May 31, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Stars: Born of Violence, or Doing Violence to Theories?

Two stunning images from the giant orbiting telescopes are breeding tales of violence, but the reader can decide if the trauma is building stars and planets, or pummeling theories.  Space.com tells about the new Spitzer infrared photo of Eta Carina, announcing, “As they destroy the huge cloud that is their home, wildly energetic stars may be triggering the birth of the next generation.”  The idea is that material blasted away by the central star’s ultrasonic winds and ultraviolet radiation clumps in eddies where new stars can form.  Yet Nathan Smith explained that current theory does not explain the apparent synchronized star formation in the Carina Nebula.  Dust and gas will not collapse into stars without becoming concentrated.  Smith invoked a snowplow metaphor to explain how the material might have piled up, then “eventually formed knots where new stars could form.”
    Science1 described observations of the Orion Nebula made by the Chandra X-ray telescope, where X-ray flares emanating from the Trapezium – thousands of times more energetic than anything our sun generates – are making some astronomers imagine birth through violence.  They speculate whether such conditions keep newly-forming planets from spiraling into their host stars, and might also explain the formation of chondrules, melted meteoritic material that has been difficult to explain in our solar system.  Confident claims such as “The results turn back the clock to the infancy of our own sun” are contrasted with mysteries, such as:

  • No one knows the impacts of such giant magnetic short-circuits.
  • …it stretches current theory, [Eric] Feigelson readily admits.
  • This was a whole category of energy release and physics that we just couldn’t study before.
  • Feigelson thinks this “planetary protection” picture, in a phrase coined by NASA, needs a better theoretical anchor before anyone hops aboard that boat.  “The story is not necessarily persuasive because of the complexities of planet formation, but it’s very tempting,” he says.  “COUP [Chandra Orion Ultradeep Project] gives us much more confidence that our young sun was very magnetically active.  I am not as confident about the other steps in the argument.”

  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)  The article ends noting that, while the data set is rich, the theory is still a work in progress.
    Another surprise was announced by Australian astronomers working at the Keck Observatory: the stellar disk of Andromeda spiral galaxy M31 is apparently three times larger than earlier assumed.  ABC News Australia has the story.  One astronomer said of previous theories of galaxy accretion, “This giant disk discovery will be very hard to reconcile with computer simulations of forming galaxies.”


1Robert Irion, “Turbulent Orion Nebula Shows a Flare for the Dramatic,” Science, Vol 308, Issue 5726, 1249-1250, 27 May 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.308.5726.1249].

The pictures are beautiful.  The stories are entertaining.  No human lifetime could watch the whole sequence, so the interpretations are very much model-driven and riddled with difficulties.  Certain ones claim this or that feature supports their pet theory (see Finagle’s Second Law).  Others claim it turns the pet against its owner.
    Evolutionists seem drawn to violence as a creative process.  Though biological evolution is many orders of magnitude more implausible than stellar evolution, it still seems that theories of star and planet formation, though dealing in the hard-science realms of physics and chemistry, still require many ad hoc elements to work.  Note Feigelson’s remark about the “complexities of planet formation” – they are many, and serious.
    Telescopes bring us light from these objects that, though it left long ago, is received in our present.  The light gives us information about color, temperature, wavelengths, magnetic fields, velocities and a few other things that were going on when the photons left the object.  It is “tempting” to “hop aboard the boat” of this or that speculation, but boats without firm planks tend to leak.  A “firm theoretical anchor” makes a leaky boat leak even faster.  Moral: keep the data distinct from the stories.  Collect watertight planks before setting out to sea.  The next publication could well reveal today’s Spanish Armada of blustering hype sinking under the violent onslaught of new observations.

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Categories: Astronomy

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