There is a trend in astronomical observations to label strange and exotic objects with superlative names. Take “supermassive” black holes for instance. Yes they are more massive than intermediate black holes, bigger than stellar black holes, and in a whole different league to theoretical micro-black holes. But is the label “supermassive” an accurate description? Is it even scientific?
After reading a very interesting article written by Michael Gmirkin on “Incorrect Assumptions in Astrophysics“, I began to relate his investigation into the use of terms to describe astronomical phenomena with very expressive names. Terms like “super-massive”, “ultra-luminous”, and “beyond-bright” are mentioned by Gmirkin, perhaps leading astronomers to incorrect conclusions. Whilst this may be perceived as an issue amongst scientists, what if the media or non-specialist individuals misinterpret the meaning of these grand statements? Could it lead to public misunderstanding of the science, possibly even causing worry when a scientist describes a particle accelerator collision as “recreating the conditions of the Big Bang”?
This is a huge topic probably more suited to an industry analyst or seasoned professor, but I thought I’d just share my views on two examples I’ve come across in recent months. One has its foundation in the early 1980’s and the other more recently, this year. Firstly, as I found out when posting an article on “2012: No Planet X“, preliminary research theories and the media don’t always work well together.
The Planet X “evidence”
To set the scene, on December 30th 1983 Thomas O’Toole, a writer for the Washington Post, published an article titled: “Possibly as Large as Jupiter; Mystery Heavenly Body Discovered”. This article was written in response to early observations made by NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS). IRAS had carried out a campaign and spotted a variety of infrared objects in space. The excitement was caused by the findings in an upcoming paper “Unidentified point sources in the IRAS minisurvey” (by Houck et al, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, 278:L63, 1984) where researchers attributed one of the infrared objects as either near-solar system, galactic or intergalactic emission. In the closing statement of the publication they emphasised the point: “…perhaps these objects will require entirely different interpretations.”
The Washington Post writer went on to interview Dr. Gerry Neugebauer, co-author of the 1984 paper, and he was also very keen to draw focus away from the possibility of anything threatening Earth. In fact, Neugebauer said that none of the objects were “incoming mail”. But the gossip mill had already been seeded.
“So mysterious is the object that astronomers do not know if it is a planet, a giant comet, a nearby “protostar” that never got hot enough to become a star, a distant galaxy so young that it is still in the process of forming its first stars or a galaxy so shrouded in dust that none of the light cast by its stars ever gets through.” – Excerpt from Washington Post article.
Even though the above paragraph was fairly well balanced (after all, the researchers didn’t know what the source was for this “IR object”), judging by the article title “Possibly as Large as Jupiter; Mystery Heavenly Body Discovered”, people were already making their own minds up. Not only was one of these IR objects as big as Jupiter, it was a brown dwarf. Not only that, it was the discovery of Planet X. Even better, it was coming right for us!
There were a few more subtleties behind this story, but this was the beginning of the “evidence” for the 2012 Doomsday scenario that Planet X was going to destroy life as we know it. This might seem silly to many of us, but remember, this myth has had 25 years to gain momentum.
As if to back this theory up, in 1992, orbital perturbations in the outer Solar System planets indicated there was a large body possibly in the Kuiper Belt. Many doomsayers will say this planet was of 4-8 Earth masses, and again, it’s heading our way because this is Planet X (although there is little evidence that NASA made this announcement). The only other related NASA announcement that year was about the first large body discovered beyond the orbit of Pluto, not nearly as big as 4-8 Earth masses.
They even go one step further and say the 1983 infrared object and the 1992 object are the same thing. (I won’t detail why this fundamental argument for the existence of Planet X is hopelessly wrong, I’ll just give a clue: a brown dwarf isn’t 4-8 Earth masses…)
So was born the scary tail behind the “proof” that 2012 is going to be a big year for the arrival of the planet killer. What’s worse (and the most unnerving factor of all), the doomsayers are using these astronomical discoveries to frighten people (even when their arguments are incoherent). At the root of most Doomsday theories is a book or DVD. There is nothing more profitable than fear.
