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Monday, 1 September 2014

Quack Quack

Debunking season is in full flow. First there were the ominous Omega Bodies, then there was the hilarious space mirror. But how should we deal with people who believe obvious nonsense, and why is it that many of them think that science is arrogant and dogmatic ? Yes, I'm afraid it's time for a rant. Well what else are blogs for ?

I've always believed that some small level of funding should go to investigating "fringe" ideas, those that aren't obviously wrong but that are quite different to the mainstream. So I'm generally fine with people investigating things like the warp drive and even the EmDrive, because outlandish ideas can, potentially, come up with staggering results from time to time (SETI would be another, much better example). Ghosts, UFOs, lake monsters... fine by me, as long as we're not spending huge amounts of taxpayer's money on these things. I  sympathise with people who see science as arrogant when alternative ideas like these are dismissed - but that, as I shall try to show, is to misunderstand the scientific method. As we shall see, evidence is not proof, and skepticism is not the same as denial.

The rest of this post rests on a single premise : it is possible to prove some things beyond any doubt. Science doesn't know everything, but it does know some things, and it knows them very well. We understand electromagnetism well enough to build computers, we understand atomic theory well enough to annihilate cities, and we know enough about orbital mechanics well enough to send space probes to planets billions of miles way. Perhaps our understanding of some of these isn't complete, but if someone says to you, "I think the Moon is made of cheese," then you can legitimately respond, "Ah, I see you have mistaken Wallace and Gromit for a documentary."

According to science, some things are certain, some are certainly impossible, and the (far more interesting) rest can only be said to be more or less probable. Judging which are more probable is not an easy task, but the attempt should be made. If I were to try, it would probably look something like this. It's highly subjective and I could probably be persuaded to move the examples around quite a bit, but the details are not important.

Before reading, I implore the reader not to think that what I have deemed to be less rational I also judge to be in some way "worse".

A proposed


being a wholly untrustworthy guide to


and abject


Level 0 : Mathematical proofs. Ideas which don't even require any measurements. 2 + 2 = 4.
Level 1 : Measured certainties. Things we have measured unambiguously. The size and shape of the Earth (and the lack of supporting turtles), the existence of bacteria.
Level 2 : Beautiful theories. Models which have been subject to a wide variety of independent rigorous testing and not found wanting so far. Continued study largely a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Examples include evolution, the expansion of the Universe, the speed of light as an upper limit, the existence of gravitational waves.
It's just possible they may be one day slain by an ugly fact, but the chance is remote. More likely their beauty will merely fade, but they will never fall below the next level :
Level 3 : Quite attractive models. Well-tested models that generally do an excellent job, but have difficulties in certain circumstances. Useful as simplified approximations of reality or as a stepping stone to more sophisticated approaches, but fundamentally flawed. Newtonian gravity is an excellent example.
Level 4 : Contemporary mainstream paradigms. The coalface of research. A more-or-less self-consistent set of ideas that generally, but by no means always, do a good job of describing reality. Things most people think we've got a basic handle on, like dark matter, star formation, inflation.
Subject to high levels of incompleteness and outright controversy.
Level 5 : Fringe. Ideas which are not generally accepted, so not subject to the same level of rigour as level 4, but which are consistent with levels 0-2 and tested in a basically scientific way. MOND, voids as alternative to dark energy, panspermia, string theory.
Level 6 : Sketchy. At odds with level 3 and 4. UFOs, Bigfoot, lake monsters, sheepsquatch (you read that right), that sort of thing. Research often claimed as lacking in rigour or even fraudulent.
Level 7 : Weird. Things that are probably impossible according to level 2 and generally make no sense. Homoeopathy, astrology, dowsing. Perhaps not impossible in the strictest sense, just in complete defiance of our entire scientific world view.
Level 8 : Inherently unprovable. Ideas which admit level 0-2 facts and models but invoke other, supernatural causes to circumvent them (e.g. miracles), as well as notions that do not relate to science at all. Essentially opinion more than fact. Certain forms of evangelical atheism and even agnosticism could also fit here (as in, "I have mistaken my opinion for a level 1 fact and therefore the whole world must agree with me").
Level 9 : Delusional. Ideas which defy levels 0-2 and require that they are somehow mistaken. Flat earth, Hollow Earth, young Earth, lunar cheese, space mirrors.

The list gets less and less rational the further down you go, but only at level 9 does it reach actual madness. Questioning level 3-7 is generally sensible, though questioning levels 0 and 1 is insane (we'll return to level 2 later). The point is, although some things are certain, and some things certainly impossible, all we can do for the rest is make a judgement call as to how likely they are.

As for level 8, unprovable, irrational beliefs are obviously not inherently bad or immoral. Indeed, life without ANY irrational beliefs would probably be unbearable. At this point I'll hand over to a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe, who explains level 8 far more eloquently than I ever could.

I don't have a problem with people having irrational beliefs per se. No, my gripe for today is with the following two issues :
1) People who say, "scientists are so arrogant and dogmatic, but they don't know everything !"
2) Delusional beliefs that contradict reality*. Especially when the errors are blatantly obvious.
3) People who stand on the wrong side on escalators. They're just jerks.

* Even these are not inherently bad, but some - like racism - clearly are.

Let's tackle the first issue first, because that seems a sensible order in which to do things.

Is science arrogant ?

Ideas on the probability index are rarely static, except at the extremes. Nowhere is the flux of ideas greater than at level 4, the most active area of day-to-day scientific research. To quote from Pratchett again, "it wouldn't be research if you knew what you were doing". The whole point of research is to find out things you didn't know before.

This demands some examples, so here are a whole bunch of things which we really don't understand very well at all :
  • Dark matter makes up about 90% the mass of our Galaxy (if it exists at all, and we're not sure that it does), but we have no idea what it is.
  • Dark energy makes up about 90% of the mass-energy of the Universe, if it exists at all. We have no idea what it is.
  • Our models of galaxy formation and evolution do a pretty lousy job. The numbers and distribution of small galaxies are just plain wrong.
  • We have no idea why some clouds of hydrogen form stars and others don't.
  • Are we alone in the Universe ? Your guess is as good as mine.
Those are some pretty fundamental things for which the mainstream consensus is, "we don't know". That really should knock the charges of dogmatism and arrogance firmly on the head. It would absolutely ridiculous to say, "those damn dogmatic scientists, it's so arrogant that we don't know what most of the Universe is made of !".

Science investigates uncertainties. That's its job. Go to any science conference and I guarantee you'll see a bunch of people disagreeing vehemently (sometimes politely, sometimes not so much) with each other - indeed, if everyone agreed with each other there'd be no need for a conference. But perhaps the most basic principle of science is that there exists an objective, measurable reality - it might be very hard to prove anything, but it is possible. If you don't believe this, then you'll always think science is arrogant and I can't help you.

