Scientific hype? Surely not!

I was excited to find a letter of mine in this week’s New Scientist!

The BICEP2 station at the South Pole, which made the observations.

The BICEP2 station at the South Pole, which made the observations. (Photo from here)

Three weeks ago, there was massive fanfare about a major cosmological discovery. A telescope based near the South Pole had been surveying the cosmic microwave background, which is the fading echo of the Big Bang. Although the observations (described here) are impressive, it struck me that the interpretation being put on them was premature and over-hyped.

When the New Scientist reported the story, instead of giving a balanced account, they accentuated the hype further by trumpeting it as a confirmation of the multiverse (which it isn’t). I therefore wrote a letter “as a church minister with an astrophysics background”, which they published this week (and which I nearly missed!). Here’s the full letter (the published one is slightly shorter):

Dear New Scientist,

The potential confirmation of both gravitational waves and inflation is understandably exciting – but I have been very disappointed by the over-hyped coverage in the media generally. I had hoped that New Scientist would be able to give a sober assessment of the observations and their interpretation – instead, you have chosen to sensationalise it still further by talking it up as a confirmation of the multiverse (22 March, pp8-10, ‘Ripples of the multiverse’).

As a church minister with an astrophysics background, I am in the unusual position of having a number of friends who believe in 6-day creationism. I frequently find myself having to defend both the science of a multi-billion year universe, and the integrity of the scientific process. I argue that science is not inherently anti-God, even if some scientists are; and that scientific results are subject to rigorous scrutiny and not subject to spin and hype. You will therefore understand why I find the New Scientist’s treatment of this discovery most disappointing.

More sober discussion has been provided by Professor Peter Coles in his ‘In the dark’ blog, who regards confirmation at another frequency as a minimum requirement, and points out some oddities in the data. It would have been helpful if New Scientist had been able to include something similar. It is not long ago that great excitement was generated by the apparent discovery of […] neutrinos [going faster than the speed of light] – until it was discovered that there was an un-noticed calibration error, and the result was retracted. The difficulty of extracting the gravitational wave signal from the CMB data suggests that such a retraction could happen here.

Yours sincerely,
Rev Dr Rich Tweedy

Since then, there has already been a research paper that suggests the signals could be galactic in origin rather than cosmological (here). The observations merit close scrutiny from those qualified to do so – but the hype ultimately does no-one any favours.

My scientific past

Saguaro cacti near Tucson

Saguaro cacti near Tucson

I’ve just completed a couple of weeks doing talks on science and faith. This included a Lent talk to the church, but I’ve also been doing some talks in the Chantry – the local secondary school in Martley (having been kindly invited by the RE teacher, Mel Palmer).

I’ve started each of the talks with a brief autobiographical account of my involvement in the astronomical world. This is the background for why I strongly believe that Christians who speak about science should at least be scientifically literate. I therefore thought I’d give a brief summary here of my life as an astronomer, with a look at one of the projects I undertook.

I spent just over three years in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1990s, working as a postdoc at the University. I was massively fortunate to have this opportunity – one that I perhaps didn’t quite appreciate at the time as much as I should have done! While there I had about one hundred nights observing, mostly on Kitt Peak, which was then a leading observatory (but has since been overtaken by much bigger ones on higher mountains and in more remote places).

Kitt Peak National Observatory - the telescope I used most is the one in the open dome.

Kitt Peak National Observatory – the telescope I used most is the one in the open dome.

The Burrell-Schmidt telescope - a small, old scope which had fast optics, which was ideal for what I wanted to do.

The Burrell-Schmidt telescope – a small, old scope which had fast optics, which was ideal for what I wanted to do.

The Ring Nebula as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Note the star at the centre, which is becoming a white dwarf.

The Ring Nebula as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Note the star at the centre, which is becoming a white dwarf. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

My main research interest was in white dwarfs and old planetary nebulae. When a star like the sun runs out of its nuclear fuel (thus, after it has burned all the hydrogen in its core, and then burned all of the helium), the core of the star collapses to become a white dwarf. Meanwhile, the outer layers lift off into space, for a while becoming a planetary nebula, one of the most beautiful sights in the sky. One example is the Ring Nebula (shown on the right), which is visible with binoculars, but is spectacular when seen with the Hubble Space Telescope; the star at the centre is becoming a white dwarf.

