Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Solar System Formation And Scientific Reporting

An interesting problem is how should scientists present their information to the public. The issue is more complicated because we have to assume that some of the public will be educated enough to understand what is presented, and if there are flaws, to pick on them. The problem then is, as other members of the public see the fallout, science itself gets discredited. One piece of news that I saw was a statement that from analysis of the decay products of heavy isotopes 182Hf and 129I, the gas and dust that formed the solar system was present in a dust cloud isolated from interstellar space for 30 million years before collapse to form the solar system took place. The news item stated that this was quite remarkable, because it only took about 1 My for the star to form once it got going (or so we think) and about 30 My for the rocky planets to finally form (this is almost certainly wrong – Mars took about 3My.)  What would be your reaction to seeing that?
 
My initial reaction, knowing something about the subject, was to say, "Hold on a minute. We date the early stages of solar system formation through the decay of 26Al, and that has a half-life of about 73,000 years." If we take the half-lives through 30 My, it becomes obvious that there is essentially no 26Al left. As it happens, with what we know to have been present initially, there is insufficient left to be useful for dating after about 3My at best. So, how do we resolve this?
 
If we look at the actual paper, (Science 345: 650 – 653), what they actually say is that certain radioactive nuclei were formed 100 My and 30 My before the sun started forming. They then produce one of those "pretty pictures that implies just about everything important ended 30 My before star formation, and that is presumably what the writer of the public statement latched onto. This is not helped by the same being presented in an explanation (Science 345: 620-621) which states early on that the gas cloud was isolated for 30 My before stellar formation. However, at the end of the paper, the authors of the paper conceded that additional supernovae were required to put the 26Al into the gas just before star formation. The problem is, such supernovae would also put in more of the other isotopes as well.
 
Thus the statement that the dust formed 30 My before star formation is just plain misleading. That does not mean it is wrong, and the authors have found something. The problem is, it has since been interpreted as something else by the media who do not have the skill to actually analyse what is there. So, what the story should have said is that the material used to form the solar system was a mix of material from a sequence of supernovae. The basic gas, hydrogen and helium, was, of course, there from the big bang.
 
This article could be written off as unimportant. The problem is, this sort of reporting is more widespread. Think of climate change. Why is there such a heated debate? Surely we can find some critical results and agree what they mean. Unfortunately, this does not seem to happen. I think that learned societies have a responsibility to present critical fact-stating documents, where everything within them is analysed and its reliability stated. Most topics have only a very limited number of really critical papers; the problem is to get these summarized so that the conclusion is not misleading.
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 17, 2014 10:50 PM Europe/London

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