A Black Hole and a Comet

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.

9 thoughts on “A Black Hole and a Comet

      • Yeah, I don’t care for Dawkins very much even though I agree with a lot of his viewpoints. He’s a very intelligent man with a lot of cogent arguments, but his personality is a total turn off, unfortunately. I attempted to read one of his books awhile back and put it down halfway through just because he was so unnecessarily vitriolic.

        I do like Bill Nye, and I do agree with his assertions about evolution in the classroom (big surprise there, right? lol). I find Nye to be much more down to earth and accessible. Unlike Dawkins, who seems to just like being mean to people who he deems inferior, Nye seems genuinely interested in educating people and encouraging them to think about science.

    • I’m pleasantly surprised that you don’t care much for Dawkins, but I can understand why you agree with Bill Nye. I used to like Bill Nye for some time, but not since he started attacking creationists and elevating evolution to a sacred, untouchable, god-like status that cannot be questioned. He comes across as very arrogant, condescending and dogmatic. And if you don’t agree with him, well, then you’re anti-science, which I actually find ironic. Nothing could be more anti-science than a scientific theory or unsubstantiated hypothesis that cannot be questioned for fear of threats- the suppression of innovation and economic collapse. I think there’s more to fear from those who wish to silence the opposition through political action by suppressing religion and any competing scientific theories. I hope I’m not going too far by saying this, but I think he’s trying to brainwash students through censorship, and I find that repugnant. Even if one is an atheist and evolutionist, if you believe in various freedoms- freedom of religion, academic freedom, intellectual freedom, debate, and critical thinking, then we shouldn’t deny these things by supporting those who wish to deny them.

      Just curious, here’s a question for you. What do you think is worse, allowing competing theories in the classroom, or censorship? And what do you think about the censorship of evolution prior to the Scopes Monkey Trial?

      • Oh boy. That’s a good question, and one that I honestly don’t think I’m very qualified to answer. I’ll do my best to give you my first impressions, though.

        Maybe it’s just because I like Nye, but I don’t really believe that he’s advocating censorship. I’d be inclined to believe that what he’s really advocating is to keep science in the classroom and religion in the church. Although I do tend to think that if you’re adequately familiar with science there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to use that framework to evaluate the ideas of the other side.

        But in general, I think the main beef that most scientists have with teaching creationism in any form in the classroom is that it’s not really compatible with the scientific method, ergo it’s not appropriate for a science class. Plus, if we give a voice to one alternative theory, I fear we’d have to give a voice to EVERY alternative theory, and instead of learning about physics, chemistry, and biology, students would be learning about ancient astronaut theory and all sorts of other ridiculous stuff in the name of fairness and equality.

        As to the idea of allowing competing theories in the classroom or censorship, I really have mixed feelings about that. Censorship is a loaded word, and as such it comes with a lot of negative emotions. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that for the science vs religion argument specifically, it’s a little different.

        People don’t really spend much of their time or lives in school. And in that small slice of time they spend even fewer hours in a science classroom. My guess is that before arriving to science class, most children have already been exposed to some form of religion to some degree. I know that I had made my first communion before I had any idea what evolution was. When talking about evolution, what we’re really talking about is a certain level of biology that most students don’t really touch until high school. And then in college, students are able to take classes in theology, comparative religion, philosophy, and a host of other topics that present alternative ways of thinking that run counter to evolution. There are tons of people who come to religion later in life for various reasons. So I really don’t think that I would go so far as to say that public schools and universities are brainwashing children, and in the long run people are free to explore whatever they want over the course of their lives and higher education, and also through family and friends.

        However, as a firm believer in compromise, I could see totally restructuring science classes. As it is, I’m much less concerned with the body of knowledge presented to children, and much more concerned with how science classes teach children to think. Simply memorizing the elements on the periodic table, for example, is not learning science. Carl Sagan once said that, “science is not so much a body of knowledge as it is a way of thinking” and I think that idea could be inserted a little more into science classes.

        It would be acceptable to me to reform science classes in such a way that students, instead of being taught specific theories, are instead taught the scientific method, how to perform and evaluate research, and how to think critically using logic. That, to me, is the true value of science. Students who can do that successfully can then examine individual theories on their own or during higher level education and come to their own conclusions using scientific principles. Such a restructuring would eliminate the need for both censorship and exposure to competing ideas. It doesn’t make sense to me to expose children to competing ideologies before they have the tools necessary to evaluate them.

        And, as ever the moderate, I’ll point out that for every religious person who thinks that secular scientists and teachers are trying to brainwash children, there are people who would accuse religion of doing exactly the same thing.

        As for the level of censorship pre-Scopes trial, I’ll have to cop to a certain level of ignorance on that one. I’m familiar with the trial itself, but not so much with the history leading up to it.

