There are two stories that caught my attention this week. Both were in Discover Magazine: “Black Hole’s Behavior Defies the Rules of Astrophysics”, and “Comet ISON: It’s Alive! It’s Dead! For Now, Both”. What caught my attention are the limitations of science, and each article expressed these limitations a little differently.
The very title of the article about the black hole demonstrates how much we don’t know about science and the rules of astrophysics. Scientists, in this instance, detected a black hole “behemoth”, but after further investigation only found a baby black hole. So what went wrong?
The solar system in question was assumed to contain a medium-sized black hole (intermediate mass black hole, or IMBH) because of low-energy X-rays and ultra-bright illumination. Researchers determined that a companion star orbited the black hole once every 8.2 days, and then calculated that the black hole ranges from 30 times the mass of the Sun down to 5 solar masses. This was a complete surprise; astronomers were expecting something hundreds of times the sun’s mass. And not only was the size of the black hole a surprise, but astronomers thought it was impossible for the star they were studying to be as bright and energetic as it was because it was considered too small. Researchers are now trying to resolve the conflicts, but the processes involved are unknown. The article points out another problem- which is that medium-sized black holes may not even exist… To date no known black holes of this size have been conclusively identified.
This “astronomy-upending” paper demonstrates a problem- not with science- but with how science is understood. Many people tend to put science on a pedestal, elevating it to something that should not be questioned, something that cannot be wrong, something all-powerful- kind of like a deity. C.S. Lewis called this kind of paradigm scientism– an ideology confused with science. In my last article I wrote about Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, who seemed to do exactly this by suggesting that students only be taught evolutionary ideas, as if such a philosophy couldn’t possibly be wrong; any other way of thinking is outrageous and out of the question.
The second article I read was about Comet ISON, a comet that has gained a lot of interest in the news lately due to its arrival and approach around the sun. The scientists and astronomers observing the comet declared it dead because it grew faint and wasn’t visible at all from one of NASA’s observatories. They thought it had broken up and evaporated as it traveled around the sun. But then the next day scientists said ISON may have survived because material from the comet appeared on the other side of the sun. At this point scientists don’t know if what remains is simply debris from the comet or a part of the comet’s nucleus. In fact researchers held a workshop earlier today to discuss the comet’s status.
What we can learn about this “surprising” and “unexpected” behavior is that science can lead to incorrect conclusions that can quickly change and lead to confusion in a very short period of time. Again, like the black hole discovery, incorrect assumptions were made, and they were quickly overturned based on further observations.
Even those who wrote articles on these discoveries seemed a little embarrassed about their reporting of the events, and that’s to be expected. They thought scientists knew enough about science that they could be trusted to provide accurate conclusions. They had faith in science and the scientists. But that faith let them down, leaving the writer at Discover Magazine to proclaim that the comet is alive… or maybe not… or maybe both!
Some would suggest that this is one of the strengths of science- that it makes mistakes that can be corrected. But if that’s the case, then those like Bill Nye and Richard Dawkins shouldn’t be making the radical claims they’ve made, being critical of those who disagree with their worldview rather than understanding that their beliefs could be wrong.
Some of the evolutionary cosmology behind Comet ISON is that it began its journey from the Oort Cloud- a hypothetical cloud of comets orbiting the sun. There’s no evidence that the Oort cloud even exists, but it’s needed to explain the origin and existence of comets, which don’t last all that long; they tend to break up due to the gravitational forces exerted upon them as they journey around the solar system. But no one questions this and considers that maybe the universe is only thousands of years old instead of billions.
What all this leads me to conclude is that we need a healthy understanding of science and its limits. All too often we take for granted what we’re told and don’t think critically, and this can lead us to accept incorrect conclusions. Healthy skepticism and a correct understanding of science would allow us to adapt to new and better ways of thinking and how to understand the universe around us and the world in which we live.