The Large Hadron Collider and the Big Bang
Now we move on to an entirely different topic, but with a similar impact. What do you think goes through someone’s mind when a particle physicist says something like: “…the LHC will recreate the conditions of the Big Bang”? In this case, the majority people know what the Big Bang is, and just how BIG it is. Is it any wonder that people get a little concerned that the European particle accelerator at CERN is going to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang? What’s more, this historic experiment also hopes to generate micro black holes and probe into the very fabric of superstrings and space-time. On reading the LHC safety statement, most of the fears are laid to rest, after all, these kind of collisions happen in nature all the time.
“The total energy in each beam of protons in the LHC is equivalent to a 400 tonne train (like the French TGV) travelling at 150 km/h. However, only an infinitesimal part of this energy is released in each particle collision – roughly equivalent to the energy of a dozen flying mosquitoes. In fact, whenever you try to swat a mosquito by clapping your hands together, you create a collision energy much higher than the protons inside the LHC. The LHC’s speciality is its impressive ability to concentrate this collision energy into a minuscule area on a subatomic scale. But even this capability is just a pale shadow of what Nature achieves routinely in cosmic-ray collisions.” – CERN – Safety at the LHC.
Unfortunately in the case of the LHC, the damage had already been done, and this culminated with a lawsuit that was filed in Hawaii citing that more work had to be done to safeguard against a global catastrophe.
“Eventually, all of earth would fall into such growing micro-black-hole, converting earth into a medium-sized black hole, around which would continue to orbit the moon, satellites, the ISS, etc.” – Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
Wagner’s comments are verging into the realms of science fiction (check out “LHC Worries are Based on Fear of the Unknown, not Science“), but I can kinda see where he is coming from (although trying to pass a lawsuit is a little extreme, but it gives an idea about how strongly he believes in his views, regardless of accuracy). I’ve perhaps been a little unfair to Wagner in the past. The fact that he doesn’t have a specialist background in particle physics and has the tendency to sensationalize what the LHC is trying to do isn’t necessarily his fault. Should some of the blame lie with the scientists and the media who have become overly enthusiastic with the facts?
Out here in the space blogosphere I have been guilty in using flamboyant language, especially in the titles of some of my stories (re: “Temperature Conditions of a Supernova Recreated in UK Laboratory” – I could have just said “10 Million Kelvin Achieved with Petawatt Laser”, or “Synthetic Black Hole Event Horizon Created in UK Laboratory” – Perhaps I needn’t have mentioned “black hole” in the title?), but with space blogs (or any blog for that matter), the main strength of writing in an informal, but accurate, manner is that we can be a little more expressive and more opinionated than “level-zero” news releases. The problem comes when primary sources of the media begin to base their stories on what they perceive to be accurate. Like the Washington Post article in 1983, why strongly indicate that a Jupiter-sized planet had been discovered?
But scientists have also got to be very careful before issuing news releases or when describing the next big experiment. To avoid media misinterpretation, and therefore misguiding non-specialists and the public, stick to the facts about what you know and avoid throwing in conjectures.
So this brings me back to Michael Gmirkin’s words about the use of superlative language in science. Using terms that have little or no scientific meaning can only serve as bait to today’s
ultra-diverse media and super-sensitive public.
Aside: Thinking about supermassive black holes, surely the theoretical mass of these objects can be used as a basis for a more accurate measure? It’s predicted that supermassive black holes have masses in the realms of millions of solar masses, why not call them “mega-black holes”. That way, if we find a multi-galactic merger in the cosmos, where several black holes have merged as one, there may be a new classification needed. A billion solar mass black hole could be a “giga-black hole”… well, you get what I mean.
Anyhow, “supermassive black hole” makes for a great tune by Muse (one of my favourite bands), so I’m going to flex my opinionated blogger muscles and let Matthew Bellamy sing us out…