Posts Tagged ‘cosmology’

PARTICLE THEORISTS POISON COSMOLOGY

November 4, 2021

Despite three decades of effort and tens of millions of dollars spent on accelerators and their like, it looks as if Particle Physics is coming to a sad end. No new particles beyond those such as the Higgs Boson proposed 50 years ago, and in particular none of those Supersymmetric particles which theorists had hoped would explain that greatest of all scientific mysteries — Dark Matter. Of course there will now be cries for more money and even larger machines, after all the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva is a mere 27 kilometres in circumference. But wait! Perhaps there is something far more interesting and fundamental at work: Perhaps Particle theorists have misled themselves, and everybody else , through neglecting a philosophical principle at least a thousand years old called ‘Ockham’s Razor’ (OR), named after a mediaeval monk called Friar Ockham.

At the heart of the Scientific Method is the business of Hypothesis Testing, which is where OR comes in. It states “Always prefer the simplest hypothesis first” and that, I suggest, is where Particle Theorists went so horribly wrong. Their “Standard Model” — as they call it, is fiendishly complex — what with its Quarks, Gluons, ‘Asymptotic Freedom’ and so on and so on. How do we measure complexity in Science? By the number of ‘Free Parameters’ (FPs) needed to describe a theory. One way you can think of them is to say they are arbitrary numbers brought into a theory to force it to fit the experimental data. A ‘good theory’ doesn’t need many FPs because it fits the experimental world naturally(for instance Newton’s very successful Theory of Gravitation has only 2 FP s) The so called Standard Model of Particle Physics needs no less than 18 FP s which has always suggested that it is an ugly and unnatural construct. It should be no surprise then to find now that it actually looks to be wrong.

So why did theorists construct such an ugly model in the first place, mostly back in the 1960’s and 70’s? Probably because they didn’t understand just how fundamental OR is. And there’s some excuse for them — because the Philosophers of Science, the self-appointed arbiters of the Scientific Method, didn’t understand OR themselves. Even Einstein, who relied on it extensively, waffled about some plastic ‘God’.

As I see it Hypothesis Testing works like this. You have some data-points, with error bars of course, and you have your hypothesis which generates a smooth curve which you must try to fit through those points. If there are lot of points the Odds on your hypothetical curve fitting them all by chance must be small. So if it does so fit then the Odds are that the hypothesis is probably right. If it doesn’t fit then you can always complexify your hypothesis ,so twisting your hypothetical curve until it does fit. But you can see that’s not a very convincing way to proceed, because eventually you are always going to force a fit. In that case the Odds in favour of it being actually right vanish. And that, I would suggest is what happened to Particle Theory, starting half a century a century ago.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with modifying a theory to fit the facts, after all that’s how science progresses. But you have to be very frugal in doing so. Only introduce a new concept (FP) into your theory if it fits at the very least two more data points than its simpler predecessor. And that’s hard to do, but it won’t degrade the Odds on it being right. But if it only fits one more data point the Odds will generally degrade dramatically. And that’s what Particle Physicists were tempted to do; making names for themselves at the expense of undermining the Odds on their so called ‘Standard Model’ theory. And that’s why almost nobody believes in their theory anymore. It’s as if they’d undermined their currency by printing too many notes. It works for a while — then collapses!

I am not a Particle Physicist, thank God, I am an Astrophysicist. And what worries me is that those same Particle theorists have dragged their own dodgy practices into our subject, with predictably unhealthy consequences. Take “Dark Energy”, an entirely artificial concept dragged into Cosmology by a particle theorist called Ed Turner from the Fermi Lab (and the University of Chicago). Now astronomers are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to chase this fantasy around the cosmos when there’s no justification for doing so, none at all. It was a thoughtless quick-fix extra Free Parameter to fit the apparent acceleration of Cosmic Expansion inferred from Supernova measurements in 1998. Had its introduction explained TWO or more discrepancies between theory and observation we might have welcomed it in. But it didn’t. So it should never have been introduced in the first place. Never!

PS Actually the situation is far worse than I am implying because the bloody particle theorists who have undermined their own subject actually introduced two more unnecessary FPs into Cosmology before Dark Energy: ‘Inflation’ to cure Isotropy and nothing else, and ‘Dark Matter’ to fix the Cosmic chemical abundances. We need to throw them out too.

So where do we go from here? Cosmology should chuck out Dark Energy, Inflation and Dark Matter and start again without them. As for Particle Physics I suspect that they may have to go back 50 years and try to reconstruct a more parsimonious theory of particle interactions than the ‘Standard Model based on quarks and gluons. In his wonderful book ‘Constructing Quarks’ Andrew Pickering (Univ. Chicago Press 1981) suggested that that theory was a social construct anyway, the product of trendy acclamation, rather than sober assessment.

More generally all of us need to understand the process of Hypothesis Testing on which the modern world of ideas is entirely built. Because if that isn’t sound ,God help us all.

