September 30, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Of Stars and Significance

The farther out we look, the more questions we have.  But does secular astronomy ask the right questions?

Deceptive vision:  “This star cluster is not what it seems,” PhysOrg says of globular cluster Messier 54.  According to observations from the Paranal Observatory, it belongs to another galaxy.  This case spills over into cosmology’s “lithium problem” (see 9/15/14).

Non-standard standards:  A relatively-nearby supernova reported by Science Magazinebreaks the mold.”  It’s the Type 1A astronomers use as “standard candles” to measure vast distances in space, but there’s a problem: “New results from observations of SN 2014J confirm that it is powered by a runaway fusion reaction, but the cause of the blast remains unclear.”  Other surprises and challenges contrary to expectations are discussed in the article, causing worries that our standard candles “may be anything but standard,” leading to uncertainties about cosmic distances.

The effect of gamma rays:  One of the most enduring mysteries in astronomy is the source of extreme high-energy gamma rays (cosmic rays) that can be measured at earth.  PhysOrg discusses the latest thinking: some sources might be supernova explosions, some pulsars, but candidates are often a “tougher nut to crack” than expected.  NuStar examined 80 possible sources in the Milky Way.  “Most of these have been associated with prior supernova explosions, but for many, the primary source of observed gamma rays remains unknown.”

Fast and furious galaxies:  Another galaxy undergoing “frenzied star formation” is described by Science Daily, reckoned to be just 3 billion years after the big bang.  The stars are “forming at a ferocious rate” in a “powerhouse” of a galaxy, even though it is smaller than the Milky Way.  The astronomers are imagining a deep gravity well of dark matter to account for the galaxy “furiously making stars” out there so close to the beginning.

Mergers monopolize disk galaxies:  Why do so many galaxies resemble the Milky Way?  A press release from the European Southern Observatory suggests that galaxy mergers are more common than thought, and give rise to the spiraling disks.  Observant readers might catch the paradigm shift and theory overthrow in the story:

For decades scientists have believed that galaxy mergers usually result in the formation of elliptical galaxies. Now, for the the first time, researchers using ALMA and a host of other radio telescopes have found direct evidence that merging galaxies can instead form disc galaxies, and that this outcome is in fact quite common. This surprising result could explain why there are so many spiral galaxies like the Milky Way in the Universe.

The astronomers didn’t actually sit and watch a merger create a spiral; that, of course, would take far too long.  They concluded so indirectly, by looking at the shape of carbon monoxide emissions at submillimeter wavelengths.  “Their study revealed that almost all of the mergers show pancake-shaped areas of molecular gas, and hence are disc galaxies in the making.”  The line between observation and conclusion is a bit fuzzy.

How long we were wrongPhysOrg recounts the “Great Debate” in astronomy in 1920 about whether the universe was small (inside the Milky Way, Harlow Shapley’s view) or large (composed of many galaxies, like “island universes,” Heber Curtis’s view).  Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble enter the story as decisive settlers of the debate, but surprisingly, at the time, most thought Shapley had won.  The story reminds us that the current view of the universe’s extent began less than a century ago, despite thousands of years of astronomical observations going back to the Greeks, Babylonians and Egyptians.

Do black holes exist?  Here’s a debate that has been considered settled for decades now.  Astronomers routinely observe black holes (indirectly, that is, by inferring rapidly-spinning compact masses, and explaining them with relativity).  Why, just a couple of weeks ago, astrophysicist Brian Koberlein of Rochester University was writing matter-of-factly about black hole thermodynamics.  There are books by Kip Thorne and other great theorists about black holes.  When, then, is an astronomer re-opening what has been settled fact?  PhysOrg reports:

By merging two seemingly conflicting theories, Laura Mersini-Houghton, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the College of Arts and Sciences, has proven, mathematically, that black holes can never come into being in the first place. The work not only forces scientists to reimagine the fabric of space-time, but also rethink the origins of the universe.

I’m still not over the shock,” said Mersini-Houghton. “We’ve been studying this problem for a more than 50 years and this solution gives us a lot to think about.”