The closest planetary nebula Sh 2-216, viewed with the Burrell-Schmidt in 1995, filtering for light from hydrogen (technically H-alpha]). Displayed to reveal the brighter stuff.

The closest planetary nebula Sh 2-216, viewed with the Burrell-Schmidt in 1995, filtering for light from hydrogen (technically H-alpha]). Displayed to reveal the brighter stuff – compare with the image below, which is displayed to show the fainter parts. The arrow marks the white dwarf.

Eventually, as the nebula expands, it becomes buffeted by the ambient wisps and clumps of interstellar gas, into which it eventually dissipates. The focus of my research was on those nebulae which were at this stage, of interacting with this interstellar material.

The research which probably gave me the most satisfaction was on the closest of all the planetary nebulae, which has the unglamorous name of Sh 2-216. I first became interested in it when I was studying white dwarfs at Leicester University – and was intrigued that the nebula has been so buffeted by the surrounding interstellar material that the white dwarf is no longer at the centre.

The nebula is very faint indeed, but spans about 1.6 degrees – far larger than any other then known. The telescope I used was ideal for this project, because it had a wide enough field-of-view for the task. I still had to produce a mosaic of images to cover it, but it was very doable.

It’s an indication of how much technology has improved in the 18 years since then that this nebula is now within the range of amateur observers, for whom it is a rewarding challenge. For example, this image is much prettier!

The closest planetary nebula Sh 2-216, viewed with the Burrell-Schmidt in 1995, filtering for the light of ionised nitrogen (technically [N II]). Overexposed to reveal the faint stuff.

The closest planetary nebula Sh 2-216, viewed with the Burrell-Schmidt in 1995, filtering for the light of ionised nitrogen (technically [N II]). The region to the left has been overexposed to reveal the faint stuff, but is shown in the previous image.

The problem with this research field is that the observations are easy but the theoretical modelling is spectacularly difficult – and it’s not quite as glitzy as quasars and distant galaxies! However an unexpected breakthrough came in 2008 as a result of the work of a team of radio astronomers, who were doing the Canadian Galactic Plane survey. They were very surprised to see it all – indeed, they only detected one other planetary nebula anywhere else in the sky – but the reason it was detectable was because of the interaction between the nebula and its surroundings. Ryan Ransom used the data to measure quantities such as the strength of the ambient magnetic field in the surroundings. However, he also emphasised the difficulties of deducing much more – largely due to the difficulties of the theoretical modelling. Nevertheless, the radio data is an important new angle that significantly improves the understanding of the nebula and its environment.

References: Optical; Radio.

Reality – mystical and earthly

I’ve just had a packed weekend – firstly going down to hear Ian Clayton in Cardiff on Friday and Saturday, and then on Sunday to an event near Bristol to hear Joe Corry.

Ian Clayton at the COBH event in Cardiff

Ian Clayton is described as “part of a new breed of prophetic voices that are teaching a generation to walk in the mystic realm of God” – and is highly regarded by a number of friends in the Kingdom Renegades group. I was therefore very keen to go and hear him speak when he came to Cardiff this weekend, and about a dozen of us from in and around Cheltenham went down.

As someone who moves in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, I’m always keen to hear from those who have developed proficiency in the spiritual gifts, including those who have mystical experiences. I’m all for it: we can hardly be surprised if a supernatural God gives his children supernatural experiences.

However, I do get concerned when there is some confusion between the earthly and heavenly. For example, if someone says “I did not understand science, but then I went up to heaven and Jesus gave me a scroll and said ‘eat this’, and I did, and now I understand science”, and then proceeds to spout baloney which would not pass muster even among creation scientists, then some doubt is cast on the credibility of what this person is saying. Prophetic insights are often allegorical in form (see for example Jer 13, 18 & 24; Amos 7 & 8 ) so it is really important to discern whether the understanding being given is meant to be technically correct, or an allegorical insight.

