account the effort needed to build roads and supply fodder. Athens and Rome got by only because they were brutal slave states dependent on constant conquest to resupply the poor devils whose backs and spirits they then broke. They deservedly passed into oblivion because they never remotely solved the Transport Problem and so instead imposed endless cruelty on their fellow men and women. Almost the first act of the Romans after they landed in Britain was to crucify some locals.

So how did mankind first solve ‘The Transport Problem’? The short answer is by harnessing Moon-power. My grandmother lived at Leigh-on-Sea on the Thames estuary, where it is about ten miles across. In the nineteen forties and fifties one could usually see from there a dozen Thames Barges with their tan spritsails working the wind and tide or waiting patiently, sails furled, anchors down, crew asleep, for the next favourable stream. In 24 hours there are two tides running in the same direction for 6 hours each at an average speed of around 2 knots. So that’s 24 miles a day in your desired direction. And given they had a crew of only two men (and a boy) and could carry a hundred tons, each Thames sailing barge could transport more than a thousand fit men. No wonder London became the greatest commercial city on Earth. The tides running down and up the estuary as far as Tower Bridge were the great pulsing heart of modern civilization.

A Thames sailing barge, the Alamy taking part in a sailing race in 2020. She could carry up to 200 tons of cargo, had a shallow draft and could take to the bottom when the tide receded, yet because of her lee-boards (see one raised on the side) had fine sailing qualities enabling her to range between Cornwall and the Baltic. Her sail plan could be handled by a crew of only 2 men and a boy, and enables her to manoeuvre in and out of tidal streams in the merest zephyr of wind. You are looking at what is the most revolutionary form of transport ever invented,( see Table below) but you won’t find it mentioned in most history books. Copyright Powell/ Alamy Livenews.

With that insight a vital chapter of history becomes explicable for the first time. Big tides are uncommon – none to speak of in most oceans, the Mediterranean or the Baltic. But in North Western France, the Low Countries, and Britain in particular, they are immensely powerful, reaching a height of fifty feet at the headwaters of the Bristol Channel. And that is most likely why civilization, stable enduring civilization, first developed there. London, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Rouen, Glasgow, Rotterdam, Bruges, Bristol….and their hinterlands, didn’t need slaves. They flourished on Moon-power. Food and fuel, building stone and timber, sand and salt, leather, iron-work and bricks, slate, night-soil, fodder and road-stone, flax, wool and beer…..all the necessities and luxuries of a civilized life could glide long distances on tide and wind….thanks to the tidal sailing barge.

The problem with tidal waters is that they don’t generally get very far inland – or stay there for long if they do. But it didn’t take much for someone to think of closing a gate or barrage to hold the tide up and allow vessels to take their cargoes to the utter extremities of tidal reaches. Then of course someone had to build locks in the barrages to allow the captive barges out and back down to the sea without letting too much of the precious water out. But once you have such a lock for letting vessels down why not reverse its action and lift vessels up? Thus in 1300 near Bruges was born what is perhaps the most ingenious contrivance of the human mind: the lock. Ships could now travel up hill by the aid of rainwater – and a little horse-power. Thus the prosperous, and sustainable modern world was born – without the need for a single slave. Tides led to barrages, to canals, to locks and so to industrial cities like Birmingham, far, far inland.

All would have been well if prosperous Tidal Man could have restrained himself . But he didn’t. Temporarily provided for by waterborn wealth he bred like the proverbial rabbit. In a couple of centuries the tidelanders, and in particular the Brits, had cut down most of their trees, precipitating a catastrophic firewood crisis. There was nothing for it but to turn themselves back into slaves and dig coal from underground like blind worms. But if it hadn’t been for the canals and barges, that life-giving coal would never have made it to the shivering cities. The entire South Wales Coal and Steel Industry, which once (1880) ruled the world, was entirely enabled by a pair of lock gates 60 feet high built in Cardiff to hold in the tide. They’re still there.