For much more on Ockham’s Razor see our post “Fuzzy Thinking and Ockham’s Razor’ under the ‘Thinking’ category here on our blog. For a detailed explanation of Ockham’s Razor and why it works go to the url:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/AMSCI4-copy-1.pdf

But if you want to go into the whole business of Common Sense Thinking (CST) , of which Hypothesis Testing is only a part, try my book “Thinking for Ourselves” publ Amazon (2020) which is described in the ‘My Books ‘ Category on this site.

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BIG BANG COSMOLOGY IS WRONG

February 20, 2021

If you wanted to know what to think of some fringe activity such as Spiritualism or Water Divining I doubt one would consult a professional first. After all you know that they must be committed. But what if you wanted to evaluate Big Bang Cosmology? Once again you can’t turn to the biased professionals, although they might argue that unless you are a professional you cannot know enough about the subject to take an informed position. But of course that is a dangerous stance to adopt, and the way in which priesthoods germinate, metastasize and sometimes come to dominate the world. They become immune to criticism because they will admit none but believers as critics. They become malignant, if not necessarily malign.

So what is the wise outsider to do? I would suggest they might consult those whose business it is to know much about the arcane subject- material in question without having to become paid exponents themselves. Cosmology for instance is in practice largely extra-galactic astronomy, so why not consult an extra-galactic astronomer who doesn’t claim to be a Cosmologist? Such an astronomer will know most of the technical arguments – without having to commit to them. That is where I stand with regard to Big Bang Cosmology, or BBC. My passion lies in Galaxies, the largest discrete objects in the Universe. But as they seem to be almost as old as the Cosmos, their origin must be entangled in the early evolution of the Universe itself, so I cannot ignore Cosmology, any more than Cosmology can ignore Galaxies which, so far as we know, comprise most of everything we can actually observe. And as visible galaxies exist in hundreds of thousands of millions, and can be observed in some detail nowadays, they should tell us more about Cosmology than vice-versa. And here is the rub: in BBC galaxies shouldn’t exist. As has been known for fifty years they would have been torn apart by radiation pressure before they could even form. So a desperate fix called CDM, standing for ‘Cold Dark Matter’ was adopted to try and repair the awful hole in the story. But despite many efforts to find out what it is, no one has been able to find any trace of CDM in half a century. Umm.

And there is another stark confrontation between galaxies and Cosmology. In an expanding Universe – the core assumption of BBC – distant galaxies should be totally invisible because of the ‘Tolman Effect’, a test for Expansion, which goes back to 1930. Then we didn’t possess the the telescopes to test it, but now, in the Hubble Space Telescope, we certainly do. And what do we find? That the observed Universe fails – and fails most dramatically – as you can see for yourself. Look at the figure:

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the deepest image of the Universe , taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, which I helped to design. All those tiny dots are actually high redshift galaxies a long long way away. If the Universe is really expanding we shouldn’t be able to see them. But……..

You can see it’s covered all over with a rash of tiny high-redshift galaxies – which simply shouldn’t be there, not if the Universe is expanding. If it was they ought to look no less than ten thousand times dimmer than they appear to be. Surely this is something BB Cosmologists ought to acknowledge? But they don’t. It’s been known since 1993 when we first fixed the telescope’s aberrated mirror, but ever since there has been a conspiracy of silence about the matter. As a designer of that and earlier cameras, I was staggered when I first saw the earliest deep Hubble images because I’d been assured by Cosmologists that Hubble would never see high-redshift galaxies. Yet there they were. There they are in their hundreds and thousands.

The only precedent I can think of occurred back in 1610 when Galileo pointed his little spyglass at Venus and found it to be a brilliant crescent pointing towards the Sun. The two-thousand-year-old Geocentric picture of the Cosmos was quite wrong, All the Planets, including the Earth, must be orbiting the Sun.

But what happened? Galileo was eventually seized by the Inquisition, forced to retract, and then imprisoned for life.

We don’t have an Inquisition any more but we do have Priests of a different kind: experts whose livelihoods, reputations and ambitions enforce adherence to a certain dogma. It’s not easy when you are an elderly, respected professor of Cosmology, with several books and hundreds of peer-reviewed papers behind you, to admit that you have been wasting yours, and everybody else’s time. And if the old won’t recant, why should the young, who still have their reputations and their livings to make? There is no Inquisition it is true but there are, in a highly competitive profession, appointment and tenure committees to please, journal-referees to propitiate. Brave myths to the contrary, academic success is based above all on allegiance to the Common Book of Prayer.

I know it will be hard for outsiders to believe in such conformity, I certainly wouldn’t have believed in it myself if I hadn’t experienced it at first hand, and to some extent colluded rather shamefully in it myself. Yes I went to conferences and politely pointed out the anomalies facing us in the sky. I even published papers in elite journals like ‘Nature’ demonstrating that real galaxies couldn’t possibly have formed in the CDM manner proclaimed by cosmological theorists. But when nobody responded, shouldn’t I have bellowed and trumpeted my doubts?