Sometimes people say things like, "it's arrogant to think we're causing climate change", or more often, "it's arrogant to think we're alone in the Universe". No. Those statements are opinions. To define what's arrogant by your opinion, and not by the evidence, that's arrogant - not the other way around. Believing what the evidence tells you is never arrogant... unless you make the mistake of thinking that evidence is proof. We'll return to this later.

OK, so why do some people perceive science as arrogant ?

Some ideas have been ridiculed throughout history. While a few have risen to the giddy heights of absolute certainty, most have fallen into the abyss of delusion. Although it's hard to rate retroactively, the idea the Earth rotates would probably have not scored higher than 5, once upon a time (as explained in the link, for surprisingly rational reasons as it turns out). Continental drift, I think it's safe to say, would have been given a lowly 7, but now we're absolutely certain that it happens.

And yet, at the time, those ratings made sense*, because the evidence was lacking, Sometimes crazy ideas are laughed at and subsequently vindicated, but far more often they fall by the wayside. People who need to state "I am not a crackpot" are almost always crackpots. Their ideas usually contradict each other (as we've seen in the last two posts), and investigating them all with the same level of rigour as level 4 ideas would be a waste of time and money**. Moreover, it's not necessary - if their are serious problems with our current ideas, our investigations will reveal them. That's what investigations are for.

* Doubtless some learned intellectuals even pronounced them impossible - they, as we shall see, should have known better.
** Unless you really do want to increase science funding by a factor of 10, in which case, thanks !

The reason we adhere to our current models is because the evidence supports them. The reason alternative ideas are not mainstream is because the evidence is lacking. It really is that simple. Better to investigate ideas which seem to be working than pursue notions without a shred of evidence.

Here's the thing. Science is built on facts (levels 0 and 1), but it also needs level 2-4 models just as much. It needs to make assumptions in order to progress... and by definition, "assumption" does not mean "fact" (Models help us plan our future investigations - without them, we'd be acting more or less at random. Even if we had infinite funding and resources, we'd still need to come up with ideas to explain our observations). Every single scientist is aware of this, but this is something the "scientists are arrogant" ilk don't seem - for whatever reason - to understand. And by thinking that scientists really believe all of their assumptions, small wonder they perceive them as arrogant*.

* Unfortunately, halfway through writing this I discovered an outstanding example of a scientist who apparently doesn't understand the difference. We'll return to this shortly.

In practice, sure, sometimes people cling to their beliefs more strongly than we would like. As I've said, everyone is capable of being irrational, and when you're emotionally invested in an idea, it's hard to let go if something comes along and disproves it. But generally, scientists are cautious of all new ideas and discoveries, even ones which support mainstream theories (as we've seen most recently with the BICEP2 debacle). The whole basis of science is skeptical inquiry. Asking, "are we really sure this is true ?" is not the same as saying, "this is about as credible as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."

Because apparently that was a thing.
If scientists are skeptical of new results that will vindicate existing theories, then perhaps it becomes more understandable that they're extra skeptical - sometimes hostile - towards theories further down the plausibility index. They're acutely aware that those (level 2-3) theories have a lot of hard-won evidence backing them up that has stood the test of time*. Defending them in the face of a single new result isn't dogmatic - it's pragmatic, because such discoveries have happened before. That's why - even though I'm happy it's being investigated - I'd bet you anything you like that the EmDrive will go the way of cold fusion.

* If I were feeling mischievous, I'd say that level 2 models are the closest thing science has to articles of faith.

Another, less pleasant explanation is that some scientists simply are arrogant SOBs (just like members of every other profession). While that's another topic in itself, unfortunately the media likes this ("Uncompromising men are easy to admire", if you'll pardon my Mel Gibson). This gives a quite wrong impression that science is black and white : "you're either with us or against us." But real research, as we've seen, just isn't like that at all. Which brings us neatly on to the next section.

What do we do about it ?

Well, the obvious answer is : state our underlying assumptions more clearly. Say not only why we think they're probably true, but why we're not certain (especially when the case for an argument is very strong, as here it's easiest to fall in to the trap of saying, "this is a fact"). A particular annoyance I see in the mainstream media almost daily are claims like, "scientists prove looking at soap causes bowel cancer", or "deadly asteroid WILL kill everyone you ever loved and all their pets". This really needs to stop. Sometimes this is just an inaccurate headline over a decent article, sometimes the whole article is as bad or worse, but this word "proof"...

Evidence is not proof. Proof transmutes mere ideas into hard facts, while evidence is an observation that's consistent with an idea - nothing more. No amount of evidence constitutes true certainty - that's what proof is for. Of course, if you have vast amounts of evidence for an idea... well, hence the plausibility index.

In reality, most studies show that at most, one particular model can be used to describe the facts - or on a good day, that it's more likely than other models. Media headlines give the totally erroneous impression that science is a series of dramatic, decisive discoveries boldly pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. The reality is less glamorous. It's more a series of small, incremental findings that gently prod the buttocks of knowledge but then run away in case knowledge comes back to file harassment charges. Or rather, most of the time the findings are - compared to media hype - utterly trivial.

I don't mean to belittle anyone's work here. Any individual result may well be trivial, but part of a larger body of evidence that can be compelling - or it may open the door to that final piece of the puzzle that really does prove an idea once and for all. I only want to point out that you should never trust :
a) The media*.
b) New results. Whatever they are, however persuasive and passionate the argument may be, wait a year or so to decide if they're exciting. That should be enough for a proper analysis to have been done independently. Proof is possible - it's just very rare.

* Not all of it, of course. Some programmes and articles are very good.

While there are many really excellent pieces of outreach that do a fantastic job of explaining complex issues, in general I think we need to more clearly state the problems of ideas as well as their successes. Of course this is very difficult in a 20-second TV news clip or an internet meme. Nor can anyone be expected to give a full-on lecture as a background to every press release. But surely a few statements directly from the scientists involved saying things like, "we think model X is more likely, but we can't rule out model Y yet..." would not go amiss.

The media is very, very good at making things sound jolly exciting. The trouble is it's good at making things of little or no credibility sound as exciting as the Apollo 11 Moon landing - witness the Occult Christian Bigfoot Channel (a.k.a. the "History" Channel). The BBC are attempting to tackle this false balance head on by considering where the scientific consensus lies : if 97% of scientists believe something, it makes no sense to televise a debate of 10 believers against 10 deniers, or to include a denier in every report about it. Which doesn't mean you stop reporting alternative theories entirely, just much less frequently in mainstream news.