Dark Matters:  Brian Koberlein is also working on a “modified theory of dark matter,” PhysOrg reports, in an attempt to shed light on “an aspect of the universe we still don’t fully understand.”  Meanwhile, the founding fathers of Inflation Theory (Guth, Starobinsky and Linde), still basking in their Kavli Prize winnings, got good press from right as the Planck results were undermining their theory.  Guth also got a gushy write-up and photo-op in PNAS, claiming BICEP2 provided evidence for inflation (contrary to the more recent Planck results), and also claiming, in a circular way, that the flatness of the universe is evidence for inflation—when inflation was concocted to solve the flatness problem in the first place.  He also claimed confirmation from dark energy and universal acceleration (which depends on Type 1A supernovae: see above).  Daniel Price of Monash University, writing for The Conversation, used the BICEP2 flap as a “flabby” example of blowing one’s trumpet too soon.  “Let’s bring back humility in science,” he writes.  His article includes the “now-infamous video of their champagne-on-doorstep announcement to Andrei Linde, one of the theorists whose work they claimed to have proved.”

Multiverse: got evidence?  Rowan Hooper listed “four ways you can see the universe” on New Scientist (the wave function, wave-particle duality, quantum computing and quantum Russian roulette).  “It sounds like a concept from a philosopher’s fevered imagination, but many physicists believe the multiverse is real,” he says.  “And they’ve got evidence – here are four here are four [sic] ways that multiverse may show itself in our everyday world.”  A logician, though, would not consider any of them necessary or sufficient conditions for establishing a multiverse as the only possible interpretation.  “Evidence” is also a vexed notion in the philosophy of science.  A skilled philosopher could show that each of these is also evidence that all ravens are black, or that an infinite number of theories can explain the observations.

Here at CEH, we have profound respect for data, but (from experience) profound skepticism about interpretations of data.  Cosmologists have been so wrong so many times, we wonder why anybody pays them mind, especially the far-out wackos who speak glibly of things they cannot possibly know.  Even the legit astronomers who do their work as carefully as they can often lean on smoking reeds that might be falsified next year.  Elliptical galaxies evolve from disk galaxies — wait!—it’s the other way around.  There’s a black hole at the center of yonder galaxy — wait!—black holes are impossible.  The universe is 13.7 billion years old, accurate to 3 decimal places — wait!—the supernovas we were counting on may vary in brightness, throwing off our calibrations, and we still don’t understand why they explode.  Star formation is slow, except when it’s fast and furious.

Well, what do you know?

The 1920 Shapley-Curtis debate was just one example of complete overhauls of our view of nature a hundred years ago.  Take any scientific field: geology, psychology, biology, genetics, planetary science, geophysics, mechanics, atomic physics, sociology, human evolution, biological evolution—every one of these has been mangled, reversed, or overhauled to the point of being unrecognizable today.  Newtonian physics was “the” model of scientific reliability in 1900, right as Planck was undermining it and starting the quantum revolution, and Einstein was starting the relativity revolution.  Even in mathematics, human knowledge has been pliable.  Euclidean geometry was the best example of deductive logic in the world for almost two millennia, till some mathematicians (e.g., Riemann)began exploring curved space and non-Euclidean geometries in the late 19th century.

Some lingering positivists think, “Well, that was then, and this is now.  We have better instruments and more knowledge these days.”  That’s a half-truth.  We do have better data gathering capabilities, without question: we are looking at molecular machines in the cell at nanometer scales, and observing galaxies with the Hubble telescope above atmospheric distortion.  The capacity for human self-deception, though, and for professional groupthink, remain unchanged.  These news stories show that many things we thought we know are shaky at best, wrong at worst.  We can have no confidence that, 100 years from now if the earth endures, future experts will not look back at how ignorant scientists were in 2014.

There is something that has remained solid and reliable since the beginning: God’s Word.  It may not discuss black holes or cosmic rays directly, but it provides a reliable framework for knowledge that doesn’t shift with every fallible human speculation.

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