Two Big Science Stories

Two big science stories this week.

Highlighted in New York Times weekly Science section on Tuesday, this piece by Dennis Overbye: Cosmos Controversy: The Universe Is Expanding, but How Fast?.

It’s about some discrepancies in data that should align and that don’t, about the Hubble constant, a factor that describes the rate of the expansion of the universe.

I won’t pretend to be conversant with the details of the issue, though I do understand that the broad program of science moves forward through thousands of scientists around the world working multiple strands of evidence and expanding them bit by bit, seeing virtually all of them converge and support a bigger story. And when something like this — a 9% discrepancy! — shows up, it’s very serious business. Is there an error somewhere, in some very long chain of evidence? Or is it a sign of new, as-yet-not-understood, physics?

They calculated that the odds of this mismatch being a statistical fluke were less than one part in a hundred — which might sound good in poker but not in physics, which requires odds of less than one in a million to cement a claim of a discovery.

The latter possibility is especially intriguing. Every scientist would love to be the one to confirm something truly new. It would cement their reputation forever, never mind incidentals like Nobel Prizes. And it undermines the right-wing myth that scientists (for example, climate scientists) are somehow in cahoots to cook the data or sustain a crisis that would guarantee them employment. That’s not how science works at all.

In fact, just this past week, some incidental interoffice dispute about data interpretation was blown up, in the right-wing media, into an attack on the entire enterprise. The more level-headed investigated and described it thus–

New York Times: How an Interoffice Spat Erupted Into a Climate-Change Furor

But in what seems like a remarkable example of office politics gone horribly wrong, within days the accusations were amplified and sensationalized — in the pages of the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday — inciting a global furor among climate-change deniers.

And the news, everywhere today, even on TV-!, about no fewer than seven planets detected around a small star 40 light years away. Exoplanet Tour: Meet the 7 Earth-Size Planets of TRAPPIST-1

New York Times: 7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say

Planet detection around distant stars has been going on for a couple decades or so, with the ‘holy grail’ goal of finding Earth-like planets in so-called ‘Goldilocks’ zones around their suns, i.e. not too close and not too far, at a distance that might support liquid water and the potential for carbon-based life as we know it.

What’s fascinating is to see the struggle, especially on TV, of what this means in any kind of perspective. “Only” 40 light years — close by galactic or universal scales, but still so immensely far from us that we have no conception of a method to reach such distances in any meaningful frame of time.

Science fiction, it must be said, has not done a very good job about clarifying this vast scale — certainly not popular, media SF. Wars and Trek whip around the galaxy, from one star system to another, in however long it takes the plot to take them there — a few hours at most. Yet much science fiction literature also presumes a kind of hyperlight drive (warp drive in Trek) which has scant support in even the most speculative current physics. The more mature, realistic SF, a very few writers — Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds come to mind — have written novels in which, in Reynolds’ case, human populations in other solar systems manage to interact in relativistic time-frames, but only because in his far future, they live so long. This will be a key theme in my book… if I survive to write it.

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