Thursday, January 6, 2011

Evidence and theory collide with galactic proportions

Courtesy of Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog:


Astronomers using a fleet of telescopes observed over 1400 galaxies of all types, about 10% of which were classified as active. Looking at the shapes of the active galaxies (as well as the non-active ones as a control group — in that way, this was similar to a double-blind medical research study), they found that there is little or no connection between active galaxies and collisions/mergers.

This is stunning news! It goes against the paradigm that has been years, decades in the making. It’s not unbelievable, and by that I mean it doesn’t rely on weird assumptions or new science or anything like that. Something else must be making these galaxies active; perhaps instabilities inside them, or internal gas cloud collisions, or some other phenomenon. But apparently, at least for the past 8 billion years, it’s not due to collisions on a galactic scale. Mergers don’t feed the supermassive black holes and make them active in the way everyone assumed.

I imagine this will be a topic of much debate at the upcoming American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle this week. But in the end, if the observations hold up, and the conclusions are sound, a remarkable thing will happen: it will be accepted. Scientists will see that their assumptions were wrong, or at least need to be modified, and there will be a shift in the way astronomy of active galaxies is done. Perhaps there’s more to this story, perhaps more observations are needed, perhaps different populations of galaxies need to be studied. But if it holds up, scientists will change their minds...


I can't begin to count how often I've heard the "Scientists are too stubborn and entrenched in their beliefs to accept alternatives", both from my Christian buddies and my old Velikovskian/von Danikenite internet acquaintances. But this very simply and easily proves the opposite: when actual observation shows otherwise, the prevailing scientific opinion will change. These fellows also very wrongly phrase their misgivings as: "Science has been proven wrong so many times in the past". But the fact is science has never been proven wrong, people have been proven wrong by science. Science is a framework within which discoveries are made, and those discoveries then used to create a more accurate picture of the universe than was previously painted by ancient dogma or incorrect assumptions.

So when all those scientists in ancient times believed the Earth was flat (a common creationist defence), they weren't doing science, but when a bunch of smart fellas made logical deductions from observing the sky from different places, and another even measured its circumference, the myth of the flat earth was removed from the scientific canon.

Science. It works.


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