Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last couple decades, you’ve probably checked out thunderbolts.info and some of the “Electric Universe” EU material. Astronomy pictures of the day, controversial theories and ideas on astrophysics and space science, and a general buzz around this field of study which hasn’t been around for a while. There’s an annual meeting attracting thousands and many more popular websites and video channels that bear the name. Even before we look at some of the ideas, the amount of people coming out to study and discuss space science and astronomy is in my mind a clear win. Thousands paying travel and conference fees and without even grant money!
A little digging will show you that the thunderbolts site appeared in 2003 or so, and Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott seem to have gotten the ball rolling along with some guys calling themselves the Kronia group. Surely I’ve messed the historical record up here already but that’s not our mission here today. Rather, we are going to make some general remarks on what we have learned here and how we can improve.
Let me just come right out and say it: I love these folks. Why not? There’s a huge amount of interest and attention being given to astronomy, space physics, and plasma physics. When I was working on NASA’s IBEX mission, one of the signs of success was that our data was being discussed in Electric Universe forums. Sure, it’s not all correct, but it’s still 100% in the right direction: people trying to learn and improve our knowledge. I think we can all agree that’s a good goal right? How we go about it on the other hand, is more controversial.
Recently some (self-proclaimed) EU philosophers have encountered some serious criticism. And with good reason! There are plenty of inaccuracies here, as we would expect in an open forum. Sure, Professor Dave might seem scathing but the truth is that he’s barely scratched the surface. He never mentions theories that the Earth was once a moon of Saturn, and whole other sets of crazy ideas. He missed Ben Davidson’s reporting about anomalous ocean buoys in the early days of Suspicious Observer, and Velikovsky’s claim that locusts arrive from comets.
It’s great to have open forums!
To make progress we need to consider ideas which are non-mainstream. Every single advance has been such an idea, by definition. So, forums which don’t allow such ideas aren’t really that great are they? Well, in one way no. Enabling people to converse and seek their own answers is great for making progress in our understanding of the world. Ben Davidson’s two minute news was fabulous, I watched it from my desk at the Physichalisches Institut and from the field. The guy was up at 3 am every morning putting together a video from the very best feeds we have of our star. Robataille has some great points, give him a chance! On the other hand…
Open forums suck
That being said, open forums devolve quickly. They are filled with spam, nonsense, flat earth and worse, and it becomes very hard to figure out what’s going on. Flame wars and Godwin’s law and all that. It requires great patience and discernment to wade through these publications.
The nice thing here is that EU has shown us that open forums are important, and that we can hear new crazy ideas from them, that they increase popularity of research, and at the same time it has shown us why walled gardens and peer-revied journals are also important and necessary. Two important lessons for any academic.
Seeing as what you are reading now is an open publication with no peer review, lets just jump into it. I have always loved open forums and some the ideas of the EU, and so this post is really intended to get the attention of EU proponents and tell them what I think is wrong with the EU. So, here’s a brief list of a few constructive criticisms.
“The Mainstream says: and “NASA says”
This is something you hear in a lot of EU posts and videos, and incidentally something you hear all over the place in other forums. It’s nonsense. NASA doesn’t say anything, people say things. “The mainstream” can’t say anything because it’s not a person. It’s time to realize: the media is you. If you are working on understanding NASA data then you ARE NASA. You are the mainstream. Own it. If you have beef with something specific that somebody said, that’s fine – mention who they are, and what they said, and why it’s wrong. Otherwise, we should stop pretending there’s some fictitious person with agency. It only detracts from our scientific arguments. Some EU material claims that mainstream astronomers don’t recognize the importance of plasma and electromagnetic fields. This is nonsense, as most everyone is taught that the observable universe is all plasma (99% plasma and the rest is dust) and that electromagnetic fields are the dominant force. There’s no need to pretend that there’s an enemy here folks, or to paint ourselves as controversial.
Einstein was Wrong
Well sure, Einstein would agree. And we will always see people who don’t like relativity and Einstein in open forums, this was well established before the WWW in the days of the newsgroups. However for the EU this stuff really has no place. Why? Because Einstein was arguably the biggest proponent of EU. Special relativity is at the heart of any electromagnetism textbook. Einstein told us that the universe is electric – not only the forces between the particles but the very ideas of distance and space themselves! SR is the original EU. Sure, we should be open to other concepts of space and time, but really – it’s shocking to see so many people supposedly pushing an EU agenda not seeing that SR is EU. One way to summarize special relativity is to say that the theory supposes that the universe is electric, that electricity and magnetism form the basis for space and time – that light defines straight lines and geodesics, as well as the meter and the second. From these assumptions follow the usual relativistic ideas of length contraction and time dilation. Don’t you think it’s odd that a forum supposedly for discussion and advocation of the importance of electricity in understanding the universe would find so many people using it to suggest that it’s wrong to suggest the universe is electric?
