Marhofn 230.13 - May 2011

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Unified Hill Theory

Alan Dawson

When Hawkwind released their album 'Quark, Strangeness and Charm' in 1977, it was the first time that most of their fans learned a bit about the particles inside the atom. The title track featured the inventor of the theory of relativity:

'Einstein was not a handsome fellow
Nobody ever called him Al
He had a long moustache to pull on, it was yellow
I don't believe he ever had a girl.'

Ok, perhaps it works better as a song than a poem. There's a bit of 'quark quark' in the chorus, but no mention of other subatomic particles; no neutrinos, no photons, leptons, gluons or muons, despite their obvious rhyming potential, and no elusive Higgs boson, which particle physicists from dozens of countries have spent billions of pounds trying to find. *

Meanwhile, theoretical physicists who are good at sums managed to come up with something called the Standard Model, which defines the properties of 16 different subatomic particles. It's complicated, but apparently it describes the whizzo world inside the atom fairly accurately. Particle physicists, however, are not satisfied. They continue to search for a way of simplifying their model, and ideally reconciling the pesky conflicts between the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, which both seem to work pretty well on their own but don't fit together properly and don't deal very well with dark matter and dark energy, which make up 80% of the Universe but can't actually be detected, on account of being very dark indeed.

By now, if you're still there, you may have guessed that I'm looking to draw an analogy between the particle zoo of subatomic physics and the category zoo of British hills; Hewitts, Corbetts and Corbett Tops, Murdos, Grahams and Graham Tops, plus their subs and their sub-categories CTM, CTC, GTM, GTC, GTG, and the rare Higgs GTH. It's all a big mess, and it's all my fault. The trouble is, it's a mess that lots of people have become familiar with, and having obtained their PhD in hill science, they're understandably not too keen on some smart-alan coming along and saying, 'sorry, that's old woolly hat now, new research has revealed serious theoretical and practical flaws in the model you've been using'. Or, to put it another way, the foundations have been moved.

Which brings us on to Sims, which stands for (British) Six-hundred Metre Summits (with 30 metres drop). It's not a great acronym, but it's better than BSHMSWTMD. The essence of unified hill theory is that Murdos, Corbett Tops, Graham Tops and Hewitts (including Munros, Corbetts and Grahams) are all subsets of the Sims. In which case, why bother with the different subsets, why not just think of them as Sims and call them Sims? This is scientifically valid, as they all share the same properties: (h>=2000, d>=30). The old adage, if it aint broke don't fix it, may come to mind here, so it's worth spelling out what is broke about the old standard model:

There is so much wrong with the old model that you have to wonder what sort of twisted mind would invent it in the first place. But that's how science works - there was nothing else any better, and it did extend and refine previous theories, so people accepted it.

For some reason it took until May 2010 for the unified hill theory to emerge, during a walk up 414m Meadie Ridge, in the company of Iain Brown and Eric Young. I find that insignificant-looking hills are good for this kind of thing, as they allow the mind to wander. As well as unifying several existing categories, the most significant change in the new model is to move the threshold from 609.6m to the simpler and more satisfactory 600m. This means that the Sims incorporate sub-categories of the old model: the SubMurdos, SubHewitts, SubCTs and SubGTs from 600-610m, taking the total number of Sims to 2530; 2188 in Scotland, 184 in Wales, 158 in England and none in Ireland or the Isle of Man. Although some people would like Ireland to be included, I have not included it because it is a separate island, a separate country (mostly), and it is outside my scope as I have not compiled any Irish hill lists, so do not feel authorised to deal with lists of Irish hills.

Iain Brown gets excited about unified hill theory on Meadie Ridge

Iain Brown gets excited about unified hill theory on Meadie Ridge

The concept of Sims is very simple - it's just a new name for all the British hills over 600m. The Sims are a subset of the 16000+ Jacksons (British hills with 30m drop), but even 2530 Sims is rather a lot of hills for most people to consider tackling, so it is useful to divide them into more manageable subsets. With a fully metric model of hills over 600 metres, it makes no sense to persist with subsets defined at 762.01m and 914.41m, so the new boundaries are at 750m and 900m, with new names for the subsets under 750m, from 750-899m and 900m or more. Although I could have made up new names, it seemed more helpful and meaningful to adapt familiar names for these categories. Hence we have:

I decided to use the term Docharty Tops rather than New Graham Tops in order to rectify an omission in RHB, which does not mention William Docharty, as I didn't know about him at the time (Docharty published an extensive list of British and Irish hills over 2000 feet in 1962). For many people even these subsets are too big, so I have suggested further subsets, again using names that most people are familiar with:

I used 100m drop rather than 150m drop for the New Munros in order to stay reasonably close to the list of Munros that people are familiar with. New Murdos could also be known as New Munro Tops.

Am Faochagach and Carn Gorm-loch, a New Munro (Alan Dawson)

Am Faochagach and Carn Gorm-loch, a New Munro (Alan Dawson)

Some people will be probably be outraged at the term 'New Munros' and their extension south of the border, but that's their choice and their right. We can agree to differ. It's just the same data presented in a slightly different way that makes much more sense to me and to others prepared to let go of the baggage of imperial traditions, while acknowledging three of the most distinguished of British hill list compilers. It is worth remembering that all their lists were not carved in stone but have been adjusted over the years. Munro himself was working on revisions when he died, and the SMC has made numerous changes since, some based on new mapping, some on editorial preference. The SMC adopted only the Scottish part of Corbett's listings, and Robin Campbell (writing in the Munro Society Journal No. 2, 2010) has recently shown that Corbett's original drop criterion was 450 feet not 500 feet. And the listing now known as Grahams differs substantially from that published by Fiona Torbet in November 1992.

Ignoring those two wiggly imaginary lines that sprawl across this island, to the north of the Pennines and near to Offa's Dyke, means that all the new categories apply to the whole of Britain. This is in line with the work of both Corbett and Docharty.

Finally, as an incentive for Corbetteers and Grahamists wanting some smallish new lists of bigger hills to focus on, and to recognise the growing interest in Humps, I have drawn attention to two subsets of Humps and Sims:

Sgurr a'Chadha Dheirg, an 866m Sim near Loch Fannich (Alan Dawson)

Sgurr a'Chadha Dheirg, an 866m Sim near Loch Fannich (Alan Dawson)

As the new categories are much simpler than the previous ones, the following subsets and categories are no longer required in the new model: CTMs, CTCs, Grahams, Graham Tops, GTMs, GTCs, GTGs, New Donalds, SubDonalds, SubMurdos, SubCorbetts, SubCTs, SubGrahams, SubGTs, English Hewitts, Welsh Hewitts, SubHewitts.

All these hills are still there of course, and there are no new hills, just some new categories. The Database of British Hills includes all the hills anyway, so the details of hills in old and new categories can be extracted by a simple query. The new hill categories do not affect Marilyns, SubMarilyns, Humps, Nuttalls or Deweys. There is no law preventing anyone from using the old categories, but I intend to start using the new categories, though I expect that it will take a bit of getting used to. Further information is available at

* The Higgs boson is named after the former Lancashire and England cricketer Ken Higgs, who in 1966 shared a last-wicket stand of 128 with Sussex fast bowler and poet John Snow, for England against the mighty West Indies, just two short of the Test record. This pair still hold the record for the most eccentric run-ups and fattest backsides of any pair of England opening bowlers.

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