Honestly I should. But two things held me back; lack of self -confidence for one. Cosmology is a huge and complex subject mired in the hardest Mathematics and Physics – and perhaps I’d missed something – which the experts had not? Then again it wasn’t my real love. If I acquired a reputation as a madman I wouldn’t get the observing time on top telescopes I absolutely needed to do my Galaxy research. Many of us subscribe to popular myths, knowing them to be untrue. One well-known colleague told me that when he is applying for observing time he always alludes to CDM, which he knows to be diseased, because he’s found that if does not, he won’t get the time. And so CDM, a central dogma of BBC, continues alive, when it is so obviously wrong.

But enough of personal anguish and Sociology. How could the uncommitted thinker look dispassionately at the arguments for and against BBC and come to a balanced opinion?

There is a way – using Common Sense – if you know how it works – which most scientists, let alone other scholars, do not. All it will deliver is a provisional conclusion, with some kind of Odds on it attached. What I will do next is to exhibit two different attempts of mine to have a go at the BBC problem, so that readers can appreciate some of the philosophical subtleties involved.

The first, entitled “Doubts about Big Bang Cosmology” was published back in 2011, where my Odds against it being broadly right were only 4 to 1, disappointing, but hardly decisive. It is reasonably short yet contains the main arguments in a not too technical fashion I hope, so readers may care to see how those Odds were reached. You can find it at

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Doubtsbigbang-copy.pdf

In cosmology itself nothing much changed dramatically over the next 4 years. But my understanding of Common Sense did when, in 2015, I stumbled upon the vitally important PAW or ‘Principal of Animal Wisdom’, indispensable to all thinkers who might otherwise be blown wildly off course by Systematic Errors. Now my Odds against BBC shot up dramatically to 128 to 1 against it being broadly right. Not only are they far more conclusive but they are , in my opinion , far more robust too because they rely on a whole network of interlocking and broadly concordant evidence. Without any need to repeat the cosmological arguments the new Inference Table, with its condemning Odds O(H|E) {i.e Odds on the Hypothesis H given all the evidence E} is briefly exhibited at

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/SCAMBBCTable-copy.docx

The conclusion I would draw from all this is that the Universe is trying to tell us something profound and interesting about itself, but we professionals, soaked in our preconceptions, and deafened by our Church choir, are unprepared to listen. After Galileo’s experience we should have anticipated, and some of us on board the Hubble did. But ….

Our susceptibility to misconceptions lies in our weak grasp of Common Sense today, and in particular our total ignorance of PAW, or The Principle of Animal Wisdom. Animals whose very survival depends on sound judgements, cannot afford to be taken in by misleading clues. So how do they discount them? That was the question I asked myself back in 2015. The answer is they cannot allow any single clue a predominating Weight – because that clue might be false, and fatal. They must rely on a network of weaker clues which reinforce one another. That is what I call PAW. And when I apply it to BBC the Odds against it shoot dramatically up. BBC can’t be right, it can’t. Something at least about it is deeply wrong, never mind the technical details. [To see more on the PAW go to Post ‘ANIMAL WISDOM & US’ in ‘Thinking’ Category].

If the PAW is so damned vital for animals then how did we ever lose sight of it? Because Priests preach Certainties – their influence, their power and their livelihoods all depend on proclaiming Certainties, whilst the PAW stands out firmly against them. And, to be fair, many of us prefer Certainties to uncomfortable uncertainty – which is all the natural world has to offer. So over the last few thousand years the PAW, which is grown-up, has become submerged by a childish and misbegotten craving for Certainty, which only priests, but not men of Common Sense, can deliver. As Voltaire put it: “Uncertainty is uncomfortable; Certainty is absurd.” See a talk on Youtube by me on this topic at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KskJrJmfr34

What IS the universe trying to tell us ? It could be exciting.

FUZZY THINKING AND OCKHAM’S RAZOR

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.]

SOME TRIUMPHS OF OCKHAM’S RAZOR:

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.”

SOME FUZZY TRAGEDIES

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).

RELIGION AND FUZZY THINKING

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.”

BUT WHY WAS OCKHAM RIGHT?

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.

CONCLUSIONS

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:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/scamsmv5.pdf

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].

THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE

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. 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 stsci.edu, nasa.gov, eso.org , http://www.cosmos.esa.int, and http://www.spacetelescope.org.

GALAXY GALLERY

October 26, 2020

Morgan, the protagonist in the Written in the Stars quartet, and I, have spent our working lives studying Galaxies. This is the first one he saw when he was looking through the 36-inch telescope at Steward Observatory atop Kitt Peak in Arizona, back in 1969.

Spiral Galaxy NGC 7331 in the constellation of Pegasus, at top. Courtesy, Vicent Peris, University of Valencia.

This particular image was taken much later with a huge telescope 3.5 meters in diameter fitted with an ultra-sensitive electronic camera integrating the light for two whole hours. So imagine how little if anything Morgan would see with the naked eye which integrates for all of a tenth of a second, through his much smaller telescope: virtually nothing at all. That’s why he struggled for half an hour to even convince himself that it must be there, and why he felt that studying galaxies could become the lifetime challenge he was looking for. And so it came to be.