Coal mines and rain water obviously don’t mix. Steam power had to be invented to pump out the mines and with steam, eventually came the steam train with a transport capability greater than either the tidal or the canal barge. Their gentle days were numbered.

The tidal sailing barge and the canal lock were the miraculous developments which gave rise to true civilization. And if we hadn’t bred so improvidently we might still be living off their backs today. Even by the standards of modern mechanized transport they were pretty efficient as the following table illustrates, where the Units are equivalent to what one very fit man can carry in a day i.e. roughly 1 Ton-kilometre. Attempts have been made to factor in the costs of crews, of forage, of fuel and of the building and maintenance along the ways on which they ran. But that is not easy to do given that governments often tax or subsidize the different factors in haphazard ways. Usage then becomes a vital factor in the relative costs of alternative modes of transport. For instance the British canal system collapsed so rapidly because as railways stole freight away their fixed maintenance costs had to be charged upon fewer and fewer barges (Also railway companies bought up canals and vandalized them deliberately).


In units of 1 Ton-kilometres per day per man required.


BARROW-BOY (Wheels; common in India still) 4

CYCLE (No track costs included) 10

HORSE WAGON (forage costed but not roads) 8

TIDAL SAILING BARGE (Britain; 2.5 crew) 1200

CANAL BARGE ( 30 Tons; including canal costs) 90

CLIPPER SHIP (limited to trade wind routes) 3000

RAILWAY* (incl track and fuel costs) 2400

TRAMP STEAMER (incl 30 crew and 50 miners) 4000

MODERN TRUCK ( 2 crew, fuel and road costs) 3000



* I have everywhere converted fuel costs into manpower units by assuming a man can mine about half a ton of coal a day and that oil will be taxed until it is more expensive than coal per unit of energy stored.

In short we can see that it was the tidal sailing barge which first made true civilization possible. The North Western Europeans were blessed with this rare magic, and of course the Brits, as usual, with far more than anyone else.

This was extracted from Chapter 2 of my ‘History of the Brits’ (Amazon 2020)

NB: This has been an entirely quantitative argument (see table). Some arguments are bound to be of this nature. This is why mathematics has to play a significant, sometimes over-riding role in History [Ch.4].


November 10, 2020

My trade as an astronomer , involves travelling to the very darkest spots on Earth, peering up to see what is there, and returning to report to you, my fellow humans. You poor devils can’t see much of the splendour because you have blinded yourselves with artificial lighting.

These expeditions into the dark started in the Arizona desert, then on to the Warumbungles in the Australian bush, to the island peaks of Hawaii and La Palma, and finally to La Silla up in the Chilean Andes where I measured the darkness in between the stars at 22.5 Blue magnitudes per square arc second. In my ignorance I was impressed though I was disappointed to see little more from up up there with the naked eye than I could espy from a moonless beach in Wales. ‘Why not?’ I wondered.

It turns out that the rod cells in the eye, which enable us to see in the dark — if we treat them properly, are critically dependent on Oxygen. Climb a mountain, where of course all our telescopes are constructed, and you’ve lost it. I discovered that by accident when I woke up in the bottom of my little sailing boat up a remote creek in West Wales to find a colossal glow several moon-widths across, peering down at me from on high. Yes I’d had a few pints but….surely…. It took minutes to realize that I was being watched by the Andromeda Nebula, our fellow Spiral galaxy, which I’d never seen before, even from those remote mountain peaks. [Try it for yourself on a moonless night in summer. Get as far away as you can from city lights, and go to sleep in the open (that ‘dark-adapts’ ones eyes), then wake and look up — and with any luck you might see a marvel you will never forget.]

This is a composite image showing just how big The Andromeda galaxy is compared to the Moon. It’s really worth looking for. Copyright Adam Block and Steve Puckett.

Why hadn’t the big telescopes I’d been using make much difference? First because their fields of view are far too small. Second because the light you want to see is accompanied by much more background sky-light that you don’t. The big mirror amplifies both, only weakly improving the contrast. And that is what one needs to discern the dimmest structures in the universe — more contrast!