My general advice to prophets and preachers on speaking about science would be, unless you really understand the subject, don’t. If you really feel that you need to, then check what you are saying with someone who does. In my experience, even those preachers who have taken this amount of care rarely say anything that requires the use of a scientific example, and would be better served with something more everyday. I sometimes suspect that the preacher wants to show off his intelligence, and this is in danger of seriously backfiring. If you are an expert on the supernatural, or on the charismatic gifts, or on the mystical realities of heaven – stick to what you know, because that’s what people come to hear.

The best part of the two days was being able to spend quality time with friends. An unexpected delight when I arrived was to bump into three friends from Stockton, Rachel, Julie and Jenny. It was really good to be able to connect with them and to catch up on life up there. On the Saturday evening I joined Julie, Jenny and Pat  in the Mad Hatters Cafe, a relaxing and spacious venue just below where the conference was meeting. As I looked at the menu I realised that, with my name, there was one item I had to order: it was called “Tweedledee, Tweedledum, it’s a burger in a bun”! (It was delicious!)

On Sunday afternoon I went with Dave Slight and a few others down to a meeting south of Bristol, in the home of Tim Bruce, to hear the genial Irish pastor, Joe Corry. After a short sermon, he proceeded to speak prophetically, one by one, into the lives of those there. He did so with great simplicity, and yet with accuracy and power.

Joe Corry in Tim Bruce's front room in Sandford

Thinking for radio

One of the most interesting modules I’ve done while in Durham is the current one on “Preaching and Apologetics”. For those not versed in Christian jargon, apologetics is the art of defending Christianity to a secular audience. One of the lecturers is David Wilkinson, the Principal of the college of which Cranmer Hall is a part, who is one of the foremost experts in this field – especially where science is concerned.

One well-known slot for this is Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. Not everyone is keen on it – militant atheists hate there being any slot for religion on radio, and some Christians don’t like it either because the faith content is often bland and safe. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to give relevant Christian commentary on current news items. For one of David Wilkinson’s Thoughts, giving a Christian perspective on the giant physics experiment, the  Large Hadron Collider, click here.

As an assignment, we all had a go at composing, and reading aloud, a Thought for the Day. This was a remarkably powerful experience: Andy Grant, an ex-soldier, told us about four servicemen, severely wounded in the Afghan conflict, who are walking to the North Pole; Tom Hiney gave a moving reflection on Mohamed Bouazizi, the former stall holder in Tunisia who, by setting fire to himself, sparked the current conflagration across North Africa; Matt ‘Woodie’ Woodcock spoke of his dread about going to Auschwitz this weekend, to witness the site of the Nazi atrocities.

Mine was about a small black rock that fell from the sky… here it is:

The black rock from space… ©NASA

[Earlier this week] a small piece of black rock hit the news. It doesn’t look particularly special… Yet scientists are claiming that this particular lump may help to explain the origin of life on earth.

A camp-site on the ice-sheet near where the rock was found: makes you shiver just looking at it! ©NASA

It’s a piece of rock that has been on quite a journey. It was picked up in Antarctica about 200 miles from the South Pole. This is an area where scientists go looking for meteorites, those rocks that fall from the sky. Antarctica may seem a strange place to look for them, but dark coloured rocks are easy to pick out from the endless white ice-sheets.

This particular meteorite has an unusual chemistry with an abundant amount of ammonia – which is what has got the scientists excited. It’s incredibly difficult to try to understand the origins of life on earth – not least because we can’t go back four billion years to make observations and conduct experiments. However, ammonia appears to have been a crucial ingredient – but the problem is that it was in incredibly short supply. This discovery shows that meteorites, showering the Earth from outer space, could have provided enough ammonia to help seed the origins of life. Although it’s just one piece in the jig-saw, it’s an important one nonetheless.

That’s why this apparently mundane lump of black rock has an unusual significance. It belongs to the origin myths of our time. Like people across the ages, we humans have a great fascination with stories about where we come from. And yet – if all we are is explained by chemistry, does that really answer our innate desire to understand our origins?

As a Christian I believe that our origins are not just explained by chemistry, but that over everything there is a God who set all the scientific processes in motion. The heated debate about creation or evolution is in many ways a barren one: however life emerged, whatever mechanism was used, the big story for Christians is that God did it. I’m fascinated by the black lump discovered in Antarctica, and how it may be a part of understanding the way life began on Earth – but for me, the main thing is that God did it.