NGC 7331 just happened to be the nearest Spiral overhead his telescope at the time. All the spiky stars are stars in our own galaxy the Milky Way, just hundreds of light-years away, while the spiral lies 45 Million light years beyond them, yet is one of the closest such giant spirals to us.It is about a hundred thousand light-years across! The smaller galaxies lower down are even farther off. Morgan was to spend most of his astronomical life studying galaxies whose light had set out towards him when dinosaurs still ruled the Earth, and some so far away that the Sun and Earth didn’t even exist when their light was emitted.

Even now we know little about these beasts; they are full of mysteries. For instance they spin so fast that they ought to fly to bits. So what holds them together; certainly not the stars we can see in them — their gravitational force would be far too weak. Some astronomers mutter about “Dark Matter”, but what is that, and why have we detected no sign of it after 50 years of searching with every ingenious means we can think of? Then we have no idea how galaxies formed, not if the Universe is really expanding, for their infant stages would have been far too fragile to survive the Big Bang. Galaxies remain a challenge for any young person who would like to spend their lives trying to understand what is out there.

Hard as it was to see, it turns out that NGC 7331 is one of the most visible galaxies there are. Over the course of 50 years Morgan and his colleagues were to find much much dimmer specimens using radio waves instead of light. The next montage shows some typical specimens first located with the Parkes Radio Telescope, then imaged in visible colours with the Sloan optical Telescope in New Mexico, both absolutely state of the art instruments. Its worth studying this montage:

Galaxies first found independently of their light signal in the radio, then imaged optically in several colours (Courtesy Julianne Dalcanton, University if Washington, Seattle).

Believe it or not every postage-stamp contains a galaxy, some so dim one can barely spot them. This illustrates the “Visibility of Galaxies” problem which Morgan discovered in that caravan on the Teifi estuary back in 1975 [See my book Against The Fall of Night]. The problem is that, dark as it appears, the night sky is not absolutely dark so that any galaxy dimmer than our sky would be invisible. And why not? Could most of the structure of the Universe be hidden from sight? Morgan, Cotteridge, Cockle and other astronomers spent their careers wrangling over that question. There’s a great deal to think about here.

Broadly speaking there are two types of giant galaxy, Spirals as above, and Ellipticals. As we can see next, Ellipticals look like giant swarms of bees ( actually very old stars).

The Coma Cluster of Galaxies centred on the supergiant Elliptical NGC 4889 taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy ESA/NASA.

Ellipticals are just as mysterious as Spirals but in somewhat different ways. For instance NGC 4889 seen here fades imperceptibly into the sky; so where does it end and therefore how big and how massive is it? And why are Giant Ellipticals only found in Clusters? And where have the cold gas and the young blue stars gone that light up Spirals? And why do some of them, like this one, have colossal Black Holes in their cores? And how do these giant Clusters hold together when the gravitational forces required are hundreds of times too weak , if only visible material is responsible. Once again we run into speculations about “Dark Matter” which sound a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes to me. In other words we are mired in mysteries which challenge anyone with Curiosity. By the way, this colossus is about 300 Million light years away, its light having set out towards us even before Dinosaurs evolved and 50 million years before the great Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out 90 percent of the the species on Earth. Yet in astronomical terms it’s almost next door, only seven times as far away as our Spiral friend NGC 7331.

We said most galaxies dwell in Clusters containing anything between a few and tens of thousands. Here is a very large Cluster Abell 1689, 2 Billion, not Million, light years away:

Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689 imaged with the Hubble Space Telescope (Courtesy ESA/NASA)

The further away we search , the further back in time, the greater cosmic mysteries become. For instance what you can actually see here is about one per cent of the Mass actually present. We know that because the galaxies in the cluster are whizzing about so fast that the cluster would have dispersed unless there are overwhelming amounts of “Dark Matter” holding it together [Or else there’s something even more mysterious going on.] This dramatic tendency of galaxies to cluster made it very difficult indeed for Tom Morgan and his friends to find “Hidden Galaxies” because the hidden ones would tend to get lost amid a crowd of ‘Visibles’, requiring great precision to get at the truth.

This, believe it or not, is the identical galaxy NGC 7331 to the one at the top of this post, though the image is flipped left to right..I have put it in for several reasons. First it is in colour because it was made up from several images taken through different colour filters with camera WFC- 3 ( Morgan & co.) on Hubble . This colour information paints a very different picture of the galaxy, which is evidently choked in smoke, so that much of it is hidden. Using the old photographic plates little of this was evident and astronomers were convinced galaxies were transparent. Morgan was practically the first astronomer to realise they were not, largely because he had early access to one of the first electronic cameras. Then there is the atmosphere which blocks off all the ultraviolet, and most of the infra-red radiation included in this picture taken from Space. The general point is that our understanding of the universe is very much constrained by the instruments we have to study it. Space astronomy has widened our spectrum by more than a billion and it may take generations to understand the implications. It’s all too easy to rush to judgement, and to see only what we want to see. Copyright ESA/NASA

When we professional astronomers talk to the public we tend, for sociological reasons, to emphasise what we do know, as against what we do not. Now that I’m retired I can admit that most of the time, at least in extragalactic astronomy, we have little idea of what is really going on. Yes there are fools only too ready to rush in with half-baked explanations such as “Dark Matter” or “Dark Energy”, but I doubt that many will stand the test of time because they ignore Ockham’s Razor, a very profound and vital principle of Common Sense [See my book Thinking For Ourselves or a post on this site entitled Fuzzy Thinking and Ockham’s Razor]. In the mean time they not only rob us of mystery and wonder but they can hold up the search for deeper truths. For instance the invention of fictional “Land Bridges” held back the discovery of Continental Drift by a century.