By all means, have entire channels dedicated to how Noah took care of Bigfoot on the ark or the best kind of tinfoil hat to wear to prevent your cows being mutilated by aliens. Just don't report such things as though they're viewed as valid alternative hypotheses by most of academia. They're not.

It's understandable and forgiveable that the non-specialist media make some mistakes. But when a scientist says, "I've proved something !" they usually need a good slap. Lesser offences, like saying that level 2 models are really true, or that level 7 ideas are useless, could probably be let off with a mild spanking or perhaps just a stern glare. There's nothing wrong with holding opinions about ideas that fall anywhere on the plausibility index, or expressing those opinions in a robust and hilarious manner. But when questioned, we've got to try and debate rationally, and admit the differences between fact and opinion.

Things are at their most tricky when credible scientists present apparently startling results - NASA's involvement with the warp drive and the superluminal neutrinos, for example. In cases like that the burden lies largely with the scientists - see this excellent article for more. But no matter how carefully we report things, sometimes sensationalism is inevitable (for the most brazen example of which, see this). In these cases all we can do is limit the damage and pray* for better science education in primary schools.

* Or petition the government, or offer sacrifices to Cthulhu, whatever.

But what about people who believe really really stupid things ?

That's the general public and the media -  what about those who are convinced their alternative model is better than all of mainstream science ? Well, firstly, difficult though it may be for some of us to accept, we've got to accept that often (except at level 9) there is some room for debate - even if it may be almost one-sided. Evidence is not proof, but, just as anecdotes are not evidence, the two are not unrelated.

It's unlikely we'll ever convince the instigators of bizarre ideas that they're wrong - they're too emotionally invested. The debate serves not to convince them, but to prevent them from convincing others. If we sit back and do nothing, they will most certainly succeed in persuading more people that their quackery - from anti-vaccination to astrology - is far more plausible than it really is (there are plenty of cranks on the net, yes... but do not automatically assume someone is a crank when they could be merely ignorant).

There is, of course, a common retort to scientists, one which the internet is making a slightly misguided attempt to overcome :

Yes... and no (actually, claiming that philosophy is useless is one of the dumbest things any scientist could say). To be fair, in the context people usually say "it's only a theory", then yes, it's pretty stupid. But at face value it's perfectly legitimate. Theories are not facts, they are well-tested models. Sometimes "well-tested" can mean tested to incredibly high levels of precision. So actually you are allowed to say "only a theory"... but only if you're aware of the level of difficulty that will be involved in disproving it.

Of course, scientists do realise the difference between theory and fact.

Thanks, Neil, that was really helpful. It certainly explains a lot about why some people perceive science as arrogant : if you go around saying things as stupid as this, then you are arrogant. Make no mistake : scientists are capable of stupid beliefs just like everyone else.

(I had hoped that was an off-the-cuff, getting a bit carried away gaffe, but it seems to have been in a Cosmos episode. In fairness to Neil, some other people do seem to want to use "theory" to mean "fact" - see last paragraph in this link. This is a monumentally bad idea. For a start the general public will never, ever understand it, and they'd be right not to, because few scientists actually use the terms this way. This would be redefining common words for specialists in the most confusing way possible. It's also totally unnecessary, see below.)

Theories are models that fit observations - nothing more, nothing less. Observations are facts. Some theories work so well we may behave as if they're true (level 2), but to claim they are literally facts is ludicrous (I mean, come on, that's why "theory" and "fact" are spelled differently). For example, people also say, "evolution / climate change / generic issue is a only a theory ? So's gravity." This is wrong. Our descriptions, our models of gravity (Newtonian, Einsteinian, MOND) are theories, but gravity itself is an absolute god-damned certainty. You can test this yourself with a brick and a small puppy, but don't you dare, you heartless bastard.

All of which makes me wonder if we need some better vocabulary. The problem is that some theories are clearly far superior to others. I'd be very reluctant to relegate MOND to the status of a mere hypothesis, but nor would I hold it in anything like the same regard as, say, general relativity. We need a better way to distinguish between the crème de la crème from the mouldy cheese that's not quite ready for the compost heap. Though I suspect that "delicious creamy theories" and "stinky cheese theories" won't catch on.

You may be asking if all of this is just pedantic sophistry. Well, no, it isn't. The way I understand the term "fact" and "certain" is, "something that can never be disproved". The Earth is a sphere, that cannot be disproved, it's a certain fact. If you're going to say that "facts" can be disproved, that is qualitatively different. Meaningful science communication - both with the general public and other scientists - becomes extremely difficult if we're using the same words to mean completely different things.

If scientists who make exaggerated claims need a good slap (or in some cases a firm kick in the shins), how should we treat those non-mainstreamers who persist in weird or delusional beliefs ? Well, first we should ignore them and hope they just go away. If they don't, we'll have to engage them in a polite, reasoned debate, pointing out the mountains of evidence and/or proof as to why they're (almost certainly) wrong. Then, if they continue, and still claim that they have overturned all of science, I say we let Buzz Aldrin punch them in the face. We may as well. There's no reasoning with some people.

In one of Richard Dawkins more lucid moments (before he went mad and became a eugenicist), he said :

"When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

To expand on that slightly, if someone has an idea which supposes that a huge number of proven facts are wrong, it's not harsh to point out that all their assumptions are wrong. It's just reality. This is how science is done, and I assure you, dear reader, that scientists can be perfectly ruthless in their examination of their own theories as well as toward what they consider as more implausible ideas. Ruthless is not necessarily the same as harsh, though you could be forgiven for thinking so from some media reports.


To summarise :
  • Science hasn't explained everything, and scientists are aware of this. It is not a dogmatic or arrogant process, it's investigative.
  • You cannot say, "this idea is arrogant because I don't believe it".
  • Unlikely ideas can occasionally become proven facts, but usually they're just wrong. Most ideas are not mainstream because the evidence is against them, not because of scientific arrogance.
  • Be cautious of any new results, including those that support mainstream ideas. Skepticism is not the same as denial.
  • Take all press releases with a healthy pinch of salt. Evidence is not the same as proof.
  • Actually, it is only a theory, but don't say this unless you know what you're getting yourself in to. I completely reject the notion that theory and fact can be one and the same, this is daft.
  • Buzz Aldrin needs to get his punching fist ready.

OK, we shouldn't really expect an angry astronaut to go around punching people who believe things which are demonstrably not true. For one thing he's an old man and might get tired. In fact it's perfectly possible to have polite, civil debates with people who believe the most outlandish nonsense, while others, who claim to be the voice of reason, are capable of being complete jerks. I try and remind myself of this by initially assuming that just because someone believes in, say, alien abduction, it does not preclude them from being a good and kind person who cares for kittens very much. In this way debate can remain civil - occasionally, even productive.