When I joined the Hubble Space Telescope Team it was natural to suppose that seen from up there in Space the sky would be really dark. But no. In between the planets drift tiny motes of dust which reflect sunlight back down into our dark — the so called Zodiacal Light — which you can actually see , if you know where to look. So disappointment once again.

Perhaps, if we could escape from the Solar System? But no again; there will still be faint starlight out there from the Milky Way and scattered starlight too. What a disappointment. Is there nowhere in the cosmos from where we could see the Universe as it really is? What about out there between the galaxies out in Intergalactic Space? You and I will never be able to go out there, but perhaps our distant descendants?

If I couldn’t go at least I could calculate how dark it ought to be out in that farthest, remotest, darkest immensity, an unimaginable distance away from any luminous star. It wouldn’t be absolutely black of course because some light would still be leaking from the nearest galaxies several million light years away.

What a shock I was to get from my calculation when I finally made it in my eighties. Out there the sky would have a brightnesss, or rather a dimness of 31.5 Blue magnitudes per square arc second, 9 magnitudes darker than the darkest site on Earth (Remember? 22.5 of the same magnitudes in the Andes). Now 5 magnitudes is one hundred by definition, so 9 magnitudes is one hundred times forty, or four thousand. Turn the calculation around and you can see why I was stunned. We live on a planet where the darkest night sky we will ever see is four thousand times brighter than it has to be if we are ever to see the Universe properly . We’re dazzled, blinded, blind. It is far more likely than not that we are blinded to most of the structures out there, and that all we will ever see, for all our technology, is a tiny fraction of the true Universe. Think on that. Knowing what we cannot know is sometimes more informative than knowing what we can.

If you want to see how the calculation was done go to:


November 6, 2020

Hidden Galaxies were Tom Morgan’s passion (and mine). We both fell under their spell when we were young and spent our lives, and other people’s too, searching for them. Were we mad, as many sensible astronomers thought, or were we lucky? After all, searching for a vast continent whose existence could only be inferred from coincidences and equations, seems close to insanity. But then Christopher Columbus had been driven to his own folly by finding tropical beans washed up on the wester shore of Ireland, and by scraps of manuscript written in Egypt but then left forgotten for a thousand years on a library shelf in the great dome of Byzantium — Agia Sofia.

The saga of of Morgan’s life-long obsession ( and mine) is the spine of my quartet of novels Written in the Stars, starting with Against the Fall of Night (AFN) and ending with Beyond the Western Stars (BWS), a sort of Sidereal Odyssey I won’t retell here. But what I can do for non-astronomers is add some scraps of the evidence, the tropical beans if you like and the pieces of parchment which kept Morgan and his comrades going when all the Odds looked to be against them.

The Wigwam diagram showing the Visibilty of any galaxy (upwards) plotted agains its dimness, plotted horizontally, dimmer to the right. It is the consequence of two plunging curves and so is very sharp and very thin, which surprised everybody. It is utterly unintuitive, yet entirely dominates our ability to see the extragalactic universe. It turns out that virtually all the galaxies we can measure lie right under the peak. That is either a miraculous coincidence or a warning that most galaxies are hidden out of sight.

Let’s begin with the calculation Morgan made back in 1975 in that caravan on the Teifi Estuary (AFN). Above we see it in the form of a graph. It shows the Visibility of a galaxy — that is to say how easy it will be to see, plotted upwards, against its dimness, plotted towards the right along the bottom. And what Morgan found, to general consternation and surprise, was an extremely sharp, narrow peak. The inference was that only galaxies of a very particular dimness (or ‘surface brightness’ in the jargon) would be visible to mankind. Those ones to the right (‘Icebergs’ Morgan called them) would be sunk too far below the night sky, whilst the ones to the left (‘Brilliants’) would be so small in apparent size as to be mistaken for background objects And here was the killer-coincidence: all the galaxies known to science at the time fitted exactly underneath Morgan’s peak. That is why the paper, with its implicit challenge, was published in the journal ‘Nature’ in 1976. What the diagram The ‘Wigwam diagram” as we came to call it, cannot convey is just how narrow the Wigwam really is. It is ten thousand times narrower than the total range over which the occasional galaxy has turned up by accident. Ten thousand times! Even Morgan sometimes couldn’t believe that. Apparently we are looking at the universe through a mere crack in the shutters. It was the Wigwam diagram which kept Morgan and his crew sailing on, through doldrum and tempest, for the next forty years.