I hope this post encourages readers, especially the young at heart, to retain their sense of mystery because, as Einstein put it : ” The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science”.

You can look up hundreds of more wondrous images of galaxies by going either to stsci.edu, NASA’s Space Telescope institute, or eso.org the European Southern Observatory which runs the world’s largest optical telescope (The ‘VLT’) in the Chilean Andes. But beware of beautiful coloured images which look like pizza advertisements; real galaxies don’t look anything like that, they’re far more subtle and infinitely more difficult to decode.

THE SCEPTICAL COSMOLOGIST

October 13, 2020

 

Somebody said, Einstein I believe: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science .” And no subject is so imbued with profound mysteries as Cosmology – despite what some glib professionals would have us believe.

Think of Cosmology’s Big Questions:

1) Why is the sky dark at night – if the universe is infinite?

2)  Why do distant galaxies have highly red-shifted Spectra?

3) Is the universe changing, and did it have a beginning?

4) What is the source of the powerful cosmic background radiation which glows in all directions?

(5) How can that radiation be so uniform (To one part in a hundred thousand) if the speed of light is finite – which it definitely is?

(6) If the universe is expanding in a hot Big Bang – which so many professionals maintain – then how did flimsy structures like galaxies form out of it? Nascent galaxies should have been torn to bits by radiation pressure.

(7) When you slam the brakes on  in your car, why does your head jerk forwards ? It is being violently decelerated, but decelerated relative to what? It turns out that it is being decelerated  with respect, not to the Earth,  but to the distant stars. But how does it know that? ( ‘The Problem of Inertia’ ). In other words what is the physical mechanism that  must connect your head to the stars?

These are all profound and mysterious questions to which science has so far been able to offer only fumbling answers  –   despite what some cosmology-priests would like us to believe: “The universe is expanding,”  they say, “There was a Big Bang, Space – Time is curved, and we’ve got answers to all, or nearly all those other awkward questions too – Cold Dark Matter, Inflation, Dark Energy……”

Don’t believe them. Cosmology is an extraordinary difficult subject if only because it lies at the nexus of so many others: Astronomy, Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy, Sociology, Instrumentation, Computer -simulation…… Of the sixty different civilisations we know of, every single one has come up with a cosmology of sorts – it seems to be a necessity for the human psyche. And that leaves room for a priesthood only too eager to supply one.

To keep a sense of proportion it is worth recalling some recent cosmological follies:

Thinking of Time as linear: “We’re already back to within three minutes of the Big Bang” they say  – when, in the cosmological  context, Time is surely logarithmic. In logarithmic Time the Cosmos was completely opaque throughout the first 43 decades of its 60 decades of existence. Its origins will therefore be veiled  beyond our sight – probably for ever.

If galaxy redshifts are not the Doppler effect in action – which apparently they are not – then what causes them? Yes, they come out of the mathematics (the ‘Robertson – Walker – Metric’), but that is hardly Physics.

Once the impossibility of forming galaxies in a Big Bang cosmology was recognised, an ingenious new substance christened ‘Cold Dark Matter’(CDM) was conjured up to solve it. Elaborate computer  simulations were offered as proof that CDM works. But it doesn’t. Observed galaxies look nothing like the CDM variety; nothing like1. Yet the cognoscenti refuse to admit it.

Everyone agreed that gravity ought to slow expansion down but when the slowing was looked for it wasn’t there. On the contrary. Expansion had apparently accelerated – and in recent times too. This called for another improbable miracle: Dark Energy – whatever that is.

If expansion of the entire universe does seem  a mite implausible – we do have an acid test for it – the Tolman Test devised in the 1930’s [distant galaxies should dim as the fourth power of their redshifts]. But one glance at the Hubble Deep Field (below) demonstrates that there is no such dimming – it falls short of the required  amount by  a factor of no less than 10,000! But professional astronomers  won’t talk about that. Why not?

           In short Cosmology appears to have been regressing of late because some of its  most vocal proponents appear not to appreciate  a truly  fundamental principle of Philosophy – Ockham’s Razor. Every time you complexify a theory by introducing a new Free Parameter (such as Dark Energy) to solve one problematical feature of it, you fundamentally weaken that theory. So one is only justified in doing so if at the same time that Free Parameter illuminates other entirely new and favourable evidence which more than compensates for the weakening inevitably involved. CDM, Inflation and Dark Energy do not meet that criterion  – and so should be rejected.