Atheists, that goes double for you. Claiming that all religious people are drunken murderous child molesters (I saw that particular comment in response to something along the lines of, "I like this picture of the Milky Way, isn't God wonderful ?") is doing nothing for your claims of superior reasoning, let alone morality. Stop it. Right now. Got that ? Good. Don't let me catch you doing it again. I'm glad we had this talk. Here are some more kittens, because kittens :

Finally, the most exciting part of science is when something is proved wrong. We've seen this in the last decade with dark energy - everyone assumed the expansion of the Universe was slowing down, but then observations showed that it's speeding up. No-one had ever really thought that was even on the cards (even if you don't believe in dark energy, you can't deny that mainstream science changed its mind). This is but one of many examples of evidence forcing science to reconsider - so put that in your pipe and smoke it, if you still think science is dogmatic.

I'll sign off with a quote from Dr Who, which sums up the whole thing very nicely. I've used this before, and I'll use it again :

"I believe, I believe I haven't seen everything, I don't know. It's funny, isn't it? The things you make up. The rules. If that thing had said it came from beyond the universe, I'd believe it, but before the universe? Impossible. Doesn't fit my rule. Still, that's why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong. "

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Seven Million Years Bad Luck ?

Some considerable time ago, I wrote a short post about much easier life would be if I were a professional pseudoscientist. I happened to mention my favourite "alternative" cosmology - the Space Mirror Mystery. This is the delightful notion that most of what we see in the Universe isn't real but is only a reflection is a huge cosmic mirror (or mirrors). While absolutely ingenious and hugely entertaining, the idea is about as bonkers as it's possible to get.

Much to my surprise, the instigator of this, um, creative idea responded to the post. Well, I couldn't help myself. Most of the website is free, but to access one particular file you have to pay $1001 :

"Hello Pradipta,

I see that you offer items for sale on your website. $1001 is quite a lot of money, what do I get for this ? Do you sell actual pieces of the space mirror ?"

The flat-out contradictory response (two months later and you still have to pay $1001) :

"Dear Rhys, 
There is no price for science. I think you have not understood the theory of space mirror mystery for cause of my bad English. I think if you understand the theory clearly, you may able to making a visual graphic effect and explain the truth to the astronomers. For the welfare of space science the theory needs your help."

No price apart from the $1001 ? Of all the requests for artwork I've had, this is the strangest.

What follows is a choice summary of the "debate" between myself and Pradipta Mohapatra (which you can read in full here) - but first, a short description of this wonderfully bizarre idea. Unfortunately, Pradipta's English is not very good... which makes it all the more entertaining*.

* This is a little cruel, and to be fair, his English is a lot better than my Odia (Oriya). Seriously, if anyone speaks Odia and is willing to help as a translator, get in touch !

From the website, the idea appears to be that the entire Universe is enclosed by a giant mirror about 300 million km wide surrounding the Sun. However, Pradipta assures me that this is not the case, and in a word document (actually just a series of images - bizarrely, since the website is quite well-designed, the text appears to have been typed on a typewriter and scanned in) it appears that there are at least two (possibly four) space mirrors. Are these supposed to be connected, part of a larger, spherical mirror ? I don't know. I assume so, otherwise we'd see nothing at all if we looked out of the plane of the Solar System.

Beyond the mirror there is nothing. Apparently, the commonly accepted distance, size and mass estimates of the Sun are all correct (as presumably are those of the Earth, Mercury and Venus - Mars isn't mentioned) but the giant outer planets have been overestimated. Jupiter, for example, is "really" only twice the size of the Earth (actually it's more like 11) and 153 million km from the Sun, which means at its closest approach to Earth it would be only about 4 million km away ! (actually, it's more like 780 million km from the Sun). But somehow we're being deceived because we're always seeing reflections in that pesky space mirror.

He also states that sunspots aren't real but are somehow caused by the mirror (your guess is as good as mine) and that, just for good measure, there is another Earthlike planet in the Solar System to which there is a "secret root [sic]" we can use to travel between it "and come back safely".

Ooo.... kay....

There are any number of possible ways to disprove this. I do this entirely for entertainment purposes, I am not in the least worried that anyone else might actually believe it (unlike the far more viral, in the literal sense, like Ebola - space vortex video). Some of the more obvious points that come to mind :

1) Dude, are you alright ?
2) If the stars were only reflections in the mirror, which is only twice the size of the Earth's orbit, then the constellations should look distorted as we move toward some (and away from others) throughout the year. They don't (interestingly, Copernicus had the same problem).
3) Those mushrooms look a bit funny.
4) We should see the Sun, Earth, Mercury, Mars, Venus and the Moon reflected in the mirror, but we don't.
5) You've had enough now. Put the bottle back.
6) We've sent spacecraft further away than 300 million km but they didn't hit any "space mirror".
7) I really don't think you're supposed to smoke that...
8) If the mirror encompasses the whole Solar System and nothing exists beyond it, it and everything in the Solar System would eventually heat up and become as hot as the Sun (since there is nowhere for the radiation to go).
9) Whoa, are you sure that stuff is legal ?
10) No explanation is given as to what stars, nebulae and galaxies are reflections of.

I raised some of those points with Pradipta. I never got any clear answers, or any answer at all as to the last point. Admittedly, he did promise answers provided we established the basis of the theory, but amazingly we never got that far. As fas as spacecraft not hitting the mirror goes, he had the following pearl of wisdom to impart :

"Remember that as light the power of remote reflects in mirror. One should keep in mind that targeting on the reflected picture, by a remote device we can get the desired result. Suppose you are watching a space film on a Television set and such film’s image also appears in a mirror opposite. Now you are bored and like to change over through the remote control of the television. You can do so either by directing directly on the television or by directing on image on the mirror.
Through remote space organizations have sent man less space vehicle to different space objects like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune ….etc. Cause of reflections on space mirror those men less space vehicles are going to the real space objects on real root. It may be noted here that since we are able only to see the real space objects situated within the radius of 150 million kilometers from earth and particularly we cannot see anything real space objects out of the above radius of the earth’s darken part, through remote we can never send man less space vehicles out of above distances.”

I think he's trying to say that the transmissions from the spacecraft are reflected off the mirror, which fools us into thinking that they're further away than they "really" are. Except, of course, that this is nonsense - spacecraft point their transmitters toward Earth, not ahead of themselves.

Yes, it's fiction, but it's one of the most accurate pieces of fiction ever.
I also asked exactly how wide the mirror was, but never got an answer. He insists that all of my questions are already answered on his website, but really, they're not. Really really. Honestly, I've spent considerable time looking, but they're not there. Which was why I asked them.