Astronomy is beset by what are called “Selection Effects”. That is to say we build our picture of the cosmos selectively out of what we can observe down here, pretending that what we cannot observe, which might be much the greater portion, is not significant. What else could we do? Morgan’s wigwam was thus a rude shock, for it suggested, very directly, that Astronomy must be missing much of the extragalactic cosmos. What could be done about that? We had to try and devise alternative observing strategies which might enable us to see through one window, what could not be seen through another.


Using that approach Morgan and his colleagues decided to survey the sky in the radio band, and when they found a source, check what was there in the optical. The next figure shows some typical results, with a radio spectrum superposed on a negative image (easier to see) of the corresponding area of the visual sky..

Here are radio scans of the sky made with the Parkes Radio Telescope superposed on negatives of the optical sky behind. The receiver is tuned to the frequency of gaseous Hydrogen receding from the Earth at the velocities ( in Km/sec) shown at bottom. The two upper spectra corresponded to giant spiral galaxies, bottom left to a dwarfish Irregular galaxy, and bottom right to a dim galaxy barely visible above the sky. The area under each spectrum is a measure of the total amount of gas present while the width derives from the internal motions within the galaxy ,such as rotation. Much can be inferred from these measures. Copyright Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Usually there is indeed a galaxy to be seen there. But of course the team were hoping to find cases where the optical counterparts were invisible — i.e. true ‘Hidden Galaxies’

A montage of galaxies found at Parkes and then observed in several colours with the Sloan Survey Telescope in New Mexico. The six bottom right are all colossal giants more massive than our Milky Way. Nevertheless, as you can see, some are very dim. This all ties in with the Wigwam diagram and indicates just how treacherous a purely optical survey of the Universe might be. Courtesy of Professor Julianne Dalcanton, University of Washington, Seattle

The figure above shows that, from time to time they came close. Each postage stamp in the montage shows the optical image corresponding to a radio signal found in a blind survey of the sky made with the Multibeam Receiver fitted to the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. As you can see some are almost invisible, lying in the very wings of the Wigwam diagram. It is important to emphasise that the Luminosity of a galaxy (which corresponds to the number of stars it contains — generally billions) and its surface-brightness (dimness) are entirely different concepts, the latter depending on how its Luminosity is spread out across the sky. Although the six galaxies bottom right are all luminous giants, some are nevertheless, extremely dim.

There is another trick though in astronomy for finding something invisible in Space: observe an object behind it and look for tell-tale gaps (‘spectral ghosts’) in its spectrum where specific atomic species in the invisible object have absorbed out the light coming from behind. That is what Frank Cotteridge and his like found, albeit by accident, when they observed the spectra of very distant Quasars — lots and lots of inexplicable absorption lines (‘spectral ghosts’). “What else could they be”, Morgan argued, “If not my Hidden Galaxies?” Thus the bitter battle over QSOALs or ‘Quasi Stellar Object Absorption Lines’ began (see especially “Crouching Giant“).

The spectra of Quasars showing the many absorption lines (spectral ghosts) etched into them. Measurements show they are caused by clouds of atoms like Hydrogen and Nitrogen lying in the foreground along the line of sight to the quasar. But what form could those clouds take? Morgan claims they are the numerous Hidden Galaxies you would expect. Opponents who don’t like that idea are forced to postulate that visible galaxies must have absolutely vast gaseous halos surrounding them. Controversy continues [see Whispering Sky and Crouching Giant in particular]. As you go down the montage one is looking at higher and higher redshift quasars. Out there, back in time, the absorbing clouds appear to have been crowded closer and closer together. The humps are features in the spectra of the Quasars themselves. Copyright The European Southern Observatory (

In 1987 the whole field was electrified by a paper written by Greg Bothun, Chris Impey and colleagues who were then based in California. Quite by accident, while observing dwarf galaxies in the nearby Virgo Cluster, they noticed that one wasn’t a dwarf, but the nucleus of a “Crouching Giant”, that is to say of an absolute monster of a spiral galaxy 25 times further away than the cluster but too dim to show much of itself above the sky. Here was unequivocal evidence that Hidden Galaxies of the most dramatic kind actually existed.