           I have been an enthusiastic follower of Cosmology since I was a boy. I even taught  myself Tensor Calculus at age fifteen in order to read Einstein’s original papers. I’ve been a professional extragalactic astronomer for much of my life and have been to some of the big cosmology conferences – including one in the Vatican ( see my book Crouching Giant),  even taught it at university when nobody else would  – but have  become gradually more and more sceptical of the subject as the years roll by. Yes there are some strong arguments in favour of  Big Bang Cosmology – but there are even more against. To come to a measured  view of the whole subject one  needs to weigh them against one another  using Common Sense. When I do so the Odds come out at over hundred to one against Big Bang Cosmology being  broadly right( See another post here entitled  The Scientific Method.) Some aspects of it are probably sound, but which ones?

I’m not suggesting we should abandon  Cosmology as a subject  –  on the contrary. We should study its mysteries with ever more ingenious techniques and instruments. Equally though we need to be  alert  to the crippling weaknesses of the current paradigm. If we close our ears to them, as so many professionals at present do, we could miss some subtle but tremendous secret the real universe is trying to whisper in our ear. As Daniel  Boorstin wrote in The Discoverers: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion  of knowledge.” I believe we all need to become sceptical cosmologists now; most especially professionals.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Courtesy ESA/NASA

If you examine this extremely deep image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope almost every object on it is a galaxy . The small images are much further away and have high redshifts. But if those redshifts were due to expansion of the universe then those small images should be so dim as to be invisible. But as you can see they are nothing of the kind. This is a complete shock. On the face of it at least Cosmic Expansion has failed the classical test set for it — ‘The Tolman Effect’ by a factor of 10,000!

On the face of it then the Universe cannot be expanding! After all such dimming was the classic test for expansion proposed by Richard Tolman back in the 1930s when we didn’t have the means to apply it. But now we have, and the universe has spectacularly failed it. But nobody, at least no professional, wants to talk about it, Umm.

I go into the stories behind the Hubble deep pictures in the last 2 books in my quartet ‘Written in the Stars entitled’ : Crouching Giant and Beyond the Western Stars. [See under ‘my books’ Category on this site.

NB You can see hundreds of HST images at stsci.edu, nasa.gov. or eso.org.

Ref 1: Disney M J et al: 2008, Nature, 455, 1082-4, Galaxies appear simpler than expected.

If you want to see the author talking about Cosmology and galaxies there is a 45 minute Youtube video of him being interviewed by the Physicist and Author Alexander Unzicker about 3 years ago at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KskJrJmfr34

ABOUT ME AS AUTHOR

October 9, 2020

          Until my family moved to the city when I was ten I had never been in a library. Thereafter Kings Norton Public Library became the theatre of all my dreams and ambitions; real teenage life in Birmingham seeming tame by comparison. Books became my wings and I soared off like a young albatross in search of its destiny. One day, so I dreamed, I would become an Explorer, a World Traveller and, of course, ‘The ‘Great Novelist’.
          Then I had a stroke of luck , though it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. At thirteen I was diagnosed with a “ progressive and incurable disease of the spine” and incarcerated in a ‘hospital for incurable children’ deep in the countryside. There I aged 30 years in 6 months and suffered a mid-life crisis early enough to really do something about it. Having had my dreams so nearly snatched away I emerged from hospital implacably resolved to live them out. Although cured, the problem was that I was too late: I learned that every bloody corner of the Globe had been explored already !
          Then Sputnik came to the rescue. To Hell with the Earth; I would explore the Universe instead. And so, eventually, it came to pass. The dreamy boy became the dreamy astronomer who travelled the world in order to observe his beloved galaxies from remote mountain-tops from The Warumbungles to the Russian Caucasus. But even they weren’t high enough and the dreamy astronomer became the luckiest man alive when he was invited to join the team that would design, build and eventually use The Hubble Space Telescope. What an adventure that would turn out to be: disputes, disasters, surprises and discoveries the equal of any experienced by Marco Polo or Ferdinand Magellan. That Space Telescope saga is a tale that has to be told, and could only be told convincingly, by one of the lucky crew. But life was now far too hectic and thrilling to leave any time to do more than keep a diary of the events. Indeed the voyage turned out to be far more exciting than the romantic boy had ever dreamed in that quiet library long, long ago: a beautiful princess rescued from behind the Iron Curtain; a tiny warbler whispering profundities in his ear in mid-Atlantic; the secret of the Scientific Method appearing down on a coral reef off Tonga… you couldn’t make it up; nobody could. And yet it all really happened; it did.

