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A Zigzag Route to the Truth

A startling theory about the cosmos is unveiled with fanfare--and vigorously assailed. Such clashes may puzzle the public, but in science, right and wrong ideas--and lively debate--are all part of the equation.

August 07, 1997|K.C. COLE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

It was a screwy saga with a scientific twist.

In late April, two physicists announced in a prestigious physics journal that empty space spiraled like a corkscrew around some previously unknown axis, and that due to this mysterious turn of things, the universe had an upside and a downside.

This meant, in effect, that the universe contained a kind of "north star" that oriented the cosmos. The finding upset many cherished ideas, including Einstein's theory of gravity and the deeply held belief that everywhere one looks, space looks exactly the same.

Other scientists were skeptical.

Nevertheless, the story appeared on the front pages of many newspapers. Researchers responded with a half-dozen rebuttals on the Internet, poking holes in both the scientific data and the analysis. By week's end, it seemed, the idea that the universe knows up from down was history.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 8, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Science journals--An Aug. 7 article on the ambiguities of science should have stated that a paper on the cosmological axis by physicist John Ralston and Borge Nodland was submitted to only one scientific journal for publication. The Times had received erroneous information from several sources.

"This is going to go away," said University of Washington astronomer Christopher Stubbs on the day the paper was published. And, it seems, go away it did. Some scientists found the whole episode discouraging. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western University worried that laypeople would be deluded--once again--"into thinking that science discovers lots of stuff which later on is always disproved."

Scientists, in other words, would come off as people who don't know which end is up.

At the same time, others suggest that the episode is an example of the way science ought to work, regardless of the validity of this particular study. It offered a glimpse inside the well-functioning, if messy, gears of real science, where wrong ideas are as important to the health of the enterprise as right ones.

Stumbling is not only inevitable, but necessary. "When people are trying to do very difficult things, it's expected that some results will fall by the wayside," said Caltech astrophysicist Roger Blanford. "If people were very conservative--if they always published only what they expected to find--there would be few new discoveries."

Being wrong is not the worst thing that can happen to a scientist. Being "not even wrong," as the late physicist Wolfgang Pauli put it, is far more devastating--because it means your idea isn't even worth disputing.

Lately, there certainly have been enough wrong turns to go around, all of them fairly typical examples of science's slow zigzag toward the truth.

* Recently, a group of astronomers said that the discovery of ice on the moon last year was not ice at all but probably a misreading of a spurious signal--much ado about nothing.

* Some "new" planets discovered orbiting stars other than our sun have faded away, as researchers have challenged the data.

* The sighting of house-size snowballs from space made an enormous splash, then melted into seeming oblivion.

* A new particle called a "leptoquark" was discovered at a particle accelerator in Europe, but now, it seems, the particle was probably a piece of stray noise.

"The public gets confused," said Harvard University astronomer Sallie Baliunas, "because science is supposed to have hard rules, but these hard rules are applied by real people. It's an important part of science that the public doesn't see."

As the late Carl Sagan liked to point out, science requires a strange mating of two contradictory tendencies: a willingness to consider even the most bizarre ideas, and at the same time, a most rigorous skepticism, requiring hard evidence to back up every claim.

A scientist must hover in a strangely divided state of mind--open to all, yet closed to anything but the most rigorously proven. Both perspectives are critical to scientific inquiry, and neither works without the other.

A New Twist

The twisted universe tale came into public view on April 21, when Physical Review Letters published a paper by physicists Borge Nodland of the University of Rochester and John Ralston of the University of Kansas. Although the paper was unobtrusively titled "Indication of Anisotropy in Electromagnetic Propagation Over Cosmological Distances," the press releases accompanying it were not as subdued. In fact, the journal Science attributed much of the attention the paper received to "unrelenting promotion by the two universities' press offices."

Rochester called the discovery potentially "one of the most fundamental findings about the universe in recent years." It certainly would have been extraordinary--assuming it were correct.

(Some researchers fear that pressure to get their institutions' names in the headlines leads to premature news coverage of still-preliminary results.)

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