The Crouching Giant found by Greg Bothun, Chris Impey and co. by accident in 1987. The bright nucleus (this is a negative) was thought to be a dwarf galaxy in the nearby Virgo Cluster. But some very smart detective work revealed that it was instead the core of an absolutely colossal but dim giant spiral 25 times further away, whose spiral arms you can just pick out. It is no less than half a million light years across, ten times the extent of our own colossal Milky Way. Because of the accidental way it was found, finding others like it would be infernally difficult. Copyright Astronomical Journal 1987

That might have been that — except that nobody could find another such. The sceptics could, and did, write it off as a freak. If Hidden Galaxies were to become ‘significant’ they needed to make up a healthy fraction of the cosmic light and mass. In other words astronomers needed to find lots of Crouching Giants.

And how we all tried! But even when Jon Davies & co. did find one at Jodrell Bank (below) the opposition was fanatical.

Theoreticians who’d ‘proved’ that Hidden Galaxies couldn’t exist were furious; observers with even bigger telescopes than Jodrell were adamant that if they hadn’t found one then certainly we could not. And then there were the computer modellers who, at the drop of a hat, could prove or disprove anything, often without acknowledging the manifold frailties of their craft.

The putative Dark Galaxy VirgoHI-21 in the Virgo cluster. Left shows the radio contours superposed on a negative optical image. (Data obtained with the Westerbork Array in Holland) The giant spiral NGC4254 has obviously been disturbed by an encounter with a massive object which could only be Virgo HI-21, which is Dark, but note the bridge of gas between them. But the dynamical map (Right) shows it is spinning rapidly which can only mean that it is indeed massive. Massive, dark, spinning; what else could it be but a Dark galaxy? Copyright The Astrophysical Journal, 2007.

So although , after titanic refereeing battles, Virgo HI-21 did eventually get published in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal, most of the self appointed ‘experts’ stubbornly refused to acknowledge it as the first Dark Galaxy. But, in my opinion, if you read all the arguments carefully enough, it cannot be anything else.

In Big Science the problem is very often Lack of Breadth, rather than Lack of Depth. The clues are here and there but who has the breadth to spot them all, and assemble a coherent picture? Often we fail because no one individual in the field has the required breadth. And then there are the Systematic Errors that can bedevil any ambitious undertaking, errors held on to fanatically, especially by those who do not appreciate the frailty of The Scientific Method, and the need for caution in applying it (See my book Thinking for Ourselves) . This is highlighted in the following image based on observations we made with the Jansky Telescope in New Mexico, much the most powerful radio telescope on Earth at present. It reveals a huge cloud of hydrogen, the signature you would expect of a Dark Galaxy, but with a giant but optically visible galaxy to the South, receding away from us at the exactly the same speed as the Hydrogen. Previously the Parkes team, to which I then belonged, had mistakenly identified that as the source of the Hydrogen, and so overlooked what appears to be a true dark galaxy. Galaxies, Dark or Light, cluster so gregariously together that one needs a very powerful beast like the Jansky, to distinguish between them. None of us fully appreciated that, certainly not the Quasar observers with their spectral ghosts, who could always postulate, around visible galaxies, ‘gaseous haloes’ of unlimited size, to discount the invisible ones, which is what most of them choose to do.