          Eventually however the frenetically busy astronomer semi-retired with his princess and sat down to write… and write … and write. The intended Great Novel became instead a saga of four – the quartet “Written in the Stars” (WITS). It had to be semi-fictional because a factual account of a voyage lasting fifty years would be far too tiresome to read. Elisions had to be made, shortcuts taken, complexity simplified, continuity of character and narrative maintained, while the true cast of thousands was pared down to a manageable caravan of family, friends, colleagues, rivals and enemies travelling through time together. Anyway the story insisted on writing itself. Year by year the characters took over control, while the cheeky Imps which sit on every author’s shoulder intervened from time to time and sometimes couldn’t be denied. However I did manage to insist that at least the Scientific side of the venture should be utterly faithful to the facts. In any case why fictionalise that science when the facts exceeded anything that fantasy could conjure up?

          Prospective readers might be put off by books with a scientific background, imagining that they will be full of Frightfully Clever nerds doing Frightfully Clever things. But mine definitely are not. I am not FC myself (failed 11 plus) while, in my experience, successful astronomers are exceptional only in their outsized curiosity, their enjoyment of their occupation, their dogged tenacity and perhaps their search for some meaning to unusually obsessive lives. As the physicist Steven Weinberg put it: “The effort to understand the Universe is one of the few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy”. Being Frightfully Clever simply doesn’t cut it. However I do confess to a fascination with characters who do, or try to do, very hard things, whether it be climbing a precipice, rescuing a spacecraft or operating in an almost hopeless case. So there are many such in my books. I suppose the fascination here is that they too are explorers, but of the far deeps of the human heart and mind, looking down there for connections that the rest of us up here cannot see. Thus Henri Poincaré, the true inventor of Relativity, confessed that he did the best of his very great works when he was fast asleep.

          Although the saga took a dozen years to write I am almost ashamed to admit that I really enjoyed the process and was sad when it came to an end. I hope that enjoyment comes across to the reader as something we can both share. My iconic novel is “The Wind in the Willows”– in which a group of friends explore their world, have adventures together and enjoy a great deal of reflective fun. Isn’t there a bit of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad in all of us ? There certainly is in me – mostly Toad I regret to say. And I can assure you, having done a great deal of both, that simply mucking about in telescopes is even more fun than simply mucking about in boats.

          My third boyhood ambition was to Travel to wild and romantic places, and observational astronomy allows one to do that in spades. Practically anywhere on Earth is on the way home to Britain from Chile, New South Wales or The Cape. So I indulged myself and in WITS include many adventures and encounters which took place in faraway places such as Cherkessia, the Rub al Khalid, the Bay of Fires, Garafia, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Castel Gandolfo, the Masai Mara, Ootacamund, Immarettia … By contrast most of us also have a profound need for a territory of our own. Far too many Brits simply do not appreciate how bloody lucky they are in their home land. Having been ‘nearly everywhere’ I contend that our island has no superior as a territory in which to live, especially Wales where I come from and reside. I have thus tried to convey, throughout WITS, that widespread sense of ‘longing for home’, which the Welsh call ‘Hiraeth’ . If we are not proud of our home territories, we won’t look after them properly, as we desperately need to do, especially now so much of the world is rapidly going to hell.


          I am an old man now, born in 1937, with eight books on Amazon, rather rushed out during 2020/1 when Covid 19 struck. The next big challenge is to get anybody to read them. I am convinced that one book could change the world (‘Thinking for Ourselve’s or TFO), optimistic that five could entertain it (WITS & Strangle), and hopeful that one (‘Pterodactyl’s Blood’ , PB ) might save some of those wonderful species that mankind is hurrying towards extinction. I’m afraid that I’m hopeless at marketing – indeed feel it is a faintly shameful activity – especially when one is trying to peddle one’s own stories, as here. But I’m bound to try – otherwise what was the point of ever writing them down? The Odds can’t be good but… who knows?


VIDEOS
If you want to see the author talking about Cosmology and galaxies there is a 45 minute Youtube video of him being interviewed by the Physicist and Author Alexander Unzicker about 3 years ago at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KskJrJmfr34

ABOUT MY BOOK ‘BEYOND THE WESTERN STARS’.

September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The last of the 4 novels of a saga set amidst Space exploration and astronomical research between 1965 and 2015 when the extragalactic universe truly hove into sight for the first time. Voyaging to a new continent is hard enough, understanding it when you first arrive is harder still. Columbus imagined he was in Japan; in Cochin Vasco da Gama saw little beyond sandalwood and spices; Pissaro couldn’t tear his greedy eyes off Inca gold. What will the first voyagers make of the extragalactic universe as seen from Space? What delusions will comfort them, what preconceptions will blind them to the truth? Morgan and his colleagues, friends and enemies struggle to make sense of a vast new firmament none could have foreseen. Starting at the great radio telescope in Australia Morgan confidently expects to find his own obsession, his Hidden Galaxies. But the results will come as a shock. Or could there be some deep misunderstanding? Meanwhile the race is on to repair and refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope following the Columbia tragedy. Back in Wales Curly and Petrel struggle to make sense of the Sea Empress disaster which chokes their Pembrokeshire coast in oil. Love comes to Morgan from far far away as his university decides to sack him. Old Salt is on his last legs but is not too weak to take on the Establishment, while Frank has persuaded Europe to build the world’s largest telescope. The closest family relationships are poisoned by jealousy; Petrel changes tack; Morgan goes to Venice and ‘hears the horns of elfland faintly blowing’. But has he become unbalanced, as many of his colleagues believe? A great oak falls; Jack Cockle departs. Whose dreams will come true, whose hopes will be dashed`?

