Tuesday, July 27, 2004

GR conferences are more interesting than one might imagine

This is from John Baez's latest column describing the frenzy at a general relativity conference in England where Stephen Hawking conceded the bet he and Kip Thorne made with John Preskill:

A fellow with long curly grey locks and round horn-rimmed glasses sat down beside me. I'd seen him around the conference, so I said hello. He asked me if I'd like to hear about his theory; at this point my internal alarm bells started ringing. I told him I was busy, but said I'd take a look at his manuscript later.

It turned out to describe an idea I'd never even dreamt of before: a heliocentric cosmology in which the planets move along circular orbits with epicycles a la Ptolemy! And his evidence comes from a neolithic British tomb called Newgrange. This tomb may have been aligned to let in the sun on the winter solstice, but some people doubt this, because it seems the alignment would have been slightly off back in 3200 BC when Newgrange was built. However, it's slightly off only if you work out the precession of the equinox using standard astronomy. If you use his theory, it lines up perfectly! Pretty cute. The only problem is that his paper contains no evidence for this claim. Instead, it's only a short note sketching the idea, followed by lengthy attachments containing his correspondence with the Dublin police. In these, he complained that people were trying to block his patent on a refrigerator that produces no waste heat. They were constantly flying airplanes over his house, and playing pranks like boiling water in his teakettle when he was away, trying to drive him insane.

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