What a Dark Galaxy ‘looks like’. Parkes 0039+03 was first discovered as a massive Hydrogen source out at 5,300 km/sec recession-velocity by Morgan and co. using the Parkes dish. They mistakenly associated it with the luminous optical galaxy (marked ‘cont’ here ) which happened to have an almost identical radial velocity, even though it is rather far away on the sky. But much later these more precise observations with the colossal Jansky array revealed that the Hydrogen and the bright galaxy are unassociated, as you can see. Even later a much deeper optical observations of the cloud made with the William Herschel 4.2 metre telescope in the Canary Islands revealed that it has tiny patches of light in it, but that is all. The strong clustering of galaxies together, both in space and in velocity, makes the search for Dark galaxies far harder than anyone had imagined. But if this isn’t a dark galaxy then what is? We found more like this out there.


Thus far I have spoken entirely of Icebergs, hidden below the sky on the right hand (dim) side of the Wigwam; what about the ‘Brilliants’ on the other? They would be even harder to find so Morgan and co almost forgot them altogether. Apart from anything else, being compact, they would be largely shrouded in their own smoke, disguising their true brilliance, appear like ordinary galaxies, but far far in the background, and therefore of no particular interest.

It was only after WFC-3 was operating on Hubble (2009) that Morgan began to worry about the extremely high redshift galaxies dotted all over the background in deep Hubble images (see below). If the universe were really expanding they oughtn’t to have been there — dimmed out of visibility by the so called ‘Tolman Effect’. And they turned out to be very small physically, much smaller than galaxies of the same luminosity situated close by to us in Space. Then the penny dropped with a clang for Morgan. Here were his Brilliants but at very high redshift, dimmed just enough by expansion to place them in the Visibility Wigwam where they became possible for us to see. The implications though were startling: Space must be inhabited by vast numbers of Brilliants , just as it probably was by Icebergs. And together all their extra radiation would have sufficed to re-ionise the Universe — otherwise a major problem for Cosmology. So it all fitted together: Hidden Galaxies, Expansion, Brilliants, the Wigwam diagram, Reionisation…….if Morgan was right. If…….. This was the theory which obsessed him towards the end of Beyond the Western Stars.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the deepest image ever taken. In an expanding universe distant galaxies ought to be dimmed to the point of invisibility by straightforward physical effects. Yet here they are, dotted all over the place. Either the universe isn’t expanding or these are normally invisible Brilliants, shifted into the Wigwam by redshift so as to be visible. Courtesy ESA/NASA

Who was right, and who was wrong can only be decided by posterity . But in my story of Hidden Galaxies I have tried to convey, above all, just how engrossing it all was: the tournament of ideas, the clashes of personality and ambition, the conflicts of evidence, the camaraderie, the bravery and the cowardice, the wild misunderstandings and the hazards of fortune……. They make science such an exciting career; though not one for the faint-hearted.

PS. I have actually left out the biggest reason for mystery here, because it has a post of its own entitled HOW DARK IS THE NIGHT?

Professionals who would like to see a fairly up-to-date review of this subject can look at my opening address to the International Astronomical Union symposium No.355 held at the IAC in Tenerife in 2019 entitled “The Realm of the Low Surface Brightness Universe” (Procs. edited by David Valls- Gabaud to appear soon in CUP) at:


November 5, 2020

Given that there are roughly ten tons of turbulent murky atmosphere above every square metre of the Earth’s surface it is a wonder that we can see the Cosmos at all. Thus the urge to orbit a big telescope above that atmosphere was irresistible. So in 1976 NASA and ESA put together a joint mission , which was eventually to be christened ‘The Hubble Space Telescope’ (HST) after Edwin Hubble. If, and it was a very big if at the time, all went according to plan, the prospects were breathtaking. The machine would image the Cosmos in a thousand times more detail, and across an eight times greater colour range than its ground based counterparts. Because of its accuity it would begin to see the Universe actually moving for the first time. Furthermore it ought to detect objects a hundred times fainter and thus ten times further away, and because light has a finite speed that meant it would be a Time Machine able to observe the Universe as it was long before the Earth and Sun were born. No wonder some suggested it would become “the most exciting project ever undertaken by mankind”.