I also tried asking, "why do you think there's a space mirror at all ?" (as opposed to just about all of modern science), which began the discussion in earnest. He answers :

"The theory of space mirror mystery is completely based on a single rule, i.e. “Everything has a limited form or shape”. Can you explain me about any form or shape what have unlimited form or shape? If you unnecessarily try to do so I can easily defeat you by words."

I responded that I didn't understand why everything having a limited shape meant there should be a space mirror, but didn't get any further information about this. However, he continued with what would become the major sticking point for the discussion :

"As the inhabitant of the earth, our astronomers have measured that the size of sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth. If sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth, then from earth, we must find that an earth like size object would be completely disappeared at the place of sun. Am I wrong ?"

(he's talking here about the mass of the Sun, not its diameter)

"We are living within sun light. So before thinking anything, we should verify how far we could see the space objects within sunlight. It appears from earth, in mass sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth, then it also appear to me that an earthlike object would completely disappeared at sun’s distance. Am I wrong? If yes, let me answer at which distance earthlike object would be completely disappeared from earth."

Later, he emphasised this further :

"Unless/until our eyes objects, we are able to see the vast space. Whatever we see through our eyes, telescope enlarges the same. If anything objects our eyes we cannot see beyond that, neither telescope will help us through it."

"An object how bigger it may be, become smaller and smaller as it goes away and away from our eye sight, the thing appears us smaller and smaller till it disappears from our eye sight."

So it appears that he doesn't believe it's possible to see things if they're too far away. Well, while that's true as far as it goes (but watch out - we'll get back to this soon) this doesn't actually explain anything. If you can't see something that's too far away, you won't be able to see its reflection either. Specifically, he thinks that objects which appear to be extremely distant are the result of multiple reflections between the two mirrors (or two opposite sides of the same mirror). But this obviously doesn't help, because reflections get progressively smaller too. So if you can't see something 150 million kilometres away, you won't be able to see it if its reflection looks like it's 150 million kilometres away.

He also doesn't explain why we don't see multiple reflections of various objects.

Source for this is well worth reading.
Moreover, why the fact the Sun is big and far away specifically means that an Earth-sized planet would not be visible at the Sun's distance is pretty cryptic (Pradipta is insistent on this point and seems to think it's obvious). Nonetheless, I tried very hard to answer this.

As things get further away, they look smaller. We both agree on this, at least. This basic fact was best explained by the inimitable Father Ted :

The apparent size of an object depends on its true physical size and its distance from the observer. There's nothing very interesting or profound about this, it's just a basic property of perspective. We can quantify the apparent size of an object by its angular size - that is, what fraction of our field of view it takes up. This is geometry at its simplest.

If you were to stand in the center of a football stadium, you'd be able to turn a full 360 degrees and see the stadium all around you. Of course, you'd only have to look up, say, 20-30 degrees before you start looking at the sky. The Sun and the Moon are both about half a degree across, or roughly the size of a penny at arm's length. The smallest thing you can see is about 0.02 degrees... sort of.

More accurately, the smallest thing you can resolve is about 0.02 degrees. All that means is if something is too far away, you can't see it as anything more than a featureless point. For a penny, you'd have to move it about 28 metres away before you couldn't see any structure to it (please do try this at home). But, if it was a bright, sunny day, and the penny was a nice shiny new one, you could still see it glinting in the sunlight, even if it was much further away. It might be too small to resolve, but that doesn't mean it would be so small it would stop reflecting all light back toward you.

And that's the key point. Angular size never reaches zero. But - and this is crucial - Pradipta insists he's not merely talking about anything being too small to see with our eyes :

"I don’t ask you about any large enough telescope, what could detect a planet at any distance....
Completely disappear means zero. Neither the object would be visible to earth nor does any telescopic instrument help us to detect through it."

He also explicitly asked :

"Then my question is very clear “at which distance would the earth like object be completely disappeared from earth?”

I'd already tried explaining that things never completely disappear no matter how far away they are (that's impossible, as we'll see in a minute) but he didn't accept this. So for the sake of giving an answer, I calculated the distance at which it would become invisible to our eyes.

Well, just like moving a penny 28 metres away, if we move an Earth-size planet 43 million kilometres away we'll only see a point of light. As we move it further away, it will appear fainter and fainter. At about 1.3 billion kilometres, it will be as faint as the faintest star we can see with the naked eye. This is a fairly simple calculation - you can check my maths here, if you like that sort of thing. All it requires is the size and luminosity of the Sun, and the size and reflectivity of the Earth (surprisingly, Pradipta accepts the standard values for these).

A very simple sanity check indicates that this answer can't be too wide of the mark. We can certainly see Mercury with our eyes, even though it's much smaller than Earth and can be further away than the Sun is (though it can be pretty close to the visibility limit). Uranus, accepting standard values, is only a few times bigger than Earth, at least 1.6 billion kilometres distant, and just about visible to the naked eye.

But Pradipta was not happy with this answer for several reasons. First, he said it assumed "a constant lightening atmosphere". Of course, it didn't. We know that light decays in proportion to the square of the distance - so if you move twice as far away from the light source, the amount of energy received goes down by a factor of four. That's a critical part of the calculation. And then there was his continuous insistence that things can completely disappear - not merely fall below the resolution of our eyes, but actually reach an angular size of zero if they're far enough away :

"Friend, kindly observes the facts. Our existence has been started from sun and we know the distance between earth to sun is 150 million kilometers. So it is logically proved and clearly appeared if an earthlike object moves from our earth toward sun, would be completely zero at the sun‘s distance. This fact proves also the position of earth always zero everywhere at the distance of 150 million kilometers. So we can never see or detect any illuminated objects of sun beyond 150 million kilometers."

How, exactly, the fact that the Sun is big and far away is clear and logical proof that we wouldn't be able to see an Earth-size planet at that distance is, I'm afraid, something that quite escapes me.

Here's why things never disappear completely, no matter how far away they are. Suppose I'm looking at a large red stick, because why not.

Original image.
I could do some trigonometry to determine the distance or the angular size of the stick, but I just measured it. No maths was used in this at all.

Now let's move a bit further away.

Original image.

You'll probably want to open the links to see the images full size. I kept the stick and the observer the same screen size, just to be extra clear that what happens really happens and isn't some kind of CGI hocus-pocus.

Let's go even further !

You'll notice that the observer's lines of sight to the top and bottom of the stick form a triangle, with the stick being the third side. As we move the stick further away, the triangle gets longer and sharper - the angular size of the stick gets smaller and smaller, from 45 degrees at 2.4m distance to just 1 degree at 114.6m. The angle between the observer's two lines of sight is the angular size of the stick.

