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I’m With Stupid – February 20, 2015

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallIt’s been a slow week in the world of stupid — probably due to most of the country being so snowy and cold that folks couldn’t get outside and do their things — so this week, instead of stupid, we’re going to talk about the world of smart.

One of our favorite subjects here at “I’m With Stupid,” as some of you may recall, is astrophysics (by which we mean all of the astro-type sciences, except maybe astrology). That may sound odd coming from a guy who just last month devoted an entire column to adult diapers and poop, but it’s not the actual math and hard science behind astrophysics that we love. No, what we love about astrophysics is that you don’t actually have to know any of that stuff.

OK, sure, you have to know a little of that stuff, which I don’t, but you don’t necessarily have to be right about it. You just have to make sure no one can prove that you’re not right.

Oh, and you also have to be absolutely certain about the things you think you know, but hedge your bets when you talk about something you could actually know. That may sound odd, but there’s a difference. In fact, two stories this past week provided a perfect illustration of the difference between what astro-people think they know and what they actually know.

The first story was a textbook example of the kind of unprovable hypothetical proclamation that makes space science so endearing. It concerns a star, called Scholz’s star, that is currently 20 light-years away from Earth. Based on what they’ve calculated as the star’s trajectory, an international team of scientists has declared that 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s star passed through our solar system.

Could this be true? Possibly, but who the heck can ever say? Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say you know what happened thousands of years ago to something that is trillions of miles away, but the scientists say they’re 98 percent certain that’s what happened. They feel free to say it because they know no one will ever call them on it.

In contrast, the second story involved something we all know about that is right next door in space terms and that we can observe now, so when it came time to talk about it, scientists claimed to be uncertain about nearly everything.

Here’s the scoop: Starting in April, a NASA spacecraft called New Horizons will pass very close to Pluto. The camera aboard New Horizons is said to be powerful enough to recognize objects the size of buildings on Pluto’s surface. It will be the closest look we’ve ever gotten at the former planet.

So what do scientists expect to see? Well apparently, the people at NASA won’t even speculate, saying there could be ice geysers, or Pluto could have rings or there could be stuff we could never have guessed. The important thing is that since they could conceivably be proved wrong, astro-types won’t claim to be certain about any of it.

I know this all sounds kind of petty and pointless, but I do have a problem with the hubris of scientists who declare that they know the answers to things that, in truth, we will never know the answers to. That’s why I was so delighted a couple of weeks ago when a new model for the beginning of the universe emerged that claimed the Big Bang never happened.

The study, undertaken by scientists in Egypt and Canada, made the case for a universe that has always existed and will always exist, with no beginning and no end. Is this any more likely a scenario than the Big Bang? Probably not, but it’s just as impossible to prove wrong, and that’s what counts.

Call me a fan of chaos, but I would be so psyched if this new theory causes a huge commotion in the astrophysics community and some of the loudest Big Bang proclaimers end up with egg on their face when they’re forced to admit that they might not know something that no one will ever know.

Some of you may remember that just last year, Randy Schekman, a scientist from the University of California, Berkley, called more than half of Americans ignorant because they said they weren’t confident that the Big Bang theory was true. It wouldn’t bother me in the least to see a guy that self-important have to eat some crow.

Todd Hartley says it tastes like chicken, and he should know.

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