Someday the Sun Will Go Out and the World Will End (but Don't Tell Anyone) By DENNIS OVERBYE The New York Times: February 14, 2006 That science news is sometimes managed as carefully as political news may not come as a surprise to most adults.
I've always been proud of my irrelevance. When I raised my hand to speak at our weekly meetings here in the science department, my colleagues could be sure they would hear something weird about time travel or adventures in the fifth dimension. Something to take them far from the daily grind. Enough to taunt the mind, but not enough to attract the attention of bloggers, editors, politicians and others who keep track of important world affairs.
So imagine my surprise to find the origin of the universe suddenly at the white hot center of national politics. Last week my colleague Andrew Revkin reported that a 24-year-old NASA political appointee with no scientific background, George C. Deutsch, had told a designer working on a NASA Web project that the Big Bang was "not proven fact; it is opinion," and thus the word "theory" should be used with every mention of Big Bang. It was not NASA's place, he said in an e-mail message, to make a declaration about the origin of the universe "that discounts intelligent design by a creator."
In a different example of spinning science news last month, NASA headquarters removed a reference to the future death of the sun from a press release about the discovery of comet dust around a distant star known as a white dwarf. A white dwarf, a shrunken dense cinder about the size of earth, is how our own sun is fated to spend eternity, astronomers say, about five billion years from now, once it has burned its fuel. "We are seeing the ghost of a star that was once a lot like our sun," said Marc Kuchner of the Goddard Space Flight Center. In a statement that was edited out of the final news release he went on to say, "I cringed when I saw the data because it probably reflects the grim but very distant future of our own planets and solar system."
An e-mail message from Erica Hupp at NASA headquarters to the authors of the original release at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said, "NASA is not in the habit of frightening the public with doom and gloom scenarios." Never mind that the death of the sun has been a staple of astronomy textbooks for 50 years. Dean Acosta, NASA's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, said the editing of Dr. Kuchner's comments was part of the normal "give and take" involved in producing a press release. "There was not one political person involved at all," he said.
Personally, I can't get enough of gloom- and-doom scenarios. I'm enchanted by the recent discovery, buttressed by observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, that an antigravitational force known as dark energy might suck all galaxies out of the observable universe in a few hundred billion years and even rip apart atoms and space. But I never dreamed that I might be frightening the adults.
What's next? Will future presidential candidates debate the ontological status of Schrödinger's cat? That's the cat that, according to the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, is both alive and dead until we observe it. Apparently science does matter. Dreading the prospect that they too may be dragged into the culture wars, astronomers have watched from the sidelines in recent years as creationists in Kansas and Pennsylvania challenged the teaching of evolution in classrooms. Never mind that the Big Bang has been officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church for half a century. The notion of a 14-billion-year-old cosmos doesn't fit if you believe the Bible says the world is 6,000 years old.
And indeed there have been sporadic outbreaks, as evidenced by the bumper stickers and signs you see in some parts of the country: "Big Bang? You've got to be kidding — God." When the Kansas school board removed evolution from the science curriculum back in 1999, they also removed the Big Bang. In a way, the critics have a point. The Big Bang is indeed only a theory, albeit a theory that covers the history of creation as seamlessly as could be expected from the first fraction of a second of time until today. To call an idea "a theory" is to accord it high status in the world of science. To pass the bar, a theory must make testable predictions — that stars eventually blow out or that your computer will boot up.
Sometimes those predictions can be, well, a little disconcerting. When you're talking about the birth or death of the universe, a little denial goes a long way. That science news is sometimes managed as carefully as political news may not come as a surprise to most adults. After all, the agencies that pay for most scientific research in this country have billion-dollar budgets that they have to justify to the White House and the Congress. It helps to have newspaper clippings attesting to your advancement of the president's vision. It's enough to make you feel sorry for NASA, whose very charter mandates high visibility for both its triumphs and its flops, but which has officers recently requiring headquarters approval before consenting to interviews with the likes of me.