That's the crux of the matter - no matter how great the distance, we can always draw a triangle using the two lines of sight and the stick, and so the stick always has some angular size. Now it may be an incredibly thin, sharp triangle if the stick was a billion kilometres away, but there isn't some freaky limit beyond which triangles don't exist. The angular size can get arbitrarily small, but it can never, ever reach zero.

So if it's a choice between believing that all of science is wrong, or that triangles exist, I'll choose triangles, thanks.

Pradipta's response ?

"As per your images you have shown about triangles marking as ‘A’ as the viewer point of the observer and ‘B’ ‘C’ are the points of a stick of two meters length. If a match’s stick would be 2 inches length, mathematically you are also getting never ending answer because you are following wrong procedure and drawing the unending lines imaginary and blindly believe that everything can be discovered through telescopic instrument. Of course your mathematic is correct for a limited extend and telescopic instruments may function within such limitation."

Sigh. I posted a counter-response asking what the limit is at which the mathematics breaks down (and what exactly happens to stop triangles existing), but he said that would be his last reply. So I don't think he's coming back. Pity.

You may wonder why I even bothered debating such an outlandish idea. Well, several reasons (besides hilarity). Firstly, it appears that Pradipta genuinely believes his idea and isn't trying to scam anyone (I suspect the $1001 is a typo). Secondly, he was willing to debate in a sensible, polite and courteous manner with no name-calling or personal attacks. But mostly I was curious what pattern of thinking could have lead him to an idea so far removed from reality that it's fallen off the edge of the flat Earth. Interestingly, he thinks his ideas are entirely rational - there's no hint of any underlying religious motivation. And unlike the space vortex author, Pradipta does not have any links to ozone hole skeptics or other dangerous conspiracy theories (as far as I can tell), so the whole thing seems like a harmless enough piece of folly.

I've also been thinking a lot lately about the point at which science dismissing alternative models becomes unscientific and arrogant. I'll explore this in detail in the next post, but for now, I'll note only this : science is built on facts. Interpretation may be subjective, but facts aren't. It is an inherent part of the scientific method that if it disagrees with observation, it is wrong. Sometimes this can be harsh and unpleasant, but it's the only way to make progress.

Finally, Pradipta, if you're reading this, I sincerely thank you for the polite discussion. I think your idea is very clever, but absolutely and unequivocally wrong. I urge you to take some classes in basic mathematics (especially geometry) and astronomy. If you are open to listening to the facts, I think you will soon learn why there is not, and cannot, be a giant space mirror.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Omega Man

An epilogue to the press release on the long gas stream, or part 4 in the trilogy if you like. Actually this will form the first part of another trilogy, dealing with alternative ideas and pseudoscience. This one makes for a nice, gentle introduction - in the next post we'll go to far stranger places, where triangles don't exist...

Here is an email I received a few days after the press release. The author (name withheld, referred to only as "k", presumably for dramatic effect) presents, very politely, their ideas regarding galaxy formation. Some of it is not so different from standard theories, but there are a few... (ahem) anomalies.

My commentary on the original text is in square brackets and in blue. Here's the main figure from the press release again, as a reminder of what we're talking about.
Dr. Rhys Taylor.
Dr. Robert Minchikn [sic - but now I'm finding hard to avoid mentally replacing "Minchin" with "Munchkin", or possibly "MinChicken", Robert's not going to like that...], et al, great work.
[Thanks !]

Source of this cloud of gas?
I am reluctant to say [No you're not, you've written a whole book about this, but we'll get to that later] (because no one will believe this).  Your discovery supports my contention that all the galaxies associated with these streams of gas were once closely associated, that is, all have a common antecedent or origin.  Those streamers point roughly back to that common origination point.

[Well, certainly the stream of gas itself most likely originates with the galaxies in question, and in all probability those galaxies were once close enough to interact and draw out the gas gravitationally (or possibly via ram pressure stripping). So this part seems fine, though the "common origin of galaxies" idea is worrying. The mainstream idea is "hierarchical merging" - lots of small objects form first, then merge - pretty much the exact opposite of this "hierarchical fragmentation", as I guess you'd call it. That's not too outlandish though.

In conventional astronomy, the galaxies are continually moving through space. At some point in the past they happened to move past each other, and during the short time they were close enough, some of their gas got removed. Now they're far apart again.  

As I wrote in an interview for, an alternative explanation is that the gas in the stream is primordial - that is, left over from the formation of the Universe and condensing along dark matter filaments. This is an extremely controversial idea, and doesn't seem very likely to me (see link for details).]

The original proposition was -
At some stage of universal development early universe filaments segmented into what became, called here, Omega bodies [Oh dear, that sounds like an unfortunate attack of drama. Just call them proto-galaxies or proto-clusters. Dramatic names are a turn-off]. Notable is that these segmented ‘chunks’ were nearly equal in mass size [to each other ?] (check the math) [err, what math ??].  (That process is described very simply here.) [Poor use of brackets and ambiguous statements aren't helping credibility at this stage. If you're smart enough to create a revolutionary theory, you're smart enough to use brackets sensibly, dammit.]
 Most of these primordial objects had spin and angular momentum, plus other qualities not discussed here.
Some, during their high velocity passage through space, acquired a a sizable volume of dark and other matter.  To illustrate this feature see Kappa Cassiopeiae, HD 2905, star bow shock wave,Credit NASA, JPL, Caltech

Measuring many light years across, this ‘baggage’ acted to slow the passage of the Omega body.  
[Well, that's perfectly reasonable - acquiring more mass means the shock will slow down due to conservation of momentum.]
Shocks formed by contact passage through varying densities of mostly dark matter were transmitted through the dark matter bubble to the Omega body causing it ultimately to disintegrate.  Plus, other processes not described here were instrumental in the breakup of these high density objects.
[All well and good as alternative cosmologies go. Doesn't bear any resemblance whatsoever to conventional ideas, but that's OK, let's run with it. More about this later.]

The constrained matter surrounding the object was instrumental later for the formation of galaxies.
[What prevented them forming stars immediately ?]
(As per the discoveries of Minchin, et al [which ones ?], streamers and batches of gas lost along the way mark the journey’s path of the Omega ‘fragments’  to their ultimate destination.)
[If this means, "current" destination, then that's OK. If it literally means the place at which they will reside until the end of time, then it's impossible. In a gravitational field you can never be at rest. Also, we know galaxies are moving through space because we can measure this directly.
It's especially important to avoid colourful language when presenting unconventional ideas - I've had emails of various levels of crazy, so I've no way of knowing what sort of idea (genuinely plausible or downright impossible) I'm dealing with from a new contact. Throughout the rest of this post, I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume the least crazy idea whenever things are ambiguous.]
Those Omega bodies that had little spin loosened their parts more or less omnidirectionally, not very distant.  The galaxies that developed from these were later very prone to collide and merge with each other.
[More or less self-consistent, I guess, but let's wait a minute.]

