Although this blog is about national security, I post regularly about science. I have many reasons. For example, the misunderstood world of intelligence gathering and analysis has many similarities to the job of science. Also, military history has to fall under the same scrutiny as any academic enterprise, so that we can have confidence in the lessons learned.
I also know that a lot of people--way, way too many people--have a lot of misconceptions about science. At one extreme, you have the Creationists, who are arguing against a form of science that does not exist. This faction chafes at the presumed arrogance of scientists, whom they see as a bunch of smarmy know-it-alls. In reality, scientists are hardly arrogant--and in fact, the scientific enterprise metes out hard punishments for arrogance.
It's hard to be a know-it-all, when in fact, you don't think you "know" anything, in the sense that you've reached the absolute truth about how nature works. Instead, scientists work with the best explanation so far, and they have to be ready to constantly revise that explanation.
Take, for example, something as distant to our understanding as black holes. We've never directly seen observed--and that's not just because, by definition, the light used to see other objects can't escape the event horizon of a black hole. We have to infer the existence of black holes from X-ray emissions, the structure of distant galaxies, the wobble in the motion of stars, and other clues. It will be a long, long time before humans can directly reach the neighborhood of a black hole, to get a closer look at something that started as a possible outcome of Einstein's equations about mass and space.
Still, even without close-up observation of black holes, enough evidence has come from other sources to render the first descriptions of black holes obsolete. Astrophysicists have come to appreciate the rotation of a black hole as a defining property. Rather than imaging black holes scattered through space, we now talk about supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. For decades, scientists have tried to figure out how to detect miniature black holes, if they exist in the fashion that the theories predict.
Last week, a new challenge to our understanding of black holes emerged. Astronomers observed what they conclude is a "stellar black hole"--one that's not at the center of a galaxy, where black holes can gorge themselves on the matter around them--more massive than any stellar black hole should be. How did scientists respond? Almost with a shrug. The theories may need to be revised.
"We're having trouble
using standard theories to explain this system because it is so
massive," study team member Jerome Orosz of the University of
California, San Diego, told SPACE.com.
Or, perhaps, the problem isn't with our theory of black holes, but the peculiar situation of this particular black hole, which is orbiting unusually close to a companion star:
"We're having trouble using standard theories to explain this system because it is so massive," study team member Jerome Orosz of the University of California, San Diego, told SPACE.com.
However, something unusual must have happened to M33 X-7 during this phase to create such a massive black hole. "The black hole must have lost a large amount of mass for the two objects to be so close," Tomasz Bulik, an astronomer at the University of Warsaw in Poland, writes in related Nature article. "But on the other hand, it must have retained enough mass to form such a heavy black hole."
The team estimates the black hole's progenitor must have shed gas at a rate about 10 times less than models predicted before it exploded.
"[M33 X-7] might thus provide both the upper and lower limits on the amount of mass loss and orbital tightening that can occur in the common envelope," added Bulik, who was not involved in the study.
However astrophysicists resolve this particular situation, the response is hardly arrogant.