Messier 82

Messier 82
Beautiful Hubble shot of a starburst galaxy, M82

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nobody really knows what’s going on

Physicists think they might, just maybe, have found some observational evidence here on Earth for the mysterious "dark matter" believed to be responsible for the anomalous behavior of galaxies, and the evidence comes in a form that may provide some support to string theory, a discipline in serious need of some experimental verification. So reports the New York Times. Of course, there's always at least one scientist willing to drop a bucket of cold water over the heads of anybody who gets too excited about the new discovery.
“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan. Physicists caution that there could still be a relatively simple astronomical explanation for the recent observations.
What you can't count on is that the mass media will report those words of caution. But they did this time! It won't prevent the inevitable roar of cheerleading from legions of overexcited amateurs much like myself, but it's a step in the right direction, toward caution in science reporting and a real effort to provide all the different potential interpretations of an incredibly complex issue. It could be a pulsar (really cool) or it could be the elusive dark matter (amazing), or it could be something else entirely. But the main information to take away from the article is that we've discovered something neat, new, different, and special...and nobody really knows what's going on.

The article is excellent. Props to the New York Times. If only all pop-science articles adopted that tone of caution, showcasing a blunt declaration of uncertainty in the second paragraph, we might not have quite so many episodes of "XXX makes you fat/gives you cancer/prevents cancer/kills you/holds the secret of the universe/gives you X-Ray vision!!!" in television news reporting. Of course, that may be giving TV news writers too much credit.

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