I get enthusiastic about ideas.
When, on 15 February 2013, a small asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, and on the same day the larger asteroid 2012 DA14 passed within 28,000 km of the Earth, and NASA immediately declared that the two events were unrelated, I got out the orbital simulation model I’d written some 10 years earlier to see if there was any way in which they could be related.
Preliminary calculations rapidly showed that the object was unrelated to the long-predicted close approach of the asteroid 367943 Duende, that flew by Earth 16 hours later at a distance of 27,700 km. The Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory, Russian sources, the European Space Agency, NASA[ and the Royal Astronomical Society all indicated the two objects could not have been related because the two asteroids had widely different trajectories.
Two or three years later, I came to the conclusion that the Chelyabinsk rock was very likely a companion of DA14, following some 20 million km behind it in its orbit, and passing very close to the Earth on 15 February 2009. I’m probably the only person in the world who believes this, aside from my co-conspirator Andrew Cooper. I continue to remain interested in asteroids, and often use my simulation model to reconstruct the orbits of newly discovered asteroids.
I also got interested in how biological cells divide, coming up with a geometrical explanation, whereby cells maintain a constant ratio of their volumes and surface areas as they grow. It was an idea that worked with cubic and spherical and circular cells, but the mathematics of more complex cells defeated me, and I was forced to abandon the idea.
And then I had the idea that cancer cells were like fast-growing weeds multiplying in forest clearings where trees had fallen, and built a computer simulation model of the process.
About 10 years ago I had the idea that Iron Age hill forts used their sloping ramparts to project rolling stones down onto enemies below.
I’m always enthusiastic about something. It’s like falling in love.
And my latest enthusiasm is my new Theory of Ice Ages, which is that the effect of several kilometres of ice being deposited on the surface of the Earth would be to act as an insulator, and warm the earth beneath the ice, to the point where the ice above the heated surface rocks would melt. And, needless to say, I’ve been constructing a computer simulation model of that too.
And Idle Theory is by far the oldest and greatest enthusiasm of mine. I’ve been developing that idea since it first occurred to me one morning in the spring of 1975, 43 years ago, and it now occupies its own website, courtesy of my brother.
Anyone who looks at any of my ideas will immediately notice that they are all mathematical-physical ideas, and they are all accompanied with computer simulation models of one sort or other. They might also note that once I’ve sunk my teeth into any of these ideas, I never let go. I’m remarkably tenacious in this respect. And there are ideas from my teenage years which I have never let go of, and to which I still periodically return.
And I was thinking this morning that, of course, other people have similar ideas. And they become enthusiasts as well. One might say that in 1950 Richard Doll and Bradford Hill were enthusiasts about the idea that smoking causes lung cancer, and much of the medical profession has become equally enthusiastic in subsequent years. And the same has happened with global warming alarmism, with enthusiasts like James Hansen promoting the idea that small amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can cause (and have caused) catastrophic global warming. This also is an idea that has gripped the world’s imagination, with governments working on legislation to reduce carbon dioxide production.
But it seems that these enthusiasms often metamorphose into zealotry. And indeed this is exactly what has happened with both the idea that smoking causes lung cancer and the idea that carbon dioxide causes global warming. Doubt and dissent become intolerable. All must believe the new doctrine. Heretics must be expelled. And so now we have millions and millions of smokers exiled to the outdoors, almost everywhere in the world. And there are calls for the prosecution of global warming “deniers”.
And perhaps it has always been like this. I was wondering this morning whether the Council of Nicaea called by the emperor Constantine in 325 AD was the 1997 Kyoto climate conference of its day. One of the questions that needed to be resolved at Nicaea was:
The Arian question regarding the relationship between God the Father and the Son (not only in his incarnate form as Jesus, but also in his nature before the creation of the world)
It’s rather hard to imagine such a conference now being called, perhaps by the President of the United States, with the President of the European Commission in attendance, to resolve such a theological question. But clearly back in 325 AD it was a matter of sufficient urgency to require the presence of the Roman emperor and dignitaries from all over the known world. I dare say that, in a century or two, people will wonder why everyone was so worried about carbon dioxide in the final decades of the 20th century. What were they all so het up about?
Back then there were true believers in one doctrine or other current at the time, and it’s exactly the same today. There are people on one side, and there are people on the other. And those on one side are always pressing those on the other side to set aside their foolish doubts, and accept whole-heartedly the new doctrine, whatever it happens to be. And so the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr would sit at the bedside of an unwell Erwin Schrödinger, and continue to press him to adopt his latest ideas about the structure of the atom.
The problem, perhaps, is that any new hypothesis – whether it be about the nature of God, or atoms, or cancer, or climate change – will always contain uncertainties: things that the hypothesis can’t quite explain. And zealotry is what happens when any attempt to dispel uncertainty is made, by for example condemning and burning heretics. In another century or so, we’ll probably see people being fired, exiled, imprisoned, and maybe even executed for refusing to believe in the existence of quarks, or muons, or neutrinos, or any of the other angelic particles that are now believed (by some people) to be found inside atoms.
Anyway, I have become a true believer in my theory of ice ages. And at the current rate of progress, I look set to become a zealot by the end of the year. I will regard any disagreement or dissent intolerable. And that will be all because my theory doesn’t quite explain absolutely everything, and I will have felt obliged to frog-march it to a conclusion, in much the same way as cigarettes and carbon dioxide are currently being tortured to confess today .