Preposterous Universe

Thursday, January 13, 2005
Einstein mugged by press release

This week the American Astronomical Society is meeting in San Diego. (No, I'm still here in Chicago, thank goodness.) The AAS meetings are huge, impersonal affairs, very different in character from a smaller conference devoted to a particular specialty. But they serve at least one important purpose -- to provide a forum where astronomers can announce newsworthy findings, knowing that there will be a healthy collection of journalists available to tell their stories.

That's why the second week in January is always filled with fun astronomy stories in the news. Interesting results this week include a claim that the Chandra X-ray satellite observatory has found evidence for thousands of black holes near the center of the Milky Way, and that ripples in the large-scale distribution of galaxies -- predicted to result from the same acoustic oscillations that give rise to preferred scales in microwave background temperature anisotropies -- have been reliably measured in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. And many more.

Sometimes, sadly, people get carried away. Here for example is an extremely cool result: evidence for spacetime dragging around a spinning black hole, from X-rays observed with the Rossi satellite. If you did nothing but read the nice story just linked to (by Robert Roy Britt, describing research by Jeroen Homan and Jon Miller), you'd be impressed at how much astronomers are able to learn about black holes. (The picture is an artist's impression by Dana Berry, not an actual image of the source!) If on the other hand you chased down the press release for this work, you'd be surprised to hear the claim that the result, if confirmed, "would represent a new phenomenon that goes beyond Einstein's general relativity." Because it wouldn't, actually. It's a nice confirmation of a precise prediction of general relativity, in fact. Happily, the journalist for the above article either didn't read the press release, or knew better than to write about the fake overthrow of Einstein. Sadly, not every journalist was so fortunate. This article from USA Today would have you believe not only that the black hole is "changing the dimensions of space," but that the very possibility of a spinning black hole is "something never considered in Einstein's theory of gravity." Eeek. (Although I have a nice textbook he should buy.)

I'm usually reluctant to criticize science journalists and press officers, as they have a hard job and get little credit (at least compared to the glamorous life of the research scientist). But it's important to get it right, and just takes a little extra effort. Lost in the confusion is the crucial point: that observations like these represent the first steps towards what will be a major project over the next couple of decades, mapping out the spacetime in the vicinity of black holes. Plans are in the works for ultra-high resolution X-ray satellites like Constellation X that will directly image the inner edge of accretion disks near black holes, and gravitational-wave observatories like LISA will open an incredibly precise new window on the way in which black holes curve spacetime. At least, if we can somehow find the money -- and really good science stories have an important role in making that possible.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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