November 27, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

It Takes a Stellar Village

Do galaxies embark on a purpose-driven life?  The language in an article about galaxy evolution in Science Daily makes such seamless use of personal terms with natural processes, it’s hard to know where the data ends and the interpretation begins.
    “Galaxy Zoo, which uses volunteers from the general public to classify galaxies, and the Space Telescope A901/902 Galaxy Evolution Survey (STAGES) projects have used their vast datasets to disentangle the roles of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ in changing galaxies from one variety to another,” the article said.  We are told that galaxies move from the wilderness to the suburbs, that some of them are “hiding” their star formation, and that some are like heavyweight fighters.  Some galaxies were murdered by strangulation.
    The article also makes it seem that the data confirm a theory of galaxy evolution: “‘Missing Link’ Discovered,” the title announced triumphantly.  All the people did was classify a lot of galaxies by color and shape.  A few of the galaxies were observed in infrared light.

This article is typical of how many press releases go far beyond the evidence to pretend scientists understand something.  They know, we are led to believe, when star formation turned on and off, how galaxies moved around over billions of years, and into which pigeonhole in the classification scheme each galaxy fits (see the problems with classification schemes in the 10/29/2008 commentary).  “The next step for both teams is to find out exactly what shuts off the star formation, by looking inside the galaxies themselves,” the article ends.  Didn’t we see astronomers playing this game back in the 1930s, with completely different results?  When data are hard to come by, and when processes exceed the lifetime of human civilization, scientific hubris becomes indistinguishable from myth.

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Categories: Astronomy, Cosmology

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