This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth. It’s about the size of a bus while the ‘wings’ are solar panels

But if it was to succeed there were huge challenges to overcome. How was a mirror of the required precision ever to be made? How could the telescope take pictures up there and then return them to Earth? Given that there would be no crew (too clumsy), how was it first to find its targets and then hold steady on them with unheard of precision? How could it be serviced, or repaired if things went wrong, as they were bound to do on on a spacecraft far more complex than any nuclear-powered aircraft carrier?

Nobody knew the answers. But that was half the point. Like JFK challenging the Apollo Mission to get to the Moon in the 1960s “……not because it is easy, but because it is hard” so NASA and ESA were throwing down the gauntlet to their successors. “Here” they said to their selected teams “Here’s a problem we can’t solve. You go crack it. But you’ve only got so long!” And that of course was the very kind of challenge which inspires scieneers.

Astronauts installing WFC-3 camera on Hubble Space Telescope in 2009

Teams, committees, call them what you will, were the secret, and the Camera Teams were at the very heart of the entire enterprise. Only the cameras on board could exploit the full power of the telescope, and so deliver its most ambitious science. But what was that science to be? Before they designed a single lens it was those instrument teams , and those alone , which had to peer far into the future and try to imagine the most exciting questions that the telescope would be called upon to answer.

I was lucky enough to attend the first meeting of the Faint Object Camera team in 1977, and the last meeting of the Wide-Field-Camera-3 team, in 2010. So I feel well placed to describe our long voyage of discovery, as one of the on-board crew. I have chosen to tell it in novel form because what was to happen had to first germinate in the human heart and mind, the drivers of everything else. It also allowed me to cut many a tedious corner while keeping the true cast of thousands to less than Tolstoyian size. I hope readers, and in particular fellow members of the crew, will forgive me for that, and certainly for omitting episodes and heroes they feel should have been included. But this is meant to be a human story of a very human endeavour, not the synoptic history which will no doubt emerge when we have all gone.

Since The HST story occupies much of my three novels:

The Whispering Sky ( 1976 to 1983)

Crouching Giant (1983 to 1995). and

Beyond the Western Stars (1996 to 2011)

all Amazon Publishing (2020)

I won’t say more here. You can see then all described here under the ‘My Books’ Category.However I intend to add, from time to time , images and scraps which could enrich the reader’s experience of the adventure. and I would be grateful if readers, or ex-comrades, could suggest more.

Here is the recent Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field image taken with Hubble WFC-3, the deepest picture of the universe ever taken, and illustrating its capability as a Time Machine. Apart from the odd spikey star all the objects are galaxies vast distances away. The tiniest reddest ones have redshifts as large as 7 indicating that we are seeing them as they were over ten billion years ago. The Sun is only 5 billion yeas old. Copyright NASA/ESA/stsci.

Hubble would have been a disaster without the Space Shuttle, which not only launched it back in 1990 but visited it 5 times thereafter, to adjust for the flawed mirror, make innumerable repairs, and install new instruments like WFC-3, the camera which is still up there working perfectly after 11 years in orbit. Man seldom gets things right first time; we do our best by tinkering, by Evolution. Without Shuttle that would not have been possible, and I fear that HST’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has been postponed at least a dozen times already, could be a disaster because it has no such means for repair. Anyway below you will see a panoramic view of the Cape Canaveral launch-site in 2009 with Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39-A about to go up on its final mission STS 125 to the telescope, carrying WFC-3, along with its brave crew. In the background is Shuttle Endeavour on Pad 39-B, standing by to act as a Lifeboat to bring the crew back should Atlantis experience a serious failure, as happened with Columbia. In the background is Merritt Island nature reserve. If you zoom in enough, you might spot Morgan swimming up one of the alligator infested creeks to get as near to Atlantis as he could.

Those interested in following up the treasury of wonderful Hubble images and what they signify, can go to websites such as,, ,, and


November 2, 2020

Civilisation meant living in cities, the bigger the better. But cities need vast amounts of fuel and fuel to keep them going. But how were they to be brought in from necessarily long distances away? Athens and Rome used slaves; and failed. London and Amsterdam used Moonpower; and thrived .