What’s this got to do with EU? Well it’s an open forum, so it’s all up for consideration. However things may have gotten a bit out of hand with political affiliations or something, because it seems there is a lot of butthurt rhetoric on this topic in EU forums. Maybe I missed something but y’all gotta step up and go back to doing some science and stop feeding the trolls. This would include, for those that wish to discuss the topic, recognizing that glaciers have been disappearing along with natural ski areas, that ocean life has been drastically curtailed by overfishing, that we are living in a mass extinction, that the CO2 to O2 ratio is higher than ever before as we change the atmosphere in the anthropocene age, and various other worrysome tidbits of basic observation such as deforestation, desertification, and more. If you want to talk about this stuff, go ahead, or else focus on whatever it is you want to focus on. Mixing a little bit of climate change politics into your report on this or that space physics topic? Not very productive. Are there some politicians and charlatans leveraging climate change to support misallocation of resources? Maybe so, and if you think so – it’s worth pointing out. However, probably our opinions on this should be left out of our report on current solar wind conditions don’t you think?
Theory Y is wrong
Yeah, well it’s true. They are all wrong. Of course the big bang is wrong, how could we possibly get it right? We don’t even have a clue how galaxies work, we are hardly about to figure out how some much larger structure which we can’t even define works. However, this is not the basis for an article or video. Rather, we need to find a replacement for Theory Y where that theory stops working. Do you follow me? Claiming the Theory Y is wrong is a great introduction to a paper about Theory Z. Without Theory Z, we don’t have an article. So we gotta come up with better theories instead of just bashing the existing ones. We can claim the big bang is wrong until we are blue in the face, unless we come up with alternative explanations for redshift, nucleosynthesis, and CMBR, we aren’t doing a thing.
You couldn’t make this one up, yet there it is – in EU forums all the time. People who think that math itself might be to blame. Or something? Did I get it right? The trouble is, math is just a subset of language. We wish to communicate with each other here do we not? Using symbols right? Well then, blaming symbols for our mistakes is hardly the right idea. We need to use them correctly and clearly, sure. Of course it’s possible to lie and to make inaccurate statements using language and math, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying does it? This is really a terribly broken argument and sure, you might expect such broken arguments once or twice in an open forum but this one keeps popping up all too often.
Sure, the case of Barnard (of Barnard’s star fame) is worth considering, a successful astronomer worthy of great admiration who refused to study advanced math. However, he didn’t suggest that math was a bad idea, he just preferred to go and make astrometrical observations instead. Perfectly reasonable.
Birkeland Currents all the way Down
Yes, there are currents. Yes, often they may be classified as Birkeland currents. But when and how? What are the sources and sinks of current? Waving our arms and saying “Birkeland currents!” is not enough to explain every astronomical phenomenon in existence. It’s going to take a lot more work. Sure, there is a lot of interesting symmetry between geological features and plasma discharge etching features. Between ancient drawings and plasma discharge shapes. However the fact that two things look alike is not enough to be a scientific theory. I remember over a decade ago on a tropical field trip we noticed a plant with leaves that looked a lot like some plasma discharge features. Were these too electric universe effects? Of course not.
We need to describe how astronomical bodies build up charges, how discharge is initiated, how currents can form and last and what the charge carriers are, to name a few things missing from a lot of our theories.
The way forward
I would like to see some of the theories presented in Electric Universe forums reach a level of completion that allows them publication in Astrophysical Journal and in other top-tier peer-reviewed journals. Typically these kinds of forums undergo a progression, from open-controversial, to closed-establishment. Arxiv.org is a good example of a forum which was open which is now mainstream and edited. The folks looking for an open place to leave any preprints, no matter how controversial, now have to go to vixra.org (or elsewhere). The cliche is “first they ignore us, then they fight us, then they join us”. I would not be surprised to see some EU venues become walled gardens and established institutions with peer review which don’t allow the most controversial opinions to be published. Then, we will see the next “contorversial” forums arise. The cycle continues.