The Virtue of Heresy: Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer by Hilton Ratcliffe


Before I even opened this book, the title reminded me of my meeting with Grote Reber, the amateur astronomer who took seriously Karl Jansky's discovery of radio noise coming from the centre of our Galaxy when most professional astronomers ignored it. As a result, Reber became, with Jansky, one of the founding fathers of radio astronomy. In our brief conversation, we quickly agreed that words like "heresy" or "orthodoxy" had no place in the vocabulary of science. Tacit in that agreement, however, was the acknowledgement that the concepts, if not the words, are alive and well in the scientific community. I do not mean that scientists burn each other at the stake-no such reports have reached my ears!-but granting councils can deny research funds, time allocation committees can deny access to experimental and observing facilities, and editors or referees can delay or even prevent publication. Readers of this Journal do not need me to persuade them that all these things happen.

At the present time, cosmology is one of the areas of science in which the practices outlined in the previous paragraph may be found. As is well known, the majority of working cosmologists believe that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago in an event that has become irrevocably, although perhaps unfortunately, known as the Big Bang. Many of those who subscribe to this theory seem to be sure that we have almost reached a complete and final understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe and that the giant telescopes for which plans are now on the drawing-board will take us the final few steps. Notwithstanding this widespread consensus, there are a significant number of dissidents who include several who have proved themselves to be good and competent scientists and cannot be dismissed as cranks. They are the heretics and dissidents of the title of this book, the author of which, Hilton Ratcliffe, also subscribes to the "heresy." I have not worked in cosmology myself and do not claim to have all the arguments either for or against the consensus view at my fingertips, but my reading of the history of science inclines me to be cautious about any claim to have reached a final theory. Scientific cosmology is barely a century old, whether you consider it began with publication of Einstein's (1915) general relativity theory or that of Hubble's (1929) discovery of the law of recession of the "spiral nebulae." At present, Big-Bang cosmology leaves us with at least two puzzles, known as "dark matter" and "dark energy." I think it entirely possible that they may be playing the same role in modern cosmology that epicycles eventually played in Ptolemaic cosmology, that is to say that one day they will turn out to be the clues that in some sense we are on the wrong path. I suspect that fifty or a hundred years from now the consensus in cosmology may be very different from that of today. I approached this book hoping for a reasoned and dispassionate debate of the relative merits of Big-Bang cosmology and of other theories that might replace it. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in my expectation.


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