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Science Captivates an Audience
The pursuit of science was once the domain, largely if not solely, of the rich or undistracted; examples such as Antoine Lavoisier, Humphry Davy and Gregor Mendel illustrate the point. As the European political climate changed, a larger segment of the intellectuals came from middle class families. As Ralph Waldo Emerson is reputed to have said, "Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science." With an increase in the number of researchers, the development of new instrumentation and the harnessing of electricity, science with its firstborn—technology—have captured the public imagination. Like the job, weather and family, science has become a topic of everyday conversation.
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A Maddening Pace and Intensifying Pressure
The public is impressionable. Although it is better educated in scientific matters than it once was, the fact remains, without rigorous training in the sciences they can be easily misled. In addition, the pace of scientific discovery has increased immeasurably. The kinds of discoveries and technological advances that took hundreds of years to accomplish in the past can now be accomplished in less than a decade. Along with discoveries are the theories leading to discoveries, which are unquestionably outnumbered by the theories that prove false. How damaging it would be to public trust in its scientists if a discovery were later proven unsubstantiated and obviously untrue.
In addition, the public exerts its own pressure upon the scientists. Institutions and organizations keen on gaining public favor put pressure on researchers to keep up with other institutions and organizations. Sadly, unscrupulous scientists may proffer theories that are fantastic and media-grabbing and difficult to disprove.
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No one is saying the concept of black holes was proposed by one or more unscrupulous theorists. Neither is anyone saying that the concept of a black hole is wrong. Still, there was a time not so many years ago in which no one had heard of the concept of an astronomical object with a gravitational field so high that even light, under ordinary circumstances, cannot escape. The question is, have black holes as of yet been established beyond doubt as being real? To listen to public discussion would suggest that many believe they have. Or, they do not exist? Again, no one is saying that. The question is, have they been proven, beyond reasonable doubt to exist?
Interestingly, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has reported evidence pointing to the existence of a supermassive black hole in NGC 3115. By combining an optical image of NGC 3115 by the European Southern Observatory (gold-colored) with a recent x-ray image from Chandra (blue), produces a composite image Chandra suggests points to gas flowing back toward a supermassive black hole located at its center. Chandra candidly states, "This is the first time that clear evidence for such a flow has been observed in any black hole."
This scientist, albeit not an astronomer but a chemist, asks, "If a black hole does not allow light to escape, so a black hole cannot be seen directly, and if gas or other matter has never before been evidenced falling into one, wherein lies the bountiful proof necessary to establish their existence beyond doubt?" This question is not to dismiss possible indications black holes may in fact exist. A Harvard web site cited in the reference section below indicates, for instance, that matter being sucked into a black hole heats up to millions of degrees, emitting an x-rays and forming a tell-tale ring of brightness around such a structure. A list of such structures and images would prove most interesting.
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Scientists Who Disbelieve
At least one scientist, George Chapline of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, believes the phenomena attributed to black holes can be explained by features of the also theoretical "dark matter." Perhaps more pointedly, some suggest declarations of black hole existence are not altogether candid. One scientist at the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, Warren Siegel says, "We have evidence of gravitational fields strong enough to be associated with black holes theoretically, but not of the event horizons that define black holes." Note Professor Siegel did not suggest there is proof black holes do not exist. Other scientists suggest alternatives to black holes, for instance, "exotic stars" such as quark stars, as discussed at Tufts University's Wright Center for Science Education. Clearly, the evidence presented by Chandra for a supermassive black hole in NGC 3115 is a piece of the puzzle. Time will reveal what the image of that puzzle truly is.
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After Everything is Said
Perhaps the conclusion of this discussion, if a conclusion is to be drawn, is that the public should be slow to "buy into" a discovery, even if it is spoken of as fact by one or more authorities. No matter how credible the past record of an individual or an institution may be, don't accept everything they say at face value. This would especially seem wise if the claims are not easily understood or within the realm of the immediately believable. If it is suggested there is "strong evidence," demand to see that evidence. Scientists especially need to be careful they are not tempted to suggest without convincing evidence that fantastic, unproven theories are true, simply to receive public attention or the approval of colleagues. Solid proof should and must be obtained before publishing a theory as truth.