The idea of Moonpower stole upon me in the oddest way. I was sailing my Drascombe Lugger up a lonely reach of Milford Haven, dusk was falling and I needed to find a snug anchorage for the night. Discovering a narrow waterway amidst some reeds I sculled up it, under some oaks until they opened out into a basin which took my breath away. It was if we’d broken into Tutenkhamuhn’s tomb by accident. Chained to its crumbling quays lay the rotting wooden ribs of an ancient fleet forgotten altogether by Time. They must once have been, I surmised, the transport system which had powered a thriving economy on the Haven, even before the days of steam. Most had vanished, but in this almost inaccessible spot their ghosts remained, settling generation by generation into the mud.

I went ashore, lit a fire and communed with that vanished age and its rotting bones ; after half a bottle of wine they seemed to stir in the moonlight as if eager to tell me their tales. They recalled boyhood days with my grandmother at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, watching Thames Barges with their tan spritsails working the tide, carrying cargoes up from the North Sea to the Port of London in the late 1940s.

I took Bob Salt(from my Written in the Stars quartet) up there on a subsequent trip, and he was just as enchanted as I. Between us we worked out the Moon-power story, and he set it in its full historical context . Later on, at his request, we scattered his ashes among their rotting ribs. Here I attach an excerpt from Bob’s book The History of the Brits, from a Practical Man’s Point of View.

No image remains of those old Pembrokeshire vessels, but Thames Barges were making a commercial living on the East Coast as late as 1975, and here is one:

The Thames barge Alamy racing in 2019. Such a vessel could carry up to 200 tons, 25 miles a day, using tidal streams alone. With a crew of only 2 men and a boy they plied their trade anywhere between Cornwall and the Baltic Sea . For their time they were more advanced than the 747 or the Space Shuttle. The huge leeboards allowed a shallow draft but with little leeway. The cunning spritsail rig was highly flexible yet could be handled by a tiny crew. Similar vessels were found in the Low Countries to exploit local Moonpower. Copyright Powell/Alamy Live News.

while my son Mathias took this next picture of one near Tower Bridge in 2020. London’s growth was built on maritime technology like this.

A Thames barge near the centre of London in 2020. Note how the long bowsprit (right) can be tilted upwards to take less space in busy moorings. Using only the combination of mizzen, topsail and staysail she could be manouvered into a favourable stream in a mere zephyr of air, while the boom of her main spritsail could also be used as a derrick to load and unload cargoes . But her most important system can be seen hanging from her bow. When wind and tide were against her it would be lowered ,allowing her highly skilled crew to sleep.

Bob and I believe it was Moon-power, almost completely neglected by historical scholars, which first made sustainable civilisation possible in North Western Europe, where the tides are uniquely strong.


November 1, 2020

Around 2000, after I had been working in Australia for 6 months, several friends came to Sydney airport to see me off back to Britain. They all commiserated with me , having to return to such a dreadful place where it rained all the time and the sun never came out (to say nothing of the awful food). ‘Wait a moment’ I thought to myself ‘I love living there’.

That would have been the end of it, but then the flight was delayed for 9 bloody hours. So I sat in the lounge and pondered the question : “Which is the best location on Earth to live — geographically speaking?”

I tried to be objective and to list the most desirable features one by one. Six weeks later I had a very clear and surprising answer — Britain. What delayed me most was the matter of climate — which led to a fascinating detour into the subject of ‘Human Thermodynamics’ which I had to more or less invent for myself.

I was shocked by the answer. I had suspected that the final choice would alight on somewhere close to the Mediterranean, in Southern France perhaps, or Tuscany. Not so; it was clearly and unequivocally Britain, not even Ireland, and I have never had cause to change my mind since.

Of course we are talking entirely about geography here, not history, politics or culture — which are all far too subjective.

If you want to see why Britain is so preferred, and unique, take a look at:

whilst Human Thermodynamics, and the choice of an optimum climate, has a post of its own elsewhere on this site