April 18, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Upsets in Space

Three different astronomy teams have announced findings that upset long-held beliefs.  What does this portend about the confidence we can have in other theories?

  1. Galaxy growth: direct challenge:  “Galaxies are thought to develop by the gravitational attraction between and merger of smaller ‘sub-galaxies’, a process that standard cosmological ideas suggest should be ongoing,” announced the Royal Astronomical Society.  “But new data from a team of scientists from Liverpool John Moores University directly challenges this idea, suggesting that the growth of some of the most massive objects stopped 7 billion years ago when the Universe was half its present age.”
        How serious is this claim?  “The lack of growth of the most massive galaxies is a major challenge to current models of the formation and evolution of large scale structure in the Universe,” commented Claire Burke, team member.  “Our work suggests that cosmologists appear to lack some of the crucial ingredients they need to understand how galaxies evolved from the distant past to the present day.
  2. Star spin: poking holes:  Researchers at the University of Michigan have poked holes in a “century-old astronomical theory.”  The theory, called the von Zeipel law, “has been used for the better part of a century to predict the difference in surface gravity, brightness and temperature between a rapidly rotating star’s poles and its equator.”
        Doctoral student Xiao Che and other astronomers on the team found that the data from Regulus don’t fit the theory.  “It is surprising to me that von Zeipel’s law has been adopted in astronomy for such a long time with so little solid observational evidence.
  3. Impossible wet comet: shattering paradigms:  “Current thinking suggests that it is impossible to form liquid water inside of a comet,” states a press release from University of Arizona.  But lo and behold, Comet Wild-2 explored by the Stardust spacecraft found minerals that could only have formed in the presence of water.
        This is a shattering find: “For the first time, scientists have found convincing evidence for the presence of liquid water in a comet, shattering the current paradigm that comets never get warm enough to melt the ice that makes up the bulk of their material.”  The press release was echoed on PhysOrg.

When a paradigm gets shattered in one area of science, there can be ramifications for others, depending on how foundational it was.  The American philosopher Willard Quine noticed that when faced with potentially falsifying data, scientists often absorb the shocks into their “web of belief” without changing the web.

There are several dynamics at work here.  One is that scientists enjoy finding flaws in earlier beliefs because it makes their research seem important.  They usually limit their hole-poking to small claims that can be absorbed by the web of belief without tearing it.  Another dynamic is that beliefs and “laws” like the von Zeipel law are often taken on faith – yes, even scientists have faith.  Nobody has the time to check out the validity of every claimed law, so they are assumed to be laws of “nature” rather than the sausage-type laws of legislature.
    We see often that long-held beliefs in science are vulnerable to new evidence.  What’s next to go?  Darwinism?  Unlikely.  Darwinism’s web of belief is so paramount to the cultural world view, its supporters are ready with reinforcements any time falsifying evidence comes along.  All the original web is long gone.  It is now a steel framework of belief, protected behind a Berlin Wall with machine-gunners ready to mow down any creationists trying to cross the line.

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