April 10, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Using Finagle's Rules in Cosmology

Fudging and finagling often underlie the confident-sounding claims of cosmologists.

Finagle’s Rules prescribe ways to ameliorate Murphy’s Law in science.  They are needed because, according to Finagle, “The perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum.”  Here are the rules:

  1. To study a subject, understand it thoroughly before you start.
  2. Always keep a record of data – it indicates that you have been working.
  3. Draw your curves first, then plot your data.
  4. If in doubt, make it sound convincing.
  5. Experiments should be reproducible – they should fail in the same way.
  6. Do not believe in miracles, rely on them.

The case of the impossible star:  A “Methuselah” star older than the universe was reported on Space.com.  That, of course, is impossible, so what did astronomers do?  In order to keep current theory intact, they worked the puzzle from both ends.  They increased the age of the universe, and worked to decrease the estimated age of the star from 16 billion years down to a more reasonable level, by altering theory to let it burn faster.  But the new estimate is still paradoxical, because the star has to be significantly younger than the big bang to allow time for gas to condense into galaxies.  “In the end, the astronomers estimated that HD 140283 was born 14.5 billion years ago, plus or minus 800 million years,” the article ends.  “Further observations could help bring the Methuselah star’s age down even further, making it unequivocally younger than the universe, researchers said.”  Is that further observations, or further finagling?

The case of the unwelcome supernova:  Type-Ia supernovas are the “standard candles” of cosmology, critical links for determining distance and age of the universe.  An upstart new type of Type-Ia has been found, potentially blurring the calibration.  Called Type-Iax, it is 1/100th fainter and less energetic than classical Type-Ia supernovae, Science Daily said, and may account for a third of all Type-Ia supernovae.  Couldn’t that call into question earlier estimates, making some supernova events look farther away than they were?  The article didn’t say.  What it did say was not particularly encouraging for standard theory.  “Researchers aren’t sure what triggers a Type Iax,” for one thing.  What one astronomer said was even more disconcerting: “The closer we look, the more ways we find for stars to explode.” Maybe that’s why Space.com‘s headline read, “Whoa! Mini-Supernovas Discovered.

The case of the anomalous good fit:  Most of the science news media gave excited headlines about how a new map of the cosmic background radiation made from Planck Telescope data “confirms standard cosmology” (Science Now; see Finagle Rule #4). The Planck telescope, three times more sensitive than its predecessor WMAP, “backs sudden ‘inflation’ after the big bang,” according to Nature News.  They were less excited, and more worried, about the “anomaly” in the data, the so-called “axis of evil.”  Planck seems to have confirmed the presence of a preferred direction in space – a violation of the so-called “Copernican Principle” that expects every direction to look the same:

The asymmetry “defines a preferred direction in space, which is an extremely strange result”, says Efstathiou. This rules out some models of inflation, but does not undermine the idea itself, he adds. It does, however, raise tantalizing hints that there may yet be new physics to be discovered in Planck’s data.

Not only that, Planck found a “‘cold spot’ that covers a large area.”  Space.com discussed how the new map makes the universe “older than thought” by about 100 million years, based on its calculated value of the Hubble constant.  The new truth to be told in textbooks is 13.82 billion years, not 13.7, meaning that “space and time are expanding slightly slower than scientists thought.”  The phrase “than thought” appears again in New Scientist: “The universe is almost perfect, 80 million years older than we thought, and maybe a little bit evil.”  New Scientist suggested the anomaly might represent a bump from a neighboring universe born from”eternal inflation” putting a “bruise” on ours – a speculative notion far beyond experimental confirmation.   At best, Efstathiou said, “There is less stuff that we don’t understand, by a tiny amount.

If you don’t know how much you don’t understand, then you don’t know how much you do understand.  Suppose you don’t understand 99.99% of reality.  Improving that to 99.98% (“a tiny amount”) is hardly cause for rejoicing.  A bad sign is when you have to conclude, based on your favored notions, that the stuff of stars and galaxies is perverse or evil.  Since gas cannot be evil, the evil must reside in the minds of the theorists who fudge and finagle the data, or invent new physics, to keep their presumably righteous theories intact.  When you hear a cosmologist worrying about an “extremely strange result,” ask whether it is the evidence, or the astronomer, that deserves the adjective.


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