A look at the evidence behind the latest claim of the universe’s earliest stars shows nothing of the sort. And that’s not the biggest whopper.
“Astronomers claim first glimpse of primordial stars,” Nature News announces. Daniel Clery at Science Mag is even more brazen: “Astronomers spot first-generation stars, made from big bang.” The elusive “Population III” stars, made entirely of hydrogen, have at last been found! (one would think). These are supposedly members of the first generation of stars after the big bang, before any heavy elements had been made by supernovas. Science Daily tantalizes, “until now the search for physical proof of their existence had been inconclusive,” under its bold headline, “Best observational evidence of first generation stars in the universe: VLT discovers CR7, the brightest distant galaxy, and signs of Population III stars.”
But it’s not true. Read the fine print. Nature says,
Now astronomers think they may have spied a late-blooming cluster of such stars, in the brightest distant galaxy observed to date. The stars, seen as they were when the Universe was around 800 million years old, appear to be primordial in composition – but also to have formed more recently than some second-generation stars.
These can’t be first-generation stars if they are younger than second-generation stars, especially when theory expects first-generation stars to burn out quickly. The statement only says they “appear to be primordial in composition.” But they are found in a galaxy with stars containing heavy elements. Those stars (according to current theory) could only form well after the “primordial” Population III stars had gone supernova, sending heavy elements into the galaxy’s gas and dust.
Only below the bold headlines does the reader hear that the discovery creates other problems. Even then, some heavy interpretation is needed to keep the story going:
But the galaxy is not where astronomers had imagined they would find the Universe’s earliest stars. CR7 also hosts second generation stars, made from recycled material. Sobral and colleagues suggest that the primordial stars may be late-developers, formed from a cloud of pristine and uncontaminated gas that was prevented from cooling and coalescing by the heat of strong radiation from earlier-blooming stars. “We think we’re seeing the last episode of Population III star formation,” he says.
That primordial stars should turn up in such a large and already-evolved galaxy presents a challenge to the group’s interpretation, but is probably the least exotic of the possible explanations for CR7’s light signal, says Naoki Yoshida, an astrophysicist at the University of Tokyo. Further observations of the galaxy will be needed to rule out other possibilities, admit the authors.
But Wait: There’s More
That was downright deceitful. But it’s not the first time astronomers have misrepresented their empirical evidence. A positivist story on PhysOrg from May 28, “Shining message about the end of the Dark Ages” promises enlightenment about the time before the first stars began to shine. This story, too, delivers darkness rather than light. After confident claims based on just three stars assumed to be primitive, the article admits difficulties:
The current discoveries allow a fascinating new insight into the events surrounding the emergence of the first stars. Accordingly, these stars must not have arisen in isolation but in groups, Prof. Klessen underlines. The high-mass stars exploded after only a few million years, but far less violently than had been assumed. The Heidelberg scientist explains: “Only then could the lighter elements such as carbon or oxygen be projected far enough into the cosmos to be of use to the new stars, which have a lower mass but a longer life.” However, there is another puzzling question. The three newly discovered stars display no trace of lithium, although this chemical element is also contained in the original gas. For Dr. Marco Limongi from the Rome observatory, which is also part of the international research team, this is another mystery waiting to be elucidated.
Frame grab: Then there’s a PhysOrg article from June 8 that takes a snapshot and builds a movie out of it. Data from the ALMA Long Baseline Interferometry Campaign show a gravitationally lensed galaxy forming a classic “Einstein ring” shape. That’s the snapshot. From there, the reader is treated to a story about galaxies merging and creating huge numbers of new stars, which “will likely turn into new giant star-forming regions in the future.” The positivism morphs into a promissory note stamped What Scientists Will Learn Some Day. “It also shows how ALMA will enable astronomers to make more discoveries in the years to come, also uncovering yet more questions about the nature of distant galaxies.” They can’t lose; either they can claim it’s a discovery, or a question. If it doesn’t fit theory, keep sending money; it will be “another mystery waiting to be elucidated.”
Dork side of the farce: We won’t dignify Space.com’s putrid excuse for a teaser headline, “Band Of Galaxies Imitates Real Rock N’ Roll Lifestyle.” What? “Comparing this ‘cosmic quartet’ is akin to every day life of the Rock greats, where you find internal strife (black holes, tidal tails), struggles for stardom (star formation) and sexual encounters (galactic mergers).” Good grief; the data is about four galaxies (clumps of burning gas). Well, maybe there is something to the metaphor. They quote Carl Sagan, “We are made of starstuff.” Well, then, act like it!
