The Expanding Universe

I have had a long writing hiatus. There are no good excuses, besides the everyday pressures and stresses of life. And, seeing as I will soon be entering the terminal stages of my pregnancy (reference for The Office fans), I can’t make any promises on how much writing I will be doing in the future. However I did read an article today, along with accompanying social media comments, that put me in the mood to share my thoughts on the subject.
The article in question (http://futurism.com/no-the-universe-is-not-expanding-at-an-accelerated-rate-physicists-say/) discusses a recent study published in Scientific Reports. The study, which can be found at http://www.nature.com/articles/srep35596, finds that the universe is expanding at a constant rate rather than at an accelerated rate. The impact of this study may not be immediately clear to some, so let me attempt to explain why this is causing such a stir.
The accelerated universe expansion theory has become a widely accepted concept taught in physics classrooms across the world. Experts in theoretical physics have focused their efforts in explaining how and why this could happen, and some have earned Nobel prizes through their efforts. The entire field of dark energy attempts to explain this phenomenon. The claims from the new study now throws this established theory into question.
As interesting as this study is, it is actually public reaction to this study that I find the most interesting. I have read a wide range of reactions, but a majority seem to find this news disconcerting. Many have used this incident to show the unreliability of scientific concepts, and have even urged others not to buy into other scientific claims.
So now I am left to wonder just how much of the general public understands the nature of science and how it benefits us. Sure, we teach the scientific process and many can recite the steps, but what does it really mean? We teach that scientific understanding is constantly changing (or at least we should), yet people are still surprised or upset when new information casts doubts on more established theories. The changing nature of science may also mislead some to believe that it is not important to understand it. If science is constantly changing, why bother to learn it all?
Let’s put aside the fact that advances in scientific understanding lead directly to advanced technology and other living improvements. I firmly believe in trying to understand the universe and how it works, even if I will never achieve a perfect understanding in this life. I find comfort in the open ended nature of science. It is about constant growth and re-evaluation. Scientific theories are not infallible claims about the universe, but rather an attempt to explain what we observe. Since what we can or will observe may change, it is natural that our explanations will also change. The important thing is that we are constantly evaluating our understanding and not letting idealogical biases prevent us from improving.
So the last question I pose is how do we trust science if it is always changing? The answer comes down to scientific literacy. Although scientific claims are not always correct or may change, that does not mean that all claims have the same degree of reliability. We can trust a scientific claim as we come to understand how it came about. I believe that we can also trust that new observations or information will lead to better explanations or claims. The fact that hypotheses, and even theories, can change allow me to put more trust in science. The key is not focusing on the claim itself, but rather the processes and the sources.
This is why, even though I taught and believed that universe expansion was accelerating, I personally welcome this new study on the expanding universe and hope it that it prompts further study. I don’t mind having been wrong if it means that we can understand our universe better.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s