Most of these primordial ‘rocks’ [Benefit of the doubt that this is colourful language again] had high spin rates [Why ? This is important, because the following text makes it clear we're dealing with rotational energies orders of magnitude greater than what we observe in galaxies today].  The first fragments to come off were flung a great distance.  Each taking with it a share of the accumulated dark matter.  (Dark matter in these cases was like the yolk of an egg.) [Perhaps it was a laid by a MinChicken...] See the chart by Dr. McCall. (To whom I am most grateful. Note that he does not agree with the scenario described here.)      
'Council' sheet views, McCall [Original, entirely respectable article here] 

[Thing is, objects don't get "flung" a specific distance in a gravitational field in a vacuum. They can only be put on different orbits - or, if they are sent off fast enough, they escape entirely. They can be flung at different velocities, but that's quite different to sending them a set maximum distance due to their initial speed. The point is they won't ever stop - they'll keep moving on curved paths through space.]

The first sibling pieces in our family to come off the progenitor Omega body, each weighing multiple [many hundreds of billions of] solar masses, were M83, M64, NGC 253.  

[OK, I guess he's saying that the more distant galaxies from us formed first because they seem to trace a ring. In this scenario, a giant spinning cloud flung out galaxies to produce the distribution we see today.]

At the same time many smaller units were launched.   Each loss of mass to the Omega body reduced the forces of angular momentum.  Until finally we have the last division that gave us our Milky Way and Andromeda [presumably since we seem to be at the center of the ring].  In that manner Omega had sacrificed itself to seed more than a hundred new galaxies. [Is this poetic or was Omega literally sentient ? Again, colourful language doesn't help. There really are people out there crazy enough to believe in giant sentient gas clouds as the origin of the Galaxy.]
It was spin that caused these units to detach along a plane.  (The process or morphology of how these ‘bits and pieces’ of mass developed into galaxies is described elsewhere.)  

[Actually though, the fact we see small satellite galaxies in planes around giant galaxies is really interesting. It wasn't predicted by standard simulations, and there have been claims that this is something modifying our theory of gravity explains better than invoking dark matter. Most people think it's a problem with our lack of understanding of the complicated physical processes at work in the gas (which the simulations don't deal with). I think it's very intriguing, but not yet enough to convince me we should throw out the dark matter model.

The dispute in contemporary, mainstream science is not as to whether small galaxies can be formed by larger galaxies tearing off pieces of each other - everyone accepts that - but how common this is. Unfortunately, k is talking not about small galaxies forming this way, but giant ones (as in the press release that prompted the email, and in McCall's paper). And he's not talking about the galaxies being in a plane because it's easier, gravitationally, to remove gas this way (the mainstream view), but because the Omega thing was spinning really fast. To a normal astronomer this sounds very strange indeed - but does it make any sense ?

Let's start with that that ring of galaxies. The claim appears to be that the galaxies furthest from the center were formed earliest. k strongly implies that he believes galaxies can get flung to certain distances by their initial speed, after which they just sit there. As already mentioned, we know that's not true. For the sake of benefit of the doubt, let's see if we can salvage the claim anyway.

Is the ring even real ? Well, here's McCall's image stripped of annotations. Judge for yourself - but remember, McCall was deliberately restricting his analysis to galaxies within a fixed, radial distance. The fact the corners are empty doesn't mean anything, because galaxies there were excluded from the study (to be absolutely clear, McCall wasn't trying to make any of the claims k is; his work is entirely mainstream research).

Even if those dozen-odd galaxies really are distributed in a neat ring, does that really mean anything ? Context may help. Here's the distribution of 11,000 galaxies on a very much larger scale, fifty times that of McCall's selection :

Image credit : me.
You can certainly see plenty of structures in there, though they're very much larger than in the McCall study. Here's another large-scale schematic, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The scale here is twice as big again as the last one.

That intricate network of filaments, sheets and voids has been reproduced extremely well by standard models - it's one of the great triumphs of modern cosmology (regardless of all its other problems). Even those who dispute the existence of dark matter cannot question its success in reproducing these structures. While, as I mentioned, there are problems producing the correct structures on the scale of a single galaxy, on the scale of giant sheets and filaments, there aren't. 

Since this result is not at odds with standard theory, it can hardly be used as evidence for an alternative model. At most, all it says is that the alternative model is not ruled out. To have evidence that the alternative is better, you'd have to find a configuration of galaxies that the standard model doesn't predict but the alternative does. That is categorically not the case here.

Furthermore, to me it seems like a heck of an inference to invoke a radically different alternative model based on the distribution of a handful of galaxies... even if they were in a much more obviously weird configuration, like a cube. Small number statistics are at work. That is, if you pick only a dozen of so galaxies at random in a small region, and it would be easy to find a ring-like distribution - particularly if you select galaxies in a spherical volume. The ring distribution, real or not, is therefore completely and utterly meaningless.

Further-furthermore, the whole model of some primordial gas cloud spinning apart and sending huge galaxy-size chunks that formed the current distribution seems deeply flawed to me. Spinning a gas cloud is going to cause the entire thing to expand, not rip chunks out of it*. As it expands, it
might fragment - but this is complicated. To suggest that this would produce a nice configuration of galaxies wherein we can infer their formation history merely by their distance is fantastically unlikely at best. That's just not how orbital motion (or even, more generally, motion in a vacuum) works - things keep moving.

* To be fair, k says that the cloud disintegrates due to shocks with the dark matter and "other processes not described here". Obviously, I can't comment on the other processes. Dark matter halos, however, could not cause a cloud to disintegrate into discrete chunks - they, like the gas clouds, have a smooth distribution. They could distort the cloud due to tidal forces, but not cause it to fragment. Nor could they be responsible for causing the cloud to spin-up (unless it happens to move past two dark matter halos in just the right way) - and if the cloud was previously spinning so fast, it would have broken up beforehand anyway.
As you'll have no doubt gathered, I think this whole idea is wrong every which way.

Specifically, what goes up, must come down - or escape forever. When something is sent on an orbit that moves it radially outwards, then unless it's going so fast it escapes completely, it eventually falls back again. Interplanetary spacecraft, for example, can be sent on Hohman transfer orbits to reach their destination. This requires not only that they fire their rockets to leave Earth, but also that they fire them again to enter the same orbit as their target planet is moving around the Sun. If they didn't do this, they'd end up falling back to their starting point. 

The point is they need to exert some force to get themselves into a nice circular orbit. Energy must be expended, you can't just change from an elliptical to circular orbit whenever you feel like it - that's just as bad as saying that things get flung a specific distance. Since the galaxies can neither be static nor thrown into stable circular orbits, I can't see any way to make this work.