The deepest image ever taken of the Universe. It was taken with the WFC_3 camera which Morgan helped to design and exploit towards the end of his career. Does it prove that the Universe isn’t expanding? Looks like it. Morgan thought there was something very strange going on here. It can see back 12 billion years, to before the Sun was formed. The study is called “the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) project.” Courtesy ESA/NASA

Paperback available from Amazon £12.50, 400 pages, e-version £3.99

ABOUT MY BOOK ‘CROUCHING GIANT’

September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The third novel in the saga of Space exploration is a mix of triumph, disaster and surprise. The Space Shuttle Challenger blows up killing all the astronauts. A colossal Hidden Galaxy turns up crouching beneath the sky. Morgan unexpectedly acquires a daughter and discovers, to general surprise, that spiral galaxies are heavily veiled in smoke. The Hubble Space Telescope gets launched, but with a crippled mirror; ways must be found to put it right. Finally the first very deep images come back from Space; but what do they mean? Rows break out between the teams. Frank builds an observatory on a remote Atlantic isle. Bob Salt intervenes in the Cold War while, deep behind the Iron Curtain Morgan has two encounters which will change his life. But then he almost loses it all. The action shuttles back and forth between Wales, Cape Canaveral, The Caucasus, Castel Gandolfo, the Arabian mountains, Baltimore, the Canary Islands, India, Australia, Paris….. See ‘Against the Fall of Night‘ and ‘The Whispering Sky’ for the two previous novels, with same main characters and ‘Beyond the Western Stars’ its successor and the finale to the saga.

A montage of galaxies found by Morgan and his team solely based on their radio signals, thus it shouldn’t be influenced by their optical characteristics. Indeed such a search could in principle find entirely dark galaxies. As you can see some of the galaxies are almost invisible, but not quite. Perhaps most interesting are the six specimens bottom right, because they are all colossal Giants containing more Hydrogen (which emits the radio signal) than our Milky way. But as you can see some are very dim even so. Image courtesy of Prof. Julianne Dalcanton, University of. Washington Seattle, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Published Amazon paperback, 400 + pages £12.99 and as an e-book on Kindle 2021 £3.99 with equivalent prices elsewhere.

ABOUT MY BOOK ‘THE WHISPERING SKY’

September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The Whispering Sky is the second of a quartet of self-contained novels relating the saga of two astronomers, originally boyhood friends, caught up in humankind’s endeavour to explore the Universe from Space. Thanks to his feud with Bellfounder – the machiavellian Astronomer-Royal [See ‘Against the Fall of Night’, first in the quartet], Tom Morgan has been thrown out of British Astronomy. Cheated out of the post he had been promised he struggles precariously in Europe to try and prove that his theory of Hidden Galaxies is right. That takes him to far flung observatories from the peaks of the Andes to the Cape of South Africa. Meanwhile the US is building the Shuttle to launch a large telescope into orbit but demands European participation in the venture. Frank Cotteridge, by now Bellfounder’s protégé, is tasked with lighting the European fuse. At conferences and in laboratories across the Continent the struggle begins to try and build the first electronic camera, to act as the great telescope’s eyes. In the 1970’s that looked impossible. And yet without such eyes the telescope will be blind. The race against the clock, and with rivals in California, begins. Personal and professional tensions drive wedges between the two friends while the race for Space forces them to rely ever more closely upon one another. Morgan rashly plans his revenge on Bellfounder, a battle only one of them can possibly survive.

This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth. Morgan and Cotteridge began working on its design back in 1977, 13 years before launch. Courtesy ESA/NASA.

At the same time Morgan is struggling, as a single parent, to bring up his son Curly and hold on to him in a bitter custody battle. When he loses, Curly is whisked away to Australia but then escapes and gets hopelessly lost in the bush.

The author was himself a professional astronomer, and a single parent, throughout this epoch. From 1976 until 2010 he was a key member of the Hubble Space Telescope team. Hubble’s story, our story, which he has been preparing to write for 20 years, is packed with dreams, heroes, shocks, villains, and the odd rare triumph. Like one of Magellan’s crew he saw great wonders and has tall tales to tell; the fight to get born, the Challenger disaster, the crippled mirror, the astronaut repair-missions, cancellation following the Columbia tragedy, renaissance, the race to prevent the space-craft dying, the huge discoveries… he was there; he was there; he was there. He knew the people, felt the pain, drank the wine. ENTIRE QUARTET ‘ called ‘Written in the Stars’ comprises: ‘Against the Fall of Night’ (1964 – 1974), ‘The Whispering Sky’ (1976 – 1983) , ‘Crouching Giant’ (1985 – 1995), ‘Beyond the Western Stars’ (1997 – 2012). All four paperbacks – each about 400 pages long – are out on Amazon, (2020), £12.99 or e-version £3.99.