    • Thanks Ryan, I appreciate your honesty and candor. You’ve made some outstanding points.

      I agree that Nye may be advocating keeping science in the classroom and religion in the church, but I don’t think that’s what he’s accomplishing. He may be very well-intentioned, and very sincere, but I think he’s sincerely wrong. For example, if, for agument’s sake, we consider that the universe is very young (God created the heavens and the earth in six days and created distinct animal kinds that have speciated over time), then what Nye is advocating clearly wrong. Even if he’s well intentioned in this example, he’s preventing students from learning about the truth and only allowing them to learn what he wants them to know, which is false. No matter how well-intentioned he is, what he’s advocating would be detrimental for those who desire to seek truth and crave knowledge.

      True, most scientists may not want creationism taught in the classroom because they believe it’s not compatible with the scientific method, but science isn’t a popularity vote. Science isn’t about consensus because the consensus could be wrong (there are many examples that could be presented), and that consensus can change. So it’s irrelevant, to some degree, what most scientists think and believe. There are plenty of scientists who do believe that the scientific method is compatible with creationism, and I’ve met many of them in person and listened to how they use the scientific method to confirm creation and falsify evolution and the Big Bang cosmology. In addition, I think part of the reason why most scientists don’t find creationism compatible with the scientific method is because they were never allowed to learn it themselves, and they don’t understand it; it’s a completely different worldview that is foreign, and their teachers and professors never gave it any credibility. Therefore it’s perfectly understandable why they think creationism isn’t compatible with the scientific method. How many of them even know that the scientific method was established by creationists?

      While I’d love to see creationism taught in the classroom to help students develop a healthy understanding of the various worldviews, it could be counterproductive because any evolutionist teaching the subject matter would have a difficult time teaching something they disagree with and don’t comprehend. They’d most likely mock the curriculum and put their own biased spin on the subject matter.

      I do find your idea of compromise intriguing and would actually welcome that. Restructuring science class the way you explain it could be quite healthy. Although I’m no Carl Sagan fan, I think that quote hits the mark. Teaching students the scientific method, how to perform experiments, evaluate research, and how to think critically is the true value of science. Well said!

      • I understand what you’re saying about Nye. I’ll certainly give you that point, and point out that it only underscores why I think he’s much more palatable than people like Dawkins. Rather than debate whether or not truth is being obfuscated–because I think that would be very difficult to prove either way–I’ll merely say that intention does go a very long way in helping open minded people come together in a meaningful way.

        As per usual, I take some exception (although not complete exception!) with the compatibility of science and creationism. I will very much concede that it is entirely possible to use a scientific framework to discredit or cast doubt on theories like evolution or the BBT. However, I would be hard pressed to say that such a feat automatically means that God created everything, as if there are zero other options to explanation life and creation other than God or the BBT. Rarely–if ever–do you find such a stark, black and white duality in science or life.

  1. I would agree that elevating science to a pedestal and ideology is an error. It is just one of the tools given to us to understand the universe. In both of the cited cases, I think the media played a much bigger role in the misunderstanding (ison) and in the incredulity (black hole) than the scientists. I doubt the paper regarding the black hole expressed any shock at the finding; this was brought out in the media’s reporting.

    I am curious; what explanation would you give to the origin of comets in a universe that is only thousands of years old?

    • Nick, I think you’re right that the media plays a bigger role in the misunderstanding. I probably don’t give as much attention to that as I should, but, nonetheless, the media can create an ugly domino effect. What the media reports becomes the narrative, and that becomes the truth to a lot of people; the false narrative then finds its way into pop culture, books written by Dawkins and the like, and even textbooks, where it’s absorbed by students, some of whom become scientists themselves.

      But the scientists themselves also play a role in the misunderstanding as well. I read some of the reports from NASA’s website and one of the captions in the article mentioned that “the comet is believed to have broken up and evaporated.” And project scientist Dean Pesnell said, “So we think it must have broken up and evaporated before it reached perihelion.”

      So it’s easy to see why the media would report what they do. The scientists themselves make conclusions that aren’t warranted, and those comments get published.

      As for what explanation I’d give to the origin of the comets in a universe that’s thousands of years old, I think that’s fairly straight forward. There are several possibilities: one, when God created the heavens and the earth, not only did he create the sun, moon and planets, but it’s also possible that he created comets as well. In that case the comets we see have been present since the beginning, and that would explain why we still see them. I think that’s the most likely explanation. Another possibility is that a planet broke apart shortly after the creation of the universe and now supplies our solar system with comments. I don’t know how plausible that is, or if anyone has analyzed enough comets to determine if they’re related and have the same origin. But the main point is that comets shouldn’t survive more than 100,000 years, so comets are strong evidence for a young universe, and not an ancient universe.

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