DeltaV means the spacecraft must fire its rockets to generate
a change in velocity at these points to follow the green transfer orbit
(deltaV1) and enter the red circular orbit (deltaV2).
(I've been assuming here (for the sake of generosity) that most of Omega's dark matter remains at the center. If it disintegrates along with the galaxies it flings out, things will be even worse - there'll be nothing holding the galaxies in orbit at all, so they'll just fly apart.)

But wait ! Galaxies don't have rockets, it's true... but what if they keep detaching parts of themselves as they go ? When you get right down to it, losing mass is what makes rockets go faster (Rocket science ? Easy. Rocket engineering... not so much). The problem is the galaxies would have to preferentially shoot bits of themselves off in only one direction, otherwise, like a Catherine wheel, they're not going anywhere. And if they're shredding themselves by spinning, well, that basically is a Catherine wheel writ large. 

OK, so if we can't deduce the formation history of the galaxies just by measuring their distance away from us, could we do something more complicated ? Perhaps the galaxies will preserve their original formation in the pattern of their relative positions ?
No. If and when our giant galaxies return to their point of origin... well, you'll have a whole bunch of galaxies crashing together (or at the very least, strongly interacting with one another and the dark matter remaining in the center). That is not going to result in the galaxies moving apart again neatly, to say the least. After that first return, the positions of the galaxies (assuming they even survive, which is unlikely) won't tell you a darn thing about their formation history.]

If you take a volume of space encompassing a radius of 20 to 50 million light years, most likely you will find some discernable structure to the arrangements of galaxies therein. But, not in all areas of this universe. [Which is perfectly consistent with standard cosmology, so can't be taken as evidence for the Omega bodies.]  Some of those Omega bodies are still out there just waiting for something to happen (dark galaxies).[Not if they have the mass of a hundred galaxies they're not - we would easily have detected hydrogen masses this large by now. Believe me, I've looked.]  A few others exploded; galaxies formed but no structured order was established.

Those that had the right amount of spin, plus other opportunities, much like ours, formed a planar pattern of galaxy formation.  The large galaxies, mostly spiral, in turn followed the example of their progenitor by producing satellite galaxies in a similar manner.  (That subject is covered thoroughly elsewhere.) [Same problems as before - what makes the galaxy spin up ? Will conditions be right in the expanded gas for fragmentation and star formation ? How can this produce galaxies on the correct orbits ? Too many things...]

The depth or width of the ‘super galactic plane’ is governed by the amount of wobble the Omega body had.  In our case there was not much.  Increased wobble can cause the Omega fragments to be dispersed over a wider range.  The resulting galaxies are arranged in a broader plane.
[Self-consistent, I guess. I still don't see how you'd form a staggeringly massive cloud of hydrogen without it forming stars though.]
It can happen that a primordial object has/had a secondary spin axis.  This causes its loosened parts to be scattered all around.  Galaxies, usually elliptical, form in a random pattern.
[Well, that's just not true. The morphology-density is very well-known. Most elliptical galaxies are found in the center of clusters, while most spiral galaxies dominate the population outside clusters.]

This Omega model of sibling galaxy structure is quite simple, even simplistic.  Others can do a much better job of explaining it.  So much research needs to be done. 

[The book description from amazon :]

How do galaxies get started? How do they change and morph from one design to another? Be forewarned – The story as told here departs quite a bit from the accepted view of the nature and behavior of what is called a black hole, and specifically the nucleus of a galaxy.
Conventional science claims that you can only know the mass size or weight of a black hole and its relative spin rate. Stuff can enter a black hole, but nothing can leave. Called a singularity – scientists claim black holes have unique properties; which if explained to you, you would not understand; so don’t ask [??? Yer whaaa.... ????]. A few seem to treat the black hole as some kind of unknowable Quantum Deity. Others think of them as giant macrophages [I had to look that up in a dictionary, it means "white blood cell"] that go around gobbling up waste and useless material, gorging on worn-out stars and used up matter [Nonsense, pure and simple - black holes will consume anything that gets too close, they don't have a preference for "waste matter". That's not a remotely scientific idea]. Taken to the extreme, given enough time black holes will gobble up everything that exists. Then what? Do they go around gulping down each other, until there is just one big black hole left? “That’s all, Folks.” Can that be the ultimate fate of ‘all there is’? Quoting TV’s Judge Judy – “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.” [There are too many things wrong with that. No further comment]. Applying that rule [!], does it make sense that possibly galaxies have a definite birth followed by growth, and eventually give birth to new galaxies?
Cover image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The cover image captures the overlapping galaxies 2MASX J00482185-2507365 in the act of separation. In the scenario described here the larger galaxy has given birth to the smaller. Could instead as claimed by scientists the smaller came from outer space and is approaching the larger? There are ways to tell the difference.

For the daring few of you that are tolerant of contrarian concepts, read on – k
[I read the sample available on amazon. Suffice to say the text is erroneous, and, like most pseudoscience, full of terrible English, and more unusually, repeated (use of multiple) (brackets for some reason). Come on, if you must invent dreadful theories, at least learn correct punctuation.]

I was initially sympathetic when I read this. In some ways, it's not such a silly idea  - the fact that the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way and Andromeda are found in planes is a subject of genuine intense controversy. Indeed, some, though a minority, argue that those structures are best reproduced by interactions, with one galaxy interacting with the other in the same plane. That's close to saying a galaxy got spun-up and smaller ones broke off. Sort of. Maybe. Not really.

But the idea that the distribution of a dozen nearby giant galaxies somehow supports this Omega model is simply wrong. The observed distribution of giant galaxies into filaments, sheets, and voids, is very well-reproduced by standard theory. Moreover, predicting which galaxies formed first based on their spatial position doesn't work either, because, as we know, galaxies are continually moving through space. The whole "everything was flung out of something else and has a common origin" idea, as we've seen, just doesn't work at all.

I lost 
patience on reading the book sample. The thing basically amounts to "revisionist science" - taking accepted ideas to mean something completely different, then saying everything else is also wrong to fit his idea. A polite way to put it would be, as Jon von Neumann reportedly said, "With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk." If you have enough unknown variables, you can make your model do anything. In this case the author is deciding that some variable are unknown when they're really not... so a less polite version would be, "you're making stuff up."

As we'll see in the concluding part of this trilogy, this has nothing to do with being tolerant of "contrarian" ideas. Science does not permit tolerance of things which are demonstrably wrong - that's what pseudoscience is for. Stay tuned for the next exciting (and much more fun) installment, wherein I disprove the existence of a giant space mirror by means of triangles.