Dark Matter is another perennial no-show in astrophysics. PhysOrg offered the latest “fresh theories about dark matter” on May 15, and New Scientist recently got even more bizarre, proposing that dark matter may be composed of exotic “WIMPzillas from the dawn of time.” but more recently, New Scientist asked a very good question: “How long can we keep looking for dark matter?” The public has been led down this primrose path since the 1930s. Expensive detectors have failed to find it. The biggest particle detector in the world, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, hasn’t found it. “The search can’t go on forever,” the anonymous article says.
It’s true that some hunches have borne fruit in the history of science, but there have been false leads, too, like the epicycles invented to prop up Ptolemaic cosmology. Is this the next “luminiferous aether” destined to be forgotten? Are astronomers “looking for something that isn’t there?”
But pragmatically, the real issue is not the science, but the money. Most physicists would say it’s worth persevering with the search, given its potentially huge ramifications. But how long can they persuade their funders to keep paying for it? Consider the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which, despite its potential impact, now receives no public money and relatively little private support. That’s easily explained: the scale of the task and the limits of our technology mean the chances of finding intelligent aliens seem slim. Given a few more years of null results, dark matter might come to seem a less worthwhile investment to cash-strapped funding bodies too.
The unspoken option is to cut your losses, admit you were wrong, backtrack, and start on a whole new path.
Galaxy evolution: Need more? PhysOrg promises that “‘Galaxy fingerprinting’ yields new clues about galaxy evolution,” but then ends by taking it all back. Keck Telescope observation show that distant galaxies are just like low-mass galaxies in the Milky Way’s neighborhood. So after all these years, working with the largest and most modern telescopes ever made, “We still don’t have an understanding of how parts of the Milky Way system formed, and our results now tell us what chemistry to go look for to answer this question.” Suggestion: report the facts and just leave it at that.
Bonus: Had enough yet? Read Calla Cofield’s entry on Space.com, “Cosmic Confusion: Talk of Multiverses and Big Errors in Astrophysics.” Mario Livio recently confessed to the public some severe embarrassments in his field. “With three other prominent astrophysicists on the panel, Livio delved into one of the most confounding (and embarrassing) problems in modern astrophysics, which led to a discussion of whether or not our universe might be just one of an infinite number of multiverses— and whether a theory of the multiverse is good or bad for science.” He described how astronomers are off on their estimate for the vacuum energy of the universe by 120 orders of magnitude.
“This is a large number even in astronomy,” Livio said. “Especially for a discrepancy.”
One of the panelists, Josh Frieman, drove home how alarming this error is.
“To make a math error that big you know you really have to work hard at it. It’s not easy,” said Frieman, who is a senior staff scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the current director of the Dark Energy Survey.
These same people say that the matter and energy we observe only makes up 5% of what exists (the rest being inscrutable dark matter and dark energy), and that an infinite number of universes might exist (the multiverse), because this is the only way to avoid the appearance of design (the anthropic principle, the “A word” to this panel). One of the panelists admitted that astronomers “are in a very awkward situation” with their failures. “So I think we need to be open to all matter of speculations, given the sort of awkward situation we find ourselves in.”
And the public trusts these guys to tell us about reality?
There you have it; the queen of the sciences—the venerable science of astronomy—corrupted by dogmatic adherents to a godless worldview. They’re like snake oil salesmen who’ve been to the university and learned some big words and math operations. “Buy a bottle of our secular materialism, and we promise you big dividends—real soon!” Years go by; nothing. It happened with SETI; it’s happening with dark matter; and you’ve just seen astronomers and reporters willing to lie about “primordial stars.” Against that is the backdrop of being so wrong that “not even wrong” fails to capture the magnitude of their error. This is what David Klinghoffer calls science abuse (Evolution News & Views). They’re living in a fantasyland of unobservable universes and occult phenomena, where they can act like clowns and still get paid.
It’s not just us saying this about the modern batch of secular cosmologists (10/06/04). We’ve been reporting others’ complaints about their pointy-headed wrongness for over a decade (6/18/03). Are you better off than you were 12 years ago? How much more time do they get to shape up?
Scientists and reporters are just like everyone else, Klinghoffer reminds us (ENV). Some are “bright men and women with a gift that’s of value in their field, but otherwise subject to all the temptations that the rest of us are.” (After what these astronomers confessed, that is much too charitable.) They get away with it because undeserved respect has been heaped on them from the legacy of the good science days. Well, wake up. We’ve been had by a group of charlatans in science costumes. It’s not going to get better until more reporters like us hammer them with hard questions and (as wise old Phillip Johnson said) refuse to take bluffing and evasion for an answer. No snake oil salesman can endure a crowd that laughs out loud, and then gets righteously indignant about folly. Do your duty.